4 things to watch: Bears-Vikings

Posted Dec 31, 2017

Senior writer Larry Mayer identifies four storylines to watch Sunday when the Bears visit the Vikings, including their ability to contain Minnesota quarterback Case Keenum.

The Bears will look to close the season with a second straight win when they visit the Minnesota Vikings Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. Here are four storylines to watch in the contest:

(1) Will the Bears defense be able to contain Vikings quarterback Case Keenum?

Keenum has excelled since replacing the injured Sam Bradford, completing 67.3 percent of his passes for 3,358 yards with 21 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 98.1 passer rating that ranks seventh in the NFL. "Their offense is playing at the highest level I've seen them play at since I've been here," said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. "I think the quarterback's been the major difference there. They had a great defense last year. They've still got a great defense. The biggest difference is their quarterback play and this guy has really played well."

Keenum's favorite target is receiver Adam Thielen, who has 85 catches for 1,215 yards and four touchdowns. Receiver Stefon Diggs has caught 58 passes for 784 yards and seven TDs. The Vikings quarterback is adept at keeping plays alive with his feet. "He's a creator," Fangio said. "He moves around within the pocket. He moves around the pocket. He's done a good job running their rhythm passing game also. I just think he's done a really good job running this offense. When the first option isn't there, he has a knack of turning it into a positive play."

(2) Will Bears rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky take another step in his development?

The first-round draft pick has made major strides since he made his first NFL start in the Bears' first meeting with the Vikings Oct. 6 at Soldier Field. On the season, he has completed 59.9 percent of his passes for a Bears rookie record 2,015 yards with seven TDs, seven interceptions and a 78.5 passer rating. He has also rushed for 246 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries.

Trubisky also has displayed the intangibles that are necessary to excel at the quarterback position. "What always impresses me about Mitchell is how hard he is on himself and we have to work around that coaching him because he is his biggest critic," said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. "He doesn't make the same mistake twice, and it's because he studies and he works at it. We're sitting on the bench watching the opponent as we're getting ready to go out for the next series, if something happens to a quarterback, he's like, ‘Ah, you can't do that,' or ‘that was a smart decision by that guy,' or whatever it was. It's how much he cares and he cares about doing right by his teammates. For a young player, he has an awesome work ethic."

(3) Will the Bears be able to establish the run behind a patchwork offensive line?

With Kyle Long and Eric Kush on injured reserve and Josh Sitton (ankle) and Bobby Massie (knee) listed as doubtful on the injury report for Sunday's game in Minnesota, the Bears will have to continue to mix and match up front as they have done most of the season.

The Bears consider themselves a run-first team with the 1-2 punch of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Howard has rushed for 1,113 yards and nine touchdowns on 267 carries this season, while Cohen has added 357 yards and two TDs on 84 attempts. Cohen is much more dangerous as a receiver, having caught 47 passes for 339 yards and one TD.

The Bears will face a stout Vikings defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL in total yards, No. 2 against the run and No. 2 versus the pass. Weather won't be a factor inside U.S. Bank Stadium, but it still could be tough sledding for the Chicago ground game Sunday in Minnesota.

(4) How focused will the Bears be with rumors swirling about what could transpire Monday?

Even though their future with the Bears is unclear heading into the season finale, Bears coaches insist that they are focused on the task at hand. "My whole focus this week is on the game Sunday," Fangio said. "And I know that sounds like a packaged answer, but it really is. We'll deal with next week when we need to deal with it. But I do think experience and longevity helps me do that versus some of the younger coaches."

Loggains also said that it isn't difficult to focus on Sunday's game. "No, not at all," he said earlier in the week. "For the simple fact like when you care as much as this coaching staff cares about our players and Mitchell Trubisky, that's my focus is just making sure I do everything I can in the time I have with him to help him get better from day-to-day from hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute. You can't worry about things you can't control. The only thing I'm focused on right now is making sure we put together a really good game plan, to make practice as hard as we possibly can for Mitchell so the game is easy because this is going to be a challenging game for him and that's all I'm thinking about right now."