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4 things to watch in Bears-Vikings game

Bears quarterback Justin Fields
Bears quarterback Justin Fields

The Bears (2-2) will look to rebound from last weekend's loss to the Giants Sunday when they visit the Vikings (3-1) in Minnesota. Here are four storylines to follow in the game:

(1) Will the Bears run defense improve?

The Bears entered Week 5 ranked last in the NFL in run defense, yielding an average of 183.3 yards per game. They're the only team in the league that has permitted more yards on the ground than through the air. In last Sunday's loss to the Giants, the 262 yards the Bears run defense allowed were the most since Dec. 12, 2013, when they gave up 289 in a loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia.

"The No. 1 thing I would say for any defense is you can't let people run the ball down your throat," said defensive coordinator Alan Williams. "You just can't. That's one of the things you have to stop.

"The main issue is really just execution. It could be a tackle, it could be poor eyes, it could be a slow fit. There are a variety of things. And not doing too much. With our guys, the problematic thing is everyone wants to make every play. Everyone wants to help out. And sometimes that can lead to, 'I'm not in my gap because I'm going to help a guy over here.'"

As you'd suspect, the run defense was a major point of emphasis during the week in practice as the Bears prepared to face dynamic Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, who ranks 13th in the NFL in rushing with 279 yards and one touchdown on 63 carries.

The Bears hit the Halas Hall practice fields Wednesday afternoon as they get ready for Sunday's NFC North matchup with the Vikings.

(2) Will the Bears passing game take another step?

Second-year quarterback Justin Fields showed some flashes against the Giants, rainbowing a 56-yard bomb to Darnell Mooney and rifling passes over the middle for gains of 23 yards to tight end Trevon Wesco and 18 yards to Mooney. But the Bears remain last in the NFL in passing yards and need more production in that aspect of the game.

"We got Mooney going last week," said coach Matt Eberflus. "[Equanimeous] St. Brown's done a good job to this point. We've just got to continue [with] the whole group, really just the rhythm and timing of the passing game. I think it's improving. I see it in practice and we saw glimpses of it last week. It's a work in progress, but it's improving."

For the pass game to flourish, the Bears will need better protection than they provided last weekend, when Fields was sacked six times. On Sunday, they'll face a Vikings defense that ranks 27th in total yards, 23rd against the run and 26th versus the pass. Minnesota's pass rush is led by former Packers outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith, who has a team-leading three sacks.

(3) Will the Bears defense be able to contain quarterback Kirk Cousins?

Operating a new offense this season, Cousins has completed 63.1 percent of his passes for 1,031 yards with six touchdowns, four interceptions and an 84.1 passer rating that ranks 20th in the NFL.

"He does a great job of getting them in the right play," Williams said. "You'll see he's super accurate on the outside. He does a great job of moving in the pocket, getting rid of the football when needed. He's taken some hits about accuracy, being streaky, but I think he's done a good job this year of getting the ball to different people when needed, on time." 

Since joining the Vikings in 2018, Cousins has compiled a 36-30-1 record as a starter, completing 68.0 percent of his passes for 17,418 yards with 130 TDs, 40 interceptions and a 102.2 passer rating. 

Cousins' top targets are receivers Justin Jefferson (28 receptions for 393 yards and two TDs) and Adam Thielen (21-221-1).

(4) Will the Bears offense improve in the red zone?

The Bears scored touchdowns on five of their first six trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line this season, but they've kicked field goals on each of their last four red-zone possessions.

They only needed a field goal on the first of those drives, beating the Texans 23-20 on Cairo Santos' 30-yard boot as time expired. But the red-zone offense was problematic against the Giants, with the Bears forced to settle for field goals after reaching the 11, 4 and 17 in a 20-12 loss.

"We certainly have to improve on that," Eberflus said. "This league is about scoring touchdowns. Defensively, we're doing OK right now. But offensively, we need to improve that percentage. The practices just have to translate. It's been good red-zone practices. We've got good schemes down there. It just has to translate to the game now."

Against the Giants, Fields had tight end Cole Kmet open short on a first down play in the red zone but held onto the ball and was sacked for a 2-yard loss.

"We've got to take the completions when they're there," said offensive coordinator Luke Getsy. "I think [Fields] passed up a couple cheap completions that get you into that second-and-3, second-and-4, which makes the gold zone a lot more easier to go score. We've got to improve upon that. We've got to get those little cheap completions, and then we've just got to execute in the run game better too."

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