Larry Mayer and Simon Kaufman of ChicagoBears.com discuss the Bears players they'll be watching on both sides of the ball in Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Vikings in Minnesota.
Offense: Receiver Taylor Gabriel
With No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson dealing with an injury to his ribs, Gabriel should have more opportunities to make plays Sunday against the Vikings. The fifth-year pro led the Bears with seven receptions for 52 yards on nine targets in a pivotal 25-20 win over Minnesota Nov. 18 on Sunday Night Football at Soldier Field. The speedster figures to be even more dangerous on the artificial turf at U.S. Bank Stadium.
This season Gabriel ranks second on the Bears with 63 receptions for 627 yards, both career highs. He has also caught two touchdown passes—both in a Week 3 win over the Buccaneers. Gabriel has caught a lot of short throws this year, and this could be the week that he turns one of those into a long touchdown.
It won’t be easy, however, against a stellar Vikings defense that ranks third in the NFL in total yards and passing yards. The unit is especially dangerous at home, where it has recorded 33 sacks in seven games versus 17 in eight road contests. With the way the Vikings rush the passer on their home turf, it makes sense for the Bears to get the ball out of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s hands quickly and let Gabriel try to turn a short pass into a long gain.
Defense: Inside linebacker Roquan Smith
Smith has performed like the Bears envisioned when they selected him with the eighth pick in this year’s draft, demonstrating sideline-to-sideline speed and quickness in addition to tremendous instincts and athletic ability. The talented linebacker leads the Bears with 116 tackles and needs nine stops Sunday in Minnesota to break Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher’s franchise record for tackles by a rookie.
Smith has shown steady progress throughout the season but still remains far from reaching his high ceiling. He has reached double digits in tackles in six games this season, including five times in the last eight contests. Smith also has registered five sacks, one interception, four pass breakups and seven tackles-for-loss this season.
The Bears will need another strong performance by Smith Sunday against a Vikings offense that has leaned more on its running game since coordinator John DeFilippo was fired Dec. 11. Running back Dalvin Cook had more than 10 carries only twice in eight games under DeFilippo. But in two contests since DeFilippo was fired, Cook rushed for 136 yards on 19 attempts in a win over the Dolphins and 73 yards on 16 carries in a victory over the Lions.
Offense: Running back Taquan Mizzell Sr.
The promotion of Mizzell from the team’s practice squad to the active roster prior to Week 9 may have surprised some—the Bears already had solid depth at the running back position—but Mizzell has proven to be another weapon out of the backfield whose role has increased with each game. Mizzell came in for just 16 offensive snaps total during his first three games this year. Over the last five games, Mizzell has averaged nearly 10 offensive snaps per contest— still far fewer than running backs Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard—but enough to make an impact when he is in.
Bears coach Matt Nagy said the plan is still to play the starters against the Vikings despite having already locked up a playoff spot. Chicago could still clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs and a first-round bye with a win and a Rams loss, and Nagy conceded that if he saw the Rams were up big on the 49ers, he’d consider resting some of his starters.
If that is the case, Mizzell could see even more reps than usual. Mizzell’s numbers don’t jump off the box score, but his strength has been his ability to be a dual threat for the Bears. He’s tallied nine carries and eight receptions for Chicago this season—making two catches for 27 yards last week against San Francisco. The Bears’ final regular-season game would be a perfect opportunity to run Mizzell out more than usual and see how he responds as he continues to grow into his role as a complement to the Bears’ other running backs.
Defense: Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks
Hicks is coming off a performance in which he tallied three pass breakups and helped limit the 49ers offense to just 47 rush yards. His ability to get pressure on the quarterback but keep his hands up to defend a throw will be just as important this week against a Vikings team that’s struggled to run but has a host of receiving options for quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Minnesota ranks 30th in the league in rush yards per game but is in the top 10 in passing yards. Hicks has historically stepped up for this division rival. In his five games against the Vikings as a member of the Bears, Hicks has averaged one sack per game and two tackles-for-loss per contest.
Earlier this season, Hicks had a big showing, tallying five tackles-for-loss, a sack and two quarterback hits in Week 11 against Minnesota. Hicks’ ability to attack the Vikings’ run game and bat down balls from Cousins when the quarterback looks downfield will be key in the Bears rolling into the playoffs coming off of a win.