Bears

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Bears

Through three games of the 2019 season, Dalvin Cook has been the best running back in the NFL. He leads the league with 375 yards and 6.6 yards per carry and rushed for at least 110 yards in each of the Minnesota Vikings’ first three games and has four rushing touchdowns. 

We can go on: Cook has generated 10 or more yards on 14 plays this year, including a 75-yard touchdown dash in Week 2 against the Green Bay Packers. Only Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott has had more rushing plays of 10 or more yards than Cook’s nine. 

Cook has been involved, via a rushing attempt or target, on a shade under 40% of Minnesota’s offensive plays. The Vikings' most-used play on first and second down, and on third-and-short, is a run to Cook. 

So the Bears’ No. 1 task is clear for Sunday: Make sure Cook doesn’t wreck what’s shaped up to be a must-win game in the NFC North. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano pointed to Cook’s penchant for explosive plays as a reason why his defense has to be aware of the former second round pick every time he’s on the field. 

“You can (allow gains of) one (yard), two (yards), four, five, two, zero, 80,” Pagano said. “It’s doing your job down after down after down and staying disciplined that way. You can’t get away from that. You absolutely can’t get away from that because you don’t know — there’s 65, 66, 67 plays. I can’t tell you which one it’s going to be. 

 

“So you gotta do your job. You gotta be where you’re supposed to be, you gotta get lined up, you gotta communicate, you gotta play with great fundamentals and great technique every single time.”

The Bears’ run defense ranks fourth in the league in rushing yards per play allowed (3.07) and is fifth in rushing yards allowed per game (68.7), and proved to be excellent against the run in 2018. But Bilal Nichols, one of the team’s better run stuffers, is already out with a broken hand, and Akiem Hicks hasn’t practiced this week after suffering a knee injury Monday night against Washington. 

Hicks’ status will loom over Chicago this weekend, with coach Matt Nagy saying Thursday the Pro Bowl defensive lineman will be a gametime decision Sunday. If Hicks is able to play, the Bears’ front seven will have a dominant presence who notched five tackles for a loss the last time Minnesota came to Soldier Field. 
If not, the Vikings may feel better about their ability to run the ball against a good defensive line rotation of Eddie Goldman, Roy Robertson-Harris, Nick Williams and Abdullah Anderson. Good, but perhaps not great. 

“We schematically need to be solid and having Hicks out there certainly helps,” Nagy said. “Again, we’ll let these next couple days go by, we’ll see where he’s at and make a decision. They do a lot of good things in that run game. They’re hard to stop. But I think our guys will be looking forward to the challenge.”

The Vikings haven’t asked quarterback Kirk Cousins to do much this year. No quarterback who’s started all three of his team’s games has thrown fewer passes than Cousins’ 63 — which is 21 attempts behind the next-lowest total (belonging to San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo). While Cousins is averaging eight yards per attempt — good for 10th in the league — he generally hasn’t been very good, throwing two interceptions (including a downright horrendous one against Green Bay) with a passer rating of 86.9. 

The Bears have been through this before with Cousins and the Vikings. Cousins completed 63% of his passes and averaged just under five yards per attempt with three touchdowns and two interceptions against the 2018 Bears, all with Cook gaining just 51 yards on 20 carries in those two games. 

So it’s simple: Stop Cook, and the Bears will probably stop the Vikings’ offense. It just might be more difficult this time around.

Consider this an outline for what the Bears need to do from a production standpoint: Hold Cook to under four yards per carry, and keep the explosive plays to a minimum. Do that, and the Bears’ defense should have plenty of success on Sunday. 

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