1. Stop Dalvin Cook, specifically on the left.
More than half of Cook’s 57 runs have been to the left side of the offensive line, per PFF, with tackle Riley Reiff and guard Pat Elflein manning those spots next to rookie center Garrett Bradbury. Cook is averaging 8.1 yards per rush when he goes left, and a 75-yard run and three of his four touchdowns have gone that direction. That’s not to say Cook is ineffective when he runs to the other side, seeing as he’s still averaging 4.9 yards per carry when he goes right.
But with Vikings right guard Josh Kline out Sunday with a concussion, the expectation here is offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski will have a heavier lean toward runs to the left. This is an offense that likes to have Cook hit stretch runs toward the tackle and cut back toward the interior, where he’s been deadly (16 runs, 143 yards on carries over the left guard).
Stopping Cook is absolutely critical for the Bears’ defensive success on Sunday, especially on early downs. Minnesota’s most common play on first or second down, no matter the distance, is a run to Cook; win on those downs and the Bears’ pass rush can get after a mistake-prone Kirk Cousins on third down.
It’s worth noting that Akiem Hicks, who’s questionable with a knee injury, has primarily lined up over right guards/tackles this year. It’s been Eddie Goldman who’s primarily lined up on the left, so even if Hicks does play, it’ll be incumbent on Goldman — one of the league’s most underrated run-stuffers — to get off blocks and/or soak up double-teams and give Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith lanes to make plays on Cook.
Of course, the Bears could always flip Hicks to match up against Elflein and Reiff, and their defensive line will be better with Hicks on the field. But if Goldman plays as well Sunday as he has over the last few years, the Bears should have a good chance of bottling up Cook — or forcing him to run behind a backup right guard.
2. Keep the pocket clean for Mitch Trubisky.
The 39 pressures totaled by Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are the league’s highest total for two teammates entering Week 3. Minnesota’s edge rushing duo converted five of those into sacks, too.
So there’s a massive challenge looming for Bears tackles Charles Leno Jr. and Bobby Massie (Massie practiced every day this week after he was a late scratch in Washington with vertigo). Per PFF, Leno has so far been responsible for allowing eight pressures and Massie three, though Massie did miss Week 3.
How longtime Vikings coach/defensive guru Mike Zimmer schemes things up to get after Trubisky on Sunday will be fascinating to see develop, especially given right guard Kyle Long’s struggles (13 pressures allowed, per PFF) and injury status. Long will be a gametime decision, coach Matt Nagy said, and if he can’t play veteran backup Ted Larsen will slide into the lineup.
Will Zimmer try to create havoc by going after the interior of the Bears’ offensive line? Or will he rely on Hunter and Griffen to keep Trubisky from having clean pockets?
However Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards dial it up, the Bears’ offensive line and overall pass protection needs to be better than it has been this year. The worry here is less about Trubisky getting sacked a bunch of times; it’s more about Trubisky having the time to confidently go through his progressions and read the field.
Vikings safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris are two of the best in the NFL at baiting opposing quarterbacks, and it’ll be easier for that duo to bait Trubisky into a bad decision if the Bears’ quarterback is under pressure on a regular basis.
3. Score on defense and/or create a short field.
The expectation here is that Sunday’s game will be a tight, low-scoring, physical battle. It should be the kind of game that can swing on an ill-timed turnover — in this case, one a Bears player is able to take to the house, or one occurring deep in Vikings territory to give Trubisky and the offense a short field.
The strength of both the Bears and Vikings is defense. Which defense not only makes the most plays, but makes the biggest play, could shift Sunday’s outcome to Chicago or Minnesota.
Prediction: Vikings 16, Bears 15
The Bears have managed just 19 points in two games against non-Washington defenses. While the Vikings played poorly on the road at Green Bay in Week 2, they’ve looked better over the course of the season’s first three games in beating up on the Atlanta Falcons and Oakland Raiders than the Bears have, even with Monday's 16-point win in Washington.
Whether or not Hicks plays will have a major impact on Sunday’s game — even a less-than-100-percent Hicks should be able to beat up a banged-up right side of Minnesota’s offensive line, especially in passing situations to further make Cousins uncomfortable.
But even with Hicks on the field, a question would linger: What, exactly, does the Bears’ offense do well?
While the Vikings have an erratic quarterback of their own, they do have an offensive identity steeped in running the ball (even if they’re running it at an unsustainable rate early in the season). So at the end of Sunday’s game headlined by two physical, opportunistic defenses, the team that wins will be the one that comes to Soldier Field with some semblance of an identity on offense.