As a prime component of their defensive strategy against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, the Chicago Bears lifted a page from the playbooks of each of the Vikings' post-San Diego opponents, placing eight defensive players in the area commonly referred to as "the box" and daring the Vikings to run. The Vikings took the Bears up on that challenge and, though the team posted reasonably successful rushing totals, fell far below the rushing totals to which they and their fans have grown accustomed this season.
The lingering question is why the Vikings, despite having some success against the eight-men-in-a-box defense for the better part of the 2007 season, have suddenly found the running more difficult against two teams that have had their difficulties stopping the run this season? The answer to that question, as well as to a corollary question regarding Chicago's too-often ease of access to Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, is one and the same.
To answer the question of how two teams can bottle up a Vikings' rushing attack that other teams, using similar tactics, found difficult to address, it is useful, first, to answer the question of how a team successfully attacks a defense that stacks eight defenders within ten yards of the line of scrimmage? The answer, of course, is that the offense must show an ability and a willingness to pass, particularly when the down and distance suggest a running play.
On Monday, as was also true against San Francisco the previous week, the Vikings simply did not evidence a strong enough passing presence to compel the opposition to withdraw defenders from the box. Clearly, the Bears were content that players such as Bobby Wade and Robert Ferguson could do little damage if they did get free in the resulting man coverage, that others such as Visanthe Shiancoe and Jim Kleinsasser posed no threat in the passing game, and that the blitzing pressure that they could put on Jackson with eight men in the box would be sufficient to rattle an inexperienced quarterback. The Bears were correct on all counts, save for slow-man Ferguson's improbably long, painful-to-watch plod down the field.
As he had done earlier in the season, Jackson made some poor decisions early in the game against the Bears and had difficulty putting air under the deep pass. That cost the Vikings some valuable separation from the Bears that resulted in a tight game which, subsequently, kept the pressure on Jackson and compelled the Vikings' coaching staff to tighten the reigns somewhat.
Because the passing game never stabilized, despite decent overall passing yards for Jackson, the Bears continued to keep their defensive players loaded in the box. That, along with the blitzes that the eight-man-front enabled, made rushing difficult for Minnesota.
The suggestion has been offered that to relieve the pressure of the blitz, the Vikings need to resort to more screen plays. The difficulty with relying on the screen play is that opposing defenses are staying home and staying locked on the Vikings' running backs, realizing that the offense runs through the Vikings' running backs and not through the quarterback. That makes screen plays difficult, at best, on most downs.
The better solution is to get the backs and receivers moving both vertically and on slant routes, relying on intermediate passes to set up the deep pass and both passes to set up screens. All of which, if executed, would compel opposing teams to drop defenders into coverage, once again making it possible for the Vikings' offensive line to create running holes.
That's the short answer to the Vikings' recent rushing predicament. But to accomplish the goal set forth above, i.e., to remove the current impediments to the Vikings' rushing attack, the Vikings need to commit themselves to being a threat both to pass and to run. And, for the Vikings, that means convincing teams that they have the ability and desire to pass in a fashion that matters to the outcome of the game--a steady diet of dump-off passes, the type easily defended by defenses that already have eight players in the box, will not do the job.
To improve the passing game, the Vikings need to give Jackson sufficient time in the pocket. Several times on Monday, Bears' players were in the Vikings backfield on the snap. Two plays, in particular, stand out, with Bears' linebacker Brian Urlacher running freely past otherwise occupied Viking center Matt Birk.
Birk has received strong criticism for the holes in the Vikings' offensive line Monday night, but is too much of a party-line player to point out that, though he might have been able to slow the Bears' defenders more than he did in certain instances, the responsibility for many of the gaping holes availed to the Bears' defenders on Monday night was Jackson.
It is the responsibility of the quarterback to check the defense and to alter the snap count and direct running backs to pick up a blitzing defender when the quarterback sees the play developing. In two instances in particular on Monday night, Jackson misread the blitz, allowing his back to leave the pocket and snapping the ball on what appeared to be the normal count. The result was a back out of position to assist in picking up the blitz and, rather than a defender guilty of encroachment, a defender lauded for jumping the count.
As Jackson gets more experience under center, he will become more adept and at picking up the hot blitz and directing his backfield on proper assignments. Until that day arrives, however, teams will continue to seize on Jackson's inexperience, creating more clear shots to Jackson. Keeping a proper balance between the passing game, including the form of the passing game, and the running game, will help alleviate this presure by affording the defense fewer blitzing opportunities and making blitzes more difficult to disguise. The rest, however, will have to come through the maturation process.
Up Next: Postgame from Bombay. Plus, can Williamson fill the need for a speedy slant receiver?