Bears-Vikings: Matt Nagy won the scheme battle against Mike Zimmer in 2018. Can he do it again on Sunday?


The Minnesota Vikings have consistently been one of the NFL’s toughest defenses over the last few years, ranking eighth, second and fourth in defensive DVOA since 2016.

The core of this group has played together for years. Defensive end Everson Griffen debuted in 2010, followed by safety Harrison Smith in 2012, cornerback Xavier Rhodes in 2013, linebacker Anthony Barr in 2014 and defensive end Danielle Hunter, linebacker Eric Kendricks and cornerback Trae Waynes in 2015. Interior defensive lineman Linval Joseph signed before the 2014 season. Undrafted rookie Anthony Harris came into the league in 2015 and has steadily increased his presence from backup to starter over the last five years.

“583 starts together,” coach Matt Nagy cited. “They’ve done a lot of good things together.” 

While the Bears are still searching for their 2019 offensive identity, there is something from 2018 from which this team can feel good about heading into Sunday's must-win matchup: Matt Nagy might have a sneaky-good feel for how to scheme against this Vikings defense.

Specifically: Minnesota had the best third down defense in the NFL in 2018, allowing opponents to convert first downs on only 30 percent of their tries. The Vikings’ current defense hasn’t fallen off at all, allowing opponents to convert 29.4 of their third downs in three games.

But in the Bears’ two games against the Vikings last year, Nagy’s offense converted 54 percent of their third down tries (14 of 26). In that seminal Sunday night win over Minnesota in Week 11, the Bears converted six of 12 third downs, even as Trubisky was picked off twice. And the Bears made sure the Vikings didn’t make the playoffs in Week 17 in part because they converted eight of 14 third downs.

Last year’s Bears’ offense converted 41 percent of its third down tries, good for 11th in the NFL. But it was markedly better when Nagy faced off against Zimmer.

The Bears’ average yards to go on third down in two games against the Vikings last year was 6 1/2, a relatively low number which helped this team consistently move the chains.

“First and second down, they play fast, and they knock you into third-and-eight, third-and-nine, third-and-10, and then they play even faster,” Nagy said. “So if you can stay in that 2-4 (yard) range, third downs are inevitable, but can you make them manageable to where they can’t do all their stuff. That’s why I think we had more success last year was because we were able to stay in the manageable third downs because of first and second.”

Trubisky and the players on this offense certainly had to execute the play calls, but those games against the Vikings last year were some of Nagy’s best as a coach.

The 2019 Bears offense is still trying to find an identity, and too often has failed to put together extended drives to give its defense a breather. But if Nagy can have the same scheming success against Zimmer he had in 2018 on Sunday, it’ll not only give the Bears’ offense a boost — it’ll help keep the defense as fresh as possible for the challenge of stopping Dalvin Cook

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