A win on Sunday at Soldier Field would keep the Vikings in the mix in an NFC North division that is 7-0-1 against the rest of the NFL. But to win just their fifth game in Chicago since 2000 will require an extensive game plan for Khalil Mack, who gave the Vikings fits the last time they played at Soldier Field.
Kirk Cousins' introduction to arguably the most dominant player in the division last year was part of a miserable outing that sparked the Vikings’ downward slide after their bye week in an 8-7-1 season. Cousins was pressured on 17 dropbacks in Minnesota’s 25-20 loss at Chicago in Week 11, his second-most in a game up until that point. The pressure caused Cousins to be off-target on a season-high 20 percent of his passes, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
Mack was a wrecking ball, racking up a sack, two quarterback hits, a tackle for loss, a defended pass, a forced fumble and fumble recovery. When the Vikings faced Chicago again a month later in the season finale at home, the playoff-bound Bears limited Mack to 33 defensive snaps, and he still managed to log four quarterback hurries in a 24-10 victory. In Week 17, Cousins had a Bears pass-rusher get within 2 yards of him on 15 plays. He went 4 of 11 passing for 20 yards and took four sacks in those situations. He also did not have a passing conversion on third or fourth down for the entire game.
For Cousins, who has been sacked 42 times as a Viking and fumbled 13 times in that span, finding the balance between protecting the football while being aggressive against Mack is easier said than done. Against Mack, there's a noted give and take.
"For me it's just two hands on the football but not only two hands but if you feel like you are in a crowd, no longer remain a passer and play for the sack," Cousins said. "Sometimes a sack is OK if you feel like you are going down and when you try to fight to get out of a sack that's when the fumbles can happen. It will always be a risk-reward balance. I can take a risk here and make a play and knowing when to say 'uncle' and say 'You got us on this down,' but we have to play for the next play too and not lose the game on one snap."
Mack dominated the Washington Redskins on Monday in a 31-15 rout with three tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. Bears coach Matt Nagy described Mack's pass-rushing pursuit: "When Khalil sacks the quarterback, he sacks the football."
"He plays with violence, he plays with explosion," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "He’s got long arms and is able to get to the spot on the quarterback where he can cause those things. He’s a violent player, so those things are all really good attributes if you’re a pass-rusher."
Mack is tied for the NFL lead with three forced fumbles this season. His awareness of a quarterback’s arm angles and ability to force the ball out is something Cousins recalls from that November meeting.
"I remember a play last year early in the game and Adam [Thielen] was coming on a shallow cross and I felt [Mack] around my back side and I realized if I take a full stroke here with my arm he's going to get the ball," Cousins said. "So I short stroke it and miss the throw, but I walked off the field after that drive saying I'll miss that throw all day if it's just an incompletion and we punt. If he gets my arm and it's a fumble and now they're going in at the plus-20 that changes the game. Those are the moments where your instincts are telling you 'He's right there, let's get the ball out of our hands and if I miss the throw by a couple feet, so be it."