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Monday Night Football Preview: The Vikings Look to Bounce Back Against the Bears

Coming off their first loss of the season, Sam Bradford and the Vikings travel to Chicago to take on Jay Cutler and the Bears.

The Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears each enter Monday Night Football with plenty of intrigue surrounding their starting quarterback situation.

The Vikings are looking for a way to protect Sam Bradford better after he was beaten up in Philadelphia, and on the other side, the Bears are going back to Jay Cutler, who -- if Bears head coach John Fox seemingly had his way -- might no longer be on the roster.

The Vikings went into Philadelphia last week as the league's lone unbeaten team at 5-0. But Bradford struggled against his former team, taking six sacks and committing three turnovers en route to a 21-10 loss.

Now, the Vikings travel to Chicago looking to right the ship facing Cutler and the Bears.

Cutler, who has been out since Week 2 with a thumb injury, is back in the starting lineup after Brian Hoyer suffered a broken arm last week, which will sideline him for months.

When Cutler was asked by reporters this week if he felt support from Fox, he replied "He doesn't have a choice, I guess, at this point."

It's been a dismal season for the Bears, who enter this game at 1-6. Meanwhile, the Vikings sit atop the NFC North at 5-1 and can move even further ahead of division rivals Green Bay Packers (4-3) and Detroit Lions (4-4), who both lost on Sunday.

Here are four storylines to watch tonight on Monday Night Football.

Can the Vikings' Offensive Line Protect Bradford?

Following the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last week, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer called out his offensive line, saying they were "soft" and got "overpowered" by the Eagles' defensive front.

The Vikings have dealt with a number of injuries along the offensive line this year, including injuries to starters Andre Smith and Matt Kalil that have landed them on injured reserve. Last week, the Vikings were playing former first round pick Jake Long, who had been signed the week prior for depth, only to have him be beaten by Eagles defenders for two strip sacks.

In that Week 7 loss to Philly, Bradford was not only sacked 6 times but also took 13 hits.

Thankfully for the Vikings, the Bears are not an imposing front seven, ranking middle of the pack in terms of sacks (15) and near the bottom of the ranks in quarterback hits (32). According to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics, the Bears' defense has been the 18th-best unit through seven weeks.

If the Vikings are to get back on track against the Bears, they'll need the offensive line to do a better job in protecting Bradford.

All About Asiata

Jerick McKinnon will miss this Monday night tilt as he nurses a high ankle sprain, leaving Matt Asiata to carry the load with Ronnie Hillman expected to mix in.

Since Adrian Peterson went down in Week 2 with a torn meniscus, neither Asiata nor McKinnon have been particularly impressive in relief, according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.

Player Carries Rushing NEP Rushing NEP/P Success Rate
Matt Asiata 48 -4.5 -0.29 37.50%
Jerick McKinnon 68 -9.47 -0.14 27.94%

Asiata is averaging only 3.3 yards per carry to McKinnon's 3.6 mark, and neither ranks highly according to numberFire metrics.

Both Asiata and McKinnon rank in the bottom third among running backs in Rushing NEP.

Our Success Rate metric measures how many carries for a running back produce a positive expected point total, and Asiata does hold a slightly better rate on his carries. However, among the 58 backs with at least 25 carries on the season, Asiata and McKinnon rank 40th and 55th, respectively, in terms of Success Rate.

Perhaps a date with the Bears' run defense might yield better production for the Vikings' running game and Asiata. According to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics, the Bears rank 18th in run defense.

Jay Cutler Is back

Cutler only player about six quarters this season before a thumb injury in Week 2 sent him to the sideline. Hoyer performed well in replacing Cutler, and if not for a broken arm suffered last week, it seemed likely that Hoyer would have remained the Bears' starter for the rest of the season.

Hoyer had been one of the better quarterbacks in the league by NEP.

Of the 32 quarterbacks to attempt at least 100 passes on the year, Hoyer's 45.31 Passing NEP ranked 11th, right behind Ben Roethlisberger (53.01) and ahead of Russell Wilson (45.30).

Cutler got off to a rough start in the first two games against the Houston Texans and Eagles, posting a -11.89 Passing NEP.

He faces a stiff test in his first game back against a Vikings defense coming off their first loss of the season. According to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics, the Vikings are ranked as the top defense, and they're allowing only 14 points per game -- best in the league.

Cutler may also be under pressure often, as the Vikings rank in the top 10 in both sacks (19) and quarterback hits (44). Additionally, the Bears are expected to be without guard Kyle Long and could also be without their other starting guard in Josh Sitton, who is listed as questionable to play.

It could be a rough return to the field for Smokin' Jay.

Who Will Emerge in the Bears' Backfield?

After Jeremy Langford went down with an ankle injury in Week 3, rookie Jordan Howard emerged and was impressive in Weeks 4 and 5 as the feature back, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. But over the past two weeks, Ka'Deem Carey has eaten into Howard's workload and has outproduced Howard over that time, notching more work than the rookie in the Bears' Week 7 loss to Green Bay.

But this week, the Bears could see the return of Langford, who is listed as questionable to play. It's unsure how the running back touches will be distributed on Monday night, but Langford himself has said "be available." Prior to his injury, Langford had seen about 74 percent of the Bears' carries in the two games in which he started.

Who has been most impressive, according to NEP?

Player Carries Rushing NEP Rushing NEP/P Success Rate
Jordan Howard 72 2.43 0.03 41.67%
Ka'Deem Carey 23 1.75 0.08 34.78%
Jeremy Langford 31 -4.22 -0.14 45.16%

As you can see, it is a bit of a mixed bag for the Bears' backs. Howard has produced the best overall Rushing NEP score, but Carey has been the most effective on a per-carry basis. Somewhat surprisingly, Langford has the best Success Rate of the three despite his low Rushing NEP.

Regardless of who sees the majority of carries out of the Bears' backfield Monday, they may struggle to find running room going up against numberFire's third-ranked run defense in the Vikings. According to our schedule-adjusted metrics, only the Baltimore Ravens' and Packers' run defenses have performed better than the Vikings' through seven weeks.

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