EAGAN, Minn. – Khalil Mack’s preseason trade to the Chicago Bears sent shockwaves through the NFL, one of the league’s best defensive players being traded across conferences for just draft picks days before the start of the regular season.
In Minnesota, and the NFC North, shock was replaced by trepidation.
“Certainly would have loved for him to stay in the AFC,” Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “He’s a great player and I want as many great players on opposing teams to be in the AFC. But you understand, no matter what your schedule is, there’s going to be good players in every division and he’s certainly one of them.”
While Minnesota and Chicago are plenty familiar from facing each other twice a year, the first matchup of this season brings more intrigue than usual due to the Bears’ busy offseason.
Matt Nagy was hired to be the head coach after five seasons in Kansas City, most recently as the offensive coordinator. Receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel, and tight end Trey Burton were signed in free agency. Receiver Anthony Miller was a second-round draft pick to continue the offensive alterations.
“Their team speed is much better now,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “Those guys have all added a lot of things to them. Then you throw in there (Tarik) Cohen and Anthony Miller, who has done a nice job. They’re opening things up a lot more. This isn’t two yards and a cloud of dust deal.”
Cousins has also modified the look of Minnesota's offense. He's given the Vikings' passing game a boost along with new coordinator John DeFilippo.
Chicago’s changes have caught Minnesota’s attention, and Nagy is a big factor.
Nagy has varied the Bears’ offense and helped second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky take a big step. Trubisky is completing 65.5 percent of his passes for 2,304 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Trubisky has also run for 320 yards and three touchdowns.
“He gets the ball out with accuracy,” Zimmer said. “There’s other times he looks like Fran Tarkenton scrambling. Some of the runs he’s made are unbelievable. They’re obviously using him in a bunch of different ways. I think the command of the offense is probably his biggest thing is being able to go through progressions more, now.”
Nagy and Trubisky have naturally received credit for the turnaround, but Minnesota knows the outside playmakers have played a big role.
“I believe Allen Robinson was a great addition to them,” Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said. “Other than that, guys are way faster, so the tempo of the offense can be faster. Guys just running, running pretty damn fast if you ask me.”
Mack has transformed the look, and perception of the defense.
“I think he’s added a lot of swagger to the football team,” Zimmer said. “I think they have swagger anyway, but I think he’s added some to it knowing that they’ve got a guy of his caliber that’s in there. He really adds a lot of physicality to their defense, I think that’s part of it.”
Mack switching teams is a ground-shaking move for the NFL.
“I think Reggie White was kind of like that when he went from Philadelphia to Green Bay, but that’s a long time ago,” Zimmer said. “They were a pretty darn good defense a year ago. They were I think a top-10 defense a year ago. Obviously they’ve improved, they’re healthy, I don’t think they’ve had a lot of injuries defensively, and adding a guy like him is going to be a big factor in getting them better. I think it allows them to play the style of defense that they would like to play.”
Chicago also drafted speedy linebacker Roquan Smith in the first round. Smith has 63 tackles and three sacks.
The Bears are fourth in the league in total defense, one spot ahead of Minnesota. They have 30 sacks, which is fifth in the league and have the second-most takeaways in the NFL this season with 16 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries. As a result, they lead the NFL with a plus-13 turnover margin.
“Very much something we talk about and are aware of,” Cousins said. “I think it’s one of the biggest statistics to point to as to why the Bears are playing at the level they are. When you create turnovers, that is a critical factor in winning football games. Something we have to be very aware of.”
Two familiar teams have new looks -- Minnesota’s, in part with Cousins and Richardson – will get their first look at the changes. The nation will get a chance to see both with the game flexed into the primetime Sunday night slot.
“People think it’s bigger because they flexed it to the night game,” Smith said. “It doesn’t make a difference to me.”
Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. See all of the Vikings’ coverage at footballmaven.io/vikings