The Bears’ success against quarterback Kirk Cousins last season started with a virtual shutdown of the Vikings’ running game.
Dalvin Cook rushed for 51 yards on 20 carries in the two games, and Cousins was unable to pull his team out of the muck. The Bears won 25-20 at Soldier Field and 24-10 at U.S. Bank Stadium, winning the NFC North and preventing the Vikings from making the playoffs.
Though you can’t argue with the process or the results, replicating that feat might not be so easy. The Vikings have fortified their offensive line and have made a concerted effort to enhance their running game to take the onus off Cousins, and they can’t complain about the results in the first three weeks.
Cook has been the biggest weapon in the Vikings’ 2-1 start. With 100-yard games against the Falcons (111 yards, two touchdowns), Packers (154 yards, one touchdown) and Raiders (110 yards, one touchdown), Cook leads the NFL with 375 rushing yards, 6.6 yards per carry and four touchdowns.
Nobody has stopped him yet, but that’s just the kind of challenge the Bears’ defense embraces. The Bears led the NFL in rushing defense last season (fourth in yards per carry) and allowed an NFL-low five rushing touchdowns.
‘‘Stop the run,’’ linebacker Danny Trevathan said. ‘‘Gap-sound. Be smart. Take on the blocker. Not one-for-one. Not trading yourself up. Never saying you’re out of the play. This is football. . . . This is how football started. If you’re not hyped for that, then you’re in the wrong place.’’
In case it’s not obvious, players such as Trevathan and defenses such as the Bears’ take these challenges personally.
‘‘Anytime somebody tries to run the ball at the crib here [Soldier Field], I’ll take that as a challenge,’’ Trevathan said. ‘‘I take pride in run [defense]. I’m not one to talk trash and get in the media’s face and say, ‘Y’all come here.’ But [if you] come in here, you better play ball.’’
The Bears’ run defense under Chuck Pagano has been solid. They are allowing 68.7 yards per game (fifth in the NFL) and 3.1 yards per rush (fourth). But Cook presents a challenge of another level. He already has nine rushes of 10 yards or longer, including one for a 75-yard touchdown against the Packers. The Bears allowed an NFL-low 28 rushes for 10 or more yards last season.
‘‘Dalvin Cook is one hell of a back,’’ safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. ‘‘It’s hard to bring him down. We have to do a good job of getting him on the ground. We’re going to have to stop the run and make those guys throw the ball.’’
That worked last season, when the Bears held Cook to 12 yards on nine rushes at Soldier Field. In the rematch at U.S. Bank Stadium, Cook rushed for 39 yards on 11 carries.
The Vikings upgraded their line by drafting center Garrett Bradbury in the first round. He will be up against nose tackle Eddie Goldman, the anchor of the Bears’ run defense. If Akiem Hicks (knee) can’t play, the edge might go to the Vikings and Cook.
‘‘When he gets to the linebackers and the secondary, he turns into a different kind of runner,’’ defensive end Nick Williams said. ‘‘I think he grows about 3 inches and puts on about 20 pounds.’’
The Bears’ defense lives for these challenges. In a marquee matchup against a top-flight running back last season, it held the Rams’ Todd Gurley to 28 yards on 11 carries in a 15-6 victory.
The Vikings present that kind of challenge with a red-hot Cook.
‘‘We tip our hat to them,’’ Trevathan said. ‘‘They’re the No. 1 rushing offense; we’re the No. 1 rushing defense. We’ll see them on Sunday.’’