The last time the Bears were preparing to face Dalvin Cook, it didn’t look good.
The Vikings running back came to Soldier Field in Week 4 last season leading the NFL in rushing — averaging 125 yards per game and 6.6 yards per carry. And the Bears were short-handed, missing three starters among their front seven. Defensive end Akiem Hicks was out with a knee injury. Defensive end Bilal Nichols was out with a broken hand. And an hour before kickoff, the Bears announced that linebacker Roquan Smith would miss the game because of a personal issue.
The Bears responded with a dominant performance that was reminiscent of Vic Fangio’s top-ranked scoring defense the previous season. With backups Nick Kwiatkoski, Nick Williams and Roy Robertson-Harris stepping up, the Bears stopped Cook for gains of two, one, zero, zero, one and one yard on his first six carries, held him to 15 yards on eight carries in the first half and 35 yards and a too-late touchdown on 14 carries for the game. With the run game shut down, the Bears sacked Kirk Cousins six times in a 16-6 victory.
“They did a nice job,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “The guys executed. They set good edges. We played square in the middle. We knocked them back. We tore off blocks. We tackled well. We never really gave them an opportunity to get going.”
The Bears’ defense under Pagano is struggling to replicate the takeaway success it had under Fangio. From an unreal 36 in 2018, the defense dropped to 19 last season and has nine in nine games this season.
And while their run defense also has suffered overall — from first under Fangio in 2018 to ninth last year to 14th this season, they still have that knack for rising to the challenge against a great running back. The Rams’ Ronald Jones rushed for 106 yards against the Bears (6.2 average) An over-the-hill Adrian Peterson rushed for 93 on 14 carries (6.6) against them. The Falcons’ Brian Hill rushed for 58 yards on nine carries (6.4). The Rams’ Malcolm Brown rushed for 57 on 10 carries (5.7).
But the Titans’ Derrick Henry — the defending NFL rushing champion and the best back in the game today — was stymied last week by the Bears’ defense. Henry, who came in averaging 110.7 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry, was held to 68 yards on 21 carries (2.9) in the Titans’ 24-17 victory.
The challenge is just as great with Cook and the Vikings returning to Soldier Field on Monday. Cook leads the NFL with 122.6 rushing yards per game, six yards per carry and 12 touchdowns. And he’s on another tear, with back-to-back gushers against the Packers (30 carries, 163 yards, three touchdowns) and Lions (22-206, two touchdowns).
“They love a challenge, obviously,” Pagano said. “We’ve got a job to do. They know that. It’s going to be a huge challenge for everybody. Because you guys in the media talk about this, that and the other. We’ve got our blinders on and try not to pay attention [to the hype]. But they hear that. We’ve got a group of grown men in that room that love to play, love a challenge, play with a chip on their shoulder.”
That’s a trait that was nurtured by Fangio and never more apparent than against Cook. In three games against the Bears, Cook has rushed for 86 yards on 34 carries (2.5) — including 12 yards on nine carries and 39 yards on 11 carries in 2018.
In his four-year career, Cook is averaging 87 yards against the rest of the NFL and 28.7 against the Bears.
“We know the identity of Chicago. They’re a great defensive team,” Cook said. “It starts up front. They got Akiem Hicks. They got Khalil Mack. And they got two ’backers — [Danny] Trevathan and Roquan [Smith]. It’s a mixture of one big guy and some nifty linebacker[s]. But we’ve got to go in there and match their physicality. Not shying away from anything.”
And, of course, neither are the Bears. They love this.
“The guy runs hard and doesn’t go down very easy,” Smith said. “So I’ve got a lot of respect for the guy, but I feel like we’re up to the challenge. I feel like I play hard just as well. So we’re looking at it as a nice challenge for the defense, and we’re excited about it. Another great running back coming to town.”