A month ago, if there was going to be a head-to-head matchup that would help define the difference between winning and losing between the Vikings and Bears, it likely would have been the battle of the running backs – Adrian Peterson vs. Matt Forte. But with Forte gone for the season and Peterson’s 2012 still up in the air after having knee surgery Friday, neither will be on the field when the Vikings meet the Bears Sunday. Instead, the ground battle will come down to Toby Gerhart and Kahlil Bell making their unexpected starting roles the season-ending key matchup.
Bell was little more than an afterthought in the Chicago offense until two weeks ago. In the season opener with Marion Barber sidelined, Bell ran 10 times for 24 yards. In the next 10 games combined, he had just one rushing attempt that lost a yard. He was mired behind Forte and Barber and his chances of seeing playing time were almost nonexistent. But when Forte went down Dec. 4 early in the Kansas City game, Bell got the call to duty. He was still backing up Barber, but his number of carries went from four vs. Kansas City to nine vs. Denver – a game in which Barber ran 27 times for 108 yards.
Lightning struck again in the Chicago backfield when Barber went down midway through the Dec. 18 game vs. Seattle and Bell went from being completely unused to the featured back. In that game, he rushed 15 times for 65 yards – both career highs. But that was just the beginning. In last week’s game at Green Bay, with both Forte and Barber sidelined, Bell became the lone running back option. He responded with a career-best game, rushing 23 times for 121 yards and was the focal point of the Bears offense.
A similar scenario faced Gerhart in his role in the Vikings offense. In the first 10 games of the season, Peterson was averaging 20 carries a game. In the first nine games of the season, Gerhart had a grand total of 17 carries – less than two attempts per game. But when Peterson sustained a high ankle sprain against Oakland Nov. 20, the onus of the running game fell to Gerhart, who responded like a second-round draft pick would be expected to perform.
After a difficult outing against Atlanta (17 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown), Gerhart rushed 21 times for 91 yards against the Denver Broncos. With Peterson still sidelined against the Lions, Gerhart essentially matched his performance from the previous week, rushing 19 times for 90 yards.
While the Vikings had confidence in Gerhart’s ability, only bolstered by his ability to be a workhorse against the Broncos and Lions, when Peterson returned against New Orleans, Gerhart went back to his subordinate role. However, when Peterson went down in agony last Saturday against the Washington Redskins, Gerhart was pressed back into full-time duty. He responded with 11 carries for a career-high 109 yards, helping propel the Vikings to a second-half explosion that helped them earn a road win against the Redskins.
There is every intention that both Bell and Gerhart will return to backup duty next year when Peterson and Forte are both expected back and in charge in their respective backfields. But both players have given their coaching staffs confidence that, if called upon, they can get the job done.
The next time the Vikings play Chicago, neither Gerhart nor Bell will likely be in the starting backfield, but both will be on center stage Sunday looking to make an impression that will last throughout the offseason that, if either Forte or Peterson goes down again, their running games won’t go in the tank when they leave the field. It may be the only time they match up head to head, but, as both teams finish off disappointing seasons, Gerhart and Bell will square off in an improbable key matchup.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.