The Vikings were hoping for continuous progress from Christian Ponder this year. Instead, he has…
Key matchup: Minimizing Marshall
"There aren't many receivers as good as (Marshall) is," Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. "He's one of those rare players who doesn't have to get open to make plays. He's a lot like Calvin Johnson that way. He doesn't have great speed, but he is so big and physical that you can have the right coverage on him and he still makes plays. We saw that the last time we played them."
In their meeting two weeks ago, Marshall was targeted 17 times, catching 12 passes for 92 yards. Such lopsided production is nothing new for Marshall or the Bears offense. He has been targeted 138 times, catching 91 passes for 1,182 yards and eight touchdowns – all totals that are more than the rest of the Chicago wide receiver corps combined. No other Bears receiver has been targeted more than eight times in any game this season. Marshall has been targeted 10 or more times in nine games and has more than 90 receiving yards in eight games – only one other receiver has caught for more than 50 yards in any game this season (Alshon Jeffery in Week 1).
In the last couple weeks, the Bears' offensive dependence on Marshall has become even more pronounced. In the last two games, he has been targeted 31 times, catching 22 passes for 257 yards. Considering how ineffective the Chicago wide receivers have been over the last decade, Marshall's arrival via a pre-draft trade this spring has been as pronounced a difference as just about any player in the league.
Prior to Marshall this season, the last time Chicago had a 1,000-yard receiver was Marty Booker in 2002. Since then, their leading wide receivers haven't exactly been a who's-who of the NFL – David Terrell (2004), Muhsin Muhammad (2005-06), Bernard Berrian (2007), Devin Hester (2008-09) and Johnny Knox (2010-11). Marshall has shattered the receiving records of the last decade – and he's accomplished it just 12 games into the season.
The Bears don't disguise their plans when it comes to getting the ball to Marshall. He is the primary target on most pass plays and, despite being constantly double covered with safety help, he still finds ways to give Jay Cutler a window to throw him the ball. Two weeks ago, of his 12 receptions, six of them converted first downs and kept Chicago drives alive.
Marshall isn't a big home run threat. Of his 91 receptions, only two of them have been 40 yards or more. He is used to carve up defenses, move the chains and sustain drives. Given the Bears' offensive mindset of extending drives and working the game clock to wear down opposing defenses, Marshall is as important in accomplishing that as anyone. No other player on the team has more than 250 receiving yards, which works out to an average of less than 21 yards a game. Marshall is averaging 98.5 yards receiving per game – the largest receiving disparity between the No. 1 and No. 2 receiver of any team in the NFL.
As the Vikings defense is finalizing its game plan for the Bears, you can be assured that much of the scheming is designed around Marshall. No receiver has embodied the term "go-to guy" as much as Marshall has this season. If the Vikings can find a way to neutralize Marshall and force Cutler to go to his other receivers, the better the chances are that the Vikings will win. In the nine games in which Marshall has 80 or more receiving yards, the Bears have won seven of those games. In games he has less than 80 receiving yards, the Bears have a 1-2 record. It's clear that the Bears offense goes through Marshall and, if the Vikings are to win Sunday, containing him and minimizing his role in the offense will be the top priority, making this the matchup to watch this week.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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