Key matchup: Finding Forte

Matt Forte (Thearon Henderson/Getty)

Last week, Reggie Bush was the Burning Bush. This week, the Vikings face a similar, but more consistent challenge in Matt Forte. The linebackers have to answer or they'll be doing plenty of answering questions this coming week.

The NFL is a game of replication. If someone burns a team with a scheme or exposes a glaring weakness, 30 other teams discover that kryptonite and attempt to reverse-engineer what they saw.

In their Week 1 loss to the Lions, Reggie Bush gashed the Vikings over and over again for significant gains. As the Vikings head on the road for another divisional game against the Chicago Bears, the battle between the Vikings linebackers (two or three of them) against Matt Forte is this week's key matchup.

In last week's meeting with the Lions, the Vikings focused on a strong-armed quarterback (Matthew Stafford) and an elite game-changing wide receiver (Calvin Johnson). In the end, it was a versatile runner/receiver (Bush) who did the damage, amassing almost 200 total yards of offense.

This week, the Vikings face another strong-armed quarterback (Jay Cutler) and an elite receiver (Brandon Marshall). But it's going to be Forte that will be the focus of Marc Trestman's offensive game plan. Trestman is wide-eyed at what he saw Bush do. Forte is salivating like a Pavlovian dog.

Will the Vikings opt to stick to what didn't work in Detroit? The Vikings had five defensive backs on the field for seven of every eight plays – an inordinately high number. They were determined to take away the 20-yard (or worse) downfield play. They did. Unfortunately for the defensive game plan, the short-to-intermediate passing game and Bush runs were a volatile mix that burned the Vikings.

If the Vikings are going to limit the dump-off pass with Cutler, who has a tendency to hold the ball that half-second too long for defenders to close in, they will have to make a decision at weak-side linebacker. Chad Greenway never left the field in Week 1. Erin Henderson was on the sidelines for one play. Marvin Mitchell saw 15 of 80 plays on the field. Desmond Bishop was active, but inactive – he was on the active game-day roster, but never saw the field. That's got to change. The line in the sand wears No. 22 and his name is Forte.

The difference between Bush and Forte is that defensive coordinators are troubled by Bush because, three times a year, he puts together the kind of game that provides wins for his team. That reward percentage wasn't big enough for New Orleans to give him a second contract. It wasn't enough for Miami to re-commit. He had his day in the relative sun of Ford Field. He'll return to "Normal Reggie" soon. If a defensive coordinator wants to stop Reggie, Reggie gets stopped. Miles of film can attest to that.

Forte is a different story. He is a back that, when healthy, is built to withstand the workload of a 20-carry-a-game bell cow running back. He is also the primary check-down receiver in the passing game. If there is a "hot" read on a play and it isn't there, Forte runs wheel routes to the outside as Plan B. If the Vikings take away what Chicago wants to do, Forte is Cutler's insurance policy in the passing game. When the Tampa-2 defense the Vikings run has only two linebackers, guys like Forte will water-board the defense. That has to change.

The Vikings need to ask one fundamental question? Is Bishop their guy at linebacker? Is Marvin Mitchell? In Week 1, nobody found out. Unless the Vikings intend to start the 2013 season 0-2, we're going to find out Sunday, which makes the Vikings linebacker corps versus Forte the key matchup. The Burning Bush has done its damage. If Forte repeat the process, it will be a long day for the Vikings at Soldier Field and a longer flight back to Minnesota.


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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