As far as challenges go, the Bears defense will face one of the most difficult in Eagles quarterback Michael Vick on Sunday at Soldier Field.
A two-year exile from the game that included prison time for dog-fighting charges hasn't diminished Vick's unique skills a bit. Last year, when he first returned, there was some obvious rust in his game. But now, Vick, at 30, is playing the best football of his life, leading the NFL with a 108.7 passer rating.
In his brilliant performance against the Redskins two games ago, which included four touchdown passes, 333 passing yards, two running touchdowns and 80 yards on the ground, Vick looked like something out of a video game because he made it appear so ridiculously easy.
"The crazy thing is, I watched the Washington game, and then you go to sleep with nightmares about how you're going to stop this guy," said Bears linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who hopes to be back after missing the Dolphins game with a knee injury. "There are so many challenges and so much talent [on that] offense."
Formerly more of a threat to defeat opponents with his unparalleled running ability, Vick has tossed 11 touchdown passes this season without an interception. He's fifth in the NFL with eight completions of 40 or more yards, even though he's played in just seven games, and he's being mentioned frequently as an MVP candidate.
"I'd vote for him," Bears safety Chris Harris said. "Some of the things he's doing are amazing."
In his first six years in the NFL with the Falcons, Vick's highest passer rating for a season was 81.6, and that was the only time he finished over 80. But he's averaged 7.1 yards per carry in his career, and in his last season in Atlanta he rushed for 1,039 yards, averaging 8.4 yards per carry.
As a quarterback, he has always been considered raw and incomplete, his throwing accuracy inconsistent at best despite superior arm strength. That isn't the case anymore.
"He's going through his progressions, first read, second read, third read," Harris said. "And after that, he's taking off and running. So, definitely, he's doing a great job as far as staying in the pocket."
That makes defending the 6-foot, 215-pound former No. 1-overall draft pick more difficult than ever, giving opposing defense's game-planning headaches.
Coach Lovie Smith says the Bears will continue to play the same style of defense that has them tied for the NFL lead in fewest points allowed, No. 2 in third-down conversions and rushing yards allowed and No. 3 in total yards allowed.
"We've played Michael Vick before," Smith said. "He's a great player. But we normally do what we do with our defense. We're not going to change. We believe in our defense, and it's set up to play guys like him. We give him all the respect in the world, but our guys are excited about playing against not just Michael Vick but the Philly offense. They have good skill guys all the way around."
Big-play wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin make Vick even more dangerous, because if defenders ignore their assignments to help contain the quarterback, he's much more adept now at throwing downfield.
"Before, you knew he was going to run and it was, All right, let's contain him some," Tinoisamoa said. "Now that he's throwing the ball so well, it adds a whole other element. But we feel confident in the talent we have here. We feel like we match up well. We feel like we have some great speed, not only from our D-linemen but in the back seven. We're excited about this game."
If it's a challenge the defense is looking for, they probably won't be disappointed because Vick has elevated his always-dangerous game to another level.
"We didn't see anything he can't do," cornerback Tim Jennings said. "We're aware of everything he brings to the team. But, like our coaches harp on, we really can't worry about what they do. We have to worry about what we do and try to contain him as much as we can."
NOTES AND QUOTES
The firing of Vikings coach Brad Childress was expected by many, but Smith was still surprised given that the Vikings fell just short of the Super Bowl last season, losing 31-28 in overtime to the eventual champion Saints in the NFC Championship Game.
"It's a shame when you have your team a play away from being in the Super Bowl one year, and he's without a job the next year," Smith said. "But that's our business. When we get in it, we realize that. Looking at it from a different point of view, it's always good to see a guy like Leslie Frazier get an opportunity."
Frazier, the Vikings' defensive coordinator, was named interim head coach after Childress' firing. He was a starting cornerback on the Bears' Super Bowl XX championship team and played five seasons in Chicago. ...
While the Bears' offense languishes near the bottom of the league in most categories, the defense is among the elite.
In total yards, the offense is No. 30, while the defense is No. 3. In rushing yards, the offense is 20th, and the defense is second. In third-down efficiency, the offense is 29th, while the defense is No. 2.
"I've said it all year long," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "The defense has been carrying this team. Whenever the offense catches up to them, we're going to be where we want to be." ...
Bears running back Chester Taylor spent the previous four seasons with the Vikings and enjoyed the best season of his career in Childress' first season as head coach.
"I'm not that surprised because I'm pretty sure it was going to come to that by the end of the year," Taylor said. "I want to thank him for bringing me in in '06 and giving me a chance, and I just wish him the best."
Taylor, who rushed for 2,050 in his first two seasons with the Vikings, struggled to explain why last year's 12-4 NFC North champions have plummeted to 3-7 and seem on the verge of total collapse.
"They have great players," he said. "I thought they'd be a lot better. They've had some losses where it wasn't really close. That's not the Vikings I know."
Taylor still talks to his former teammates, and he has sensed a disconnect on the team in recent weeks.
"It just seemed like there wasn't togetherness that's been there in the past," Taylor said. "They had their ups and downs over there." ...
No one can accuse linebacker Brian Urlacher, who became the franchise career leader in tackles last Thursday, of tooting his own horn.
"Our linebackers are decent," Urlacher said while assessing the defense. "We do a good job of getting to the football."
Urlacher and weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs have been to 11 Pro Bowls between them and are among the NFL leaders this year in tackles for loss. Tinoisamoa is also having an excellent season.
"We do OK," Urlacher said with a smile. "When they call our numbers, we do OK."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"You keep winning, you keep making the next game a little more important." – Coach Lovie Smith, whose 7-3 Bears host the 7-3 Eagles on Sunday.
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