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Thursday, 6 September 2012

NFL 2012: NFC North Preview

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The best division in football? It might well be. The NFC North is a division truly blessed with talent in all phases of the game, particularly on offense. Arguably the best QB in the world, one of the top 3 RBs, and almost certainly the best WR all ply their trade here, and that doesn't even really do justice to the talent on display. The question is, however, which of these strong teams can make a push at the playoffs, or perhaps more pertinently, how many of them can?

Green Bay Packers (2011: 15-1, Lost to NYG in the Divisional Round)

Review: The Packers played 1, maybe 2 bad games all season. Unfortunately for them, one of those was against an inspired Giants team in the NFC Divisional round and prevented them from completing their Superbowl defense that looked almost inevitable for much of the regular season. Up until week 14, the Packers were cruising, never really looking like losing any of their games, even when the scoreline was close. Wins over the Saints, Bears, Falcons and even their eventual playoff contending Giants all seemed too easy for Rodgers and co on their way to 13-0. A shock defeat at the hands of an inspired Chiefs team in week 14 was the only blip in their regular season, was the only game where A-Rod didn't throw multiple touchdowns (when he started), and was the only game of the regular season where the offense scored fewer than 24 points. Even resting their MVP quarterback for the final game of the season against the Lions did nothing to slow their progress, with backup Matt Flynn stepping in to break the teams passing yards and TD records for a single game vs the Lions, and earn himself what was presumed by all to be the starting role in Seattle. Perhaps resting Rodgers is the thing the Packers will regret most from 2011 however, as after a bye in the Wild Card round, his first game back was vs the Giants, and the entire offense looked off-kilter. They dropped a total of nine passes, their most all season, as well as a similar record of 4 turnover - 2 from Rodgers himself. The defense, which despite the teams success had ranked amongst the worst in the league all season, could not stop the Giants offense, who put 37 points on the board helped by 330yds and 3 TDs from Eli Manning. Despite being within 2 points of the Giants as the 4th quarter began, the stronger team came through at the end, and the Packers lost the game 37-20.

Biggest Strength: Unsurprisingly, it's still Aaron Rodgers. He might have had a slightly below par performance that cost them a place in the NFC Championship game last season, but he also had 14 excellent games, cementing his position as one of the top 3 QBs in the NFL, and earning himself both the #1 spot in the TPL100 list, and less importantly #1 on the NFL Network Top 100 players of 2012 list. The plethora of weapons that surround him on the Green Bay offense continues to grow, with a receiving corp that boasts 5 names that would make any other NFL roster (Jennings, Nelson, Cobb, Jones, Driver) being added to by UDFA Jarrett Boykin, a rookie who set Virginia Tech records in both receptions and receiving yards in his time with the Hokies. Add a fully fit and re-signed (to a 2-year, $14million deal) Jermichael Finley to the attack in the TE position, this unit is scarily good once again. The Packers will hope that complimenting the passing attack in 2012 will be a stronger run game. Ryan Grant is no longer with the team, and the expected starter is Cedric Benson, signed as a free agent in the off-season. Benson is a back that has 1000 yard seasons under his belt, and despite his numerous run-ins with the law, the Packers will hope he can provide a viable run threat that has been somewhat lacking from the Packers O in recent years.

Biggest Weakness: This is a hard one to call, so I'm going to look in two different directions. The first, is in the defensive secondary. In 2011, the Packers ranked dead last in total defense and passing defense, allowing a shocking 411.6 YPG, 299.8 of those yards coming through the air. The one thing that kept the Packers D afloat was turnovers, and they ranked 1st in the NFL in interceptions (31) including 7 from CB Charles Woodson, 6 from SS Charlie Peprah, and 4 each for corners Sam Shields and Tramon Williams. As impressive a stats as this is, it is not a sustainable one. Even with most of the major protagonists returning (Peprah is gone after failing a physical), and 2nd round draft pick Casey Williams added to the mix, the team cannot expect to rely on picking off opposition QBs at the rate of 2 per game again as a viable way of defending the pass. They must get better in other ways.

One other potential concern for Green Bay is their offensive line. Long time OT Chad Clifton is gone after off-season back surgery, as is C Scott Wells (FA to St Louis). Wells has been replaced by veteran Jeff Saturday, so there shouldn't be much drop off there at all. At LT, Marshall Newhouse will continue to start as he did for much of 2012 after Clifton's health issues, but Newhouse has had problems of his own, and behind him there is literally no depth at all. With Derrick Sherrod recovering from a broken leg the Packers have just 3 tackles on their active roster: Newhouse, returning RT Brian Bulaga, and backup Don Barclay, an UDFA out of West Virginia. That's it. If Newhouse or Bulaga miss any time with injury, the outside of this OL starts to look very suspect indeed. The interior isn't much deeper. TJ Lang and Josh Sitton are an excellent pairing at OG, and provided they can stay on the field there are no problems. Backing both them up, and indeed the C position, is the only other OL on the entire roster I haven't mentioned yet, Evan Dietrich-Smith. With only 3 starts in 3 seasons under his belt, the Packers will be desperate not to lean on Dietrich-Smith too hard, or Aaron Rodgers might end up rather exposed back there...

Keep An Eye On: Nick Perry. The DE from USC, now transitioning to OLB in the pros, will have a great opportunity to shine in Green Bay. With Clay Matthews lining up on the opposite edge, much of the blitz pick-up attention will be looking away from Perry, and this will give him the chance to take on OTs, and potentially RBs 1-on-1 in pass-pro.

Prediction: Despite there slight weaknesses, the story is still overwhelmingly positive for Green Bay, and it's hard to see them doing anything but win the division, and probably the 1st seed going into the playoffs. After last seasons let down, however, whether they can go further is anyone's guess.

Detroit Lions (2011: 10-6, Lost to NO in the Wildcard Round)

Review: It was a such a bright start for the Lions, kicking the season off 5-0, including wins over the Bears and Cowboys, plus a 45-3 destruction of Kansas City, but after a mid-season slide they found themselves at 7-5 and at risk of missing out on the playoffs that looked almost certain when they were flying high. Hard-fought victories over the Vikings, Raiders and Chargers in the next 3 weeks pushed them over the top and into one of the two NFC Wild Card slots, and despite a ridiculous 45-41 defeat to Green Bay on the final day of the season (when both teams were already guaranteed a playoff berth), the Lions went into the playoffs confident. Their offense, led by the finally fit Matt Stafford, had shown all year that it was capable of putting up huge numbers, scoring over 30 points seven times, and over 40 four. What their regular season smacked of though, was that when they didn't go big, they didn't win. If we exclude the week 17 nonsense at Lambeau Field, the Lions other 5 defeats saw them scoring 19, 16, 15, 13 and 17 points. For a team like the 49ers or the Steelers, with a formidable D supporting them, these scores might have been enough for a couple of Ws. For Detroit, whose D conceded the 10th most points in the NFL, they always needed to outlast the other teams offense to get the win. When they came up against New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round they met their match. One of the few offenses in the league more potent than them, the match was billed as a huge shoot out - could the young pretender in Matt Stafford our score the wily veteran in Drew Brees? The answer, quite simply, was no. The offense did nothing to disgrace itself, scoring a TD in every quarter, and keeping the Saints within 3 as Q4 began, but they just couldn't match up, and 3 TDs in the final quarter sealed the victory for New Orleans 45-28.

Biggest Strength: Very similarly to the Packers, the Lions strength is in their passing game. For the first time in his NFL career, Matt Stafford made it through 2011 healthy, and showed why he was the #1 overall pick in 2009 finishing 3rd in the league with 5038 passing yards and 41 TDs (vs 16 INTs). His main help, of course, comes from Calvin "Megatron" Johnson Jr. Unquestionably, Johnson is the best wide receiver in the league, #5 in the TPL100, #3 in the NFL Network's listing (in fact, voted #1 by the fans, but #3 by the players), and this years Madden coverboy, Johnson is the kind of receiver that all QBs dream of playing with. With Johnson drawing double, sometimes triple coverages, the rest of the field will be left open for speedster Titus Young, rookie Ryan Broyles, and tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. Expect this team to score big again in 2012, provided everyone stays as healthy as they did in 2011.

Biggest Weakness: Injuries and suspensions. This team really does shoot itself in the foot far too often. Whether it's starting CB Aaron Berry being arrested twice in one off-season and forcing the team to cut him,  Mikel Leshoure being cited on two drug offenses and being suspended for two games by the NFL, or Nick Fairley being arrested twice in one off-season on possession and driving offenses, the Lions could really do with the team focusing on football for once. The inevitable cutting of Berry was unfortunate for Detroit, as the loss of Eric Wright to Tampa had made him increasingly important to the secondary. Even more so when the surgery needed by Louis Delmas might keep him out of the season opener this weekend. Fairley is still waiting on his likely suspension to be handed down, potentially after his court cases being at the end of September, but this will do nothing to help the already jittery start to his career - missing much of his rookie season with a broken foot. His partner in crime on the DL, Ndamokung Suh, is no stranger to discipline, missing 2 games last year with a suspension for lashing out at Packers O-linemen Evan Dietrich-Smith. If Fairley is to miss time suspended, Suh will need to keep him head on straight to anchor that DL alone. And as for Leshoure, had he been a less talented player, there's no doubt he would've been cut by the Lions for his indiscretions. Fortunately for him, they need him. Jahvid Best is still missing after another concussion, and 3rd RB Kevin Smith is recovering from ankle and groin injuries himself. The Lions are desperate for Leshoure back, just so they can have some stability in the backfield.

With all these off the field issues compounded by injuries, it's hard to see the Lions starting 2012 with the potency and voracity they displayed in 2011.

Keep An Eye On: The Madden Curse. Of course it doesn't exist, but regression to the mean does. Calvin Johnson will be scrutinized all season to see whether his performances match up to his unbelievable 2011 campaign (1681 yards, 16 TDs). The truth is, no, they probably won't. Numbers that ridiculous don't often come round twice in a career, even though it's the 3rd season he's gone over 1000 yards and 10 TDs. Either way, keep an eye on him, because he's exciting to watch no matter what his final numbers say.

Prediction: The problems this team faced in 2011 are the same they'll face in 2012. A weak secondary, weakened further by injury, and a rushing attack that whilst promising so much may ultimately fail to deliver. I don't see the Lions making the playoffs at all in 2012, but they'll come close.

Chicago Bears (2011: 8-8, Missed Playoffs, 3rd in NFC North)

Review: Were the Bears two injuries away from going all the way in 2011? If you ask me, yes. Despite tough early season losses to the likes the Saints and the Packers, the Bears looked pretty decent right out of the gate. The questions hanging over their offensive line seemed to be at least put on a back burner as Mike Tice breathed some new life into the unit, and a mid-season run of 5 straight wins, including over Tampa Bay at Wembley Stadium, London, a destruction of the Lions (37-13), and a week 13 victory over the Chargers. It was during the 4th quarter this last game, however, that Jay Cutler broke his thumb trying to make a tackle after throwing a pick. Cutler was on pace for a 3700+ yard season at the time of his injury, and was doing so with very little in the way of receiving threats. He was helped in no small part by Matt Forte who himself was on pace for his second 1000+ yard rushing season, and also offering himself as an asset receiving out of the backfield. With Cutler's injury, the Bears offense was turned over to Caleb Hanie, and instantly it was apparent they would need to lean on Forte even more heavily, as in their next game against Hanie threw 3 interceptions and the team slumped to a 25-20 loss to Oakland. The week after, the season was as good as over. After taking just 5 hand-offs against the Chiefs, Forte sprained his knee, and it ended his season. The team lost that game 10-3, and lost the next 3 games too, leaving them 7-8 with one game to go. A final day win over the Vikings was not enough to claim a playoff birth, and the Bears were left to rue what might have been had their two biggest offensive pieces stayed on the field all year.

Biggest Strength: The front seven on the D. The Monsters of Midway look to be back in business, with this unit sporting 3 players amongst the TPL100 list: Julius Peppers (#23), Brian Urlacher (#35), Lance Briggs (#69), and one just outside (Henry Melton at #132). The defense managed the carry the Bears right the way to a place in Superbowl XLI with who many people consider the worst QB to play in recent Superbowl history, Rex Grossman, at the helm. Sure, Urlacher and Briggs were younger then, but when fully fit they're still dominant forces in the NFL. Combine this with the fact they now have an elite pass rusher in Julius Peppers, clearly a cut about Ogunleye and Brown who set the edges for that SBXLI team, and this is a scary set of players. The unit also added former Boise State standout Shea McClellin in the draft, and whilst the transition from OLB to hand-in-the-dirt DE is proving a difficult one for him as he starts his pro career he will undoubtedly strengthen throughout the season and look to contribute significantly down the stretch. Offensive lines are going to have their work cut out for them every week trying to stop these guys from blowing up every play.

Biggest Weakness: The truth is, there is no unit that stands out on this team as being weak. The offensive line is still not perfect. J'Marcus Webb at left tackle is arguably still one of the weaker LTs in the league, and Gabe Carimi at RT still hasn't had the chance to show what he can do (after a season ending knee injury halted his rookie year early). Inside, however, the unit looks pretty good. The only remaining member from the SBXLI unit, Roberto Garza, remains in the C position he won last year, with former Seattle C Chris Spencer now set at LG and 3rd year man Lance Louis back at RG where he started 13 games last season.

The other unit of relative weakness from 2011 is the wide receiver position. However, through adding a true #1 in Brandon Marshall and reuniting him with his former QB from their time in Denver, the unit gets an instant and significant upgrade. Factor in rookie Alshon Jeffrey, and the constant breakaway potential of Devin Hester, and this unit starts to look viable, if not standout.

Keep An Eye On: Major Wright, the starting Strong Safety. Wright is entering his 3rd season in the league, and maintains the position he started in 11 times last year. He recordered 3 interceptions in 3 games midway through last year, including one which he took back to the house for a 24 yard TD. In 2012, I expect Wright to assert himself in the NFC North, and in a division that is all about the passing game, Wright has rare ball skills for a strong safety, that will make him an asset.

Prediction: This could be a big year for Chicago. If their pieces fit together like they should and they have better luck with injuries, I can see the Bears comfortably earning the #5 seed in the NFC, and  then pushing hard for the Superbowl. I've put my money where my mouth is, as you can see in our season predictions article, where I've picked the Bears to win the NFC.

Minnesota Vikings (2011: 3-13, 4th in NFC North)

Review: 2011 was the start of the Vikings post-Favre hangover. In his final NFL season, Brett took the Vikings to a 6-10 record, just one season after their 12-4 campaign that ended so close to the Superbowl only to fall to the Bounty-fueled Saints in the NFC Championship game. With Favre now retired for good, the Vikings handed the keys over to Donovan McNabb, and what a failed experiment that was. Slumping to a 1-5 record by week 6, McNabb was benched, and eventually waived, in favour of rookie QB and surprise #12 overall pick Christian Ponder. He didn't fare much better though, and clearly needed more time to adjust to the NFL, so despite a win in his second start at the Panthers, the Vikings went on a run of 6 straight defeats that only finished in week 16 with a victory over the Redskins at FedEx Field. The biggest news at FedEx that day was Adrian Peterson, however, as the season went from bad to worse when the star running back tore his ACL and MCL and instantly hit IR. With the injury coming so close to the end of 2011, the concern was that Peterson wouldn't be ready to go when 2012 rolled round, and with just days to go before the Vikings take the field in their first game, we're still really none the wiser. Peterson has been back in training this past week, but only in limited fashion, and he obviously hasn't taken a snap vs an opposition team since the injury occurred. Trying to come back from an injury that usually takes over a year to heal in just 9 months could mean one of two things, either Peterson really is super-human, or he's super-stupid and putting his career in jeopardy by trying to coming back before he's truly ready.

Biggest Strength: It's too early to give this point to Peterson. If he really is good to go then the offense will once again rely on his unstoppable running, but until I see evidence that he's back to the All-Day of old I'm not convinced. This leaves one other standout strength: Jared Allen. Allen is a demon off the edge, and 2011 was undoubtedly his greatest year - setting a franchise record of 22 sacks, doubling his total from 2010. He helped the team to an NFL best 50 sacks for the year, but unfortunately it wasn't enough to stop them sucking in pretty much every other area of defense - with the 2nd worst total of points allowed, worst in total interceptions, and 9th worst in 1st downs allowed. I know this section is supposed to be about the team's biggest strength and not how bad their defense is, but to be honest the strengths on this Vikings team are few and far between. They did however do the sensible thing in the 2012 draft in April, using the 4th overall pick on an offensive tackle, Matt Kalil (brother of Carolina Panthers Centre Ryan), to protect their franchise QB elect. If Ponder is to stand any chance of succeeding, Kalil will have to be good.

Biggest Weakness: Where do I start? Well, probably with the same terrible defense I described above, the main problem of which is the previously appalling secondary. Even with Antoine Winfield as one of their starting CBs, the unit is on average weak. They will hope that rookie S Harrison Smith can contribute early, aside from getting $21,000 fines for illegal hits in the preseason, but maybe that's just the kind of grit and aggression this D needs to take a step towards adequacy.

Keep An Eye On: Tight End Kyle Rudolph. With Visanthe Shiancoe on the roster plus a very raw rookie QB leading the passing attack in 2011, 2nd round rookie Kyle Rudolph didn't get a lot of opportunities to show what he could do. He did managed to record 29 receptions, including 3 TDs, and made the NFL All-Rookie Team, but he'll expect more of himself. With an extra year under both his and Ponder's belts, he is the undisputed #1 TE, and likely to act as Ponder's security blanket and checkdown option, particularly if Toby Gerhart is starting at RB.

Prediction: Look away now Vikings fans. Unless Peterson is fully fit very quickly, wins look hard to come by for this team. One blessing is that they open against two weak opponents in the Jaguars and Colts, but even 2 wins from these games might get very lonely by season's end.

- Phil Gaskin (@sosayitisaid)
- The Pulling Linemen

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