Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Sep 2005
by Michael David Smith
Mark Bradley has looked very good so far. The second-round receiver was considered primarily a developmental project, with any instant impact expected to come on special teams. But he's been the best player on the Bears' offense in the preseason, and he deserves to be the No. 2 receiver after Muhsin Muhammad. If Bradley is this good in the regular season, Kyle Orton will have a nimble target who's not afraid to go over the middle. Orton, however, is a complete unknown. He's looked relatively good, but he's only thrown four passes with the first string. Maybe he'll turn out to be that extremely rare fourth-rounder who's ready to step in and play immediately. Or maybe he'll be lousy and Jeff Blake will quickly become the Bears' starter.
When will Cedric Benson be ready? it's hard to say. It's not difficult for a young running back to contribute as a ballcarrier with little practice time, as he just has to take some handoffs and run the ball. But it is hard for him to know how to pick up blitzes. Considering that they're starting a rookie quarterback, the Bears can't afford to give blitzing linebackers and safeties easy access. Because of that, expect Benson to spend a lot of time on the bench.
One of the nicest stories of training camp has been the development of cornerback Rashied Davis, who came into camp looking like just another body on the scout team, but found out Friday that he will be on the active roster. Davis told the Chicago Sun-Times he can now quit his other job, at Best Buy.
The Lions lost two fan favorites to broken legs, but neither injury is as troubling as most fans might think. Jeff Garcia's injury is not a particularly big deal because Garcia was cover-your-eyes awful throughout the preseason. The loss of Garcia ends what little quarterback controversy existed in Detroit, but Garcia's lousy play had already clarified that he was a backup. The Lions say Garcia will be back this season, and Matt Millen says the Lions won't sign a third quarterback, but that's a mistake. They need an insurance policy behind Joey Harrington and rookie Dan Orlovsky. The best player available to the Lions (or any other team looking for a veteran backup) is Vinny Testaverde, but it seems unlikely that Testaverde would want to join a team for the couple of months until Garcia's leg is healed. If Testaverde does have any interest, the Lions should jump at him. If not, few options are available.
Cory Schlesinger's injury also isn't going to hurt the team as much as would be expected. Schlesinger is still a good lead-blocking fullback, but he's no longer a threat to run or catch passes out of the backfield. When he's on the field, the Lions basically have one extra lineman and one fewer skill-position player. That's OK in certain short-yardage situations, but most of the time they'll be better off going in three-receiver, two-tight end, or two-back formations. Look for the Lions to put either Artose Pinner or Shawn Bryson on the field at the same time as starting running back Kevin Jones. Neither Pinner nor Bryson will be as good a lead blocker for Jones as Schlesinger is, but both of them are greater threats to do something with the ball in their hands.
The Lions played much better in their fourth preseason game than they did in their third, a nationally televised debacle against the Rams. But the fourth game always features plenty of backups, and the fact that the Lions' first defense shut down J.P. Losman and the Bills' first offense says more about Losman than it does about the Lions.
Return man Eddie Drummond finally got on the field against the Bills. He was scheduled to make his preseason debut returning punts against the Rams the week before, but it took so long for the Lions to finally make the Rams punt that they decided not to put him in three hours after he had warmed up and risk his pulling a hamstring. Drummond finished the preseason with one return, which is just about right for a guy who has great talent but can't stay healthy.
We've said it before and we'll say it again: Losing two Pro Bowl-caliber guards is a major problem. In place of last year's starters, Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, are rookie William Whitticker and free agent signing Adrian Klemm. That's a major downgrade in talent. The Packers' running game will suffer, and Brett Favre will have defensive tackles in his face. The Packers' offensive line had enough depth last year that even with center Mike Flanagan injured, they were able to put six good linemen on the field simultaneously. They're much thinner on the line now, and an injury would make things much worse.
Aside from the line, the main question is whether new coordinator Jim Bates can get the Packers to play the kind of defense he deployed so successfully in Miami. With the Dolphins Bates had a good secondary and was able to be aggressive with his front seven because he had confidence that the back four wouldn't allow any big plays. The Packers' secondary doesn't have the same kind of talent.
The most intriguing rookie in the NFL this year might be first-round pick Troy Williamson of the Vikings. Nearly everyone had Southern Cal's Mike Williams ahead of South Carolina's Williamson on the draft boards, but the Vikings decided to go with Williamson because they wanted a faster player who could be the deep threat they lost when they traded Randy Moss. One play in the Vikings' last preseason game showed everything that's good and bad about Williamson: He ran downfield with blazing speed, then failed to catch a pass that hit him in the chest.
Center Matt Birk is out for the season, which is a major loss. Some folks criticized Birk when he told the Vikings he'd forgo season-ending surgery if they'd guarantee his salary for next year, but the truth is Birk has always been a tough player who has played through injury, and if the Vikings wouldn't guarantee his long-term financial health, he was well within his rights to do what was in the best interests of his long-term financial health.
The league's least valuable franchise had plenty of money to spend on free agents to improve the defense this off-season. It's way too early to judge whether that has been successful (Mike Tanier has a good article showing how well the strategy has worked for other teams) but judging by the quality of the Vikings' play against the Seahawks' first offense, they have some work to do. Seattle had no trouble marching down the field and scoring a touchdown on its first offensive possession. Ditto for the Chargers, who moved the ball with ease on the first drive of preseason Week 3. In Week 2 Chad Pennington completed nine of 10 passes, and in Week 1 the Chiefs' starters drove down to the Vikings' 1-yard line before settling for a field goal. A few bad preseason drives isn't proof that the Vikings' defense hasn't come together yet, but it's certainly not a good sign.
This is the last edition of Four Downs: NFC North for 2005.
Tomorrow: The final Four Downs for the NFC East.
22 comments, Last at 08 Sep 2005, 9:55am by Wicked