Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: NFC North

Four Downs: NFC North
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

Chicago Bears: Will the Bears line allow the rest of their offense to succeed?

The Bears finished with the 28th ranked offense in the NFL in our DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ratings last season. Chicago seemed to have a decent, if not overwhelming, core of skill players in Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Johnny Knox, Greg Olsen, and Devin Hester. So why did the offense perform so poorly? Their root of their problems moving the ball came from the unit closest to it on the snap: their weak offensive line. The Bears finished dead last in Adjusted Sack Rate, allowing a league-high 56 sacks, and also finished 29th in Adjusted Line Yards, our attempt to measure the impact of an offensive line in the running game.

Chicago offensive line coach Mike Tice added Wisconsin first-rounder Gabe Carimi in the first round of the draft, but the Bears didn't otherwise pursue any solutions in free agency. They also let Olin Kreutz, a six-time Pro Bowler, walk. Kreutz was getting a bit older, but losing him over a reported $500,000 has left the Bears with even more shuffling than they would already have had to do.

J'Marcus Webb has all the physical talents that Tice looks for in his tackles, but starting him immediately led to poor results in pass protection last season. With Carimi on board, the plan is to move Webb to the ever-important left tackle spot, which could leave Cutler feeling the heat just as often as he did last season. Longtime Bears guard Roberto Garza will shift to center to replace Kreutz, while former first-rounder Chris Williams, who failed at tackle, will remain at left guard. The unit clearly needed changes, but that's a lot of upheaval for one offseason.

If there is a bright side to all the Bears' tinkering on the line, it's that they were able to trade Olsen and replace him with blocking tight end Matt Spaeth. Mike Martz's offenses have traditionally ignored the tight end as a receiving threat, and the extra blocking help looks like it will be necessary with all the new faces at important positions on the line. The Bears are arguably deeper than ever at receiver with the addition of Roy Williams, but how much their offense will improve depends solely on how well the rebuilt offensive line performs.

Detroit Lions: Can the defensive line make up for the secondary's shortcomings?

While writers scrambled to be the first to stick a lasting moniker on the Detroit defensive line after they were able to add Nick Fairley next to Ndamukong Suh in the draft, and the Lions made a pair of nice signings to supplement their linebacker corps in Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant, the secondary was mostly ignored. There were some rumblings that Detroit might make a run at Nnamdi Asomugha or Johnathan Joseph, but instead they had to settle for ex-Browns cornerback Eric Wright.

Wright, like fellow Lions cornerback Chris Houston, was freely available despite a starting pedigree largely because he was ostracized by his team. Unlike Houston, Wright's play actually earned a lot of the criticism. Wright improved against the run last season, but he has allowed marks of 10.4 and 9.9 yards per pass the last two seasons. To make room for him at corner, the team moved Alphonso Smith to nickelback.

Detroit already has a solid defensive core in place, but with Amari Spievey still learning the ropes at safety, they don't have a sure-fire starter in the secondary outside of Louis Delmas, the Lions will need their pass rush to continue to deliver if they want to be a true playoff contender this year. In the meantime, there's nothing wrong with bargain-buying a corner like Wright and seeing if they can get more out of his talent than Cleveland did. There will be other drafts and offseasons for this young core to address the problem.

Green Bay Packers: Can the Packers fix last season's running game?

It's hard to find much fault with the reigning champions, but they did have problems with their running attack last season. In the playoffs, Green Bay could only manage more than 3.8 yards per carry on the ground in one game: their opener against the Eagles.

Ryan Grant finished 10th among running backs in DVOA during the 2009 season, so his return should provide a boost, but running backs coming off season-ending injuries at 28 aren't a zero-risk proposition. It's also not the full extent of the problem: Green Bay fell from eighth in Adjusted Line Yards in 2009 to 23rd last season. A full offseason to digest the playbook should help 2010 first-rounder Bryan Bulaga at right tackle, but the Packers are going to have another rookie in the starting lineup after selecting Ole Miss tackle Derek Sherrod with the 32nd overall pick. They'll initially start him at guard to replace Daryn Colledge, who signed with the Cardinals in the offseason.

Eventually, Sherrod will probably move to left tackle to replace Chad Clifton, but for now, his assignment is to help re-tool the Green Bay running game on the inside. It's not implausible to think there could be a vast improvement there this year, but it's also not a sure thing. On a loaded squad like the Packers, that is about as close to a weakness as you'll find.

Minnesota Vikings: Who will McNabb throw to?

With Sidney Rice departing for Seattle, the Vikings were left with a bit of a quandary in free agency: which free agent receivers were good enough to prove an upgrade on what they already had? They decided on ex-Falcons receiver Michael Jenkins. After re-inventing himself as a dependable underneath option in Atlanta in 2007 and 2008, Jenkins caught just 56 percent of his passes in each of the last two seasons, losing playing time to Harry Douglas all the while, and upgrading on him was a major focus for Atlanta. They sent a slew of draft picks to Cleveland just so they could move up and select Julio Jones, rendering Jenkins irrelevant for the Falcons.

How desperate are the Vikings for a good receiver? Despite Bernard Berrian's deep speed being lost to injury and his salary making him a prime candidate to be released, the Vikings are thinking about starting him. If any team should have been kicking the tires on the microfracture recovery of Steve Smith or betting on a return to form for Jerricho Cotchery, it should be Minnesota. Instead, they seem oddly content to go with Berrian and Jenkins as their options after Harvin.

Visanthe Shiancoe should continue to be a solid underneath threat at tight end, but this receiving group is looking an awful lot like the Redskins group that Donovan McNabb played with in 2010, when his receiving options were Santana Moss, Chris Cooley, and a bunch of unknowns. Adrian Peterson has a way of making up for things like this, but the offense Minnesota has assembled this offseason is just begging for their opponents to assign a deep safety to Harvin and stack the box.

(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)


35 comments, Last at 17 Aug 2011, 11:28pm

1 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

ostracize, ostracise [ˈɒstrəˌsaɪz]
vb (tr)
1. to exclude or banish (a person) from a particular group, society, etc.
2. (Historical Terms) (in ancient Greece) to punish by temporary exile.

Football Outsiders: come for the football analysis, stay to improve your foreign language vocabulary!

2 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Cotchery signed with the Steelers. Maybe the Vikings can pick up Randle El.

3 Packers O-line

I think it more likely that third-year player TJ Lang starts at left guard for the Packers than rookie Derek Sherrod. Sherrod will wind up interning at tackle along with 2nd-year man Marshall Newhouse, with one of them being first-off-the-bench if/when something happens to LT Chad Clifton.

6 Re: Packers O-line

In reply to by ebongreen (not verified)

Nothing's going to happen to Chad Clifton-- Warren Sapp left the league years ago.

8 Re: Packers O-line

In reply to by ebongreen (not verified)

According to an article today by Bob McGinn, the competition is very close. Either way, I'm not too worried about it, especially as it relates to the running game. Colledge was the worst run-blocker on the line. Starks has looked excellent in camp, and hopefully the ankle injury he suffered against the Browns isn't serious.

I think pass protection, particularly picking up stunts, is the larger worry with a new LG.

5 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Chicago offensive line coach Mike Tice added Wisconsin first-rounder Gabe Carimi in the first round of the draft, but the Bears didn't otherwise pursue any solutions in free agency.

They added what most Bears fans expect will be their starting center in Chris Spencer. Tice said publicly "this is our starting offensive line" about the current lineup, but no one believes him. I'm fairly certain the opening day OL will have Spencer at C and Garza at RG (and I thought that before the brilliant OL performance Saturday night). In fact, I wouldn't be all that surprised if they ended up starting Carimi at LT and Omiyale at RT (or vice-versa)---Webb and Louis were that bad.

7 Re: Four Downs: NFC North - Lions Defense

For all of the talk about the Lions secondary, people forget that the Lion's defense in 2010 was very bad against the run and defending against passes to TEs and RBs. This is one reason why upgrading the LB corps seemed like a higher priority than grabbing a high-profile free agent corner. So for me the real question is how much the new LBs help to improve the pass defense. If opponents can't depend on that short outlet pass as much it makes the job of the secondary that much easier. Then the pass rush can be much more effective. was

16 Re: Four Downs: NFC North - Lions Defense

Agreed. The Lions have struggled to cover non-WRs for years: you have to go back to 2000 and their 6th-best pass defense to find the last season they were in the top half of the league against both TEs and RBs. I've charted far too many plays where one or more LBs simply didn't do anything effectively ... on more than a few occasions, a play-action fake sucked in all three. That was one reason I wasn't sorry to see Ernie Sims go. In addition to his propensity for concussions, he seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time a bit too often.

If the new guys can stop the outlet passes and runs up the middle, the corners won't have to be great, just good. The runs are a particular issue because Detroit was solid around the ends (3.68 and 3.52 ALY) and against left-tackle plays, mediocre against right-tackle plays, and bad against runs up the middle (4.46 ALY) ... and yet less than half of opponents' runs went that direction, even below the NFL average of 50%. (Perhaps this is perception vs. reality: people wanted to avoid Suh and Williams even though it was better than testing Avril and Vanden Bosch.)

The pass defense actually wasn't bad last year ... except that it was not bad against bad teams overall. The non-adjusted passing DVOA was only 5.6%, but when you remember that teams like the Jets, Bills, and Bears had success against them, that suddenly makes the numbers look a bit worse. If they can do to most teams what they did to St. Louis, Washington, and Green Bay in the second game, then the offense won't constantly be looking for 80-yard TD drives.

10 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Your writeup for the Bears seems very accurate to me. For some reason this year, I'm excited to see what happens on the line, after being depressed last year. It's probably the total lack of any real football news this off-season. I think the talent level on the line has been greatly upgraded (depending of if Louis is actually good or Tice is just infatuated with him for some unknown reason). The thing is, there are young players who have the potential to be good right now in Webb, Williams, and Carimi. If two of them can be above average this year, and the 2 vets can be average, it will be the best line Chicago has had since 2006 as long as there is no complete disaster on from the 5 guy.

33 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

"The thing is, there are young players who have the potential to be good right now in Webb, Williams, and Carimi. If two of them can be above average this year . . ."

I don't follow the Bears that closely, but doesn't this seem unlikely? Webb was a below average RT last year, never was a good prospect to begin with (he was undrafted), and now is moving to LT. Has Williams been an average starter yet? Maybe Carimi will be excellent in his rookie year, but better OT prospects than him have struggled initially.

34 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

I think Williams was actually an above average guard last year after he figured out how to block bull rushes.

Also, Mike Tice loves Webb. He seems to have all the physical tools to play left tackle, so if he gets coached up, it's a possibility. Webb is by far the longest shot, so yeah you could say I'm banking on Williams and Carimi.

11 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The Packers do still one glaring weakness - the punt and kickoff return game. Unfortunately, to fix the problem would require replacing Slocum as ST coach. I don't care if Cobb or Shaky is the returner. The blocking on those units have sucked during MMcC's entire tenure, and coverage hasn't been great either. The new kickoff rules will definitely help the Packers (and hurt the Bears who have far better special teams even without Hester). Not worried about LG or even the ROLB by committee.

12 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Well, kickoff returns as a weakness will be helped out a lot by the new kickoff rules. There won't be many returns for that weakness to be exposed.

13 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Weakness implies a way to attack and beat a team, and while the Packers may have a weak return game, no team wins a game by virtue of shutting down a return game (although you can lose a game by letting them run rampant on you), you still have to win on offense and defense. Sure, a strong return game can augment your offense, but unless the return problems lead to fumbles recovered by the opposition, you can't beat the Packers by stopping their return game. You have to stop Aaron Rodgers. Now, if your weakness is anywhere else it can be exploited to stop the offense or defense, and weak coverage teams obviously handcuff the defense.. But you can't beat the Packers solely because of their subpar returns.

18 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

If the Packers lose a close game due to kickoff disparities, it also means that they had a weakness in their kickoff/punt COVERAGE teams, not just the return gain, allowing big returns that turned out to be fatal. Not getting much yardage on returns will not lose a game, and with an explosive offense like the Packers, you won't beat them just because your special teams keeps their average starting position at the 20 instead of the 25, for example. You beat them if you can stop the offense and put points on the defense.

21 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

They did have bad coverage teams. I was just identifying what I thought was their worst problem which is the return game. The Packers lost to the Bears in part because they allowed Devin Hester to return a punt for a TD. In the playoffs, they allowed the Falcons to return a kickoff for a TD early in the game. Don't know the FO advanced stats, but I believe they also show the Packers in the bottom half of all four ST categories.

27 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The Packer special teams will be greatly improved. You heard it here. Masthay has been fantastic with the punts. Even a short look at Cobb told me all I needed to know and it's good. Shakey may help as well. Now all they have to do is teach the units to tackle.

17 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

Wow McCown, did you even watch the playoffs last year? The Packers running game picked it up a notch from the regular season...and that much improved running game was a big part in their success. A more glaring weakness this year is Green Bay's defensive line. Cullen Jenkins is a huge loss for the Pack and it showed during their preseason game against Cleveland. Granted, Dom Capers played a vanilla defense, but there really was no pass rush from the front three. I come to FO because the commentary is insightful and backed up by stats geeks. You're capable of better, FO.

25 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

James Starks averaged 4.7 running against the Steelers (11 for 52, long of 14), which is pretty good considering the quality of the Steelers run D.

31 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

In a game where GB held a sizable lead for almost all of the game, it says a lot that their #1 RB only got 11 carries.

22 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

So Mike Martz really doesn't like Caleb Hanie for some reason. He was clearly better than Collins last year and was behind him on the depth chart, and now Martz is giving #2 snaps to Nathan Enderle. I guess it's kind of impressive that Enderle didn't look completely lost in his first pre-season game, but I didn't see anything from him that made me think he should be ahead of Hanie.

30 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

The only thing that stood out about Enderle was his complete lack of scrambling ability and a willingness hold on to the ball too long (a fact that contributed to all those sacks the Bills piled up). While he may have conceded the point to Cutler, I think Martz is dead set on pocket-only passers, so Hanie is out in the cold.

28 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

We've all heard it since the Civil War. The battle is won in the trenches. Problem is that it's true. A really good QB can lessen the impact of a bad OL, but he won't win often enough. Chicago was rated 29th in offense, and it had little to do with Cuttler.

29 Re: Four Downs: NFC North

But Americans learned in the Civil War that fighting in trenches is too costly. That's why we didn't engage in it heavily in WWI when everyone else did, and, um I guess QB "field generals" make such a big difference - I think I strained the analogy past its breaking point there.