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04 Sep 2005

Four Downs: NFC North

by Michael David Smith

Chicago Bears

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.

Detroit Lions

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.

Green Bay Packers

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.

Minnesota Vikings

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.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 04 Sep 2005

22 comments, Last at 08 Sep 2005, 9:55am by Wicked


by Kevin Pelton (not verified) :: Mon, 09/05/2005 - 12:39am

Hate to make light of a great story about Davis, but that comment is crying out for a Ron Artest joke. (Link has it as Circuit City, but I've also heard Best Buy.)

by Nathan (not verified) :: Mon, 09/05/2005 - 12:49am

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.

Said very well.

by Timdog (not verified) :: Mon, 09/05/2005 - 4:47pm

You might also want to mention that Drummond fumbled his only punt return of the preseason (Lions recovered) - not a good sign...

by kman (not verified) :: Mon, 09/05/2005 - 6:08pm

why does everyone count out the packers this year?they never had a defense last year,and they can still win in shootouts.and no im not a homer, im a lions fan

by Xian (not verified) :: Mon, 09/05/2005 - 6:30pm

Curious if anyone has thoughts on the Packers roster cuts.

(no real surprises on offense)
QB J.T. O’Sullivan
RB Walt Williams
FB Vonta Leach
T Brad Bedell
TE Sean McHugh
WR Andrae Thurman

LB Raynoch Thompson (a little surprising, as Hannibal Navies was just released a little while ago)
DE R-Kal Truluck
DT Cletidus Hunt (surprising to me, at least)
DT James Lee

by Wicked (not verified) :: Mon, 09/05/2005 - 7:03pm

The Packers offense will slip some this year, but their defense will be better than what people are expecting. After reading a lot of "analysis" this preseason, it's obvious a lot of "experts" have yet to watch the Packers. They are looking at stats and rosters, but are failing to turn the damn TV on.

by Vince (not verified) :: Mon, 09/05/2005 - 7:36pm

Curious if anyone has thoughts on the Packers roster cuts.
DE R-Kal Truluck

I think the best name in pro football history is now unemployed.

by dedkrikit (not verified) :: Mon, 09/05/2005 - 9:11pm

Sorry, but I have had more fun than allowed out of Craphonso being in different football news lately.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Mon, 09/05/2005 - 9:21pm

I have no idea how well the Vikings defense will play this year. Smoot hardly played in the pre-season, and if he is fully recovered from his nagging injuries, that could be a major factor. Smoot covering the #1 receiver, and Winfield on the #2 might give Cottrell the freedom to blitz more, which might be necessary, given that neither Udeze or James has yet to demonstrate that they can be consistently dangerous pass rushers from the edge.

Geez, playing defense gets a lot easier if the offense has to consider assigning two blockers to an edge rusher in passing situations, and the Vikings haven't had a player even close to that description sine the first incarnation of Chris Doleman. I had hope that Udeze, after his shoulder surgery, or James, after he came in late, would begin to show some signs that they might become such a player, but nothing gives indication of that yet.

Meanwhile, Parcells seems to have found exactly that player. Makes me wish that the Vikings had taken him with their initial first round pick, and then taken the best wr available (I think Culpepper has become so good that any diligent WR with slightly above-average talent will be productive) with the second first round pick. Fans would have screamed murder, but having Demarcus Ware lined up with Kevin Williams on passing downs sure would have caused some match-up nightmares for offensive coordinators.

by Wicked (not verified) :: Tue, 09/06/2005 - 9:34am

FS Nick Collins, GB will compete for defensive rookie of the year.

by andrew (not verified) :: Tue, 09/06/2005 - 10:15am

#9, I agree, they should have reversed their pick priority.

Reports are they are signing Koren Robinson. Presumably he will at least be the #4. Which means that Burleson, Marcus Robinson, Koren, and Travis Taylor (who had a great camp) will all be ahead of Troy Williamson. And Ryan Hoag also had a good camp.

Obviously Williamson's not going to be cut, and I don't see him spending time on special teams (don't think they ever tried him at returning). But he looks like a non-factor right now.

by Aaron N. (not verified) :: Tue, 09/06/2005 - 10:33am

I couldn't agree more with #10.
The kid looks like a real find...

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Tue, 09/06/2005 - 11:16am

Andrew, I think he'll be used to stretch defenses in three and four receiver sets, and he may have some effectiveness right off the bat, although no doubt he'll not be an every-down player this year. Whether he'll be pro-bowl caliber a few years down the line, well, who knows?

I think Koren Roinson was signed because he has athletic ability and he came cheap, likely with all sorts of opportunities for the Vikings to bail on him if he shows any signs of trouble. There other Robinson, Marcus, has a tendency to have nagging injuries which keep him off the field, so they wanted another big receiver with speed. I also think they are unhappy with Kelly Campbell.

However, an edge rusher who can force a double team is every bit as valuable as the average pro bowl receiver, particularly when you have a quarterback who is good enough to turn receivers into pro bowl performers. Even at the absolute elite level, I might take the defensive player. If you had to chose between a rookie Reggie White, and a rookie Randy Moss, for the first ten years of their career, I'd be inclined to take White.

by Bill Sundling (not verified) :: Tue, 09/06/2005 - 6:46pm

I've watched the Packers on TV. They suck! They can't run the ball. Favre throws picks like he's a rookie again. The defense lost five starters. I don't see how they can even win 8 games this year.

by andrew (not verified) :: Wed, 09/07/2005 - 1:58am

Viking receivers who have left their system haven't exactly had much success. Just from memory I'd have to say Qadry Ismail might've been the most successful of the lot... the rest... Jake Reed, Matthew Hatchette et al... have been mostly forgettable..

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 09/07/2005 - 2:22am

Well, I expect Moss to have a tremendous year, assuming Collins gets any decent protection. I would not be surprised, however, if it is his only tremendous year in Oakland; I just don't think he has the mental make-up, like a Jerry Rice, to be great well into his thirties.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Wed, 09/07/2005 - 2:23am

Well, I expect Moss to have a tremendous year, assuming Collins gets any decent protection. I would not be surprised, however, if it is his only tremendous year in Oakland; I just don't think he has the mental make-up, like a Jerry Rice, to be great well into his thirties.

by Wicked (not verified) :: Wed, 09/07/2005 - 8:36am

RE: #14 - If Favre plays as well as he did in the preseason, he's on track to throw a whopping 8 interceptions this year.

by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 09/07/2005 - 5:27pm

Interesting math, #18. By that logic, Favre will only throw 12 touchdown passes if he plays like he played in the preseason. Think people will be happy with that?

Favre's played roughly 1.375 games in the preseason (3/8, 1/2, 1/4, 1/4), and thrown 2 picks. By that math, he'll throw 23 picks by the end of the season, and 35 touchdowns.

You decide which projection you prefer.

by B (not verified) :: Wed, 09/07/2005 - 5:43pm

Maybe he meant Favre would only play 5.5 games this year.

by Pat (not verified) :: Wed, 09/07/2005 - 5:47pm

I'd be happy with that just so I could stop hearing about the stupidest record in sports: "consecutive games started." Unless they carry him out on a stretcher to receive the first snap of every game, which he throws 50 yards downfield for an interception, and then they put in Rodgers.

I kid, I kid!

by Wicked (not verified) :: Thu, 09/08/2005 - 9:55am

RE: #19 - 23 interceptions and 35 touchdowns....hmmm....seems close to a standard season for Favre, which would probably translate to winning the NFCN. I'll take it!