AFC North: NFC

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- During his nine-year tenure as head coach of the Chicago Bears, current Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith established a takeaway mentality on defense.

Forte
Forte
That’s why running back Matt Forte sees ball security as one of the major keys for Chicago’s offense Sunday against the Buccaneers.

“They’re similar to our defense now, too, with that Cover 2-type defense,” Forte said. “Obviously, they try to get pressure on the quarterback with their front four, and then they play takeaway football. That’s all they preach is takeaway, takeaway; especially when he was here. So I know he’s been teaching the same thing to them. The key is to guard the ball at all times.”

Despite Smith’s reputation for preaching the importance of taking away the ball, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently tied for 16th in the NFL in takeaways (15). The Bears are ranked fourth in the league in giveaways (20).

Tampa Bay forced three takeaways last week in its victory over the Redskins.

During Smith's tenure in Chicago, the Bears led the NFL in takeaways (310), three-and-out drives forced (485), three-and-out drive percentage (26.4), third-down percentage (34.1) and red-zone scoring efficiency (79.3). Under Smith, the Bears returned 34 of their 310 takeaways for touchdowns, including 26 interceptions returned for touchdowns, which tied for the most in the NFL during the coach’s tenure.

“As much as we know about the Chicago Bears, they know about us,” Smith said. “It’s not like we’re changing defenses or anything like that. We’re both familiar with each other, but that’s kind of the case in the league a lot. You play teams that you’re both familiar with each other, but it’s about what happens after the ball is snapped and that’s what it comes down to.”

The Bears fired Smith at the conclusion of the 2012 season, after the team finished with a 10-6 record. So while the revenge factor “probably plays a little bit into it,” according to Forte, what makes the Bucs a serious threat despite their 2-8 record is the way they’re coached.

“Just from the experience of him being here, me being on offense and watching the defense play, they want to stop the run and get turnovers,” Forte said. “That’s what they want to do, force us to try to throw the ball, and then get strips, interceptions and sacks. If we can stay out of the way of that and control the game by running the ball and converting third downs, it’ll be advantageous to us.”
Teams around the NFL can start contacting and negotiating with agents of players set to become unrestricted free agents beginning on Saturday, but deals can’t be executed until March 11 at 3 p.m. CT when the new league year starts.

As that date approaches, we take a look at Chicago’s pending free agents, and their chances of returning to the team in the first part of our weeklong series.

Tillman
2014 free agent: Charles Tillman

Position: Cornerback

2013 statistics: 8 games; 52.5 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, three interceptions, four pass breakups and three forced fumbles.

2013 salary: $7.95 million base salary and $51,575 workout bonus -- $8,001,575 cash value.

Outlook: The Bears are expected to make a strong push to keep Tillman. Although the club does want to be younger on defense, Tillman is still viewed as a key component in the immediate future. The question boils down to whether Tillman wants to return and play for head coach Marc Trestman. The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback is expected to have multiple suitors in free agency. Tillman has strong ties to Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator Bob Babich, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera from their time in Chicago. Tillman will have options.

McCown
2014 free agent: Josh McCown

Position: Quarterback

2013 statistics: 8 games, 5 starts; 1,829 yards passing, 13 touchdowns and one interception; 109.0 passer rating.

2013 salary: $840,000 base salary and $5,600 workout bonus -- $870,600 cash value.

Outlook: McCown has repeatedly expressed a desire to return to Chicago, and almost everyone in the building, ranging from general manager Phil Emery to starting quarterback Jay Cutler, say they want the reserve signal-caller back. But talks between the sides haven’t necessarily reflected what has been said publicly (that doesn’t imply talks have gone badly, but things have moved slowly). McCown holds more leverage than ever in his career after the way he played in relief of Cutler last season, but the Bears haven’t been in a hurry to get the quarterback signed to a deal. McCown will have plenty of suitors in free agency. A legitimate opportunity to compete for a starting job could lure him away from Chicago.

Hester
2014 free agent: Devin Hester

Position: Special teams returner

2013 statistics: 52 kickoff returns for 1,436 yards (27.6 average); 18 punt returns for 256 yards (14.2) and one touchdown.

2013 salary: $1,857,523 base salary and $250,000 workout bonus -- $2,107,523 cash value.

Outlook: Hester is unlikely to return to Chicago. The Bears probably aren’t interested in paying a couple of million dollars to a player who will strictly return kicks for a second straight year. Hester did a decent job adjusting to his new role in 2013, but he didn’t make the type of impact necessary to command the same kind of salary (or even a raise) in 2014. Like Tillman, Hester will have offers from around the league. A reunion with Smith in Tampa makes sense. Hester is also close with current Arizona Cardinals wide receivers coach Darryl Drake. Maybe some interest materializes on that front. A couple other undisclosed teams expressed a certain degree of interest in Hester two weeks ago at the NFL combine. Hester will land on his feet, but he probably won’t get the chance to continue his career with the Bears.

Ratliff
2014 free agent: Jeremiah Ratliff

Position: Defensive tackle

2013 statistics: Five games, four starts; 14.5 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 tackle for lost yardage.

2013 salary: $840,000 base salary -- $395,294 cash value.

Outlook: Ratliff didn’t show much in 2013, making his Chicago debut nearly a month after joining the team. But he performed well enough over the last five games of the season that the Bears would like to bring him back. The Bears met with Ratliff’s representatives at the NFL combine in Indianapolis recently to see about working out a deal, and the sides remain in contact about the defensive tackle’s potential return to Chicago. Other teams will likely show interest, too. At 32, Ratliff is still plenty capable of contributing at a high level. He also possesses the toughness the Bears want to instill on what’s expected to be a revamped defense. And let's be real, Ratliff is arguably a better player than even a healthy Henry Melton.

Take your pick: Ravens vs. Falcons

November, 10, 2010
11/10/10
12:00
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The NFL's first Thursday night game of the season is a big one and the subject of our latest "Take your pick" in the AFC North blog.

Who will win this week's battle of first-place teams between the Baltimore Ravens (6-2) and Atlanta Falcons (6-2)? Both clubs have several quality wins and are strong Super Bowl contenders from the AFC and NFC, respectively.

Will Baltimore continue its hot streak by winning for the sixth time in seven games? The Ravens are one of the NFL's most balanced teams and can beat you with offense or defense on any given week.

Or will the Falcons continue to play well in the Georgia Dome, where they are 4-0 and have been dominant in recent years? Atlanta likes to turn the game into a track meet on turf, which is not Baltimore's style.

Also, what do you think about the great quarterback matchup between Baltimore's Joe Flacco and Atlanta's Matt Ryan? Both were taken in the first round in 2008 and have become cornerstones for their franchises.

So take your pick this week between Baltimore and Atlanta. You can share your thoughts below, or send them to our division inbox and AFC North Twitter. We will run the best responses throughout the week.
Have you ever wanted to compare Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison?

Well, this week the AFC North blog took a trip to the lab and met with The Football Scientist KC Joyner from NFL Insider. It was interesting to see what data Joyner came up with on these two Pro Bowlers.

Beginning with splash plays in 2009, Woodley's 14.4 percent ranked ahead of Harrison and contemporaries Elvis Dumervil of the Denver Broncos and DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys.

Joyner defines splash plays as beating an offensive tackle in an one-on-one matchup to negatively impact the play. That includes (but not limited to) a quarterback sack, tipping the ball or causing a holding penalty.

Woodley had one less opportunity but made four more splash plays than Harrison, who came in at 11.9 percent. In terms of sack numbers, Woodley led the Steelers with 13.5, while Harrison recorded 10 sacks last season.

The second category Joyner studied was success at the point of attack. This is described as beating your blocker to make an impact when a play is designed to come your way.

Harrison, at 19.2 percent, was slightly better in this category than Woodley, who came in at 18.5 percent. Both numbers were stellar compared to fellow Pro Bowlers Ware (16.4 percent) and Dumervil, who struggled mightily at 3.3 percent.

To no surprise, Pittsburgh's run defense was rated No. 3 in the NFL last season. The Steelers also were No. 5 in total defense, thanks in large part to the strength of their bookend outside linebackers.

Training camp primers

July, 20, 2009
7/20/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

For those traveling to the training camp of your favorite NFL team this summer, ESPN.com has an in-depth look at all 32 sites.

Here is the link for the AFC teams, which includes information on all four training camps in the AFC North.

Also, here is the link for the NFC teams.

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