Chicago Bears: Donald Driver

NFC North drop totals and percentages

November, 1, 2012
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I've found over the years that dropped passes tend to generate high levels of angst among readers, regardless of their frequency. I get it. There are few things more frustrating in football than seeing a good-looking play have the proverbial rug pulled out from under it.

I tossed out a few of ESPN Stats and Information's raw numbers Wednesday on Twitter and was quickly deluged with individual questions and requests for more context. So I'll endeavor to pass along all relevant information in this post.

Drops are a subjective statistic, and my experience with ESPN Stats & Information is that an incompletion has to be an obvious, clear drop for it to be recorded as one. As a result, you might see other statistical services hand out more drops. But to me it's all relative, as long as the same standards are applied to each team, we can get a clear perspective on who is dropping lots of passes and who isn't.

As the chart shows, the Green Bay Packers have the most drops in the NFC North (19) as well as the highest drop percentage (6.6). The 19 drops is tied for the NFL lead, but as we discussed on Twitter, percentage is more important because it adjusts for teams who throw more often. It stand to reason that a team like the Packers would have more drops than the Bears, who have thrown 155 fewer targeted passes over the first eight weeks of the season.

For the Packers, receiver Jordy Nelson has been debited with five drops. Tight end Jermichael Finley has four, receiver Randall Cobb has three and receiver Donald Driver has two (on nine targeted passes). No one else has more than one drop, and receiver James Jones -- who has some of the most notorious drops in recent Packers history -- has not been debited with any in 2012.

Below are some other notable drop figures in the NFC North. For reference, the NFL leader in drops based on this standard are Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who have seven drops apiece.

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

September, 14, 2012
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After the Green Bay Packers' 23-10 win over the Chicago Bears, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    The Packers' first touchdown came on a fake field goal that got lost in the postgame shuffle Thursday night, at least on this blog. So let's first note how gutsy the call was considering it came on fourth-and-26 from the Bears' 27-yard line. The play essentially had to score to work; the Bears would have taken over if reserve tight end Tom Crabtree had been stopped outside of the 1-yard line. "That's like the call of the year," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Fourth-and-26? You would never think anyone would go for that. You've got Tom Crabtree and you give the ball to him to get 26 yards? You never think that would happen again." Coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers have been waiting "two or three years" for the Bears to give them an alignment that would make the play work. To me, the first key was that Bears cornerback Charles Tillman -- aligned over Crabtree on the left side of the Packers' formation -- chased place-kicker Mason Crosby away from the play for several steps. That gave Crabtree some separation to catch holder Tim Masthay's pitch and get a head of steam.
  2. There are many ways to determine the motivation for a fake field goal. Did the Bears simply provide a once-in-a-lifetime look the Packers knew they could capitalize on? Was McCarthy pulling out all the proverbial stops to avoid going 0-2? Or was it, at least in part, an acknowledgment that the Packers' offense left them needing to find alternative ways to score touchdowns? I think an argument could be made for the latter motivation. We noted last week the sharp decrease in the Packers' explosiveness and wondered what adjustment they would make. We got at least a one-game answer Thursday night: With Greg Jennings (groin) sidelined and the Bears aligned to take away the deep pass, the Packers powered down and emphasized their running game along with their short(er) passing game. They ran 25 running plays, nearly tripling their Week 1 attempts, and were rewarded when tailback Cedric Benson (81 yards on 20 carries) got warmed up and began churning up yardage. The longest pass quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed was a 26-yard touchdown to receiver Donald Driver, and their longest play overall was Randall Cobb's 28-yard run off a pitch play. Overall, the Packers averaged 4.9 yards on 66 plays, holding the ball for 32 minutes, 11 seconds. It was a very Black and Blue approach in what we once thought was the Air and Space division.
  3. As we discussed Thursday afternoon, the Packers weren't dumb enough to take up quarterback Jay Cutler on his offer to press receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Instead, they played man-to-man coverage with Williams, Sam Shields, Charles Woodson and rookie Casey Hayward with two safeties -- Morgan Burnett and another rookie, Jerron McMillian -- stationed deep. Williams turned in an awesome performance on Marshall, and afterwards reiterated his approach to playing big receivers. "With a guy that size," Williams said, "you can't be too physical on him. That's what he wants. He'll beat you most of the time. I didn't give him that."
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Did the Packers settle their defensive rotation Thursday night or add a level of intrigue? Shields (60 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus) and Hayward (24) appeared to leapfrog Jarrett Bush on the cornerback depth chart. And McMillian (44 snaps) has jumped ahead of M.D. Jennings at safety. On the other hand, the Packers rotated veteran linebacker Erik Walden (36 snaps) with rookie Nick Perry (20), and Walden's active (half sack, two quarterback hits) probably played a role in Clay Matthews' 3.5-sack outburst. Rookie Dezman Moses also got 19 snaps. My guess is the Packers would like to establish some consistency at defensive back but could use their linebackers more to match with specific aspects of opponents. In all, it should be noted that the Packers got substantive contributions from five defensive rookies Thursday night: Perry (three hurries, via PFF), Hayward, McMillian, Moses (two hurries) and defensive lineman Jerel Worthy (sack, two quarterback hits). "We've got a good group of young talent," Matthews said.

Going to be tough for Greg Jennings to play

September, 12, 2012
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The odds are against Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings making the quick turnaround for Thursday night's game against the Chicago Bears, potentially leaving the Packers without their top receiver for a key NFC North matchup.

Jennings
Jennings missed practice again Wednesday because of a groin injury and has been listed as doubtful on the Packers' final injury report of the week. Technically, that means he has a 25 percent chance of playing.

Coach Mike McCarthy, of course, left open the possibility that Jennings could be cleared for at least part of Thursday's game. Jennings worked with athletic trainers Wednesday, and McCarthy said he did not have feedback from that workout at the time he addressed reporters.

While Jennings can't be replaced, the Packers at least would be in position to credibly use their three- and four-receiver packages without him. Veteran Donald Driver is available to step into the rotation after sitting all but the three plays Jennings missed in last Sunday's 30-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. This is the precise reason why the Packers kept Driver on their roster despite his status on the depth chart.

We'll let you know of any further developments and will post a full injury report later Wednesday.

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

September, 10, 2012
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After the Green Bay Packers' 30-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    Results were inconclusive, at best, on the Packers' primary offseason thrust. On the positive side, press box statistics show their pass rush got to 49ers quarterback Alex Smith for four sacks and two other post-throw hits. Linebacker Clay Matthews was credited with 2.5 sacks and defensive back Charles Woodson got the other 1.5. And two of Smith's biggest throws -- 29 yards to tight end Vernon Davis and 14 yards for a touchdown to Randy Moss -- were the fault of busted coverages. Smith threw plenty of quick-release passes, but in the end he had enough time to connect on nearly three-quarters of his throws. So to me it was a mixed bag. And for what it's worth, the Packers were blitzing heavily for a good portion of the game to ratchet up their pressure. They sent at least one extra rusher on 10 of Smith's first 21 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Woodson insisted the Packers' pass defense is "nowhere close to where it was last year" and said he liked the energy he saw. We'll see.
  2. Tight end Jermichael Finley was targeted a team-high 11 times and caught seven passes for 47 yards and a score. He also had one clear drop, another that could have been called one if you're a tough grader and a third play where he had enough trouble controlling the ball that the 49ers challenged the ruling of a completion. Afterwards, it was interesting to note how Finley responded when asked about the Packers "dropping" their first game. He misunderstood the question and belied his insistence that he isn't going to mourn drops this season. Here's what he said: "I thought about it all last year. I let it stress me. But this year, a drop is a drop. An interception is an interception, and we've got to move on from it. And go to the next play."
  3. If there was any doubt before, it's clear now: Veteran Donald Driver ranks no better than fifth on the Packers' receiver depth chart. He doesn't play on special teams, so the blunt truth was that he was active Sunday for insurance purposes. He didn't play until the final three snaps of the game, when starter Greg Jennings waved himself off the field. Before that, Driver did not get a snap. As we noted Sunday, second-year receiver Randall Cobb was a key part of the primary set the Packers used Sunday: Four receivers with Cobb lined up, initially, in the backfield. They used a variation of that formation on 31 of their 61 plays. Still, I actually think it makes sense to keep Driver on the roster as injury protection. If the Packers lose Jennings, Cobb, Jordy Nelson or James Jones, they could plug in Driver and not lose any formational versatility. Without him, they would be limited to three-receiver sets if someone were injured. It's worth a September roster spot.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Who did officials initially believe had committed an illegal block on Cobb's 75-yard punt return? I hope it was linebacker Brad Jones, whose block seemed questionable at best, and not linebacker Terrell Manning -- who blatantly hit Anthony Dixon in the back. The officials eventually picked up the flag, allowing the touchdown to stand. Such plays aren't reviewable, but Manning's illegal block was clear and undeniable. For the sake of the integrity of this replacement experiment, I hope they simply missed it altogether and didn't actually judge Manning's block to be legal upon further consideration.

Catches and drops in the NFC North

July, 7, 2012
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Some of you might already be aware of the cool feature running this week over at Pro Football Focus: A three-year study of a performance on a number of levels, including drops and their frequency relative to opportunities.

NFC North players were ranked at the top and bottom of this analysis, so let's take this fine Saturday morning to run through most of them. Remember, drops are an unofficial and subjective statistic that sometimes varies significantly from outlet to outlet. The good thing, as always, is that all players in this study were subjected to the same standard.

THE GOOD

Earl Bennett
Statistic:
Lowest drop rate (3.15 percent) of any NFL receiver
Comment: Bennett dropped four passes in 127 opportunities, partially explaining why quarterback Jay Cutler has so much confidence in him.

Michael Jenkins
Statistic:
Had 12th-lowest drop rate (5.88).
Comment: He had eight drops in 136 opportunities. Jenkins isn't a game-breaker, but is the definition of a reliable possession receiver.

THE BAD

Brandon Marshall
Statistic:
No. 1 overall in raw drops (35).
Comment: Marshall also had the third-most opportunities over that stretch, 303. That made his drop rate 11.55, the 10th-worst mark among receivers.

Brandon Pettigrew
Statistic:
Tied for the most drops (24) and highest drop rate (11.5) of any NFL tight end.
Comment: Pettigrew saw the fifth-most opportunities (208) over the time period. Most everyone would agree he has dropped a few too many.

Jermichael Finley
Statistic:
Fourth-highest drop rate (10.9) among tight ends.
Comment: Finley has vowed to clean up that part of his game.

James Jones
Statistic:
Second-highest drop rate (14.39) among all NFL receivers.
Comment: In total, he dropped 20 of 139 opportunities. His difficulties in 2009 have been well-documented.

Donald Driver
Statistic:
Seventh-most drops (22) and seventh-highest drop rate (12.3).
Comment: At best, Driver will be the Packers' No. 3 or No. 4 receiver this season.

Devin Hester
Statistic:
Had 15th-highest drop rate at 10.3.
Comment: Overall, Hester dropped 14 of 136 opportunities. If he gets more opportunities this season, as promised, well …

NFC North training camp battles

July, 2, 2012
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AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

CHICAGO BEARS

Left tackle: J'Marcus Webb versus Chris Williams

It's a bit disconcerting to stage a competition at such an important position, especially when you consider how difficult it is to find a good left tackle at the NFL level.

Williams, a first-round draft pick in 2008, hasn't manned the position since early in the 2010 season. Left tackles who are moved away mid-career usually aren't brought back. He has also started games at right tackle and left guard in his career, making him a candidate to be a swing backup if Webb wins the job.

Webb was one of the Bears' few options last season at left tackle. But after absorbing 15 accepted penalties and allowing 12 sacks, based on tracking from Pro Football Focus, it's clear Webb did not establish himself as a long-term answer.

Offensive coordinator Mike Tice was the Bears' offensive line coach when Williams moved to left guard. Tice also installed Webb as his left tackle last season, so it's reasonable to guess Webb would get the benefit of the doubt. The Bears will cross their fingers and hope one of the two emerges as a competent option.

DETROIT LIONS

Cornerback: Aaron Berry versus Jacob Lacey

Lions training camp will include a number of competitive storylines, from whether rookie offensive lineman Riley Reiff can win a starting job (somewhere) to whether safety Amari Spievey can hold on to his role. But the most significant battle could be between Berry and Lacey for the chance to replace Eric Wright as a starting cornerback.

Berry was the Lions' Week 1 nickel back in each of the past two seasons, and it would be a natural progression for him to take over as a starter. Lacey started 27 games for the Indianapolis Colts over the past three seasons, but it's worth reiterating that the Colts did not issue him a qualifying tender as a restricted free agent. That decision wasn't exactly an endorsement of his career to this point.

For the moment, at least, Berry's recent arrest for suspicion of drunken driving hasn't threatened his roster spot. The bigger issue has been his inability to stay on the field, having missed 15 games in 2010-11 and five last season because of injury.

Given the number of three- and four-receiver sets the Lions likely will face in the NFC North this season, both Berry and Lacey should see plenty of action. But the Lions surely would like Berry to feed off the competition and solidify himself as a permanent starter.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

No. 3 receiver: James Jones versus Randall Cobb versus Donald Driver

The winner of this competition might be reflected in playing time rather than actual starts, and that, of course, is assuming Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson receive the most snaps among the Packers' deep and talented group of receivers.

Driver started 15 games last season even though he played fewer snaps than Jennings and Nelson. Cobb's expected development adds another element to the question of who will play most often among this trio.

Some of the answer will depend upon matchups and scheme, but ultimately the most reliable playmaker will emerge and receive the most playing time.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Safety: Multiple players and positions

Given the miserable performance of their pass defense in 2011, it's safe to assume the Vikings will have a new starter at one safety position, and possibly both, in 2012. Veterans Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond worked with the first team during most spring practices, but Sanford has proved a liability in pass coverage in the past, and a number of other players should get long looks during training camp.

That list is headed by first-round draft pick Harrison Smith, who eventually will be a starter, even if it isn't in Week 1. Fellow rookie Robert Blanton, who is making the transition from cornerback, is another candidate.

The Vikings also will have competition at right guard between second-year player Brandon Fusco and veteran newcomer Geoff Schwartz, but it's likely more fans will follow the progress of the safety positions.

NFC North Stock Watch

November, 22, 2011
11/22/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Offensive line, Minnesota Vikings: I don't want to pick only on left guard Steve Hutchinson, who quite clearly isn't playing at the same level he did at the height of his career. The biggest problem is that Hutchinson remains the Vikings' best offensive lineman. Watching this group get manhandled Sunday by the Oakland Raiders suggested it will need a significant overhaul in the coming months. We've discussed the need to find a long-term replacement for departed left tackle Bryant McKinnie, but the reality is that no job should be safe. The Vikings have a pair of 2011 draft picks, center/guard Brandon Fusco and tackle DeMarcus Love, serving as backups at the moment. I'm not sure if either projects as a long-term starter, but it's clear that immediate action is necessary one way or the other.

[+] EnlargeRyan Grant
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswirePackers running back Ryan Grant could see a lot of action on Thursday against Detroit.
2. Bench-warming time for Ryan Grant, Green Bay Packers tailback: Grant has started nine of the Packers' 10 games this season but is averaging about nine touches per game. That figure could increase significantly Thursday at Ford Field, given the knee/ankle injury of "backup" James Starks, who is averaging about twice as many touches per game. Even if Starks is available, you would think Grant could see his workload increased. Grant has been a perfect citizen and teammate during what must be a personally disappointing time. Typically, players who understand the big picture get an opportunity to make a big contribution at some point and in some way. Odds are that Grant will get that chance soon, if not Thursday.

3. The future of Chris Cook, Minnesota Vikings cornerback: Cook hasn't played since he was arrested Oct. 23 on a charge of felony strangulation following a domestic incident with his girlfriend. He is currently on what amounts to a paid suspension as he sorts through his issues, but you wonder whether his standing with the team will change at all after prosecutors added a second charge of third-degree assault. According to reports, the second charge resulted from news that the victim suffered a perforated eardrum during the incident and has experienced hearing loss. Cook has a court appearance scheduled for Tuesday.

RISING

1. Donald Driver, Green Bay Packers receiver: It was overshadowed by the performance of some teammates, but Driver had his most productive game of the season Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His four catches matched the season high he set in Week 1, and his 72 yards -- powered by a 35-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter -- were the most he has had in a regular-season game since Week 13 of 2010. Those figures are a reminder that Driver, 36, is no longer a primary option in the Packers' offense. But Sunday served notice that he can still make plays downfield when the opportunity presents itself.

2. Amateur medical practices in Chicago: Everyone has an opinion, medically based or otherwise, on how long a fractured right thumb should keep Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler out of action. Initial reports suggested he would miss the rest of the season and possibly be unavailable for the playoffs, but coach Lovie Smith appeared confident Monday that Cutler will return before the end of the regular season. But Smith wouldn't divulge enough details about Cutler's condition to give us a chance to verify his timetable. What we do know is that the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends a cast or splint for between two and six weeks after surgery. Depending on severity of the injury, the rule of thumb (sorry) is that it can take up to three months to regain full use of the hand.

3. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions quarterback: We noted Monday how Stafford reversed his early game struggles against the Carolina Panthers on the way to a five-touchdown performance. Let's allow the folks at Cold Hard Football Facts to provide a wild glimpse at the big picture. In his three-year career, Stafford has trailed by at least 17 points in 10 of 23 starts. He has led game-winning comebacks in four of them. That's a pretty impressive trend for any quarterback, let alone one who is four months away from his 24th birthday.

Podcast: Driver on Bears rivalry

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
11:15
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Packers receiver Donald Driver dishes on Green Bay's rivalry with the Bears, his team's 2-0 start, Aaron Rodgers and more.

Play Download

NFC North breakdown: Packers

July, 7, 2010
7/07/10
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Charles WoodsonJamie Squire/Getty ImagesA new offseason workout plan should make reigning defensive player of the year Charles Woodson even more dangerous.
Thanks for stopping in to check out Day 2 of our series on the NFC North, in which we tap the brains of beat reporters around the division to get the skinny on their teams.

We took a look at the Vikings on Tuesday with Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter Judd Zulgad.

We move onto Green Bay today with Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Packers reporter Greg Bedard.

Five things the Packers need to worry about

1. Special teams: The Packers claim they will improve on special teams this season, and that should happen almost by default. But will this group improve simply through better coaching (with the same staff)? The unit needs to cut down on penalties. The Packers continue to go the cheap route at punter, and neither option has kicked in so much as an exhibition game. Indications are that Mason Crosby is still suffering a confidence problem.

2. Depth at outside linebacker: The Packers should be fine with Brad Jones at left outside linebacker, although he needs to show enough to keep double teams off Clay Matthews. The real worry is behind them. If Jones or Matthews is injured, the Packers have zero depth. That’s not a good thing at a crucial position in the 3-4.

Al Harris
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireHow cornerback Al Harris recovers from an injured knee will be crucial for the Packers.
3. Al Harris’ health: The Packers put a lot of money into cornerback with Harris, Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. The group -- if intact -- should be one of the league’s best. But if Harris isn’t the same player after knee surgery, Pat Lee or Brandon Underwood will need to be better.

4. Offensive line slow out of the gates: The Packers are notorious for getting off to slow and sloppy starts on the offensive line under coach James Campen. That can’t happen anymore. If it does, it could torpedo the season, like it nearly did last season.

5. Overall team mindset: For whatever reason, the 2009 Packers got full of themselves, and their performances suffered. Just ask Woodson about the mindset going into the Cardinals playoff game. This team plays better with an edge and its backs against the wall. The Packers have to find a way to handle all the Super Bowl hype better. On the flip side, the Packers, starting with general manager Ted Thompson, look like they’re getting a bit tight [due to the Super Bowl hype]. That stance has a tendency to filter down to the players, and negatively affect the on-field product. The Packers need to find a way to strike the right balance.

Five things not to worry about

1. Donald Driver’s age: Driver’s play tailed off toward the end of last season, but offseason scopes on his knees should help immensely. The Packers are a better offense with Driver, 35, in the mix. Nobody else can do the dirty work he does.

2. Left guard: Incumbent Daryn Colledge is a lot better than Packers fans (and some of the coaches) want to give him credit for. Does he need to be more consistent? Yes. But he might be the best left guard in the division. Jason Spitz should be ready to compete for the job as well.

3. Whether Bryan Bulaga plays:The Packers drafted Bulaga in the first round with a year down the road in mind. He’s not ready to unseat Chad Clifton, and Bulaga has never played guard before. Bulaga needs to just concentrate on learning left tackle because at some point Clifton won’t be able to answer the bell.


4. Defensive line depth: Whether the troubled Johnny Jolly is on the Packers’ roster at the start of training camp, the club still has more than enough depth between Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, Cullen Jenkins, Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson, and, perhaps, Justin Harrell.

5. Charles Woodson slowing down: The reigning NFL defensive player of the year, Woodson looks like he’s ready for a repeat after taking part in an offseason routine for the first time that used boxing. The leader of the Packers' defense, Woodson should make even more plays this season with a healthy supporting cast around him.

Move Afalava back to strong safety

December, 9, 2009
12/09/09
2:51
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[+] EnlargeAl Afalava
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAl Afalava faces a bigger challenge than the Rams Sunday against the Packers.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Al Afalava's debut at free safety went fairly smoothly last Sunday against St. Louis.

Do we want to stick around for an encore?

"It was different, but coach Gill [Byrd] did a great job at coaching us this past week," Afalava said.

There's no doubt Byrd (a former Pro Bowl defensive back in San Diego) is an excellent teacher, but Aaron Rogers is an entirely different breed of quarterback than the Rams' Kyle Boller. You can get away with sticking Afalava at free safety versus a terrible Rams' offense, but the Packers present a multitude of problems in the passing game.

Rogers has the luxury of throwing to either Donald Driver or Greg Jennings, who have combined for 109 catches, 1,675 yards and nine touchdowns.

"They're both good players. You can't worry about just one," Afalava said. "You've got to play them both the same."

True. But you don't have to leave the safeties the same this Sunday. Moving Afalava back to strong safety and re-inserting Danieal Manning at free safety may be the best route against Green Bay. Then Lovie Smith can re-evaluate the situation on a week-by-week basis in the final month.

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