Chicago Bears: Jordy Nelson

Double Coverage: Bears at Packers

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
12:00
PM ET
On the day former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith got the job, he said that one of his priorities was to beat the Green Bay Packers.

First-year Bears coach Marc Trestman made no such promises about this rivalry, but it goes without saying that he's eager to end Chicago's six-game losing streak to the Packers.

The last time Chicago beat Green Bay was on Sept. 27, 2010, on "Monday Night Football." The teams meet again in prime time Monday night at Lambeau Field.

ESPN.com's Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright break down the matchup.

Rob Demovsky: We all know how much Smith wanted to beat the Packers. He stated as much the day he got the head coaching job. What has Trestman's approach to this rivalry been like?

Wright: Rob, my man, you know that rivalries have to cut both ways in terms of wins and losses for it to be truly considered a rivalry. Counting the postseason, the Bears have lost six in a row and nine of the last 11. So, if anything, this is more Green Bay dominance than a rivalry. But the interesting thing about Trestman is he's a guy who likes to compartmentalize everything. He looks at today rather than the past or the future. So while it sounds cliché, Trestman is looking at the Packers as just another opponent on the schedule. That's just the way Trestman likes to operate, and I think for him it sort of makes things easier.

I keep looking at Green Bay's sack numbers, and I'm a little surprised the club is still in the top 10 in sacks with Clay Matthews out the last three games and other key members of the defense missing time. What is Dom Capers doing over there schematically to keep up the production?

Demovsky: I figured when Matthews broke his thumb, Capers would have to blitz like crazy. Now, he's picked his spots, but he hasn't gone blitz-happy like I thought he might. However, he has been sending different pass-rushers to keep offenses off guard. One game, against the Baltimore Ravens, linebacker A.J. Hawk came a bunch and sacked Joe Flacco three times. Also, they've finally found a defensive lineman with some rush ability in second-year pro Mike Daniels. Three of his team-leading four sacks have come in the past two games.

As long as we're on the topic of quarterbacks, in 2011, backup Josh McCown played a halfway decent game against the Packers on Christmas at Lambeau Field, but he threw a couple of interceptions. What do you expect from him this time around as he starts in place of the injured Jay Cutler?

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsThe Packers have limited Brandon Marshall to 8 catches for 80 yards in their past two meetings.
Wright: Believe it or not, I expect little to no drop-off from McCown in this game. The biggest difference between now and then is that in 2011, McCown joined the team in November, fresh from a stint as a high school football coach in North Carolina, and four weeks later became the starter. So he basically came in cold and still played relatively well. This time around, McCown has become immersed in the offense from the ground level, when Trestman first came on board, and even had some input as the team constructed the scheme. In fact, during the offseason, McCown was holding film sessions with all the club's new additions to teach everyone the new offense. So he's got complete mastery of the offense just like Cutler, which is why McCown came in against the Redskins and the offense didn't miss a beat. Obviously, McCown doesn't possess Cutler's arm strength. But he'll make up for that deficiency with anticipation. I'm quite sure the Bears won't scale down the offense to accommodate McCown at all, because they don't need to. So I expect McCown to play well. I'm just not sure Chicago's offense can keep up with Green Bay's in what I expect to be a high-scoring game.

Speaking of high scoring, the Packers put up 44 points on the Minnesota Vikings. How is Green Bay handling the preparation process for the Bears?

Demovsky: Well, they certainly don't have as much time as the Bears do, considering the Bears are coming off their bye week. But the Packers have gotten themselves into a rhythm. They've won four in a row after their 1-2 start and look like a different team than they did the first three weeks of the season. Mike McCarthy probably doesn't get enough credit nationally, but show me another coach who has stared injuries in the face and hasn't blinked. What other team could lose playmakers like Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Matthews and still keep winning? That's a testament to the program he has established here. You can argue with some of his in-game coaching decisions, but you can do that with every coach. What you can't question, though, is the team's preparation.

The Bears, obviously, have had their share of injuries, too, losing Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs. What's a bigger loss -- Cutler to the offense or Briggs to the defense?

Wright: Well, Cutler's replacement is a veteran in McCown who has plenty of experience and a ton of weapons surrounding him on offense, while rookie Khaseem Greene will likely fill in for Briggs on a bad defense that will also feature rookie Jon Bostic in the middle. From my vantage point, losing Briggs is much more significant. The Bears have already proved to be horrible against the run (ranked 25th), and that issue certainly won't improve with two rookies at linebacker and a defensive line decimated by injury. It's also worth noting that Briggs made all the defensive calls and served as somewhat of a coach on the field for Bostic. Given that Green Bay seems to be running the ball so well, the current situation with Chicago's front seven could be devastating.

Now that the Packers are running the ball so well, how has that changed the way the offense is called? It seems Green Bay runs well regardless of which running back they line up in the backfield.

Demovsky: It's remarkable -- and even a bit stunning -- to see Aaron Rodgers check out of a pass play and in to a run play at the line of scrimmage. That kind of thing hasn't happened around here in a long, long time -- probably not since Ahman Green was piling up 1,000-yard seasons nearly a decade ago. Teams no longer can sit back in a Cover-2 look and dare the Packers to run. Because guess what? The Packers can finally do it. It also has given the receivers more one-on-one opportunities, so it's helped the passing game, too. Right now, this offense almost looks unstoppable.

If the Packers keep playing like this, they might be tough to catch in the NFC North. What are the Bears' prospects for staying in the NFC North race until Cutler and Briggs return?

Wright: To me, this game is the measuring stick for making that determination. But I'm not really confident about Chicago's chances, and that has more to do with the team's struggling defense than Cutler's absence. There have been conflicting statements made about Cutler's recovery time frame. Some teammates think he'll be ready to return by the time the Bears face Detroit on Nov. 4, while Trestman said the plan is to stick to the minimum four-week time frame prescribed by the doctors. Either way, if the Bears lose to the Lions you can kiss their prospects for the playoffs goodbye. The Bears might be able to afford a loss to the Packers because they'll face them again on Dec. 29. But a sweep by the Lions kills Chicago's chances to me because just from what we've seen so far, it appears one of the wild cards will come out of the NFC North with the other coming from the NFC West. Obviously it's too early to predict that, but that's the way things seem to be shaking out.

Without two of his top receivers and tight end Finley, Rogers still hit 83 percent of his passes against the Vikings. Is that success a product of the system, a bad Minnesota defense, or is Rodgers just that good at this point?

Demovsky: The more I see other quarterbacks play, the more I'm convinced it's Rodgers. For example, seldom-used receiver Jarrett Boykin makes his first NFL start two weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns, and he ends up with eight catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. How many catches do you think he would have had if he were playing for the Browns that day? Their quarterback, Brandon Weeden, completed only 17-of-42 passes. That's not to minimize what Boykin did or what players like Jordy Nelson do week in and week out, but Rodgers is special, and special players elevate the play of those around them. Look at what Greg Jennings has done since he left for the Vikings. Now tell me the quarterback doesn't make the receiver, not vice versa.

Speaking of receivers, other than Anquan Boldin, who lit up the Packers in the opener at San Francisco, they've done a solid job shutting down other team's No. 1 receivers -- most recently Jennings and Cincinnati's A.J. Green. How do you think the Bears will try to get Brandon Marshall involved against what has been a pretty good Packers secondary?

Wright: This question brings me back to the 2012 massacre at Lambeau Field on Sept. 13. The Packers bracketed Marshall with two-man coverage, and the Bears struggled tremendously. Shoot, cornerback Tramon Williams caught as many of Cutler's passes as Marshall, who finished the game with two grabs for 24 yards. Obviously, this offensive coaching staff is a lot different than last year's group. So the Bears will go into this game with a lot more answers for that coverage. I definitely see McCown leaning on Marshall and trying to get him involved as early as possible, but the only way he'll be able to do that is for the Bears to establish the rushing attack with Matt Forte so the quarterback can operate off play action. When the Bears go to Marshall early, expect to see a lot of short passes that will enable the receiver to gain some yardage after the catch.

Over the years, Green Bay has been pretty successful at limiting the impact of return man Devin Hester. So I was a little shocked to see the Packers give up a kickoff return for a touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson. As you probably know, Hester is coming off a pretty strong return game against the Redskins. Do you think the Packers fix the problems they encountered last week, and minimize Hester's impact?

Demovsky: Part of the Packers' problem on special teams has been that all the injuries have created a trickle-down effect. Here's what I mean: On the kickoff coverage until they gave up the 109-yard return to Patterson, they lined up six rookies, two of whom weren't even on the opening day roster. The Packers always have feared Hester, as they should, and in various games in recent years have shown they'd almost rather kick the ball out of bounds than give him any return opportunities. He's one of those special players who make rivalry games so entertaining.

NFC North drop totals and percentages

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
2:00
PM ET
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.

On the Packers' drop in explosiveness

September, 11, 2012
9/11/12
1:57
PM ET
RodgersAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesAaron Rodgers' downfield passing attack has been held in check over the Packers' last four games.
You might not believe this even if I tell you and back it up with facts and remind you that I have nothing to gain by pulling your chain.

OK, here goes.

As you probably know, the Packers are 1-3 in quarterback Aaron Rodgers' past four starts, including January's playoff loss to the New York Giants. Here is what you might not realize: Over that stretch, the Packers' downfield passing offense has plummeted to the absolute bottom of the NFL's rankings.

That's right. At this moment, no team is having a harder time being explosive than the Packers. The Packers!

Anecdotally, I think we would all agree their offensive production has slowed since the Kansas City Chiefs ended a 19-game winning streak last December. But the drop in efficiency and production of their best attribute has been acute, and it continued into Sunday's season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

ESPN Stats & Information defines downfield throws as those that travel at least 15 yards in the air past the line of scrimmage. As the first chart shows, Rodgers' completion percentage has fallen by more than half in those situations to 25.8, and his Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) has dropped to 17.4 (on a scale of 0-100). Both figures are league lows for starters with at least 25 plays/attempts over that stretch.

In short, Rodgers and the Packers hit a wall at full speed and haven't recovered. They were setting NFL records for downfield efficiency during their winning streak, but most recently they were reduced to dumping off 20 of their 30 completions to receiver Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley (for a total of 124 yards) against the 49ers.

To be clear, a reduced ability to hit big plays shouldn't be a death knell for any team, even in a passing league. For the Packers, however, it has been their team-wide identity during one of the most successful periods in team history, and it has helped cover for deficiencies in other areas of the team. In response, the Packers must find an antidote or make substantive adjustments to their approach.

I don't expect that to be an easy job during a short week of preparation for an opponent, the Chicago Bears, that has stood up well against the Packers' downfield passing throughout Rodgers' career. As the second chart shows, Rodgers has a 65.7 passer rating on throws of 15-plus air yards against the Bears and a 102.7 passer rating against everyone else.


(Thanks to ESPN's Keith Hawkins, Jason Starrett and John McTigue for their research.)

Those are the facts. Naturally, the far more difficult task is understanding what has happened and how it can be fixed. There isn't likely to be one "magic bullet" answer other than to say defenses are prioritizing the deep pass and taking their chances with other aspects of the Packers' offense.

The 49ers, for one, used a secondary with exceptional man-to-man coverage skills, combined with deep safeties, to limit the Packers' downfield chances. They displayed little regard for the Packers' running game, and the Packers complied by calling only nine running plays (all to tailback Cedric Benson) and going without a running back on the field for more than half (31 of 61) of their plays.

"Their key thing was to keep us up front," said receiver Jordy Nelson, who caught five passes for 64 yards. "They don't want to give up any big plays. They did a good job of making us go the long way. That's tough against a defense like that. Going 10 yards at a time, three downs to get a first down. It makes it real tough on us. But it's going to be no different on Thursday. Chicago is going to do the same thing. They'll keep us in front."

Said Rodgers: "We didn’t have the opportunity to take a lot of shots downfield, but when we did, they made some plays on it."

Indeed, Rodgers directed three deep sideline passes in the first half of Sunday's game. None of them were ideal matchups. All were to receiver James Jones, who is talented but must be considered the Packers' third-best downfield threat after Nelson and Greg Jennings. Two of the passes fell incomplete, largely because Rodgers couldn't drop the ball into the tiniest of windows available because of coverage from cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver. On the third, Jones committed offensive pass interference to create space to make the catch.

(Jones did haul in a 49-yard pass in the fourth quarter to set up the Packers' final score.)

For the most part, the 49ers played their safeties deep and kept Nelson and Jennings in front of them. Case in point: Safety Dashon Goldson stymied one of the Packers' most successful downfield routes by diagnosing a play-action post to Nelson early in the third quarter.

To be clear, the 49ers might have the NFL's best defense. But even a moderate defense can take steps to take away a single weapon. If you were the Bears or anyone else, why wouldn't you play as deep as possible and challenge the Packers to beat you with short passes and a running game they sometimes ignore?

These are some of the questions the Packers must face in this short week. Do they still want to be a downfield team? Or did their extensive game plan for Cobb on Sunday indicate their planned response to defenses that sit back to take away the big play? And would that mean for a defense? Its margin for error is lower when not protected by an explosive offense.

Four games isn't a huge sample size. When it carries over from one season to the next, however, it's fair to call it a trend. But like all trends, it can be stopped, redirected or reversed. Let's see what the Packers come up with.

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

September, 10, 2012
9/10/12
5:48
PM ET
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.

Brandon Marshall rules: How to match up

August, 28, 2012
8/28/12
1:15
PM ET
Marshall & Johnson & NelsonUS PresswireBigger receivers like Chicago's Brandon Marshall, Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Green Bay's Jordy Nelson present unique challenges for the division's defensive backs.
You've already read half of this story. Surely you're aware of the increasing size disparity between NFL pass-catchers and cornerbacks. That train has left the station, and there's no going back.

So here's what I'm interested in: Assuming they don't plan to forfeit the season, how will NFC North cornerbacks and coaches deal with what looks like an increasingly one-sided matchup?

I spent part of CampTour'12 asking cornerbacks, receivers and coaches a version of that question. After all, the Chicago Bears' acquisition of receiver Brandon Marshall means that each of our teams has at least one receiver taller than 6-foot-2 and one or more tight ends who stand at least 6-4. In total, the division boasts six "big" receivers and seven "big" tight ends based on those qualifications, as the first chart shows.

On the other hand, there are only three NFC North cornerbacks taller than 6-feet among the 12 expected to make up each team's primary rotation. (See second chart.) Cornerbacks don't always match up in single coverage against big receivers, and bigger safeties often take on tight ends. But at some point there is no choice. Eventually, NFC North teams will have a 5-foot-9 cornerback assigned to a 6-foot-4 receiver, a height differential of more than half a foot.

Most everyone engaged thoughtfully on the issue, and below I've categorized their thoughts in three ways. Let's take a closer look.

Muscle up or play off?

The game is football, of course, so the instinct of many cornerbacks is to get physical with big receivers -- especially at the line of scrimmage and even as the ball approaches. That approach is almost always a mistake, NFC North cornerbacks agreed.

"A guy that big, you don't want to be too aggressive with him," Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. "You want to feel him, but you don't want him to feel you. As a big receiver, he wants you to be aggressive. That's his thing. He can push you off and do things like that. He can get separation and get you off your stride. So you don't want to be too aggressive with guys like that."

Instead, cornerbacks often are best served to "stalk" bigger receivers as they run downfield.

"They love for a little guy to get physical so they can body you," said Detroit Lions cornerback Chris Houston, who spends most practices matched up on 6-foot-5 receiver Calvin Johnson. "You've got to be smart, use your technique throughout the game. You can body them sometimes, but the majority of the time, they like for you to try to get in there. Their arms are much longer, so they can get you before you get them. You've got to be smart on your technique and stay disciplined."

The NFC North's shortest cornerback is Antoine Winfield of the Minnesota Vikings, whose reputation as a physical tackler overshadows the fact that he rarely tussles with receivers until after the ball arrives.

"I like to play off," Winfield said. "It's hard for me to be fighting with a guy who is 6-4, 6-5 at the line. He has the advantage. The first thing he is probably going to do is run at me, grab me, throw me to the side and take off."

Thinking back over his career during training camp, Marshall said "every guy plays a little differently." But Marshall could identify only one cornerback who deliberately got physical with him at the line of scrimmage: the Denver Broncos' Champ Bailey, who is just shy of 6-foot.

"A guy like that, he loves to go against big guys," Marshall said. "He trusts himself."

Everybody jump, jump

What Bailey and many other cornerbacks lack in height, however, they try to make up with timing and leaping ability. Bears coach Lovie Smith, in fact, said that vertical jumps are one of the most important attributes he seeks in defensive backs.

"Once the receiver gets off the ball," Smith said, "and he gets in position and the ball is thrown up in the air, just throwing it up high and it's a jump situation, that height and that vertical is going to come into play. And for us, most of our DBs have good verticals. They're 36-[inches] plus, 37-plus for a reason.

"If you have a good vertical, eventually if the ball is in the air, you can go out there and get it. I just don't think it's a gimmee just because you have a tall receiver and the cornerbacks are shorter. Most of the guys in the league are playing under six feet at the corner position and they're making a lot of big plays."

Indeed, the Bears employ two cornerbacks shorter than 5-10 -- Tim Jennings and D.J. Moore -- among their top three. Jennings recorded a 37 1/2-inch vertical jump at his scouting combine, Moore hit 39 1/2. Charles Tillman, who at 6-1 1/8 is the second-tallest cornerback in the division, had a 40-inch vertical leap.

"You never concede a jump ball," said the Packers' Williams, whose vertical has been recorded at 41 inches. "I've always been confident in my jumping ability. Me, personally, I haven't had many jump balls caught on me."

Of course, big receivers watch film and usually know who the good jumpers are. Packers receiver Jordy Nelson said there are ways to maintain the height advantage against a cornerback who can jump.

"When we watch them, we see how they can play a deep ball," Nelson said. "If we know that so-and-so is out there, we know that you really have to attack the ball in the air. He is going to go up and get it. You've got to go compete for it. You can't let it come down and try to catch it over your shoulder. There's things like that that we watch."

In the absence of jumping ability, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said, shorter cornerbacks must rely on extraordinary quickness and speed. The Vikings, for example, this year drafted the player who ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2012 scouting combine, Central Florida cornerback Josh Robinson (4.33 seconds). Robinson is 5-foot-9 1/2.

"What we try to find is a guy who is extremely quick," Frazier said. "Sometimes you can out-quick guys who are long striders, and they're usually better a little bit down the field. If you can offset some of that with the quickness and you are a gnat, just harassing them, that helps."

Scheme

Coaches can play an important role in equalizing the physical mismatch as well. Although it is bound to happen at some point, the least appealing way of defending a big receiver is putting him in a pure man-to-man matchup with a cornerback.

"There are things you can do where you don't get isolated in coverage," said Lions coach Jim Schwartz, whose top four cornerbacks are all shorter than 5-10. "You're playing man but you get a double team from somewhere, and so you're not playing the 'whole' man. You're not playing that whole 6-foot-3 receiver. You're only playing a portion of him. Those ways can be significant."

If you're not in position to double-team, the Bears' Smith said, zone concepts usually work better in physical mismatches. Players in man coverage usually turn their backs to chase the receiver they're assigned to, while players in zone are taught to keep receivers in front of them so they can watch the quarterback.

"It helps to play a little bit more zone," Smith said, "where you have your defensive backs with their eyes on the ball. When you're short and you're playing man-to-man and you have your back to the quarterback, there's a lot of things going against you in that situation."

So where does this leave us? When I spoke with Marshall about this topic, he smiled and said he didn't want to give up any secrets for exposing height mismatches. In truth, however, there aren't many.

Cornerbacks must play smart, both in technique and within the scheme. They need a physical attribute, especially jumping ability, that helps compensate for their height disadvantage. And they need to realize that, no matter what approach they take, NFC North teams are going to utilize their big receivers to complete plenty of passes. The defense that can best minimize the impact of those completions will put its team in position for the NFC North title.

Finally: Your 2011 All-NFC North team

February, 7, 2012
2/07/12
3:33
PM ET
Calvin Johnson and Aaron RodgersGetty ImagesCalvin Johnson, left, and Aaron Rodgers were easy picks for the All-NFC North team.
It took longer than expected. Preliminary decisions were questioned. Debates extended into the wee hours. We went through a first draft, then a second and even a third. Countless observers were consulted. It wasn't until I had a full week to mull the 2011 All-NFC North team that I was prepared to make the big reveal.

Via Twitter, @jpberthiaume asked: "Do people really care about these 'teams?'" I guess it's a fair point. I doubt few, if any, of the players listed in the chart wrote a fifth-grade essay about their plans to one day make the All-NFC North team on ESPN.com, even if it was only because the NFC North hadn't yet been formed in those days and ESPN.com was operating out of a Bristol-based closet.

So I'll let you be the judge. This is annually a fun exercise, even if it doesn't lead to a deep understanding of the human condition or even reveal any breakthroughs about the just-completed season. If nothing else, it offers us a blank template to recognize the best-performing players in the division without the hindrance of the politics and reputation.

Some notes on some of the tight decisions, for which I seriously received input from multiple angles:

  • One of the fiercest debates came at wide receiver. Everyone agreed that the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson deserved one spot, but there was a split about the other two. Did the Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings, who missed three games because of a knee injury, deserve an automatic bid? And if he did, should the Packers' Jordy Nelson or the Minnesota Vikings' Percy Harvin get the third spot? I thought Jennings' 67 receptions, 949 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games merited a spot. And ultimately I chose Nelson over Harvin. I realize Harvin caught 87 passes in a punchless offense and added 345 rushing yards to his total, but in the end I couldn't overlook a player who scored more touchdowns (15) than all but four players in the NFL this season. Plus, as Hatterbot pointed out: "Rushing yards don't count in the WR category."
  • I went with the Lions' Rob Sims at left guard in part on the advice of John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information, who noted that Sims was the only NFC North left guard to play the position for 16 games this season. Sims also had the best pass-sack ratio (19.7 passes per sack) of the group, based on video study.
  • There is no doubt that the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew (83 catches) had a more productive season than the Packers' Jermichael Finley (55). But the Lions often used Pettigrew as a substitute for their punchless running game, and that's why his per-catch average of 9.4 yards was lower than any other tight end with at least 30 catches. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the average pass to Pettigrew this season traveled 6.5 yards in the air. The average pass to Finley traveled 11.4 yards. Finley caught five passes of at least 30 yards. Pettigrew's longest was 27. Both players had their share of drops, combining for a total of 15, but I thought Finley made a bigger impact on his catches than Pettigrew did.
  • I really debated the Bears' Julius Peppers and the Lions' Cliff Avril at defensive end. Avril (11.5) had a half-sack more than Peppers (11) and forced twice as many fumbles. But one of the advantages we have on this team is investigating beyond the conventional numbers. Our friends at Pro Football Focus (PFF) credited Peppers with 53 quarterback pressures, the second-highest total in the NFL. Avril ranked No. 8 with 37, but in a close race I chose the maximum number of plays impacted over Avril's slight edge in "playmaking" statistics.
  • I used a similar approach in choosing the Vikings' Kevin Williams and the Lions' Ndamukong Suh as my defensive tackles. It's true that the Bears' Henry Melton led the NFC North's defensive tackles with seven pressures, but PFF had Suh with 27 quarterback pressures, an NFL high for an interior lineman. Williams tied for No. 3 with 25. Melton wasn't that far behind at 23, but I also took into account that the Bears nearly benched him for inconsistency at one point in the season. (Coach Lovie Smith in November: "He hasn't showed up as much. Whether teams have adjusted to him or whatever, we need to get more production from him because he's capable of it.") Meanwhile, I thought Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji took a step backward in 2011. PFF credited him with only 10 stops (the cumulative number of plays made that constitute an offensive failure) in 842 snaps.
  • If you want to say I chickened out at linebacker, go ahead. I originally left open the middle and one of the outside spots, but in the end I went with our division standbys: Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. For starters, Briggs was one of six non-offensive linemen to play 100 percent of his team's snaps in the NFL this season. There's something to be said for being available to your team. And while I do think that the Packers' Desmond Bishop and the Lions' Stephen Tulloch had good seasons, I couldn't find a statistic or an opinion that convinced me they were better than Urlacher. Someday, there will be turnover among NFC North linebackers. But it didn't happen this season.
  • Safety play was poor throughout the NFC North, so I'm not at all ashamed to have chosen a third cornerback to replace one of the safeties on this team. It came down to the Lions' Chris Houston and the Packers' Tramon Williams. Both had their ups and downs in coverage. Houston had five interceptions and two touchdowns in 14 games, while Williams had four interceptions and one touchdown in 15 games. In the end, I chose Williams because I think it was pretty clear he was pushing through a really limiting shoulder injury for much of the first half of the season.
  • I chose the Packers' specialists, kicker Mason Crosby and punter Tim Masthay. Crosby converted 24 of 28 kicks, including a 58-yarder, and ranked third in the NFL with 49 touchbacks. Masthay downed a division-high 23 punts inside the 20-yard line despite a division-low 55 punts.
  • I mistakenly left off a coverage specialist from our original post. There should be no debating that the Bears' Corey Graham deserves that spot.
  • Go ahead. Rip away....
Coming later this week: Some supplementary NFC North awards, including our top coordinators.

BBAO: Jordy Nelson catches on

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
4:27
PM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Here's something that might catch you by surprise: Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson is on an extraordinarily productive run dating back to Week 16 of last season.

As Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes, Nelson has caught 34 passes for 610 yards and five touchdowns over the Packers' past eight games, including the playoffs. Greg Jennings is the only receiver who has caught more passes for more yards over that span, but Nelson has him beat by a touchdown.

Consider this development another example of where the Packers' purported starting lineup doesn't necessarily correlate to playing time or production. Already, backup tailback James Starks is getting substantially more playing time than starter Ryan Grant. And by the numbers, at least, Nelson is the Packers' No. 2 receiver next to Jennings.

Nelson isn't getting more playing time than other receivers; according to Dunne, he was on the field for 33 of 58 plays last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. But he is capitalizing on the opportunities he does get, and opposing defenses would be well advised to catch on.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Cover 2? Not as much as you think

January, 20, 2011
1/20/11
7:38
PM ET


LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith wants opponents to buy into the Cover-2 propaganda distributed nationally about the way the team plays defense.

It’s true the Bears often discuss how they “do what we do.” The thing about it, however, is it’s not all Cover 2.

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireLovie Smith's defense isn't going to change much from game to game; they just try to out-execute their opponents.
“They say all we’re gonna do is play Cover 2?” Smith asked. “We hope [the Green Bay Packers] and everyone assumes we’re gonna play Cover 2.”

From the Packers’ vantage point, Smith shouldn’t count on that being the case. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t develop into one of the NFL's elite players at his position by making misguided assumptions.

Having studied copious amounts of tape on Chicago’s defense throughout the season and in preparation of Sunday’s NFC title game, Rodgers understands the Bears are steeped in Tampa-2 philosophy. But on a down-to-down basis, Cover 2 isn’t always what the Bears play, especially lately.

“It’s almost a misnomer now,” Rodgers said. “A lot of the Tampa 2 teams are running more single safety stuff. So if you just go by the computers, they’re more of a single safety team. But Tampa 2 is a defense they like to use in long-yard situations, and also when they’re ahead in the game. They’ve run that for a number of years. Obviously, Lovie is kind of basing that from Tony Dungy, who brought it over from Tampa Bay. That’s something they do well, but like I said, not as much as you might think.”

Like Rodgers, Packers coach Mike McCarthy says the Bears are utilizing more “[Cover] 3 shell, than 2 right now, but that has a lot to do with the opponent, the score of the game, things like that.”

The Bears often disguise Cover 3 (three-deep zone with the deep coverage responsibilities split up in thirds between the two corners and free safety) by lining up in a Cover-2 look (two-deep zone with the safeties splitting the field in half for deep-coverage responsibilities). And at the snap of the ball, the strong safety (Danieal Manning) drops down into the box, and the free safety (Chris Harris) backpedals to the deep middle of the field to put the Bears in Cover 3.

"They disguise very well. They keep the [Cover] 2 shell pretty much the whole time and then move on the snap of the ball," Packers receiver Jordy Nelson said. "They try to make it difficult on you reading the coverage. We’ve just got to adjust on the run."

In a similar fashion, the team also disguises Cover 2 with Cover 3 looks.

It’s all part of the chess game between Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and opposing offenses, but it’s not all Cover 2, as some casual observers have grown accustomed to thinking.

“We believe in our basic [Tampa-2] philosophy. Eventually, it’s gonna come down to me beating the guy across [from me] -- a one-on-one battle -- no matter how you get in it,” Smith said. “There’s only so much you can do [schematically]. The teams who have a philosophy of just blitzing every snap, eventually though, as you blitz you’re gonna have to beat someone to get there most of the time. So it still comes down to a one-on-one football game.

"For us, it’s the same situation. We just do it a little bit differently. But in the end, as our players said, we’re not gonna change a whole lot. For the most part, you’re gonna know what we’re gonna do, and we’re gonna try to out-execute you.”

That doesn’t mean the Bears don’t plan on throwing in a few tricks to keep teams guessing.
"In Game 2, [there] wasn’t very much [Cover 2]. In Game 1, it was the majority of the second half," Nelson said. "It’s whatever they’ve got a feel for, whatever they feel is working best for them. I think we’re going to get a mixture. I don’t think they run it every down, like some people might think."

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider