Chicago Bears: Randall Cobb

Bears position outlook: Safety

January, 31, 2014
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Free agents: Major Wright, Craig Steltz, Derrick Martin and Anthony Walters (restricted).

The good: Wright ranked second on the defense with 117 tackles and intercepted two passes. In his lone start of the year, Steltz made 12 stops versus the Minnesota Vikings, including several impressive open field tackles against Pro Bowl tailback Adrian Peterson. Chris Conte did have a career-high 95 tackles and three interceptions.

The bad: Again, how much time do you have? The disastrous play of the front-seven exposed the Bears' safeties beyond belief. Much of the season was littered with missed open field tackles and busted coverage from the safety position, although to be fair, the two safeties didn't get much help from up front. Conte had an especially tough year. He played the wrong coverage late in the 4th quarter in the Bears' Week 17 winner-take-all NFC North clash versus the Green Bay Packers that resulted in Randall Cobb's game-winning touchdown reception. The safeties also squandered several chances to force turnovers over the course of the season. Moral of the story: burn the tape.

The money: Conte has one year left on his original rookie contract. He is scheduled to count roughly $1.5 million against the salary cap next season after he reportedly hit a performance escalator that will raise his base salary to the low restricted free agent tender amount of $1.389 million. Conte still has the prorated amount of $133,400 left from his signing bonus of $533,600 that will also count against the cap in 2014. Besides Conte, the Bears have little money allocated to the safety position. They did sign Sean Cattouse to a futures contract immediately following the regular season.

Draft priority: Urgent. At the very least, the Bears will have to find one new starter at safety. A more likely scenario calls for the team to replace both Conte and Wright, although the club could decide to bring Conte to training camp and let him compete for a roster spot/job. Steltz is a seasoned veteran with starting experience who excels on special teams. He can probably be re-signed for the league minimum. But the Bears need to get younger and better at safety.

Double Coverage: Bears at Packers

November, 1, 2013
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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
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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.

Cobb presents special problem for Bears

September, 12, 2012
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Randall CobbJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRandall Cobb already is one of the best returners in Green Bay history.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears coverage units will face a step up in competition in Week 2 in the form of Randall Cobb, Green Bay's electrifying second-year returner who brought back a punt 75 yards for a touchdown in the Packers loss to San Francisco last Sunday.

Cobb burst on the scene in 2011 when as a rookie when he returned a kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown in the Packers regular-season opener, making him the first player in NFL history to score on a kick return in Week 1 in each of his first two seasons in the league. Cobb is already tied for No. 2 in Green Bay franchise history with 3 total returns for touchdowns (2 PR, 1 KR), even though he's participated in just 16 games.

“We have to manage our kicks very well this week with Cobb back there," Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "He's excellent. He is, if not the best, besides Devin (Hester), I don't who else there is. Maybe the guy down in Arizona (Patrick Peterson), he's pretty good too.”

But it won't be a walk in the park for Cobb. Special teams is always a strength for the Bears and Toub got quality performances from his units in the Bears' victory over Indianapolis, especially from newcomers Blake Costanzo and Evan Rodriguez, and second-year linebacker J.T. Thomas who forced a key fumble that was recovered by Kelvin Hayden.

“Just a solid performance," Toub said. "It wasn't spectacular. I was happy with a lot of the young guys. It was good to see. Rodriguez did some good things. Blake is everything he's advertised. He really played great and he's a leader as well.

"J.T. (had a) huge play. He's one of those young guys I was talking about because really, in essence, he's still a rookie. For him to go down there and make that play, tackle inside the 20 and then cause the fumble, that was big.”

The only real negative came when Charles Tillman injured his right shin on the punt team, a role Tillman has occupied his entire career despite being a perennial starter and Pro Bowl selection last season.

“We have approximately seven starters that play at least one phase," Toub said. "The phases I'm talking about is punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return. [Tillman] is one of the best corners that there is in football as far as shut-down-gunner-type corners. We've got to have him on the field because he's the best guy we've got. He can shutdown a gunner single-handedly. There's not many guys that can do that.”

On the Packers' drop in explosiveness

September, 11, 2012
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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
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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.

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.

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