Chicago Bears: Stephen Peterman

Eight in the Box: Next order of business

May, 3, 2013
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what is the most pressing issue on each NFC North team’s agenda?

Chicago Bears: The top priority at Halas Hall, from now until the start of the season, is getting the offense organized in Marc Trestman's new scheme. This task has appeared annually for the Bears in recent years, but the failure to accomplish it played a big role in the firing of former coach Lovie Smith. There is also an additional level of urgency as quarterback Jay Cutler enters the final year of his contract. The Bears might not want to make a decision on Cutler's future until seeing him adjust successfully to this scheme, but will he do it in time for the Bears to make a decision?

Detroit Lions: The next order of business in Detroit is to set up a plan for settling on the new right side of their offensive line. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus departed via free agency, right guard Stephen Peterman was released and right guard candidate Riley Reiff is likely to play left tackle. Rookie Larry Warford will compete with Bill Nagy and perhaps Rodney Austin at right guard, while right tackle will be a competition between Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard, among others.

Green Bay Packers: Suddenly, the Packers have an offseason-long project on their hands: Making a reconstructed offensive line work. After the draft, Packers coach Mike McCarthy moved Bryan Bulaga from right tackle to left tackle and flipped guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. McCarthy now has his two best offensive linemen on the left side, with Lang pairing with a yet-to-be-named right tackle. There is no substitute for time when establishing continuity for an offensive line, so the Packers' next and continued order of business is getting Bulaga and Sitton comfortable on the left side. They'll also need to decide whether Marshall Newhouse, Don Barclay, Derek Sherrod or even rookie David Bakhtiari are best suited to be the right tackle.

Minnesota Vikings: Identifying the 2013 middle linebacker is the Vikings' most unanswered question. After allowing 2012 bridge starter Jasper Brinkley to depart via free agency, the Vikings set their sights on the draft to find a longer-term replacement for E.J. Henderson. There was widespread and justified speculation that the Vikings would draft Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, but the unpredictable first round brought them three players they ranked higher on their board. Without second- or third-round picks, the Vikings weren't able to draft a starting-quality prospect. Veteran outside linebacker Erin Henderson told reporters this week that he was preparing to take on the role, apparently at the suggestion of coaches, but this is the time of year for experimenting with position changes that could be reversed before training camp. To this point, the Vikings haven't shown serious interest in free agent Brian Urlacher.

Football Outsiders: NFC North needs

February, 17, 2012
Our friends at Football Outsiders have put together a series previewing each NFL team's offseason needs, using their unique statistical analysis to support their assertions. Football Outsiders' work Insider requires an Insiders subscription to view in full, a contradiction that always elicits a giggle from NFC East colleague Dan Graziano. But I'm authorized to provide you a snippet from each of our teams. Herewith:

Chicago Bears: Most everyone has the Bears pegged to pursue wide receivers in free agency and/or the draft, and Outsiders doesn't discount that possibility. But based on its analysis of the Bears' 2011 season, offensive tackle should be the Bears' top priority. Left tackle J'Marcus Webb allowed 10 sacks and was "among the worst [left tackles] in the league." The Bears' running game, meanwhile, was stuffed for a loss or no gain on 24.1 percent of its runs, a "catastrophic" figure blamed mostly on poor run blocking.

Detroit Lions: Like the Bears, Outsiders thinks the Lions need to upgrade their offensive line more than anything else. Based on Outsiders statistics, the Lions had the second-worst run-blocking offensive line in the NFL in 2011. Center Dominic Raiola and right guard Stephen Peterman were particularly to blame. Outsiders' analysis suggested that running backs Jahvid Best and Kevin Smith actually had above-average seasons based on the yardage available to them.

Green Bay Packers: We all know the Packers need more pass rush; Outsiders ranked them last in the NFL in its adjusted sack rate (ASR) in 2011. Outsiders' analysis suggests the pass rush would improve if the Packers focus their upgrade efforts along the defensive line, giving it better push up front but also opening up lanes for linebacker Clay Matthews.

Minnesota Vikings: Perhaps "the worst secondary in the league." That should tell you all you need to know. Here's one of many sobering statistics from 2011: Cornerback Cedric Griffin allowed an average of 10.5 yards on every pass thrown in his direction, and teams had a 38 percent success rate against him. Both totals were among the bottom five of all cornerbacks in Outsiders' statistical study.

The Detroit Lions' great equalizers

October, 11, 2011
Jahvid BestLeon Halip/Getty ImagesJahvid Best's 88-yard touchdown gave the Lions an 11-point lead late in the third quarter.
DETROIT -- Make no mistake: The Detroit Lions gave their city a first-in-a-generation scene Monday night.

Michael Buffer bellowed the pregame introductions. Barry Sanders took the field as an honorary captain. A record crowd at Ford Field induced nine false-start penalties and later emptied into the streets as if the French Quarter had been transported north. Detroit's burgeoning cadre of celebrity fans, including pop stars Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker, held court in the Lions' postgame locker room.

It's a sight I won't soon forget. Neither will the 67,861 in attendance nor the Lions' still-gestating roster. But to me, the takeaway memory of the Lions' 24-13 victory over the Chicago Bears was the evidence that Monday night won't be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The Bears matched up well against the Lions, largely stifling their offense and moving the ball decently against their defense. At halftime, the Bears led 10-7. But no matter how the Lions play, they have a critical ingredient that helps any good team navigate dips in efficiency: the ability to score easy touchdowns. In the NFL, that attribute is known as "explosiveness," and for the Lions, it is the ultimate equalizer.

The Lions won Monday night largely because of three huge plays:

  1. Receiver Calvin Johnson's 73-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.
  2. Running back Jahvid Best's 88-yard scoring run in the third quarter.
  3. Best's 43-yard run in the fourth quarter, which put the Lions in position for a game-clinching field goal.

Those three plays totaled 204 yards, or 51.6 percent of the Lions' total offensive output Monday night. They had 191 yards on their other 43 plays, an average of 4.3 yards per pop.

"Our playmakers answered the bell tonight for us," receiver Nate Burleson said. "We knew we were going to need that."

It probably didn't surprise the national television audience when quarterback Matthew Stafford caught the Bears trying to defend Johnson with a single-high safety in the second quarter. Johnson blew past strong safety Chris Harris, and free safety Brandon Meriweather was too late providing help.

But Best was another story. He had averaged 3.2 yards per carry over the Lions' first four games and hadn't produced a run longer than 19 yards. Most of us had written off both him and the Lions' running game, but the mistake was forgetting what Best can do when he gets in the open field.

Crushing blocks from right guard Stephen Peterman and right tackle Gosder Cherilus opened a crease at the 12-yard line in the third quarter, and Best said: "I figure if I get in the open field, nobody should catch me. I knew nobody was going to catch me from behind."

It sounds simple, but not every NFL team has one player like Johnson or Best, someone who can turn a relatively simple play into a game-changing touchdown.

It's true that the Bears have been vulnerable to the kind of runs Best broke. Entering Week 5, they were allowing 5.3 yards per rush between the tackles, the NFL's third-worst mark. And some of you might like Best to provide more of a consistent threat.

Since joining the Lions last season, Best has five carries that have totaled 229 yards. He has averaged 2.9 yards on his other 238 carries. But what he did Monday night helped win a key NFC North game and, more importantly, will have ramifications for the rest of the season -- even if he never comes close to replicating it.

"When you have a quarterback like we have, when you have a receiver like we have, you're probably not going to be a team that's going to run the ball 40 times a game," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "So we're going to do what it takes to win the game, and we have a lot of explosiveness in our pass game. You saw the way it was able to be effective. We ran the ball well enough to be able to set it up."

Indeed, the Lions' third touchdown came on a play-action fake to Best. That's how tight end Brandon Pettigrew got wide open for an 18-yard touchdown reception. On Monday night, Stafford completed all five of his play-action passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Hereafter, Lions opponents who overlook Best, or lose track of him, will do so at their own peril. NFL teams fear players who can score on their own and build game plans around them. The Lions have two great equalizers in their arsenal, and that's the scene I'll remember from Monday night.

"I don't think we proved anything," Stafford said. "We go out ... expecting to win every game."

With big-play weapons such as Johnson and Best, the Lions have every right to feel that way. I don't know where this magical season will take them. But they've shown us they have the ingredients to continue winning well into January.

Now, wouldn't that be a scene to remember?