Chicago Bears: Calvin Johnson
The NFC North features a mix of veteran quarterbacks and a rookie in Minnesota who might be in line for significant playing time this season.
Will Teddy Bridgewater put up the most impressive numbers among rookie quarterbacks?
Will Matthew Stafford be directing the most explosive offense in the division now that the Detroit Lions have added weapons?
Will rising star Alshon Jeffery emerge as the Bears' No. 1 target, supplanting Brandon Marshall?
And could the Packers withstand another injury to Aaron Rodgers, as they did last season while winning the division?
These are the questions our NFC North reporters tackle in the latest version of 4 Downs.
Of the three QBs taken in the first round of this year's draft, Teddy Bridgewater will put up the most impressive numbers.
Michael Rothstein: Fact, although not because Bridgewater will be the best quarterback of the first-rounders. Simply, he is going to end up playing more than either Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles this season, so he will have more opportunity. Plus, Minnesota is going to be down in a lot of games this season, so the Vikings are going to have to throw more in the second halves of games. He'll end up having nice numbers, but the number that matters -- the record -- will be ugly.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Matt Cassel goes down with an injury. There is more pressure on the Browns to play Johnny Manziel right away than there is on the Vikings to play Bridgewater. The same could be said of the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. All three of the first-round quarterbacks have journeyman veterans starting in front of them, so it all depends on which one flames out or gets hurt first. Cassel seems the least likely to do either.
Ben Goessling: I'm going to say fiction, simply because I think he'll have more work to do to get on the field than Johnny Manziel. The Vikings have Matt Cassel and have been giving him many of the first-team snaps during organized team activities and minicamp. So unless Bridgewater is so good that he takes the job away from Cassel in training camp, I think it will be a while before he is on the field in regular-season games. Now, he might be more efficient once he gets in there -- he has certainly looked sharp during the Vikings' offseason program -- but he might not put up many numbers until late in the season, if at all.
@GoesslingESPN True, and it won't be close. Like asking which will have the more pleasant winter: North Dakota, Manitoba, or Hawaii?— Steven Macks (@semacks) June 17, 2014
The Lions will have the most explosive offense in the NFC North this season.
Michael Rothstein: Fact. There are a bunch of good offenses in the NFC North this season, although none improved on paper as much as the Lions. Detroit still has Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell as targets for Matthew Stafford. The Lions added Golden Tate, which is an upgrade from Nate Burleson. They also held on to Joseph Fauria and re-signed Brandon Pettigrew, along with drafting Eric Ebron in the first round. While Ebron's hands are in question, his athleticism and ability to get open down the field are not. As long as Stafford and Johnson stay healthy, there is no reason Detroit should not be a top-10 offense again. They should inch ahead of Green Bay and Chicago, both of which had top-10 offenses as well in 2013.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It's fact if "implosive" is the word used. Just kidding. But the Lions in the past relied too much on Matthew Stafford forcing the ball to Calvin Johnson, which often led to turnovers and quick three-and-outs. And although the offense features multiple weapons, it's easy to see why the club has operated this way. Megatron is the best in the game. He is going to make plays other receivers can't make. But, to me, it's expected that a team operating a new scheme will experience its fair share of growing pains. I see that happening with the Lions in 2014. I know Stafford has put up big numbers in the past, but I see his inconsistency holding this offense back this season if he doesn't take a big step in his development.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction, unless Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler get hurt again. Do you trust Matthew Stafford more than Rodgers or Cutler for a full 16-game season? At this point, the Bears might have the most explosive offense. They have the best 1-2 receiver punch with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and the Packers have the best quarterback. Not only do the Lions not have the most explosive offense in the division, they might not even be No. 2.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. They have the talent to have it, but how often do the Lions turn talent and potential into actual results? Give me the Bears, with Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, or the Packers, now that Aaron Rodgers will be healthy and have a full season with running back Eddie Lacy. I like what Golden Tate gives the Lions opposite Calvin Johnson, and Eric Ebron fits nicely into their scheme, but I think they have the third-best quarterback in the division.
@mikerothstein If Stafford plays the way he can play then fact. Good O-Line, balance runners, best WR and other WR/TE opt— Tom (@tomarmetta) June 16, 2014
Alshon Jeffery, not Brandon Marshall, will be Chicago's go-to receiver in 2014.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Jeffery might have had more yards last season, but opponents also are going to be more aware of the former South Carolina receiver this season from the get-go. While his numbers were gaudy a season ago, 467 of his 1,421 yards came in two games. Marshall had a little more consistency last season than Jeffery and was a more consistent target. The real reason Jeffery won't be considered Chicago's go-to receiver next season is that the Bears won't have one on a consistent basis. It will likely change based on matchups, because they are the best receiver duo in the division.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. As long as Jay Cutler is quarterbacking the Chicago Bears, Marshall always will be the go-to receiver. And why not? Marshall is one of the league's best, even when teams focus on stopping him with double teams. Besides that, Marshall, in my opinion, is poised for a big season because he has spent this entire offseason actually training instead of rehabbing an injury. In 2013, it took Marshall, who was coming off hip surgery, about half the season to finally find his groove; yet he still finished with a team-high 100 grabs for 1,295 yards. Last season, Jeffery was probably the beneficiary of extra coverage devoted to a hobbled Marshall. Because of the damage Jeffery did last season, he will start to see more coverage, which should free up Marshall to continue to do his thing. Besides, Marshall was the fifth-most targeted receiver in the NFL last season. Marshall's 163 targets ranked even more than Calvin Johnson, who had 156 passes thrown his way.
Rob Demovsky: Fact, if we're talking about making big plays. Marshall still might end up having more receptions like he did last season; he's Cutler's security blanket. But even last season, Jeffery began to emerge as the bigger playmaker of the two. His 16.0-yard average per catch was 11th best in the league among all receivers last season. He is a freak athlete with great size, making him a matchup nightmare.
Ben Goessling: Fact. Jeffery is six years younger than Marshall and probably is a better deep threat at this point in his career. I thought he was phenomenal last season, and, to me, he might be the second-best receiver in the division right now behind Calvin Johnson. If he is not there yet, he can ascend to that spot by the end of the season. Marshall is still a great receiver, but Jeffery seems ready to become the main man in Chicago's offense.
The Packers can win the division again even if Aaron Rodgers misses nearly half the season, like he did last season.
Michael Rothstein: Fiction. Not a chance. Chicago has improved defensively and should have a more potent offense in 2014, as well as a healthy Jay Cutler for the entire season. Detroit should have a more dynamic offense than in 2013, and the leadership within the Lions should keep the team from collapsing like they did in 2013. Minnesota is likely not a factor this season, but either Chicago or Detroit would take advantage of a Rodgers-less Green Bay team better than they did a year ago.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. In the past, this would definitely be "fact" and it might still be now that the Packers have put together a nice ground game to complement their passing attack. But I just think the rest of the division is starting to catch up to the Packers in terms of overall talent. Every team in the division improved its talent. Detroit's offense should be above average at the very least, and its defense definitely will be better. The Bears will be potent on offense in Year 2 of Marc Trestman's system, and their defense should be improved, especially up front with that revamped line. Let's not forget that Rodgers' return (combined with a mental bust by Bears safety Chris Conte on the quarterback's game-winning bomb) is what won Green Bay the division title. The Packers appear to have put together a better backup plan than they had last season, but we all know how important Rodgers is to his team's success.
Rob Demovsky: Fiction. The Bears and Lions folded last season, which allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale in Chicago. Both teams have taken measures to ensure that won't happen again. The Bears beefed up their defense, and the Lions made a coaching change. That said, the Packers might be in better position to handle a Rodgers absence because they should have Matt Flynn as the backup from the get-go.
Ben Goessling: Fiction. The only reason the Packers won the division last season was because the other three teams were flawed enough not to take it from them. The Lions collapsed late in the season, the Bears lost four of their last six (including the season finale against Green Bay) and the Vikings blew five last-minute leads (including one against the Packers) to take themselves out of the race. Green Bay might be better prepared for a Rodgers injury now that they have gone through it with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, but the Packers' offense is predicated on Rodgers making throws few others can make. You can't expect a team to survive the loss of an elite player like that again.
@RobDemovsky True. Defense will be much better this year & flynn/tolzien will have a full training camp to run offense.— Jules Parmentier (@JulesPthe5th) June 12, 2014
Jeffery became an injury replacement for Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.
Jeffery's first trip to the Pro Bowl is well-deserved, obviously, and likely marks the first of many for the second-year receiver. Interestingly, Jeffery made the All-NFC North team while Marshall was snubbed, but the former didn't make the Pro Bowl initially while the latter did.
Marshall and quarterback Jay Cutler campaigned hard in recent days for Jeffery to make the Pro Bowl, with Marshall conceding Tuesday during the NFL Network's "NFL AM" show that Johnson and Jeffery are ahead of him as receivers. In Jeffery's case, that's probably not yet true, considering his relative youth, not to mention Marshall's long track record of high production. But Jeffery certainly might be trending in that direction.
Jeffery finished the season ranked sixth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,421), seventh in yards from scrimmage (1,526, which also ranked No. 2 in the NFL among receivers), and 10th in receptions (89). The key moving forward for Jeffery is whether he can replicate such production.
Jeffery spent time working with Marshall last offseason to prepare for 2013. Jeffery reported to training camp with 8 percent body fat (according to Marshall) and was a much more durable player this past season than his rookie year. The plan for Jeffery is to continue working with Marshall this offseason. Cutler plans to train with the receivers in Florida, along with Forte and tight end Martellus Bennett.
"Just being from where I came from to where I am now, what I'm doing ... it's just special to be part of the success we're having as a team," Jeffery said. "I want to thank my mama and my family. I'm going to continue to make you all proud."
Nonetheless, both Suh and Lions receiver Calvin Johnson share the honor.
The duo obviously has experienced several run-ins over the years against the Bears. In Johnson’s case, it’s been simply a case of dominance. In 13 career games against the Bears, Johnson has hauled in 63 passes for 928 yards and seven touchdowns. The only other team he’s done more damage against is the Green Bay Packers (71 catches for 1,163 yards and 12 TDs in 12 career games).
Suh, meanwhile, conjures mention of dirty play among Bears players and has for years.
Although Suh didn’t take part in any questionable encounters against the Bears in 2013, Bears receiver Brandon Marshall did mention “borderline illegal” play back in November when discussing the club’s defensive line as a whole. Obviously, Suh is that unit’s leader.
“I’m looking at film today, and it was kind of disgusting to see the D-line go out of their way to knock our quarterbacks down after every single play,” Marshall said. “The ball was gone. They’re pushing them down. They’re hitting them below their knees. It was kind of disgusting. It seemed like it was game planned, but it was borderline. You can’t say it was illegal. But it was definitely one of those things where you say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to pay attention to this.’”
Back in 2012, Suh drew heat for a hit on quarterback Jay Cutler that forced him to leave an October contest with bruised ribs. Suh wasn’t fined for that incident, and Cutler actually considered the hit to be clean.
That didn’t stop Marshall from offering his take on Twitter and ESPN’s “First Take.”
"A Suh," Marshall tweeted. "What u did to Jay wasn't cool. Great players don't have to do that. A Suh. Something I've learned and now passing down to you. Succeed with character."
Later on "First Take," Marshall said: "Last night the leg whip that Ndamukong Suh placed on our quarterback Jay Cutler: That was dirty. That was dirty. He can be one of the best D-tackles that ever done it, but he cannot do that that way. If you look at it, c'mon man, this is not wrestling. You don't do that. That's not clean."
Throughout the series between the Bears, the teams have engaged in aggressive play often deemed illegal by the NFL with Suh being involved in many of the incidents. In 2011, Suh yanked off Cutler’s helmet during a 37-13 win at Soldier Field. In that game, six players received fines totaling $62,500, including Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford ($7,500) and former Chicago cornerback D.J. Moore ($15,000), who were involved in an incident that led to an on-field brawl between the teams.
During the first meeting between the teams in 2011 -- a 24-13 Lions win at Ford Field on Oct. 10 -- former Bears safety Brandon Meriweather received a $25,000 fine for a vicious hit on receiver Nate Burleson while cornerback Charles Tillman was fined $7,500 for a horse-collar tackle on Jahvid Best.
Going as far back as 2010, Suh was fined $15,000 for shoving Cutler hard in the back during a 24-20 Bears win.
So while Johnson might actually be somewhat feared by the Bears, perhaps Suh is simply hated.
“We just got back to the fundamentals,” Bears safety Chris Conte said. “We knew we didn’t play well the last time we came out and played against them. We just wanted to improve on that today, and I thought we had a good game plan and good energy on defense today.
“It always hurts to lose, but I think there are things we can take out of this game that are encouraging, and we can see that we can be a really good team. We have a lot of young guys and they are improving and getting better each week. I think you can tell we are starting to come together a little bit on defense.”
Conte, in particular, enjoyed more success versus the Lions than he had in recent weeks. Although Conte did commit at least one obvious mistake in the third quarterback when he took a poor angle and whiffed on Lions running back Reggie Bush in the open field on a play that gained 39 yards, the safety bounced back with a key interception in the fourth quarter.
With the Bears trailing 14-10, Conte picked off an errant Matthew Stafford pass and returned it 35 yards to the Lions' 9-yard line. The Bears eventually settled for a field goal to cut the Detroit lead to one point.
“We were just playing Cover-2 and I was just reading the quarterback,” Conte said. “He put the ball up and I just went up and got it. But I needed to score on that. So I need to help out the offense and score there.”
In addition to the interception, Conte finished the game with three tackles and three passes defensed.
“(Conte) has been in the tank for a little bit,” Bears safety Major Wright said. “With me, I’m trying to motivate him and help him get back together. For me, he came out and had a great game for us, and that is what he needed.”
However, the game ended on a low note for the defense when Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson caught what turned out to be a game-winning 14 yard touchdown pass with 2:22 left on the clock. Johnson beat veteran cornerback Charles Tillman, who appeared to be in man coverage, in the back corner of the endzone for the score. Johnson did end the game with a pair of touchdowns, but he caught just six passes for 83 yards on 17 targets.
“It’s pretty tough (to defend Johnson one-on-one) when you look at his size, look at his speed,” Wright said. “He’s pretty good at catching the ball. You really can’t ask for much more with how this defense played him, not just one guy but all of us.”
This week our panel weighs in on the importance of a Bears win over the Lions, the Cutler decision and more:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will go on to win the NFC North if they beat the Lions on Sunday.
Jeff Dickerson:Fiction. It's way too premature to declare the Bears king of the NFC North if they knock off Detroit. If the Bears do improve to 6-3, they definitely will have positioned themselves to be a strong contender to win the division, or at the very least qualify for the playoffs. But let's not write off the Green Bay Packers just yet. Rodgers' fractured collarbone is a tough pill to swallow for Green Bay, but the Packers still have a good amount of talent on their roster, and expect several key players to return from injuries in the next couple of weeks. If Green Bay can just get adequate play from Seneca Wallace, or whomever they start at quarterback until Rodgers returns, then I believe the Packers remain contenders. So are the Lions, even if they lose on Sunday at Soldier Field. I have a feeling the race for the NFC North is going down to the wire.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. With Cutler back and a bunch of mediocre to lousy teams left on the schedule, I think the Bears finish strong, despite a porous defense. They hope the signing of defensive tackle Jeremiah (formerly Jay) Ratliff shores up the defensive line, which finally brought consistent pressure at Green Bay last week. That win over Green Bay is important for the Bears for tiebreaking rules. Detroit will play host to Green Bay on Thanksgiving, presumably without Rodgers, while the Bears likely will have to face him at home in the season finale. For a team that looked hopeless after the Washington loss, the Bears' future is bright again.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears should protect Cutler and start Josh McCown on Sunday.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Cutler is in the final year of his contract. The Bears don't owe him a cent beyond 2013. If Cutler struggles in the first quarter, then McCown needs to come off the bench and finish the game. This really isn't about protecting Cutler. This is about protecting the team. Does a healthy McCown give the Bears the best chance to win against the Lions? I believe he does. But Cutler pushed hard to return for this game. I think it could be in the best interest of coach Marc Trestman to be ready to give him the hook at a moments' notice.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I argued the opposite in a recent Hot Button, but Cutler believes he can go so you have to let him start. This is reality in the NFL. No team would dare bench a starter for more rest to play a journeyman backup, even one as solid as McCown. This isn't a Colin Kaepernick-Alex Smith situation. In the NBA or any league with a long, drawn-out schedule, you rest your stars. But in the NFL, if a doctor clears you, you play.
Fact or Fiction: Ratliff will make an impact for the Bears' defensive line this season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. It's impossible to sign off on the idea of Ratliff making an impact until we actually see him on the field. Ratliff told ESPN 1000's "Waddle & Silvy Show" that he is still a couple of weeks away from returning to the field, so it sounds as if he might not make his Bears debut until Nov. 24 at St. Louis at the earliest. When healthy, Ratliff was one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL. But he hasn't played in a game since November 2012. That is a concern.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. He will play at some point soon. If he doesn't suit up, that's a pretty big blunder for a team stretching the salary cap as it is. At 32, Ratliff certainly isn't in the prime of his career, but I'll take a big body and veteran savvy any day. The Bears need help, any help, on that depleted defensive line, and I think the former Pro Bowler can provide it, even if it's in spurts.
Fact or Fiction: Calvin Johnson will have more than 200 yards receiving against the Bears.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Johnson will be his usual dangerous stuff, but he's not going over 200 receiving yards on the Bears. Now, is it possible that Reggie Bush rushes for more than 125 yards? You bet it is. And that's a major issue, because the Bears had all kinds of problems stopping Green Bay running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks on Monday. Charles Tillman's knee isn't 100 percent, so that will be working in Johnson's favor Sunday, but I can't see him replicating the kind of game he had against Dallas two weeks ago with 14 catches for 329 yards. I predict the Bears hold Johnson to 150 yards receiving and one touchdown. Consider that a moral victory.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Sure, he's coming off a 329-yard game and sure, the Bears' defense is a train wreck. But while Johnson is a decent bet to break his single-game mark against the Bears -- 133 yards -- I don't think he'll crack 200 for the second straight week and fourth time in his career. The key, of course, is the Bears defensive line. If they can pressure Matthew Stafford like they did to Rodgers and Wallace, Johnson will be lucky to get past the century mark.
“Because he’s so damned big,” Tillman said. “I think I said it last year, he’s like the LeBron James of wide receivers. He’s like that 'Madden' character that you can create in the game. He’s tall, he’s fast. He can catch. He’s got quickness. He’s got the speed, the agility, the leaping ability, the extra boost. He’s 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, 10.”
Yet somehow, in the last six meetings between these teams, Tillman managed to keep Johnson’s numbers to a minimum. Since 2010, Johnson has produced only one 100-yard outing against the Bears (Oct. 10, 2011), while scoring just two touchdowns. Johnson averages 4.5 receptions per game against the Bears since 2010 for an average of 71.3 yards.
Tillman, meanwhile, has racked up 37 tackles, broken up eight passes and intercepted two passes in addition to forcing two more fumbles in that span as the primary defender guarding Johnson.
“He’s a big, strong, physical corner,” Johnson said of Tillman. “He’s smart. He’s seen a lot of football, so he understands some of the concepts probably that we do on offense. He’s another great out there, one of the top corners in the league.”
Tillman declined to take credit for essentially shutting down Johnson over the last six meetings between the teams.
“I have a great defensive line,” Tillman said. “A lot of the plays that I’m able to make on Calvin have been because of my defensive line. If you take them out of the mix, I can’t do anything. It’s a team effort; rush and cover. I cover, they rush. They’ve definitely helped me out a lot. They make my job easier.”
Will Tillman be able to perform that job Sunday at Detroit? He left the game in the second half of Chicago’s victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers to rest a sore groin, and in the week of practice leading up to that game, he missed time to treat a knee issue.
The team held out Tillman for Wednesday’s practice, and Bears coach Marc Trestman said “he’ll be day to day.”
Tillman, meanwhile, was asked if there was any way he’d miss Sunday’s game at Ford Field.
“No,” Tillman said. “I’ll be there.”
However, the great unknown is how Tillman’s body will hold up over the course of a game defending Detroit Lions All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson, a test Tillman has passed with flying colors in the past.
Tillman was held out of practice on Wednesday after a groin injury forced him to the sidelines in the second half of the Bears’ 40-23 Week 3 victory in Pittsburgh. The next man up for the Bears at cornerback is veteran Zack Bowman, who filled in for Tillman versus the Steelers and took most of the first-team reps at practice on Wednesday - despite being limited himself with a minor knee injury.
In the event Tillman needs a rest on Sunday, Bowman is the logical choice to defend Johnson because of his size, speed, athleticism and experience. Bowman was given the assignment of covering Johnson in Week 1 of the 2010 season when the Bears knocked of the Lions at Soldier Field. Johnson finished that game with four catches for 45 yards, although he almost caught the game-winning touchdown over Bowman in the back corner of the endzone, but the pass was ultimately ruled incomplete.
“Johnson is one of the biggest receivers in the league and one of the most physical,” Bowman said. “He really knows how to use his hands, get off the line of scrimmage and knows how to get open. I’ve faced him. We’ve all faced him, so we know that to expect.
There’s no trick against him. He’s not going to trick you. What you see is what you get. He’s just going to line up and play ball.”
Johnson has 17 receptions for 268 yards and three touchdowns for the Lions.
A former starter with seven career interceptions, Bowman has been slowly working his way back into a contributing role on defense after re-joining the Bears in October, 2012. Bowman’s main focus for the last year has been special teams, where he made a career-high 11 tackles in only 11 games. But with Tillman sitting out practice the majority of last week, Bowman received valuable first-team reps on defense. The same routine is expected to be followed this week leading up to the trip to Detroit.
“It really helps getting these reps,” Bowman said. “You know, I focus a lot of special team and stuff like that, so when you have an opportunity to get out on the field and get your feet wet it just helps you.”
Marc Trestman makes his debut as an NFL head coach at Soldier Field on Sunday, leading a Bears team with plenty of roster turnover on offense, including a totally revamped line expected to better protect Cutler as he operates the club’s new scheme. That group will be tested by a Bengals defensive line, led by Geno Atkins, that accounted for 43 of the team’s franchise-record 51 sacks in 2012, and also paved the way for the defense to finish the season ranked No. 6 for fewest yards allowed.
Chicago’s defense in 2012 was even better, finishing fifth in net defense, third in scoring defense (17.3 points per game) and No. 2 in turnover differential while leading the NFL in interceptions (24) and total takeaways (44).
While home-field advantage can be key for teams, it's certainly been a factor in this series. The Bengals hold a 4-1 road record against the Bears and own a 6-3 series lead, which includes victories in their last outings (2005 and 2009).
Chicago hasn’t beaten the Bengals since 2001.
ESPN.com’s Matt Williamson and Bears team reporter Michael C. Wright discuss the matchup.
Wright: The Bears hope they fixed the offensive line with a combination of scheme (shorter drops for Cutler), beefed up protection with Jermon Bushrod at left tackle and a pair of draft picks in Kyle Long (first round) and Jordan Mills (fifth) at right guard and right tackle, and another weapon for Cutler to find down the middle of the field when he’s in trouble. But the inexperience of Long and Mills will be question marks against Cincinnati’s active defensive line.
It seems Cincinnati’s defense is built around Atkins, but how much of a factor are guys like Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson?
Williamson: Atkins is the foundation of the defense for sure and everyone thrives off his presence, but the Bengals have a lot invested in the defensive line now in terms of finances and draft picks. This is an extremely deep and talented group that makes the entire defense go. Dunlap might be a little underrated and Johnson a little overrated, but they form an impressive pair of defensive end. These three players, along with the rest of Cincinnati’s defensive front, will prove a very steep challenge for Chicago’s rebuilt offensive line in Week 1.
What can the Bengals’ defense expect from this new Trestman offense?
Wright: The Bears will utilize zone blocking in the running game, which should allow Matt Forte to pick his own holes. That should open up the passing game, where the Bears will use West Coast philosophies such as shorter routes and drops for Cutler so he can get rid of the ball quickly. Look for the Bears to also try to use Earl Bennett down the seams to exploit potential matchup problems, especially on traditional running downs where the Bengals might be using base personnel.
Speaking of the Bengals, they’ve made the playoffs in three of the last four years, but really haven’t made much noise. What are the expectations for this team now?
Williamson: Expectations must go up. They had yet another high-quality offseason and this team has an exceptional young core of players on both sides of the ball. They clearly play in a tough division, but going one-and-done in the playoffs yet again will not be considered a successful season in Cincinnati. I fear they will only go as far as their quarterback will take them. But Bengals fans have a lot to be excited about.
Do you think this Bears defense can defend A.J. Green?
Wright: They should be able to keep him from dominating the game. It’s likely the Bears match Charles Tillman up against Green, but if the receiver winds up in front of Tim Jennings, the team is confident he can get the job done, too. The Bears typically don’t double or shade coverage against players such as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, so don’t count on seeing the Bears try that against Green. Cincinnati’s tight ends could be an issue now that they’ve got two good ones in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.
With such a talented supporting cast, do you see Dalton as just a guy surrounded by weapons, or a blossoming young quarterback?
Williamson: He shows signs of blossoming into a solid young quarterback, and has been especially adept in the red zone, which is very noteworthy for a young quarterback. But I think he is more of the former. He is a limited passer who lacks great tools, and isn’t as accurate or on time with his throws as you would like for someone with his limitations. The Bengals knew this and landed two very “Dalton-friendly” receivers for him in Eifert and Giovani Bernard. Eifert should develop into an exceptional target in the middle of the field as well as the red zone, while Bernard provides an easy dump-off option for Dalton. With all the Bengals’ resources over the past two offseasons, it really surprises me that Cincinnati didn’t do more to challenge Dalton or greatly improve its backup quarterback spot.
What are the three key camp issues facing each NFC North team?
Offense: Kyle Long's readiness
The Bears drafted Long in the first round to help an offensive line that has struggled for years to protect quarterback Jay Cutler. Long, however, had a short Division I career and missed almost all of the Bears' offseason work because of the timing of Oregon's final academic quarter. The Bears will find out in camp, and during the preseason, whether Long is ready to be an immediate starter as you would expect based on his draft position.
Defense: Configuring linebackers
After the retirement of Brian Urlacher and the departure of Nick Roach, the Bears gave themselves two tiers of options at linebacker to play alongside Lance Briggs. If all else fails, they can use veteran D.J. Williams in the middle and James Anderson on the strong side. But they also drafted two players who one day will get their chance: Jon Bostic in the second round and Khaseem Greene in the fourth. The process of determining the best combination will begin in training camp.
Wild card: Coaching transition
This will be the Bears' first training camp in 10 years without Lovie Smith as the coach. Marc Trestman began the transition process during offseason workouts, but training camp is the time for establishing the meat of his program. How does he expect players to practice? How quickly does he expect scheme assimilation? How do players know when he's happy? When he's angry? The first training camp will set the parameters.
Offense: Line changes
One way or the other, the Lions will enter the season with three new starters on the offensive line. Riley Reiff is at left tackle after the retirement of Jeff Backus, and there will be competition at right guard and right tackle. Pulling off an overhaul of the offensive line in a win-or-else season is an ambitious task. All discussion of improvement for quarterback Matthew Stafford, and the impact of newcomer Reggie Bush, is made on the presumption that the offensive line won't take a step back.
Defense: Ziggy Ansah's development
Usually, the No. 5 overall pick of a draft is ready to step in and play right away. But Ansah was a late arrival to football and was almost an unknown to NFL scouts a year ago at this time. There was a sense during pre-draft evaluations that Ansah would need more development time than the typical No. 5 pick, but the Lions have high hopes of putting him into the starting lineup right away. They gave themselves some flexibility by signing free agent Israel Idonije, but they'll find out in camp if Ansah is going to be ready to play a full-time role in Week 1.
Wild card: Ryan Broyles' status
Broyles was a value pick in the 2012 draft, but he is very much needed after the release of Titus Young. Nate Burleson has returned to play alongside All-Pro Calvin Johnson, but the Lions' depth would be thin if Broyles isn't ready to play soon after tearing his ACL in Week 13 last year. The Lions hope Broyles can be full-speed by the start of the season, a pace he must confirm with at least some significant work in training camp.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Offense: Running back rotation
The Packers added two rookies, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, to a group that includes holdovers DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn. Unless the Packers suddenly convert to a run-based offense, an impossibility as long as Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback, the Packers will have to thin this herd in training camp. Not everyone from that group will make the team, and a few who do aren't likely to get much action in games. Harris, Lacy and Franklin seem the likeliest candidates -- in that order -- to be feature backs.
Defense: Replacing Woodson
The Packers have openings at safety and cornerback following the release of Charles Woodson. Training camp should provide significant insight, if not an outright answer, into who will start at safety -- M.D. Jennings? Jerron McMillian? -- alongside Morgan Burnett. We'll also get a sense for who is ready to step into the cornerback and nickel job opposite veteran Tramon Williams. Top candidates for that job include Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. The Packers' cornerback group is by far the deepest in the NFC North.
Wild card: Crosby's state of mind
No one expects Giorgio Tavecchio to beat out place-kicker Mason Crosby, who went through a well-publicized extended slump last season. But how will Crosby react to the first competition of any sort he has faced since taking over as the Packers' kicker in 2007? That's what the Packers want to find out, frankly. If he isn't sharp in camp, the Packers might need to consider their options elsewhere.
Offense: Cordarrelle Patterson's development
The Vikings know they want Patterson to be their kickoff returner, replacing Percy Harvin, but is Patterson ready to take over any part of Harvin's role as a primary offensive playmaker? Patterson's short stay at Tennessee once suggested he will need some development time before contributing regularly on offense. His performance in offseason practices, however, suggested he might be further along than once believed. Training camp will tell us for sure.
Defense: Linebacker alignment
Will newcomer Desmond Bishop play middle linebacker or on the outside? What would that mean for Erin Henderson, who spent the offseason transitioning to the middle position? It seems pretty clear that Bishop, Henderson and Chad Greenway will be the Vikings' three linebackers. Training camp should give us a better idea of where they will line up and, importantly, who will come off the field in nickel situations.
Wild card: Chemistry in passing game
The Vikings are expecting a jump in the efficiency, if not raw numbers, of their passing game this season. Quarterback Christian Ponder will have to accomplish that by developing quick chemistry with his new receivers, including Patterson and veteran Greg Jennings. That task appeared to be a work in progress during offseason practices.
A look at the one move each team in the NFC North needed to make but didn't.
Chicago Bears: General manager Phil Emery approached the draft with hopes of selecting a quarterback, and there were reports of the Bears privately working out North Carolina State's Mike Glennon. The plan made sense for a number of reasons. First, the team was bidding farewell to 2012 backup Jason Campbell. Second, new coach Marc Trestman is known as a quarterback guru and the Bears could benefit from having him develop a rookie. Third, starter Jay Cutler is entering the final year of his contract. Ultimately, however, the Bears couldn't justify using any of their six selections on a quarterback. For now, 2012 third-stringer Josh McCown is penciled in as Cutler's backup.
Detroit Lions: It sounded greedy, but a need at wide receiver existed all offseason. After releasing Titus Young and shepherding Ryan Broyles through his second ACL rehabilitation in as many years, the Lions don't have many sure things behind receiver Calvin Johnson. Veteran Nate Burleson participated in offseason practice but suffered a major leg injury last season. Mike Thomas remains on the roster after being acquired last year from the Jacksonville Jaguars, and several players have talked up the potential of first-year player Pat Edwards. The Lions tried to supplement via free agency, pursuing Darrius Heyward-Bey, among others, but in the end, they added no one of experience and drafted no one with major potential.
Green Bay Packers: Did the Packers do enough from a personnel standpoint to improve their defense against the type of run-heavy offenses that gave them trouble last season? We all know they worked hard on developing a better approach and scheme, even sending their defensive coaching staff to a college coaching clinic at Texas A&M. But they added only one notable player, first-round draft pick Datone Jones, to their front seven. They also hope that 2012 first-rounder Nick Perry can establish himself as an outside linebacker. The Packers are hoping to play a different way with largely the same players.
Minnesota Vikings: It's true that the Vikings chose a cornerback, Xavier Rhodes, with one of their three first-round draft choices, but it's still fair to question whether the team did enough to make up for the departure of slot cornerback Antoine Winfield in the offseason. Winfield had an excellent season in 2012 and was one of the underdiscussed reasons why the Vikings finished 10-6. The Vikings have what appears on paper to be a promising young core of cornerbacks, with Rhodes, Chris Cook and Josh Robinson. But none of them has played the nickel role that Winfield excelled at last season, and Cook has never been able to stay on the field.
Williamson grade: B+
Williamson snippet: "Upgrading the offensive line, getting younger and better at linebacker and adding another weapon in the passing game were the Bears' top priorities this offseason -- and they accomplished all three."
Seifert comment: The Bears' offseason performance is particularly notable when you remember they entered the draft with only five selections. (They acquired a sixth via trade). The offensive line remains fluid, but has been addressed more aggressively than in years. Getting younger at linebacker was the first step in what will be a multi-part process of filling in behind 30-something starters Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and Julius Peppers. (Jennings turns 30 in December).
Williamson grade: B
Williamson snippet: "Expect the Lions' pass defense to be significantly improved. … But another area of weakness was created this offseason for the Lions. Their offensive line played quite well overall last year but lost three starters to retirement and free agency."
Seifert comment: The signing of safety Glover Quin and the decision to (finally) draft a cornerback at a high position (second-rounder Darius Slay) bodes well for the pass defense. Even without a new receiver opposite Calvin Johnson, the Lions have plenty of skill position players on offense. The significance of an offensive-line overhaul is not to be underestimated, however. The Lions will be counting on as many as three untested linemen to come through.
Green Bay Packers
Williamson grade: B
Williamson snippet: "The Packers are the only team for which I didn't list a veteran 'key addition,' and their 'key losses' are rather extensive. Still, they remain one of the very best teams in football."
Seifert comment: It's not unusual for the Packers to avoid key veteran additions. But they certainly added some important pieces in running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, along with defensive lineman Datone Jones. In minicamp this week, Jones was working both as a defensive end in base defenses, and inside at tackle in the nickel. Once he learns the scheme, Jones is going to be a difference-maker.
Williamson grade: B-
Williamson snippet: "Minnesota brought in some big-time prospects in the draft, but the losses of two great players' contributions on game day will be hard to replace this season."
Seifert comment: Williamson was referring to the trade of receiver Percy Harvin and the release for cornerback Antoine Winfield. Both players wound up with the Seattle Seahawks. They also failed to find a replacement at middle linebacker, requiring the shift of Erin Henderson from the outside. The team's biggest personnel question mark, other than the continued development of quarterback Christian Ponder, is whether they can replace Winfield's presence in the slot.
But organizations need to set lofty goals. Have you ever heard of an NFL team striving for mediocrity?
So while a part of me wants to cringe when I read Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley quoted in the Detroit News saying that his team is "going to the Super Bowl”, or watch a video of Detroit running back Reggie Bush tell reporters that he signed with the Lions "to win championships," the reality is that every NFL player should feel that way about the prospects of his respective club this time of the year.
How does each NFC North team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?
Chicago Bears: If you were drawing up plans for an experienced but diverse backfield, you could do a lot worse than modeling after the Bears. Starter Matt Forte is a shifty off-tackle runner and one of the NFL's top pass-catching running backs, a collection of skills that will fit neatly into new coach Marc Trestman's offense. Forte has caught 267 passes since his career started in 2008, the third-most in the NFL by a running back over that stretch. Backup Michael Bush, meanwhile, is a bigger and stronger inside threat who gives the Bears a better option in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He produced a first down on 24.6 percent of his rushes last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the 10th-best percentage in the NFL. As long as Forte and Bush are healthy, the Bears' relatively thin depth behind them is irrelevant.
Detroit Lions: Free agent acquisition Reggie Bush figures to benefit from opponents' attention on receiver Calvin Johnson to much greater extent than the Lions' backfield did last season. Early indications are the Lions will use Bush similarly to the way the New Orleans Saints did earlier in his career. With the Saints in 2006, Bush caught 88 passes. Training camp should bring competition for the right to be the "thumper" behind Bush. Will it be 2011 second-round draft choice Mikel Leshoure, who looked slow and not very elusive after returning last season from a torn Achilles tendon? (No NFL running back had as many touches as Leshoure without at least one play of at least 20 yards.) Or will it be the lesser-known Joique Bell, who as Pro Football Focus points out, made defenders miss regularly last season. He forced 26 missed tackles in 82 carries and actually averaged more yards after contact (2.99) than Bush did with the Miami Dolphins (2.06).
Green Bay Packers: The team re-made its backfield through the draft after years of transition, throwing the situation into unknown territory. At some point, the Packers will have to thin the herd of a group that includes returnees DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn, along with rookies Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin. The competition is wide open, although both Starks and Green have failed when given previous opportunities. Lacy's build and pedigree suggests he has an excellent chance to ultimately win the starting job, but Harris impressed the team late last season and could get the first shot this summer.
Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson. Is there much more to say? Historically, runners who put together a 2,000-yard season tend to fall back the following year. But nothing about Peterson's career suggests he will fit neatly into a trend. He has set a goal of 2,500 yards, and however unrealistic it might be, he has earned the benefit of the doubt. Backup Toby Gerhart is in his fourth and presumably last season as Peterson's understudy. While Gerhart hasn't shown much explosion in short stints in Peterson's place, you would think he'll want to look elsewhere for more carries when his contract expires after this season.
Which begs the question: How does the rest of the receiver class stack up for our teams?
That was one of the topics ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay discussed during a conference call last week. McShay ran through six other names, most of whom should be available when the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers choose between No. 20 and No. 26 overall.
The Lions have hosted three of the six names below on visits, in addition to Austin, while the Vikings had at least two in their building this month. The names are listed in order of McShay's evaluation. Note McShay's upside-down thoughts on the pair of Tennessee receivers.
McShay: "He scares me coming out of Tennessee, but I see the talent. Everyone I talk to in the league, I think he's gone in the top 20. … Patterson, with the ball in his hands is just freakish, and even though he disappears for 30-40 plays, he'll show up with one or two big plays a game that just kind of blow your mind and leave you wanting more, and I think that's why he's going to be able to go where he's going."
McShay: "Keenan Allen is not 100 percent [because of a knee injury]. He ran a 4.7 the other day. It's not a perfect situation. But he's a late-first, early-second round prospect and should play like that. He runs on tape, we estimate him at 4.53, 4.55 range. I think he is going to be a really, really good No. 2 in the league. He would be a good fit. He was catching the ball better than ever this year. He knows how to use his body. He's got size and he's thickly built. He's not a burner, but he's quick and he's athletic and he's got enough speed to challenge you and take advantage of mistakes. Keenan Allen to me would be the highest rated wide receiver when Tavon Austin and Patterson are off the board." [After the conference call, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Allen's drug test at the NFL scouting combine had been "red-flagged," requiring a re-test.]
McShay: "If you're looking for someone to run vertical routes and stretch the field … a poor man's Randy Moss, that's what Justin Hunter is. … He's a silky-smooth route runner, and he's the guy quite honestly when they needed a throw, when they needed to pick up a first down, when they needed a play at Tennessee, that's where they went. It wasn't to the other guy, Patterson. He's the one who showed up consistently on tape. I think he's a better football player than Cordarelle Patterson."
McShay: "After that group, you start getting into Robert Woods, DeAndre Hopkins, and Quinton Patton. They're all kind of in that same range -- 6-1, 200, 210, 212 pounds -- and they're all in mid-4.5's in terms of speed. Hopkins has the best hands of the three."
McShay: "I think you have to look at the whole picture and what has gone on throughout his career and the ups and downs. It might amount to nothing … The thing so often that's difficult to predict is, in addition, what are guys going to do when they have all this free time on their hands. … He could end up in Atlanta with a guy like Roddy White who will be [on him] all day … and he'll be fine. Or he could go to Detroit, where Calvin Johnson is the greatest guy in the world but he's not going to get on you for making mistakes. He's not that kind of leader. If [Woods] is not going to be around guys that are going to make him accountable, maybe he's not the player he would be if he goes to an Atlanta and plays with Roddy White. That's the tricky part. That's why there is some more risk with him, because he's not necessarily the greatest self-starter."
School: Louisiana Tech
McShay: "He doesn't like going over the middle, but he's very athletic, he has great hands and ball skills 90 percent of the time, but he'll have some focus drops. He's a wild-card to me. If he plays to his potential, he could be the third- or fourth-best receiver of this group in the NFL."
Note: The Lions hosted Patterson, Hunter and Woods, according to the team's web site. The Vikings, according to 1500ESPN.com's Tom Pelissero, hosted at least Allen and Hopkins.
- All eyes are on general manager Phil Emery, and by extension team president Ted Phillips and chairman George McCaskey. The Bears finished with a playoff-worthy record at 10-6, even if it was after a 7-1 start, but ultimately they missed the postseason for the fifth time in six years under coach Lovie Smith. That sounds like a fair recipe for making a change, even for a coach with a career record of 81-63. But there is more gray area here than you might realize. The Bears have spent almost a decade building their defense around Smith's scheme. The chances of finding a new coach with the identical defensive approach are not high. So firing Smith is a move to overhaul the entire defense, long the lifeblood of this team. In other words, the Bears stand on the brink of a major rebuild if they fire Smith. Are they ready for that, with quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall in their prime? Emery has a chance to change the direction of the franchise, but it remains to be seen whether he thinks it is necessary.ESPN.com
- This has to be the most disappointing season in Devin Hester's career. The much-heralded "Hester Package" never materialized in the Bears' offense, and none of his 64 combined punt and kickoff returns went longer than 44 yards. Cutler targeted him on only 40 of the 208 routes he ran this season, including just one over the final three games, according to EPSN Stats & Information. Hester caught 23 of those passes for 242 yards and one touchdown. This was the first of Hester's seven seasons when he was productive neither as a receiver nor as a returner. He turned 30 last month and is entering the final year of his contract. Assuming he didn't hit any of his contract escalators this year, he is signed for a reasonable $1.857 million in 2013. But you wonder what his place would be in a revamped Bears program.
- On the other hand, I don't think the Bears could have taken better advantage of their acquisition of Marshall. His reunion with Cutler produced career highs in receptions (118), yards (1,508) and touchdowns (11). You would have to consider Marshall's performance one of the best for an offensive skill player in Bears history. One interesting offseason discussion will be the 194 passes Cutler targeted Marshall on. It tied for second in the NFL behind the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson (205) and was nearly four times as many as the Bears' next-most targeted receiver. Was it too much? You wonder if the Bears' approach in 2013 will include a plan to target Marshall less, incorporate more players on a weekly basis and be more productive as a whole.
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is a pending free agent, and it's at least worth discussing whether his career is over. He gutted through 12 games on a knee that never completely healed from a January 2012 injury, and most football people would tell you he was nowhere close to his usual sideline-to-sideline self. He is 34 and his contract status could give the Bears a relatively graceful way of moving on. Emery paved the way for that possibility by declining to extend his contract before the season. Urlacher's 2012 season made that decision seem wise. Emery can't bring Urlacher back for a competition or as a role player, however. That wouldn't be respectful to one of the best players in Bears history. It's all or nothing, and at this moment it's not clear which way he will go.