Tuesday, September 27, 2011
NFC North Stock Watch
By Kevin Seifert
1. Concern about Ryan Grant's future: The veteran Green Bay Packers running back didn't exactly roar back from his ankle injury in the first two weeks of the season, totaling 65 yards on 15 carries. But against the Chicago Bears this past Sunday, Grant broke through for 92 yards on 17 carries and emerged relatively unscathed from a hit to his ribs. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said: "Ryan was Ryan today for the first time this season. He ran the ball hard. He made the right cuts." I'm sure the Packers aren't going to forget about second-year back James Starks, but Grant's performance was a reminder that this team has two legitimate options in the backfield.
2. Game-day awareness: Two weeks ago, the Bears allowed offensive coordinator Mike Martz to call passing plays more than 80 percent of the time in what was mostly a close game against the New Orleans Saints. Last Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings unintentionally limited tailback Adrian Peterson to a total of five carries in the second half against the Detroit Lions. In each case, Bears coach Lovie Smith and Vikings coach Leslie Frazier expressed regret the next day. You have to wonder about game-day communication when such an obvious trend goes unnoticed, or at least unaddressed, until it's too late.
3. Roy Williams, Bears receiver: Williams returned from a groin injury but continues to look totally out of sync with quarterback Jay Cutler, and it wasn't clear if he was even running at 100 percent because of the injury. Cutler threw four passes toward Williams. Two were intercepted and two fell incomplete. With Earl Bennett sidelined by a chest injury, the Bears really need Williams to step up as an option. But it seems increasingly unlikely that it will happen.
Jason Hanson came through in a big way for the Lions on Sunday.
1. Jason Hanson, Detroit Lions place-kicker: It's hard to believe that we spent time this summer discussing whether Hanson was nearing the end of his career. The Lions had a legitimate competitor in Dave Rayner, but Hanson never appeared challenged. This past Sunday, he drilled all four field goal attempts, including a 50-yarder that might have been good from 60. Even at age 41, Hanson appears to have one of the most accurate deep legs in the league. He has converted all eight attempts this season, including two from at least 50 yards, and is tied for fourth in the NFL with 11 touchbacks on kickoffs. The man is in his 20th NFL season.
2. Jarius Wynn, Green Bay Packers defensive tackle: How many of you had Wynn as the Packers' leading pass-rusher after three weeks? I wouldn't have guessed it. Wynn had his way with the Bears' offensive line last Sunday and now has three sacks on the season. The only other Packers player with more than one sack is cornerback Jarrett Bush (1.5). Much as C.J. Wilson did last year, Wynn is taking advantage of Mike Neal's latest injury to establish a permanent role. I can't say I spent a lot of time studying Wynn during the preseason, but on Sunday, he appeared powerful and aggressive and fully capable of capitalizing on attention paid to linebacker Clay Matthews. (And before you ask, the answer is "no." I don't think anyone should have concerns about Matthews' total of one sack this season. I feel like he's still affecting games, especially in Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers. And Sunday, all three of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage.)
3. Tight end play: We just saw a glimpse of the kind of tight end production the NFC North could have on a weekly basis. Our top four tight ends combined for five touchdowns in Week 3. The Packers' Jermichael Finley had three of them, while the Bears' Kellen Davis had a 32-yard score and the Vikings' Visanthe Shiancoe had an 8-yard touchdown. Meanwhile, Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew recorded 11 receptions for 112 yards and is tied for third among all NFL tight ends this season with 16 catches.