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Friday, October 9, 2009
Final Word: NFC North

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com



NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert


Five nuggets of knowledge about this weekend’s games:

Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Detroit has indicated that DeAndre Levy could get more playing time, but at whose expense?
St. Louis tailback Steven Jackson has written one of the few success stories against Minnesota’s run defense. Jackson ran for 142 yards in the regular-season finale of the 2006 season, one of only two 100-yard days the Vikings have allowed over their past 52 games. (Green Bay’s Ryan Grant has the other, in 2007.) Jackson’s performance that day ended the Vikings’ bid to set an NFL record for fewest rushing yards in a season, and he remains the type of power back who could do some damage against them. “…[H]e came and ran up and down the field on us,” coach Brad Childress said. “There are guys here that can vividly remember that.”

Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre was sacked nine times in his first three games, but here’s a possible tonic: Extra use of the shotgun. Childress’ version of this offense hasn’t always made extensive use of that formation -- among other reasons, it tips defenses heavily toward a pass read -- but Favre has excelled when throwing from it this season. ESPN Stats & Information reports that through four games, Favre has the NFL’s second-best passer rating (117.2) out of the shotgun. Overall, he’s completed 46 of 61 shotgun passes (75.4 percent) for 545 yards and four touchdowns. He’s completed 39 of 64 passes (61 percent) when originally lined up under center. The shotgun could be especially effective against Rams pass-rusher Leonard Little.

There were indications that Detroit will shuffle its linebacker corps Sunday against Pittsburgh, hoping to strengthen a defense giving up an NFL-high 33.5 points per game. It’s assumed that rookie DeAndre Levy will displace either Julian Peterson or Ernie Sims in the starting lineup. But the Lions should be careful if they think they can overwhelm Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with pressure. Yes, Roethlisberger has been sacked 10 times, tied for fourth-most in the NFL. Otherwise, however, he is excelling against added pressure. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he’s completing 69 percent of his passes when defenses bring additional pass-rushers. Roethlisberger’s full numbers in those situations: 35 completions in 51 attempts for 333 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Here’s a suggestion for the Lions, who want to do a better job establishing the run: Don’t bother testing the middle of Pittsburgh’s defensive front. So far this season, the Steelers have allowed an NFL-best average of 1.08 yards on runs up the middle. Opponents are averaging 2.0 yards per carry over left guard and 3.38 yards per carry over right guard, according to league statistics. The Lions, if you’re curious, have been most successful this season running around left end. They’re averaging 6.62 yards per carry on 21 rushes in that direction. (The Steelers have only had six plays run around left end against them. They’ve given up an average of 0.83 yards on those runs.)

Chicago and Green Bay will take their bye under significantly different circumstances. The Bears have won three consecutive games after losing their opener at Lambeau Field, and as of now their most pressing issue is nursing injured players back to health. When they resume practice next week, the Bears are hoping to get back receiver Devin Hester (strained neck muscle), linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) and linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer (ribs). Defensive lineman Israel Idonije (knee) had minor knee surgery but won’t miss much, if any, time. The Packers, meanwhile, have been left to ponder their pass protection problems as well as a defense that hasn’t brought as much pressure (five sacks) as initially advertised.