Friday, October 26, 2012
Final Word: NFC North
By Kevin Seifert
Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 8:
Early issues: Every NFL team wants to start a game fast, and no team has been worse at it than the Detroit Lions. Get this: The Lions have reached the red zone just seven times on 37 first-half possessions in 2012, scoring a touchdown an NFL-low once in those instances. That failure speaks to the Lions' reliance on the big downfield play and illustrates how they have been unable to compensate with extended drives. It's another reason why opponents are outscoring them 77-37 in the first half this season. The Seattle Seahawks will arrive at Ford Field having outscored opponents 36-16 in the first quarter. Needless to say, the Lions won't win at a better rate than their current 33.3 percent if they keep falling behind early in games.
Calvin Johnson had 109 more targets than any other pass-catcher last season.
Transformer battle: As we noted earlier Friday, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tossed out a challenge to Lions receiver Calvin Johnson by changing his Twitter name to "Optimus Prime." Sherman has played well this season, intercepting three passes and batting away a total of 14, and the Seahawks have allowed only one 100-yard receiver this season (the New England Patriots' Wes Welker in Week 6). Johnson has been as productive as ever this season from a reception and yardage standpoint, but his drop-off in touchdowns is another illustration of the Lions' difficulty in scoring. At this point last season, he had eight more touchdowns (nine) than he has now (one). As Sherman no doubt knows, there's no shame in giving up catches and yardage to Johnson if you can keep him out of the end zone.
New connection: The Green Bay Packers are already down one receiver (Greg Jennings) and a second (Jordy Nelson) was struggling to make it through practice this week because of a hamstring injury. But Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars will have to deal with a new and undeniable connection quarterback Aaron Rodgers has made. Rodgers has completed 37 of the 43 passes he has targeted second-year receiver Randall Cobb on this season. That completion percentage of 86.0 is the highest in the NFL for a quarterback to a receiver with a minimum of 30 attempts. The Jaguars' defense has given up an average of 27.3 points per game this season, and it's hard to imagine it slowing down Rodgers, Cobb and the rest of the Packers' offense.
Defensive fill-ins: The Packers should be able to handle the Jaguars' underwhelming offense even with two of their top five defensive backs (Charles Woodson and Sam Shields) sidelined by injuries. Woodson's injury, however, will give us an extended look at rookie Casey Hayward and help us determine if he is playing as well as the statistics indicate. Hayward's four interceptions are tied with two other players for the NFL lead. And according to Pro Football Focus, opponents have completed only 44.8 percent of the passes thrown his way. The resulting 23.7 passer rating on throws in Hayward's direction is the NFL's best. Is Hayward really that good? Let's keep an eye on him Sunday and in the coming weeks.
Fighting chance: There aren't many people giving the Carolina Panthers (1-5) a chance to beat the Chicago Bears (5-1) at Soldier Field. The Bears were a nine-point favorite as of Friday morning. Among many other factors, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is 2-12 against opponents with winning records in his career. But if the Bears have reason to worry, it's about receiver Steve Smith. In three games against Bears teams coached by Lovie Smith, he has caught 34 passes for 568 yards and two touchdowns. That includes eight receptions for 181 yards last season. Is Smith the antidote to the Cover 2? Let's see if the Bears' top-ranked defense can corral him the same way it did Johnson last Monday night.