NFC North: 2011 Week 6 coverage



CHICAGO -- Quarterback Jay Cutler campaigned earlier in the week for plays featuring quicker releases to alleviate the beating he’d been taking.

Granted that request, the quarterback unleashed a beatdown of his own Sunday night in throwing for two touchdowns and finishing with a passer rating of 115.9 in a 39-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field.

By implementing shorter drops with quicker throws, offensive coordinator Mike Martz might have found a way to relieve some of the pressure on the club’s beleaguered offensive line, which actually pieced together one of its best showings of the season.

The Bears took the field with their fifth combination of starters along the offensive line, this week using Lance Louis at right tackle and Chris Spencer -- playing with a broken hand -- at right guard. The unit allowed only one sack. Surprisingly, the offensive line has given up only one sack in two of the past three games.

With the latest tweaks on offense, perhaps the Bears are onto something they can use in the coming games.

Let’s take a closer look at what transpired in this shellacking:

What it means: The Bears learned that flexibility -- especially on offense -- might be the best way to protect Cutler in the long run. More importantly, the club evened its record to 3-3 and gained a game on the Detroit Lions -- 25-19 losers to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday -- in the NFC North standings.

Obviously, Chicago still has quite a bit of catching up to do to get back into the division race. But the team needed some momentum headed into next week’s outing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If the Bears can come out victorious against the Bucs, they’ll be sitting at 4-3 headed into the bye.

Curious inactivity: Benched during the week of preparation for Sunday’s game, Bears veteran Chris Harris also mysteriously found himself on the club’s list of inactives.

Prior to the team’s official announcement of the move, Harris used Twitter to send out a couple of seemingly cryptic messages.

“The majority of the time adversity paves the way 4 success.”

Harris later tweeted: “How big/diff ur situation appears 2 b is a matter of perception. Most difficulties we face r pretty insignificant in the big scheme of things.”

The club made the decision to move Harris and two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather out of the starting lineup earlier in the week in favor of rookie Chris Conte and second-year man Major Wright. In the final year of his contract, Harris doesn’t believe he’s a part of the club’s future plans. With the team’s latest move, it appears Harris might be correct.

Rookie showings: Conte made his first career start Sunday, and rookie defensive tackle Stephen Paea finally made his NFL debut.

Starting at free safety in place of Meriweather, who was benched earlier in the week, Conte played a relatively mistake-free game, contributing five tackles through the first three quarters. A healthy scratch through the first five games, Paea was activated against the Vikings because of a sprained knee to veteran Matt Toeaina.

Paea posted two tackles in limited action, including a sack of Donovan McNabb in the first quarter for a safety.

Sack parade: After notching just one sack in the first half, Chicago utilized the trio of Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije, and Amobi Okoye for four sacks of McNabb in the third quarter alone.

Hobbled by a sprained left knee, Peppers sacked McNabb twice and Idonije and Okoye chipped in sacks, too.

Record-setting Hester: Devin Hester extended his return touchdowns record to 16 with a 98-yard TD return on a third-quarter kickoff return.

Hester appeared close to breaking for another score the next time he touched the ball, but was run out of bounds at the Minnesota 38 after a 27-yard return. Hester gained 134 yards on returns.

What’s next: The Bears travel to London to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium. The club desperately hopes to move to 4-3 going into the bye because tough matchups are on the horizon. After the week off, the Bears face the Philadelphia Eagles on the road, followed by the Lions and San Diego Chargers.

Lions well-equipped to bounce back

October, 16, 2011
10/16/11
7:55
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Matt StaffordAP Photo/Duane BurlesonThe 49ers kept pressure on Lions QB Matthew Stafford, sacking him five times on Sunday.

DETROIT -- December 5, 2010.

"That date stands out in my mind," Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola was saying in low tones Sunday afternoon. Not since that seemingly mundane winter day had Raiola's Lions lost, in any venue or under any circumstances. Over the next 312 days, the Lions ran off 13 consecutive victories, if you count the 2011 preseason, and captured both the city of Detroit and the NFL by storm.

Now, as Raiola said Sunday: "We'll see what we're made of."

The Lions were bound to lose at some point. I don't think any of us were expecting an undefeated season. But we'll soon see if they are a team built for long-term success or if they will tumble back to the rest of the NFL pack.

I suspect it is the former, even after a disappointing 25-19 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, a game punctuated by a stalled offense and concluded by a fracas that revealed a new level of passion and/or lunacy from the Lions' head coach. I know that Lions coach Jim Schwartz was offended by a purported breach of postgame protocol, but to me Jim Harbaugh's jubilance was both compliment and a comment on the Lions' progress and new standing within the league.

Before Dec. 5 of last year, NFL teams didn't celebrate when they beat the Lions. They walked off the field numbly because a victory was a matter of course. Harbaugh and his 49ers are now 5-1, and they fully recognized how formidable the Lions have become.

"We overcame a really good team," Harbaugh said.

The Lions lost Sunday for a number of schematic reasons. They were at a loss against 49ers running back Frank Gore, who ripped off a 55-yard run in the third quarter and finished with 141 yards on 15 carries. Their offense, meanwhile, was left dinking and dunking down the field, inhibited by an ineffective running game and distracted by a 49ers pass rush that sacked quarterback Matthew Stafford five times and hit on him 10 other occasions.

That the 49ers sent an extra pass rusher on only one passing play, according to ESPN Stats & Information, is a bit concerning. But for the most part, the Lions played step-for-step with an opponent that has now emerged as one of the NFC's top teams.

In the grand scheme, that's an encouraging sign. But here is a more important one: The Lions were a determined and resolute group afterward, one that recognizes its progress and has no intention of losing the opportunity it has created for itself in 2011.

As silly as it might have appeared to outsiders, players were thrilled to see Schwartz's postgame charge at Harbaugh and seemed intent on channeling his passion.

"Whether you've got a suit on or you're suiting up for the game," receiver Nate Burleson said, "everyone in this organization is passionate about what we put together and the logo on our helmets. It's not just players. You guys might see it on game day. We talk to you when we're open to the media, but I don't think you guys truly understand how passionate we are about being a good team. And that is obviously seen in the coaches as well as the players."

I know most Lions fans aren't happy with my post on Schwartz's postgame antics. I'm going to stand my ground. I think there are better ways for an NFL coach to comport himself in a moment of high emotions, regardless of the circumstances.

But I don't mind saying that Schwartz's reaction is one of the reasons I think the Lions will move past this loss and get back to it next week against the Atlanta Falcons. I don't think Schwartz was frustrated as much as he was angry and unwilling to accept defeat. (I'm thinking Schwartz also didn't like the fact Harbaugh got to celebrate the way he usually does, but I'm done with that topic for now.)

Through these past 312 days, the Lions "haven't known what it's like to lose," Raiola said. That's a good thing. The Lions got a taste of it Sunday against a really good team and didn't like it one bit. And it wasn't just Schwartz. Lions defensive end Cliff Avril got into it via Twitter with 49ers offensive lineman Anthony Davis, who has since deleted his share of the back-and-forth.

With that said, the Lions will have to address some important football issues this week. At the top of the list is figuring out an answer to the kind of athletic front seven the 49ers presented. For the most part, the 49ers played tight coverage on short-and-intermediate routes and get away with it. The Lions didn't beat them for the kind of big plays that catapulted them for to the 5-0 start.

"We were just behind the sticks today," Stafford said. "We didn't do enough as an offense to make them pay."

But none of the Lions' issues Sunday seemed permanent nor debilitating. They still have an offense that can be explosive and a defense that makes its share of big plays. The only conclusion we can draw, as Schwartz said, is the Lions "are not going to go 16-0."

Schwartz let his emotions get the best of him Sunday, but his team appears built with the appropriate levels of passion and realism to take what it learned over the past 312 days and continue on the right path.

"You can't be too disappointed when you're playing against one of the best defenses in the league," Burleson said. "Obviously our expectations are higher for ourselves. … Today was more or less two very competitive teams and a lot of adrenaline in the air."

It might sound trite, but it's true: You win some, and by rule you're going to lose some, too. The Lions' displeasure with Sunday's result suggests they're in for more of the former and less of the latter.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 25, Lions 19

October, 16, 2011
10/16/11
4:41
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DETROIT -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' first loss of the season:

What it means: The Lions lost for the first time since Week 12 of the 2010 season, missing an opportunity to start 6-0 for the first time since 1956. The end came dramatically in a seesaw game: The San Francisco 49ers' Delanie Walker scored on a 6-yard pass on fourth down with 1 minute, 56 seconds remaining. Officials reviewed the play to determine whether Walker's right knee hit the ground before the ball crossed the plane. I saw no angle to suggest that it did.

MegatronWatch: It's time to launch an investigation. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson didn't catch a touchdown pass for the first time all season. He did, however, haul in six passes for 102 yards, including a 41-yarder that set up a go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdown.

"Process" call redux? Surely you remember the touchdown that Johnson lost against the Chicago Bears in Week 1 of the 2010 season. I honestly thought the Lions would fall victim to the same "process of the catch" rule Sunday when receiver Nate Burleson caught what appeared to be a 5-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. Burleson got both feet in bounds, but he used the ball to brace himself as he stepped onto the netting behind in the end zone. The ball remained on the ground, and referee Mike Carey ruled the pass incomplete. Carey reversed the call after a challenge from Lions coach Jim Schwartz. As much as I hate the rule, I'm not sure how Carey viewed the Burleson play differently than the NFL viewed Johnson's noncatch last season. Maybe we'll learn more after the game.

StaffordWatch: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had a great start to this season, but Sunday was probably his worst game of the year. He was sacked five times, including once for a safety, and looked tentative in the pocket thereafter. I didn't like how many sidearm passes he threw, which told me he was trying to squeeze the ball into too-small targets, and had at least two balls slip from his hand in the pocket. Consider it a learning experience.

Ford FieldWatch: By my count, the 49ers had five false-start penalties on offense. That brings the two-game total at suddenly raucous Ford Field to 14. There were some nervous moments Sunday in Detroit, but the numbers are the numbers.

What's next: The Lions will host the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field.

Wrap-up: Packers 24, Rams 3

October, 16, 2011
10/16/11
4:01
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A few thoughts on the Green Bay Packers' 24-3 victory against the St. Louis Rams:

What it means: The Packers are 6-0 for the first time since 1965. They did most of their offensive damage in the second quarter and cruised through a scoreless second half. Despite giving up 424 yards to the Rams' previously anemic offense, nothing that happened Sunday changed my mind about the Packers' status as the NFL's top team.

RodgersWatch: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a perfect passer rating at halftime after throwing three touchdown passes in the second quarter, including a 93-yarder to receiver Jordy Nelson against some bumbling Rams coverage. But if you were hoping to see Rodgers pile up some record-breaking numbers thereafter, I'm sorry to report it didn't happen. Rodgers managed just 49 yards after halftime, but with a three-score lead, he didn't need to do much.

Offensive numbers: The Packers gave up 321 passing yards to Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. Running back Steven Jackson had 96 yards. If you heard those numbers before the game, you would have thought the Rams would have been in the game. But a Sam Shields interception in the end zone ended one drive, and the Packers' defense made the plays when it counted.

What's next: The Packers will travel to their home away from home at the Metrodome to take on the Minnesota Vikings. Packers fans, many of them local, annually buy up thousands of tickets for that game.

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