NFC North: 2013 NFL Midseason Report
How many other NFL teams could survive for any length of time without three of their top four targets in the passing game and minus their best defensive player?
Probably not many.
But the Green Bay Packers managed -- even after injuries to receivers Randall Cobb (fractured fibula), James Jones (knee) and tight end Jermichael Finley (neck) on offense and to outside linebacker Clay Matthews (broken thumb) on defense.
That was until they lost quarterback Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone in Monday night’s game against the Chicago Bears.
When Rodgers went down, so did their four-game winning streak.
Before Rodgers’ injury, the Packers looked every bit like one of the top teams in the NFC thanks to stellar play, as usual, from the quarterback and a rejuvenated running game with rookie Eddie Lacy.
Now, even at 5-3 and in a three-way tie with the Bears and Detroit Lions atop the NFC, the Packers’ prospects for the second half are in jeopardy.
GRADING THE GREEN BAY PACKERS
|Quarterbacks||Aaron Rodgers did not miss a beat despite losing receiver Randall Cobb (fractured fibula) in Week 6 and tight end Jermichael Finley (neck) in Week 7 and also playing without receiver James Jones (knee) for two games. About the only thing you can ding Rodgers for is failing to deliver a comeback victory in Week 3 at Cincinnati. Backup Seneca Wallace wasn't able to deliver much in relief of Rodgers and will have to play much better.|
|Running Backs||Eddie Lacy might be the leading contender for offensive rookie of the year. The only question is whether he can handle the heavy workload the rest of the way. If not, James Starks and Johnathan Franklin -- both of whom have 100-yard games already -- might be able to carry the load. Lacy and Franklin each lost fumbles in losses at San Francisco and Cincinnati, respectively.|
|Wide Receivers||The talk of three 1,000-yard receivers was scuttled after Cobb and Jones were hurt. Jordy Nelson has been forced to carry the load and is off to a strong start, while Jarrett Boykin and Myles White have provided perhaps more of a lift than anyone could have imagined.|
|Tight Ends||Jermichael Finley was a tackle-breaking, yards-after-catch machine before his neck injury against the Cleveland Browns, and there's no one else who can do the things he did in the passing game. Andrew Quarless might be a better blocker, but he's not the downfield threat the Packers had with Finley.|
|Offensive Line||Rookie David Bakhtiari was an upgrade over Marshall Newhouse at left tackle, and the same is true for Evan Dietrich-Smith at center over Jeff Saturday. Flip-flopping guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton has been seamless. The only weak link is right tackle Don Barclay, who is actually fine in the running game but struggles in pass protection. This group should get as much of the credit for the improved running game as the backs.|
|Defensive Line||The base 3-4 front of Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji -- three 325-plus-pounders -- has been the starting point for a top-10 run defense. Second-year pro Mike Daniels' pass rush has been a welcome addition, especially considering first-round pick Datone Jones has not been able to make a major impact.|
|Linebackers||Since Clay Matthews (thumb) and Nick Perry (foot) went down, the outside linebackers haven't scared many quarterbacks, and Mike Neal is still learning this new position. However, inside linebacker A.J. Hawk might be having one of his finest seasons, and Jamari Lattimore performed better than expected while Brad Jones (hamstring) was out.|
|Secondary||Since the 49ers threw for 412 yards in the opener and the Redskins for 320 in Week 2, things have improved in part due to the return of safety Morgan Burnett, who missed the first three games because of a hamstring injury. Cornerback Sam Shields has overtaken Tramon Williams as the lockdown guy, but this group needs to create more turnovers.|
|Special Teams||Kicker Mason Crosby's slump from 2012 appears to be behind him, and rookie Micah Hyde resurrected the punt return game. The coverage units have been hurt by injuries, forcing some of the core special-teams players off those units and into larger roles on offense and defense.|
|Coaching||You can quibble with some of Mike McCarthy's in-game decisions, but he has proved to be one of the best in the business at adapting to injuries. The next-man-up mentality is discussed in every NFL locker room, but McCarthy has made sure it works in Green Bay. Doing that without Rodgers, however, is a challenge on an entirely different level.|
Green Bay Packers, NFC North, Jeff Saturday, Jordy Nelson, Clay Matthews, Mason Crosby, Johnny Jolly, Tramon Williams, James Jones, Josh Sitton, Brad Jones, Ryan Pickett, Aaron Rodgers, Jermichael Finley, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Morgan Burnett, Andrew Quarless, James Starks, Sam Shields, Marshall Newhouse, Randall Cobb, Jamari Lattimore, Nick Perry, Mike Daniels, Don Barclay, Jarrett Boykin, Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin, Datone Jones, David Bakhtiari, Myles White, Micah Hyde, 2013 NFL Midseason Report, 2013 NFL Midseason Report NFC, 2013 NFL Midseason Report NFC North
The Detroit Lions are in a good position after the first half of the season, having already won more games this season (five) than last (four) and have seen improved play from a lot of their units.
So, for the most part, the Lions had a fairly even grading process. If they don’t make the playoffs, though, they could end up with a harsher final 2013 evaluation.
GRADING THE DETROIT LIONS
|Quarterbacks||Matthew Stafford is having the best season of his career and has led his team to three come-from-behind wins. He still makes some erratic decisions and his accuracy on intermediate and deep routes is less than 50 percent, but he has led his team to a 5-3 record and is growing in almost every facet.|
|Running Backs||As pure runners, the duo of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell has been good, but not great. Bush has been exactly what Detroit wanted as far as a hybrid receiver/runner, but he has dropped a lot of passes.|
|Wide Receivers||Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in the NFL and third in the league in receiving despite playing two fewer games than A.J. Green and DeSean Jackson, the two guys ahead of him. Kris Durham has emerged as a reliable target. Overall, though, drops remain an issue.|
|Tight Ends||Joseph Fauria has been a revelation -- when he has the ball thrown to him. Through either the game plans or because he's still learning how to be a complete tight end, Fauria has had games of great production or ones in which he didn't see a pass thrown his way. Brandon Pettigrew has played well the past month after struggling at the beginning of the year.|
|Offensive Line||Center Dominic Raiola is having one of the best seasons of his career and right guard Larry Warford has been the Lions' most consistent rookie. Detroit has also kept Stafford well protected despite injuries at both tackle spots.|
|Defensive Line||This is a tough grade to assess. From a statistics standpoint, Detroit's front four have not had numbers one would expect, but they have done a really good job pressuring quarterbacks. Ndamukong Suh is playing consistently and Ziggy Ansah has shown spurts of being a future good defensive end.|
|Linebackers||The only reason this is not an A is because they haven't been that great against the run. But DeAndre Levy is having the best season of his career and has been in the right position at the right time almost every time. Stephen Tulloch is playing fully healthy and back to a good level.|
|Secondary||The safeties have been good for the most part. Glover Quin was an inspired signing and has helped Louis Delmas play the most consistently of his career. But the cornerback play knocks this grade down. Chris Houston, Darius Slay and Bill Bentley have been inconsistent. Rashean Mathis has been consistent -- but inconsistently healthy. Too many big plays given up.|
|Special Teams||Sam Martin was worth drafting in April as he has been one of the best punters in the league save for a shank late against Cincinnati. David Akers has been fine as a kicker, but has had two kicks blocked due to poor protection. Kick and punt coverage have been great. Kick and punt return, headed by Micheal Spurlock, have been below average.|
|Coaching||Detroit's coaching staff, headed by Jim Schwartz, has not made any colossal blunders or any massive game-changers positively. It has just done a good job coaching this season in almost every facet. Detroit is 5-3 at the halfway point and is in playoff contention. The biggest question has been two-minute situations, which have been suspect.|
Detroit Lions, Calvin Johnson, Louis Delmas, DeAndre Levy, Detroit Lions, David Akers, Dominic Raiola, Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, Reggie Bush, Rashean Mathis, Kris Durham, Stephen Tulloch, Joique Bell, Glover Quin, Sam Martin, Larry Warford, Joseph Fauria, 2013 NFL Midseason Report, 2013 NFL Midseason Report NFC, Midseason Report, Midseason Review, 2013 NFL Midseason Report NFC North
Interestingly, it took years for the Chicago Bears to finally put together what appears to be a prolific offense, only to have the team’s perennially strong defense start to show signs of decline, in part because of injuries and a lack of depth.
So, while the offense finally checks in with high grades because of better protection, a bevy of weapons and a reinvented quarterback in Jay Cutler, Chicago’s loss of two starters for the season on the defensive line and one at linebacker, as well as nagging injuries that have forced other starters to miss time, have sucked the life out of what has traditionally been one of the league’s better defenses. What is concerning is the Bears haven’t shown any indication that things will improve on defense.
In fact, it appears the Bears will have to wait until free agency and the draft to address a suddenly porous defense.
GRADING THE CHICAGO BEARS
|Quarterbacks||Prior to tearing a groin muscle, Jay Cutler passed for 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and a 91.7 passer rating through the first seven games, which ranks as a career high for the quarterback. Backup Josh McCown replaced Cutler in the second quarter of a loss to the Redskins and the offense didn't skip a beat. Once Cutler returns, look for him to continue to play the most efficient football of his tenure as a Chicago Bear.|
|Running Backs||Matt Forte ranks in the top 10 of every major statistical category for a running back, and through the first seven games generated 795 yards from scrimmage, good for fifth-most in the NFL. Backup Michael Bush needs to pick it up, though. His 1.8 yards per carry puts the "minus" in this overall letter grade.|
|Wide Receivers||Brandon Marshall is on pace to finish with 105 catches for 1,234 yards, but even more surprising is the fact No. 2 target Alshon Jeffery in on pace to catch 75 balls for 1,282 yards. Balance among the receivers seemed unachievable in the past, but now the club is getting to the point where opponents are playing a pick-your-poison game. Earl Bennett has been a strong complementary piece.|
|Tight Ends||Martellus Bennett has been up and down as a blocker, but as a receiver the Bears got just what they sought in the offseason: a dynamic threat down the middle capable of exploiting mismatches. With no catches and mediocre blocking skills, No. 2 tight end Dante Rosario has been underwhelming for the most part.|
|Offensive Line||Cutler suffered 10 sacks through the first seven games, including the one against the Redskins that resulted in the torn groin muscle. But for the most part, the Bears have adequately protected the quarterbacks and opened up lanes in the running game. Rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills have been impressive, but the Mills' play has slipped some as of late.|
|Defensive Line||After seven games, the Bears were the only team in the NFL with a single-digit sack total (9), with more than half of those sacks (5) coming from linebackers. Obviously, injuries have taken a toll, as they've lost two starters to season-ending injuries and used six different combinations of starters through the first seven games.|
|Linebackers||This group deserves some credit for boosting the team's sack totals, but attrition has hit here, too, with the Bears losing D.J. Williams for the season and stalwart Lance Briggs for four to six weeks because of a fracture in his shoulder. The Bears are starting two rookies in Khaseem Greene and Jonathan Bostic, and collectively, the group hasn't played badly, but it's been slightly above average.|
|Secondary||The grade here would be worse if not for veteran cornerbacks Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings and Zack Bowman accounting for eight of the team's 18 takeaways (including seven interceptions) through the first seven contests. Inconsistent play up front no doubt has contributed to the group's slide, along with up-and-down play from safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte.|
|Special Teams||Because of all the injuries, several young players are being asked to come in and take prominent roles on special teams, and haven't handled the responsibility well. The coverage teams rank in the bottom half of the league in yardage allowed on punts, kickoffs and gross punt average, but Devin Hester has helped the punt return unit average 13.3 yards per return, which is good for fifth in the NFL.|
|Coaching||Marc Trestman, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh deserve credit for putting together perhaps one of the best offenses this franchise has seen thanks to a quarterback-friendly system that Cutler believes in. On the other side of the ball, Mel Tucker has tried several wrinkles to compensate for the team's injuries and lackluster replacement players with a little success, but not enough to inspire faith in the defense late in the season.|
Coming off a 10-6 season and a playoff berth, the Vikings didn't expect to be one of the three worst teams in the NFL at the halfway point. They certainly didn't expect to arrive here this way, with three different starting quarterbacks, three last-minute defensive collapses and exactly one win, which came when the team faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in London. With injuries rampant on defense, uncertainty at the quarterback position and an embattled coaching staff, the Vikings simply need to get their house in order in the second half of the season.
GRADING THE MINNESOTA VIKINGS
|Quarterbacks||This has been the highest-profile problem the Vikings have had, but it probably hasn't been the biggest; their issues in the defensive secondary might be of even greater concern. Still, the Vikings haven't seen any development out of Christian Ponder, and they seem to have decided Matt Cassel -- who led them to their one win -- isn't their solution, which led them to sign Josh Freeman and rush him into action. Since Freeman's first start with the Vikings -- a 20-for-53 showing and a concussion on "Monday Night Football" -- he has not returned.|
|Running Backs||Adrian Peterson hasn't been the same dominant runner he was during his MVP season, but it wasn't realistic to expect him to run for 2,097 yards again. He finally looked like his typical self on Sunday, running for 140 yards and punishing would-be tacklers. Peterson looked hesitant early in the season, though, trying to turn too many runs into big gains, and after missing the first three games because of a suspension, fullback Jerome Felton has only recently regained his form as Peterson's escort.|
|Wide Receivers||The group can only do so much, considering what's happened at the quarterback position. Greg Jennings has probably been affected by the QB switches the most; he has a modest 31 catches for 392 yards, and his only big game came with Cassel against the Steelers. Jerome Simpson has been a pleasant surprise after a disappointing 2012 season -- he has 29 catches for 446 yards -- but he hasn't been a factor in four weeks. Rookie Cordarrelle Patterson hasn't been able to get on the field; he's got just 16 catches in a limited role in the offense.|
|Tight Ends||Kyle Rudolph had a touchdown on Sunday before breaking his foot, but hasn't been as reliable a red zone threat or as consistent a run blocker as he was last year. The Vikings also haven't been very effective running the ball with multiple tight end sets; after Adrian Peterson broke a 78-yard run on the first play of the season, he's averaged just 2.75 yards per carry with two or more tight ends on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information.|
|Offensive Line||The group has played better after an ugly start to the season, but Vikings quarterbacks have still been sacked 20 times, and it's tough to explain why the line has had so much trouble opening holes for Peterson at times. The left side of the Vikings' line has been particularly troubling; tackle Matt Kalil has given up a sack, nine quarterback hits and 18 hurries after allowing one sack, four hits and 20 hurries all of last year, according to Pro Football Focus. And left guard Charlie Johnson has been beaten on several blitzes, allowing a pair of sacks.|
|Defensive Line||What was expected to be one of the strongest, deepest units on the team hasn't been able to get to the quarterback or stop the run like it used to; Vikings linemen have only 12 sacks, and the group has contributed to the Vikings allowing at least 100 yards rushing in five of their eight games. Lineman Everson Griffen, who was expected by many to have a breakout season, has just two sacks halfway through the season.|
|Linebackers||The Vikings haven't spent much time in their base defense, which has limited the impact of losing Desmond Bishop to a torn ACL. But Erin Henderson has struggled in pass coverage in his new role as the middle linebacker, and Pro Bowler Chad Greenway has had even more trouble; teams have thrown for 504 yards against him, according to Pro Football Focus. That's the most allowed by any 4-3 outside linebacker in the league. The site also credits Greenway with 11 missed tackles, making him just one of 12 linebackers in the league who has missed double-digit tackles.|
|Secondary||A inexperienced group, riddled by injuries and burned at the end of several games, has been among the worst in the NFL. Slot cornerback Josh Robinson has been a favorite target of opposing quarterbacks, and though he might have had his best game on Sunday, he was on the wrong end of numerous big plays earlier this year. Rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes is also learning the nuances of zone coverage on the fly, Chris Cook has struggled to stay on the field and the group as a whole has dropped more than its share of interceptions.|
|Special Teams||At first, this grade might seem too low; Patterson has two kickoff returns for touchdowns, Marcus Sherels has one and Blair Walsh has only missed two field goals. But the Vikings have allowed three returns of at least 75 yards (two kickoffs, one punt), gave up a 34-yard run against Cleveland on a fake punt and allowed the Browns to throw for what wound up being a deciding touchdown on a fake field goal when tight end Jordan Cameron lined up alone along the sideline. Rookie punter Jeff Locke is also off to an uneven start; he is averaging 45.5 gross yards per punt, but his 38.9 net average is 25th in the league.|
|Coaching||Leslie Frazier has tried his best to keep the Vikings' positive momentum going from last season, but too often, the Vikings look like they've been figured out by opponents. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave hasn't opened up the passing game despite better weapons, but at times, he'll make perplexing decisions to throw instead of rely on Peterson. And defensive coordinator Alan Williams might be losing the confidence of his players after three late-game collapses. Players said after the first one they hadn't practiced the defense Williams called on the Bears' decisive touchdown, and Brian Robison and Kevin Williams openly criticized the Vikings' final-drive defensive calls on Sunday. With the Vikings at 1-7, Frazier and company could have a tough time keeping the team together.|