NFC North: A.J. Green

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings made no secret of their desire to take a quarterback in the first round of the 2011 draft, and TCU's Andy Dalton was high on their list of options. They brought Dalton to their team facility for their annual top-30 prospects event, where coach Leslie Frazier said he came away liking Dalton even more.

"I watched him on tape. I looked at him a lot, and then when he came to visit, I sat down and talked with him," Frazier said. "I was really, really impressed with his leadership. We had another offensive lineman here at the time from the same school, and I talked with him about Andy, because I was so impressed. And then watching him on tape, he's done a lot of things that we kind of thought he would be able to do. He's a very good football player, a solid player."

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliChristian Ponder's numbers don't stack up well against those of most of his peers from the 2011 quarterback draft class.
It all had Dalton believing he could possibly go to the Vikings with the 12th pick in the draft, but beforehand, the Vikings had decided they wanted to target Florida State's Christian Ponder. They selected him 12th overall, and Dalton slid to No. 35, where the Cincinnati Bengals paired him with Georgia wideout A.J. Green, whom they'd taken ahead of all but one quarterback with the No. 4 overall pick.

The decisions have taken the Bengals and Vikings in markedly different directions. Cincinnati hasn't missed the playoffs in three seasons with Dalton as the starter, and Green has become a star a receiver. Ponder, meanwhile, will spend the final two games of his third season on the bench, barring an injury to Matt Cassel, and while Frazier said the decision to target Ponder over Dalton "worked out fine," it's hard to praise the decision in retrospect when Ponder hasn't played well enough to keep the starting job.

"He was our guy. We made that decision early on, and fortunately for us, we got to, I think it was 12, and he was there," Frazier said. "There were some other guys that went before him, but it worked out for us."

Dalton has certainly had issues as the Bengals' quarterback -- in fact, his Total QBR numbers aren't much better than Ponder's -- and he's had the benefit of a bona fide star at receiver like Green. He's been more prolific than Ponder, but he's thrown too many interceptions and has a worse completion percentage (61.5 percent to Ponder's 63.6 percent). But while the jury is still out on him in Cincinnati, he's at least been able to get the Bengals to the playoffs consistently, which has bought him more job security than Ponder.

Dalton said he still keeps track of the 2011 draft class, after playing some of them in college and going through the draft process with them. He and Ponder both played high school football in Texas at the same time, and Dalton said he went into the Senior Bowl that year well aware of whom he was competing against.

"You just try to impress everybody that you can," he said Wednesday. "You never know what's going to happen with the draft, and it's good to be on the same field with some of those guys and measure where you're at in different things. You kind of put yourself in a place to have that competition with those other guys."

Though Dalton hasn't answered all of the questions about his ability to play quarterback in the NFL, he's certainly ahead of Ponder in the competition at this point. And by next spring, the Vikings could be combing through another class of rookie quarterbacks. It's unlikely the Bengals will be doing the same.

 
Matthew Stafford had a season-low completion percentage, a season-high in dropbacks and his highest QBR (81.9) of the season.

Calvin Johnson, though, was clearly back at close to full form, grabbing a season-high for yards and the most yards he has had since a 225-yard effort against Atlanta last season.

Here are some more numbers from Detroit’s 27-24 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday.

30 -- Percent of drives for both Cincinnati and Detroit that ended in touchdowns.

4 -- Times those wearing No. 18 were called for offensive pass interference Sunday -- Detroit’s Kris Durham and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green were both flagged twice (Hat tip on this number goes to Twitter follower @trc_terpstra).

0 -- Turnovers forced by Detroit, the second time this has happened this season. The Lions also lost the other game, against Green Bay.

2.5 -- Yards per Reggie Bush run on Sunday, his lowest of the season.

0 -- Credited dropped passes by Detroit receivers, the first time that happened all season.

54.9 -- Completion percentage for quarterback Matthew Stafford, his lowest of the season.

41.4 -- Average yards per drive Sunday for the Lions, second highest in the NFL (before Monday night’s game).

7.94 -- Yards per play allowed by Detroit’s defense, worst in the league on Sunday.

155 -- Yards each from both Calvin Johnson and Green on Sunday -- the highest in the league.

43 -- Snaps for undrafted rookie free agent tackle LaAdrian Waddle at both left and right tackle Sunday, the first true offensive action of his career.

8 -- Lions who played every offensive or defensive snap Sunday (Dominic Raiola, Rob Sims, Larry Warford and Matthew Stafford on offense; Stephen Tulloch, DeAndre Levy, Glover Quin and Louis Delmas on defense).

8 -- Offensive snaps for Jeremy Ross, the Lions wide receiver promoted from the practice squad Saturday. He had no targets and no catches.

Some numbers in this report came from ESPN Stats & Information. Follow Stats & Information on Twitter @ESPNStatsInfo
Matthew Stafford had looked, kind of, for Calvin Johnson the play before. He was rushed. He threw the ball away and backed his team up with a rare intentional grounding call.

Plus, Detroit's right tackle, Corey Hilliard, injured his knee on the play. Down by seven points and backed up to a third-and-18 with 12 minutes, 10 seconds to go in the game, he stepped into the shotgun.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsDetroit's Calvin Johnson jumps up to catch a 50-yard touchdown pass in what some players are calling the "best catch" ever.
Later, Detroit coach Jim Schwartz would say what came next was “schemed up.” Except not all of it could have been. No chance at all. Because no one schemes throwing to a receiver in triple coverage, even if it is Johnson.

And no one can realistically expect Johnson to come down with that catch. Yet he did.

Stafford lined up in shotgun, a running back directly to his left. Receiver Kris Durham was wide left and Ryan Broyles wide right. Johnson was in the slot and tight end Brandon Pettigrew was just off the line to the right side.

Then the ball was snapped.

“Rolled out right and they did a great job of playing deep to short (Sunday) with Calvin on the field,” Stafford said. “Held it as long as I could.”

Stafford rolled and actually had time to let Johnson streak down the field. Left tackle Riley Reiff, who had re-entered the game on that play after injuring his right hamstring earlier Sunday, had a good single block on Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson.

Center Dominic Raiola and left guard Rob Sims initially held their block as well, giving Stafford time to scan. But Raiola eventually lost his guy, sending Stafford running forward looking downfield.

Around the same time, Johnson -- who had been running just inside the numbers on the right side of the field -- cut inside to the post at the 30-yard line. Cincinnati safety George Iloka looked to pick Johnson up at this point in what appeared to be zone coverage. Iloka, though, could never get in front of Johnson, trailing him from the back the entire way.

Meanwhile, Stafford was running forward with Michael Johnson trailing him and closing fast.

“Matt had to buy a little time in the pocket and, you know, we saw that guy bearing down on him and didn’t know if he was going to be able to get that ball off,” Schwartz said.

He did, releasing the ball at the Detroit 48-yard line toward the end zone. What happened next was the surprising part.

Johnson found some room in the end zone, but was blanketed by Iloka behind him, linebacker Vontaze Burfict just to the left of him and a closing safety, Reggie Nelson, running toward the play and lining up to either intercept the ball or knock it down.

Nelson jumped with one foot instead of two and appeared to almost tip the ball, but Johnson appeared to reach up over him to grab it. He declined to talk with reporters after Sunday’s game.

“Oh man,” said Durham, who was close enough on the play to be the first Lions player to reach Johnson after he caught it. “That was in triple coverage. You’ve just got to say ‘Wow.’

“He’s probably the only person I’ve ever seen that could be able to make that play.”

Stafford didn’t see much of it. Michael Johnson hit him milliseconds after he threw the ball. Stafford’s head was initially down, but he looked up after a few seconds.

“Didn’t see a whole lot of it,” Stafford said. “Saw the very end of it with one of the best catches I’ve ever seen.”

It was one big catch in a day of many large catches for Johnson, who finished with nine for 155 yards and two touchdowns. None, though, as spectacular as his 50-yard grab in triple coverage -- a catch Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green called “unbelievable” and “the best I have ever seen.”

“He was also Megatron yesterday,” Schwartz said Monday, answering a question about Johnson’s health. “He wasn’t Calvin yesterday. He was Megatron yesterday.

“And he did everything he could to get us in position to win that game.”
Good morning and ROOOARRRR!!!!

DETROIT -- Two weeks ago, undrafted rookie tackle LaAdrian Waddle was inactive for the Detroit Lions, not deemed part of the 46-man roster that would participate against Green Bay. Two weeks and three injuries later, Waddle played the majority of Sunday’s 27-24 loss to Cincinnati.

He jumped up to the active roster when right tackle Jason Fox injured his knee against the Packers. He ended up on the field when starting left tackle Riley Reiff injured his hamstring. Then, when right tackle Corey Hilliard hurt his knee, Reiff returned to the game and Waddle moved from left tackle to right.

“When your number is called, you just got to be ready to go,” Waddle said. “Some guys got a little banged up [Sunday], so I had to get in there and had to do what I do and had to be ready to help the team out.”

The Lions picked up Waddle out of Texas Tech, one of two undrafted rookies to make the team, along with tight end Joseph Fauria.

So how did Waddle think he did in his first extensive offensive action?

“I feel like I did all right, but I mean, I feel like I didn’t play to my standards,” Waddle said. “Just because I hold myself to probably a higher standard than most people do. But I feel like there’s a lot of things I could have done better on.”

Waddle is going to be someone to watch this week since Fox has missed two straight games and both Reiff and Hilliard were at least a little bit injured in the loss to Cincinnati.

Simply, right now Waddle is Detroit’s only completely healthy offensive tackle.

Now, a look around the Interwebs in search of Lions news:

We’ll start with Ndamukong Suh chatting on Twitter about the hit Indianapolis punter Pat McAfee laid on Denver returner Trindon Holliday.



Now on to links from Sunday’s game.
DETROIT -- All week, the Detroit Lions worked on how to stop Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green. They knew his tendency to use double moves to break free from defenders.

They knew how smooth Green is running his routes, which is part of the deception that makes him one of the best receivers in the NFL. Then on Sunday, none of that mattered, all the work Detroit put in meant nothing.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green and Chris Houston
AP Photo/Paul SancyaA.J. Green beat Chris Houston for an 82-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
Green double moved the Lions all day anyway, catching six passes for 155 yards and sometimes being extremely wide open for an NFL receiver.

“We didn’t want to give up big plays to [Green],” Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz said. “He goes and makes a huge pay early in the game and it was something that was a big point of emphasis all week.

“All his double moves and things like that, stuff we worked on all week and we didn’t execute well enough in that.”

It started from the first drive, when cornerback Chris Houston bit on a Green double move, resulting in an 82-yard touchdown. It continued throughout the game and it didn’t matter whether Houston, Rashean Mathis or Darius Slay drew the coverage.

Green found a way to get open. Found a way to catch the ball.

The double moves made Houston less aggressive.

“I’m getting these moves every week,” Houston said. “I guess because I’m used to breaking on things aggressively and they double move me every week. ... I put this loss on me. Not nobody else. I put it on me.”

He wasn’t the only one who had some issues, though. Cincinnati’s receivers and tight ends were open throughout the day, allowing Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to complete 24 of 34 passes for 372 yards and three touchdowns.

Despite the struggles, there is some confidence within Detroit’s defensive backs. Mathis broke up three passes before leaving the game with a groin injury. Its safeties continued to play well, with Glover Quin breaking up what would have been another long Green touchdown and Louis Delmas making a key third down stop on a screen.

“Right now we are confident in our guys, we are confident in what we are doing and I mean, we’re going to keep working,” Quin said. “It’s a long season. Just keep going, keep going. It’s all about fighting through all the little small things, all the little nicks and knacks and just keep playing and keep getting better.

“We still got, what, nine games left. Just keep working, keep working. The goal is to keep working and be as good as we can down the stretch and toward the end of the season hopefully get into the playoffs. So we have to keep working on what we’re doing.”

After Green and Dalton exploited the Detroit secondary, however, the Lions know exactly where that work needs to come.
Some halftime thoughts as the Cincinnati Bengals lead the Detroit Lions, 14-10, at the half.

Not finishing drives: Detroit has moved the ball fairly well during the first half, but stalled twice inside the red zone. One resulted in a David Akers field goal. The other was a blocked field-goal attempt by Akers from 34 yards with a little under three minutes left in the first half. Detroit has been good in red zone opportunities this season, scoring touchdowns 61.9 percent of the time entering Sunday. The Lions struggled there in the first half and considering their inability to cover A.J. Green (more on that next), that could be a problem.

Defend A.J. Green better: It might sound silly, but Detroit gave Green a ton of cushion in the first half and it showed. He burnt Lions cornerback Chris Houston on a double move in the first quarter that led to the Bengals’ only touchdown. Green has four catches for 135 yards and a touchdown in the first half and has caught all four of his targets. In the realm of the NFL, none were particularly difficult catches and two of them, including the touchdown, were wide open. Detroit will have to figure out some scheme change there. The Lions have been good against Tyler Eifert, though, as he has no catches and has just been targeted once.

Injuries a concern: Detroit knew it’d be without starting right tackle Jason Fox (he’s been out for a while), but the Lions also lost left tackle Riley Reiff to a hamstring injury in the second quarter. This leaves Detroit without both of its Week 1 starting tackles. Unlike losing Fox and having a veteran like Corey Hilliard backing him up, the Lions are going with undrafted free agent LaAdrian Waddle at left tackle while Reiff is out. It’ll be interesting to see how he holds up as the game progresses. He has been decent in his first real action.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The last time A.J. Green played in Detroit was his first time wearing an NFL uniform in a game. His first preseason game. His rookie year.

Already down two touchdowns in the first quarter, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton threw Green the ball on his very first play as a Bengal. It was intercepted by Detroit cornerback Chris Houston.

Not the start Green would have wanted.

“I had to make a tackle,” Green said. “I hope I get off to a better start than that.”

Since that point, not much has gone wrong for Green, who visits Detroit on Sunday with the Bengals.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsBengals receiver A.J. Green has 37 catches for 464 yards and 4 touchdowns this season.
Over the past three seasons, stopping Green has been a major issue. He has 11 100-yard games in his first 37 games. In his career, he’s only dropped 14 passes. Since entering the league as a first-round draft pick out of Georgia in 2011, he’s seventh in the NFL in receiving yards (2,871) and of guys in the top 10 in that span, only Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith and Dez Bryant have fewer drops.

In the past three years, he’s caught 22 touchdown passes, tied for 10th in the league during that span.

Part of what makes him good is he is incredibly tough to read as a receiver. He is a vertical threat, much like his offseason workout partner, Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, but his ability to run any route is what makes him completely dangerous.

“You can tell he works on every part of his game,” Houston said. “Some guys, you can just know that they just run nines, jump balls, and they are not good in-and-out of breaks.
“Him, you’ve got to play everything because he’s so precise in everything he does.”

There is a rare fluidity there, something only a few receivers have and even less are able to excel with. But Detroit cornerback Rashean Mathis has been around a while.

He’s covered a lot of receivers. As a former Pro Bowler, he’s handled a lot of them well, too. Green, though, he’s one of the best current NFL receivers Mathis has seen.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys,” Mathis said. “But there’s not a lot of guys that possess the smoothness of route running that he has, that capability. He can be an explosive guy as well.
“It’s a good combination he has.”

But the key to stopping Cincinnati’s offense is to keep Green from taking those vertical routes too often. Force him to use those quick stops and fluid movements he has when he’s making cuts to run hitches and slants instead of go routes, corners and posts.

This, Houston believes, is the way to frustrate Cincinnati’s offense.

In some ways, Detroit’s cornerbacks practice this every day because they have the older, perhaps more elite version of Green: Johnson.

Like any quarterback in the league, Dalton throws a lot of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and Dalton likes to go outside of the hashmarks on those throws. When throwing to receivers, Dalton has been his most efficient throwing to the outside of the field. His highest completion percentage beyond the line of scrimmage is to the left side of the field between the line of scrimmage and 10 yards away, where he is completing 75 percent of his passes.

Three of Dalton’s four highest QBR zones are on the left side from 10-to-20 yards away (94.3) and then deeper than 20 yards (86.7) along with over the middle more than 20 yards away (98.5).

“They want their quarterback not to make mistakes,” Houston said. “A lot of quick three-step (drops), lot of quick five-step (drops).

“Then, once you start biting up on the quick three-and-five step, then they hit you deep.”

A lot of that deeper success comes because of the route running fluidity Green possesses. When he makes it hard to read, he becomes that much more difficult to stop. And it has turned him into one of the best receivers in the NFL.

“You could put him up there,” Mathis said. “I’m not the one to crown anyone too quick but he’s made plays his first three years so to knock him, you can’t do that. You have to give him his props.

“He’s a very good young talent and if he keeps it up you definitely can put him in the top three or four receivers in the league easily.”

ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey contributed to this report. Information from ESPN Stats & Information was also used in this report.
Ndamukong Suh and Geno AtkinsAP PhotoNdamukong Suh and Geno Atkins lead two of the league's best front fours.
The Detroit Lions have a chance to solidify themselves for a playoff push. So do the Cincinnati Bengals. They may be in different conferences, but this game should be a good test for both teams as to where they stand in the larger picture of the NFL.

Both teams lead their divisions, and both won on the road last week. And in the wacky world of the NFL, Detroit has beaten both teams Cincinnati has lost to (Chicago and Cleveland) while the Bengals have beaten one of the two teams the Lions lost to (Green Bay).

As for this week’s game, Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein break down what should be an interesting matchup.

Rothstein: Detroit's cornerbacks continue to either be banged up (starters Chris Houston and Rashean Mathis) or really young (rookie Darius Slay). How much of a problem is A.J. Green going to pose in this situation? Does he feast on these matchups?

Harvey: Given the Lions’ lack of experience and consistency at cornerback, that could be a problem for Detroit this weekend. Or maybe it will be a good thing. Here’s what I mean: Green does well when he’s going one-on-one against particular defensive backs, and he seems to relish having opportunities to expose both really good and really poor corners. Against Buffalo’s Leodis McKelvin on Sunday, Green caught six passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. He was targeted 11 times as the Bengals went more to their receivers than they had the week before. As good as McKelvin is, though, he’s no Charles Tillman, whom Green caught nine passes against in Week 1. He also isn’t Joe Haden, who allowed Green to catch seven balls but held him to just 51 yards in Cleveland three weeks ago. So Detroit having a revolving door at corner could be problematic since Green has had his opportunities against some of the league’s best this season.

As far as the inexperience and inconsistency at the position being a good thing for the Lions, I say that because that might prompt Detroit to double-team Green. As we’ve seen this season, Green struggles when safeties are able to come over the top and help out in coverage against him. If double coverage ends up being a cornerstone of the Lions’ game plan, Green could have a tough day.

We’ll stick with receivers, and I'll ask you, Michael, about Calvin Johnson. We know he’s hobbled a bit with that knee injury, but how much do you think he’s looking forward to squaring off with a guy like Green, who also is considered one of the game’s best receivers?

Rothstein: Johnson seems to enjoy seeing other top receivers on the field, but he gets more excited to see topflight opposing cornerbacks like Patrick Peterson. For instance, he and Peterson swapped jerseys after their Week 2 game.

His knee is a concern. He didn't quite look like himself against Cleveland on Sunday, dropping a couple of passes and not being his typical deep threat. But when he is out there, teams still have to pay extra attention to him because he is the top receiver in the game.

Johnson's presence changes a lot, even if he can't go deep. Detroit can still use him on underneath routes, and he's still likely to draw the double-team or added attention, especially in the red zone. As long as he can do some things and run some routes, Johnson will be out there and making a difference.

That leads me to this question -- how will Cincinnati's defense handle both the questionable health of Johnson combined with everything else Detroit's offense has to offer?

Harvey: Cincinnati’s top corner, Leon Hall, likely will draw the bulk of reps against Johnson, even though, at 5-foot-11, he stands some six inches shorter than his 6-5 counterpart. It’ll be interesting to see how Hall and the other defensive backs handle the threat of the deep ball, assuming Johnson can run better and get underneath those passes this week. If he’s forced to go underneath, the Bengals feel confident their cover linebackers -- Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict and Michael Boley -- and cover safety Taylor Mays can disrupt short- to intermediate-range passes.

When it comes to stopping Reggie Bush in the run game, the Bengals have the type of defensive front that will make such a matchup intriguing. Last week, against the No. 3 rushing offense in the NFL, they gave up 130 yards on the ground but limited Fred Jackson to just 35 yards on 10 carries. With fewer big-play threats in the Lions backfield, the Bengals have to be glad they’re keying primarily on one running back this week. That said, it’ll be interesting to see what they do with linebacker James Harrison. He factored heavily in the run defense last week, but with the passing threat Detroit possesses, he likely won’t be on the field as much this week.

Speaking of defensive players, Ndamukong Suh continues to be a disruptive force in the Lions’ interior. Statistically speaking, though, it seems he wasn’t very productive last week. Any idea what happened there, Michael?

Rothstein: That hasn't been unusual. His numbers have not been astronomical, but he picks up double-teams on almost every play, it seems. So just the attention he draws assists everyone. There have been hurries that have led to interceptions as well. He is playing extremely well and very consistent.

Has Andy Dalton said anything about Suh this week? They had a prior run-in, and a hit on Brandon Weeden last week is being looked at by the league.

Harvey: Dalton was asked about the body slam Suh gave him during the 2011 preseason opener. But being the polite politician that he is, the quarterback didn’t show any ill will toward Suh. Quite the contrary, actually. Like several of his offensive linemen, Dalton simply called Suh a good player and credited the way he passionately plays the game. Though few linemen wanted to make the Dalton-Suh incident a storyline this week, they will have that play in the back of their minds, rest assured.

Oh, and is there a week when the league isn’t looking at one of his hits?

Final question for you, Michael. Why does Bush have only one rushing touchdown this year? Is that a function of being part of a good passing offense or something else?

Rothstein: It’s a misleading number, Coley. He would have had two rushing touchdowns in Week 1, but both were reviewed and taken away at the 1-yard line. Joique Bell rushed both of them in instead. And he has two receiving touchdowns, so he is finding the end zone. Detroit is more of a passing team that likes to employ screens with its running backs, so that could be why those numbers look strange. But Bush is having a good season, no doubt.

GREEN BAY, Wis. – At some point during the Green Bay Packers’ most recent game, the Week 3 loss at Cincinnati, cornerback Sam Shields went to the coaches and asked to match up against the Bengals' star receiver, A.J. Green.

The way Shields has played, it didn’t take much to convince Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt to go along with the plan.

“I said, ‘You feel good about it?’” Whitt recalled on Friday. “He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Go ahead and match him.’ It really wasn’t our part doing it.”

[+] EnlargeSam Shields
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesPackers cornerback Sam Shields wanted to cover A.J. Green in Week 3, and he made good by intercepting a pass in front of him.
By halftime, Shields already had intercepted a pass intended for Green. Playing one-on-one press man coverage, Shields read an out route and stepped in front of Green to pick off quarterback Andy Dalton’s pass, which was thrown too far inside.

Although Green caught a 20-yard touchdown pass against Shields in the third quarter, the coaches were pleased with Shields’ coverage of one of the premier receivers in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, Shields allowed Green to catch four passes for 46 yards and the one touchdown in seven targets.

That game may have signaled a changing of the guard at cornerback for the Packers.

They already had made one philosophical switch this season, when they decided to no longer line up Tramon Williams against the opposition’s best receiver game in and game out. Rather, Whitt and defensive coordinator Dom Capers were going to let Shields and Williams patrol their sides of the field.

Halfway through the third game, they went back to their old coverage plans, but with Shields, not Williams, as the lock-down defender.

“It means a lot,” Shields said. “It’s something that gave the coaches confidence in me.”

The Packers have carved out a new role for Williams, too. In the nickel package, he has moved inside to cover the slot receiver, a defensive role formerly held by Charles Woodson. But it means the Packers’ highest-paid cornerback (Williams will make $6.5 million this year in salary and bonuses) is no longer the cornerstone of their pass coverage.

Ever the consummate professional, Williams had nothing but praise for the 25-year-old Shields.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who are capable of getting the job done,” Williams said. “If you’re asking me if I feel badly about it, no, because I know those guys will get the job done. It actually works better for the defense, and it shows the growth in the defense. My pride? I don’t have any pride behind it.”

Just because Shields has played well does not mean all is right with the Packers’ pass defense. Through Week 4, the Packers ranked 28th out of 32 teams in passing yards allowed per game.

And with perhaps the NFL’s most dangerous receiver, Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions, next up on the schedule, there’s reason to wonder if anyone on the Packers, including Shields, can slow him down.

“To say you’re going to just take one guy and match him up out there and take Calvin Johnson the whole day, you’ve got to mix it up because all these guys are too good,” Capers said. “Every week, you play against a guy like a Green or a Calvin Johnson. Those type of receivers, I don’t care what you do, if you do the same thing on them all the time, they’re going to get you some. They’re just too talented.”

It should help that the Packers will have starting safety Morgan Burnett for the first time this season. Burnett, who missed the first three games with a hamstring injury, would likely be the one Capers would use to double-team Johnson.

Williams, in his new slot position, is likely to see Johnson, too. Johnson has five of his 21 receptions this season from the slot position, according to Pro Football Focus.

But this could be another statement game for Shields, who is playing this season under the one-year, $2.023 million tender he signed as a restricted free agent. Shields’ agent, Drew Rosenhaus, had discussions with the Packers about a long-term deal over the summer. The way Shields has played so far, his price might have gone up since then.

“If I keep playing how I’ve been playing, I’ll just let my play speak for itself,” Shields said.

Packers' defense does its part

September, 22, 2013
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CINCINNATI – Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb called it “hands down one of the best games I’ve seen since I’ve been here for our defense.”

[+] EnlargeBrad Jones
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesBrad Jones' fumble recovery was one of four straight Packers takeaways in the first half.
But it wasn’t enough to save the Packers in Sunday’s 34-30 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

In one of the more remarkable defensive stretches by the Packers, they forced turnovers on four straight first-half possessions with an interception and three fumbles.

“It’s a shame that we couldn’t make a few more plays in the second half,” Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji said.

Or it’s a shame that the Packers couldn’t convert the takeaways into more points (other than the one safety M.D. Jennings returned for a touchdown, the Packers got only two field goals off the other three takeaways). Or that the Packers were in a 14-0 hole, thanks in part to a giveaway of their own when Jeremy Ross fumbled a kickoff that the Bengals recovered at the Packers’ 2-yard line.

Cornerback Sam Shields got the Packers’ defense started late in the first quarter when he picked off Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who was trying to hit A.J. Green. The Packers then forced fumbles on Cincinnati’s next three possessions. Linebacker Brad Jones ripped the ball away from away from tight end Jermaine Gresham, and A.J. Hawk recovered it. Then Clay Matthews forced a BenJarvus Green-Ellis fumble that Jennings returned 24 yards for a touchdown. Then Matthews got another one with a strip-sack of Dalton that Jones recovered.

Of the Bengals’ 34 points, a case could be made that the Packers’ defense wasn’t responsible for 14 of them – the touchdown after Ross’ fumble and the game-winning 58-yard fumble recovery return by cornerback Terence Newman.

“We’re doing some great things out there, even today, but ultimately, it’s about sustaining that success,” Matthews said. “We can’t just show flashes and then take the foot off the gas. We’ve got to keep it going. It is encouraging. We’re moving in the right direction, but our record doesn’t indicate that. We’ve just got to keep progressing.”

5 things we learned vs. Bengals

September, 8, 2013
9/08/13
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CHICAGO -- Here are five things we learned in the Chicago Bears' 24-21 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals:

Tillman
1. Charles Tillman battled despite illness: Playing through an injury or ailment is nothing new for Tillman, but his seven-tackle, two-interception effort, despite covering the dangerous A.J. Green, was commendable. Green got the best of Tillman on multiple occasions and finished the day with a game-high nine catches for 162 yards and two touchdowns, but keep in mind that Tillman vomited multiple times on the sidelines before receiving an IV of fluid at halftime. Statistically speaking, Green easily won the battle, but Tillman showed moxie throughout the game. His desire to jump up and run with the football after an interception is refreshing. While most guys are content to break one tackle and fall to the ground following an interception, Tillman ran like a man possessed both times he had the football in his hands and looked at one point to have scored a touchdown on his first interception before the ruling on the field was overturned. Tillman works hard. He defends the opponent’s best receiver almost every week, and has never been accused of being a glory hound. He’s also the best cornerback in Bears’ history, but we already knew that.

2. The offense picked up steam as the game wore on: The Bears’ offense is far from a finished product, but Jay Cutler led the team on two second-half scoring drives that eventually proved to be the difference in the game. Cutler tossed one bad interception, but overall, he had himself a good regular-season opener, throwing for 242 yards, two touchdowns, and posting a 93.2 quarterback rating. Cutler wasn’t sacked a single time. A lot of the credit for the Bears’ pass protection needs to go to Cutler, who got rid of the ball in a hurry and helped negate the Bengals’ talented defensive front. Cutler also displayed accuracy on his passes and spread the ball around to several different targets. If Cutler can play at this level and make these types of decisions every week, the Bears will be a playoff team.

3. Brandon Marshall’s hip was a non-issue: All the commotion about Marshall’s hip last week was overblown. Marshall doesn’t like to practice, but he loves to play in regular-season games. If that isn’t obvious by now, you haven’t been paying attention. The Pro Bowler appeared to be in mid-season form on Sunday, catching eight passes for 104 yards and one touchdown on a team-high 10 targets. Marshall needs the football. He’s great. He just doesn’t need to have the ball thrown his way when he’s double-and triple-covered. Cutler picked his spots to throw to Marshall, and the results were exactly what the Bears needed. It’s not too often Marshall isn’t the best receiver on the field (that honor went to Green on Sunday), but he did enough to help the team win, with most of his damage in the second half when the Bears were clawing their way past Cincinnati. After Cutler, Marshall was the Bears’ second most important offensive player on the field in Week 1.

4. Martellus Bennett makes an impact after a quiet preseason: Bennett’s numbers don’t jump off the page (three catches for 49 yards and one touchdown), but let’s examine his significance on Sunday. First, the tight end made an outstanding catch in the back of the endzone on a pass that was tipped by a Bengals’ defender. He came down inbounds with the football for the games’ first score. His second reception came on third down and went for 30 yards, helping set up the Bears’ first touchdown of the second half. Finally, Bennett hauled in a huge 11-yard pass on third down to move the chains late in the fourth quarter and keep the Bengals’ offense off the field. Teams need those kinds of subtle contributions from players in order to win in the NFL. The tight end is off to a good start after catching just one pass for 16 yards in the preseason. As Bennett said two weeks ago, players don’t cash bonus checks for what they do in the preseason. It’s the regular season that counts, and Bennett is off to a good start.

5. Marvin Lewis, really?: I cannot believe that a team with the second most tenured head coach in the NFL, with a defensive coordinator (Mike Zimmer) who many believe is good enough to be an NFL head coach, with a former NFL head coach on the staff (Hue Jackson) and a seasoned group of assistants would be capable of making such dumb and costly mental mistakes. The Bengals have nobody to blame but themselves for this one. From their lack of time management, to burning all three second-half timeouts with eight minutes left to play, to ridiculous personal foul penalties at critical moments of the game, the Bengals hardly resembled a team that some are predicting could advance to the Super Bowl. Championship teams are disciplined. The Bengals are not. Where is the common sense with this group?
Cutler-DaltonGetty ImagesChicago's Jay Cutler, left, and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton lead their respective offenses against very stingy defenses.
Two strong defensive teams led by highly scrutinized quarterbacks in Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton set the scene for what should be a hotly-contested matchup between what are expected to be ascending clubs.

Marc Trestman makes his debut as an NFL head coach at Soldier Field on Sunday, leading a Bears team with plenty of roster turnover on offense, including a totally revamped line expected to better protect Cutler as he operates the club’s new scheme. That group will be tested by a Bengals defensive line, led by Geno Atkins, that accounted for 43 of the team’s franchise-record 51 sacks in 2012, and also paved the way for the defense to finish the season ranked No. 6 for fewest yards allowed.

Chicago’s defense in 2012 was even better, finishing fifth in net defense, third in scoring defense (17.3 points per game) and No. 2 in turnover differential while leading the NFL in interceptions (24) and total takeaways (44).

While home-field advantage can be key for teams, it's certainly been a factor in this series. The Bengals hold a 4-1 road record against the Bears and own a 6-3 series lead, which includes victories in their last outings (2005 and 2009).

Chicago hasn’t beaten the Bengals since 2001.

ESPN.com’s Matt Williamson and Bears team reporter Michael C. Wright discuss the matchup.

Wright: The Bears hope they fixed the offensive line with a combination of scheme (shorter drops for Cutler), beefed up protection with Jermon Bushrod at left tackle and a pair of draft picks in Kyle Long (first round) and Jordan Mills (fifth) at right guard and right tackle, and another weapon for Cutler to find down the middle of the field when he’s in trouble. But the inexperience of Long and Mills will be question marks against Cincinnati’s active defensive line.

It seems Cincinnati’s defense is built around Atkins, but how much of a factor are guys like Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson?

Williamson: Atkins is the foundation of the defense for sure and everyone thrives off his presence, but the Bengals have a lot invested in the defensive line now in terms of finances and draft picks. This is an extremely deep and talented group that makes the entire defense go. Dunlap might be a little underrated and Johnson a little overrated, but they form an impressive pair of defensive end. These three players, along with the rest of Cincinnati’s defensive front, will prove a very steep challenge for Chicago’s rebuilt offensive line in Week 1.

What can the Bengals’ defense expect from this new Trestman offense?

Wright: The Bears will utilize zone blocking in the running game, which should allow Matt Forte to pick his own holes. That should open up the passing game, where the Bears will use West Coast philosophies such as shorter routes and drops for Cutler so he can get rid of the ball quickly. Look for the Bears to also try to use Earl Bennett down the seams to exploit potential matchup problems, especially on traditional running downs where the Bengals might be using base personnel.

Speaking of the Bengals, they’ve made the playoffs in three of the last four years, but really haven’t made much noise. What are the expectations for this team now?

Williamson: Expectations must go up. They had yet another high-quality offseason and this team has an exceptional young core of players on both sides of the ball. They clearly play in a tough division, but going one-and-done in the playoffs yet again will not be considered a successful season in Cincinnati. I fear they will only go as far as their quarterback will take them. But Bengals fans have a lot to be excited about.

Do you think this Bears defense can defend A.J. Green?

Wright: They should be able to keep him from dominating the game. It’s likely the Bears match Charles Tillman up against Green, but if the receiver winds up in front of Tim Jennings, the team is confident he can get the job done, too. The Bears typically don’t double or shade coverage against players such as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, so don’t count on seeing the Bears try that against Green. Cincinnati’s tight ends could be an issue now that they’ve got two good ones in Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert.

With such a talented supporting cast, do you see Dalton as just a guy surrounded by weapons, or a blossoming young quarterback?

Williamson: He shows signs of blossoming into a solid young quarterback, and has been especially adept in the red zone, which is very noteworthy for a young quarterback. But I think he is more of the former. He is a limited passer who lacks great tools, and isn’t as accurate or on time with his throws as you would like for someone with his limitations. The Bengals knew this and landed two very “Dalton-friendly” receivers for him in Eifert and Giovani Bernard. Eifert should develop into an exceptional target in the middle of the field as well as the red zone, while Bernard provides an easy dump-off option for Dalton. With all the Bengals’ resources over the past two offseasons, it really surprises me that Cincinnati didn’t do more to challenge Dalton or greatly improve its backup quarterback spot.

For reasons that still aren't clear to me, the Associated Press released its 2012 All-Pro team on Saturday morning. The news was largely overshadowed by a weekend of divisional playoff games, but we now have a moment to circle back on an issue we didn't hit in our initial post on the topic.

Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson was not a unanimous selection despite smashing the NFL record for yards in a season. He received 49 of a possible 50 votes, and I know many of you are wondering how any informed voter could omit him.

The voter was Tim Ryan, the FOX analyst and Sirius Radio host. Ryan told The Sports Xchange that "I look at more than statistics and I thought a couple of other receivers had a better season, Brandon Marshall and A.J. Green."

Ryan added: "Johnson was targeted a lot and was often the only thing the Lions had going, but he also dropped a lot of passes and they did lose 12 games. I felt Marshall helped Chicago win games and Green helped Cincinnati win games. I think that is more important than statistics."

I'm not going to pile on Ryan here. I give him credit for defending his decision. Johnson was in fact targeted more times (199) than any receiver in the NFL. Drops are more subjective; Pro Football Focus assigned him 14 (7.0 drop percentage) while ESPN Stats & Information had him for eight (4.0 percent).

A couple of points should be made here. First, Johnson was a runaway member of the most prestigious postseason team honor there is. There are no special awards for being unanimous. It simply doesn't matter.

Second, it's OK in my book to have a group of 50 people with different backgrounds and separate biases in the voting for this award. The broader the spectrum of thought, the more likely it is that the group will land in the right spot in the end. The AP voting is nothing like the Pro Bowl teams. The AP almost always gets it right, or at least lands in a defensible position. If the worst thing you can say about this year's team is that only 96 percent of the group voted for Calvin Johnson, then you're doing just fine.

Percy Harvin and the MVP race

October, 3, 2012
10/03/12
2:15
PM ET
Each week during the season, NFC West colleague Mike Sando puts together an MVP Watch that assesses the best performances from elite players in anticipation of the annual postseason award. Sando usually asks for suggestions, and unfortunately I sent mine in too late.

At the first-quarter pole of the 2012 season, Minnesota Vikings receiver/running back/kick returner Percy Harvin deserves to be a part of the discussion. Quarterbacks hold overwhelming advantage in MVP debates, and Sando's 10-player list includes eight of them. Harvin doesn't have the eye-popping receiving numbers of Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green, but it would be difficult to find a non-quarterback who has shouldered a bigger responsibility in his team's successful start than Harvin.

Harvin has handled the difficult task of playing three different positions -- receiver, tailback and Wildcat quarterback -- without appearing overwhelmed. As the chart shows, he leads the NFL in all-purpose yards, and his 105-yard return of the opening kickoff last weekend set the initial tone in a 20-13 victory over the Detroit Lions.

Harvin has also helped mitigate the Vikings' relative lack of explosive threats by doing much of the work himself. Of his 299 receiving yards, an NFL-high 234 have come after first contact, according to Pro Football Focus. He also leads the NFL, according to PFF, by causing 10 missed tackles. The next-best performance by a receiver has been six.

That's a statistical illustration of what we can all see: The Vikings get the ball to Harvin on short passes and let him do his thing. That includes 11 carries in the running game, most of which have called for him to hit traditional holes between the tackles.

Vikings coaches deserve credit for managing and maximizing Harvin's playing time, which has added up to about 75 percent of their offensive plays. He has taken nine of the Vikings' 14 kickoff returns for a 38.5 average.

Again, I'm not sure we can make an argument for Harvin as the leading candidate for the NFL MVP at this point. But four games into the season, he has been the best player in the NFC North and one of the most productive in the league. We'll keep you updated.

Reviewing Thursday's action at Paul Brown Stadium:

Green Bay Packers 27, Cincinnati Bengals 13

Preseason record: 1-2

Of interest: Despite a successful debut by tailback Cedric Benson, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was once again the Packers' leading rusher. Rodgers capped two drives with touchdown runs of 12 and 5 yards, ending the evening with 52 rushing yards. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 154 yards in a half of play. ... Benson didn't start but rushed for 38 yards on six carries. ... Receiver Greg Jennings, in his preseason debut, caught passes of 19 and 18 yards on the Packers' first scoring drive. ... The first-team defense didn't give up a touchdown and might have found some clarity in its lineup. Rookie cornerback Casey Hayward was beat on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones later in the game but otherwise played well, as did safety M.D. Jennings. ... Linebacker Jamari Lattimore returned an interception 27 yards for a touchdown. ... Cornerback Sam Shields also had an interception in his preseason debut. ... Tight end Tom Crabtree's shoulder injury left the Packers with two tight ends for the majority of the game, limiting the options of the second- and third-team offense. ... And finally, the numbers were once again bad for backup quarterback Graham Harrell, who completed 5 of 12 passes for 26 yards. But he was sacked three times amid the continuing struggles of the Packers' second-team offensive line.

Local coverage (in lieu of BBAO): Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "It wouldn't be surprising if when the Packers return to practice on Sunday, rookie Casey Hayward was at right cornerback in the base defense and second-year pro M.D. Jennings was at strong safety in the nickel package. Both had impressive games Thursday night." … Benson's strong between-the-tackles running might have earned him the Packers' starting job, writes Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. … Cornerback Tramon Williams played well, according to Pete Dougherty of the Press-Gazette, especially when he twice prevented receiver A.J. Green from jumping over him for scoring plays. … Coach Mike McCarthy continued his defense of Harrell, saying he "improved" Thursday night and adding: "We had some protection adjustments that didn't go right. We had free runners coming two or three times. He was able to make them miss and step out of a couple of them. He's in command of the offense, whether you're aware of that or not. It's part of preseason football. We're not putting a Band-Aid on it. He's trying to play above it." … Rodgers said he didn't have a communication problem on an interception he threw in the direction of receiver James Jones, according to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com. "I just threw a real bad ball," Rodgers said. "… We kind of quick-snapped 'em and if I throw the ball I should have thrown, James is probably still running."

Up next: Next Thursday versus Kansas City Chiefs

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