NFC North: Andy Dalton

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings wasted little time in expanding their coaching search to include coordinators whose teams played in the first round of the playoffs over the weekend. And as expected, they went right to Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

They are one of four teams to request an interview with Gruden, according to a league source. Gruden, who has won praise around the league for his work with Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, is free to interview for jobs now that the Bengals are out of the playoffs, and could emerge as one of the hottest coaching candidates this offseason.

It's telling that four of the five teams with coaching openings -- Washington, Tennessee, Detroit and the Vikings -- have requested permission to talk to Gruden and even though the Bengals' offense sputtered in the team's loss to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday, Gruden has built plenty of momentum before this season. He interviewed for four jobs -- Seattle, San Diego, Philadelphia and Arizona -- after last season, and seemed likely to get strong consideration this year. The Bengals jumped from 18th to sixth in the league in offense in Gruden's three seasons, and they've made the playoffs in each of his three seasons working with Dalton, who was drafted after the Vikings took Christian Ponder.

Gruden, the younger brother of ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden, would follow the Vikings' interviews with Seattle offensive and defensive coordinators Darrell Bevell and Dan Quinn over the weekend. They also have scheduled talks with Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton on Monday and Tuesday, and had requested to talk to Denver offensive and defensive coordinators Adam Gase and Jack Del Rio.

San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer are also able to interview for jobs this week, and both could wind up on the Vikings' radar.
Welcome to Around the Horns, our daily look at what's happening on the Vikings beat:

Minnesota Vikings tight end John Carlson had been cleared earlier this week to return from the concussion he suffered on Dec. 8 in Baltimore, until the team said he was feeling ill on Thursday. Carlson is dealing with recurring post-concussion symptoms, and will have to once again clear part of the NFL's concussion protocol before getting back on the field.

The setback is just the latest step in a delicate dance for Carlson. He's had three concussions since 2011, and reportedly had two others in college. His long history of concussions has Carlson wondering when the time will come to hang it up, according to Chip Scoggins of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

"We have two kids and a third one on the way,” Carlson told Scoggins. “I’m taking steps to mitigate the risks. [But] there are risks to playing football.”

The Litchfield, Minn., native is one of the more intelligent and conscientious players on the Vikings' roster, and Carlson, who took a pay cut in the second year of a five-year, $25 million deal, has made enough money in the NFL that he could retire comfortably at the age of 29. But as many players do, Carlson has to find the balance between playing a game he loves and quitting before it's too late. I've had several conversations with him about the issue of concussions in the game, and he's paid keen attention to the NFL's efforts to make the game safer. But he also knows the game probably isn't going to be safe, at least not overnight, so the risk of continuing his career is something he'll have to measure.

Here are today's other Vikings stories of note:
Jennings/DaltonGetty ImagesCan Greg Jennings and the Vikings help spoil the playoff hopes of Andy Dalton and the Bengals?
The Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals are two teams headed in completely opposite directions.

For the Vikings, the 2013 season has been a difficult one, defined mostly by a quarterbacking carousel and the lack of wins because of it. As for the Bengals, the year has been a mostly good one. With home wins over the Packers and Patriots, and road victories against the Lions and Chargers, the Bengals have looked for much of the year like a team poised for a longer postseason run than the past two years. Cincinnati's 2011 and 2012 seasons ended with first-round playoff losses.

If the 9-5 Bengals are even going to get to this postseason this year, though, they first have to bounce back from a Sunday night loss at Pittsburgh and beat the four-win Vikings. Such a win isn't a guarantee. Minnesota has embraced the role of postseason spoiler, rolling NFC East-leading Philadelphia last weekend.

To break down the contest, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey teamed up for this edition of Double Coverage. As this week's visitor, we'll start with Ben:

Ben Goessling: Andy Dalton was one of the Vikings' options at QB when they drafted Christian Ponder in 2011. The Vikings seem to have given up on Ponder, and while Dalton has been better, it's hard to tell whether he's going to be the answer in Cincinnati long-term. How do the Bengals feel about his progress?

Coley Harvey: It certainly appears that for now the Bengals feel comfortable with Dalton moving forward. Despite calls at times this season from some groups of angry fans, the Bengals have remained firm in their support of him. No matter how poorly Dalton played, they weren't shopping for another quarterback, and they weren't trying to give backup Josh Johnson any shared playing time. In short, they were committed to seeing Dalton through the year. And why not? Although he has had some struggles this season, Dalton has still shown that he can handle the duties of being a starting quarterback. He was the AFC's offensive player of the month for October, and had three consecutive 300-yard passing games during one stretch. If Dalton can't get the Bengals past the first round of the playoffs, it will be interesting to see whether the sides discuss a contract extension, with the 2014 season his last on his current contract.

To your broader point, Ben, that 2011 quarterback class certainly hasn't been all that amazing.

Speaking of progressing quarterbacks, it seems like Matt Cassel has given the Vikings some semblance of offensive success in games he's appeared in this season. Why didn't Minnesota stick with him sooner?

Goessling: That's been the big question all season here, and on Sunday, coach Leslie Frazier finally gave those of us in the media a hint of what we'd expected all along. He said the Vikings always liked Cassel, but had to go through the "process" a little bit, and unfortunately weren't able to win games in the meantime. The "process" I believe he's referring to is the act of evaluating Christian Ponder to a point where the Vikings could be absolutely sure he wasn't the answer at the position. When Josh Freeman got inserted into the mix -- and both Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman said the Vikings planned to play Freeman soon -- that complicated things even more. The biggest thing Cassel had working against him was his age (31), and the Vikings didn't necessarily see him as the long-term guy. The question will be whether the quarterback tryouts wind up costing Frazier his job, but now that Cassel's starting, maybe Frazier will be able to make a case to keep his job by showing he can win when he has a competent quarterback.

The Vikings have struggled all year with small, shifty running backs. How do you expect Giovani Bernard to fare against them Sunday?

Harvey: If the Vikings have struggled with those types of backs, then they could be in serious trouble Sunday, Ben. Bernard has been the five-tool player the Bengals thought they were drafting earlier this year and more. Not only can he hit the edge hard on pitches and outside runs, but he has enough power in his smaller body to hit the middle of a defensive line hard and keep going. His most important trait, though, may be what he's able to do as a receiver. You'll see the Bengals use him fairly regularly in the screen game. If the blocking sets up right on those plays, he won't just go for 5 or 6 additional yards. He typically will break off another 10, 15, 20 or more yards after the catch. Once the rookie gets in space, it's like he hits a fourth and fifth gear.

Having said all of that, I do believe he and the more between-the-tackles running BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be keys to the game. If they get going, the Bengals have a chance to showcase the balanced offense that has been coming on of late.

Minnesota has obviously had one of the NFL's best rushing attacks the past seven seasons because of Adrian Peterson. Matt Asiata did a great job of getting to the end zone last week. What kind of challenge do you think he poses the Bengals if he ends up playing in place of Peterson?

Goessling: Not much of one, based on what we saw last week. Asiata averaged less than 2 yards a carry, and while he runs hard between the tackles, he doesn't offer much else; he doesn't break tackles the way Toby Gerhart can, and Peterson's gifts are obviously on a different level from either of those guys. I think Peterson will play, though; he wanted it known last week that he could have gone, and Frazier said after the game that he expected Peterson would be back. The guy prides himself on his pain tolerance, and as hard as he pushed to play last week, I'd be really surprised if he's not in there Sunday.

Assuming he plays, how tough a matchup is this for Peterson? The Bengals have been one of the NFL's best teams against the run this year. What's made them so effective there?

Harvey: It won't be an easy one for Peterson. This Bengals' defense prides itself on playing physically, emotionally and flowing quickly to the football, particularly when it's on the ground. If this were a normal week, I might contend that as good as Cincinnati's run defense has been that Peterson might still end up surprising them and have a big day. This isn't a normal week, though. The Bengals are coming off a loss that had many questioning their heart and attitude, and they also happen to be playing this game at home. There's something about Paul Brown Stadium this season. Opponents have struggled, and the Bengals have fed off the crowd's energy. Cincinnati is 6-0 at home this season, and the defense is a big reason. If linebacker James Harrison (concussion) doesn't play, that could take away a key piece of the Bengals' run defense.

Cincinnati lost punter Kevin Huber to a season-ending injury last week and is bringing along his replacement, Shawn Powell, this week. He'll be kicking to Minnesota's Marcus Sherels. How dynamic is Sherels, Ben? His numbers seem so-so for most of the season, but he does have a return for touchdown.

Goessling: I think you summed it up nicely there, Coley. Sherels did have the punt return touchdown, but his numbers otherwise have been just OK. The thing the Vikings like about him is that he doesn't make mistakes. He fumbled a punt earlier this year, but he's typically very sure-handed and makes good decisions about when to call for a fair catch. He doesn't get them in trouble by taking unnecessary chances, and special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer is a big fan of his partly because of his decision-making skills. But watch out, though. The Vikings are trying to find ways to get Cordarrelle Patterson the ball now that teams have stopped kicking to him, and Frazier mentioned they could give him a look on punt returns. If that happens, the Vikings will have a completely different kind of threat back there on punts.

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.

 
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.

Vikings: Matt Cassel's moment arrives

September, 27, 2013
9/27/13
12:00
PM ET

WATFORD, England -- The second-to-last time Matt Cassel started a game for the Kansas City Chiefs, it was a rainy Monday night in November in Pittsburgh. Cassel dropped back from the Chiefs' 19 in overtime, looking for receiver Dwayne Bowe on second-and-6. The Steelers' Lawrence Timmons undercut Cassel's floating pass, returning it to the Chiefs' 5 and setting up a game-winning field goal on the next play.

Cassel was benched at halftime in the Chiefs' next game, effectively ending his time as the starting quarterback there and closing a road that first opened when Bernard Pollard injured Tom Brady's knee in the first game of the 2008 season. Cassel was released by the Chiefs in March, and he signed with the Vikings as a backup quarterback and insurance policy in case anything should happen to Christian Ponder.

The Vikings were among the first teams to show interest in Cassel, and he was on the market for about a day before he agreed to a deal with Minnesota. Cassel had to know that Ponder's tenuous status gave him his best chance to play quickly, even as the Vikings maintained Ponder was their starting quarterback.

Officially, it was an injury to Ponder that put Cassel in line to start Sunday against the Steelers, but it could be Ponder's ineffectiveness that will keep Cassel there.

Ponder, who will miss Sunday's game with a fractured rib, said he expects to return for the Vikings' next game against the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 13, and he'll have the benefit of a bye week to heal up. Coach Leslie Frazier said Friday that "I don't foresee a quarterback controversy" going forward, but if Cassel plays well enough to get the Vikings their first win, how could there not be one?

Frazier, in all likelihood, is in a make-or-break year as the Vikings' coach after ownership decided to pick up his 2014 option -- and not offer him a contract extension -- following Minnesota's surprising 10-6 season in 2012. He has stood by Ponder through three games in which the quarterback threw five interceptions to two touchdowns, and the injury offered Frazier a chance to give Cassel a look before the bye week.

It was striking to hear several Vikings receivers -- Greg Jennings among them -- talk about Cassel's commanding presence in the huddle, and if he can stoke a victory Sunday, Frazier would have to give serious thought to sticking with the quarterback who's gotten him a win in a year when he needs a bunch of them.

On the other hand, there's ideology playing in Ponder's favor. The Vikings picked him 12th overall in 2011 -- higher than many people expected him to go, at a point where Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman both had a significant say in personnel decisions. Ponder was the choice of both men, ahead of quarterbacks such as Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, and his playing well would mean Frazier and Spielman were correct on a pick they badly needed to get right.

The Vikings have had an impressive run of first-round picks in recent years -- Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith in 2012, Percy Harvin in 2009, Adrian Peterson in 2007, Chad Greenway in 2006 -- but misses on quarterbacks have organizational consequences. They can set a franchise back years and can cost decision-makers their jobs.

A team that gambled on Ponder has been patient about waiting for a return on its investment, but Cassel could force the Vikings to think about whether patience is still the right course of action, especially with Frazier needing to win now.

If Cassel plays poorly Sunday and the Vikings fall to 0-4, the decision might be an easy one: Give Ponder the rest of the season to settle the question, one way or another, once and for all. At that point, Spielman could refer to his three-year rule on evaluating quarterbacks and cleanly determine whether Ponder gets more time or whether the Vikings should move on.

But if Cassel jolts a staggering passing game and the Vikings head home from London with a win? Then things get interesting. Against the team that helped seal his fate last year, Cassel might give himself another chance.

Packers' defense does its part

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
9:10
PM ET
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.”
James Starks, Giovani BernardAP Photo Running backs James Starks and Giovani Bernard look to continue the success they had in Week 2.
As the Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals enter the third week of the season, both teams are looking to capitalize off Week 2 victories.

The Packers, buoyed by quarterback Aaron Rodgers' record-tying 480-yard passing performance, improved to 1-1 with a 38-20 win over Washington last Sunday. The Bengals also moved to 1-1 after being sparked Monday night by rookie running back Giovani Bernard’s two-touchdown effort in a 20-10 win over the Steelers.

This week, ESPN NFL Nation’s Coley Harvey and Rob Demovsky preview the Packers-Bengals game.

Coley Harvey: Rob, we’ll pose the first question to you. If Rodgers’ impressive outing last week against Washington was foreshadowing, then defenses across the NFL better buckle up for a long season. I mean, 480 yards? That’s special no matter who did it. Still, I have to ask since it seemed like Washington’s defense threw in the towel a little early: Were Rodgers’ yards simply a function of him being that in sync with his receivers, or was some of it a function of the Packers rightfully beating down a team that eventually didn’t want to be there? If it was mostly Rodgers and his receivers, how much do you think they can sustain this high-octane offense?

Rob Demovsky: I don’t know if Washington threw in the towel as much as it's just not a very good pass defense. The Eagles shredded them the week before, too. And then losing safety Brandon Meriweather to a concussion in the second quarter against the Packers didn’t help. One thing about Rodgers is he’s great at taking what the defense gives him. If a defense is going to play tight press coverage, he will work the ball down the field. If the defense is going to play soft and give cushion, he’ll use the underneath routes to get his guys the ball, which is what he did against Washington, and his receivers did the rest. He doesn’t force very many throws. This year, he seems even more in tune with his receivers. Randall Cobb destroyed the 49ers and Redskins from the slot. Also, Rodgers has a lot of trust in tight end Jermichael Finley right now.

However, it looks to like the Bengals might have the best pass defense the Packers have faced so far this season. What makes them so effective?

Harvey: I’d venture to say that it’s a combination of things. For starters, the Bengals have gotten decent push from their defensive line in the first two games. The unit’s two sacks, though, only tell part of the story. Against Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger on Monday, the group was in the backfield often, making it difficult for Big Ben to get comfortable in the pocket. That lack of comfort, combined with the defensive backs’ ability to stay with receivers, made it difficult for Roethlisberger to connect deep. Roethlisberger completed only four of his 15 attempts of 20 yards or more.

Stepping away from the passing game, I’m curious about Green Bay’s rushing attack. What made James Starks go off last week? And how confident are the Packers in him in the event Eddie Lacy doesn’t go this week?

Demovsky: Starks has always been a powerful, decisive runner, so it wasn’t a total shock to see him rush for 132 yards against the Redskins. After all, Starks was good enough to be their starter in Super Bowl XLV. In fact, he was their starter throughout that playoff run following the 2010 season and had a 100-yard game against the Eagles in the wild-card round. Starks’ problem over the years is that he could never stay healthy over long periods of time, but he’s been healthy since the beginning of training camp this year and waited for his turn. Packers coach Mike McCarthy was so satisfied with Starks’ performance against Washington that he’s going to start him against the Bengals regardless of Lacy’s status.

Speaking of running games, Giovani Bernard sure looked effective against the Steelers on Monday. What dynamic does he add to the Bengals’ offense?

Harvey: Good points about Starks. That’s the beauty of the NFL. When hot-shot youngsters come along, it’s so easy to forget how good and dominant older players once were -- and in Starks’ case, still can be.

I guess you could say the Bengals are going through a similar situation themselves right now with the rookie Bernard coming in and stealing attention from 28-year-old BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The elder running back had a rather sneaky-good evening Monday. While most attention was focused on Bernard’s two-score night, Green-Ellis rushed for 75 yards, picking up virtually all of them while running between the tackles.

Whenever the Bengals need an explosive play, though, they turn to Bernard. Two Packers who could be important in slowing him are linebackers A.J. Hawk and Clay Matthews. Football fans in Ohio are probably curious to know how important Hawk, in particular, is to Green Bay’s defense. What say you?

Demovsky: Hawk has been a steady player but has never really lived up to where he was drafted -- fifth overall in 2005 out of Ohio State. He plays in the Packers’ base and nickel packages but he comes off the field when they go to their dime package in obvious passing situations. But I’m sure he’ll be charged up for the rare opportunity to play in his home state.

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.

RodgersWatch: Hitting downfield passes

December, 14, 2011
12/14/11
2:30
PM ET
I've noted on a couple of occasions the uniquely efficient season that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has produced. Through 13 weeks, Rodgers ranks first in the NFL with an average of 9.4 yards per attempt and second in completion percentage at 69.6.

Traditionally, it's difficult to pair strong performances in both categories. Shorter passes typically lead to high completion percentage, while longer passes boost the average yards per attempt but are generally completed at lower rates.

With three games remaining in the regular season, it's worth noting that Rodgers is not only throwing downfield with high frequency, but he is also completing those difficult passes at a higher rate, by a long shot, than any other NFL quarterback. (Pun intended.)

Rodgers has thrown 43 passes this season that have traveled 21 or more yards in the air, tied for the ninth-highest total in the league. As the chart shows, he has completed 62.8 percent of them, substantially better than Tony Romo, Drew Brees and Andy Dalton. Rodgers' completion percentage on those deep throws is better than the rate on all throws for all but six other NFL quarterbacks.

Accuracy and arm strength are important factors in such success, but we shouldn't overlook the value of team awareness and chemistry, either. Consider the 37-yard touchdown he threw to receiver Jordy Nelson last Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

As Rodgers related Tuesday on his ESPN 540 radio show, Packers coach Mike McCarthy alerted him via his headset microphone that the Raiders were trying to swap personnel. Rodgers got his teammates to the line of scrimmage without really calling a play. His general plan was to snap the ball before the departing players got off the field to incur a penalty, and then take a "free" shot downfield.

(Guard T.J. Lang, in fact, told ESPN.com columnist Ashley Fox that he didn't know Rodgers planned to throw.)

Said Rodgers: "… [W]e just ran up real quick and snapped it and Jordy realized what we were doing -- that they had too many guys on the field. And in that situation you just want to give them an opportunity to make a play on the ball. So I gave it a lot of air, the wind was fighting it a little bit, but Jordy made a great reaction to the ball for a touchdown."

You don't outperform the league to such a degree based on just one factor. Players often credit their teammates and coaches for individual success as a matter of respect, but in this case, it is totally warranted. Rodgers has played the biggest role in the Packers fielding the NFL's best downfield passing offense, but it wouldn't be this good without this supporting cast.

Lions facing fine of at least $50,000

November, 29, 2011
11/29/11
1:32
PM ET
The suspension of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has left the Detroit Lions vulnerable to at least a $50,000 fine from the NFL, based on new rules implemented this season to encourage an emphasis on player safety.

On Tuesday I checked into how the policy works, and here is what I came up with: Teams must pay the $50,000 when their players receive safety-related fines that total at least $100,000 after all appeals are heard and decided upon.

The maximum per incident is $50,000. Even so, Suh would account for $70,000 toward the Lions' adjusted team total when you add his $20,000 fine for a preseason hit on Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Combined with the $37,500 in fines that four other Lions players received after the Week 10 game against the Chicago Bears, the Lions are already above the $100,000 mark.

Again, appeals and possible reductions might not be complete and the final numbers won't be tabulated until after the season. But the policy tacks on further team penalties if fine totals continue to escalate. If the total reaches $150,000, the Lions would owe another $25,000. Thereafter, they would have to match the subsequent fines totals.

Long story short: There is a good chance Suh will cost the Lions at least $50,000 this year. It could be more.
Enough. No more talking in platitudes. No more general complaints based on reputation. And let's stop with the complaints about reputation. I'm tired of hearing people, whether they are in the media or otherwise, claim Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is a dirty player as a matter of course.

I want specifics.

I want rule citations.

I want context.

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesNdamukong Suh was fined $7,500 for this hit on Jake Delhomme.
Several Atlanta Falcons players are the latest to make this charge, claiming Suh spoke disrespectfully toward injured quarterback Matt Ryan last Sunday at Ford Field. Suh has denied saying anything. Nevertheless, the episode has spawned another round of media/fan debates on whether, or the extent to which, Suh plays dirty.

In Tuesday's SportsNation chat, Dave of Phoenix suggested Suh "has brought all of this on himself" and "has made his reputation with his actions."

I'm not sure I agree. During the chat, my top-of-the-head response was recalling only one instance in Suh's career that I thought was dirty. And I define "dirty" as a blatant attempt outside the rules to injure an opponent.

That instance came in the 2010 preseason, a play that to me is largely responsible for this ongoing discussion. As you can see in this NFL.com video, Suh grabbed the face mask/helmet of Cleveland Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme and spun him violently and awkwardly to the ground. The NFL fined Suh $7,500 for the play. How Delhomme escaped injury on that play, I'll never know.

Beyond that, however, I'm not sure I could come up with enough examples to support a debate. Some of you might cite the 2010 regular-season game when Suh tackled Dallas Cowboys running back Marion Barber by his hair. Officials called him for a horse-collar tackle, a bad call based on NFL rules that consider the hair an extension of the body. (NFL.com video here.)

Others might note his unnecessary roughness penalty on Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in the 2011 preseason. (NFL.com video here.) The NFL fined him $20,000 for that play. I thought it was a violent hit and probably in violation of NFL rules. But dirty? Was he blatantly attempting to injure? Not to me.

There are two sides to every issue, of course. And that's where "Have at It" comes in. If you believe Suh is in fact a dirty player, I want examples in the comments section below. Links to video would help. Build your case instead of just making a general observation. As always, I'll publish a representative sample of your thoughts, along with my own take, by the end of the week. Have at It.

You've no doubt heard the news: The Minnesota Vikings have benched starting quarterback Donovan McNabb in favor of rookie Christian Ponder, an inevitable move that has been brewing all season. ESPN's Chris Mortensen has confirmed a story originally reported by Jason La Canfora of NFL.com.

Ponder made his NFL debut in the fourth quarter of Sunday night's blowout loss to the Chicago Bears and will make his first start this Sunday at the Metrodome against the Green Bay Packers. Some thoughts on the decision, in advance of speaking with the affected parties, presumably during the Vikings' regular media availability on Wednesday:

  • It has always been a matter of when, not if, this move would occur. These days, it's rare for a highly drafted quarterback to stand on the sideline for his entire rookie season. Rookies Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Andy Dalton are already starting for their respective teams. The Tennessee Titans have left Jake Locker on the bench mostly because Matt Hasselbeck is having a career renaissance as their starter.
  • [+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
    Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireChristian Ponder is expected to start at quarterback for the Vikings on Sunday.
    McNabb's performance wasn't awful, but it fell well short of the Hasselbeck paradigm to maintain the starting job under this scenario. The Vikings' offense has drifted through the first six games with little discernible identity. Elite play from McNabb could have helped, but I think even the Vikings knew he was no longer an elite player when they acquired him in July. In reality, as we discussed at the time, he is a good backup who can provide credible spot starts and insurance behind a rookie starter. It just took the Vikings six games to get to that point.
  • The debate about acquiring McNabb, rather than starting Ponder right away, largely will prove irrelevant. How much better off would the Vikings be if Ponder had started from Week 1? Would they be 2-4 instead of 1-5? Maybe 3-3? In the intensely competitive NFC North, it's moot. They weren't likely to be in the division race at this point regardless. Did Ponder's development get set back by missing out on six starts? In the grand scheme of things, I doubt it. The only negative the Vikings would have avoided is the local ugliness generated by the inevitability of this transition. Fans, and possibly Vikings teammates as well, never embraced McNabb because he was so obviously a short-timer.
  • In his preseason appearances, as well as Sunday night, Ponder proved more mobile than advertised and quite accurate while throwing on the run. The Vikings would be foolish not to capitalize on those attributes against the Packers, who will no doubt throw disguised coverages and various alignments at him. It would make sense to get Ponder out of the pocket and maximize the time he has to make decisions.
  • In our SportsNation chat earlier Tuesday, a number of you questioned whether it's smart to start Ponder against the Super Bowl champions. After the way things have gone with this offense, I think it would have sent an alarming message about Ponder if the Vikings weren't willing to play him this week. And, quite frankly, the Packers' pass defense has been arguably the least impressive segment of their team this season.
  • In the short term, the biggest boost Ponder can give the Vikings is the extra fire that typically comes along with rookie quarterbacks. McNabb was a calm and steadying influence, but let's just say he didn't appear to be taking these losses too hard. The Vikings could use an injection of competitiveness from the most important player on the field.

I'll have more on Wednesday, I'm sure.

Cue the dramatics for Shaq Suh

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
10:13
PM ET
On Wednesday afternoon, the NFL fined Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh $20,000 for his hit on Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. A few hours later, Suh reacted incredulously and then accepted a suggestion that he is the NFL's version of Shaquille O'Neal.

"Shaq had the same problem when he was in the NBA," Suh told Detroit-area reporters. "He kept playing. NBA Hall of Famer soon to come, one of the greatest big men I've ever seen, so I hope to follow in his footsteps."

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh and Andy Dalton
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesNdamukong Suh was called for a roughing the passer penalty for this hit on Andy Dalton.
The "problem," as Shaq Suh apparently sees it: NFL officials don't recognize the effect of his superior strength on the regular joes around him. As you might recall, O'Neal believed NBA officials mistakenly called him for fouls when smaller players bumped him but then fell to the ground.

"Honestly," Suh said, "I really feel that I put the refs in a tough situation because of my strength. A lot of us players growing up and coming in, we're getting faster, stronger, and some guys just have incredible strength on that football field."

Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham backed the theory, saying: "There's no one that's ever played like this at defensive tackle."

I'm sorry. Even after discussing the issue with some of you on Twitter this evening, I don't get it. For this analogy to work, we would be saying that Shaq Suh is so strong that his otherwise legal contact with quarterbacks results in an exaggerated physical reaction that tricks officials into believing the hit merits a penalty.

In other words, a mere touch from Suh sends a quarterback flipping head over heels while spontaneously separating his helmet as well.

Let's all take a step back here for a moment. Suh has been fined for three hits to the quarterback in his career, and one -- maybe -- was a Shaq-like event. This past December, referee Ed Hochuli apparently assumed that Suh hit Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on the back of his helmet after seeing Cutler's body lurch forward. Replays showed Suh hit Cutler just below the helmet on his upper back.

But Friday night, Suh wasn't penalized for the violence of his hit on Dalton. The penalty was for hitting Dalton after the pass, and the large fine was the result of two prior offenses. I still don't think it was a dirty play. It just wasn't legal. By NFL rules, it is Suh's responsibility to know whether the quarterback still has the ball and react accordingly.

In this case, Suh was no different than Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison or any other pass-rusher who has received hefty fines in the past year. We can argue night and day whether the NFL has overreacted to its goal of improving player safety. But in 2011, any player who hits a quarterback after the pass will run the risk of a penalty and an NFL fine. Whether he can crush a brick with his bare hand or move a mountain is immaterial.

Look, I think Suh is one of the best things to happen in the NFC North in a long time. There is no doubt he is a special athlete and player. But can we drop the dramatic victimization here? If there is any injustice, it's that the NFL is targeting defensive players to remedy an across-the-board issue.

In that vein, I'm sorry to report that Shaq Suh is in the same boat as every other defensive player in the league. He must manage his play within the confines of the NFL rules, fair or not, and accept the consequences when he doesn't. There should be no exceptions, even if you can leap tall buildings in a single bound.
You probably saw the hit Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh put on Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton last Friday. In the course of the takedown, Dalton's helmet came off and officials called a 15-yard penalty.

That's all we know for a fact at this moment. The NFL reviews all plays for possible postgame discipline, of course. Did Suh get fined? There has been no confirmation. I can, however, pass along what Suh posted on his official Twitter account at about noon ET:

http://twitter.com/#!/ndamukong_suh

If the NFL did in fact fine Suh $20,000 for the play, you can attribute it mostly to his third offense and not the severity of the hit. Last year, Suh blatantly ripped off the helmet of Cleveland Browns quarterback Jake Delhomme in a preseason game and was fined $7,500. Suh’s hit on Dalton was probably worth a penalty but wasn’t nearly as vicious as the Delhomme near-decapitation. (The NFL also fined Suh $15,000 for hit to the back of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler last year.)

Fair or not, all defensive players should be aware that the NFL's emphasis on player safety will empower it to ring up huge fines on a weekly basis if it so chooses. I don't know what effect, if any, it will have on the game. But a few wallets are going to be a little lighter. More to come ...

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD