NFC North: Brandon Browner

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Remember last week when Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels said it was time for the defense to get mean?

Count quarterback Aaron Rodgers among those who think they have the personnel to do so.

In our continuing series based on Rodgers' lengthy interview with last week, I asked what he liked about this year's team that perhaps he has not seen from other recent Packers' squads.

His answer seemed to fit perfectly with what Daniels was talking about.

"I think we're a bigger, more physically intimidating team," Rodgers said. "We haven't had the kind of physical talent as far as size here in a while. I think there's been times -- I think back to playing Jacksonville in '08 in Jacksonville [a 20-16 Packers' loss], some of the battles we've had with our division teams at times -- where you walk on the field and feel like you're kind of a JV team."

"We've still won a lot of games looking like that, but it's fun when you walk around the locker room and you've got guys like [Julius] Peppers, [Adrian] Hubbard, Datone Jones and then with Derek [Sherrod] back with his size, adding size at receiver, tight end with Richard Rodgers. We just haven't had guys in some of these positions with those body types, and that's exciting."

Rodgers said he believes building a team with bigger players was by design.

"It's natural when teams win the Super Bowl, everybody takes a hard look at what makes their team a championship-caliber team," Rodgers said. "With Seattle, you've got large players in positions you haven't quite seen that size player in a while.

"Both of their corners, [Brandon] Browner and [Richard] Sherman -- I know Browner didn't play a whole lot because of his suspension and injury -- are bigger corners. You're seeing bigger wide receivers. You're seeing larger guys up front in size and length. That's kind of the trend to combat some of the athleticism on the defensive size. On the flip side, it's to have big tight ends and big wide receivers and big offensive linemen to combat them, whereas a few years ago you saw kind of a mix of the zone blocking scheme, smaller quicker offensive linemen. Now you're going back to bigger guys on the offensive line."

Coming tomorrow: Rodgers on the Packers' offense circa 2011.
MINNEAPOLIS -- For as much as the first day of free agency was marked by the Vikings' ability to add a critical piece to their defense in former New York Giants tackle Linval Joseph, it ended with several cornerbacks finding other teams. Indianapolis' Vontae Davis re-signed with the Colts for $39 million over the next four years, New England's Aqib Talib got $57 million over six years from Denver, while Tennessee's Alterraun Verner -- in whom the Vikings had expressed interest on Saturday -- signed not to play with his old defensive coordinator (new Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray) in Minnesota, but with former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier in Tampa Bay.

Verner only got $26 million over four years (with $14 million guaranteed), which might reflect some teams' apprehension about putting him in a man coverage scheme. The Titans had used man coverage more often early last season, but Verner's best work there had been as a zone corner, and teams that plan to play a good chunk of man coverage -- like the Vikings now do -- might have decided Verner wasn't their best fit. That won't be a problem in Tampa, where the Buccaneers will lean heavily on the Cover-2 scheme used by Frazier and head coach Lovie Smith in their previous stops. But it does leave the Vikings still looking elsewhere for a corner.

So where might they look? Denver's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie could be an option, especially now that the Broncos spent their money on Talib. He's 6-foot-2, is only 28 and was compared to Terence Newman (a Mike Zimmer favorite in Dallas and Cincinnati) when entering the draft in 2008. Miami's Nolan Carroll is another big corner who has essentially played in Zimmer's scheme; Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle was Zimmer's defensive backs coach in Cincinnati before going to Miami, and Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards was brought to town in part because he'd been working in the same scheme as the Dolphins' linebackers coach. Carroll would be cheaper than Rodgers-Cromartie, and he's a couple years younger, too. Cincinnati's Brandon Ghee could fit, for obvious reasons. And if the Vikings are looking for a slot corner after Josh Robinson struggled there last year, Carolina's Captain Munnerlyn could be an option, as Andrew Krammer of points out.

One thing I don't see happening -- and the thing I probably got more questions about today than anything else -- is Darrelle Revis coming to Minnesota. Revis is only 28, and might be the best man coverage corner in the game when he's on, but he's had lots of contract squabbles, and will probably have more interest from teams closer to a championship than the Vikings.

Lastly, it's important to remember what Zimmer said last week about how he wanted to build his defense. "My thing has always been play good team defense, not just be great players, but be good as a team," he said. "I do believe you can be real good, if you get the correct guys in there that buy into the system, that want to play for one another, that want to take ownership in something bigger than themselves. Everybody sees that Maserati and they want to go buy it and you know you probably shouldn’t. You should probably buy a Ford F-150 like I got. Because if you get the F-150, you can keep building the pieces you need. So I think we have to be smart about it."

The Vikings could still draft a corner like Justin Gilbert in the first round. They could sign someone like Rodgers-Cromartie or Carroll, or possibly take a look at Seattle's Brandon Browner (who will be suspended for the first four games of the season). The position remains at or near the top of the Vikings' list of needs, but it might not get fixed with a $40 million investment on the free-agent market.

We'll see how things develop over the next few days, but options still remain for the Vikings at corner.

NFL players are much more willing to accept a reduced role when it will come behind elite players, and I wonder if that's part of Antoine Winfield's thought process as he nears an agreement with the Seattle Seahawks. ESPN's Ed Werder reported the impending deal earlier Wednesday.

With the Seahawks, Winfield would play as a nickel cornerback behind starters Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, arguably the NFL's top tandem. He would be appropriately positioned on a top defense rather than artificially bumped down the depth chart to make room for younger players. The Minnesota Vikings were also planning a reduced role before releasing Winfield last month, but presumed starters Chris Cook and Josh Robinson don't measure up to what the Seahawks boast. If I'm Winfield, I'm more willing to step back for Sherman and Browner than Cook or Robinson, neither of whom outplayed him last season.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has repeatedly expressed interest in bringing back Winfield, but they lost their exclusivity by releasing him rather than negotiating a reduced salary first. It's not entirely clear why the Vikings did it that way, and it makes you wonder if Frazier wanted Winfield back more than some of the organization's other decision-makers.

I don't think Winfield harbors ill will toward the Vikings. He's simply taking advantage of his opportunity as a free agent to shop for the best situation. The Seahawks probably offer that.

Final Word: NFC North

November, 30, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 13:

Non-Favre dominance: Over the past six years, the only time the Minnesota Vikings have won at Lambeau Field was when Brett Favre was their quarterback. All told, the Green Bay Packers have won five of the past six games between the teams there. In his career, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has 19 touchdown passes and three interceptions against the Vikings. The Packers have been vulnerable this season to teams with strong frontline pass-rushers, and it's worth noting that Vikings defensive end Jared Allen has sacked Rodgers 12.5 times in eight career games. But Allen doesn't have a sack in his past three games this season and is tied for No. 19 in the NFL with seven sacks on the year. The return of Packers receiver Greg Jennings (abdomen) will give Rodgers another outlet if he does find himself under pressure.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireThe Vikings have given Adrian Peterson the ball on just 20 percent of third- and fourth-down plays in which they need three yards or less.
Using Peterson: You would think the Vikings' offense will need to score more than its 2012 average of 22.5 points per game to win Sunday. Converting third (and fourth) downs is the key to sustaining scoring drives, of course, and you wonder if that will necessitate a change in the way the Vikings have used tailback Adrian Peterson this season. Last Sunday at Soldier Field, Peterson touched the ball only once on seven plays the Vikings ran when they faced third- or fourth-down and 3 yards or less. Overall this season, Peterson is getting the ball on 20 percent of those occasions, significantly less than his career average of 33.3 percent. Perhaps it's no surprise that the Vikings have the NFL's second-worst conversion percentage of third downs with 3 or fewer yards to go.

Power of Soldier Field: The Seattle Seahawks have continued riding their home-road roller-coaster this season, the most obvious reason all but two of ESPN's experts have picked them to lose Sunday to the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Seahawks did beat the (Jay Cutler-less) Bears on the road last season, but in 2012 they are 1-5 away from CenturyLink Field and have now had a losing record on the road in six consecutive seasons. The Bears are 5-1 at home this season, their only loss against the 10-1 Houston Texans when Cutler was knocked out of the game just before halftime. The Bears' rebuilt offensive line will have its hands full with a Seahawks pass rush that has 29 sacks, tied for the ninth-most in the NFL. But recent history suggests the Bears should win this game.

Tight coverage: There was a moment earlier in the week when it appeared the Seahawks wouldn't have either of their starting cornerbacks, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, who are awaiting an appeal hearing to avoid four-game NFL suspensions. They remain eligible for this game and will provide formidable opponents for Bears receiver Brandon Marshall. With Sherman and Browner in the lineup, the Seahawks have the NFL's second-best defense on passes thrown outside the numbers and more than 10 yards downfield. Basically, that means it's really difficult to hit deep sideline routes against them. The Bears, however, have hardly focused their offense on such throws and figure to do so even less with Devin Hester (concussion) sidelined. Cutler has directed almost two-thirds of his throws (177 of 286) over the middle, as defined by the receiver catching the ball inside the numbers.

Shootout at Ford Field: We will see a matchup of two gunslinging former No. 1 overall draft picks who each has one of the NFL's most productive receivers at his disposal. The Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck has thrown 125 downfield passes (15-plus yards past the line of scrimmage), more than any other quarterback. The Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford ranks second with 106. Lions receiver Calvin Johnson leads the NFL with 1,257 receiving yards, while the Colts' Reggie Wayne ranks second with 1,105 yards. Luck has not played nearly as well on the road as he has at home this season, having thrown four touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in five games. The Lions, meanwhile, have lost three of their past four home games to see their playoff hopes all but eliminated. If nothing else, this should be a fun game. All but two of ESPN's experts picked the Lions to win.

(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)




Sunday, 9/21
Monday, 9/22