NFC North: D.J. Moore

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each NFC North team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Chicago Bears: No team in this division is set up quite as well as the Bears, who have a pair of returning Pro Bowl cornerbacks in Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings along with two safeties in Major Wright and Chris Conte who started all but one game together last season. Veteran Kelvin Hayden won the nickelback job last season from the since-departed D.J. Moore, and the Bears also have a number of credible backups at safety, Craig Steltz among them. The Bears also want to find out about 2012 third-round draft pick Brandon Hardin, who missed last season because of a neck injury.

Detroit Lions: General manager Martin Mayhew worked harder than he ever has to address this annual problem spot. He committed $25 million over five years to re-sign his best cornerback, Chris Houston. He targeted and signed free-agent safety Glover Quin, used the No. 36 overall pick to draft cornerback Darius Slay and gave safety Louis Delmas an incentive-laden contract that will pay out based on availability. If 2012 third-round pick Bill Bentley can make it back from a shoulder injury, the Lions will have good depth at cornerback. Regardless, on paper their secondary is as well situated as it has been at any point in Mayhew's tenure.

Green Bay Packers: For the first time since 2005, the Packers will open a season without Charles Woodson manning a starting position. As usual, general manager Ted Thompson has a pile of young players competing to fill in the gaps. Tramon Williams is certain to start at one cornerback spot, while Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House fight to start on the other side and to form a depth chart for nickel and dime defenses. Morgan Burnett will be one of the Packers' starting safeties, but the other could be M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian or even Sean Richardson if he recovers from a neck injury. The Packers are, by definition, in transition, but there are plenty of options for life after Woodson.

Minnesota Vikings: It will be a while before we know if the team can successfully navigate the departure of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield. Although Winfield is nearing the end of his career, he had a great season in 2012 and played a key role when he handled slot receivers inside. The Vikings have some highly drafted young players at cornerback, most notably 2013 first-rounder Xavier Rhodes, but it's not yet clear how it will all shake out. Former second-round pick Chris Cook (2010) is a starter if he stays healthy, and 2012 third-round pick Josh Robinson is the leading candidate to take over Winfield's nickel spot. Safety Harrison Smith will be a leader, but are the Vikings really going to go through another year with Mistral Raymond and Jamarca Sanford rotating at the other safety position?
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PHOENIX -- And just like that, we've hit the final day of the NFL owners meeting. It'll be a busy one for us in the NFC North, beginning with an early-morning breakfast (at least in the Mountain Time Zone) that includes all four of our coaches and continuing with votes on several important rule-change proposals.

The coaches' breakfast should conclude at about 11:15 a.m. ET and I'll start blogging as quickly as I can after that. My initial plan is to prioritize Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman and Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz after spending a fair amount of time blogging earlier this week on the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. We'll see how it works out.

For now, our morning tour:
We're Black and Blue All Over:

The Chicago Bears have bid farewell to their former nickelback, D.J. Moore, whom they apparently won't re-sign as a free agent. Now, the player who took over that position last season is expected to test his value in free agency before making a decision on his 2013 team.

Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com reports the Bears want to re-sign cornerback Kelvin Hayden, a pending free agent. But Hayden, Dickerson reports, "is expected to explore other options in free agency before coming to any final decision, according to a league source."

If Hayden signs elsewhere, the Bears would have to acquire a nickelback during the offseason. Cornerback Zack Bowman is also a pending free agent.

Continuing around the NFC North:
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As NFL free agency approaches, we're getting an idea of the players teams do and do not want to retain. One that falls in the latter category is Chicago Bears nickelback D.J. Moore, who intercepted 10 passes in three seasons but has been informed the Bears will go in a different direction in 2013.

Moore lost his job midway through last season to veteran Kelvin Hayden, and the Bears' starting cornerback jobs -- even under a new coaching staff -- are locked down by 2012 Pro Bowl players Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.

Relatively speaking, the Bears are in a position of strength and, naturally, you can't re-sign everyone.

Continuing around the NFC North on a snowy morning at NFC North blog headquarters:

BBAO: Bears want Nick Roach back

February, 27, 2013
2/27/13
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Two of the Chicago Bears' three starting linebackers are pending free agents, and indications are that they will make an effort to bring both of them back in 2013.

We've already discussed the still-murky situation around middle linebacker Brian Urlacher; general manager Phil Emery has said he wants to work with Urlacher and his agents on the future. Meanwhile, Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com reports the Bears have told strongside linebacker Nick Roach that they want to bring him back as well.

Limited salary-cap space has prevented the Bears from making hard offers, according to Dickerson. But if they bring back both Urlacher and Roach, it is hard to envision the Bears conducting the kind of full-scale defensive overhaul this offseason that we once considered possible.

Continuing around the NFC North:
Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman re-entered the MVP race this week, based on Mike Sando's MVP Watch. Now he's preparing to reprise his role as an MVP dad.

During a radio interview, Tillman revealed his wife, Jackie, is due to give birth "any day" to their fourth child, a girl. If Jackie goes into labor on Sunday, when the Bears are set to host the Houston Texans, Tillman said: "I think I’m going to have to be at the hospital Sunday."

"I hope she stays in until after Sunday," Tillman added.

We'll deal with that possibility if it comes to that Sunday. Tillman is playing as well as at any time in his career, but the Bears are also fortunate to have depth at his position. Teammate Tim Jennings is having an All-Pro year as well, and two relatively reliable veterans -- D.J. Moore and Kelvin Hayden -- would be candidates to jump into the starting lineup. Stay tuned.

BBAO: Mixing it up for Jerome Simpson

November, 2, 2012
11/02/12
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On Thursday, we identified the Big Receiver that Got Away from the Minnesota Vikings. But as they prepare for Sunday's game against Sidney Rice and the Seattle Seahawks, the Vikings are trying to figure out why the current "big receiver" hasn't been more productive this season.

As Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press notes, Jerome Simpson has caught seven passes for 95 yards this season. (Simpson has also drawn more than 80 yards in pass interference penalties.) He has dealt with a back issue, and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave admitted there have been a few plays where it appeared he was having trouble separating from defenders. But Musgrave also told reporters the Vikings need to use Simpson in different ways.

"[W]e need to do a better job of asking him to run different types of routes," Musgrave said. "... He ran some good routes in Detroit, that first week back (from a three-game suspension). Now we're still working through his issue with his [back], and I think he's getting better each and every week."

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Vikings never seriously considered acquiring receiver Dwayne Bowe or any other receiver at the trade deadline, according to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Vikings safety Mistral Raymond (ankle) should be available for part-time work Sunday against the Seahawks, notes Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune.
  • Chris McCosky of the Detroit News on Detroit Lions executive James "Shack" Harris: "He's about as anonymous and unassuming a trailblazer as you will ever meet." Harris was the first black quarterback to start a season for an NFL franchise.
  • Lions linebacker Justin Durant is looking forward to hitting some of his former Jacksonville Jaguars teammates Sunday, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Lions coach Jim Schwartz on having rookie receiver Ryan Broyles, via Justin Rogers of Mlive.com: "A lot of people were shocked when we drafted a wide receiver in the second round, but then you see what happens. Last year our wide receivers were healthy the whole year. We got very lucky last year." Broyles has replaced the injured Nate Burleson in the Lions' rotation.
  • The Chicago Bears could turn to Kelvin Hayden as their nickelback if D.J. Moore doesn't straighten out his game, writes Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
  • The Bears might have the NFL's two best cornerbacks this season, writes Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com.
  • It's "nearly impossible" to think of the Bears playing this kind of defense without middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, despite Urlacher's bad knee, writes Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • The Green Bay Packers seem more focused on throwing to their receivers, and less on tight ends, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Packers cornerback Charles Woodson on the progress of his broken collarbone, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "We'll go with the medical timeline right now. I will say, it's feeling a lot better. I have pretty good strength in it. It's just a time issue with a bone. You have to let it heal. At this point, I feel pretty good. Hopefully I'll be back sooner rather than later."
  • Packers linebacker Erik Walden has responded to the offseason challenge he received from the team, writes Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Receiver Greg Jennings had his surgery Thursday to repair an abdominal tear, notes Wilde.

BBAO: More rest for Jordy Nelson

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
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With their bye on the horizon, you wonder if the Green Bay Packers will try to steal two more weeks of rest for receiver Jordy Nelson's hamstring injury -- at the cost of only one more missed game.

Nelson didn't practice Wednesday and won't practice Thursday, according to coach Mike McCarthy via Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. He'll be tested Friday to measure the progress of an injury that occurred last week in practice and forced him out of last Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Presumably, he could be cleared to play Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals if he tests well Friday, but next week's bye is an awfully tempting prospect if Nelson is at all on the borderline. The Packers have already had one receiver, Greg Jennings, regret a quick return from a groin injury this season.

Continuing around the NFC North:

CHICAGO -- Greetings from the general vicinity of Monday Night Football, where I feel fortunate to have arrived on schedule given the persistent rain the Chicagoland area has been receiving all morning. The current forecast calls for showers and thunderstorms throughout the afternoon and evening, so we might get the Blackest and Bluest game we've seen in a while at Soldier Field.

I'll head downtown soon in hopes of avoiding the worst of the traffic and rain, but I might be away from the blog for a bit. So let's use this post as a pregame gathering point and a dissemination of reading and viewing material to get you in the right frame of mind.

BBAO: Antoine Winfield speaks up

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
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Since signing with the Minnesota Vikings in 2004, cornerback Antoine Winfield has addressed the team perhaps two or three times. One of them came Monday, a day after the Vikings allowed a game-winning drive to rookie Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in a 23-20 defeat.

Winfield recently endured the loss of his brother, who was murdered earlier this month, but he told reporters Wednesday that his 10-minute speech was about football. Winfield wouldn't reveal the specifics but said: "I only stand up and say stuff when it's coming from the heart and I think it needs to be said. … I'm only playing this game because I want to win a championship. It's not about the money anymore. I still love to play. I think I'm still productive, I still play at a high level. That's why I'm here."

Players, coaches and even general manager Rick Spielman were in the room for Winfield's talk.

At 1-1, the Vikings haven't exactly performed below the modest expectations most people have for them. Perhaps that was part of Winfield's point, and it's possible he wanted to get some thoughts on the record before this season got away. Regardless, it's worth noting when a longtime and highly respected veteran stands up and gives a speech to the team at the start of Week 3.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Vikings safety Harrison Smith on the speech, via the Star Tribune: "He let us know exactly what he sees in this team and what he wants from us. It was good to hear him calling it like he sees it and allowing us to better understand what we need to be doing and what we need to be correcting. There's not one guy on this team who doesn't respect Antoine and look to him for how he does things. So when he tells us what he sees, we're going to listen with the understanding that he knows best."
  • Vikings receiver Devin Aromashodu on the lack of downfield plays so far, via Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com: "There may be some out there. But we can only go with what's being called. If the opportunity's given, we try to go and make the play."
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune on Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler: "Cutler's last blowup matters much less than his next one will in the context of the 2012 season. And, rest assured, Cutler will blow up again. If neither fatherhood nor the Bears surrounding Cutler with everything he wanted in the offseason failed to change an educated, articulate 29-year-old, I doubt anything can. A man has to consider his behavior wrong before he changes it and I am not convinced the Vanderbilt grad can spell w-r-o-n-g. Nobody will know if Cutler truly learned from his mistake in Green Bay until the next sign of trouble. "
  • Bears fans want to believe in Cutler, but it's tough, writes Jon Greenberg of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Bears coach Lovie Smith spoke with cornerback D.J. Moore about his public criticism of Cutler, writes Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh responded Wednesday to comments from San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley, who said the Lions' defensive line was overrated. Suh, via the Detroit Free Press: "I find it very interesting and laughable sometimes, but it's not my concern. I don't go against him. The times that I guess I have I've never had an issue with him. If he has an issue with me, he knows where to find me. … People are going to say what they want to say. Especially, I mean, you get a win, feel like you can talk, great for you. That doesn't really mean [anything] to me."
  • Lions cornerback Chris Houston said he will be "ready to go" this week against the Tennessee Titans, notes Justin Rogers of Mlive.com.
  • The Lions have been waiting for years to get running back Mikel Leshoure on the field, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • Yelling at teammates is part of football, writes Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said that "player safety was compromised at times" in some games during Week 2 because of replacement officials. Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com has more.

BBAO: Broken arm for Drayton Florence

September, 18, 2012
9/18/12
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Sorry folks. Hit the wall Monday afternoon after a quick turnaround from Sunday night's game at Candlestick Park. We have some loose ends to tie up from the weekend, starting with news of another injury to the Detroit Lions' defensive secondary.

Veteran Drayton Florence, who started the game against the San Francisco 49ers because Chris Houston (ankle) and Bill Bentley (concussion) were sidelined, suffered a forearm injury that coach Jim Schwartz said "doesn't look real good," according to Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press reported Florence broke his arm. The Lions haven't yet made a roster move, but it's hard to imagine Florence being ready to play anytime soon.

There is some optimism that both Houston and Bentley will be ready for practice Wednesday. The Lions travel to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Lions will get running back Mikel Leshoure back from suspension this week but are still scheduled to work out running backs Steve Slaton and Ryan Grant on Tuesday, according to Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com. Schwartz: "I'm not going to comment on guys that we would potentially bring in, or anything like that, but we do need the run the ball a little bit better." Agreed.
  • The Lions should have done a better job playing to their strengths Sunday night, writes Birkett for the Free Press.
  • Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith didn't appear critical of cornerback D.J. Moore, who spoke out against quarterback Jay Cutler on Monday. Smith, via Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune: "I have a problem with a 'teammate said' or 'source said.' But if you put your name behind something and you want to voice your opinion, you can voice it.''
  • Smith is optimistic about the short-term future of running back Matt Forte (ankle), notes Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • The Bears have benched left guard Chris Spencer and will start Chilo Rachal this week against the St. Louis Rams, notes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Ten of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder's completions Sunday in Indianapolis were caught behind the line of scrimmage, according to film study from Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson acknowledged a coverage gaffe on the Colts' 30-yard touchdown play to receiver Reggie Wayne, according to the Star Tribune.
  • The Vikings want to increase the role of tight end John Carlson in their offense, notes Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • The Green Bay Packers will return from four consecutive days off Tuesday. Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette goes back and points to the play that might have turned around the status of cornerback Sam Shields.
As far as locker room spokesmen go, I wouldn't put cornerback D.J. Moore on the top of the Chicago Bears' list. Moore is a refreshingly open, if somewhat flaky, character who says whatever is on his mind. So while it's important that we note Moore's concerns about quarterback Jay Cutler's behavior Thursday night at Lambeau Field, we should stop short of assuming Moore spoke for the entire team Monday when addressing reporters.

Cutler
As you know by now, television cameras caught Cutler screaming at and shoving left tackle J'Marcus Webb during the Bears' 23-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Cutler said afterwards it was evidence that he cares about winning and losing, but Moore said: "I don't think you can act like that, though, to make it seem like it's just my fault or what not."

Moore added, via Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com: "I just think it's wrong, honestly. I would feel some kind of way if he were to do me like that and make it seem like 'Well, the reason that I'm having a bad game is because what you're doing and not me taking accountability for myself because I'm throwing these types of passes or doing this type of read.' So it's a tough situation. When you act like that with your own teammates on the sideline, it's just something different that you normally wouldn't do. So you might say it in the locker room or something, but to do it like he did it, it's just weird."

Again, I think we should be careful about drawing conclusions about the majority of Bears players' feelings toward Cutler. Moore acknowledged there has been little to no discussion about the issue in the locker room. If linebackers Brian Urlacher or Lance Briggs said what Moore said, then the Bears would have a big problem on their hands.

Cutler is scheduled to host his ESPN 1000 radio show at noon Chicago time on Tuesday. He'll also address the media at Halas Hall on Wednesday afternoon. Stay tuned.

Related: The difference between Cutler's outburst toward Webb and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' admonishment of receiver James Jones.
Marshall & Johnson & NelsonUS PresswireBigger receivers like Chicago's Brandon Marshall, Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Green Bay's Jordy Nelson present unique challenges for the division's defensive backs.
You've already read half of this story. Surely you're aware of the increasing size disparity between NFL pass-catchers and cornerbacks. That train has left the station, and there's no going back.

So here's what I'm interested in: Assuming they don't plan to forfeit the season, how will NFC North cornerbacks and coaches deal with what looks like an increasingly one-sided matchup?

I spent part of CampTour'12 asking cornerbacks, receivers and coaches a version of that question. After all, the Chicago Bears' acquisition of receiver Brandon Marshall means that each of our teams has at least one receiver taller than 6-foot-2 and one or more tight ends who stand at least 6-4. In total, the division boasts six "big" receivers and seven "big" tight ends based on those qualifications, as the first chart shows.

On the other hand, there are only three NFC North cornerbacks taller than 6-feet among the 12 expected to make up each team's primary rotation. (See second chart.) Cornerbacks don't always match up in single coverage against big receivers, and bigger safeties often take on tight ends. But at some point there is no choice. Eventually, NFC North teams will have a 5-foot-9 cornerback assigned to a 6-foot-4 receiver, a height differential of more than half a foot.

Most everyone engaged thoughtfully on the issue, and below I've categorized their thoughts in three ways. Let's take a closer look.

Muscle up or play off?

The game is football, of course, so the instinct of many cornerbacks is to get physical with big receivers -- especially at the line of scrimmage and even as the ball approaches. That approach is almost always a mistake, NFC North cornerbacks agreed.

"A guy that big, you don't want to be too aggressive with him," Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. "You want to feel him, but you don't want him to feel you. As a big receiver, he wants you to be aggressive. That's his thing. He can push you off and do things like that. He can get separation and get you off your stride. So you don't want to be too aggressive with guys like that."

Instead, cornerbacks often are best served to "stalk" bigger receivers as they run downfield.

"They love for a little guy to get physical so they can body you," said Detroit Lions cornerback Chris Houston, who spends most practices matched up on 6-foot-5 receiver Calvin Johnson. "You've got to be smart, use your technique throughout the game. You can body them sometimes, but the majority of the time, they like for you to try to get in there. Their arms are much longer, so they can get you before you get them. You've got to be smart on your technique and stay disciplined."

The NFC North's shortest cornerback is Antoine Winfield of the Minnesota Vikings, whose reputation as a physical tackler overshadows the fact that he rarely tussles with receivers until after the ball arrives.

"I like to play off," Winfield said. "It's hard for me to be fighting with a guy who is 6-4, 6-5 at the line. He has the advantage. The first thing he is probably going to do is run at me, grab me, throw me to the side and take off."

Thinking back over his career during training camp, Marshall said "every guy plays a little differently." But Marshall could identify only one cornerback who deliberately got physical with him at the line of scrimmage: the Denver Broncos' Champ Bailey, who is just shy of 6-foot.

"A guy like that, he loves to go against big guys," Marshall said. "He trusts himself."

Everybody jump, jump

What Bailey and many other cornerbacks lack in height, however, they try to make up with timing and leaping ability. Bears coach Lovie Smith, in fact, said that vertical jumps are one of the most important attributes he seeks in defensive backs.

"Once the receiver gets off the ball," Smith said, "and he gets in position and the ball is thrown up in the air, just throwing it up high and it's a jump situation, that height and that vertical is going to come into play. And for us, most of our DBs have good verticals. They're 36-[inches] plus, 37-plus for a reason.

"If you have a good vertical, eventually if the ball is in the air, you can go out there and get it. I just don't think it's a gimmee just because you have a tall receiver and the cornerbacks are shorter. Most of the guys in the league are playing under six feet at the corner position and they're making a lot of big plays."

Indeed, the Bears employ two cornerbacks shorter than 5-10 -- Tim Jennings and D.J. Moore -- among their top three. Jennings recorded a 37 1/2-inch vertical jump at his scouting combine, Moore hit 39 1/2. Charles Tillman, who at 6-1 1/8 is the second-tallest cornerback in the division, had a 40-inch vertical leap.

"You never concede a jump ball," said the Packers' Williams, whose vertical has been recorded at 41 inches. "I've always been confident in my jumping ability. Me, personally, I haven't had many jump balls caught on me."

Of course, big receivers watch film and usually know who the good jumpers are. Packers receiver Jordy Nelson said there are ways to maintain the height advantage against a cornerback who can jump.

"When we watch them, we see how they can play a deep ball," Nelson said. "If we know that so-and-so is out there, we know that you really have to attack the ball in the air. He is going to go up and get it. You've got to go compete for it. You can't let it come down and try to catch it over your shoulder. There's things like that that we watch."

In the absence of jumping ability, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said, shorter cornerbacks must rely on extraordinary quickness and speed. The Vikings, for example, this year drafted the player who ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the 2012 scouting combine, Central Florida cornerback Josh Robinson (4.33 seconds). Robinson is 5-foot-9 1/2.

"What we try to find is a guy who is extremely quick," Frazier said. "Sometimes you can out-quick guys who are long striders, and they're usually better a little bit down the field. If you can offset some of that with the quickness and you are a gnat, just harassing them, that helps."

Scheme

Coaches can play an important role in equalizing the physical mismatch as well. Although it is bound to happen at some point, the least appealing way of defending a big receiver is putting him in a pure man-to-man matchup with a cornerback.

"There are things you can do where you don't get isolated in coverage," said Lions coach Jim Schwartz, whose top four cornerbacks are all shorter than 5-10. "You're playing man but you get a double team from somewhere, and so you're not playing the 'whole' man. You're not playing that whole 6-foot-3 receiver. You're only playing a portion of him. Those ways can be significant."

If you're not in position to double-team, the Bears' Smith said, zone concepts usually work better in physical mismatches. Players in man coverage usually turn their backs to chase the receiver they're assigned to, while players in zone are taught to keep receivers in front of them so they can watch the quarterback.

"It helps to play a little bit more zone," Smith said, "where you have your defensive backs with their eyes on the ball. When you're short and you're playing man-to-man and you have your back to the quarterback, there's a lot of things going against you in that situation."

So where does this leave us? When I spoke with Marshall about this topic, he smiled and said he didn't want to give up any secrets for exposing height mismatches. In truth, however, there aren't many.

Cornerbacks must play smart, both in technique and within the scheme. They need a physical attribute, especially jumping ability, that helps compensate for their height disadvantage. And they need to realize that, no matter what approach they take, NFC North teams are going to utilize their big receivers to complete plenty of passes. The defense that can best minimize the impact of those completions will put its team in position for the NFC North title.
Reviewing Thursday's action at Soldier Field:

Denver Broncos 31, Chicago Bears 3

Preseason record: 0-1

Of interest: Heavy storms probably contributed to the Bears' decision to hold out quarterback Jay Cutler, tailback Matt Forte and defensive end Julius Peppers. … Linebacker Brian Urlacher reportedly was not at Soldier Field, and overall the Bears had a forgettable night. … Left tackle J'Marcus Webb can't feel too comfortable after being left on the field into the fourth quarter, long after the rest of the starting line had completed its work. Webb is young and could use the work, but he was probably also on the receiving end of a message sent to reinforce that he has not yet officially won the starting spot. (There are just no other candidates at the moment.) … Rookie Shea McClellin showed up with a sack of former Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie, who is now the Broncos' backup. … Nickelback D.J. Moore was on point, tipping away a Peyton Manning pass near the goal line so that safety Major Wright could make a score-saving interception. Wright later left with a hamstring injury, an event concerning not for its severity but because he has a history of middling injuries that dig into his playing time and progress. … Rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery led the team with four receptions. … As for Urlacher, Bears general manager Phil Emery told the team's flagship radio station that his knee needs rest and that he will rejoin the team soon. Emery offered no other details of Urlacher's condition, nor did he say if it is related to his recent leave from the team.

Local coverage (in lieu of BBAO): If Emery is telling the truth, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com, Urlacher should return to training camp sometime this weekend. … The people who paid $76 per ticket for Thursday's game have a right to feel taken advantage of, writes Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune. … McClellin, via ESPNChicago.com: "I had fun. It's a start. You know I definitely have a lot of learning to do. Overall, it was good. It was a little bit faster than we've been practicing. When you get into the game, it's always faster than normal, but as it went along I kind of got into it and felt good. You know, like I said, there is a lot of stuff I can work on and get better at. But the sack felt good. It's always good to get a sack, no matter what kind it is, because it boosts your confidence a bit. After that you can kind of relax and just go out and play." … McClellin struggled versus the run, according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. … The decision not to play Cutler reminded Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com that the Bears have a legitimate backup in Jason Campbell. Isaacson: "So astounding is it that for the first time, well, ever, that the Bears have a solid backup quarterback behind a potentially exceptional starter, you're almost skeptical."

Up next: Saturday, Aug. 18 vs. Washington Redskins
One of the most consistent themes of CampTour'12 has been the frequency with which we can expect NFC North teams to abandon their base defenses and shift into nickel or dime formations. It's based on an assumption that a majority of our teams will use extensive three-plus receiver sets, and in many cases it mitigates or helps explain roster holes that we've probably spent too much time obsessing about.

"It seems like everyone is in three or four wide receivers in this league nowadays," Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "Especially in this division, you need to look at [the nickel as your starting defense.] Look at Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago. They're going to throw it all over the field."

The chart shows how often each NFC North team spent with at least five defensive backs on the field last season. The only defensive coaching change occurred with the Vikings, who hired Alan Williams to assist coach Leslie Frazier in maintaining his Tampa-2 structure, so in general there have been no scheme changes for the 2012 season.

Only the Detroit Lions ranked in the lower half of the NFL for using extra defensive backs in 2011, a schematic philosophy based largely on faith in their dominant defensive line as well as their athletic set of linebackers. Otherwise, the rest of our division actually used five defensive backs more frequently than they played their base defense in 2011, and the Packers used it more than any other team in the NFL.

That's why the "shift" of Charles Woodson to safety in the Packers' base defense isn't as dramatic as it might sound. If the Packers come close to last season's percentage, Woodson will be a true safety on perhaps 10 plays in a 70-play game. On the rest, he'll be a slot cornerback, where he's played extensively for several years now.

Plans to use the nickel help explain why the Bears loaded up at cornerback this offseason, signing Kelvin Hayden to compete with Tim Jennings for a starting job while maintaining D.J. Moore as the nickel. It also helps us understand why the Bears didn't prioritize linebacker deptn; in their nickel defense, linebacker Nick Roach comes off the field. That means the player in Roach's strong-side spot would play less than half of the Bears' plays this season. In terms of playing time, he's a part-time player.

The same is likely true for Vikings middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who has replaced E.J. Henderson amid much hand-wringing and concern about his skills in pass coverage. Brinkley will be forced to defend the pass at some point, but if the Vikings implement their nickel the way they have in recent years, Brinkley is likely to come off the field for more than half of the Vikings' plays. Their two full-time linebackers likely will be Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson.

We can't predict if the NFC North will debut any new wrinkles to defend the pass this season, but there aren't too many options. We can keep track, and we will, and the guess here is that the division's true base defense will be the nickel.

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