NFC North: Double Coverage
The Giants have no playoff hopes. The Lions need to win their final two games and then hope for help (i.e., losses) from Green Bay and Chicago.
Taking you through Sunday’s matchup are ESPN.com NFL reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Dan Graziano (Giants).
Rothstein: The Giants have struggled all season, and Eli Manning has been at the forefront of that. What has changed there?
Graziano: It's basically just a complete bottoming-out on all fronts, starting with the protection. A line that wasn't great to begin with is down two starters and has been playing a rookie at right tackle all season. The blocking help the line used to get from running backs and tight ends disappeared when the Giants let Ahmad Bradshaw and Martellus Bennett leave in the offseason. Hakeem Nicks has had a terrible year at receiver, playing like he is more worried about staying healthy in advance of free agency than trying his best to win. There has been no run game at all for long stretches. And Manning has failed to elevate above his miserable circumstances, missing too many throws and too often looking as though it has all been too much for him. It's been a total whitewash of a season for the Giants' offense. They are the only team in the league that has been shut out even once this season, and they've been shut out twice.
What is the deal out there in Detroit? To my eyes, the Lions should have put this division away by now with Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler having been out for so long. What is the main reason they seem to have squandered such a great opportunity?
Rothstein: I don't know whether there are enough words to describe all that has gone on, although the simplest way to put it would be consistent end-game meltdowns, either from turnovers, coaching decisions or a defense that suddenly faltered.
A lot of it has to do with Matthew Stafford, who has had accuracy issues in the second half of the season. Really, there have been issues everywhere but the lines, from turnovers to coverage breakdowns on defense.
This is a team that should be safely in the playoffs right now instead of needing to win out and get help.
That obviously leads to job-security questions for Jim Schwartz. Although that doesn't seem to be the case for Tom Coughlin, has this season given any indication as to how much longer he plans to be on the sideline?
Graziano: No, Coughlin is really a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of guy. He's completely believable when he insists he's focused on only this week's game and doesn't want to address anything beyond this season. People close to Coughlin insist he won't quit as long as he feels he can still do the job, and there is no indication he feels otherwise. He has as much passion and energy as anyone else in the building (and right now, more than most!). I don't think Giants ownership would fire him, and I'd be stunned if he got into the offseason and decided he was done. As one person close to him told me, "He has no hobbies. There's nothing for him to retire TO." At 67 years old, he understands why the questions get asked, but he doesn't view himself as near the end of a career, I don't think. As of now, he plans to be part of the solution here, and it would be a major upset if he wasn't back in 2014.
One of Coughlin's biggest immediate problems is keeping his quarterback from getting killed. How is that Detroit pass rush looking these days?
Rothstein: Eli, meet Ndamukong. He will be the guy tossing you to the ground today. In all seriousness, though, the Lions' pass rush has been interesting. The Lions have been great at applying pressure (other than against Pittsburgh) but don't have the actual numbers to show for it, which can be confusing.
What teams have done is bottle the middle on Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and have either a tight end or running back help on either Willie Young or Ziggy Ansah on the ends.
So to answer your question, it has been OK, but not the consistently dominant force some were expecting.
That leads into my last question. The Lions' run defense, headed by that front, has been one of the best in the league this season. Have the Giants figured any way to solve their run woes?
Graziano: Andre Brown was hot for a while when he came back from his injury, and the offensive line was starting to block better for the run. But the past two weeks have seen a step backward, and the way the line is configured now, with starting left guard Kevin Boothe playing center and backups rotating in and out at left guard, has left it very vulnerable and one-dimensional. The Giants were able to take advantage of some good matchups with Brown running well, but against tougher fronts like the one they saw against Seattle last week, they struggle. I imagine they will struggle against the Lions' front in the run game as well.
Two straight disappointing games for Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Do you expect Megatron to blow up this week and victimize the Giants' secondary?
Rothstein: Kind of. As cornerback Rashean Mathis told me this week, if the Lions don’t find their urgency now, they’ll never find it this season. So I’d imagine you would see Johnson -- who is Detroit's best player -- at the forefront of that if the Lions have any shot over the next two weeks. Plus, those two drops he had against Baltimore will gnaw at him all week long. I expect he’ll have a big game.
Stafford, on the other hand, I’m not as sure about because he seems genuinely rattled this second half of the season. Detroit needs to find what was working for him at the start of the season and bring that back, otherwise its season is over.
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.
Things seemed focused completely on football this week -- at least for a day.
Then Packers offensive lineman Josh Sitton changed all of that Tuesday evening when he went on WSSP Radio in Milwaukee and gave his opinion of the Detroit defense, particularly the defensive line.
It wasn't a pretty assessment.
“They go after quarterbacks. Their entire defense takes cheap shots all the time. That's what they do. That's who they are,” Sitton said. “They're a bunch of a dirtbags or scumbags. That's how they play, and that's how they're coached. It starts with their frickin' coach. It starts with the head coach, [Jim] Schwartz. He's a d---, too. I wouldn't want to play for him. It starts with him, and their D-coordinator and their D-line coach. They're all just scumbags and so are the D-line.”
In a game with the feel of an elimination contest, Sitton added another layer of fun and intrigue -- at least in the pregame. ESPN.com Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky break down the Thanksgiving Day matchup.
Rothstein: There is a long history with these two teams -- even on Thanksgiving going back to the Ndamukong Suh stomp of Evan Dietrich-Smith -- so were you surprised at all that Sitton decided to rip into the Detroit defense and Lions coach Jim Schwartz?
Demovsky: If anyone on the Packers was going to pop off, Sitton would be the first guess followed by his offensive linemate T.J. Lang. They’re the two most outspoken guys on the team. Let’s face it: Sitton probably said what a lot of people around the league have been thinking about the Lions. That said, it probably wasn’t the smartest move to make before a game that you’re going into with your backup quarterback. It was already going to be an uphill battle. As entertaining and refreshing as it was, I don’t see how this helped the Packers’ cause.
Rothstein: I see your point there, but I also wonder how much it really matters. I've never been a believer that this type of talk -- especially on the professional level -- really matters a whole bunch in an actual game. It's fun for fans and gives us something to chat about, for sure, but when you're dealing with grown men, I just don't know how much it really changes a game.
Moving on, Rob, what happens at the quarterback position this week with Green Bay? Does Matt Flynn's history with Detroit play a role here?
Demovsky: When Mike McCarthy said Aaron Rodgers' chances of playing on Thursday were “slim to none,” it seemed obvious that Flynn would be the starter even though McCarthy wouldn't commit to anything. He was much more effective than Scott Tolzien because he can do more in the offense. He's much better versed in running the Packers' version of the no-huddle, which has become a staple of their offense in recent years. Flynn actually has played two games against Detroit. Everyone remembers that 2011 game -- the one that made him about $15 million with his 480-yard, six-touchdown performance -- but don't forget he also struggled in relief of Rodgers in the 2010 game at Ford Field after Rodgers left with a concussion.
How are the Lions approaching the Packers' quarterback situation?
Rothstein: Seemingly by preparing as if Rodgers was going to play. Detroit doesn't see much of a change in the offense from Rodgers to Flynn, so they are going to prepare for the same offense the Packers usually run. Of course, the Lions could be in better shape if Green Bay chooses to run the ball more since the Lions haven't given up a rushing touchdown since Week 4. So if the Packers roll with a heavy dose of Eddie Lacy, that could be a benefit for the Lions.
This obviously leads into the next question: How does Green Bay's offense change with Flynn in the lineup, or is Detroit accurate in how it says it is going to prepare? And how much different is this offense from what the Lions saw in October?
Demovsky: Of all the backup quarterbacks the Packers have played this season, Flynn is probably most like Rodgers, although none has the arm strength Rodgers possesses. But in terms of knowing the system, being able to read defenses and having the freedom to make checks at the line of scrimmage, Flynn is probably the next best option. Still, without Rodgers, there are major differences. Flynn doesn't throw the deep ball as well, and he doesn't have the touch. That was evident on the third-and-goal play in overtime when Flynn badly overthrew Jordy Nelson on a fade.
Speaking of different offenses, the Packers got a break by not having to face Calvin Johnson in the first meeting. Now, the Lions not only have Johnson but also have Nate Burleson back. What's the dynamic with those two?
Rothstein: The dynamic is pretty good and should give the Lions another playmaker the rest of the season. The biggest issue for Detroit's offense Sunday was Matthew Stafford's inaccuracy, but when he was on, the offense was able to move well with Burleson, Johnson and Reggie Bush out there. If teams focus on those three guys, Brandon Pettigrew and Kris Durham have shown, in spurts, to be effective. That's the entire plan with this offense.
Of course, it still only resulted in 21 points last Sunday, but that is at least Detroit's plan.
Both of these teams remain in the playoff picture despite fairly average seasons thus far. What do you think this says about the Packers -- and the NFC North?
Demovsky: It's amazing that the Packers haven't won since Rodgers got hurt yet they're only a half-game out of first place. Certainly, Rodgers gave them a nice cushion with a 5-2 record, but the Lions and Bears certainly missed opportunities to bury Green Bay over the last month. There's probably only two or three elite teams in the NFC, and none of them resides in the North. Can you see any of these teams going on the road in the playoffs and beating a team like the Saints or Seahawks? I can't.
The Packers might not admit it, but I think this is an elimination game for them. Do you think it would have the same consequences for the Lions if they lose?
Rothstein: Tough to say for the Lions, but it would certainly put them in a bad position having lost three straight games. I think it all depends on what Chicago does. If the Bears were to lose, then it's still a race. Otherwise, the Lions would be chasing two teams and that won't bode well for a team that hasn't won a division title this century. If Detroit loses, it becomes a very difficult path to the playoffs. It would still be possible, but there would certainly be a lot of doubt for a franchise that just doesn't make the playoffs all too often.
Only the Lions are in the playoff picture heading into the last six weeks of the season. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers can play spoiler and give a damaging blow to the Lions' playoff hopes.
The Buccaneers will try to do that with a rejuvenated defense that caught the eye of Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.
“They are an extremely talented defense,” Stafford said. “Probably the most talented defense we've played all year.”
ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Pat Yasinskas (Buccaneers) break down Sunday's matchup.
Rothstein: What has happened over the past couple of weeks to turn this Tampa team around?
Yasinskas: The short answer is that the Bucs suddenly have gotten much better at finishing games, a huge problem early in the season. But it goes much deeper than that. Coach Greg Schiano has a reputation for being stubborn and inflexible. But he's changed in recent weeks. His mood has been lighter on the practice field and when he's met with the media. More importantly, he's adjusted some things on the field. He's stopped stunting so much on the defensive line, and that's created more straight-ahead rushes for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Schiano has used cornerback Darrelle Revis in more man-to-man coverage after playing him in a lot of zone early in the season. The Bucs also have been running the ball much better, and that's a tribute to the offensive line.
Speaking of McCoy, he and Ndamukong Suh came out in the same draft, and early on, it looked like Suh clearly was the better player. But McCoy has been outstanding of late. What kind of a year is Suh having?
Rothstein: Suh's actual statistics are fairly pedestrian and wouldn't really stand out to anyone if they were just watching Detroit from afar. But he has faced a lot of double-teams throughout the season and has been somewhat consistent throughout the year. He played his best in the two games against Chicago -- four quarterback hurries in Week 10, two sacks in Week 4 -- but he and the rest of the Detroit defensive line almost inexplicably struggled to reach Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this past Sunday.
Detroit has not blitzed much this season, putting a lot of pressure on the front four, starting with Suh.
That'll lead into my next question -- how has Mike Glennon been progressing this season, and how does he move when he is pushed in the pocket a little bit?
Yasinskas: Glennon has been a pleasant surprise. He was thrown into the lineup when Josh Freeman was benched, and he struggled at first. But Glennon has steadily improved and has been very good in recent weeks. He had only three incompletions in Sunday's victory over Atlanta. He's shown poise and leadership. Glennon's strength is his big arm, and the Bucs are trying to develop more of a deep passing game. They showed signs that's catching on when Vincent Jackson caught two long passes against the Falcons.
I first saw Glennon when I was covering the filming of "Gruden's QB Camp" this past spring. Watching Glennon's college tape, I thought he didn't have the mobility to succeed in the NFL. As it turns out, I was wrong. Glennon is not a running threat, but he's not a statue, either. He's been extending some plays by scrambling.
Speaking of deep passing games, the matchup I can't wait to see is Calvin Johnson against Revis. I saw the Lions-Steelers game, and it seemed like Johnson disappeared in the second half. What was all that about? Revis and Johnson went head-to-head in a 2010 game, and Johnson caught just one pass for 13 yards. Do you see Revis, with a little bit of help, being help to keep Johnson quiet?
Rothstein: It depends on what Tampa tries to do defensively. When teams have tried covering Johnson with single coverage, he's destroyed opponents. It happened a good amount against Dallas and early against Pittsburgh. It goes to the situation most teams have had to face this season -- do you double-team Johnson and give a lighter box to Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, or do you play single high to focus on Bell and Bush and put Johnson in lighter coverage?
That said, Revis is one of the best corners in the league -- something Stafford acknowledged Tuesday -- and it should be an intriguing matchup Sunday. Johnson likes going against the top corners in the league and has had some success this season in those matchups, notably against Arizona's Patrick Peterson (six catches, 116 yards, two touchdowns) and Dallas' Brandon Carr (14 catches, 329 yards).
One of the other ways teams have had success against Detroit is to pressure Stafford, which hasn't been easy this season. It goes back to that first question with McCoy, but is he the key to any pressure Tampa might get?
Yasinskas: McCoy is the central piece of the defensive line, and everything feeds off him. But he's not alone in the pass rush. End Adrian Clayborn has some pass-rush skills, and the Bucs have started lining up outside linebacker Dekoda Watson as a rush end. But the Bucs also like to use their linebackers as blitzers, and Lavonte David (five sacks) is a very good pass-rusher. But it all goes back to McCoy. The Bucs rely on him to push the quarterback off the spot, and the other players can clean up.
You mentioned Bush. At least from a distance, it seemed like he got himself in the doghouse by fumbling against Pittsburgh. Is Bush in good graces with the coaching staff, or will we see less of him Sunday?
Rothstein: Doghouse? No. But he needs to work on protecting the ball better and hanging on to it, period. He's struggled with drops all season and lost fumbles two of the past three weeks. He's too big a weapon for Detroit to move away from him -- especially at home -- but if he continues on this trend, Bell might steal some of his snaps.
Jay Cutler tossed three interceptions the last time these teams met, and the Lions scored on six consecutive possessions to seize a 30-10 lead in the second quarter en route to a 40-32 win. With sole possession of first place in the NFC North on the line, obviously the Bears hope for a different result this time around. But the Lions are hungry as they hold a share of the division lead for the first time in more than 10 years.
ESPN.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein break down the matchup.
Michael C. Wright: It's been more than 10 years since the Lions were at the top of the division standings after the first half of the season. How is Detroit handling the success?
Michael Rothstein: They seem to be handling it fine thus far, but that could be because a lot of these guys haven't been around for a lot of the losing seasons. Plus, a lot of the guys who have been around in the past were on Detroit's playoff team in 2011. So they have seen some Lions success and not the consistent failure of the early to mid-2000s. There is also a confidence level about this team, something you saw two weeks ago in the final seven minutes against Dallas, which seems to be different than in prior years. This team believes it can win close games, and that in itself is a big difference.
Wright: The Lions incorporate tons of speed on offense, but what happens when they're on a slower track such as what they might encounter with the conditions at Soldier Field? Is there anything the Lions would try to do to counteract what might be a sloppy field?
Rothstein: It's slower for everyone, though, right? In all seriousness, I don't know how much they would do differently. Perhaps Detroit will use Joique Bell a little bit more out of the backfield instead of Reggie Bush, but that could be due to Bush potentially playing more in the slot Sunday depending on Nate Burleson's health. Detroit's offense won't change much. It'll still rely heavily on Matthew Stafford's ability to find open receivers, Calvin Johnson's ability to make big plays and Bush's capability to make plays in small spaces.
Wright: Nate Burleson recently returned to practice. But what's his status for Sunday? If he's available, what does he bring to the offense?
Rothstein: His status is completely questionable and likely will be until Friday. Burleson wants to play. He's been focused a lot on this week as a potential return date and he is practicing. But Detroit is going to be cautious with its No. 2 receiver because it doesn't want him to reinjure the arm by coming back too fast and taking a bad hit. Burleson's big thing now isn't conditioning -- he says he's in pretty good football form -- but learning how to fall and not use his arm to brace said falls. He could play Sunday, but Detroit is going to need him for the stretch run.
The Jay Cutler situation is obviously pretty fluid. How, if at all, does the Bears' offense change if he does not play?
Wright: It doesn't change much at all. In fact, the only difference in the offense would come down to a matter of personal preferences for McCown. The coaching staff includes the quarterbacks when putting together a game plan, and it always asks them which plays they think they could be more successful with. Obviously McCown and Cutler are different people with different preferences. So that would be the only change, schematically. In terms of overall play, McCown's arm isn't as strong as Cutler's. So he incorporates more anticipation in his game than the starter. McCown is decisive with the ball, makes smart decisions and won't take unnecessary risks, which is a little different than Cutler, who sometimes gambles and forces throws into coverage in part because of his confidence in his arm.
Rothstein: The last time Detroit saw Chicago, Lance Briggs was in the middle. How much has his absence shifted the defense from the last time the Lions saw the Bears?
Wright: Well, they've played only one game since Briggs fractured his shoulder Oct. 20 at Washington, and the defense on Monday night suffered through many of the same struggles they've gone through all season with the veteran in the lineup. The Bears now have two rookies in the starting lineup at middle linebacker in Jonathan Bostic (middle) and Khaseem Greene, who has taken over on the weak side for Briggs. Against the Packers the club struggled with gap fits against Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 150 yards. The pass rush improved a great deal, and the team finished with five sacks. But stopping the run has been a challenge. Surprisingly, the Bears are 3-1 this season when they allow a running back to gain 100 yards or more with the only loss under those circumstances coming to the Lions.
Rothstein: This has probably been somewhat forgotten, but Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. called the Bears the "same bunch of thugs" earlier this season. Has that been mentioned at all? Does it matter?
Wright: It was mentioned by cornerback Tim Jennings in the aftermath of the last matchup, but it hasn't been since.
Asked about Ford's comments, Jennings said: "So he wants to call us thugs. We can take that as a compliment, I guess. We like to think we're playing nasty. But we play within the rules, you know? I don't know whether he's just meaning we're dirty or we're just a nasty defense. We weren't too nasty when we played them. So I don't know what he's trying to get out of it."
It's quite obvious these teams don't like one another, and surely the Bears want to atone for the 40-32 beatdown the Lions put on them in the first matchup. But my sense is with a short week of preparation, the Bears are focused and want to downplay any type of bulletin board material.
It is a matchup between two potential playoff teams and two of the best wide receivers in the game, Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant.
But the Dallas-Detroit game on Sunday has other twists, too. For the Lions, Sunday is a chance to grab back some momentum from a strong start to the season. For the Cowboys, it could be a chance to widen their lead on their NFC East opponents.
Dallas NFL Nation reporter Todd Archer and Detroit NFL Nation reporter Michael Rothstein break down what you might see Sunday afternoon.
Rothstein: Let's start here -- last week in Detroit there was a lot of discussion of A.J. Green and Johnson as two of the best receivers in the league. Now it is Bryant and Johnson this week. What is it that Bryant does that should really concern Detroit's cornerbacks, who let Green go for 155 yards Sunday?
Archer: Bryant can go get the ball. He is virtually impossible to defend in the red zone (and sometimes he'll push off too), but cornerbacks just don't have a chance on him. He's a better route runner now than he was last year and the Cowboys are using him on more varied routes. When he came into the league he would make the spectacular play but couldn't make the boring play consistently. Now he's doing both. But his No. 1 attribute is his physical style. He will fight for the ball and fight for yardage. He's special in that regard.
The Cowboys have had Brandon Carr follow Demaryius Thomas, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson the past three games. I'm sure they'll do the same with Calvin Johnson. When teams have matched up with Johnson like that, how has or hasn't it worked?
Rothstein: There haven't been too many teams that have single-covered Johnson -- at least not for extended periods of the game. The closest would have been against Arizona in Week 2, but the Cardinals have Patrick Peterson and Johnson had six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown against him. Really, the only thing that has slowed Johnson this season was a knee issue that kept him out of the loss to Green Bay and limited him against Cleveland a week later. Not surprisingly, Johnson still draws a ton of attention with a safety rolling to him over the top.
What that has done is opened up the offense underneath for Reggie Bush and, to an extent, Joique Bell. When both are healthy and playing well, the Lions have had a pretty strong offensive threat from deep threats to short bursts. How does Dallas plan on dealing with that, especially considering DeMarcus Ware's questionable status?
Archer: Running backs and tight ends have hurt the Cowboys in the passing game this year. The safeties have been only OK but are coming off a pretty good game at Philadelphia against LeSean McCoy, who's as shifty or more than Bush. The Cowboys had their best tackling game last season against the Eagles. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter have played better here lately and will be largely responsible for the backs, but safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox will be a presence too. Losing Ware would be a big blow to a defense that has to get pressure on Matthew Stafford. The Cowboys have been rolling in new guys pretty much every week across the defensive line, and added Marvin Austin this week to help at tackle.
Speaking about the defensive line allows me to talk about Rod Marinelli. He has been nothing but great here with those no-name guys, but what's the feeling of him up there considering that 0-16 season?
Rothstein: That was before my time -- I was still covering the Charlie Weis Notre Dame years when Marinelli was in Detroit -- but I can say I have not heard anything about that season in my short time here and most of the current team arrived in 2009 or later.
But the 0-16 season contributes to the typical angst the Lions fan base has over any success the team has -- as in waiting for the bottom to drop out. But most of this team is so new, there isn't much of that feeling. Plus, as injured receiver Nate Burleson said earlier this year, when you go to play in Detroit, you know there are going to be questions about losing streaks to be broken and demons to be exorcised.
Since we're chatting a little bit about defense, Tony Romo is being sacked on 6 percent of his attempts, so is Dallas' line doing a good job protecting him or are these more coverage sacks? What's going on with the protections?
Archer: The line has improved a lot from recent years, especially in pass protection. They revamped their interior line with Travis Frederick, their first-round pick at center, Ronald Leary at left guard and Brian Waters, who did not play last season, at right guard. Tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free are performing better than they did a year ago. Romo has taken a number of coverage sacks this year, and he's also elusive for a guy who does not appear to be the most athletic. He has terrific vision and a quick release that can bail him out of trouble. As strange as it sounds, I think Romo also has seen the value of taking a sack and not forcing a throw.
Let's stick with the quarterback play. Stafford is a Dallas kid, so we know his background. He likes to throw it around, but like Romo, his interceptions are down. Is he just being more careful with the ball or has the attack changed a little?
Rothstein: Having Reggie Bush in the offense has allowed Stafford to throw the ball shorter more often and as an old coach I used to cover once said, "Short passes are happy passes." They are also more likely to be completed passes. Here's something to consider with Stafford as well. His numbers could be much better, but his receivers have dropped 6.9 percent of his passes. Hold on to even half those and he's completing around 65 percent of his passes this season. He also has gotten much better at throwing the ball away instead of forcing passes. That's been a big change. There is an accuracy component to it as well, but he isn't taking nearly as many downfield chances.
Speaking of semi-homecomings, you mentioned Carr earlier. Does this game mean more to him because he is coming home as he grew up and played his college ball in Michigan? And second thing on that, has Dallas changed a lot from last season or can a guy like Kevin Ogletree help this week?
Archer: I'm sure it does but Carr will attempt to downplay it. He still carries that Grand Valley State/fifth-round pick chip on his shoulder even if the Cowboys gave him a $50 million deal last year as a free agent. He has done a terrific job here the past three weeks as we talked about earlier. Jason Garrett even went out of his way to praise Carr's work on special teams, so you can see the Flint in him hasn't left. As for the Ogletree angle, he had a hard enough time with the offense that I don't think he would help with the defense. The Cowboys have a completely different scheme from Rob Ryan's 3-4 to Monte Kiffin's 4-3. Ogletree will know some personnel, but the corners are playing a little different than they did a year ago so I don't think it will matter much.
I haven't asked about the Lions defense yet. Just by looking at the numbers they seem to be pretty good situationally: third down, red zone. Is that the wrong read here?
Rothstein: The defense is kind of a little bit of everywhere. Great on third down over the first month of the season -- not as much over the past three weeks. Perhaps a corollary here is the defensive line not getting quite as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks the past three weeks as it did during the first month of the season. Red zone defense has been pretty good. Overall, it is a decent Lions defense. DeAndre Levy is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season at linebacker and the defensive line and safeties have been good. Cornerback has been a bit up-and-down, though.
My final question to you sticks with this theme. We touched on the Dallas offensive line earlier, but how do the Cowboys deal with Ndamukong Suh? He is a guy who can change games on his own.
Archer: This is part of the reason why the Cowboys wanted Frederick, Waters and Leary. They're stout players. The Cowboys have not had much power in the middle and it has hurt the running game as well as pass protection. Suh, obviously, offers a different challenge. Waters has the strength necessary but he does not move like he did a few years ago. The Cowboys will give him some help but not all the time. And I think Romo can help out the line as well by getting rid of the ball quickly. The Cowboys only take a handful of downfield shots a game, relying mostly on underneath stuff to work their way down the field.
The Lions are 4-3 like the Cowboys and this is a huge game for both when you start thinking about December and playoff chases. You touched on this earlier, but is the town ready to get behind the Lions, especially because the Tigers aren't in the World Series and it's still early in the Red Wings' season?
Rothstein: I think there is some of that, for sure, and I think there is the hope among the fan base that this year’s Lions team is for real. But as I mentioned earlier, there is going to be that sense of dread -- which is why a win for Detroit on Sunday would really go a long way to bolster that fan base confidence. And probably to maintain the confidence in the locker room as well.
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.
We smelled a Double Coverage.
Is one of those zeros going to last? We got our AFC South and NFC North wizards together to talk it out.
Paul Kuharsky: For starters, Kevin, on behalf of those who follow the AFC South, we'd like to thank the NFC North representative for deeming us worthy to be a conversational partner. I mean, your teams are a combined 21-11 and mine are a measly 12-22. You are indeed very gracious.
Kevin Seifert: No problem, Paul. As the blogger for the NFL's most dominant division, I thought it would be interesting to see how the other half lives. Maybe those of us in the Black and Blue could learn something. Perhaps the untold value of mediocrity?
PK: More graciousness. The Colts and Jaguars thank you for the compliment. They haven’t been viewed as even mediocre in some time.
OK, we’re here to discuss what’s more likely, the Colts going winless or the Packers going undefeated. I think finishing a 16-game season with a zero in either the W or L column is equally hard. Over in the AFC South, we’ve actually seen the flip side of this. The 2009 Colts had a shot at an undefeated regular season, and they took their foot off the gas, pretty much sacrificing the final two games of the season in the name of resting and preserving people.
It was their prerogative of course. They said it wasn’t about going undefeated, it was about winning it all. I thought they were stubborn, acting as if they couldn’t conceivably do both and suggesting there would be no extra meaning to it. When they lost the Super Bowl to the Saints, it was all moot. It’s remarkable that just two seasons later, we’re talking about an 0-9 Colts team with a shot to go winless. Maybe karma is in play.
KS: There is no doubt that winning all 16 regular season games is a difficult task and requires some luck.
But I think it's harder to go 0-16, and I speak from experience.
You forget, Paul, that three years ago I covered a team that didn't win a game all year. The 2008 Detroit Lions were a terrible team, hitting rock bottom with poor drafts and mismanagement, but they proved how hard you have to work to lose 16 games.
Just one example: The margin of victory in the Lions' 12-10 loss at the Minnesota Vikings that year was a safety. It occurred when quarterback Dan Orlovsky forgot where he was on the field and ran out of the end zone -- by a solid three yards -- while attempting to elude a pass rush. It was the easiest sack of defensive end Jared Allen's life.
Even someone like you, who isn't averse to embarrassing yourself on camera for your blog readers, could probably have avoided a safety on that play.
The point is that even a historically bad team is liable to get its chances to win a game. A really good team has a better chance of limiting its chances of losing. Hopefully that makes sense to your AFC South people.
PK: I didn’t forget, Chief, I was setting you up. And I know Mr. Orlovsky personally, as he’s been with the Texans and is now on the very Colts team we are talking about. Imagine, he and linebacker Ernie Sims could be part of two winless teams in a four-season span. That’s not a very good line on the old resume.
Though they’ve given me little reason to believe it, I still think the Colts win a game “by accident” in their final seven. Many people seem to think the big chance comes with Jacksonville coming to town this weekend. But apparently those people have not seen the Jaguars’ defense, which is capable of squashing the Colts. Dwight Freeney might need to score for Indy to win.
I look through what the Colts have left after the Jags and I can’t pick one to win -- Carolina, at New England, at Baltimore, Tennessee, Houston and at Jacksonville. Those games at New England and Baltimore were expected to be monster AFC contests when the schedule came out. Now they might be breathers for the Patriots and Ravens.
I love the Packers, but they have a far more difficult road to a singular season -- they could lose on Thanksgiving at Detroit, they could lose a week later on the road against the Giants. They could lose on Christmas to Chicago or on New Year’s to the Lions, though it’s awfully nice that those last two are at home.
KS: They also could have lost last week to the San Diego Chargers, or in Week 1 if Mark Ingram had gotten the New Orleans Saints one more yard or in Week 3 if Cam Newton had converted one more fourth down for the Carolina Panthers. The point is the Packers have demonstrated to everyone watching that they have the tools and guile to pull out victories of all shapes and sizes and regardless of the circumstances.
There has been a fair amount of consternation about their pass defense, and even Charles Woodson has spoken out about it. They've been giving up gobs of yards all season, but to this point, they've minimized the impact by grabbing an NFL-high 16 interceptions.
The concern is that the Packers could be done in by a more efficient and careful quarterback than the ones they've played so far. The list of remaining quarterbacks on their schedule includes these names: Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, Matthew Stafford (twice), Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel and Jay Cutler.
So if the Packers don't do anything to improve their pass defense, that leaves the Lions and Giants as probably the best candidates to beat them. That assumes, of course, that Stafford and/or Manning not only play mistake-free but also match Aaron Rodgers in a score-fest. The Packers are averaging 34.4 points per game.
PK: I think the Colts' best stretch of play might actually be behind them. They nearly found a way to beat Pittsburgh in Week 3 but lost by 3, they were in it late in Tampa Bay on a Monday night but lost by a touchdown, they were in range of Kansas City but lost by four.
Every week is a new deal. We just saw the Dolphins emerge from a similar quagmire and win in Kansas City. The Colts could stumble into a game where things align for them. My gut still says they will, because 0-16 is so hard.
So my verdict: The Colts are more likely to go 0-16 than the Packers are to go 16-0. But I don’t think we’re seeing either.
KS: We can agree on that: Neither is happening. But on the relative scale, I like the chances of Rodgers throwing a touchdown pass to Greg Jennings in Week 17 and sealing a perfect season more than the chances of Dan Orlovsky running out of the back of the end zone again.
Just a guess.
What exactly is the value of controversial quarterbacks Brett Favre and Michael Vick to their new teams?
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
In this week's ground-breaking Double Coverage feature, we take a look at quarterbacks Brett Favre and Michael Vick. Which player will have the biggest impact on his team? The easy answer -- the one NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert will provide -- is that Favre's impact will be greater because he's the starter for the Vikings. Jeremy Green of Scouts Inc. and Seifert essentially agreed on this point, but Jeremy thinks that Vick might have a longer-lasting impact because he someday could replace McNabb for good.
Podcast: Football Today
Kevin Seifert and Matt Mosley join Jeremy Green to discuss which quarterback will have a bigger impact on their teams: the Vikings' Brett Favre or Philadelphia's Michael Vick. Football Today
I made the (strong) argument that Vick will have a bigger 2009 because I don't have confidence in Favre's health. You'll be able to hear all three of us bounce this topic around on our exclusive Double Coverage podcast. Special thanks to Jay Soderberg for working overtime today to make this happen.
Jay ruled in favor of Seifert in today's argument, in part, because I wasn't around at the time. If you like what you hear, please send Seifert a kind note in the NFC North blog comments section.
|AP Photo/Reed Saxon|
|Which rookie quarterback is under more pressure to succeed in 2009: New York's Mark Sanchez or Detroit's Matthew Stafford?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert and Tim Graham
With nothing better to do during the NFL's dog days of July, two of our division bloggers hopped on the phone this week to debate which rookie quarterback faces more pressure this season: the Detroit Lions' Matthew Stafford or the New York Jets' Mark Sanchez.
The NFC North's Kevin Seifert and AFC East's Tim Graham considered the issue from a number of perspectives, including:
- The 2009 expectations for each team. (Detroit: Win some games. New York: Win some playoff games.)
- The contracts each player signed. (Stafford: Biggest in draft history. Sanchez: Biggest in Jets draft history.)
- Each team's alternatives at quarterback. (Detroit: Daunte Culpepper. New York: Kellen Clemens.)
- The urgency for each player to start right away. (Stafford: Moderate. Sanchez: Mandatory.)
Graham suggested the Jets will follow the Joe Flacco model that coach Rex Ryan witnessed last season in Baltimore. Seifert questioned whether Sanchez is as NFL-ready as Flacco. To which Graham responded with a vague insult of Flacco's foundation -- constructed mostly at the University of Delaware after transferring from Pitt -- relative to Sanchez's grooming at USC.
Listen to the podcast for all of the spice and color you've grown to love from Double Coverage -- and to discover the surprising conclusion we reached.
ESPN's Marcellus Wiley and Mike Golic also weigh in on the topic.
|Lions and Rams fans have had little to cheer about in recent years.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Kevin Seifert
The weekly Double Coverage feature is back with a new twist: Audio. NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and I joined ESPN's Jay Soderberg in sizing up two rebuilding teams. At issue: Whether the Lions or Rams would fare better in 2009.
The Lions have plugged holes in their roster with veteran players such as Grady Jackson and Julian Peterson. The Rams have flushed out established veterans while becoming one of the youngest teams in the league. The Lions are building around a rookie quarterback. The Rams are trying to revive a veteran under center. The Lions hired Scott Linehan to fix their offense. The Rams fired Scott Linehan as part of a plan to fix their franchise.
Which team is taking the wiser approach? Kevin and I had fun seeking answers. Both teams have defensive-minded head coaches, putting pressure on their offensive coordinators. We covered that ground early before hitting on other topics. An excerpt:
Kevin Seifert: Scott Linehan is the offensive coordinator for the Lions. He obviously had a rough time in your division as the head coach of the Rams, but I covered Scott when he was the Vikings' offensive coordinator, and players loved playing for him. He listened to what they thought and incorporated that into his system. Obviously, they had some very successful years with the Vikings' offense under Linehan and there are some similarities in Detroit with Calvin Johnson playing the Randy Moss role and perhaps Matthew Stafford eventually developing into the Daunte Culpepper role. Until then, they have the actual Daunte Culpepper, so I think [Lions head coach Jim] Schwartz made a good hire and a well-respected hire in Scott Linehan for offense.
Mike Sando: Rams fans are going to have a hard time buying that, though, Kevin. To think you think the Lions upgraded by adding Scott Linehan, who went 5-27 over the last two years [actually 3-17, at which point the Rams fired him before going 2-10 the rest of the way], is a stretch. I will give you this, though. I think as a head coach, he is an excellent coordinator.
Kevin Seifert: Thanks for that.
Mike Sando: I think he is better in that role and I think you are probably right. He can successful in that role and certainly at least you have a guy who has been a head coach. Maybe not a good one, maybe [things] did not go his way.
Kevin Seifert: And what is [Pat] Shurmur's résumé? I know [Steve] Spagnuolo has been with him a while in Philadelphia, but what is his résumé and why should we trust him that he's going to be able to invigorate this offense?
Mike Sando: He has been with high-powered offenses in Philadelphia -- one of the most successful franchises over the last 10 years, for sure, even though they don't have the Super Bowl ring to show for it. I think there is a sense in the league -- we'll see if it's right -- that Shurmur, not unlike Scott Linehan a few years ago, possibly has a future as a head coach. We'll see, but I think the initial signs are encouraging.
Soderberg served as the judge once this mini-debate concluded. Tune in to the podcast to learn how he ruled. The teams will decide matters themselves when they meet Week 8, Nov. 1 in Detroit.