NFC North: Durant Brooks
INDIANAPOLIS -- As you might realize, we initially booked this trip to Gen Con, er Indy, because it figured to be the preseason debut of Hewhoshallnotbenamed. We all know how that worked out, but even now I think Minnesota's quarterback position remains very much the story Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
As Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune points out, Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels have had an inconsistent summer. And their most recent practice on Wednesday might have been their worst, a significant warning sign.
As preseason games go, there's some pressure on both quarterbacks to play well -- especially considering Indianapolis will be without its entire first-team secondary for the game. Check out Mike Chappell's blog at the Indianapolis Star for those details.
We don't yet know whether Jackson or Rosenfels will start (competitive reasons, no doubt.) But the Colts' injury list means that the Vikings' starter will be working against the Colts' No. 2 secondary. And whoever comes in after that will probably face members of the Colts' third-team secondary. For a player looking to win a starting job, those are matchups that should be won.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Friday will also mark the debut of new Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt and possibly center John Sullivan, who has had an ankle injury, writes Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- Detroit coach Jim Schwartz is likely to announce Friday whether Matthew Stafford or Daunte Culpepper will start Saturday against Atlanta, according to Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press.
- Lions tailback Kevin Smith dropped his weight from 218 pounds to 210 pounds in preparation for this season, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News.
- Watch out, Jeremy Kapinos and Durant Brooks: Green Bay worked out four free-agent punters Wednesday, according to Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes that Packers coach Mike McCarthy has typically changed the alignment of his offensive line after the first preseason game. McCarthy has pledged this year to keep players in the same position as much as he can.
- Chicago safety Danieal Manning's sore hamstring has opened the door for rookie Al Afalava, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Corey Graham is likely to work as the Bears' nickelback in the preseason opener at Buffalo, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago.
|Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images|
|Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is experiencing the changes on the Packers' defense first hand.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Someone is bearing down every time Aaron Rodgers throws a training camp pass. One play it's cornerback Charles Woodson. Then it's safety Nick Collins. Sometimes outside linebackers Jeremy Thompson and Aaron Kampman crash the pocket together. Then it's Thompson and inside linebacker Brandon Chillar.
"It's tougher to go against," Rodgers said. "It really is tougher. Going against our old scheme, there was just a lot of man coverage. You kind of knew you were going to get 'one-high' man or 'two-high' man or a very rare Cover 2. But what you saw in practice, they were bringing guys off both edges. Corner blitz. Safety blitz. Then they play Cover 2, Cover 3 or Cover 0. They mix up the coverages and the blitzes so often... It makes it a lot more difficult to try to get a read on it. They force you to make a quick decision."
There is little doubt Green Bay's new defense will be different and take more chances in 2009. But no one believes the scheme alone will turn around a team that finished 6-10 last season. The Packers are still testing their players' aptitude for the 3-4 and adjusting it accordingly. They've also initiated a significant overhaul of their offensive line, are transitioning the tight end position with a greater emphasis on second-year player Jermichael Finley and are holding a wide-open competition for a new punter.
"Certainly the whole idea behind this defensive scheme is to be more unpredictable and to hand more question marks to the offense," general manager Ted Thompson said. "But like everything else, it still gets down to football players making plays and defeating the guy across the line of scrimmage."
1. Do the Packers have the right players for a traditional 3-4 defense?
Initially posed in January, that question remains relevant 10 days into camp. I saw Kampman and Jeremy Thompson, both defensive ends last season, valiantly chasing receivers downfield during team drills. No matter how quickly those players make the schematic adjustment, that seems to be a mismatch.
But defensive coordinator Dom Capers insisted he has no coverage that gives an outside linebacker sole coverage responsibility on a receiver. In those instances, Thompson and Kampman are responsible for underneath routes and have safety help downfield. That's an example of the short-term adjustments Capers will have to make for the scheme to work in 2009.
We're also still waiting to see how many of the Packers' 4-3 defensive tackles and ends can hold up as a 3-4 end in this scheme. Cullen Jenkins appears to be a natural, but Johnny Jolly has missed significant time with an ankle injury and former first-round pick Justin Harrell has been on a snap count. Which brings us to ...
|Mike Roemer/AP Photo|
|Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji's contract situation is costing him valuable conditioning time.|
2. How much immediate help will the Packers get from their pair of first-round draft choices?
Defensive lineman B.J. Raji remains unsigned as of Sunday morning, meaning he has missed nine practices and at least temporarily delayed the Packers' plans to transition him into the starting left end. Linebacker Clay Matthews, meanwhile, was beginning to challenge Thompson for a starting job on the outside when he tweaked a hamstring injury that slowed him for much of the spring.
Thompson has displayed superior athletic skills, but when healthy it appears Matthews is the more polished player. Matthews seems destined to start when the regular season opens -- if he can stay on the field.
You want to say the same about Raji, but he remains in a market logjam that is keeping five other players out of NFL camps. Raji was probably the best overall defensive lineman in the draft and he'll make quick progress once he arrives. But his ab
sence has been long enough to affect his conditioning. And no one should underestimate the challenge and significance of Raji's move to defensive end. Every snap he has missed is one less opportunity to grow comfortable before the season starts.
3. Can the Packers achieve stability on the offensive line?
One of coach Mike McCarthy's primary goals is to end the revolving door of line play caused by changing the positions of multiple players. Daryn Colledge is now locked down at left guard, and it appears the Packers are giving Jason Spitz (center) and Josh Sitton (right guard) every opportunity to be the long-term answers at their respective positions.
That still leaves both tackle positions as mild question marks. But left tackle Chad Clifton appears healthy enough after having four offseason surgeries: arthroscopic procedures on both shoulders and both knees. The Packers are still limiting his snaps in hopes of squeezing one more year out of his 33-year-old body. Nothing I saw suggested Clifton is done, but it's very early.
On the right side, Allen Barbre has worked exclusively with the first team while youngsters T.J. Lang and Breno Giacomini rotated behind him. I don't get the feeling the Packers consider Barbre a long-term solution but to this point, his hold on the starting job does not appear threatened.
Ted Thompson said that linebacker Nick Barnett is "on pace" to be activated soon from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. It could happen sometime this week, but Barnett will find several new challenges when he returns to the field for the first time since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last November.
The most obvious is pushing through the usual soreness and uncertainty that goes with ACL injuries. Players are rarely at full speed when they first return to the field. As well, Barnett will have to get an on-field crash course in the new scheme. No matter how many meetings he has attended or practices he has watched, there is no substitute for practice reps.
And finally, Barnett's replacement has actually proved adept in the new scheme. Linebacker Brandon Chillar played in a similar blitz scheme earlier in his career in St. Louis and will have a significant role this season no matter what happens with Barnett. "This really fits Brandon's talents as far as all the sub packages we have," McCarthy said. "And he's a good blitzer. He gets good pressure."
This is not to suggest the Packers will move on without Barnett. But his football world has changed significantly since we last saw him on the field.
|AP Photo/Morry Gash|
|Green Bay's Quinn Johnson is an intimidating presence at fullback.|
Newcomer to watch
We've already discussed the absence of Raji and Matthews. On the other hand, one rookie who has opened some eyes is fullback Quinn Johnson. The Packers list him at 250 pounds, but Johnson would pass for a defensive tackle if he didn't have a number on his jersey.
Needless to say, Johnson is a load as a lead blocker. He also displayed some intriguing quickness on the rare occasions I saw him carry the ball. The Packers don't give the ball to their fullbacks much -- they combined for eight rushes and 10 receptions in 2008 -- but I doubt too many defenders would be eager to tackle him.
At the urging of veterans Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, Rodgers is openly expanding his leadership role within the locker room. "I think it's the opportunity that presents itself," Rodgers said, "and the vibe that I'm getting from the guys [is that they] are looking to me for leadership. In certain situations, they are expecting me to speak up." Rodgers also said he is getting "more freedom" from McCarthy to influence scheme and game plans. ... During individual drills one night last week, Rodgers drilled three passes into a small square from more than 40 yards away. ... The intense vibe of this camp is like night and day from last year's distraction-filled affair. I have no idea why the Packers would consider risking that relative tranquility by signing Michael Vick. Multiple reports suggest they have been doing their due diligence on the former Atlanta quarterback. ... You wonder whether this is the end of the line for veteran center Scott Wells, who is battling Spitz for the starting job. If Spitz wins, as expected, it's not clear if the Packers would keep Wells as a backup. ... With Spitz and Sitton in the starting lineup, the Packers should have a bigger offensive line this season. "Were some teams stronger up front than us last year? Yeah, probably so," McCarthy said. "We'll see what happens this year." ... The Packers are pitting Jeremy Kapinos and Durant Brooks in a punting duel, but neither has been impressive and it's possible the Packers will have to look elsewhere once teams starting making roster cuts. ... Linebacker Brady Poppinga is behind Thompson, Matthews and Kampman on the depth chart but believes this scheme was made for his skills. "I feel like I'm in a defense that really fits who I am," Poppinga said. ... No idea where he fits in, but first-year receiver Jake Allen caught my eyes during the early portion of practice. Allen is 6-foot-4, has long arms and made a number of acrobatic catches during red zone work. Allen spent last season on the Packers' practice squad.
In late February, the Orlando Sentinel's Chris Harry pulled up a chair with retired quarterback Brett Favre and shot the breeze for 10 minutes. Inevitably, the subject of returning to the playing field came up. Here's what Favre said then, according to a story published Tuesday:
"I'm coming off a torn bicep tendon, but I still think I can throw. It hurt toward the end of the year, but I still think in my mind I can play. It's there. ... But soon to be 40? I just don't know if it's worth a try. But there will be a day, I'm sure, when I feel like I could play 291 more [games]."
Amazingly, those sentiments already represented a departure from what Favre said earlier in the month upon announcing his retirement -- that the tendon needed surgery in order to heal and that he wasn't interested in the procedure. If you're into reading between the lines, you can see that Favre was already moving away from his steadfast plan to retire just weeks after his decision.
Two months later, how much further has Favre traveled down that path? He texted ESPN's Trent Dilfer on Monday to respond to a question about whether he planned to play in 2009. The response: "NO." I suppose it would have been superfluous to add "FOR NOW."
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune tells the story of how Nick Urban, an offensive tackle from Division II Winona State, ended up signing with Minnesota.
- Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette breaks down the Packers' three-way punting battle between Adam Graessle, Jeremy Kapinos and Durant Brooks.
- Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provides some insight into why the Packers released defensive end/linebacker Jason Hunter. It appears Hunter was stuck in between the two positions in the Packers' new scheme.
- Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times checks in with former Bears quarterback Kyle Orton in Denver. Orton: ''My entire goal, and the only way I went about it, was to win football games. For the most part, I did a pretty good job of that. I don't know [if he ever got credit for being 21-12 as a starter]. I'm proud of what I did back there. Right now, I'm just focused on the future. It's going to be the start to the second half of my career."
- Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago provides some insight into how new Bears defensive line coach Rod Marinelli is teaching his players.
- Former Bears linebacker Jim Schwantz was sworn in Monday as the mayor of the Chicago suburb of Palatine. Schwantz played for the Bears from 1992-98.
- Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford and his family have gotten advice from Archie Manning, the father of current NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning. Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach put the two families in touch with one another, according to John Niyo of the Detroit News.
- The Lions are the clear frontrunners for free-agent linebacker Larry Foote, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
Get this: Minnesota actually lost three defensive linemen on Tuesday. In addition to the suspensions of defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, which might be subject to a legal injunction, the Vikings won't have reserve defensive end Brian Robison for at least one week.
According to Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune, Robison had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee to repair what was described as a minor injury suffered in Sunday night's 34-14 victory over Chicago. Regardless, Robison will at least miss Sunday's game at Detroit.
So unless the Williamses' suspensions are overturned, the Vikings will have five healthy defensive linemen available for practice: Ends Jared Allen, Ray Edwards and Otis Grigsby, along with tackles Fred Evans and Ellis Wyms. Rookie defensive tackle Letroy Guion has an ankle injury and missed practice time last week.
The Vikings did not work out any defensive linemen Tuesday, but it seems likely they will have to make a several roster moves soon.
I'll be at the Vikings' practice facility all day Wednesday and will keep you updated. Their media availability starts at about 12:45 p.m. ET and practice is set for about 2:30 p.m. ET. Again, there are indications that Kevin Williams and Pat Williams will file for a legal injunction as early as today.
For now, let's take our morning spin around the division:
- Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on the suspension drama: "Your Minnesota Vikings have been fortunate. That's right. They were able to have Pat and Kevin Williams on the field against the Chicago Bears on Sunday. That was a game they absolutely had to win. There was no guarantee that they'd be available. But the appeal process dragged out just long enough. Now the Vikings are in good playoff shape."
- The suspensions certainly have piqued the interest of people in Chicago. Dan Pompeii of the Chicago Tribune on the impact: "Assuming the suspensions stand, they give the Bears hope because the Vikings' defense without their Pro Bowl tackles is like an e-mail address without a spam filter -- everything can get through."
- Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times has an interesting angle. He suggests NFL owners will not appreciate a lawsuit and will hold it against the Vikings' Zygi Wilf for allowing such a divisive event to occur.
- Green Bay worked out a pair of punters Tuesday but have two more workouts scheduled Wednesday, when they are expected to make a decision on a replacement for Derrick Frost. According to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the candidates include Durant Brooks, Danny Baugher, Paul Ernster and Jeremy Kapinos.
- The Packers seem likely to increase the playing time of No. 2 running back Brandon Jackson regardless of the condition of starter Ryan Grant's injured thumb, writes Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal.
- Interim general manager Martin Mayhew is extensively involved in Detroit's draft preparations, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com. Mayhew has tweaked some of the team's procedures and is traveling often to scout players.
- Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press on Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper: "Culpepper has committed seven turnovers in four games, which puts him on pace for the Lions to retire his number."