NFC North: Free Head Exam 13
December, 6, 2010
After the Green Bay Packers' 34-16 victory against the San Francisco 49ers, here are three issues that merit further examination:
- The Packers have another injured starter to replace. This time, it's defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who has a calf strain and could miss "a couple weeks," coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. Jenkins has three sacks in the past three games and a career-high seven this year, even while playing with a fractured hand for the first half of the season. The Packers have a couple of options to replace him, including Jarius Wynn, C.J. Wilson and Howard Green. They could also spend more time in their nickel package, which often features only two down linemen. Jenkins has been a force since his hand healed and will be missed, but it's with some sarcasm that we note the Packers have grown quite accustomed to the "next-man-up" drill.
- It's time for our weekly list of statistical superlatives on quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He's now thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions over the past five games. In fact, Rodgers hasn't thrown an interception in 177 consecutive attempts after throwing nine in his first 222 attempts this season. Sunday also marked the second time in the history of Lambeau Field that a quarterback has thrown two touchdowns longer than 50 yards at Lambeau Field in the month of December, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Finally, Rodgers surpassed San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and now has the highest career passer rating (98.0) in NFL history among quarterbacks with at least 1,500 attempts.
- We noted several times last week that deficiencies in the Packers' running game was most notable in short-yardage situations, where they didn't seem confident enough to run in a 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Sunday, however, they converted all seven of their opportunities from third-and-2 or shorter. Running back John Kuhn accounted for four of them. Rodgers threw touchdown passes to receiver Greg Jennings on two of them and a 7-yard completion to receiver James Jones on another. Also, tailback James Starks converted a second-and-1 with a three-yard run. It was important for the Packers to convert those plays, obviously. But it was no less critical that they put the conversions on tape for future opponents to see and realize they are willing to use the running game to convert short yardage.
Kevin SeifertThe Green Bay Packers take their turn in the examination room after beating San Francisco.
Linebacker Clay Matthews has one sack over the past three games, and even that one was a non-contact credit when Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre slid behind the line of scrimmage. He is no longer the NFL's sack leader, now ranking second by a half-sack behind Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake. It's a fact that Matthews has been nursing a shin injury. Is that to blame for his dip in production? Have defenses caught up to him? Or is it the most likely scenario: That sacks come and go over the course of a 16-game season? I couldn't tell you, although I'm most inclined to believe the latter scenario.
December, 6, 2010
After the Minnesota Vikings' 38-14 victory against the Buffalo Bills, here are three issues that merit further examination:
- This season, quarterback Brett Favre has played through sharp shoulder pain, elbow tendinitis, two fractures in his left foot, 12 stitches in his chin and an illness he likened to pneumonia. So should we consider the possibility of any other outcome from his sprained right shoulder? I'm not sure yet. We all know Favre will be lobbying to play -- and extend his consecutive games streak to 298. But interim coach Leslie Frazier will face the most difficult decision of his short tenure. This isn't a quarterback hobbling around on a bum ankle. If the injury limits Favre's effectiveness as a thrower, Frazier will have to give serious thought to sitting him, ending the streak and making history. Welcome to the captain's chair, Leslie.
- Frazier showed some savvy last week in hiding the decision to get rookie quarterback Joe Webb onto the field. I guess we won't know what would have happened if receiver Percy Harvin hadn't fallen ill with migraine headaches, but Webb returned the opening kickoff 30 yards and was apparently slated to play some at receiver before a hamstring injury sidelined him. As you recall, Webb was originally drafted as a receiver/playmaker and wasn't regarded as a quarterback prospect by most NFL teams. But former coach Brad Childress switched him back to quarterback, a move that conveniently allowed him to trade veteran Sage Rosenfels, and ultimately this has been a lost year for the rookie. The chances of him developing into a multi-positional playmaker are much higher than becoming a starting NFL quarterback, and it was past time to push him in the former direction.
- In the past two games under new leadership, the Vikings defense has limited its opponents to combined 20 first downs and 455 yards while forcing six turnovers. In both games, the defensive line has absolutely throttled its opponents. Sunday, the Vikings sacked Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick once, but unofficially hit him on five other occasions. They also limited the Bills to a 3.7-yard average on 23 rushing attempts. Frazier and linebackers coach Fred Pagac, who is making game-day calls, have infused some life into this group.
Kevin SeifertThe Minnesota Vikings take their turn in the examination room after beating Buffalo.
Readers are flooding my inbox with hope-filled messages about backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who finished Sunday's game with an 85.0 passer rating after replacing Favre. I don't get it. I agree that Jackson made some nice throws and once again displayed his mobility in critical times. But he also threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and was assisted on both of his touchdown passes by acrobatic receiver Sidney Rice. I didn't think Jackson's performance suggested he has made significant progress during his time behind Favre, and a quarterback in his fifth season shouldn't benefit from a grading curve that allows us to overlook such mistakes in favor of the potential displayed. But I'm sure you're tired of hearing that from me.
December, 6, 2010
After the Chicago Bears' 24-20 victory against the Detroit Lions, here are three issues that merit further examination:
- It was interesting to hear linebacker Brian Urlacher's response Sunday when asked about the much-discussed personal foul call on Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Urlacher wanted no part of the suggestion that it might have aided the Bears' winning drive. "Wouldn't have mattered," Urlacher said. "We probably would have scored, anyway." I didn't find a place for that quote in Sunday's post on quarterback Jay Cutler, but I found it a telling revelation of how much trust Cutler has engendered from this team. Whether or not referee Ed Hochuli had made the call against Suh, Urlacher was confident Cutler would get the Bears into the end zone. I don't know if you could have said that last year or even earlier this season.
- In his first four seasons, place-kicker Robbie Gould attempted only two field goals of 50 yards or more. He missed both. But Gould began extending his range in 2009 and is now at the point where coach Lovie Smith didn't hesitate about sending him onto the field Sunday for a 54-yard attempt. Gould drilled the kick, his longest ever, and has now converted five of seven kicks from 50 yards or longer in his career. I'm not sure if he gets a 54-yard attempt from the grass at Soldier Field, but establishing this type of range -- while maintaining his impeccable accuracy inside 40 yards -- gives the Bears an added weapon as the playoffs approach. Gould hasn't missed a kick inside 40 yards since 2007, and in his career he has converted 58 of 62 from that range.
- Urlacher was around the ball a lot Sunday, but I was surprised to see the unofficial press box stats listed him with 17 tackles -- nine solos with eight assists. The Bears will release their own tackle statistics later this week based on coaches' film review, but if the 17 stands up, it will be Urlacher's highest single-game total since his infamous 25-tackle game against the Arizona Cardinals in 2006. If nothing else, the total shows how active, healthy and relatively fresh he is this late in the season. Perhaps the most indicative play came with six minutes, 36 seconds remaining in the game. On a delayed blitz, Urlacher sprinted almost 15 yards, blew past running back Maurice Morris and got a share of a sack on Lions quarterback Drew Stanton.
Kevin SeifertThe Chicago Bears take their turn in the examination room after beating Detroit.
Receiver Earl Bennett appeared to be an afterthought in Mike Martz's precision offense, but he is emerging as Cutler's most trusted target. In the past two games, Bennett has caught 11 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns. When you watch him play, nothing in particular stands out. He's not a big guy and he's not a speedster. But he has a competitive edge that shouldn't be overlooked. About 25 of the 33 yards on his big second-quarter reception came after the catch, and he dragged Lions defensive backs Alphonso Smith and Amari Spievey the final 10 yards. I'm not sure how he is doing it, but it's clear that Bennett understands the game and now knows how to make this scheme work for him.
December, 6, 2010
After the Detroit Lions' 24-20 loss to the Chicago Bears, here are three issues that merit further examination:
- I said my piece Sunday about the controversy surrounding defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's fourth-quarter personal foul. Regardless of what you thought happened or didn't happen, Suh could have avoided the penalty by using more traditional techniques to make the tackle. Ultimately, all the penalty did is move the Bears seven yards closer to the end zone. Not a huge impact, in my mind. But I do think it was obvious the Lions were preoccupied at the start of the next play, when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler calmly found little-used tight end Brandon Manumaleuna for the game-winning touchdown. "We need to go out and make a play after that," coach Jim Schwartz said. "They had a touchdown, I think on the very next play. That's a poor response to those situations. That's happened to us a couple times this year, where we haven't responded in the right way. Some of that comes from having players make plays in those situations." Frankly, that response needs to start with Schwartz. He threw a fit on the sideline after the call and was still hot when the next play began. If the head coach isn't fully focused forward, how can he expect his players to be?
- The Suh play overshadowed the most positive Lions angle from this game. Aided by a smart plan from offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, quarterback Drew Stanton played a great game. He was accurate, completing 66.7 percent of his passes, nearly flawless in his decision making and most notably did not commit a turnover. Linehan was smart to use Stanton out of the spread formation and to call a first-quarter draw that utilized his mobility. I don't know if the performance is enough to get him on the map of another NFL team, but it was by far the best Stanton has ever played in an NFL uniform.
- For those keeping track at home, the Lions have been within five points of their opponents in the fourth quarter of all 10 losses this season. That statistic opens them up to the kind of micro-questioning they haven't always been subject to in recent years. Here's one example. I've covered four Lions games this season. In two of them, they have punted while trailing by one score late in the fourth quarter, trusting their defense to get the ball back for one final drive. In both cases, their opponents ran out the rest of the game. The first instance came in Week 4 at Lambeau Field, when the Lions punted from the Green Bay Packers' 37-yard line with 6 minutes, 32 seconds remaining. Sunday, the Bears ran out the final 5:17 after the Lions punted from the Bears' 40-yard line. In both cases, the fourth-down try was nearly prohibitive -- fourth-and-9 in Green Bay and fourth-and-16 Sunday. But obviously, the Lions defense hasn't been up to that challenge.
Kevin SeifertThe Detroit Lions take their turn in the examination room after losing to Chicago.
At times Sunday, Ford Field sounded like Soldier Field. Chants of "Let's go Bears" rang out at various points in the game, which Lions fans in the stands were unable to drown out. The loudest cheer of the day, for either team, came when Devin Hester took off on a 30-yard punt return in the third quarter. Credit goes to Bears fans for snapping up available tickets and making their way to Detroit, and I don't mean this as a rip on Lions fans. No matter what the circumstances, it was surprising to hear that level of partisanship for a visiting team in an NFL stadium.