NFC North: Free Head Exam 2011 Week 1
September, 12, 2011
After the Chicago Bears' 30-12 victory Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, here are three issues that merit further examination:
- Quarterback Jay Cutler was sharp in his 2011 debut, completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 312 yards and finishing with a 107.9 passer rating. I think all of us would be satisfied if he repeated that outing for the next 20 or so game weeks. But Cutler continues to be a case example of how Total Quarterback Rating will take a different view of quarterback play. Cutler's performance currently ranks No. 13 among Week 1 performances, with a score of 60.4. QBR downgraded him for five sacks and a fumble, neither of which are included in passer rating. A QBR score of 50 is considered average and measures a quarterback's contribution to winning (or losing) a game. Again, I'm not totally sure how we will incorporate QBR in the context of our weekly discussions, but it's always interesting to consider a different vantage point. For now, we'll chalk it up to another example of the Bears encountering skepticism at every turn.
- In August we wondered if Henry Melton was up to the task of playing the three-technique position in a Tampa-2 defense. Melton, after all, was a running back for part of his college career and was drafted as a defensive end. But his seven quarterback hits, including two sacks, made for a stunning debut as a starter Sunday. It obviously helps when the offense is distracted by a parallel monster performance by defensive end Julius Peppers. We don't draw any conclusions based on what we see in Week 1, but Melton put himself in position to provide a definitive answer to our original question.
- Last week, coach Lovie Smith indicated that Johnny Knox would take kickoff returns while Devin Hester focused on punts. But I am fine with that little bit of misdirection. Hester took kickoffs as well Sunday, something I'm all for following the departure of Danieal Manning. That's nothing against Knox. But if I'm the Bears, and I've been pretty consistent about this in recent years, I want the best returner in NFL history maximizing his chances on special teams. Then I sprinkle him into the offense whenever possible, rather than the other way around. That's what the Bears did Sunday, and Hester responded with 127 all-purpose yards -- 60 yards on three catches, 53 on three kickoff returns and 14 on one punt return. That's ideal, as far as I'm concerned.
Kevin SeifertFollowing their big win against the Falcons, the Bears take a seat in the examination room.
Based on our discussions around here, there is no secret that tailback Matt Forte is a perfect fit for Mike Martz's offense. His receiving skills mean he can impact a game even if an opponent has filled the running lanes. His 56-yard screen play Sunday was a perfect example of his open-field running ability. So I wonder if the Bears recognize that barring injury, Forte's value is only going to increase with every passing week. The team and Forte's agent haven't been able to agree on the terms of a contract extension, but his versatility (and motivation this year) makes it highly unlikely that something will happen on the field that would allow the Bears to devalue his production. Even if he isn't piling up rushing yards, it seems likely he'll have a substantive weekly contribution in the passing game.
September, 12, 2011
After the Minnesota Vikings' 24-17 loss Sunday to the San Diego Chargers, here are three issues that merit further examination:
- Quarterback Donovan McNabb told reporters that his passing production -- seven completions and 39 yards -- was "embarrassing." But it would be wrong and unfair to blame him alone for the Vikings' passing woes Sunday. McNabb was under pressure for a good portion of the game and, quite frankly, the passing offense is short on explosive playmakers outside of receiver Percy Harvin. McNabb isn't in a spot to get much help unless tailback Adrian Peterson starts averaging 150 yards per game or some gaudy number. That dynamic leaves me with a split thought on the immediate future of the position. On the one hand, it probably makes sense to leave rookie Christian Ponder out of this mess if the Vikings quarterback -- whoever he is -- will be put in such a tough situation. But part of me wonders if the Vikings would get any big-picture benefit out of treading water with McNabb, if it comes to that. You know what they say: If you're not moving forward, well, there is only one other way to go.
- I understand why coach Leslie Frazier wasn't willing to let Harvin take every kickoff Sunday, even after Harvin opened the game with a 103-yard return. I don't think it has as much to do about injury as it does priority. As Devin Hester demonstrated in recent years with the Chicago Bears, it's awfully difficult to be a full-time receiver and a dynamic returner at the same time. There are only so many things you can focus on during a given week, and Harvin is the Vikings' quasi-No. 1 receiver. But I will ask this: Would it make sense to use him as a full-time returner at least until the Vikings get more flow in their offense? At the moment, the team's best scoring opportunity could be Harvin as a returner or at least a catapult for excellent field position.
- I saw a portions of this game live while working in the Raymond James Stadium press box, and it seemed like every time I looked up at the screen, defensive end Brian Robison was making a play. He finished with three tackles, a half-sack and a tipped pass. One of his hits on quarterback Philip Rivers led to an Antoine Winfield interception. It's always interesting when a long-time backup gets a chance he probably thinks should have come a long time ago. The Viking gave Robison a genuine opportunity when they allowed Ray Edwards to depart via free agency. I'm sure he's determined to return the favor.
Kevin SeifertAfter falling to the Chargers in the opener, Minnesota takes its turn in the examination room.
Quarterback Joe Webb made his 2011 debut as a Wildcat quarterback, taking two unproductive snaps in third quarter. I'm hoping the Vikings have a more creative plan in store for Webb than a few Wildcat plays per game. His athletic skills make him a candidate to play receiver, perhaps return kickoffs and be a factor in any number of trick plays that could involve throwing the ball. But that type of role requires training and practice, neither of which the Vikings were able to devote while Webb took the No. 2 quarterback snaps during most of training camp. It's nice that they forced Ponder to earn that job, but I hope they didn't sacrifice a more dynamic role for Webb in the process. This is an offense that needs all the playmaking it can get.
September, 12, 2011
After the Detroit Lions' 27-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, here are three issues that merit further examination:
- Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan picked the perfect moment for a play the Lions had been planning all week. They were convinced that Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib would play receiver Calvin Johnson tight and aggressively, making him prone to a double move. That's exactly what Linehan called for on fourth-down-and-3 from the Bucs' 36-yard line in the second quarter. Talib bit on Johnson's initial move, giving the Lions receiver a chance to get a step down the right sideline. Talib tipped quarterback Matthew Stafford's pass, but Johnson kept his concentration for what turned out to be a 36-yard touchdown play. "We knew Talib was going to jump on everything," Johnson said. "So we took advantage of it." A deep pass on fourth-and-3 isn't a high-percentage play, but the Lions felt as confident as they could possibly feel that Johnson would be open and trusted Stafford to drive the throw. Said Stafford: "Perfect play for that situation. We knew we had an aggressive corner over there guarding Calvin that wanted to make a name for himself against a great receiver, and Calvin made a great play."Kevin SeifertThe Lions take their 1-0 record with them into the examination room.
- Stafford called Johnson's second touchdown "one of the best catches I've seen him make." Stafford added: "It was just unbelievable for him to hold on to it all the way through the catch with the guy draped all over him." Indeed, Johnson leaped to catch a pass misdirected by sudden cramping in Stafford's right leg. He came down with both feet in bounds, maintained possession with Talib hanging on him and then held the ball high in the air until officials ruled it a touchdown. That final step wasn't by accident. A year after officials ruled he did not complete the catch on his now-infamous play against the Chicago Bears, Johnson said: "Oh yeah, I'm keeping that ball up. I don't want to give them a chance to make that call."
- The heat was real and spectacular Sunday, as was the strength of the Florida sunlight. "It was one of the worst I've ever played in," said receiver Nate Burleson, who was one of several Lions players to suffer cramps. "I hydrated all week. I really did. It was something you couldn't do anything about." Temperatures reached 90 degrees with a heat index of 94 degrees. The sun was brutal itself. In the postgame locker room, backup quarterback Shaun Hill sported the most dramatic farmer's tan I've ever seen. The Lions will no doubt be thrilled to return to Ford Field this Sunday.
I'm not sure I realized how much of a difference an active, energetic and decisive middle linebacker can have on a team. Of all the talented players the Lions sport on defense, I thought middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch stood out more than anyone. You didn't see much action from the defensive line because they were rotating liberally to beat the heat. Tulloch, on the other hand, played most of the game and finished with four tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits. The coaching staff displayed its trust by assigning him spying duties on quarterbacks Josh Freeman and Josh Johnson. Tulloch sacked Freeman once and nearly sacked Johnson on another play. More important, Tulloch added a sure-tackling, hard-hitting dimension to the Lions that will complement the nastiness of their defensive line well.
September, 9, 2011
After the Green Bay Packers' 42-34 victory against the New Orleans Saints, here are three issues that merit further examination:
- Quarterback Aaron Rodgers finished the game with a Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) of 91.1, which ranked as the seventh-highest in his career. We'll get more comfortable with QBR moving forward, but the easiest way to think of the score is as a growth chart for children. Rodgers finished in the 91.1 percentile, meaning less than one out of every 10 NFL performances will be better. That it ranked seventh in his career means he has had only six other starts in which he has made more contributions to a Packers victory. Among other things, QBR highly valued that nearly two-thirds of his passing yards, 195 of 312, came when the ball was in the air. From a less statistical view, Rodgers proved once again he is comfortable in the Packers' new modified no-huddle and also that he will throw to the target dictated by opponents. He targeted, and completed at least one pass to 10 different receivers. Never did I see him force a throw to a surrounded receiver, and his only big miss was a deep pass to Jordy Nelson. All in all, Rodgers picked up where he left off last season.
- The Saints' offense put up some gaudy numbers: 477 total yards, 32 pass completions 27 first downs, among others. Their 79-yard march over the final 1 minute, 8 seconds nearly gave them an opportunity to force overtime. But I didn't leave Lambeau Field with deep concerns about the Packers' defense. It held firm on four of five trips to the red zone, and even though linebacker A.J. Hawk was called for pass interference on what would have been the final play, the fact is he saved a touchdown by leaping over Darren Sproles to break up the play. As cornerback Charles Woodson said, the Packers gave up "way too many points and missed tackles." But to me, the biggest concern will be if cornerback Tramon Williams (right shoulder) misses any game time. Sam Shields would presumably replace him, but there is a big dropoff in the Packers' depth after him.
- If the lockout was going to have a big impact on any part of a football team, special teams would be the likeliest target. Many of the players who comprise coverage teams are new, or in different positions, or were late additions based on other late-summer changes to the depth chart. The Packers obviously got a thrilling 108-yard kickoff return from rookie Randall Cobb, but Sproles gashed their coverage teams for a 72-yard punt return and a 57-yard kickoff return. That's an area where the Packers would like to see improvement during the first quarter of the season.
Kevin SeifertFollowing their win against the Saints, the Packers take their turn in the examination room.
It was obvious last week that Rodgers wasn't interested in discussing the Packers' decision not to gather for offseason workouts, especially in comparison to the Saints' very public practices at Tulane University. I didn't understand the implication myself and felt strongly that the issue wouldn't play a role in Thursday night's outcome. So part of me enjoyed Rodgers' postgame sarcasm, especially when he said: "I've just got to ask myself, 'What would have happened if we had offseason workouts? Could we have started any faster and scored more points tonight?'" Funny stuff. But another part of me thinks it was beneath Rodgers to gloat. I wasn't aware of any mass protests to the offseason approach from media, Packers fans or other NFL observers. But even if there were and I just missed it, didn't Rodgers and the Packers provide all the response necessary in that 202-yard, 21-point first quarter? It's fine to feel personally vindicated. And Rodgers probably thinks that "critics," whomever they were in this instance, should be held publicly accountable. Fair point. But in the end, I think it made Rodgers look petty, which I don't think he is. There's nothing wrong with standing by your convictions, acknowledging an opposing viewpoint and then settling the matter on the field.