NFC North: Free Head Exam 2011 Week 4

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

October, 3, 2011
10/03/11
4:10
PM ET
After the Green Bay Packers’ 49-23 victory aganist the Denver Broncos, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. NFL teams divide the 16-game regular-season into quarters. That means we just completed the first quarter of 2011. And at this moment, I think we can agree that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been the best player in the NFL through four games. (With all due respect to Detroit LIons receiver Calvin Johnson.) Rodgers has accounted for an NFL-high 14 touchdowns, leads the league in passer rating, is tops in QBR and could have been even better if he had worked out this offseason with his teammates. (Ha!) It won’t always be as easy as it was against the Broncos, when he threw eight passes that traveled longer than 14 yards in the air and completed six of them for 205 yards and three touchdowns. Rodgers isn’t playing yet at the level he was in the 2010 playoffs, but like the rest of the Packers, he is significantly ahead of where he was through the first four games of the 2010 regular season.
  2. Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertFollowing their win against the Broncos, the Packers take their turn in the examination room.

  3. The Broncos devoted considerable defensive attention to tight end Jermichael Finley. Rodgers targeted him on six of 38 passes, connecting for three completions that totaled 28 yards. Afterwards, Finley told reporters that “hopefully we can go back and dial up something for the double teams. We’ve got to have something for it.” Actually, the Packers do have “something for it.” It’s called Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver, James Jones, Randall Cobb, James Starks and Ryan Grant. Generally I’m not in favor of sitting back and allowing a defense to take away a top weapon. But when you have as many weapons as the Packers do, it makes perfect sense. Look at it this way: The Broncos largely shut down one of the Packers’ top players and still gave up seven touchdowns. How can you argue with that?
  4. The Packers' offense appears to be a finely tuned machine. But if I was looking for something to be worried about, it would be their personnel situation on the offensive line. We already know that Marshall Newhouse is playing for right tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee). Broncos linebacker Von Miller beat him for a pair of sacks. At one point Sunday, rookie Derek Sherrod replaced left tackle Chad Clifton. The Packers weren’t bad along the line Sunday, nor have they been sub-par at any point this season. But their margin of error is smaller than at some of their other more-stocked positions.
And here is one issue I still don’t get:
So I lied. I get what coach Mike McCarthy was trying to do at the end of the Packers’ first scoring drive. In trying to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Broncos’ 12, he was trying to put away a struggling team as early as possible. Typically at the start of a game, you’re just trying to get points. Given how the game turned out, it’s hard to second-guess McCarthy’s methods. What’s most amazing is that the possession was probably the difference between a 49-point game and the Packers' first 50-plus point game in six seasons. It would have been just the ninth in franchise history.

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings*

October, 3, 2011
10/03/11
1:30
PM ET
After the Minnesota Vikings’ 22-17 loss Sunday at the Kansas City Chiefs, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe Vikings' 0-4 start appears to be confusing and could use a bit of examination.

  1. This tweet from @NFL caught my eye: “Did Bernard Berrian really tell a legless war vet to sit down and shut up?” The backstory: Sunday night, Berrian (@B_Twice) re-tweeted a fan’s message that he had been open “at least 5 times” during Sunday’s game and that the Vikings should throw more often to him. Berrian also responded: “Been like that the last 4 yrs.” That drew the ire, or at least the humor, of Minnesota state Rep. John Kriesel, who encouraged his followers to check out Berrian’s “hilarious” Twitter feed. Berrian didn’t take kindly to Kriesel’s suggestion, inviting him to watch film with him or else “sit down n shut up,” and seemed unmoved when informed Kriesel is a state representative who lost his legs in combat in Iraq. So yes, Berrian did tell a legless war vet to sit down and shut up. But Kriesel didn’t appear insulted, and the real issue is that the Vikings have actually targeted Berrian on 15 passes this season. He’s caught two. I’m sure there is blame to go around, but Berrian would be wise not to play the “I’m open and they’re not getting me the ball” card. He hasn't converted many of his chances. *Update: Coach Leslie Frazier said Berrian "called to apologize" for his Twitter comments, presumably referring to Kriesel.
  2. I don’t have much more to say about Frazier’s plan to keep quarterback Donovan McNabb as his starter while rookie Christian Ponder remains on the bench. My guess is Frazier doesn’t want to make a move that would signal he is giving up on the season. McNabb isn’t playing poorly enough to justify a benching. So there would be only one way to view Ponder’s ascension: As the beginning of preparations for the 2012 season. That’s the level of angst the Vikings added when they traded for McNabb. Frazier will have to navigate an additional layer before he can accomplish what has been the ultimate goal all along: Getting Ponder onto the field.
  3. Defensive end Jared Allen picked up another two sacks to leapfrog Dallas Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware in the NFL rankings. But Allen’s 6.5 sacks this season still ranks second in the league after Jason Babin of the Philadelphia Eagles notched three on Sunday, bringing his season total to 7.0. I’m sure Allen was fired up about playing his former team, but one thing the Vikings can be relatively confident of is that Allen will continue to play hard and with aggression no matter what their record is.
And here is one issue I still don’t get:
I’ve seen some bad Vikings teams over the years. Their teams in 2001, 2002 and 2006 were especially inept. The 2011 team doesn’t feel like an undermanned or incompetent team. And yet they’re one of four teams in Vikings history to start 0-4. If they don’t beat the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the Vikings will be 0-5 for the first time since 1962. (Hat tip to my friend Judd Zulgad for that bit of research.) This doesn’t look or feel like anything close to one of the worst teams in franchise history. I think that’s why we’re getting largely incoherent explanations from coaches and players. All four of their losses have come by one score or less. They’re waiting for those close games to even out. I guess.

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

October, 3, 2011
10/03/11
12:30
PM ET
After the Chicago Bears’ 34-29 victory Sunday over the Carolina Panthers, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe Bears and their respected defense take a seat in the examination room following Sunday's win.

  1. How important is it for this Bears team to emphasize its running game? ESPN Stats & Information produced some stunning numbers to answer that question. The Bears had nine possessions Sunday in which they ran at least one offensive play. On the four that resulted in a score, the Bears had an 84-16 run-pass ratio. On their non-scoring possessions, the Bears’ ratio was 38.5-61.5. It’s yet another example of how important it is for the Bears to establish the run -- and what happens when they can’t or don’t try.
  2. It might not make the Bears feel any better about it, but theirs isn’t the only respected defense to get gashed by the Panthers. They allowed quarterback Cam Newton 374 passing yards and the Panthers a total of 543 offensive yards, 40 yards short of the Bears franchise record. But Newton has thrown for more yards in his first four starts than any quarterback in NFL history. I’m not walking away from Week 4 in a panic over the Bears defense. But I do think the Bears are hoping veteran safety Chris Harris (hamstring) returns shortly. Fluctuation in the safety lineup has left the them looking a little disorganized in the back end. New safety Brandon Meriweather appeared to be at fault for leaving Steve Smith wide open on a 53-yard reception. Harris should be able to help settle that down.
  3. Every now and then, the Bears provide a clinic in the value of innovative and explosive special teams. Simply put, they wouldn’t have won Sunday without them. We all know that Devin Hester returned a punt 69 yards for one touchdown and set up another with a 73-yard kickoff return. But the final few minutes of the game would have looked a lot different had Julius Peppers not blocked Olindo Mare’s 34-yard field goal in the third quarter. Yes, Mare’s kick was low. But the Bears have too many games like this to consider it good fortune. Their special teams keeps opponents off balance like few, if any, others.
And here is one issue I still don’t get:
The Bears have either decided to place the franchise tag on tailback Matt Forte this offseason or they are costing themselves some money by delaying a contract extension. I’m not sure which one it is yet. But his value for this team has never been higher. Forte has 263 rushing yards on 41 attempts in the Bears’ two victories this season. He has 51 yards on 19 carries in their two losses. Obviously, additional factors were at play in those games. But it’s hard to dispute the significance of those numbers.

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