NFC North: Houston Texans
CHICAGO -- Long lauded for toughness and durability, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler suffered his second concussion over the last three seasons Sunday in his team's second loss of the season, a 13-6 defeat at the hands of the Houston Texans at Soldier Field.
The injury might bring into question Cutler's durability, considering he's missed time with a concussion in the past, in addition to a sprained knee that forced him out of the 2010 NFC Championship game and a broken thumb that knocked him out of the last six games of the 2011 season.
But the most significant impact of Cutler's injury is the fact it potentially jeopardizes his availability for Monday night's game at San Francisco.
Let's look closer.
What it means: Chicago's defense remains one of the league's best, but its performance against the Texans serves as somewhat of a wakeup call, and a message that there's still plenty of improvement to be made. For the team, the loss isn't too damaging. The Bears maintain the top spot in the NFC North, and lead the second-place Green Bay Packers by a game.
Too many turnovers: The Bears turned the ball over three times in the first quarter, but Houston turned only one of them -- an interception by former Bears safety Danieal Manning off Cutler -- into points (a 20-yard Shayne Graham field goal).
Chicago finished with four turnovers, which matches its high for the season that coincidentally came on Sept. 13, when the Bears lost 23-10 at Green Bay.
Even Chicago's opportunistic defense can't always match and cancel out that many giveaways. The Bears intercepted Matt Schaub twice, but like the Texans turned only one of the turnovers into points. Tim Jennings' interception early in the second quarter set up a Robbie Gould 51-yard field goal.
Leaning on Marshall: Entering the game on Sunday, Bears receiver Brandon Marshall had accounted for 37.9 percent of Chicago's targets, which ranked as the highest rate for a receiver in the NFL this season, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
Through three quarters on Sunday, Marshall had been targeted nine times with the receiver coming up with six catches for 90 yards. Marshall's nine targets accounted for 42.8 percent of the team's total targets in the first three quarters.
Interestingly, Marshall came into the game as the only receiver in the NFL with multiple drops on throws into the end zone this season (2), and he added another one in the second quarter when a long ball by Cutler in the second quarter bounced off his hands in the end zone with the Bears trailing. The drop forced the Bears to settle for a long field goal.
But despite Marshall's drops in the end zone, he still has two more catches (5) on throws to the end zone than he did in all of 2011 (3). In 2011, Marshall caught just 12 percent of the 25 balls thrown his way in the end zone.
He finished the game with eight catches for 107 yards, his second straight 100-yard performance and fifth of the season.
Forte a nonfactor: The Bears continue to talk about utilizing running back Matt Forte more, but the club failed to establish him against Houston's second-ranked rushing defense. Forte rushed for 39 yards on 16 attempts, and gave the team minus-2 yards on two receptions in the passing game.
The 37 yards from scrimmage marked Forte's lowest output of the season.
100 back to back: The Bears came into Week 9 with the league's best rush defense, surrendering just 77.9 yards per game, before ruining that by allowing Chris Johnson to rush for 141 yards. Johnson's 100-yard effort marked the first time the Bears allowed a 100-yard game since Week 5 of last season.
The Bears gave up another 100-yard game against the Texans to Arian Foster (102 yards), marking the first time the club allowed consecutive 100-yard outings since Weeks 13 and 14 of 2009, when Steve Jackson and Ryan Grant accomplished the feat.
What's next: The Bears will receive the next two days off before beginning preparation for a Monday night showdown at San Francisco. Through the first half of the season, the Bears faced just two teams (Indianapolis and Green Bay) with records of better than .500. After the loss to the Texans on Sunday, the Bears take on five teams in a row that have six wins.
Those of you who plan to follow Rex Grossman's progress in Houston should check out this story from Megan Manfull of the Houston Chronicle. The ex-Chicago quarterback threw three interceptions in his first practice with the team Monday.
Manfull's story paints a relatively bleak picture for Grossman's immediate future. He's competing for the No. 3 quarterback spot on a team that hasn't had one for two years. That could change with the departure of reliable backup Sage Rosenfels, but for now Matt Schaub is the starter and former Detroit quarterback Dan Orlovsky is No. 2.
Here's what Texans coach Gary Kubiak said of Grossman's chances for making the team:
"After what I've been through the last two years, [three quarterbacks] might be the way I would lean today. But we have a long way to go, a lot of players to evaluate. And if I'm going to keep them, I'm going to keep them because they all can play. I'm not just going to keep them just so I have three bodies."
Most teams tap a young, developmental-type player at No. 3 rather than a veteran. But Grossman admitted he didn't have much choice but to accept Houston's offer.
Grossman: "There wasn't a whole lot of teams to choose from, to be honest. But I'm excited to be here, and I'm going to work as hard as I can to get back on top."
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Green Bay knocked out three contracts for its draft class Tuesday but hasn't started negotiations for its pair of first-round picks, writes Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Mike Vandermause of the Press-Gazette paraphrases a call he received from a Packers fan about the possibility of quarterback Brett Favre signing with Minnesota. "The disillusioned caller used words like disgusting, selfish and scumbag to describe Favre. The man said he gave his undying support to Favre for 16 years, and in return, the quarterback 'spits in our face.'"
- The Favre-Vikings courtship should be concluded -- one way or the other -- by the last week of July, writes Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
- Vikings linebacker Ben Leber tells Zulgad he was struck by Favre's use of the world "we" during a television interview Monday night. Leber: "That really stuck in my mind because he's already including himself."
- Free-agent defensive lineman Kevin Carter has visited Detroit but isn't close to making a decision about 2009, writes Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press.
- Lions coach Jim Schwartz might want to move training camp away from the team's practice facility in 2010, according to Doug Guthrie and John Clayton of the Detroit News. One possibility is Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.
- Former Lions receiver Charles Rogers is still hoping to return to the NFL, according to Hugh Bernreuter of Mlive.com. Rogers: "There's nothing concrete [about the NFL], just speculative. But if a team gives me a tryout, I know I'm going to be ready. I'm in better shape now than I was before."
Cody was the Lions' second-round pick that season and went on to play in 53 games over the next four seasons, compiling 91 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He and quarterback Dan Orlovsky were the last members of the draft class to depart.
Lions officials have said they want to get bigger and stronger along the defensive line and have signed veteran Grady Jackson to start at nose tackle. They have also hosted Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji on a visit.
For those interested, below is the Lions' full 2005 draft class. They were not alone. As we noted earlier this month, only four members from that class remain with their original team throughout the entire NFC North.
Round 1: USC receiver Mike Williams
Round 2: USC defensive end Shaun Cody
Round 3: Stanford defensive back Stanley Wilson
Round 5: Connecticut quarterback Dan Orlovsky
Round 6: Oregon State defensive end Bill Swancutt
Round 6: Marshall linebacker Johnathan Goddard
Thanks to everyone who participated in our weekly chat at our new Bat-day and new Bat-time. As it turned out, the schedule was quite fortuitous and made me look especially insightful.
It started with this exchange:
Andrew NJ: Hey Kevin, what do you think will most likely happen with Minnesota this year at Quarterback, and what are possible additional free agents they may add when free agency opens.
Kevin Seifert: (1:02 PM ET ) Andrew, the most likely scenario is Tarvaris Jackson and either Gus Frerotte or another veteran competing for the starting job. Jackson would have the upper hand in that battle because he ended 2008 as the starter. There are other possibilities, but that one seems the most likely to me.
And turned midway on this one:
Brett (Houston, TX): So says the Houston Chronicle: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/front/6276358.html Any truth to that? Sage Rosenchoppa/Rosenfels to the Vikings?
Kevin Seifert: (1:44 PM ET ) I take that back. Wow. That comes as a surprise to me. A couple things jump out to me. The fact that he is available this year, and wasn't last year, suggest the Texans aren't as high on him. Rosenfels had a pretty uneven peformance last year.
But this doesn't change the overall picture. Rosenfels, I presume, will fill the Frerotte role and compete with Tarvaris Jackson in training camp. Tarvaris will be the favorite in that competition.
Yes, we had significant NFC North news break while we were chatting: According to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, Minnesota is close to acquiring Texans backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels for a fourth-round pick.
The trade can't be official until the new league year opens at the end of this week, so we're not likely to hear official comment from either team until then. But here are my initial thoughts:
- Friday, Vikings coach Brad Childress said he wanted to create a quarterback competition that would include Tarvaris Jackson and someone else. His first option was Gus Frerotte. It's not clear what happened between then and now. But in my view, Rosenfels replaces Frerotte as Jackson's veteran challenger if this trade is finalized.
- In my view, it would be naïve to consider Jackson anything other than the favorite heading into training camp for all the same reasons that we discussed last week. If all things are equal, Jackson wins the job. Rosenfels wins only if he is lights-out or if Jackson falls on his face.
- The Vikings couldn't pry Rosenfels away from the Texans last year when they offered a third-round pick. The fact that he's available for a fourth-rounder a year later illustrates Houston's altered view of his value.
- We had a fair amount of discussion about a smokescreen last week. Here's what I'll allow: Childress might have exaggerated his enthusiasm about Frerotte returning, but the essence of his message was forthright: He wants a competition between Jackson and a veteran. I would categorize Rosenfels, who turns 31 next month, as a younger Frerotte. He has started 12 games in eight years.
We'll have more as the day and week moves on.
You have to wonder how Chicago's front office is reacting as former Detroit coach Rod Marinelli zig-zags the country to interview with teams looking for defensive coordinators.
Marinelli's latest visit is Thursday in Houston, where the Texans have openings at both defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. Marinelli has also visited with Seattle officials and apparently has been hotly pursued around the NFL.
The Bears presumably want Marinelli to be their defensive line coach, and he could conceivably get an assistant head coach's title as well. There aren't many positive things you can say about Marinelli's tenure as a head coach, and he's never been an NFL coordinator. But he was widely respected as a defensive line coach with Tampa Bay and would be an excellent hire in that role for the Bears.
We know Marinelli is close with Bears coach Lovie Smith, but would he spurn a coordinator's job to come to Chicago? Marinelli could be facing that decision by the end of this week.
Losing out on Marinelli wouldn't preclude the Bears from finding a strong defensive line coach. But they almost certainly wouldn't find a better one.
Ultimately, the only scoreboard the Chicago Bears needed to watch was the one hanging at Reliant Stadium.
No matter what else happened around the NFL Sunday, the Bears needed to win at Houston to keep their playoff hopes alive. As it turned out, the Bears would have clinched a wild-card playoff spot had they defeated the Texans. But in a game that mirrored their season, the Bears lost an early lead and couldn't stop their opponent's offense when it counted most.
Up 10-0 in the first quarter, the Bears were outscored 31-14 the rest of the way -- the sixth game this season in which the Bears have lost a lead. The Bears porous' pass defense gave up 328 yards to quarterback Matt Schaub and a total of 455 offensive yards to the Texans offense.
Those numbers provided an exclamation point for what figures to be a hot offseason topic in Chicago: Will the Bears bring back defensive coordinator Bob Babich, a longtime friend of coach Lovie Smith? In what was apparently a tense postgame locker room, Bears cornerback Charles Tillman alluded to the subject.
"Something has to change," Tillman told reporters. "I don't know what that is, but I think something will change. Something has to."
MINNEAPOLIS -- We're coming down the stretch in the NFC North.
Minnesota just pulled within two points of New York and trail 19-17 midway through the fourth quarter.
Chicago is trailing Houston 24-17 with 6:31 left in its game at Reliant Stadium.
We're going to focus on the final minutes here at the Metrodome but will be back with you shortly after the final gun.
Could Minnesota possibly lose three of their starting defensive linemen to suspension?
The Vikings were pondering that question Sunday evening following a 19-13 loss at Tampa Bay. Not only are defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams scheduled to appeal a four-game suspension this week, but right end Jared Allen confirmed he will meet with NFL officials to discuss several quarterback hits this season.
Allen told FOX Sports, and confirmed after Sunday's game, that league officials want to talk to him. A week after being fined for two low hits on Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, Allen was penalized last week for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. Although Allen did not say as much, it's possible the league is considering a suspension as part of its ongoing crusade to protect quarterbacks. Meeting with Allen would give him a chance to explain his mindset before any punishment is made official.
Losing Pat Williams and Kevin Williams would be a devastating enough blow for a team that remains tied for first place in the NFC North. But if Allen is suspended, the Vikings would be stripped of three Pro Bowl players they have built their defense around.
There is no telling what the NFL is up to with this meeting. Last month, commissioner Roger Goodell met with New England nose tackle Vince Wilfolk to discuss a hit on Denver quarterback Jay Cutler. Ultimately, Wilfolk was fined $35,000 but not suspended.
Goodell already has fined Allen $50,000 for the two hits on Schaub. We'll soon know if Goodell will escalate Allen's punishment to the level of suspension.
It appears Madieu Williams' consecutive games streak will end at two this weekend. The Minnesota safety is doubtful for Sunday's game at Tampa Bay because of a left shoulder injury, one that apparently occurred Wednesday during the Vikings' special teams practice.
Williams missed the first seven games of the season because of a neck injury. But he had played well since his return -- intercepting a pass in the end zone Nov. 2 against Houston and tackling Green Bay receiver Donald Driver short of a first down on the penultimate play of last Sunday's 28-27 victory over the Packers.
Coach Brad Childress said he will give Williams another 48 hours before making a final decision on his status. And it should be noted that defensive end Jared Allen played against the Packers after being designated as doubtful on the injury report. By definition, however, there is a 75 percent chance that Williams won't play against the Bucs.
Speaking to Minnesota reporters, Williams said he took a "nasty" fall while lunging for a ball during the special teams practice.
After losing nickel back Charles Gordon (ankle) for the season, the Vikings are on track to enter Sunday's game without two of their top five defensive backs. Rookie Tyrell Johnson would replace Williams in the starting lineup, while veteran Benny Sapp will take over in the nickel for Gordon.
Intent is not a part of most NFL rules. So it makes no difference that Allen steadfastly maintained he wasn't trying to hurt Schaub by hitting him below the knees last Sunday. (And given the state of the Texans' quarterback situation, the Vikings might have been better off with Schaub in the game rather than backup Sage Rosenfels, anyway.)
But Allen's intent doesn't matter. The reason the league put that rule into place is that a quarterback's eyes are never supposed to be on the pass rush. He's not always going to see a defensive lineman lurking near his feet, and certainly not if the lineman comes from behind. A shot below the knee is the easiest way to get the quarterback to the ground, but it puts him in a high-risk injury situation -- especially if his feet are planted to throw -- that the league isn't willing to perpetuate.
Allen seemed pretty upset earlier this week when he thought Houston coach Gary Kubiak accused him of intentionally trying to hurt Schaub. Kubiak clarified those comments Friday and said: "By no means do we think this young man was trying to hurt anybody."
We'll leave conspiracy theories for another day. But even if you give Allen the benefit of the doubt, and that he was merely playing out his instinct to bring down the quarterback, it should now be clear the NFL isn't interested in explanations.
Continuing around the NFC North on a wintry Saturday morning in the Upper Midwest:
- Minnesota receiver Robert Ferguson cleaned out his locker Friday and has asked for his release, according to Judd Zulgad and Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune. Ferguson has three receptions this season. The Vikings worked out former Miami receiver Derek Hagan on Friday.
- Second-year Vikings defensive end Brian Robison has a chance to establish himself assuming he starts in place of Allen on Sunday against Green Bay, writes Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- The contract of Green Bay right tackle Mark Tauscher expires after this season, Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette points out. Asked if he thinks he'll be back with the Packers next season, Tauscher said: "I have no idea. I really don't know."
- Packers tight end Donald Lee is averaging 7.4 yards on 22 receptions this season, points out Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Lee attributed his quiet numbers to a downturn in passes thrown his way.
- Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth on Chicago tailback Matt Forte: "He's going to be one of the toughest running backs we have to face.'' Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times has the story.
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune calls on five Bears to step up their play Sunday against the Titans: quarterback Rex Grossman, punter Brad Maynard, defensive tackle Tommie Harris, cornerback Nate Vasher and receiver/kick returner Devin Hester.
- Former Lion Alex Karras had this to say about the current team during a conversation with Detroit News writer John Niyo: "They need a big change in the coaching situation. Obviously, it's not getting it done. And they need a change in how they draft players. When you lose, there's a reason. There's always a reason you lose."
The NFL matched its biggest fine of the year Friday by docking Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen $50,000 for a pair of low hits on Houston quarterback Matt Schaub in last Sunday's 28-21 Vikings victory at the Metrodome. Although the league took into account that Allen has already been fined once this season for a late hit, the size of Friday's fine can only be interpreted as a powerful attempt to curb aggressiveness around quarterbacks.
On both plays, Allen was knocked to the ground during a pass rush. He continued pushing toward Schaub and said Wednesday that he was following his instinct to reach the quarterback. Allen said he had no intent to hurt Schaub, but Schaub did sprain the medial collateral ligament in his knee and will miss two to four weeks.
But player safety is one of commissioner Roger Goodell's top priorities and it's hard to dispute that Allen violated the NFL rule prohibiting hits on a quarterback below the knee. The size of the fine means the NFL expects defensive players in that situation to stop pursuing quarterbacks when they're on the ground, if that's what it takes to prevent low hits.
Earlier this week, before learning of the fine, Allen said he didn't think the NFL should have separate rules for quarterbacks.
"Maybe they want to protect the quarterbacks because they say it's an offensive-driven league," Allen said. "Well, I don't believe in that. I'm a defensive player. I believe it's a defensive-driven league."
It's safe to say the NFL doesn't share Allen's belief.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Our new favorite interview had some choice words Wednesday for Houston coach Gary Kubiak.
First, a bit of background: During a radio interview Monday, Kubiak criticized Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen for illegally hitting Texans quarterback Matt Schaub below the knee Sunday at the Metrodome. Allen was not penalized for the play, but Schaub sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee and could miss a month.
Wednesday, Allen said: "I don't care. I don't even know who the hell [Kubiak] is. So I don't care. I'm worried about what coach [Brad] Childress thinks of me and what my peers in this league think of me."
Television replays show Allen hitting Schaub below the knee and from behind, but Allen said it was neither intentional nor late. He said he spoke to Schaub after the game and was aware of no hard feelings.
"People can say what they want," Allen said. "I'm not a dirty player. My reputation speaks for itself. I talked to Schaub after the game. I said, 'Hey man, how is your knee?' We're competitors. He's got the ball in his hand. I'm trying to take down the quarterback. I wouldn't do anything intentionally to hurt people. If the coach wants to spout off that I'm a dirty player because they lost the game, well, whatever."
The only boos Sunday at the Metrodome came when Minnesota coach Brad Childress declined to run up the score, instead instructing quarterback Gus Frerotte to kneel twice from inside Houston's 5-yard line in the final minute of a 28-21 victory.
"That's how you do business," Childress said afterwards.
If that was the biggest gripe of Vikings fans, then it must have been a pretty good day for the home team. Frerotte threw for three touchdowns and wasn't at fault for his one interception, while Adrian Peterson overcame a slow start to finish with 139 rushing yards. The defense forced three turnovers and had five sacks, and at the season's midpoint the Vikings remain one game off the pace in the NFC North.
The Vikings will have another chance to prove they should be part of the division title conversation when Green Bay arrives in the Metrodome next Sunday. The boos should tell the story.
The Green Bay Packers have two young players whose contracts will expire at the end of the 2009 season. They have more than $20 million in salary cap space and less than a week before the NFL deadline for using 2008 cap money on future contracts.
But at least one of those players, receiver Greg Jennings, isn't interested in completing an in-season agreement. Jennings told Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he wants no distractions at such a critical point in the season.
"My thought process is that even if there is something out there, I don't want to do anything until after the season," Jennings said. "I don't want to mess with it. I'm going to wait. If it were to happen this season, it would happen at the end of the season. It definitely won't happen right now."
There is no evidence the Packers have initiated substantive discussions with either Jennings or quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose contract also expires after 2009. There is certainly no rush, and at this point it appears both players want to re-sign eventually. It just won't happen in the next week, in all likelihood.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- You figured this was coming. Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette looks at the benefits Tennessee has garnered from having a veteran backup quarterback behind opening day starter Vince Young. Kerry Collins has the Titans undefeated, while the Packers have to keep their fingers crossed that rookie backup Matt Flynn remains on the sidelines.
- Chicago coach Lovie Smith has been open about his support for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, but Smith went out of his way to let reporters know he has already voted for him. Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times explains.
- Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald doesn't think Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer (thumb) will play this week. Instead, Nick Roach is the likely starter.
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune wonders if the Bears should move one of their three cornerbacks -- Charles Tillman, Nate Vasher and Corey Graham -- to safety in the long term.
- Minnesota's special teams, which have allowed five touchdowns this season, will face a stiff test against Houston's Jacoby Jones on Sunday. Jones has two touchdowns on punt returns. Judd Zulgad and Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune lay out the situation.
- Vikings defensive end Jared Allen used the bye week to have his driver's license restored in Arizona, where it was revoked because of legal entanglements. Allen tells the story in his St. Paul Pioneer Press diary.
- Detroit doesn't have a ton of talent on defense, but even their best tackler -- linebacker Ernie Sims -- is struggling. Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press has the story.
- John Niyo of the Detroit News pokes fun at the "Drew Stanton crowd," which learned Thursday that Lions offensive coordinator Jim Colletto won't play Stanton because he doesn't want to embarrass him.
It's nice that the Lions can be plucky and all, but they're going to have to figure out a way to stop getting blown out of games in the first quarter.
Houston led 14-0 when the first quarter ended Sunday and it was 21-3 with two minutes, 47 seconds gone in the second quarter. Sure, the Lions made it a one-score game in the fourth quarter. But they spent too much energy coming back and ultimately allowed the Texans to run off all but 10 seconds of the final 4:17.
By my count, the Lions have been outscored 54-0 in the first quarter this season. Before the end of the first half, they've been down by scores of 21-0 twice. There's been a 21-7 in there and a 17-0 mixed in for good measure.
There's lots of ways to look at why a team starts slow. Some are slow to make adjustments. Others have poor game plans. In the Lions' case, it seems a direct result of having a substandard team.