NFC North: James Harrison

MINNEAPOLIS -- We talked a bit last week about the different dynamic UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr would bring to the Minnesota Vikings' defense, providing a bigger pass-rush presence than they have had at linebacker in some time. But then the Vikings traded up to take Teddy Bridgewater, the quarterback stole the headlines and we haven't discussed Barr much since.

I wanted to return to that this morning, with a more detailed discussion about how the Vikings might employ the rookie linebacker. Coach Mike Zimmer was coy about the subject after the Vikings drafted Barr last Thursday night -- "I don’t want to tell Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit. I want to let them try and figure that out at some point," he said -- but there are some precedents from Zimmer's past defenses about where Barr might fit.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsExpect to see Vikings rookie Anthony Barr rushing the passer a lot, no matter where he lines up.
The most recent comparison is James Harrison, the former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker whom the Cincinnati Bengals signed to play in Zimmer's 4-3 defense a year ago. Harrison wound up doing many of the same things he did as a pass-rushing linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, and didn't see many differences in his role in the two defenses. "I'm playing 'Sam' (strongside linebacker), so I'm basically doing the same thing I do in a 3-4 defense," he told the Cincinnati Enquirer last April. "It's just that I'll switch where I'm lining up," he said. "I'll be ... stacked behind a tackle or guard or whatever it may be. And I'll do my job from there."

Harrison had a disappointing season at age 35, but he was more active as a pass-rusher in the Bengals' defense than any other linebacker -- or, for that matter, anyone the Vikings have had in years. According to Pro Football Focus, he rushed the passer on 36.4 percent of his snaps, playing run defense on 41.5 percent of them and dropping into coverage 22 percent of the time. No Vikings linebacker rushed the passer on more than 11 percent of his snaps last season in the team's old Cover-2 defense.

Zimmer also said Denver's Von Miller is a good comparison for what the Vikings would like to do with Barr; Miller rushed 46 percent of the time in the Broncos' defense last season, playing the run 40 percent of the time and dropping into coverage 13 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus.

"Typically, our 'Sam' linebacker blitzes a lot more than our 'Will' linebacker," Zimmer said last Thursday. "We’re thinking of ways to continually try and pressure the quarterback as many times as we can, and the position he plays is a pressure position, that’s why we felt good about him."

Barr will have to adapt to the nuances of the linebacker position in Zimmer's defense after primarily rushing the passer as a 3-4 outside linebacker at UCLA, but Zimmer didn't seem concerned with him getting a feel for a broader role. "The biggest part for me, would be that he has been in the outside linebacker rushing a large majority of the time, or he would be a cover down linebacker some, you know he goes out in space," Zimmer said. "Sometimes he lines up over the guards, but he is right on top of the guards. He will be backed up a little bit in some of our base defensive packages, so that won’t be that hard for him to learn the reads from that position opposed to outside."

The Vikings could move Barr around somewhat in sub packages, and they will undoubtedly fit their scheme to what Barr can do, but Harrison's and Miller's roles last season seem like a decent baseline for what Barr could do in Minnesota. It's also easy to see why Zimmer pushed so hard for Barr; there was no one on the Vikings' roster who was an obvious fit for the strongside spot in Zimmer's defense, whereas Barr seems like a natural fit for the role.

"The guy has played two years on defense. He’s like a fawn," Zimmer said. "He’s just learning some of these things. It’s not that he is so raw that he is not a good football player, because he is a really good football player. I don’t want anybody to think that because he is inexperienced that he is not a good football player. He will be good. I’m excited about the chance to take him and mold him into what I really envision him to be, which I think will be good."
When ESPN's NFL Nation reporters surveyed more than 320 players for our NFL Nation Confidential survey during the 2013 season, the question of which player is the NFL's most feared elicited a variety of responses. There were two ways to take the question -- which player am I most worried about having to stop, and which player am I most worried about ending my career? -- and the answers we got reflected both trains of thought.

J.J. Watt, Patrick Willis and James Harrison were among the top seven vote-getters. So were Peyton Manning and the Vikings' own Adrian Peterson, who finished seventh with 16 votes. But the two teammates at the top of the list -- Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh -- best embodied the two sides of the question.

Johnson
Suh
Suh won the title with 61 votes, beating Johnson by three after gaining a reputation as one of the most aggressive players in the league. Of the 10 Vikings I surveyed, three voted for Johnson and two voted for Suh. Depending on which side of the ball you play on, there's an argument to be made for both.

The Vikings certainly have had plenty of experience with both Johnson and Suh. They've faced Johnson 12 times, allowing 62 catches for 873 yards and seven touchdowns. And actually, when you consider what he's done to the other two teams in the division (gaining 1,163 yards in 12 games against the Packers and 928 in 13 games against the Bears), along with Johnson's career average of 88 yards a game, the Vikings haven't done a bad job against him. In fact, Johnson's 72.8 yards-per-game average against them is his fourth-lowest against a NFC opponent, behind only Seattle, Washington and Chicago.

Suh has 3.5 sacks in seven career games against the Vikings and chased Christian Ponder out of the pocket in the Vikings' season-opening loss to the Lions, hitting Ponder's arm and forcing an interception. He also threw a low block at Vikings center John Sullivan in that game, nullifying a touchdown on a return of Ponder's first interception. Suh plays on the precipice of recklessness at times, and though the Vikings are far from the only team that's had run-ins with him, they get as much of a taste of the defensive lineman's fierceness as anyone.

With both players, as with Peterson, shutting them down once isn't enough to eradicate fear. It's always present in the worry of what they can do the next time, in one particular game or moment, if you're not being careful. Playing in the same division as the Lions, the Vikings have to deal with both of them twice a year, and that challenge is easily one of the most formidable in the NFL.
Eddie Lacy and Jason WorildsGetty ImagesJason Worilds and the Steelers will have to stop Eddie Lacy -- one of the league's best running backs this season.
The last time the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers met, the Lombardi trophy was on the line.

In Green Bay, the memories of Super Bowl XLV are alive and well.

In Pittsburgh, all Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he remembers from that game is one thing: "We lost," he said this week.

The stakes are much different heading into Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. The Steelers (6-8) are in the midst of disappointing season, while the Packers (7-6-1) are fighting for their playoff lives.

Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Steelers reporter Scott Brown discuss the rematch:

Rob Demovsky: Let's start with this question. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that he doesn't regret passing on Eddie Lacy in favor of drafting running back Le'Veon Bell. Right now, Lacy looks like the better pick, but it's still too early in their careers to say anything definitive. How has Bell fit into the Steelers offense and what's the biggest reason he's only averaging 3.3 yards per carry?

Scott Brown: Bell has become a big part of the offense and he has added another dimension to it with his pass-catching abilities. He is fourth on the team in receiving, and the Steelers don't just throw screen passes or checkdowns to Bell but also use him as a receiver. Bell is still finding his way as a runner and I'd say his low rushing average is a combination of playing behind a line that is better at pass blocking as well as the adjustment he is making to the speed of the game at this level. Bell has shown flashes, such as when he hurdles a cornerback or plants a defensive end with a stiff-arm, two things he did Sunday night against the Bengals.

Rob, are you surprised at all at the success Lacy has had so early in his career and what has his emergence meant to the Packers offense?

Demovsky: The only thing that has surprised me about Lacy has been his durability. As everyone around the Steelers knows, there were major questions about his injury history coming out of Alabama. Then, early on his conditioning looked a little off -- although it was not as bad as that unflattering picture of him that was circulating during training camp. Then, he sustained a concussion and missed a game and as half. But ever since he has returned from that, there haven't been any major issues. He's managed to play through a sprained ankle the past two weeks. Whenever they get quarterback Aaron Rodgers back, they'll be tough to stop because defenses will have to respect both the run and the pass. That's something Rodgers hasn't really had since he's been the starter.

I've heard a lot of people say they think the Steelers got old in a hurry, especially on defense. Even Roethlisberger looks like an old 31. What do you see in that regard and how much, if at all, has that impacted what's happened to the Steelers this season?

Brown: Age has certainly been a factor in the decline of the defense this season, but I think it's a bit of a misconception that the Steelers' problems stem from them getting old in a hurry. There is still age on the defense, most notably in the secondary, but the Steelers have quietly gotten younger on that side of the ball -- and will continue to do so after the season. What made the Steelers consistently good before this current stretch is they always seemed to have younger players ready to step in for starters who had passed their prime. Perhaps the best example of this is James Harrison and the kind of player he turned into after the Steelers released Joey Porter following the 2006 season.

The Steelers are actually pretty young on offense and while Roethlisberger is 31, he has played every snap this season. I think the offense will step to the forefront in the coming seasons while the Steelers retool the defense and Bell and the offensive line get better.

Rob, Matt Flynn had trouble sticking with a team before he returned to Green Bay. Is it too strong to say that he saved the season -- or at least prevented the Packers from dropping out of playoff contention after Rodgers went down with the broken collarbone?

Demovsky: I'm not sure if Flynn saved their season as much as the Detroit Lions' ineptitude saved their season. Same with the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. It's not exactly like Flynn lit up a couple of defensive juggernauts. That said, it's obvious Flynn has a comfort level with the Packers offense that he did not have in Seattle or Oakland. How else can you explain why he has performed reasonably well here and so poorly in those places?

This is obviously the first meeting between these two teams since Super Bowl XLV. Roethlisberger said this week on a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field that the only thing he remembers about that game is that his team lost. Given that the Steelers don't have the playoffs to play for this season, does avenging that Super Bowl loss give the Steelers any extra motivation this week?

Brown: They can say that it doesn't, but I'm sure they would love a little payback for that loss even if a win by the Steelers on Sunday would come on a considerably smaller stage. I have been impressed with how the Steelers have remained focused even though they only have a sliver of hope of sneaking into the playoffs -- and that's if they manage to win their final two games. The Steelers, in fact, could already be eliminated from postseason contention before kickoff Sunday depending on what happens in the 1 p.m. ET games.

If their showing against the Bengals is a guide, the Packers will get the Steelers' best effort no matter what transpires in the early games. The Steelers seemingly had nothing to play for last Sunday night and they jumped all over the Bengals and cruised to a 30-20 win. It was their most impressive win of the season as much for the circumstances under which it came as for the opponent.

Rob, the Steelers offense has really been on the rise since offensive coordinator Todd Haley removed the reins from the no-huddle attack. Given some of the difficulties Green Bay has had on defense do you think it will need to score a lot of points to beat the Steelers?

Demovsky: The Packers defense gave up 332 yards in the first half alone last Sunday against the Cowboys. They couldn't stop the run -- they haven't really done so since early in the season -- and they seem to have costly coverage breakdowns. When their defense has been at its best is when it has created turnovers. Those two fourth-quarter interceptions of Tony Romo sure made up for a lot of defensive mistakes. The same thing happened when they pitched a shutout in the second half against the Falcons the previous week. If Roethlisberger & Co. take care of the ball, then I expect the Steelers will force the Packers to match them in a shootout type of game.

We're Black and Blue All Over:

Well hello there. I missed more than I thought I would last week, but not so much that we can't dig ourselves out. Let's see. The Chicago Bears placed the franchise tag on tailback Matt Forte, the Minnesota Vikings took an important step toward a new stadium and, oh yeah, the NFL announced that the New Orleans Saints ran an organized bounty system during the time they put a royal beating on then-Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game.

That should catch us up.

Ha. I'll hit those issues and more in greater detail Monday, but let's also remember that we've reached the deadline for the Detroit Lions to place the franchise tag on defensive end Cliff Avril if they choose. The sides have been working on a long-term contract but haven't reached an agreement. The deadline for using the tag is 4 p.m. ET, and (UPDATE) the Lions would eventually have to have enough salary-cap space -- about $11 million -- to fit in Avril's franchise number.

I don't think any other franchise news will come from the NFC North; we've already downplayed the possibility of the Green Bay Packers using theirs on quarterback Matt Flynn. But hang on. Today should be an interesting ride.

For now, let's take our morning stroll around the division:
  • Several Bears players wonder if injuries that occurred during their 2011 game against the Saints came as a result of the bounty. Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com has more.
  • New Bears general manager Phil Emery plans to spend a good portion of his week on the road scouting during the NFL season, according to Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times wonders if the Bears should consider signing Saints guard Carl Nicks.
  • The Lions last used the franchise tag in 2007, notes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Here's what Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had to say about the bounty story, via the Charlotte Observer: "It's unfortunate to hear these things come out. Me personally, I don't take part in those things and knowing my teammates and knowing my coaches, we wouldn't allow that. I understand it's a tough situation the commissioner has to deal with. As he has in the past, he's going to deal with it with a stiff hand. Hopefully, people can learn from the mistakes and make an example out of it."
  • John Niyo of the Detroit News: "If I'm Ndamukong Suh or James Harrison or any other player recently suspended by the league in his push to promote player safety, I'm watching this case intently, waiting to see if justice really is blind in the NFL. If you get a game for being a repeat offender delivering illegal hits, what do you get for repeatedly soliciting illegal hits as a coach?"
  • It seems unlikely that the Packers will use their franchise tag on Flynn, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Sentiment should not play a part in the Packers' decision on whether to bring back receiver Donald Driver, writes Mike Vandermause of the Press-Gazette.
  • The Packers raised $67 million in their latest stock sale, notes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk posted this photograph on his Twitter account after cutting his famously long hair to benefit children with cancer.
  • Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com: "In retrospect, it's now clear that at least some of the key participants on the Vikings sideline, including coach Brad Childress, knew something wasn't right with how aggressive coordinator Gregg Williams' defense was being against Favre. Childress would say as much several months later."
  • Some serious political pressure, on both sides of the issue, is about to be applied on the Vikings' stadium front, according to Rachel E. Stassen-Berger of the Star Tribune.
  • The actual stadium bill is not expected to be ready Monday, according to Doug Belden of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
From an NFC North perspective, I've got exactly two cents on the ridiculous comments of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison in a recent interview with Men's Journal.

$0.01: Harrison took a shot at Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for throwing two interceptions in Super Bowl XLV against the Packers. Harrison's line for that game: 1 tackle. It was a sack that came on a stunt designed to get him away from Packers left tackle Chad Clifton, who pretty much owned him for the entire game. Packers center Scott Wells knocked Harrison down. He got up, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers stepped right into him. Perhaps if Harrison had done more to help the Steelers win, he would have been in better position to evaluate the performance of his teammates.

$0.02: There will be some people, including NFL players, who think Harrison's message -- that the NFL made an example of him last season -- is valid, even if his expression was poorly executed. I side with Chicago Bears safety Chris Harris, who tweeted Wednesday morning: "Man James Harrison is a GOON!"

Carry on.
NFL power rankings: Defensive PlayersESPN.com IllustrationTroy Polamalu (43) was the unanimous choice among our bloggers as the NFL's top defensive player.
During the unprecedented offseason of 2011, ESPN.com has ranked the top pass-rushers in the NFL. We've ordered linebackers, rated cornerbacks and chosen the league's top 10 safeties as well. Now it's time to start putting it all together.

This week's challenge: Meld those four ballots into a single list of the NFL's 10 best defensive players. The subtle shift in parameters required us to consider not only a player's individual impact, but the overall importance of his position to the game.
Both in the draft and in the free-agent market, NFL teams place premium value on pass-rushers and interior defensive linemen. Other positions, most notably safeties, are relegated to secondary priorities. So in that sense, it's both remarkable and telling that Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was the unanimous top choice of our committee.

"Troy has a skill set that I've never seen from the safety position," said AFC North blogger James Walker, who has covered Polamalu for years. "He has the hands, coverage skills and acceleration of a corner, but the instincts and timing on the blitz and against the run like a linebacker. When I've asked coaches to draw a comparison to another safety, they struggle to come up with a name, because there's really no one like him. [Steelers defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau also deserves credit for building his defense around Troy, because that's really hard to do for a safety."

To what extent do NFL teams typically value safeties? Consider that in last month's draft, the first safety wasn't selected until midway through the second round (UCLA's Rahim Moore, by the Denver Broncos, at No. 45 overall). And in determining franchise tag numbers for a potential 2011 market before the lockout, the league was set to assign safeties the third-lowest figure among all positions, ahead of only tight ends and kickers.

One other safety made our list: Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens. But for the most part, the list was dominated by players known for getting to the quarterback. Our top pass-rusher, Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware, ranked second. Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers were among our top eight.

NFC East blogger Dan Graziano rated Ware No. 7 overall and is braced for the wrath of his new readership, but I thought it was healthy and important to add a fresh view that didn't participate in our individual position rankings.

"Guys like Harrison and [Ravens defensive tackle Haloti] Ngata made more of an impression on me," Graziano said. "I certainly don't think calling someone the seventh-best defensive player in the league is any kind of insult. But from what I watched the past couple of years, I felt guys like that impacted the games in which they played more completely than did Ware. If I made a mistake, I'm certainly happy to own up to it and listen to the reasons why I was wrong."

In this debate, right and wrong mattered less than philosophy. Graziano, for example, rated New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis No. 2 overall and also included Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha at No. 8. On the other side of the spectrum, I joined NFC West blogger Mike Sando in choosing only one cornerback (Revis) and one safety (Polamalu). Sando, in fact, ranked Revis No. 9.

Neither one of us has any argument with the skills of Asomugha or Reed. But on a ranking of overall defensive players, we found it difficult to include more than two defensive backs.

"I moved down Revis and cornerbacks in general," Sando said, "for the same reason Patrick Peterson went fifth in the draft despite being arguably the best player available. It's just tougher for a cornerback to affect offenses the way a great front-seven player affects them. Quarterbacks can throw away from them."

Along those lines, Sando gave the highest vote for the player who topped our linebacker rankings, Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers, placing him at No. 2. Willis finished No. 4 with votes ranking anywhere from No. 2 to No. 8

"Willis has no weaknesses and there is no avoiding him on the field," Sando said. "I've seen him return an interception 86 yards for a touchdown, knock out wide receivers with crushing hits, punish quarterbacks on blitzes and scrambles, lift a Pro Bowl offensive lineman off the ground in run support and just generally dominate. He was a serious candidate for the No. 1 spot on my ballot."

Matthews also received a wide range of votes, finishing No. 5 despite three ballots that placed him No. 2, including mine. Most of us considered Ware the top pass-rusher a few months ago, but a few believe Matthews is the better all-around player from the 3-4 outside linebacker position.

"Clay Matthews makes as many game-changing plays as any defender in the league," said NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas, who joined the AFC South's Paul Kuharsky and myself on the Matthews bandwagon. "That makes him one of the league's best defenders in my eyes. And it doesn't hurt that his team has the Lombardi trophy at the moment."

Said Kuharsky: "Matthews is so dynamic and energetic it made it very difficult for me not to constantly circle back to him as I consider the highest-impact defenders in the league. That Seifert and Yasinskas also rate him second just goes to prove that what everyone says about those two is dead wrong."

A backhanded compliment from Paul Kuharsky? I can't think of a better line to close on.


FORT WORTH, Texas -- Thanks to those of you who migrated over to our special-edition SportsNation chat Friday afternoon. I was surprised by how many of you are concerned that the Pittsburgh Steelers, and James Harrison in particular, will be trying to knock Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers from the game -- by any means necessary.

First, a sampling of your questions:

Rich (Adrian)

Most people seem to think that GB is a little better than PIT, including Vegas. But all PIT needs to do is smack Rodgers in the head one time, he'll be seeing stars and will be bad for the rest of the game. When [Ben] Roethlisberger gets hit in the head, he seems to shake it off, and might actually get a little better. Isn't this the real key to the outcome of the game, and perhaps a reason to believe that the smart money is on PIT?

Kevin Seifert (2:04 PM)

Well, it is impossible to know if Rodgers will get "smacked in the head," but it sure seemed like James Harrison was doing his best this week to toss out some not-so-subtle intimidation. If you're Harrison, do you take a fine and penalty for knocking Rodgers out of the game? Maybe so.

Edward (Monroe, WI)

Kevin, do you see a controversy erupting if the Steelers D plays to knock Packers out of the game?

Kevin Seifert (2:21 PM)

Well, I for one will be sure to dig up the James Harrison quotes from earlier this week if that happens.

Sam (Green Bay)

I've been worrying a lot this week about the possibility of Harrison going for a kill shot on Rodgers, possibly even an illegal one, to get Aaron out of the game, regardless of fines or suspensions. However, after thinking about it, wouldn't doing something like that while the whole league is watching be pretty unwise? After all, someone might just "accidentally" fall on the back of Harrison's knees one day and end his career, even. Thoughts?

Kevin Seifert (2:25 PM)

Based on what Harrison said Tuesday and the way he mocked the league, I don't think he will care one bit. I'm not saying he's planning to do something like that, but it's clear that respect for the league isn't going to be the deciding factor on that.

I understand where this thought is coming from. Rodgers has suffered two concussions this season. The Packers lost both games they occurred in. Rodgers' performance also dipped in the second half of the NFC Championship Game after he absorbed an illegal hit from Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers.

And earlier this week, Harrison was boldly and brashly mocking the NFL's attempt to curb what it deemed his illegal helmet-to-helmet hits. A true cynic would wonder if Harrison might be willing to sacrifice a fine, a penalty or possibly an ejection in order to get Rodgers out of the game.

Here's what Harrison said when asked if the NFL's crackdown had compelled him to change his playing style:

"I changed for maybe a game or two. There were some instances where I would have normally put my face in the fan, so to speak, but I backed out of there. After sitting back, looking at it, it wasn't really conducive to me helping my team out."

I don't know that Harrison is a dirty player. But he is definitely mean, nasty and a little crazy. That aura can have almost the same effect in terms of intimidation. The world will be watching Sunday to see how far he takes it.
James Harrison, Aaron RodgersIcon SMI, Getty ImagesThe Steelers' James Harrison intimidated, while Aaron Rodgers reflected on family at Monday's Super Bowl media day.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Hopefully everyone enjoyed Tuesday's Countdown Live coverage of Super Bowl XLV media day, which remains archived for those who want to read through our conversation. Media day gets a bad rap because there are always a handful of quasi-celebrities who try to make the event more about them than the game. But I find that the chaos of it often compels our familiar cast of characters to say and do unexpected things during the hour they spend in the stadium.

So in no particular order, here is what I found interesting while circulating among the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers on Tuesday:

Steelers linebacker James Harrison is easily and without question the meanest and craziest man who will play in this game. If I didn't know any better, I would guess he purposefully made headlines Tuesday in an effort to solidify that title.

In the five minutes I stood near his podium, I heard Harrison mock the NFL, its commissioner and anyone who believes the game has gotten too rough. He asked if Goodell wants him to put a pillow down on the field before tackling someone. Harrison, who was fined $100,000 for what the NFL deemed illegal hits during the season, said his subsequent meetings with Goddell were "a waste of time" and that he is back to playing the way he did before the league started fining him.

As a small group of reporters stood stunned, Harrison went on. I was busy typing away on my ESPN-issue iPad for Countdown Live and wasn't recording. So let's give a hat tip to Kareem Copeland of the Green Bay Press-Gazette for transcribing what we heard. A sampling:

On if he thinks the NFL cares about keeping players safe:
JH: "The league is doing whatever they need to do that helps them make more money. If you hit Tom Brady [or] Peyton Manning and you concuss them and they can't play the next game, a lot of people might not [tune] in to see that."
On if the NFL made an example of him:
JH: "They needed somebody to make a poster-guy for their rule, and I seemed to be the most recognizable guy at the time. So, they went with me."

It's noteworthy when any player, let alone one on Harrison's level, takes a strong public stance against the league. For it to happen a few days before the Super Bowl only adds to its significance.

Still, it seems to me that above all else, Harrison views himself as a football warrior more than a victim. Taking a strong stand against limitations on hitting quarterbacks was, in my view, an effort at intimidation as much as anything. Some of his strongest comments came in that vein.

Harrison said he has suffered a concussion in an NFL game but it was "not bad enough to come out of a game." He added: "Put it like this: If you don't tell them, they don't know unless you get knocked out and you sitting there with your arms stuck in the air."

In mocking Goodell, Harrison said: "I don't want to hurt nobody. I don't want to step on nobody's foot or hurt their toe. I don't want to have no dirt or none of this rubber on this field to fly into their eye and make their eye hurt. I just want to tackle them softly on the ground and if y'all can, lay a pillow down where I'm a tackle them so they don't hit the ground too hard. OK, Mr. Goodell?"

Harrison's comments were spoken to the media, but I'm betting they were directed at the Packers. As in: Buckle up, boys. The NFL's meanest player is headed your way.

Some shorter tidbits:

  • The grandfather of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers earned a Purple Heart in World War II after he was shot down. Rodgers said that he was giving "serious thought" to joining the military himself after school before deciding to pursue football.
  • Packers tight end Tom Crabtree has tattoos up and down both arms. He said he tries to get a one "every time I go somewhere new" but that he might be too busy to pull it off this week in Texas.
  • A number of Packers players and their wives got together for a "dance-off" using "Dance Central" on Xbox360, receiver Donald Driver said. It was players versus wives. Driver: "We are football players and we thought we could dance. But they smashed us." Driver said a re-match is scheduled for this week at his Dallas-area home.
  • Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji faced all kinds of questions that were variations of this one: "Not that you're fat, but all big people who are slow and lack the skills, you brought them to another spectrum." Raji's response to that one: "You're a real charmer, man."
  • Naturally, the gnarly beard of Steelers defensive lineman Brett Keisel drew plenty of attention. I thought Steelers safety Ryan Clark had some of the funniest comments about it. Clark said the only way for Keisel to put his mouthpiece in is to "shove half of his beard in his mouth."
  • Clark also said the Steelers would hold a "beard-cutting ceremony" if they win Sunday's game. Clark envisioned a ceremony similar to the one college basketball champions use to cut down the nets at the end of the NCAA tournament. "But instead of everyone taking a little bit of the net," Clark said, "we'll all take a piece of the beard."

DALLAS -- Former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner threw for 377 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, one of several reasons his thoughts will be among the most credible this week as the Green Bay Packers prepare for Super Bowl XLV.

Appearing Monday morning on ESPN's "First Take," Warner offered a specific and Packers-friendly formula for moving the ball against the Steelers.

"I've always felt that the Steelers' defense ... they're always built around the linebackers -- and specifically around those two outside guys who can rush the passer and create so much havoc. And so anytime I play a team like that, I always wanted to spread them out.

"If I had four receivers where I could force those linebackers either to cover, to get out in space, or to force them off the field, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to take the strength of a team and attack it. That's what I would tell the Packers. You've got four great wide receivers, guys that made plays all year long. Use those receivers. Spread out the defense. Force them to do something different than what they want to."

Warner offered one caution, however.

"It leaves some short edges for guys like James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley coming off the sides," he said. "You've got to get the ball out of your hand."

Warner and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers are close friends, and they spoke last week on a number of topics. I wouldn't be surprised if this one came up. The Packers, as you might know, used at least three receivers on 75 percent of their dropbacks this season. They also used a five-receiver set 30 times during the regular season, twice the number of the other 31 teams combined.

We've already touched on the Packers' indoor passing fancy during the Rodgers era and we'll touch on it from any number of additional angles as the week progresses. But Warner's point is a valid one: The Packers have the personnel to spread out the Steelers' defense. They had four receivers -- Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson -- who finished the regular season with at least 45 receptions. Can they be as successful as Warner was two years ago? Stay tuned.
DALLAS -- He had three sacks after one game, six after two and by the end of Week 5, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews led the NFL with 8.5 sacks. That white-hot start positioned him as the early favorite for defensive player of the year, and we’ll find out later Monday if that momentum was enough to catapult him to the award.

Hamstring and shin injuries contributed to a midseason slowdown, and Matthews finished the season trailing three other players in total sacks. But first impressions are powerful and, in what might be a preview of this year’s voting, The Sporting News last week awarded him its version of the award.

The NFL and Associated Press will announce the official award sometime after 7 p.m. ET on the NFL Network. If The Sporting News voting (right) is any indication, Matthews is competing with two players the Packers will face Sunday in Super Bowl XLV, and if you’re a voting analyst, you might suggest that Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison could take votes away from each other.

Miami Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake will get some attention, as will Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers and Dallas Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware -- who actually led the league with 15.5 sacks. But Matthews played at an elite level for most of the season, helping the Packers' defense rank No. 5 overall in the NFL. And although the voting took place before the playoffs began, Matthews’ most recent tear -- he has 3.5 sacks in the playoffs – validates the suggestion that since-healed injuries played a role in his fall-off during the second half of the season.

I don’t think anyone could protest if Polamalu or even Harrison wins the award, but anecdotal evidence suggests Matthews is the front-runner. It would be the second consecutive year a Packers player has won the award; cornerback Charles Woodson received it in 2009. For those who have asked, a team has produced at least two consecutive DPOY award on three other occasions -- most recently the Baltimore Ravens in 2003 (linebacker Ray Lewis) and 2004 (safety Ed Reed).

We’ll keep you updated.

Earlier: ESPN.com columnist Rick Reilly offers a much more, uh, pleasant profile of Matthews than he did of the last NFC North player he wrote about.
Those of you who follow Chicago Bears safety Chris Harris on Twitter (@ChrisHarrisNFL) know he has spent part of Tuesday intelligently and forcefully arguing against the NFL's decision to re-emphasize its rules regarding hits to the head and neck area. Much of the discussion came before news broke that three players would be fined a combined $175,000 for such hits during Sunday's games.

Harris just tweeted that fines on the Pittsburgh Steelers' James Harrison and the Atlanta Falcons' Dunta Robinson are "so wrong on so many levels." Below, I've tried to arrange his earlier tweets to give you a sense of what a smart NFL player is saying about this turn of events.
I'm all for player safety. This is a violent barbaric sport. You have a split second to make decisions when making a hit, as a DB my job is

To make the play or cause a fumble. U can't half [way] a tackle n this league bc players like adrien peterson,josh cribbs,aquan boldin will

Break those tackles. Its a fine line. That's part of the sport n u knew that when u signed that contract to play football.

I guarantee u Dick Butkus,Mike Singletary, Richard Dent,Doug Plank,Otis Wilson didn't think twice when hittin someone but NFL want us to now

No one intentionally tries to hit illegally (helmet to helmet) its just part of the game. The reason u see a lot of guys getting hurt now as

Opposed to back n the day is bc its a diff breed of athletes now. Guys r a lot stronger and faster which creates higher impact hits.

Ur not supposed to be 250lbs n be able to run a 4.3 but that's what ur dealing with that u didn't have back n the day therefore the velocity

And impact these guys are hitting with is unbelievable and of course dangerous. Its a damn Gladiator mentality. #sorry

I feel the NFL is singling out defensive players. What about the running backs who are running towards me then lower their heads at contact

Will they get suspended as well?

Think about the Brandon Jacobs n Marion Barbers n Adrien Petersons. They r physical runners who lower their heads n try to run u over to get

That extra yard or first down. That's inviting helmet to helmet contact. There is no way u can get from it in this league ....point blank

I'll be fascinated to see whether these big fines, and the threat of future suspensions, will actually impact the way the game is played. Violence is both the best friend and enemy of the NFL, and has been for many years. It was exactly 50 years ago, in fact, when Chuck Bednarik knocked out Frank Gifford during a game. Gifford was hospitalized with a concussion and didn't play again until 1962.

I agree with Harris. This game is the closet thing to gladiators that we have in modern mainstream sports. Can the NFL walk a line and ask players to be less violent? Isn't it all or nothing?

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

October, 18, 2010
10/18/10
1:15
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After the Green Bay Packers' 23-20 loss Sunday to the Miami Dolphins, here are three issues that merit further examination:
Head Exam
Kevin SeifertThe Green Bay Packers take their turn in the examination room after their loss to the Miami Dolphins.

  1. ESPN Stats & Information came up with some numbers that suggest the Packers' defense was pretty weak up the middle Sunday, an unsurprising development considering the injury situation at linebacker and safety. Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne completed 14 of 17 passes between the numbers for 135 yards and two touchdowns. When he targeted outside receivers near the sideline, he completed nine of 21 passes. Meanwhile, tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams gained 86 percent of their combined yardage on runs between the numbers. Future opponents will no doubt notice the trend.
  2. Over on Twitter, @JezzicaBe noted the irony of quarterback Aaron Rodgers getting two teeth chipped on a hit one day after we discussed multiple other occasions of questionable contact. After taking in the weekend's action, I think we can all agree the NFL has failed to protect all players -- quarterbacks or otherwise -- from head shots. Google "James Harrison" or "Dunta Robinson" and you'll see what I'm talking about. Where and when will it end? I shudder to think what could happen before substantive changes are made. This game has moved from violent to dangerous and is approaching a level that isn't even entertaining. NFL vice president Ray Anderson told NFL.com that he could start suspending players for helmet-to-helmet hits, but we'll wait on the action behind those words. Everyone wants to see collisions. No one (I hope) wants to see violent injuries.
  3. I didn't like the late penalty call against Robert Francois any more than you did. It appeared that Francois was beyond the necessary yard off center on a fourth-quarter punt, and the call shouldn't have been made. I know it extended a Dolphins drive, but I hope no one is hiding behind it to explain why the Packers lost. There were multiple other opportunities to win this game. More concerning is why the offense continues to have long gaps between efficiency, as well as the Packers' difficulties winning close games. All three losses this season have come by three points. Their special teams haven't been very good as a whole, and I imagine that Tim Masthay could be kicking for his job Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings. But let's stop blaming officials for losses that were otherwise avoidable.
And here is one issue I don't get:
Weekend reports about the potential availability of Dallas Cowboys tailback Marion Barber naturally connected the Packers. I don't doubt the Packers' need for a player of Barber's multiple skills, even though his bruising style suggests a body older than its 27 years. But I'll say it once again: Why do we include the Packers in trade rumors for veteran players? I can't totally rule out the possibility, but let's just reiterate that such a trade would fall wholly against general manager Ted Thompson's recent history. Look at what he's done so far this season. Reacting to the Packers' slew of injuries, he's signed running back Dimitri Nance off the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad. He's re-signed defensive end Mike Montgomery and now traded for safety Anthony Smith, who spent 2009 in training camp with the Packers. Like it or not, those moves fit Thompson's profile much more than trading for Barber.

Scouts Inc.: Ranking the top pass-rushers

October, 7, 2010
10/07/10
11:00
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Ware/Freeney/WilliamsIcon SMI, AP PhotosDeMarcus Ware, Dwight Freeney and Mario Williams are among the most dominant pass-rushers.
Pass-rushers come in all shapes and sizes. But they are always at a premium.

Although they are difficult to find, there are a few tremendous interior forces when attacking quarterbacks. Those can be true upfield defensive tackles or even ends such as Justin Tuck who are versatile enough to move inside on passing downs.

But most great quarterback killers come off the edge, and this list reflects that. But edge-rushers also come in all shapes and sizes. Some are defensive ends in the 4-3, while others are pass-rushing outside linebackers in the 3-4. Some are tall, linear athletes with great wingspans, while others are shorter and built for leverage. Some pass-rushers rely on power, technique or speed. But every esteemed member of this group is more than just a one-trick pony.

One thing is certain: All can harass quarterbacks extremely well. These are the best of the best.

  1. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Cowboys: Ware has it all. He has great quickness, but is also incredibly smooth and fluid with all his movements. Ware has a very long, lean athletic body type that he uses extremely well to keep blockers away from his frame, but also gets low and demonstrates great leverage. He also has a full array of pass-rush moves and a great motor to cap it all off. Ware already has four sacks in three games this year. Oh yeah, he also had 20 sacks in 2008.
  2. Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts: If Freeney has lost a step, it is hardly noticeable. His body of work is amazing, but so is what he is doing now. Before his ankle injury last season, Freeney might have been rushing the passer at a higher level than at any point of his career. I also tend to think that the Super Bowl might have ended a little differently if the Colts’ best defensive player had been healthy. Despite that injury, Freeney did notch 13.5 sacks in 2009.
  3. Mario Williams, DE, Texans: This ultra-talented young man has come into his own in 2010. Only two players have more sacks this season than Williams (five). And he is one player on this list who is continually double-teamed. Few players look the part like Williams, and his skill set is off the charts. He has power, the body and closing speed. Now he is putting it all together. The league is taking notice.
  4. Julius Peppers, DE, Bears: Peppers was great in Carolina, but looks rejuvenated -- and much more dangerous and consistent -- since joining the Bears. Peppers and Williams are the two players on this list who are just a different breed of athlete. Peppers and Williams are bigger and more gifted than the others. Although the Bears invested a small fortune in this great player, they must be happy with their investment to this point.
  5. James Harrison, LB, Steelers: One of the functionally strongest players in the league, Harrison is a master at staying low and bullying his opponent. But his flat-out tenacity is what sets him apart. He got to the quarterback 16 times in 2008 and is also one of the very best in the business at dislodging the football when he does reach the quarterback. Harrison arrives with violence. Harrison and teammate LaMarr Woodley (see below) are probably the two best of this top 10 at setting the edge and playing the run.
  6. [+] EnlargeClay Matthews
    Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireClay Matthews leads the NFL with seven sacks.

  7. Clay Matthews, LB, Packers: Bred to play the game, Matthews leads the NFL with seven sacks. Despite more or less learning a new position, he notched double-digit sacks as a rookie. He is a terrific blend of athletic ability, which he displays really well bending the edge without losing leverage or speed. But it is his technique -- most noticeably his use of his hands -- and overall tenacity that make Matthews special.
  8. Robert Mathis, DE, Colts: Mathis is averaging a sack per game thus far in 2010, and the Colts have not played with their accustomed leads. Mathis benefits from Freeney being on the other side and also plays in the ideal conditions to use his amazing speed, but that should not take away from what he brings off the edge.
  9. Jared Allen, DE, Vikings: Allen was second in the league in sacks last year, and from 2007 to 2009, Allen notched a whopping 44.5. Allen has begun this season rather slowly in this department, but the Vikings have played only three games and his track record speaks for itself. Not only is he a tremendous hustle player, but he uses his length extremely well.
  10. Tamba Hali, LB, Chiefs: Hali doesn’t get the credit he deserves or the accolades of the others on this list. In fact, Kansas City has really struggled to get after opposing quarterbacks over the last few years. But don’t blame Hali. He has recently blossomed into a great 3-4 outside linebacker after spending time as a defensive end in Herm Edwards’ Cover 2 scheme. The Chiefs are starting to get some recognition. Go out of your way to watch Hali. You will not be disappointed.
  11. LaMarr Woodley, LB, Steelers: He has been great this year, but was out-of-this-world the second half of last season. He is one of the few pass-rushers on this list who usually lines up against slower-footed right tackles, but he can win one-on-one with technique, quickness or power. Woodley is just reaching his prime and will only get better.
Honorable Mention: Elvis Dumervil, Cameron Wake, John Abraham, Matt Roth, Ray Edwards, Trent Cole, Brian Orakpo, Terrell Suggs, Anthony Spencer, Justin Tuck.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

More Rewind'09: Weekend mailbag

January, 9, 2010
1/09/10
10:00
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Wow. We just wrapped up one of the busiest weeks in the NFC North in some time. I felt like I was writing all day, every day. We had two teams headed to the playoffs, a third planning to swap out two coordinators and a fourth making some news late in the week.

It all happened while we were trying to put a bow on some of our central themes of the season, including Brett Favre’s impact on Minnesota, the changing face of NFC North offenses and the development of young tight ends within the division. Let’s continue that wrap-up, using questions from the mailbag and Facebook. (You can also send questions and thoughts to me via Twitter.)

Let’s get to it:

Kyle of West Des Moines, Iowa, writes: Early in the preseason, there was a discussion between you and the AFC North blogger about which division would come out on top between the two. I was wondering if you could revisit that discussion!

Kevin Seifert: Great idea Kyle! I presume you’re talking about this post from July. I offered seven points on the AFC North–NFC North matchup.

First, we should count up the record and realize the 16 games between the four teams were split down the middle. Each division went 8-8 against the other. Let’s look at the breakdown, naturally from an NFC North perspective:

Minnesota (3-1): Beat Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati. Lost to Pittsburgh.
Green Bay (2-2): Beat Baltimore and Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Chicago (2-2): Beat Pittsburgh, Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati, Baltimore.
Detroit (1-3): Beat Cleveland. Lost to Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Now, let’s look at the seven points I made at the time and reconcile them with the facts.

I wrote then: Detroit was 0-16 last season, but its new coach went 4-0 against the AFC North in his previous job. As the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, Jim Schwartz helped the Titans defeat Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati. Included in that run was a 31-14 late-December shellacking of the Steelers. Schwartz's new team is in a much different place than the Titans were last season, but it's a rare advantage to have seen all four interconference opponents the previous season. The Lions can use every edge they can find.

I see now: The Lions won only one of the four, but it’s worth noting they were relatively close against the Steelers (28-20) and Bengals (23-13) before getting crushed by the Ravens (48-3).


I wrote then: Who will have the last laugh between Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson (Oct. 18)? As you might recall, Peterson said at the Pro Bowl that he wanted to gain 12 pounds during the offseason. "I don't think too many guys would be excited to see me at 230 two times a year," Peterson said. But his father told USA Today last month that a group of veterans -- including Lewis -- "set up" his son, hoping to convince him to make a change that ultimately would slow him down. Let's see if Peterson, who by all accounts will remain close to his playing weight of 217 pounds, returns the favor.

I see now: Peterson ran for 143 yards on 22 carries in the Vikings' 33-31 victory. Case closed.


I wrote then: The AFC North boasts two of the game's best pass-rushing linebackers in Pittsburgh's James Harrison (16 sacks in 2008) and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs (eight). You never know exactly where outside linebackers will line up in a 3-4 defense, but I'm guessing they'll find their way toward the NFC North's host of young right tackles. Chicago (Chris Williams), Minnesota (Phil Loadholt) and Green Bay (Allen Barbre or T.J. Lang) are all expected to have new starters at the position -- and Detroit's Gosder Cherilus is entering his first full season as a starter. Defensive coordinators would be remiss not to test all four spots.

I see now: I don’t have the breakdown of where he was lined up, but I can tell you that Harrison had five of his 10 sacks this season against NFC North opponents. Three came against the Lions and two against the Vikings. Suggs, limited by injuries this season, did not have a sack against the NFC North.


I wrote then: This season will be a referendum on whether Orlando Pace can still play left tackle in the NFL. During the free-agent period, Baltimore heavily courted Pace but wanted him to move to right tackle so that youngster Jared Gaither could continue his development on the left side. Pace, however, wanted to maintain his traditional position and ultimately signed with Chicago. The Ravens have installed rookie Michael Oher as their new right tackle and suddenly have a raw set of tackles. We'll soon find out if Pace can give the Bears a full year at left tackle, or whether the Ravens were right to hold firm on youth.

I see now: The Ravens won on this decision. Pace was ineffective for most of the season before being sidelined by a leg injury. Even after he returned to health, the Bears respectfully left him on the bench. Oher, meanwhile, was one of the NFL’s best rookies this season.


I wrote then: To the extent that practicing against a 3-4 defense helps in game preparation, Green Bay should have a clear advantage over its NFC North rivals. The Packers' offense spent all spring practicing against its 3-4 scheme and won't face that choppy in-season transition when preparing for the Steelers, Ravens and Browns. This is becoming less of an issue every year as more NFL teams return to the 3-4 -- the total is expected to be 13 in 2009 -- but familiarity can only help the Packers in this vein.

I see now: The Packers finished 2-1 against AFC North teams that run a 3-4, beating the Ravens and Browns while losing to the Steelers.


I wrote then: The Bears, Packers and Lions all are working hard to improve their weak pass rush. Two AFC North teams -- Cincinnati and Pittsburgh -- are hoping to shore up their pass protection. Which teams can make quicker enhancements? You might know that the Bengals gave up the NFL's third-most sacks last season (51). But it might have escaped you that the Steelers were right behind them with 49 sacks allowed. It almost goes without saying that the best way to stop the Bengals' Carson Palmer and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is to keep them from throwing the ball.

I see now: The Bears had no sacks against the Bengals and two against the Steelers. The Packers had two and five, respectively. The Lions had two and three.


I wrote then: AFC North teams like to think of themselves the same way we do here in the Black and Blue, as hard-nosed, bad-weather running teams. Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are two of the best run-stoppers in the game, and there's a little stretch of the season where they would be particularly missed should their NFL suspensions kick in. (Such a scenario would require a prolonged but ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge to their NFL discipline.) The Vikings play Baltimore and Pittsburgh in consecutive October weeks (Oct. 18 against the Ravens and Oct. 25 at Pittsburgh). That makes for two old-fashioned football matchups -- if the Williams Wall is on the field.

I see now: With both members of the Williams Wall on the field, the Vikings gave up 81 rushing yards to the Ravens and 107 to the Steelers. Neither total figured in the outcome of either game.


I wrote then: Who benefits most? In some ways, this schedule ensures that each NFC North team will be playing 10 divisional games this season. There are many similarities between the general styles of the Black and Blue and AFC North. Minnesota's defense should match the intensity of the physical offenses of Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Green Bay's offense shouldn't be surprised by the 3-4 defense, but its own defense won't have the advantage of surprise, either. It's too early to make specific predictions, but it's safe to say that whoever has the divisional advantage in the NFC North will also fare best against the AFC North.

I see then: The Vikings won the NFC North and also had the best record against the AFC North. Ding-ding-ding!


Robert of Oostburg Wis., writes: Hello. Dom Capers was not the first choice for defensive coordinator for the Packers last offseason. Could you compare the job he got done this year with the few others that got away. I think the Packers got the steal of the year.

Kevin Seifert: You’re right. The Packers interviewed several candidates who ultimately went elsewhere, including Mike Nolan (Denver) and Gregg Williams (New Orleans). The Broncos defense finished the season ranked No. 7 in the NFL. The Saints finished No. 27, but Williams scheme did create the second-most turnovers in the NFL and played a big role in the Saints’ hot start.

That said, I don’t think there’s any doubt Capers’ defense had the best season of that group. Capers is well known for making an immediate impact, and that’s exactly what the Packers got this season.


Keith writes: Is there a more natural way to make Week 17 more competitive than to seed teams based on overall record? Arizona surely would've showed up last week.

Kevin Seifert: I wish there were, Keith. To date, I haven’t heard or thought of any that make sense.

Awarding teams draft picks to continue playing their starters seems counterintuitive. Would a sixth- or seventh-round pick be enough to risk the health of a key player? I don’t think so. And what would it say about the league that it must reward teams for competing?

Penalizing teams for sitting starters is also problematic. The decision can have too much gray area. How long would the player have to be on the field? What would prevent him from leaving because of “tightness?” or some other nebulous injury?

Weighing playoff seedings disproportionally based on late-season record doesn’t fly with me, either. Shouldn’t every game count the same?

Ultimately, I think the NFL should be patient and see what happens to Indianapolis, especially, this postseason. It’s a copycat league. If the Colts are bounced early from the playoffs, you can bet future coaches in the same position would think twice about benching starters.


Jonathan writes via Facebook: So....when do we find out that Woodson won DPOY?

Kevin Seifert: The Associated Press will announce the Defensive Player of the Year Award next Wednesday, Jan. 13. That’s when we’ll find out if Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson won it.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Well. We delayed this post for a day in hopes that the NFL’s officiating supervisor would address the tripping penalty on Minnesota tight end Jeff Dugan in last Sunday’s 27-17 loss at Pittsburgh. Alas, league vice president Mike Pereira did not review the play during an evening appearance on NFL Network, as previously indicated.
Dugan

I was particularly interested in Pereira’s explanation for two reasons. First, people both inside and outside of the game seem to be in mass agreement that it was a bad call. Are we missing something here? Second, Vikings coach Brad Childress spoke with Pereira earlier this week. When asked if he was satisfied with the explanation he received, Childress said: "I’m satisfied that I was able to tell my side of it and he could see my side of it." That response suggested that Pereira stopped short of admitting the call was wrong, but we’ll never know for sure.

Update: I contacted a league spokesman to see if any explanation would be forthcoming. The league's response: "It's a judgment call. We're not going to comment on it."


So we’re left to our own devices to understand the rule and its application in this case. When you watch the replay, you see Dugan lined up as an H-back -- in the backfield and in a two-point stance -- to the left of quarterback Brett Favre. At the snap, Dugan executes a cut block on Steelers linebacker James Harrison, diving to the ground just in front of him.

As Dugan rolls over, Harrison falls over him. Childress later noted that Dugan had a knot on his thigh as a result of the collision.

Referee Ron Winter called Dugan for an illegal trip, taking away a 10-yard touchdown pass to receiver Sidney Rice and penalizing the Vikings 10 yards.

As we noted Wednesday, the NFL rule book doesn’t help us much here. The league defines tripping as "the use of the leg or foot in obstructing any opponent (including a runner).” Everyone can have an opinion, but I don’t see where Dugan tripped Harrison under that definition.

On the replay, you see Harrison make contact with Dugan’s right hip, not his legs or feet. Second, the word “use” in the rule implies a conscious act. There’s no indication that Dugan was trying to use his legs to take down Harrison.

My guess is that the officials saw the ingredients of a trip and reacted accordingly. There is a frame in the replay where Dugan’s feet are in the air, right about the same time Harrison falls down. But Harrison didn’t fall over Dugan’s feet, and that position is an unavoidable physical result of rolling after a running start. Unless we’re all missing something, Dugan didn’t trip Harrison by the definition of the rule.

Below, I'll re-publish our updated Challenge Tracker for those who might have missed it Wednesday:
NFC North Challenge Tracker
Team Coach Challenge Overturned Success rate
Chicago Lovie Smith 5 1 20.0
Detroit Jim Schwartz 2 0 --
Green Bay Mike McCarthy 4 1 25.0
Minnesota Brad Childress 5 2 40.0
Source: NFL

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