NFC North: Jeremy Kapinos
Super Bowl XLV will feature the NFL's top two scoring defenses, but ESPN.com's John Clayton suggests the game will be a shootout. Odds makers have put the over/under at 44 points, and Clayton writes: "Take the over."
Based on the 2009 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, which included 973 yards of offense and a 37-36 final, Clayton adds: "It's hard to imagine a low-scoring game."
As we noted Thursday, the Packers defense has made specific improvements to address the problems it experienced in that game. But I will say this: The best players often rise up and control the action of a Super Bowl. If two of the best players on the field are quarterbacks, as one might suggest with Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, then perhaps we could be in for a high-scoring game after all.
Continuing around the NFC North as we clean out from another snowy evening here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area:
- The Packers signed rookie nickelback Sam Shields with a modest $7,500 signing bonus, notes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Rodgers and Roethlisberger are both good at moving in the pocket, although they have their own styles, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com checks in with Steelers punter Jeremy Kapinos, who was the Packers' punter last season. Kapinos said he was disappointed the Packers didn't give him an opportunity to improve.
- The Chicago Bears have a new defensive line coach, Mike Phair, after Eric Washington departed to join the Carolina Panthers' staff. Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com has more.
- Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher took a pain-killer before the NFC Championship Game, notes Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
- In a radio interview, via the Star Tribune, Minnesota Vikings vice president Rick Spielman said it's unlikely the team will do much from a contract standpoint until after a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is reached.
- Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com checks in with Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh after the Pepsi Player of the Year voting.
- Jerry Green of the Detroit News: "Suh is a bona fide star -- not only in Michigan and Nebraska. He truly now is the face of the Lions -- just as Barry Sanders was in the 1990s."
Much can change between now and September, but the analysis is especially relevant when compared to the rest of the league. The Vikings' 94.4 percent retention rate is the league's highest, while the Packers' rate of 87.3 ranks fourth.
According to my records, the only players Minnesota hasn't brought back is running back Chester Taylor, cornerback Karl Paymah and offensive lineman Artis Hicks. The Packers' list includes punter Jeremy Kapinos, running back Ahman Green, safety Matt Giordano and defensive end Mike Montgomery. (The Packers' percentage is lower because they had a larger base of players when taking into account those on injured reserve.)
So should we expect anything better from a looming 2010 battle between Tim Masthay and Chris Bryan?
McCarthy spoke with both realism and confidence about the ongoing attempt to replace Jon Ryan, whom the Packers surprisingly released before the 2009 season.
"A young punter in Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a challenge," McCarthy said. "We'll get that on the record. I get that part. But we've been the youngest team in the league for four years. So I think we've accepted the challenge and I don't see this any differently.
"I like the two guys that we have in camp. ... I think these guys are as talented as Jon Ryan. I think they're definitely that caliber as far as pure ability to punt the football."
There are no guarantees that Masthay and Bryan will be the two punters the Packers bring to training camp. Masthay spent a brief time with Indianapolis last summer but was waived before the Colts' first preseason game. Bryan spent the past five years playing Australian rules football.
But the Packers' philosophical aversion to signing veteran free agents dictates they find a punter either through those means or via the draft. The situation remains fluid, but it appears the Packers will spend at least part of the spring evaluating their newest pair of young punters.
That's right. Unless a miracle occurs and the NFL reaches agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement with its players, the league will move to an uncapped environment Friday at 12:01 a.m. ET. Free agency will open with the new set of rules we've tried to explain in our CBAWatch discussions. Who knows what will happen in the future.
We're also keeping an eye on the restricted free-agent tenders in Detroit and Minnesota, who have yet to make their decisions official. And if any NFC North team is going to re-sign one of its unrestricted free agents, Thursday is the final day before they can hit the open market. (That means you, Chester Taylor.)
And finally, Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre is still scheduled to appear Thursday night on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" (11:30 p.m. ET). I'll let you know if any advance clips come our way, but otherwise will bring you his comments after they are televised.
For now, let's take our morning spin around the division:
- The Vikings were engaged in contract discussions Wednesday with Taylor's agent, according to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune. Zulgad also reports the Vikings will extend a first-round tender offer to defensive end Ray Edwards, a second-rounder to defensive tackle Fred Evans and a third-rounder to quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. All three players are restricted free agents.
- Green Bay guard Daryn Colledge said on a radio show that he is likely to shop around for another team and might not participate in the early stages of the Packers' offseason program, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Green Bay punter Jeremy Kapinos, who was not tendered a contract as an RFA: "While I do admit I needed to improve and I was at fault for some of it, I won't agree with anyone I was the lone liability. I think it's very irresponsible to place the blame on one person." Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette has more.
- Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew on the Lions' planned approach to free agency: "We're going to be aggressive, but selectively." Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press has more.
- John Niyo of the Detroit News offers a position-by-position look at possible free-agency targets for the Lions.
- Totally on board with this column from the Chicago Tribune's Dan Pompei on the possibility of trading Bears tight end Greg Olsen: "But the Bears aren't going to get better by trading one of their best players. No team is. Anyone who thinks a team can improve by getting rid of a rising star is thinking too much."
- With that said, Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com suggests New England would be a good landing spot for Olsen.
- The Bears are "desperate" to improve their defense, writes Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Safety Atari Bigby
- Cornerback Will Blackmon
- Guard Daryn Colledge
- Safety Nick Collins
- Defensive end Johnny Jolly
- Fullback John Kuhn
- Center/guard Jason Spitz
- Cornerback Tramon Williams
Two players not on the list are running back DeShawn Wynn and punter Jeremy Kapinos. In this blog post from Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Kapinos strongly objected to any notion he should be held individually responsible for the Packers' special teams woes last season.
- A change in holders is always a warning sign when it comes to kickers, and Sunday it made little difference that the Packers switched from Matt Flynn to Jeremy Kapinos. Placekicker Mason Crosby was wide on a 34-yard attempt, his fifth miss in his past 11 attempts. In a league where an 80 percent conversion rate is considered low, Crosby is at 72.7. But I still think the Packers would be tempting fate to change kickers this week. The idea of bringing in someone off the street to kick at Lambeau Field, and then perhaps the playoffs, seems just as risky as trying to make it work with Crosby.
- Had the Packers won Sunday, I would have considered it a seminal game in the career of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. After completing only 13 of his first 35 passes, Rodgers finished the game with 13 consecutive completions in leading the Packers back from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. Rodgers said afterwards that he considered himself past the point of having to prove he could lead a fourth-quarter comeback, but actions always speak louder than words. His aggressive but collected approach as the game progressed was perfect.
- With a half-day to reflect, I’m still really surprised that defensive coordinator Dom Capers backed into a dime defense on the Steelers’ final drive rather than aggressively rush quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. I don’t doubt that defensive backs provide the best matchup for receivers, as went Capers’ post-game reasoning. But when two of those defensive backs (Jarrett Bush and Josh Bell) are relatively new to their jobs, and when Roethlisberger has been so effective when he's had time in the pocket, I just don’t like the matchup. There was no chance for a player like Bell to stay with a receiver like Mike Wallace when a quarterback like Roethlisberger is taking the snap. The only way to defend that final play is to get to Roethlisberger.
Why didn’t the Packers run the ball more in the first half? Rodgers explained that everyone liked their receivers’ matchups against Pittsburgh’s pass defense, and that the decision to throw on 29 of their first 35 plays was planned. But there are certain risks a team takes when planning a pass-happy approach for an outdoor road game. You saw some of those Sunday when the Steelers’ pass rush blew up the Packers’ early attempts to throw. Running the ball at an aggressive pass rush is one of the best ways to stunt it, but the Packers kept throwing. I don’t deny the matchup situation. But with the Packers, you always have to take pass protection into account.
Because as we stand on the brink of Week 12, the Packers have given themselves an excellent chance to clinch a wild-card spot if they continue a winning pace. (I would define “winning pace” as winning more than you lose. For the Packers, that would mean a 4-2 finish and a 10-6 final record.)
It won’t be as easy as it sounds, not when you consider they have only two home games remaining. It’s possible that a 9-7 record could clinch a playoff spot, but let’s be safe for the purposes of this discussion. In recognition of that strong assumption, let’s consider four keys to the Packers’ postseason run. (Four! Get it?)
1. Schematically cover for personnel losses on defense
The loss of cornerback Al Harris pushes the rest of the Packers’ defensive backs up the depth chart. Tramon Williams is the likely starter, with some combination of Jarrett Bush, Brandon Underwood and newcomer Josh Bell all in the mix for the nickel. Navigating this issue will be the Packers’ biggest challenge in making the playoffs.
All three players are relative unknowns in terms of coverage ability. It’s great if one of them steps up. If not, however, defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to implement some lineup creativity to get his best 11 players on the field.
That could mean leaving an extra linebacker on the field in some nickel situations. It might require finding a bigger role for backup linebacker Desmond Bishop. It could mean flooding the line of scrimmage with blitzers, if that’s what Capers’ remaining players do best.
From the moment he arrived in Green Bay, Capers pledged to craft a scheme around the strengths of his players. It’s time for him once again to follow through.
2. Remaining disciplined with the “new” short-range offense
Over the past two weeks, the Packers have returned to the approach they used in 2007, emphasizing quicker passes, shorter routes and better balance with the run. In this case, the shift was a response to the limited pass protection they have offered quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The development has been obvious the casual observer, but Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette recently put a strong number behind it. In Sunday’s 30-24 victory over San Francisco, 20 of Rodgers’ 32 completions traveled within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage. And their biggest offensive play came off a simple 10-yard slant pass to receiver Greg Jennings, who turned it into a 64-yard touchdown.
“We know our strengths,” Jennings said. “We know our weaknesses, and we have to play to our strengths. And our strength is getting the ball out of Aaron’s hands and letting us make plays. … I think [the short game] is the best way to get the ball in any one of our hands. The last couple of weeks, that’s been a huge emphasis -- the three-step game, the quick game, just trying to get the ball in each one of our hands and just get us out in space against the perimeter guys.”
3. Win the right games
This might sound counterintuitive, but some of Green Bay’s games will be more important than others. I’m not suggesting the Packers do anything other than try to win all of them. But we observers should keep priority and orderliness in mind when looking at their schedule.
In terms of tiebreakers and playoff seeding, division games are most important -- even if it has nothing to do with winning the title. Conference matchups rank next, followed by AFC games. So if I’m making a priority list of the teams I think the Packers need to beat to make the playoffs, it’s going to look like this:
A. DetroitI ranked Seattle and Baltimore ahead of Arizona and Pittsburgh because they’re home games. No tiebreaker applies to home victories, but any playoff plan should include winning your home games first.
4. Make a standard out of the special-teams performance we saw Sunday.
The Packers have had their share of coverage problems this season, and our friends over at Football Outsiders ranked their special teams last in the NFL through the first nine games of the season. But I thought the Packers put forth a mostly winning effort Sunday.
No one can be happy about Josh Morgan’s 76-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter. Moving past that play, however, the 49ers managed 18.7 yards on their other three kickoff returns and 2.3 yards on three punt returns.
Meanwhile, Williams’ 27-yard punt return set up what turned out to be a key field goal at the end of the first half. And don’t forget that Derrick Martin downed a Jeremy Kapinos punt at the 49ers’ 2-yard line in the fourth quarter. On the next play, safety Nick Collins intercepted Alex Smith to set up the Packers’ final touchdown.
You can’t solve any problem overnight, special teams or otherwise. But if the Packers can minimize big returns and make some positive plays to balance them out, I think what they did Sunday would suffice in a playoff race.
It’s only fair that we give Green Bay defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins equal time to apologize/explain/address the critical comments he made after Sunday’s 38-26 loss to Minnesota. Speaking Wednesday in Green Bay, Jenkins said he met separately this week with coach Mike McCarthy, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac. Jenkins said he was wrong for addressing the issue first through the media. In retrospect, Jenkins said, he’s made more plays than he probably realized. Here’s the key passage of his quotes, via Greg A. Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
"They understood that I was frustrated. I was out there working hard and competing and when you don't win the game you get frustrated. They call the stuff that's best for the defense and sometimes as a player you want to do more to try to help your team, but you also have to understand that you have to play within the defense and they can't compromise their defense just to try to make somebody happy. I guess I was being impatient, which kind of made it so frustrating for me. I have made plays. I have made impact in this defense and I've just got to keep being patient and playing within the scheme and opportunities will come for me."
As a reporter, I never have a problem with a player speaking his mind publicly. Sometimes, postgame criticism is generated from frustration. But on other occasions, that frustration compels a level of honesty you don’t otherwise get in calmer environments.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a sore big toe on his left foot along with soreness in his right foot, according to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Rodgers broke his left foot in 2006, but both of his feet are expected to be ready for Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay.
- The Packers are looking for a better performance from punter Jeremy Kapinos, writes Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee.
- Like Jenkins, Chicago offensive coordinator Ron Turner is also backtracking. According to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times, Turner said Wednesday he will not pare back the offense in response to last Sunday’s uneven showing against Cleveland.
- Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune profiles the Bears’ receivers.
- David Haugh of the Tribune previews a webisode that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler filmed for National Diabetes Month. In it, Cutler describes his fear of passing out because of low blood sugar during a game.
- Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press believes that Lions owner William Clay Ford should sit down with disgruntled fans, much like Cleveland’s Randy Lerner did this week.
- The Lions’ defense must learn how to close out games, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
Some bold, and perhaps justified, talk emanated Sunday from Green Bay's locker room. Cornerback Charles Woodson sees no limitations for a Packers team that has cruised to a 3-0 preseason record. According to Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Woodson said:
"We've got a chance at winning the whole thing, I believe. Still got a long way to go. We're not there yet, but we have a chance."
More than anything, Woodson is excited about the Packers' new defensive scheme under Dom Capers.
Woodson: "With Dom coming in, this new scheme, I don't think I've ever been more excited, or more ready to get the season underway than this year."
If nothing else, I think the Packers have demonstrated this summer that the NFC North will be a three-team race in 2009. I'm not sure if I will allow preseason results to change my season predictions, but I admit the Packers have given me reason for pause before I submit my final divisional rankings to the mother ship later Monday.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- For now, Jeremy Kapinos has won the Packers punting job over Durant Brooks. Greg A. Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has details.
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune was impressed with the Bears defense and special teams Sunday night in Denver.
- It's still difficult to discern the Bears' depth chart at receiver, writes Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald.
- Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times on the juxtaposition of quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton on the same field: "Jay Cutler quite likely is a clod and a spoiled brat and an immature jerky boy who has always been the best at almost any sport he takes up and has never developed much empathy or civility or tolerance on account of it. But he is twice the talent Orton is."
- Detroit rookie Louis Delmas is trying too hard to make big plays, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
- Neither Daunte Culpepper nor Matthew Stafford is openly lobbying for the Lions' starting job, but each pointed out his strengths Saturday, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News.
- Michael Rand of the Star Tribune identifies and speaks with the man who purchased Onterrio Smith's Whizzinator during an auction Friday. The price: $750.
- We'll have more a bit later, but for now Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press writes that Brett Favre has low expectations for himself in Monday night's game at Houston.
INDIANAPOLIS -- As you might realize, we initially booked this trip to Gen Con, er Indy, because it figured to be the preseason debut of Hewhoshallnotbenamed. We all know how that worked out, but even now I think Minnesota's quarterback position remains very much the story Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
As Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune points out, Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels have had an inconsistent summer. And their most recent practice on Wednesday might have been their worst, a significant warning sign.
As preseason games go, there's some pressure on both quarterbacks to play well -- especially considering Indianapolis will be without its entire first-team secondary for the game. Check out Mike Chappell's blog at the Indianapolis Star for those details.
We don't yet know whether Jackson or Rosenfels will start (competitive reasons, no doubt.) But the Colts' injury list means that the Vikings' starter will be working against the Colts' No. 2 secondary. And whoever comes in after that will probably face members of the Colts' third-team secondary. For a player looking to win a starting job, those are matchups that should be won.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Friday will also mark the debut of new Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt and possibly center John Sullivan, who has had an ankle injury, writes Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- Detroit coach Jim Schwartz is likely to announce Friday whether Matthew Stafford or Daunte Culpepper will start Saturday against Atlanta, according to Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press.
- Lions tailback Kevin Smith dropped his weight from 218 pounds to 210 pounds in preparation for this season, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News.
- Watch out, Jeremy Kapinos and Durant Brooks: Green Bay worked out four free-agent punters Wednesday, according to Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes that Packers coach Mike McCarthy has typically changed the alignment of his offensive line after the first preseason game. McCarthy has pledged this year to keep players in the same position as much as he can.
- Chicago safety Danieal Manning's sore hamstring has opened the door for rookie Al Afalava, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Corey Graham is likely to work as the Bears' nickelback in the preseason opener at Buffalo, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago.
NFC North teams have been issuing their first depth charts this week as preseason games approach. Typically I pay little attention to these documents, which are disclaimed by an "unofficial" title and sometimes contain preposterous fudging that is plainly evident to anyone who has watched one practice.
This winter, however, the NFL clarified its media policy on the issue and now requires the depth chart to be "credible." (The league's word, not mine.) I guess we should see how it plays out. Below, I've listed some of the more interesting nuggets I saw this week. (Links provided where available.)*
- Daunte Culpepper is listed as the No. 1 quarterback ahead of Matthew Stafford
- Kalvin Pearson and Marquand Manuel are listed as first-team safeties.
- Louis Delmas, a likely starter at one of the safety positions, is listed as "injured."
- Phillip Buchanon is the top punt returner.
- Scott Wells is listed as the first-team center.
- Jason Spitz is the first-team right guard.
- Jeremy Thompson is the first-team right outside linebacker, with Clay Matthews behind him.
- Punter Jeremy Kapinos is listed ahead of Durant Brooks.
- The Vikings cheated and listed their No. 1 quarterback as Tarvaris Jackson or Sage Rosenfels.
- Sidney Rice was listed as a starting receiver opposite Bernard Berrian.
- Percy Harvin was listed as the kickoff returner.
- Jaymar Johnson was listed at punt returner.
*Chicago's depth chart had not been released as of Tuesday morning.
|Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images|
|Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is experiencing the changes on the Packers' defense first hand.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Someone is bearing down every time Aaron Rodgers throws a training camp pass. One play it's cornerback Charles Woodson. Then it's safety Nick Collins. Sometimes outside linebackers Jeremy Thompson and Aaron Kampman crash the pocket together. Then it's Thompson and inside linebacker Brandon Chillar.
"It's tougher to go against," Rodgers said. "It really is tougher. Going against our old scheme, there was just a lot of man coverage. You kind of knew you were going to get 'one-high' man or 'two-high' man or a very rare Cover 2. But what you saw in practice, they were bringing guys off both edges. Corner blitz. Safety blitz. Then they play Cover 2, Cover 3 or Cover 0. They mix up the coverages and the blitzes so often... It makes it a lot more difficult to try to get a read on it. They force you to make a quick decision."
There is little doubt Green Bay's new defense will be different and take more chances in 2009. But no one believes the scheme alone will turn around a team that finished 6-10 last season. The Packers are still testing their players' aptitude for the 3-4 and adjusting it accordingly. They've also initiated a significant overhaul of their offensive line, are transitioning the tight end position with a greater emphasis on second-year player Jermichael Finley and are holding a wide-open competition for a new punter.
"Certainly the whole idea behind this defensive scheme is to be more unpredictable and to hand more question marks to the offense," general manager Ted Thompson said. "But like everything else, it still gets down to football players making plays and defeating the guy across the line of scrimmage."
1. Do the Packers have the right players for a traditional 3-4 defense?
Initially posed in January, that question remains relevant 10 days into camp. I saw Kampman and Jeremy Thompson, both defensive ends last season, valiantly chasing receivers downfield during team drills. No matter how quickly those players make the schematic adjustment, that seems to be a mismatch.
But defensive coordinator Dom Capers insisted he has no coverage that gives an outside linebacker sole coverage responsibility on a receiver. In those instances, Thompson and Kampman are responsible for underneath routes and have safety help downfield. That's an example of the short-term adjustments Capers will have to make for the scheme to work in 2009.
We're also still waiting to see how many of the Packers' 4-3 defensive tackles and ends can hold up as a 3-4 end in this scheme. Cullen Jenkins appears to be a natural, but Johnny Jolly has missed significant time with an ankle injury and former first-round pick Justin Harrell has been on a snap count. Which brings us to ...
|Mike Roemer/AP Photo|
|Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji's contract situation is costing him valuable conditioning time.|
2. How much immediate help will the Packers get from their pair of first-round draft choices?
Defensive lineman B.J. Raji remains unsigned as of Sunday morning, meaning he has missed nine practices and at least temporarily delayed the Packers' plans to transition him into the starting left end. Linebacker Clay Matthews, meanwhile, was beginning to challenge Thompson for a starting job on the outside when he tweaked a hamstring injury that slowed him for much of the spring.
Thompson has displayed superior athletic skills, but when healthy it appears Matthews is the more polished player. Matthews seems destined to start when the regular season opens -- if he can stay on the field.
You want to say the same about Raji, but he remains in a market logjam that is keeping five other players out of NFL camps. Raji was probably the best overall defensive lineman in the draft and he'll make quick progress once he arrives. But his ab
sence has been long enough to affect his conditioning. And no one should underestimate the challenge and significance of Raji's move to defensive end. Every snap he has missed is one less opportunity to grow comfortable before the season starts.
3. Can the Packers achieve stability on the offensive line?
One of coach Mike McCarthy's primary goals is to end the revolving door of line play caused by changing the positions of multiple players. Daryn Colledge is now locked down at left guard, and it appears the Packers are giving Jason Spitz (center) and Josh Sitton (right guard) every opportunity to be the long-term answers at their respective positions.
That still leaves both tackle positions as mild question marks. But left tackle Chad Clifton appears healthy enough after having four offseason surgeries: arthroscopic procedures on both shoulders and both knees. The Packers are still limiting his snaps in hopes of squeezing one more year out of his 33-year-old body. Nothing I saw suggested Clifton is done, but it's very early.
On the right side, Allen Barbre has worked exclusively with the first team while youngsters T.J. Lang and Breno Giacomini rotated behind him. I don't get the feeling the Packers consider Barbre a long-term solution but to this point, his hold on the starting job does not appear threatened.
Ted Thompson said that linebacker Nick Barnett is "on pace" to be activated soon from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. It could happen sometime this week, but Barnett will find several new challenges when he returns to the field for the first time since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last November.
The most obvious is pushing through the usual soreness and uncertainty that goes with ACL injuries. Players are rarely at full speed when they first return to the field. As well, Barnett will have to get an on-field crash course in the new scheme. No matter how many meetings he has attended or practices he has watched, there is no substitute for practice reps.
And finally, Barnett's replacement has actually proved adept in the new scheme. Linebacker Brandon Chillar played in a similar blitz scheme earlier in his career in St. Louis and will have a significant role this season no matter what happens with Barnett. "This really fits Brandon's talents as far as all the sub packages we have," McCarthy said. "And he's a good blitzer. He gets good pressure."
This is not to suggest the Packers will move on without Barnett. But his football world has changed significantly since we last saw him on the field.
|AP Photo/Morry Gash|
|Green Bay's Quinn Johnson is an intimidating presence at fullback.|
Newcomer to watch
We've already discussed the absence of Raji and Matthews. On the other hand, one rookie who has opened some eyes is fullback Quinn Johnson. The Packers list him at 250 pounds, but Johnson would pass for a defensive tackle if he didn't have a number on his jersey.
Needless to say, Johnson is a load as a lead blocker. He also displayed some intriguing quickness on the rare occasions I saw him carry the ball. The Packers don't give the ball to their fullbacks much -- they combined for eight rushes and 10 receptions in 2008 -- but I doubt too many defenders would be eager to tackle him.
At the urging of veterans Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, Rodgers is openly expanding his leadership role within the locker room. "I think it's the opportunity that presents itself," Rodgers said, "and the vibe that I'm getting from the guys [is that they] are looking to me for leadership. In certain situations, they are expecting me to speak up." Rodgers also said he is getting "more freedom" from McCarthy to influence scheme and game plans. ... During individual drills one night last week, Rodgers drilled three passes into a small square from more than 40 yards away. ... The intense vibe of this camp is like night and day from last year's distraction-filled affair. I have no idea why the Packers would consider risking that relative tranquility by signing Michael Vick. Multiple reports suggest they have been doing their due diligence on the former Atlanta quarterback. ... You wonder whether this is the end of the line for veteran center Scott Wells, who is battling Spitz for the starting job. If Spitz wins, as expected, it's not clear if the Packers would keep Wells as a backup. ... With Spitz and Sitton in the starting lineup, the Packers should have a bigger offensive line this season. "Were some teams stronger up front than us last year? Yeah, probably so," McCarthy said. "We'll see what happens this year." ... The Packers are pitting Jeremy Kapinos and Durant Brooks in a punting duel, but neither has been impressive and it's possible the Packers will have to look elsewhere once teams starting making roster cuts. ... Linebacker Brady Poppinga is behind Thompson, Matthews and Kampman on the depth chart but believes this scheme was made for his skills. "I feel like I'm in a defense that really fits who I am," Poppinga said. ... No idea where he fits in, but first-year receiver Jake Allen caught my eyes during the early portion of practice. Allen is 6-foot-4, has long arms and made a number of acrobatic catches during red zone work. Allen spent last season on the Packers' practice squad.
In late February, the Orlando Sentinel's Chris Harry pulled up a chair with retired quarterback Brett Favre and shot the breeze for 10 minutes. Inevitably, the subject of returning to the playing field came up. Here's what Favre said then, according to a story published Tuesday:
"I'm coming off a torn bicep tendon, but I still think I can throw. It hurt toward the end of the year, but I still think in my mind I can play. It's there. ... But soon to be 40? I just don't know if it's worth a try. But there will be a day, I'm sure, when I feel like I could play 291 more [games]."
Amazingly, those sentiments already represented a departure from what Favre said earlier in the month upon announcing his retirement -- that the tendon needed surgery in order to heal and that he wasn't interested in the procedure. If you're into reading between the lines, you can see that Favre was already moving away from his steadfast plan to retire just weeks after his decision.
Two months later, how much further has Favre traveled down that path? He texted ESPN's Trent Dilfer on Monday to respond to a question about whether he planned to play in 2009. The response: "NO." I suppose it would have been superfluous to add "FOR NOW."
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune tells the story of how Nick Urban, an offensive tackle from Division II Winona State, ended up signing with Minnesota.
- Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette breaks down the Packers' three-way punting battle between Adam Graessle, Jeremy Kapinos and Durant Brooks.
- Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel provides some insight into why the Packers released defensive end/linebacker Jason Hunter. It appears Hunter was stuck in between the two positions in the Packers' new scheme.
- Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times checks in with former Bears quarterback Kyle Orton in Denver. Orton: ''My entire goal, and the only way I went about it, was to win football games. For the most part, I did a pretty good job of that. I don't know [if he ever got credit for being 21-12 as a starter]. I'm proud of what I did back there. Right now, I'm just focused on the future. It's going to be the start to the second half of my career."
- Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago provides some insight into how new Bears defensive line coach Rod Marinelli is teaching his players.
- Former Bears linebacker Jim Schwantz was sworn in Monday as the mayor of the Chicago suburb of Palatine. Schwantz played for the Bears from 1992-98.
- Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford and his family have gotten advice from Archie Manning, the father of current NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning. Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach put the two families in touch with one another, according to John Niyo of the Detroit News.
- The Lions are the clear frontrunners for free-agent linebacker Larry Foote, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
CHICAGO -- It could be worse. That's the early report from people who have been on the field during pregame at Soldier Field. It's still officially 4 degrees, and the wind is mild for what this place is capable of offering this time of year.
The flags on the goalposts are fluttering but hardly being ripped from their seams. I just watched Green Bay's new punter, Jeremy Kapinos, drop a beautiful punt inside the 40-yard line.
I'm definitely happy to be sitting in the press box and I still think the field and weather conditions will impact this game. As we type, there are ground crew members replacing divots on the field. But I don't think this game will rival last season's conditions here during the Bears' 35-7 victory over the Packers.
Chicago nabbed a small victory of sorts Saturday night, as Baltimore pulled out a 33-24 victory over Dallas.
That result kept alive the Bears' long odds of clinching an NFC wild-card berth. But from what I can tell, the Bears will either be eliminated Sunday from the wild-card chase or the NFC North division race. UPDATE: Technically, the Bears will NOT be eliminated from the wild-card by a Falcons victory in itself. There are a couple of scenarios in which they could remain alive.
In order to remain in contention for the division title, the Bears need Atlanta to defeat Minnesota at the Metrodome. But a Falcons LOSS is one of several scenarios the Bears might need to stay in the wild-card race. In wild-card terms, they also need:
- A Tampa Bay loss to San Diego at home.
- A Philadelphia loss at Washington.
To secure a wild-card berth, the Bears would also need to win their final two games and get losses from the Buccaneers, Cowboys and Falcons next week as well.
So, as everyone has pointed out all along, the Bears' best postseason chance remains overtaking the Vikings for the division title. If you're a Bears fan Sunday, you're saying, "GO FALCONS."
Continuing our morning dance around the division:
- Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times takes a broad look at how the Bears found themselves needing so much hope to get into the playoffs. One reason: Three come-from-ahead losses to NFC South powerhouses Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta.
- New Green Bay punter Jeremy Kapinos has been briefed on the troubles encountered by former Packers punter Jon Ryan last season at Soldier Field, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Packers offensive lineman Daryn Colledge on his feelings toward quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre: "We're all more emotionally involved with Aaron than we were with Brett. The fact is, Aaron's a friend. I think I'm more emotionally invested in our relationship than I ever was with Brett." Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal asked the question.
- Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press picks the Lions to upset New Orleans at Ford Field.
- The Lions wanted to acquire free agent linebacker Jonathan Vilma during the offseason, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News. But the Saints beat them to it.