NFC North: Jonathan Stewart
I suppose there are any number of reasonable answers to that question. But as we stand here on Sept. 20, it seems the Packers would do themselves more harm by overreacting to allowing a pair of 400-yard passing games in as many weeks. Over time, most NFL teams would accept big yardage totals as long as it's balanced by the kind of red zone defense the Packers have played so far this season.
There is a measure of risk involved with expecting a defense to tighten routinely on key plays, but coach Mike McCarthy said that what he calls "adversity play" is "the strength of our team right now. That’s why we’re 2-0. We’ve stepped up two weeks in a row when it’s counted, but we definitely have a lot of work to do."
Yes, Carolina Panthers rookie Cam Newton lit up the Packers for 432 yards last Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. That performance came a week after Drew Brees logged 419 yards for the New Orleans Saints. Even in a pass-happy league, as the chart shows, the Packers defense ranks near the bottom of the NFL in yardage, points allowed and third-down conversion rate.
Yet the Packers have managed to win on both occasions thanks literally to a handful of important plays. They’ve allowed only three touchdowns on 11 opponent trips to the red zone, a touchdown percentage of 27.3 that ranks third in the NFL. They also rank near the top of the league in takeaways (five) and sacks (seven).
That’s why McCarthy seemed comfortable with the situation, and that’s why you heard linebacker Clay Matthews say: "I don’t think we’re concerned." Cornerback Charles Woodson told reporters that the Packers "definitely have a lot of things to clean up," but expressed full confidence that they would.
The Packers are now down two starters from their Super Bowl team, having lost defensive end Cullen Jenkins via free agency and safety Nick Collins to a neck injury. Jenkins’ expected replacement, Mike Neal, had knee surgery earlier this month and will miss a significant amount of the season. Cornerback Tramon Williams, meanwhile, is rehabilitating a shoulder injury that kept him out of the Panthers game.
But those developments, along with the on-field performance in Weeks 1 and 2, are causing only a mild reaction among the football people I trust. Matt Williams of Scouts Inc. cited mitigating factors in both cases.
"It’s been a little worrisome," Williamson said. "Tramon Williams being out was a huge part of it this past week, though. … I didn't worry too much against the Saints. Brees will do that to everyone. This past weekend opened my eyes a little, but I’m not yet officially concerned."
Williamson did question whether second-year cornerback Sam Shields, who excelled as a nickelback last season, would be ready to handle a larger role if Williams’ injury lingers. And he also brought up an important point: After Jenkins’ departure, do the Packers have enough pass-rushers to complement Matthews?
I’m sure the Packers are hoping that defensive lineman B.J. Raji will pick up much of Jenkins’ slack, and linebacker Erik Walden has proved an aggressive pass-rusher off the edge. Raji and Walden each have a sack this season, but obviously the sample size is small.
In reality, you can point to three series of plays that ensured the Packers’ 2-0 record:
- Stopping Saints running back Mark Ingram at the goal line on the final play of Week 1.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Mike RoemerThe Packers stuffed Mark Ingram at the goal line to preserve their victory in Week 1.
- Limiting the Panthers to a field goal after they had first-and-10 at the 11-yard line on their second possession Sunday.
- Again holding the Panthers to a field goal after facing first-and-goal at the 8-yard line in the fourth quarter.
Had the Saints or Panthers scored a touchdown on any of those possessions, the Packers could have at least faced an overtime situation. You don’t want to play with such a thin margin of error, but everything that has happened is "correctable" McCarthy said, and "are things we can adjust to."
An unofficial poll via Twitter this week suggested you are nervous but nowhere near panic. @Jacobklossner noted the Packers are "finding ways to win" but wondered: "How long does that last?" @Elvin1983 is "mildly alarmed with the secondary" and thinks the red zone defense has been called on "too often."
What exactly has happened? I don’t think it can be traced to one or two factors. But I do think the Panthers’ opening drive Sunday was a nice illustration of where the Packers have been vulnerable at least to this point.
In completing six of seven passes, Newton capitalized on two personnel advantages. First, the Panthers' abundance of tight ends forced Matthews to drop into coverage twice and sit on the line of scrimmage on a third play. Matthews hit Newton after one throw, but Newton smartly threw to the area Matthews vacated for an 18-yard play to tight end Jeremy Shockey. And on a screen pass to running back Jonathan Stewart, Matthews slipped at the snap. He got up in time to chase down Stewart from behind, but not before a 19-yard gain.
Second, the Panthers had a rare strength advantage against cornerback Charles Woodson. Veteran receiver Steve Smith escaped contact on two occasions to get open for passes of 15 and 12 yards. I guess it’s possible that Woodson’s coverage skills have slipped, but generally speaking, I don’t think there are many NFL receivers who are strong enough to escape Woodson the way Smith did.
That said, I think it’s worth tracking Williamson’s point about the Packers’ pass rush. Matthews obviously can’t do it all on his own. But given what we know about their defensive personnel and coaching staff, it’s reasonable to believe the Packers will level themselves out. You might consider that unjustified cover for a group in crisis, but I consider it a deserved benefit of the doubt.
Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: history in that spot.
The Bears' top pick is No. 29 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2010: Cornerback Kyle Wilson (New York Jets)
2009: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants)
2008: Defensive end Kentwan Balmer (San Francisco 49ers)
2007: Offensive guard Ben Grubbs (Baltimore Ravens)
2006: Center Nick Mangold (New York Jets)
2005: Defensive back Marlin Jackson (Indianapolis Colts)
2004: Wide receiver Michael Jenkins (Atlanta Falcons)
ANALYSIS: The bottom of the first round is a great place to find starting-caliber guards and centers. The top tackles are usually off the board. Fortunately for the Bears, they could use a guard or center just as much as a tackle. While coach Lovie Smith wants to bring back veteran center Olin Kreutz, a free agent, he will have to be replaced someday. And more depth at guard could allow the Bears to move 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams back to left tackle.
The Lions' top pick is No. 13 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2010: Defensive end Brandon Graham (Philadelphia Eagles)
2009: Defensive end Brian Orakpo (Washington Redskins)
2008: Running back Jonathan Stewart (Carolina Panthers)
2007: Defensive lineman Adam Carriker (St. Louis Rams)
2006: Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (Cleveland Browns)
2005: Offensive lineman Jammal Brown (New Orleans Saints)
2004: Receiver Lee Evans (Buffalo Bills)
ANALYSIS: Unfortunately for the Lions, this isn't a great spot to get an elite cornerback. Those types of players are usually drafted in the top seven or eight picks. (The Lions are hoping that Nebraska's Prince Amukamara somehow slips through the cracks.) This is a nice area to draft a second-tier defensive lineman, and this year, the Lions will probably have their pick of offensive tackles as well.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers' top pick is No. 32 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2010: Cornerback Patrick Robinson (New Orleans Saints)
2009: Defensive tackle Ziggy Hood (Pittsburgh Steelers)
2008: Defensive end Phillip Merling (Miami Dolphins)*
2007: Receiver Anthony Gonzalez (Indianapolis Colts)
2006: Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (New York Giants)
2005: Offensive guard Logan Mankins (New England Patriots)
2004: Tight end Benjamin Watson (New England Patriots)
*First pick of second round.
ANALYSIS: There are some awfully productive players on this list. Part of the reason is that the previous year's most successful organization was in that spot and thus was more likely to make a good scouting decision. But it also tells us the Packers should have an opportunity to select a player who can make an immediate impact as long as they don't limit themselves to certain positions.
The Vikings' top pick is No. 12 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:
2010: Running back Ryan Mathews (San Diego Chargers)
2009: Running back Knowshon Moreno (Denver Broncos)
2008: Offensive tackle Ryan Clady (Denver Broncos)
2007: Running back Marshawn Lynch (Buffalo Bills)
2006: Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (Baltimore Ravens)
2005: Linebacker Shawne Merriman (San Diego Chargers)
2004: Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (New York Jets)
ANALYSIS: This list tells us what we knew already: You can get a blue-chip, impact player here if you exercise good judgment. The Vikings' decision, of course, will be complicated by their need for a quarterback. What will they do if they have, say, a potentially elite pass-rusher like North Carolina's Robert Quinn available to them? Take Quinn and look for a quarterback later? Or prioritize the quarterback?
INDIANAPOLIS -- In a perverse way, Saturday's news that Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree has a stress fracture in his left foot could benefit two NFC North teams.
Before the injury, Scouts Inc. ranked Crabtree as its top overall prospect. Most mock drafts have suggested that he would be no worse than a top-five pick in the April draft. The injury could sink his ranking by some degree -- possibly to the mid-round area where Chicago (No. 18) and Detroit (No. 20) are scheduled to pick.
NFL teams are still processing the medical information and implications of the injury. Last spring, Oregon running back Jonathan Stewart needed surgery on his right big toe but was still drafted by Carolina at No. 13 overall.
The Lions have met with Crabtree but were unlikely to take a receiver with the No. 1 overall pick. But one of the draft's top game-breakers with the No. 20 pick? That might be something to consider.
That is, of course, if the Bears haven't snapped him up first. Chicago's receiver deficiency has been well-documented, and the Bears have other needs as well. (Right tackle among them.) But Saturday's news means the Bears have a more legitimate chance to draft Crabtree than they thought they would when they arrived in Indianapolis.
There's a hole in my heart
That can only be filled by you.
And this hole in my heart
Can't be filled with the things I do.
Can't say I heard Extreme playing in Chicago's locker room on Sunday, but Green Bay officials made an interesting discovery Monday. According to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, there was a "fist-sized hole" in a wall of the visitor's locker room at Lambeau Field.
The hole appeared sometime between the last home game, Oct. 19 against Indianapolis, and Sunday's 37-3 Packers victory over the Bears. A Packers spokesman said the team has no plans to investigate.
This isn't the first time the Packers' visitor's locker room has incurred damage. After a victory over Minnesota in 2002, a few holes appeared in the wall of a temporary trailer used to house the visiting team during Lambeau construction.
Now, on to more substantive matters around the NFC North:
- The Packers' third-ranked pass defense will have its hands full next Monday against New Orleans, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- Left tackle Chris Williams, the Bears' No. 1 draft pick, saw his first action on offense Sunday at Lambeau Field. David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune ponders whether the Bears should squeeze Williams into the starting lineup.
- Could Danieal Manning supplant Devin Hester as the Bears' kickoff returner? Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times reports on the possibility.
- Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson did not get the ball in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 19-13 loss at Tampa Bay, points out Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- Vikings coach Brad Childress defended a hit that likely will draw an NFL fine for defensive end Ray Edwards, writes Judd Zulgad and Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.
- Detroit tailback Kevin Smith inserted some humor into the Lions locker room, noting that his 112-yard effort Sunday at Carolina was "OK" but that "every back on the field had 100 yards." Indeed, as Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com points out, the Panthers' DeAngelo Smith and Jonathan Stewart both crossed the 100-yard barrier as well.
- Detroit kicker Jason Hanson was surprised to hear coach Rod Marinelli criticized for not attempting a 58-yard field goal Sunday, according to Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press. Hanson: "I can't think of another circumstance ever where there would be questioning why you didn't kick a 58 1/2-yarder. That's just the situation we put ourselves in."
After Carolina's 20-17 victory over the Bears, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:
1. The Bears won't lose faith in tight end Greg Olsen after he fumbled following both receptions Sunday. The way their offense is shaping up around tailback Matt Forte, Olsen will be in position for so many play-action passes -- as long as offensive coordinator Ron Turner and quarterback Kyle Orton continue feeding him the ball. Olsen ultimately will be the best pass-catcher on this team, especially if Devin Hester is sidelined because of a rib injury.
An aside: Watching Olsen's struggles Sunday reminded me of an October day in 1999, when Minnesota tight end Jim Kleinsasser fumbled twice -- against the Bears, ironically -- in a 24-22 Vikings loss. Then-coach Dennis Green moved him to fullback the following week, and the Vikings have never considered Kleinsasser much of a receiving threat since. There's no chance the Bears will go to those lengths with Olsen, but for some reason it jogged my memory. Anyway ...
2. Yes, Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart gobbled up 76 rushing yards in the second half. But I choose to attribute that performance to heat and conditioning rather than a leaky run defense. This was textbook maneuvering by the Panthers: Bring in young, fresh legs against a veteran group that has been baking in dark jerseys all afternoon. Stewart sliced through the Bears on a number of occasions, but before the heat got to them, Chicago held starter DeAngelo Williams to 31 yards on 11 carries. That's more reminiscent of the quality of the Bears' run defense.
3. It's interesting how quickly it became public knowledge that Orton was responsible for changing the call on a key third-and-1 play in the fourth quarter. Orton switched from a run to a pass that fell incomplete and was nearly intercepted. On fourth down, the Panthers stopped fullback Jason McKie for no gain. The Bears want Orton to be more than a "game manager," but it's clear they also have some unwritten limits for him. Afterwards, Turner second-guessed himself for giving Orton an option.
And here is one question I'm still asking:
How badly is Hester injured? He did not return Sunday after bruising his ribs, and the Bears aren't the same team without him. The mere threat of him as a returner changes the way teams play, and the Bears are far from knowing how good he can be as a receiver. The team should be holding its collective breath while awaiting Hester's prognosis.