NFC North: Madieu Williams

Wrap-up: Redskins 38, Vikings 26

October, 14, 2012
A few thoughts on Sunday's events at FedEx Field:

What it means: The Minnesota Vikings saw their three-game winning streak end after a comeback fell short at FedEx Field. They're 4-2, officially a half-game behind the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears (4-1).

What I liked: Overcoming a series of defensive breakdowns and a sluggish offensive performance, the Vikings closed a 19-point deficit to as close as 31-26 with three minutes, 42 seconds remaining. They had the Redskins in a third-and-6 situation on the ensuing possession, but a rare blitz gave Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III an opening for a game-clinching 76-yard touchdown run. The Vikings had played poorly enough to earn that 19-point deficit, but to their credit they kept fighting. Quarterback Christian Ponder threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, but he was still pushing late in the fourth quarter.

What I didn't like: The game showed how slim the Vikings' margin for error is. Field goals on three first-quarter trips to the red zone came back to hurt them. That 9-0 lead turned to a 17-9 halftime deficit once Griffin got warmed up against a defense that looked uncomfortable against him. Ponder was inaccurate over too long of a stretch in this game, culminating with a fourth-quarter interception returned for a touchdown by Redskins safety Madieu Williams. This team doesn't have the firepower to overcome big deficits or multiple mistakes.

HarvinWatch: Receiver Percy Harvin caught 11 of the 14 passes thrown his way for 133 yards, four of which went for at least 15 yards. But this was the type of game the Vikings missed receiver Jerome Simpson, or at least the potential of what he can bring. Simpson was inactive because of a back injury, and it's hard to mount a big comeback without a true downfield threat.

What's next: The Vikings have an opportunity to rebound with two home games over the next 11 days, starting with the Arizona Cardinals next Sunday.
Thursday afternoon marked the opening of the NFL's official waiver season, when teams can formally release players and begin adjusting their salary cap structure. We've already discussed the Chicago Bears' now-official decision to release tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, and now we'll hit some other NFC North-related personnel moves in quick-hitting fashion.

Item: The Green Bay Packers have informed linebacker Brady Poppinga and defensive tackle Justin Harrell they will be released, according to Jason Wilde of
Comment: Poppinga was coming off a serious knee injury. Harrell now qualifies as the biggest bust of general manager Ted Thompson's tenure. Drafted with a history of injuries, Harrell couldn't stay on the field for the Packers.

Item: The Minnesota Vikings released safety Madieu Williams.
Comment: Williams was due $5.4 million in 2011, a high price for a player who might not have made the team. He was originally signed on the advice of now-coach Leslie Frazier, but a 2008 neck injury seemed to rob him of some aggressiveness as a tackler. I'm not sure if his replacement is on the roster yet, but Tyrell Johnson might get a chance.

Item: The Detroit Lions will release linebacker Jordon Dizon.
Comment: Dizon was a vestige of Rod Marinelli's Tampa 2 defense and too small to fit into the Lions' current scheme.

Item: The Bears lost out on two free agents they have been reported to have interest in, receiver Brad Smith and offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod.
They're too busy getting straight at tight end to worry about all that.
As June winds down into what we hope is a more exciting July, our friends at Football Outsiders continue to offer up unique analysis of your favorite NFC North players. Recently, Aaron Schatz published a number of tables that help us make a dent in the relationship between quality pass defense and tackle numbers.

[+] EnlargeAntoine Winfield
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesVikings cornerback Antoine Winfield was one of the NFL's most effective pass defenders last season.
(Really. I know we've debated this before. At least a few of us. Ok, maybe just me. But it's real and it's a debate so let's fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight!)

Typically, a cornerback with high tackle totals is associated with poor pass defense. The same goes for linebackers and safeties, to a lesser extent. The idea: Either quarterbacks avoid the best pass defenders, or the best pass defenders prevent more than their share of completions on balls thrown their way.

But that's not always the case, obviously. To that end, Football Outsiders has developed a "Stop Rate," which is the percentage of plays "that prevent a successful play by the offense, defined as 45% of needed yards on first down, 60% of needed yards on second down, and 100% of needed yards on third or fourth down." In other words, a "stop" is a successful defensive play, even if it results in a yardage gain by the offense.

Schatz offers a number of applicable individual marks under this category. The NFC North highlights:

  • Not surprisingly, Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, an elite tackler, tied for the NFL lead with 28 stops last season. His Stop Rate of 41 percent ranked No. 5 in the NFL. So even though he had a high number of tackles on passing plays last season (68), it's wrong to call Winfield anything close to a poor pass defender.
  • On the other hand, Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman had 64 tackles on pass plays last season with only 11 "stops." That gave him a Stop Rate of 17 percent.
  • Bears nickel man D.J. Moore had 11 stops on 28 tackles against pass plays, a Stop Rate of 38 percent that ranked him No. 6 among NFL cornerbacks. Moore finished tied with Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, whose tackling we often overlook. Woodson had 18 stops on 47 tackles against the pass.
  • Packers safety Charlie Peprah had the best Stop Rate (44 percent) among safeties. Vikings safety Madieu Williams had the ninth-worst (6 percent). Those of us who watched both teams closely last season shouldn't be surprised.
  • Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway had 61 tackles against the pass last season, second most among NFL linebackers. He had 19 stops for a 31 percent Stop Rate. So there is some, but not much, room to question the quality of Greenway's coverage.
  • Detroit Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy had the fifth-lowest Stop Rate (24 percent) among NFL linebackers. Levy has consistently appeared on Football Outsiders' highest missed-tackle rate, but I'm not sure these two categories are related.
Julius Peppers & Ndamukong SuhUS PresswireFeared pass rushers Julius Peppers and Ndamukong Suh will showcase their talents tonight.
Something has been missing from my life, and perhaps yours as well. Our extended postseason run and an unusual start to the offseason has delayed a follow-up I've been meaning to write for some time. So while we have a moment, let's finally restore order around here.

One of our primary themes for the 2010 season was the NFC North's response to its precedent-setting passing numbers in 2009. In a pre-training camp post, we suggested the division race would turn on the degree to which each team's pass defense could catch up to our passing offenses.

Would the Chicago Bears' acquisition of defensive end Julius Peppers pay off? How much better would the Detroit Lions' pass rush be with their retooled defensive line, one that now included a former Pro Bowl defensive end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and the No. 2 overall pick of the draft (defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh)? Would the Minnesota Vikings sustain their historic passing efficiency of 2009 while improving their own pass defense? Could the Green Bay Packers straighten out the personnel shortage that led to an epic collapse in the wild-card playoffs?

Our theory: The most effective response would clinch the division and, perhaps more. And although there were a few exceptions here and there, the end result proved illuminating.

As the charts show, the Bears won the NFC North after making a 24-spot jump in the NFL's rankings for defensive passer rating. The Packers, who fielded the league's best pass defense and No. 3 passing offense based on quarterback rating, won Super Bowl XLV. The Vikings improved their pass defense, but the collapse of their passing offense was the single biggest factor in their 6-10 record. Finally, the Lions' progression in both categories mirrored their four-victory improvement from 2009.

Sorry, run-and-run-defense enthusiasts. Success in today's NFL requires efficient passing and pass defense. Passer rating isn't a perfect common evaluator, but I like it better than the NFL's traditional measure using total yards. And as Kerry Byrne of Football Facts points out, defensive passer rating is one of the most reliable indicators of championship-caliber teams.

"This game is made for offensive players, I think," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said recently. "The rules are, and all that kind of stuff."

In turn, any team that can take either special advantage of those rules and make headway against them on defense -- or both -- figures to be in the playoff conversation. So let's take this quiet moment in the NFL offseason to measure each NFC North team through the passing lens. Where are they and how can they improve?

Chicago Bears

Quarterback Jay Cutler threw 10 fewer interceptions in 2010 after getting assimilated into Mike Martz's offense, and the entire team figures to benefit from its familiarity with Martz's system. With that said, I see two pass-related areas the Bears should focus on this year: Pass protection and interior pass rush.

The Bears gave up an NFL-high 56 sacks last season, a figure that doesn't directly apply to passer rating but assuredly affects a quarterback's accuracy and decision-making over time. In a recent interview with the Bears' website, coach Lovie Smith noted "the number of hits Jay took this past season." On many levels, the Bears need to enter 2011 with a better Week 1 plan for their offensive line.

Meanwhile, the release of defensive tackle Tommie Harris reminds us the Bears don't have an established interior pass-rusher who has typically defined their defense. Matt Toeaina, who replaced Harris in the starting lineup last season, was credited with two sacks.

Detroit Lions

The Lions are hoping that Vanden Bosch returns at full strength following neck surgery. If so, their biggest pass-related need this offseason is continuing to rebuild their cornerback position. They did not re-sign starter Chris Houston before last week's deadline, but it's possible he could return to the team after testing the free-agent market. At the moment, however, the Lions have only two established cornerbacks under contract: Alphonso Smith and Nate Vasher.

Meanwhile, the Lions have acknowledged the need to improve at their No. 3 receiver position. Although they can mitigate this issue with the smart use of tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, the Lions' offense would take a substantial hit if either Calvin Johnson or Nate Burleson were forced from the lineup for an extended period. Bryant Johnson and Derrick Williams combined for a substandard 21 receptions last season.

Green Bay Packers

Thompson will need to sort out his receiver depth in anticipation of James Jones' pending free agency. Jones said Monday he wants to be a starter, an indication that he will look to sign elsewhere when the market opens. The Packers could use Jordy Nelson as their unquestioned No. 3 receiver and seek further depth in the draft, a reasonable path that could make Jones' departure inevitable.

[+] EnlargeSidney Rice
AP Photo/Paul SancyaSidney Rice is expected to test the free-agent market this offseason.
The Packers' other big challenge will be replacing defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who led their linemen with seven sacks despite missing five games because of injury. Jenkins is a pending free agent and appears set to move on. Rising second-year players Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson could vie for that job. Reviews on both players have been good, but are they seven-sack good? Another possibility is veteran Johnny Jolly, who has applied for reinstatement after a one-year suspension.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings might have more passing-game work ahead of them than the rest of the NFC North combined.

At the top of the list is finding short- and long-term answers at quarterback, a job that could require multiple acquisitions. Former Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice is a pending free agent and wants to test his value on the market, and last season ended with high-priced veteran Bernard Berrian as an afterthought. A significant rebuild of the receiving corps could be on the horizon.

Defensively, the Vikings probably are looking for two new starters on their defensive line. Left end Ray Edwards, who recorded 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons, appears set to move on in free agency. (Backup Brian Robison signed a new contract last week.) Nose tackle Pat Williams also isn't expected back.

Finally, the Vikings enter the offseason certain of only one starter in their secondary: cornerback Antoine Winfield. The health of fellow cornerback Cedric Griffin (knee) is uncertain, and at the very least, safeties Madieu Williams and Husain Abdullah will have to earn their starting jobs in training camp.
INDIANAPOLIS -- I joined a group of reporters who caught up Thursday with Rick Spielman, the Minnesota Vikings' vice president of player personnel. Most of our conversation revolved around the team's ongoing efforts to find a starting quarterback, a topic I'll be taking up at length Friday.

For now, I want to pass along a number of personnel hints, clues and assessments Spielman dropped on us. At the top of the list was the clear indication the Vikings want to sign three of their best young players -- linebacker Chad Greenway, receiver Sidney Rice and tailback Adrian Peterson -- to contract extensions.

The Vikings named Greenway their franchise player this week, a move that often leads to a long-term deal. That decision left Rice likely to be tendered as a restricted free agent, but Spielman said: "Hopefully we'll be able to get Sidney under contract this year."

Peterson, meanwhile, in essence has one year remaining under his original contract. (It technically extends through 2012, but the final year is voidable.) Because of several escalators, Peterson is scheduled to make a whopping $10.720 million base salary in 2011, giving him a salary cap figure of $12.775 million if the NFL returns to its previous accounting system.

We discussed the Vikings' complicated financial situation with Peterson last spring, noting his high 2011 salary but also recognizing that running backs have shorter career spans than other positions. As a result, there is a line of thought that suggests the best approach would be to let Peterson play out his deal and then determine his future on a yearly basis thereafter, possibly through franchise tags.

But Spielman indicated the Vikings will consider Peterson's deal after the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement is completed.

"That's going to have to get addressed," Spielman said. "Once we understand what we're dealing with, then we'll be able to address that."

A few other highlights from our conversation with Spielman:
  • Spielman was pretty noncommittal about re-signing linebacker Ben Leber, who will be an unrestricted free agent. "Are we going to keep everybody?" he said. "I don't know. Would you love to have Ben back? Ben's been a very good football player for us, done a lot of good things for us. I don't know where that's going to go to be honest with you."
  • In addition to Leber, there has been some discussion about the Vikings parting ways with some high-priced veterans who are still under contract. Safety Madieu Williams and receiver Bernard Berrian rank atop that list, but Spielman downplayed the possibility of any player movement before a new CBA. "Right now we're going to keep our roster status quo," he said. "I don't anticipate any moves."
  • Spielman reiterated the organization's commitment to troubled defensive end Everson Griffen and said he is confident Griffen can play an elevated role in 2011. Griffen has been arrested twice this month in Los Angeles and was also involved in organizing a Las Vegas party that USC school officials barred its players from attending. "You always look at that but I know [coach Leslie Frazier] and Everson had a pretty good conversation. I'll keep internally what's been discussed but we feel very confident in Everson. What he did, I'll leave that for Leslie to discuss. He is a very talented football player and felt very fortunate we were able to get him in the draft last year and showed signs of that as a rookie. Have a lot of high expectations for him going into next season." Two Vikings defensive ends, Ray Edwards and Brian Robison, are eligible for free agency this year.

NFC North weekend mailbag

February, 19, 2011
I'm guessing most of you quickly grew tired of last year's lyric-inspired introductions to the weekend mailbag, so we'll try something a little more topical this spring. In honor of the Lombardi Trophy returning to Green Bay, let's see if we can find a relevant Vince Lombardi quote to get us in the appropriate mood.

Two weeks ago, we were awaiting kickoff for Super Bowl XLV. Next weekend, we'll be in Indianapolis for the annual scouting combine. This weekend, we rest and reflect.
Lombardi: After all the cheers have died down and the stadium is empty, after the headlines have been written, and after you are back in the quiet of your room and the championship ring has been placed on the dresser and after all the pomp and fanfare have faded, the enduring thing that is left is the dedication to doing with our lives the very best we can to make the world a better place in which to live.

You can reach me through the mailbag, Twitter or Facebook.

Ben of Missoula, Montana, writes: My buddy and I were discussing the lockout situation and the issue of the NFL substance abuse program came up. If the NFL and NFLPA don't reach a new deal by March 3, on March 4 can the NFL enforce any sort of substance abuse program on the players? Essentially if a new deal is stalled, can players start taking steroids because they will no longer be subject to NFL oversight on drug tests?

Kevin Seifert: It's an interesting thought, Ben. My friend Alex Marvez of asked an NFL spokesman a related question this week on the personal conduct policy. The spokesman declined comment, indicating, at the very least, that the answer is complicated and will probably be part of the eventual collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Whether a player arrested during the lockout can be disciplined is one thing. But there is much more gray area involved with a player who might use banned substances during a lockout. Players who are banned from work might not be subject to tests during that period, but any player who takes steroids would run the risk of testing positive after the lockout ends. You're punished for testing positive, not for taking the substances. The difference is subtle but important.

No one could predict the exact date a lockout would end, nor the rules that would apply at that point. Trying to time a "cycle" would be awfully risky.

Travis of Kalamazoo, Mich., writes: Being both a diehard Packer fan as well as an Ohio State football fan, one of my favorite players is A.J. Hawk. I remember A.J. saying back in his Ohio State days that he was growing out his hair until they won a championship. I was wondering if A.J. has any plans to shave the head now that he is a champion.

Kevin Seifert: I participated in one of Hawk's interview sessions at the Super Bowl, and he said his long hair has become a tribute to the late Pat Tillman. I can't profess to have intimate knowledge of his long-term hair style plans, but it is definitely about more than winning a championship.

During our SportsNation chat, Jon of Washington, D.C., asked if the Bears would keep both Chester Taylor and Matt Forte in 2011. I thought the question was worth bringing to the mailbag as well.

Kevin Seifert: From a production standpoint, Taylor was a disappointment in 2010. As we've noted, he was the first running back in post-merger history to average less than 2.5 yards per carry in a season that included at least 100 attempts. But after earning nearly $7 million in salary and guaranteed bonuses last season, Taylor has a pretty reasonable salary next season of about $1.5 million. At that figure, the Bears might as well bring him back and see what they can get out of him in 2011.

Forte is hoping the Bears extend his rookie contract, which expires after next season, and nothing that happened last season should compel the Bears to do anything but comply. They obviously aren't required to do anything for him, but Forte was clearly their best runner last season and is a good fit for Mike Martz's offense.

Via Twitter, @vikings1998 asked if the Minnesota Vikings might pursue safety Bob Sanders, whom the Indianapolis Colts released Friday. @bobbyg640 wondered if the Detroit Lions might do the same.

Kevin Seifert: Both teams could have an opening for at least one starting safety, pushing us into a 2011 version of the O.J. Atogwe debate we had for most of last offseason.

It would be surprising if the Vikings bring back free safety Madieu Williams, and we're only making an educated guess by assuming that Husain Abdullah is a lock to start at strong safety. Sanders would easily be the most skilled safety on the Vikings roster if they signed him today.

The Lions are set with Louis Delmas at free safety, but they finished the season with converted cornerback Amari Spievey on the strong side. There is certainly some interest in seeing what Spievey could do at the position with a full offseason and training camp to work on it, but Sanders would certainly be a short-term upgrade.

At this time of year, however, we have to temper our excitement about so-called "name" players. The fact of the matter is Sanders will turn 30 later this month and has missed literally scores of games in his career because of injuries. In fact, let's look at his annual games-played totals since his career began:

2004: 6
2005: 14
2006: 4
2007: 15
2008: 6
2009: 2
2010: 1

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier worked with the Colts' defensive backs coach during two of Sanders' seasons and thus has some familiarity with him. But realistically, Sanders is a player you take a flyer on -- not one you build your 2011 defense around or even one that you can count on for an upgrade.
Webb/SmithGetty ImagesChicago's J'Marcus Webb, left, and Detroit's Alphonso Smith were pleasant surprises in 2010.
About this time last year, we compiled a list of four NFC North players who had the opportunity to alleviate some pressure to acquire upgrades at their positions -- provided they demonstrated notable offseason development. In reviewing that post, I feel better about the positions we identified than the specific players we picked out. But such is life.

This year's pending lockout presents a curveball for offseason development. If a lockout begins in early March and continues through the summer, coaches and front office executives won't have their typical opportunity to improve and observe younger players. Free agency could also be truncated and risky. Ultimately, teams might be left to rely on observations and projections based on last season's performance.

In that vein, let's pick one player per team whose 2010 emergence seemingly eliminated a 2011 offseason need.

Chicago Bears

Player: Offensive lineman J'Marcus Webb

2010 notables: The Bears made Webb a seventh-round pick last spring and, desperate for alternatives after a rough start, elevated him to the starting lineup in Week 5. Webb's ascendance coincided with the stabilization of the Bears' line, and he remained the starter for the rest of the season. How well he played as an individual is up for debate. According to ESPN's penalty database, Webb was called for 11 penalties in his 12 starts, including seven for holding.
Position status: If nothing else, Webb enters the offseason as one of the Bears' top two tackles along with Frank Omiyale. Offensive line might be the single-most needy position group on the Bears' roster, and the team could legitimately address any of its five positions in the first round of the 2011 draft. Based on how the draft plays out, the Bears could keep Webb at right tackle. Or, given his 6-foot-8 frame, they could consider moving him to left tackle and returning Omiyale to the right side. The future of 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams, who was moved from left tackle to left guard midway through last season, could also affect where Webb plays.
2011 projection: Yes, there are many moving parts here. But Webb has a couple of things going for him. One, he is a 22-year-old player who has navigated his way through 12 NFL starts and still has plenty of room to improve. Long-range planners are always infatuated by a young player with experience. Second, Webb is a favorite of Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice, who personally scouted him before the draft -- and came away from Webb's workout with a chipped tooth. There is a long way to go here, and it would be wrong to assume Webb is a lock to start in 2011. But the Bears can't address all five positions in one offseason, and Webb's presence might help make their decisions easier this spring.

Detroit Lions

Player: Cornerback Alphonso Smith
2010 notables: Acquired in a preseason trade with the Denver Broncos, Smith made a productive if uneven debut by intercepting five passes in 12 games. A shoulder injury ended his season in December, and many fans' lasting impression might have been his embarrassing Thanksgiving Day performance against the New England Patriots. But playmaking cornerbacks are difficult to find, and Smith gives the Lions a viable option at a position of significant need.
Position status: Veterans Chris Houston and Nate Vasher are pending free agents, but the Lions have said they want Houston to return. Veteran Eric King has been informed of his release, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Tye Hill, Prince Miller and Paul Pratt are all pending free agents, although the Lions have exclusive rights on Miller and Pratt. Last season's Week 1 nickelback, Aaron Berry, spent most of the season on injured reserve.
2011 projection:
In 2010, the Lions brought back only one member of their 2009 secondary: Safety Louis Delmas. Smith's performance in 2009 should at least lessen the overhaul necessary this offseason. Like Webb, he shouldn't be a lock to start in 2011. But the Lions also shouldn't be starting from scratch, either. Smith gives the Lions a legitimate option in the event they focus their resources elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesLate-season starter James Starks gives the Packers options at running back next season.
Green Bay Packers

Player: Running back James Starks
2010 notables:
Starks' story has been well-told. After spending the first half of the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, he rushed for 73 yards in his NFL debut and amassed 315 yards in four playoff games. In part because he never fumbled, Starks earned the trust of coach Mike McCarthy, and proved to be a reliable and instinctive runner.
Position status:
The Packers are expected to get former starter Ryan Grant back from an ankle injury. Grant is scheduled to earn about $5.25 million in 2011, the final year of his most recent contract extension. Backups Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn are pending free agents. Starks leapfrogged fellow rookie Dimitri Nance, who is signed through 2013.
2011 projection:
In an era where many teams split carries among their tailbacks, Grant was the Packers' primary runner from 2007 to 2009. That was the plan for 2010 as well, before his injury. But if nothing else, Starks gives the Packers a second option and important insurance should Grant be felled by another injury. Does Starks deserve to compete with Grant for a starting job next season? That's a question the Packers' coaching staff will have to answer whenever training camp convenes. But the Packers learned the hard way last season that a two-man backfield is a requirement, not a luxury.

[+] EnlargeHusain Abdullah
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireVikings safety Husain Abdullah might have played himself into a starting role next season.
Minnesota Vikings

Player: Safety Husain Abdullah
2010 notables:
Known mostly for special teams play and fasting during training camp, Abdullah unseated Tyrell Johnson and was a surprise starter at strong safety. He missed one game because of a concussion and tied for the team lead with three interceptions. You never know how players will be viewed by a new coaching staff, but Abdullah seemed to show enough promise to merit another chance to start in 2011.
Position status:
The Vikings have long been due for changes at safety, where Johnson and Madieu Williams have performed poorly over the past three seasons. Williams could be released this offseason, opening at least one starting spot. Jamarca Sanford struggled to stay healthy last season but might be best suited as a special teams player.
2011 projection:
Would the Vikings replace both starting safeties this offseason? Or would they give Abdullah another chance while focusing on Williams' free safety spot? The latter scenario seems more likely. At this time last season, few would have expected Abdullah to be in this spot. But if last season were any indication, he had leapfrogged every other safety on the Vikings' roster. Read into that ranking what you will.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

FORT WORTH, Texas -- It really happened. The Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV. If you live in Green Bay, it's time to party.

The Packers are due to return to Austin Straubel Airport sometime around 1:30 p.m. CT. That time could be adjusted based on their departure from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Local officials are encouraging fans to gather at or near Lambeau Field to welcome the team back to town.

There will also be a "Return to Titletown" celebration Tuesday at Lambeau Field beginning at 4 p.m. CT. Hold on to your hats.

As for the NFC North blog, operations will move back to headquarters by Monday night. It's been a wild week in North Texas, but all good things must come to an end.

While we have a moment, let's look at some highlights in the national and local coverage of Super Bowl XLV.
  • The Packers put their faith in quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Sunday night, just as they had in the past three years, writes Gene Wojciechowski of
  • Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press: "Lombardi goes home. Rodgers gets his due. About time, no?"
  • Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "While there's no way to quantify or compare titles, what the 2010 Packers achieved could go down as the most impressive performance in the 90-year history of the franchise. This Packers team didn't have the best record or the most victories. But no team in the Packers' storied past likely endured as much hardship, or bounced back from so many setbacks."
  • Receiver Jordy Nelson on the Packers' plan to emphasize the pass, via Gary D'Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "It wasn't so much disrespect for their secondary as it was respect for their front seven."
  • Coach Mike McCarthy on the game plan, via Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports: "Aaron and I talked about it all week. I told him, 'You're going to have to throw the ball away two or three times, check it down a few times and make some plays with your feet, 'cause I'm gonna put my foot on the gas all day long.' He threw bullets all day."
  • Packers safety Nick Collins made a big play early in the game, notes Jason Wilde of
  • Former NFL officiating chief Mike Pereira writes on Fox there was no pass interference on the Pittsburgh Steelers' final offensive play of the game.
  • Before the game, the NFL named Minnesota Vikings safety Madieu Williams its Walter Payton Man of the Year for his community efforts.

NFC North Friday injury report

December, 31, 2010
Getting inside our final (sniff, sniff) Friday injury report of the 2010 regular season:

Chicago Bears: As usual, the Bears are almost completely healthy. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) was removed from the injury report, leaving only receiver Earl Bennett. He is listed as questionable because of an ankle injury. Because the Bears have already locked up a first-round bye, it might be smart to rest Bennett against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

Detroit Lions: Receiver Calvin Johnson (ankle) did not practice all week but is listed as questionable on the injury report for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. Coach Jim Schwartz indicated Johnson will test out the ankle Sunday morning before a final decision is made. Cornerback Chris Houston (shoulder) is listed as doubtful and seems unlikely to play. All other players should be available for the Lions.

Green Bay Packers: Defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf) has again been ruled out, but the Packers expect to have nickel back Sam Shields for Sunday's game. Shields (knee) returned to practice Friday, took his normal repetitions and is listed as probable on the injury report. Jenkins joins safety Atari Bigby (groin), linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) and fullback Korey Hall (knee) as players already ruled out of this game. Everyone else should be available for the Packers.

Minnesota Vikings: Quarterback Brett Favre once again didn't practice because of a concussion and is listed as doubtful. But interim coach Leslie Frazier wouldn't say whether Favre has been cleared to play Sunday, raising the possibility that he could make one final start. Take that for what you will. Meanwhile, receiver Sidney Rice (concussion) is also listed as doubtful and almost certainly won't play. Cornerback Asher Allen (abdomen) didn't practice all week but is listed as questionable. If he can't play, the Vikings would have to start either Lito Sheppard or Frank Walker opposite of Antoine Winfield. Safety Madieu Williams (concussion) was placed on injured reserve so the Vikings could promote cornerback Marcus Sherels from the practice squad.

Stand down on the Favre theories

December, 28, 2010
OK conspiracy theorists, you can let down your guard: As expected, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre won't play Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Eagles. He hasn't recovered fully from a concussion he suffered Dec. 20, and the 48-hour delay for this game didn't help.

The Vikings will have the services of tailback Adrian Peterson, who returns from a one-game absence caused by a knee injury.

And finally, for those of you who like your safeties to take decent angles, the Vikings have replaced starter Madieu Williams with Jamarca Sanford.

NFC North Week 15 decisive moment

December, 21, 2010
NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The Chicago Bears were on their heels. The Minnesota Vikings, behind surprise starter Brett Favre, had taken a 7-3 lead and were threatening to make it difficult for the Bears to clinch the NFC North title on a snowy Monday night at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Bears took over near midfield for their third possession and immediately started moving backward. Left guard Chris Williams was penalized for illegal use of hands. Center Olin Kreutz was called for holding. Suddenly, the Bears faced a first-and-30 play from their 33-yard line.

There aren't many plays designed to get you out of that mess, especially for a Bears team that has succeeded almost exclusively with the short passing game. Entering Monday night's game, quarterback Jay Cutler had attempted only 13 passes that traveled 30 or more yards in the air. None had gone for touchdowns.

There is a first time for everything, of course. The Vikings sent their standard pass rush against the Bears' three-receiver set. The offensive line protected Cutler long enough to pump-fake toward receiver Johnny Knox, who already had a step on cornerback Lito Sheppard and was running near the right sideline.

Cutler hit Knox in stride at the Vikings' 32-yard line, capitalizing on a poor angle from safety Madieu Williams for a wide-open 67-yard touchdown. The score gave the Bears a 10-7 lead they would not relinquish on the way to the NFC North title.

"We had some stuff going on early," Cutler said. "We knew what type of defense they were going to be in. We had a good feel for them up front. We were able to mix in some runs. We had a good game plan. I'm glad we were able to execute as well as we were."

The play was obviously a decisive moment in the game, but it was also important to put on tape for the Bears' future playoff opponent -- lest anyone sleep on the Bears' dormant but potential-filled downfield passing game.
MANKATO, Minn. -- We spent plenty of time this offseason discussing the safety position throughout the NFC North, and it doesn't seem so long ago that we considered St. Louis Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe a candidate to sign somewhere within the division.

Atogwe re-signed with the Rams, and since then we've discussed the Chicago Bears' combination of Chris Harris and Danieal Manning/Major Wright. We've touched on the situation behind Louis Delmas in Detroit and previewed the likely ascendance of Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett. So on Wednesday morning, I took some time to check out the Minnesota Vikings' competition between incumbent Tyrell Johnson and second-year player Jamarca Sanford.

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Brace Hemmelgarn/US PresswireVikings safety Jamarca Sanford is trying to take advantage of his time working with the first-team defense.
First, we should make clear that the Vikings appear to be leaving veteran Madieu Williams alone at free safety. Sanford got work there during the offseason, but at this point it appears Williams' job is safe. My sense of the strong safety position is that the Vikings would like Johnson to win it but are hoping Sanford provides the needed push to elevate his game.

Johnson was a high second-round draft pick in 2008 and has all of the physical and mental tools. But let me ask you this: How many plays can you remember him making over the past two seasons?

In 31 career games, Johnson has been credited with nine passes defensed, two interceptions and no forced fumbles. It's clear the Vikings are looking for more than that rate of production when the preseason opens Saturday at St. Louis.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said Johnson is further along than he was last summer in training camp, but indicated his practice performance is only part of the evaluation process.

"The thing for him will be what happens in the games," Frazier said. "Will he pull the trigger when he has to? Will he get his hands on some balls? Will he make the tackles that he has to make? That is going to be the big test for him. We are looking forward to it and so is he. ..."

If not, the Vikings are giving Sanford a long look during training camp. He was working with the first team Wednesday during team drills, and if nothing else, Sanford offers the Vikings a diverse alternative. While Johnson is often in the background, Sanford is the type of safety who runs all over the field looking for someone to hit. He probably makes a few coaches nervous in coverage, but certainly has the presence that Johnson hasn't shown in game situations.

"As long as you're on the field, your job is to make plays," Sanford said. "It gives you a chance to have a chance. I made a lot of plays on special teams last year, and it gave me a shot on defense. I'm trying to take advantage of that opportunity."

Indeed, Sanford ranked third on the team last season with 19 special-teams tackles while also forcing a fumble. If Johnson falters this preseason, Sanford will be ready to provide a full -- if not perfect -- effort in place of him.
Julius Peppers, Kyle Vanden Bosch & BJ RajiUS Presswire/Getty ImagesFree-agent acquisitions (Julius Peppers, left, and Kyle Vanden Bosch, middle) and position changes (B.J. Raji) are moves NFC North teams are counting on to help improve their defenses in 2010.
'Twas a year ago when we first celebrated the arrival of a new era in the NFC North, one ushered in by an influx of elite quarterbacks and filled with promise for a new aesthetic in the erstwhile Black and Blue division. Overnight, we upgraded to Air and Space status -- and when it was over, we had sent two quarterbacks to the Pro Bowl, thrown more collective passes than any NFL division and increased our yardage totals by 15 percent over 2008.

In these parts, 2009 was a magical year. So what could we do for an encore?

How about some damage control?

That's right. As you see in the chart below, last season's NFC North finish directly mirrored each team's passing efficiency. Conversely, three of our teams ranked among the NFL's worst seven passing defenses. (And the fourth, the Green Bay Packers, bowed out of the playoffs after giving up 379 passing yards and five touchdowns to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner.)

In many ways, the past five months have represented a group response to the seismic shift we saw on the field in 2009. With training camp just a few days away, it seems fair to suggest that the 2010 season will hinge on the relative effectiveness of each NFC North team's plan to exist in this new world. In a nutshell:

  • The Minnesota Vikings signed two veteran cornerbacks and made a third cornerback, Chris Cook, their top draft pick. Coach Brad Childress, meanwhile, has taken every step imaginable to ensure the return of quarterback Brett Favre for another season.
  • The Packers upgraded their depth along the offensive line, minimizing the potential for pass protection woes, and have rearranged their practice schedule to place more emphasis on their pass defense. After reviewing film of all 50 sacks his team gave up last season, coach Mike McCarthy said: "I think as I sit here today we'll be much better in that area. We better be. I can't go through 50 sacks again."
  • The Chicago Bears made the free-agent splash of the offseason, signing defensive end Julius Peppers while also overhauling their safety position. Just as important, they identified and hired Mike Martz as the best available candidate to elevate quarterback Jay Cutler's performance. Speaking even before the draft, Bears coach Lovie Smith said: "It's safe to say we've improved more than any team in our division. That's all you can do at this point in time."
  • And perhaps the most aggressive team was the Detroit Lions, who will enter camp with as many as eight new defensive starters, including three high-profile defensive linemen. Offensively, they have given quarterback Matthew Stafford three additional weapons in running back Jahvid Best, receiver Nate Burleson and tight end Tony Scheffler.
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Rich Kane/Icon SMIThe Vikings bolstered their secondary by signing veteran Lito Sheppard.
So what does it all mean? Training camp will mark the start of a fascinating intra-divisional battle of offseason decisions. Can the Packers slow down Favre enough to overtake the Vikings? Could Cutler and Martz click quickly enough to overwhelm defenses in Minnesota and Green Bay? Will Detroit's defensive newcomers spearhead enough improvement to support what promises to be an explosive offense?

To me, the answers to those questions will decide the NFC North this season. I don't want to suggest that the running game has been rendered obsolete, or that an All-Pro like Adrian Peterson or a 1,200-yard rusher like Ryan Grant won't make game-changing impacts. They will. Indeed, it might take some time for everyone to fully embrace this trend.

"We're aware of certain teams' abilities to throw the ball," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. "But you still go about your business the way you go about your business. More teams are throwing the ball, but at the end of the day, I still think the real teams that have a chance to win the thing have to be able to run the ball and have to be able to defend the run."

Perhaps, but simply put, the numbers suggest that running the ball and defending the run won't be the most important factors in winning the NFC North.

"I have a great affinity for the run," Childress said. "I think somewhere you've got to be able to exert your will. And the run is a great way to do it. ... With that said, we are passing the ball more, so I think you've got to utilize [running backs in other ways]. You've got to find ways to put the ball in his hand in the air."

And that's exactly what I'll be looking for when our annual training camp tour begins Friday. I'll be watching for signs of maintenance in the passing game, but more important will be the evidence of each team's reaction to 2009.

I want to know if Peppers will be a 10-sack player or a monster who can change the outcome of division games. I need to see if the Vikings have enough to carry them through the final stages of cornerback Cedric Griffin's knee rehabilitation, and whether safeties Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson are better prepared to defend elite passers.

We need to find out if the Lions can slow down opposing offenses. And it will be important to judge whether the Packers have developed enough depth at cornerback to withstand the number of injuries that led to their playoff ouster last year.

I'm ready. How about you?
It's been a week since we wondered if the entire NFC North would be fighting for free agent safety Oshiomogho Atogwe. I had a wild mental image of each team pulling a different Atogwe limb, but it didn't work out that way.

The Green Bay Packers, who rarely pursue veteran free agents, never seemed a serious candidate. There were some connections between Atogwe and the Chicago Bears, but as Michael C. Wright of pointed out, there isn't much money left in the Bears' player payroll budget.

The Minnesota Vikings have indicated their safety depth chart could change, but apparently it won't include Atogwe. Friday, coach Brad Childress said the Vikings had no interest in him. "We've got who we need right now on this football team," Childress said.

(For now, the Vikings are giving Jamarca Sanford -- a seventh-round draft pick in 2009 -- a chance to unseat either Madieu Williams or Tyrell Johnson.)

That leaves the Detroit Lions, who have been the NFC North's most active team in free agency over the past two years. Atogwe is a native of nearby Windsor. Although he is nearly 29, Atogwe plays a position that historically has featured stars in their mid-30s.

Most important, check out the Lions' current stack of safeties in the chart to your right. It doesn't exactly rule out the need for further talent, especially when you consider that three of the six players on the list -- Marquand Manuel, Daniel Bullocks and Ko Simpson -- are recovering from season-ending injuries.

So the question circles back to Atogwe. As Howard Balzer pointed out in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, the Rams are letting him test the market. If anyone has made a significant bid for him -- the Lions or anyone else -- it hasn't been reported.

Stay tuned. Or, at least 25 percent of you should.
No player from outside the NFC North is generating more interest from you than St. Louis Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, especially after ESPN's John Clayton suggested the Detroit Lions as a a possible suitor when Atogwe's contract status changes Tuesday.

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Jeff Curry/US PresswireMight St. Louis safety Oshiomogho Atogwe fit in the NFC North?
Josh of Fort Sill in Okla. thinks Atogwe and Louis Delmas would "solidify the Lions' safety position for years to come."

David of New Haven, Ind., thinks the Chicago Bears won't pursue Atogwe "because it makes too much sense." But if they do, David writes: "safety is no longer a worry but a strength!"

Wooly of Busan, South Korea, knows that the Green Bay Packers used a third-round draft pick on safety Morgan Burnett but writes: "Surely [Atogwe] is a wise move in the long term."

Chaz of St. Cloud, Minn., thinks the uneven performance of Minnesota Vikings starters Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson last season provides all the necessary incentive. Writes Chaz: "I think it is worth serious consideration, Williams always waited for the play to develop. Atogwe could be the playmaker the Vikings need to get all the way to the Super Bowl."

My NFC West colleague Mike Sando recently put together an excellent primer on Atogwe's situation. In short, NFL rules will require the Rams to increase their one-year offer from $1.226 million to nearly $7 million. If they don't do it by Tuesday, he will become a free agent with no compensation required to sign with another team.

(Even if they do increase the offer, the Rams could trade Atogwe to avoid paying the higher salary.)

Finances are only part of this issue, however. Atogwe suffered a season-ending shoulder injury last year and also had surgery to repair a sports hernia this spring. His physical condition is a bit of an unknown.

And as Sando fairly pointed out, Atogwe's reputation might precede him. He intercepted eight passes in 2007 and received the Rams' franchise player tag after the 2008 season, but the reality is Atogwe has never been to a Pro Bowl. His 2009 season -- two interceptions in 12 games -- was disappointing.

None of these potential obstacles have deterred NFC North fans from considering Atogwe's potential impact on their team. So take it away. If you want the Lions, Bears, Packers or Vikings to pursue him, by all means tell me why in the comments section below. We'll revisit this conversation later in the week.