NFC North: Max Starks
- Leslie Frazier mostly played it by the game-management book as the Vikings' interim coach last season, but this season there have been a number of instances in which his decisions and explanations don't add up. In Week 2, he didn't use a timeout during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' final possession, saying afterwards that he was confident his defense would make a stop or generate a turnover. Sunday, Frazier tried to put the game away with a fourth-down play at the Lions' 17-yard line in the fourth quarter. But he approved a run to backup Toby Gerhart, who was lined up at fullback, instead of involving Adrian Peterson. Most running backs would have struggled in that spot given the way the Lions' defensive line pushed back, but Peterson would have had the best chance. Frazier said he thought the play would work, but ultimately he allowed offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to get too cute. Frazier did acknowledge the Vikings erred in giving Peterson only five carries in the second half, which might have been the more egregious game-management error. How could you forget about Adrian Peterson?
- I realize cornerback Chris Cook was the defender on Calvin Johnson's 32-yard touchdown reception, but from what I saw, Cook had quite an encouraging day overall. Most notably, he knocked down a late pass that could have gone for a touchdown. Cook looked aggressive and confident, and it was reminiscent of his rookie training camp in 2010. There's no shame in getting beat by Johnson, and Cook had a few victorious moments of his own.
- The Vikings had free agent left tackle Max Starks in for a visit Monday, according to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com. It's not uncommon for teams to take a look at available veterans in the event an emergency replacement is needed, and there is no indication that a signing is imminent. But the decision also reminds us that the Vikings are playing with a left tackle (Charlie Johnson) who is best suited to be a utility backup. I know we have a long way to go, but I feel relatively confident that the Vikings will enter the offseason with left tackle as perhaps their top personnel need.
Frazier has made clear he has no plans to replace quarterback Donovan McNabb, but curiously acknowledged Monday that coaches will look for mechanical issues that might be causing McNabb to short-hop passes to receivers. Said Frazier: "Whether it be his drop or whether it be his footwork, whatever we need to do to help him improve some of those balls that aren't quite on target. But that's not the only reason we are falling short. That's one of the reasons, but there are some other things we need to work on as a team." A 34-year-old quarterback isn't supposed to need mechanical adjustments midway through the season. It's yet another reason to question what the Vikings are accomplishing by committing to McNabb while rookie Christian Ponder sits on the bench.
- Coach Jim Schwartz did his best to temper excitement Monday about both the nature of the Lions' comeback victory and their first 3-0 start in 31 years. "We don't need to have ticker-tape parade over regular-season wins," he said. Schwartz also said: "Our biggest win hasn't come yet." But statistical analyst Alok Pattani used ESPN's win probability tool to research how unlikely the Lions' victory actually was. The tool uses 10 years of NFL play-by-play data to estimate the likelihood that a team will win at a given point in the game. Early in the third quarter of Sunday's game, the Lions had a two percent chance of winning based on the composite of how similar NFL games have proceeded over the past decade. Put another way: An NFL team trailing by 20 points early in the third quarter loses 98 out of 100 times. That should give you some perspective on what the Lions accomplished Sunday.
- This week, the NFL world will be lauding receiver Calvin Johnson now that he is the first player in league history to score two touchdowns in each of his team's first three games. And his best catch of the season, the 40-yard "Willie Mays" catch in overtime, didn't even go for a score. But I hope you know that the play worked only because tailback Jahvid Best got himself between Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway and quarterback Matthew Stafford. Best is kindly listed at 199 pounds, but I'm guessing Greenway outweighs him by at least 50. Greenway broke through the line on a blitz and steamrolled Best, but the collision allowed Stafford enough time to get the throw off. The Lions might not have won had Best not made that block.
- Left tackle Jeff Backus had one really, really bad series Sunday, but I don’t know that I’m ready to join the chorus of nervous nellies about his overall play. Backus had his hands full with Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, and on that one series he committed consecutive false starts and gave up one of the two sacks Allen beat him for in the game. It’s fair to wonder whether Backus’ offseason pectoral injury has or will impact his ability to extend his arms and pass-block, but if I’m the Lions, I’m more concerned about right tackle Gosder Cherilus. At least Backus got beat by one of the NFL’s top pass rushers. Cherilus was benched after a far less accomplished player, Brian Robison, beat him for a sack. Schwartz wasn’t ready to discuss Monday whether Cherilus will be benched permanently, but his play hasn’t been encouraging this season.
Immediately after Jason Hanson's overtime field goal, referee Ron Winter blew his whistle and indicated the game was not yet over. With Winter's microphone live, Schwartz angrily blurted: "What the [bleep]? Learn the [bleeping] rules!" Monday, Schwartz implied Winter's crew had momentarily transposed the NFL rule that requires a kickoff after a first-possession overtime field goal during a playoff game. I really, really hope that's not what happened. Surely neither Winter nor his crew got that confused, even if it was for a moment. Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com reported that booth officials were reviewing Hanson's field goal to ensure it sailed through the uprights. I just can't accept that an NFL referee would have confused this rule.
- As per their tendency this season, the Steelers came out throwing and have never stopped. The Packers' defense hasn’t been horrendous, but it has been gashed for three big pass plays: A 60-yard touchdown to Mike Wallace on their first play of the game, a 33-yarder to Santonio Holmes and 27 yards to Heath Miller.
- This is a game where the Packers miss cornerback Al Harris, if for no other reason than the domino effect that has left Jarrett Bush as their nickelback. Bush’s “coverage” on Wallace’s touchdown was inexplicable.
- Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has completed 14 of 20 passes for 233 yards in the first half despite being harassed repeatedly by Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. In abusing Steelers left tackle Max Starks, Matthews has two sacks and has brought his season total to 10. He lost a third sack, and forced fumble, in a replay review. Matthews for defensive rookie of the year, anyone?
- I realize the Steelers have a good run defense, but I haven’t been a fan of the Packers’ play selection. They threw on their first six plays, despite a heavy interior rush, and overall threw on 24 of their 35 first-half plays. And one of those runs was a 14-yard scoring scramble by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Steelers almost knocked Rodgers out of the game in the first two series. That’s not the formula the Packers have used in winning five consecutive contests.
- In fact, the Packers are back to their all-or-nothing ways. They have an 83-yard touchdown pass to receiver Greg Jennings and a 49-yard play to receiver Donald Driver.
- Drops are unofficial statistics, but I’ve got the Packers for an inexcusable total of five. Receiver James Jones and tight end Donald Lee had particularly glaring instances.
- If I’m the Packers, I’m hoping I don’t have to send place-kicker Mason Crosby out to win a game, no matter what the distance. He’s now missed five of his past 11 attempts, including a 34-yarder in the second quarter.
As promised earlier, here is a look at the prominent and available offensive linemen who can play right tackle. Consider it one guide for Chicago's apparent task of replacing veteran John Tait, who reportedly is leaning strongly toward retiring.
I've organized this list in order of the grades our own Scouts Inc. gave each player. Here's the link to Scouts' offensive tackle page. Insider subscribers also can view expert analysis of each player.
Jordan Gross (Carolina)
Vernon Carey (Miami)
Stacy Andrews (Cincinnati)
Jon Runyan (Philadelphia)
Max Starks (Pittsburgh)
Jon Stinchcomb (New Orleans)
Richie Incognito* (St. Louis)
Willie Colon* (Pittsburgh)
Mark Tauscher (Green Bay)
John St. Clair (Chicago)
Trai Essex* (Pittsburgh)
Fred Miller (Chicago)
Erik Pears* (Denver)
George Foster (Detroit)
Ray Willis (Seattle)
Some notes on the list above:
- Scouts considers anyone with a grade of 60 or above to be starter-caliber. To be safe, I included players who could fit in at right tackle with a score of 59 or above. If you think I missed someone, let me know.
- Players listed with an asterisk (*) are restricted free agents. The rest are unrestricted.
- The Panthers are expected to either sign Gross to an extension this week or make him their franchise player later this week.
- It's conceivable that Carey could also be franchised.
- Runyan has had microfracture surgery on his right knee and will need up to six months to recover. At 35, that's not a good combination.
- Andrews had reconstructive knee surgery and might not be ready to start the season.
- Tauscher is recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
- Incognito has mostly played center and guard in his career but could move outside. It's a long shot.
- In general, this list shows why there are a lot of people suggesting the Bears really need to re-sign St. Clair. He's not the highest-rated player on the board, obviously, but he knows the offense and will need minimal adjustment to slide over to the right side.