NFC North: Michael Vick

Free-agency primer: Vikings

March, 7, 2014
Mar 7
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Key free agents: QB Matt Cassel, DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams, DE Everson Griffen, CB Chris Cook, WR Jerome Simpson

Where they stand: The Vikings' biggest issue is at quarterback, where Christian Ponder is the only player they have under contract. They've told Cassel's agent they want to bring him back, but that could depend on how much more interest Cassel attracts on the free-agent market. Of the free agents on the Vikings' defensive line, Griffen probably has the best chance of returning to Minnesota to play in Mike Zimmer's new-look defense. But he, too, could attract attention from teams who think he can be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

What to expect: Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson could find a natural landing spot in Minnesota because of his familiarity with Zimmer and the Vikings' likely need for a new right end. Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner, who played for new Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray in Tennessee, could also make sense for Minnesota, though both Verner and Johnson will have plenty of suitors. The Vikings have more than $40 million in cap space, though, so they could be contenders for both. If Cassel doesn't come back, the Vikings will also have to pursue another veteran quarterback; running back Adrian Peterson tweeted on Wednesday that Michael Vick could quickly turn the team into a playoff contender.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Admit it: You scoffed at Adrian Peterson's Twitter lobbying Wednesday night for the Vikings to sign Michael Vick, didn't you?

Vick hasn't played more than 13 games in a season since he was reinstated following his prison sentence in 2009 and has completed more than 60 percent of his passes once (during his Pro Bowl season of 2010). He is not the most natural fit for Norv Turner's offense and is not a long-term solution for the Vikings at quarterback (if he can even be counted on to stay healthy enough to be a short-term one).

Peterson
Peterson
Vick
Vick
But before you dismiss the idea completely, ask yourself two questions: Are the Vikings in a position to rule it out? And is Peterson in a position to sit back and wait for the Vikings to develop a young quarterback without at least offering his input on a more proven option?

Peterson, as we've discussed many times, turns 29 this month. He is coming off his third surgery in as many seasons and will spend the next two seasons playing outdoors. The Vikings have only Christian Ponder under contract and are not guaranteed to get a top quarterback prospect with the No. 8 pick in the draft. There is a real possibility Matt Cassel could head elsewhere, rather than returning to the Vikings, after opting out of his 2014 contract; Cassel could reunite with Bill O'Brien, who was an assistant coach during Cassel's Patriots days, in Houston. There is nothing in place to give Peterson a sense that the Vikings have the quarterback position figured out, and that could still be the case as they head into the draft this May, possibly hoping one of the quarterback-needy teams picking in front of them decides to pass on Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel.

The possibility exists, as Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star Tribune pointed out this morning, of re-signing Josh Freeman and seeing if Turner can coax a solid season out of him. I think the Vikings and Freeman probably saw enough of each other's warts last season to prevent a reunion from happening, but the allure of Freeman -- his big arm -- remains the same and might fit in better in Turner's offense.

Then again, if those are the options the Vikings are considering, how is Vick worth dismissing?

A Peterson-Vick partnership in Minnesota could still be a remote possibility, and there are many examples of players not being the best judge of talent. But Peterson's tweet is probably more instructive as a window into how the 2012 league MVP is feeling. He is getting antsy to win. He sees potential in the possibility of putting Vick -- at age 34 no longer the whirling dervish he used to be -- in an offense with Peterson and Cordarrelle Patterson. And he is looking too hard for quick-strike opportunities not to open his mouth when he feels he sees one.
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson topped the list in an ESPN NFL Nation survey of the player those polled would most like to see play in a Super Bowl.

Peterson received 59 votes to edge Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez by three votes.

More than 320 NFL players took part in an anonymous, comprehensive survey with Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson finishing third (26 votes) followed by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (15), Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson (14) and Eagles quarterback Michael Vick (11).

The voting, which aimed to identify worthy players who have never made a Super Bowl, took place before Wilson led Seattle to this year’s title game.

That Peterson beat out Gonzalez is a bit of a surprise to me considering how well-known it was that 2013 would be the latter’s final season in the NFL. Both Gonzalez and Peterson were first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famers but Peterson would appear to have his share of chances to play in a Super Bowl -- assuming the Vikings can ever get a quarterback to pair with the transcendent running back.

That Peterson finished first in the survey isn’t just a testament to his greatness but also the respect he earned for rushing for more than 2,000 yards in 2012, less than a year after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery.

Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery received two votes in the survey.

The Philadelphia Eagles have found themselves in the middle of the NFC North race as much as the NFC East race over the past month. Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Bears is their third game in a row against an opponent from the North.

Two weeks ago, the Eagles and Bears helped each other out. Chicago defeated the Dallas Cowboys, pushing the Eagles into first place in the East. The Eagles beat the Detroit Lions, opening the door for the Bears in the North.

They won’t be helping each other this week. ESPN.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss some of the issues facing both teams.

Sheridan: Like the Eagles, the Bears survived this season when a backup quarterback took over and played unexpectedly well. Unlike the Eagles, who stayed with Nick Foles, Chicago went back to Jay Cutler and sent Josh McCown to the sideline. So, Michael, how is that scenario playing out in the locker room, on the field and among the fans?

Wright: The reaction is quite a bit different between the fans and the players, obviously. In the immediate aftermath of Cutler’s ankle injury on Nov. 10 against Detroit, Bears coach Marc Trestman told the team and the media that Cutler would be the starter again as soon as he was medically cleared to play. The coach never wavered on that declaration, and that was apparent even among the players during McCown’s incredible four-game run. In answering questions about McCown during that stretch, Trestman and the players seemed to temper the compliments regarding the backup, making it a point to state that Cutler was still the starter once he would be able to return to action. So within the locker room, the message was always that Cutler would return, but among the fan base, as McCown flourished, the call to make him the permanent starter grew louder regardless of what Trestman and the players said on the record. Cutler certainly helped himself by bouncing back from a bad start at Cleveland to throw for three touchdowns in a win, but there’s certainly a segment of the Chicago fan base still calling for McCown to be the man under center.

Phil, Chicago’s defense simply can’t stop the run, so LeSean McCoy is poised to have a pretty big game if the Eagles decide to feature him. What was the deal with McCoy running the ball just eight times against the Vikings?

Sheridan: That was one of the head-scratching strategies Chip Kelly deployed Sunday. It was like stepping into a time machine and watching an Andy Reid-coached game. Kelly’s explanation was simple enough: The Vikings were missing four cornerbacks and the Eagles thought they could exploit the inexperienced backups. Then, he said, the Eagles fell behind and had to throw, but McCoy had run for 217 yards the week before, mostly in the second half as the Eagles staged a comeback win. Ultimately, there is no explanation or excuse for eliminating a weapon as dangerous as McCoy from your offense. That’s supposed to be the defense’s job.

The Eagles did a better job against Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson in recent weeks than against the Vikings’ deeper, less star-studded receiving corps. How much more dangerous are the Bears now that Alshon Jeffery has emerged alongside Brandon Marshall? Is Jeffery even better at this point?

Wright: In the past, teams focused most of their game plan on shutting down Marshall. That involved double-teams and shading coverage over to his side. Teams are now finding they can’t do that anymore because if you double Marshall, you put Jeffery in one-on-one matchups that he’s going to win the majority of the time. The Bears say teams are now starting to mix it up against those receivers, which makes it important for Cutler to be able to quickly recognize the coverage and distribute the ball accordingly. I wouldn’t say Jeffery is the better receiver overall at this point, but I will say that he tracks the ball in the air better than anybody else on Chicago’s roster, which has allowed him to make some unbelievable grabs in contested situations. I’d say one player to watch is No. 3 receiver Earl Bennett. With all the focus on Marshall and Jeffery, the Bears have made it a point in recent weeks to involve Bennett more in the offense. Remember, Bennett played college football with Cutler at Vanderbilt, so there’s chemistry. Bennett has hauled in a touchdown in each of the past two games.

How will Philadelphia’s secondary look on Sunday? I know the Eagles are banged up, causing something of a musical-chairs effect in the secondary. At this point, do you know which guys the Eagles will have available to face Marshall, Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett?

Sheridan: We don’t know yet, Michael. The larger problem is that, even when everyone is healthy, the Eagles' secondary isn’t equipped to handle a receiving corps as deep and talented as the Bears’ is. The Eagles have the 31st-ranked pass defense for a reason. During their five-game winning streak, they were able to give yards but minimize points allowed by forcing turnovers and playing well in the red zone. That formula fell apart in Minnesota. As for the injuries, the biggest loss would be nickel corner Brandon Boykin, who leads the team in interceptions and is a very good cover guy. It looks like rookie safety Earl Wolff will be back after missing four games with a knee injury, but it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be after missing that much time. If the Bears go three or four wide, the Eagles will be hard-pressed to match up with all those weapons. Their best hope would be to pressure Cutler, but they have struggled against guys who get the ball out as quickly as he does.

There’s a chance linebacker Lance Briggs returns Sunday night. What impact would that have on Chicago’s defense? Can the Bears clamp down on the Eagles or is this thing destined to be a shootout like their win over Dallas two weeks back?

Wright: I see this one being a shootout. I think Briggs will have an impact on the defense in terms of making sure the calls get in quickly and the defense is lined up correctly. Briggs should also be an upgrade over rookie Khaseem Greene, who has filled in on the weak side over the past seven games. But Briggs has been on the shelf for a month and a half, and there’s no way he’s in football shape yet. So you have to wonder how much he will actually be able to contribute from a physical standpoint. If Briggs plays like the Briggs we all know, then Chicago will have a much better shot at controlling Philadelphia’s rushing attack, but I’m not sure he’ll return as that guy. So let’s count on a shootout. The team with the defense that gets that one or two key stops down the stretch will be the team that comes out on top.

Early in the season, Philadelphia’s frenetic pace seemed to be the next new thing, the revolution. Now that the Eagles have basically an entire season under their belts, how have teams adjusted to their pace on offense? Is it still as big an advantage as it seemed to be early in the season?

Sheridan: It has been an effective tactic at times. The up-tempo approach is one of the reasons Foles replaced Michael Vick as the No. 1 quarterback. Vick is obviously a bigger threat in the read-option, but Foles is more comfortable with the pace Kelly likes. Hard to blame Vick, who had a career’s worth of offensive football to unlearn. But the pace can hurt the Eagles, too. When they have a couple of three-and-outs in a row, as they did against the Vikings, their defense is back on the field way too quickly. And when a team moves the ball as well as the Vikings did, the defense wears down. It was useless by the fourth quarter. The Eagles defense has been on the field for more plays than any team in the NFL. That is partly a side effect of Kelly’s up-tempo offense.

LeSean McCoy, Matt CasselAP PhotoLeSean McCoy and the explosive Eagles offense visit Matt Cassel and the struggling Vikings.
The Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles couldn't be in much different places than they were a year ago.

In 2012, the Vikings made a seven-game improvement, winning their final four games and riding Adrian Peterson's 2,097-yard season to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth. The Eagles, meanwhile, lost nine of their final 10 games, finished 4-12 and fired longtime coach Andy Reid. This season, it's Philadelphia that's racing toward the playoffs, with a new quarterback (Nick Foles), one of the most exciting offenses in football and an 8-5 record. The Vikings haven't been able to settle on a quarterback, have blown five leads in the last minute of games and might be preparing to part with coach Leslie Frazier after starting the season 3-8-1.

To get you ready for the game, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan discuss the matchup and the rapidly changing directions of both teams:

Ben Goessling: Phil, it's been surprising to see how much better the Eagles' offense has worked under Nick Foles than Michael Vick, considering how well Chip Kelly's system seemed to suit Vick. What is Foles doing to make it work so well, and just how bad of a matchup is this for the Vikings' defense?

Phil Sheridan: At the moment, I'd have to say the Eagles' offense is a tough matchup for any defense. Their past two opponents, Arizona and Detroit, came in as well-regarded defenses. The Eagles scored 24 points on the Cardinals by early in the third quarter and then exploded for 34 second-half points in the snow Sunday against the Lions. The Eagles are able to run or pass at a high level right now, which makes them just plain tough to defend.

As for Foles and Vick, it does seem counterintuitive that a running threat wasn't as effective as the relatively slow-moving Foles in Kelly's offense. But Foles is good at several key facets of what Kelly wants done. He's become adept at keeping the tempo up in the no-huddle. He's been accurate in the passing game. And he's made good decisions when Kelly's play call presents him with an option.

Kelly gave a hearty endorsement of Toby Gerhart, whom he faced while he was at Oregon and Gerhart played at Stanford. Kelly said he thought Gerhart could be an impact player who just happens to be stuck behind one of the great backs of all time. What's the deal? Can Gerhart replace Peterson and keep the Vikings' offense going?

Goessling: It depends on his health. He's dealing with a hamstring issue of his own, so if Peterson does indeed miss the game because of his sprained foot, Gerhart might not be able to handle the same kind of workload as Peterson. He's only got two games of 20-plus carries in the NFL, but then again, as Kelly said, he's certainly built to take a pounding. He's a stout, physical back who runs well between the tackles and does a solid job picking up blitzes. Plus, he's not exactly afraid to embrace the idea that he's auditioning for other teams before he hits free agency in March. He certainly isn't going to be a featured back in Minnesota behind Peterson, and while I'm sure the Vikings would like to keep him, he might find better opportunities elsewhere.

What's the key to solving the Eagles' defense? The Vikings probably won't be at full strength this week, given their running back situation and the fact they've been shuffling through quarterbacks all year. What do they need to do to move the ball and avoid the turnovers the Eagles have been creating lately?

Sheridan: It is still possible to move the ball on the Eagles. They give up a lot of yardage and are vulnerable to runs after the catch in the short- and intermediate-passing game. I was fascinated to see if they could handle Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush on Sunday. But the weather limited Johnson and Bush didn't play at all, so that riddle remains unsolved. Teams have been able to move the ball but have bogged down or turned it over in the red zone. If the Vikings can find ways to score from inside the 20, they can stay in the game.

One key for opponents is not falling behind. Green Bay, Washington and Arizona did, and that allowed the Eagles' defense to concede rushing yards and go hard after quarterbacks. That has led to turnovers as much as anything.

Not so long ago, it was intimidating for opposing offenses to come into the Metrodome and deal with Jared Allen coming off the edge with all that crowd noise behind him. Is Allen still that kind of force, and has the atmosphere changed with the team struggling this season?

Goessling: Allen hasn't been the same guy this season. He'll still play hard, and he's as relentless in his pursuit of a quarterback outside the pocket as anybody you'll find in the league, but he just looks like he's lost a step. He isn't as quick around the edge as he used to be, and he's gotten lost when he's been double-teamed. The guy who has brought more of the Vikings' pass rush this season is right end Brian Robison, who got a contract extension from the team during the season. He's not quite as quick off the edge as Allen was in his prime, but he might be a better edge rusher now, and he's good at knowing when to disengage from his blocker, step back and deflect a pass.

The Metrodome has lost a little of its edge in recent weeks with the Vikings struggling, but I wouldn't sleep on the fans there: If the game is close Sunday, they'll still get loud. They've only got two more games to crank up the volume in that old Teflon-coated warehouse before it's torn down, so I'd expect the noise level to be there, if partly for nostalgic reasons.

From afar, it would seem like the Eagles have every reason to be confident heading into the final stretch of the season. How far do you think they're capable of going in the playoffs?

Sheridan: That's a heck of a question, because the whole idea of the playoffs seemed so remote just a few weeks ago. Gradually, as the Eagles got within striking distance of the Cowboys in the NFC East, it seemed like a good first season for Kelly if the Eagles could get a taste of the postseason.

Now? After five wins in a row, they are in sole possession of first place in the division. Foles and LeSean McCoy are putting up epic numbers. The defense hasn't allowed more than 21 points in nine games. That sounds to me like a team that can win a home playoff game. Can they go to Seattle or New Orleans and win? That seems like a stretch, but the Eagles keep raising their own ceiling.

Leslie Frazier's first NFL coaching job was here in Philadelphia as an assistant on Andy Reid's staff. He seems to be in a tough spot there, with the kind of quarterback issues that undermine even good coaches. Is the feeling that Frazier is to blame for this season, and what kind of job security does he have?

Goessling: I certainly wouldn't put it all on Frazier -- the quarterback situation has been a mess, and the Vikings have also paid dearly for GM Rick Spielman's decision to cut Antoine Winfield and go almost completely with young defensive backs. That's had as much to do with the Vikings' defensive issues as anything else, and when you've got problems at quarterback and in the secondary, you're going to have a really hard time in today's NFL. Players are still playing hard for Frazier, but the Vikings have blown five leads in the last minute, and coaching issues seem to have contributed to at least a couple of those breakdowns. What's more, Frazier didn't get a contract extension after the Vikings' surprise playoff berth last year, so to come back, he'd either have to coach into the final year of his deal or get an extension. Neither one of those seem as likely as him paying the price for the Vikings' many issues this year.

When do NFL coaches use a challenge for purposes other than overturning a call? When they're looking to channel their inner James Naismith, of course.

We've written on this topic before, but it merits reinforcement because you don't see it often. When Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz challenged an incomplete pass Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, he did so as much to give his tired defense a breather -- "one of those basketball-type challenges," Schwartz said -- as to seek reversal.

Let's set up the decision.

[+] EnlargeJim Schwartz
AP Photo/Mel EvansJim Schwartz bought his defense three minutes to regroup with a challenge during an Eagles trip into the red zone.
The Lions were trailing 10-6 with four minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter. The Philadelphia Eagles had a first-and-goal at the 3-yard line, and the Lions defense had already been on the field for about 25 of the game's first 40 minutes. A touchdown would have given the Eagles a two-score lead against a Lions offense that was struggling to get moving.

On first down, quarterback Michael Vick threw a hurried pass to running back LeSean McCoy in the left flat. The ball arrived before McCoy turned around, and it bounced off his back. As the whistle blew, Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch grabbed the ball off the ground in the event the play was ruled a backward pass and therefore a fumble.

Referee Bill Vinovich ruled the pass incomplete, and replays made clear the ball traveled nearly two yards forward -- from almost the 12-yard line, where Vick threw it, to inside the 11, where it hit McCoy.

So why did Schwartz use one of his two challenges, and risk one of his three timeouts, to seek reversal? As Schwartz explained afterward, his defense needed a physical and mental regrouping -- much like a basketball team that has withstood an extended run of points from its opponent. Schwartz also noted how important a red zone turnover would have been at that point if officials saw something different in a further examination of the replay.

Here's how Schwartz explained his thought process:

"It was at least a little bit close. We had clear recovery and they had made a good drive to that point, and I was talking to the guys upstairs and I said 'Do you have a replay?' And they didn't. And I said 'Well, what did it look like?' and they said 'Well, it's close.' And I said 'If it's close, I'm going to throw it.' Because ... the reward is so great, if we're able to get a turnover.

"Imagine if it had been the other way and it had been slightly backwards and we didn't get a replay and we didn't challenge it and we were sick to our stomachs after the game saying, 'Jeez, we could have gotten a turnover in the red zone, taken points off the board and everything else.'

"And literally part of the thought process there was 'Hey, look, we could use a timeout now anyway,' and a challenge is always a long time out. You know, they go under the hood and give everybody a chance to regroup and things like that. You can sort of, you know, catch your breath and think about your next call and things like that. So, more of looking at it as an extended timeout. Might not have done it if that was our last challenge but it was our first challenge, we still had another one that we could handle it."

I went back and timed the break the Lions' defense got as a result. Nearly three minutes elapsed from the moment the play was over until the Eagles broke the huddle for their next play. The Lions ended up making a stand, benefiting from an offensive pass-interference call on tight end Brent Celek's apparent touchdown and also getting a sack from defensive end Cliff Avril on third down. An ensuing field goal left the Lions with a more manageable 13-6 deficit, and we know what happened after that.

From time to time, I'll provide updates on how NFC North coaches are faring with their challenges. Below is a six-week glimpse.

Let's take a moment to wrap up a loose end from the Detroit Lions' 26-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. Here's where we left it in our Rapid Reaction post:
What I'm curious to know more about: A pair of penalties on a fourth-quarter extra point allowed the Lions to kick off from the Eagles' 45-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. The Eagles held a 16-13 lead at the time, and Lions coach Jim Schwartz elected to have the strong-legged Jason Hanson kick deep. Was that a missed opportunity for an onside kick or a squib? At worst, the Eagles would be taking over around their 35-yard line if an onside kick failed.

The decision didn't play a role in the outcome of the game. In fact, Lions cornerback Chris Houston intercepted Michael Vick on the first play of the ensuing possession. But it's rare to kick off from opposing territory, and I'm glad someone asked Schwartz about it during his Monday news conference. I also respect his response.

Asked how much thought he put into an onside kick in that situation, Schwartz said in part: "None. We gave up four special teams scores in two weeks. We weren't going to get cute right there. … [I]n that case, we were going to get that ball out of the end zone."

Indeed, the Lions became the first team in NFL history to give up punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns in consecutive weeks earlier this season against the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings. A kickoff from the 45-yard line is a tempting place to get aggressive, but Schwartz was rightfully in safe mode at that point. He had a chance to guarantee nothing bad would happen -- by having Hanson kick 55 yards for a touchback -- and he took it.

Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions

October, 15, 2012
10/15/12
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After the Detroit Lions' 26-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com

  1. In the 2012 debut of safety Louis Delmas, the Lions doubled their season's takeaway total (three). They hit quarterback Michael Vick 11 times, including three sacks, and made 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage against the run game. It was no coincidence. As we noted last week, there was a clear drop-off in takeaways and playmaking last season when Delmas departed the Lions lineup. Sunday, he had an interception and two tackles for loss, but his biggest contribution was his frenetic attitude and energy. You might think that kind of boost doesn't exist on the professional level, but coach Jim Schwartz said: "It was real on the field. It was real this week in practice. It was real in the locker room before the game, pregame warm-ups. He's that kind of guy. He's got personality." Said Delmas: "No matter what the circumstances are, I can motivate them and get them to play that extra [bit] and use that energy and effort." I would equate Delmas' impact to the role of the first confident souls on a dance floor. If they're kicking it and having fun, as the kids say, soon the floor will be full of crazy people. If not, you have a lot of people standing nervously near the punch bowl. (Not that I would know anything about dancing or the dance floor. Although I am familiar with punch.)
  2. We've had plenty of discussions this season about the Lions' ineffective downfield passing. But an interesting split has developed. During the first three quarters of games, quarterback Matthew Stafford has completed only eight of 22 passes that traveled at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. One has been intercepted, none have gone for touchdowns and only one has resulted in a play of at least 30 yards. In fourth quarters and overtime, however, Stafford has completed 10 of 19 such passes. Why is that? One explanation: Lions players are pretty good at ad-libbing with each other when the game turns into a scramble. One example came in the fourth quarter when Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson discussed a potential adjustment to an inside route if Eagles cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha took it away, as they expected. That adjustment led to Johnson's 16-yard sideline reception that set up Jason Hanson's game-tying field goal. Johnson: "I'm supposed to get inside, but Nnamdi was taking away the inside for most of the game, especially in the second half. I just found open space back there. The crazy thing is me and Matt had talked about it. It was there and I just took it." Sunday went pretty much as the matchup might have suggested for three quarters, as Stafford was 1-of-5 on downfield throws against the Eagles' elite secondary. After the start of the fourth quarter, however, he completed 4 of 7 such throws.
  3. Place-kicker Jason Hanson is 42 years old and in his 21st season, and guess how he felt as he jogged onto the field for the game-winning field goal in overtime? "I was nervous," Hanson said. Obviously, Hanson wasn't hand-shaking nervous. I interpreted his sentiment as the Lions' most overt admission of how important they considered the outcome of this game. There is only one game's difference between 2-3 and 1-4, but a loss Sunday would have pushed a losing streak to the other side of their bye week. "We needed it," Hanson said. "We needed it bad … We needed it to get our season back on."
And here's one issue I still don't get:
Did Delmas' return also help settle the Lions' special teams? I'm not sure if we can make the connection, but here goes: With Delmas and 2011 partner Amari Spievey each making their first start of the season at safety, the special teams got two of their better players back on a full-time basis. John Wendling and Erik Coleman both focused on their special-teams duties -- although injuries forced Coleman to play a handful of defensive snaps -- and the Eagles' return game was largely stymied. The Eagles averaged 24.4 yards on five kickoff returns and didn't have a punt return longer than 11 yards. Lions cover man Kassim Osgood bottled up the Eagles' DeSean Jackson on his only return, a loss of 3 yards at the end of the first half.
Matthew StaffordEric Hartline/US PresswireQB Matthew Stafford led the Lions, who are now 2-3 overall, to an OT victory against Philadelphia.
PHILADELPHIA -- I'll admit it. They fooled me again. Yep, I wrote off the Detroit Lions when their deficit grew to 10 points Sunday with 5 minutes, 18 seconds remaining at Lincoln Financial Field. I had this game marked as a victory for the Philadelphia Eagles and was already researching the history of 1-4 teams -- a cardinal sin in the Matthew Stafford Era.

"We're never out of any game," as coach Jim Schwartz summed it up.

Stafford led the Lions to three scores in the final 9:18 on this particular afternoon, flipping that deficit into a 26-23 overtime victory. As the Lions faced essentially the end of postseason contention, Stafford pulled off the seventh come-from-behind victory in his career. What was once an impressive oddity is now a habit: Comebacks now represent nearly half of his 15 career victories.

"We just don't think any other way," cornerback Chris Houston said. "We look at the score and we start figuring out what we need to do. We say, 'We're going to score right there and then the defense will get the ball back to the offense or whatever.' Our offense, we have Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. As long as we have them, we're never out of a game."

The worst mistake we could make, however, is to classify this occasion simply as another Stafford-Johnson production. Sure, Stafford threw for 220 yards and Johnson caught five passes for 107 yards after the start of the fourth quarter. But their late-game focus was clearly contagious Sunday.

"We don't ever give up," said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, "because we know we have a quarterback that doesn't give up."

The Lions sensed the Eagles' vulnerability even after a blown coverage allowed Jeremy Maclin to dash 70 yards on a slant pattern for a touchdown that gave the Eagles a 23-13 lead. The Lions' defense elevated their game-long pounding of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, and their offense started ad-libbing in a way that only a group of supremely confident teammates can do.

You saw tight end Tony Scheffler break downfield after a Stafford scramble to haul in an unplanned 57-yard pass to get in position for one score. There was defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh batting down a third-down pass by Vick, allowing the Lions to regain possession for the game-tying drive.

Johnson redirected his route on the fifth play of that possession, looking for open space and then tight-roping the sideline moments after he and Stafford had made the adjustment during a brief conversation. The catch, confirmed by replay, put the Lions in position for Jason Hanson's game-tying 19-yard field goal.

The Lions then opened overtime with consecutive sacks of Vick, one by Cliff Avril and a second shared by Vanden Bosch and Nick Fairley. At that point, there suddenly was no doubting who would win the game. An angry crowd knew it as well and began filing out even before the Lions took over possession. Hanson won it on a 45-yard field goal on the Lions' fifth play of overtime.

"The crazy thing is, we almost expect it," Vanden Bosch said. "If we're close and we're in the fourth quarter, we almost expect that we'll come back and win it. I guess that's a good thing, but it would be nice to jump out to a lead and hold on to a lead."

Yes, it's fair to wonder when the Lions can start mixing in some conventional victories. They've needed fourth-quarter comebacks in both victories this season -- including Week 1 against the St. Louis Rams -- and Stafford said, "We can't make it this hard on ourselves every week."

And let's not forget that the Lions had 16 penalties enforced against them Sunday -- including 10 for a false start or encroachment -- and didn't convert a third down until the fourth quarter. After three quarters, Stafford had completed only 7 of 21 passes and was on the way to one of the worst games of his career.

The rational part of me wants to suggest that most every team will lose under those circumstances. But Stafford gives the Lions an edge in those situations, and his teammates are now running with it. His ability to brush aside failure and embrace hope is real and undeniable.

"I know those guys believe in me," Stafford said, "and I believe in them. We had chances to make plays, whether I missed them or they weren't made, we understand that's part of the game of football. It's not always going to be perfect and it's not always going to be pretty."

The Lions can't win all of their games with comebacks, but with Stafford we can say with some confidence that they're going to steal a few more than most teams. It's an extra boost of confidence that a 2-3 team needs in a highly competitive division.

"You could feel this was a big step for us, as a team, playing team football," Schwartz said. "A lot of spirit, guys picking each other up. That's a good sign for things to come for this team."

We can't say where this victory will take the Lions. But we should darn well know not to count them out. Not for the playoffs or anything else. I won't make that mistake again.

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Lions-Eagles: A chance for turnovers

October, 10, 2012
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Here's a proven method for a struggling team to pull off a road victory in a tough place to play: Force some early turnovers and jump out to an early lead. It's sound and tempting advice for the Detroit Lions as they prepare for Sunday's game at the Philadelphia Eagles, but it's not something they excelled at in the first quarter of the season.

The Lions' three takeaways are tied for the fewest in the NFL. Not surprisingly, they've been outscored 30-15 in the first quarter and 30-16 in the second quarter. The good news for the Lions: the Eagles are prone to such mistakes, having committed 14 turnovers this season (second-most in the NFL). Their 52 turnovers since the start of the 2011 season leads the league, and during that span quarterback Michael Vick has nine turnovers in the red zone alone, but the question is whether the Lions can capitalize.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, coach Jim Schwartz suggested a reverse order of operations: Turnovers will come if the Lions can grab an early lead.

"When you’re playing defense," he said, "what you need to do is worry about doing your job. Play physical football, be fast and be around the ball. If you start trying to create turnovers, if you start pressing, [if] guys start cheating, getting out of position and things like that. It's certainly something that we don’t want to do. Turnovers come if you're playing hard, if you're playing physical football. …

"We’ve been outscored 60-31 in the first half. That’s not a real good recipe for turnovers. A lot of turnovers come later in the games. Second quarter, team is down, trying to catch up. I think we need to worry about those kinds of things. We need to worry about playing our scheme, playing hard. And when we do, turnovers will come."

Whatever the order of things, playing physical and fast might come easier for the Lions if safety Louis Delmas can make his 2012 debut after taking two months to recover from knee surgery. Delmas hasn't been a turnover machine in his career -- he has two interceptions and two forced fumbles in 41 games over three seasons -- but his frenetic playing style can help create the environment for other players to do so.

Consider that last season, the Lions averaged 2.3 takeaways in the 10 full games Delmas played and 1.8 in the six games he missed all or part of. When he returned for their wild-card playoff game at the New Orleans Saints, the Lions forced two first-half fumbles. Delmas was not directly involved in either, but I like the Lions' chances of creating turnovers when he is playing and at full speed.

RodgersWatch: Speed? Still got it

September, 7, 2012
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Two years ago, we noted that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had established himself as one of the better running quarterbacks in the NFL. Of course, that was when he was 26 years old and midway through his third season as a starter.

Now 28 and entering his fifth year at the Packers' helm, Rodgers would be excused for backing off the scrambles and focusing on pocket passing. But based on the 2012 preseason, as well as some extensive comments on the subject this week, it appears Rodgers has prepared himself to continue taking off whenever he sees open turf.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
David Stluka/AP ImagesPackers QB Aaron Rodgers said he worked on becoming more flexible during the offseason to help improve his mobility.
He scrambled eight times for 76 yards in three games this summer, including two touchdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals. Speaking during his ESPN 540 radio show , Rodgers said he spent the offseason focusing on "my foot speed, my endurance and my strength" through greater flexibility.

"I want to be able to move around a little bit better out there," Rodgers said, "and I thought flexibility would be a good way to do that. So I focused on that a lot."

Among other things, Rodgers said he spent 20-30 minutes stretching after workouts. I'll let him explain the rest because, frankly, I'm not sure I fully understand the details myself.

"I did a lot of posture stuff with my workouts," he said, "making sure that I was doing more pulls for my back then pushes for my chest. Because whether you're an athlete or not, a lot of people internally rotate their shoulders which decreases your flexibility in your shoulder if you're a thrower.

"Or when you're sitting at a desk most of the days you're going to have your shoulders internally rotate. So to combat that, I'm doing more exercises to open up my chest and pull my shoulders back. It increases the flexibility on your shoulder and takes stress off of it. So those are some of the things I thought about."

Since becoming the Packers' starter in 2008, Rodgers has scored more rushing touchdowns (16) than any other quarterback. Over that span, via the database at pro-football-reference.com, he ranks second in rushing yards by a quarterback (1,136). What's amazing is the Packers only occasionally call runs for him the way the Carolina Panthers might for Cam Newton or the Atlanta Falcons did for a younger Michael Vick. Most of Rodgers' production is what he calls "reactionary." He's quick to recognize when a combination of man-to-man defense and deep routes will force defenders to run away from him with their backs turned. He also tries to keep what he called a "pass-first mentality outside of the pocket." In essence, he wants to avoid tucking the ball away because the threat of a pass -- even if he is a yard or two past the line of scrimmage -- can give him an advantage in the open field.

"The defensive guy isn't looking over at the sticks…," Rodgers said, "so I want to make sure that it looks like I at least have the ability to throw the football because that's going to keep them away from me a little bit more."

Still, even as he approaches middle age in football terms, Rodgers demonstrated this summer that he still has the raw speed and athletic ability to run past presumably faster defenders. Against the Bengals, he broke the pocket at the 12-yard line and simply ran around Bengals cornerback Nate Clements to the end zone. (Video here courtesy NFL.com.)

"[That] was fun for me because I spent a lot of time working on my athletic ability this offseason," he said. "My speed, my stamina, my quickness, and I felt like I kind of separated a little bit from the corner."

Someday, opposing defensive coordinators will be able to remove Rodgers' scrambling tendencies from their Packers game-day check list. It won't be in 2012, however.
SuhAP Photo/Jim PrischingWhile his sack total was down last season, Ndamukong Suh still made an impact for the Detroit Lions.
We reached the height of Suh-mania in early February, when a Forbes magazine poll revealed Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was one of America's most disliked athletes. Two of the three men ranked ahead of him -- Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress -- are felons. The third, well, was Tiger Woods.

During a quiet moment at the NFL scouting combine, a few reporters were speaking with Lions coach Jim Schwartz. How did it come to this? Schwartz laughed, shook his head and suggested that Suh had spawned the "first armchair defensive linemen" in the history of NFL observation.

"We've all heard of armchair quarterbacks," Schwartz said, "and everybody has a thought on game strategy and what a coach should do. Everyone sees if a quarterback is having success or not. But Ndamukong is probably the first [lineman] that has that kind of scrutiny, that has Forbes magazine looking at him. … The fact that they're talking about a guy like Ndamukong Suh shows you how different he is and the scrutiny that he does get."

Three months later, an amazing thing has happened. The Suh-as-a-monster theme has been eclipsed by the New Orleans Saints' bounty story, among other offseason discussions about the NFL's violent nature. Ndamukong Suh stomped a player? Well, Gregg Williams ordered his players to take aim at opponents' heads and knees. Checkmate!

Even in a team context, Suh suddenly seems the least of the Lions' problems after an offseason in which three members of their 2011 draft class have been cited for marijuana incidents and a fourth -- receiver Titus Young -- sucker punched teammate Louis Delmas during a confrontation last week.

From this vantage point, it appears Suh has been handed an extraordinary opportunity if he cares about it. (And based on his carefully orchestrated offseason, which included an in-depth personality profile with ESPN's Hannah Storm and an upcoming appearance on a reality dating show, I'm guessing he does.) Public crusaders have abandoned their camp outside Suh's locker to chase new offenders, leaving Suh to redirect discussion back to where he and the Lions want it: to his on-field performance.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Suh said 2012 is "a very important year" in terms of restoring and/or enhancing his reputation as one of the NFL's most formidable defensive tackles.

"Every year I want to outdo the previous year," he said. "My rookie year was good. Last year was indifferent. This year we have an opportunity to have an outstanding year."

By "indifferent," I assume Suh meant he doesn't have a strong opinion about a 2011 season that saw his sacks drop from 10 to four and his tackles from 66 to 36. He was a Pro Bowl alternate after being voted a starter, as well as a first-team All-Pro, as a rookie in 2010.

To me, the question is if Suh's performance really dropped by the same percentage as his tackles and sacks. Was he half the player in 2011 he was in 2010? And will he need to be twice the player in 2012 to match his original promise?

The answer, based both on the Lions' assessment and that of independent observers, is no. Suh did not make the same kind of statistical impact and didn't have an elite season in 2011. But it's only fair to point out the flaws in relying purely on sacks and tackles to evaluate a defensive lineman.

Earlier this winter, Schwartz went back and watched every play of Suh's season. Afterward, he said, "I had more appreciation for what he did."

Schwartz added: "There are a lot of guys that are judged on a lot of different things. Defensive players, the only thing you get judged on are tackles, sacks and interceptions. There's not a whole lot that goes into it. Offensive linemen, it's tough to quantify those positions. …

"There's a couple plays in there, had a great pass rush, quarterback threw the ball before he wanted to. He's free to the quarterback, the quarterback gets rid of the ball, throws an interception. No stat at all for a defensive lineman. No sack, anything that people in the media or fans can look at, but obviously that’s an impact play."

Indeed, Pro Football Focus credited Suh with more quarterback pressures -- 27 -- than any NFL defensive tackle last season.

To be clear, I'm not rationalizing what was a less impactful second season for Suh. I just think it's fair to note he wasn't rendered completely ineffective and point out he doesn't have to make a huge jump to return to elite status. It might be difficult to judge him based purely on sack totals, as the charts suggest, but mostly I think we should all take advantage of a moment in time when Suh's football exploits are the only points of relevance in our discussions about him. Armchair away!

NFC North weekend mailbag

March, 10, 2012
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I tried to address the timeliest of your mailbag submissions during the week, and most of the others will be moot once the NFL opens its free agent market in a few days. But there are a few other topics of interest so let's hit them while we have a moment. We'll stay clear of free agency given the fluid nature of player movement, but if you're looking for a fix, I suggest Matt Williamson's ranking of the top 50 available free agents Insider.

Remember, we interact at various degrees of intensity through the mailbag, Twitter and Facebook.

On with it…

Greg of Nashville objects to coverage of the New Orleans Saints' bounty program, which has now ensnared both the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers: Are we really to believe that this is news? You people who are supposed to be top notch journalist and you're reporting on something that has being going on ever since football began. Really, grow up.

Kevin Seifert: I, for one, have never claimed to be a top-notch journalist, but that's beside the point.

To me, it's been clear since the 2009 NFC Championship Game that the Saints were determined to get after quarterback Brett Favre, whether inside or outside the rules. That happens in many NFL games, but I truly question whether or not NFL teams and coaches have organized financial rewards for injuring opponents "ever since football began." It shifts the conversation from heat-of-the-moment violence to something that was premeditated.

That seems an obvious big deal, but don't take it from me. Journalist Joe Posnanski, one of the most eloquent sports writers of our generation, put it much better in a blog post this week. Posnanski noted that the Saints' bounty program was a form of gambling, that it was a rule-breaking attempt to alter games and approaches a crime.

If a baseball pitcher threw at the head of an opponent, and was later ruled to have been offered money for knocking the batter out of the game, would we hear the same "part-of-the-game" pushback? Posnanski doubts it, and I agree. Fans would be outraged. If anything, Posnanski argued, football has made us numb to anything that rises above its typical level of violence.

Posnanski:" "Is our love of pro football -- the spectacle, the violence, the thrills and sheer ferocity of it all -- so insatiable that nothing will ever shock or disgust us again?"

Sadly, it appears that way.


Jimmy of Philadelphia provides a clarification to our introduction of the "Madden 13" cover contest: Your article about Peyton Hillis beating out Aaron Rodgers for the Madden cover and experiencing the subsequent Madden curse is not completely factual. Aaron Rodgers didn't make the final voting stage, and was beaten out by Michael Vick, who was the other finalist alongside Hillis.

Kevin Seifert: Ah yes. I think that final fell in the category of a championship game forever shadowed by a historic earlier-round game. Think "The Catch" in the 1981 NFC Championship Game. It gave the San Francisco 49ers a victory and sent them off to Super Bowl XVI. Do you remember who the 49ers beat for the title? I had to look it up. (It was the Cincinnati Bengals.)


Matt of Michigan notes the New York Giants' successful renegotiation of quarterback Eli Manning's contract and writes: Why aren't we hearing more from teams like the Lions and Rams who have cap troubles now because of their high draft history restructuring deals with their top players. Eli just did it for NY so he can make more money later on when the next big TV contract comes in and the team has a higher cap figure to play with. Do you think the Lions will try to work something out with Ndamukong Suh and Matthew Stafford?

Kevin Seifert: It's a possibility, but keep in mind a few factors.

The Lions renegotiated the contracts of Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch last August to relieve their 2011 crunch. The changes weren't dramatic, but they did push some cap commitments into this year and beyond.

There are plenty of cap tricks to lower a given year's number, but eventually they come due. You're not eliminating a problem by renegotiating. You're pushing it forward.

To that end, the Lions are trying to stabilize their long-term prospects first by extending Johnson's contract, a method of spreading out his cap commitment naturally. If necessary, Stafford and Suh could re-arrange their deals to provide short-term relief. But the most successful long-term cap strategy is to absorb the biggest hits you're able to manage each year to maintain maximum flexibility.


WiBear434 of Kentucky wants to know if the Chicago Bears will give Chris Williams a chance to compete at left tackle, the position he was originally drafted to play in 2008.

Kevin Seifert: I guess stranger things have happened, but I doubt it. The big goal last season was to find a position for Williams and leave him there. He was a decent left guard in 2011, and while the natural tendency is to get greedy and hope he can hold down a more difficult position, it's now been almost two years since he played left tackle. That ship might have sailed.


Earl of Hawaii wants to know why there is no mention yet of any plans to try Everson Griffen at LB (middle or outside). One of the most talented & athletically gifted guys on the team needs to be starting on an older team that just went 3 and 13.

Kevin Seifert: As we've found in the case of backup quarterback Joe Webb, it's more difficult to change positions in the NFL than most fans think or hope. It's possible the Vikings could find some snaps for Griffen at outside linebacker on passing downs, but if they want to get him on the field, they might want to consider developing a more flexible rotation at defensive end.

Starters Jared Allen and Brian Robison played more snaps in 2011 than any defensive end duo in the NFL. Allen led all defensive ends by playing on 95 percent of the Vikings' snaps, while Robison ranked 11th at 84 percent. Griffen played 25 percent of their plays.

There would be nothing wrong with mixing in Griffen to a greater extent, keeping both Allen and Robison fresh over a 16-game season.

BBAO: Bears pull off a big victory

November, 8, 2011
11/08/11
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

Wow. As you read in the ESPNChicago.com Rapid Reaction, the Chicago Bears pulled off a victory Monday night over the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bears are now 5-3 and winners of three consecutive games as they head into a rematch against the Detroit Lions.

Bears linebacker Lance Briggs called the upcoming showdown "a big-time, big-time, big-time game," according to Michael Wilbon of ESPNChicago.com, and the Bears are riding high after one again demonstrating they match up well against Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.

Vick is now 0-5 in his career against the Bears, and linebacker Brian Urlacher said: "Look, Mike Vick's going to make plays. … He always has and always will. But we can run, all of us, every level of the defense. They're a team that can run but we match up with them very well."

Halfway through the season in the NFC North, we have three teams in playoff push. The Green Bay Packers are 8-0. The Lions are 6-2, and now the Bears are 5-3. Let's get it.

Continuing around the NFC North:

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