NFC North: Paris Lenon
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It’s a moot point now, but Packers linebacker Clay Matthews probably would have been able to play in the Super Bowl.
Matthews twice broke his right thumb during this past season. Both times he underwent surgery to have stabilizing pins placed in his hand. The first time he had those pins taken out (on Nov. 4), he played a week later, albeit with a large club-like cast that made it difficult for him to perform his usual duties.
According to FoxSports.com, Matthews had the second set of pins taken out last Friday.
Matthews missed four games after first breaking his thumb on Oct. 6 while sacking Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. He sustained the same injury on Dec. 22 against the Pittsburgh Steelers while sacking quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Matthews missed the regular-season finale and the NFC wild-card playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
The Packers kept Matthews on the roster rather than place him on season-ending injured reserve with the hope that he could return if they made it to the Super Bowl.
Despite missing five games, Matthews led the Packers with 7.5 sacks. But he failed to make the Pro Bowl for the first time in his five-year career. After signing a five-year, $66 million contract extension last offseason, Matthews played in a career-low 11 games.
“I need to get healthy,” Matthews told FoxSports.com. “Rehab my thumb and get it back to 100 percent so that way there is no setback starting next season.”
In case you missed it on ESPN.com:
- In an interview with ESPN Radio’s SVP & Russillo, Packers receiver Randall Cobb described the weekly uncertainty over whether or not quarterback Aaron Rodgers would return from his fractured collarbone as “deflating” for the team.
- We continued our position outlook series with the focus on the defensive line, where there may be more questions than answers.
- In our latest NFL Nation survey, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll led the voting by players who were asked what coach they would most like to play for. Given his success, it’s a bit a surprising that Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn’t garner more votes.
- At ESPNWisconsin.com, Jason Wilde wrote about Denver Broncos linebacker Paris Lenon’s long and winding road to the Super Bowl, which included a pair of stints with the Packers.
- In the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Weston Hodkiewicz wrote that Mike Neal’s transition from defensive end to outside linebacker was a success, but was it enough to warrant a new contract for the free agent to be?
- In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tyler Dunne wrote that talks between the Packers and cornerback Sam Shields, who is scheduled to be a free agent, remain on-going but the two sides don’t appear to have moved much closer to a deal.
What it means: The Green Bay Packers won their fourth consecutive game and will take a 6-3 record into their bye. They'll need the extra week of rest, however, after another round of injuries to key players. The Packers have struggled to put away inferior teams at home the past two weeks, but those victories count in the win column the same as blowouts would.
Injury report: Receiver Jordy Nelson, who has been dealing with a hamstring injury, rolled his right ankle in the first quarter on the only pass thrown his way and did not return. A hip injury sent right tackle Bryan Bulaga to the sideline in the second quarter, forcing the Packers to move T.J. Lang to right tackle and insert Evan Dietrich-Smith at left guard. And linebacker Clay Matthews injured his hamstring and did not return after limping off in the third quarter. After Matthews departed, the Packers used rookie Dezman Moses and veteran Erik Walden as their outside linebackers. We'll get you updates on Nelson, Bulaga and Matthews as soon after the game as we can.
Tom Crabtree?!? With Nelson sidelined and the offensive line in flux, the Packers' offense struggled after halftime. The Cardinals pulled within a touchdown at 24-17, but tight end Tom Crabtree put the game away on the final play of the third quarter. Lined up in the backfield, Crabtree slipped through the line, got a step on Cardinals linebacker Paris Lenon and turned Aaron Rodgers' pass into a 72-yard touchdown play. It was the longest reception by a Packers tight end since 1979. (Paul Coffman, 78 yards.)
RodgersWatch: Rodgers hit on only 14 of 30 passes, but he made the completions count. Four went for touchdowns, including two to Randall Cobb and one each to Crabtree and James Jones. Through nine games, Rodgers has 25 touchdown passes and five interceptions. Cobb has five touchdowns in his past three games.
Running game: James Starks replaced Alex Green in the starting lineup for this game and the pair split carries in what amounted to the Packers' best rushing performance of the season. Starks finished with 61 yards on 17 carries and Green had 53 yards on 11 carries. Overall, the Packers piled up 176 yards on 39 attempts, both season highs. Starks had one fumble, which Rodgers recovered, and that probably curtailed some of his snaps. But I was fine with Starks getting on the field. Green hasn't been productive in three starts. You can only spend so much time waiting for a player, young or not, to find his groove.
What's next: The Packers have their bye and return to the field Nov. 18 at the Detroit Lions.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
Jeffri Chadiha's profile of Detroit linebacker Ernie Sims contains a blunt -- but, I would say, accurate -- description of the Lions' recent linebacker groups. (This season, Sims has been joined by veterans Julian Peterson and Larry Foote.)
Sims: "We always talk about football and techniques but one the best things J.P. [Peterson] told me was that I have some players to help me now. That was important for me to hear because I've always had dogs around me since I came here. It's good to know I have that kind of support."Indeed, not many people outside of Detroit could name the players Sims has started next to since the Lions made him their top draft choice in 2006. Last year's group of Alex Lewis and Paris Lenon were particularly underwhelming. Sims knew it, too. It's just a bit jarring to hear them described as "dogs."
You could argue that Sims hasn't always played like a Pro Bowler over that time. But to whatever extent his teammates held him back in the past, that dynamic should not be a factor in 2009.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Lions owner William Clay Ford Jr. promised the team will have sellouts at Ford Field this year, but other team officials were not commenting Wednesday on the status of ticket sales. Gregg Krupa of the Detroit News has more.
- Green Bay's Donald Driver is the sixth-oldest starting receiver in the NFL, writes Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Rookie Brandon Underwood has assumed the Packers' No. 4 cornerback position, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune takes a stab at predicting the Bears' 53-man roster. One key decision: Running back Adrian Peterson over tight end Michael Gaines.
- The Bears have three receivers competing for two spots, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. One of the three -- Rashied Davis, Brandon Rideau and Devin Aromashodu -- will go.
- Minnesota is soliciting trade offers for quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, write Judd Zulgad and Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.
- Jackson is determined to use his feet more in the future, writes Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
You would assume the agreement will take the Patriots out of the running for free agent Pisa Tinoisamoa, who visited the team Tuesday. The Bears are among the teams who remain in pursuit of Tinoisamoa, a list that also includes Buffalo.
You can never predict these things for sure, but it's reasonable to expect Tinoisamoa to pick between the Bears and Bills soon. We'll keep you updated.
UPDATE: The Associated Press reports the deal is official.
Foote would give the Lions some veteran credibility at one of their weakest positions in 2008. Detroit gave up an NFL-high 172.1 rushing yards per game last season, and one of its top offseason priorities was to strengthen their interior defense.
It's been a short-term but necessary rebuild. Veteran Grady Jackson, 36, will man the nose tackle position. Foote, who will turn 29 next month, would take over for Paris Lenon at middle linebacker. Foote, Ernie Sims and newly-acquired Julian Peterson should give the Lions an improved linebacker corps.
Before Pittsburgh released Foote, the Lions were discussing the possibility of using rookie DeAndre Levy at the position. Even if Levy is the Lions' middle linebacker of the future, Foote's arrival would help ease his transition.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Whether it was the luck of the (value) board or a conscious decision, Detroit wasn't able to substantially upgrade its interior defense during this weekend's draft.
From a pure need perspective, upgrading at defensive tackle and middle linebacker might have been at the top of the Lions' list after finishing last in run defense among NFL teams in 2008. But the Lions didn't draft a single man who played one of those positions last year, instead choosing the highest-valued players on their board regardless of position.
Third-round pick DeAndre Levy will shift from outside linebacker to the middle, and fourth-rounder Sammie Lee Hill projects as a defensive tackle after playing on the end last year at Stillman College. But Levy's 236-pound frame hardly addresses the Lions' need to get bigger on their defensive front, and Hill figures to have a steep learning curve based on his level of competition in college.
"We stayed with our board," coach Jim Schwartz said. "You don't want to strictly draft on need just to take players your scouts don't have a good feel for or your coaches don't have a good feel for. You'd rather take somebody that you like. We still have opportunities to fill some holes."
General manager Martin Mayhew has spoken repeatedly about improving the size of the Lions' front-seven defensive players, but the Lions also made no immediate strides in that department over the weekend. Hill is 330 pounds, but Schwartz acknowledged it is "unrealistic" to assume he'll be ready to contribute right away.
"We went into the draft saying, 'Let's not go into the draft saying we have to help this position,'" Schwartz said. "What you do is go in and say, let's grade the talent, let's take the talent and let's fit them into our needs."
Levy, meanwhile, is now in the mix on a very thin depth chart at middle linebacker. Incumbent Paris Lenon remains an unsigned free agent, and 2008 second-round pick Jordon Dizon has been considered too small at 230 pounds to vie for the position.
Levy isn't much bigger than Dizon, but Schwartz said he fits the primary job description regardless.
"Watch him hit," Schwartz said, noting that Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis was 228 pounds when the Ravens drafted him.
Mayhew said last week the Lions would still have some holes after the draft. He was right.
That's it for now. I'm headed to the Detroit airport, and I hope we've hit all the appropriate angles during the inaugural week of draft coverage for the ESPN Blog Network. Check back Monday morning -- er, late Monday morning -- as we ramp up another week in the NFC North.
A few links for you after Detroit's first day of mandatory minicamp under new coach Jim Schwartz:
- Quarterback Daunte Culpepper had "pep in his step" and "zip on the ball," reports Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press. Culpepper clearly outperformed fellow veterans Drew Stanton and Drew Henson. Cotsonika also reports that Jeff Backus, whom the Lions might move to left guard, practiced only at left tackle.
- The Lions don't really have a middle linebacker yet, and David Birkett of the Oakland Press noted that 2008 starter Paris Lenon still has a locker even though he is a free agent and ineligible to practice. Most of the Lions' other unsigned free agents do not have lockers, an indication the Lions could bring Lenon back in some capacity.
- Schwartz said the goal for Friday was to "try not to get anybody killed ... because everybody wants to prove themselves." Here's a link to the full transcript of his media availability.
- Culpepper said he is in his best shape since the 2004 season, when he finished second in voting for the MVP while playing in Minnesota. Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan held the same job with the Vikings at the time, and Culpepper said: "Being with someone you've been around and looking at their offense and their schemes -- to me, it's like my planets are kind of getting aligned. It just makes sense to me. I think we can do some great things. But like I said, I almost feel like even though I know him, it's not like I can kind of relax or anything. I feel like it's just all about me re-showing who I am and what I can do."
Wrapping up our early offseason analysis of the NFC North:
Detroit Lions offseason analysis
- 2008 record: 0-16
- Coaching changes: Rod Marinelli fired and replaced by Jim Schwartz. Gunther Cunningham is the new defensive coordinator. Scott Linehan will be the new offensive coordinator. The team has announced no other additions, and the fate of much of Marinelli's former staff has yet to be decided.
- Salary cap status: $26.8 million before end-of-year adjustments and credits.
- Exclusive rights free agent: Defensive back Ramzee Robinson
- Key unrestricted free agents: Running back Aveion Cason, defensive lineman Shaun Cody, receiver Keary Colbert, offensive lineman George Foster, placekicker Jason Hanson, running back Rudi Johnson, linebacker Paris Lenon, receiver Shaun McDonald, linebacker Ryan Nece, fullback Moran Norris, quarterback Dan Orlovsky, guard Stephen Peterman.
- Free agent comment: Hanson is the Lions' biggest decision among the free agent group. There have been reports that he is bound by a grandfathered franchise tag. The Lions have not confirmed that. But in either event, they will have to decide whether to pay him a premium salary after a lights-out 2008 season. The sheer number of free agents the Lions have speaks to the roster overhaul they could effect if desired.
- Three biggest needs: (1) Size in the interior defensive line; (2) A playmaking linebacker; (3) Upgrade at both guard positions.
Tuesday was a busy day for the Detroit Lions. They placed their starting quarterback on injured reserve, traded one of their best players and now are planning to host linebacker Napoleon Harris on a visit.
Harris was released Tuesday by Kansas City. Since then, according to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune, Harris has spoken with representatives of two NFC North teams: the Lions and Minnesota. The Vikings have an opening at Harris' old position -- E.J. Henderson is out for the season and backup David Herron is nursing multiple injuries -- but it appears Harris will test the waters in Detroit first.
Harris can play middle or outside linebacker in the Tampa-2 defense, and the Lions could use help at both positions. Ernie Sims is locked in as one starter, but the Lions aren't thrilled with the play of Paris Lenon in the middle or Alex Lewis on the outside.
In addition to swapping a number of veterans in and out of the starting lineup, the Detroit Lions are looking for ways to get their top two draft picks on the field in the wake of last Sunday's 34-21 loss at Atlanta.
Offensive coordinator Jim Colletto told Michigan reporters Thursday that first-round draft pick Gosder Cherilus will get some playing time Sunday against Green Bay, presumably in relief of starting right tackle George Foster. Second-round draft pick Jordon Dizon is also likely to rotate with starting middle linebacker Paris Lenon, coach Rod Marinelli said Wednesday.
Neither Cherilus nor Dizon blew anyone away during training camp, but given the sudden state of affairs in Detroit, now seems as good a time as any to get them on the field.
Perhaps this has all served as our odd-ball introduction to the Lions. But from the outside, at least, we don't get the sudden panic the team seems to be in. The Lions were riding high a week ago, having emerged from a 4-0 preseason with a lineup they appeared confident in and committed to. Now, after one loss -- albeit a horrendous one -- they are moving to Plan B with record speed.
"This locker room is the tightest locker room I've ever been a part of," Kitna said. "That's not going to be an issue. Everybody looked at the tape; everybody owned it after the game. I mean, there wasn't anybody who was pointing fingers one way or another -- we all said, 'Man, I wish I'd have done something more.' This locker room is tight and, like I said, that's not going to be a problem."
It's a little early for those kind of statements, but maybe it's to be expected after the 34-21 thrashing the Lions took Sunday in Atlanta -- a game that effectively wiped out a summer's worth of good tidings in Detroit. Coach Rod Marinelli had to dig deep into his optimist's bag of tricks Monday to provide damage control.
Speaking Monday in Detroit, Marinelli said his team's problems -- most notably its horrific tackling Sunday -- are "correctable." (Of course, the angle of the leaning tower of Pisa could be corrected, but that's part of its charm).
We were as guilty as anyone of ignoring the Lions' defense while focusing on their re-balanced offense and star receiving duo of Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson. The Lions added a handful of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who run the same defense Marinelli does, with the thought of fielding a more instinctive defense.
But as Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com wrote, it doesn't matter how well-schooled a defense might be, it still has to have the physical skills to hit, tackle and run. It's a little early to pass judgment against any defense, let alone an entire team, but it is now evident why Marinelli was so eager to sign free agent linebacker Takeo Spikes during training camp.
Marinelli had some preseason concern about his front seven and saw Spikes as someone who could improve it. As it stands, the Lions opened Sunday's game with oft-injured Paris Lenon as their middle linebacker, flanked by Ernie Sims and Alex Lewis. Rookie Jordon Dizon saw extensive action following in-game injuries to Lenon and Sims, and it will be interesting to see whether the Lions accelerate Dizon's learning curve and get him into the lineup sooner than planned.
- Atlanta 34, Detroit 21
We arrived in lovely Appleton, Wis., in time this afternoon to watch all of the Detroit Lions' opener at a local establishment -- Diet Cokes only.
The Lions were hoping to improve their run defense after ranking No. 23 in the NFL last season. More than likely, they'll finish Week 1 of 2008 ranked last.
If anything, the Lions' run defense looked worse than ever in an embarrassing 34-21 loss at Atlanta. Detroit gave up an astounding 318 yards on the ground, including 220 to tailback Michael Turner. Their linebackers got pushed around and, eventually, sent off the field; Ernie Sims and Paris Lenon both left with injuries at different points of the game.
Worse, Turner and backup Falcons tailback Jerious Norwood (93 yards) looked like they were running much harder than the Lions were hitting. Tackling in the Lions secondary was, shall we say, subpar.
Conventional wisdom suggested the Lions would sell out against the run, forcing rookie quarterback Matt Ryan to beat them. Instead, Turner ran for 117 yards in the first quarter alone and Ryan only had to attempt 13 passes.
An early 21-0 deficit, meanwhile, took the Lions out of their plan to re-focus the offense around their running game. Tailbacks Kevin Smith and Rudi Johnson weren't much of a factor, combining for 62 yards on 19 carries.
You don't want to put too much stock in the season opener, but this performance hardly reflected a team on the cusp. The Lions are trying to be a tougher team this season, and run defense is perhaps the best test of progress in that area. Based on Sunday's performance, you know where the Lions stand.
- Chicago 29 , Indianapolis 13
Some naysayers questioned whether the Chicago Bears' defense could turn the switch when the regular season began after a pretty unimpressive preseason. The Bears showed they could in Sunday night's victory over Indianapolis, holding the Colts under 300 total yards and scoring nine points on its own.
Lance Briggs' fumble return for a touchdown and Adewale Ogunleye's safety harkened back to the best of the Bears' defense during the 2006 Super Bowl season. This is the way the Bears must win in 2008 as well -- combining big plays and strong leadership from its defense with competent play from the offense.
Kyle Orton and the Bears' offense did not commit a turnover, providing more than enough support for a defensive group that got its act together in a hurry.
Linebacker Takeo Spikes' decision to sign with San Francisco left the Detroit Lions in the same predicament they've been in for most of the summer: Mulling changes in the configuration of their incumbent linebackers.
Ernie Sims is stationed on the weak side in the Lions' 4-3 scheme, but the other two positions remain in play with three preseason games to go. Detroit was hoping to bring in Spikes to play on the strong side, according to this analysis in the Detroit Free Press, but for now Alex Lewis is competing with Leon Joe and Darnell Bing for the position.
Rookie Jordon Dizon is running with the second team behind Paris Lenon at middle linebacker, but the Lions might move Lenon to the strong side if and when Dizon gets up to speed on playing the middle linebacker spot.
We plan to be on the ground in Detroit (finally) on Wednesday and will update you on the linebacker position, among others, when we get there.
Elsewhere around the NFC North:
- Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy on the preseason debut of quarterback Aaron Rodgers: "I thought Aaron did a number of solid things."
- Chicago Bears offensive line coach Harry Hiestand on the public hand-wringing over the state of the Bears' offensive line: "I don't know why everybody is so excited about that. God Almighty. I mean, jeez."
- The best thing going for Bears rookie quarterback Caleb Hanie? His last name isn't "Orton" or "Grossman," writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Were it not for this little quarterback situation, on top of the unfortunate running back issue, the Green Bay Packers were actually headed for a training camp light on drama. If you take a look at their roster, the Packers' most obvious competition is at long-snapper.
That's right. The retirement of Rob Davis has left this job in question for the first time since 1997, as the Green Bay Press-Gazette pointed out. Davis now works in the team's front office. Rookie J.J. Jansen and first-year player Thomas Gafford are competing for the job.
Anytime you have a chance to enter camp with long snapper as your biggest drama, you're doing pretty well. That was the scenario the Packers were facing on June 19, their final day of minicamp before players were dismissed for summer.
The next day, retired quarterback Brett Favre called coach Mike McCarthy and told him he was considering a comeback. (You know how that one's worked out). And as the summer moved along, precious little progress was reported in the contract negotiations of tailback Ryan Grant.
As the Packers open camp Monday with an 8:45 a.m. CT practice, they still are trying to figure out how to deal with Favre's request. And Grant is nowhere near Green Bay, holding out after receiving what his agent termed an "insulting" offer from the Packers late last week.
We're on site and will bring you updates as the day progresses. For now, here's a quick swing through the rest of the NFC North.
- So far, Paris Lenon is holding off rookie Jordon Dizon for the Detroit Lions' middle linebacker job, reports the Detroit Free Press. "...For a rookie to come in and be the starting middle linebacker in this package, it's hard," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said.
- Lions vice-chairman Bill Ford Jr. says players are buying into coach Rod Marinelli's message. "I believe that gives me real faith in this season," Ford told reporters in Detroit. "We haven't had that in the past."
- Who says they're cheap? After signing kick returner/receiver Devin Hester to a four-year contract extension, the Chicago Bears have now signed 10 players to multi-year contracts totaling $185.39 million since February, calculates Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. That total includes about $59 million in guaranteed money.
- The Bears have taken care of everyone on their roster that deserves it, writes Mike Mulligan of the Sun-Times.
- Defensive end Jared Allen and left tackle Bryant McKinnie are pounding away on each other at Minnesota Vikings training camp.