NFC North: Ryan Grant

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- During a drill early in a training camp practice this week, Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy was running routes against inside linebackers and safeties.

He popped free and caught a pass over the middle.

Lacy
To hear coach Mike McCarthy tell it, at the end of the play Lacy turned to his coach and said: "Man, I did this drill all last year and never got open."

So when people ask what Lacy can do to follow up his first NFL season – when he rushed for 1,178 yards, won offensive rookie of the year honors and was the best thing that's happened to the Packers' running game since Ryan Grant of 2007-08 – the answer might be found in that kind of detail.

McCarthy said early in the offseason that he wanted Lacy, and the rest of his running backs, to become proficient on all three downs so the offense don't have slow down to put a designated third-down back in the game. A significant part of that involves pass protection, but it also could put Lacy in position to become a bigger factor in the passing game.

Lacy caught 35 passes for 257 yards (a 7.3-yard average) last season, the most by a Packers running back since Tony Fisher had 48 catches for 347 yards in the 4-12 season of 2005. The last Packers back to reach 50 receptions was Ahman Green in 2003, when he had the exact same average as Lacy did last season.

It's not exactly Randy Moss receiving numbers, but last season Lacy started calling himself "Moss" when he caught passes in practice, and people keep bringing it up with him.

"I'm thinking that’s starting to get a little out of hand," Lacy said. "But I mean, I'm a pretty decent catcher."

That said, Lacy's game is still going to be based on the power he packs on his 5-foot-11, 230-pound frame. It was on display Friday, when he ran over cornerback Tramon Williams during a team drill.

"We're not going to line up and feature Eddie in the passing game," McCarthy said. "He still needs to be standing back there behind the quarterback getting the ball, running with his shoulders square."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Just about every time Aaron Rodgers stepped on the field in 2011, the Green Bay Packers were a threat to score.

On the way to winning his first -- and to date only -- MVP award, Rodgers set the NFL record for passer rating (122.5) and set franchise records for touchdown passes (45), passing yards (4,643), completion percentage (68.3) and yards per attempt (9.25), among others.

Rodgers
And he did it in 15 games, resting in the season finale against the Detroit Lions to prepare for the playoffs.

As a team, the Packers set club records for points in a season (560), yards (6,482) and passing yards (5,161 gross and 4,924 net).

But you knew all that already.

What you want to know is whether Rodgers and the Packers' offense can ever be that explosive again?

To answer that question, first it is necessary to understand why the 2011 offense was so unstoppable.

"I think our personnel was so good and our confidence was so high, and teams hadn't quite adjusted to what we were doing," Rodgers said in an interview last week. "They were still giving us a lot of one-high [safety] rotation defense because they were worried about [running back] Ryan Grant, and they were worried about us controlling the football the way we liked to.

"And because of that, we had so many one-on-one matchups for [receivers] Jordy [Nelson] and for Greg [Jennings] and for James Jones and [tight end] Jermichael [Finley], and that just allowed us to really be dynamic on defense. At the same time, our defense was giving up some points as well, so we had a lot of opportunities so we put up a lot of yards and a lot of points."

Another productive running back, reigning offensive rookie of the year Eddie Lacy, could force defenses to play the Packers like they did in 2011, when they had to respect both the run and the pass.

"I think there's a chance, but I think that you're still going to see, other than the first game because Seattle is going to play a lot of one-high like they always do, Eddie is going to get a lot of respect this year," Rodgers said. "But I think he's still going to get an opportunity to prove that he can do it again."

Coming tomorrow: Rodgers on relationships with his coaches.
Mathews-KaepernickAP PhotoClay Matthews and Green Bay had all offseason to digest what Colin Kaepernick did to them in January.

The final season at venerable Candlestick Park begins in style as the San Francisco 49ers host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

It is a rematch of an NFC divisional playoff game in the same building. The 49ers completely outclassed the Packers on Jan. 12, as first-year starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick and crew had their way with a defense that looked slow and lost in a 45-31 San Francisco victory.

Packers team reporter Rob Demovsky and 49ers team reporter Bill Williamson have plenty to discuss. To the questions:

Williamson: Rob, I think we have to start this off with this simple query: Can the Packers stop the read-option of a Kaepernick-led offense?

Demovsky: Bill, that’s what everyone has wanted to know since Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards against them in the playoff game. The number 579 -- the total yards of offense the 49ers piled up that day -- has been burned into the brains of the Packers’ defensive players. Almost every day in practice during training camp, the defense went off to one end of the field by itself and worked against the read-option. But the Packers haven’t seen any of it in live action since that playoff game, so at this point, there’s no way to know whether they’re any better equipped to handle it now.

Williamson: That’s the thing. Green Bay will be coming into this game nervous. The read-option has been on the minds of this coaching staff and its players all offseason, yet the Packers don’t know for sure if they can handle it any better than they did the last time they saw Kaepernick. Kaepernick and his coach, the always-confident Jim Harbaugh, believe in their system and their personnel. They are going to challenge the Packers right away. I fully expect Kaepernick to come out gunning to make a statement -- a full-tilt San Francisco offense. If Kaepernick has early success, it could open the offensive floodgates. Now, if the Green Bay defense holds Kaepernick early, the Packers will get a confidence boost and should hang around all day.

Rob, just how confident do you think the Packers will be if they get a ton of read-option right away?

Demovsky: Clay Matthews said this week that the Packers know they have to take their shots at the quarterback when he tries to get outside the pocket, and if they do, perhaps they can get Kaepernick to sit in the pocket more, which ultimately is their goal. They want to make him a pocket passer if at all possible. That’s their best chance for success.

There are other issues to this game, of course. Bill, considering the fact that the Packers will start a rookie, David Bakhtiari, at left tackle and a former undrafted free agent, Don Barclay, at right tackle, how big of an advantage does a pass-rusher like Aldon Smith have against Green Bay?

Williamson: Other than Kaepernick and Aaron Rodgers, Smith might be the most important player on the field Sunday. He can change the game by himself, as his 33.5 sacks in two NFL seasons attests. Bakhtiari and Barclay have an incredible challenge ahead of them. It is also bad news for Green Bay that 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith is healed from a triceps surgery. Aldon Smith had all 19.5 of his sacks in the regular season with Justin Smith playing with him, and none in 2012 without him. Having the Smith & Smith show together could mean a long day for Rodgers.

Demovsky: But won’t the 49ers have to respect the Packers’ running game a little bit more with the addition of rookie Eddie Lacy? He looks like their first legitimate running back since Ryan Grant in 2009. If the Packers can establish Lacy on first down, they might be able to keep themselves out of obvious passing situations, and then Aldon Smith wouldn’t be able to tee off and jet-rush up the field on every second and third down.

Williamson: That is certainly the Packers' hope. It is clear that getting their ground game back on track was a focal point of the offseason. This is a passer’s league, but getting yardage on the ground and keeping Kaepernick off the field will surely help Green Bay’s cause as much the relief that it would give Rodgers. But here’s the rub -- San Francisco is a monster against the run. The 49ers allowed just 3.7 yards per rush last season, third-best in the NFL. The Packers will be hard-pressed to break their streak of 43 regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher.

Demovsky: Bill, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about how the Packers are going to defend Kaepernick & Co., but don’t forget that January's playoff game was tied 24-24 midway through the third quarter, and the Packers' offense was having a decent day -- Rodgers throwing for 257 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Can the 49ers secondary hold up against Rodgers and the likes of Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jordy Nelson?

Williamson: A fine point. Look, the Packers are legitimate. They will not be embarrassed in this game. Rodgers is the best player on the planet. He and his receivers must be accounted for. If the 49ers are vulnerable on defense, it might be in the secondary, where they have the oldest defensive backs in the league. Can older players like Carlos Rogers and Nnamdi Asomugha (who may be slowed by a collarbone injury) keep the Green Bay passing game honest? If Green Bay is going to win this game, it’s going to be because Rodgers is unstoppable. That’s possible.

Rob, as we have discussed the major talking points of this anticipated matchup, an intriguing side story has developed. The Packers have brought in a pair of former 49ers backup quarterbacks in Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien. Do you think they can help Green Bay pull out a victory from the meeting room?

Demovsky: I doubt Wallace can. He wasn’t even with the 49ers for a full week. But you'd better believe they’ve grilled Tolzien about the 49ers. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the biggest reason they brought him in, and if they end up cutting him from the practice squad in a week or two. Now, Tolzien probably won’t know much about the 49ers' game plan for this week, but considering he was with them for both meetings against the Packers last season, he likely has a good working knowledge of how Harbaugh wants to go after Green Bay.

Williamson: I’m with you. These moves add some strategy elements, but this is going to be a big-boy game pitting two of the NFL’s finest teams against one another. Once the game starts, this thing is going to all about Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Kaepernick, Rodgers and Matthews.

NFC North draft analysis

April, 27, 2013
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How top-heavy was the 2013 draft in the NFC North? We welcomed more players in the first round (six) than in the second and third rounds combined (four), the result of two big trades.

With the 2013 affair basically in the books, let's take a closer look at its highs and lows. So much happened that we might not get to the relatively rare occurrence of two punters being drafted.

Onward:

BEST MOVE

The Green Bay Packers have gone 43 games without a 100-yard rusher, the longest active streak in the NFL by more than twice. Their running backs have combined for 12 rushing touchdowns over the past three seasons, the fewest in the NFL, and their average of 3.8 yards per rush over that span is tied for last in the league.

After years of subordinating this segment of their roster, the Packers reacted aggressively in 2013. They drafted not one but two of the top running backs available. Alabama's Eddie Lacy came in the second round (No. 61 overall), and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin came in the fourth round (No. 125 overall).

The relative flurry came at a time when the rest of the league appeared to have devalued the position. It was the first time in the history of the modern draft that zero running backs were selected in the first round. Perhaps the timing was coincidence, but if general manager Ted Thompson intended to capitalize on depressed prices to load up, it was a brilliant thought.

Thompson and the Packers had been trying to patch together the position ever since Ryan Grant broke his ankle in Week 1 of the 2010 season. It was time to find a more permanent solution, and Lacy and Franklin give them the personnel infusion they needed.

Runner-up: Like the Packers, the Chicago Bears finally attacked an area of need. They used two of their first three selections in what was originally a five-pick draft on high-end linebackers who actually project as starters rather than special-teams contributors. Second-rounder Jonathan Bostic could be the Bears' middle linebacker as early as this season, and fourth-rounder Khaseem Greene was one of the best defensive playmakers in college football last season.

RISKIEST MOVE

The Minnesota Vikings used four draft picks to move back into the first round and select Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, taking on risk in two forms.

First, Patterson is a boom-or-bust prospect who spent only one year playing at the Division I level. He has the physical tools to be an exceptional player but has more development ahead of him than most first-round picks. Here's how ESPN analyst Todd McShay put it before the draft: "He scares me coming out of Tennessee, but I see the talent. … Patterson, with the ball in his hands, is just freakish, and even though he disappears for 30-40 plays [per game], he'll show up with one or two big plays a game that just kind of blow your mind and leave you wanting more."

At the very least, Patterson will need to be guided through the early part of his career. The Vikings hope to start him off as a kickoff returner and work him into their offense slowly. Expecting him to jump into the starting lineup alongside Greg Jennings for a full 70 plays per game is probably unrealistic.

Second, the trade left the Vikings unable to fill one of their most pressing needs: middle linebacker. Giving up picks in the second and third rounds left them watching as more than a half-dozen middle linebackers were drafted. The Vikings gave up the opportunity to fill that job on a long-term basis by jumping to draft a receiver who generated plenty of divergent viewpoints during the pre-draft evaluation process.

Runner-up: The Detroit Lions used the No. 5 overall pick on a pass-rusher who had 4.5 sacks in his college career. BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah has all the physical tools to be a dominant pass-rusher, but his learning curve is steep and his potential for immediate impact is at least worth questioning.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

[+] EnlargeKyle Long
Reid Compton/USA TODAY SportsThe Bears were willing to overlook offensive lineman Kyle Long's inexperience because of his extraordinary athleticism for a man his size.
You would have been hard-pressed to find a mock draft that projected Oregon guard Kyle Long as a first-round pick. In a recent seven-round mock, Scouts Inc. suggested he would go No. 47 overall. And even that was based on Long's overwhelmingly positive athletic attributes rather than evaluation of his limited play at Oregon.

The Bears produced arguably the surprise of the draft by selecting Long at No. 20 overall, a time when even the most polished guards are rarely taken historically. But the Bears were blown away by Long's agility for his 6-foot-6 frame and were willing to overlook a one-season, four-start career at the Division I level.

There is no doubt the Bears needed help on their offensive line, but you could have a spirited philosophical argument over the draft value of a raw, inexperienced guard. Even if the Bears are right about Long -- that his athleticism will make him a long-term starter -- it's fair to question whether they needed to take him in the first round. Did another team covet the draft's third-best guard enough to take him between picks 21 and 50, where the Bears were situated in the second round? One explanation: The Bears, with only five total picks in the draft at that point, thought it would be too difficult to trade up in the second round assuming Long got out of the first. I'm not going to say it was the wrong choice, but it sure was surprising.

FILE IT AWAY

The Lions bolstered their pass defense at the expense of some other positions of need. You can't have it all, and the Lions made some clear decisions.

On the plus side, they used three of their first four choices on Ansah, cornerback Darius Slay and defensive end Devin Taylor. Ansah (6-foot-5 with 35 1/8-inch arms) and Taylor (6-7 with 36-inch arms) will provide incredible length and a new look to the Lions' outside pass rush. Slay, meanwhile, has elite speed (4.36 seconds in the 40-yard dash).

That focus left the Lions less able to surround quarterback Matthew Stafford with additional weapons and protection. The Lions didn't draft an offensive tackle after the departure of both 2012 starters, and they didn't get around to selecting a receiver until grabbing Virginia Tech's Corey Fuller with the third pick of the sixth round (No. 171 overall).

(The Lions did draft guard Larry Warford in the third round.)

From a roster-balance perspective, it made sense for the Lions to focus on pass defense -- long a weakness -- rather than their passing offense. But the Lions still finished the draft with less depth at receiver and offensive tackle than they would have liked. Life is a trade-off, after all.

Quick Take: Packers at 49ers

January, 6, 2013
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Five things to know about Saturday's Green Bay Packers-San Francisco 49ers divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park:

1. Eventful history: San Francisco was the site of some epic Packers-49ers playoff games in recent history. The Packers won a 1995 divisional matchup 27-17, becoming the only road victory by an NFC team in the divisional playoffs during the 1990s. In 1997, the Packers defeated the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game 23-10 to advance to the Super Bowl. And you'll probably see the end of the 1998 wild-card game about 467 times this week: highlighted by Terrell Owens' 25-yard touchdown reception with three seconds remaining that gave the 49ers a 30-27 victory. (Yes, I know Jerry Rice fumbled earlier in the drive.)

2. The rematch: Here's an excerpt from my column after the 49ers' thorough 30-22 defeat of the Packers in Week 1 this season: "There was little question Sunday that the 49ers were the sharper, smarter and more physical team." Among other developments, tailback Frank Gore rushed for 112 yards on 16 carries. Here's what Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said Saturday night: "They're physical, but I think that plays to our advantage up front." Indeed, among the transformations this Packers team has made is improving its run defense and overall aggressiveness. (At least when they're not playing Adrian Peterson in the regular season.)

3. Rebalanced offense: The Packers' biggest change since Week 1 is the fact that their offense is much more balanced. In the first game, they abandoned the run almost entirely. Coach Mike McCarthy called more than half of his plays (31 of 61) without a running back even on the field. Contrast that to Saturday night's victory over the Minnesota Vikings, when running backs DuJuan Harris, Ryan Grant and John Kuhn combined for 27 carries. That puts the Packers in better position to compensate if the 49ers' zone coverage limits their passing game. Remember, Harris and Grant weren't even on the Packers' roster at the time.

4. Read-option factor: The 49ers are a different team as well, especially at quarterback with Colin Kaepernick. The Packers looked vulnerable Saturday night to the kind of read-option plays Kaepernick excels at. Behind quarterback Joe Webb, the Vikings gained 65 yards on six read-option plays, and they were fortunate the Vikings didn't use the approach more often. There is plenty of film now on Kaepernick -- he has started seven games -- and the Packers will have a full week to prepare.

5. Ready to rumble: The Packers are eager for this rematch. Saturday night, defensive back Charles Woodson flatly said, "we're a better team now" than in Week 1. Defensive lineman B.J. Raji added: "We didn't really have the identity of our team set at that point. Most coaches say it takes four weeks to find the identity of a team. It was a good game and they beat us, but we're different now."

Vikings-Packers III: Injury report

January, 2, 2013
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There are only a handful of true injury questions as we approach Saturday night's wild-card playoff at Lambeau Field. Let's take a quick look at the first official injury report of the week:

Green Bay Packers: Receiver Jordy Nelson (knee) participated in a portion of practice, putting him on track to be available Saturday night. Running back James Starks (knee) was also a limited participant, but it sounds as if DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant are ahead of him in line for carries. Defensive end Jerel Worthy has been lost for the remainder of the playoffs because of a knee injury. Worthy and receiver Jarrett Boykin (ankle) were the only players who didn't practice at all Wednesday. Receiver Randall Cobb (ankle) and tight end Jermichael Finley (quadriceps) were limited but are expected to play.

Minnesota Vikings: As has been the practice for the past few weeks, tailback Adrian Peterson (abdomen) again did not practice. He will start Saturday night, however. Cornerback Antoine Winfield (hand) has pledged to play but will face significant pain. Linebacker Tyrone McKenzie (shoulder) did not practice and probably won't play. Quarterback Christian Ponder is dealing with a sore elbow, injured on a blitz by safety Morgan Burnett, but has downplayed the injury.

Quick Take: Vikings at Packers

December, 30, 2012
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Five things to know about next Saturday's Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field:

1. History: The Vikings and Packers have been twice-yearly opponents since 1961, but this will be just their second-ever meeting in the playoffs. The Vikings won the first, a 31-17 victory in the 2004 wild-card round at Lambeau Field. For cultural context, you might recall it was the infamous "Moon over Lambeau" game in which then-Vikings receiver Randy Moss pretended to moon the crowd after scoring a touchdown.

2. Peterson Factor: It's safe to say the Packers will spend this week working on a better gameplan for stopping Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson. In two regular-season games this season, Peterson rushed for 409 yards and accounted for three touchdowns against them. Including receptions, Peterson averaged 7.4 yards every time he touched the ball against the Packers' defense.

3. Packers RB? Peterson will get most of the attention this week, but you wonder if the Packers will stick with the hot hand and start DuJuan Harris in a playoff game. Harris had a strong effort Sunday, totaling 70 yards on 14 carries after Ryan Grant managed two yards on his two carries. Former starter Alex Green did not play a snap.

4. Winfield's status: One of the biggest question marks this week will be the condition of Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, whose departure from the game at halftime Sunday coincided with the Packers' offensive surge. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns after halftime, completing passes of 73, 45 and 30 yards along the way. Winfield is trying to play with a broken right hand that was noticeably swollen after the game. He pledged to play Saturday for as long as he can tolerate the pain. Sunday, he did so for half of the game. The Packers torched his replacements.

5. Just in time: The Packers finished Sunday with a number of questions at receiver. Randall Cobb did not play because of a sprained ankle and Jordy Nelson was limited by a hamstring injury. But Greg Jennings' best game of the season gives the Packers hope that their top receiver has finally rounded into form after a season's worth of injury problems. Jennings caught eight passes for 120 yards and doubled his season's total of touchdowns from two to four.

NFC North Friday injury report

December, 21, 2012
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Let's get inside the Friday injury report in the NFC North:

Chicago Bears: Defensive tackle Henry Melton (chest) returned to practice Friday but is doubtful for Sunday's game at the Arizona Cardinals. Linebacker Brian Urlacher (hamstring) has been ruled out. There is some optimism that receiver Earl Bennett (concussion) and cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder) will play. They are both listed as questionable. Linebacker Geno Hayes (knee) and defensive end Shea McClellin (knee) are probable.

Detroit Lions: Tight end Brandon Pettigrew (ankle) wasn't able to practice all week and is doubtful for Saturday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons. Safety Louis Delmas (knee) is questionable but expected to play. All other players on the roster should be available.

Green Bay Packers: We've already noted that center Jeff Saturday (neck/shoulder) has been replaced by Evan Dietrich-Smith. Running back Alex Green (concussion) is questionable for Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans. If he can't play, DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant will carry the load. Guard T.J. Lang (concussion) has been cleared to play. Defensive back Charles Woodson (collarbone) was ruled out, as were receiver Jordy Nelson (hamstring), defensive end C.J. Wilson (knee) and running back James Starks (knee).

Minnesota Vikings: Defensive end Brian Robison (shoulder) participated in a portion of practice Friday and is questionable for Sunday's game at the Houston Texans. All other players on the roster should be available, and it sounds like the Vikings will active cornerback Chris Cook (wrist) from injured reserve as well.

Final Word: NFC North

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

The stakes: The run-up to Sunday's game at Soldier Field took an unexpected, smack-talking turn. Little if any of it will have an impact on whether the Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bears win, so let's return our focus to football and run through the stakes of this game. The Packers can clinch their second-consecutive NFC North title with a victory, leaving the Bears needing help to reach the playoffs even if they win their final two games. The Packers are a three-point favorite on the road mostly because of their recent dominance over the Bears and the opposite directions the teams have moved over the past few months. The Packers have won seven of their past eight games. The Bears have lost four of their past five and are weakened by a recent spate of injuries. The Packers have won four consecutive games against the Bears and seven of their past eight in this series dating back to 2009. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is 21-6 against NFC North opponents all time, and the Packers are undefeated in their past 11 divisional games. Finally, here's a handy one-stop link for all of our Packers-Bears II coverage this week.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesBrandon Marshall is unlikely to get his wish for single coverage from the Packers secondary.
Marshall factor: Receiver Brandon Marshall made some sharp statements this week and also challenged the Packers to match up with him in single coverage. There is almost no chance the Packers will comply, mostly because the Bears have targeted Marshall by the most disproportionate percentage in the NFL this season. The Bears have targeted Marshall 153 times this season, second-most in the NFL. Their second-most targeted player in the passing game is running back Matt Forte (48). The differential of 105 targets between the two is almost twice the total of the second-highest differential in the NFL. The Bears' offense has been Cutler to Marshall of late. It might make sense to refocus around Forte and the running game Sunday, but that would reverse recent trends.

Packers' line: Out of nowhere, the Packers have built a productive running game in recent weeks and figure to split carries Sunday between Alex Green, DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant. Some of that success can be attributed to Don Barclay's turn at right tackle; the Packers have averaged 6.4 yards per carry while running right in their past two games. But the Packers have had trouble protecting Rodgers ever since original starter Bryan Bulaga was lost for the season because of a hip injury. In his past four games, Rodgers has been sacked or put under duress on 34.3 percent of his drop backs. That's up from 20.1 percent over the Packers' first nine games. The Bears' sack totals have dropped in recent weeks as well, but they have an opportunity to make the game difficult for Rodgers if they can find some momentum in the pass rush.

Still pushing: The Minnesota Vikings have accomplished their immediate goal of playing meaningful games in December. Will it lead to the playoffs? That's a more difficult challenge. They currently have the No. 9 seed in the six-team NFC playoff picture and have the NFL's most difficult remaining games based on strength of schedule (.679). Sunday's game will come against a St. Louis Rams team that has won three consecutive games and hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Week 8. The Vikings are 1-5 on the road this season. This is a winnable game for the Vikings, but recent history suggests the odds are against them making a final playoff push.

Streaks collide: Bummed about the Detroit Lions' five-game losing streak? Imagine yourself a fan of the Arizona Cardinals, who haven't won since starting the season 4-0. The Cardinals have lost nine consecutive games, most recently a 58-0 embarrassment to the Seattle Seahawks, and don't have an NFL-caliber quarterback on their active roster. Ryan Lindley will start this game mostly because he is a rookie and could conceivably improve over time. To this point, he has been awful, completing less than 50 percent of his 120 attempts with five interceptions and no touchdowns. Moreover, he has managed to complete only six passes to All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Meanwhile, the biggest drama remaining in the Lions' season is whether Calvin Johnson can break Jerry Rice's record of 1,848 receiving yards in a season. He is 303 yards away from passing Rice and has three games to do it. All 14 ESPN experts have picked the Lions to win, which would impact the second-biggest Lions drama -- where they will pick in the 2013 draft.

(Statistics courtesy ESPN Stats & Information unless otherwise noted.)

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

December, 10, 2012
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After the Green Bay Packers' 27-20 victory over the Detroit Lions, here are three issues that merit further examination:
  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    Watching quarterback Aaron Rodgers dash 27 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter brought to mind our preseason discussion about his offseason work aimed at maintaining or elevating his running efficiency as he got older. The gross numbers are hardly fantasy-worthy. Rodgers officially has 46 rushing attempts this season, putting him on pace for his lowest total since 2008, and he ranks seventh among NFL quarterbacks with 234 yards. But Rodgers has made 18 first downs in those attempts, giving him a conversion rate of 39.1 percent. That's better than each of the six quarterbacks ahead of him in yards except the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (41.3 percent). First-down conversions should be the definition of efficiency for quarterback scrambles. Here's a project that might require offseason work: Charting how many of Rodgers' scrambles have come against man-to-man defenses. Much like he frequently throws downfield passes when he suspects an opponent has jumped offsides, Rodgers seems to take off when he knows that defenders will have their backs to him in coverage. That's precisely what happened on the touchdown. Go back and watch Rodgers run right past Lions linebacker Justin Durant, who was covering tight end Jermichael Finley near the sideline and never saw Rodgers.
  2. There were plenty of clues that the Packers believe running back DuJuan Harris, signed to the practice squad in October and promoted to the 53-man roster 10 days ago, will emerge as a significant factor in the final push. They went out of their way to make sure he was involved Sunday night, giving him the ball on all seven plays he was in the game, including their first snap. Both Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy mentioned his "unique" skill set. Harris appeared both quick and powerful, possibly because he has fresh legs from a season of inactivity, and he finished with 31 yards on seven carries. That total included an 11-yard run on his first carry and a 14-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Alex Green shouldered most of the load, playing on 32 of a possible 53 snaps, while veteran Ryan Grant saw one carry on two snaps. But Harris is worth keeping an eye on. It's clear the Packers want to see what he can do.
  3. The Packers' coverage was exceptional for much of the night, albeit against a Lions team that was without three of their top four receivers as well as tight end Brandon Pettigrew (ankle). In what might have been their last game without defensive back Charles Woodson, the Packers allowed only two pass plays longer than 19 yards. Cornerbacks Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward and Sam Shields each batted away two passes. It's worth noting that Hayward played all 84 defensive snaps while Shields overtook Davon House for the No. 3 cornerback role, playing 58 snaps. Shields' return gives the Packers a healthy problem whenever Woodson resumes playing. You wonder if the Packers wouldn't consider leaving him at safety full time, rather than sliding him into the slot position when they move into their nickel package. Just a thought.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Did they raise the wall at Lambeau Field last week? Rodgers needed help completing the Lambeau Leap after his touchdown, as did defensive lineman Mike Daniels after a 43-yard fumble return. "I'm a little embarrassed about the leap," Rodgers said. "I was pretty tired." In all seriousness, you wonder whether Daniels' play will go down as the moment something special seemed evident in the Packers' season. They were on the ropes, trailing 14-3 against an opponent with a creative game plan, and got back into the game via an unlikely play by a rookie who had been averaging about 12 snaps per game before Sunday night. (He played 33 against the Lions because of injuries to other players.) In any event, it will go down as one of the most surprising plays of the Packers' season.

Rapid Reaction: Packers 27, Lions 20

December, 9, 2012
12/09/12
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A few thoughts on Sunday night's events at Lambeau Field:

What it means: The Green Bay Packers overcame a two-touchdown deficit and are now within one victory of the NFC North title. They are 9-4 and can clinch the division with a victory next Sunday at the Chicago Bears. The Detroit Lions lost their fifth consecutive game and, at 4-9, have guaranteed the third losing season in the four-year tenure of general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Jim Schwartz. It was the Lions' third consecutive loss when leading by at least 10 points, tying an NFL record. And yes, it was the franchise's 22nd consecutive loss in the state of Wisconsin, including the playoffs.

What I liked I: The Lions took the early advantage with a ball-control offense on a snowy night that kept the Packers' offense off the field for nearly 25 of the first 30 minutes of this game. They were aggressive and creative, getting one touchdown on a fourth-down bootleg from quarterback Matthew Stafford and mixing in returner Stefan Logan to their running game. It was 14-0 after just four plays of the second quarter, and the Packers got only 16 plays off before halftime.

What I liked II: The Packers worked their way back into the game in part by getting creative with their running game. They gave DuJuan Harris his first start, featured Alex Green but also mixed in veteran Ryan Grant. In total, they rushed for 140 yards a week after piling up 152 yards against the Vikings. All seven plays on their go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter were runs, and it was capped by Harris' 14-yard scamper. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn't have a touchdown pass in a regular-season home game for the first time since his third career start in 2008. But he did contribute a 27-yard scoring run when he caught the Lions in a man-to-man defense in the third quarter.

What I didn't like: The Lions seemed to get away from the running game in the second half. In fact, they ran the ball 24 times in the first half and eight times in the second. Was that because the Packers pulled defenders into the box in response to the Lions' early success? Stafford threw 16 passes in the first half and 29 in the second, and only part of that was late-game hurry-up. In the end, the Lions didn't have the horses to have their usual success in the passing game. Surprise starter Kris Durham made a nice one-handed catch in the first quarter, but it was the last big play he made. Receiver Calvin Johnson had 10 receptions for 118 yards, but he didn't score.

Defensive playmaking: The Packers' defense hasn't gotten many big plays from its defense since linebacker Clay Matthews joined defensive back Charles Woodson on the sidelines last month. So we should note that rookie defensive tackle Mike Daniels made a huge, if risky, play in the second quarter by picking up a Stafford fumble rather than falling on it. Daniels returned the ball 43 yards for a touchdown to close the deficit to 14-10.

Injury report: Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew didn't play much because of a sprained left ankle. His absence was felt.

What's next: The Packers will take on the Bears at Soldier Field. The Lions will play at the Arizona Cardinals, who are fresh off a 58-0 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Running back Ryan Grant's relative inactivity in 2012 represents a fair league-wide evaluation of his skill level at this point. Grant didn't participate in a training camp, got one carry during a four-week stint with the Washington Redskins and has been on the street since the end of October.

Grant
With that said, the Green Bay Packers could do a lot worse here in Week 14 after losing Cedric Benson for the season and perhaps James Starks as well. Whether or not Grant can be an explosive runner at age 29, there are a few things we can say with relative confidence amid an ESPNMilwaukee.com report that he has agreed to return to the Packers.
  • Grant's five years in the Packers' offense means he will slide into it seamlessly and presumably be ready to play as early as Sunday night's game against the Detroit Lions.
  • He will be in shape. No one has ever questioned his conditioning or work ethic.
  • He will be crafty. Although he might lack the power and speed of elite backs, Grant has always understood where to find yards. He has averaged at least 4.2 yards per carry in all but one of his NFL seasons, and even as his skills apparently diminished last season, he managed to produce 559 rushing yards while splitting time with Starks.
  • He can produce in the passing game.
  • He isn't likely to be a turnover machine, having fumbled seven times in 1,017 regular-season touches.

Most important, to me, is that Grant will give the Packers a reliable option to the decimated remainder of their backfield. Second-year player Alex Green has managed only 3.3 yards on 109 carries this season and doesn't have the look of a primary back. Johnny White and DuJuan Harris have combined for 29 NFL carries in their careers. And if John Kuhn is a candidate to be a feature back, there haven't been any indications to this point.

The Packers might not make Grant their primary back, but if nothing else he will give them an important security blanket to hedge against their otherwise unproven backfield.

I think I understand why the Packers tried to move on from Grant this season, and I get why they are going to re-sign him. This is an emergency move, one that relied on the good character of both sides to avoid burning bridges. Grant isn't the player the Packers envisioned in their backfield during the stretch run, but he might well prove to be their best option.

BBAO: Season ends for James Starks?

December, 5, 2012
12/05/12
7:00
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

It turns out that Brian Urlacher's potentially season-ending hamstring injury was only the tip of the NFC North's personnel news Tuesday night.

The Detroit Lions ended the season of receiver Titus Young, and possibly his tenure altogether with them, by placing him on injured reserve because of a knee injury the team has downplayed all season. (Fellow receiver Ryan Broyles was also placed on IR, as expected.) Young had been told to stay away from the team for the second time in a span of three weeks, and it's difficult to imagine the Lions giving him another chance.

But the big news came from Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com. Green Bay Packers tailback James Starks apparently suffered a knee injury Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, and it's serious enough that it could end his season. Starks is the most talented, but also the most injury-prone, runner on the Packers' roster, and they would be left with the underwhelming Alex Green, fullback John Kuhn and two recent acquisitions -- Johnny White and DuJuan Harris -- to fill in behind him.

To answer your questions on Twitter, yes, veteran Ryan Grant is a free agent and is available after a short stint with the Washington Redskins earlier this season. Whether the Packers have interest at this point is unknown. More is to come on this story, I'm sure.

In the meantime, our morning tour around the division starts now:

BBAO: Bears still working out RBs

September, 26, 2012
9/26/12
7:25
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We're Black and Blue All Over. (We're also on Facebook and Twitter.)

A former NFC North running back who had worked out for two other divisional teams in the past two weeks has signed elsewhere, ending a longer-than-expected run of unemployment.

Former Green Bay Packers tailback Ryan Grant, who worked out last week for the Detroit Lions and Tuesday for the Chicago Bears, signed Tuesday night with the Washington Redskins, according to ESPNChicago.com and others. The question from our perspective is why the Bears worked him out, and if it means they have more injury problems than they are letting on.

Coach Lovie Smith said earlier this week that he hopes starter Matt Forte (ankle) will be back in time for Monday night's game at the Dallas Cowboys. Backup Michael Bush didn't play much in the latter stages of last Sunday's 23-6 victory over the St. Louis Rams, but Smith was vague earlier this week if he had an injury.

Teams often work out veterans during the season to update their personnel files, so it's not clear if the Bears just wanted to see where Grant was in terms of conditioning should they need him later this season, or if the need extra depth this week. Wednesday's practice report could give us some answers. The Bears are scheduled to take the field at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • In total, the Bears have worked out four veteran running backs in eight days, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
  • The Chicago Sun-Times on Bears cornerback Tim Jennings: "[E]ven hardened skeptics are warned to doubt Jennings at their own risk."
  • The Detroit Lions signed longtime punter Nick Harris to replace the injured Ben Graham, who was placed on injured reserve because of a calf injury, notes Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News.
  • Sunday's game between the Lions and Minnesota Vikings is going to be a "a back-alley fight," Lions receiver Nate Burleson said. Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press has more.
  • The Lions need their defensive line to step up, writes Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com.
  • Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford wants to make the most of his opportunity after replacing the injured Mistral Raymond, writes Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com.
  • The father of Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway was in the stands at the Metrodome last Sunday for his son's huge game against the San Francisco 49ers, according to Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune. Alan Greenway has been suffering from leukemia.
  • An architect will be chosen Friday for the Vikings' new stadium, notes the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones is dealing with a foot injury, writes Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Jones apparently told people at an event Tuesday night that it is broken but he is playing through the injury.
  • Most of the plays Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked on Monday night were due to coverage, writes Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Here are the times Rodgers had to throw, based on McGinn's film study: "3.0 seconds, 2.9, 3.7, 4.5, 4.3, 5.4, 2.6 and 4.9 seconds." … Typically, anything over three seconds is acceptable.
  • Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com has an extended version of Rodgers' comments about the NFL's replacement officials.

BBAO: Broken arm for Drayton Florence

September, 18, 2012
9/18/12
7:10
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We're Black and Blue All Over. (We're also on Facebook and Twitter.)

Sorry folks. Hit the wall Monday afternoon after a quick turnaround from Sunday night's game at Candlestick Park. We have some loose ends to tie up from the weekend, starting with news of another injury to the Detroit Lions' defensive secondary.

Veteran Drayton Florence, who started the game against the San Francisco 49ers because Chris Houston (ankle) and Bill Bentley (concussion) were sidelined, suffered a forearm injury that coach Jim Schwartz said "doesn't look real good," according to Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press reported Florence broke his arm. The Lions haven't yet made a roster move, but it's hard to imagine Florence being ready to play anytime soon.

There is some optimism that both Houston and Bentley will be ready for practice Wednesday. The Lions travel to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Lions will get running back Mikel Leshoure back from suspension this week but are still scheduled to work out running backs Steve Slaton and Ryan Grant on Tuesday, according to Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com. Schwartz: "I'm not going to comment on guys that we would potentially bring in, or anything like that, but we do need the run the ball a little bit better." Agreed.
  • The Lions should have done a better job playing to their strengths Sunday night, writes Birkett for the Free Press.
  • Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith didn't appear critical of cornerback D.J. Moore, who spoke out against quarterback Jay Cutler on Monday. Smith, via Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune: "I have a problem with a 'teammate said' or 'source said.' But if you put your name behind something and you want to voice your opinion, you can voice it.''
  • Smith is optimistic about the short-term future of running back Matt Forte (ankle), notes Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • The Bears have benched left guard Chris Spencer and will start Chilo Rachal this week against the St. Louis Rams, notes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Ten of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder's completions Sunday in Indianapolis were caught behind the line of scrimmage, according to film study from Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson acknowledged a coverage gaffe on the Colts' 30-yard touchdown play to receiver Reggie Wayne, according to the Star Tribune.
  • The Vikings want to increase the role of tight end John Carlson in their offense, notes Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • The Green Bay Packers will return from four consecutive days off Tuesday. Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette goes back and points to the play that might have turned around the status of cornerback Sam Shields.

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