NFC North: Shaun Smith
- A scary thought occurred as I studied the NFC standings in that artifact known as a newspaper Monday morning: Despite a perfect 10-0 record, they have the slimmest of margins in the race to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. For that matter, they're at least two weeks away from being in position to clinch the NFC North. That's the situation with the San Francisco 49ers sitting at 9-1, and with the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears both at 7-3. The bright side: All 14 of the teams that have started 10-0 in the Super Bowl era have advanced to the playoffs one way or the other. Nine of them made the Super Bowl and six won it.Kevin SeifertFollowing their win over Tampa Bay, the Green Bay Packers take a seat in the examination room.
- In the locker room after the game, quarterback Aaron Rodgers truly looked like he had lost Sunday. He said he was frustrated that "I didn't throw the ball very well." It's true that Rodgers missed a few more throws than he normally does. He also threw his fourth interception of the season, finished with his second-lowest passer rating in a game this season and said: "I'm not trying to be ridiculously humble right now." But I hope Rodgers doesn't become a victim of the absurd pace he set in the first half of the season. Historically, NFL passing numbers dip when the weather turns. Everyone wants to meet and possibly exceed their own standards, but there was nothing to be disappointed about after a 299-yard, three-touchdown, 112.3-rated game.
- If tailback James Starks misses any time because of a sprained knee, the Packers will miss him most in the closer role he has carved out this season. On a number of occasions, they have turned to him to either run out the clock (at the Minnesota Vikings) or be the focal point of a ball-possession drive to seal the game. Sunday was an example of the latter. After the Bucs closed the gap to 21-19 early in the fourth quarter, the Packers noticeably shifted toward Starks on what turned out to be an 85-yard drive to make it a two-score game. Rodgers completed four passes to Starks on the drive, for 29 yards, and he rushed twice for 26 yards. That gave him six touches on the eight plays. Veteran Ryan Grant is capable of establishing a rhythm when he gets regular carries, but Starks has obviously been the Packers' first preference.
I wouldn't have guessed that the Packers' B.J. Raji on Sunday became just the fourth defensive lineman since the 1970 merger to score a rushing touchdown. The others were Shaun Smith (2010), James Jones (1993) and, of course, William "The Refrigerator" Perry (1985). Perry is the only among them who scored more than once. Raji is only 25 and in his third NFL season. Does he have a chance to be the most scoring-efficient defensive lineman in NFL history? Let's find out!
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
At least a few people were surprised last weekend when Detroit included defensive lineman Shaun Smith in its final round of roster cuts. It seemed, after all, that Smith was on track to claim a starting job opposite Grady Jackson and give the Lions a pair of 320-ish pound defensive tackles to shore up their run defense.
Here’s an interesting twist, if not an explanation: The NFL has suspended Smith four games for violating its anabolic steroids policy, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Smith won’t be available to play until Week 5, at which point the Lions or any other team could sign him. According to the report, Smith took a “water pill,” which can be used to lose weight but are illegal under NFL rules because they can also mask steroid use.
The Lions wouldn’t have had to pay Smith during the suspension, nor would they have had to use a roster spot on him. (Suspended players go on the reserve/suspended list.) So there really wasn’t an incentive to release Smith if they knew the suspension was looming.
So to me, the suspension doesn’t seem to be the primary reason the Lions released him. If they envisioned a future with him, they could have stashed him on the reserve/suspended list and activated him in Week 5. They must not have been convinced he was worth the wait.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
My morning-after take on the NFC North’s cutdown day: Green Bay had some shockers and Detroit engineered a few surprises. Chicago and Minnesota were entirely predictable.
Packers general manager Ted Thompson has scheduled a mid-afternoon news conference to comment the organization’s decision to part ways with quarterback Brian Brohm, a second-round pick in 2008, and safety Anthony Smith, a free-agent pickup who seemed to be challenging for a starting job. I’ll get you details from that event as soon as I can. I'm also itching to compare how each team's draft class fared, but we might as well wait until the middle of the week when we know for sure who will be on the opening-week roster.
Remember, teams can start signing players to their practice squads Sunday at noon ET. Most NFL teams will continue to adjust their roster over the next few days through waiver claims, trades and signings of vested free agents who were released or otherwise available. So while the flurry of moves occurred Saturday, the trickle will continue for at least another 48 hours.
For now, let’s take a spin through Sunday coverage in the NFC North:
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune has a one-on-one interview with quarterback Jay Cutler. Let’s just say you get a pretty good feel for Cutler’s personality through the brevity of some of his answers.
- Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald also spoke with Cutler, who talked expansively about his offseason visits to see children hospitalized with diabetes.
- Bears cornerback Charles Tillman was activated from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and now has four practices to get ready for live action, notes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Here’s coverage of the Brohm move from Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. The general conclusion: Brohm didn’t show enough progress from his disastrous rookie season to suggest he would develop into a competent NFL quarterback.
- Dougherty believes the Packers might just use two quarterbacks on their active roster this season. Here’s his roster analysis.
- Detroit cut defensive tackle Shaun Smith because “his attitude and work ethic keeps getting in the way,” writes John Niyo of the Detroit News. The move also allows the Lions to avoid paying Smith a $350,000 roster bonus.
- Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press wonders if the Lions’ offensive line has turned the corner.
- Two young receivers made the Vikings' roster, at least for now: Jaymar Johnson and Darius Reynaud. Chip Scoggins and Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune explain.
- Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wants Packers fans to calm down over Minnesota’s acquisition of Brett Favre: “Being a football fan means you get to blow off steam, go crazy and have a good time. But do people have to act like, what's the term I want ... disgusting animals?”
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
Check here for a full list of Detroit’s roster moves.
Biggest surprise: The word around the NFL was that Shaun Smith was going to open the season as a starter at defensive tackle. Instead, he was released Saturday. Smith is a big-bodied space-filler who figured to help solidify the Lions pass rush, and now they seem pretty thin once again in the interior of their defensive line. Defensive tackle Chuck Darby was also released, so you wonder who will start opposite Grady Jackson. Rookie Sammie Hill? Ikaika Alama-Francis? Landon Cohen? That’s all the Lions have left, at least for now.
No-brainers: The release of placekicker Billy Cundiff means the Lions feel reasonably comfortable that Jason Hanson is ready to kick after undergoing knee surgery last month. The Lions could always re-sign Cundiff later this week if Hanson proves otherwise. Meanwhile, it was time to bid farewell to longtime Lions running back Aveion Cason. Rookie Aaron Brown showed enough speed and playmaking ability in the preseason to let Cason move on. Finally, the Lions had no choice but to keep Kevin O’Connell as the No. 4 quarterback while Drew Stanton recovers from knee surgery.
What’s next: You can expect the Lions to be active on the waiver wire as long as they sit atop the NFL’s claim priority list. The Lions could continue claiming players for several days until they get their 53-man roster settled for Week 1. The next step for the team will be naming a starting quarterback. Neither Daunte Culpepper nor Matthew Stafford outperformed each other during the preseason, but Culpepper was sidelined by a toe injury that required eight stitches. Coach Jim Schwartz hasn’t tipped his hand and has suggested he might not make an announcement until shortly before the Sept. 13 season opener at New Orleans.
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|New Lions coach Jim Schwartz is attempting to change the atmosphere in Detroit.|
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Upon arriving in Detroit to begin offseason workouts, Lions players found their locker room had been painted. Their lockers had been moved around. They had been assigned new parking spaces. Their lifting regimen had been changed. Their uniforms looked different.
Most symbolic, a number of motivational signs were replaced by one that simply read: "National Football League" -- a reminder of the high standards set for everyone who walks into the building.
That approach has extended into training camp, where more than half of the players on Detroit's 80-man roster are newcomers. Schwartz has tweaked his practice plan for every day of camp, both to reinforce the message and provide variety. After taking over the first 0-16 team in NFL history, he really had no other choice.
"You can't stand pat," Schwartz said. "That's something that gives the players a little bit of comfort, that we're not standing pat. ... Every time they come to practice, they're working on a different situation, a little bit different drill, different emphasis of periods and things like that. There's drudgery in walking out of the hotel every morning and going to bed and walking to the next meeting. But when they walk onto the practice field, it's a fresh plan that day. It's not the same old thing."
(Note: Due to circumstances, my stay in Detroit was cut short. But for additional information, make sure you've checked out this practice report posted earlier this week.)
|Mark Cunningham/Getty Images|
|Detroit rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford has played well enough to be the starter.|
I hope it doesn't sound patronizing to praise Daunte Culpepper for losing 30 pounds during the offseason. Culpepper reported to camp at 260 pounds and has never looked lighter in his NFL career. During the practice I attended this week, he was decisive and his passes were sharp.
To be honest, Culpepper probably couldn't have done more thus far to win the Lions' starting job. And he still might not see the field this season.
Rookie Matthew Stafford, whose pre-draft contract agreement ensured he would not miss a day of training camp, has practiced his way into a legitimate opportunity to start the Sept. 13 opener at New Orleans. (Let that be a lesson to all future No. 1 draft picks.) In practice, at least, it's difficult to see much difference between him and Culpepper. If that remains the case, it's hard to imagine Stafford opening the year on the bench.
Stafford still has plenty of work to do, beginning with his anticipated start Saturday night against at Cleveland. But at the very least, it looks like Stafford is going to give Schwartz a very difficult decision.
2. Can the Lions retrofit their defensive line?
You won't find two more dissimilar defensive schemes than when you compare the Lions' 2008 approach with the one Schwartz is implementing now.
"The philosophy here in the past had been small and quick," he said. "The philosophy here now is big and powerful."
That put the Lions' personnel department on a search for larger defensive linemen, while incumbents were required to gain weight in the offseason. Such changes don't occur overnight, and it appears the Lions are about halfway there.
They've added some interior bulk in Grady Jackson (340ish pounds), Shaun Smith (325 pounds) and rookie Sammie Lee Hill (329 pounds). Based on pure size, that trio should be more difficult to drive off the ball than the players Detroit used last year.
On the outside, however, the Lions will miss veteran Jared DeVries, who ruptured his Achilles tendon early in camp and is lost for the season. Their current depth at end -- led by Cliff Avril, Jason Hunter and Dewayne White -- is thin.
3. What impact will the free agent/trade crop have?
The Lions' revolving personnel door has continued into training camp, most recently with Shaun Smith. New veterans are sprinkled all over the field, from Smith and Jackson
to cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Anthony Henry, from linebackers Larry Foote and Julian Peterson to receivers Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt.
Considering the personnel deficit that contributed to last season's record, an influx seemed unavoidable. The Lions decided to pursue the veteran route in hopes of establishing some short-term credibility while building for the long term behind the scenes. In all, it looks like the Lions will have at least 11 new starters when the season opens.
You wonder whether that will last all season or if Henry will eventually make his way to safety. From the outside, he doesn't appear to be a good matchup for the speedy receivers in this division, be it Green Bay's Greg Jennings, Minnesota's Bernard Berrian or Chicago's Devin Hester.
A previous surplus of safeties has been whittled down to the point where this move might make sense, if the Lions can find another cornerback they feel comfortable inserting into the lineup.
During the best portion of his career, Peterson was a pass-rushing, play-making force to be reckoned with. Offenses had to account for him on every play.
At 32, Peterson might be past that prime. But the Lions believe he can still be a disruptive player who will help cover for some pass-rushing deficiency in other areas. His success or failure will play a big role in whether the Lions can improve their takeaway totals from last season.
Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has said he could blitz as often as 40 percent of the time this season. Expect him to lean heavily on Peterson in those situations.
The Lions signed veteran Maurice Morris to back up starting running back Kevin Smith, but you wonder what Morris' role will be if rookie Aaron Brown continues to display big-play capabilities. Brown's speed might make it difficult to keep him off the field. ... When the summer began, the Lions had too many safeties. But their surplus has thinned out considerably after the trade of Gerald Alexander and a season-ending knee injury to Daniel Bullocks. Rookie Louis Delmas and veteran Marquand Manuel have been limited by injuries. When it's all said and done, expect Delmas and Kalvin Pearson to hold starting jobs. ... Receiver Demir Boldin, the brother of Arizona's Anquan Boldin, is a long shot to make the roster but made a number of professional-level catches during the practice I watched. ... Receiver Calvin Johnson has been limited by a thumb injury during much of camp and will miss his second consecutive preseason game Saturday at Cleveland. But Johnson is expected to be healed in time for the regular season. ... Quarterback Drew Stanton appears close to locking down a roster spot after seeming to be on the brink of release during the offseason.
As some of you know, I was standing on the sideline at Detroit's practice when news broke of Brett Favre's contract agreement with Minnesota. I managed to jot down a page of practice notes and spend some time with Lions coach Jim Schwartz before I left, and I want to bring you some thoughts before they fade or become irrelevant.
|Matthew Emmons/US Presswire|
|Rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford has looked impressive in the first few weeks of camp.|
(Keep in mind that a full Lions Camp Confidential will appear on a day to be determined in this space.)
As I matched up numbers on the field to names on the roster, it was jarring to realize how many prominent players were sitting out because of injuries.
First-round draft pick Brandon Pettigrew (thigh) was moving around with a notable limp. The Lions' best player last season, placekicker Jason Hanson, was sidelined after having a minor procedure on his knee. Defensive lineman Grady Jackson, receiver Calvin Johnson and receiver Dennis Northcutt were limited. Schwartz, however, said the Lions' long injury list is a function of a caution-first approach as much as anything.
"Our philosophy is to err on the side of caution in [organized team activities] and training camp," he said. "If this were a regular-season game, there would be a lot of urgency to get a guy back. But one thing we don't want to do is turn a minor injury into a major one, or turn an injury with a fairly set timetable into a nagging season-long thing because we're worried about getting him back for one more practice in training camp. There's an urgency to get back on the field, but we don't want to cross the line in setting guys back and making the situation worse than it is."
With that said, it's not a great sign that Pettigrew has only practiced sporadically this summer and has now stepped into more of a long-term recovery process from a quadriceps injury. Schwartz said the injury wasn't responding as hoped, and now the goal is to try to get him healthy in time to have a productive regular season.
I caught a glimpse of one-on-one pass drills and was particularly interested to watch the matchup of right tackle Gosder Cherilus and defensive end Cliff Avril. Cherilus, of course, was the Lions' top draft pick last season and had a pretty up-and-down rookie year. He's penciled in as the starter this season and appears to be holding off veteran Jon Jansen for the job.
Avril, meanwhile, offers the Lions perhaps their best chance for an outside pass rush after notching five sacks in limited playing time as a rookie.
For the rep I watched, at least, there was no contest. Cherilus rode Avril wide around the pocket. And when Avril tried a spin move to get inside, Cherilus capitalized on the momentary lack of balance and shoved Avril to the ground. That's how you keep a pass-rusher away from the quarterback.
Minnesota has dealt with gimpy quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Chicago is trying to get defensive tackle Tommie Harris back on the field. Green Bay has been thin at linebacker and is down a defensive end while B.J. Raji's contract negotiations drag on.
But no NFC North team is more black and blue than Detroit. The latest addition to the Lions' injury list is defensive end Jared DeVries, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury Monday. Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com reports the Lions signed free agent lineman Shaun Smith, but as Kowalski points out, defensive line is only one of several thin positions this week in training camp.
- The Lions' top four receivers all missed practice Monday. Calvin Johnson, in fact, was wearing a protective cast over his jammed thumb. And the Lions still haven't gotten No. 2 receiver Bryant Johnson on the field because of lingering issues from a golf cart accident last month. (Yes, that sentence is accurate.)
- Rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew (thigh) and rookie safety Louis Delmas (knee) have been limited for much of camp. Both were in uniform Monday but were limited to individual drills.
- Safety Daniel Bullocks, who appeared to have a good chance to start opposite Delmas, is having knee problems again.
That's a few more key players than coach Jim Schwartz probably wants to see. But to mangle an old phrase, look at the positive: The sooner you get hurt, the more time you have to get healthy.
Detroit might have suffered a significant loss Monday morning when defensive end Jared DeVries was taken off the field on a cart after suffering an injury near his right ankle. Coach Jim Schwartz said the injury didn't look good on the field but declined to speculate on its severity.
UPDATE (5:25 ET): As you've probably heard by now, DeVries suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.
The Lions had already expressed interest in free-agent defensive lineman Shaun Smith, who visited St. Louis on Sunday after his unexpected release last week from Cleveland. Smith visited Lions practice Monday. Losing DeVries would give the Lions more incentive to sign Smith, who played end and nose tackle in Cleveland. It's likely he would serve as a tackle in the Lions' 4-3 scheme, but no matter what position he plays, a 325-pound defensive lineman can only help the Lions.
It will also be interesting to see if the injury prompts the Lions to sign veteran defensive end Kevin Carter, who they expressed interest in during the offseason. We'll have more as the day progresses. If you want some background on why Cleveland released Smith, read here.
For now, it's off to Chicago's 1 p.m. ET practice.