NFC North: Third and one11

Third and one: Vikings

November, 23, 2009
After Minnesota’s 35-9 victory over Seattle, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:

  1. This might only interest me. But by my count, backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson has taken 48 snaps this season in garbage time replacement duty for starter Brett Favre. The Vikings are averaging 64.4 plays per game, meaning Jackson has already played the equivalent of three quarters this season. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s one way the Vikings have been able to keep Favre fresh this season and, potentially, for the playoffs. If this pace continues for the final six games, Favre will have missed the equivalent of more than a game’s worth of snaps and potential wear and tear. Just some grist for the mill, especially to the naysayers who have noted Favre’s late-season struggles in recent years.
  2. I didn’t get to it last week, but our friends at Football Outsiders elevated Minnesota’s special teams to their No. 1 overall ranking in the NFL through 10 weeks. It’s a complicated formula, but basically it compares each team’s performance to the NFL average in multiple categories specific to special teams. Percy Harvin’s arrival has certainly helped, but so has the acquisition of a handful of other players who are excelling on special teams. One is rookie safety Jamarca Sanford, who forcefully stripped the ball from Seattle returner Ben Obomanu in the second quarter. Updated special-teams statistics aren’t available yet, but unofficially Sanford has nine special-teams tackles in eight games this season.
  3. Chester Taylor’s 73-yard performance was a reminder that he is fresh and still available for spot duty whenever needed. The Vikings have been trying to work Adrian Peterson into more passing situations, and that along with Harvin’s emergence has seemed to minimize Taylor’s role. But Taylor has always provided a reliable change in running style from Peterson’s hard-charging pace. And no, we didn’t miss Taylor and Peterson in the backfield at the same time Sunday. It’s a welcome wrinkle we have always advocated around these parts.
And here’s one question I’m still asking:

Is Ray Edwards finally establishing himself as a consistent playmaking defensive end? A week after notching two sacks against the Lions, and losing a third to penalty, Edwards had three tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He helped the defense limit Seattle to 212 total yards and 10 first downs, season lows in both categories. Edwards has the luxury of playing alongside three 2008 Pro Bowlers, but he has the speed, strength and aggression to routinely make big plays in single matchups with offensive linemen.

Third and one: Lions

November, 23, 2009
After Detroit’s 38-37 victory over Cleveland, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:
  1. I feel bad for Lions fans who helped sell out Thursday’s Thanksgiving game against Green Bay. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which they’ll be able to greet their newest hero. I’m not sure how forthcoming the team will be about quarterback Matthew Stafford’s left shoulder, but it would be a minor miracle if he can make a start in three days. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote here about Stafford being fit for a harness and sling after the game. Stafford doesn’t need the left shoulder to throw, but he does need it to take snaps and won’t have the advantage of adrenaline to overcome the pain he would incur the first time he took a hit.
  2. I’m willing to acknowledge that rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew is a better receiver than I originally gave him credit for. His 29 receptions lead all rookie tight ends, and he’s got some ball skills that help him in traffic. With receiver Calvin Johnson sidelined on the game’s final play Sunday, I agree that Pettigrew was Stafford’s best option. With all that said, I’m still not convinced that a team so bereft of talented linemen had the luxury of taking a tight end with the No. 20 overall pick. But to this point, the Lions are getting a pretty decent return from the decision.
  3. Stafford’s late-game heroics masked what would have been the most embarrassing performance yet by the Lions’ horrid pass defense. Cleveland quarterback Brady Quinn threw four touchdown passes, one shy of the total number of offensive touchdowns the Browns had scored in their previous 15 games combined. Overall, Quinn completed 64 percent of his passes and had a 133.1 passer rating. I shudder to think what kind of numbers Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers will put up against the Lions on Thursday.

And here is one question I’m still asking:
Should Kevin Smith be a bigger part of the Lions’ passing game? His 25-yard touchdown reception required a mid-air adjustment and showcased excellent hands and ball skills. It’s one thing to have a running back who can catch a checkdown or screen pass. It’s quite another if the player can split the seam, make an adjustment and score. That sequence should open some eyes around the NFL.

Third and one: Bears

November, 23, 2009
After Chicago’s 24-20 loss to Philadelphia, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:

  1. I knew I recognized Kahlil Bell’s name from an NFC North perspective. But I couldn’t remember how until a media friend filled one of the many gaps in my head. Bell played at UCLA, where he caught the eye of Minnesota running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, a former Bruins assistant. The Vikings brought Bell to training camp but waived him Aug. 16. In his first game for the Bears on Sunday night, Bell produced the team’s longest run in its past 9,004 carries, according to Elias Sports Bureau, dating back to 1989. I don’t think Bell is a long-term answer for the Bears, but it sure would be nice if he afforded them another backfield option while starter Matt Forte continues to struggle.
  2. Philadelphia receiver DeSean Jackson split safeties Al Afalava and Danieal Manning for his 48-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter. I know it looked like Afalava got beat, but I wouldn’t put him any higher than third on the list of blame for that play. First of all, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb had far too much time waiting for Jackson to break free. McNabb took three sacks in the game but the Bears were nowhere close to him on that play. Second, I blame any scheme that leaves two safeties to cover Jackson. He’s too fast for either Manning or Afalava. I can’t diss Afalava for one of the NFL’s fastest players having enough time to run past him.
  3. Sometimes it's inevitable to adopt the opinions of broadcasters when you watch a game on television, but one thing NBC’s Cris Collinsworth said is still resonating with me. Quarterback Jay Cutler’s mechanics look totally out of whack. He threw some passes while backpedaling. He threw a few others from his toes, including the fourth-quarter overthrow of receiver Johnny Knox. He rarely stepped into his passes. I know this isn’t a new thing for Cutler, and I realize his arm can generally compensate for those oversights. But when you’re as inaccurate as Cutler was Sunday night, it’s fair to inspect such mundane details. He looks like he needs a mechanics boot camp with a mentor he trusts. (Mike Shanahan is available, I believe.)
And here is one question I’m still asking:

How many times will the Bears run a screen to Devin Hester before they realize opponents are all over it? We get it. Hester is a playmaker who just needs the ball in his hands. And even if it only nets 4 or 5 yards, it’s better than the average play the Bears’ running game is producing. But neither Hester nor anyone else can escape three defensive players who pounce on this tired play. On Sunday, Hester managed 2 yards on three bubble screens. Isn’t it time to lay off that one for a few weeks?

Third and one: Packers

November, 23, 2009
After Green Bay’s 30-24 victory over San Francisco, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:
  1. Coach Mike McCarthy confirmed the worst Monday: Cornerback Al Harris (knee) and linebacker Aaron Kampman (knee) are lost for the season. With a day to think about it, you wonder if this traumatic turn of events has accelerated an expected personnel succession on the Packers defense. Neither player was an ideal fit for the team’s new 3-4 scheme. Kampman is a pending free agent and seems far more comfortable as a 4-3 defensive end. Harris’ contract runs through 2011, but he will turn 35 in December. Tramon Williams seems to be a natural fit to replace Harris. I’m not sure if the Packers have an internal replacement for Kampman, but for now they’re looking at the combination of rookie Brad Jones and veteran Brady Poppinga.
  2. I don’t think you can minimize how rewarding it must be for the Packers offense to have run out the final 5:50 of the game after the 49ers closed within one score. Their defense was staggered and there was every reason to believe the 49ers would score again if they got the ball back. But after regaining possession, Green Bay converted three first downs and forced San Francisco to use its final two timeouts. Tailback Ryan Grant ran for 27 yards on the possession, including a 21-yarder that assured the Packers good field position if they had been forced to punt, and made an important statement that he can be relied on in the latter stages of games that have significant playoff implications.
  3. Through all of Sunday’s posts, we barely mentioned receiver Greg Jennings’ first 100-yard day since Week 3 at St. Louis. More than half of his yardage came on a 64-yard catch-and-run-touchdown in the second quarter. Jennings credited his position in the slot and the Packers’ increased use of slant patterns in recent weeks, but he also pointed out the return of tight end Jermichael Finley’s from a knee injury. The Packers believe they are a different team with Finley’s inclusion in the route tree. Sunday, they targeted him on a team-high 10 passes. He caught seven of them for 54 yards.

And here is one question I’m still asking:
Will the Packers seek out emergency veteran replacements for Harris or Kampman? New Orleans has signed two veteran cornerbacks in the past week, Chris McAlister and Mike McKenzie. Another available veteran is Patrick Surtain. Otherwise, it’s pretty slim pickings. Anyone who can cover someone and is in decent shape isn’t going to be available this time of year. The same is true at the linebacker position. It’s possible the Packers will bring someone in, but he isn’t likely to be a difference-maker.




Thursday, 9/4
Sunday, 9/7
Monday, 9/8