NFC North: Week 2 Free Head Exam 2012

Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions

September, 17, 2012
9/17/12
12:30
PM ET
After the Detroit Lions' 27-19 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw 16 interceptions in 663 pass attempts last season. Nine of those interceptions came during a three-game stretch when Stafford used a glove to protect a broken finger on his throwing hand. This season, Stafford has thrown four interceptions in his first 80 attempts. Sunday, his errant first-quarter throw toward receiver Titus Young set up the 49ers' second touchdown. (Stafford said after the game he tried to pull back the ball after deciding to throw it, resulting in it sailing high.) So is there anything to be concerned about here? Stafford said: "I don't think as an offense we've hit our stride yet." For what it's worth, I didn't feel like Stafford was making a bunch of poor decisions Sunday night. If anything he played with discipline and stuck to a script that, in essence, eliminated the Lions' downfield offense. I would have been more concerned if Stafford tried to force the ball downfield against the 49ers' deep safeties, which he did not.
  2. Before reviewing film, the general consensus in the Lions' locker room was that they left sizable number of rushing yards on the field. Coach Jim Schwartz said "we missed some cuts," and center Dominic Raiola was a bit defensive to suggestions the Lions didn't run well enough. (They netted 82 yards on 26 carries, including an 11-yard draw by Stafford, against a defense that kept no more than seven players in the box.) Raiola: "I mean, you're asking me like we can't run the ball. We can run the ball. I think we're pretty good up front. We can run the ball. We just didn't get it done overall today." It goes back to part of what we discussed Sunday night: With Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure unavailable, the Lions didn't have the personnel to pull off a run- dominated victory.
  3. Ndamukong Suh recorded 1.5 sacks and Kyle Vanden Bosch added another, but overall the Lions' defensive line fell short Sunday night. At least, that's what the 49ers' offensive line suggested in the postgame locker room. Left tackle Joe Staley said the Lions' defensive front is "extremely" overrated and added: "They didn't want any part of us up front. Look at the game. We killed them. Every single pressure they got was cheap. It was on a keep or something like that. They weren't beating us one-on-one. We ran for [148 yards] on the so-called best D-line in all of football." The 49ers ran 61 total plays and grossed 349 yards. I'm guessing those words won't be forgotten should the teams meet in the 2012 playoffs.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
The Lions clearly determined they weren't going to make the strength-on-strength challenge to the 49ers' downfield defense, as we discussed during the week. Instead, as Schwartz said, the Lions wanted to "be able to hurt them underneath and hurt them with the run." Under that approach, however, it's worth wondering why the Lions had rookie receiver Ryan Broyles in uniform but did not play him a single snap in the game. Lions coaches have praised Broyles since his arrival for an innate understanding of how to get open from the slot position and how to work the middle of the field for extra yardage. If that's the case, couldn't he have helped the Lions on Sunday night? Or am I missing something?

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
1:00
PM ET
After the Green Bay Packers' 23-10 win over the Chicago Bears, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    The Packers' first touchdown came on a fake field goal that got lost in the postgame shuffle Thursday night, at least on this blog. So let's first note how gutsy the call was considering it came on fourth-and-26 from the Bears' 27-yard line. The play essentially had to score to work; the Bears would have taken over if reserve tight end Tom Crabtree had been stopped outside of the 1-yard line. "That's like the call of the year," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Fourth-and-26? You would never think anyone would go for that. You've got Tom Crabtree and you give the ball to him to get 26 yards? You never think that would happen again." Coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers have been waiting "two or three years" for the Bears to give them an alignment that would make the play work. To me, the first key was that Bears cornerback Charles Tillman -- aligned over Crabtree on the left side of the Packers' formation -- chased place-kicker Mason Crosby away from the play for several steps. That gave Crabtree some separation to catch holder Tim Masthay's pitch and get a head of steam.
  2. There are many ways to determine the motivation for a fake field goal. Did the Bears simply provide a once-in-a-lifetime look the Packers knew they could capitalize on? Was McCarthy pulling out all the proverbial stops to avoid going 0-2? Or was it, at least in part, an acknowledgment that the Packers' offense left them needing to find alternative ways to score touchdowns? I think an argument could be made for the latter motivation. We noted last week the sharp decrease in the Packers' explosiveness and wondered what adjustment they would make. We got at least a one-game answer Thursday night: With Greg Jennings (groin) sidelined and the Bears aligned to take away the deep pass, the Packers powered down and emphasized their running game along with their short(er) passing game. They ran 25 running plays, nearly tripling their Week 1 attempts, and were rewarded when tailback Cedric Benson (81 yards on 20 carries) got warmed up and began churning up yardage. The longest pass quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed was a 26-yard touchdown to receiver Donald Driver, and their longest play overall was Randall Cobb's 28-yard run off a pitch play. Overall, the Packers averaged 4.9 yards on 66 plays, holding the ball for 32 minutes, 11 seconds. It was a very Black and Blue approach in what we once thought was the Air and Space division.
  3. As we discussed Thursday afternoon, the Packers weren't dumb enough to take up quarterback Jay Cutler on his offer to press receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Instead, they played man-to-man coverage with Williams, Sam Shields, Charles Woodson and rookie Casey Hayward with two safeties -- Morgan Burnett and another rookie, Jerron McMillian -- stationed deep. Williams turned in an awesome performance on Marshall, and afterwards reiterated his approach to playing big receivers. "With a guy that size," Williams said, "you can't be too physical on him. That's what he wants. He'll beat you most of the time. I didn't give him that."
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Did the Packers settle their defensive rotation Thursday night or add a level of intrigue? Shields (60 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus) and Hayward (24) appeared to leapfrog Jarrett Bush on the cornerback depth chart. And McMillian (44 snaps) has jumped ahead of M.D. Jennings at safety. On the other hand, the Packers rotated veteran linebacker Erik Walden (36 snaps) with rookie Nick Perry (20), and Walden's active (half sack, two quarterback hits) probably played a role in Clay Matthews' 3.5-sack outburst. Rookie Dezman Moses also got 19 snaps. My guess is the Packers would like to establish some consistency at defensive back but could use their linebackers more to match with specific aspects of opponents. In all, it should be noted that the Packers got substantive contributions from five defensive rookies Thursday night: Perry (three hurries, via PFF), Hayward, McMillian, Moses (two hurries) and defensive lineman Jerel Worthy (sack, two quarterback hits). "We've got a good group of young talent," Matthews said.

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
11:40
AM ET
After the Chicago Bears' 23-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    You've already heard about Bears quarterback Jay Cutler screaming at left tackle J'Marcus Webb and kicking Packers cornerback Charles Woodson. You know he was the first NFL quarterback in 10 years to get sacked at least seven times and throw at least four interceptions in one game. And we noted that Cutler produced the second-lowest passer rating of his career Thursday night. But here's what really struck me about his performance: At 29 and in his seventh NFL season, Cutler can still lose his mind in adverse situations. For much of the second half, it looked like Cutler was so frustrated he was playing what you might call "screw it" football. Receiver is covered? Screw it, I'll throw it. Offensive line is having a tough time? Screw it. I'm holding the ball and bouncing wildly around the pocket to buy time. A great quarterback should minimize adversity around him, not elevate it. It was a scary reaction for a franchise that has built its short-term prospects around the idea that Cutler would excel when surrounded with the kind of skill players and scheme he wants. Woodson said he saw the "same old Jay," a devastating indictment from a respected elder of Cutler's purported development and maturity.
  2. With that said, Cutler had a right to a short fuse when it became clear the Bears couldn't block the Packers' pass rush. There was plenty of blame to go around, and it wasn't just an offensive line issue. For one, the Bears appeared a step behind the Packers' blitz packages. On the Bears' first play of the game, linebacker D.J. Smith bounced off a block attempt by tailback Matt Forte for a sack. Overall, the Packers got four sacks and intercepted two passes on the 13 blitzes they ran, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of course, we can't gloss over the struggles of Webb, who had an eye-popping night in the national spotlight. Pro Football Focus (PFF) credited him with allowing two sacks and two other quarterback hurries. He also committed a false start penalty and was fortunate not to be penalized for two blatant takedowns. Remember, Cutler has been questioning the Bears' decision to stand pat at offensive line for months. His skepticism appeared justified Thursday night and helps explain his emotional outbursts.
  3. Cutler's issues overshadowed what was another good performance against the Packers by the Bears' defense. The Packers didn't score an offensive touchdown until early in the fourth quarter, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn't complete a pass longer than 26 yards. Rookie Shea McClellin again made an impact in limited playing time, recording 1.5 sacks in 31 snaps (via PFF). And I hope everyone recognizes how well cornerback Tim Jennings has played in the first two games. Thursday night, Jennings had tight coverage along with an interception, two defensed passes and a tackle for loss. In two games, Jennings has three interceptions and six defensed passes.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
I understand this now, but didn't at the time. Apparently replacement officials were correct in ruling that the Bears had 12 men on the field early in the second quarter on a third-down incompletion by Rodgers. The replay showed that linebacker Nick Roach appeared to have run off the field in time before the snap. But Roach's second foot had not hit the ground, a necessary completion of the act that former NFL officiating executive Mike Pereira, now a FOX analyst, said is a new and accurate interpretation of the rule. Pereira tweeted: "His foot has to be down. That is right. If his foot is in the air he is not out. That is a new interpretation." The call extended a Packers drive that would have ended in a punt, and ultimately led to the first score of the game: Mason Crosby's 48-yard field goal. You learn a new thing every day.

SPONSORED HEADLINES