NFC North: Week 5 Free Head Exam 2012

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

October, 8, 2012
10/08/12
1:15
PM ET
After the Chicago Bears' 41-3 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    Based on the final score, it's hard to believe the Bears needed a nine-minute drive at the start of the second half just to take a 6-3 lead. It also might be hard to digest that after a 501-yard offensive performance, the Bears' highest total since 1989, the defense deserves top credit for this victory. The floodgates didn't open until cornerback Charles Tillman returned an interception for a touchdown on the Jaguars' ensuing possession. Only then did the offense get in gear. In the end, the Jaguars managed just 189 total yards and 10 first downs. In the Bears' current three-game winning streak, the defense has actually scored more touchdowns (six) than the offense (five). The Bears' defense leads the NFL with 17 takeaways, is tied for the lead with 18 sacks and is the first in league history to return five interceptions for touchdowns in the first five games of a season. No matter what the stat sheet says or media hype suggests, the Bears continue to be a team led by its defense.
  2. With that said, the Bears should be encouraged by what they've seen from receiver Brandon Marshall over the past two weeks. Here are the numbers: 19 receptions, 282 yards and two touchdowns. Sunday, quarterback Jay Cutler targeted him 17 times. No other pass-catcher had more than four passes thrown his way. Much of Marshall's success has come once the Bears are already ahead, but let's not diminish the value of putting teams away. It's not surprising that his one-on-one opportunities have come more often with the Bears in the lead and opponents lineup up to stop the run. Here's the next step for the Marshall-Cutler duo: Early success to stake the Bears to a first-quarter lead.
  3. All of a sudden, the Bears have a tackle under scrutiny -- and it's not J'Marcus Webb. Right tackle Gabe Carimi, who many thought was the best offensive lineman on the team entering the season, had a rough go of it Sunday. A holding penalty negated as 12-yard pass to tight end Kellen Davis, and Carimi committed consecutive false starts in the third quarter. That brought Carimi's penalty total this season to six in five games. He's been flagged for three false starts, twice for holding and once for unnecessary roughness. The bye will come at a good time for Carimi to reflect on the early portions of the season and presumably make the necessary adjustments.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Where did Corey Wootton come from? I know his background, of course. He was a highly-regarded pass-rusher at Northwestern whose production tailed off while recovering from a knee injury, and his first two NFL seasons after the Bears made him a fourth-round draft choice were almost totally vacant. The Bears drafted Shea McClellin in the first round this year, and I wrote off Wootton as a talented player who couldn't stay on the field and was destined to play elsewhere in 2012. Instead, he has made a significant impact in limited playing time. He played 22 snaps Sunday and had two sacks, bringing his season total to 3.5 along with two forced fumbles. He's reached those totals while playing on about 40 percent of the Bears' defensive snaps. Wootton has my vote for perhaps the biggest surprise of the early season in the NFC North.

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

October, 8, 2012
10/08/12
12:05
PM ET
After the Green Bay Packers' 30-27 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    The Packers will take second looks at injuries to tailback Cedric Benson (foot), nose tackle B.J. Raji (ankle) and tight end Jermichael Finley (shoulder) in the coming days. But to me, the Benson injury had the biggest impact on Sunday's game. Coach Mike McCarthy clearly didn't trust back Alex Green with the original game plan. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers dropped back to pass on 30 of their 44 plays after Benson departed in the second quarter. Prior to the injury, they had a nearly even split (nine passes in 17 plays). This season, the Packers' offense has been at its best when McCarthy keeps his play calling relatively even. It's no coincidence that Rodgers was sacked five times and forced to scramble on four other drop backs after Benson departed. If he has a long-term injury, you wonder if James Starks will re-emerge as the Packers' lead runner. The Packers simply haven't found success as a pass-only offense this season.
  2. We noted last week that the Packers avoided the onset of "Snowball Effect," refusing to allow a Week 3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks to become the start of a bad run. But after opening a three-game road swing with a loss, the Packers are facing a tough prospect: They'll have to defeat the currently 4-0 Houston Texans next Sunday night to avoid a two-game losing streak that would leave them at 2-4. Plenty of people are referencing the Packers' 2009 turnaround, but let's not forget they were 4-2 and then 4-4 before finishing the season on a 7-1 run. This team is still capable of big things, but for the second time in the first five weeks of the season, it's facing the possibility of falling two games below .500. If they are 2-4, the Packers will have to finish at least 7-3 to be in the playoff conversation at the end of the season.
  3. The sudden NFL-wide accuracy on long-distance field goals has skewed our expectations for place-kickers. Just a few years ago, a 50-plus yard attempt to tie or win a game would have been considered desperate. Now, many of us expected Mason Crosby to trot onto the field Sunday and drill his 51-yard attempt to tie at the end of regulation. You would hope that a veteran like Crosby would make it closer than he did on what was clearly a mis-hit ball, but I find more fault elsewhere for this defeat. You can start with the failure to run one more play to get Crosby a little closer. Still, here are the facts: Subtracting Crosby's two misses Sunday from beyond 50 yards, NFL placekickers are hitting almost 75 percent of similar attempts (29-of-39) this season.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Is the Packers' defense substantially improved from last season? Through five games, I'm not sure we can answer that question. It has had two dominating performances, in Week 2 against the Chicago Bears and the following week against the Seahawks. On the other hand, the Packers have allowed a 446-yard game to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and a 125.6 passer rating to the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (362 yards) torched them throughout Sunday's game, and on his final drive he completed four of five downfield passes. That's 808 passing yards allowed in the past two games. Is it that the Packers still can't compete against good quarterbacks but have taken better advantage of poor performers (or performances)? Is it a reflection of their youth? I don't know, but the Packers will need to even it out if they intend to make the playoffs. Their offense might not be able to bail them out in 2012.

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

October, 8, 2012
10/08/12
11:10
AM ET
After the Minnesota Vikings' 30-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    Quarterback Christian Ponder shook off interceptions on consecutive throws by completing 11 of his final 12 passes for 100 yards. Ponder had been fortunate to avoid interceptions on several occasions over the Vikings' first four games, but he clearly buckled down after the Titans capitalized Sunday. Afterward, he said neither interception was a bad decision but simply "bad throws." On the first, he threw behind and high to wide-open tight end Kyle Rudolph. On the second, he would have had receiver Jerome Simpson open if he waited a moment to allow him to clear the defense. "I shook it off and moved on," Ponder said. "I was going to throw an interception at some point this season and it ... probably will happen again. That's my job, to put the team first and move on and forget it."
  2. We discussed Rudolph's enormous catching radius in training camp and got another demonstration of it in the fourth quarter Sunday. Running along the back of the end zone, Rudolph simply reached above safety Jordan Babineaux, who was in man coverage, and safety Michael Griffin, who had sprinted over to help when Ponder lofted a 15-yard pass. I'm not even sure Rudolph jumped for the ball. "Christian, as soon as he saw man coverage, he gave me a shot," Rudolph said. "And I just went up and got it." That's four touchdowns among 19 receptions over five games for one of the league's emerging red zone threats. No NFL tight end has scored more than four touchdowns so far this season.
  3. Of all the surprises about this team, the play of the secondary and linebackers in pass coverage might be the biggest. Cornerback Antoine Winfield intercepted a pass and safety Jamarca Sanford got his hands on two others. Meanwhile, cornerback Chris Cook, linebacker Jasper Brinkley and linebacker Chad Greenway all had one breakup apiece. (Sanford and Greenway both could have had interceptions.) Remember, this is a defense that allowed opponents one of the highest passer ratings (107.6) in NFL history last season. Sunday also marked a subtle transition designed to limit Winfield's exposure to injury. Rookie Josh Robinson started opposite Cook in the base defense and played a season-high 83 percent of snaps (59 of 71). Winfield played plenty (87 percent of snaps) but the Vikings would love for Robinson to emerge as a fixture on the outside while Winfield focuses on the nickel slot role.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
What happened to Simpson? He said he woke up Sunday morning and "couldn't really perform when I got on the field." He could be seen flexing his left leg on the sideline, but after the game the Vikings were at a loss to explain the issue. He played 25 of the Vikings' 69 offensive snaps and didn't catch any of the three passes thrown his way. "I couldn't push off," he said. "I couldn't jump around like I usually do. I just couldn't be Jerome Simpson." I would expect further news on Simpson's condition in the coming days, but it's worth noting the Vikings completed five passes of at least 15 yards without him being a factor.

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