NFC North: Will Blackmon

Packers regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 9
Preseason Power Ranking: 3

[+] EnlargeTramon Williams
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe emergence of Tramon Williams this season has helped strengthen the Packers' secondary.
Biggest surprise: The Packers were knocked out of the playoffs last season when an injury-depleted secondary gave up five touchdown passes to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. From a personnel standpoint, they did little in the offseason to bolster their personnel, instead counting on a number of players -- Al Harris, Brandon Underwood and Will Blackmon, among others -- to return from injuries. None of them contributed in a meaningful way in 2010, but the Packers are still in much better shape at the start of the postseason. Why? Tramon Williams developed into a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback (he's an alternate), and rookie Sam Shields emerged out of nowhere to give the Packers a reliable nickelback -- just as the Packers planned.

Biggest disappointment: Tight end Jermichael Finley was lost in Week 5 to a season-ending knee injury, joining tailback Ryan Grant as the two most damaging injuries the Packers suffered this season. The Packers spent the offseason re-centering their entire offense around Finley, and he was on his way to a breakout season with 21 receptions for 301 yards in the first four games. (By my math, that put him on pace for 84 receptions and 1,204 yards.) All indications are that Finley will make a full recovery by next season, but the Packers were forced to make fundamental changes to their offense after his injury.

Biggest need: Grant's injury revealed the Packers to have dangerously thin depth at the position. In essence, they have spent the season without a featured back. Brandon Jackson proved to be a better receiver (8.0 yards per reception) than runner (3.7 yards per rush). John Kuhn is a fan favorite but in reality a specialist, and the Packers have seen only glimpses of promise from rookie James Starks. Even if Grant makes a full recovery, restocking this position is a significant priority.

Team MVP: Defensive coordinator Dom Capers rolled with wholesale injury replacements all season but still managed to hold opponents to the second-fewest total points (240) in the NFL. The Packers had five different starters on the defensive line, 10 different starting linebackers and saw their strong safety position split by rookie Morgan Burnett and veteran Charlie Peprah. Capers' time as a head-coaching candidate might have passed, but what he did this season merits acknowledgment from around the NFL.

A "slump?": Quarterback Aaron Rodgers started the Pro Bowl in 2009 but qualified only as an alternate in 2010. He missed one game because of a concussion and threw four more interceptions than he did last season. Despite what he has referred to as some "inconsistency" in 2010, Rodgers still had one of the best seasons in the NFL. His 8.3 yards-per-attempt average ranked No. 2 in the league, his 101.2 rating ranked No. 3, his 65.7 completion percentage tied for No. 5, and his 28 touchdown passes tied for No. 6. We should all be so inconsistent.

How the (NFC) North was won

December, 23, 2010
It was obvious long before it was official Monday night. Chicago Bears players and coaches celebrated for much of the fourth quarter of a romp over the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium, finally breaking out their "Division Champions" caps with about three minutes remaining in a 40-14 victory.

How did it happen? How did the Bears become the first NFL team to win its division, locking down a title before the New England Patriots (12-2) and Atlanta Falcons (12-2), among others?

The collapse of the Minnesota Vikings this season has, uh, been well-chronicled on this blog. So let's examine the most relevant question: How did the Bears beat out the Green Bay Packers, the trendy and near-consensus preseason pick to win the NFC North?

I have a few ideas:


[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Chicago Sun-Times, Tom CruzeThe Bears escaped with a win over Detroit in Week 1 after Calvin Johnson's apparent fourth-quarter TD catch was ruled incomplete.
On more than a few occasions, we noted that the road to the NFC North title would go through Detroit. That sentiment was based mostly on a schedule that would bring the division's other three teams to Ford Field within the final five weeks of the season.

From a pure tiebreaker standpoint, that's exactly how it worked out. What had been a virtual tie for most of the season turned in Weeks 13 and 14. The Bears came back for a 24-20 victory over the Lions on Dec. 5, and the Packers lost in Detroit 7-3 the following week. The resulting disparity in each team's division record made it impossible for the Packers to overtake the Bears in the final two weeks of the season.

So the Bears' season sweep of the Lions -- a prerequisite for the past six division titles -- directly accounted for their early opportunity to clinch. The past seven NFC North champions have swept the Lions.

Packers fans will note that both Bears-Lions games included a highly debatable fourth-quarter officiating call: Calvin Johnson's non-touchdown in Week 1 and Ndamukong Suh's personal foul in Week 13. But, as we'll see, the Packers had other opportunities to make up for that disadvantage.


Both teams entered the season with essentially all of their intended starters in their respective positions. Injuries are a part of the NFL, but there is no debating the Bears have been far less afflicted this season than the Packers.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesThe Packers have been hit hard by injuries, including Aaron Rodgers, who suffered two concussions.
The Bears' Week 1 starters have missed a total of 10 games this season; not one of those starters has missed more than four. The Packers have lost 69 games by my count, including 13 for tailback Ryan Grant and nine for tight end Jermichael Finley. Three of their four starting linebackers are lost for the season, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has suffered two concussions and overall the Packers have placed 15 players on their injured reserve list.

Special teams

The Bears and Packers have fielded two of the NFL's top defenses this season. Their offenses have been less consistent but productive in their own contexts. On special teams, however, the Bears have maintained a huge advantage.

Football Outsiders evaluates special teams based on five categories -- field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns -- and then compares them to the league average to develop leaguewide rankings. Based on that method, the Bears have the NFL's top special-teams group. The Packers rank No. 29.

The Bears' Devin Hester has returned three punts for touchdowns, and all of them have come at critical times. One accounted for nearly a third of the Bears' points in their key 20-17 victory over the Packers in Week 3, and another helped seal the division-clinching victory last Monday over the Vikings.

But Hester's scores tell only part of the story. The Bears rank second in the NFL in the average start position of their drives, a tribute to the kickoff returns of Hester and Danieal Manning. Meanwhile, place-kicker Robbie Gould is tied for ninth in the NFL with 15 touchbacks on kickoffs. (The Packers' Mason Crosby is tied for No. 29 with three.)

On the other hand, special-teams miscues and/or poor coverage have played substantial roles in at least four Packers losses this season -- to the Bears, Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots. The Packers never settled on a kickoff returner after waiving Will Blackmon, and punt returner Tramon Williams has averaged 7.9 yards per return (15th in the NFL). Finally, the Packers have the NFL's second-worst kickoff coverage in the NFL, as measured by the average start of their opponents' drives this season.


[+] EnlargeMorgan Burnett
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliA pass interference penalty against Morgan Burnett set the Bears up for a game-winning field goal against Green Bay.
The Packers made huge strides after leading the NFL with 118 penalties last season. Through 14 games this year, they rank No. 28 with 71 accepted penalties. But 18 of them came in one game, their Week 3 loss to the Bears, and was the most important factor in the game. In a three-point margin of defeat, the Packers lost a touchdown and two takeaways to penalties. Further, a late-game pass interference penalty against rookie safety Morgan Burnett put the Bears in position for Gould's 19-yard winning field goal.

The Packers have averaged about four penalties in their other 13 games. But their mistake-filled performance against what turned out to be their primary division competitor was an early indication of a recurring poise issue. Namely...

Close games

The Bears are 3-2 in games decided by four points or fewer this season. The Packers are 2-6. Four of those losses came down to the game's final play or last 10 seconds of regulation. Each had its own circumstances, but ultimately the Packers' margin of error this season was too thin to come up short routinely in close games.

You won't win all of them, but more often than not, a division winner has to do what the Bears did in Week 13 against the Lions: Score the go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, get a defensive stop, and then run out the rest of the clock to clinch the game.

The Packers still have a clear path to a wild-card playoff berth. But this season, the Bears were the better and more fortunate team in a handful of key areas. It didn't take much, but it was enough for the Bears to be the NFL's only team to bring their fan base an early Christmas present.

Patience pays off for Packers' defense

November, 18, 2010
We fretted. We frowned. We looked under rocks to make sure we weren't missing anything. Could it be true? Did the Green Bay Packers largely stand pat this offseason after the late-season collapse of their pass defense?

Yes, they did.

And guess what?

Nine games into the 2010 season, the decision seems validated.

After a mild shuffle of existing personnel and the surprise emergence of a rookie nickelback, the Packers have the NFL's No. 11 pass defense. As the chart illustrates, they rank first in the league with 28 sacks, are second with 14 interceptions and have held opposing quarterbacks to the second-worst passer rating in the NFL (68.3).

I realize we've just passed the season's midpoint, and that both of last year's nightmare games -- against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals -- came after Week 14. But to this point, at least, the Packers appear to have chosen the correct path. Speaking via conference call this week, coach Mike McCarthy said he was confident that last year's rough edges would smooth naturally in the second year under defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

"We really just stayed the course," McCarthy said. "... The initial year is always the biggest challenge, which is obvious. A lot of times you end up putting in a lot more volume, because you are teaching fundamentals and you are teaching concepts that you need to put in, but you may not necessarily use because they are building blocks for other concepts and variations that will come off of that. That was no different with us. Any time you go through year one, there is a learning curve, and in the offseason you have a chance to take a step back and tailor it more specifically towards your team and towards your players. I think we've been able to accomplish that in Green Bay."

Typically, however, scheme adjustments can only take you as far as the skill level of your players allows. So to some of us, staying the course was inviting a repeat of the same problems. It was hard to understand how the same players -- or, in the Packers' case, a group they hoped to return from significant injuries -- would perform substantively better.

[+] EnlargeTramon Williams
AP Photo/Bill KostrounTramon Williams has performed well enough that the Packers felt comfortable releasing Al Harris.
And for the record, the Packers have gotten almost no help from that group, including Al Harris (waived), Atari Bigby (just returning from an ankle injury), Brandon Underwood (mostly special teams), Will Blackmon (waived) and Pat Lee (special teams). But here is what has changed:

  • The consistency, if not big-play ability, of nose tackle B.J. Raji has helped the Packers navigate a number of injuries on the defensive line. Raji has 2.5 sacks and 36 tackles, but the best thing he has done is start and play extensively in all nine games.
  • Linebacker Clay Matthews, already the Packers' top pass-rusher, has emerged as the best in the league. A player with 10.5 sacks in eight games can single-handedly elevate any defense.
  • Cornerback Tramon Williams has proved worthy of replacing Harris in the starting lineup. He has three interceptions, 12 defensed passes and is on a Pro Bowl pace.
  • Bigby's absence has hardly been felt, thanks to four solid starts from rookie safety Morgan Burnett and five more from the surprisingly efficient Charlie Peprah.
  • Rookie Sam Shields, signed originally as a kick and punt return specialist, emerged from nowhere to win the nickel job. His speed and athletic ability are evident, but his quick technique advancement has been stunning.

Some of what you just read represents reasonably expected progressions for players from one year to the next, especially in the case of Matthews, Raji and Williams. But no one from the Packers could have told you that Peprah would play well enough to keep Bigby on the bench following his return from ankle surgery. And even McCarthy admitted that "everybody was a bit surprised" that Shields proved ready to play so quickly.

At the same time, that's how good teams come together -- with equal parts design and good fortune. Again, the Packers have 44 percent of their regular-season schedule left in front of them. But the bottom line is they have improved upon their most glaring offseason weakness, and the resulting progress is a big reason the Packers are tied for the NFC North lead.

"We all did some soul-searching in the offseason, trying to figure out what happened in those games," Williams said. "... I don't think it was so [much] the players and the coaches. It was just one of those deals to where we weren't all on the same page at the same time. Now that we are here in the second year, we have another year under our belt and we all understand the defense a lot better. I think that's what it's about."
Some NFC North teams will continue tweaking their rosters over the next 24 hours, but for the most part, what you see is what you're going to get for Week 1 games. In that vein, let's take a look at some random but interesting (to me) trends we're seeing. Some of the observations are mine, and I've given credit to those who came up with the others:

  1. Of the 53 players on the Bears' roster, only 23 of them were drafted by the team over the past seven years. Seven drafts should form the foundation of any team, but for the Bears it represents only 43 percent of the roster. (Source: Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune)
  2. The Bears did bring back 2009 draft pick Juaquin Iglesias to the practice squad. The same could not be said for defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert.
  3. The Green Bay Packers have more fullbacks (three) than tailbacks (two) on their roster. I can only assume that John Kuhn, Korey Hall and Quinn Johnson will participate heavily in special teams. The Packers had hoped to bring back Kregg Lumpkin on their practice squad to serve as a quasi-No. 3 runner, but Lumpkin was claimed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
  4. [+] EnlargeDelmas
    Andrew Weber/US PresswireSafety Louis Delmas is the only Lions defensive back who was on the roster last season.

  5. By reaching an injury settlement with Will Blackmon and releasing Jason Chery, the Packers left themselves with no obvious kick returners. If that's their biggest problem, I'm not too worried about it. But in the short term, it looks like Jordy Nelson or possibly Brandon Jackson could fill the role. *Update: Coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that Tramon Williams and Greg Jennings are options at punt returner.
  6. The Detroit Lions have turned over their entire secondary with the exception of safety Louis Delmas. Every other defensive back is new to the team this year. (Source: Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.)
  7. To put a bow on a couple of trades: The Minnesota Vikings received a 2011 fifth-round pick and a conditional 2012 seventh-round draft pick from the New York Giants in return for quarterback Sage Rosenfels and kick returner Darius Reynaud. Meanwhile, the Lions and Denver Broncos exchanged undisclosed draft 2011 picks to complete the Alphonso Smith-Dan Gronkowski trade.
  8. In announcing their waiver claim of former Green Bay tight end/linebacker Spencer Havner, the Lions listed him as a linebacker. That makes perfect sense considering the Lions' strong depth at tight end and thin situation at linebacker.
  9. The Lions currently have five players listed as cornerbacks on their roster: Smith, Chris Houston, Jonathan Wade, Aaron Berry and Amari Spievey. But Spievey has been working at safety the past few weeks, and Berry is a rookie who missed much of training camp because of a hamstring pull. Your guess is as good as mine right now about who will fill the nickel and dime roles.
  10. The Vikings are in a similar situation. They have three cornerbacks on their active roster, and even if they bring someone in over the next day or so, it's hard to imagine him participating Thursday night at New Orleans. You figure Antoine Winfield, Lito Sheppard and Asher Allen will make up the nickel package. But who will the Vikings play if they need a sixth defensive back? At this point, it will have to be one of their backup safeties.

BBAO: Week 1 begins

September, 5, 2010
We're Black and Blue All Over:

An unusual dynamic will begin playing out Sunday here in the NFC North. While the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers continue a weekend pause to fortify and finalize their rosters, the Minnesota Vikings will start their practice week in anticipation of Thursday night's season opener in New Orleans.

Sunday's schedule will roughly mirror a typical NFL Wednesday, including a full practice and slate of media interviews. I'll be at the Vikings' facility, where quarterback Brett Favre is among those expected to talk. I'll also keep track of significant roster moves after the noon ET expiration for waiver claims.

In the meantime, let's take a Sunday morning spin around the division.

Green Bay Packers cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
Check here for a full list of Green Bay's roster moves.

Biggest surprise: Spencer Havner was the Packers' No. 3 tight end last year and this summer, but his versatility seemed to make him a valuable part of the roster. He's a competent receiver, a good blocker, decent on special teams and also can play linebacker. Perhaps he wasn't good enough in any of those roles to justify a roster spot for. I don't know for sure. Regardless, the Packers chose veteran Donald Lee, rookie Andrew Quarless and also Tom Crabtree ahead of him. Meanwhile, we discussed the possibility that defensive back/kick returner Will Blackmon might get squeezed out. But it appears the Packers believe he isn't close to recovering fully from an October knee injury. They officially placed him on injured reserve, but he'll eventually be waived in accordance with an injury settlement.

No-brainers: The Packers parted ways with offensive lineman Allen Barbre, who had a disastrous seven-game stint at right tackle last season. It was about time. Like Blackmon, Barbre was placed on injured reserve, but eventually will be waived. On the other side of the equation, the Packers couldn't do anything but keep rookie cornerback Sam Shields. I'm not sure how much he'll play immediately, but he showed too much potential this summer to risk exposing to waivers.

What's next: Waiving Chris Bryan should mean that Tim Masthay will be the Packers' Week 1 punter, but we'll wait to get confirmation from the Packers on that. After parting ways with Blackmon and Jason Chery, it's not clear who will be the Packers' kickoff or punt returners. Likely candidates are running back Brandon Jackson and receiver Jordy Nelson. As of now, the Packers have more fullbacks on their roster (three) than running backs (two). I wonder if that will change in the coming days.

Catching up on some reported moves

September, 4, 2010
We're planning posts on each NFC North team's cuts once they are official. Announcements could come at any point Saturday afternoon or evening, but for now let's round up some of the bigger names who are already reported to be on the way off their respective rosters.

Update: The (internal) replacements

September, 1, 2010
As the preseason draws to a close, it's time to start updating some of our offseason threads. Let's begin with a Feb. 22 post that suggested four players whose potential development could ease depth concerns at their respective positions. As it turned out, we did a better job of identifying need positions than we did in suggesting candidates to fill them. Better luck next year, I guess.

Chicago Bears defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert

What we said then: The road couldn't be paved any more clearly for Gilbert, the Bears' top pick of the 2009 draft. Left end Adewale Ogunleye is a pending free agent and is expected to move on. Ogunleye's likely replacement, Gaines Adams, died last month. That left Gilbert and Henry Melton as the remaining internal candidates to start at left end. Good outside pass-rushers almost never become available on the free-agent market, and without a pick in the first or second round this season, it will be difficult for the Bears to draft one capable of making an immediate impact. To this point, Gilbert's greatest claim to fame is being the draft prospect who jumped out of a pool. He spent most of 2009 in an unofficial redshirt year under defensive line guru Rod Marinelli, so it's hard to know if Gilbert is capable of holding down a starting job in 2010. It's not even clear if the Bears consider him an end or a tackle. But if it's the former, Gilbert will get every opportunity to help the Bears out of this jam.

What's happened since: This year, a good outside pass rusher actually did become available via free agency, and the Bears pounced on Julius Peppers. Gilbert, meanwhile, has been nearly invisible in preseason games and could be waived this weekend.

Detroit Lions running back Aaron Brown

What we said then: Starting tailback Kevin Smith is rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while also trying to overcome two shoulder injuries that slowed him in 2009. Backup Maurice Morris is also under contract, but Morris doesn't have the kind of big-play abilities Brown displayed last season. The Lions were exasperated at times with Brown's mental errors, but perhaps an offseason of studying can help him move past those issues. He might not be an ideal every-down back, but Brown could add an explosive element to the Lions' offense if they trust him enough to put him on the field. His development could ease some of the urgency to add further depth behind Smith and Morris.

What's happened since: The Lions traded up to select Jahvid Best with the No. 30 overall pick in the draft. Best will fill the playmaker role we suggested for Brown. Can't argue with that one. But Brown has shown enough this summer to earn a spot on the Lions' roster.

Green Bay Packers defensive back Will Blackmon

What we said then: Because the Packers haven't revealed their tender offers for restricted free agents, we can't say with certainty that Blackmon will return to the Packers in 2010. But based on the typical timetable for ACL rehabilitation, Blackmon should be cleared for the start of training camp. And if he's healthy and ready, Blackmon would add experienced depth to a position ravaged by injuries at the end of last season. With Al Harris rehabilitating a similar injury on a later timetable, the Packers might have to open camp with nickelback Tramon Williams as a starter. It's always possible that a rookie could help at nickelback, but all things equal, the Packers would probably be more comfortable with veteran experience at the position. Jarrett Bush struggled in that role during some games last season, opening up an opportunity for Blackmon if he's up to it.

What's happened since: The Packers moved Blackmon to safety late in spring practice and instead gave Brandon Underwood, Pat Lee and rookie Sam Shields the opportunity we envisioned for Blackmon. It was probably a wise move; he continues to be bothered by knee soreness. It's not clear if he will make the team.

Minnesota Vikings cornerback Asher Allen

What we said then: The Vikings need Allen to become a full-time player, if not a starter, to avoid facing a sudden shortage at cornerback. Starter Cedric Griffin's status is uncertain after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during the NFC Championship Game; it would be a surprise if Griffin is cleared for the beginning of training camp. The 2009 nickelback, Benny Sapp, is a pending unrestricted free agent and probably earned himself a decent contract after making seven starts in 2009. I'm guessing the Vikings don't want to overpay to bring back Sapp, especially considering Griffin will eventually return and that fellow starter, Antoine Winfield, is signed through 2013. As a rookie, Allen had a strong training camp but was buried on the depth chart when the season began. He's aggressive against the run, a decent tackler and displayed solid instincts when on the field. A natural progression would make him the nickelback in 2010, a role that would allow him to fill in for Griffin. Otherwise, the Vikings will have to shell out more money for Sapp or another free agent.

What's happened since: Injuries, attrition and solid play have put Allen in position to be the Week 1 nickel back. Griffin hasn't started practicing. Sapp was traded to Miami, and while the Vikings made cornerback Chris Cook their top draft pick, he will miss up to four weeks because of knee surgery.

Questioning the Packers' nickel

August, 31, 2010
As many of you pointed out, I omitted a critical issue in Monday's post on NFC North positional battles: The Green Bay Packers' nickel spot.

Considering how frequently the Packers use sub packages under coordinator Dom Capers, the nickel back is almost like a 12th starter. That fact requires some pause in light of recent developments, most notably the swift ascent of undrafted rookie Sam Shields to the top of the depth chart.

As we discussed during our training camp tour, Shields displayed surprisingly mature instincts in coverage and looked much more comfortable as a cornerback than he did as a kick and punt returner -- the original role the Packers envisioned for him. But to add some context to the original observation, those instincts merely provided a hint that Shields had a chance to make the team, which in itself is a pretty nice result for a rookie free agent. At that point in camp, I don't think anyone considered him a potential Week 1 nickel back.

Much has changed since then, and now I think it's fair at least to scrutinize the Packers' offseason decision to sit tight from a personnel perspective. If you recall, their plan was to deploy some combination of second-year player Brandon Underwood with three players returning from significant injuries to create depth and competition.

Underwood, however, has been limited by a shoulder injury that dates back to his college career. Veteran Al Harris remains on the physically unable to perform list. Will Blackmon has been unable to shake knee soreness, and Pat Lee's preseason performance has been shaky. That left a void behind starters Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, one that Shields has been given an opportunity to fill. If he wins the job, the Packers will have two rookies -- Shields and safety Morgan Burnett -- in their five-man nickel package.

Is Shields' opportunity based on merit, or is it because the Packers' options are so limited? I'm guessing that's a question the team didn't think it would face in the final week of the preseason.

NFC North at night

August, 30, 2010
Let's catch up on some administrative and personnel developments Monday:

Chicago Bears: Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (calf) returned to practice, and it's possible he'll play in Thursday's preseason finale at the Cleveland Browns. The same goes for receiver Earl Bennett, who hadn't practiced in nearly three weeks because of a hamstring injury. Linebacker Lance Briggs (ankle) isn't likely to begin practicing again until next week. Meanwhile, the Bears released quarterback Matt Gutierrez, receiver Zeke Markshausen and defensive tackle Maurice Evans.

Green Bay Packers: As Will Blackmon continues to battle knee soreness, the Packers will give rookie Jason Chery a chance to win the kickoff and punt return jobs in Thursday's preseason finale. Chery returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown last week against the Indianapolis Colts. Of Blackmon, coach Mike McCarthy said: "Will's just going through a tough spot right now. He's coming off that knee surgery, and especially at his position, it's been tough. Will has put a lot of time into this. He had a very strong offseason, but it's probably not responding the way he would like right now."

Detroit Lions: We discussed the Lions' tenuous linebacker depth earlier Monday, and coach Jim Schwartz added this log to the fire: Middle linebacker DeAndre Levy (groin) might miss the Sept. 12 season opener against the Chicago Bears. It's very possible that the Lions' opening-day starter is on another team's roster at the moment. Schwartz did say that safety C.C. Brown (hand) should be ready to play in that game.

Minnesota Vikings: Coach Brad Childress told reporters that the Vikings are "still trying to get the soreness" out of center John Sullivan's calf and that his status remains uncertain. Childress said that it would "probably be hard" for quarterback Sage Rosenfels to unseat Tarvaris Jackson as the No. 2 quarterback. Rosenfels has a 118.4 rating this preseason. Jackson's is 61.8, but Childress said: "I've seen a growth in Tarvaris."

Previewing preseason Week 2

August, 20, 2010
Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of preseason Week 2? Your NFC North blogger knows …

Chicago Bears
Opponent: Oakland Raiders
Location: Soldier Field
Date/Time: Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters are expected to play into the second quarter. Those who won’t play include receiver Earl Bennett (hamstring), safety Major Wright (finger), quarterback Caleb Hanie (shoulder), safety Craig Steltz (ankle), and possibly long-snapper Patrick Mannelly (stinger). Tight end Desmond Clark would handle Mannelly’s long-snapping duties if necessary.
Focal point: Normally, established starting quarterbacks don’t need -- or want -- much preseason work. I’m thinking that’s not the case for Jay Cutler, who is still learning an intricate new offense. I’d like to see Cutler make much more than the two passes he threw in the preseason opener in San Diego. Let’s see how comfortable he is throwing to receivers other than Johnny Knox, and whether he’ll react better to pressure than he did last season.

Detroit Lions
Opponent: Denver Broncos
Date/Time: Saturday, 9 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters could play into the second quarter. Safety Louis Delmas (groin) has said he would like to play, but the Lions might not take that risk. The same goes for tight end Brandon Pettigrew (knee) and running back Kevin Smith (knee). Cornerback Jonathan Wade (finger) won’t play. Middle linebacker DeAndre Levy (back) is expected to make his preseason debut.
Focal point: Coach Jim Schwartz said this week that there will be a big emphasis on evaluating special teams, including return men. “Kickoff and punt return, I think we’re going to need to really do a good job of putting guys in positions and maybe creating some positions to put them in and things like that, and just see how they do,” Schwartz said. “That’s going to be a big part of the evaluation of a lot of these guys.”

Green Bay Packers
Opponent: Seattle Seahawks
Qwest Field
Saturday, 10 p.m. ET
Personnel notes:
Starters will play about the same as they did last weekend, or about 20 plays. Among those who could be sidelined are linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring), safety Will Blackmon (knee) and running back Kregg Lumpkin (hamstring.)
Focal point: Sorry. It’s unlikely the Packers will spice up their defensive looks in response to last week’s soft performance against the Cleveland Browns. “I think it’s important not to rely too much on scheme and really stay focused on the fundamentals,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Last year was a totally different mindset for us because we were going from a totally different defensive scheme to more of a pressure scheme. It wasn’t the schematic volume that was important in preseason, it was the ability to play pressure football in live game. That’s why we pressured as much as we did last year. It wasn’t as much as the different schemes we were trying to play against the preseason opponents as to develop that mindset, that speed, to get the pressure off the ground. The volume for this game, we’re more focused on how we’re playing specifically, the details we’re playing with within the schemes.”

Minnesota Vikings
Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
Location: Candlestick Park
Date/Time: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters will play at least the first quarter, with quarterback Brett Favre taking the first series or two before yielding to Tarvaris Jackson. Middle linebacker E.J. Henderson will start for the first time since fracturing his left femur last December. Players who won’t participate include center John Sullivan and receivers Sidney Rice (hip) and Percy Harvin (migraines).
Focal point: In some ways, the Vikings began training camp Wednesday when they finally got Favre on the field. But with Rice, Harvin and Sullivan still sidelined, their offense represents a work in progress. I’m guessing Favre wants to get a few throws in and then get the heck off the field.

Previewing preseason Week 1

August, 13, 2010
Here's the best thing I'll say about NFL preseason games: They're not completely worthless.

I can't in good conscience hype up any of them, but I do think we can glean at least some pertinent information. So with that in mind, let's sketch out preseason Week 1 in the NFC North, all of which will take place Saturday night.

Chicago Bears
San Diego Chargers
Location: Qualcomm Stadium
Time: 9 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters could play as much as two quarters. Tight end Brandon Manumaleuna (knee) and wide receiver Earl Bennett (hamstring) might not play.
My focus point: Cohesion of an offensive line that began taking shape this week. Do we see obvious missed assignments and clogged running lanes? Or does the line protect quarterback Jay Cutler and provide room for running backs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor?

Detroit Lions
Pittsburgh Steelers
Location: Heinz Field
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Running back Kevin Smith (knee), tight end Brandon Pettigrew (knee), safety Louis Delmas (groin), place-kicker Jason Hanson (knee), linebacker DeAndre Levy (back) and defensive end Jared DeVries (leg) are among those who have been ruled out.
My focus point: Will quarterback Matthew Stafford take his sharp practices into a game situation?

Green Bay Packers
Cleveland Browns
Location: Lambeau Field
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters will get about 20 plays of action. Prominent scratches could include linebacker Nick Barnett, safety Will Blackmon (knee), linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) and guard/center Jason Spitz.
My focus point: Does rookie safety Morgan Burnett, who might have to open the season in place of Atari Bigby, know what he's doing?

Minnesota Vikings
St. Louis Rams
Location: Edward Jones Dome
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters will play a couple series at best. Prominent scratches could include receivers Sidney Rice (hip) and Percy Harvin (migraines), center John Sullivan (calf), tailback Adrian Peterson(hamstring), cornerback Cedric Griffin (knee) and linebacker E.J. Henderson (leg).
My focus point:The performance of right cornerback candidates Lito Sheppard, Chris Cook and Asher Allen.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Herewith are my observations and thoughts on the Green Bay Packers' annual Family Night scrimmage, which unlike last year actually took place as planned. The big stories were place-kicker Mason Crosby and two nice plays by some young defensive backs.
  • Crosby's first kickoff went nine yards deep in the end zone and he converted seven of eight field goal attempts. His only miss was from 44 yards on a hold that might have left something to be desired. The makes were from 26, 31, 36, 41, 47, 51 and 53 yards. There was some early-camp concern about Crosby's accuracy, but Saturday night he was pretty much lights-out. "It was definitely a good way to start," Crosby said. "I felt good. I thought I hit the ball well, and the whole operation did great."
  • Cornerback Brandon Underwood, working with the first team in place of a resting Charles Woodson, intercepted a Graham Harrell pass and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown. As I'll also note in my upcoming Packers Camp Confidential, Underwood has caught just about everyone's eyes this summer. "I feel a lot more comfortable with what I'm doing," he said. "I feel a lot more comfortable that when they line up, I'm going to know what to look for and can try to decipher everything they're doing."
  • Rookie Sam Shields, meanwhile, stepped in front of a Matt Flynn pass and unofficially took it back 97 yards for a touchdown. I'm telling you, Shields looks much more comfortable as a defensive back than as kick returner. He also displayed some flair by high-stepping the final 10 yards before crossing into the end zone. "Just a little showboating," he said.
  • Jordy Nelson worked with the first team in place of a resting Donald Driver and caught Aaron Rodgers' first pass, a bullet down the seam for 27 yards. Nelson held on to the ball after a nasty collision with safety Charlie Peprah but suffered a bruise that prevented him from returning to the scrimmage. The only other injury was a sprained knee for receiver Brett Swain.
  • Tight end Jermichael Finley bowled over Underwood after a 14-yard reception. After the play, Finley stood over Underwood to talk some (presumably) good-natured trash.
  • Brandon Jackson returned a kickoff 95 yards for a score. The Packers were also using him on kickoff coverage and McCarthy continued his effusive praise of the reserve running back. "Brandon Jackson, I think he has arrived," McCarthy said.
  • I really didn't see much separation between punters Tim Masthay and Chris Bryan. Both had long punts of 62 yards Saturday night. "We're so much further ahead [in the punting game] than we've been in the last two years," McCarthy said.
  • In addition to Driver and Woodson, other veterans who sat out were linebacker Nick Barnett (rest), linebacker Brady Poppinga (concussion) and safety Will Blackmon (knee).
  • Actual turnstile attendance was 47, 844. For a practice with live tackling. Amazing.
  • I'm probably jinxing us, but Sunday should be a relatively quiet day on the NFC North blog. Look for the Packers Camp Confidential on Monday morning.

BBAO: Bly returns to Lions

July, 3, 2010
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Detroit Lions

Cornerback Dre Bly is returning to the Lions. Bly was with Detroit from 2003-06.

Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham tells his life story -- a long journey from postwar Munich to Detroit.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers are hoping the return of Will Blackmon will mean an improvement in the return game.

Minnesota Vikings

Even in Afghanistan, Vikings coach Brad Childress is answering questions about Brett Favre's return.
The season-ending injury to New York Giants receiver Domenik Hixon comes at an interesting time for two NFC North teams.

The Minnesota Vikings' landlord is enmeshed in a lawsuit with the manufacturer of FieldTurf artificial surfaces, the same surface Hixon was practicing on Tuesday when his right knee crumpled. The Chicago Bears, meanwhile, recently decided against replacing the grass at Soldier Field with FieldTurf or a similar product because of safety concerns.

Hixon has been diagnosed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Giants safety Antrel Rolle told that Hixon's leg got caught in the turf just before he fell.

It's not unusual for players to complain about artificial turf, even the newer in-fill version that includes rubber pellets to make it softer. But it's interesting to note that when the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission reviewed bids for its upcoming turf replacement project, it chose a lesser-known company that submitted a higher bid because the Vikings, like the Bears, were concerned about the safety of FieldTurf.

The Minnesota/St. Paul Business Journal describes the situation in detail, noting the commission plans to pay Sportexe $495,000 for the project even after FieldTurf bid $458,561. FieldTurf is suing the commission for the way it conducted the bidding process. Here is a key passage:
The MSFC, however, says it rejected FieldTurf's bid after the Vikings expressed concerns about the safety of the company's product -- the main reason for replacing the Dome's existing turf in the first place. Therefore, the commission opted for Sportexe, which provided the second-lowest bid at $495,000; the Irving, Texas-based company also installed the turf at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans and M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. "Medically, FieldTurf has proven to increase risk and severity of injury in NFL players," the Vikings said, according to documents filed by the commission in response to FieldTurf's lawsuit.

A recent study showed that knee injuries were 88 percent more likely to occur on FieldTurf than natural grass. (Ask Green Bay Packers defensive back Will Blackmon about that one.) To be fair to FieldTurf, that study didn't include any other brands. There is no evidence that its product is different from that of any other in-fill company. But whether it's coincidence or otherwise, half of our teams have made a point to go in another direction this offseason.