NFC North: Williams Wal
May, 11, 2010
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
US Presswire/Getty ImagesThe Lions, Packers and Vikings addressed some of their most urgent needs on offense by using early draft picks to acquire Jahvid Best, Bryan Bulaga and Toby Gerhart, respectively.In the weeks since the NFL draft, we've taken some big-picture looks at the NFC North. We've made a run at naming a preseason division favorite, tried to identify a preseason rookie of the year and examined some faulty assumptions.
Through it all, I've struggled to incorporate a gold mine of statistical analysis forwarded by ESPN's Stats & Information, a series of numbers that help illustrate some of the division's most notable areas of concern entering the offseason. So with the help of ESPN.com editor Brett Longdin, I want to use some of that information to open a unique window into whether NFC North teams have responsibly shored up their weaknesses over the past months.
Issue: The short-yardage running game
Stats & Information revelation: The Bears had the NFL's worst per-carry average (1.5 yards) on third-and-2 or less last season.
How the Bears responded: Hiring offensive line coach Mike Tice, who brings a power-running sensibility to Mike Martz's passing offense. Moving left guard Frank Omiyale to right tackle. Signing free agent tailback Chester Taylor.
Seifert analysis: Much of the Bears' hopes rest on Tice's shoulders to make over this group; as many as four 2009 starters will remain in their positions. Starting tailback Matt Forte is known more for shiftiness than power, opening an opportunity for Taylor to take over some of those opportunities. But effective power running, especially in short-yardage situations, requires frequency in play calling. Martz isn't known for his patience in the run game.
Issue: Pass defense in obvious passing situations
Stats & Information revelation: The Bears ranked near the bottom of the NFL when defending against third-and-8 or more.
How the Bears responded: Overhauling their pass rush by signing free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers and jettisoning incumbents Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye (for now). The safety position is also in transition after the re-acquisition of safety Chris Harris and the drafting of Major Wright.
Seifert analysis: That's about as much personnel change as you'll see generated in one offseason from an incumbent coaching staff/front office. (Unless you're in Detroit.) The Peppers acquisition speaks for itself. He'll cause more havoc than Brown or Ogunleye, and new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli isn't expected to be a heavy blitzer. Harris is no world-beater, but even mediocre play would be an improvement. If nothing else, the Bears get an A for effort in addressing this issue.
Issue: Explosive running plays, or lack thereof
Stats & Information revelation: The Lions had five running plays of 20 or more yards last season, the second-fewest in the NFL.
How the Lions responded: Trading up to draft Cal tailback Jahvid Best, who runs the 40 in 4.35 seconds and averaged 7.3 yards per carry in his college career.
Seifert analysis: Best was widely considered the most explosive runner in the draft. The Lions did take a step to shore up their offensive line, trading for Seattle guard Rob Sims, but they're hoping Best will be the kind of player who can make big plays on his own. That would make a huge difference for a team that had to work too hard to score touchdowns last season. The Lions ranked No. 29 in the NFL last season in yards per play (4.6) and tied for No. 27 with 28 total touchdowns. To keep up in their division, they need to be able to score quicker and easier.
Issue: Historically horrible pass defense, especially on downfield throws
Stats & Information revelation: The Lions were the only NFL team to allow opponents better than 50 percent completion percentage on passes that traveled 21 or more yards in the air last season.
How the Lions responded: Overhauling their personnel on the defensive line and secondary. Of the eight combined starters in those two units, at least five will be new. Depending on how competition plays out, safety Louis Delmas might be the only returning starter among the eight.
Seifert analysis: The defensive line is far ahead of the secondary in terms of credibility and potential to impact games. At different points in their careers, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch and defensive tackle Corey Williams have been dominant pass-rushers relative to their positions. The sky is the limit for defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. The Lions' pass defense will go as far as their pass rush takes them. It stands to reason they should at least cut down on opponents' downfield percentage; more pass rush equals less time to let long passes develop. As for coverage, it probably couldn't be much worse than last season.
Green Bay Packers
Issue: Although it settled in the second half of the season, the Packers' pass protection allowed NFL-high sack levels.
Stats & Information revelation: The Packers allowed 31 sacks against defensive formations of four or fewer pass-rushers, tied for the league lead. That rate speaks to consistent 1-on-1 defeats.
How the Packers responded: Re-signing both veteran tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Drafting tackle Bryan Bulaga at No. 23 overall.
Seifert analysis: Some might question the wisdom of bringing back a pair of 30-something tackles. But the Packers at least have smoothed out the cliff they started last season on. They have a more reliable safety net should Clifton or Tauscher falter or get injured, and Bulaga promises a solid future at one of the tackle positions. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers also has agreed there are times he should throw the ball quicker. The combination of better depth and Rodgers' experience should minimize the issues Green Bay suffered through last season.
Issue: Elite quarterbacks scorched the Packers' pass defense last season.
Stats & Information revelation: Despite disappointing performances against Minnesota, Pittsburgh and -- in the playoffs -- Arizona, the Packers led the NFL in defense against four-receiver sets.
How the Packers responded: They took only one aggressive step to address their personnel here: Trading up to draft safety Morgan Burnett. Otherwise, they are counting on the healthy return of cornerbacks Al Harris, Will Blackmon, Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood. They also are hoping Brad Jones can provide consistent pass rush as an outside linebacker.
Seifert analysis: Although this statistic is culled from a relatively small sample of the Packers' defensive plays, it might help explain why they are not as worked up about this situation as some of us are. Like it or not, they have chosen not to overreact to some disappointing games against Hall of Fame-caliber quarterbacks. They're trusting their developmental system to give them the personnel reinforcements they need. It should also be re-emphasized that they'll take on "elite" quarterbacks in only three games this season: Twice against Minnesota's Brett Favre, assuming he doesn't retire, and once against New England's Tom Brady.
Issue: Minnesota's running game was less effective in 2009.
Stats & Information revelation: Nearly 27 percent of the Vikings' rushing attempts went for no gain or a loss, the second-highest rate in the NFL.
How the Vikings responded: Allowing Taylor to depart via free agency. Trading up to draft Toby Gerhart, a 231-pound tailback.
Seifert analysis: The Taylor-Gerhart swap will be secondary to the larger issues Minnesota must address. First, they'll need more even-handed performances from an offensive line that introduced two new starters in center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt. Second, tailback Adrian Peterson must continue his career-long efforts to contain his aggressiveness long enough to allow the hole to develop. It's an especially important task in a zone-blocking scheme.
Issue: Minnesota nose tackle Pat Williams has flirted with retirement, and both he and teammates Kevin Williams might have to serve a four-game suspension after testing positive for a diuretic.
Stats & Information revelation: Even with Williams' advancing age, the Vikings' up-the-gut defense still led the NFL by allowing 3.0 yards per carry last season.
How the Vikings responded: Re-signed backup Jimmy Kennedy and issued a high tender to fellow backup Fred Evans, a restricted free agent.
Seifert analysis: The Vikings are satisfied with their depth at both defensive tackle positions and have long groomed Evans to replace Pat Williams. No matter whom they acquire, there will be a drop-off if their two starters are suspended concurrently. The bigger issue is finding a long-term replacement for Pat Williams. Is Evans the guy? He'll get his chance to prove it should the suspensions stand.