Something has been missing from my life, and perhaps yours as well. Our extended postseason run and an unusual start to the offseason has delayed a follow-up I've been meaning to write for some time. So while we have a moment, let's finally restore order around here.
One of our primary themes for the 2010 season was the NFC North's response to its precedent-setting passing numbers in 2009. In a pre-training camp post, we suggested the division race would turn on the degree to which each team's pass defense could catch up to our passing offenses.
Would the Chicago Bears' acquisition of defensive end Julius Peppers pay off? How much better would the Detroit Lions' pass rush be with their retooled defensive line, one that now included a former Pro Bowl defensive end (Kyle Vanden Bosch) and the No. 2 overall pick of the draft (defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh)? Would the Minnesota Vikings sustain their historic passing efficiency of 2009 while improving their own pass defense? Could the Green Bay Packers straighten out the personnel shortage that led to an epic collapse in the wild-card playoffs?
Our theory: The most effective response would clinch the division and, perhaps more. And although there were a few exceptions here and there, the end result proved illuminating.
As the charts show, the Bears won the NFC North after making a 24-spot jump in the NFL's rankings for defensive passer rating. The Packers, who fielded the league's best pass defense and No. 3 passing offense based on quarterback rating, won Super Bowl XLV. The Vikings improved their pass defense, but the collapse of their passing offense was the single biggest factor in their 6-10 record. Finally, the Lions' progression in both categories mirrored their four-victory improvement from 2009.
Sorry, run-and-run-defense enthusiasts. Success in today's NFL requires efficient passing and pass defense. Passer rating isn't a perfect common evaluator, but I like it better than the NFL's traditional measure using total yards. And as Kerry Byrne of Football Facts points out, defensive passer rating is one of the most reliable indicators of championship-caliber teams.
"This game is made for offensive players, I think," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said recently. "The rules are, and all that kind of stuff."
In turn, any team that can take either special advantage of those rules and make headway against them on defense -- or both -- figures to be in the playoff conversation. So let's take this quiet moment in the NFL offseason to measure each NFC North team through the passing lens. Where are they and how can they improve?
Quarterback Jay Cutler threw 10 fewer interceptions in 2010 after getting assimilated into Mike Martz's offense, and the entire team figures to benefit from its familiarity with Martz's system. With that said, I see two pass-related areas the Bears should focus on this year: Pass protection and interior pass rush.
The Bears gave up an NFL-high 56 sacks last season, a figure that doesn't directly apply to passer rating but assuredly affects a quarterback's accuracy and decision-making over time. In a recent interview with the Bears' website, coach Lovie Smith noted "the number of hits Jay took this past season." On many levels, the Bears need to enter 2011 with a better Week 1 plan for their offensive line.
Meanwhile, the release of defensive tackle Tommie Harris reminds us the Bears don't have an established interior pass-rusher who has typically defined their defense. Matt Toeaina, who replaced Harris in the starting lineup last season, was credited with two sacks.
The Lions are hoping that Vanden Bosch returns at full strength following neck surgery. If so, their biggest pass-related need this offseason is continuing to rebuild their cornerback position. They did not re-sign starter Chris Houston before last week's deadline, but it's possible he could return to the team after testing the free-agent market. At the moment, however, the Lions have only two established cornerbacks under contract: Alphonso Smith and Nate Vasher.
Meanwhile, the Lions have acknowledged the need to improve at their No. 3 receiver position. Although they can mitigate this issue with the smart use of tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, the Lions' offense would take a substantial hit if either Calvin Johnson or Nate Burleson were forced from the lineup for an extended period. Bryant Johnson and Derrick Williams combined for a substandard 21 receptions last season.
Green Bay Packers
Thompson will need to sort out his receiver depth in anticipation of James Jones' pending free agency. Jones said Monday he wants to be a starter, an indication that he will look to sign elsewhere when the market opens. The Packers could use Jordy Nelson as their unquestioned No. 3 receiver and seek further depth in the draft, a reasonable path that could make Jones' departure inevitable.
The Packers' other big challenge will be replacing defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who led their linemen with seven sacks despite missing five games because of injury. Jenkins is a pending free agent and appears set to move on. Rising second-year players Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson could vie for that job. Reviews on both players have been good, but are they seven-sack good? Another possibility is veteran Johnny Jolly, who has applied for reinstatement after a one-year suspension.
The Vikings might have more passing-game work ahead of them than the rest of the NFC North combined.
At the top of the list is finding short- and long-term answers at quarterback, a job that could require multiple acquisitions. Former Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice is a pending free agent and wants to test his value on the market, and last season ended with high-priced veteran Bernard Berrian as an afterthought. A significant rebuild of the receiving corps could be on the horizon.
Defensively, the Vikings probably are looking for two new starters on their defensive line. Left end Ray Edwards, who recorded 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons, appears set to move on in free agency. (Backup Brian Robison signed a new contract last week.) Nose tackle Pat Williams also isn't expected back.
Finally, the Vikings enter the offseason certain of only one starter in their secondary: cornerback Antoine Winfield. The health of fellow cornerback Cedric Griffin (knee) is uncertain, and at the very least, safeties Madieu Williams and Husain Abdullah will have to earn their starting jobs in training camp.