Reviewing NFC North at quarter pole

October, 8, 2009
10/08/09
1:00
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As expected, quarterbacks Jay Cutler, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers have improved the NFC North's passing and scoring totals relative to last season.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert


Take a breath. We made it. We’re at the quarter pole of the 2009 season here in the NFC North. Four games down and 12 to go until we find out how this crazy journey will end.

With half of the division entering a bye week, now is as good a time as any to evaluate the trends we’ve been tracking and determine just where we stand on a number of issues.

(For regular readers: This post will encompass our usual Thursday “Air and Space” entry.)

OK, let’s get to it.

We’ve talked extensively about the influx of new quarterbacks. (Hence, "Air and Space.") In July, we noted that NFC North teams combined for the second-fewest passing yards among the eight divisions last season. As you’ll see in the chart below, the arrival of Chicago’s Jay Cutler, Minnesota’s Brett Favre and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford has brought the division’s passing totals to No. 4 overall.
NFL passing average by division
Rank Division Avg. passing yds per game
1 AFC South 257.2
2 NFC East 245.6
3 AFC North 228.5
4 NFC North 217.5

I used average yards per game this time to compensate for some NFL teams that have only played three games. On that scale, NFC North teams are throwing for an average of about 18 more yards per game this season. That might not sound like much, but it’s enough to leapfrog three spots in the NFL divisional rankings.

But the new quarterbacks’ biggest impact has been on scoring, a far more important statistic than gross passing yards. As you can see, three of the league’s top seven scoring teams reside in the NFC North. Last season, the division had only one team (Green Bay) in the top 10.
Scoring by NFC North teams
Team Points per game NFL rank
Minnesota 29.5 3
Chicago 26.2 6
Green Bay 26 7
Detroit 20.8 17
We’ve also tracked our class of young tight ends, whose impact as a group has been a bit underwhelming so far.

Here’s some trivia we’ll answer at the end of this segment: Which tight end leads the NFC North in receptions? It hasn’t been one of the young bucks we’ve discussed. Below, you’ll see that group and where their reception totals rank among NFL tight ends:
By the numbers: NFC North tight ends
Player Team Catches NFL rank* Yards TDs
Jermichael Finley Green Bay 18 T-11 190 1
Greg Olsen Chicago 10 T-22 94 2
Brandon Pettigrew Detroit 10 T-22 131 0
Visanthe Shiancoe Minnesota 9 T-26 67 2
*Among tight ends.

Olsen and Shiancoe have combined for four touchdown receptions; coincidentally, they have all been from 1 yard out. Pettigrew has displayed more open-field running ability than I thought he would, but he’s yet to get into the end zone. And Finley was quiet until breaking out for his six-catch performance Monday night at Minnesota.

Frankly, Finley’s 62-yard catch-and-run was the type of athletic play we have been expecting with some regularity from this group. They can all get downfield and break tackles.

Anecdotally, you might think that Olsen has been bottled up by defenses that feel comfortable defending him as the Bears’ No. 1 receiver. But according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bears have thrown Olsen more passes (25) than any other player on their team. In other words, he’s getting his fair chance.

The situation would be more critical if the Bears’ receiver group hadn’t stepped up the way it has. But I look for Olsen’s production to increase as the season continues.

(Your trivia answer: Green Bay’s Donald Lee, with 13 receptions.)
Kampman
Green Bay linebacker Aaron Kampman has proved competent in his new position. If anyone was concerned about Kampman’s ability to make open-field tackles or to stay with running backs in the flat, I think he has shown he won’t embarrass himself in those areas.

But to this point, the Packers have traded an elite defensive end for a competent linebacker. The position change has diminished the impact of their best pass-rusher, an especially notable turn of events for a team that is tied for No. 28 in the NFL with five sacks.

In limited opportunities, Kampman has one sack and -- according to the Packers’ official statistics -- two of their nine quarterback hurries/pressures. This is a player who, as a 4-3 defensive end, had the third-most sacks in the NFL (37) from 2006 to 2008. The last time Kampman had one sack over the first four games of a season was 2004.

Every time Kampman retreats into coverage, it's hard not to wonder if that’s the best use of his skills. But I’m not sure what the answer is here. The Packers’ decision to change schemes was about much more than Aaron Kampman. Good pass-rushers are rare, and you should always maximize their skills. But should the Packers have maintained their previous scheme simply to keep Kampman in his regular position? I don’t think so.

To this point, his sack totals have been an unfortunate -- and not entirely unpredictable -- by-product of a larger plan to improve.

While Detroit largely kept its offensive line intact, the other three NFC North teams each changed at least two starters. The results, to say the least, have been mixed. Here’s a quick report card:

Chicago Bears
Positions changed: 3
Sacks allowed: 8
Rushing game rank: No. 26
Grade: C
Comment: Most observers agree that left tackle Orlando Pace and left guard Frank Omiyale are still making adjustments. Pass protection has been adequate, but tailback Matt Forte hasn’t seen much daylight.

Green Bay Packers
Positions changed: 3
Sacks allowed: 20
Rushing game rank: No. 22
Grade: F
Comment: Right tackle Allen Barbre has looked overmatched, while Daryn Colledge struggled when he moved to left tackle. The Packers are hoping two crusty veterans, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, can save them.

Minnesota Vikings
Positions changed: 2
Sacks allowed: 9
Rushing game rank: No. 10
Grade: B-
Comment:
Quarterback Brett Favre took too many hits over the first three games, but the Vikings kept him clean Monday night. Right tackle Phil Loadholt occasionally has been vulnerable to the bull rush, but that’s to be expected for a rookie.

Detroit is getting the most bang for the buck from its draft class, although the division’s top two rookies are in Minnesota and Chicago.

The Lions had four draft picks in their Week 1 starting lineup. Five of them started in their Week 3 win over Washington. Running back Aaron Brown has also been a regular contributor, and this week the Lions plan to rotate in kick returner Derrick Williams and linebacker Zack Follett. That would give them eight draft choices with substantive contributions over the first five weeks of the season.
Starts for Detroit's draft class
Round Pos. Player Starts
1(a) QB Matthew Stafford 4
1(b) TE Brandon Pettigrew 4
2 S Louis Delmas 4
3(a) LB DeAndre Levy 3
4 DT Sammie Lee Hill
1

With that said, I think most everyone would agree that Vikings receiver Percy Harvin and Bears receiver Johnny Knox are the top rookies in the division thus far. At a position where few rookies offer immediate impact, both rank among team leaders in receptions, yardage and touchdowns. Both Harvin and Knox have also returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

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