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Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Familiarity has its advantages


 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 In his first game with his new team, Minnesota's Jared Allen said Monday's game was "one of the least productive games of my life."

 Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The ball sailed past Minnesota receiver Bernard Berrian a few times. Once, it hit his feet. Another time, he couldn't adjust quickly enough as the ball was in the air.

On the other side of the ball, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen burst through the line a handful of times, tripped on a couple of plays and ultimately finished with what he called "one of the least productive games of my life."

In Atlanta, a defense stocked with newcomers was bumbling all over the field. The Detroit Lions gave up 21 points in the first quarter to the Falcons and never recovered.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears' veteran defense carried it to a surprising victory at Indianapolis. And the Green Bay Packers' homegrown roster proved to be the most decisive team on the field Monday night.

In retrospect, it shouldn't be a surprise that the NFC North teams who largely stood pat in the free-agent market were more prepared to play on the opening weekend of the season. High-profile acquisitions impress the media and whip up fan support, but it is a difficult task to bring a group of new veterans together in time to play your best football in September.

Perhaps that's why the Vikings were surprisingly calm and, in many cases, smiling after their 24-19 loss to the Packers on Monday night. Berrian entered the game with almost no game-speed work with quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. They played one quarter of one preseason game together because of injuries. He ended up catching three of the seven passes Jackson threw his way.

Allen's unofficial stat line was filled with zeros, with the exception of one defensed pass. And yet when we ventured into the Vikings' locker room, you couldn't hear a bowling ball drop, let alone a pin. Players weren't exactly jubilant, but they seemed far from discouraged.

"We're going to be fine, man, really," nose tackle Pat Williams said. "We gave up a few big plays, and that's it. I'm not worried at all. If we can get a little more consistency and not give up big plays, we'll be alright. We've just got to work on a few small things."

Indeed, the Vikings are quietly confident they will challenge for the division title -- once Jackson and Berrian get their timing down, and once Allen gets comfortable on a new team and against a new set of left tackles. Of course, building that rapport during games that count comes at a premium price; you only get 16 chances, and already it has contributed to a defeat for both the Vikings and Lions.

The Lions used three new veteran starters Sunday against the Falcons: Safety Dwight Smith, cornerback Brian Kelly and defensive tackle Chuck Darby. Cornerback Leigh Bodden, acquired from Cleveland in a trade, is also on the roster.

Smith, Kelly and Darby all have played in Tampa Bay, where the Lions' defensive style was developed. The idea was that they would be ready to step in with authority on Day 1, minimizing the adjustment period normally associated with new starters.

But the Lions are finding out that transitions aren't only about scheme. They also include learning how to play and interact with a new group of teammates. There is no substitute for time in that task, and indeed, coach Rod Marinelli told Detroit reporters Monday that his defense didn't seem totally sure of itself against the Falcons.

"I thought we got a little bit tentative and it showed up in our alignments at times," Marinelli said.

The Bears had no such issues Sunday night, not with a core group of players that has been together for a good part of this decade: Linebackers Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer; defensive linemen Tommie Harris, Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown; defensive backs Nate Vasher, Charles Tillman and Mike Brown.

Those players' familiarity with the scheme and each other allowed the Bears to employ a sophisticated game plan that discombobulated one of the smartest players in the NFL. Yes, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had just returned from knee surgery, but he still looked uncertain in throwing for a relatively modest 257 yards.

The Bears hadn't looked good in the preseason, but their confidence throughout the summer was based on prior experience.

"We played pretty vanilla in the preseason," Brown said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. "And the package that we have is pretty good. It helps us play aggressively and with a lot of confidence."

The same was true Monday night for the Packers -- whose general manger, Ted Thompson, largely passes on the free-agent market in favor of the draft. His only acquisition this year was reserve linebacker Brandon Chillar, and Monday night the Packers performed like a young major league baseball team that has been playing together since Class A ball.

Other than 12 penalties, the Packers made few mistakes. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers found his open receivers, and the punt return team looked well-oiled during
Will Blackmon's 76-yard return.

"We know we have a good group here," right tackle Mark Tauscher said. "We've been together for a while and we know what we can do. It's good to be able to show that in a regular-season game, but it wasn't as if we didn't know ourselves."