NFL Nation: Free Head Exam 5

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

October, 12, 2010
After the Minnesota Vikings' 29-20 loss Monday to the New York Jets, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe Minnesota Vikings are back for another exam.

  1. Monday night, I felt strongly that there was little connection between Brett Favre's performance and the allegations that he sent racy text messages and photographs to a former Jets sideline reporter. Along those lines, I don't think his emotional release after a 37-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss was related, either. Here's what Favre said about sprinting some 40 yards into Moss' arms after the catch: "I have to admit, when I threw a touchdown to Randy Moss, I've been thinking about that for about 8 to 10 years, if you didn't know that. I was a little bit excited about it." I think Favre saw the quick-strike potential Moss gives this offense and got fired up. Nothing more to read into than that.
  2. I don't have an exact play count yet, but it was obvious to anyone watching that Moss' arrival sent former starter Bernard Berrian into hibernation. The Vikings spent much of the game in a two-receiver, two tight-end set with Percy Harvin opposite of Moss. Greg Lewis was the third receiver in most of those formations. Berrian, meanwhile, got on the field for a handful of plays and wasn't targeted on any of Favre's 34 passes. Moss said afterward that he was originally scheduled for 20-25 plays, which I would have roundly ripped had that happened. Instead, he was on the field for almost the entire game. But it speaks to the flux of this offense that a player who has been a starter for the past two and a half seasons was banished to near inaction in the span of a couple of weeks. Why Berrian wasn't the No. 3 receiver Monday night is beyond me; it makes you wonder if a message was being sent after Berrian told reporters he was unhappy with his reduced playing time of late. But at this point in the season, the Vikings need their best players on the field. Period.
  3. [+] EnlargeFavre
    John Munson/US PresswireAlmost lost amid the milestones Brett Favre reached Monday night, he completed just 41.2 percent of his passes.

  4. For those who aren't willing to make the connection between Favre's elbow tendinitis and his limited effectiveness Monday night, consider this: His 41.2 percent completion percentage Monday night tied for the second-lowest in a game of his career. Every quarterback misses throws sometimes. And it's true that Favre drilled some tough passes Monday night as well. But when a completion percentage is so far below a career curve, you have to start looking for other explanations. Asked about it Monday night, Favre said: "This is probably the worst it's felt in four games. I missed some throws in the last drive I think I make in my sleep. Really, the last two drives. I'm not going to sit here and make excuses. I missed them. I felt like I should have made them. ... I'm not going to say that tendinitis caused me to miss however many throws. But it doesn't feel as good as it did [two weeks ago]."
And here is one issue I don't get:
How did the Jets expose the normally-stout Vikings run defense for 155 yards? According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Jets got 99 of those yards on runs up the middle, a relative gashing of defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams. The Vikings had given up 112 rushing yards up the middle in their first three games combined. It appeared the Jets had much of their success with quick-hitting trap-type plays in those situations. And on Shonn Greene's 23-yard touchdown run, fullback John Conner had a nice kick-out block on linebacker E.J. Henderson.

Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions

October, 11, 2010
After the Detroit Lions' 44-6 victory Sunday over the St. Louis Rams, here are three issues that merit further examination:

    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe Detroit Lions cheerfully take their turn in the exam room.
  1. In this instance, at least, I'll give the Lions a pass on just about everything. When you've only won three of your past 44 games, you get to call a halfback pass midway through the fourth quarter. Nate Burleson gets to raise the ball in the air 10 yards before crossing the goal line, narrowing avoiding having it knocked out of his hand. You get to punt the ball into the stands after said touchdown. Rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh gets to do a stomp-and-grind after tipping an interception to himself and following up with a nifty 20-yard return. Cornerback Alphonso Smith gets to do his own dance after returning an interception 42 yards for a touchdown. At some point, the Lions will want blowout victories to be routine and their reactions will follow accordingly. But on Sunday, the Lions got to have some fun.
  2. I can't imagine Smith losing his starting cornerback job anytime soon after picking up his third interception in five games since the Lions acquired him from Denver Broncos. There is much more to playing cornerback than making interceptions, but one big play can compensate for a slew of coverage issues. To this point, I think we can agree that Smith is around the ball a lot. That's a good sign. Another good sign: The Lions got a winning performance out of rookie Amari Spievey, who started at safety for the injured C.C. Brown. When young players like Spievey and Smith contribute to a victory, it offers another level of satisfaction.
  3. [+] EnlargeNate Burleson
    Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesNate Burleson and the Lions were in a celebratory mood after notching their first win of the season.
  4. It goes without saying that the Lions are holding their breath on receiver Calvin Johnson's shoulder. Coach Jim Schwartz said "we'll see where it is" after tests Monday. Initial reports suggested the injury wasn't serious, but it would be an awfully crushing blow for him to miss any time after seeing what can happen when he's on the field at the same time with Burleson, who returned after missing most of three games because of an ankle injury. Quarterback Shaun Hill targeted either Johnson or Burleson on 15 of his 32 passes, and they combined for eight catches, 110 yards and two touchdowns. Burleson's effectiveness on third down was especially notable.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
What is it about Hill and the Rams? Hill has made 19 starts in his NFL career and is 4-0 against the Rams. In his past two starts against them, Hill's teams have won by a combined score of 79-6. Sunday, Hill had his best all-around game for the Lions this season -- completing 66 percent of his passes and throwing three touchdown passes without a turnover. His 117.6 rating was the second-highest of his career.

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

October, 11, 2010
After the Chicago Bears' 23-6 victory Sunday over the Carolina Panthers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe Chicago Bears are back in the examination chair.
    Before we say anything else, let's take a moment to step back and establish the 4-1 Bears are tied for the best record in the NFC with the Atlanta Falcons. I can't say I saw that coming as the Bears struggled through the preseason and won their season opener by the slimmest of margins. But the more I watch the Bears, the more I wonder if they aren't simply following the formula they used to great success during the last decade. Their defense- and special teams-dominated victories might not be easy on the eye, and might provide a weekly field day for aesthetic connoisseurs, but ultimately the end result is all that matters.
  2. Quarterback Todd Collins took a page from the Jonathan Quinn handbook. Like Quinn, Collins is a veteran backup who made his coaches feel better about emergency situations. Until he actually gets into a game. Collins' horrid performance Sunday -- four interceptions, six passes completed to his own team -- should guarantee that he never gets on the field again this season as long as the Bears have another option. Backup Caleb Hanie probably benefits from the excitement of the unknown, and it's fully possible that the only difference between him and Collins is that Collins has already shown us he can't play. But if starter Jay Cutler needs another week to recover from a concussion, or if there is another time this season when he can't start, I think we can all agree it's now Hanie's turn. By the way, here's some trivia for you. There have been five quarterbacks in the past 20 years who have thrown four interceptions without a touchdown pass in a game. Two of them did it for the Bears: Collins on Sunday and Rex Grossman in 2006. (Thanks to Keith Hawkins of ESPN's Stats & Information for passing that along.)
  3. Julius Peppers got plenty of attention in his return to Carolina, but how about the performance of fellow defensive end Israel Idonije? Five days after the Bears released former starter Mark Anderson, Idonije collected three sacks and a team-high seven tackles as well as a forced fumble. It's not fair to expect that kind of production every week, but it's about time someone took advantage of the mismatches created when opponents prioritize Peppers in their blocking schemes.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Will offensive coordinator Mike Martz consider Sunday's 218-yard rushing effort a mirage against a bad defense, or will he work harder to incorporate the running game into his scheme? Matt Forte looked like a gamebreaker Sunday, scoring on first-half runs of 18 and 68 yards. (Be sure to credit receiver Johnny Knox with a strong block of Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn on the first run.) Meanwhile, backup Chester Taylor helped the Bears run out the clock with 10 carries in the second half. With or without Cutler down the road, the Bears should take careful notes on this performance.

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

October, 11, 2010
After the Green Bay Packers' 16-13 loss Sunday at the Washington Redskins, here are three issues that merit further examination:
    Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertThe Green Bay Packers are back in the examination chair following their loss to the Redskins.

  1. Watching this game unfold was a surreal experience. When the season began, did you think the Packers would target rookie tight end Andrew Quarless on a fourth-down pass on the goal line? Did you think you would see safety Charlie Peprah getting turned around on a deep post pass that went for a 48-yard fourth-quarter touchdown? Did you think you would see quarterback Aaron Rodgers, tight end Jermichael Finley and linebacker Clay Matthews all leave the same game because of injury? Health has now become a short- and long-term crisis for the Packers, one that has now formed a serious hurdle to winning the NFC North. By the way, was I the only one who thought the Packers played into the Redskins' hands on that fourth-down play? Of course Quarless was matched up on a relatively slow outside linebacker (Lorenzo Alexander). The Redskins were more than happy to see the Packers direct a fourth-down pass to their No. 3 tight end, given the alternatives. Quarless, meanwhile, showed some inexperience with a pretty passive play for the ball.
  2. [+] EnlargeAndrew Quarless
    Maxwell Kruger/US PresswireAndrew Quarless couldn't haul in this fourth-down pass.
  3. ESPN Stats & Information had Packers receivers with six drops Sunday, including four by Donald Driver. By the same criteria, the Packers had four drops over their first four games combined. It goes without saying that a team with a weakened running game can't have so many botched passing plays. Although they got an early 71-yard run from tailback Brandon Jackson to set up their first score, the Packers still dropped back to pass 51 times in the game. If you believe your offense is buttered in the passing game, it better be more efficient in that area than it was Sunday.
  4. At various points, we've spent time discussing the backup quarterback situations in all four NFC North locales. We might be poised to have a week-long conversation on the Packers' decision to keep Matt Flynn as Rodgers' backup over the past three seasons. We all know the story: Flynn and Brian Brohm were drafted in 2007 following Brett Favre's (first) retirement. Brohm was a second-round bust, while Flynn was a seventh-round survivor. As per his philosophy, general manager Ted Thompson never pursued a more experienced backup for Rodgers. So if Flynn is forced into a prominent role this week, it will be with almost no reviewable body of work that matters. He simply doesn't have enough game experience to merit a thoughtful opinion. It's interesting and scary at the same time.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
How should we judge the Packers' pass defense Sunday? They sacked Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb five times in 54 dropbacks and forced 23 incompletions in 49 attempts. But McNabb also racked up 357 total yards and his lone interception came on a Hail Mary pass on the final play of regulation. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers sent at least five pass-rushers on 40 percent of their defensive snaps. But in the second half, McNabb had a 141.4 passer rating in those situations. Obviously he was harassed throughout the game, but the Redskins made enough adjustments after halftime to survive.