NFL Nation: Kalvin Pearson

Anticipating Packers-Lions

November, 25, 2009
11/25/09
11:30
AM ET
It’s almost time for more football! Exactly 25 hours from the publication of this post, Green Bay and Detroit will square off on Thanksgiving Day for the 18th time. I’ll be positioned at NFC North headquarters to bring you thoughts before, during and after the game.

As you’re cleaning the bird this afternoon, take a few minutes to anticipate a few talking points for this game:

  • The Lions have sold out Ford Field for this game and their fan base is energized after quarterback Matthew Stafford’s heroics in Sunday’s victory over Cleveland. Fans also enjoyed a breakout game from receiver Calvin Johnson, who set a career high with 161 receiving yards. Unfortunately for everyone (except the Packers), Johnson’s status is very iffy because of knee and hand injuries. Stafford will start despite being listed as "doubtful" with a left shoulder injury, the Detroit Free Press reported.
  • The Packers have tweaked their offensive approach in the past two weeks, but it’s hard to get past the mismatch their passing offense presents for the Lions' defense. After all, this is a group that gave up four touchdown passes to Cleveland quarterback Brady Quinn. The Lions' pass defense has gotten worse as the season has continued, and here are the numbers as of Week 12: Opponents have a 70.4 completion percentage, a 24-6 touchdown-interception ratio and a 110.3 passer rating. And here’s a new twist: Two of the Lions’ top three safeties, Ko Simpson and Kalvin Pearson, haven’t practiced this week because of injuries. If he wants to, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers could have an early Thanksgiving feast in this game.
  • The Packers have faced their share of injuries as well in this short practice week. As of Wednesday morning, they’re not sure if center Scott Wells (knee) will be able to play. That could force rookie Evan Dietrich-Smith into the starting lineup. And as has been mentioned once or twice, the Packers will have two new starters on defense after losing linebacker Aaron Kampman and cornerback Al Harris to knee injuries. Thursday will mark a transition game for the entire Packers defense.
  • A few people have mentioned the Lions’ 11-6-1 record against the Packers on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit. Let’s not put too much stock in that mark. Recently, the series has been all Packers. Coach Mike McCarthy has never lost to the Lions in seven games, and overall the Packers have an eight-game winning streak against them. In the bigger picture, the Packers have won 16 of the past 18 in this series. In this decade, the Lions are 2-7 on Thanksgiving Day.
 
  Scott Boehm/Getty Images
  New Lions coach Jim Schwartz is attempting to change the atmosphere in Detroit.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Upon arriving in Detroit to begin offseason workouts, Lions players found their locker room had been painted. Their lockers had been moved around. They had been assigned new parking spaces. Their lifting regimen had been changed. Their uniforms looked different.

Most symbolic, a number of motivational signs were replaced by one that simply read: "National Football League" -- a reminder of the high standards set for everyone who walks into the building.

Camp Confidential: NFC North
Vikings: Sun., Aug. 2
Packers: Sun., Aug. 9
Bears: Thurs., Aug. 13
Lions: Fri., Aug. 21
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"It sort of made a little statement to the players," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "The whole idea was that when the players came back, they didn't walk into the building and have the same old thing. ... The objective was for them not to say, 'Whoop, same old stuff around here.' That was the plan."

That approach has extended into training camp, where more than half of the players on Detroit's 80-man roster are newcomers. Schwartz has tweaked his practice plan for every day of camp, both to reinforce the message and provide variety. After taking over the first 0-16 team in NFL history, he really had no other choice.

"You can't stand pat," Schwartz said. "That's something that gives the players a little bit of comfort, that we're not standing pat. ... Every time they come to practice, they're working on a different situation, a little bit different drill, different emphasis of periods and things like that. There's drudgery in walking out of the hotel every morning and going to bed and walking to the next meeting. But when they walk onto the practice field, it's a fresh plan that day. It's not the same old thing."

(Note: Due to circumstances, my stay in Detroit was cut short. But for additional information, make sure you've checked out this practice report posted earlier this week.)

Key questions

 
  Mark Cunningham/Getty Images
  Detroit rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford has played well enough to be the starter.
1. Who will start at quarterback?
I hope it doesn't sound patronizing to praise Daunte Culpepper for losing 30 pounds during the offseason. Culpepper reported to camp at 260 pounds and has never looked lighter in his NFL career. During the practice I attended this week, he was decisive and his passes were sharp.

To be honest, Culpepper probably couldn't have done more thus far to win the Lions' starting job. And he still might not see the field this season.

Rookie Matthew Stafford, whose pre-draft contract agreement ensured he would not miss a day of training camp, has practiced his way into a legitimate opportunity to start the Sept. 13 opener at New Orleans. (Let that be a lesson to all future No. 1 draft picks.) In practice, at least, it's difficult to see much difference between him and Culpepper. If that remains the case, it's hard to imagine Stafford opening the year on the bench.

Stafford still has plenty of work to do, beginning with his anticipated start Saturday night against at Cleveland. But at the very least, it looks like Stafford is going to give Schwartz a very difficult decision.

2. Can the Lions retrofit their defensive line?
You won't find two more dissimilar defensive schemes than when you compare the Lions' 2008 approach with the one Schwartz is implementing now.

"The philosophy here in the past had been small and quick," he said. "The philosophy here now is big and powerful."

That put the Lions' personnel department on a search for larger defensive linemen, while incumbents were required to gain weight in the offseason. Such changes don't occur overnight, and it appears the Lions are about halfway there.

They've added some interior bulk in Grady Jackson (340ish pounds), Shaun Smith (325 pounds) and rookie Sammie Lee Hill (329 pounds). Based on pure size, that trio should be more difficult to drive off the ball than the players Detroit used last year.

On the outside, however, the Lions will miss veteran Jared DeVries, who ruptured his Achilles tendon early in camp and is lost for the season. Their current depth at end -- led by Cliff Avril, Jason Hunter and Dewayne White -- is thin.

3. What impact will the free agent/trade crop have?
The Lions' revolving personnel door has continued into training camp, most recently with Shaun Smith. New veterans are sprinkled all over the field, from Smith and Jac
kson to cornerbacks Phillip Buchanon and Anthony Henry, from linebackers Larry Foote and Julian Peterson to receivers Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt.

Considering the personnel deficit that contributed to last season's record, an influx seemed unavoidable. The Lions decided to pursue the veteran route in hopes of establishing some short-term credibility while building for the long term behind the scenes. In all, it looks like the Lions will have at least 11 new starters when the season opens.

Market watch

Henry
The Lions acquired Henry, 33, in exchange for quarterback Jon Kitna. Henry is of the age where cornerbacks typically convert to nickel backs or safety, but for now the Lions have him listed as a starter opposite Buchanon.

You wonder whether that will last all season or if Henry will eventually make his way to safety. From the outside, he doesn't appear to be a good matchup for the speedy receivers in this division, be it Green Bay's Greg Jennings, Minnesota's Bernard Berrian or Chicago's Devin Hester.

A previous surplus of safeties has been whittled down to the point where this move might make sense, if the Lions can find another cornerback they feel comfortable inserting into the lineup.

Peterson
Newcomer to watch
During the best portion of his career, Peterson was a pass-rushing, play-making force to be reckoned with. Offenses had to account for him on every play.

At 32, Peterson might be past that prime. But the Lions believe he can still be a disruptive player who will help cover for some pass-rushing deficiency in other areas. His success or failure will play a big role in whether the Lions can improve their takeaway totals from last season.

Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has said he could blitz as often as 40 percent of the time this season. Expect him to lean heavily on Peterson in those situations.

Observation deck
The Lions signed veteran Maurice Morris to back up starting running back Kevin Smith, but you wonder what Morris' role will be if rookie Aaron Brown continues to display big-play capabilities. Brown's speed might make it difficult to keep him off the field. ... When the summer began, the Lions had too many safeties. But their surplus has thinned out considerably after the trade of Gerald Alexander and a season-ending knee injury to Daniel Bullocks. Rookie Louis Delmas and veteran Marquand Manuel have been limited by injuries. When it's all said and done, expect Delmas and Kalvin Pearson to hold starting jobs. ... Receiver Demir Boldin, the brother of Arizona's Anquan Boldin, is a long shot to make the roster but made a number of professional-level catches during the practice I watched. ... Receiver Calvin Johnson has been limited by a thumb injury during much of camp and will miss his second consecutive preseason game Saturday at Cleveland. But Johnson is expected to be healed in time for the regular season. ... Quarterback Drew Stanton appears close to locking down a roster spot after seeming to be on the brink of release during the offseason.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
 
  AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
  Quarterback Jay Cutler and the Bears will need a young receiver to step up in camp.

Chicago Bears
Training camp site: Olivet Nazarene University (Bourbonnais, Ill.)

Campfires
The only Bears receiver with a guaranteed job is Devin Hester. Otherwise, the position is wide open. Veterans Earl Bennett and Rashied Davis will compete with rookies Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox for the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 receiver positions. If general manager Jerry Angelo doesn't like what he sees, the Bears could pursue a proven veteran later this summer.

The free safety position is also wide open as the Bears replace the departed Mike Brown. Craig Steltz ended spring practice atop the depth chart, but he'll have to battle converted cornerback Corey Graham. Former New Orleans starter Josh Bullocks is also on the roster as a third, if distant, option.

Although the Bears hope it never matters, they'll have to sort out their depth behind new quarterback Jay Cutler. Unproven Caleb Hanie is set to battle free agent Brett Basanez in a competition that, like receiver, could ultimately give way to a veteran from outside the organization. Hanie, however, is a favorite of coach Lovie Smith and will get every opportunity to win the job.

Camp will be a downer if ...
... the Bears realize this summer that they haven't given Cutler enough weapons. While young players don't always develop on a convenient timetable, it should be pretty clear by mid-August if the Bears have enough mature depth at the receiver position. Adding a veteran at the end of the summer is an imperfect solution and would limit his chances to develop a rapport with the new quarterback.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

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Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates

The best-case scenario is if Bennett can parlay his familiarity with Cutler -- they were college teammates at Vanderbilt -- into a quick claim on the No. 2 job. That would lessen the pressure on the rookies and relieve the need to rely on Davis, who isn't a starting-caliber receiver. But if Bennett stumbles, the domino effect could significantly diminish the Bears' passing attack early in the season.

Camp will be a success if ...
... Smith can lay the groundwork for a revived defense. Smith has taken over as the de facto defensive coordinator and will call most defensive signals during games. He'll need to restore the Bears' core values -- producing a pass rush with the front four and making big plays in the secondary -- in order to meet the standard his defenses set earlier this decade.

It might be difficult to judge the success of this venture during camp and even in the preseason; Smith isn't likely to give away too much from a schematic standpoint before the regular season begins. But make no mistake: The origin of any improvement must come during technique and drill work in training camp.

O-verhaul
Quietly, the Bears shook up 60 percent of their offensive line this offseason. Center Olin Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza are the only returning starters. Chicago is hoping that left tackle Orlando Pace, left guard Frank Omiyale and right tackle Chris Williams can breathe some life into a group that grew stale last season.

Pace is the short-term key. Injuries have caused him to miss 25 games over the past three seasons. His health and conditioning will be monitored carefully in training camp. It will be interesting to see if the Bears also work Williams at left tackle -- his natural position -- as a contingency should Pace suffer another injury.


Detroit Lions
Training camp site: Team facility in Allen Park, Mich.

 
  Rashaun Rucker/zuma/Icon SMI
  The Lions would like Daunte Culpepper to earn the starting quarterback job ahead of Matthew Stafford to start the season.

Campfires
No Black and Blue battle will be more scrutinized than the competition between Lions quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper and Matthew Stafford. Conventional wisdom suggests Culpepper will win the job as long as he maintains his offseason conditioning level. But coach Jim Schwartz has said Stafford will start as soon as he meets two criteria: when he is ready and when he surpasses Culpepper as the team's best option.

Stafford's status as an underclassman suggests he faces a steep learning curve this season. That, along with Culpepper's familiarity with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's scheme, imposes a two-pronged challenge for Stafford to win the job in training camp.

Another rookie, safety Louis Delmas, appears to be one of the few locks to start in the secondary. You would assume Phillip Buchanon will win one cornerback spot, but the other two starting roles seem wide open.

Anthony Henry could start at cornerback, or he could move to safety. Other safety candidates include Daniel Bullocks, Marquand Manuel, Kalvin Pearson and Stuart Schweigert. The competition will be wide open as the Lions look for defensive backs who are aggressive and eager for contact.

Camp will be a downer if ...
... every player on the roster suffers a season-ending injury on the first day of camp. Otherwise, there is nowhere to go but up for a team that went 0-16 last season.

Seriously, there is one position where Detroit is keeping its fingers crossed. The Lions signed 36-year-old nose tackle Grady Jackson to help tighten their run defense and also keep offensive linemen off their talented trio of linebackers. But Jackson missed all of spring practice after undergoing knee surgery in February. Jackson is as important as any player the Lions acquired this winter and he needs to get at least some practice time in training camp to ensure he will be ready for the season.

Camp will be a success if ...
... Culpepper can win the job outright, rather than become the starter simply because Stafford isn't ready. If Culpepper can recapture some of his previous magic with Linehan, the Lions will have a much better chance to be credible in Schwartz's first season.

And despite the protestations of modern-day thinkers, Stafford can only benefit from some time on the sidelines. That doesn't mean he should sit for three years. But rare is the quarterback who can start -- and succeed -- on day one. A rejuvenated Culpepper is the first step in the Lions' rebuilding project.

Linebacker city
Through trade and free agency, the Lions have put together a competent group of linebackers in Julian Peterson, Larry Foote and Ernie Sims. It will be interesting to watch defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham experiment with ways to utilize their playmaking skills.

Cunningham has said he plans to blitz 40 percent of the time this season. Peterson could make some big plays if he has maintained the athletic skills of his prime. The same goes for Foote. We'll get a good idea of how much each player has left in the tank this summer.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

DETROIT -- Greetings from a hushed Ford Field. We have a few of lineup changes to bring you as players start warming up:

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