NFL Nation: Mike Tice

Seeing new defensive end Tyson Jackson toss 120 dumbbells around like trash bags Tuesday was a positive sign for an Atlanta Falcons team desperately in need of some heavy lifting.

Yet such strength means nothing if the Falcons fail to use it to their advantage on the field. Just ask general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

"It's functional strength," Dimitroff said this offseason. "Our guys were considerably stronger last year than they were the year before, interestingly enough, and we had some challenges with it. What I'm saying it, yes, we're going to continue to focus on strength increase. But it's the functional strength. It's being able to put them in the right spot to utilize their strength."

[+] EnlargePeter Konz
AP Photo/Paul AbellPeter Konz, who was pushed around at times last season, has "been living in the weight room."
That will all come in time. For now, the Falcons are using offseason workouts to get their bodies prepared for what should be a more physical 2014 campaign.

Coach Mike Smith seemed a bit more animated Tuesday as he explained part of the formula would be for winning the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball.

"One of the emphasis points for us as a coaching staff was to evaluate everything that we do," Smith said. "One of the things that became very apparent for us was that we need to get bigger and stronger. I think we've started doing that with our players. ... It's going to be very important for us to be a much bigger and stronger football team."

Smith is counting on AJ Neibel and his strength-and-conditioning staff to produce results as the Falcons go through Phase I of the offseason workout program. Smith and the other coaches are not allowed to oversee activity during the first two weeks, which started Monday.

"The offseason program has changed," Smith said, again emphasizing the bigger-stronger campaign. "If you'll look back and look what I said the very first time I was here in this room -- not in this room but over in that team meeting room -- I talked about what it takes to win in the National Football League. And I believe I said that you have to win the line of scrimmage. You have to have bigger and stronger players than your opponent. I feel like we've lost our way. I've lost my way a little bit.

"And the emphasis moving forward is going to be a bigger and stronger football team. And we're going to win the line of scrimmage."

Adding big, physical players such as offensive guard Jon Asamoah, nose tackle Paul Soliai, and Jackson were the first steps toward improvement. New offensive line coach Mike Tice immediately encouraged center/guard Peter Konz to bulk up, and Konz, who was pushed around more often than not last season, responded by "living in the weight room" so far this offseason.

"I think it's more for the younger guys," Tice explained in January, during a break at this year's Senior Bowl practices. "I think the younger guys, as they grow into their bodies and they stop growing and they start maturing, physically, I think that they get stronger and take a big leap and not only take a big leap with strength, but when they gain strength, they gain confidence.

"I see us in a couple different areas needing to gain that confidence. And I think a good offseason in the weight room will help some guys."

The first two players quarterback Matt Ryan mentioned Tuesday in terms of working hard in the weight room were tackle Lamar Holmes and Konz. The Falcons' offensive line obviously failed at the line of scrimmage last season as Ryan was the most pressured quarterback in the league.

"I think everybody takes a good, hard look in the mirror when things go well and then also when things don't go well," Ryan said. "And I know that's one of the most important things for me as a player and as a professional is to take a good, honest evaluation of yourself after a season and try and find areas that you can improve. And so those guys, they've made a conscious effort to get into the weight room and to move weight.

"We're not naive. Those guys (the offensive linemen) have taken some heat. And they've had to answer questions and tough questions all of last season and through the offseason so far. And I think they've taken it as a challenge. And they're in there working as hard they possibly can. I've been really impressed with the way they've handled it professionally and also how they have taking it personally, too, and want to become better and are doing everything that they can in order to improve."

Konz appears to be taking things personal. But again, he understands it's about more than just bulking up.

"You know what? We never talk about strength in the film room because it's all about technique," Konz said near the end of last season. "If you open up any book, it's all about leverage. And strength is important when you know how to use it with your footwork.

"Strength is very important, when used in combination with technique. That's what most important: lowest man wins. If you've got your hands on somebody and you've got them, they're going to have a hell of a time trying to get away from you."

If the Falcons don't improve up front, the season could get away from them again.
There's no pressure on new Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Gabe Carimi. Not this time.

When Carimi entered the league in 2011, high expectations followed him as the Chicago Bears' first-round pick and the 29th overall selection. He was the starting left tackle and Outland Trophy winner at Wisconsin, the same school that produced five-time All-Pro and perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas.

[+] EnlargeGabe Carimi
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Falcons have signed OT Gabe Carimi, a former first-round pick of the Bears in 2011, to help add depth to the line for next season.
The folks in Chicago expected Carimi to come in and give the Bears an immediate jolt. Instead, he suffered an immediate setback, dislocating his right knee cap in the second game of his rookie season against the New Orleans Saints -- the week after he made his NFL debut against the Falcons. He then dislocated it again tripping over an item in the Bears' training room.

"It was just having to go through the process of things taking longer than it should," Carimi said of his bout with knee issues. "When it's an injury that you haven't dealt with and it takes longer than you want … and then knowing that you're not able to do what you're capable of doing, it's frustrating. But I feel like I'm kind of leaving all that stuff in the past now and moving forward. I feel healthy now. That's all that matters."

Whatever the Falcons can get out of Carimi will be a bonus. He started 16 games in two seasons with the Bears before being trading to Tampa Bay in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick. He was then released by the Buccaneers shortly after Lovie Smith, who coached Carimi with the Bears, took over as the Bucs' new head coach.

One Chicago tie helped bring Carimi to Atlanta. New Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice held the same role with the Bears and always expressed faith in Carimi. Tice had also vouched for Carimi before he was drafted. Tice's son, Nate, was a reserve quarterback at Wisconsin and teammate of Carimi's.

"I feel like he's helped give me a good opportunity to have a positive impact on this team," Carimi said of Coach Tice. "I know there's lot to prove, and I feel like I can prove it."

It's a low-risk situation, from the Falcons' perspective. Carimi signed a one-year and was added to provide depth on the right side of the line, not to assume a starting role. Carimi could play either right tackle or right guard, and even played some jumbo tight end last season with the Bucs.

"I really doesn't matter where I am," Carimi said. "Whenever they feel I can help impact the team, that's where I want to be."

Tice obviously believes he can motivate Carimi into being a contributor for a line that struggled miserably last season. Garrett Reynolds, formerly the Falcons' starting right guard, was released Tuesday. The future of former starting center Peter Konz, Carimi's roommate at Wisconsin, remains in doubt, although Konz apparently is living in the weight room this offseason.

The Falcons seem likely to add a starting-caliber guard in free agency, with starting tackle Sam Baker back from injury, and they could target an offensive tackle such as Auburn's Greg Robinson and Texas A&M's Jake Matthews with the sixth-overall pick in the draft. Such a trio of linemen would be counted upon heavily.

Anything from Carimi would exceed expectations, although critics would say he has little to offer.

"I don't read too many articles, so I don't look at expectations like that," Carimi said. "I just want to be the best I can be."
MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Minnesota Vikings hired Brad Childress as their head coach in 2006, infamously keeping him in the Twin Cities before he could get on a plane to interview for the Green Bay Packers' head-coaching position, they were taking their chances on an offensive coordinator from a successful team (Philadelphia) who had not been a NFL head coach or a playcaller for the Eagles. That search wrapped up six days after Vikings ownership fired Mike Tice on the final day of the season.

When the Vikings removed the interim tag from Leslie Frazier's title before their final game of the 2010 season, they were taking their chances on a defensive coordinator who'd done good work for them and managed to win three of the final six games in a chaotic year marked by the collapse of the Metrodome. But Frazier, like the man he replaced in the middle of the season, had not been a head coach.

Those two searches were relatively short -- the first likely because of the Wilf family's inexperience as NFL owners, the second because the Vikings were rewarding a candidate who had interviewed for a handful of jobs elsewhere and who had kept the team together during a trying season. The Vikings' current search for a head coach, though, has general manager Rick Spielman criss-crossing the country, talking to coaching candidates. As ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter reported on Saturday and as we discussed on Friday, the Vikings will interview San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman on Saturday.

That would make Roman the sixth known candidate the Vikings have talked to. And all of those -- Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and Roman -- are current coordinators who have never been NFL head coaches beyond an interim level.

After the Vikings fired Frazier on Dec. 30, Spielman outlined his process by talking about the research he'd already done on previous head coaches. NFL coaches can come from 13 different backgrounds, he said, and none had proven to be more successful than any other.

"That can be anything from head coaches that are currently offensive coordinators, former head coaches that are currently defensive coordinators, defensive coordinators [and] offensive coordinators without head-coaching experiences, college head coaches with and without NFL coaching experience," Spielman said. "So there is a long list of areas that you can look for in a head coach."

We'll say this with the disclaimer that the Vikings could certainly be talking to candidates whose names haven't been publicized, but the list so far has zeroed in, almost exclusively, on coordinators who haven't been permanent head coaches yet. As ESPN's John Clayton pointed out this week, the Houston Texans decided to go away from a coordinator because of how many have failed at the NFL level -- 60 percent, in Texans owner Bob McNair's estimation.

If the Vikings have found the coordinator pool to contain the best candidates, great. Spielman has too much riding on this hire -- his reputation as a GM and possibly his future with the team -- not to turn over every stone, and he has gone through this search in his typical diligent manner.

Roman certainly has the wares to be conducting an extensive interview tour this year, too; he's helped the 49ers get to the NFC title game and the Super Bowl with two different quarterbacks, and has designed one of the league's most diverse offenses behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a power running game. The Vikings could certainly use someone with that kind of offensive know-how, especially if he's able to develop a young quarterback.

But it's worth pointing out the considerable risk in the coordinator pool, and the Vikings should be well-acquainted with that, based on the past two coaches they've hired (and fired). The search, at least so far and at least with the names that have become public, hasn't included as much diversity in coaching backgrounds as we thought it could. We'll have to presume that's because Spielman is finding the right people in a class of coordinators that's historically been fraught with risk.

"There is no specific [type of coach we have to have]: offense, defense, college coach, high school coach, whatever," Spielman said on Dec. 30. "It is a coach that we feel is the best fit for our organization."
If the Atlanta Falcons wanted to bring a little toughness to the offensive line, Mike Tice was the right guy.

A source confirmed to ESPN.com that Tice agreed to a two-year deal to become the team's offensive line coach. The one-time Minnesota Vikings head coach took a year off this season, trying to enjoy a relaxing life in the Seattle suburbs with his wife, Diane, after being let go by the Chicago Bears. But even as he watched the 2013 season from afar, the 54-year-old Tice maintained a burning desire to be on the field working hands-on with the guys up front.

No, Tice's first stint as an offensive coordinator in 2012 didn't pan out, and he learned some valuable lessons from the experience. However, there was no doubt what type of impact Tice had while coaching the Bears' offensive line for two seasons prior to being promoted to coordinator. He got the most he could out of marginal talent.

[+] EnlargeMike Tice
AP Photo/Scott BoehmMike Tice will be the Falcons' next offensive line coach after agreeing to a two-year deal.
One former member of the Bears staff told me Tuesday night that Tice was one of the best assistant coaches the team had under Lovie Smith, partially because Tice "didn't take any crap.'' Tice refused to put up with Jay Cutler's stubborn behavior, although Cutler won out in terms of remaining with the team.

But Tice's latest endeavor isn't about a coordinator's relationship with his quarterback. It's about a position coach motivating a group of five to play tough while remaining in unison.

I'll never forget what Tice told me in November of 2011 when he discussed harping on his offensive linemen about keeping their hands high, maintaining good balance, not crossing over, not bringing the feet together, and keeping the helmet out.

"They get sick of hearing about it,'' he said. "They have to do those five things in sequence so when we're slowing down the tape, they look like, 'The Rockettes.' ''

The Falcons line has looked more like the "Three Stooges'' as of late, with a comedy of errors. It contributed to quarterback Matt Ryan being sacked a career-high 44 times this season. And the line's inability to consistently block was the main reason the Falcons finished dead last in the league in rushing at just 77.9 yards per game.

The organization obviously was tired of the line being the laughing stock, which is why offensive line coaches Pat Hill and Paul Dunn were let go at season's end. Team owner Arthur Blank even agreed the Falcons needed to get tougher up front.

Tice, a long-time NFL tight end who actually played quarterback in college at Maryland, developed a knack for offensive line play over the years. He learned under great offensive line instructors such as Joe Bugel, Howard Mudd, Jim Hanifan and Chuck Knox. Tice translated that wealth of knowledge into tutoring the likes of Pro Bowl linemen such as Matt Birk, Korey Stringer, and Todd Steussie with the Vikings.

Now, Tice inherits a line lacking Pro Bowl-caliber players. No one is expecting him to perform miracles, and the Falcons obviously need to add more talented linemen for Tice to work with moving forward. But no matter which players are in his group come the start of the season, he won't be afraid to get it any of their faces.

Yes, it's the kind of toughness the Falcons sorely need.

It's all on the line for the Falcons

December, 30, 2013
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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- When Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith met the media Monday, they were careful not to single out any individual for the team's 4-12 implosion.

In fact, Smith said the responsibility "solely goes on me" in terms of not fulfilling expectations.

However, both Smith and Dimitroff made it clear how significant not winning the line of scrimmage was in terms of the team's demise. So it was no surprise when the Falcons parted ways with offensive line coaches Pat Hill and Paul Dunn as well as defensive line coach Ray Hamilton Monday evening.

The Falcons sorely need to get better up front, and adding better linemen is just one step in the process. Dimitroff said he has no desire to be a finesse team, so the Falcons need to find line coaches capable of bring out the "nastiness'' in the team's offensive and defensive linemen.

[+] EnlargeMike Tice
AP Photo/Scott BoehmMike Tice has worked with Falcons coach Mike Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter before.
With so much coaching turnover on "Black Monday'' there are sure to be plenty of options available. And at least one free-agent coach is interested in bringing his expertise to Atlanta.

Former Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Tice, who was last the offensive coordinator in Chicago but took a year off from coaching, has a strong desire to work with the Falcons offensive line, a source told ESPN.com. Tice didn't have much success as a coordinator, but he did show plenty of passion while tutoring a below-average Bears' offensive line.

Not to mention Tice worked with both Smith and Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter in Jacksonville, so there is some familiarity.

However the Falcons proceed, they need to spend every ounce of their offseason energy trying to improve every aspect of their line play, on both sides.

Dimitroff was asked specifically what went wrong with the offensive line this past season, as quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times and the running game ranked dead last in rushing yards per game.

"I believe where things went awry offensive line-wise is more the missed assessment on the readiness of this offensive line to play together as a unit,'' Dimitroff said. "I thought over and over how I could summarize that, and that's what I came up with.

"I think individually, we have some players that are developing along the offensive line that, we think, have upside. Some were challenged more than others this year. Some played, at times, well, other times, struggled. And we're going to do all in our power to make sure that we correct that at many levels.''

Dimitroff went on to talk about future acquisitions and the coaches doing a better job developing players -- somewhat foreshadowing the coaching changes. Although Dimitroff sounded somewhat hesitant about breaking tradition and addressing offensive line needs with spending spree in free agency, he didn't rule out making such a move. Some of the names expected to be available include Branden Albert, Michael Oher, and Anthony Collins, to name a few.

Plus the Falcons hold the No. 6 pick in the draft, so the belief is they'll look to fill a void on either the offensive or defensive line. Speculation has focused on South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney and Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, if either remains available and if the Falcons keep their current spot in the order.

But based on Dimitroff's assessment, targeting a pass-rusher would take priority over drafting another first-round offensive lineman. Since 2008, the Falcons have spent a first-round pick (Sam Baker), a second-round pick (Peter Konz) and two third-round picks (Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes) on offensive linemen.

"That's been our approach because we believe that you do not necessarily have to go extremely high in the draft to acquire, because that's a position where you're going to continue to develop your football players,'' Dimitroff said of offensive line prospects.

"We're not going to second guess or question what we've done from an offensive line standpoint. We do believe that we have talent along the offensive line that will continue to develop. With that, they need to continue to develop on their own as well as with our coaching staff encouraging them and pushing them to be the best that they can be. That's important for us.''

The general theme here is clearly evident: It's all on the line for the Falcons.
As we've discussed, the Chicago Bears retained most of former coach Lovie Smith's assistants to give their new coach the option of keeping them as part of his new regime. The Bears did allow special teams coordinator Dave Toub to depart for the Kansas City Chiefs, and it appears new coach Marc Trestman at least will bring in new offensive coaches as well.

ESPN's Adam Schefter has already reported Trestman's first hire: Former New Orleans Saints assistant Aaron Kromer as offensive coordinator/offensive line. Kromer and Trestman worked together on the Oakland Raiders' staff in 2001 and 2002, and their respective backgrounds suggest that Trestman will call the plays in 2013. It also means that Mike Tice, the Bears' offensive coordinator in 2012 and offensive line coach in 2010 and 2011, will be looking for a new position.

On the other hand, you wonder if Trestman would consider keeping defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and the rest of the Bears' respected defensive staff. That decision will be based in part on whether Trestman wants to continue the "Tampa 2" framework that Smith brought to the Bears in 2004 and has been well coordinated by Marinelli since 2010.

Hopefully Trestman will shed some light on that possibility during a news conference scheduled for 11 a.m. ET on Thursday.

Final Word: NFC North

November, 23, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 12:

November woes: The Green Bay Packers have won four consecutive road games against the New York Giants, their opponent in Sunday's prime-time game. And are the Packers getting the Giants at a good time? Recent history is inexplicable but clear. The Giants are a bad November team, and this year quarterback Eli Manning has slumped badly as well. Under coach Tom Coughlin, the Giants are 13-21 in November and 67-37 in all other months. The Giants have lost their past five games in November, including two this season. Manning, meanwhile, hasn't thrown a touchdown pass since the fourth quarter of Week 7, a span of 99 passes. Since Week 8, Manning has completed only 54.5 percent of his total throws and has a Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) of 27.1, ranking him No. 29 of 33 qualifiers during that span.

Run opportunities: The Packers achieved rare equality in their run-pass ratio last week against the Detroit Lions, running on 28 plays and passing on 31. Coach Mike McCarthy lamented a relative lack of production from starter James Starks, who rushed for 74 yards on 25 carries, and it appears Starks and Alex Green will rotate more frequently Sunday night. The Packers should have some opportunities against a Giants defense that has allowed at least 150 rushing yards in consecutive home games for the first time since 2006. The Pittsburgh Steelers rushed for 158 yards against them two weeks ago, and 99 of those yards came after contact, an indication of the state of the Giants' tackling.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe Bears will be counting on QB Jay Cutler to make an impact in their upcoming games against Minnesota.
Big meeting: Few thought when the season began that the Week 12 meeting between the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings would be so crucial to the NFC North race. Only one game separates the Bears (7-3) and Vikings (6-4), and they're set to play twice in the next three weeks. The Vikings have lost 10 of their past 11 games in Chicago, and the only game they've won in that span required a 224-yard effort from tailback Adrian Peterson and a 54-yard game-winning field goal from Ryan Longwell. The Bears are coming off a short week after an embarrassing road loss, but they appear likely to get back the services of quarterback Jay Cutler, who has won 12 of his past 13 games that he has finished. Of ESPN's 14 NFL experts, all but one picked the Bears to win this game.

Tracking Allen: Vikings defensive end Jared Allen had at least one sack in six consecutive games but has now gone two games without one. But the last time Allen saw the Bears, he lit up left tackle J'Marcus Webb for 3.5 sacks in the 2011 season finale. Webb is one of three offensive linemen who kept his job after backup quarterback Jason Campbell was sacked six times by the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night, but offensive coordinator Mike Tice has pledged constant chip help for Webb this weekend. The Bears will try to contain the rest of the Vikings' defense with a new right tackle (Jonathan Scott) and left guard (Chris Spencer).

Peterson power: The Bears' defense has proved vulnerable recently to what has been the decided strength of Peterson all season. Specifically, they have given up at least 80 yards on runs between the tackles in each of their past five games. Peterson, of course, has been gashing teams almost exclusively between the tackles since returning from knee surgery. This season, 174 of his carries, 922 of his yards, six of his touchdowns and 11 of his 20-plus yard runs have come on runs that began between the tackles. There is every reason to believe the Vikings will attack that area early and often, and then probably follow up with a heavy dose of their play-action game.
Wednesday morning, the Chicago Bears offense sat down to watch film of the Houston Texans' active and swarming defense. One of the games they watched was a Week 6 affair in which the Texans took their standard approach -- press coverage with a single-high safety -- and were torched by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for six touchdown passes and a total of eight explosive throws that traveled at least 16 yards.

Like the Packers, the Bears have the personnel to exploit single-high safety looks.

[+] EnlargeChicago's Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall
AP Photo/Joe HowellThe Bears have the personnel to exploit the single-high safety look the Texans will give them.
So for me, there are two questions that must be answered as the Bears and Texans prepare for Sunday night's showdown:

  1. Will the Texans give the Bears the same look?
  2. If so, will the Bears protect quarterback Jay Cutler enough to capitalize?

Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips told reporters -- jokingly, I assume -- that the Texans will double-team receiver Brandon Marshall on every play. Phillips made the convincing argument that the Bears "haven’t thrown it to the other guys very much except the running back," but if form holds, Marshall will get more opportunities than he might ordinarily to make big plays downfield early in this game.

"We've been pretty good against single-high teams," offensive coordinator Mike Tice said this week. Added Marshall: "I'm going to get some single coverage."

As we noted earlier this week, five of Marshall's seven touchdowns this season have come with the Bears leading by at least 17 points. Facing a deficit, opposing defenses have assumed the Bears would run to eat time off the clock and are bringing one of their safeties close to the line of scrimmage. That leaves the other safety in a "single-high" look that limits the attention paid to Marshall.

If the Texans open the game that way, the Bears could be in business if Cutler has enough time to throw. That's a big "if," of course, and not just because Cutler has been sacked 28 times this season. The Texans have arguably the NFL's best pass defense, allowing a league-low 17.4 QBR to opposing quarterbacks. Their standard four-man pass rush is averaging one sack per 11.7 dropbacks, the second-highest total in the NFL, and defensive lineman J.J. Watt has 10.5 sacks and nine tipped passes on his own.

With this game now two days away, I feel comfortable spending more time focusing on the Bears' offense than the rest of their team. Way back in training camp, as we noted, the Bears' confidence this season was based not just on their defense or special teams, but that they would finally have an offense to match those two long-running elite groups.

The Bears have started 7-1 without the strength of a consistently high-performing offense, but they are about to hit a stretch of games -- beginning Sunday night -- that will require the offense to be better. If the Texans play their single-high safety look, and the Bears protect Cutler, the offense has a great chance to do its part.

Return of the NFC North running games

November, 6, 2012
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James Starks and Mikel LeshoureUS PresswireJames Starks, left, and Mikel Leshoure have helped provide their teams with balance on offense.
As the 2012 season dawned, we had a pretty good idea of what made our NFC North teams tick.

One of our quarterbacks was the NFL's reigning MVP, having set a league record with 45 touchdowns and six interceptions last season. Another had become the fourth quarterback in history to exceed 5,000 passing yards in one season. A third's value had risen after his team went 1-5 in his absence after a 7-3 start. And a fourth's development was considered the key to his team's progress.

The NFC North is still a passing division and quarterbacks remain its most important players. But at the rough midpoint of the season, I think we should acknowledge the substantial efforts under way either to build up running games or -- gasp! -- rely on them exclusively in all four division locales. If nothing else, as the weather turns cold in the Upper Midwest, we're reminded that the best teams have at least a capacity for balanced effectiveness. Based on what we've seen so far, it's safe to say that no one-dimensional NFC North team is going to win the Super Bowl.

That process is no more visible than with the Detroit Lions, who ran the second-fewest running plays in the NFL last season but have been more aggressive in 2012 in response to deep zones designed to limit downfield passes. Those efforts have only recently turned effective, culminating with a 149-yard, three-touchdown game Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars -- which happened to be the Lions' most convincing victory of the season.

The Lions are so committed to making the running game work, in fact, that they have been willing to take a skill position player off the field in favor of a sixth offensive lineman. Rookie Riley Reiff played nearly half of the Lions' snaps Sunday and has been on the field for 87 plays this season. Their past five rushing touchdowns have come with him on the field.

"I think we've seen probably the most consistent and most productive run game since I've been here," coach Jim Schwartz said, "and a lot of it has to with attitude up front and Riley's a big part of that."


As the chart shows, the Lions aren't yet where they want to be. They don't have a single run of 20 or more yards, but their top two backs -- Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell -- are more powerful than they are explosive. Quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Lions' passing game will still account for most of this offense's explosive plays, but already the Lions have made substantial progress toward balance. They're now getting the yards defenses are handing them.

Like the Lions, the Green Bay Packers also found themselves unequipped to capitalize against opponents that took risks in run defense. We discussed their imbalanced play calling earlier this year, and through nine games quarterback Aaron Rodgers is on pace to throw more passes than in any season in his career.

Rodgers said last week on his ESPN 540 radio show that at the midpoint of a season, a team's offensive personality is usually set. He lamented the lack of quality and explosiveness in the running game and added: "I think that has directly affected the amount of 16-plus [gains] in the passing game. We've probably had less of that than in the past as well. Our yards per attempt passing the ball are obviously down from last season and I think a lot of that is due to the types of coverages we're seeing."

So it's worth noting that five days later, the Packers set season highs with 39 rushing attempts and 176 rushing yards in a 31-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The game featured a return to prominence of exiled starter James Starks, who more than tripled his season total for attempts with 17. The Packers still have time to rebalance themselves, and a more consistently productive running game almost certain will elevate their downfield passing success as well.

"Things happen," Starks said, "but I think we'll be fine. We're starting to get comfortable and I think we'll get this thing going."

The Minnesota Vikings are hoping to keep their thing going with tailback Adrian Peterson, who has emerged as strong as ever 10 months after major knee surgery. Peterson has rushed for 458 yards and four touchdowns over his past three games, and he is now the Vikings' only reliable playmaker considering receiver Percy Harvin's ankle injury and quarterback Christian Ponder's ineffectiveness. Only Peterson can prevent a complete offensive collapse at this point.

The Chicago Bears, meanwhile, might be the team with the best potential for a balanced offense, depending on offensive coordinator Mike Tice's play calling. Tailback Matt Forte is averaging 5.0 yards on 137 carries through eight games, while quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall already have combined for 59 receptions, 797 yards and seven touchdowns.

No matter how effective Cutler and Marshall are, the lesson of the Packers' and Lions' struggles remains relevant. The Bears will need Forte and backup Michael Bush to help control the tempo against some of the NFL's better defenses, especially those who will choose to take away Marshall rather than stack themselves to stop Forte.

The running game and the NFC North. Who would have thunk it? What is this, the Black and Blue division?

By the bye: Chicago Bears

October, 11, 2012
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Reviewing the Chicago Bears at their bye:

Record: 4-1

Five-game capsule: The Bears are in excellent position after rebounding from a Week 2 debacle at Lambeau Field. Their defense leads the NFL in takeaways (17) and touchdowns (five), getting elite performances from stalwarts (two touchdown returns apiece for linebacker Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman) and relative newcomers (five combined sacks for defensive ends Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin) alike. Quarterback Jay Cutler has settled after throwing four interceptions and taking seven sacks in Week 2, limiting himself to two interceptions and five sacks over the next three games. Importantly, he has worked hard to keep receiver Brandon Marshall (35 receptions, 496 yards) involved in the offense. In short, the Bears have the look of the championship-caliber team they envisioned this summer.

[+] EnlargeTim Jennings
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastTim Jennings has had a surprisingly strong start to the season, leading the NFL in both interceptions and pass breakups.
MVP: Briggs and Tillman deserve the attention they've received, and defensive tackle Henry Melton (4.5 sacks) has had a nice start. But the Bears' best player over five games has been cornerback Tim Jennings, who has made teams pay dearly for targeting him over Tillman. Opponents have thrown his way an NFL-high 46 times, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), and he has responded with a league-leading four interceptions and 14 total pass breakups. Those plays have left opposing quarterbacks with a 23.4 passer rating on throws in his direction, the second-lowest rating against a qualified cornerback in the NFL. (Via PFF.) Jennings has locked down one of the few question marks the Bears had on their defense.

Biggest surprise: For as much attention as left tackle J'Marcus Webb has received since the start of training camp, culminating in the now-infamous events of Week 2, he hasn't been half-bad during the Bears' three-game winning streak. Webb gave up a sack to Dallas Cowboys pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, but otherwise he has done what you'd hope for from a left tackle: Not drawn attention with his play. He has committed a modest two penalties, one false start and one for holding, and has rebounded admirably from the public embarrassment of his performance against the Green Bay Packers.

Stat to note: Offensive coordinator Mike Tice's background is in the power running game, but the most notable aspect of his scheme so far has been the frequency of deep shots down the field. Cutler has thrown 21 passes that traveled more than 20 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the second-highest total in the league. He has completed 10 of them, including four for touchdowns. For comparison, consider that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford have combined for 25 such throws.

Bonus stat to note: As productive as Marshall has been over the first five games, would you believe he is behind the pace set by former Bears receiver Marty Booker in 2002? Through five games that season, Booker had caught 37 passes for 566 yards. He finished the year with 97 receptions for 1,189 yards.

Looking ahead: The Bears will return from their bye with a Monday night game (Oct. 22) against the Lions, but they won't have another division game until Week 12 against the Minnesota Vikings. That schedule quirk, which leaves them playing NFC North opponents in four of their final six games, will make the final month of the season awfully interesting.

Bye the by series: Last week's post on the Detroit Lions.
Jay CutlerAP Photo/LM OteroIt's becoming clear that Bears fans are willing to put up with Jay Cutler's pouting if he performs.
Here's what I've learned during the 18-odd hours since Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler twice walked away from offensive coordinator Mike Tice during a second-quarter sideline scene: You're over it.

You're bored with the subject, suspicious of the motives for its continued revival and no longer feel illuminated by the discussions. You're not necessarily defending Cutler's virtues, but you believe the point was made long ago and now we're all just piling on.

Via Twitter, @bearsoline wrote: "What cares what happens at insignificant moments?" Noting Cutler's stellar performance in the Bears' 34-18 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, @J3reinhold wants the media to "get over it. He can't win with you guys."

In our Tuesday SportsNation chat, Doc of Chicago wrote: "People are really making too much out of Jay's sideline antics. Jerk? Probably. How many players have gone to the sideline and yell at coaches, players, smash equipment, etc.?"

And Cutler himself, speaking Tuesday afternoon on his ESPN 1000 radio show , said: "If I yell on the sideline, I get killed. If I don't say anything I get killed. If I walk away, I get killed. It's a no-win situation."

I've been wrong before, but my sense on Tuesday is that we've reached a tipping point in how we view the Bears quarterback. Cutler's career of pouty moments, emotional outbursts and questionable decisions has lowered the standard for what is acceptable behavior from him. (As long as he plays as well as he did Monday night, of course.)

Let's be clear. I'm not ready to concede that it's tolerable to be disrespectful of a coach, which is absolutely what Cutler was when he twice ignored Tice's attempt to discuss a failed third-and-1 play. Cutler said Tuesday that "it wasn't anything about Mike" and that the two eventually talked through the play, but to me that doesn't erase his initial reaction.

Several retired players, who presumably know the difference between what is normal and not on an NFL sideline, agreed. Former Bears tight end Desmond Clark tweeted: "Jay has to stop with his antics. Leadership leadership leadership leadership." Former NFL lineman Ross Tucker tweeted: "Must be so hard for Mike Tice to not just choke slam Jay Cutler. I bet 20 years ago he would've smoked him."

Regardless, the bigger picture is that most people are tired of seeing Cutler held to a standard he clearly isn't interested in meeting. You've found other ways to view his leadership abilities, and I'm willing to acknowledge that he did plenty on and off the field over the past few days to make Monday night's victory possible.

In addition to playing one of the most efficient games of his career, as the chart shows, Cutler also has taken on an important role in managing volatile receiver Brandon Marshall. Last week, Cutler apparently talked Marshall out of some frustration that built over the past few weeks as the Bears' offense struggled.

"I just wanted him to play within the system and play a full game," Cutler said. "Not worry about the plays being called, not worry about the balls coming to him or where they're going. Play Bears football. Play like he did in Denver with us and let it come to him.

"I'm probably more level-headed on the field, believe it or not, than Brandon. Lot of highs and lows. But when he's playing well, he's hard to stop. We've just got to keep him [on that] even level and playing within the system and try to get him the ball as much as possible. That's my job."

Marshall caught seven of the eight passes Cutler threw his way for a season-high 138 yards. I'm perfectly willing to connect Marshall's performance with Cutler's leadership over the past week. He helped make a teammate better, and that's absolutely part of leadership.

Cutler isn't a perfect person or player. None of us are. Perhaps more of you would have turned on him had the Bears lost Monday night, but it sure seems like you're willing to acknowledge -- now more than ever -- that he is what he is. And you prefer that over Cutler making some kind of cosmetic personality change that pleases the media police.

"I'm not an actor," Cutler said. "I don't now where the cameras are at all times. I'm playing football."

Monday night, he played it quite well. His greatest achievement, however, might have been rendering moot the ongoing discussion about his personality. It's not that it doesn't matter. It just appears to be old news for everyone. The "Jay Cutler is not nice" news cycle is over. You get it. You've adjusted your sights accordingly and you're ready to move on. Fine with me. I can't say I'll never mention this topic again, but I'm now fully aware that it's going to take quite an incident to move the dial again. Onward and upward. ...

video

Rapid Reaction: Bears 34, Cowboys 18

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
11:51
PM ET
A few thoughts on Monday night's events at Cowboys Stadium:

What it means: The Chicago Bears improved to 3-1 and now share the NFC North lead with the Minnesota Vikings. This was the kind of all-around dominance the Bears envisioned this offseason. Their defense intercepted Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo five times and accounted for two touchdowns, but their offense held up its end with a sharp and productive performance from quarterback Jay Cutler -- at least on the field.

CutlerWatch I: We'll handle Cutler's night in two separate posts. On the field, Cutler was accurate, aggressive and took few unnecessary risks. He completed 18 of 24 passes for 275 yards for two scores and no interceptions, and his 140.1 passer rating was the third-highest of his career. His impressive throws included a 34-yard touchdown strike to receiver Devin Hester, a 30-yard back-shoulder pass to receiver Brandon Marshall and also finding Marshall wide open against a blitz for a 31-yard clinching score in the fourth quarter. After two weeks of offensive struggles, the Bears couldn't have asked for more Monday night.

CutlerWatch II: A discussion of Cutler's night would not be complete without noting his refusal to acknowledge offensive coordinator Mike Tice during a second half trip to the sideline. As we discussed earlier, Cutler walked away from Tice, sat down on the Bears bench, and then got up and walked away again as soon as Tice sat next to him. We don't have the full context and may never get it, but is sure didn't seem a respectful way to treat a coach who has given Cutler significant schematic latitude this season.

Defense rises: Cornerback Charles Tillman and linebacker Lance Briggs each returned interceptions for touchdowns in what was a dominant display by the Bears defense. Briggs' play was a turning point of sorts, coming shortly after Cutler had fumbled and gave the Bears a 24-7 cushion. The final statistics might not bear it out, and some of you will note that Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant probably left 100 yards worth of catching on the field via drops. But to me, Monday night was a reminder for the nation the Bears defense is still on top of its game. These guys just know how to play this scheme.

HesterWatch: We discussed the possibility Monday afternoon of the Bears using Hester more in this game, and his touchdown reception was his first since Week 6 of last season. Cutler clearly focused on Marshall (seven receptions, 138 yards) but Hester stepped up with fellow receiver Earl Bennett sidelined by a hand injury.

What's next: The Bears will play at the Jacksonville Jaguars next Sunday, the second leg of the dreaded road game after a Monday nighter on the road.

Add Mike Tice to Jay Cutler's resume

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
10:22
PM ET
There's nothing I can do here. Some of you will think I'm being too easy on Jay Cutler. Others will consider this a manufactured post. That's how it goes with a player and personality was polarizing as the Chicago Bears quarterback.

The Bears took a 10-7 lead over the Dallas Cowboys into halftime on "Monday Night Football," but perhaps the most memorable moment of the first half occurred on the Bears' sideline. After a second-series in which Cutler called a timeout because the play clock was winding down, offensive coordinator Mike Tice approached him to talk.

Cutler kept walking past him and sat down on the Bears' bench. Tice sat down next to him, and Cutler immediately popped up and walked away again. ESPN announcer Mike Tirico suggested Cutler might have been upset because Tice's play-calls were coming in too slowly.

Check out the video for yourself via NFL.com.

Like it or not, Cutler doesn't get much benefit of the doubt when it comes to his sideline deportment. Two weeks ago, he was screaming at and shoving left tackle J'Marcus Webb. Monday night, he was at least ignoring his offensive coordinator and at worst showing him up.

With all that said, Cutler had a smart and risk-free first half and has opened the second half with a drive that ended with a 34-yard touchdown pass to Devin Hester, increasing the lead to 17-7. But trust me when I tell you I'm not the only person who thought Cutler could have acted more professionally in that instance. Here's what former Bears tight end Desmond Clark tweeted: "Jay has to stop with his antics. Leadership leadership leadership leadership."

CampTour'12: What we learned

August, 14, 2012
8/14/12
3:15
PM ET
Marshall-Ponder-YoungGetty ImagesFinal training camp thoughts: Chicago is excited about Brandon Marshall, Christian Ponder has started to embrace his role as a leader, and Titus Young has been a training camp star.
We came, we saw, we conquered. Veni, vidi, vici and all that stuff. Yes, CampTour'12 wrapped up late last week, ending a stretch of spending 11 days at four NFC North training camps over a 15-day period. I took three flights, logged 938 miles on the NFC North blogmobile and limited my Jimmy John's/Chipotle intake to an average of one ingestion per day.

You can find everything I produced on location through this handy one-stop link, and the four Camp Confidential posts are all grouped here.

This division looks every bit as tough as we thought it was before the tour began, and I figure it's going to take 12 regular-season victories (or more) to win it. With that in mind, let's wrap up CampTour'12 with, well, 12, final thoughts and semi-behind-the-scenes observations from my time abroad.

1. The Chicago Bears' risk-reward: Our pre-camp discussion centered around the Bears' improvement and possible eclipse of the Detroit Lions in the standings. After seeing them in camp and in the context of the rest of the division, I still think the Bears are a really good team. But I also think they run the biggest risk of imploding among our top three teams. Already, two offseason decisions to stand part have left them vulnerable. Left tackle J'Marcus Webb has not yet demonstrated the progress expected of him, and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's now surgically-repaired knee has drawn genuine concerns about his health over a 16-game season. Those are two huge positions on this team, and neither have a credible alternative at this point.

2. Genuine excitement: It was fascinating to watch longtime Bears employees and observers during receiver Brandon Marshall's first full-pads practice Aug. 1. Marshall made the kinds of plays that only a true No. 1 receiver makes, including some fancy sideline footwork at the end of a 35-yard pass from Jay Cutler. Several people gushed that Marshall will prove the team's best skill-position player since Walter Payton. A glance at recent Bears history suggests that's a sound judgment by default. I didn't see Marshall do anything that we haven't seen, say, Calvin Johnson do in this division. But it's been forever since the Bears have had someone do it in their uniform.

[+] EnlargeMike Tice
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMike Tice seems more relaxed with the Bears than when he was at the helm in Minnesota.
3. Tice games: I told Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice that he seemed less frantic and more chill than he was during his time as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach. "I still have my moments," Tice said in words that proved prophetic. Since then, he has reached deep into his bag of tricks to cajole better play from Webb, putting him in a yo-yo personnel rotation and playing him for almost all of the preseason opener. When he was the Vikings' coach, Tice once pulled fans into a non-contact drill to demonstrate mistakes to starting linemen. On another occasion, he required linemen to practice with their hands tied together to emphasize footwork. Sometimes those tactics work. Sometimes they don't.

4. Concussion impact: I wouldn't be surprised if we look back at this summer as the moment concussion treatment -- not just concussions themselves -- began impacting the game. Already, we've seen the Lions and Green Bay Packers acknowledge they are taking a much more deliberate approach to putting players back on the field after they've been concussed or if they are even suspected to have suffered a concussion. Front-line players including Greg Jennings, Marshall Newhouse and Amari Spievey missed the preseason opener because of them.

5. Traffic nightmare: Would you believe that the worst traffic in the NFC North is in the NFL's smallest market? Some of the key roads surrounding Lambeau Field have been torn up for months, including Oneida St. and Hwy. 41 near Lombardi Ave.. I pray to the construction gods that everything is finished by next month. Based on the amount of holes, gravel roads and lane closures I saw, I'm not optimistic. All I can say is to arrive early and often.

6. Camp routine: Because of the new collective bargaining agreement, players were on the field once a day in three of our locales. The only team coming close to two-a-day practices were the Vikings, whose first workout was a 60-minute, half-speed walk-through. Veterans like the Packers' Jeff Saturday were thrilled with the reduced wear-and-tear. Privately, others noted that coaches filled the time once set aside for a second practice with additional meetings. "Some really tedious days," one player said. Said another: "Sometimes the grass is not always greener, you know?"

7. Imagination movers: The Packers lead the division with unique drills and sideline gizmos. For years, they've had sideline speakers set up to broadcast the ravings of special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. This year, they added a set of red and green lights that flash exactly 2.5 seconds after the ball is snapped in team drills. In essence, they are designed to simulate the quarterback's head clock. I also saw offensive linemen catching passes from a JUGS machine and tight ends doing a basketball-like drill where they weaved the ball around their ankles and through their legs.

8. Ponder charisma: Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder seems to have made some strides as a pocket passer. But I can say without a shred of doubt that Ponder has mastered the more ethereal parts of NFL quarterbacking. He has taken ownership of a young roster and moves easily between the inevitable cliques that develop. He is just as likely to share a laugh with fellow second-year player Kyle Rudoph as he is veteran receiver Jerome Simpson, a newly-signed free agent. I watched him call team staffers by name and treat them with genuine respect. Ponder has some work to do on the field, but he has the makings of a franchise pillar off of it.

9. Defensive dilemma: Much of the camp discussion surrounding the Vikings has centered around Ponder and the changes they've made to the offense. But the Vikings have just as much, if not more, work to do on defense. There are at least four positions -- nose tackle, middle linebacker and both safety spots -- where the presumed starter remains completely unproven. The San Francisco 49ers gashed them for 260 rushing yards in the preseason opener.

10. Eye-opening: Someone asked me along the trail to name the best NFC North player no one has heard of. The first two names to come to mind are both on the Lions' roster. You've no doubt heard of receiver Titus Young, but probably for the wrong reasons after his offseason fight with safety Louis Delmas. Young has been a training camp star, twisting and turning over defensive backs in every drill I watched. From a physical standpoint, Young can be a star. The other was defensive end Willie Young, who got elevated reps because of Cliff Avril's holdout and Kyle Vanden Bosch's knee injury. Willie Young is a high-energy, full-effort pass-rusher who has to get on the field more substantially this season.

11. Redshirt season?: Perhaps the most notable sign of the Lions' roster strength is that their top two draft picks might get a quasi-redshirt season, assuming the players in front of them stay healthy. Offensive lineman Riley Reiff isn't going to beat out left tackle Jeff Backus and probably not right tackle Gosder Cherilus, either. And receiver Ryan Broyles has been limited all summer because of residual soreness from knee surgery. At best, he will be the Lions' No. 4 receiver when he does get on the field.

12. Serious bid'niss: I realized how serious this NFC North race would be shortly after returning from CampTour'12. Check out this photo tweeted by Chris Jenkins of The Associated Press. It shows Saturday, Cedric Benson and Reggie Wells in Packers uniforms. These three are the kind of veteran free agents the Packers turned away from for years under general manager Ted Thompson. This season, Thompson has loaded up on a relative scale. In this division, this year, there is no time to wait for development. Answers are needed now.

Previewing preseason Week 1

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
1:15
PM ET
In which we look ahead to NFC North preseason football over the next two days. (A separate post on the Green Bay Packers' Thursday night turn on ESPN is right here.)

Chicago Bears
Opponent: Denver Broncos
Location:
Soldier Field
Day/Time:
Thursday/8:30 p.m. ET
Personnel notes:
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (knee) is among those who won't play in a game most of the NFL will watch to see the return of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Urlacher has missed a week of practice because of soreness in his knee and then personal reasons, and it's possible the mystery surrounding his absence could be cleared up if he is in attendance at Soldier Field. Nick Roach will start in his place. … Defensive end Alex Brown signed a 1-year contract and will retire in an on-field ceremony before the game. … It's also worth noting that quarterback Jay Cutler, receiver Brandon Marshall and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates will be facing the team that began breaking up their nucleus in 2009.
Focal point: All eyes will be on left tackle J'Marcus Webb, who has a big lead in the competition for the starting job but still hasn't earned the full trust of offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Webb can either settle concerns with a solid performance or send the Bears back to the drawing board when camp resumes next week.

Detroit Lions
Opponent: Cleveland Browns
Location: Ford Field
Day/Time: Friday/7:30 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: The Lions' defensive secondary will have three starters who emerged in the past few days. Rookie cornerback Dwight Bentley has done well during stints with the first team in recent days and is expected to start opposite Chris Houston. The Lions' safeties likely will be Erik Coleman and John Wendling. Louis Delmas had knee surgery this week and it appears Amari Spievey hasn't had a great camp. … Expect tailback Kevin Smith to start but there should be plenty of work for Joique Bell and Keiland Williams, among others.
Focal point: This will be the first time when we'll see a completely healthy Nick Fairley on an NFL field, and the Lions are eager to see what he can do. Fairley broke his foot during training camp last summer and was clearly limited in the 10 games he did play in. The preseason should give us a better idea if Fairley is destined to be a dominant difference-maker, as the Lions hoped when they drafted him, or if he will simply be a member of defensive rotation.

Minnesota Vikings
Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
Location: Candlestick Park
Day/Time: Friday/9 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Tight end John Carlson (knee), running back Jordan Todman (ankle) and cornerback Josh Robinson (hamstring) are among the players who won't participate. Starters should see a few series, although coach Leslie Frazier implied that an early scoring drive could make it a short night for the first-team offense. … The defense could see more action in its first game environment under new defensive coordinator Alan Williams. … Rookie Blair Walsh is the only place-kicker in camp, so he will get all of the kicks this preseason. We'll see if he gets the opportunity to demonstrate the strong leg he has displayed this summer.
Focal point: The Vikings have more than a half-dozen new starters, but from now through the foreseeable future, all eyes will be on quarterback Christian Ponder to gauge the level of his progress from a rocky rookie season. Preseason performance isn't always an indicator of true development, but we have found that to be the case with other young quarterbacks in this division.

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