NFL Nation: Minnesota Vikings
After Thursday, the Green Bay Packers will have played half their NFC North schedule, while the Minnesota Vikings have yet to play a divisional opponent.
Yet each team enters the Thursday night game with a 2-2 record and trails the division-leading Detroit Lions (3-1).
ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky break down the matchup:
Demovsky: Ben, Packers LBs Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers couldn't even name the Vikings' running backs, but they knew the damage those running backs did last week against the Falcons. What makes Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata so effective?
Goessling: Well, that's still a bit of an open-ended question. They haven't been good other than last week, when they were outstanding. But I think a lot of it is the changes the Vikings made to their running game. They were running quite a bit more out of a shotgun set, with three receivers on the field to spread the Falcons' defense out. The Vikings are also starting to mix in some read-option stuff, and while that didn't result in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater keeping the ball too much on option plays, it gave defensive ends something else to think about before pursuing the running back. McKinnon is still finding his way in terms of learning how to read a defensive front and find his holes, but when he gets fully developed, I think he'll be a dynamic running back. He is an athletic freak and has dangerous speed in the open field. Asiata is more of the workhorse, but he's also effective as a receiving threat. It's a nice tandem for now, and they have helped the Vikings weather the absence of Adrian Peterson.
Speaking of running games, it seems that the Packers are still trying to get theirs to the point where it was at last season. Will we see more of James Starks this week, and how do you think that will help Eddie Lacy?
Demovsky: Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy tried to force-feed Lacy last week against the Bears, and it didn't help him get into a groove. In the process, McCarthy ignored Starks, who played only one snap and didn't get a single carry, which was an odd strategy because Starks has actually been productive (5.0 yards per carry) in limited reps this season. It appears McCarthy has seen the error of his ways because he vowed this week that will not happen again and said Starks should touch the ball every game. For that matter, so should DuJuan Harris, who gives the Packers a change-of-pace type of back.
It's always interesting when new coaches come into the division. When the Packers lost at Cincinnati last year, they got a taste of what a Mike Zimmer defense can do (Zimmer was the Bengals' defensive coordinator). In Zimmer's first season as Minnesota's head coach, how far away is the Vikings' defense from where he would like it to be?
Goessling: It still has a ways to go. Zimmer was talking on Tuesday about the defensive line, which typically has had the freedom to chase the quarterback, no matter the cost. Well, Zimmer wants his defensive linemen to rush as a team, not overpursuing for individual sacks while opening up a lane for the quarterback to escape, and he saw too much of that Sunday. The Vikings also need to get better depth in their secondary, and I still think they will wind up looking for a more effective counterpart for safety Harrison Smith than they have on the roster. The linebackers have some promise, especially with what Anthony Barr can do, but the Vikings still have been too easy to target in pass coverage. I think it's probably going to take another draft, and another year of Zimmer working with players in his system, but the D is definitely headed in the right direction. You already see flashes of how the Vikings could have a really good defense in the future, and Barr and Smith could be stars.
It seems the Packers, on the other hand, haven't seen the desired results from their defensive changes. What has been the problem there, and do you think they will be as vulnerable to Bridgewater on Thursday (assuming he plays) as they've been to mobile quarterbacks in the past?
Demovsky: The Packers spent all offseason talking about and working on their defensive changes. The mantra was "less scheme, more personnel," meaning they wanted to simplify the number of defensive calls they had, yet at the same time utilize their personnel better. So far, the results have been about the same, although at least the secondary looks a little better with the addition of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He has played more and more each week and had perhaps his best game Sunday against the Bears. But when the Packers decided to get smaller and more athletic up front on the defensive line, it rendered them ineffective against the run so far. The issue hasn't been the mobile quarterbacks but rather just about any running back they have faced.
We didn't get to see Bears defensive end (and longtime Vikings DE) Jared Allen last week in Chicago because he was inactive, but do the Vikings miss him at all? And speaking of defensive players, what impact has the rookie Barr made so far?
Goessling: When Allen became a free agent after last season, I didn't get the sense the Vikings were terribly interested in bringing him back, largely because he wouldn't have fit in Zimmer's scheme for some of the reasons we were discussing before. Zimmer wants his defensive ends to play the run first on the way to the quarterback, and I don't think that would have fit Allen at this point in his career. Barr has been really impressive, though he still has some holes in his game, as many rookies do. Watch his sack of Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter last week; he was in man coverage on a Falcons running back, and when he saw the back was staying in to double-team Everson Griffen, Barr surged through the middle of the line and showed some elite closing speed. He's been far too vulnerable to crossing routes from tight ends and running backs, but he's also been a force against the run. The next step is for him to use his speed and size to be an asset in pass coverage, too.
It's hard to believe we've gotten this far without talking much about QB Aaron Rodgers. What's your assessment of where he's at in Year 7 as a starter, and how he feels about the Packers' direction? And, more to the point for this week's game, why has he had so much trouble with Zimmer's defenses in the past?
Demovsky: Rodgers knows this offense so well that he could call the plays himself. In fact, you wonder why McCarthy hasn't turned that over to Rodgers, especially in the no-huddle offense. The coach went into this season wanting to play fast, and one way to increase the tempo would have been to let Rodgers call the game as Peyton Manning often does. But that hasn't happened. Rodgers was so good in the preseason this year (I know, preseason is meaningless) that it has been a mild surprise that he hasn't been his usual dominant self, but he clearly hasn't found playmakers not named Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb. In fact, Rodgers barely has gotten his other receivers, Jarrett Boykin and Davante Adams, involved at all. The same goes for the tight ends. As for matching up with Zimmer's defenses, in that game last year in Cincinnati, the Bengals were able to pressure Rodgers (sacking him four times) and forced him into two interceptions (something Rodgers almost never does).
Let's wrap things up with another quarterback question. We've heard all week that Bridgewater is likely to play, but what are the chances the Vikings are just duping everyone as they did before that playoff game at Lambeau Field two years ago?
Goessling: That's a very good question, and that playoff game has been on my mind all week, too. I still would bet on Bridgewater playing; he said he's feeling much better, and he talked this week about how he played through a sprained right ankle and a broken left wrist on a short week in college. He's a tough kid, and I think he's going to play if it's at all possible. But the Vikings haven't exactly been forthright with information on Bridgewater this week, and it's not usually Zimmer's style to withhold injury updates. I highly doubt a switch to Christian Ponder would throw the Packers off, so it's possible the Vikings really are hedging their bets, rather than trying to be tricky. As I said, though, if I had to make a prediction, I'd guess Bridgewater plays.
It has been a turbulent start to the 2014 season, to say the least, for both the Minnesota Vikings (1-1) and New Orleans Saints (0-2) as they head toward their Week 3 matchup in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Minnesota’s issues run much deeper than football. Star running back Adrian Peterson has been indicted on a felony child-abuse charge in Texas; on Wednesday, the Vikings put Peterson on their exempt list, barring him from games and practices.
The Vikings deactivated Peterson for their Week 2 game, a 30-7 loss at home to the New England Patriots.
The Saints, meanwhile, are hoping to use their home opener to rally back from two stunning, last-second losses at Atlanta and Cleveland.
ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss this week's matchup:
Triplett: How much did the Vikings miss Peterson on the field last Sunday? And how do they try to fill that void this week?
Goessling: Against a Patriots team that appeared vulnerable against the run, they missed Peterson considerably. He didn't have a great first game of the season in St. Louis, but a large part of what Peterson brings to the offense, even when he's not being terribly productive, is the number of looks he opens up for others simply by the attention he commands from defenses.
Matt Asiata caught a touchdown pass last week and is a decent between-the-tackles runner. They also like rookie Jerick McKinnon, though they haven't gotten him involved in the offense yet. But no matter what the Vikings do, they're not going to be able to replace Peterson. They have some good weapons in their passing game, and they'll have to make them work. Without Peterson, though, the Vikings' offense looks a lot less intimidating.
The Saints will be without running back Mark Ingram. How will that change their offense this weekend?
Triplett: It's basically the exact opposite of what you just described. Ingram has been off to a fantastic start -- probably playing the best of his career. But he's also more replaceable than Peterson because the Saints have such good depth at running back. Veteran Pierre Thomas and second-year pro Khiry Robinson are both off to good starts this season as well. And they're more than capable of increasing their workload.
Most important, the entire Saints run game has been thriving since late last season, which has helped all three of their backs. The Saints are tied for fifth in the NFL with 156.5 rushing yards per game, and they’re ranked second with 5.7 yards per carry. Normally those numbers translate to victories.
What other parts of Minnesota's offense will the Saints need to prepare for? It looks like Cordarrelle Patterson has given the Vikings a new dimension. And can Matt Cassel match points with Drew Brees if needed?
Goessling: You're right about Patterson adding some new wrinkles to the Vikings' offense. He has taken the baton from Percy Harvin, in the sense that the Vikings can use him out of the backfield, get the ball to him on screens and employ him as a kick returner. The one area where Patterson still needs to improve, actually, is as a receiver. He struggled mightily last week while trying to get separation from press coverage, and while his route-running has improved, he's still learning how to be a reliable option for Cassel.
As for Cassel's ability to match points with Brees ... boy, I don't know. The Vikings had trouble protecting him last week, and he threw a couple of bad interceptions when he wasn't able to look off defenders. If it turned into that kind of game, I'd be a little worried about the Vikings' ability to keep up.
One of the ways the Saints' offense could get rolling, obviously, is Jimmy Graham. Is there any recipe to slowing him down right now? What would your advice be to the Vikings about how to cover him?
Triplett: Well, don't ask the Browns. They tried a little bit of everything last week, including Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden and corner Buster Skrine at times. And Graham just exploited the size mismatch.
When teams have had success against Graham, they had to devote more than one resource. The Patriots pressed him with corner Aqib Talib and played zone behind him; the Seahawks bracketed him, often using Earl Thomas as a spy; and the Eagles chipped him with defensive ends off the line. The problem, though, is that exposes teams to all of the Saints' other weapons, including their much-improved run game and dynamic new receiver Brandin Cooks. It's a pick-your-poison offense that's almost immune to double-teams.
So where is the Vikings' defense most vulnerable?
Goessling: Especially against a team that can spread them out like the Saints can, I'd have to say it's the secondary. Xavier Rhodes is the top cornerback, but he was playing with a groin injury last week, gave up four catches and got flagged three times. Captain Munnerlyn gave up a touchdown, and the secondary depth is a concern. As you mentioned, the process of stopping Graham is a group effort, and the Saints have so many options that the Vikings could have trouble keeping up, especially if they have as much trouble getting to Brees as they did to Tom Brady last week.
Speaking of defensive vulnerabilities, the Saints' defense looks to have taken a significant step back in the first two weeks of the season. First, where has the pass rush gone, and second, do you see a quick fix for the defensive issues?
Triplett: I definitely expect vast improvement by the Saints' defense. The talent is there, from pass-rushers Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks to middle linebacker Curtis Lofton to No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis and safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. All have actually played well this season. But the Saints were done in by things such as missed tackles in Week 1 and blown assignments and penalties in Week 2. All extremely frustrating -- but correctable -- issues.
The biggest concern is the depth at cornerback. The Saints might have to make a change at the No. 2 cornerback spot, where teams have been picking on Patrick Robinson. A more consistent pass rush would certainly help in that department as well.
Here are three things to watch for from the Rams' end:
1. How's Hill?: Rams quarterback Shaun Hill started the preseason opener against New Orleans but hasn't started a regular-season game since 2010, or a season-opener since he was with the San Francisco 49ers in 2009. Despite whatever rustiness he'll have to deal with, Hill will not be set up for failure in this offense. The Rams were always going to be a run-first offense and that won't change with Hill in charge. What Hill will be asked to do is take advantage of the opportunities that the run game might open for the pass, pushing the ball down the field on play-action. While he's not known for his arm strength, Hill does have the ability to get the ball down the field. More importantly, the Rams need Hill to manage the game and take care of the ball. If he can do those two things, the Rams should have enough success running and on defense to be in position to open the season with a victory.
2. On the corner: The Rams have one of the youngest secondaries in the league and it's actually possible the starting group will be even younger than originally projected when kickoff arrives Sunday. That's especially true at cornerback, where third-year player Janoris Jenkins is penciled in at one spot. But the Rams could turn to rookies at the spot opposite Jenkins and in the nickel as Trumaine Johnson sits with a knee injury. Lamarcus Joyner is set as the team's primary nickel corner, the role the team drafted him to play back in May. Sixth-round rookie E.J. Gaines and second-year corner Brandon McGee are the top options for the job, with McGee listed as Johnson's backup on the unofficial depth chart. Gaines showed well in the preseason and McGee battled an ankle injury, which could make Gaines the better and more logical fit. But it's asking a lot of any rookie, especially a sixth-rounder, to deal with the likes of Vikings receivers Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson in his first NFL game.
3. Containing Peterson: This almost goes without saying anytime the Vikings are the opponent, but as running back Adrian Peterson goes, so goes Minnesota. Peterson apparently still harbors some ill feelings toward the Rams from a 2012 meeting between the teams when Peterson didn't like the amount of trash talk the Rams offered early in that game. Peterson went on to rush for 212 yards and a touchdown and went so far as to predict a touchdown run on his first carry in Sunday's game. Whether or not Peterson is able to call his shot remains to be seen, but the Rams have no pretension of believing they can shut down Peterson. Instead, they'll look to slow him down enough to make him earn every yard. If he gets to 100 yards or so, the Rams will be fine with it as long as it comes on 23-plus carries.
In St. Louis, the Rams have already changed quarterbacks because of the season-ending knee injury to starter Sam Bradford. In Minnesota, many expect it to be a matter of time before the Vikings make the change to rookie Teddy Bridgewater for reasons beyond health.
Both teams reside in tough divisions where wins will be difficult to come by. Both are in serious need of a Week 1 victory.
ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss this week’s matchup.
Nick Wagoner: There might be some in the Rams' locker room still having nightmares about Adrian Peterson's last visit to the Edward Jones Dome. Clearly, it all starts with him, but how has he looked in camp and in what ways should we expect to see him used differently in the Vikings' new offense?
Ben Goessling: He's going to be a much bigger part of the passing game than he's been in recent years, or possibly any point in his career. We didn't see Peterson in a preseason game, but the Vikings have been happy with his progress during training camp, saying he looks like a natural pass-catcher and has shown a good understanding of what will be asked of him. If he's going to be on the field in passing situations, of course, he'll be asked to be a bigger factor in pass protection, which hasn't been one of his strong suits. But the Vikings are excited about the chance to get him the ball in space more often and match him up on defensive backs who might have a harder time bringing him down than linemen and linebackers. They are also hoping the change in strategy leads to fewer hits on Peterson and will help prolong his productivity past the age of 29.
Speaking of players who might be causing nightmares for opponents, what kind of a challenge is Matt Kalil in for with Robert Quinn? He handled him well the last time they met, but how has Quinn progressed in the past two years, and how has he looked under Gregg Williams?
Wagoner: Kalil is in for one of the most difficult challenges he’ll face in this league. Quinn had 19 sacks and seven forced fumbles last year, but there are those at Rams Park who believe he’s only scratched the surface of his potential. Quinn has freakish athleticism, which allows him to bend and contort his body in ways most tackles never see while maintaining his speed. He is able to win around the edge more often than not, but he’s also developed better hand usage and counters over the past couple of years under the guidance of defensive line coach Mike Waufle. With Williams leading the defense, the Rams want to be more aggressive in all areas, which means he can dial up blitzes, but Williams has never had a front four like this one. That should allow him to get plenty of heat on the quarterback without having to call those blitzes as much. It should make the Rams more multiple and allow Williams to do some unique things with Quinn and his line mates.
While we’re on the topic of defense, I’ve long admired the work of new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. What is he bringing to the table on that side of the ball, and what are some strengths and weaknesses the Rams' offense will contend with on Sunday?
Goessling: Zimmer is bringing a more aggressive defense to the Vikings than anything we’ve seen in the past seven years under the team’s old Cover 2 scheme. The Vikings won’t be blitzing on every down, by any means -- Zimmer actually hasn’t been that heavy of a blitzer as a defensive coordinator -- but when they do, they’ll bring pressure from a number of different spots. They’ll move rookie linebacker Anthony Barr around and occasionally send defensive backs after the quarterback. Zimmer’s scheme is predicated on every player knowing how his assignment affects the rest of the defense -- he had a film room built with stadium seating so the entire unit could watch film together -- and his defenses typically don’t make many mistakes. How all that will work for the Vikings in Year 1, though, I’m not sure. They’re still young in the secondary, where they’re counting on Xavier Rhodes taking the next step as a cover corner in his second year, and any time they’re facing multiple-receiver sets, their cornerback depth will be tested.
Will Shaun Hill be able to stress the Vikings' defense on Sunday, though? What do you expect from the veteran in his first shot at replacing Bradford?
Wagoner: I think Hill is a solid, steady hand, but he’s obviously limited in what he can do when it comes to stressing a defense. The good news is the Rams won’t be asking him to do too much outside of his comfort zone. This was always going to be a run-first offense, even with Bradford, and nothing has changed in that regard. Jeff Fisher insists the Rams won’t scale back the offense for Hill, though that remains to be seen. Instead, they’ll ask him to manage the game, not turn the ball over and take advantage of opportunities in play-action. Hill doesn’t have the strongest arm, so it will be interesting to see if he can push the ball down the field when the Rams do ask him to throw. And the last time Hill played, he had Calvin Johnson to go up and get it. He doesn’t have anything remotely close to Johnson here.
Neither of these teams is exactly working with Peyton Manning under center. Matt Cassel is getting the call for the Vikings. What does he bring to the table, and do you believe going with him over Bridgewater is the right move? How long before Bridgewater takes over?
Goessling: I think it was the right move, for now. There’s a lot of confidence in Cassel from the Vikings’ offensive starters, many of whom are veterans who want to win now, and having Cassel allows the Vikings to be patient with Bridgewater. Zimmer talked about that Wednesday morning, saying the Vikings have effectively had Cassel installed as their starter since the start of training camp, and that they won’t change their minds after the first interception. I do think we’ll see Bridgewater at some point this season, but that’s based on a belief the Vikings won’t be in the thick of the playoff race at the end of the year. If they are, it probably would be because Cassel helped get them there. In any case, I think he’ll have the job as long as he’s effective. There’s no need to rush Bridgewater.
The Vikings and Rams both took multidimensional receivers in the 2013 draft in Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson. The Vikings have big plans for Patterson in Year 2, with Norv Turner taking over as the offensive coordinator. How do the Rams plan to use Austin, and will his role on special teams decrease at all if he’s a bigger part of the offense?
Wagoner: Well, I think it’s safe to say Austin doesn’t project to produce as much as Patterson entering their second seasons, and that’s enough to anger some Rams fans who felt the team gave up a lot to get Austin when it could have stayed where it was and drafted Patterson. But Austin still figures to play a prominent role in the offense. The Rams moved him around a lot during the preseason and training camp, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him lining up outside, in the slot and even in the backfield. He did all of those things last year, but the Rams could stand to mix up those looks even further this year. He’s going to play plenty and will continue to be the team’s primary punt returner, though it appears he’s ceded the kick return job for now. The Rams and Austin showed some flashes of his potential late in the year before his season ended early because of an ankle injury. They’re hoping they can build on that this year, though it remains to be seen that they can.
Are the Detroit Lions thinking of moving up in the draft? If not, why did they host Jadeveon Clowney on a recent visit? But what about the possibility of moving up to take Sammy Watkins to pair him up with Calvin Johnson as a dynamic receiving tandem?
That’s one of the questions our NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky with the Green Bay Packers, Ben Goessling on the Minnesota Vikings, Michael C. Wright on the Chicago Bears and Kevin Seifert filling in on the Lions -- will tackle in this installment of 4 Downs.
With all of the offseason movement in the NFC North, which move will have the biggest impact? Will Julius Peppers have a bigger impact with the Packers or will Jared Allen make a bigger splash with the Bears?
Will the Bears’ defense, buoyed by offseason acquisitions, enjoy the kind of resurgence in 2014 that their offense did in 2013?
Now that Adrian Peterson has reached 29 years old, will his production decrease, or will Norv Turner’s offense invigorate him?
Find out what our reporters are thinking.
Fact or fiction: The best draft move the Lions could make is moving up for Sammy Watkins.
Rob Demovsky: Fact. There's something to be said for making your strength even stronger. Clearly, with Calvin Johnson, the Lions' passing game is their strength -- they were third in the league in passing yards per game last season -- so why not make it even more difficult to stop? The addition of Watkins would give Matthew Stafford another big-play option.
Kevin Seifert: Fiction. Adding Watkins to a group that includes Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate would be one of the top power moves in recent memory. And, yes, the best way to build a team is to draft the best players and fill in positional gaps via free agency. But mortgaging the next two drafts seems like a steep price for a wide receiver on a team that has already committed the NFL's third-most salary-cap space ($20.3 million) at the position. The Lions' best move would to be clearheaded and take the best player remaining at No. 10.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. By now, the Lions should've already learned their lesson about investing too heavily in receivers. Besides that, Detroit needs help on defense if it wants to win now. The club has several defensive tackles set to become free agents after the 2014 season, it needs a safety and a cornerback, and it could stand to use some help at linebacker, too. The Lions already have several weapons on offense in Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush, in addition to free-agent acquisition Golden Tate. They can't neglect a defense that seems to always lack depth once injuries hit. This is also one of the deepest drafts in recent years for receivers, meaning the Lions could address defense first, then come back and add another target for Stafford in a later round. That would be the best course of action for Detroit. But the Lions haven't always done what's best (even though things seem to be improving with Martin Mayhew on board).
@mikecwright False. Megatron&Tate are a good one two punch & corner and safety are bigger needs.WR is deep; the opportunity cost is too high- Ragan (@DupesSA) April 21, 2014
Fact or fiction: Julius Peppers will make a greater impact on the Packers' defense than Jared Allen will make on the Bears' D.
Demovsky: Fact. The Packers didn't have a single defensive lineman record as many sacks as Peppers did for the Bears last year, when he had seven. Even if he's only able to replicate that, it'll be an upgrade for the Packers' defense, which badly needs another pass-rusher to complement Clay Matthews, who faces near-constant double teams.
Seifert: Fiction. Call me boring, but I don't foresee one having a dramatically different impact than the other. Both will provide something their teams didn't have last season. The Packers will get a player athletic and versatile enough to spur defensive coordinator Dom Capers' creativity and legitimately draw attention away from linebacker Clay Matthews. Allen offers a classic outside pass rush that Peppers failed to provide the Bears last season.
Wright: Fiction. The Bears played it very diplomatically publicly while ushering Peppers out of the door, but even if his base salary for 2014 wasn't so astronomical, the club still didn't want him back. That's because some within the organization felt Peppers gave the Bears just five to six solid snaps per game in 2013. That sentiment falls right in line with Peppers' longstanding reputation as a player who doesn't go all-out consistently. So even if Allen's impact with the Bears in 2014 is minimal, I'd venture to guess it would be more than what the Packers will get from Peppers. That's not to say Peppers has lost it. He hasn't. He can still play at a high level when motivated. And he'll definitely be motivated in Green Bay. At the same time, Allen has never been accused of taking plays off, and over several years has earned a reputation as a high-motor player. That's exactly what the Bears need. Besides that, Peppers will be playing in a scheme totally different than anything he's ever done in the NFL, while Allen moves to a scheme similar to what he did in Minnesota. Everything considered, Allen has the best chance to be the more impactful player.
@RobDemovsky true, because the bears will play Allen on every down and wear him out. Making him less effective.- kay oh (@shredmon) April 21, 2014
Fact or fiction: Chicago will achieve a turnaround on defense similar to what the team experienced on offense in 2013.
Demovsky: Fiction. Unless your definition of turnaround is a slight improvement, don't expect this defense to jump into the top 10 after ranking 30th last season. The Bears have added some nice pieces, especially on the defensive line with Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, but this defense was downright bad in 2013. A major turnaround could take several years.
Seifert: Fiction: Some important team-building remains, most notably through the draft. But I'm not convinced the Bears have done enough yet to expect such a dramatic turnaround. (Remember, the Bears' offense ranked second in scoring in 2013 after finishing No. 16 in 2012.) Free agency has promised a different lineup, but will it be better? As many as six projected starters will be at least 30 years old. That's not a profile for massive turnaround.
Wright: Fiction. The Bears will definitely turn things around, but I don't see the improvement being near as dramatic as what the club did in 2013 on offense. And that's OK. If the Bears can reach mediocrity on defense in 2014, that would be a huge win because the club now has a potent offense that can flat out stack points on the board. The Bears set single-season franchise records for net yardage (6,109), net passing yards (4,281), completion percentage (64.4), passing touchdowns (32), passer rating (96.9) and first downs (344) in addition to finishing eighth in total offense (381.8 yards per game), second in scoring (27.8-point average) and fifth in passing yardage (267.6). I don't see the Bears rewriting the franchise record books on defense next season, which would be incredibly difficult anyway given all the great defenses fielded in the past by this franchise.
@mikecwright False.There will be turnaround but nothing that great.Secondary still needs work and the chemistry might not be there for team- Matt Varney (@HeadCoachVarney) April 21, 2014
Fact or fiction: At age 29, Adrian Peterson will be invigorated by a new offensive scheme and buck the trend of running backs declining in their late 20s.
Demovsky: Fact. If we've learned anything about Peterson, it's that we should never doubt him. Not after what he did following his ACL tear. That said, 2,000 yards might not be realistic. If his 1,266 yards from last season was a disappointment, then so be it, but there aren't many teams in the league who wouldn't be happy with that right now.
Seifert: Fact. I'll say this: Peterson doesn't need to be invigorated as much as he needs a transition path for continued elite production. After all, he rushed for 1,266 yards in 14 games last season. But he has undergone significant surgery in each of the past three winters, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner wants to involve him more in the passing game. More receptions and fewer carries sounds like a good plan for preservation.
Wright: Fact. But I'm not even so sure it will be as much about a new offensive scheme. Peterson just isn't human. Just kidding; sort of. Peterson is coming off his worst season since 2009 in terms of yards per attempt (4.5). But think about that for a second. Most running backs would be downright giddy averaging 4.5 yards per carry. I know Peterson has taken a pounding over the years and he's coming off yet another surgery. But doesn't that always seem to be the case for Peterson, dating all the way back to college? At Oklahoma, Peterson dislocated a shoulder in 2004, suffered a right high-ankle sprain in 2005 and a broken clavicle in 2006, which led to scrutiny going into the 2007 draft about his durability and longevity. Seven seasons and 10,115 yards later, Peterson's still here, giving defenses fits. Minnesota needs to get Peterson some help (like a quarterback) for sure. But I honestly think Peterson is such an extraordinary physical specimen, hard worker and determined player, he'll buck the trend for a while the way Fred Taylor did it. Taylor rushed for 1,202 yards in 2007, completing that season just weeks before his 32nd birthday. The year prior, Taylor rushed for 1,146 yards.
@GoesslingESPN false. Wear and tear catching up....he'll still be a good RB, but his glory days are behind him.- Vikings Fan Page (@Kevin_VFP) April 21, 2014
Here is a ranking of top NFC North free agents, with information provided by ESPN.com reporters Rob Demovsky (Green Bay Packers), Ben Goessling (Minnesota Vikings), Michael Rothstein (Detroit Lions) and Michael C. Wright (Chicago Bears).
We will update this periodically throughout the next several weeks.
1.Sam Shields, Packers CB: Emerged as the Packers' top cover cornerback last season while playing for the restricted free-agent tender of $2.023 million and was re-signed to a four-year, $39 million contract just a few hours into the open negotiating period Saturday. His 2014 total pay of $15 million makes him the NFL's second-highest-paid cornerback for next season.
2. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions TE: The No. 20 pick in the 2009 draft out of Oklahoma State, Pettigrew spent the past five seasons as one of Detroit's primary tight ends, specifically known for the ability to both block and run routes effectively.
3. Jermichael Finley, Packers TE: Had surgery to fuse the C3 and C4 vertebra in his neck but expects to be cleared by his doctor. Gambled two years ago in free agency, signing just a two-year, $14 million deal in the hope that he would blossom into a star and command an even bigger contract the next time around.
4. Charles Tillman, Bears CB: The NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year, Tillman started eight games last season before finishing on the injured reserve with a torn triceps. The Bears hope to bring back Tillman but might not be able to come up with a suitable offer.
5. B.J. Raji, Packers DT: Reportedly turned down an $8 million per year offer from the Packers last season, which might have been a sign that he preferred to play in a system that gave defensive linemen more freedom. After a disappointing season, his value has gone down, and as of last week, he was close to signing a one-year deal to return.
7. Willie Young, Lions DL: Former seventh-round pick received his first extensive playing time in 2013, becoming a full-time starter after Jason Jones was injured for the season in Week 3. Young turned into one of the more disruptive players up front, making 47 tackles, recovering two fumbles and recording three sacks.
8. James Jones, Packers WR: Ranked second on the Packers last season in receptions (59) and yards (817), the latter of which was a career high despite missing nearly three full games because of a knee injury. Three years ago, coming off the NFL lockout, Jones did not draw strong interest on the free-agent market and re-signed with the Packers for three years and $9.6 million.
9. Jared Allen, Vikings DE: After three All-Pro selections in six years, Allen’s time in Minnesota is likely over. He could come back as a situational pass-rusher on a reduced salary, but after making $14 million last season, Allen might head elsewhere for a bigger role and bigger paycheck.
11. Henry Melton, Bears DL: Melton's representatives fully expect him to test the market in free agency because the Bears haven’t shown a ton of interest. Coming off a torn ACL, Melton probably won't command top dollar in the first wave of free agency.
12. Devin Hester, Bears KR: Became strictly a return specialist for the Bears last season and is still one of the league's best at his position. Probably expects a payday similar to what he's gotten in the past.
13. Rashean Mathis, Lions CB: Mathis signed with Detroit during the 2013 preseason and became one of the team's starting cornerbacks by the third week of the season. He played in 15 games, making 47 tackles and often drawing the opponent's top wide receiver.
14. Everson Griffen, Vikings DE: The 26-year-old cashed in on Sunday by signing a five-year, $42.5 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed to return to Minnesota. He should flourish in new coach Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme.
15. Louis Delmas, Lions S: The 26-year-old was released by Detroit with one year remaining on his contract in February, in part because of a cap number of $6.5 million in 2014. Has played in 65 games for Detroit over five seasons, with 328 tackles, six interceptions and two forced fumbles. He also had five sacks and four fumble recoveries.
Whom does McShay have the Vikings drafting at No. 8? Let’s take a look:
When the 2014 season opens, Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy will be the only coach in the division with more than one season under his belt with his current team. Does the Packers’ coaching stability give them a leg up on the rest of the division?
Some would say it has more to do with Aaron Rodgers than McCarthy, but the coach-quarterback relationship is an important one. Throw in general manager Ted Thompson, and Green Bay has the type of triumvirate that will keep it as a division contender for the foreseeable future.
Will Jim Caldwell be able to harness the impressive amount of talent in Detroit and finally solve the Lions’ late-game meltdowns, turning them into a contender?
Detroit’s offense is loaded, but so is Chicago’s. With Alshon Jeffery emerging as a star receiver, do the Bears have the most potent offense in the division?
In Minnesota, the big question is whether Jared Allen will be back and what impact his departure would have on the team.
NFL Nation’s NFC North reporters -- Rob Demovsky in Green Bay, Ben Goessling in Minnesota, Michael Rothstein in Detroit and Michael C. Wright in Chicago -- tackle all of these topics in 4 Downs.
The Packers' stability in their coaching staff gives them a leg up on the rest of the division.
Rob Demovsky: True, but that's not the biggest thing that does that. Sure, having consistency on the coaching staff is important. The Packers reload -- they don't rebuild -- every year, in large part because of their stability. But more important is having it at the quarterback position. That was evident last season when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. The Packers still won the division, but it wasn't easy.
Michael Rothstein: False. Stability helps, sure, but it all comes to quarterback play and talent in the NFL, and this is what makes Green Bay such a difficult out for the rest of the division. The Packers have the best passer and decision-maker in the division in Aaron Rodgers and have the most overall talent around him as well. Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jordy Nelson are all reliable receivers, and Eddie Lacy turned in a performance as a rookie that hints he'll be a consistent rusher for Green Bay. The defense has some holes entering free agency, but this is an offensive league.
Michael C. Wright: True. Obviously there are new coaches in Detroit and Minnesota, and a second-year coach in Chicago. Since the start of 1999, there have been 13 new coaches in the NFC North. None made the playoffs in the first year with the team, and only Mike Sherman had a winning record in his first year. Interestingly, not including Bears coach Marc Trestman (and Ray Rhodes lasted only one season), four of those 13 coaches made the playoffs in their second year.
@RobDemovsky true; coaching stability usually means scheme stays the same...less to learn schematically so players grow more in same system.— Danielle Lewandowski (@hooshouse) February 24, 2014
With Jay Cutler locked up and Alshon Jeffery emerging, the Bears will have the most potent offense in the division
Demovsky: False, but perhaps only because Cutler remains mistake-prone. That's the reason you might say the same thing about the Lions and Matthew Stafford. If Randall Cobb remains healthy and the Packers either re-sign Jermichael Finley or find another capable tight end, then they should have the most potent offense in the division, especially given the emergence of Eddie Lacy.
Rothstein: True (at least for now). This is a pretty interesting question. Every team in the NFC North has a reason to believe it could be the most potent offense in the division, from Minnesota (Adrian Peterson) to Green Bay (Rodgers) to Detroit (Matthew Stafford, Reggie Bush, Calvin Johnson). But the Bears have the most established contingency of stars at each position, be it Cutler at quarterback, Matt Forte at running back and Jeffery and Brandon Marshall as two tall, dynamic pass-catchers. It'll be interesting to see if this holds after free agency and the draft.
Wright: False. It's true the Bears will be in Year 2 of the offense under Trestman, so they should be better. But you've also got to take into account the rest of the division now has plenty of game film on the Bears and will go into 2014 with a good idea of their strengths and weaknesses. If Detroit adds another receiver opposite Calvin Johnson, the Lions are just as dangerous. Also, Green Bay is always potent with No. 12 in the mix.
Jared Allen will leave the Vikings, but the impact will be marginal.
Demovsky: True. We saw that last season against the Packers, a team that he had been dominant against since he came to the Vikings in 2008. In his first 10 games against the Packers, he recorded 14.5 sacks. In the two games last season, he had none. Both times, he was shut out by rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari. That said, the Vikings still have a capable pass-rusher in Brian Robison.
Rothstein: True, but with a contingency. This statement has nothing to do with Allen's production, which was still pretty good in 2013 with double-digit sacks (11.5) and 52 tackles. As long as Minnesota is able to bring back Everson Griffen -- another unrestricted free agent -- he should be able to pick up the production Allen provided during his time in Minnesota. Between Griffen (if he returns) and either a free-agent signee or drafted prospect, they should fill similar roles to what Allen and Griffen filled last season.
Wright: False. If Allen leaves, the impact definitely won't be marginal from a standpoint of production on the field and leadership in that locker room. Allen accounted for 28 percent of Minnesota's sacks last season. If you thought the Vikings were horrible on defense, just think of what that unit would've been in 2013 without him in the mix.
@GoesslingESPN False. Allen was overpaid, yes, but he took up a double-team every snap and that kind of edge production is hard to replace.— Jake (@jakeallen47) February 24, 2014
Jim Caldwell will fix the Lions' late-game meltdowns and guide Detroit to a division title.
Demovsky: True. There's too much talent on that team for it to continuously underachieve. Caldwell will instill the discipline necessary for the Lions to finally break through and seriously contend for the NFC North title. With a dominant defensive front and a playmaker like Calvin Johnson, the pieces are in place. Caldwell inherited a good situation.
Rothstein: False. Caldwell will likely fix the late-game meltdowns -- if he doesn't, his time in Detroit might end up being short -- but winning a divisional title will be difficult for Detroit as long as Aaron Rodgers is around. Even when Green Bay has off seasons, like the Packers did in 2013, they still find a way to end up in the playoffs and often with a divisional title. The Lions will have a lot of talent, but until the draft and free agency transpires, they feel like a team one or two pieces short of knocking off Green Bay. But a playoff berth is a definite possibility entering 2014 with the offensive and defensive talent Detroit has.
Wright: True. Well, sort of true. With Caldwell at the helm, I think the Lions can eventually win the division. But I'm not expecting that in 2014. I think Caldwell will work wonders for Matthew Stafford, and overall I think he'll be able to quell some of the disciplinary issues the Lions have been plagued with over the years. Hey, if Peyton Manning endorses Caldwell, I believe he's the real deal.
It’s understandable. Frazier, Tampa Bay’s new defensive coordinator, was Minnesota’s head coach this past season and the Vikings were the landing spot for quarterback Josh Freeman after he was released by Tampa Bay. But Freeman appeared in only one game and the results were ugly.
Still, Frazier had good things to say about Freeman.
“He worked as hard as he could every week to prepare and be ready to go,’’ Frazier said. “He was a pro in every sense of the word. But we made a decision to try to figure out where Christian Ponder was and also take a look at Matt Cassel because we were trying to determine and get some answers regarding our quarterback position. Josh got caught up in the shuffle. It probably wasn’t a fair situation for him. It made it difficult for him. It made it difficult for all of us when you’re trying to evaluate quarterbacks in an NFL season. That’s not a wise thing. Nothing to do with Josh. He prepared and worked as hard as he could to get on the field. It just didn’t work out.’’
When Frazier did get to talk about Tampa Bay’s defense, the most interesting thing he said was about how the team plans to use cornerback Darrelle Revis. Since the hiring of head coach Lovie Smith, there’s been some concern among fans that Revis’ talent could go to waste in Tampa 2 coverage.
But Smith has made it clear the Bucs won’t be using the Tampa 2 on every snap. Frazier echoed that and said the Bucs will play to Revis’ strengths, which would indicate a willingness to use him in man-to-man coverage.
“He’s a terrific player, without question,’’ Frazier said. “There’s always room in any system for great players. We’re going to do all we can to maximize his talents and utilize his gifts. He’s going to be one of the key guys to our success without question. We’ll do whatever we have to do to maximize his talents.’’
Zimmer was the reason Crocker pulled himself out of retirement the past two seasons and filled in when early-season injuries forced the Bengals to shore up their secondary. Because of that, a still rejuvenated Crocker feels like he owes his career to Zimmer, the 57-year-old who at long last has accepted a head-coaching gig.
So it was a no-brainer to reach out to Crocker on Wednesday to see what he had to say about the opportunity his friend, mentor and coach has waited so long to achieve.
"First and foremost, it's about no nonsense behavior with Zimmer," Crocker said. "It's strictly business when you're around him. He cares about his guys, and he's fair. He holds people accountable. But when those guys meet Zim, they'll see it's definitely about attitude. That team will have attitude. I don't know what all they plan to do or how they'll try to change things, but I know they'll be a tough team."
Crocker first encountered Zimmer in 2007 when the two were in Atlanta for an abysmal 4-12 season that Zimmer tries to pretend never happened. (In 2010 he told writers in Cincinnati that he "never was even there" for the 2007 season because of the way then-Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino -- someone he referred to by three different variations of curse words -- left the team for a college coaching opportunity with three games left.)
A year after that lone dysfunctional season in the Peach State, Zimmer was hired by the Bengals. Crocker, who spent the first part of that season in Miami, came on board when Zimmer stepped up and told the Bengals' staff he thought Crocker could play.
"He took a kid who most people might have thought had a little talent, and turned him into something better," Crocker said. "I didn't put it all together until I got to Cincinnati."
Other Bengals have echoed those sentiments, calling Zimmer an effective teacher and a coach whom they don't want to let down. After a loss or boneheaded play, players would claim they felt like they disappointed Zimmer.
"It's true, that really happens," Crocker said. "It's like when parents get disappointed in their kids. You can feel that with Zim.
"You know, there aren't very many loyalties in this business. It is a business first. But if you play hard and are a good teammate, he goes to bat for you. That's why he has so much respect among players. That's why so many guys want to play for him."
Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, a Cincinnati native, has been tracking Zimmer's career since he arrived in town. He was among the first on the team to welcome Zimmer and express excitement about playing for him.
Fired up about Coach Zimmer! As a Cincy kid he's been fun to watch there and can't wait to work with him! Welcome to the @Vikings!— Kyle Rudolph (@KyleRudolph82) January 15, 2014
According to ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling, Brian Robison said players told general manager Rick Spielman after Leslie Frazier's firing that they wanted a coach who wasn't afraid to show emotion and challenge players when they needed to be.
"From the sounds of it, he's a guy that's very passionate about his job," Robison said. "He will yell and cuss at you if you need it, and at the same time praises you when you deserve it. He sounds like the kind of the opposite of Frazier -- a lot of passion, excitement and emotion."
Robison's absolutely right. Which is why Bengals players such as linebacker Rey Maualuga and cornerback Adam Jones weren't too upset about Zimmer's departure. In fact, they might have been among the most happy tweeters when Wednesday's reports regarding Zimmer first surfaced:
Gonna miss you coach Zimmer! Wish you nothing but the best in Minnesota. You brought out the best (cont) http://t.co/6ytnHtHJ5C— Rey Maualuga (@maualuga58) January 15, 2014
I told you'll Zimm would be the Head Coach , that was a good move for the Vikings congrats to coach !!!— ADAm Pacman Jones (@REALPACMAN24) January 15, 2014
Crocker, who is spending the offseason at home in suburban Atlanta with his family, called the day a "bittersweet" one for the city of Cincinnati. He knew there were a lot of people who were sad to see Zimmer go, but he believes many are excited to see him finally realize a career goal.
"He's been through so much in Cincinnati," Crocker said, mentioning the sudden death of Zimmer's wife, Vikki, during the 2009 season. "After that, the city really got behind him. People there really respected him and felt connected to him. Another part of the reason it was so hard for him to actually get another job and leave Cincinnati, to me, was because of that. It was just hard for him to leave because he had all of that outpouring of support from the city.
"He'll be sorely missed."
Cincinnati's loss will be the Twin Cities' gain.
They were 5-2 and in first place in the NFC North.
A week later, their season took an unexpected turn when quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. He hasn't played since, and the Packers have lost three in a row.
Meanwhile, the Vikings' slide has continued. They have lost five of their last six and still haven't answered their questions at quarterback.
Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss Sunday's rematch at Lambeau Field.
Demovsky: Ben, when these two teams met last month in Minneapolis, the Vikings had just gone back to quarterback Christian Ponder after Josh Freeman's disastrous start against the New York Giants. Has their quarterback situation -- both short term and long term -- cleared up at all since then? From here, it sure doesn't seem like it has.
Goessling: It looked like it might have, until last week. Ponder had started every game since then and was having one of his best games of the season Nov. 7 against the Washington Redskins when he left with a dislocated shoulder. We've got to grade that one on a curve because of the Redskins' porous defense, but Ponder looked more decisive, a little less skittish in the pocket and more confident while throwing on the run. That lasted through the first half Sunday in Seattle, but the two interceptions Ponder threw in the second half were unconscionable and the Vikings might make another switch at quarterback this week. If I'm them, I would take a look at Freeman and see if he's improved at all with a month to study the offense. The Vikings know what Ponder is at this point, and he's not going to be a franchise-level quarterback. The Vikings continue to say they don't need Freeman to play to evaluate him, but with so little on the line, why not put that $2 million to good use, see if he can give the team a spark and roll the dice on something different?
Speaking of quarterbacks, it seems like Scott Tolzien has played well for the most part, but he's been unable to avoid the turnovers that Rodgers simply doesn't commit. Can the Vikings -- a team that has been terrible at generating takeaways -- count on a couple this weekend, or do you see Tolzien excelling against a weak defense?
Demovsky: After throwing five interceptions the past two weeks, including three Sunday against the Giants, Tolzien knows he absolutely must take care of the ball. The strange thing is, he's been fantastic throwing the deep ball. Some backups get into trouble with interceptions when they're trying to force the ball down the field. That wasn't the case with Tolzien last week. All three interceptions were on short or underneath throws, including the one Jason Pierre-Paul returned for a touchdown. Assuming Tolzien does a better job taking care of the ball this week, where he really needs to improve is in the red zone. The Packers have scored just two touchdowns on their past nine trips inside the 20, so along with taking care of the ball, that's where I expect a lot of Tolzien's focus to be this week.
I know I asked you this about Greg Jennings before the first meeting, but given the somewhat strange circumstances surrounding him being inactive last week, how do the Vikings feel now about the investment they made in the former Packers receiver this offseason?
Goessling: You know, when Leslie Frazier talked about Jennings on Monday and said how he couldn't predict for sure whether Jennings would be back against the Packers, it was the first time I wondered about that. It seemed to me Frazier was miffed about the whole situation, whether Jennings decided he couldn't play or whether a valid injury cropped up at the last moment and kept him out of the game. Durability was absolutely a concern with Jennings before the Vikings signed him, and it was a day they were counting on him, with Jerome Simpson probably due to sit because of his drunken driving arrest. Whatever caused it, there's no question the Vikings were hoping Jennings could lend some stability to their passing game and help their quarterback, be that Ponder, Freeman, Matt Cassel or whomever. They're paying him enough that they have to count on him to make that contract worthwhile.
We've talked before about Jennings' digs at the Packers. What kind of a reception do you expect he'll get on Sunday, and could he be in for a better game with injuries surfacing again for the Packers in the secondary?
Demovsky: I can't imagine the reception for Jennings will be friendly at Lambeau Field. People here don't take too kindly to those who bash their team or their quarterback. Jennings said some pretty hurtful things this offseason, and regardless of whether he was “just messing around,” those words have not been forgotten. I would be willing to bet that every time Jennings touches the ball -- which lately hasn't been much -- he'll get booed. Regarding the Packers' secondary, the fact that it's still having communication breakdowns this late in the season isn't a good sign.
Jennings didn't do much of anything in the first meeting against the Packers, and neither did Adrian Peterson. I'm not sure which one was more surprising. But since Peterson carried only 13 times (for 60 yards) against the Packers, he has gotten 25, 20 and 21 carries in the past three games. Is he the Vikings' only hope for success on offense?
Goessling: Depends on what the Vikings get at quarterback -- which is pretty hard to predict these days. They had planned this year to have more balance on offense, and without it, they've suffered from Peterson having merely a good, not historic, season. He said after Sunday's game that his groin injury was bothering him a lot, and it's the first time in the past two years I've heard Peterson admit an injury was affecting him like that. There were certainly runs where it looked like he just didn't have that top gear like he normally does, and it kept him from breaking a couple. I'm not so sure the best thing wouldn't be to sit him down for a game or two and let him get healthy, rather than having him try to play when he's clearly not 100 percent. The fact the Vikings could be missing center John Sullivan because of a concussion doesn't help either. Their best chance to get going on offense would be to feed Peterson, get a lead and try to pressure Tolzien. If Peterson is not at his best, it might not be feasible to lean on him so much.
What about the Packers' running game? It was striking to see Eddie Lacy & Co. pound the ball at will against the Vikings in October. Was that legit, or are teams taking that away now because Rodgers is gone?
Demovsky: That was legit. He leads the NFL in rushing over the past seven games. Less than three weeks ago, the Packers ran for a season-high 199 yards against the Bears. The past two weeks, however, both the Eagles and the Giants have loaded the box to stop the run, and it has worked. There weren't many yards for Lacy to get last week against the Giants, and he averaged only 1.9 yards per carry on 14 attempts. It's like defenses have completely changed the way they're playing the Packers. With Rodgers, they used to dare the Packers to run the ball. Now, they're daring them to throw it by bringing extra defenders up to the line of scrimmage.
The Vikings have forced 10 turnovers in three games (no small feat for a defense that ranked 22nd in takeaways last season), but so far, the team's decision to gamble on young defensive backs appears to be backfiring. And now, Cook is nursing a groin injury for the second time in a month. Sanford has a strained hamstring, and Jefferson (who was burned for a 47-yard touchdown after Cook left the game) sprained his ankle. Coach Leslie Frazier didn't know the severity of the injuries on Sunday, but didn't sound optimistic that he'd be traveling to London with a full complement of defensive backs for next Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"You don’t want to start getting into your depth this early in the season and losing Jamarca and Chris and potentially A.J. That’s a concern," Frazier said. "We’ll have to see how they progress over the course of the week and just means that other guys will have to step up and play well for us."
By the end of the game on Sunday, the Vikings were using Marcus Sherels in their base defense at right cornerback, with Josh Robinson staying on the left side. First-round pick Xavier Rhodes stayed only in the team's nickel defense, Frazier said, because the Vikings wanted to keep him at the left cornerback spot there and not overload him with responsibilities.
Depending on how many healthy cornerbacks the Vikings have for this week's game, though, their plans could change quickly. They hadn't made strong overtures to retired cornerback Antoine Winfield, and it's unknown if the team would have interest in bringing the 36-year-old back. But Winfield was unquestionably the Vikings' best cornerback last year, and his absence has been noticeable early this season as the Vikings try to figure out how to play without him.
The rash of injuries they sustained on Sunday likely won't help them turn things around.
"Defense is what needs to go out there and make plays," Sanford said. "The last couple of weeks we have come up short. We just need to continue to keep working and not complain because it won’t make a difference. We just need to keep working and stay together."
Peterson already appears to be in midseason form, judging from the 78-yard touchdown reeled off on his first carry of the season in last week’s Minnesota loss to the Detroit Lions, and that’s a scary proposition for a Bears defense that admittedly missed tackles it shouldn’t have in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“You can’t really put your guys in a situation where you have a lot of one-on-one tackles,” Bears linebacker James Anderson said. “If you watch that guy, he’ll make the first guy miss. He’ll run through tackles. The more guys we can get to the ball, the better chance we’ll have.”
The Vikings, meanwhile, face a new Bears offense that emphasizes protecting the quarterback and getting the ball quickly out of the quarterback’s hands. That philosophy can wreak havoc on Minnesota’s pass rush, which features Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen. The Lions neutralized Minnesota’s rush on Sunday by throwing screens to Reggie Bush.
ESPN.com’s Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright discuss the matchup.
Ben Goessling: The Vikings’ defense definitely starts with their pass rush -- and we saw Sunday how much this defense can struggle when opponents are able to get rid of the ball before Allen, Robison and Griffen can get to the quarterback. But if I’m a Bears receiver, I’m making sure I know where second-year safety Harrison Smith is located. He’s got a nose for the ball (he ran two interceptions back for touchdowns as a rookie) and, as Calvin Johnson learned last year, he isn’t afraid to make big hits. Smith will take some chances at times, but he’s smart enough and fast enough to recover if he’s a bit out of position. He looks like a force at safety, and the Bears will have to deal with him for a while.
Speaking of the pass rush, though, the Lions might have given the Bears a recipe for neutralizing it by throwing as many screens as they did to Bush. Can we expect to see the Bears use Matt Forte the same way?
Michael C. Wright: The Bears have always worked the screen game with Forte with plenty of success. With the Lions experiencing some success against the Vikings in Week 1, it’s now obviously on film and something the Bears will likely attack. But don’t look at Forte as merely a screen guy. He’s versatile enough to split out wide as a slot receiver, and on numerous occasions in recent years he’s burned defenders deep on the wheel route. In the opener against the Bengals, the Bears targeted Forte six times, with him coming down with four receptions for 41 yards, including a 24-yard completion.
So in answering your question, yes, the Bears will use Forte on screens. But I don’t anticipate it being a major part of the game plan. Forte ran 19 times for 50 yards last week and the team isn’t happy about that performance. Improving the rushing attack is a major point of emphasis this week for the Bears.
How much would you say Christian Ponder has grown as a quarterback from last season?
Goessling: It’s hard to say. He made some throws on Sunday that suggested he was gaining confidence -- he threw downfield more than we ever saw last year -- but especially on his second interception, he looked like the same tentative, mechanical quarterback we’ve seen in the past. Greg Jennings has been outspoken about how Ponder can be a good quarterback if he learns to anticipate throws and trust himself, and it still hasn’t seemed like Ponder has figured that out. He’d better show some progress quickly, though. The Vikings have Matt Cassel on the bench, and with Leslie Frazier trying to earn a new contract, he might not be able to remain patient with Ponder forever.
In fairness to Ponder, though, his offensive line didn’t play well in front of him on Sunday. In fact, a group that’s typically solid looked as bad as it has in some time. Julius Peppers is coming off a bad game, too.
Who’s got the edge as he and Matt Kalil both look to get back on track?
Wright: Honestly, I like Peppers in this matchup. Peppers worked against a backup left tackle on Sunday in Anthony Collins. But I don’t think people gave Collins enough credit for his performance. Collins is an athletic player (former basketball player) and probably one of the most athletic tackles Peppers will face this season. Couple that with the fact Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton got rid of the ball quickly and it’s easy to see how Peppers didn’t register anything on the stat sheet.
Remember this, though: Peppers is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he’s posted 11 sacks or more. Peppers certainly doesn’t appear to be slowing down, but at the same time, the defensive end didn’t register a sack in either of the two games last season against Minnesota.
With Percy Harvin out of the picture, outside of Peterson, who is the guy the Bears need to take notice of on defense?
Goessling: We could see more of Cordarrelle Patterson this week. The Vikings traded back into the first round to get the receiver in the draft, and they think he has many of the same skills that Harvin has. They didn’t use him much in Detroit, which was a little perplexing, but if they need a spark on offense, getting the ball to Patterson in the open field might be the quickest way to get it. The Bears also know plenty about Jennings from his days in Green Bay. Ponder targeted him more than any other receiver last week, and though he missed Jennings with a couple of throws, it wouldn’t surprise me if Jennings quickly becomes the focal point of the Vikings’ passing game.
Peterson is coming off an odd game; he ran 78 yards for a touchdown on his first carry, but the Lions stacked eight men in the box and held him to 15 yards on his next 17 carries. How will the Bears fare against the reigning MVP?
Wright: That’s difficult to answer because the Bears have been up-and-down against Peterson over the years. For the most part they’ve handled him. In 2011, Chicago limited Peterson to 51 yards in the only game they faced him. But then last season, Peterson hit the century mark in both games, including 104 yards in the first quarter when the teams met in December. Chicago’s front four of Henry Melton, Peppers, Stephen Paea and Corey Wootton should fare well. But the linebacker position, particularly the middle linebacker spot, is the most concerning. D.J. Williams is playing in the middle as the replacement for Brian Urlacher. But he missed virtually all of training camp and the preseason with a calf strain and wasn’t cleared to practice until the week of the Bengals game. Frankly, Williams looked as if he were running with concrete blocks on his feet against Cincinnati. Conditioning was definitely an issue for Williams and will likely be again Sunday when the teams meet. The Bears are pretty adept at stopping the run (they held Cincinnati to 63 yards), but Peterson is a special back. I don’t think the Bears can totally shut him down.