TGS 2015 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE NFC NORTH
Following is our TGS preview of the NFC North, courtesy Senior Editor Chuck Sippl. As always, teams are presented in predicted order of finish, with 2014 straight-up, spread, and O/U marks included. Next up: AFC North...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor
GREEN BAY (STRAIGHT- UP RECORD 13-5; POINTSPREAD RECORD 9-8-1; OVER/UNDER 12-6; Defeated Dallas 26-21 in Divisional Round; Lost at Seattle 28-22 (OT) in NFC Championship Game)...The Packers have found a formula for success that works...for them. For nearly three decades, Green Bay has been strong at QB and WR, competent at RB, and usually at least serviceable on defense. The team is mostly “home grown,” with the majority of players on the team being mostly Packers only. The big money goes to stars such as QB Aaron Rodgers (now in his tenth year), WRs Jordy Nelson & Randall Cobb, and DE/OLB/ILB Clay Matthews. The G.B. front office, ably directed by Ted Thompson, signs few veteran free agents, instead preferring to draft and groom its own youngsters. Role players are challenged to either develop into steady, reliable entities or to face pressure from incoming young players.
And few are arguing with the Packers’ overall approach, which has produced four straight NFC North championships, plus a Super Bowl title in the 2010 season from a wildcard slot. Yes, the Green Bay defense can be criticized for weak playoff defensive showings in recent years vs. San Francisco and in last year’s OT loss in Seattle. But the Packers’ consistency in recent seasons ranks with the best in the NFC.
Of course, during that time the Pack has been led (in the full meaning of the word) by Aaron Rodgers (4391 YP, 65.6%, 38 TDs, only 5 ints. in the 2014 regular season) and his abundance of remarkable throws to arguably the best stable of wideouts (Jordy Nelson & Randall Cobb, plus the emerging long-armed Davante Adams, plus an impressive group of understudies behind them) in the NFL. There is a bit of concern about Rodgers’ collarbone and calf injuries in the last two years. But neither Rodgers nor HC Mike McCarthy (now in his 10th year) seem overly worried.
McCarthy, in fact, already says he can enjoy games more now that he has handed over playcalling duties to assistant head coach-offense Tom Clements, the former Notre Dame QB and long-time pro QB coach. Plus, in Green Bay’s defense-destroying, uptempo attack (30.4 ppg LY to lead the league, even with Rodgers hobbling for part of the season), Rodgers himself has been given wide leeway to orchestrate the attack on his own, inasmuch as he is usually on the same page with McCarthy and Clements anyway.
The Packers’ brain trust and coaching staff have been able to cobble together a reliable OL that might be a bit thin on raw talent, but is “thick” on smarts and cohesion. As an example, 2014 fifth-round pick Corey Linsley from Ohio State quickly became a starter for one of the league’s more sophisticated attacks. Only RT/LT Bryan Bulaga (first round in 2010) among the starting OLmen was taken higher than in the fourth round of the draft.
The McCarthy offense jumped a few more levels on the threat scale in 2013 with the selection of hammering RB Eddie Lacy of Alabama, who has pounded for 1178 and 1139 yards in his first two seasons, not to mention catching a total of 77 passes, making opponents pay for rushing Rodgers too hard without thinking about the consequences. There was, however, a potentially serious concern on the attack end in late August regarding the status of aforementioned WR Jordy Nelson, who suffered an apparent ACL injury in the August 23 preseason game at Pittsburgh. Though the roster is well-stocked with wideouts, a potential loss of Nelson would force Rodgers to find another first option among his receivers.
Most of the Green Bay payroll is invested in its prized offense. The defense ranked only a mediocre 15th overall last season and remains a bit of a concern after allowing Seattle to score 22 points in the second half of last season’s NFC title game to tie, and then to quickly bolt 87 yards in OT for the win. Not as many of Ted Thompson’s homegrown picks have worked out on the stop unit. The brightest star has been indefatigable Clay Matthews, who even surprised Pete Carroll during Matthews’ final year at USC.
Some recent G.B. No. 1 picks on defense such as DT B.J. Raji, DE Datone Jones, and OLB Nick Perry have failed to live up to expectations, leading to LY’s signing of past-his-prime DE/OLB Julius Peppers (7 sacks). 2014's No. 1selection—Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (92 Ts, but only 1 int.)—has shown signs of being an all-around safety to pair with hitter Morgan Burnett (130 Ts last season). To cope with today’s pass-happy, less-contact NFL, Thompson selected a couple of stubborn cover-oriented DBs (Damarious Randall of Arizona State and Quinten Rollins of Miami-O.) with this year’s first two picks. Along with proven veterans CBs Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has the numbers to play lots of situational matchups. But the fact that the valuable Matthews (11 sacks LY) remains both the team’s best pass rusher and the key to last year’s improved G.B. rush defense when playing inside makes the front seven very vulnerable should Matthews (now in his 7th year) get hurt.
SUMMARY...It must be noted that McCarthy is committed this season to avoiding the 1-2 starts of each of the past three seasons that caused the HC to have some sleepless September nights. The Pack has won the ensuing Game Four all three seasons, avoiding an early 1-3 record that usually makes a climb to the playoffs ultra difficult. Detroit (second in total defense last season) and Minnesota (with Adrian Peterson now joining young QB Bridgewater in the backfield) are closing ground on the Pack. However, with Rodgers at his peak and aided by so many premium playmakers, it doesn’t look as if the Lions and Vikes are ready to overtake Green Bay just yet.
MINNESOTA (SUR 7-9; PSR 10-6; O/U 6-10)...It’s not just the return of stellar RB Adrian Peterson that makes Minnesota the strongest challenger to four- time defending champion Green Bay in the NFC North. It’s that second-year coach Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman have done a solid job in the past one-plus years to rebuild the Viking roster and restore team discipline in the interim. And, however one might feel about Peterson’s awful transgression that led to last year’s 15-game NFL suspension, everyone is curious to see how one of the league’s elite, “freak” athletes will perform at the age of 30 after having gone without a virtual season’s worth of NFL pounding.
Had Peterson (5.0 ypc for his career) played last season, he would of have the special focus of opponents on a rebuilding offense breaking in a rookie QB. Peterson’s presence in the backfield undoubtedly would have lightened the load on Louisville product Teddy Bridgewater. But it also might have slowed the QB’s development a bit. Without the mighty Peterson (1200 or more YR in 6 of his previous 7 years) to help out, and with the team’s 2014 playoff prospects seriously damaged, Zimmer and staff made a firm commitment to grooming their young players for the future. And Bridgewater, with 12 starts and at least one TDP in each of his last 10, was among the more rapidly-improving elements on the team.
Bridgewater was initially brought along slowly. And, despite the team seeing its best player banished after just one game, followed by a long string of Viking injuries, rookie HC Zimmer never let up on his charges. When Zimmer saw a player’s effort or performance wane, that player lost playing time, and sometimes his job.
By the end of the 7-9 season (three losses by a FG or less), Zimmer had raised the bar, had instilled a new toughness, and had developed a new young core of promising Minnesota players. That development was indicated by the Vikes’ 8-2 finish their last 10 vs. the pointspread. Leading the way was the physically-unimposing 6-2 Bridgewater, who had steadily developed into a leader and clutch playmaker as respected offensive coordinator Norv Turner gradually, steadily expanded the playbook. For the season, Bridgewater hit 64.4% of his passes for 2919 yards, 14 TDs and 12 interceptions. Over the last nine games, however, the rookie had 13 TDP vs. just 7 ints., and you could see the game “slowing down” for him. By the end of 2015's minicamp and OTAs, Turner was impressed enough to call Bridgewater a top-five QB. While Turner’s praise might include a considerable element of preseason puffing and praise, those who watched carefully the last two months of 2014 saw the seeds of an emerging young QB and team leader.
Although GM Spielman made a few moves in the offseason (e.g., trading for speedy but disgruntled WR Mike Wallace from Miami), the Vikes have chosen to plot their future course mostly by building internally, much like their arch-rivals in the Dairy State to the east. And they appear to be doing so soundly. WR/KR Cordarrelle Patterson, who disappointed LY with 33 recs. for only 384 yards, was reportedly on the ropes until his route-running finally showed the desired improvement in the offseason. Third-year WR Charles Johnson (Grand Valley State; once a Green Bay pick, then on Cleveland’s practice squad) demonstrated last year to be a potential physical, possession receiver. Wallace, often in a sour mood when not getting enough passing attention in Miami, better put on his smiley face daily under tough taskmaster Zimmer. But, at his best, Wallace is still one of the better deep threats in the league. And, with A.P. in the backfield, Wallace should see lots of single coverage. Maryland rookie Stefon Diggs was an excellent big-play receiver when healthy. Offensive coordinator Turner, who has always loved to use his TEs going back his days with Jay Novacek and the Cowboys, has a couple of good ones in Kyle Rudolph and Rhett Ellison.
Last year’s increased playing time helped power back Matt Asiata and rookie slasher Jerick McKinnon, who should now be more effective when Peterson gets a blow.
The presence of Peterson in the backfield should also help an OL that was nearly overwhelmed by injuries last year. And already the unit has lost massive 6-8, 343 RT Phil Loadholt (Achilles tear). The unit could still be okay if G Brandon Fusco returns successfully from torn pectoral muscles suffered last year. Late last season, the Vikes often had to start three backup OLmen. Now, even with the loss of Loadholt, there is more young talent and depth. Coaches are also trying to stabilize LT Matt Khalil (first-round pick in 2012), whose technique deteriorated at times in 2014. The Vikes’ scouting department appears to have “hit” on this year’s fourth-rounder, T.J. Clemmings from Pitt, who has great talent but who spent part of his college career on defense.
Although Minnesota was a respectable 14th in total defense and 11th in scoring defense (21.4 ppg) in Zimmer’s first season, the long-time defensive coordinator will not be happy without a substantial improvement this year. DE Everson Griffen (12 sacks LY) has already blossomed, while one of Zimmer’s prized pupils is third-year DT Floyd Sharrif, the 300 pounder with the quick feet. And Zimmer is excited about the move of one-time CB Antone Exum (6-0, 219) to safety, where his speed and intimidating hitting will be big pluses if Exum can avoid the injuries that bugged him in college. Fellow safety Harrison Smith (5 ints. LY) is among the best in the league. 6-1, 210 CB Xavier Rhodes “arrived” midway through his second season LY and gives the Vikes one of those “big” CBs so coveted in the league these days to match up with the growing number of jumbo wideouts. With veteran CB Captain Munnerlyn and FA signee Terence Newman (who played for Zimmer in Cincy) cagey but aging, the Vikes spent their top pick this season on CB Trae Waynes, the Michigan State All-American who played in a predominantly man-to-man system with the Spartans. Minny seems more ready than ever this season to take on the prolific passing attacks of the Packers, Lions and Bears.
Heady OLB Chad Greenway (115 Ts LY despite not being 100%) is a stabilizing force in the second line of defense. And Zimmer plans on giving the starting MLB spot virtually immediately to No. 2 pick Eric Kendricks. Although NFL undersized at 6-0, 232, the Butkus Award winner with 149 Ts LY at UCLA was tabbed for his instinctive play, sideline-to-sideline range, and impressive coverage ability. Kendricks will be re-united with former Bruin Anthony Barr (a No. 1 pick in 2014), the 6-5, 255 pass-rushing OLB who is just beginning to tap his potential.
SUMMARY...Zimmer has the makings of a top-five defense in Minneapolis. But his offense, other than Peterson, is still emerging. With injury issues still to be resolved in the OL, and with Bridgewater still learning, the Vikes don’t seem ready to overtake Aaron Rodgers & Co. just yet. But Minnesota hosts the Packers in Game Ten, and the Vikings don’t travel to Lambeau until the final week of the regular season. By then, Bridgewater will be more experienced, the G.B run defense might be leaking again, and the formidable Minny defense might be poised for an upset. However, the Vikes, with some nasty road stops (S.F., Denver, Atlanta, Arizona) will have to mature quickly if they want that finale to be meaningful.
DETROIT (SUR 11-6; PSR 8-9; O/U 4-12-1; Lost 24-20 at Dallas in Wildcard Round)...The pre-season question for the Lions in recent years has been pretty simple. Can Detroit pass Green Bay and win the division? For the past four years the answer has been “no.” In 2013, the Lions started 6-3, but their 1-6 finish cost them any chance for the playoffs, in addition to costing Jim Schwartz his job as head coach.
Last year, their first under new HC Jim Caldwell, Detroit made it to the regular-season finale at Lambeau Field with the NFC North title on the line. But even with Aaron Rodgers limping on a strained calf, the Lions couldn’t get over the hump, even with three Matthew Stafford TD passes, with the Packers prevailing 30-20. That loss sent Detroit to the Wildcard Round in Dallas, where the Lions led 20-7 in the third quarter, only to crash in a 24-20 defeat after the officials controversially negated one of their own pass interference calls (TE Brandon Pettigrew the victim) deep in the fourth quarter.
Now, the men in Honolulu Blue have to try to pass the Pack without mean, rugged Ndamukong Suh. In LeBron James fashion, the intimidating, stomping DT has taken his talents to Miami. And, while the Lions were fortunate to catch the Baltimore Ravens in the midst of a salary cap squeeze that made massive DT Haloti Ngata available as a substitute for Suh, the 31-year-old Ngata (only 12 games, 2 sacks LY) has been showing some signs of wear and tear, and he sustained a potentially-troublesome strained hamstring early in camp.
Otherwise, the Detroit defense--so often victimized for big plays during the Jim Schwartz era--showed improved discipline and consistency in its first year under the disciplined and consistent Caldwell. Even with stalwart LB Stephen Tulloch lost in the third game of the season (on a sack celebration vs. the Packers), Detroit finished first in the league in rush defense, second in total defense, and third in scoring defense (17.6 ppg). A solidified secondary helped the Lions net 20 interceptions, which led to a useful overall +7 turnover differential overall.
If the 5-11, 245 Tulloch returns from his ACL tear as an all-down LB (which he is expected to do), he will join veteran DeAndre Levy (151 Ts LY) and promising youngster Kyle Van Noy to give Detroit another solid LB group. DE Ezekiel Ansah (7½ sacks LY) now becomes the top pass-rushing threat, but he’ll be getting more attention following the departure of Suh. Fourth-year DT Tyrunn Walker has shown promise in camp of stepping in for released former No. 1 pick Nick Fairley.
As GM Martin Mayhew (a former NFL DB) had hoped, the recent additions of reliable DBs such as CB Rashean Mathis, S Quin Glover (7 ints. LY), and S James Ihedigbo (4 ints. LY) have solidified a long-leaky secondary in Detroit. Third-year guy Darius Slay at CB is the youngster of the group, and he should be even better than last year. Defense wasn’t the problem for the team by the second half of 2014, as six of the Lions’ last eight regular-season foes failed to more than 17 points, even in the era of pass-friendly rules.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was an up and down offense that hindered the further rise of the Lions, as the attack was 28th in rushing (only 88.9 ypg), gained only 3.6 ypc, and allowed 45 sacks. The impact of the aging Reggie Bush (now with S.F.) waned last year, as he gained only 297 YR and 253 receiving, partly due to nagging injuries. QB Matthew Stafford had a 4257-yard campaign passing and reduced his ints. to only 12. However, forced to the air too often, Stafford suffered those 45 sacks and had only 22 TDs, 14th in the league. This despite the immediate emergence last season of free-agent WR Golden Tate (99 recs., 1331 yards) from Seattle. However, the long-armed talents of “Plastic Man” WR Calvin Johnson were not always present, as the 6-5 pass catcher missed three games and parts of several others due to nagging injuries, snagging only 71 balls (8 TDs). Yes, the team is concerned that Johnson (who turns 30 in September; no complete season the last 3 years) might not be the same dominator as in the past. The Lions are hopeful that the return of 6-7 red zone threat Joseph Fauria (ankle LY) and the development of 2014 first round TE Eric Ebron will help extend the very productive years of C.J.
Meanwhile, all early indications are that Mayhew scored a “hit” with Detroit’s second-round choice this season, 5-9, 202 Ameer Abdullah, whose determination at RB for Nebraska produced lots of highlight-reel stuff and opened many eyes with a 45-yard TD run in the preseason opener vs. the Jets. Powerful local Wayne State product Joique Bell (860 YR in 2014) is likely to be the starter in September, but he might not be able to hold off the dynamic Abdullah for long.
After last year’s 45 sacks, veteran C Dominic Raiola and starting G Rob Sims were not re-signed. So the offense might labor at times once again this year if second-year C Travis Swanson is not quite ready. To replace Sims at G, the Lions acquired G/C Manny Ramirez from Denver in a draft-day deal, and then tabbed G Laken Tomlinson of Duke with the 28th pick in the first round.
SUMMARY...Ameer Abdullah appears ready to boost the Detroit ground attack and help balance the offense. But RB Andre Peterson is back in Minnesota, and the Packers now have Eddie Lacy. The Lion defense can’t help but miss the snarling Suh. So Detroit, with only two playoff appearances this century, might drop back just a bit and battle the Vikes for second in the Black and Blue Division. Don’t overlook Detroit at home, where they were a winning 7-1 SU and 5-3 vs. the spread last year, while going 7-1 UNDER on the road.
CHICAGO (SUR 5-11; PSR 7-9; O/U 8-8)...After just two years under Marc Trestman, the Bears are rebooting once again. This time it’s with head coach John Fox, whose four straight AFC West titles (three with Peyton Manning at QB) were not enough for him to hang on in Denver. A solid football man with a 119-89 regular-season mark in 13 combined years in Carolina and Denver, Fox also has two Super Bowl appearances and an 8-7 record in the postseason. That latter mark is not inconsequential when it comes to the Bears, who have not won the NFC North in eight years and who have enjoyed only one playoff victory over that time frame--a 35-24 triumph in 2010 over Seattle, which won its division with a 7-9 record. That game, by the way, is the only playoff victory ever recorded by sometimes-controversial QB Jay Cutler.
Taking over direction of the offense this season is Adam Gase, who has accompanied Fox from Denver with the QB-friendly scheme employed so well in recent years by the detail-oriented Manning. But Gase is the fifth offensive coordinator during Cutler’s six years in Chicago. So Cutler--and his teammates on offense--have plenty of proving to do in a division featuring not only Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, but also slinging veteran Matthew Stafford in Detroit and up-and-coming Teddy Bridgewater in Minnesota.
Last year under the relatively soft-spoken, professorial Trestman, the Bears disappeared from serious playoff contention by late-October amid a slew of defensive injuries that led to Chicago finishing 31st in points allowed, 30th in yards allowed, and 30th in pass defense. Ballhawking Charles Tillman was among the first to go, with the CB lost for the season in the second game. And DE Lamar Houston kind of typified the Chicago season in the eighth game when he tore an ACL celebrating a sack of a backup QB (Jimmy Garoppolo) in a 28-point defeat. Chicago lost 8 of its last 10 games. The moody and frustrated Cutler, usually placed in the position of playing from behind, ended up throwing 18 ints. and losing 6 of a career-high 12 fumbles. Time to start over.
The early word is that the returning Chicago players are very happy with the straight-forward approach of Fox, who had to yield somewhat to the special talents of QB Manning and to the wishes of powerful executive VP John Elway while in Denver. Look for a back-to-basics approach this year from the rebuilding Bears, who added some very solid, under-the-radar veterans in free agency (e.g., WR Eddie Royal, San Diego; RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Atl.; C Will Montgomery, Den.; DE Jarvis Jenkins, Wash.; LB Mason Foster, T.B.; OLB Pernell McPhee, Balt.; OLB Sam Acho, Ariz.; CB Alan Ball, Jack.; S Antrel Rolle, NYG), but did not break the bank.
The offense will still revolve around Cutler (66%, 28 TDs), RB Matt Forte (1038 YR in 2014, but only 3.9 ypc; 102 recs.), and the Bears’ imposing group of receivers (TE Martellus Bennett 90 recs.; power wideout Alshon Jeffery 85; promising speed guy Marquess Wilson 17 in less than half a season). Stormy Brandon Marshall has been dealt to the Jets, with Chicago tabbing big and fast WR Kevin White from West Virginia with its first pick in the draft. Although loaded with promise, the 6-3 White is short on polish, and the start of his career has been delayed by a preseason shin injury that reportedly might sideline him for months.
The Bears have rebuilt their OL with the draft and free agency in recent years, and they’ve added C Hroniss Grasu (third round) this year partly because of Grasu’s leadership dimensions displayed at Oregon. Look for HC Fox to bring a re-emphasis to Chicago run-blocking and ball control this season.
Last year’s failed defense has virtually been scrapped, with Fox hiring former Jim Harbaugh defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to rejuvenate things. To better deal with the NFC North’s passers, Fangio has changed to a 3-4 front, with lots of new faces. Undersized DT Will Sutton, a good penetrator, is likely to see more time up front. Long-time DE Jared Allen (only 5½ sacks LY) moves to OLB, but figures to be used mainly as a match-up pass rusher. McPhee is a 6-3, 280-pound jumbo LB who collected 7½ sacks LY without starting any games with the Ravens. Holdover Shea McClellin, a one-time No. 1 pick of the Bears, gets a new lease on life in the new scheme. Last year’s No. 1--Virginia Tech CB Kyle Fuller--should improve in his second season working behind a more effective front seven in 2015. Free agency and the return of last year’s injured players should also substantially improve the team’s depth on defense. Going into the season, Fangio appears to have the experience and talent to employ effective multiple looks in his front seven. In the secondary, there are a few more questions that need positive answers.
SUMMARY...Granted, Cutler might be too moody to be a great leader at QB if things aren’t going right. However, at age 32 he can still spin the ball just about as well any passer in the league. He possesses a quality group of big targets. And, if history is any indication, Fox will improve the running game and restore balance to an attack that became too pass-heavy under Trestman. While there might not be many all-pros on defense, there is improved depth and quality, and a proven tactician in def. coord. Fangio. After 2014's 5-11 mark, the Bears have a long way to go before surpassing Green Bay. But 2015 will bring more victories than last season as Chicago battles Detroit and Minnesota for the No. 2 spot. It says here they won’t make it, even though the Bears will make it tough on their North rivals.
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