It seems odd that the 15-1 Packers are flying below the radar coming into the 2011 season. Save for an uncharacteristic four turnovers against the Giants, the Packers could have advanced to another Super Bowl. Even coming off an early playoff exit, most people concede Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL with the most well-rounded receiving corps in the league. With the addition of Jeff Saturday at center and the return of Bryan Bulaga at tackle, the Packers might be the most stable they have been on the offensive line in years. The big question mark remains with the running game. The Packers did not address it in free agency or the draft, opting to go with James Starks and Alex Green. However, the addition of Cedric Benson during training camp could be one of the best pickups of the preseason. The Pack were 27th in the NFL in rushing last season and the addition of Benson, who won’t be called upon to carry the ball 330-plus times, could change that dramatically.
Defensively, Green Bay used its first six draft choices to select defensive players. Injuries were a big part of the Pack falling to last in the NFL in total yards per game and passing yards. They were 27th in the NFL in sacks. It’s likely this unit will return, if not to their league-leading status of 2010, to at least the upper half of the league. Add this to a 15-1 team that was embarrassed last season in the playoffs, it could be lethal for the rest of the NFC.
The Packers will be tested early with three of their first four games coming against San Francisco, Chicago and New Orleans. Sandwich a road trip to Seattle in there and we’ll get an early indication as to the mindset of the Packers. The next part of the schedule looks to be more manageable with a tough game at Houston sprinkled among games against Indy, St. Louis, Jacksonville and Arizona.
Mike McCarthy is one of the few coaches to still run his own offense. He is comfortable doing that because defensive coordinator Dom Capers is one of the best in the business. Somebody, at year’s end, is going to figure out that Capers should be given another chance of being a head coach in this league. The Packers were better on special teams last season, but that simply means they went from last to middle of the pack in 2011.
Prediction: 11-5, first in NFC North
The Lions have placed themselves firmly among the playoff hopefuls and won’t be ridiculed for talking about a Super Bowl. The turnaround of arguably the worst franchise in the NFL to a legitimate contender has been nothing less than remarkable.
Now comes the tough part: taking the next step. Having the best wide receiver in the game in Calvin Johnson with an emerging elite quarterback in Matthew Stafford is a good place to start. A pass rush that includes Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril, along with an inside presence of Ndamukong Suh isn’t bad, either. The Lions were absent in this year’s free agency pool so they obviously feel very comfortable with the hand they have.
Under Jim Schwartz and Martin Mayhew they have drafted well, and this year wasn’t any different. Riley Reiff, offensive tackle from Iowa, was a solid pick for the future health of their Pro Bowl quarterback and they took three defensive backs in their first six picks, targeting a real need. Having said that, the secondary could be a major stumbling block for the Lions. Cornerbacks Eric Wright and Aaron Berry are no longer with the team and safety Louis Delmas is coming off injury. If last year’s No. 1 pick Nick Fairley improves and stays out of trouble, the Lions could have a dominating inside presence. Another problem is at running back as injuries to Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure crippled the Lions’ balance in 2011, and both have been suspect throughout the preseason. If you choose to be critical, a target is Schwartz/Mayhew not addressing their depth issues at the position in free agency or the draft. This could come back and bite them in the end.
The Lions catch a break by getting St. Louis, Tennessee and Minnesota early in their schedule. They must also travel to San Francisco for Schwartz vs. Harbaugh Round 2, as well as Philly and Chicago back to back.
Schwartz has provided continuity, returning both coordinators, Scott Linehan and Gunther Cunningham, for their fourth straight seasons. Regardless of what talent is on this team, Job 1 for Schwartz is to work the tenuous balance of controlling his team without removing their passion and aggressive play. The key is the veterans taking an active hand in keeping the team in check, something Schwartz will not do publicly, but will likely address behind closed doors on an almost daily basis.
The good news/bad news to the Bears’ 2011 season was losing Jay Cutler. The bad news was after starting 7-3 and riding a five-game winning streak, they found that without Cutler they are a sub-.500 team, losing five straight games down the stretch. It could have been six without a slim 17-13 victory against an anemic Minnesota team.
The good news is that this should get the locals to quit questioning Cutler’s talent. Adding Michael Bush in the offseason and getting Matt Forte under contract ensures the Bears’ commitment to the running game. They finally have a No. 1 wide receiver with the addition of Brandon Marshall. His shortcomings aside, this should also allow the Bears to return Devin Hester to a more consistent use of his No. 1 attribute, returning punts. Second-round draft choice Alshon Jeffery may also be able to contribute to the league’s 26th-ranked passing unit. The Bears, once again, chose not to address their offensive line in either free agency or the draft. Getting last year’s No. 1 pick Gabe Carimi back from injury should help, but this is a unit that has had its problems protecting their No. 1 asset in Cutler.
Defensively, the Bears were solid, at best, in 2011. The addition of first-round defensive end Shea McClellin may help balance Julius Peppers in their pass rush. The secondary is average in a division where they have to face Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford twice each year.
Like the whole of the NFC North, the Bears have a pretty even schedule but will be tested early on the road against Green Bay in Week 2 and at Dallas on Monday night in Week 4. They get a break facing Indy in the opener, then St. Louis and Jacksonville in two of the following four weeks.
Head coach Lovie Smith survived the purging of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and general manager Jerry Angelo and has returned his offense to the previous balance that took them to a Super Bowl in 2006. New offensive coordinator Mike Tice will restore a run-first mentality to the Bears and will ask Cutler to do what he does best, throw what he sees and only about 30 times a game. Interestingly, former OC Ron Turner was fired after doing just that prior to Martz coming in. The Bears appear committed to Smith, and it may pay dividends this year.
The Vikings are paying the price for thinking they were closer to a championship, or just being a solid team, than they actually were. Very little has gone right since 2009 and they would have been better served to begin the process in 2010 rather than waiting until now. That being said, the Vikings have made solid moves to get back on track. They committed to Christian Ponder at quarterback last season and took their lumps for it but will be well served this year with a complete offseason and the lessons learned from 2011. They drafted well in taking offensive tackle Matt Kalil in the first round, cornerback Josh Robinson in the third and wide receiver Jarius Wright in the fourth. Each should have a chance to contribute this season in areas of definite need.
A huge key will be the development of Ponder, but the problem is he has virtually no help around him, outside of Adrian Peterson, who is coming off an injury. Defensively, the Vikings use the most basic of schemes, which rely on Jared Allen providing a pass rush, with little else. They were tied for the most sacks in the NFL but ranked 26th in the league in pass defense and 31st in points allowed. It is hard to see how they will be much better this year.
The Vikings get a break in the first half of the season, opening up vs. a questionable Jacksonville team before traveling to Indy. Beginning in October, they get a run of teams with questions like Tennessee, Washington, Arizona, Tampa Bay and Seattle.
Leslie Frazier was given the job after finishing the 2010 season as the interim head coach. He went 3-13 and has yet to beat an NFC North team. He fired his defensive coordinator and will take a more active hand with the defense, which will bring even more scrutiny. His owner has been very patient with coaches and the state, but has said he “expects the Vikings to be division champs.” They won’t be.