2011 Division Preview: NFC North
For the first time since 1997 (back when it was called the NFC Central), the Black-and-Blue Division enters a season featuring a Super Bowl champion. It was the Packers who topped the NFL world 14 years ago, and this season it's again Green Bay holding the crown.
The rest of the NFC North doesn't figure to give the Pack an easy ride back to the top. Some might not even remember that Chicago walked away with the division title last season, with 10-6 Green Bay barely squeaking into the postseason. Those two traditional rivals sit as the North favorites entering the 2011 season, but Detroit and Minnesota are not far behind.
Dom Capers' blitzing, shifting 3-4 attack has the benefit of a game-changer at each level -- B.J. Raji at nose tackle, Clay Matthews at linebacker and Charles Woodson at corner. Matthews and Raji combined for 20 sacks last season, with 13 ½ coming from Matthews alone.
The Pack's 47 regular season sacks in 2010 ranked second in the NFL to Pittsburgh's 48, but that pressure was also a prime catalyst behind Green Bay's 24 interceptions (No. 2 in NFL) and plus-10 turnover margin (No. 4). Capers gives opposing quarterbacks looks that they don't see elsewhere, which makes his defense one of the league's toughest to play against.
After losing Ryan Grant in Week 1 last season to ankle and knee injuries, the Packers nickel-and-dimed their way through the 2010 season on the ground. Brandon Jackson was a pleasant surprise, rushing for a team-leading 703 yards, but the team's second leading rusher was Aaron Rodgers at 356 yards. That all changed in the playoffs, with James Starks coming out of nowhere to rumble for 123 yards in Green Bay's first-round win at Philadelphia.
Starks may have the inside track on the starting gig this season, with Grant trying to get back to form. Dmitri Nance and fullback/fan favorite John Kuhn could also be in the mix. No matter who Aaron Rodgers hands off to, the numbers must be better. The Packers were 24th in the league in rushing offense last season -- and considering the trouble their offensive line has had protecting Rodgers at times, they need someone to take the pressure off the passing game.
Green Bay suffered one key loss on its defense when Cullen Jenkins bolted for Philadelphia via free agency. That leaves Mike Neal to replace Jenkins and his seven sacks from the right end spot. The problem so far is that Neal's been dealing with a sprained knee and has been unable to play this preseason. He's still the Packers' best option to step into Jenkins' shoes, so he must not only get healthy, he must produce.
Sure, you have to be concerned about a post-Super Bowl letdown. But you also have to take into account that Rodgers took a leap from very good to great in the playoffs last season and may be entering his prime. You also must factor in Green Bay's defense, where the whole is better than the sum of its parts. There's too much talent here to expect a major step back.
At least, when the Bears are at their best, they do it with defense. Last year, en route to an 11-5 finish, Chicago forced 35 turnovers (third-best in the NFL) and allowed 17.9 points per game (fourth-best). Contrast that to 2007-09 -- the Bears finished 16th, 16th and 21st, respectively, in points allowed.
The strength of Chicago's D still starts up the middle with Brian Urlacher. Coming off a season-ending injury in 2009, Urlacher returned to Pro Bowl form last season with 125 tackles. The defensive line is fierce too, with Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije forming a potent tandem off the end. Chicago allowed a lot of passing yards last season -- nearly 3,600 of them -- but allowed the second-least TD passes in the league and had 21 interceptions.
There may not be a more obvious area for improvement on any team in the league heading into the 2011 season. You would have thought the Bears' offensive linemen had personal vendettas against Jay Cutler the way that they protected their QB last season. Cutler was sacked an NFL-leading 52 times, with backups Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie each taking two sacks of their own during the regular season.
With that in the rear-view, the Bears drafted bulky tackle Gabe Carimi in the first round of April's draft and slotted him in on the right side. They moved 2010 draft pick J'Marcus Webb to the left tackle spot and replaced Olin Kreutz with Roberto Garza at center. Chicago is hoping all that shifting also helps revitalize a running game that finished 22nd in the league last year.
As a rookie last season, Webb was frequently victimized in the passing game and was one of the biggest culprits responsible for Chicago's elevated sacks total. His preseason debut at left tackle was a misfire too, with Buffalo's Shawne Merriman blowing past him twice for sacks.
Webb has good size and decent athleticism, but the stakes are raised in his second season as he's now responsible for Cutler's blindside.
Until we see the O-line in action during the regular season, it's hard to get a real read on the Bears. One thing we do know for sure: the early schedule is tough. In its first eight games, Chicago visits New Orleans, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, and hosts Atlanta, Green Bay, Carolina and Minnesota. Only that game against the Panthers looks like a sure win. Getting back to the postseason is going to be a major challenge.
Even with Matthew Stafford playing just three games last season, Detroit attempted the third-most passes in the NFL and topped 4,000 yards through the air. Part of that can be attributed to a subpar rushing attack, but the number of weapons the Lions have stockpiled at wide receiver and tight end make it easy to see why they often go the aerial assault route.
If he stays healthy, Stafford could be on the verge of a huge breakthrough season. Calvin Johnson provides him one of the league's elite targets, while Nate Burleson, rookie Titus Young, and tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler round out a terrific pass-catching group. Oh, and the offensive line is better than people think -- Detroit's QBs were sacked just 27 times last season, the sixth-lowest mark in the league.
Detroit's pass rush has rightfully been hyped all offseason. With Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch and first-round pick Nick Fairley, the Lions boast one of the best -- if not the best -- pass-rushing front four in the league. But that stockpile of talent, sans Fairley, didn't help much on the ground last season. Detroit allowed 1,999 yards rushing, easily the worst mark in the division.
An upgraded linebacking corps could help those numbers improve. The Lions went out and signed free agents Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch, who will join underrated DeAndre Levy in the starting lineup. With the defensive line creating as much havoc as it does against the pass, the LB trio should be able to focus much of its effort on keeping the opposition from running wild.
The easy answer here is Stafford -- there's no doubt that Detroit must keep its starting QB healthy. That said, the Lions often had no semblance of a run game last season and Best is the main man responsible for changing that in 2011.
He did lead Detroit in rushing last year, with a measly 555 yards, despite never topping the 100-yard plateau in any game. In fact, as a team, the Lions only climbed over the century mark twice during the first 10 games of the season -- Detroit went 2-8 in that stretch and started the season 2-10 before winning four straight.
The Lions feel like they're on the verge of some really big things, which is why 8-8 may be way underselling what this team is capable of. On the other hand, Detroit hasn't finished at .500 or better since a 9-7 showing in 2000. In the parity-filled NFL, that's an almost inconceivable stretch of mediocrity. The margin for error on a Detroit record prediction is high -- this team is a couple of key injuries from another 6-10 year, but they also might have an 11-5 playoff run in them if all goes well.
There's been a lot of turnover in Minnesota, at quarterback and elsewhere, since the start of 2007. Peterson has been the one constant. Peterson had his worst season as a pro in 2010 and still ran for 12 touchdowns and nearly 1,300 yards. The Vikings' offense -- no matter if it's Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, Gus Frerotte, Tarvaris Jackson or anyone else calling the shots -- is only as successful as Peterson allows.
He could be in line for a monster season, too, mainly because an aging McNabb is an upgrade over Favre, Jackson and Joe Webb, the trio Minnesota tried out last season. The key will be the Vikings' offensive line, a group that often isn't nearly as good as Peterson makes it look.
Not to beat a dead horse -- even if that's what Favre played like at times last season -- but the production Minnesota got from its quarterbacks last season was unacceptable. Favre threw just 11 touchdowns in 13 starts, while Webb and Jackson combined for three TD tosses and seven interceptions. The Vikings finished 26th in the league in passing yards (3,097 total) and last in INTs (26).
So, in the offseason, they traded for Donovan McNabb and drafted Christian Ponder. The former is expected to improve Minnesota's fortunes in the present; the latter to carry the franchise into the future. For the Vikings to stay competitive in this division, McNabb has to be better than he was in Washington.
Minnesota let long-time DT Pat Williams walk after the 2010 season, then plucked Ayodele from the Saints. He'll have his work cut out for him filling Williams' role up front. Williams often took up double teams, allowing his counterpart on the "Williams Wall," Kevin, to plug the middle while Jared Allen and Ray Edwards worked outside.
Edwards is gone too, now in Atlanta, and Kevin Williams faces a suspension to start the season. That puts a ton of pressure on Ayodele to deliver. Minnesota starts at San Diego, then hosts Tampa Bay and Detroit -- three teams with potentially potent offenses, so Ayodele and the Vikings' D-line has to be ready from Day One.
Any team with a player like Peterson has a chance to steal some games. Minnesota looks like it'll have to do just that to stay in playoff contention. Even if McNabb rediscovers his superstar self -- an unlikely prospect at this point in his career -- there were just too many losses. Edwards, Pat Williams, leading wide receiver Sidney Rice, Bryant McKinnie, Ben Leber ... the list is a lengthy one. On the surface, it's just difficult to say Minnesota is substantially better than last year.