NFL Preview: The NFC North

By Fraser Lockerbie

The NFC North might be the most pass happy division in the league, but can the retooled and healthy Bears turn the tides with a balanced attack?

It’s been over six months since anything even remotely resembling football has been on television (unless, of course, you live in Canada, where their bastardized rendition of the Great American Game starts in July, has three downs, 10 extra yards and literal acres of end zone). It’s August and we’re all tired of the 162-game baseball slog; it’s time to start talking football again, and this week we’re talking NFC North.

AFC Previews: East, North, South, and West.

NFC Previews: East.

Chicago Bears (8-8)

For a guy considered by most to be at best above average, the Bears sure took a beating without QB Jay Cutler. After starting last season 7-3, they dropped five straight after Cutler broke his thumb and had to settle for a .500 record in an unforgiving, offensive-minded division. Part of the problem was the aggressive play-calling of OC Mike Martz, a double-edged sword in the sense that the Bears won games under it, but they also gave up a league-worst 105 sacks over the last two years, a stat that always translates to injury. The other part was an ineffective, off-balanced offense without a QB; put simply, there was no plan B.

So the Bears spent the off-season acquiring offensive upgrades and options (and firing Mike Martz): they went out and got WR Brandon Marshall, known for 100+ catch seasons and off-field suspensions, and RB Michael Bush, a monster in short yardage situations (24-for-39 in 1 yard situations over the last two years) and the perfect complement to Matt Forté, a runner without much weight to throw around (he put up a 4.9 YPA last year, but was only 3-for-15 in 1 yard situations, the worst rate in the league). They also installed Jason Campbell as the backup QB, a huge upgrade over Caleb Hanie, trainwreck extraordinaire.

2012 Expectations: All these upgrades will go a long way to giving the Bears options, but Lovie Smith has never been one to institute a truly aggressive offense. He wins games with defense and special teams (see Devin Hester). With Martz gone, the Bears should feel less pressure in the pocket, which should translate to better execution, especially in the red zone where Bush is the legitimate target they have sorely lacked. All told, this is a team with enough balance and talent on both sides of the ball to go far. Real far. 12-4, second in the NFC North.

Green Bay Packers (15-1)

In a season of unprecedented offensive numbers, the Packers were among the best: top three across the board in almost every offensive stat category. Aaron Rodgers picked apart opposing Ds for 307 yards and 35 points per game thanks in large part to a slew of four receiver sets and some simply un-coverable footwork. But they’ve ranked dead last in rushing production over the last two years, averaging just 78 yards per and only 15 TDs in 32 games and number among the worst on defense, giving up 300 yards and 359 total points.

Which is kind of an afterthought when you posted 560, but there has to be at least a little cause for concern; with essentially the same roster in 2010, the Packers only (only!) put up 42 TDs, so it’s at least reasonable to assume they might be closer to something like 51 in 2012. Part of that drop-off might come from better coverage of Jordy Nelson and part might come from working sophomore Randall Cobb into the slot, but they’ve still got TE Jermichael Finley, who despite dropping in the pecking order (and dropping 11 catches) still had a productive season, and Greg Jennings, who’s been burning corners for years, posting 21 TDs in the last 29 games.

2012 Expectations: The fact of the matter is no team is really prepared to cover an average array of four receiver sets, and the Packers have a well above average one and play a lot of them. But while they routinely make secondaries look silly, it’s a stretch to believe that they can keep rolling along at a 35 PPG clip; last year things worked out just so, but with no run game and no defense we’re going to allow for a few more losses in 2012. 13-3, first in the NFC North.

Detroit Lions (10-6)

If we had to pick one stat to summarize the meteoric rise of the Lions over the last two years it would be this: no team has ever improved in scoring by 100+ points in back-to-back seasons save the ’09-’11 Detroit Lions. This is the same team that a year prior to that made more history when they owned a 0-16 record, becoming the first NFL team to post a winless season.

Well no, it’s not the same team. The Lions owe much of their success to the emergence of QB Matthew Stafford; last season he threw for 5,038 yards and 41 TDs, joining Drew Brees and Dan Marino as the only QBs ever to do so. The Lions (and Stafford) also benefit from having one of the best all-around wide receivers in the game in Calvin Johnson (aka Megatron). But like their divisional rival Packers, they have virtually no rushing production (none of their backs broke 400 yards or 4 TDs last season) and, outside a very good pass rush, not a lot of options on defense. Unlike their divisional rival Packers, they don’t have the depth of talent outside Johnson to consistently run multiple receiver sets, and that limits what they can do offensively.

2012 Expectations: If this were a fantasy football preview we’d be praising the Lions’ primary offensive weapons as first- and second-rounders. But because these guys have to play with what they have around them (as opposed to a team full of all-stars) our expectations are tempered. It’s unlikely Stafford will come anywhere near what will likely be his career numbers, and Megatron will have to deal with a lot of double coverage. The Lions’ second and third wide-outs did come around at the end of last season, but by then, they had the benefit of playing against some really terrible defenses. We’re thinking the lost yardage will translate (naturally) into more losses. 7-9, third in the NFC North.

Minnesota Vikings (3-13)

It wasn’t so long ago that the Vikings dominated the North behind the likes of Adrian Peterson, Jared Allen, the Williams Wall and Brett Favre. They were making postseason runs behind one of the most punishing defensive lines of the era and the outstanding work of A. D. They were setting television viewership records and blowing out title contenders 44-7. They had back-to-back Offensive Rookies of the Year and they were, to quote a phrase, kicking ass and taking names.

But oh, the difference a few years can make. Since Brett Favre’s departure and that 12-4 season, the Vikings have gone 9-23 thanks in large part to inconsistency from Harvin, injuries from Peterson, a few failed experiments at quarterback and a historically bad pass defense. The good news is that their first-round pick, QB Christian Ponder, fared fairly well in his first season under center and the Vikes signed WR Jerome Simpson out from under A. J. Green’s shadow, so he’ll have another target to connect with downfield.

2012 Expectations: All eyes are on All-Day’s surgically repaired knee; since 1990, only four running backs out of 13 with A. D.’s credentials and a similar injury have come back to break 1,000 yards the season after surgery. Even if he’s healthy he might not be 100 percent, so the Vikes will look to build on Ponder’s modest 54.3 pass percentage and dead-even TD to INT ratio. With so many question marks and a divisional schedule that looks to be the toughest in the league, it’s tough to give the Vikings any wiggle room to improve on 3-13. But we will. 4-12, fourth in the NFC North. 


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