The NFC North has transformed into a passing division, which has played havoc with their defensive rankings in 2011. That's not to say that there wasn't some awful defense—sorry, Packers—but that with a shift to airing the ball out, it takes time to adjust.
In other words, when you have three elite quarterbacks throwing the ball in the same division, the secondary tends to go kablooey for a while.
So it shouldn't stun you to learn that all four teams were in the bottom half of the league against the pass. The Bears, Vikings and Packers were all in the top half of the league against the run, with Detroit slinking in at 23rd.
None of the four were in the top half of the league in overall defense, though Chicago just missed at 17th.
The Vikings had the lowest yards per carry against average in the division at 3.9. I expected that to correlate with a low attempts per game or overall attempts, but that wasn't the case.
In fact, the Vikings were run on more than any other team in the division—439 times, compared to 384 for the Bears, 383 for Green bay and 410 for the Lions. Only the Bears were ranked better against the run and their yards per carry average was higher.
Of course, since the Vikings were often trailing, teams were going to grind the clock out against them, so the carry totals would naturally be higher. Still, it's a solid effort to build on.
In terms of pass defense, the Vikings were slightly less awful than the Bears or Packers—which is to say they gave up slightly less yards per game. Again, when the other team is ahead, they run, they don't pass, so that affects things. The Vikings did have the worst yards per attempt average (8.1) in the division and were tied with fewest interceptions in the league with a paltry eight.
That leap up to get Harrison Smith makes some sense, huh?
This is the stat that jumps out most to me when I look at the Vikings. They have to generate more turnovers. Only the Saints were a regularly winning team with so few turnovers—the Denver Broncos also won quite a bit, but that was an unusual circumstance. The Vikings, along with the Browns and Colts, were all under double digits and all losing teams.
Pressure and a more opportunistic secondary. They have the pressure (a league-leading 50 sacks). They need to take advantage of the opportunity now.
Green Bay Packers
We've talked about the Packers' efforts to overcome a beyond subpar 2011 season. The Packers were 27th in the league with just 29 sacks. Only by the Herculean efforts of Aaron Rodgers and the offense were they able to do what they did for most of the season.
It's interesting in that they are the flip side of the Vikings—they had the least sacks, but the most interceptions.
That should tell you something by the way. We talk about how 'bad' the secondary was, but they were generating turnovers. The story was, as we keep saying, pressure on the quarterback. The secondary can only hold on for so long before a receiver breaks open.
Once again, the story will come down to how quickly additions like rookies Jerel Worthy and Nick Perry can get up to speed.
If there's one thing that continues to stand out, it's that lack of pressure.
Penalties are the stat that leaps out at me. The Lions were tied with Oakland as giving up the third-most penalty yards on defense in the league. Baltimore and Washington are far ahead of Detroit, but 982 penalty yards is a ton.
The Lions were the fifth-most penalized team in the league, attracting 119 flags in 2011. Interesting side note: the Packers had more flags than the Lions (122 vs. 119), but fewer penalty yards (948 vs. 982).
So this can apply for the Pack as well, but simply put, the Lions need to play smarter football. I singled out Ndamukong Suh a few days ago, but truly, it's not just him because one man can't accrue that much laundry.
As a team, they need to play more under control and avoid penalties because 982 yards is a lot of first downs that probably shouldn't have happened and might have been the difference between a critical win and a soul-shattering loss.
The Bears were middle-of-the-road, even when they weren't playing well. They didn't have a ton of sacks or interceptions, but they didn't lack them the way the Packers or Vikings did respectively.
The interesting stat I saw when looking over the defensive numbers was this: only the Tennessee Titans and Cleveland Browns had more third downs attempted.
Only 35 percent of those third-down plays were successful, resulting in a first down.
I take away a couple of things from these stats.
First, that the Bears were excellent at containing offenses on first and second down. I don't have numbers on the average third-down distance, but whatever it was, it wasn't a first down. The Bears kept the offense from moving the chains.
Second, when they got you to third down, 65 percent of the time you were punting. That means if you didn't get a new set of downs by the time you reached third down, you were in trouble.
That's incredibly efficient. It gets the defense off the field quickly and, if the special teams does its job and puts the ball in poor field position for the opposing team, the Bears will get the ball back in good field position.
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