NFC North Surprises After Week 4
After four weeks, the NFC North has been anything but predictable.
Preseason favorite Green Bay Packers currently stand at 2-2 and are third in the division. The Detroit Lions, who many thought would build off a successful 2011 campaign, have been one of the league's biggest disappointments, as they find themselves in the division basement with a 1-3 record.
The biggest surprise is the Minnesota Vikings.
Through the first quarter of the season, Minnesota has already equaled their 2011 win total with three. Anyone thinking this mini-run is a fluke should remember that this team took down the mighty San Francisco 49ers and backed it up with a solid win on the road in Detroit.
The Chicago Bears are tied with Minnesota at 3-1 and impressed many with their win over the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night.
Minnesota Vikings Defense
The Minnesota Vikings had the league's second worst defense in 2011, giving up 28.1 points per game according to espn.com.
They have completely turned that around in 2012, giving up 10 less points on average. A big part of the reason is a new-look secondary, led by cornerback Chris Cook and rookie safety Harrison Smith.
Despite Jared Allen's 22 sacks and Chad Greenway's 154 tackles last year, the defense was a major liability.
Cook missed the second half of the season due to legal reasons, and the secondary was exposed week in and week out. Perhaps the biggest weakness was at the safety position, but the addition of Smith has helped turn things around much sooner than anyone expected.
Adrian Peterson is running effectively, and Christian Ponder has yet to throw an interception. Combining these two factors means the Vikings can have favorable time of possession and avoid putting the defense in tough situations.
Green Bay Packers Offense
After putting up record numbers last year, the Green Bay Packers were the last team in the NFL, this year, to put points on the board in the first quarter of a game. It is a hard stat to comprehend, but it is clear that the blueprint on how to stop this attack has been laid.
The Kansas City Chiefs successfully kept the Packers offense on the sideline while handing them their first loss of 2011, and the New York Giants used a ferocious pass-rush and deep safeties to limit Aaron Rodgers' downfield passes.
The best deep-ball passer a year ago, Rodgers has completed just nine passes of more than 20 yards through four games in 2012, ranking him 26th in the league.
The offense has been trying to do the same things that worked so well for them last year, and, so far, opponents are ready for it. This team will need to solidify the running game with Cedric Benson and make teams respect their ability and willingness to let someone other than Rodgers carry the load.
Detroit Lions Special Teams
The Detroit Lions coverage units put together perhaps the worst two-game stretch in NFL history.
They allowed a kickoff and punt return touchdown in each of the last two weeks against the Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings.
The tackling has been atrocious, as evidenced by Marcus Sherels' punt return in Week 4, when he broke at least three should-be tackles. They have also been undisciplined, by being terribly fooled by the Titans' reenactment of the Music City Miracle.
Games should never be lost by poor kick coverage, but that is exactly what this team is doing. The Vikings only touchdowns were the punt return by Sherels and the opening kickoff return by Percy Harvin.
Against Tennessee, the Lions offense put up 41 points but wound up losing in overtime, due in large part to 14 Titans points off returns.
Chicago Bears Pass Defense
The Chicago Bears defense has been solid, which has become the norm for Brian Urlacher and company. The surprising part about this year's defense, however, is the fact that they lead the league in both interceptions and defensive touchdowns.
Five of their 11 interceptions came against Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night, which shows that they are forcing turnovers against some of the best quarterbacks in the league. Through four games, the Bears have faced two quarterbacks drafted number one overall in Andrew Luck and Sam Bradford, who combined to throw five interceptions.
They also forced another pick against the reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers.
The fact that they are forcing so many turnovers is impressive.
The fact that they are forcing them against two proven quarterbacks and two highly coveted quarterbacks is even more impressive. This is the main reason the Bears find themselves 3-1 and tied for first in the NFC North.
The Bears upgraded their offense in the offseason by trading for wide receiver Brandon Marshall and drafting Alshon Jeffery, but it is still the defense leading the way, especially in the secondary.