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NFC North: Who Wants It?

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NFC North: Who Wants It?
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The NFC North has been regarded as a pretty mediocre division in years past, but this year, they might take the NFL by surprise.  Minnesota has created a stir with rumors of Adrian Peterson playing at 230 lbs and Brett Favre coming to town.  Chicago has made the team instantly better with the addition of Jay Cutler via the trade from Denver.

Green Bay changed it up a bit in the offseason with the hiring of Dom Capers as defensive coordinator; the defense will have a radical new look after Capers is done implementing his 3-4 scheme.  And yes, Detroit still resides in the division, but even they will steal a few games during the season, as long as Calvin Johnson stays healthy.

The Vikings boast the best running back in the league, hands down. He wants to play heavier this year, though, so that he can better absorb the hits he takes. The extra muscle will also help him dish out more punishment to would-be tacklers.

With Peterson’s violent running style already well-known across the league, seeing him coming at 230 lbs could cause defenders to hesitate. It is yet to be determined, however, if Peterson can carry that extra weight while still maintaining his game-breaking speed and quickness.

The Vikings also boast arguably the league’s best defensive line, highlighted by Kevin and Pat Williams, and Jared Allen. However, that talented threesome could be compromised with the suspensions of both Williams’ for four games, leaving Allen facing likely double teams during their absence.

But when the team has all three at its disposal, running the ball and maintaining a clean pocket for the quarterback to throw in becomes a serious challenge for most teams.

In addition to the players Minnesota still has from last season’s roster, they added a few rookies through the draft who could make immediate contributions. Percy Harvin decided to leave Florida early after helping his school capture two national championships in three years with his explosive speed and agility. 

He’ll add another dimension to the run game, pass game, and return game. The Vikings hope Phil Loadholt, the massive offensive tackle from Oklahoma, will answer their problems on the right side of the line.

The one issue in Minnesota that comes up every year is the quarterback situation. Yes, they traded for Sage Rosenfels in the offseason, but will he even push Tarvaris Jackson for a starting job?

Houston fans remember how he single-handedly lost the game against Indianapolis last year when the Texans were up double-digits on their division rival late in the fourth quarter.  There’s a reason he only saw the field when Matt Schaub was out with injury.

With Jackson yet to prove himself capable of handling the quarterback duties, does that leave a door open for Favre? It seems to be a simple question of whether his arm is healthy enough to throw for a full 16+ games this season.

Though head coach Brad Childress still believes in Jackson, his hand-picked quarterback, there’s no denying Favre would be the better option for the 2009 season.

The Chicago Bears on the other hand, once had the same issue at quarterback, but they finally solved that problem with the acquisition of Cutler.  Having recently been elected to the Pro Bowl, he brings instant credibility to the Bears’ offense. 

Though there isn’t a proven wide receiver on the roster, Cutler does have talented tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen, as well as second-year running back Matt Forte to throw the check down to.

Devin Hester will also provide game-changing plays on offense, but he has not shown he can consistently produce at the wide receiver position. On the bright side, Cutler will be reunited with his former receiver from Vanderbilt, Earl Bennett. 

However, it should be considered that Chicago gave up a fortune for a quarterback who holds a career winning percentage below .500.

The Bears’ special teams units have always excelled and should continue to do so this season. It remains to be seen whether Hester will be a part of the return game, but with Daniel Manning, he doesn’t need to be.

The kicking and punting game have always been solid with Robbie Gould and Brad Maynard, respectively. And somehow, Chicago always finds ways to win games as a direct result of turnovers, blocked field goals/punts, or touchdowns scored by their special teams units.

The once dominant Bears defense is actually the team’s weakest link now. Players have aged, struggled to stay healthy, and failed to play up to the levels they once did.

And while the Bears significantly upgraded their quarterback position and their offense with Cutler, they compromised the future of their team, of their defense potentially, by trading away their valuable first round draft choices. 

Chicago still has players like Brian Urlacher, Tommie Harris, and Charles Tillman who are capable of taking over a game. In recent years, though, they have not been able to consistently perform up to that level due to injuries.

The same can be said of Mike Brown, whom the Bears might not even bring back to camp this summer. Chicago might have to outscore their opponents on offense this year in order to win games. Times have definitely changed in the Windy City.

As for Detroit, it’s not reasonable to expect that the league’s first 0-16 team can compete for the division, but it is reasonable to believe they’ll be improved from last year. 

Two things they have going for them is Calvin Johnson and finally getting rid of Matt Millen as GM, though to his credit, he did select Johnson (he also drafted Charles Rogers and Mike Williams, among many other busts). 

Johnson is an absolute freak of nature. He can outrun, outreach, out jump, and outmuscle any corner in the league.  And unlike a former NFC North star-studded receiver with supreme athletic skills (Randy Moss), Johnson wants to be great, he wants to work for it, and he’s a team-first player.

Detroit also owned the first pick overall in the draft and used it on quarterback Matthew Stafford, the best player in the draft for the Lions according to the Lions. After all, it was the first pick made in the post-Millen era. 

Of course, the assumption is Stafford will be holding a clipboard all season long. This will allow him to learn the system before he faces the new level of competition that awaits him in the NFL. Hopefully by the time he does start, the Lions will have added more talent to the team, especially on the offensive line.

On defense, the Lions are making somewhat of a scheme change too, from former coach Rod Marinelli’s Tampa-Two philosophy to Jim Schwartz’s scheme, which will include getting bigger across the defensive line.

Of course, injecting some more talent onto that side of the ball wouldn’t hurt either.  Aside from Ernie Sims, who do Detroit have on defense? They primarily focused on offense through the draft, so unless the Lions pick up a few veteran free agents in the coming months, they’ll have trouble keeping opponents out of the end zone again this year.

Green Bay stands to have a more pressure-oriented defense, for better or for worse, with the installation of the 3-4 scheme. The results of this dramatic switch in defensive philosophy will depend on how quickly the players can adapt to playing with new responsibilities. 

The offseason will test their discipline and focus as they prepare to make the transition seamless, though historically speaking, the switch from an even front to an odd front is hard to successfully achieve in just one year. Of course, it won’t be difficult to top last year’s performance on defense.

The Packers did do well for themselves by drafting B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews in the first round, players who fit the 3-4 defense very well. Both players could possibly start at their respective positions (nose tackle for Raji and right outside linebacker for Matthews) once training camp has allowed them to showcase their talents.

Getting Cullen Jenkins back from injury will also aid the transition as he projects to play one of the defensive end positions.

Getting a healthy Ryan Grant to start the season will do wonders for Mike McCarthy’s offense. Not only will the run game improve with Grant running at full speed, but the play-action pass can be dialed up more frequently as a result.  

When the Packers have success running the ball, the play-action pass has worked very well for Aaron Rodgers and his receivers, namely Greg Jennings, and their success rate per attempt is unbelievably close to perfect.

The offense in general for the Packers was a bright spot last year and should in no way be blamed for their 6-10 finish. They generated the fifth most points scored in the NFL.  Although scoring was not an issue for the Packers, preventing the score was, hence the change to the 3-4 defense.

Special teams has had its issues, namely punting and the coverage units, but with Mason Crosby’s strong leg and Will Blackmon’s explosive plays as the return man, the Packers can be happy with some parts of their special teams.

The key to the Packers’ success against their division opponents will be aggressiveness on defense. There’s no better way to defend against the shaky play at quarterback in Minnesota and Detroit than to attack them with pressure and force hurried throws. Just as well, that same pressure can force unwarranted passes from the gunslinger in Chicago.  

Green Bay’s secondary will also be playing more zone coverage, allowing them to keep their eyes on the quarterback and be better prepared to intercept those throws made under duress.

Charles Woodson and Nick Collins are proven playmakers with the ball in their hands, so this scheme switch should provide them with more opportunities for big plays.

The rest of the division has failed to find an answer for the Packers’ spread offense, which they run to perfection. Green Bay has arguably the best wide receivers group in the league. They go five-deep and provide Rodgers with favorable matchups against a defense’s fourth or fifth cornerback.

Often when the Packers go to this formation against the Vikings, Minnesota is forced to keep Pat Williams on the bench because he is not very effective as a pass-rusher. Keeping him out of the equation proved very beneficial for the Pack last season.

Everything considered, the Packers stand the best chance of winning the division. They return a top-five offense in terms of scoring, and addressed their struggles on defense through the draft and with the schematic changes that will be implemented by Capers. 

The Packers lost seven games by four points or less last season, not including a game against Tampa Bay which they led late in the fourth.

In fact, if not for two missed field goals in the closing seconds of games against the Bears and Vikings, Green Bay would have swept all six divisional games last year.  Finally, one advantage the Packers have this offseason over last offseason is they know how to deal with a Favre unretirement.

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