Biggest Preseason Takeaways from the NFC North
The preseason is finally over, and less than a week from Friday, the Green Bay Packers will travel to Seattle for the NFL's regular-season opener. Meaningful football is almost here. The rest of the NFC North—the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings—will kick off the 2014 season next Sunday.
Before we transition into the games that actually matter, there's still time to sort through what was learned during the month of August.
In the following slides, we will take a look at the biggest preseason takeaways from the NFC North.
The Packers Feel Good Behind Aaron Rodgers
What a difference a year makes.
Just last August, the Packers toiled away during the preseason with Graham Harrell, B.J. Coleman and Vince Young backing up Aaron Rodgers. All three failed to make the 53-man roster. The numbers tell the reason why: As a group, the three quarterbacks combined to complete 63 of 127 passes (49.6 percent) for 509 yards (4.0 yards per attempt), two touchdowns and two interceptions. Their total passer rating was 58.8.
The numbers tell a completely different story for Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien.
Rodgers' two backups this preseason completed 56 of 94 passes (59.6) for 709 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception. Flynn and Tolzien combined to have a passer rating of exactly 100.0.
The Packers still have decisions to make at backup quarterback. Ted Thompson must decide whether he wants to keep just two at the position (thus deciding between Flynn and Tolzien) or three, which he hasn't done in recent years.
Still, these are favorable decisions over those of last summer, when the Packers cut ties with every quarterback behind Rodgers and then had to scramble to pick up Seneca Wallace after final cuts.
Santonio Holmes Can Help the Bears
Holmes was the rare veteran among a breadth of young, inexperienced players during Thursday night's preseason finale. But the Bears needed a chance to see Holmes in another live situation, so he played.
And he delivered.
In the second quarter, Holmes caught a short pass from David Fales, spun away from his defender and then out-ran the rest of the Browns defense to the end zone for a touchdown. Cleveland's first-round rookie cornerback Justin Gilbert was among those who let Holmes get away.
“You see the explosion in him,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said, via Michael Wright of ESPN.com. “He caught a short throw, turned and ran, separated from the defense. That's a good sign.”
Later, Holmes returned a punt 30 yards. It marked one of the lone bright spots for Chicago's return units during the exhibition schedule.
The Bears need a third receiver—to help bridge the gap created by Marquess Wilson's collarbone injury—and a special teams presence at returner. Holmes could provide help for both areas.
Chicago will likely bring Holmes along slowly, but the veteran appears to have something left to give to a loaded Bears offense.
Teddy Bridgewater Looks Like the Real Deal
Teddy Bridgewater will begin his NFL career on the bench, but his 15 preseason series provided evidence that he's ready to play if the Vikings need him this season.
The 32nd overall pick in the 2014 draft completed 30 of 49 passes (61.2 percent) for 283 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. His preseason passer rating was a rock-solid 111.2. The Vikings also scored 47 points with him under center.
Preseason stats certainly don't make or break a player, but the numbers coincide nicely with the game tape. Bridgewater looked poised in the pocket and accurate on all levels. He didn't turn the football over, and his one clutch opportunity ended in a perfectly executed two-minute drill to win Minnesota's second preseason game.
The Vikings can now bring along Bridgewater at their own pace. Matt Cassel will start for now, but the future with Bridgewater under center looks bright for Minnesota.
Matt Cassel Appears Rejuvenated in Norv Turner's Offense
A preseason featuring five touchdowns, zero turnovers and a passer rating well above 100.0 would have been viewed at the beginning of camp as a sure-fire path to the starting job for Teddy Bridgewater.
Few expected Matt Cassel to bury Bridgewater and the quarterback competition with such a strong preseason of his own.
Cassel started the first three games, completing 26 of 39 passes for 367 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. His 12 series produced 30 points, and his 103.3 passer rating finished 11th among expected starting quarterbacks during the preseason.
By halftime of the second week, Cassel looked entrenched as the starter. Mike Zimmer named him his starting quarterback days after Minnesota's third preseason game.
The Norv Turner offense has appeared to rejuvenate the stagnating career of Cassel, who is coming off three straight seasons with a passer rating under 82.0.
He averaged 9.4 yards per attempt during the preseason, and each of his two touchdown passes went for over 50 yards. He also completed almost 67 percent of his passes, despite not having Adrian Peterson for the entirety of the exhibition schedule.
The Vikings have playmakers around the quarterback position. Cassel now has an experienced, highly regarded coordinator calling the shots. It would not be shocking to see Cassel—who once made the Pro Bowl with the Chiefs and won 10 games with the Patriots—have a good season under Turner in 2014.
Matthew Stafford Isn't Fixed...Yet
Few doubt that the additions of Jim Caldwell and Joe Lombardi to the Lions coaching staff will aid Matthew Stafford in his attempt to reverse a recent trend of regression. But the process is going to take some time, and that's just fine.
After 24 encouraging snaps in the first two preseason games, Stafford showed too many of his same destructive tendencies during Detroit's third preseason game.
His most glaring error came when he locked in on Calvin Johnson and threw an ugly interception, despite Golden Tate breaking wide open to the other side of the formation. Far too often, Stafford has relied on Johnson and forced throws. There's no longer a need to force the football to any one member of the offense.
He also nearly threw a pick on his first drive when Tate and Stafford appeared to get mixed up on the play call.
Overall, Stafford finished with just 98 passing yards and a turnover on 16 attempts.
The Lions offense has all the tools to be very good in 2014. Still, patience is necessary. Reprograming Stafford in a new offense and with new faces around him will take some time.
The Packers Offense Is Going to Play Fast (Really, Really Fast)
Any offense with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback should be expected to play fast. The no-huddle offense maximizes opportunities and limits defensive adjustments from play to play.
Head coach Mike McCarthy said back in July that his goal was to run 75 plays a game this season. It seemed like a lofty proclamation at the time, given the fact Green Bay ran just 67 plays per game last season.
After watching the Packers first-team offense this preseason, maybe 75 plays isn't such a crazy idea.
Rodgers led an offense running at breakneck speed on every exhibition series. In St. Louis, the Packers overwhelmed the Rams with back-to-back scoring drives spanning 12 plays. A week later, Rodgers had the Packers in the end zone just three minutes into the contest.
In the two games Rodgers played, the Packers averaged 72 plays. Rodgers saw 24 plays over two drives against the Rams and 39 plays over six drives against the Raiders.
McCarthy has frequently used the fast, no-huddle offense because he has a quarterback capable of handling the velocity. It looks like McCarthy is ready to give Rodgers another gear in 2014.
Breakout Seasons Coming from Patterson, Rudolph?
Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph look like strong bets to have breakout seasons in 2014.
A first-round pick of the Vikings a season ago, Patterson has made significant strides as a pure receiver. His body control and run-after-the-catch ability still remain assets, but he now looks like a receiver who can work the intermediate parts of the field and get vertical to make big plays down the field.
Against the Chiefs, Patterson got behind the coverage and made an impressive catch for a 53-yard touchdown from Matt Cassel.
Rudolph has been widely highlighted as a breakout candidate, thanks to Norv Turner's past reliance on the tight end position. The preseason confirmed his status.
Rudolph is playing faster and providing splash plays. His 22-yard catch against the Raiders set up a Vikings touchdown. He went 51 yards for a score against the Cardinals. And his first catch against the Chiefs was good for 27 yards.
Patterson and Rudolph are unique talents at their respective positions. Both look improved over 2013. If the preseason is any indication, expect Turner to get the most out of each player this season.
The Bears Will Be Much Better Along the Defensive Line
Few defensive lines in football were worse than the Chicago Bears' last season. An offseason of spending to fix the unit appears to have paid off.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Lamarr Houston, Stephen Paea and Jeremiah Ratliff all finished the preseason with positive grades. The three combined for 14 quarterback disruptions and six stops. Willie Young provided a sack, two hurries and three stops. Jared Allen, the final piece of the puzzle, played only 29 snaps. Even veteran Trevor Scott looks like a contributor.
Chicago's preseason results were tainted in large part thanks to a first-half collapse against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. But the Bears defensive line actually played well in Seattle and throughout the preseason.
Problems at linebacker and safety will likely be issues throughout the season. But the Bears can take a big step forward on defense with better play up front. The preseason provided a brief but positive glimpse at the improvements along the line.
Improvement Should Be Expected
All four teams in the NFC North should enter the regular season believing 2014 will end better than 2013.
The Vikings have legitimate playmakers in a Norv Turner offense and a starting defense that played well for long stretches during the preseason. A terrible quarterback situation from a year ago is now in better shape. Minnesota is widely expected to finish fourth in the division, but this is an underrated team.
The Lions added weapons to an already talented offense, and the defensive line looks deep and disruptive enough to help cover some of the potential issues in the secondary. If Matthew Stafford levels out, the Lions will be right in the hunt to make the playoffs.
The Bears' loaded offense is entering its second season under Marc Trestman, and the defense is better both up front and at cornerback. Only a slight improvement on defense could transform Chicago from a .500 bunch into a scary postseason club in the NFC.
The Packers might now possess the most devastatingly balanced offense in football, while Julius Peppers and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix add potential difference-makers on defense. Green Bay is a legitimate contender with Aaron Rodgers healthy.
The division is up for grabs. Optimism rightfully lives inside the walls of all four franchises. The next 17 weeks will decide whose optimism was actually justified. Buckle up.