The NFC North seems to be returning to the smash mouth style of running football that we're used to seeing from these teams in the past.
The Lions used to run up and down the field with Barry Sanders. After his sudden retirement, the search was on for his replacement. But after more sub-par years, the Matt Millen era began.
Receiver after receiver was drafted, as Detroit made up for a lack of a running game by trying to run the ultimate spread offense...which didn't work. They went 2 out of 4, scoring big on Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson. They also brought in Mike Martz, who is known for his pass heavy schemes.
Now Mike Martz is gone, and so are the days of pass, pass, and more pass. The Lions will return to a more balanced attack this season, with more dedication to establishing the run. Returning to the roots....expect Kevin Smith often.
The Vikings have been vertical since the middle of the 90's (Dennis Green was setting up his version of the West Coast Offense), and more so after drafting Randy Moss. He quickly became one of the most feared receivers in the game.
Although the attention on the passing game opened holes for running backs, it really wasn't the focus, of the offense. When Moss was shut down, or injured (2004), the offense slowed considerably and became more conservative.
Besides Robert Smith, there were no other dominant rushers on the team, although they got occasional flashes of brilliance from backs here and there. The strength of the running game was based on the strength of the passing game.
The offensive line, always solid, has now emerged to be the superior force of the team. Leading the way for Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, the offensive line will determine how strong the running game will be, which will influence the passing game.
Although the Packers have a solid line and an underrated receiving corps, they field a quarterback with no NFL starts. Spending three years behind Brett Favre learning the offense means that Aaron Rodgers certainly knows what he will be doing out on the field, we should hope....the offense did not change. This will really be his first chance where he has prepared to lead his team onto the field to win an NFL game.
The Packers however will not dare place their hopes season solely in hands. They will ease him into his new long term role, and it will help to have Ryan Grant there to carry the ball 20+ times a game. He was ridiculous last year, almost gaining 1,000 in the second half of the season! He has to have a similar season this year as the Packers would like to take pressure of Rodgers by running early and often.
Even though Brett Favre was spectacular for GB, he was even better when he had Ahman Green and Dorsey Levens running wild so he could pass for touchdowns, and not force interceptions by always carrying the load.
If Chicago wishes to be relevant, they have to run the ball this year. Can you name one of their receivers? Hester doesn't count. They have a rich history of rushers like George McAfee, Gale Sayers and Walter Payton. To be honest, they always needed a strong running game. Even when Grossman was good in stretches, the running game was there too.
Unfortunately, now Grossman's the backup, they traded Jones, cut Benson, lost Berrian and Muhammed, and they have a patchwork offensive line that is fortunate to have Center Olin Kruetz. Matt Forte will be their only hope. He at least has to get things started, so possibly the passing game can breathe life. Don't expect miracles though, that would be pushing it.
So you see, the Black and Blue division will be running for it's life this season because all four teams have big reasons to pile up the rushing yards. If the past five years been an indication, it needs to stay that way. The past five Super Bowl winners have gotten significant contributions from the run game, and that should continue this year.
Good Luck NFC North!