NFC North Hot News

Steve Mariucci goes back to San Francisco to face the Niners for the first time.

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Of all the angles to be considered in their game Sunday at San Francisco, there is none more important for the Lions than the most elemental of all concerns: They need a win in the worst way.

The Lions launched the season with a 42-24 victory over Arizona on their home field. It wasn't a work of art exactly but it was enough to give some encouragement that a turnaround might be developing.

Since that day, virtually nothing good has happened to the Lions.

They have lost three in a row and flaws have surfaced, left and right:

--Defensively, they have struggled at the cornerback position because of injuries and an inability to cover opposing receivers.

--They have struggled to control the run, giving up runs of 65 yards to Ahman Green at Green Bay and 61 yards to Moe Williams in the game against Minnesota.

--They have had a problem generating any kind of meaningful pass rush, although their three sacks in the first half at Denver provided a least a trace of encouragement.

--Offensively, their running game started slowly after the loss of James Stewart in the final preseason game and it is likely to remain a concern all year.

--The Lions don't have a receiver physically or emotionally fit to consistently make the tough catch in traffic over the middle.

--Quarterback Joey Harrington, without a running game to keep defenses honest, is having a tough time completing passes and is starting to take heat from the media and the public.

--Rookie wide receiver Charles Rogers is averaging 4-5 catches a game and has made three big plays for touchdowns but is still learning to run routes crisply and get open.

All things considered, it is little surprise Mariucci hasn't been able to bring the Lions out of their three-season road losing streak, which has now reached 18.

Ahman Green is the NFL's second-leading rusher after the first month with 442 yards in 78 carries. Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, who leads with 611 yards, has had 94 carries.

Other top backs with more carries than Green are Miami's Ricky Williams (93), San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson (90) and Kansas City's Priest Holmes (84). Seven teams have played just three games whereas the Packers have played four.

On Sunday, the Packers will showcase Green against his former team, the Seattle Seahawks, when the two teams meet at Lambeau Field. The Packers obtained Green from the Seahawks the day before the 2000 draft in exchange for cornerback Fred Vinson and a sixth-round draft choice. The Seahawks threw in a fifth-round choice.

When Green is on the field the Packers will get his absolute best. He just won't be on the field as much as in the past. For a month now we've seen a calculated gamble by coach Mike Sherman and his staff. At the very pinnacle of his career, Green has been given almost carte blanche to determine when he should play and when he should rest.

Early in the year, Najeh Davenport was Green's primary backup. After Davenport fell into the doghouse for fumbling, Tony Fisher became No. 2.

Sherman the coach knows every snap he can get from Green gives the Packers a better chance to win. But Sherman the coach and general manager has thought long and hard about the law of diminishing returns. As difficult as it must be for him, he arrived at a course of action to reduce Green's weekly workload with the hope that he would be fresher down the stretch and possibly even extend his window as a great back.

"We found out last year that if we're going to run the football 28, 30 times a game for 16 games, and to keep him at maximum efficiency, you've got to rest him," running backs coach Sylvester Croom said. "You've got to pick your spots and he's got to come out."

The Packers' arrangement is simple and straightforward. As Croom put it, "Whenever he needs a break he can come out."

At this point, Green has been given one proviso: if possible, stay in the game when the Packers have the ball inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

Vikings defensive coordinator George O'Leary is known as a detail freak. How much of a freak?

When he joined Mike Tice's staff before the 2002 season, he suggested a plan to rotate workouts so that the grass on the team's two outdoor fields would stay fresh.

On a slightly more important matter -- the team's defense -- O'Leary's attention to detail is paying off big-time.

Entering Sunday's game at 1-3 Atlanta, the Vikings (4-0) are tied for eighth in the NFL in scoring defense (14.5 points per game) after ranking 30th (27.6) last season. They lead the NFL in interceptions with 11 and they're 4-0 after starting last season 0-4.

O'Leary, secondary coach Chuck Knox Jr. and assistant secondary coach Kevin Ross have the secondary primed for every pass route a team likely will run against a particular coverage.

"I think we know what pass routes the receivers are going to run before they do," strong safety Corey Chavous said.

Chavous and free safety Brian Russell are tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with four.

One reason the safeties have eight of the 11 interceptions is O'Leary stresses to his linemen to raise their arms during their pass rush.

"The quarterbacks can't see," O'Leary said. "That's why balls are sailing on us and the safeties are getting most of the picks."

O'Leary also noticed that the Vikings should have scored twice on interceptions the first two weeks of the season. So he began opening practice with an interception return drill. Players are taught to bounce their returns and blocks to the outside.

The result was two returns that set up touchdown drives against the 49ers. There might have been three, but a return to the 49ers' 13-yard line came as the clock expired in the first half.

"George has gotten guys to a preparation point that we didn't have last year," linebacker Greg Biekert said. "Very few defenses that I've been on are as prepared going into games as this one is."

O'Leary returns to Atlanta for the first time as a coach since resigning from Georgia Tech to accept his dream job, head coach at Notre Dame.

Five days later, O'Leary resigned from the Irish because of inaccuracies in his resume.

"I never look back, but it's hard not to look back because you worked all your life to get to where you wanted to get and then get the door slammed like that," O'Leary said. "But I've always been a big believer in there's a reason things happen."

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