Black & Blue Review

Despite defensive struggles Green Bay has kept their starting lineup basically in tact, while Minnesota and Detroit have taken the opposite approach.

There was nothing particularly spectacular about the Lions defense last season - 15th against the run, 20th against the pass, 22d overall among the 32 NFL teams in total yards surrendered.

They made it through the first seven games of the season without allowing an opposing running back a 100-yard game but in the next month they were shredded by Clinton Portis (147 on 34 carries), Fred Taylor (144 on 23 carries) and Edgerrin James (105 on 23).

Their pass rush was primarily a one-man operation (James Hall with 11.5 sacks). Their coverage was hurt by an ankle injury that cost cornerback Fernando Bryant six starts in the final 11 games. And free safety Brock Marion turned out to be a virtual non-factor.

So Lions president Matt Millen had some work to do in the off-season. And, although his defensive moves haven't drawn the headlines he got by drafting wide receiver Mike Williams and signing free agents tight end Marcus Pollard and quarterback Jeff Garcia, he seems to have bolstered the Lions' defense significantly.

The addition of strong safety Kenoy Kennedy and cornerback R.W. McQuarters have put some punch into the secondary; the release of Marion cleared the way for third-year free safety Terrence Holt to take a shot at a starting job; and the addition of defensive tackle Shaun Cody from USC and cornerback Stanley Wilson of Stanford gave the Lions an infusion of young blood in areas that needed help.

Kennedy, a punishing hitter, and McQuarters, a veteran capable of playing virtually anywhere in the secondary, will probably have the greatest impact. The Lions have not had an enforcer of Kennedy's stature in recent years and their cornerback depth has been lacking.

Two late-round draft picks - defensive end Bill Swancutt from Oregon State and linebacker Johnathan Goddard from Marshall - bear watching also. Swancutt was an outstanding pass rusher on the collegiate level and Goddard has some versatility as well as special teams possibilities the Lions will cultivate when they get to training camp.

Equally important in any improvement the Lions might make in the upcoming season is the return of outside linebacker Boss Bailey. Bailey didn't miss a defensive play in his rookie season but sat out the entire 2004 season after knee surgery.

The Lions believe Bailey is fully recovered, which means he rejoins a young, athletic and active linebacker crew which includes Teddy Lehman, James Davis and Alex Lewis, with veteran Earl Holmes still listed as the starting middle linebacker.

Throw in last year's Pro Bowl performers - cornerback Dre' Bly and defensive tackle Shaun Rogers - and the Lions are hoping to make a big improvement from their No. 22 overall defensive rating.

--Like the rest of the players around the NFL, the Lions are getting a couple of weeks off before the start of training camp and the good news is that apparently none of them will be wearing a red jersey when the team reports for the start of training camp July 28.

The most notable players that began the minicamps in red jerseys - meaning their teammates have to keep hands off, respecting their return from injuries - were wide receiver Charles Rogers, linebacker Boss Bailey and kick returner Eddie Drummond.

By the finish of the final minicamp in early June, all three had shed the red and were getting no special treatment.

Rogers is coming off his second broken collarbone in two years, Bailey is recovering from knee surgery he required last August and Drummond is making a comeback from a broken shoulder blade suffered on Thanksgiving Day.

Although coach Steve Mariucci gave all three permission to get out of the red jersey in minicamp, he is obviously reserving the right to keep them on a short leash as they begin training camp.

"If there is a guy that has had an injury, we will limit a little bit what he does," Mariucci said. "If a guy is a veteran kind of guy, you'll limit what he does on occasion. We'll try to monitor some age and some injuries in training camp, and kind of play it by ear."

--When the Lions lost Stockar McDougle to the Miami Dolphins during free agency the right tackle job he had held for most of the past three seasons was declared open for competition.

Victor Rogers, a seventh-round pick in the 2002 draft who finally got some playing time at the end of the 2004 season, is among those lining up for a shot at the job.

So is Kelly Butler, fourth-round pick in the 2004 draft who was inactive for the first 15 games of his rookie season and did not play in the 16th. And the Lions signed former San Francisco lineman Kyle Kosier, just in case neither of their own young players is able to handle the job.

As it stands now, about two weeks from the start of training camp, it appears the three will be part of the Lions most spirited competition going into the NFL season.

Butler got most of the work at right tackle during the recently-completed minicamps but it remains uncertain if coach Steve Mariucci had him there because he's the early leader in the competition or because Mariucci wanted to give him enough early reps to enable him to compete on a level playing field.

Rogers worked primarily at left tackle, presumably as a backup to Jeff Backus, and Kosier saw action in a variety of positions. So, where does the competition stand?

"Kyle Kosier has been a starter at the left tackle spot or guard or right tackle," Mariucci said. "Kelly Butler (got) a lot of snaps at the right tackle spot. We're going to be moving guys around. Kelly red-shirted last year so he needs all of the snaps he can get."

The apparently means the position will be decided on the field in August.

As it stands now, the Packers might very well enter 2005 with 10 starters in the lineup from the unit in 2004 that was deficient in every phase of play.

Only free safety Darren Sharper, who was cut March 10 after refusing to accept a massive pay cut, definitely will be missing from the starting group that finished a deceivingly competitive 25th in yards allowed.

The defense as loosely coordinated by Bob Slowik was so inept, particularly against the pass, that coach Mike Sherman felt compelled to demote Slowik just 12 months after he hired him to replace the fired Ed Donatell. Slowik sat around for a few weeks before taking the secondary job in Denver.

Sherman hired Jim Bates, the successful defensive coordinator for the last five seasons in Miami. Then Bates hired two of his Dolphins aides, Bob Sanders and Robert Nunn, to coach the defensive line and former Saint assistant Joe Baker to work with holdover Lionel Washington in the secondary. Another holdover, Mark Duffner, continues working with linebackers.

Bates said little publicly after an off-season in which new GM Ted Thompson didn't exactly open the checkbook to provide defensive reinforcement. The four veterans that were added - linebacker Raynoch Thompson and safeties Earl Little, Arturo Freeman and Todd Franz - essentially received minimum-wage deals.

On Draft Day, Bates hoped to get a bumper crop with the Packers possessing four picks in the first three rounds. Instead, Bates had to twiddle his thumbs when Thompson ended quarterback Aaron Rodgers' freefall with the 24th pick. The only first-day defender was Nick Collins, a cornerback-safety from Bethune-Cookman who undoubtedly will struggle with the pro game as a rookie.

Bates will be his usual gung-ho self. He was all over the practice field during the minicamps. He called the depth on the defensive line better than any that the Dolphins had during his tenure. He has spoken highly of the young cornerbacks. And he foresees big things ahead for defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, the only legitimate pass rusher that the platoon has.

The other end, Aaron Kampman, lacks talent but outworks just about everyone that he faces.

The problem is at tackle, where Cletidus Hunt blew off the second minicamp and Grady Jackson this week went public in his demands for a new contract.

The linebackers might be OK if Bates can get Nick Barnett playing like Zach Thomas.

In the secondary, the Packers like Al Harris at one cornerback spot but have major questions everywhere else. Ahmad Carroll was so ordinary during the off-season that another second-year corner, Joey Thomas, might start ahead of him. The safety jobs are up for grabs among the three retread veterans, incumbent Mark Roman, Collins and rookie Marviel Underwood, a fourth-round pick from San Diego State.

--Besides Javon Walker and Grady Jackson, the Packers are in a contractual battle with tight end Bubba Franks.

Franks, who was designated as a transition player at the start of free agency, has refused to sign the one-year tender worth $2.095 million. He wants a long-term contract and might not report until he gets one.

Beyond Franks, the Packers are thin. David Martin has never fulfilled his promise as a receiver although he has improved as a blocker. The No. 3 last year, Ben Steele, has the speed and length to get downfield but continued to drop passes in the off-season just like he did in late-season games in '04.

"The funny thing is sometimes it's the easy ones that he drops," tight ends coach Joe Philbin said. "He handles the harder ones. It's a little bit of focus and a little bit of concentration and taking care of first things first. I don't believe it's from a lack of effort or desire. Maybe there's a little bit of immaturity in regards to taking care of first things first."

Coaches have praised the Vikings' refurbished defense after every mini-camp practice and developmental workout this offseason.

"We're much more consistent, not making as many mental mistakes, and we're making more plays, too," coach Mike Tice said. "We've never had a defense that has been ahead of our offense like this."

A cynic would argue that's because the defense no longer has to chase Randy Moss in practice. The Vikings, however, claim it has more to do with a fast-paced offseason dedicated to rebuilding the 28th-ranked defense.

Five new starters were added via free agency and trades. Another new starter could emerge from the draft if first round pick Erasmus James wins the right end position.

A traditional weak spot for years, the defense now ranks as one of the key reasons the Vikings have become the trendy pick to reach the Super Bowl. Most experts pick them to at least win their first NFC North title.

"I think we match the offense right now," said cornerback Fred Smoot, one of the new starters. "The season will tell which side is better, but right now I think we got what you would call a total team."

Smoot will team with 2004 free-agent pickup Antoine Winfield to give the Vikings one of the best cornerback tandems in the league. Also new to the secondary is free safety Darren Sharper, who was signed two days after rival Green Bay released him because of salary cap reasons.

"Some people would argue that our secondary is the strength of our defense," Tice said. "But our front line is going to be pretty special."

The Vikings added a virtual immovable object to the middle of their front line when they lured massive nose tackle Pat Williams from Buffalo in free agency. Williams, a veteran of Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell's defenses, should make All-Pro tackle Kevin Williams even better.

Linebacker continues to be a weak spot, but new starters Napoleon Harris and Sam Cowart might be an upgrade. Harris was part of the Moss trade with Oakland, while Cowart was acquired from the Jets for a seventh round draft pick.

Harris will start on the strong side. A former first round draft pick, he struggled last season because of a knee injury.

Cowart takes over for youngster E.J. Henderson in the middle. Cowart has played under Cottrell before and brings a veteran presence to the defense. But he also is injury prone.

Training camp will be an especially important time for the defense.

"Just because you have better players doesn't mean you're going to have a better defense," Cottrell said. "You have to come together and play as a unit in order to be a better defense."

--Coach Mike Tice was hoping for a better crop of rookie free agents this season. The Vikings traditionally land one or two sleepers every year. There doesn't appear to be any in this year's group.

"Three years ago, our phones were ringing off the hook as soon as the draft was over with free agents looking to play for us," Tice said. "Now, nobody returns our calls. Nobody wants to come here as a college free agent and try to make our team."

--Fred Smoot never shuts up. Ever. But there's a method to his non-stop chatter.

"People think I just talk to talk back and forth," the cornerback said. "But you see me out there, I'm hyping my teammates up. I'm getting the offense krunk, you know, just getting everybody in the mind frame to go here and get the job done and do some work and have fun while we're doing it."

-- Keep an eye on how the team handles the reps at running back during training camp. Michael Bennett finally is healthy, but that could change quickly if he is overworked in the summer.

With Onterrio Smith suspended for the season because of a third violation of the league's substance abuse policy, look for second-year pro Mewelde Moore to share the training camp first-team reps evenly with Bennett. Moore also has a reputation for being injury-prone, but his injuries have been far less severe than Bennett's.

Veteran Moe Williams also will take it easy in training camp. He has the third-down/short-yardage role nailed down, and needs only limited reps in training camp.

Training camp also will be the time to see what rookie fourth-round draft pick Ciatrick Fason can do. Coach Mike Tice hates playing rookie running backs, but he might not have a choice if Bennett or Moore is injured.

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