Eye on the Competition

Despite a quiet training camp, the Lions still have questions to answer. The Packers call on an old friend for advice, while the Vikings adjust to missing a Pro Bowl offensive lineman.

DETROIT LIONS As training camps go, the Lions had one of their quietest in recent years.

No major controversies. No major breakdowns. No major holdouts, walkouts or blowups.

They had only one major injury -- a broken leg to fullback Cory Schlesinger, and he's expected to miss only three or four games at the most.

In the two weeks they spent in two-a-days or variations thereof, however, coach Steve Mariucci saw a lot of things he liked but he did not come up with answers to all of the Lions questions regarding the 2005 NFL season.

The quarterback issue seems to be fairly well settled. Joey Harrington, the starter for the past three seasons, has done nothing to loosen his grip on the No. 1 job; in fact, he has made progress in convincing the Lions he can do the job.

The new offensive line pieces seem to have fallen into place. Rick DeMulling, signed away from Indianapolis, has fit nicely into the left guard position and Kelly Butler, a late-round draft pick who didn't play a down last year as a rookie, has taken over the right tackle job. All of last year's injuries -- wide receiver Charles Rogers' broken collarbone, linebacker Boss Bailey's surgical knee and kick returner Eddie Drummond's broken shoulder blade -- have survived the early tests with no negative results.

And the competition among the cornerbacks in a replenished defensive secondary, has been good for all involved, especially the young cornerbacks like Keith Smith and rookie Stanley Wilson. But nagging questions remained after the Lions broke camp and played their first two preseason games.

No. 1 -- Can they be any better in the red zone than they were last year, when they were among the NFL's least effective?

Only two teams -- Jacksonville and Chicago -- had less success scoring touchdowns after getting inside the 20-yard line than the Lions, who converted on only 19 of 43 opportunities, an average of 44.2.

No. 2 -- Can they pressure opposing quarterbacks on a consistent and menacing basis?

The Lions had 38 quarterback sacks -- including 11.5 by blue-collar DE James Hall -- and ranked in the middle of the pack in that area, but they still lack a speed rusher who is a threat to get to the quarterback on every down.

No. 3 -- Will the Lions ever be a good tackling team?

For several years they have been subpar in that area and they haven't shown yet this year that they can do anything about it. They overrun plays, they don't get to the play or they fail to wrap up the runner/receiver; frequently at the expense of costly yardage.

"I told them I'm not going to change our practice routine and start tackling Kevin Jones and smacking Roy Williams across the middle just so we can practice tackling those guys," Mariucci said.

"So you're going to have to drill it in practice and you're going to have to tackle better on preseason game day. I want to see improvement from week to week."

NOTES
--With veteran fullback Cory Schlesinger out for 6-8 weeks with a broken right fibula, Will Matthews, an undrafted rookie fullback from Texas, is getting a chance to live up to his nickname -- "Headache". Matthews says he got the nickname when he was the lead blocker for running back Cedric Benson at Texas.

As he explained it: "Back in college, I hit some people hard sometimes and they would get headaches. So they kind of started that."

Matthews hasn't delivered a lot of headache-type blows yet in the NFL, but -- at 6-feet-3 and 250 pounds -- he has the resources to start at any time. And with Schlesinger's absence, he's getting more opportunities.

Coach Steve Mariucci is filling Schlesinger's position by committee during the pre-season with running back Shawn Bryson, fullback/halfback Paul Smith and Matthews sharing the load.

"He's a smart guy, very capable, so you'll see him on the field," Mariucci said of Matthews.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Two games into their preseason schedule, the Lions have sacked the opposing quarterback five times -- three against the New York Jets and two against Cleveland.

Not bad numbers considering they don't have a premier edge rusher or a dominating defensive end.

The fact the sacks are distributed among five different players is an indication of how coordinator Dick Jauron will probably have to scheme to pressure the quarterback. DEs Kalimba Edwards, Cory Redding and Eric Powell have one each, as do LB Wali Rainer and CB R.W. McQuarters.

INJURY REPORT: DT Shaun Rogers was kicked in the left shin in the Cleveland game Saturday; initial examination indicated it was only a bruise... DT Marcus Jasmin suffered injuries to his left knee and ankle against the Browns but the team was uncertain of the seriousness of the injuries... RB Cory Schlesinger is recovering from a broken right fibula and is expected back for the Oct. 2 game at Tampa Bay at the earliest... RB Jamel White (hamstring) missed his second week of practice and did not play in the Cleveland preseason game.

GREEN BAY PACKERS
At the urging of general manager Ted Thompson, his onetime mentor and retired Packers GM Ron Wolf paid an extended visit to training camp for three days last week.

Coincidence or not, Wolf had ample time standing on the practice field to look over a team with two rookies running with the starting units - Nick Collins at safety and Will Whitticker at right guard. The last time the Packers opened the season with two rookie starters was 1992, Wolf's first full year overseeing the team.

Head coach Mike Sherman had yet to declare Collins and Whitticker as starters for the regular-season opener at Detroit on Sept. 11. The young, dynamic duo, though, appears to be a good bet to inherit the rare distinction last held by receiver Robert Brooks and linebacker Mark D'Onofrio.

"Yeah, there will be some new faces in the lineup this year for the Green Bay Packers," said Thompson, their first-year GM. "Sometimes, that's a good thing. Sometimes, it's a bit unnerving. But, I think in the long run, it's a good thing -- to get a little fresh blood in there."

Thompson, for one, has no qualms putting rookies out on the field, in a prominent position no less, if they've proved in a short time to be NFL ready.

Prior to returning to Green Bay, where he worked under Wolf from 1992 to '99, Thompson rebuilt Seattle through his shrewd draft work for five years as vice president of football operations.

"We played rookies in Seattle, and we played rookies here under Ron's tutelage," Thompson said. "It's just the way it works out. In a perfect world, would everybody be able to sit through like a little redshirt year? But, that's not the way (it works) in this day and age of the NFL because (with) these (young) guys, sometimes you might have them only four or five years and then they go somewhere else in free agency.

"It's sort of like college football now today. They play those freshmen right away."

While first-round draft pick Aaron Rodgers likely will sit and learn for at least a season behind quarterback Brett Favre, Collins and Whitticker were put on the accelerated track with the learning curve.

Once thought of as developmental candidates for starting spots down the road, each player has defiantly exceeded those modest expectations and filled a position of need.

Collins could be the first Packers rookie to start at safety in a season opener since Chuck Cecil in 1988.

"We really feel that he's on the right track," defensive coordinator Jim Bates said. "It's been daily progress for him. He's on target."

Collins has started the first two preseason games at free safety, where a big void was left to be filled when All-Pro Darren Sharper was cut in March for financial reasons and subsequently signed with NFC North rival Minnesota.

Similarities abound between Sharper and Collins, not the least of which is the Packers drafted them in the second round out of Division I-AA schools from the East Coast. Eyebrows were raised when Green Bay tabbed Collins out of Bethune-Cookman with the first of their two second-round picks, 51st overall, in April.

Like Sharper in his prime, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Collins is blessed with cornerback-type speed, has good range, is assignment-sure, has a nose for the football and isn't shy about delivering a big hit in coverage.

Moreover, not unlike Sharper or even retired Packers safety LeRoy Butler, whose number 36 Collins wears on his uniform, the rookie carries himself with an unmistakable swagger.

"My talent shows on the field. I don't have to prove anything," said Collins, thinking nothing of his emergence from a small-college program.

Whitticker, in sharp contrast, belies his 6-5, 334-pound frame with a quiet and unassuming personality. He readily admits his meteoric rise from a prospect nearly not drafted to entering the preseason third on the depth chart at right guard to presumptive opening-day starter is beyond belief.

"I never would have thought of this," Whitticker said. "You have to realize that being a seventh-round draft pick and even being close to being (an un-drafted) free agent, I'm just fortunate what I've been doing so far. Now, I just have to continue and just rise up to everybody's playing level now.

"This is a good group of offensive linemen. They're looking for somebody to come in and step in and help this team out."

Whitticker's exceptional showing in camp thus far has tempered concerns about how the team would replace three-time Pro Bowler Marco Rivera, who bolted for Dallas as a free agent. The team also lost standout Mike Wahle at left guard to Carolina in free agency.

The imposing Whitticker, a backup center to NBA standout Zach Randolph in high school in Marion, Ind., has wowed observers by utilizing strong hands and quick feet to properly position himself to engulf defenders. He held his ground against mammoth tackle Sam Adams in the Packers' 27-7 loss to Buffalo on Saturday.

"Nothing fazes him," said offensive coordinator Tom Rossley. "He doesn't get nervous. He doesn't panic. He's strong, athletic. He works well with (right tackle Mark) Tauscher; he works well with 'Flanny' (Pro Bowl center Mike Flanagan) and all the linemen in there."

Whitticker, who has outperformed veteran free-agent signee Matt O'Dwyer, could be first Packers rookie guard to start a season opener since Bill Bain in 1975.

NOTES
--The Packers had six possible starters on defense out of action in a 27-7 loss at Buffalo on Saturday.

The preseason injury bug has stung the unit across the board but no position more than cornerback. Al Harris, the veteran leader of an inexperienced group, has been nagged by a bruised thigh. Joey Thomas, who entered training camp as the starter opposite Harris, has been a frequent sideline observer the first three weeks with calf and hip problems.

So, the Packers were compelled to start Ahmad Carroll, last year's starter at left cornerback, and rookie Mike Hawkins against the Bills.

Though Harris and Thomas are expected to get back on the field at some point this week, head coach Mike Sherman acknowledged that any further setbacks could be detrimental for the start of the regular season.

"Certainly, if we did lose a guy like Al Harris -- he's a veteran player; he's our shutdown corner; he's a premier guy over there -- you have concern," Sherman said. "But, we have depth at cornerback, I feel. We have some young players who obviously are going to have to grow up on the run, but we have some young players who can play. How soon they're going to be at the level we want them to be remains to be seen."

The status of Thomas is a confounding mystery. A strained calf sidelined him for most of the first two weeks of camp. He returned but for a day early last week, injuring his hip flexor as he tried to compensate for the calf injury.

A solid off-season moved Thomas ahead of fellow second-year player Carroll on the depth chart.

"We need to get him on the field, and we haven't been able to do that," Sherman said. "When he's been out here, he's done a very good job. But, staying on the field is part of being able to play this game. So, we have to keep him on the field."

Carroll nearly joined Thomas on the injured list. He had a foot stepped on while covering a punt return in practice Aug. 18 and had to be taken off the field on a cart. However, initial fears that he may have torn his Achilles' tendon dissipated when Carroll returned to the field a few minutes later.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--Pro Bowl TE Bubba Franks remains unsigned, though signs suggest he will report before the preseason slate ends next week.

"I'm confident that both parties are anxious to get something done," head coach Mike Sherman said. "When that's the case, usually something does happen. So, we don't have one party with their head in the sand. There's communication. When there's communication, usually results occur. Hopefully, that will happen. Soon."

INJURY REPORT:
--TE Ben Steele, who started the game Saturday in place of holdout Bubba Franks and injured David Martin, suffered neck and back injuries in the first half and didn't return.

--DE Kenny Peterson suffered a neck injury in the second half of the game Saturday and didn't return.

--S Todd Franz suffered a shoulder injury in the second half of the game Saturday and didn't return.

--LB Na'il Diggs, who sustained a partially torn MCL in his left knee in practice Aug. 8, is a possibility to return for the last preseason game at Tennessee on Sept. 1, though getting back for the regular-season opener 10 days later at Detroit is more realistic.

--DT Grady Jackson remains on the physically-unable-to-perform list as he recovers from off-season knee surgery. He's targeting to be ready for the preseason finale. v--DT Cletidus Hunt has been sidelined since Aug. 5 with an inflamed knee and a sore shoulder. There's no timetable on his return.

--TE David Martin aggravated a groin injury in practice Aug. 17 and was held out of the game Saturday.

--WR Terrence Murphy sprained MCL in his right knee in practice Aug. 17. He could be sidelined as much as four weeks, which would keep the rookie out of the season opener.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
The Vikings had hoped that center Matt Birk could make his preseason debut this Friday against San Diego. But now it appears as if there is a chance Birk won't be ready for the Sept. 11 regular-season opener against Tampa Bay at the Metrodome.

"It's coming along slower than he and we had anticipated," coach Mike Tice said. "But by no means is it cause for concern of anything except that it's not a slam dunk now that he's going to play against Tampa. That would be the only thing I would say. Certainly he's going to play."

Birk, who had surgery last June to repair a torn labrum in his right hip, began training camp on the physically unable to perform list as the Vikings took a very cautious approach with the four-time Pro Bowl selection. He was activated Aug. 10, but only saw limited work in practice.

The Vikings were concerned enough about his progress that Birk recently was examined by a doctor in New York. The team played the Jets last Friday in a preseason game at Giants Stadium.

Tice said the New York-based doctor and the Vikings physicians would discuss the situation. "There are different ways we can go," Tice said.

It has been a difficult past year for Birk, who had surgery to repair sports hernias last August, November and March. He missed four games last season and was unable to take part in any of the Vikings' offseason workout program. Doctors thought the hip injury was a result of Birk trying to play through the second hernia for the majority of the 2004 season.

Tice remained hopeful Birk would be able to practice in pads this week, so the team can get an idea of where things stand.

If Birk remains out, his replacement will continue to be sixth-year player Cory Withrow. Tice wasn't pleased with Withrow's performance in the preseason opener against Kansas City, but felt the center made big strides in the 28-21 loss to the Jets.

"Cory played really well in the (Jets) game and he settled some things down for us," Tice said. "He really did a great job in protection. Did the things I want him to do. Being smaller (6-2, 287 pounds), there are certain techniques you've got to do differently than you do if you're bigger. He did them."

Tice also was happy with the play of guards Adam Goldberg and Marcus Johnson, who started in place of right guard Chris Liwienski (sprained left shoulder). Johnson, a rookie second-round pick from Mississippi, has impressed Tice with his athletic ability.

In fact, it was expected Johnson would remain at right guard and Liwienski would be shifted back to left guard. Liwienski was moved to the right side during the off-season after the Vikings severed ties with David Dixon. The versatile Goldberg likely will find himself as a backup at guard and center.

NOTES
--Unhappy with how the offensive linemen were using their hands in blocking, coach Steve Loney had the guards and tackles practice with elastic bands holding their hands together during an afternoon session last week. "Basically, it makes them hold their hands tight," said Loney, the Vikings' offensive coordinator and line coach. "What you don't want them to do is get their hands out wide (which can result in holding penalties and a loss of balance)."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--Cornerback Fred Smoot, who has missed both preseason games and had participated in only two days of practice through last week.

Smoot, a free-agent signee from Washington, began camp on the physically unable to perform list because of a neck injury. Two days after returning from that injury, Smoot suffered what the Vikings termed, "a soft tissue contusion" to his right knee during an Aug. 9 intra-squad scrimmage.

The Vikings became concerned when Smoot's knee continued to bother him and sent him to the Twin Cities for a magnetic resonance imaging exam early last week. Much to Vikings' and Smoot's relief, the MRI confirmed what the training staff had diagnosed.

"I was worried because that's stuff you never know about until they actually look at it," he said. "I was scared. I didn't want any setbacks."

Smoot's return should mean that all five of the defensive starters the Vikings acquired during the off-season will be on the field for Friday night's preseason game against San Diego. Defensive tackle Pat Williams, linebackers Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris and safety Darren Sharper all appeared in the first two exhibition games.

--Rookie running back Ciatrick Fason, a fourth-round selection, will miss two-to-three weeks after suffering a high right ankle sprain in the third quarter against the Jets last Friday.

--Troy Williamson made an impact in his first NFL game, catching a 54-yard pass from third-string quarterback Shaun Hill in the third quarter of last Friday's 28-21 loss to the New York Jets. Williamson then caught a 13-yard scoring pass from Hill to complete the drive. The seventh-overall pick in April's draft, Williamson had missed more than a week because of an impingement in his right foot. Coach Mike Tice said he wants to get the rookie work with the first team this week.

--The coaching staff was impressed enough with E.J. Henderson's two-game performance at weak side linebacker that he will remain the starter at that position. Henderson was moved from the middle early in camp after the coaches decided he was playing too well not to have him with the starters.

--Linebacker Napoleon Harris replaced Sam Cowart as one of the Vikings' two linebackers in the nickel package. Harris and Dontarrious Thomas are now being used in that role.

--A magnetic resonance imaging exam last week on receiver Kelly Campbell's strained right quadriceps showed enough damage that he will be shut down for at least another week. Campbell re-injured his quadriceps during pre-game warm-ups on Aug. 12 before the preseason opener against Kansas City.

--Veteran cornerback Ken Irvin, who was used at safety during the Vikings' developmental camps this spring, has been moved to free safety. Irvin, 33, has never played safety in a game during his career. He isn't thrilled about the move but said he wants to help the team anyway he can. "It's something I can do, but I still know I have a lot left at corner," he said.

INJURY REPORT:
--TE Richard Angulo (strained left shoulder) should return full-time to practice this week.

--RB Michael Bennett (neck) isn't expected to miss time. Coach Mike Tice described the injury thusly; "he dinged up his neck."

--C Matt Birk (hip) has been doing limited work in practice and saw doctor in New York last week. It's uncertain when he will begin playing in games.

--WR Kelly Campbell (strained right quadriceps) underwent MRI and will rest for at least another week.

--DE Earl Cochran (calf strain) is day-to-day.

--RB Ciatrick Fason (right ankle sprain) will miss two-to-three weeks because it's a high ankle sprain.

--S Dustin Fox (fractured left arm) could be placed on injured reserve.

--OL Anthony Herrera (infection) released from hospital Saturday after being there almost a week to receive treatment with antibiotics.

--G Chris Liwienski (sprained left shoulder) expected to practice this week.

--CB Fred Smoot (right knee) is expected to practice this week.


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