NFC North Update

The Lions look to regroup during a bye week, while the Packers and Vikings are trying to avoid staring the season 0-3.

DETROIT LIONS
Coach Steve Mariucci did the humane thing: He gave the Lions four days off in observance of their bye week after a Wednesday morning practice at the Allen Park headquarters.

Probably figured they had suffered enough for one week in the 38-6 drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Bears on Sunday.

It obviously was not for a lack of corrections the team will have to make if it is to have any chance of competing for an NFC North title and its first playoff appearance since the 1999 season.

Before dismissing the team for the extra long weekend, Mariucci and his coaches took a long look at the problems that surfaced in Chicago and spent two days on the practice field making corrections.

"There were a lot of things that we have to improve upon in a game like that," he said. "But the two obvious would be running the football on offense, which is something that we are making a commitment to and it is going to be important for us to do that; and, conversely, stopping the run on defense."

Against the Bears, the Lions managed only 29 net yards on 18 rushing attempts before falling so far behind that it became impractical to run the ball. And the Bears, by comparison, rushed for 187 yards on 37 carries, including 139 by Thomas Jones.

"The other thing was in the passing game - protecting the quarterback and conversely putting pressure on the quarterback," Mariucci said. "Those are the two things that we are looking hard at right now.

"When I say protecting the quarterback, I think often times we make the mistake of saying, 'Well, it is the offensive line' and that is not necessarily the case. There are so many other things involved in terms of backs protecting, in terms of audibilizing and in terms of running quick throws and hot throws with the receivers or adjusting routes and changing the protection at the line of scrimmage."

Although Lions quarterback Joey Harrington was sacked only twice in 39 attempts to pass the football, he was harassed and hit constantly, which was a major factor in his five interceptions.

And the Lions, again by comparison, did virtually nothing to get Bears rookie quarterback Kyle Orton out of his comfort zone. They sacked him twice but for the most part he was able to stand in the pocket and make his throws without fear of being hit.

"When we looked at the film and talked through it with the defense, we actually blitzed the Bears 25 times but we didn't get home enough," Mariucci explained.

NOTES, QUOTES

  • Although the initial results have not been what the Lions were hoping for, quarterback Joey Harrington says he wants coach Steve Mariucci's approval to continue changing offensive plays at the line of scrimmage.

    Mariucci is giving Harrington more freedom in that area than in previous seasons and speculated it might have been partially to blame for one of the five interceptions in the 38-6 loss Sunday at Chicago.

    On the play in question, Harrington read the Bears coverage one way, wide receiver Roy Williams read it another and Bears corner Nathan Vasher made an interception.

    But Mariucci says he won't pull the reins in on his fourth-year quarterback and Harrington says he wants to work through the problem.

    "Nobody said it was going to be perfect," Harrington said. "It's a risk/reward situation. The whole idea is to change the play into something you feel you can take advantage of. Had it worked, it would have been a great check.

    "Just because something has a possible risk doesn't mean you stop doing it. There's a lot of good things that can come from it and we'll continue to do it. We'll just get better at it with practice."

  • Wide receiver Roy Williams took some heat for seemingly giving up on the play that resulted in the interception by Chicago cornerback Nathan Vasher on Sunday.

    Quarterback Joey Harrington was animated - but apparently not overly critical - talking to Williams as they left the field after Harrington and Williams each got a different read on Vasher's coverage, resulting in a busted route and the interception.

    "I don't think Joe was mad at me," Williams said. "I didn't run the wrong route, it was just miscommunication."

    What bothered Williams was when teammate Kevin Jones, the Lions second-year running back, got in his face on the sidelines.

    "If you're pissed off, don't be pissed off at your teammates," Williams said in a radio interview. "If you feel I'm doing something wrong, just tap me on the butt and say, 'Let's go, let's pick up the hustle.' I don't need you to holler at me."

    Williams said he and many of his teammates don't need to be screamed at to be motivated.

    "Me, Marcus Pollard, Charles Rogers, (Mike) Williams, we don't need to get cussed at to get us going," Williams said. "Some guys - like Dominic Raiola - you've got to cuss him to get him going."

    Raiola is the Lions' center.

  • For the second consecutive year, cornerback Fernando Bryant has suffered an injury that is almost certain to keep him out of action for a major part of the season.

    Bryant missed much of the 2004 season with a severe ankle sprain and he is now out indefinitely - possibly for the rest of the season - with a dislocated left shoulder, suffered in the Lions 38-6 loss Sunday at Chicago.

    That means that Andre Goodman, who missed 13 games in 2003 with a similar injury and another four games last year with a thigh injury, will move into the starting left corner position previously held by Bryant.

    "You've got to stay prepared," Goodman said. "That's just our profession, regardless of whether you're the fifth cornerback on the depth chart or you're the No. 1 corner on the depth chart."

    The other candidate for the job was veteran R.W. McQuarters, but coach Steve Mariucci indicated the Lions like McQuarters in the nickel back role and probably will keep him there.

    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    It stirred quite a buzz when the Lions brought in quarterbacks Shaun King and Jeff George for a workout during the bye week.

    With veteran Jeff Garcia out for at least another 3-4 weeks with a broken left fibula, the Lions are carrying only two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster - Joey Harrington and rookie Dan Orlovsky, a fifth-round draft pick - so there has been speculation that they might sign another veteran.

    That apparently is not the case, however. The quarterbacks were just two of 10 players the Lions brought in for workouts as part of keeping an up-to-date short list of available players in case of an emergency.

    GREEN BAY PACKERS
    With 87 years in the business of professional football and 12 NFL titles in the process, the Packers have a storied history.

    Coach Mike Sherman flipped open his history book this week, ahead of a visit from Tampa Bay on Sunday. He puts his finger on the page of the not-so-distant past and wonders aloud whether history will repeat itself in Titletown.

    The Packers' 0-2 start this season smacks of an identical beginning in 2000, Sherman's first year at the helm; of a 1-2 start in '03; and of a 1-4 start in '04. Each of those seasons that commenced inauspiciously concluded with a flurry, as the Packers posted plus-.500 records and won the NFC North the last two years.

    "We do have a history of being able to handle the adversity of the situation and hopefully rise above it," Sherman said, adding he's not close to pushing the panic button.

    However, not everyone in Packers camp is convinced this year's team is necessarily capable of following in the zigzagging footsteps of its predecessors. A 17-3 season-opening loss at Detroit followed by an equally embarrassing 26-24 defeat against Cleveland at Lambeau Field last Sunday have raised doubts among what few grizzled veterans are left on the roster.

    "It's perplexing from when I got here how Lambeau Field used to be and what it is now," said ninth-year kicker Ryan Longwell, noting the team's repulsive 4-6 record since last season at the hallowed stadium that had been inhospitable for visiting teams.

    "None of us can put our finger on it, but it's certainly a different team and a different situation than it was when I got here, and I haven't got an answer.

    "There are times when we look like the Packers of old and motoring down the field and stopping them on defense," he added. "And, then there are more times where it just looks like guys are going in separate directions and I don't know. You've got to play the game with passion and some fervor, and I'm not sure we're giving it all we've got, obviously because we're coming up short in these games."

    Sherman wouldn't accept the argument that a team comprised of 11 rookies and 11 more first- or second-year players is suffering growing pains out of the gate this season.

    "Maybe it's growing pains when you're in high school," Sherman said.

    Still, there's no downplaying the youthful inexperience that has raised its ugly head in the first two games. An abundance of penalties on both sides of the ball, alignment snafus with the Javon Walker-less receiving corps and miscommunication within a defensive unit still without a takeaway have contributed mightily to another horrid start for the Packers.

    Quarterback Brett Favre, the team's longest-tenured player in his 14th season, acknowledged Wednesday that in the twilight of his career he's felt the urge to try to compensate for the inadequacies of the young players.

    "At 0-2 and (with) a lot of question marks, it's uncharted territory, I guess you could say from my standpoint," Favre said. "There's no way I can sit up here and talk Super Bowl or even talk playoffs right now. We have to talk about winning a game first. I consider this part or this stage in my career maybe the biggest challenge I've ever faced, individually and as a team.

    "I'm looking forward to it. It's an uphill battle, but it is what it is. We win as a team; we lose as a team. But, I take a great deal of pride in leading this team by example, maybe with our backs against the wall every week. So, we'll see what happens. Losing is no fun, but I'm sure having a lot of fun with these guys, trying to win and do the best that I can do. I'm trying to rally the troops."

    The youngsters, not unlike Favre, know what's at stake Sunday against the unbeaten Buccaneers.

    "We're in a must-win situation," second-year cornerback Ahmad Carroll said. "As the coach says, you can't panic. Tampa Bay, they're 2-0. They're coming in, and they're thinking about the Super Bowl. We're just thinking about the next game. This is a good opportunity for us to face a really good team. There's no need to panic. But, it's a must win."

    NOTES, QUOTES

  • QB Brett Favre will mark the 13th anniversary of the beginning of his ongoing starting streak (227 games) next Tuesday. Favre replaced an injured Don Majkowski in the starting lineup and directed the Packers to a 17-3 win over Pittsburgh on Sept. 27, 1992, in Green Bay.

    During the streak, which is a league record for quarterbacks, Favre has completed passes to 72 different players. Rookie WR Terrence Murphy and FB Vonta Leach were the latest to join the club with catches in last Sunday's loss to Cleveland.

  • PK Ryan Longwell can break his own tie in the team's record book by making a field goal Sunday. Longwell has connected on a field goal in the last 14 games, matching the streak he first attained bridging the 1997 and '98 seasons.

    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    Coach Mike Sherman gave SS Mark Roman a vote of confidence, saying the veteran will remain a starter after he came under fire from backup Earl Little for missing a tackle on Cleveland tight end Steve Heiden's 62-yard, game-clinching touchdown in the closing minutes.

    "He's only missed one tackle in two ballgames," Sherman said. "Certainly, it was a big tackle (he missed). There's no question about that. But, he's been tackling well in practice, and he's tackled well in the games. He missed a tackle that we all wished he made, as does he. But, he's not the first, nor the last."

    MINNESOTA VIKINGS
    A disappointing loss at home in Week 1 to Tampa Bay raised some eyebrows in Minnesota. An embarrassing 37-8 defeat in Week 2 at Cincinnati started the questions rolling about Mike Tice's job security.

    And so the Vikings enter Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints with a coach who might not make it through the final year of his contract, a Pro Bowl quarterback - Daunte Culpepper - with a horrendous 41.6 rating, and a new offensive coordinator - Steve Loney - who might or might not be calling plays come Sunday.

    The term "must-win" has been used on several occasions in the Vikings locker room this week and a few veterans said a players-only meeting would be held to discuss issues. While the Vikings can ill afford to drop to 0-3 overall and 0-2 at the Metrodome with a loss Sunday, the team has one thing going for it.

    The NFC North is shaping up as the NFL's worst division. For the first time, the Vikings and Packers have started off 0-2. Still, those teams are only one game behind the 1-1 Lions and Bears.

    Statistically, though, the Vikings have dug themselves a bit of a hole.

    Since 1990, the first season of the 12-team playoff format, 17 of the 121 teams (14 percent) that were 0-2 qualified for the postseason. Three of those clubs, the 1993 Dallas Cowboys and the 1996 and 2001 New England Patriots, ended up in the Super Bowl. The Cowboys and 2001 Patriots both won titles.

    Improvement must start with an offense that has accounted for one touchdown in eight quarters - a meaningless 5-yard score by Culpepper with the Vikings trailing 37-0 late in the fourth quarter last Sunday - but has turned over the ball 12 times in 24 possessions.

    Tice very well could take a more active role in play-calling this week but he wouldn't comment on the issue Wednesday.

    "We're looking into changes that we'll make this week, and as the week progresses we'll look at a number of things," he said.

    Of course, if Culpepper's play does not improve it won't matter who is sending in the plays. Culpepper must start by cutting out the turnovers. He has 10 in two games, including eight interceptions.

    Culpepper said the key is not trying to do too much at one time.

    "Just let it happen [and] when it is there take it, if it is not there, do what I've got to do with it," he said. "Make sure that I keep the ball in our hands at the end of every possession, a touchdown first or a field goal or we punt the ball to them."

    Tice also would not commit to who his starting running back would be after Michael Bennett was benched in the second quarter last Sunday following his second fumble of the day. Many in the Vikings organization favor Mewelde Moore, and he could get the start against a Saints team that is tied for 23rd in run defense after two games.

    NOTES, QUOTES

  • QB Daunte Culpepper might have found the cure for his early-season struggles - the Saints. He has earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors twice for his performances against New Orleans. He threw for 312 yards, two touchdowns and ran for a game-winning two-point conversion in a 32-31 victory over the Saints on Dec. 15, 2002. Last season, he threw for a career-high 425 yards and tied his career high with five touchdown passes in a 38-31 victory on Oct. 17 in a Sunday night game.

    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    Michael Bennett's hold on the top running back spot appears to be shaky at best. Bennett was benched last Sunday in the second quarter after losing two fumbles in the Vikings' 37-8 loss at Cincinnati.

    Afterward Bennett expressed frustration not only with himself but also with having had to spend the rest of the sideline on the game after turning over the ball twice.

    Bennett finished with a team-leading 36 yards on three rushes, but Mewelde Moore led the team with eight carries. The Vikings, who trailed 27-0 at halftime, ran the ball only 14 times.

    Bennett is in the last year of his contract and the Vikings made it very clear in the off-season that he was their No. 1 guy. But after two games it appears the top running back job is up for grabs.


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