NFC North Tour: DL Breakdown

In the sixth part of our NFC North personnel previews, we examine the division's defensive linemen. As usual, we lead off in Green Bay, where Mike Neal is a key player and B.J. Raji is a workhorse.

Green Bay Packers

Starters — DLE Ryan Pickett, NT B.J. Raji, DRE Mike Neal. Backups — NT Howard Green, DE C.J. Wilson, DE Jarius Wynn.

A knee sprain that kept Neal off the field the last two-plus weeks of the preseason underscored the significant loss of veteran Cullen Jenkins to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency. Neal was inactive for the Sept. 8 season opener, nearly a year after he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4 to cost him his rookie year. The decision to let Jenkins walk was partly made on the belief the powerful Neal, a second-round draft pick, would slide right in to the starter's job and there wouldn't be a drop-off from the production generated by the aging Jenkins, especially as a pass rusher. Without Neal, the Packers went with Wilson and Wynn opposite Raji in the nickel during passing situations. Raji, who deserved better than being selected as a Pro Bowl alternate, is a workhorse who was in on 85 percent of the snaps last season and delivered mightily in his first year as a starter with 7 1/2 sacks and a defining interception for a touchdown when he dropped into coverage late in the NFC Championship at Chicago. He played 69 of 76 snaps against the Saints — 90.8 percent. With or without Neal, defensive coordinator Dom Capers showed a lot of Raji at Jenkins' former spot at weak-side end with 31-year-old Pickett kicked back inside at his natural nose tackle in the three-man front. Both Pickett and run-stuffing Green reported to camp a little heavy in the 350 range.

Chicago Bears

Starters — DLE Israel Idonije, 3T Henry Melton, NT Anthony Adams, DRE Julius Peppers. Backups — NT/3T Matt Toeaina, 3T Amobi Okoye, DE Corey Wootton.

Peppers started the season with a bang with two sacks against Atlanta. He was a huge difference maker in his first season, even though his sack total of 8.0 wasn't spectacular, at least for him. Peppers helped make everyone on the defense better, and he had 23 quarterback pressures, five more than the next two teammates combined. He also was outstanding against the run, an aspect of his game that had been overlooked, and he was voted to his sixth Pro Bowl. Idonije may have benefited from Peppers' presence as much as anyone. He had a breakout season in his first year as a full-time starter and matched Peppers' sack total, which was more than double his previous best. A late bloomer from Canada, he continues to improve every year. Melton has packed on 20 pounds without losing any of his quickness, which he is expected to utilize to disrupt opposing offenses. He can also rush the passer well enough to play end, which he showed with two sacks against the Falcons. In limited snaps in 2010, he tied for second on the team with nine QB pressures and had 2 1/2 sacks. Adams does the dirty work and is often underappreciated but always reliable. The Bears had just three sacks in the first three preseason games — all coming from Okoye, who also had a sack against Atlanta — but tallied five in Week 1. Toeaina was given a contract extension late last season and is more of a role player, but he can ably fill in at both DT spots, although he's better suited to nose tackle. Wootton, a 2010 fourth-round pick from Northwestern, showed flashes of being an effective pass rusher as a rookie, and he has enough size to hold the point of attack vs. the run. He suffered a knee injury in the preseason opener that required a scope and didn't play in the opener.

Detroit Lions

Starters — DE Cliff Avril, DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Corey Williams, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch. Backups — DE Lawrence Jackson, DT Sammie Hill, DT Nick Fairley, DE Willie Young, DT Andre Fluellen.

It's easily one of the best and deepest defensive lines in football — even after losing DE Turk McBride to the Saints. Suh, with 10 sacks last season, was an All-Pro and defensive rookie of the year, but he benefitted from the gritty play of Williams and also from the hard edge rushing of Avril and Vanden Bosch. There is some concern about Vanden Bosch, though he did have a sack against Tampa Bay on Sunday. He's in his 11th season and coming off neck surgery. He was slowed in camp by a shoulder injury. ackson proved last season more than capable of handling a full-time role. Coaches believe that Avril is on the verge of stardom. His biggest problem has been staying healthy.

Minnesota Vikings

Starters — LE Brian Robison, NT Remi Ayodele, UT Kevin Williams, RE Jared Allen. Backups — LE Adrian Awawom, NT Fred Evans, UT Letroy Guion, UT Christian Ballard, DE Everson Griffen.

Robison, who was signed to a three-year, $14.1 million contract just before the lockout began, had a sack in Week 1 against San Diego while making his first start in place of Ray Edwards. Edwards, who was second on the team with eight sacks last season, signed with the Falcons as a free agent. Nose tackle Pat Williams also was allowed to walk, and Ayodele was signed to replace him. That means Kevin Williams and Allen are the two guys returning. Allen had a team-leading 11 sacks in 2010 after posting 14.5 the previous season. He had a sack against the Chargers. Kevin Williams, who battled, plantar fasciitis during training camp, is serving a two-game suspension for a 2008 positive test for a banned substance. Guion, who had no starts and 24 games in three seasons, started in his place. Ballard, a fourth-round pick from Iowa last April, has been impressive in camp playing inside and could end up being used as a pass-rusher in the nickel defense. Griffen looks to be improved in his second season and is going to get a shot at outside linebacker, as well as playing behind Robison.


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