NFC North inside slant

News and views on Vikings QB Tarvaris Jackson, the health of Bears RB Cedric Benson and the Lions minus offensive guru Mike Martz.

Tarvaris Jackson is aware that many consider him the weak link in what looks to be an otherwise strong Vikings team, one some consider the favorite to win the NFC North. But Minnesota's starting quarterback doesn't seem overly concerned about what others think.

"People are going to say what they want to say," Jackson said after the Vikings completed a practice during organized team activities. "It's their job to analyze things and to give their opinion of our team. My job is to go out there and prove them wrong. That's how I look at it. It's just extra motivation. That's all it is, and pretty much that motivator, and things like that kind of help me out, get me over the top."

Jackson, entering his second season as the Vikings' starter, is not only going to have the advantage of experience but also an improved receiving corps that features free-agent addition Bernard Berrian.

Last season, Jackson posted an 8-4 record as a starter but finished 28th among NFL quarterbacks with a 70.8 passer rating. He also threw 12 interceptions to nine touchdown passes.

Committed to improving on that performance, Jackson has spent this offseason at the Vikings' Winter Park complex. He said one of goals in 2008 is to know what everybody on the field is doing.

"I knew what everybody was doing (last year), but sometimes I pretty much just did what I had to do," he said. "I'm trying to learn what the defense is doing, trying to figure out what everyone is going to be doing. The offensive line, the receivers, the backs, everybody. Just try to get more comfortable with the offense."

Jackson said he has felt more comfortable running the offense during the OTAs and while those are low-stress drills, it is step in the right direction.

Coach Brad Childress wants to see Jackson take more of these steps as the season approaches.

"I'd like to see him improve in a few different areas," Childress said. "Obviously a quarterback is judged by whether he gets his team in the end zone. As we say all the time and Tarvaris knows this, no matter how rough the sea is, you bring the ship in, so that's what quarterbacks will always be judged on is how many games you win."

Bears: Benson's ankle should be OK

Cedric Benson appears to be right on schedule for a complete recovery from the fractured ankle that ended his 2007 season in late November and put his future as the Bears' featured runner in jeopardy.

But it remains to be seen if Benson, even if he's healthy, will perform well enough to withstand the challenge from second-round draft pick Matt Forte.

Despite last season's career-worst 3.4-yard average per carry, Benson recently received a vote of confidence as the starter from Bears coach Lovie Smith. During Wednesday's third day of organized team activities at Halas Hall, Benson lined up with the first team and ran and cut without any trace of a limp. But, even if he goes to training camp on July 22 as No. 1 on the depth chart, Benson's hold on the starting job is tenuous with Forte waiting in the wings.

"I think it's always been a challenge," Benson said. "Garrett Wolfe came in last year. The first two years (it was) with Thomas Jones. It's always been a challenge. I wouldn't expect anything less or any different."

Benson's future in Chicago seemed to be imperiled early this month when he was arrested on Lake Travis near Austin, Texas, and charged with boating while intoxicated and resisting arrest, charges that he will fight in court and which have been disputed by impartial observers. His next court date is June 30, although he is not required to attend. Benson said he is not presently considering a lawsuit in the case but only looks forward to having it resolved and being vindicated.

"It'll be nice to get it cleared up and over with, but I don't really spend too much time thinking about it," he said. "I'm sticking to my story, and the truth will come out sometime, whether it'll be now or a year from now or whenever."

At the time of the arrest, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, while referring to Benson as a victim, also questioned the player's judgment and said he allowed himself to become a victim. Benson disagrees with that characterization of his actions.

"He'd have to explain to me how I put myself in a situation to be a victim," the four-year veteran said. "I was enjoying myself; enjoying my offseason."

Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell, like Benson a former Texas Longhorn superstar, also questioned Benson's behavior and predicted he might be remembered more for the boating incident than his so-far disappointing NFL career. Again, Benson took exception.

"Earl must have forgot how young I am," Benson said with a smile. "I've still got some football to play."

How much more he'll play with the Bears might be decided in training camp and by how Forte performs. Just six months removed from the latest setback in an injury-marred career, Benson, who is about 10 pounds lighter than last year, when he weighed 220 pounds, said he's ready to compete.

"I feel great," he said. "Y'all didn't see? I hope y'all had the cameras on all practice. I feel faster, quicker, just smarter, smoother, freer. I feel everything on a positive note."

To keep Forte at bay, Benson will probably have to demonstrate all those attributes and play as he did in the second half of the 2006 season, when he averaged 5.0 yards per carry before suffering a sprained knee in Super Bowl XLI.

"I would hope I'd have to do something to keep (the job)," he said. "Nobody wants to be given anything. It makes it more fun and more exciting when you've got a challenge going. I'm just going to be me and make plays."

Make or break time could come as soon as training camp for Benson.

"I haven't really thought about that," he said. "But if it is, I'm sure I'm going to make it happen."

Lions: What now for WRs without Martz?

Small inside receivers Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald left St. Louis for Detroit to join their former coach, Mike Martz. And in the reunion they put up impressive numbers.

In 2006, Furrey led the Lions — and NFC — with 98 catches. In 2007, McDonald followed and led the Lions with 79 catches. Furrey finished third with 61.

But what role will Furrey and McDonald play now?

Martz has been fired and has joined San Francisco. But Furrey and McDonald have stayed in Detroit, and new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto is taking a different approach.

"I don't think we'll be as much of a focal point as we were in that offense," McDonald said. "But I can definitely see where I'm going to fit in there and see some of the routes that they've got. It's going to be a good year, I think."

Colletto has simplified the playbook and plans to run the ball much more than Martz did. He also plans to throw to his big outside threats — Roy Williams, the seventh overall pick in 2004, and Calvin Johnson, the second overall pick in '07.

Furrey and McDonald will have smaller roles, but still significant ones, according to Colletto. Three- and four-wide receiver sets remain in the playbook.

"All that part of the game is still there," Colletto said earlier this offseason. "It's just the numbers of plays are going to be diminished greatly. Those two guys are still going to figure in what we're doing. We want to be able to change constantly."

Colletto said on first-and-10 the Lions won't always trot out two running backs, two wide receivers and a tight end. They will mix up their personnel groups, even if they stick to the same stuff.

"It's going to change," Colletto said. "But the plays won't change."

Under Martz, opponents didn't respect the Lions' running game and would keep their safeties deep. They would bracket Williams and Johnson. That forced the ball underneath to Furrey and McDonald.

Under Colletto, the Lions hope opponents will respect the running game and drop a safety into the box, opening up the field for Williams and Johnson.

McDonald doesn't think that will always happen, though. Teams might still want to take away Williams and Johnson, leaving catches for McDonald and Furrey.

"We've just got to see," McDonald said. "I think some teams will still try to play us like they did last year. It's going to change, I think, weekly."

Colletto also plans shorter drops for his quarterbacks. The ball could come out quickly to the slot receiver.

"I still think the slot's going to be a factor in the game," said McDonald, who is sitting out after minor knee surgery, but should be 100% for training camp. "Every team, if you've got a good slot that's working, that's hard on the defense."


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