Keys to winning the NFC North

Three players and focal points for the Packers and their division rivals.


Three keys for the season

1. An heir apparent no more. To quote coach Mike McCarthy, it's quarterback Aaron Rodgers' "time to lead the football team." Rodgers will be the most scrutinized player in the league this season, with predecessor Brett Favre not far behind playing in the New York fishbowl. Rodgers has all of the tools to be successful right away, but zero starting experience and a body susceptible to injury are concerns.

2. Does Ryan Grant have an encore in him? Grant went from an unknown to a star-in-the-making in just the second half of last season, rushing for a league-high 1,159 yards and 11 touchdowns. Grant, though, will be hard-pressed to come charging out of the gate this season after missing all offseason workouts and the first week of training camp because of a contract squabble and then suffering a hamstring injury that sidelined him until the final week of the preseason.

3. Bringing rush hour to small-town Green Bay. The Packers' defense mustered all of eight sacks in the final seven games last season after it had 32 in the first 11 outings. As a way to try to rectify the situation and protect aging cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson, previously conservative coordinator Bob Sanders is blitzing at will and added a new wrinkle on passing downs with an alignment of only two down linemen and four linebackers.

Players to watch

Wide receiver Donald Driver: If Rodgers is to have a productive first season as the starting quarterback, he will need his top receiver to be as willing to sacrifice his body across the middle and consistently hang on to passes as Driver was good for with Favre. Driver wasn't in sync with Rodgers during the preseason and had an inordinate amount of drops.

Running back Brandon Jackson: Last year's opening-day starter as a rookie tailed off quickly because of a leg injury. Jackson, though, curried favor from the coaches again with improvement in the offseason and will work in tandem with Grant, who's coming off a hamstring injury, at the outset of the season.

Defensive tackle Johnny Jolly: Provided the league delays action on possibly disciplining Jolly for his arrest on a drug felony charge in the offseason, the athletically stout young tackle is being counted on to stabilize a line in flux. Jolly's emergence last season prompted general manager Ted Thompson to trade starter Corey Williams to Cleveland.


Three keys for the season

1. The running game has to be much better. The Bears were dead last in average gain per rush last season (3.1 yards). A duplication this year will spell disaster for quarterback Kyle Orton or whoever plays quarterback because if the makeshift offensive line can't keep defenses honest by establishing the run, it sure won't be able to protect anyone in the passing game.

2. The defense must return to its 2006 level. With an offense in transition, especially early in the season, the defense will have to carry this team if it is to have any chance at the postseason. The talent is there. Almost everyone who matters is around from that 2006 group, but some of them may have peaked.

3. Someone must assume the role of go-to receiver. It doesn't necessarily have to be any of the several mediocre wideouts on the roster. Second-year tight end Greg Olsen can be a force if given enough opportunities against mismatched linebackers and safeties.

Players to watch

Wide receiver Devin Hester: The NFL's best return man is being counted on to bring his game-changing talents to the Bears' bland passing game, where he will have a much greater role than last year, when he caught 20 balls but commanded respect from defensive backs wary of his elite speed.

Running back Matt Forte: The second-round draft pick from Tulane was considered the de facto featured runner before taking one rep in training camp. He doesn't have tremendous speed and isn't a pile mover, but Forte can do everything pretty well and is faster and quicker than he usually is given credit for, with good hands, maturity and intelligence.

LInebacker Brian Urlacher: He wasn't voted to the Pro Bowl last season, and he sat out many practices with an arthritic back and had postseason neck surgery. But he's a team leader, and there were games last season when he took over. He says he's feeling much better than he did at any time last season.


Three keys for the season

1. The Lions must run the ball at least well enough to open the passing game for wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams, keep the pass rush off quarterback Jon Kitna and keep the defense off the field. The Lions finished last and second-to-last in rushing the last two years under pass-happy Mike Martz. New offensive coordinator Jim Colletto has installed a zone blocking scheme.

2. Kitna must make good decisions. Martz did not allow Kitna to audible. All adjustments were built into the plays. Colletto has given Kitna more control at the line of scrimmage. That should allow Kitna to take advantage of matchups, like single coverage on Johnson. But it places more responsibility on his shoulders, and he has been known for throwing interceptions late in games.

3. The defense must improve. The Lions' defense allowed the most yards and points last season. The running game should help, but it's the defense's job to get off the field. The Lions forced a lot of turnovers last season, at least in the first half of the year, but they struggled to get off the field on third down - when opponents needed third down.

Players to watch

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson: Two things slowed Johnson last year after he was the second pick in the draft: He had to learn the most complex offense in the NFL, Martz's, and he suffered a back injury in Week 3. Now he is healthy and playing in a simplified offense. He has been freed to let his physical skills take over.

Running back Kevin Smith: At a time when the running game is so important to the Lions, they are going to rely a lot on a rookie. They traded up in the third round to get Smith, who was productive in the same zone scheme at Central Florida. If Smith succeeds, he will be a star. He loves to talk and his personality will make him a media darling.

Linebacker Paris Lenon: The Lions tried hard to upgrade middle linebacker in the offseason. They tried to trade for Jonathan Vilma. They looked into veteran free agents Al Wilson and Dan Morgan. They wanted to draft Jerod Mayo but settled for Jordon Dizon. But at least for now, Lenon has held onto the starting job. He and the rest of the Lions' linebackers need to make more plays.


Three keys for the season

1. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson must not only stay healthy but show significant improvement. Jackson went 8-4 in 12 starts last season, but he hrew 12 interceptions and only nine touchdown passes and had a subpar completion percentage (58.2) and passer rating (70.8).

2. Jared Allen must be a difference-maker. The Vikings added Allen at a steep price - they traded three draft picks to Kansas City and signed the Pro Bowl end to a six-year, $72.36 million deal - in order to improve a pass defense that has been at the bottom of the NFL the past two years. Allen had 15.5 sacks in 2007 and the pressure he puts on quarterbacks should make their life much less pleasant.

3. Bernard Berrian's presence has to keep run defenses honest. The Vikings had the NFL's top-ranked rushing game a year ago, but opponents began to slow then-rookie sensation Adrian Peterson by putting eight men in the box on a regular basis. Teams could get away with this because the Vikings had no legitimate down-the-field threat. Berrian should provide that, assuming his toe doesn't continue to give him trouble.

Players to watch

Running back Adrian Peterson: Sensational for much of his rookie season, Peterson isn't going to catch anyone by surprise this year. He must stay healthy after missing two games in 2007 because of a knee injury.

Fullback Thomas Tapeh: Tapeh, who played college football at the University of Minnesota, returns to the state after spending his first four seasons with the Eagles. Tapeh replaces veteran Tony Richardson, who wasn't re-signed after having a Pro Bowl season in 2007. Peterson had great success behind Richardson and the Vikings will look for the same with Tapeh as the lead blocker.

Safety Tyrell Johnson: He was taken by the Vikings with their top pick (second round) in the April draft, and the hope was he could spend a year learning behind veterans Darren Sharper and Madieu Williams. It appears there will be no such luxury as Johnson is expected to start until Williams returns from his neck injury.

Defensive end Ray Edwards: He tied for the team lead with five sacks last season despite missing the final four games of the regular season for violating the NFL's policy on steroid use. Edwards spent last season at right end but has been moved to the left side with the addition of Allen. The third-year player from Purdue could have a big season given the attention opponents will pay to Allen and Pro Bowl tackles Kevin and Pat Williams.

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