NFC North tour: Defense with fangs

In our weekly tour of the NFC North's major story lines, the Lions are focusing on improving their awful defense; the Bears are focusing on their young wide receivers; and the Vikings are focusing on you-know-who.

Lions: Defense an emphasis

The Lions' defense has been horrible the past two years. Beyond horrible.

It ranked last in average yards and points allowed in both 2007 and '08, and last year the Lions allowed 517 points, second-most in the history of the NFL.

But the Lions have overhauled the defense this offseason, even though they used their first two draft picks on offensive players: quarterback Matthew Stafford and tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

The Lions have a new coaching staff, a new scheme and several new players. More than half the starters on defense might be different.

"The jury's out," defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said. "This time of the year, you've got to be careful what you say, because it might catch you in the end. But overall, I think on defense I feel pretty good with the players we got."

The Lions' new coach, Jim Schwartz, was Tennessee's defensive coordinator the past eight years. He has ditched the Tampa Two philosophy.

Schwartz wants bigger, stronger players funneling ballcarriers into the middle, instead of smaller, quicker players funneling ballcarriers to the outside. He wants more man-to-man coverage and blitzing, less zone. He wants more versatility.

The Lions have three new cornerbacks: Phillip Buchanon, Anthony Henry and Eric King. They have two new linebackers: Larry Foote and Julian Peterson. They have a new defensive tackle: Grady Jackson. They could still add a new defensive end: free agent Kevin Carter.

Those are just the highlights, and that doesn't include draft picks like safety Louis Delmas and linebacker DeAndre Levy.

"I'm pleased with what happened in the draft," said Cunningham, who raved about Delmas' performance in rookie orientation and said he was pleased with Levy's.

The Lions still have a long way to go, though — even in their evaluation of the holdovers.

"I'm still finding out the way they were coached," Cunningham said. "I think it's a process of understanding what they were asked to do, what we're asking them to do, and evaluating them athletically and in the meeting rooms. So, it's a combination of a lot of things.

"You know America, when they got McDonald's hamburgers, everything became easy. Our job is supposed to be that we have the answers in 12 hours. But this is a process all the way through camp and preseason."

— Cunningham has brought his pressure packages to Detroit.

"Julian Peterson will be rushing the passer," Cunningham said. "He probably will do it as a down lineman. But I have a scheme where there's only three linemen, three linebackers and five DBs. We call it quarter, and a lot of coaches don't let you get it on the field. They'll go hurry-up because you can blitz and do so many things out of that scheme, and Ernie (Sims) and Julian are a really big part of that."

Bears: Youth must catch on

Maybe there's a reason the Bears haven't signed a 30-something unrestricted free agent wide receiver in order to give Jay Cutler a proven and productive target to throw his laser-like passes to this season.

Maybe last year's experiment with veteran unrestricted free agent wide receivers Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd soured the Bears on that approach. Lloyd caught 26 passes last season for 364 yards and was close to useless in the final 12 games, when he caught 11 passes for 115 yards. Booker was even less productive. He caught 14 passes for 211 yards all season, and in the final nine games had just three catches for 28 yards.

Even worse, their presence kept last year's third-round pick, Earl Bennett, buried on the depth chart, and it retarded his development. This year, because Booker and Lloyd are gone, Bennett will be fast-tracked and given a legitimate shot to start or at least contribute. Maybe, if he were given the same chance last season he might have put up better numbers than either Booker or Lloyd, but it's always safer to go with the proven commodity and most coaches tend to lean that way.

The same could be true of this year's third-round pick, Juaquin Iglesias. With a veteran on the roster, Iglesias would be the odd man out. On the current roster, he has an opportunity to get significant playing time.

"He'll have a better chance to play because he won't have those veteran guys in front of him," Bears wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said during the team's rookie minicamp earlier this month. "Last year, we had a luxury of having two veteran guys there and we could slow (Bennett's) progress down some. We may accelerate (Iglesias') progress a little."

If the Bears are convinced Bennett and Iglesias are ready for prime time, maybe they don't need to bring in a veteran presence. But saying that the Bears had the "luxury" of having Booker and Lloyd last year is definitely giving those two more credit than they deserve.

In addition to Bennett and Iglesias, the Bears might also get some production from fifth-round pick Johnny Knox, who impressed with not only his speed but his soft hands during the rookie minicamp.

"I like him," Drake said. "We hope that this is a group that we can count on, but you don't ever know."

— The Bears' signing of unrestricted free agent tight end Michael Gaines could present last year's fifth-round pick, Kellen Davis, with an uphill battle for a roster spot this year.

The 6-foot-7, 262-pound Davis played in all 16 games last season as the No. 3 tight end but did not catch a pass and was a marginal contributor on special teams. With Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark doing most, if not all, of the pass-catching at the tight end position, the Bears want their No. 3 tight end to be a powerful blocker.

"I never thought I'd be playing for Chicago because of the situation they have," said Gaines said, a Central Florida product. "But this is a privilege that they see me in so many different ways."

Vikings: Favre, Favre, Favre

Vikings players, like just about everybody else, have been following the Brett Favre soap opera from afar. While many signs still point to him ending up in Minnesota, things seem to change on an hourly basis

"There is so much going on with this in the media, and it is what it is," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "From what we know, it could be a blown-up story that may have no legs at all. What we're going to do is stick with what we've got. We have two great quarterbacks in there, with (John David Booty) learning.

"So, we have Sage (Rosenfels) and Tarvaris (Jackson), who are in there as great quarterbacks, great experienced quarterbacks who we are going to be behind. ... Unless something happens or changes, there is really no speculation about it. We should move on and go on with Sage and Tarvaris like we have been."

Jackson and Rosenfels have been slated to compete for the starting job in training camp this summer, but that could change if Favre decides to end his second attempt at retirement.

Greenway, for one, clearly would like to see a full commitment from Favre if he does return.

"(Favre has) retired a couple of times, so you wonder where his loyalties lie," Greenway said, referencing Favre's retirement from the Packers in March 2008 and from the Jets in February. "For us, it's about we're moving forward with what we've got here.

"We have a team that can obviously win at a high level and we have a team that, moving forward, we think can really compete for an NFC North title again and get to the championship game and hopefully further. As good as something may sound, we have a great team to play with right now, and there is no sense in looking outside of what we have within our 53(-man roster)."

Ben Leber, another of the Vikings' starting linebackers, doesn't seem overly concerned about how the situation will play out.

"Whatever happens, happens," he said. "You know how the players are. We don't know about this stuff until it actually happens. Even players that get cut or players that sign on, it's usually after the fact. We're seeing it off the Internet and through the newspaper. Whatever happens, we'll read about it probably after it happens."

— The agent for cornerback Antoine Winfield said contract talks with the Vikings have ceased and that "no further negotiations are planned." Winfield will be entering the final season of a six-year contract in 2009. The two sides had been discussing an extension for the past few months. Winfield, however, turns 32 in June and will be entering his 11th NFL season. That could definitely have played a factor how many years and how much money the Vikings were willing to offer.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.


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