NFC North Tour: Sage vs. Jackson

We have the big story lines and update the training camp battles in our weekly visit to the Packers' NFC North Division rivals.

Minnesota Vikings

The competition between quarterbacks Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels did not exactly get off to a sizzling start.

As Rosenfels was trying to get comfortable with the finer points of the West Coast system run by coach Brad Childress, Jackson attempted to play through a minor sprain of the MCL in his left knee suffered on the second day of practice.

These two issues helped contribute to the fact that just over a week into training camp neither quarterback had emerged as the leader in a battle that is expected to go a few more weeks.

The reality of the situation is that Childress probably isn't going to get a very good read on the duel until the Vikings begin playing preseason games. Their first will be on Friday night at Indianapolis.

"I'm not slapping a grade on it," Childress said after the first week of camp. "Obviously, (Jackson) has missed time, so it wouldn't be fair to sit there and say, 'This guy is ahead by virtue of the fact he had five more practices.' It's a good competition and it's all headed toward a cumulative week here during practice and then I want to watch them compete with the lights on."

It will be interesting to see how Childress goes about dividing up the playing time between quarterbacks in the Vikings' opening two preseason games. So far, Jackson and Rosenfels have been splitting snaps with the first team in practice. That is when both are on the field.

Jackson missed three full days because of his knee injury and was eased back into action on the fourth day. He is wearing a brace on the knee and it isn't clear how long he will have to use it.

The time Jackson missed certainly served as a benefit to Rosenfels. Although Rosenfels worked in a West Coast system with the Houston Texans, it wasn't the exact version that the Vikings use. That became obvious the opening two days of camp. Rosenfels was doing plenty of thinking as he dropped back into the pocket.

Since that time, Rosenfels' decision-making has seemed to improve on a nearly daily basis.

"Every practice I feel like I'm thinking less and less and just playing," Rosenfels said.

Jackson has the advantage of having worked in this offense since 2006 and he has a stronger throwing arm than Rosenfels.

One key factor to this competition — and something that might be very difficult to judge before the regular season starts — is how these two handle blitzes that are thrown at them.

Jackson has often struggled in this area, including in the Vikings' playoff loss to Philadelphia last season. Rosenfels' biggest weakness has been making untimely and sometimes crucial mistake. He will need to prove he can stay away from those types of miscues to win this job.

"I'm not looking at that at all," Rosenfels said of where the competition stands. "That's not for me to judge. That's for the head coaches and coordinators and general managers. My job is to lead the offense and do the best job I can executing Coach Childress' offense."

Battle of the week: Tarvaris Jackson vs. Sage Rosenfels for starting quarterback — This could start to get interesting on Friday night when the Vikings open the preseason in Indianapolis. So far, the battle has yet to really heat up as Jackson missed three days early in camp because of a minor sprain of the MCL in his left knee. Rosenfels, meanwhile, is attempting to still get a grasp on the offense and definitely benefitted from getting all the first-team reps while Jackson was out.

Other battle fronts: Benny Sapp, Marcus McCauley, rookie Asher Allen and Karl Paymah continue to battle for a role in the nickel defense. Sapp played there much of last season. If McCauley wins the job, the Vikings could move him to the left corner and shift Antoine Winfield inside in passing situations. Allen has been a pleasant surprise and shows good instincts. Paymah is a long shot and is more likely to win a roster spot based on his special teams play ... Jaymar Johnson appears to have pulled ahead in the competition for fifth wide receiver spot. Glenn Holt and Darius Reynaud also are involved but the fact Johnson can return punts might give him the edge.

Rookie report: First-round wide receiver Percy Harvin made an immediate impact after signing a five-year contract. Harvin is being used in a variety of formations, including the Wildcat, and made a handful of nice deep catches in his opening week with the team. If Harvin stays healthy and on the right track, there is little doubt he will have an immediate impact. ... Second-round offensive lineman Phil Loadholt is working with the first team at right tackle and it appears to be his job to lose. ... Third-round cornerback Asher Allen is working with the third team after being sidelined for part of the offseason by a knee injury. Allen has moved into the competition for the nickel job and has been impressive. ... Fifth-round linebacker Jasper Brinkley is vying for the job backing up starting middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. Also in the battle is former CFL player Kenny Onatolu. Brinkley has shown he's not afraid to throw a big hit and should make the team based on what he can do for special teams. ... Seventh-round safety Jamarca Sanford most likely is going to end up on the practice squad but will attempt to make the 53-man roster based on how much work he can help special teams. ... Free-agent center Jon Cooper is getting work with the second team behind John Sullivan.

Chicago Bears


QB Jay Cutler
Warren Wimmer Photography
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler already believes he has reliable targets in wide receivers Devin Hester and Earl Bennett and tight ends Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark.

But Cutler says that isn't enough.

"We've got to find some depth there," Cutler said after Saturday afternoon's practice at Soldier Field in front of 27,793 fans. "We've got to find some guys we can trust other than Earl and Devin and the tight ends. But we're getting there. I'm real happy with the receiving group right now."

So was Bears coach Lovie Smith after Cutler completed 21-of-27 passes in seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 passing drills, utilizing nine different receivers.

"I like what the offense was able to do," Smith said. "They continue to move the ball. Our receivers were making plays. I think every day Jay gets a little bit more comfortable with his receivers; with our offense. He's an all-pro quarterback, and that's what we're starting to see."

Cutler did his best to get everyone involved Saturday, connecting with five different receivers while completing 6-of-6 passes in the first seven-on-seven session, including an exquisitely placed deep ball into the outstretched hands of Brandon Rideau for a 50-yard gain. The 6-foot-3, 198-pound Rideau has yet to catch a pass in a regular-season game in portions of four NFL seasons, but he gives the Bears the size that most of the other wide receivers can't provide.

"He's a big target; he's long," Cutler said. "He's got some good top-end speed."

Devin Aromashodu is another lightly regarded big wide receiver who is further down the depth chart than Rideau but is battling for a roster spot and has gotten a few practice snaps with the first team. Aromashodu has spent most of the previous three seasons on the practice squads of the Colts (2006) and Redskins (2008) but played in six games with the Colts in '07 and caught his only seven NFL passes for 96 yards.

"I think D.A.'s coming along really well," Cutler said of the 6-foot-2, 201-pounder. "He's (showing) some flashes out there. We're working him in with the ones a little bit."

On Saturday, Aromashodu made the most of his handful of reps with a pair of catches, including one of the most impressive grabs of the day, a leaping catch of a Cutler pass deep down the middle for a 27-yard pickup, which drew loud applause from the sweltering crowd.

Cutler said he wasn't surprised by the attendance at Soldier Field considering the record-setting crowds the Bears have enjoyed in Bourbonnais. He created some controversy earlier in the week when he rated Bears fans a "9," while giving Broncos fans a "6," on "The Waddle and Silvy Show" on ESPN radio.

Saturday, he explained that he wasn't criticizing Denver fans as much as complimenting the Bears' faithful.

"Denver's got great fans," Cutler said. "I wasn't saying anything (negative) about their fans. I was saying stuff about our camp at Bourbonnais and just how expansive it is and how much money and effort and energy they put into it down there.

"We get 11,000 fans on a (Sunday). If it wasn't for the fans coming out like that, we wouldn't have to have such a big camp. Every NFL team has great fans. That's why the NFL and football is the No. 1 sport in this country, because the fans are great everywhere we go. But I still love Chicago fans."

Judging by the rousing ovation Cutler got when he was introduced at the start of practice, Bears fans feel the same way about him.

Battle of the week: The anticipated battle between incumbent Josh Beekman and unrestricted free-agent Frank Omiyale for the left guard spot had yet to materialize — until Saturday. Omiyale finally got to play with the starters after Beekman took almost all the reps with the ones through the first eight days of training camp.

"(Saturday) was the first day, and it felt good," said Omiyale, who started just one game in a four- year apprenticeship with the Panthers but was considered a favorite to start for the Bears. "That has always been my goal, but I told coach (Lovie Smith) when I first got here, 'Whatever ya'll tell me to do that is what I'm going to do.' "

The competition will continue for another week until the preseason opener Saturday at Buffalo against the Bills, according to Smith, who said coaches needed to see Omiyale with the starters in order to evaluate him against Beekman.

"The depth chart doesn't really mean a thing until the Buffalo game," Smith said.

"I don't know what tomorrow brings," Omiyale said. "I felt I did pretty decent. I felt good. I felt comfortable."

Other battle fronts: The two-man race at nose tackle between veterans Dusty Dvoracek and Anthony Adams is now a three-man battle with Marcus Harrison off the non-football-injury list. Harrison was not allowed to practice until he got his weight down to the assigned 309, so he missed the first few days of practice.

Bears coaches and personnel people consider Harrison a hard worker on the field and in the weight room but believe he needs to be more disciplined off the field, where his eating habits need to improve.

"Lovie just wants maturity from me," Harrison said. "Just put whatever happened in the past behind me, move on and grow up."

Player of the week: Maybe this is finally Brandon Rideau's year.

The 6-foot-3, 198-pound wide receiver from Kansas has been bouncing around as a fringe player in the NFL for the past four seasons without catching a pass in a regular-season game. But Rideau has been getting snaps with the first team as the No. 3 receiver behind starters Devin Hester and Earl Bennett when the Bears go to a three-wide receiver formation, and he's making the most of his quality time.

In Friday afternoon's soggy practice, Rideau was the star of the day. In the first 11-on-11 session, the former practice squad player with the Browns and Bears, got behind cornerback Trumaine McBride down the sideline. He extended his lanky frame just far enough to catch a Jay Cutler bomb on his outstretched fingertips for what would have been a 60-yard touchdown.

Two plays later, Rideau beat Nate Vasher on the same route along the opposite sideline. In a later 11-on-11 session, Vasher had inside position, but Rideau reached back around him to snatch an underthrown Cutler pass for another huge gain.

"I don't know how many big plays he's made," Bears coach Lovie Smith said, "but I know he made quite a few (Friday)."

Rideau appeared to have made the Bears' final 53-man roster in 2007, when he caught five preseason passes for 87 yards. But he suffered an ankle injury in the final preseason game and was waived injured, although he was re-signed for the final regular-season game.

Last year he was cut just before the start of the regular season but signed to the practice squad and played in his first two NFL games late in the season. This year he's doing everything he can to claim the No. 3 receiver spot that is up for grabs.

Cutler's presence may provide more opportunities for everyone, but Rideau is making the most of his chances.

"The opportunities are there," he said. "I feel like (Cutler) will find you if you get open, and he'll give you a chance if he believes in you. Right now I guess he's feeling like I can make a couple plays, so he wants to come at me."

Rideau is competing with Rashied Davis, Devin Aromashodu and rookies Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox, and he is leading the race. He provides a bigger target than any other wide receiver on the roster and is a willing and physical blocker, which sets him apart at the position.

Every time you get an opportunity and you make the play, it gives the quarterbacks confidence," Rideau said. "It gives the coaches confidence, so it give you a chance to get on the field."

Smith and the Bears' offensive coaches seem to be gaining more confidence in Rideau every day, but it's still a long way until the season opener on Sept. 13 and everyone's role is determined.

"This is an opportunity for some of the receivers to step up," Smith said. "(Rideau) has taken advantage of the situation. We'll just let him play and let it play out through the course of camp and the preseason games, and then we'll see where we go from there."

Rookie report: DT Jarron Gilbert is seeing some first-team reps because starter Tommie Harris is being rested. ... WR Juaquin Iglesias has made major strides since OTAs and has shown good hands and toughness, along with blocking ability. ... CB D.J. Moore has gotten more practice time because of several minor injuries in the secondary, but he has yet to distinguish himself. ... WR Johnny Knox has flashed sure hands and excellent speed and quickness while taking second-team reps. ... S Al Afalava saw extensive action with the first team on Saturday and a few more snaps earlier in the week because of minor injuries to starters Ken Payne and Danieal Manning, and coach Lovie Smith has been impressed with his physical play. ... OL Lance Louis has shown a feistiness in camp, especially in one-on-one drills, when he regularly goes right up to and sometimes after the whistle. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune the San Diego County District Attorney's office is investigating an incident from last season when Louis allegedly attacked former San Diego State teammate Nick Sandford. Louis could face felony assault charges. ... DE Henry Melton hasn't made much of an impression in limited activity at a deep position.

Detroit Lions


Coordinator Gunther Cunningham
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
When Martin Mayhew became the Lions' general manager and Jim Schwartz became their coach, both talked about building from the inside out. But the Lions' lines appear to be their weaknesses through the first week of training camp, especially on defense.

The Lions have added some bigger, stronger players and new schemes on both sides of the ball. The question is whether they have the right personnel.

On defense, the Lions have ditched the Tampa Two. The defensive linemen used to be taught to fill gaps and force ballcarriers to the outside. They took on a lot of blocks with their shoulders, trying to "get skinny," as the coaches say, and penetrate.

Now the ends line up wide and try to funnel ballcarriers to the middle. The defensive linemen generally take on blocks more directly with their helmets and hands.

"You're going to see guys extending their hands and trying to attack blocks and control blocks a little bit more, trying to knock guys back," coach Jim Schwartz said.

But here's the problem: If the Lions' defensive ends funnel ballcarriers to the middle, who will be waiting there?

When Schwartz was the defensive coordinator in Tennessee, he had star defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, a 6-foot-6, 320-pound star. The Lions weren't in a position to sign him in free agency. He landed a megadeal with the Redskins.

Instead, the Lions signed Grady Jackson and drafted Sammie Hill.

Jackson has size, listed at 6-foot-2, 345 pounds. But he's 36, missed the offseason program because of a knee problem and is being eased into camp. The Lions hope he can play 15-20 snaps to help stop the run.

Hill has size, too, listed at 6-foot-4, 329 pounds. But he's raw, a fourth-round pick out of Stillman College.

The other five defensive tackles are all listed at 300 or 302 pounds.

Defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz said he is trying to get each player to understand how his body works and how he can be effective in this system.

"We're not making robots," Karmelowicz said. "We want to make productive players. That's what our goal is. It's a long involved process. It takes time."

On offense, the Lions ran a zone-blocking scheme almost exclusively last season, thinking if they kept it simple and kept at it, they would break through in the running game.

They will keep some of the zone scheme, but now they will do more power blocking. The philosophy will be the same as the one Schwartz has outlined for the defense: Be multidimensional. Do what it takes to win that week.

"We're going to try to take advantage of what the defense gives us, whether that's running the zone play or the power play or combinations of those," offensive line coach George Yarno said. "What we want to do is put them in the best position to have success based on what we see and who we're playing against. You'll see us do quite a few different things."

Each of the past three seasons, the Lions have ranked in the bottom three in the NFL in rushing and sacks allowed. Although other factors were significant — scheme, situations — the offensive line shouldered a lot of blame.

Four of last season's starters return: left tackle Jeff Backus, center Dominic Raiola, right guard Stephen Peterman and right tackle Gosder Cherilus. Daniel Loper is the leading candidate to take over at left guard, but he never started a regular-season game in four years with Tennessee.

Because of that, many doubt the line can improve much.

"That's fine," Yarno said. "You challenge us, we're going to rise to the challenge. I love challenges. So you say I'm not good enough, I'm going to prove to you that I am. Just give us a chance to prove it."

Battle of the week: Daunte Culpepper vs. Matthew Stafford for starting QB — Stafford appears to have the lead on Culpepper through one week of camp. But he hasn't taken a snap in an exhibition yet, and it is unclear whether simply a lead over Culpepper would be enough for him to start the opener. He might need to be head and shoulders above Culpepper. The Lions have said Stafford must both be ready and the best quarterback to start.

Other battle fronts The Lions don't have a tremendous number of starting jobs up for grabs, even though Schwartz has said everything is open after the NFL's first 0-16 season. Daniel Loper appears entrenched at left guard. Gosder Cherilus is holding off Jon Jansen at right tackle so far. The defensive tackle and safety competitions haven't cleared up at all because so many players have been out with injuries.

Player of the week: QB Matthew Stafford — It's hard not to keep talking about the No. 1 pick in the draft. Stafford's arm has been the main attraction in camp so far. For a franchise that has had only one Pro Bowl quarterback since Bobby Layne was traded in 1958 — and for a fan base scared of yet another failure after Joey Harrington flamed out as the No. 3 pick in 2002 — Stafford's every move is being watched closely. So far, so good.

Rookie report: Tight end Brandon Pettigrew (quad) and safety Louis Delmas (knee) have missed days of practice with what are described as minor injuries. The Lions were so concerned after Delmas' knee swelled up in a meeting that they sent him for tests, but no major damage was reported. ... Wide receiver Derrick Williams flashed one day by making a couple of nice catches, but he is off to a slow start overall and has a long way to go. ... Linebacker DeAndre Levy hasn't been as good as he was in OTAs, according to defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. ... OL Lydon Murtha has been out with a minor injury. ... LB Zack Follett, known for his hitting, has made an impact in pads. ... TE Dan Gronkowski is showing good receiving skills as he gets more reps with other tight ends injured.


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