NFC North Tour: Angry Urlacher

With Jay Cutler onboard, Brian Urlacher says the Bears have gotten away from their identity. The Lions suffered a big loss on Thanksgiving when rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew blew out his ACL. With Brett Favre, the Vikings' offense is looking deep.

Chicago Bears

Venting over the weekend to Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports while they watched on television as the Vikings mopped the Mall of America Field with the Bears, injured linebacker Brian Urlacher leveled thinly veiled criticisms of the offense, specifically quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte.

Urlacher also longed for the days of winning with dominant defense and a strong running game. The problem is that the Bears possess neither.

When Urlacher suffered a season-ending dislocated right wrist in the season opener, the Bears immediately became a much lesser team. But the team's decline has been much steeper than expected. They are mired in a four-game losing streak, have lost six of their last seven, and have allowed more than 35 points in three of their last six games.

Coach Lovie Smith was asked about Urlacher's comments, and he publicly dismissed them as frustration, but privately he cannot be pleased by negativity from a team captain.

"At this stage, everyone is frustrated with where we are and everybody will speak their mind," Smith said. "Brian Urlacher is a team guy, like all of our players are, and they will voice their opinion. I would like all comments to be positive toward what we're doing, but guys have a chance to voice their opinion. I can't do a whole lot about that, I just know that Brian is a team player. He's behind everything that we're doing."

Urlacher said he yearns to see a strong running game and a defense that keeps the Bears in games, makes big plays and puts the team in position to win.

"Look, I love Jay, and I understand he's a great player who can take us a long way, and I still have faith in him," Urlacher told Silver. "But I hate the way our identity has changed. We used to establish the run and wear teams down and try not to make mistakes, and we'd rely on our defense to keep us in the game and make big plays to put us in position to win. Kyle Orton might not be the flashiest quarterback, but the guy is a winner, and that formula worked for us. I hate to say it, but that's the truth."

For most of this season, the Bears' defense has been little more than a speed bump. It can occasionally slow down an enemy offense on the ground but doesn't do much to thwart an air attack.

The really depressing thought for Bears fans is that this defense, despite the money that's been lavished upon it, is in need of a major overhaul.

Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye will be 33 before the 2010 season starts and is an unrestricted free agent after this year. He started the season strong but has had half a sack in the past seven games. The other end, Alex Brown will be 31 next summer. He's a solid all-around player, but he's never had more than seven sacks in a season.

After a half season of having no impact at all, tackle Tommie Harris has recently shown brief flashes of his former Pro Bowl self, but that may be all he'll ever show. Urlacher will be 32 before training camp starts next year and nose tackle Anthony Adams will be 30.

The fact is that the window of opportunity has closed for this defense. It's no longer getting better, it's just getting older. The defense that Urlacher remembers is exactly that, a memory.

Extra point

— QB Jay Cutler resorted to dinking and dunking last week because of the Vikings' pass rush. He completed 18-of-23 passes but had just 147 yards and was still sacked four times. Despite throwing two more interceptions to give him a career-worst 20, Cutler's mediocre 71.6 passer rating was his highest in three weeks.

Detroit Lions


Brandon Pettigrew
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
When the Lions lost tight end Brandon Pettigrew to a torn ACL in his left knee early in their 34-12 Thanksgiving loss to Green Bay, it was a big blow. Nothing is more important to the Lions this season than developing their young players. Pettigrew was the No. 20 pick in the NFL draft this year, and he was just starting to play like it.

Pettigrew was coming off perhaps his best performance. In the Lions' 38-37 victory Nov. 22 against Cleveland, Pettigrew caught six passes for a season-high 72 yards, including the winning touchdown with no time left. He had a similar game Nov. 8 at Seattle, with seven catches for 70 yards and a touchdown.

"Catching-wise and talent-wise, he reminded me a lot of Charlie Young when he came up as a rookie," said Lions assistant director of pro personnel Charlie Sanders, a Hall of Fame tight end. "But Charlie couldn't block like that."

Young was rookie of the year with the Eagles in 1973, kicking off a 13-year NFL career that included Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl championship. He caught 55 passes for 854 yards and six touchdowns in 14 games. Pettigrew caught 30 passes for 346 yards and two TDs in 11 games.

Sanders said he had never seen a tight end block as well as Pettigrew did, but that almost became a problem.

"The only thing I was concerned about was whether we went to the well too many times with that," Sanders said. "My whole thing was, if you want that, you should have drafted a tackle."

Sanders said the Lions should have played Pettigrew more when wide receiver Calvin Johnson missed two games with a knee injury: Oct. 18 at Green Bay and Nov. 1 against St. Louis. But the Lions had cut down Pettigrew's snaps so he could have less on his plate.

"That was the only thing that disappointed me, that he didn't get the playing time," Sanders said. "When Calvin was hurt, that was the time to exploit him. Right after that, they started getting him the ball.

"To me, he's a difference-maker. He's the guy that you put with Calvin. A lot of people think you have to get another wideout, but you have to have another playmaker."

Extra point

— QB Matthew Stafford practiced Tuesday when the Lions worked out for the first time since their Thanksgiving game against Green Bay. Stafford played through a left shoulder injury against the Packers. Calvin Johnson (knee) practiced, too.

Minnesota Vikings


Brett Favre
Elsa/Getty Images
There is all sorts of statistical evidence to show just how potent the Vikings' offense has become now that quarterback Brett Favre is running the show.

One of the most telling stats — in addition to Minnesota's 342 points, second most in the league — is the 10-1 Vikings have as many pass plays of 20 or more yards this season (39) through 11 games as they did all of last year.

Favre, given more freedom by coach Brad Childress than any quarterback to come before him, has done a masterful job of going through his reads and taking medium to long-range shots when he sees fit.

"I think it's being aggressive play-calling wise," Childress said of the explosive plays. "We used to use the conventional wisdom that you've got to take a couple shots a quarter, but you can be looking for a shot and calling a shot and if it's not there you have to be able to bring the ball to the next level, to the next level, to the next level.

"We've got some guys that are getting up the field. ... (Favre has) taken (his shots) where they're available, where there's good protection, where he's able to move and see. (Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell) is doing a nice job of calling those things. Truth be known, most of those plays are built from the top down. You're looking high and bringing it back down."

It doesn't hurt that Favre has a cast of receivers that is developing into one of the best in the NFL. Sidney Rice and rookie Percy Harvin are having terrific seasons, and Visanthe Shiancoe might be the most underrated pass-catching tight end in the league. And that doesn't even include wide receiver Bernard Berrian, who signed a big free-agent contract in 2008 to play for the Vikings.

In the Vikings' 36-10 victory over Chicago last week, Favre had five completions of more than 20 yards. Two of them went to Harvin. On Sunday, an Arizona defense ranked 29th against the pass will try to slow Favre and company.

"It just goes back to the play calling and executing," Rice said. "Brett goes through his reads and if he has somebody open down the field, he's going to take a shot, no matter who it is, tight end, wide receivers. He's going to get the ball down the field and we've just got to continue to make those big plays."

Extra point

— RB Adrian Peterson, the NFL's leading rusher in 2008, reached the 1,000-yard mark for the third consecutive season Sunday but that wasn't the main storyline after the victory. Peterson was stripped of the ball twice and had one turnover, giving him six fumbles (five lost) this season and continuing a troubling trend. Peterson has 19 fumbles in two-plus seasons and has lost 12 of them. The Bears put a focus on Peterson and held him to 85 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown. This wasn't a terrible day considering Peterson had been limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday because of an ankle injury and was then held out of practice Friday because of an illness. But Peterson's continued inability to protect the football is definitely a cause for concern at Winter Park.


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