NFC North Tour: Rivals' Previews

With focus turning toward the regular season, we go behind the scenes in Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota. The Vikings endured a strange yet expected camp. The Bears can't protect Jay Cutler, but he isn't worried. The Lions continue to make progress.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings arrived in Mankato for training camp with big expectations.

Coming off a heart-breaking loss to New Orleans in the NFC title game, Brad Childress' team appeared to be missing only one piece to the puzzle — and that was expected to be a short-term situation.

Brett Favre, who had joined the Vikings in mid-August in 2009, was again absent in late July when practices began but it was considered more of a charade than a reality that he was debating whether to play a 20th NFL season.

Otherwise, all of the Vikings' starters from last season were back, with the exception being that cornerback Cedric Griffin wouldn't be ready because of a torn ACL suffered against the Saints.

If everything went according to plan, Tarvaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels and Joe Webb would take the snaps in Mankato and Favre would be at Winter Park when training camp broke.

And that's how it went — sort of.

What the Vikings couldn't have anticipated was all the distractions they would have to endure. One was caused by Favre in early August when he began texting teammates and Vikings officials to say he wouldn't return.

Favre's teammates convinced him to change his mind but his wavering ways continued even after the Vikings left southern Minnesota. Finally, on Aug. 16, Childress dispatched veterans Jared Allen, Steve Hutchinson and Ryan Longwell to go to Hattiesburg on a private plane and come back with Favre.

They did, and so the Vikings will have the Hall of Fame quarterback for a second consecutive season. That's huge considering Favre had one of his best seasons in 2009, throwing for 33 touchdowns with a career-low seven interceptions and a career-best 107.2 passer rating.

Brett Favre was excited for the preseason.
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images
But there are questions on offense the Vikings did not anticipate. In fact, Childress has taken to describing the offense as being in flux.

It's hard to argue.

Wide receiver Sidney Rice arrived at camp with a sore hip and underwent surgery that is expected to sideline him for the first half of the season. Wide receiver Percy Harvin lost his grandmother on the second day of camp, left the team and did not return for an extended period because of his issues with migraine headaches. Harvin is back, but his availability has to be considered a week-to-week issue at this point.

The Vikings signed veteran free agent Javon Walker and dealt cornerback Benny Sapp to the Dolphins in exchange for Greg Camarillo as they tried to add depth at wide receiver.

But the reality is Rice's loss could be huge, given the success he and Favre had last season. Rice had a team-leading 83 receptions for 1,312 yards with eight touchdowns.

Then there is the issue at center. John Sullivan has spent most of the preseason sidelined because of a calf injury and did not play in the first three preseason games. The Vikings are making contingency plans to have right guard Anthony Herrera play center and rookie Chris DeGeare, a fifth-round pick from Wake Forest, take over at guard.

Even if everything went according to plan, it's going to be difficult for the Vikings to repeat the success of last season. Can Favre really achieve that level of play again as he nears his 41st birthday (Oct. 10)? The schedule also appears to be much tougher, with the Vikings opening against the Saints in New Orleans.

The last thing Favre needed was for the key components around him to go down.

Favre's main point, really since the day he arrived in Minnesota, has been that Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson is going to have to be the guy who carries the load. To do that, Peterson must overcome his fumbling issues and also prove he can be effective in pass protection.

Favre, meanwhile, swears he will ride off into the sunset after 2010 and not look back. We've heard that before, but this time he says he's serious. That gives him one more shot to get a second Super Bowl title on his resume.

At this point, it doesn't look like that will be easy — a fact Favre knows all too well.

"The expectations are high here, as they should be," he said.

"From my standpoint, I can't make any guarantees, never would. I'm just going to do everything I can to help this football team. The bottom line is winning. I'm not here to set any records. People say, 'You can do this, you can do this.' I've done it all. There's nothing left to prove. I'm here to have fun and help these guys win. I really enjoy this group of guys like you wouldn't believe. I think the feeling is mutual. Once again, it's really about these guys."

Chicago Bears

Despite a preseason that had him running for his life or ducking for cover far too often, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler can't wait for the regular season to begin.

That might seem odd, considering the Bears scored just 17 points in the five quarters that Cutler had played going into the final preseason game, during which he was sacked 10 times, threw two interceptions and compiled a passer rating of 62.4.

Questions about the reworked offensive line's ability to protect Cutler have not been answered to anyone's satisfaction, although the quarterback and offensive coordinator Mike Martz both insist there has been improvement. The other huge question was how quickly the offense would fully grasp Martz's thick playbook. Cutler, whose football intelligence is almost as impressive as his rocket arm, appears to have it down pat. But, unless all his receivers and blockers are on the same learning curve, there could be problems.

But Cutler says he's ready to play for keeps in Martz's scheme, starting with the season opener against the Lions on Sept. 12.

It's been a tough start for Cutler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"I'm good," he said. "I met with Mike a lot since the preseason started, just talking through game plans. We're going to do more and more of that once the season starts getting a little bit closer, just talking Detroit. And from week to week I'm sure we'll have a lot of film sessions and going over the game plan. But I feel good about the system. I understand it, and I know what we're trying to get accomplished out there. So I'm ready for the real games to start."

Really? After getting blanked by the Cardinals on five possessions, plus a kneel-down at the end of the half?

"It's preseason," Cutler said. "We're (running some) plays just to run plays and getting game ready and season ready. We're not calling exactly what we want to call against exactly the right defense we want to get. We're not checking anything (changing plays). We're not making a ton of adjustments on the fly, either.

"Is there reason for concern? I mean, maybe. Maybe not. I'm not concerned. I don't think anybody in that locker room is really concerned (with) where we're at. I think we're happy with where we are. There's room to improve absolutely, but I think we'll be ready Week One."

No one who's seen Martz's offense hitting on all cylinders doubts that it can run like a racecar. Opening up the playbook requires better protection up front, but Cutler's ready to hit the gas pedal.

"We're going to open it up," he said. "Those guys will be expected to make it happen over there. They played a lot better this past game going back and looking at the film. I was a little edgy in the pocket moving around sometimes. I could have helped them out a little bit. That's what we're learning.

"With (guard) Lance (Louis) in there and with (tackle) Chris (Williams) on the left side, they're kind of still jelling together. Some of the calls are a little bit new to them as well with what we're doing protection-wise. So it's all coming together and I think once we get closer to Detroit we'll be OK."

Martz expected to see a better performance than he did last Saturday, but he'd rather deal with problems early and get them corrected before the regular season.

"There's so much information on them, they're so wound up and so tight, they wanted to play well so badly," he said. "We made some mistakes that I was a little bit surprised by, but fortunately you get that done now instead of the opener, and get that out of your system. We've had a real good clean-up week of practice on those things. I think that there's a cohesion now, particularly in the passing game."

Martz and Cutler said the offensive line showed improvement in the third preseason game and looked better in film review than in the heat of the battle.

"Chris (Williams) did a nice job," Martz said. "Lance (Louis) was a standout. I wish I could show you tape of Lance on (Darnell) Dockett. He did a terrific job. Each week our group grows together and gets better and better. I'm very pleased with the progress, particularly in the protections with that group."

Defensively, the Bears have fewer concerns, although a spate of minor injuries at linebacker and safety throughout training camp and the preseason sometimes made progress fitful.

Safety will remain a concern until two players can be found who are sure tacklers and can make plays on the ball. The Bears seem to have a roster full of players who can do one or the other but not both. Rookie Major Wright was homing in on a starting job until finger surgery knocked him out of the final three preseason games, but he could wind up starting early in the season.

Free agent Julius Peppers has made the d-line more dangerous and the pass rush more effective, which the Bears hope will mask shortcomings in the secondary.

Detroit Lions

Progress is measured differently for the Lions. When you are trying rise from the rubble left by former president Matt Millen's regime, a certain number of wins or making the playoffs aren't necessarily the indicators of success.

Start with this: Is there a blueprint? Is there a definitive, creditable rebuilding plan in place? And for once the answer is yes. President Tom Lewand, general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz, if nothing else, are executing a plan.

In their second year they have already built an offensive foundation. They drafted quarterback Matthew Stafford and tight end Brandon Pettigrew last year. Those two, joining receiver Calvin Johnson, gave the Lions a starting point.

The goal over the summer was to build onto that foundation, to add play-makers in order to give Stafford more options and to discourage opposing defenses from loading up on Johnson. To that end they drafted tailback Jahvid Best out of Cal, signed free agent receiver Nate Burleson and traded for tight end Tony Scheffler.

The Lions also solidified a long-time sore spot on the offensive line by trading for veteran left guard Rob Sims.

Jahvid Best looks like the real deal.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
The first building block seems to be in place. The Lions are going to score points. Whether or not they win games will be determined by how quickly the next rebuilding phase comes along — the defense.

The Lions expended a lot of resources this summer toward building an NFL-level defensive line. They signed defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, drafted defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh with the second overall pick, traded for veteran tackle Corey Williams and aligned them with holdover Cliff Avril.

It's a respectable unit, one that gets off the ball and attacks. Teams in the preseason were deploying no-huddle tactics, screens and other short-hitting pass routes to neutralize the force of the Lions' front four.

Unfortunately, one unit does not a complete defense make. And the back seven remains in a state of disrepair.

The Lions have one proven linebacker — 32-year-old Julian Peterson. The other outside linebacker is first-year starter Zach Follett, who at this time last year was released and playing on the practice squad.

Middle linebacker DeAndre Levy is the leader of the defense, but he has been hobbled by injuries — first a back and now a groin.

As for the secondary, the Lions upgraded slightly at cornerback with Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade, and Louis Delmas is a potential Pro Bowl player at safety. But Delmas has been slowed by a groin injury.

Schwartz said that the identity of this team would be forged during training camp. If that's so, then this looks like a team that has to score 35 points a game to have a chance to win.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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