NFC North game scout

With the Vikings off this weekend, we turn our attention to the other NFC North teams, with the Lions at the Packers and the Bears at the Giants.

Sunday
Detroit Lions (0-3) at Green Bay Packers (2-1)
Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) at Cleveland Browns (0-3)
Baltimore Ravens (2-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0)
Denver Broncos (1-2) at Tennessee Titans (2-1)
Carolina Panthers (0-3) at New Orleans Saints (2-1)
New York Jets (2-1) at Buffalo Bills (0-3)
Seattle Seahawks (2-1) at St. Louis Rams (1-2)
San Francisco 49ers (0-3) at Atlanta Falcons (2-1)
Houston Texans (2-1) at Oakland Raiders (1-2)
Indianapolis Colts (2-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2)
Washington Redskins (1-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (2-1)
Arizona Cardinals (2-1) at San Diego Chargers (1-2)
Chicago Bears (3-0) at New York Giants (1-2)
Monday

New England Patriots (2-1) at Miami Dolphins (2-1)


Detroit Lions (0-3) at Green Bay Packers (2-1)



KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 10/3/10
SURFACE: FieldTurf
TV: FOX (Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Charissa Thompson)

KEYS TO THE GAME


The Packers are two-touchdown favorites as much for their offensive potential as the Lions' defensive shortcomings, all of which have been on display early in the season. Lions coach Jim Schwartz has praised the offense for producing yards, not points, but they'll need to tally regularly to keep pace with the Packers. QB Aaron Rodgers lit up the Lions for 706 yards and five touchdowns in two meetings last season. He has been effective even with little threat of a running game since RB Ryan Grant's ankle injury. RB Jahvid Best (toe) is Detroit's top playmaker with five of the team's seven offensive touchdowns. If he's not available, the Packers' pass rushers, headlined by OLB Clay Matthews, can pin back their ears and focus on taking down QB Shaun Hill.

FAST FACTS

The Lions' 3-40 record since the middle of the 2007 season is the worst 43-game stretch in NFL history, according to STATS LLC. ... Lions WR Calvin Johnson has five TD catches in his last three games vs. Green Bay. ... Packers WR Donald Driver has three straight 100-yard games against the Lions. ... Brandon Jackson, the Packers' leading rusher, is averaging 2.9 yards per carry.

LIONS

The Lions gave up 362 yards passing to Jay Cutler, 247 to Michael Vick and 201 to Brett Favre. Start the over-under on Aaron Rodgers' passing yards against the Lions Sunday at 400.

"I was telling my DBs today that this might be one of the best offenses that we face all year," safety Louis Delmas said. "They have a lot of age behind their organization. The quarterback, all the receivers, also the tight end, it's a great outfit and it's going to be tough to stop them. But we put on our pads just like they put on their pads. The best man wins."

Rodgers is 4-0 against the Lions. His passer rating is 121.7. He has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes (68.6). He has passed for over 300 yards in each game with 11 touchdowns and just one interception.

With running back Ryan Grant out for the year, and the Lions' only tangible defensive strength being the front four, Rodgers might put the ball up 50 times.

"Why not?" nickel back Alphonso Smith said. "They have a pretty good tight end and three legitimate receivers. Why wouldn't they throw the ball? But when people pass the ball 50-plus times, or even 40-plus times, that leaves a lot of room for error. A lot of games come down to three, four, five plays. When a team is throwing that high a volume of passes, you hope you make at least three or four plays. No one plays the game perfect. You just have to capitalize on the mistakes that they make."

Say this about the Lions' secondary, whatever they lack in talent or productivity, they make up for in spunk.

"We look at every game that has a great quarterback and great receivers as an opportunity to go in there and show the world that we could be a great defense and a great secondary," Delmas said. "I think this week will be a great test and we could give a great answer to the world that we can compete with the best. And if we do it will shock a lot of people."

The Lions' corners, believe it or not, haven't been awful. They have been beaten in single coverage situations only a few times. The mistakes, and there have been many of these, have come from self-inflicted communication and coverage errors.

"When you've got the guys we have up front, teams are going to attack another place," cornerback Jonathan Wade said. "If you are a cornerback, they're going to come after you. Period. You will win some and you will lose some. That's just the job. A lot of people don't know that and a lot of people don't care. They just see a guy catching the ball on you and they get upset and think you suck. But that's not the case. Your job is to win as many battles as you can."

Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham talks about a light in a cornerback's eyes. If that light goes out, you might as well release him because he's worthless. Cunningham hasn't seen the light even dim in the eyes of his cornerbacks.

"You are looking for a guy that will fight back all the time," he said. "We have a lot of fight. We are playing a lot more aggressively. We're hitting receivers and jamming them at the line of scrimmage and I really like that. We are coming around to playing the way I believe you should play, and that's being really physical."

PACKERS

The Packers can be thankful the Detroit Lions don't pose a huge threat on offense.

Green Bay is expected to be short-handed on defense for Sunday's home game against the winless Lions, who have lost 19 straight matchups against the Packers in Wisconsin dating to 1992.

While the playing status of the players on the injury report won't be officially declared until Friday, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said after practice Thursday he is "doubtful" that nickel linebacker Brandon Chillar will play.

Chillar suffered a shoulder strain in the 20-17 loss at the Chicago Bears on Monday night and has yet to practice this week.

With Chillar likely to be sidelined, the Packers will have to make do in their sub packages with starting inside linebacker A.J. Hawk, who generally gives way to Chillar in passing situations.

McCarthy said Desmond Bishop, who returned to action Monday after missing the previous game because of a hamstring injury, also is an option to fill Chillar's void.

The Packers' secondary also could be in flux come Sunday. Rookie Sam Shields, who has been the nickel cornerback since the start of the season, suffered a calf injury in practice Thursday and dropped out. Shields, who was added to the injury report, was undergoing treatment in the afternoon.

McCarthy was unsure after practice the extent of the injury and what it might mean for Shields' availability this weekend.

Brandon Underwood, who made his season debut Monday after being out with a shoulder injury, could be the third cornerback after he lost the nickel job in the preseason.

Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins didn't practice Thursday because of a knee injury he sustained Monday, but McCarthy was optimistic Collins would be OK to play Sunday.

"I feel pretty good about Nick," McCarthy said. "But, we're coming off a Monday night game, so we'll see how he is (Friday)."

Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson practiced in full Thursday and should be fine for Sunday. Woodson has been playing through pain with a lingering toe injury.



Chicago Bears (3-0) at New York Giants (1-2)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 10/3/10
SURFACE: FieldTurf
TV: NBC, (Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Andrea Kremer)


KEYS TO THE GAME

The Giants insist they aren't surprised the Bears are unbeaten, and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, a former Lovie Smith lieutenant in Chicago, said the diverse offense presents many challenges to his banged-up defense. Giants coach Tom Coughlin has one rule for P Matt Dodge: Don't kick to Devin Hester, who has eight career punt returns for touchdowns. There's no such simple solution for slowing QB Jay Cutler. He has been hit regularly while still finding open receivers downfield. The Bears' defense is tops in the NFL stopping the run (39.7 yards per game, 2.1 per carry). However, deficiencies in the pass coverage were exposed by Tony Romo (374 yards) and Aaron Rodgers (316). Eli Manning has the outside targets to soften the aggressive Bears defense but pass protection will be vital - as will the ability of his receivers to stop deflecting passes to defenders.

FAST FACTS

Hester has 12 total returns, one shy of the all-time record held by Brian Mitchell. ... Bears MLB Brian Urlacher has had a part in five takeaways, including a pass deflection intercepted by Lance Briggs. ... Bears DE Julius Peppers has 10 blocked field goals in his career. ... Bears RB Matt Forte, with 1,150 receiving yards since 2008, leads running backs in that category. ... QB Eli Manning had eight TDs and two INTS after four games in 2009. Entering Week 4, he has five TDs and six INTs.

GIANTS

Greg Olsen is listed as a tight end on the Chicago Bears' depth chart; however, offensive coordinator Mike Martz's use of Olsen, who in three games has 10 receptions for 140 yards and two touchdowns, makes him a versatile threat who can line up just about anywhere to create mismatches.

Fortunately for the Giants, they have a good idea of what to expect when they line up against Olsen on Sunday night.

"If you get a team that has a 4-3 and they have three linebackers on the field and you flex him out like a wide receiver and a linebacker has to cover, that's what they want," said linebacker Michael Boley. "On the flipside of that, they want teams to put a defensive back in there so they can actually put him back in the box and run the ball where he then goes."

Boley compared the Bears' use of Olsen to how the Dallas Cowboys use their tight end, Jason Witten, to create mismatches. "He's a really good athlete for a tight end, so they try to use him as far as flexing him out like a third or fourth wide receiver to get that mismatch where you get a bigger guy against a smaller guy."

So how do the Giants plan to neutralize this key offensive weapon? While the defensive players obviously didn't want to discuss the game plan, they did offer a few hints as to what their thinking was.

"We want to stop their speed," said cornerback Terrell Thomas, noting that one way to stop a receiver such as Olsen is to jam him at the line of scrimmage. "It messes up their timing and lets our boys up front eat (the quarterback.)"

"A lot of people have left him out there one-on-one," added safety Kenny Phillips. "They've put a cornerback on him because his skill set is like a receiver."

Regardless of how the Giants plan to defend Olsen, Phillips is confident that they have the right strategy in place.

"We're gonna get it done," he said.

BEARS

Whether it's his tenuous job security or a diminished tolerance for mistakes and poor play after three straight non-playoff seasons, Lovie Smith is not the same "players' coach" he was considered his first six seasons with the Bears.

In Monday night's victory over the Packers, the only thing six-year starter Tommie Harris' $40 million contract bought him was a seat on the bench.

In the offseason, the Bears thought enough of right cornerback Zack Bowman to move him to the higher-profile left side ahead of seven-year starter Charles Tillman. But it only took one missed tackle Monday night for Bowman to be told to grab some bench, too.

Wide receiver Devin Aromashodu, the Bears' leading receiver in the final four games last season and a favorite of quarterback Jay Cutler, was also inactive against Green Bay, even though he led the Bears' wideouts with five catches and 71 yards in the season opener.

What's the message Smith is trying to send?

"We don't try to send messages or things like that," Smith said, even though he and every player on his team knows that isn't accurate.

"It's the same philosophy we've always had," Smith said. "We hold the players accountable on the football field. We look at what they do on the field, and we play the guys that give us the best opportunity to win. Players realize that, too. That is why they are anxious to go out there on the football field and prove that they can help the team win that week and that's who we are going to go with."

That's a great philosophy, but if that were always the case, Harris wouldn't have been allowed to sleepwalk through two years of mediocre-to-poor performances and still keep his starting job in 2008 and ‘09.

Now it's about what have you done lately, not potential. There is no more playing favorites or coddling; the best players play.

"The standard has been the same for everybody," linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa said. "I think it just goes to show whether it's Tommie Harris, one of our finest D-linemen, or Zack Bowman, one of our finest defensive backs, it doesn't matter. It could be me. You could see me getting yanked next week if I don't perform. That's the standard. We all understand it. It's our job to perform, and if we're not doing that, then we expect that the next person is more than capable of replacing us."

That's the beauty of depth. It provides the luxury of not having to suffer along with the inconsistencies of underperforming starters or seeing the team suffer when a starter is injured. And that appears to be another difference this year. The Bears actually possess the kind of depth that allows them to bench starters who aren't performing to their potential without suffering any dropoff.

The Bears played just as well, maybe even better, with Matt Toeaina starting in place of Harris and Tim Jennings stepping in for Bowman. Ditto when right tackle Frank Omiyale had to move to left tackle after Chris Williams suffered a hamstring injury on the first series against the Cowboys, and Kevin Shaffer came off the bench to play right tackle. Williams remains out, but the Bears haven't missed a beat.

"It says that we have good depth, and each year that's what you're trying to do, get that best group together," Smith said. "We talk about depth an awful lot. Now we're getting a chance to just not talk about it but to see that depth really come up.

"Some years it just doesn't work that way. But during the course of a year, injuries come up. All different types of things come up, that will maybe make you go to that next guy in line. Players realize that too, especially some of the guys that have been around here for a while. We keep telling them, ‘If you deserve to play, eventually something will happen where you'll get an opportunity to do that.'"

This year, Smith is also telling players that if they don't perform, they will not play. But he says it's not a situation where no one's job is safe.

"Every job, if you are performing well, your position is safe," he said. "(But) if you are the starter, you have to play a certain way or the next guy gets an opportunity. Our guys know that, and they're OK with that."

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