The Bears are getting some reinforcements on the offensive line. The Lions are to the point where they feel disrespected. The Packers are still feeling the sting of injuries messing with their lineup. Get those stories and many more notes from around the NFC North.
The expected return this week of 10-year veteran guard Roberto Garza
should help the embattled offensive line, but it probably isn't enough to make the front five better than a mediocre group.
Garza missed the past two games following arthroscopic knee surgery to remove torn cartilage, and he played with the injury for three weeks before having the procedure. In Garza's absence at left guard, the Bears plugged in Chris Williams
, who started at left tackle the final four games last year and the first two games this year before suffering a hamstring injury.
Although Williams seems miscast at left guard, the Bears are loath to give up completely on their 2008 first-round draft choice, and they're satisfied with the play of Frank Omiyale
at left tackle.
That means that Garza could return this week at right guard, where he started for the Bears for five years before being switched to the left side during training camp. With rookie J'Marcus Webb
, a seventh-round pick, starting at right tackle, Garza's veteran presence would be a welcome help to a young player with great potential but little experience.
But the Bears have already allowed 31 sacks, eight more than any other team in the league.
It's not completely the fault of the offensive line that quarterback Jay Cutler
has become a crash-test dummy, but the line is where a lot of the problems begin for the Bears' offense, both passing and running.
With new starters at three positions, growing pains were expected in the early going. But it's been more like labor pains, and the Bears are no closer to a workable solution than they were during training camp. If the Bears have indeed given up on Williams as their left tackle of the future, he can officially be considered a bust.
Thirteen-year veteran center Olin Kreutz
is trying to hold a young, inexperienced and not-very-talented group together, but there's not enough Krazy Glue at Halas Hall to solidify this patchwork group, even with Garza coming back.
QB Jay Cutler is second in the NFL with 8.19 yards per pass attempt despite a three-game slump in which he's thrown one TD pass and five interceptions.
RB Matt Forte is averaging 11.7 yards per reception, second highest in the NFL, but he's averaging just 3.9 yards per carry and has been above 3.0 in just two of seven games.
RB Chester Taylor has just 44 carries for 160 yards, a 3.6-yard average, although he picked up 20 yards on three carries (6.7-yard average) in Week 7.
TE Greg Olsen has three or more catches in four games but a total of just one catch in the other three games.
WR Devin Hester has just 18 catches for 182 yards, which project to 41 catches for 416 yards for the season, a huge drop-off from last year when he caught 57 passes for 757 yards.
WR Johnny Knox (24 catches, 478 yards) is on pace for a 1,092-yard receiving season, and he's sixth in the NFL with a 19.9-yard average.
WR Earl Bennett has seven catches for 131 yards in the past two games after catching 13 passes in the first five games for just 80 yards.
LB Brian Urlacher is third in the NFL according to STATS LLC with 7.5 "stuffs," which is defined as a tackle of a rusher for negative yardage.
CB Charles Tillman has three forced fumbles this season and now has 24 since 2003, the most by a defensive back in the NFL. Brian Dawkins is second with 18. Tillman is also the only player in the NFL with 20 or more interceptions and 20 or more forced fumbles since 2003. He has 24 interceptions, including two this season.
CB Corey Graham leads the Bears with 13 special-teams solo tackles, more than twice the number of the runner-up.
A couple of Redskins players Sunday, after losing to the Lions, complained about their tendency to play down to the level of their opponents — statements that rankled the Lions.
"I saw where somebody said that and I think it's disrespectful," defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said. "I don't think anybody in this locker room thinks we are one of the teams you play down to. We have played everybody and been in every game."
After reviewing the film of their 37-27 win Sunday, the Lions felt like the score shouldn't have been that close. Take away a couple of Lions turnovers and a couple of breakdowns in kick coverage and it would have been a blowout.
"We didn't play our best game, for sure, but we didn't have to," coach Jim Schwartz said. "We played well enough to win. It's a good sign when you didn't play a perfect game and you can still beat a good football team."
It's a sign of progress for the Lions.
They aren't a good team yet. They haven't won consecutive games, they haven't won on the road and they haven't beaten a playoff team. But this season was about taking steps forward. Having a chance to win every game and being able to survive sub-par performances are much-needed baby steps for this franchise.
"I have said it all year, this isn't the same Lions team," wide receiver Nate Burleson said. "We've got talent, and you can see it on the field. It's kind of fun to see the shock in a team's eyes when at a certain point in the game they realize, 'Damn, this isn't the same old Lions.' We already think that coming out of the locker room, but now they feel it and see it."
The Lions next three opponents — Jets, Bills and Cowboys — have a combined 6-15 record. While the Lions will hope the Jets "play down" to their level this week, they might have to avoid a letdown the next two weeks.
"I would like to say, 'Yeah, this is the time we can get on a roll,'" Burleson said. "But when we were going onto other team's fields earlier this season people were saying the same things: 'The Lions are terrible on the road, they are a terrible team.' But we competed and took them all into the fourth quarter. I won't slight anyone. That's just a way of beating yourself in this league, when you start believing in yourself more than your opponent."
QB Matthew Stafford needed exactly one half of football to scrape the rust off after missing six weeks with a shoulder injury. He completed 8 of 18 passes for 72 with an interception in the first half. Then found his rhythm, going 18 for 27 for 140 yards and three of his four touchdowns in the second.
RB Kevin Smith had a message for one local columnist after his 51-yard performance Sunday. "Tell him I am still here," he said, referencing a column written in the Detroit Free Press that called for the Lions to cut Smith before the season.
FB Jerome Felton earned some praise for his special teams work. He fielded a blooped kickoff and brought it back 31 yards. The play set up a pivotal score in the fourth quarter.
WR Calvin Johnson caught nine passes Sunday; five of them were on crossing routes. "That's part of his progression as a player," coach Jim Schwartz said. "Calvin has great downfield ability, but his ability to go across the middle is another way he can make a defense pay."
WR Nate Burleson fumbled inside the opponent's 30-yard line for the second time this season. He had the ball poked away from behind by CB Phillip Buchanon. "The worst part was, the coaches told me all week to look out for that, that he will forego a tackle to try and knock the ball out," Burleson said. "That's something I need to get fixed."
TE Brandon Pettigrew had another rough day Sunday. He dropped two passes and had two holding penalties.
SS C.C. Brown (knee) got some good news Monday. He will not need surgery. Still, it seems doubtful that he will play against the Jets on Sunday.
LB Isaiah Ekejiuba (knee), special teams captain, told reporters Monday that he expects to play Sunday.
TE Will Heller, third on the depth chart, played more than Tony Scheffler against the Redskins, primarily to help protect Stafford. With the way the Jets like to blitz, Heller could get more work this week.
DT Corey Williams was the only member of the front four not credited with a sack last week, but he was a big factor in stopping the Redskins' run game, plugging holes and occupying blockers.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Midseason generally isn't a good time for a team to do some tinkering with its kick returns.
The Packers, however, are left with no choice since their injury pandemic of 2010 has spread to that area.
Kickoff returner Pat Lee suffered an ankle injury in the 9-0 win at the New York Jets on Sunday and is out indefinitely. Lee isn't expected to play Sunday night, when the Packers host the Dallas Cowboys.
Coupled with an aggravated thigh injury that knocked starting receiver Donald Driver out of the last game and also could keep him sidelined against the Cowboys, the natural inclination to give the return job back to receiver Jordy Nelson after he lost it earlier in the season is a moot point.
"With Donald being injured, Jordy's importance now (is) as a receiver," head coach Mike McCarthy said.
If Driver indeed is held out of Sunday's game, Nelson may be in a starting role on offense or at the very least will play a lot as the third receiver. As such, the Packers won't run the risk of putting Nelson in harm's way on kickoff returns.
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum hinted Monday that rookie running back Dimitri Nance may get the nod to return kickoffs this week. Nance, though, is coming off an ankle injury that kept him out of Sunday's game.
The other option for Green Bay, which ranks 26th in the league with a kickoff-return average of 20.4 yards, is to use punt returner Tramon Williams on kickoffs. Yet, Williams also is a starter at cornerback, so the Packers can't afford to spread him thin.
QB Aaron Rodgers could miss some practice time this week because of a left ankle sprain but is expected to be fine by Sunday night and make the start against the Dallas Cowboys. Rodgers twisted the ankle in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 9-0 win at the New York Jets, but the injury wasn't significant enough to knock him out of the game.
WR Donald Driver likely won't practice this week and, consequently, probably will be held out of the upcoming game. Driver aggravated a strained and bruised quadriceps and dropped out of Sunday's contest before halftime. With the Packers on their bye after Sunday night, the team figures to err on the side of caution and give Driver ample time to heal.
CB Pat Lee will be out indefinitely because of an ankle sprain that knocked him out of the game Sunday. Lee probably won't practice this week and has been all but ruled out from playing against the Cowboys. He had been serving as the team's top kickoff returner.
TE Andrew Quarless underwent tests Monday for a shoulder sprain he suffered Sunday. It's not known whether Quarless will need to be out this week. The rookie didn't have a catch in the game. He has assumed the role of the team's primary pass-catching tight end since Jermichael Finley suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5.
DE Ryan Pickett figures to be iffy this week in returning to practice and playing Sunday. An aggravated ankle sprain kept the veteran starter out of the last game. Like Driver, Pickett would benefit by not playing this weekend and then having the extra time off with the bye.
RT Mark Tauscher also would seem to be another injured player who will be held out until the team gets through the bye. The veteran has missed the last four games because of a shoulder sprain. The Packers haven't endured a dropoff at the position with the mostly solid play of rookie replacement Bryan Bulaga.
OLB Clay Matthews maintained the league lead for sacks, bumping his total to 9.5 with a pivotal takedown of former college teammate Mark Sanchez late in Sunday's game. Matthews is on the verge of eclipsing his team-leading output of 10 sacks as a rookie last season.
WR Greg Jennings has emerged as the Packers' top receiving threat with TE Jermichael Finley out the rest of the season and Driver ineffective the last two games because of his injury. Jennings was targeted a season-high 12 times Sunday and led all pass catchers with six receptions for 81 yards. He has six catches in each of the last three games, during which he's amassed 288 receiving yards and two touchdowns, after he had only 14 receptions for 183 yards and three touchdowns in the first five games.
P Tim Masthay is working his way up from the bottom of the league rankings after he delivered his best performance in his first NFL season. Masthay placed five of his eight punts Sunday inside the 20-yard line, and the Jets didn't have any return yards. His season averages are 43.4 gross yards and 35.6 net yards.
RB Brandon Jackson continued to struggle to generate substantial yards against another good run defense. Jackson had 15 carries for 55 yards (3.7 average) on Sunday, his third straight game of being held in the 50s for rushing yards.
RB John Kuhn also hasn't produced of late as the backup to Brandon Jackson. Kuhn had eight rushes for 21 yards Sunday. He has mustered all of 54 yards in 23 carries for a paltry average of 2.4 yards the last four games.