NFC North news, notes and quotes

With the Vikings getting six sacks last Sunday and facing a Bears team that is still struggling to find an offensive line that works, it could be an interesting matchup. The Lions will be without Matthew Stafford once again. And the Packers made an interesting roster move, placing CB Al Harris on waivers. It's a meaty tour around the division as the Vikings prepare for divisional opponents.


CHICAGO BEARS

Maybe the fifth time is a charm.

Sunday marked the Bears' fifth different offensive line combination, and all concerned hope it's the one that stays together and builds some continuity through the final half of the season.

"I'd like to stick with these guys for the rest of the year, absolutely," quarterback Jay Cutler said after being sacked just once in the 22-19 victory over the Bills. "We've kind of shuffled those guys around, had a few injuries, had a few setbacks, but I think this group right here is the group that we'd like to make a push with and make a run with. I think this is the most comfortable they've felt as well, too."

In his previous 5 1/2 games this season, Cutler had been sacked a league-high 27 times.

Sunday's change involved re-inserting Roberto Garza at right guard. Garza had started at right guard the previous 4 1/2 seasons but he was switched to left guard this year, where he started the first five games before undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and missing two games. Chris Williams was plugged in at left guard and performed well enough to allow Garza to go back to right guard where he can help the maturation process of rookie right tackle J'Marcus Webb.

"I'm back out there playing right guard and it feels like that is where I need to be," Garza said. "It was definitely good feeling; the comfort level's a lot higher there."

The Bears still need improvement in the run game. Not counting Cutler's scrambles, the Bears averaged just 2.5 yards per carry. But they hope a solidified lineup will produce a more cohesive and productive run-blocking unit, too.

"That's the key, keeping the guys in the same positions and working together and getting the communication up," Garza said. "We did that today and hopefully we can continue that."

Center Olin Kreutz is the only member of the line to have started all eight games at the same position, although Frank Omiyale started the first two at right tackle and the last six at left tackle, where he seems to have found a home. The latest concoction helped Cutler produce a 97.6 passer rating, his best since Week 2.

"The line did a good job of keeping pressure off him," coach Lovie Smith said. "He wasn't hit a lot today, which allowed him to make a few special plays, special throws. That's what we have to do. We have to keep pressure off of Jay and let him do his thing. I would like to see the same group of five continue to play together for us."

NOTES

  • Since missing all of the preseason and the first regular-season with a pulled hamstring, Earl Bennett has been the Bears' most consistent receiver, with at least 3 catches in six of the last seven games.

    Sunday he found the end zone for the first time this season, catching a 2-yard toss from Jay Cutler with 6:41 left that provided the winning points in a 22-19 victory.

    "It was all man coverage," Bennett said of the score. "Great call by coach (Mike) Martz, and Jay threw a great ball."

    Bennett led the Bears Sunday with four catches and 52 yards, giving him 24 catches and 263 yards on the season.

  • Sunday's victory against a winless team may not have been a masterpiece, but the Bears weren't about to throw it back.

    "It gets us back on the right track," said linebacker Brian Urlacher, who tied for the team lead with nine tackles. "It's good for our team after losing two in a row at home."

    The Bears return home this Sunday to face the Vikings, who rallied for a 27-24 victory over the Cardinals in overtime to raise their record to 3-5.

    "There's so much parity in the league, it's hard getting a win," coach Lovie Smith said. "That's why we feel so good about this."

  • DE Julius Peppers still has just two sacks, but he leads the team with 14 QB pressures, including four on Sunday, and has opened opportunities for other players, especially DE Israel Idonije.

  • DE Israel Idonije added half a sack Sunday and his season total of five is a personal best and a team high. He also had three QB pressures on Sunday.

  • P Brad Maynard had a 40.0-yard net average vs. the Bills and helped limit Roscoe Parrish to six yards on one return.

  • PK Robbie Gould missed a 42-yard field goal attempt, his third in 15 attempts. The other two misses were from 49 yards and a 54-yarder that was blocked. Gould also had three touchbacks but his fourth kickoff rolled out of bounds.

  • CB Charles Tillman forced and recovered the Bills' only fumble. He leads the Bears with four forced fumbles and is tied for the team lead with two recoveries.


    DETROIT LIONS

    It's the worst kind of deja vu for the Lions.

    Franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford injured his throwing shoulder Sunday, eight weeks after doing almost the same thing in the season opener.

    "From all accounts and from speaking to the doctors, it's not an aggravation of the old injury. It's a new injury," coach Jim Schwartz said. "The old injury was healed, and he was just as likely to hurt that shoulder as he was the other one."

    The original injury was a separated shoulder, and it cost him six weeks and five games.

    Schwartz would not divulge the results of an MRI, nor would he comment on whether the new injury was more severe.

    Stafford though, on his weekly Monday radio segment (Mitch Albom's radio show on WJR), said the injury felt very similar to the separation he sustained in Week 1. And when asked if he could play Sunday, Stafford said, "I don't think so."

    The only silver lining is that surgery is not being discussed at this time. Schwartz was adamant that it was not in the team's intent to shut Stafford down for the rest of the season.

    "He's our starting quarterback, and we're trying to win every game we play," he said. "That's the benefit of not shutting him down. We're not talking about surgical options, and we're not talking about an injury that has gotten worse. We're talking about a different injury. Playing quarterback in the NFL is a tough business."

    This is Stafford's fourth injury, his third shoulder injury, in 13 games.

    "I don't question his durability at all," Schwartz said. "He's not been able to play as much as he'd like, but it's not like he's been hampered by a hangnail or headaches. He's been hit by 290-pound guys going full speed."

    The question now becomes, who plays quarterback at Buffalo this week?

    The only healthy quarterback is third-stringer Drew Stanton. Shaun Hill is nursing a broken bone in his left forearm. When asked if Hill could be ready to play Sunday, Schwartz said, "Yes, potentially he could play."

    Hill dressed and was the third quarterback Sunday. He can catch snaps from the shotgun, but he hasn't taken a hard snap from under center yet. He also had difficulty last week executing handoffs.

    Schwartz said he would see what transpired over the next 48 hours before deciding whether to add another quarterback to the roster.

    NOTES

  • Jets linebacker Bart Scott on Sunday became the second player to accuse the Lions' offensive line of playing dirty. Minnesota defensive lineman Pat Williams expressed similar sentiments earlier this season. Here was center Dominic Raiola's response: "Bart Scott talks too much," he told the New York Times. "He needs to shut up. Him and Jason Taylor talk too much. It wasn't that we're playing dirty. Shut up and play football."

  • Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh played soccer in high school and has a powerful leg. He earned the role of the team's emergency placekicker in training camp. So it wasn't a complete surprise that he was thrown in when PK Jason Hanson went down Sunday.

    "I had every confidence that he could make that kick," Schwartz said. "It wasn't a novelty act. It's something we've done in practice and he's been pretty consistent."

    What Schwartz said he would do differently was take a timeout to let Suh kick a few into the net. "I put him in a bad position there," he said.

    Suh's extra-point attempt hit the right upright.

  • CB Chris Houston (shoulder) had an MRI on Monday, but he expects to play Sunday. He said he has had the injury before. The shoulder pops out and is extremely painful, but once it's put back into place, he said he is good to go.

  • PK Jason Hanson (knee) is expected to miss at least a couple of weeks. The Lions will be holding tryouts Tuesday. One strong candidate will be former Falcons K Steven Hauschka, who was impressive in Detroit's camp this year.

  • DE Cliff Avril (hip) had an MRI exam Monday. Coach Jim Schwartz said Avril's status would remain unclear until later in the week.

  • MLB DeAndre Levy had his best game as a pro Sunday. Finally healthy after missing six of the first seven games, he made 10 tackles against the Jets. He also made a jaw-dropping play, running down WR Santonio Holmes on a 52-yard catch in overtime. He prevented the touchdown, but the play set up the winning field goal.

  • RB Jahvid Best continues to struggle. A turf toe injury is limiting his mobility, and on Sunday he appeared to injure his hand or wrist. It is possible, though the Lions would not confirm, he may be shut down for a couple of weeks.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    Al Harris didn't see it coming.

    As one of only a few established veterans on one of the league's youngest teams, Harris' decorated tenure in Green Bay abruptly ended Monday. The Packers released the cornerback, who started all 106 games (including playoffs) he played for the team since 2003 and went to the Pro Bowl in 2007 and '08.

    "I guess they feel I'm not good enough to play on their team," Harris told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "That was shocking. They really caught me off guard with this one."

    The Packers had until Monday to determine Harris' future with the team after his three-week window of practicing following a mandatory six-week stint on the physically unable to perform list to start the season expired. Rather than add Harris to the 53-man roster or retain his rights by keeping him on PUP, they gave the 13th-year pro his walking papers.

    The decision was finalized 12 hours after NFC North-leading Green Bay (6-3), which has won three straight, routed the Dallas Cowboys 45-7 on Sunday night at Lambeau Field.

    Head coach Mike McCarthy said Harris' health didn't play a factor in cutting him. By all accounts, he was recovered from reconstructive surgery for a badly damaged left knee that cost him the final month and a half of last season.

    "I thought he did an excellent job of getting himself back in shape and so forth," McCarthy said. "This is not a physical decision. This is a big-picture roster decision."

    McCarthy expounded on that by indicating that roster considerations for special teams worked against Harris, who turns 36 on Dec. 7 and had exclusively played on defense with the Packers since they acquired him in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2003.

    "You look at the health of your team, the development of your younger players, special teams — all of that was part of the conversation," McCarthy said.

    The Packers clearly are comfortable with the starting cornerback tandem of Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams and undrafted rookie nickel back Sam Shields. The trio has played well since the start of the season. The team has young prospects Brandon Underwood, Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush in reserve.

    Green Bay had a roster spot to fill before Sunday's game, and it went with activating veteran safety Atari Bigby, another onetime starter, from the PUP list. Bigby played mostly on special teams against the Cowboys.

    The team must decide by Wednesday on its other PUP casualty, rookie running back James Starks.

    The Packers had Harris under contract through 2011. If he's claimed off waivers by Tuesday afternoon, that team will pick up the balance of his $2.5 salary for this year. If Harris goes unclaimed, he becomes a free agent and can sign with any team.

    Harris told the Journal Sentinel he thinks an NFC North rival of the Packers will go after him, be it on waivers or once he clears that process. Harris believes he can play until he's 40.

    NOTES

  • Monday brought a double dose of good news for Sam Shields.

    The release of veteran cornerback Al Harris, a starter the previous seven years with the team, keeps Shields entrenched as the nickel back.

    The Packers also are showing good faith in Shields, an undrafted rookie who made the team from the start, by putting him on kickoff returns.

    Shields debuted in that role Sunday night, when the Packers drilled the Dallas Cowboys 45-7. He displayed the speed that is unmatched on the club with a 49-yard return out of the end zone in his only runback.

    "He has a unique talent as a kickoff returner, just with the one opportunity," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "He definitely has a chance to be a big-time returner for us. So, we'll stay the course with Sam."

    The Packers tried Shields as a returner in the preseason, but he was prone to drops. The coaches believe they have that corrected.

    "Catching the ball is a fine-motor skill, and a lot of extra time was spent doing that with Sam, especially (last) week when we felt he was going to have the opportunity to do it," McCarthy said. "It's a tribute to Sam and the special-teams coaches."

  • Cowboys receiver Roy Williams made an unusual plea publicly after the game, invoking NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's name as Williams called on the league to not discipline Packers safety Nick Collins for an illegal hit.

    Collins drew an unnecessary-roughness penalty for striking Williams from behind with his helmet to break up a pass in the third quarter. Williams was laid out on the field for a short time, but he jogged off and later came back in the game.

    In the wake of the league's crackdown on vicious hits by a defender that threatens an opposing player's safety, Collins was fined $50,000 by the league office.

    "I'm going to speak my peace and let them know where I stand," Collins said before the fine was announced. "But, if I'm guilty, I'm guilty. There's no way to beat it. I know it's a sensitive issue, and I'm going to live with it."

  • McCarthy said the team's dire injury situation had prompted him to give the players extended time off during the bye week, which falls the latest it ever has for Green Bay in Week 10. When the team earned a "Victory Monday" day off by beating the Cowboys, McCarthy decided to make it a full week off for the team.

    "This is clearly in the best interests of the health of our football team," McCarthy said.

    The players won't need to report back until next Monday for a day of meetings and practice, leading up to the Nov. 21 game at the Minnesota Vikings.

  • DE Ryan Pickett aggravated a right ankle sprain in the 45-7 rout of the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night. Although the injury isn't considered as serious as it was when Pickett originally hurt the ankle a few weeks ago, his status will be up in the air for the Nov. 21 game at the Minnesota Vikings after the Packers' bye week.

  • WR Donald Driver also could be a big question mark for being available for the next game because of a severe thigh injury that kept him from playing Sunday. Driver has been struggling physically in recent weeks, and he didn't play because of injury for the first time in more than seven years.

  • QB Aaron Rodgers on Sunday showed no ill effects from an ankle sprain he suffered in the previous game. Rodgers was exceptionally sharp throwing the football, going 27-of-34 for 289 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions for a season-best passer rating of 131.5 in a little more than three quarters of action. He also had five rushes for a season-high 41 yards, including a third-down run of 27 yards for a first down.

  • CB Pat Lee isn't likely to be ready to get back on the field next Monday, when the team will reconvene after a full week off for the bye. Lee, who previously served as the primary kickoff returner, missed Sunday's game because of a severe ankle injury.

  • TE Andrew Quarless is in recovery mode this week with a shoulder injury that kept him from playing Sunday. The rookie suffered a setback when he attempted to practice late last week, so he is another candidate that still could be sidelined in the week leading up to the next game.


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