NFC North news, notes and quotes

Mike Tice knows about position changes and he trying to help Chris Williams through one right now. The Lions are hoping to work their tight ends back into the rotation. And the Packers think they might have a league MVP in their midst.


CHICAGO BEARS


Chris Williams' move from left tackle to left guard hasn't exactly been smooth sailing, but some bumps along the way were expected.

"He played good enough for us to win the other day (against the Bills)," offensive line coach Mike Tice said. "But it's like going from quarterback to tight end, and I know a guy who did that, and it was really tough."

The 6-foot-7 Tice was a quarterback at Maryland before his 14-year career as an NFL tight end. Williams was drafted as a left tackle and started the season there, but he lost that job to Frank Omiyale when a hamstring injury knocked him out for three full games and most of a fourth. Learning the new position has been a project.

"It all happens faster, much faster (at guard)," Tice said. "Everything is short-stroke movements. Your footwork has to be short, your (hand) punch has to be shorter. It's a whole different body movement. You have to be more compact, you have to be in balance more, and you have to know when to be aggressive and when to get back. There's just a whole lot of nuances to it.

"It's like any of us that get into something new for the first time. Each week, there are learning curves."

  • Vikings coach Brad Childress says coming back to Chicago to play the Bears is just like any other road trip, even though he's got a strong connection to the area, having grown up in west suburban Aurora, where he attended Marmion Academy high school.

    "They're business trips for the team and for myself," said Childress, who remains on the hot seat with the underachieving Vikings. "I don't have any interaction really with my family being from that neck of the woods. It's always nice to see the Chicago skyline and head over to Soldier Field, where I used to watch the college all-star games. But it's really NFC North football, and they happen to be an opponent. It's not like I get to spend a lot of time down on Michigan Avenue or eating Chicago-style pizza or hitting any of the Italian places or anything like that."

  • Julius Peppers remains stuck at two sacks, and he hasn't had one since Oct. 3 against the Giants.

    But he leads the Bears with 12 quarterback pressures, has forced two fumbles, leads the linemen by a wide margin with 28 tackles and has opened up opportunities for teammates because he demands double-team attention from opponents.

    "I've been pleased," Peppers told Minnesota reporters on a conference call Wednesday. "The (sack) numbers aren't where we would like them to be, but those things will come. Other than that, I think it's been a great season. I think it's been one of my better seasons playing the position overall, rushing and playing the run and just being active on the field."

  • Coach Lovie Smith says scrambles by Jay Cutler are always part of the Bears' game plan if a play breaks down or if the quarterback sees an opportunity.

    Cutler's legs were never more important than they were in Sunday's victory. He produced 41 yards on three scampers vs. the Bills, as all three carries picked up first downs, two of which came on third-down plays.

    On third-and-7, Cutler picked up 14 yards, and on third-and-4, he bolted for nine yards to help set up the Bears' second touchdown.

    "It helps a lot," Smith said. "You normally don't account for the quarterback (on defense). He's kind of a free guy. You want him to stay back in the pocket of course. (But) when he takes off, sometimes you can get a big play from that, and Jay is mobile, he's fast, and he knew when to get down, too, so those plays were big with him using his feet."

    Cutler has 120 rushing yards on 21 attempts this season for a 5.7-yard average, which is even more impressive considering his totals include several kneel-downs for negative yardage.


    DETROIT LIONS

    There was a time, just a few weeks ago, when Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler ranked 1-2 in the NFC for receptions among tight ends.

    These days, Scheffler has been almost a forgotten man.

    "That's just part of being in a good offense," said Scheffler. "You have to wait your turn and when the ball gets thrown your way, you have to make plays. It's just one of those things that comes with being part of an offense that has a lot of weapons."

    A couple things have happened that led to a quieter role from Scheffler. First, wide receiver Nate Burleson got healthy and second, quarterback Matthew Stafford came back — for a couple of games.

    "Tony was carrying a big load for us when Nate Burleson was down," coach Jim Schwartz said. "But Nate had a fantastic game against the Jets and a big game against the Rams and he was playing a lot in that slot position. There are only so many catches to go around."

    Scheffler played in the slot after Burleson injured his ankle in Week 2. The results, Scheffler caught 20 passes in the first four games of the season. Burleson had two.

    Since Burleson came back against the Rams, Scheffler has caught eight passes in four games. Burleson has caught 24.

    In the two and a half games that Stafford played this season, he threw 23 passes to his two tight ends, completing 13. In Shaun Hill's five starts he threw 78 passes to either Scheffler or Pettigrew, completing 54.

    "It's a long season; we still have half a season left," Scheffler said. "It's just the up-and-down nature of a season. It just so happens I am not out there as much as I was in the beginning. But I will keep plugging along and when my number is called I have to show up."

    Scheffler was asked if he was at all frustrated.

    "Every guy on this team wants to be out there making plays on every play and contributing," he said. "That's just part of the deal. You just don't know when opportunities are going to come in this league, but you have to keep working hard. You can make your own opportunities through practicing well. I am happy with my role and I just want to continue to help this offense any way I can."

    The Lions, playing against a Buffalo defense that ranks dead last the run, will probably try to exploit that early. But if that doesn't work — the Lions rank 30th in run offense — then the Hill-to-Scheffler combination might heat up again.

  • Shaun Hill, three weeks removed from surgery to repair a broken bone in his left forearm, will start at quarterback Sunday against the Bills. He has been fully cleared.

    "Everything feels fine," Hill said. "There are no limitations. I'm full go."

    Quarterback Matthew Stafford has been diagnosed with a Grade 3 separation of the AC joint in his right shoulder. He had recovered from a Grade 2 separation in the same shoulder suffered in Week 1.

    The Lions will not confirm the diagnosis, though on Wednesday coach Jim Schwartz did not deny it. Schwartz was adamant that surgery was not an option at this time and he was holding the door open for Stafford to return at some point this season.

    "That's yet to be seen," Stafford said. "It's definitely a possibility."

    Schwartz said the plan with Stafford is to go week by week, same as after he was injured in Week 1. It took him six weeks to come back the first time.

    "We didn't put him on the injured list," Schwartz said. "Anytime you don't put a guy on IR, you think there's a chance that he's coming back this year. I mean, that's a good sign."

    The Lions needed to clear two roster spots Tuesday. One was for kicker Dave Rayner, who will fill in for at least one week for injured Jason Hanson (knee). The other spot was for quarterback Zac Robinson, whom Detroit claimed from Seattle. The Lions didn't put Stafford on IR to clear room.

    "You can read what you want out of that," Schwartz said.

    Still, Schwartz was peeved at some of the media reports Tuesday and Wednesday that suggested that Stafford's season was over.

    "I think it's irresponsible to say that he's considered for injured reserve, that he's going to have surgery and that his season is over," Schwartz said. "There is no basis for that. Everything I said in the Monday press conference, nothing's changed."

    Once again, though, the Lions turn their offense over to Hill. He has started five games this season and completed 61 percent of his passes for 1,309 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. The team has averaged 26 points a game under his direction.

    "Nothing is going to be different," Hill said of his return. "I started doing as much as I could as soon as I could, so by the end of last week I was already getting back in (a rhythm) and knocking the rust off. Everything is all good now."

    He will wear a light cast from his elbow to his wrist to protect the left arm. However, he said he has no problem taking snaps from under center or the shotgun, nor does he have any issue will handoffs or ball fakes.

    "Last week, the splint I wore went all the way into the palm of my hand," Hill said. "I didn't have any wrist mobility until Sunday (when he was the emergency quarterback). Since I've gotten use of my wrist back, a lot of things have changed."


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    While women swoon over his Fabio-like long, blond hair and men marvel at his superhuman talents in combat, Clay Matthews isn't without flaw.

    The star linebacker has some work to do after not pulling off a satisfactory Lambeau Leap in the Packers' 45-7 rout of the Dallas Cowboys on Nov. 7.

    "It wasn't very good," Matthews said. "I'm not proud of it, but I didn't think it would come this soon."

    Indeed, the former college walk-on from USC is way ahead of the curve in just his second NFL season.

    After an eye-opening rookie year that featured a team-high 10 sacks and a trip to the Pro Bowl, Matthews was going gangbusters halfway through this season.

    He has a league-high 10.5 sacks, a team-best 30 quarterback hits and a 62-yard interception return for a touchdown that prompted the dubious first attempt at a Lambeau Leap.

    Green Bay fans were quick to excuse their new hero for his imperfect jump into the stands and shouted "MVP! MVP! MVP!" for a national TV audience to hear that night.

    Matthews would appear to be the front-runner for defensive player of the year, but support is building for him as league MVP.

    "It's hard in this league for a defensive player to get the overall MVP. But, if anybody is capable of doing it, it's Clay," said Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, the league's top defensive player in 2009. "If anybody is out there looking at football, you know what he means to our team, and there's no reason why he couldn't (win it)."

    Only two defensive players earned the top honor - Minnesota Vikings tackle Alan Page in 1971 and New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

  • The Packers have a new friend Mo — short for momentum — and they fully expect him to be waiting for them when they return from their one week of vacation.

    "Nah, nah, not worried," said cornerback Charles Woodson, when asked about the possibility of Mo abandoning the Packers and disappearing because they went away for a while.

    When the Packers get back to work Monday after coach Mike McCarthy gave the players a full seven days off for the bye, their longtime buddies Confidence and Swagger will be hanging out with them. Green Bay has been buoyed by a season-best three straight victories that has it in sole possession of the NFC North lead with a 6-3 record.

    The cocksure attitude that several players projected before the season started — what with chatter of going to the Super Bowl and a public display of wearing cowboy hats to signify the team's mission to get to Cowboys Stadium for the title game in February — simmered down some when a rash of early-season injuries left the Packers an ordinary team with a .500 record out of the gate.

    Yet, the eternal optimism is brewing again after the resilient Packers exacted revenge on former teammate Brett Favre and the Vikings with a 28-24 win Oct. 24 in Green Bay. They followed that up by silencing the previously red-hot Jets 9-0 on the road, and then sealed the midseason firing of Dallas head coach Wade Phillips with a 45-7 beat-down of the Cowboys on Sunday night.

    "I think we played a full team game for 60 minutes — defense, offense and special teams," running back John Kuhn said of the latest conquest. "It took nine weeks to do it, but we finally put a team game together and looked pretty good."

    Or, as star linebacker Clay Matthews summed up, "We're playing in sync now."

    Matthews and the rest of the defense are on top of their game despite being three starters down (safety Morgan Burnett and linebackers Nick Barnett and Brad Jones) the rest of the season.

    The Packers have been relentless with their pressure of the quarterback with a league-leading 28 sacks, including Matthews' unrivaled 10 1/2. They also are generating takeaways with regularity (10 during the three-game surge) after those were hard to come by in the early going (nine during the 3-3 start). What's more, Green Bay's patchwork group has begun resembling its No. 1-rated run defense from last season.

    "I think we're just putting it all together now," Matthews said. "Defensively, we're playing lights out, and we kind of understand where we're at. We need to shut down the run, we need to force quarterbacks to make bad passes, and we're comfortable with our guys getting pressure and our guys in the deep end making plays. I think we've always felt like that, but it's just about putting it together, and that's kind of where we're at."

    The Packers offense surely isn't humming at the high level that was expected on that side, but Sunday's fireworks of 415 yards, precise timing and throwing between Aaron Rodgers and his receivers, satisfactory gains on the ground, an unusually high rate of converting third downs and throwing up 31 points on the scoreboard (to go with 14 from the defense and special teams) was more like it.

    Regardless of the disinterested Cowboys defense they exploited, the Packers were starving to unload in such a way on an opponent even without top running back Ryan Grant and dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley, who also are out for the season, as well as hobbled receiver Donald Driver.

    "I think people saw what we're capable of," Kuhn said. "That's what our offense is made of. That's what we did in preseason that got everybody excited, and we're still capable of doing it."

    Keeping Mo on their side will be as important, if not more so, when the Packers reconvene after their week's hiatus. They will either be tied with Chicago for the division lead or holding a slim edge on both the Bears (5-3) and the Vikings (3-5) — those teams meet Sunday in Chicago — and staring at a daunting schedule to begin the stretch run.

    Green Bay will play four of its next five games on the road, starting with back-to-back visits to Minnesota and NFC South-leading Atlanta.

    "We do have some momentum going, and hopefully we can continue that coming back with a week off," Matthews said.


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