NFC North news, notes and quotes
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Some things are better left unsaid or, in the case of a Packers defense that has put the blinders on the past couple weeks, unwatched.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers purposely has kept most of the R-rated footage from Green Bay's 37-36 loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers late in the 2009 season out of sight in meetings in an attempt to keep any nightmarish recollections out of mind.
"I'd much rather emphasize the positive," Capers said Wednesday. "There's certain clips that we'll look at. But, that was a game that we don't like to go back and rehash."
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger assumed the role of the campy horror-flick menace as he gouged and slashed the Packers for a Steelers-record 503 passing yards and three touchdown throws.
The damage was inflicted from start to finish with speedy and agile Mike Wallace aiding and abetting Roethlisberger's wrath.
Pittsburgh's first play from scrimmage resulted in a 60-yard touchdown pass to Wallace, who streaked behind Jarrett Bush to get wide open for the deep ball.
The final play of the game turned up a 19-yard, game-winning strike to Wallace, who somehow kept both feet inbounds as he came down with the football on tight coverage by Josh Bell along the sideline in the end zone.
Capers was aghast and experienced deja vu three weeks later, when the Packers surrendered 379 yards and five touchdowns to Kurt Warner in the Arizona Cardinals' 51-45 overtime victory in an NFC wild-card game to start the playoffs.
That the Packers are in Super Bowl XLV a little more than a year later, poised for the rematch with Roethlisberger and the Steelers on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium, is telling of a big turnaround made by the defense in Capers' second year.
"A totally different defense, a much more confident defense," Capers said.
The Packers, on defense, haven't allowed more than 26 points in a game this season and no more than 17 points during their existing five-game winning streak.
Given that the Steelers and Packers finished first and second in the regular season for scoring defense, yielding an average of only 14.5 and 15 points, respectively, the consensus is the dramatic shootout the teams produced at Heinz Field in '09 won't have a sequel this weekend.
"This is probably the only Super Bowl ever that the players from either team could jump in the defensive huddle and understand the terminology and probably run the defense," said legendary Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who, in a roundabout way, will be matching wits with good friend and former Pittsburgh coaching colleague Capers.
LeBeau and Capers are the masters of the 3-4, zone-blitz scheme.
"I'm sure the nomenclature is different, but they could figure it out," LeBeau added. "Certainly, if you gave them two days of practice, either team could run the other team's defense. I think that will help our offenses in that we could give them a really good picture of what the other team is going to be doing. At the same time, they could do the same thing for them. I think it's a wash. It's going to come down to who does what on Sunday afternoon."
The Packers had little trouble throwing up points against LeBeau's delirious defense in the teams' last meeting, which Pittsburgh played without star safety Troy Polamalu. Aaron Rodgers traded big throw for big throw with Roethlisberger, passing for 383 yards and three touchdowns.
Those numbers have almost become to be expected from Rodgers, the rapidly ascending third-year starter.
"Rodgers is the kind of guy that you know is going to make some plays," LeBeau said. "I've used this analogy, and I think it's accurate: He's like a very good scorer in basketball; you know he's going to get points. From a defensive standpoint, you've got to keep him from controlling the game and monopolizing the game. That's what we have to try and do with Rodgers.
"He's a great player. He can create, improvise with his feet, go to his second and third choice in the route because he has such a quick release. He sees the field, and you know he's going to make plays. At the same time, you have to limit those plays and keep the game in touch where your guys have a chance to win it."
Packers head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy hasn't left any game film of the Steelers unwatched in trying to devise the script that will foil LeBeau's best-laid plans and catapult Green Bay to an unrivaled 13th league title.
McCarthy started his Wednesday morning analyzing the New England Patriots' 34-13 destruction of the Steelers late in the 2007 season. The Patriots, en route to achieving the perfect regular season, quickly abandoned running the football in that game. Tom Brady put on a mistake-free passing clinic with 399 yards and four touchdowns.
Down to one game left in the season, winner takes all, the balance McCarthy says he strives to attain with the offense just may have to be thrown out the doors of Cowboys Stadium come kickoff.
"You want to form some sort of running game with this type of team, which is very tough to do," veteran left tackle Chad Clifton said of the Steelers' top-rated run defense. "Their front seven is outstanding, and they are able to generate a pass rush as well. We have our work cut out for us. It's the Super Bowl. That's the way it should be."
Despite a disappointing 21-14 NFC title game loss to the hated Packers, it would be unfair to characterize the Chicago Bears' 2010 season as anything less than a success.
Considering their 11-5 regular-season record was a four-game improvement from the year before, and that they won a division title after they were widely perceived as the third-best team in the NFC North, the Bears made real progress.
Even general manager Jerry Angelo said he might have underestimated the team heading into the season, while he seemed to imply it still did not have tremendous talent.
"We have good talent on this football team," Angelo said. "But when I look at this football team, it was the talent of their character that was most impressive. I think that was really the identity of this team. We did a lot of good things. Again, there will be more positives than negatives when we go and when we start planning for next year. It's not like we have a bevy of holes or a bevy of concerns going into this."
But there is work to do if Angelo and coach Lovie Smith don't want a repeat of the three-year playoff drought that followed the Bears' last trip to the postseason in 2006. The first order of business may be a contract extension for Smith, who will otherwise be entering the final year of his contract in the 2011 season.
The offseason tinkering must begin with an offensive line whose best player is 34-year-old, 13-year veteran center Olin Kreutz, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 4.
The Bears found out this season that they could survive with Frank Omiyale at left tackle and Chris Williams at left guard, Roberto Garza at right guard and rookie J'Marcus Webb at right tackle. But they can't count on returning to the playoffs with an offensive line that merely allows them to survive.
And some would argue that quarterback Jay Cutler, their most valuable offensive commodity, barely survived. Cutler missed the first game of his professional career after suffering a concussion and an all-around beat-down while getting sacked nine times against the Giants - in the first half.
Cutler is capable of putting up big numbers in Mike Martz's offense, but only if he has better protection than he did in 2010, when he was sacked an NFL-high 52 times.
Angelo spoke of utilizing free agency along with the draft to improve the team.
"I'm not sitting here saying that we can't get better," he said. "We can get better, and we will get better. We've got a full complement of draft picks. I feel we're going to do business as usual. We'll have a plan for free agency, and I'm sure we will be able to get a few players in free agency. We'll want to bring some of our own back, and I'm confident we will be able to do that."
But if, as expected, there is no new collective bargaining agreement by March 4, and the owners lock out the players, there is no free agency until a new deal is struck. The Bears do not have a strong history of getting immediate contributions from their draft choices, so any quick fixes would probably have to come via free agency.
Another addition the Bears must make if they expect to optimize Cutler's abilities is a No. 1 wide receiver. Johnny Knox took another step in his second year and finished with 960 receiving yards and an impressive 18.8-yard average per catch. But Devin Hester appeared to regress as a receiver, catching 40 passes for 475 yards and a mediocre 11.9 yards per grab. Earl Bennett (46 catches, 561 yards) is strong, tough, reliable and has good hands, but he's more of a possession receiver.
One could make the case that running back Matt Forte was the Bears' offensive MVP. He bounced back big time from a sophomore slump to rush for 1,069 yards with a career-best 4.5-yard average and tied for the team lead with 51 receptions for 547 yards. Chester Taylor was brought in with the intention of being a complement to Forte and providing a backup with little drop-off in performance. But Taylor was a huge disappointment, averaging 2.4 yards per carry, the third straight season that number has dropped, a bad sign for a 31-year-old running back.
Defensively, there are three starters who will be unrestricted free agents: nose tackle Anthony Adams, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa and safety Danieal Manning. Adams was the most productive this season, starting all 16 games and leading the interior linemen in tackles with 36.
Marcus Harrison is bigger and younger, but he's never played to his potential and was inactive for 11 games. Handing him a job would be a big mistake. Matt Toeaina started 10 games ahead of Harris at the three-technique and is valuable for his ability to play there and on the nose.
Tinoisamoa, an eight-year veteran, missed 14 games in 2009 and four this season plus parts of a couple others with knee problems. He'll be 30 before training camp starts. Nick Roach, a four-year veteran who may or may not be unrestricted, depending on the language in a new CBA, has played well in place of Tinoisamoa in the past and might be a better way to go.
Manning started 16 games and has been a full-time starter in four of his five seasons, but it seems like the Bears are always looking for an upgrade, although he is a valuable on special teams as a kickoff returner and has played both safety spots and nickel back. But with last year's third-round draft pick, Major Wright, waiting in the wings, the Bears won't set the market for Manning.
In the end, quarterback Matthew Stafford had surgery after all. As recently as Jan. 3, both the Lions and Stafford said that surgery would not be required to repair the Grade 3 separation of the AC joint in his right shoulder.
That changed two weeks later, after Stafford again visited Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. The shoulder was not healing so four days later, Andrews performed the surgery at his institute in Pensacola, Fla.
"Matthew's procedure (AC joint repair) today was very successful," Andrews said in a statement. "It went very well. We now have plenty of time for a full recovery in order for him to get ready for next season. The procedure is the same one that we have successfully performed on a number of NFL quarterbacks.
"Matthew has one of the strongest arms in the league and I am confident that he will be as strong as ever."
The rehabilitation process is expected to take four months, which means Stafford will be ready for training camp in August.
"After Matt hurt his shoulder in the Jets game, he was examined by both our medical staff and Dr. Andrews," said coach Jim Schwartz. "There was a consensus at the time to proceed with a rehabilitation program and not to have surgery.
"Subsequent evaluations toward the end of the season by our staff and Dr. Andrews also confirmed that Matt had been making good progress with his rehab. But after Matt's most recent visit to Dr. Andrews, it was determined by Dr. Andrews that Matt's healing process could be enhanced by undergoing surgery at this time."
Schwartz said Stafford had a choice. He could continue with the rehab or have the surgery. Stafford decided to take no chances.
"Matt decided to have the surgery now in order to ensure that he will have plenty of time to recover and rehab prior to the 2011 season," Schwartz said. "We have full confidence that Matt will be one-hundred percent before the start of training camp."
Stafford, 22, first injured the shoulder in Week 1 and then again against the Jets in Week 9. He started three games this season and finished only one.
In his first two NFL seasons, he has missed more games (19) due to injury than he's played (13).
Still, GM Martin Mayhew has no doubts about Stafford's durability going forward.
"I look at a guy who didn't miss any time in college," Mayhew said in his postseason press conference earlier this month. "He wasn't an injury-prone guy prior to getting here. So I don't think it's going to be an on-going issue. The doctors don't think it's going to be an on-going issue. We are going to get him healthy and he's going to play football next year."
Linebacker Zack Follett, though, expressed some doubt about Stafford's durability.
"He's a china doll right now," Follett said during an interview on a Fresno, Calif., radio station. "Anytime he gets hit, he goes down. Hopefully, it's just patiently waiting for him, because the kid is an awesome talent. He has a tremendous arm. The throws that he makes during practice when no one can touch him, he looks like an All-American quarterback. But put him in a game, and you hit his shoulder. So hopefully, say a couple prayers, keep him healthy next year, and the Lions can do some damage in the NFC."
Follett, in a subsequent radio interview, this one in Detroit, backed off his comments.
"I just used the china doll reference to describe his bad luck," Follett said. "It's the luck of the draw. He's had bad luck. I have no doubt that he can play a whole season. He's a tough kid. I'll tell you right now, I'm glad we have Matthew Stafford instead of the Bears' quarterback (Jay Cutler) because he goes in and plays with separated shoulders and wins games."
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