NFC North news, notes and quotes
The Bears' offensive line may be new, but it's hardly improved, at least not if its play in Saturday night's preseason-opening 10-3 victory is any indication.
The performance in that game could pave the way for a change in the starting lineup.
On their first four pass plays, Bears quarterbacks were sacked three times, Jay Cutler once and backup Caleb Hanie twice.
The Bears ran nine plays in the first quarter and netted two yards. On the one dropback when Cutler was able to get rid of the ball, it was only after he scrambled away from the rush and underhanded a shovel pass to Matt Forte for no gain.
With new starters at four of five positions, the offensive line is a work in progress, and accordingly it played the entire first half. Hanie was sacked for a third time late in the second quarter by Spencer Johnson, who beat right guard Lance Louis, who was responsible for two of the Bills' sacks.
Offensive line coach Mike Tice said several days before the game that Saturday night's starters would remain in their spots unless someone faltered. Consider Louis to have faltered.
"I think I played below-average," Louis said. "I can't afford to do that. I definitely have to go back to work and get better."
So, the Bears could move center Roberto Garza back to right guard, where he is more comfortable and has been entrenched for most of the previous six years. That would pave the way for the logical insertion of Chris Spencer at center, a move that should have been made shortly after he was acquired, the day after negotiations fell apart with Olin Kreutz.
The guess here is that the Bears didn't give Spencer a $6 million, two-year deal to back up Garza, who has played center in just one regular-season NFL game in 10 years, but is a more than reliable guard who had a solid season in 2010.
On the Bears' third possession, and with the Bills' first-team defensive line still in the game, they drove 52 yards for a touchdown. That score was mostly the result of strong running by Marion Barber, who carried six times for 37 yards behind strong run blocking by the O-line, which has at least shown that it can be a presence in the ground game.
In the competition for the backup job behind Matt Forte, Barber is off to a huge lead over Chester Taylor, who averaged just 2.4 yards per carry last season. In fact, the competition may already be over. Taylor carried three times for three yards against the Bills, while Barber banged for 45 yards on seven attempts. Barber was able to get several yards after contact, and he showed quickness and elusiveness to go with his violent style.
Third-team running back Kahlil Bell was impressive playing with and against backups. He carried 13 times for 73 yards and caught two passes for 46 yards, making Taylor's chances of sticking with the Bears even slimmer.
The Bears are also trying to sort out playing time at wide receiver, but they have yet to make much progress there. For now, Roy Williams and Devin Hester are the starters, but they will use different groupings for different plays, utilizing Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox extensively. The Bears will also frequently use three- and four-WR sets.
The first test for quarterback Matthew Stafford turned out to be no test at all.
In his first live action in nine months, since separating his right shoulder for the second time last season, Stafford played five minutes (two series) in the Lions' 34-3 exhibition-opening win against the Bengals Friday.
All he did in that brief time was lead the Lions on two touchdown drives, complete 6 of 7 passes for 71 yards with touchdown passes to wide receivers Calvin Johnson (26 yards) and Nate Burleson (seven yards).
"It felt good," Stafford said. "We went to the right places, guys made plays for me, it was an all-around good day for the offense. We are pretty exciting to watch when all the pieces are together."
But here's the rub. He wasn't touched. The Bengals' defense put nary a finger on him. And that's with the Lions having somewhat of a patchwork offensive line with Corey Hilliard filling in for Jeff Backus (pectoral) at left tackle and Gosder Cherilus (knee) still a little gimpy at right tackle.
"The guys up front did a pretty good job," Stafford said. "We came into the game thinking about getting the ball out quick, trying to get the ball out of my hands and let those guys make plays. It ended up being great."
Of his six completions, only one was down field, and that was the pretty back-shoulder lob to Johnson.
"Matt showed great command," coach Jim Schwartz said. "He did a good job of getting the ball where it needed to go. They threw a lot at him, a lot of different coverages and blitzes. He wasn't just going against a vanilla game plan."
Still, there will be a lot of people holding their breath around here until Stafford takes that first big pop on his shoulder. Because, despite their best efforts to add more weapons to the offense, this team's chances of threatening for a playoff spot still rests on the strength of Stafford's right arm.
On draft day, the Lions thought they'd finally added the dimension of a power run game when they drafted Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure. They thought they finally filled the void at third receiver when they drafted Boise State field-stretcher Titus Young.
They will get nothing out of Leshoure this year - he tore his Achilles tendon and had season-ending surgery. Young has been sidelined most of camp with a hamstring injury.
So it's back to square one -- no power game and a revolving door at the X-receiver spot.
To replace Leshoure, they brought in two 28-year-old veterans - Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell. Neither is the pure power back that Leshoure looked to be. Harrison is more of a multi-purpose runner. He's bigger than starter Jahvid Best but no longer as explosive. Bell is more of a between the tackles runner.
Neither made a favorable first impression. Harrison had eight yards in six carries and Bell five yards in five carries against the Bengals Friday.
"It's definitely a bummer," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said of losing Leshoure. "He's such a fine young player and he's going to have a great career. I told him this was just a temporary setback for him. The biggest thing is we have to make sure his mind his right.
"The other guys have some good qualities. They have different styles. We also know Maurice Morris (broken hand) won't be on the shelf too much longer. We have depth, which I like and we've brought in a couple of guys capable of helping us."
The run game was non-existent against the Bengals, though Best only played two series. The Lions amassed 70 yards total.
At the third receiver spot, Young's injury has cracked the door a bit for veteran Derrick Williams. He came into camp a decided long shot to make the 53-man roster, but he's had the best camp of his career.
"He's stood out," Linehan said. "We drafted a guy pretty high at his position and he's basically come out and done every position. When Calvin (Johnson) went out, he jumped in. When Nate (Burleson) went out, he jumped in there. And he's played the X, which is his spot. Very impressive."
Still, Williams is fighting the odds. Young is expected back as early as this week. The Lions usually carry five receivers, including return ace Stefan Logan. That means four of the five spots are locked with Johnson, Burleson, Young and Logan.
Williams, former Bear Rashied Davis (who is an elite special teams player), Maurice Stovall and Nate Hughes are all battling for what is probably one spot.
Green Bay Packers
A visit to The White House wasn't new for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He previously dropped in on the famed estate at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. at the invitation of President Barack Obama last October when the Packers played at Washington.
So, after Rodgers posed for photos with awestruck teammates and presented Obama a Packers green-and-gold No. 1 jersey with "Commander In Chief" stitched on the back, the young star's final moments back at the presidential palace were spent on wiping the slate clean.
Obama's long-awaited tribute for the Packers as the reigning NFL champions Friday marked "kind of the end of that Super Bowl run," Rodgers said after the ceremony on the South Lawn. "It's nice to be able to kind of put a cap on that season and a cap on those memories with this visit."
The Packers, in turn, flew out of the nation's capital to Cleveland to start their schedule of four preseason games Saturday night.
That Green Bay lost the game 27-17 is no biggie. After all, the Browns beat the Packers 27-24 in the first exhibition game last year, and look how things turned out six months later.
How the Packers wouldn't love to repeat the end result of last season. Yet, head coach Mike McCarthy and his top assistants showed in the team's first live action of the preseason after two weeks of somewhat disjointed practices that they don't plan to keep things entirely the same from 2010.
"It felt good to finally be back out there," Rodgers said. "I missed being on the field. It was a long offseason. It was nice to get back out there and play another team."
As expected, McCarthy didn't play the starters long. The No. 1 units on offense and defense lasted just two series before the end of the first quarter.
In that limited exposure, however, McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers pushed the envelope.
As he did just a few days into training camp, Capers unveiled a defensive line that had nose tackle B.J. Raji at right end, the spot previously occupied by departed free agent Cullen Jenkins, and veteran Ryan Pickett inside again after he was moved to left end last season. Mike Neal, who had been projected to replace Jenkins on the right side after missing most of his rookie season with a shoulder injury, opened as the starter on the left or strong side of the line.
Capers downplayed the revamped line in the 3-4 base.
"You're going to see those guys lined up in different spots in a lot of different defenses," he said. "Training camp's a time when you're going to look at a lot of different combinations. One down, they might be lined up differently than the next down based on what package we're in."
In fact, Raji, a dynamic young player who rarely came off the field last season, played some nose in his limited action Saturday with Pickett kicked outside. Raji and Neal also formed the nickel tandem on the line.
"We think it gives us a little more flexibility once we get into the season if we have the ability to change up things a little bit," Capers said.
Meanwhile, McCarthy needed to see one three-and-out series at the start of the game to light a spark under Rodgers and the offense.
Rodgers, who fired two bad incomplete passes to Greg Jennings in the opening possession, had the green light to run the no-huddle in his second and last series and executed it flawlessly.
He completed all five of his passes for 69 yards, completing the seven-play, 73-yard drive in four minutes with a 21-yard touchdown strike to Jennings on a free play with the Browns offside. The back-shoulder catch by Jennings in front of the left pylon came two plays after Rodgers hit Donald Driver on a first-and-20 deep ball for 31 yards.
McCarthy insisted afterward nothing was out of the ordinary about turning Rodgers, who finished 6-of-8 for 74 yards, loose with the fast-break offense.
"We've been doing it for years," McCarthy said. "Just trying to hit as many different situations as possible. Obviously, no-huddle is one of those situations."
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum also has made a significant change early in the preseason. He has the guys on kickoff coverage lined up in a three-point stance five yards behind the new kickoff spot of the 35-yard line in an effort to bolster the unit's downfield efforts by generating speed as the players come out of their stance.
The notable alterations for the defending Super Bowl champs haven't been confined to scheme, either.
McCarthy made a big adjustment on the fly at the end of the second week of camp with his practice schedule. He moved up the three night workouts in pads slated for Monday through Wednesday this week to late-morning starts.
That leaves the Packers with no more evening practices after they had 11 in a row to open camp.
"We need to move more towards an in-season mindset," McCarthy said of the change. "We're getting their body clocks going a week earlier than normal because we're starting our season a half week earlier than normal," Sept. 8 against the New Orleans Saints.
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