NFC North report card
PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus – The offensive line has new starters at four positions, and it will be a major question mark until it proves it can protect QB Jay Cutler better than last year's unit, which allowed the most sacks in the NFL. The addition of WR Roy Williams has not had the desired effect. He has not demonstrated why he was given Johnny Knox's job in the starting lineup.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B – If there's one thing the offensive line can do, it's run block, and Matt Forte is coming off an excellent 2010 season in which he was fifth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage. Marion Barber has been added and is a significant upgrade over Chester Taylor as a complement to Forte and a short-yardage option.
PASS DEFENSE: C – Even with last season's addition of Julius Peppers, the pass rush wasn't more than average, and there is not a shut-down corner on the roster, although Charles Tillman matches up well with bigger, physical wideouts. The safety position is unsettled with the addition of inconsistent Brandon Meriweather, who may or may not provide an upgrade.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus – Julius Peppers provided much better run support than expected last season, and the D-line as a whole is better vs. the run than the pass. Add linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher and a secondary that provides strong run support, and the Bears are a tough team to pound the ball against.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus – PK Robbie Gould is the fifth-most-accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history and his kickoffs have gotten longer each season. New punter Adam Podlesh should make that a strength for years to come when paired with special teams coordinator Dave Toub's coverage units that are always among the league's best. PR Devin Hester is as good as there has ever been, and Johnny Knox has proven to be above average as a kickoff return man. Hester can handle kickoffs, too, if the situation calls for something special.
COACHING: B – With defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, offensive line coach Mike Tice and offensive coordinator Mike Martz, Lovie Smith has three assistants who have been head coaches in the NFL. And Toub is one of the best special teams coaches in the league.
PASSING OFFENSE: A – The Lions scored 30 or more points in three of the four exhibition games and Matthew Stafford's quarterback efficiency was stellar. He completed 77.4 percent of his passes for 356 yards with five touchdowns and no turnovers. With Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson healthy and at the top of their game, plus the tight end tandem of Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, Stafford has all the weapons he needs.
RUSHING OFFENSE: D – The season-ending injury to power runner Mikel Leshoure was a killer for the Lions. Starter Jahvid Best is a big-play threat but he doesn't produce much between the tackles. Leshoure was going to be the thunder to Best's lightening. Now, the Lions will alternate veterans Maurice Morris and Jerome Harrison behind Best, and take an extended look at Redskins castoff Keiland Williams. The Lions also do not have a fullback on the roster. They will play out of one-back sets for the most part and deploy an H-back (tight end Will Heller) in short-yardage packages.
PASS DEFENSE: B – Ask Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The Lions' front four led by defensive end Cliff Avril and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh put him under constant duress in the third exhibition game. In addition, with a beefed up linebacker corps (Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant, DeAndre Levy) the Lions will blitz more than they did last season. The cornerbacks are far from great but solid in young veterans Chris Houston and Eric Wright. Safety Louis Delmas, healthy and with a better supporting cast in the back seven, is poised for a breakout year.
RUSH DEFENSE: C – It will be tested right out of the gate in Tampa. The addition of Tulloch and Durant certainly help fortify what was a soft run defense a year ago, but they were still vulnerable against the run in the preseason.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B – The Lions like their kick coverage unit so much that there will be many times when kicker Jason Hanson will try to land his kicks at the goal line to force teams into a return. They don't want to concede the 20-yard line on a touchback. Hanson, in his 20th season, did not miss a field goal in the preseason. He beat out Dave Rayner in his first true preseason challenge in 15 years. The punting chores will be in the hands of rookie Ryan Donahue, who beat out reliable vet Nick Harris. The Lions are saving $1 million in salary with Donahue and gaining 10 years. The return game is in the capable hands of Stefan Logan.
COACHING: B – This is almost uncharted territory for the Lions. This is the third straight season with the same head coach (Jim Schwartz), offensive coordinator and system (Scott Linehan), defensive coordinator and system (Gunther Cunningham) and the same position coaches. That continuity enabled the team to hit the ground running despite losing the offseason program.
Green Bay Packers
PASSING OFFENSE: B – Aaron Rodgers, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, already looks to be in midseason form even in limited preseason action that added up to a little more than one complete game. Rodgers was sharp with a 130.1 passer rating, ranking third among projected opening-day starters, as he completed 78.7 percent of his passes (37-of-47) for 395 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. He's expected to have his full complement of pass catchers for the opener but didn't get much work with many of them in the exhibition games because of a slew of injuries. Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jordy Nelson and rookie Randall Cobb missed time with bruised knees, 36-year-old Donald Driver received some treatment and rest late in training camp for the high ankle sprain that knocked him out of the Super Bowl, and playmaking tight end Jermichael Finley was nursing an ankle sprain in the final days of camp. A top concern heading into the season is pass protection by an offensive line that will feature T.J. Lang as the new starter at left guard. The Packers allowed 16 sacks in the preseason, second worst in the league, and Rodgers was dropped a team-high six times.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus – Ryan Grant is the presumptive starter on opening night, a year after he sustained a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1. The fifth-year veteran seems to be all the way back, and his 23-yard run into the open on the team's first play from scrimmage in its preseason finale helped to suppress mounting skepticism as to whether Grant regained the explosiveness he had before the injury. A pass-heavy attack called by coordinator Joe Philbin in the preseason games, as head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy concentrated on in-game assessment of his entire squad, resulted in few running opportunities for the backs and raised questions about how effective the trio of Grant, James Starks and rookie Alex Green can be when called upon. Grant rushed for 83 yards in 18 carries for an average of 4.6 yards, but Starks, who was nagged by an ankle injury, had only four carries for 17 yards (4.3 average). Green is a powerful runner with quickness, but he averaged a measly 1.4 yards in 16 carries and may need time to develop in the third-down role the coaches envision for him to assume.
PASS DEFENSE: B – The Packers lost disruptive pass-rushing end Cullen Jenkins in free agency to the Philadelphia Eagles before camp started and still have the issue of replacing him unresolved. Mike Neal, the would-be starting replacement, missed the last half of the preseason because of a knee sprain and returned to practice this week, leaving his status uncertain for the opener. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, the team's nearly unstoppable pass rusher the last two years, should be ready to go full bore at the outset after being limited to two exhibition games and a total of 14 snaps as he endured more tightness in his left hamstring. Green Bay may have unearthed a gem to complement Matthews with undrafted rookie linebacker Vic So'oto, who stood out the last two games and earned a roster spot as he led the defense with 2 1/2 sacks and scored on an interception return. The top cornerback trio of Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and nickel man Sam Shields, who were formidable on the field quite often last season, had only two games of action together in the preseason.
RUSH DEFENSE: C – The Packers managed to overcome a No. 28 ranking in the league for losing Jenkins, the same unit is in place, and signs of improvement were few and far between in the preseason. Opponents gashed the first-, second- and third-stringers for 113.8 yards per contest, though Green Bay ranked among the league leaders in giving up only 3.8 yards per carry. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers took a long look at plugging up the middle of the line while compensating on the outside for Jenkins' departure by kicking athletic nose tackle B.J. Raji to end and sliding Ryan Pickett inside to his natural position when the Packers are in their base three-man front. Veteran Howard Green, who was well above 350 pounds in camp, will be counted on as well in the line rotation to supply heavy resistance.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus – Kicker Mason Crosby and punter Tim Masthay are together for a second straight season, the first time that's happened in Green Bay since Ryan Longwell and Josh Bidwell were the kicking combo in multiple years from 2000-03. Crosby begins his fifth pro season seemingly emboldened by the lucrative five-year contract he signed in free agency to return to the team. He went out and connected on six of seven field goals in the preseason, including a rare game-winner in the third outing at Indianapolis. Crosby's powerful leg should yield a lot of touchbacks with the new kickoff placement at the 35. Masthay, who holds on Crosby's kicks, was equally impressive, if not more, by averaging 48.8 gross yards and 42.6 net yards with consistently good hang times and placement as seven kicks landed inside the 20. Provided he's healthy at the outset, the electric Cobb will return punts and possibly kickoffs, though fellow rookie Green could handle the latter. Coverage issues have been a thorn in the Packers' side in recent years, and things weren't entirely cleaned up in the preseason.
COACHING: B – If the Packers start the season ragged and play nothing like the dominant team that rolled through the playoffs earlier this year, McCarthy could receive the brunt of the criticism. He took it easy on his players for most of training camp, going exclusively with night practices the first two weeks before rethinking that approach and moving to a day schedule the latter part of camp. While the veteran players naturally were receptive to a camp in which they weren't run ragged, it's hard to think the 10 rookies on the team are fully prepared for the rigors of an NFL season after only 20 camp practices on the heels of an offseason wiped out by the lockout. The productivity by Rodgers and the No. 1 unit with the no-huddle offense McCarthy liberally used in the preseason games should give the coach plenty of reason to employ it on a regular basis during the season.
PASSING OFFENSE: C – QB Donovan McNabb was relatively efficient in the preseason, completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 285 yards, a touchdown, a tipped-ball interception and an 86.0 rating. But do the Vikings have the vertical element to make their passing game dynamic? WR Bernard Berrian's 49-yard touchdown against Dallas was a positive sign, but it remains to be seen how often the 30-year-old can stretch the field like that in the regular season. The Vikings' most dynamic receiver, slot man Percy Harvin, averaged only 6.4 yards on five preseason catches.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B – RB Adrian Peterson appears to be enjoying the freedom afforded by an altered running scheme featuring more power plays and less inside zone. The question here is, can the Vikings' offensive line give Peterson more help – and stay healthy? C John Sullivan, who battled calf problems last season, is finishing better but remains physically limited. LG Steve Hutchinson is healthy, too, but he's in obvious decline at age 33. RG Anthony Herrera is coming off a torn ACL. Experienced depth is almost nonexistent. Peterson can make just about any line look good, though.
PASS DEFENSE: C-minus – The secondary remains the biggest question of any position group, outside of veteran CB Antoine Winfield's steady presence in the slot. How will CB Cedric Griffin's two reconstructed knees hold up when he's playing 70 snaps a game? Can CB Chris Cook shake off his mess of a rookie season as the third corner in the nickel? Will partnering SS Jamarca Sanford with FS Husain Abdullah solidify the back end after FS Madieu Williams' release? The Sept. 11 opener against Philip Rivers and the Chargers should provide some immediate answers. There's no question the Vikings need more from RE Jared Allen as a pass rusher than they got the first half of last season, too.
RUSH DEFENSE: B – Coaches were encouraged by the way the Vikings played the run in their third preseason game against Dallas, holding the Cowboys to 22 yards on nine carries (2.4 average) while the first unit was in the game. DT Letroy Guion has had a breakthrough camp and figures to hold down the three-technique spot while DT Kevin Williams serves a two-game suspension. If there's a concern, it's about NT Remi Ayodele taking over the nose for veteran NT Pat Williams, who remained an above-average run stopper in his limited snaps last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C – PK Ryan Longwell scuffled more than expected in the preseason, but that's not seen as a significant concern. It remains to be seen if Harvin can have his usual impact on kick returns given the rules changes. CB Marcus Sherels figures as the primary punt returner, although HB Lorenzo Booker and WR Greg Camarillo continue to take reps there.
COACHING: B-plus – Coach Leslie Frazier set a tone by releasing overweight LT Bryant McKinnie early in camp, and his message seems to be resonating with players. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has won friends by inviting players' input. Defensive coordinator Fred Pagac seems more predisposed to sending pressure on third downs, which players always enjoy. It's always sunshine and roses until the real games begin, though.
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