NFC North training camp goals
1. Better protection for quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears have jacked up and fortified their offense at the skill positions, but they must still decide on their best five offensive linemen, or at least the five who work most cohesively. Offensive line is clearly the biggest concern for a team that believes it was playoff-caliber last season (7-3 before Cutler was lost for the season with a thumb injury) and is better in 2012. The return of 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi is expected to make the line better at right tackle, where the former Badger showed great promised before a knee injury ended his rookie season after two games. But left tackle remains a major concern with last year's disappointing starter, J'Marcus Webb, and 2009 first-round pick Chris Williams expected to battle for the starting job.
2. Continuity in the secondary. The revolving door at both safety positions has rarely paused during coach Lovie Smith's eight-year tenure and there is again uncertainty in the secondary this year. Eight different safety combinations were utilized last season, none of which worked well enough to make coaches abandon their never-ending search for the optimum mix. Third-round pick Chris Conte started nine games at free safety as a rookie in 2011 before finishing the season on injured reserve with a foot/ankle injury. Major Wright, a third-round pick in 2010, has been unable to lock down a starting spot because of minor injuries and inconsistent play. As usual, the Bears used another third-round pick on a safety this year; big, athletic Brandon Hardin; and veteran Craig Steltz remains in the mix after getting four late-season starts in 2011.
With this being the fourth training camp under coach Jim Schwartz and coordinators Scott Linehan (offense) and Gunther Cunningham (defense), most of the system installation work is done and the Lions can use training camp to focus on a couple of weak spots from last season.
1. Improve the running game. They should know fairly early on in camp whether running backs Jahvid Best (concussions) and Mikel Leshoure (Achilles) will be healthy enough to provide the one-two punch they are hoping for. If not, they will have veteran Kevin Smith and would probably have to make a move to add another veteran back.
2. Settle the secondary. Two spots are secure – Chris Houston at left cornerback and Louis Delmas at one of the safety spots. The other two are wide open. Recently signed free agent Sean Jones will battle incumbent Amari Spievey and veteran Erik Coleman for the other safety spot. That should be one of the best battles of camp. At right corner, Aaron Berry will face a stiff challenge from veteran Alphonso Smith and rookies Bill Bentley, Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood.
Green Bay Packers
1. Large construction cranes have towered over Lambeau Field, where expansion of the famed stadium has been fast and furious this offseason with the addition of new scoreboards and more seats. The building hasn't stopped there. General manager Ted Thompson has charged head coach Mike McCarthy and coordinator Dom Capers to repair the defense after the Packers fell hard to the bottom of the NFL rankings last season. They allowed a league-record 4,796 net passing yards.
"For us in the secondary, it stings a great deal to be attached to the worst passing defense in the league," veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said.
The makeover started in the spring when Thompson used his first six draft picks on defensive players, to go with a few free-agent acquisitions, and will pick up in earnest when camp begins July 26. For the Packers to cut down on the abundance of big plays allowed, their pass rush must get better. First-round draft pick Nick Perry is being paired with Clay Matthews at outside linebacker to hammer away at the latter.
2. Green Bay's electrifying offense, led by league MVP Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, covered a lot of the blemishes by the defense in a 15-1 regular season. As Rodgers and his talented cast of receivers look to set the bar higher after the Packers racked up the second-highest points total (560) in league history, they will be reminded every day in camp about the importance of a clean effort.
Four turnovers, including three fumbles, and a half-dozen dropped passes ultimately derailed Green Bay's bid to repeat as Super Bowl champion in a 37-20 loss to the upstart New York Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs. Ball security will be drilled over and over as the Packers look to stay out in front of opposing defenses that think they have figured out McCarthy's pass-centric scheme.
1. Make Christian Ponder comfortable. Every move the Vikings made this offseason is worthless if their starting quarterback isn't finally up to speed in his second season. Ponder got a free pass last season because of the NFL lockout and the fact that he sat behind Donovan McNabb through the first six weeks of the season. This year is different. The Vikings rebuilt their offensive line, added targets at receiver and tight end and brought in some much-needed secondary help in hopes that Ponder won't have to win divisional shootouts with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler. Training camp is a vital period for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. He must put all these pieces together and give Ponder the confidence to succeed.
2. Secondary comes first. There's a reason the Vikings have lost 11 consecutive NFC North games. They couldn't stop Rodgers, Stafford, Cutler and their high-powered passing attacks. Despite having the best pass rush in the league a year ago, the Vikings still had the worst secondary in franchise history. Injuries, ineffectiveness and off-the-field problems left them without the talent or a clue for how to defend the NFL's best quarterbacks and big receivers. This year should be much better. For starters, cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook return from a season in which they missed a combined 21 games. Quality depth was added behind them with the signing of veterans Chris Carr and Zack Bowman, and the drafting of speedy third-rounder Josh Robinson. At safety, first-round draft pick Harrison Smith immediately improves a ridiculously weak position.
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