The Bears' 381 rushing yards in the past two games is an indication that massive right tackle Aaron Gibson is getting the job done, along with the rest of the revamped offensive line.
Center Olin Kreutz and right guard Chris Villarrial are the only returning starters from last year's opening-day lineup. The 292-pound Kreutz and 318-pound Villarrial are also the smallest members of the group. Left guard Steve Edwards is 340 pounds, left tackle Mike Gandy is 325 and Gibson is 375.
After taking some time early in the season to jell, that group has cleared the way for Anthony Thomas' resurgence — 286 yards on his last 45 carries, a 6.4-yard average. He averaged just 3.4 yards per carry last season.
With a passing offense that is still struggling, the Bears are expected to rely on the run Sunday at noon in New Orleans against a Saints defense that is No. 25 in rushing yards allowed.
"They're big guys," Kreutz said of his o-line mates. "They weigh a lot. They get on you and start moving, they're going to move you out of the way. They're going to wear guys out."
There was concern during training camp, when Gibson took over for injured Marc Colombo, that he would wear down because of a lack of conditioning and excessive weight. But Gibson said, "hands down," he's in the best shape of his pro career.
Gibson doesn't say he feels a new man, though.
"I feel like a lighter man," he said, "and it helps a lot when I'm out there, just being in shape. It makes my whole game a lot easier. Everything's a lot easier.
"I'm not thinking, ‘Man, here's a play where I have to pull,' but rather, ‘Good, here's a play I get to pull.' Conditioning has helped with all of that."
Last offseason, Gibson saw an opportunity with the Bears and made the commitment to regaining the level of conditioning that made him an impact player in college. He had a lot of help.
"A lot had to do with my wife (Lucie)," he said. "She just took care of me and made sure that I had what I needed, the food was ready, and the it was the right stuff rather than going to McDonalds, or things like that and picking up food.
"My priorities changed. I started listening to Russ (Riederer, the Bears' physical development coordinator) and people like that, and saying to myself, ‘This is what you've got to do, this is your job,' and then doing it."
So far, Gibson is definitely pulling his weight.
The specter of Gibson pulling from his right tackle spot and moving full speed along the line of scrimmage with the intent of eliminating any obstacles in Thomas' path can be daunting.
What goes through a defensive player's head? His facemask? Fear is one emotion Gibson has seen in those situations.
"A lot of times," he says quietly. "I'd probably think the same thing if I weighed 250 and a 375-pound guy was coming at me."
That the Bears use Gibson to pull at all is an indication of how far he's progressed in his conditioning. His ability to run well enough to pull and lead interference as a Wisconsin Badger made Gibson as All-American and a first-round draft choice in 1999.
But injuries and a tendency to pack more than 400 pounds on his 6-foot-6 frame resulted in Gibson being released by the Lions and Cowboys before the Bears took a chance on him last Nov. 26.
With his size and power Gibson would seem to be most effective going straight ahead and obliterating the man across from him. But he doesn't have a problem turning the corner and playing on the move, destroying anyone in his path.
"It's just getting around there as fast as I can, making sure I stay low and just trying to blow the guy up," he said. "I've always pulled, so it's not much of a difference for me. It's something I enjoy doing. As long as you're in shape, you can handle it."
For Gibson, 375 pounds is in shape.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
It gave the former college running back a chance to get his hands on the ball again and to make an immediate impact. He averaged 25.2 yards on five returns, an improvement over the team average of 19.0 the first three games. R.W. McQuarters went 54 yards on one of his two punt returns, as the return teams got a shot of adrenaline.
"Now you have the change to break the game open in one pop," Azumah said. "That's what special teams is all about, making big plays. Everybody's excited right now and that's a good thing because we need that."
Only two players in the NFC have better kickoff-return averages than Azumah.
"Our return game was big for us," Bears coach Dick Jauron said. "You come out of the halftime after playing the first half like we did, and we needed a charge, and we got it off our (31-yard) kickoff return. When Zoom took it out to near the 50-yard line, he bounced up off the ball and sprinted back across the field. That's what we needed. We needed to get something going and that really picked us up."
Azumah had numerous kickoff returns for touchdowns at New Hampshire, and in high school, "It got ridiculous," he said. "It was like (the Chiefs') Dante Hall.
"I'm not a stranger to having the football in my hands," Azumah said. "I like it. It's been in my hands for years."
In the first quarter, the Bears were flagged for holding on guard Chris Villarrial and a false start on punter Brad Maynard (the Bears were trying to draw the Raiders offside) in the first quarter. Pass interference on cornerback Charles Tillman, holding on tight end Desmond Clark and on Villarrial (an illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on left tackle Mike Gandy on the same play was declined) were called in the second quarter.
In the third quarter, there was a holding call on right tackle Aaron Gibson, an unnecessary roughness call on center Olin Kreutz (the same penalty on running back Anthony Thomas on the same play was declined), and false starts on Clark and guard Steve Edwards. In the fourth quarter, Edwards and Gandy were flagged for holding.
Coach Dick Jauron didn't dispute any of the calls.
"I can tell you that (after) watching the tape, that we held on some of those, there's no doubt about it," Jauron said. "Some of them are close calls, but I can't tell you that we didn't hold. We did, and we deserved some of those calls."
BY THE NUMBERS: 15 — Number of sacks QB Kordell Stewart has taken in the last four games. The Bears are the league's worst team in sack percentage allowed.
Thanks to Anthony Thomas' 5.9-yard average per carry and QB Kordell Stewart's 5.1-yard average (169 yards on 33 attempts), the Bears are No. 3 in the NFL in average gain per rush.
The Bears ran on nine of their first 10 pass plays and were sacked once. Kordell Stewart didn't throw his first pass until 11:19 before halftime.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Rookies generally know more about GameBoy than game plans. You have to get them to focus and realize this is their job. In college they played football. Here, they work at football, this is their job, and I don't know if they always fully understand that, that this is no longer a game that people just come to watch you play. This is how they pay the rent, this is how they earn a living." — Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache, who will probably have three rookies starting this week and three others playing in the d-line rotation
Pick a weekend — any weekend during the past three NFL seasons — and, chances are, it would have been a good weekend for the Detroit Lions to have a bye.
That's the way it is for teams with a 6-31 record since the start of the 2001 season.
Add them up and that's what you get for the Lions — 2-14 in 2001, 3-13 in 2002 and 1-4 for the start of the current season.
So when coach Steve Mariucci says the Lions bye week arrived at a good time, he means it. Much as previous coach Marty Mornhinweg meant it when he said it the past two years.
The Lions won their season opener against Arizona and have lost four in a row since then — at Green Bay, at home against Minnesota and on the road against Denver and San Francisco.
Their road losing streak has grown to 19, the third-longest of its kind in NFL history.
And, to make matters worse, they have now lost their biggest offensive threat — rookie wide receiver Charles Rogers — for at least a month with a broken right collarbone.
Typical of the Lions luck, Rogers was hurt in a bye-week workout, becoming entangled with cornerback Dre' Bly in a one-on-one drill Tuesday.
Mariucci — who is relatively new to this kind of misery after taking the 49ers to the playoffs in four of his six seasons in San Francisco — has been trying to take heart and find encouragement in the fact the Lions have come close in both of their last two games.
They lost by only four in Denver (20-16) and by seven in San Francisco (24-17).
Perhaps in this case it's cause for encouragement but the fact is — in the parity of the NFL today — it is not unusual for the worst teams to be only a few points worse than the best.
The Lions have made a living on losing close games during their travails of the past three seasons, since owner William Clay Ford launched a complete housecleaning and turned the team over to team president/CEO Matt Millen.
In the first year of the Millen/Mornhinweg era, the Lions lost their first 12 games — five of them by a field goal or less, another three by a touchdown or less and two more by 10 points or less.
At the time, Mornhinweg said the same things Mariucci is saying now — that the Lions were learning, were getting closer and would turn it around any day — but the turnaround never came. Mornhinweg was fired last January with a 5-27 record.
Because of Mariucci's track record and background — he was involved in the 49ers' salary cap-induced two-year rebuilding program in 1999 and 2000 — the Lions management and fans want to believe it will be different this time. And perhaps that will be the case.
Maybe Mariucci can use the bye week and next week to regroup the Lions. Maybe Rogers will be back on the field in a month. Perhaps the Lions can figure out a way to turn the four-point and seven-point losses into victories with a little offensive and defensive tweaking.
Perhaps defensive tackle Luther Elliss will be able to perk up the defensive line and rookie running back Artose Pinner will give the offensive backfield a new set of fresh, fast legs. Both Elliss and Pinner are eligible to come off the reserve/non-football injury list after the bye.
Mariucci certain would like to believe the Lions will be better than in the remaining 11 games of the season than they have been in the first five.
"I told the guys to look forward," Mariucci said. "It's as simple as that. Some of them have been here awhile and haven't had a lot of success on the road or at home for that matter. It's our job to find a way to do that."
There's one unsettling thought, however: Perhaps the Lions just aren't good enough. Again. Perhaps Mariucci just doesn't have enough talent to work with. Perhaps the Lions are doomed to another season in the depths of the NFL standings.
They'll get on with it Oct. 19 with the Dallas Cowboys but right now they're mighty thankful for the bye week.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Rogers suffered a broken collarbone in a bye week practice session Tuesday when cornerback Dre' Bly fell on him in coverage in a one-on-one drill.
"It's one of those things that happens in practice on occasion," coach Steve Mariucci said. "Very unfortunate for him. It looks like it's going to be a matter of weeks before he's going to be able to return.
The Lions already are running the football by committee — primarily Shawn Bryson and Olandis Gary — and now they might have to use a little of the same system to pick up the slack for Rogers in the receiving corps.
"We're counting on the other guys obviously to become healthy and productive, and make up the slack — Az Hakim, Scotty Anderson, Shawn Jefferson and Billy Schroeder," Mariucci said. "They've got to get it done."
Rogers, the No. 2 pick in the draft last April, has caught 22 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns in his first five NFL games. His reception total is only three fewer than the other receivers — Schroeder, Hakim, Jefferson and Anderson — have among them.
The Lions won't know for sure how long it will be before Rogers is ready to play again.
The conventional thinking is that he will probably be gone 4-6 weeks but Lions president Matt Millen isn't taking any chances on being disappointed.
"I'll look at it as worst-case," Millen said. "I'll put a long time-frame on it and hope they give me a better time-frame. I'll look at it in my own mind as eight weeks or so."
The incident occurred early in the workout, which was part of an easy work week designed by coach Steve Mariucci. The Lions weren't even in pads — wearing only helmets and shorts — in one of two days of work scheduled for their bye week.
Although it was supposed to be a routine workout, it became more intense after a couple of line of scrimmage clashes between safety Corey Harris and wide receiver Bill Schroeder. Harris jammed Schroeder hard at the line of scrimmage, and it picked up the intensity for all of the participants.
"One-on-one is always competitive," Bly said. "But on a day like today, most guys are used to having two days off so to kind of get that fire going, they jump right in one-on-one.
"I think Corey kind of sparked up the period when he went up against Schroeder and that kind of got me going, because — honestly — I wasn't really into it.
"My body was real fatigued and then once Corey went up against Bill and kind of got the drill motivated and pumped up, I kind of got going and got everybody else going. Got our juices going and we were looking forward to the rest of practice."
Bly said he felt the injury was serious when he fell on top of Rogers. And when he learned a few minutes later that Rogers had a broken collarbone, he made a quick side trip to the locker room as the Lions moved to the next drill.
"I ran in after the period was over and checked up on him," Bly said. "He was stretched out on the bench. When I saw him stretched out, it just hit me. I felt so bad because he's kind of been like my guy all year.
"We've kind of been competing all year, going at it, just trying to help him make that transition from college to the league. For him to suffer that injury, it was tough.
"I apologized to him. He told me, `Don't worry about it, man, we're out there competing.' It was just a freak thing. I told him keep his head up, `If you need me, you can give me a call.' "
Mariucci insisted that his only concern was the slight swelling in Harrington's right forefinger, the result of a dislocation suffered when he jammed his finger on center Dominic Raiola's helmet in the same game.
In the aftermath of the 24-17 loss Sunday at San Francisco, Harrington has grudgingly acknowledged there is some soreness in the shoulder, although not enough to be considered a threat to his ability to throw the football.
Mariucci has forbidden him from throwing at all in the bye week this week, ostensibly to give him time to relieve the swelling in the finger.
Harrington was asked by a reporter Tuesday whether the time off would help his shoulder also.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he said laughing. Moments later, however, he added: "Yeah ... it won't hurt it."
BY THE NUMBERS: 2 — Number of teams in NFL history with more consecutive road losses than the Lions' current 19. They are the Houston Oilers, who lost 23 road games in a row between the 1981-84 seasons, and the Buffalo Bills, who lost 22 in a row between 1983 and 1986.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's got to stay into it mentally. I know it's going to be hard for him to do but come to meetings, watch game tape, teams and stuff like that. Make sure he can continue his progress on recognizing coverages and everything like that. He's got to stay into it mentally so when he does come back from the injury, he'll be mentally sharp." — Wide receiver Shawn Jefferson on what his protÈgÈ — Charles Rogers — has to do while recovering from a broken collarbone.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Lions president Matt Millen and coach Steve Mariucci have some personnel decisions to make coming out of the bye week and preparing for their Oct. 19 game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Jimmy Wyrick is the latest of the Lions cornerbacks to be injured. He suffered an ankle injury Sunday in the game at San Francisco but it does not appear to be as serious as the injuries that finished Chris Cash (knee), Andre' Goodman (shoulder) and Chris Watson (back) for the season.
They may have another decision on whether to go with four wide receivers during the 4-8 weeks Charles Rogers will be out with a broken collarbone.
And the third weighty decision involves punter John Jett, who has a calf injury and might not be ready to play against the Cowboys. The Lions had several punters in for workouts this week.
Because they have a bye Sunday, it is unlikely Millen and Mariucci will make a decision on any of those questions until the end of the week or early next week.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
No one would have given a plug nickel for the Packers' chances to be an outstanding team when they left Arizona Sept. 21 with a defeat to the Cardinals that left them with a 1-2 record.
Times change. After beating the inept Chicago Bears and then whipping the previously unbeaten Seattle Seahawks, the Packers look like they're ready to be a factor in the NFC once again.
On Sunday, another undefeated team, the Kansas City Chiefs, visit Lambeau Field. For the second week in a row the Packers will have an opportunity to make a statement that their best days aren't behind them.
During the offseason, the Chiefs remained status quo on offense and shuffled the deck on defense. Now they've emerged as a legitimate Super Bowl contender five weeks into the season.
"I think their additions on defense have really improved them," an executive in personnel for a recent Chiefs' opponent said. "They've got some holes but they do have the speed and toughness to at least stay in ballgames and outscore people."
Kansas City has five different starters from a defense in 2002 that ranked 32nd in yards allowed and 28th in points allowed. Those deficiencies offset an offense that ranked fourth in yards and first in points and left the Chiefs at 8-8 and out of the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
The new starters are defensive end Vonnie Holliday ($3 million signing bonus) and linebacker Shawn Barber ($5.5 million signing bonus) from unrestricted free agency, cornerback Dexter McCleon ($2 million signing bonus) from "street" free agency and the return to health of nose tackle Ryan Sims and strong safety Jerome Woods.
They replaced end Duane Clemons (cut), nose tackle Derrick Ransom (cut), middle linebacker Marvcus Patton (retired), cornerback William Bartee (injured) and strong safety Shaunard Harts (demoted).
Signing Holliday in April from the Packers gave the Chiefs not only a pillar up front but also a role model for Sims, who followed him at North Carolina and was the sixth pick in the 2002 draft.
"Ryan follows him around like a mother duck," Chiefs president Carl Peterson said. "I know Vonnie has really taught Ryan how to be a pro. It's been a great, great connection. Vonnie has been a major plus not only on the field but in the classroom and locker room."
The scout said that even though Holliday and Barber have received most of the headlines it is the development of Sims that has made the biggest difference.
"Green Bay pretty much has to win that game," he said. "Favre sure is good in situations like that. I think Lambeau Field and the whole shabang will take the wind out of KC's sails a little bit."
The Packers cannot win if they can't do a better job against Dante' Hall, the Chiefs' spectacular kick returner who has the entire league talking about him. Actually, Hall might have easily been wearing a Packers uniform.
Desperate for a kick returner in 2000, the Packers used the second of their two draft choices in the fifth round on little Joey Jamison (5-8, 176) of Texas Southern. Jamison, the 151st overall selection, was so bad that he was cut two days after the first exhibition game.
On the board at the time was almost the exact same kind of player in Hall (5-7 1/2, 190) of Texas A&M. Mike Sherman was coaching the Aggies' offensive line in 1996 when Hall had a terrific season rushing and returning kicks as a redshirt freshman.
Sherman left for the NFL in 1997 but was named coach of the Packers before the 2000 draft. He remained close to the staff at Texas A&M, where Hall had been thrown off the team midway through his senior year for disciplinary reasons. That prompted one scout to label Hall "a spoiled asshole."
Kansas City landed Hall with the 153rd pick, two spots after the Packers took Jamison. Hall returned kicks his first two years but wasn't special. He exploded last year.
SERIES HISTORY: This is the eighth regular-season meeting between the two teams. The Chiefs lead, 5-1-1. The Packers' only victory was in 1987 at Arrowhead. Only 34,611 showed up as the Chiefs were in the midst of an eight-game losing streak. Loquacious wide receiver Frankie Neal caught touchdown passes of 13 and 26 yards from Randy Wright in a 23-3 triumph. Almost an hour after the game, Neal still was wearing part of his uniform as most of the other players and coaches waited for him on the team bus. "Go ahead, leave then!" Neal shouted as club officials pleaded with him to shower while he was surrounded by reporters.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Darren Sharper plans to make as many big plays as he ever has since his career took off in 2000. He just doesn't want his post-play preening to be misinterpreted.
Sharper was mocked more than once by the announcers during ABC's "Monday Night Football' telecast of the Green Bay-Chicago game for what they regarded as excessive theatrics and gyrations.
Coach Mike Sherman also had a talk with Sharper about his posing and displays of showmanship.
"We spoke about it," Sharper said. "I can take the advice he's giving me. Some of that stuff, a lot of people can look at it as being individualistic. That's the main reason I would tone it down. I don't want people out there, like my fans, thinking I'm trying to pull myself from the team."
Sharper, 27, is at the top of his game. He is in the third year of a six-year, $30 million contract. He was elected as the starting free safety on the NFC Pro Bowl squad two of the past three years. He is rated among the top two or three safeties in the league.
"Darren Sharper doesn't need to do those types of things," Sherman said. "He's a good enough player and person without that. He just needs to worry about making plays."
The "Sharper Shake" originated early during Sharper's seven-year career in Green Bay. He used to break into his dance of choice after interceptions and other huge plays, but against the Bears he struck several different poses in the end zone after nothing more than an incomplete pass.
"The reason I've done it is to get the defense excited," Sharper said. "I thought they fed off it. A lot of guys on defense want me to do this thing called ‘Sharper Shake.' They like to see it.
"I think it's more me playing with passion and being excited. At times, you can go overboard, but there's a thin line there."
Sharper, who owns a degree in sociology, is dabbling as a color commentator on high-school football telecasts in Green Bay. He would like to pursue a broadcasting career when his playing days are finished.
"I've been hearing people kind of thinking that I was being kind of selfish," he said. "That's why I'm thinking about toning it down and not doing the dance and stuff like that. I really don't want people to think I'm just worrying about myself. "
Of the 44 starters in the game, 43 of them soberly recited their name and college early in the telecast. With a wide grin Sharper said, "Darren ‘Ain't Nobody' Sharper, College of William & Mary."
It was humorous, the sign of an elite player enjoying himself. He has heard from friends who say they liked that. It wasn't an indication of self-promotion, which can hurt a player in the long run, especially in a small town such as Green Bay.
"Do I need to do it?" Sharper said. "No, not necessarily. I can do it in different fashion, like high fives. I really don't want people to think I'm just worrying about myself."
Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell maintains that the 26-year-old Gbaja-Biamila should be able to keep up about the same pace.
"I believe so," Donatell said. "He's a well-conditioned athlete and he's playing on the edge a lot. That's the key. But we're always monitoring it to see how he's rushing at the end of games."
"KGB" has averaged 57.6 snaps per game. That's 5.6 more than he averaged in the final 12 games last season after taking over as a starter for injured Joe Johnson. Cletidus Hunt leads the defensive line in average playing time at 82.3%.
Gbaja-Biamila has two sacks, which is tied for the team lead with Nick Barnett and Darren Sharper. He also has 16 tackles, first among defensive linemen. Hunt is next with 15.
Recently, a defensive coach for another team said he was shocked at how skinny Gbaja-Biamila looked on film. He guessed that "KGB" weighed under 240 pounds.
Donatell, however, insisted that the narrow-waisted Gbaja-Biamila has weighed a pound or two on either side of 250 all season.
The Packers are able to get away with using "KGB" as a full-time player because as their "elephant" end he is lined up wide of the tackle in all but a handful of situations.
"The whole history of that position is to line up a guy with an angle where he could rush but also play the run," Donatell said. "If I took a 250-pound guy and put him on a 350-pound guy, that doesn't work. But he's not getting hit with a bunch of big bodies. A lesser athlete has to deal with him."
"The guys (in the second row) had to stand up because they couldn't see all of the field," offensive coordinator Tom Rossley said. "There was also an overhang so when the ball was punted no one could see it up in the air. The only one I can remember being that low was the Astrodome."
Asked if the Packers complained, Rossley said, "No. What are you going to do? They built a new box and that's what they gave us."
BY THE NUMBERS: Five — The number of touchdown scored by the Packers on consecutive possessions against Seattle. The team record for touchdowns on consecutive possessions in a game is seven, set in 1962 during a 49-0 victory over the Eagles. They also had five in 1945 in a 57-21 victory over Detroit.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Fire, just fire at him. Don't break down and go for all the shakes and all that. If he puts on the shakes, it's going to make the highlights, anyway. So I'm just going to go out and fire at him. If I hit, I hit. If I miss, I miss." — WR Robert Ferguson, a member of the kickoff coverage team, on trying to stop Kansas City KR Dante' Hall.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Packers cut cornerback Erwin Swiney and activated linebacker Torrance Marshall from the roster-exempt list.
The departure of Swiney was no loss. He had played poorly as a member of the dime defense in Game 2 and Game 3.
However, it was interesting in that Swiney left and another marginal cornerback, Derek Combs, stayed on the 53-man roster.
The Packers obtained Combs from the Chiefs April 24 in a trade for a conditional seventh-round pick in 2005. The condition was that Combs had to be on the 53 for five games. The Seattle game was the Packers' fifth. If they had cut him Saturday instead of Swiney they wouldn't have owed the Chiefs a thing.