NFC North News

With the Packers and Vikings squaring off, you've got your fill of that battle, but now it's time to check with the other two NFC North teams. The Bears are trying to stay focused while playing a team dealing with wildfires near its home, and the Lions are reeling because of injuries and a lack of capable replacements.

While the 2-5 Bears are safe and sound at home preparing for a second straight game at Soldier Field, the 1-6 Chargers are being forced to lead a nomadic existence this week because of the wildfires that have displaced them from their Southern California home.

The Bears' task is to make sure they don't allow their opponents' plight to distract them Sunday at noon.

"The biggest thing we have to worry about is not letting their distractions become our distractions," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "Our biggest thing is for our guys not to think this is going to be any easier because of the things that they're going through."

The Chargers were forced to move Monday night's "home" game to Tempe, Arizona, where they lost 26-10 to the Dolphins. They returned to San Diego and practiced indoors at the University of California-San Diego on Wednesday afternoon because the air quality makes any kind of outdoor activity unhealthy. The Chargers then flew to Champaign, where they will practice for three days at the University of Illinois before flying into Chicago Saturday.

At least 10 players have had to evacuate their homes and business director John Hinek's home was destroyed.

"Somebody in a situation like the Chargers are right now, a lot of times that will rally a team together and sometimes they can play better," Bears quarterback Chris Chandler said. "So you have to expect nothing but the best from these guys, and I'm sure they'll give it to us."

If the Bears expect any less, they could fall into a trap that coaches have been warning them about all week.

Shortly before flying to Champaign, Chargers defensive end Marcellus Wiley said he was trying to prevent the situation from affecting his preparation, but based on his description of the surrounding area, that wouldn't be easy.

"If you ever have an image of Lebanon or Beirut or something crazy like that, it's kind of like that without gunfire," Wiley said. "It's just that kind of dull in the air. The daytime looks like nighttime pretty much. You drive by areas and they're charred, whereas before they were pretty and green (like) San Diego is, a beautiful city. Now it's been darkened. You're constantly watching the news and constantly seeing the fires shift and destroy lives and people up in the air as to what to do. It's very tough, it's a very difficult situation, but there are some true victims out there that are suffering because their lives have totally been destroyed."

Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer says he'd prefer no changes to his normal routine, but he doesn't think the disruptions will bother his players.

"Players in pro sports have come to understand that there's constant change in their business," Schottenheimer said. "It's a short week, we're on a short leash. But change is something they're accustomed to."

Schottenheimer's not using the short week or the disaster and destruction as an excuse, and Bears coach Dick Jauron doesn't expect any less of an effort from the Chargers.

"I don't assume that they'll have a bad week at all," Jauron said. "I would assume that they'll have a tremendous week of practice. They'll be ready to play. They have a good team. They're a young team, and they do play hard. And they've had some things go against them in games and we understand that."

The Bears understand it, but they don't want to dwell on it or worry about any opponent's misfortune. Otherwise, they'll end up as bait.

"It is a trap," Blache said. "If we're not aware of it we'll walk right into it and we'll be hanging."

SERIES HISTORY: 8th meeting. Tied at 4-4, but Bears have won last three meetings, although most recent was in 1999.

  • Weak-side linebacker Joe Odom was one of four rookies who started last Sunday, three of them on a defense that allowed a season-low 260 yards. Seven other rookies played against the Lions, including three more on defense.

    "The rookies definitely stepped up," said Odom, who started his third straight game for Warrick Holdman, who is out with a sprained ankle. "It's our jobs. You don't have the luxury of taking that redshirt year. When your number's called, you have to make something happen. A lot of guys did a great job today. We still have a lot to prove, but it's a start."

    Rookie corner Charles Tillman, in his fourth start, had a team-best eight solo tackles and an interception. Strong-side linebacker Lance Briggs, making his fourth start, tied for third on the Bears with six tackles.

    "They have fun," middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said of the rookies. "They fly around and they're always smiling. They don't know when they screw up."

    But Odom knew right away that he made a mistake when he went helmet to helmet, after hitting Lions quarterback Joey Harrington just after he threw an incomplete pass in the fourth quarter.

    "I knew the flag was coming out as soon as I did it because we clinked helmets and I was like, ‘Aw, great,' " Odom said. "That could have been a definite momentum swing."

    The 15-yard penalty helped the Lions reach the Bears' three-yard line where it died, but the Lions scored when they got the ball back to pull within 24-16 with 53 seconds left.

    "Guys on the team said, ‘You just have to play ball,' and I agree with that," Odom said. "But you also have to realize what's going on, and I should have known better and been more conscious."

  • The offense had three different starters for the second straight week.

    Brock Forsey (55 yards on 19 carries), making his first NFL start, replaced Adrian Peterson, who was inactive because of a sprained ankle. Dustin Lyman (team-best six catches, 42 yards) started at tight end in place of Desmond Clark, who was inactive with a sprained toe. Fullback Stanley Pritchett was back in the starting lineup after the Bears started the past two games with three wide receivers and just one running back.

    "I slept pretty well," Forsey said when asked about the night before the game. "I've been preparing all week watching a lot of film and getting ready. So going into the game I felt pretty confident and I just tried to relax and go out and play football. That's all you can do."

    After his fist NFL touchdown, on an eight-yard run, Forsey celebrated in his own subdued style with your basic spike.

    "I always thought, since I've never been able to spike the ball in college, I might as well if I get the opportunity to do it in the NFL," said Forsey, who scored 68 touchdowns at Boise State. "I'm not a flashy guy, but I'm definitely spiking it."

    BY THE NUMBERS: The Bears' defense has allowed an average of 295 yards in each of the past four games after allowing an average of 390 in the first three games.

  • Paul Edinger ran his streak of consecutive field goals to 14 with a 37-yarder in the second quarter last week before he had a 32-yard attempt blocked with 9:20 left in the game.

  • Last Sunday's game was the Bears' first this season without a turnover. They lost the ball 17 times in the first six games, 12 on interceptions and 5 on fumbles.

  • The 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by the Lion' Reggie Swinton was the first against the Bears since the Packers' Don Beebe went 90 yards for a score on Oct. 6, 1996, at Soldier Field.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "They're going to be fired up coming in here." — Bears DT Bryan Robinson, using an unfortunate and unintentional choice of words in describing the Chargers, who were forced to escape the wildfires in Southern California three days early and practice at the University of Illinois in preparation for Sunday's game at Soldier Field

    After missing two games with a sprained foot, it appears No. 1 running back Anthony Thomas could be back in he starting lineup Sunday against the Chargers.

    "He had a good day in practice," coach Dick Jauron said. "He didn't act like he was limited. He worked hard, cut off it, he wasn't tentative at all. We'll just have to see how he comes through the thing and how the rest of the week goes."

    In the three weeks before his injury, Thomas averaged 110 rushing yards per game, but the Bears have averaged just 77.5 yards as a team without him.

    "I think he means a lot to everybody on the team," quarterback Chris Chandler said of Thomas. "The things he can do running the ball are going to help out the guys up front, and they can help us in play-calling. As a quarterback you love to have a guy back there like Train who's running as well as he has been all year. He'll help out everybody, even the defense."

  • QB Kordell Stewart is still listed as probable with a leg injury, although he doesn't appear to have any restrictions in practice. Stewart has fallen so far out of favor that he could be the third quarterback again this week behind starter Chris Chandler and rookie Rex Grossman.

  • QB Rex Grossman could be the No. 2 quarterback for the third straight week, even though veteran and former starter Kordell Stewart is 99 percent recovered from a quad bruise. Coach Dick Jauron said he believes Grossman is ready to play if Chandler is hurt.

  • CB/KR Jerry Azumah was named NFC special teams player of the week for his 89-yard kickoff return for a TD last week against the Lions. Azumah leads the NFL with a 29.5-yard average on kickoff returns.

  • LB Joe Odom, a sixth-round draft choice seems likely to start his fourth straight game on the weak side with Warrick Holdman still struggling to come back from a sprained ankle.

  • S Bobby Gray will replace Mike Green (groin, questionable) in the starting lineup Sunday if Green, who did not practice Wednesday, cannot go.

    The Lions, who went into the season hoping to emerge from a two-year funk that produced only five wins in 32 games, are facing the prospect of another disastrous season and there seems to be little — if anything — coach Steve Mariucci can do to turn them around.

    The combination of injuries — primarily the loss of two starting cornerbacks, running back James Stewart and the loss of rookie wide receiver Charles Rogers for several weeks with a broken collarbone — and the overall dearth of talent, has the Lions stalled at a 1-6 record going into their game Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

    Mariucci's approach has been old-school all the way — continue to work hard, correct the mistakes and play better football.

    The results have not been forthcoming, however, and if there is no improvement soon the Lions and Mariucci might be reduced to playing more young players simply to get an evaluation of their skills for the 2004 season.

    Even then, Mariucci doesn't have a lot of prospects that fall into that category, but there are some he might consider giving more playing time:

  • Defensive lineman Cory Redding made an impressive debut at defensive tackle in the preseason but suffered a knee injury and has been active for only one of the Lions seven regular season games. He was drafted as a defensive end and seems best fitted physically (6-feet-4, 285 with good quickness) to play outside. With the Lions sub par production at defensive end, Redding might be in line for playing time there as the season progresses.

  • Linebacker James Davis was only a fifth-round draft pick but already has created a niche for himself in the Lions defense. In limited playing time he is averaging only a play or two a game, but is very active and athletic. There is an outside chance at 6-feet-1, 221 he might get a test at strong safety.

  • Safety Terrence Holt is another fifth-round draft pick who made the team, not with great speed but with good instincts and the ability to be in the right place at the right time. Has been active for only two regular season games, playing on special teams.

  • Tight end Casey Fitzsimmons played eight-man football in high school, played his college ball at Carroll College in Montana and made the Lions as an undrafted rookie. Has outstanding instincts, catches the ball well and doesn't mind getting dirty on special teams. He already has four NFL starts and has five catches for 55 yards. A definite keeper whose responsibilities could grow.

  • Wide receiver David Kircus was a popular sixth-round pick out of Division II Grand Valley State but has been limited to the practice squad. Mariucci says he can't activate Kircus because the Lions are already overloaded at wide receiver and currently have two receivers (Rogers and Eddie Drummond) out with injuries, but if the veterans continue dropping balls left and right, it only makes sense to give the speedy, athletic Kircus a look.

  • Offensive lineman Victor Rogers spent his rookie season on injured reserve and hasn't been active yet this season. Tackles Jeff Backus and Stockar McDougle are the best of the Lions offensive linemen but the Lions say the like him and might consider giving him a look at guard, where 40-year-old Ray Brown is probably playing his final season.

  • Offensive lineman Josh Lovelady is another offensive lineman the Lions believe has talent. He is in his third season with the team (mostly on the practice squad the first two seasons) but has limited playing time that hasn't really given an indication of whether he can play or not in the NFL. If they're going to keep him, it would make sense to see if he's good enough to play.

    The Lions top two draft picks from last spring — Rogers and outside linebacker Boss Bailey — have been starters all season and are progressing nicely.

    Unless the Lions can win their next two games — against Oakland and Chicago, both at Ford Field — they'll have little to play for other than to see whether any of the other young players are good enough to join Rogers and Bailey in the lineup in 2004 or 2005.

  • Through the offseason, the preseason and the first eight weeks of the regular season, Lions coach Steve Mariucci had little to say about expectations of the team he was signed to coach last February.

    With the team mired at 1-6 on a six-game losing streak and a 20-game road losing streak, Mariucci finally admitted this week that he knew — coming in — the rebuilding process might be a lengthy one.

    "In coming in here, we knew it wasn't going to be a quick fix," Mariucci said. "I think if we were to have a quick fix or any semblance of that at all, things would have to go our way. We'd have to stay very healthy, play very well, catch some breaks and win some close games.

    "The stars would have to be aligned properly for you to turn this thing relatively quickly, so you're in it for the long haul, for the big picture."

    So far those stars haven't aligned and the Lions appear to be at least one productive draft and a couple of strong free-agent signing seasons away from being competitive.

    But if the Lions don't make better decisions in the free agent department, it might be even longer until they're respectable.

  • Mariucci also admitted for the first time that it has been disappointing for him to be unable to make a difference personally in snapping the Lions out of their three-year slide.

    "That's my intention, to help this team win," he said. "I've got to find a way to do it with this bunch, to get the most out of the players. As coaches, that's what you want to do — get the most out of your players and out of the team. That's what consumes our every thought."

    Mariucci, who took the San Francisco 49ers to the playoffs in four of the six years he coached them, was asked if the situation could get worse for the Lions and himself personally.

    "I hope it doesn't get any worse than this," he said. "It's a difficult time and it's not just about me personally. It's about this organization and this football team.

    "We're all going through it together and I think we know what the problems are. It's our job to try to solve those problems and fix those problems. That's the issue: How do we solve it?"

  • Dropped passes have become a major problem for the Lions' receiving corps. Not just the rookies and young players, but for the veterans as well.

    In the loss to the Chicago Bears, quarterback Joey Harrington would have been 29-for-40 and probably would have kept at least one early drive alive if his receivers had simply caught balls that hit them in the hands or the chest.

    By unofficial count, the Lions had six drops in the Chicago game — two by wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim and one each by running backs Olandis Gary and Shawn Bryson, tight end Mikhael Ricks and wide receiver Scotty Anderson.

    Wide receiver Shawn Jefferson didn't have a drop but he has a feeling for why his teammates might be struggling to hang onto the football.

    "Being lax in concentration," Jefferson said. "Also, sometimes you're really not sure. As players we have to read defenses and it's our job to know what a defense is in when the football is snapped. That way we know where we fit in the defense. I think often times it's a combination of things.

    "I'm not saying by any stretch of the imagination that guys are not prepared. We're prepared. We are so prepared when we go to play these games. It's just up to each individual and — team-wise — we have to buckle down.

    "If it takes us — when the ball is thrown — looking it all the way in, making sure we catch it before we even take one step with it, so be it. I think that's most of the problem now; we're trying to run with it before we get it."

    BY THE NUMBERS: 4 of 7 — Number of games in which the Lions have taken an early lead, yet they have not won a game since the season opener against Arizona. They took — but quickly relinquished — the lead in games against Minnesota, Denver and the Dallas Cowboys.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "We don't have the same fight. At the end, we know we have to do something. In the beginning, it seems like we're just playing." — Wide receiver Scotty Anderson on the Lions slow start and strong finish in the 24-16 loss to the Bears.

    Nothing new here, but the Lions are hurting again in their defensive secondary, this time because of the loss (for several weeks, at least) of rookie cornerback Rod Babers.

    Babers became the fourth cornerback to be lost because of an injury when he suffered a dislocated shoulder in the Lions' 24-16 loss to the Chicago Bears last Sunday, forcing them to look for a cornerback on the free agent market.

    With only three cornerbacks — Dre' Bly, Otis Smith and Jimmy Wyrick — familiar with the Lions' system and each other, the Lions could have major problems matching up with the Raiders receivers in the game Sunday at Ford Field.

  • WR Charles Rogers has missed two games with a broken right collarbone and will miss his third Sunday when the Lions play at home against Oakland. Even after missing two games, Rogers leads the Lions wide receivers with 22 receptions for 243 yards and three touchdowns. He is expected to be out a minimum of 2-4 games.

  • WR Scotty Anderson is getting more opportunities in the Lions offense because of the broken collarbone that has sidelined rookie WR Charles Anderson. Although Anderson had one of the Lions' six dropped passes in the Chicago game he also had four receptions for 39 yards, lifting his seven-game total to nine for 151 yards.

  • DE James Hall, who has never had more than 3 1/2 sacks in a season, has that many already this season in the Lions first seven games. Although he is not considered a natural pass rusher, Hall has been the most effective of the Lions pass rushers. No other player has more than one sack for the Lions this season.

  • CB Jimmy Wyrick has been playing over a slight ankle sprain and he will get additional work Sunday when the Lions meet the Oakland Raiders. With CB Rod Babers out with a dislocated shoulder, Wyrick is the only experienced backup to starters Dre' Bly and Otis Smith in the Lions secondary.

  • RB Shawn Bryson still shares the Lions RB responsibilities with Olandis Gary but he has been the most productive back in the Lions' modest running game. Bryson leads the team in rushing with 221 yards on 66 carries (4.1 yards per carry) and is tied with WR Charles Rogers for the team lead in receptions with 22, good for 154 yards.

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