NFC North News

One of the NFL best rivalries renews with the 167th regular-season meeting between the Packers and Bears. Find out the week's news from their camps, along with the mood in Detroit with this week's NFC North roundup.

CHICAGO BEARS

Regardless of who lines up on the ball for the 5-7 Bears at noon Sunday, Kordell Stewart will be behind center, unless directing the team's best passing exhibition of the season last week isn't enough to keep him in the lineup.

But coach Dick Jauron won't name a starter until later in the week, forcing the 6-6 Packers to game plan for the mobile Stewart and the pocket-passing Chris Chandler in the NFC North showdown at Lambeau Field.

"We feel real comfortable with our two veteran quarterbacks, and they're different, so you have to prepare for them differently," Jauron said. "We would just as soon take advantage of that. I like the fact that an opponent will have to prepare a little differently. Even if it just takes a couple snaps away from their practice, that's a plus for us."

The offensive line could be a major headache for the Bears, though.

Needing a victory in Green Bay to keep their playoff hopes on life support, the Bears will face their archrivals with a tattered offensive line.

Right guard Chris Villarrial, who has started all but four games in six years, and Aaron Gibson, who has started every game this season at right tackle, will not be at full strength and are questionable at best to play. Gibson had to be helped from the field in the fourth quarter of last Sunday's game with a right knee injury, and Villarrial left during the first possession with a strained oblique muscle near his ribcage.

Those injuries would be easier to compensate for if guard Rex Tucker and tackle Marc Colombo, both starters last season, weren't already on injured reserve. Having to start the current season without either of them contributed to the Bears' 1-5 start. It wasn't until the offensive line meshed that the Bears rebounded, and they have won four of their last six games.

Lack of continuity on the offensive line was also a major factor in last season's 4-12 finish, as three different players started games at left tackle and left guard.

In the event of an offensive line shuffling this week, Steve Edwards would move from left guard, where he started the first 12 games this season, back to right tackle. That's his natural position and it's where he was playing until Tucker went down with a torn ankle tendon in the final preseason game. Edwards finished Sunday's game at right tackle after Gibson was injured.

I believe that is the direction we would go," coach Dick Jauron said. "As of right now, there are not a whole lot of options."

Terrence Metcalf, a third-round pick in 2002 who replaced Villarrial last Sunday, would then make his first NFL start at one of the guard spots.

"The good news, if there is any good news in these issues, is that Terrence Metcalf stepped in (Sunday) and (got) to play the whole game and ended up playing a strong game," Jauron said. "I thought he had a good game, and he can improve, and that will help him if in fact we do lose somebody else up there. I was happy with the way Terrence played in that game."

Corbin Lacina, who was signed by the Bears on Sept. 2 after he was cut by the Vikings, would be the presumed starter at the other guard spot if both Gibson and Villarrial are out. Lacina played for the first time in seven weeks after Edwards moved to tackle against the Cardinals. He started in Week Two when Villarrial was out with a sprained knee.

That would leave only first-year players Josh Warner and Qasim Mitchell in reserve. Warner replaced Villarrial when he injured his knee in the season opener but otherwise has been limited to playing on special teams and in some goal-line situations. Mitchell was signed to the practice squad Sept. 17 and promoted to the active roster on Nov. 14, but he has yet to play in a game.

"I think he is going to be a good player somewhere down the road," Jauron said of Mitchell. "(But he) hasn't been with us very long."

SERIES HISTORY: 167th meeting. Bears lead Packers 84-76-6 but Packers have won last six meetings, all but one of them by 10 points or more. Packers have also won 17 of the last 19 meetings.


NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Defensive coordinator Greg Blache says it won't be difficult for the Bears to avoid looking down the road to a potential playoff race that could go down to the wire.

    "If we don't win Sunday, there is no playoff race," Blache said. "That's the only thing in our future. We painted ourselves into a corner, (and) in one aspect it's good. We're rats in a corner. We have no options. All we have is Sunday, and if we don't take care of Sunday, the rest of it is all talk.

    "We have one fight to fight. We only got one. All the rest of that stuff doesn't matter because if we don't win on Sunday, we're not involved in it. We won't be involved in it. We've got a one-game season. Our playoffs (have) started. It's a single-game elimination. We lose, we're out."

  • Consistency and confidence are the keys to the Bears' improvement over the past six weeks according to coach Dick Jauron.

    "The more consistency you have out there, the better you play, the better feeling you have for the guy next to you, for what he's going to do," Jauron said. "Confidence is a huge factor in anything I suppose. In our game it certainly is. And as our team has gained a little confidence, our whole team plays better. You have the sense that you know you have this chance to win. I know that we've talked about it a lot, but I still can't tell you what comes first, the winning or the confidence. But the more you win, the more confident you are about winning, and it improves your play."

    BY THE NUMBERS: After taking a 38-23 Monday night pummeling from the Packers on Monday night, Sept. 29, the Bears had allowed an average of 37 points and 390 yards per game. They were also 0-3.

  • In their past six games, the Bears are 4-2 and have permitted an average of just 12 points and 265 yards.

  • The Bears are currently No. 8 in the NFL in passing yards allowed. They were 15th after the Packers game.

  • QB Kordell Stewart was sacked five times for 21 yards in losses in the first Packers game, but he ran 12 times for 71 yards and a TD.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "We just kept chopping wood. You know what you want to do, you keep working at it, and guys execute it. Simple has always been better. Less has always been more. It's execution and not schemes. It's not how much football we know. It's not how much football we can talk. It's how much football can we teach to our players and they can execute on a Sunday afternoon." — Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache on the team's improved play on defense.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    Not much has changed personnel wise since the first Bears-Packers game, when the Bears were mired in a six-week stretch as the NFL's worst defense. But the changes have helped the Bears improve from No. 28 to No. 11 in yards allowed and from No. 32 to No. 17 in points allowed.

    Rookie Lance Briggs replaced Bryan Knight at strong-side linebacker after the first Packers game, and he is third on the team in tackles, many of which have been violent. Bobby Gray has started four of the past six games at strong safety in place of Mike Green, who has been struggling to return from a nagging groin injury. Gray's big hits have provided an intimidation factor in the secondary that was missing.

    At cornerback, Jerry Azumah was demoted to nickel back after the Packers game, in which he missed a tackle on Ahman Green that resulted in a 60-yard TD run. Four weeks later, Azumah was back in the starting lineup, switching position with R.W. McQuarters and teaming with rookie Charles Tillman. In the meantime, Azumah has become the NFL's leading kickoff returner, and McQuarters is No. 7 in punt returns.

    PERSONNEL/INJURY NOTES:

  • SS Bobby Gray may keep the starting job even if former starter Mike Green (groin) is ready to play this week. Gray has started four of the past six games and made an impact with his heavy hitting, something lacking in Green's game.

  • ORT Aaron Gibson (sprained right knee) didn't practice on Wednesday and seems unlikely to play on Sunday.

  • ORG Chris Villarrial (strained oblique muscle) didn't practice on Wednesday and might need at least another week to recover after being forced out on the first offensive series last week when he re-aggravated the injury.

  • WR Justin Gage is averaging 22.9 yards per catch, and is expected to see more action down the stretch. The rest of the team is averaging 9.0 yards per catch.

  • RB Anthony Thomas is expected to start after missing last week's game with viral pneumonia. Thomas ran for 110 yards on just 13 carries (8.5-yard average) in the first meeting with the Packers this season.


    DETROIT LIONS

    They are still running dead last in the not-so-awesome NFC North but even modest gains are treasured by the Detroit Lions and — as unlikely as it might sound for a 4-8 team — they have actually accomplished a couple this season.

  • They have won more games already this year than they won in their first two seasons under the presidency of Matt Millen. Coming off 2-14 and 3-13 seasons, their four wins are at least a step in the right direction.

  • They have established a home field advantage in their second year at Ford Field. They are 4-2 with a three-game home winning streak in progress.

  • They have beaten a team with a winning record (Green Bay was 6-5 going into the Thanksgiving Day game) for the first time this season and only the second time in three years.

    For a playoff contender, all of those accomplishments would be pretty much business as usual but for a team trying to work its way out of the NFL depths, they are significant mile markers along the way.

    And with four games left on the schedule, coach Steve Mariucci has a chance to knock off a couple more.

    A win Sunday against the 2-10 San Diego Chargers would assure the Lions of their first winning home-field record since the 1999 team went 6-2 at the Silverdome in Bobby Ross's final full season as the coach.

    But what the Lions need most in the month of December is a road win.

    Their 22-game road losing streak is just one game short of the NFL record, an ugly fact of life that has been sneaking up on them for three years. Their last road win was three years ago — Dec. 17 at the Meadowlands, when they beat the New York Jets 10-7 on guard Jeff Hartings' fumble recovery in the end zone.

    Since then there has been nothing the Lions could do to win on the road.

    They have two more chances on the road this year — Dec. 14 at Kansas City and Dec. 21 at Carolina — and will be lopsided underdogs in both games.

    A loss in both games would make them the NFL's all-time worst road team; a win would break the streak and get the monkey off their back going into the off-season of preparation for the 2004 season.

    The one thing that has become obvious to the Lions is that there is no quick fix in getting back to NFL respectability. Regardless of what happens in the remaining four games, Millen still has a lot of rebuilding to do.

    The atmosphere will be much better, however, coming off a 6-10 or 7-9 season than a 4-12 season that ends on a four-game losing streak.

    SERIES HISTORY: The Lions and Chargers will be meeting for the eighth time, with the Chargers holding a 4-3 lead in the first seven. The Lions are 3-1 at home against the Chargers, however. Their only home loss to San Diego was 20-10 in 1999.


    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • This isn't the way Charles Rogers imagined his rookie season going.

    While his fellow rookie wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Andre Johnson continue to make their mark with 66 and 51 catches respectively, Rogers' season ended Tuesday with 22 receptions for 243 yards and three touchdowns in five games.

    Rogers, the Lions first-round draft pick and the second player taken in the draft last April, was put on injured reserve to let his broken right collarbone heal slowly and thoroughly.

    At the time Rogers was injured Oct. 7 in a practice field mishap involving cornerback Dre' Bly, coach Steve Mariucci was hopeful he would be ready to play again in 4-8 weeks.

    Every time the Lions took x-rays of the injury it showed good progress in healing, but at the rate it was healing Rogers probably wouldn't have been able to play until the season finale Dec. 28 against St. Louis. And there was no guarantee he'd have been able to get back in shape to play by then.

    "It's a disappointment but one thing I know — I'm going to be back," Rogers said. "It's just another way you deal with adversity. It's just a part of the game. Of course, I'm disappointed, but I know I've got a lot of good football left to play and this is just the beginning."

    The collarbone wasn't the only problem Rogers encountered in his rookie season. He suffered a dislocated ring finger less than a week into training camp and missed much of camp and the exhibition season.

    Although Mariucci was disappointed Rogers played only five games, he was encouraged by what he saw.

    "He was very promising," Mariucci said. "Heck, he had 22 catches and three touchdowns very early in the first quarter of the season, so he was going to have a very productive year."

    Quarterback Joey Harrington probably had the most to lose when Rogers was injured because he lost his best big-play threat.

    "He was just starting to get comfortable it seemed," Harrington said. "He was starting to go up after balls. He mad that (touchdown) catch in Denver and was starting to get aggressive, to make some of the catches we saw in college."

  • For the first time since bailing out on the Lions nearly five full seasons ago, Barry Sanders stepped up and faced the music.

    In a 45-minute press conference — set up primarily to help him promote sales of his book "Barry Sanders: Now You See Him ..." — Sanders answered virtually all the questions that he should have answered when he announced his retirement on the eve of the 1999 training camp.

    Although he acknowledged that he might have handled it better, Sanders did not apologize for leaving the Lions and coach Bobby Ross without a running game.

    "I wasn't trying to put Detroit in a bad situation," Sanders said. "I was only thinking about me ... It was sort of selfish. But I sort of feel once you leave the white lines you have a right to be selfish."

    Among other topics Sanders addressed:

  • Why he waited nearly five full seasons to go public with his retirement explanation: "It took awhile to really come to terms with what I wanted to do and how I wanted to say it. I'm not a person that just speaks about certain things in the heat of the moment. Sometimes it's good to let time pass and be able to reflect on things."

  • On whether he agreed to the press conference to promote his new book: "Partly, yeah, I'm here because I just wrote a book. That's what you do when you write a book."

  • On whether he will attend the induction ceremonies when he eventually goes to the Hall of Fame, probably as a first-ballot inductee next August: "You've got to be joking. Will I show up? I'm sure I won't have anything on my schedule that day that will prevent me from going down there."

  • On five seasons of rumors that he would make a comeback: "None of those came from me. At no time was I ever really considering it."

  • For 12 seasons Jason Hanson has been a mainstay on Lions special teams and it is not only on field goals and long kickoffs. Hanson figures he must have as many tackles as any other kicker in the NFL.

    "I have a sneaking suspicion I've got to be up there in tackles for a kicker but I found out it's an unofficial stat, so there's really no way to say, `Jason has the most tackles for a kicker,' " he said. "It's not a league-recognized stat.

    "I don't know how many I have. I think I have 13, 14, maybe 15, maybe more. I don't know. I've made some and playing this long I've got to be up there but there's no way to know."

    Although he is only 182 pounds, Hanson is very athletic and is not reluctant to make a play on a runaway kick returner, just as he did in the Lions' Thanksgiving Day game against Green Bay.

    With 245-pound Najeh Davenport bearing down on him and no other special teams player to stop Davenport on the kickoff return, Hanson did what he had to do — he stopped being a kicker and became a full-fledged football player.

    "Saved the game," coach Lions coach Steve Mariucci said.

    Hanson has a big purple and green bruise on the side of his right thigh as proof that he made contact, but he says the hardest hit he ever took was from a smaller returner — Glyn Milburn of the Chicago Bears — several years ago.

    "The guy that hit me the hardest was the smallest guy — Glyn Milburn," Hanson said. "He hit me in Chicago a couple years ago. I must have thought it was my chance and he just rolled right over me. I held on but he hit me pretty hard."

    Hanson is as reliable as ever on field goals. He has connected on 18-of-19 attempts, including 3-for-3 from 50 yards or more (52, 53, 54) and 5-of-6 between 40 and 49 yards. His only miss was a 43-yarder.

    Hanson was named the NFC special teams player of the month for November for his efforts.

  • Lions president Matt Millen was criticized for overpaying when he signed cornerback Dre' Bly to a five-year contract for $24.5 million, including a $6.5 million signing bonus but Bly's play has gone a long way in quieting the critics.

    He has been the Lions best defensive player and has given them the big-play defender they haven't had in recent years.

    Bly has six interceptions, has forced two fumbles, recovered two fumbles and scored two touchdowns — one on an interception return and the other on a fumble return.

    There is speculation that his Thanksgiving Day performance — two interceptions and a forced fumble — on national television might sway some NFL players in the Pro Bowl voting.

    "I had to return a lot of phone calls," he said, laughing.

    But he says he's not thinking about the Pro Bowl.

    "I'm not even worried about that," he said. "If it happens that way, good, but I just want to win games."

    BY THE NUMBERS: 3-18 — The Lions record in December games over the last five years.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "People that like me, they're going to like me. People that don't will find a way not to." — Former Lions running back Barry Sanders on how Lions fans feel about him five seasons after he retired unexpectedly before the 1999 season.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    By putting rookie WR Charles Rogers on injured reserve, the Lions have cleared space for another player who might help pick up the slack in an injury-depleted receiving corps.

    That player is three-year Seattle veteran James Williams, who cut by the Seahawks late in training camp and was signed by the Lions on Tuesday.

    Although Williams isn't likely to get a lot of balls thrown his way, he gives the Lions a little cushion they have lacked since losing in rapid-fire order Rogers (broken collarbone), Shawn Jefferson (knee) and Scotty Anderson (ankle).

    Sixth-round draft pick David Kircus was activated two weeks ago but has had only three balls thrown his way and dropped two of them.

    It is likely QB Joey Harrington will continue to focus on WRs Az-Zahir Hakim and Bill Schroeder, TE Mikhael Ricks and RB Shawn Bryson as his primary targets but Kircus and Williams will be useful in three and four-WR sets.

    PERSONNEL/INJURY NOTES:

  • WR Charles Rogers won't be back for the final four games of his rookie season. The Lions' first-round pick, the second player taken in the NFL draft last April, was put on injured reserve Tuesday to complete his recovery from a broken collarbone suffered Oct. 7 in a bye-week practice.

  • CB Dre' Bly isn't getting a lot of practice time but his nagging hamstring injury doesn't seem to have hampered his production on game day. Bly missed two games in early November but has had three interceptions, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in the three games since coming back, despite not practicing until late in the week.

  • LB James Davis returned to practice this week after missing three consecutive games with a shoulder separation. It is still doubtful if he will play Sunday against San Diego.

    DE Jared DeVries sat out the Lions Thanksgiving Day game against Green Bay with a shoulder injury but has returned to practice this week. If DeVries is healthy, he gives coach Steve Mariucci a full set of linemen for his defensive line rotation.

  • RB Artose Pinner is getting a few reps this week with the Lions offense and is expected to get playing time before the end of the season. If he doesn't play Sunday against San Diego, it is likely he will get his first action Sept. 14 at Kansas City. Pinner, the Lions' fourth-round pick, has been recuperating from a broken left leg.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    Sunday will mark the 165th regular-season meeting between the Packers and Bears. Some say it remains the greatest rivalry in the NFL, but the Packers have owned the Bears since 1994 by winning 17 of the last 19 meetings.

    The Bears might be 7-point underdogs in the eyes of the oddsmakers but they apparently view the battle at Lambeau Field as anyone's game.

    "I know they think they've got a real good chance against the Packers," an assistant coach for a recent Bears' opponent said. "I think they're pretty cocky right now. They're won a couple games and they think they're on a roll."

    After a 1-5 start the Bears have won four of six games. With games against the Packers (6-6) and Minnesota Vikings (7-5) in the next two weeks, the Bears (5-7) could be tied for the NFC North lead Dec. 14 if they win two and the Vikings also lose Sunday to Seattle.

    "They're at least sitting in meetings saying, ‘Hey, there still is a glimmer of hope, let's keep going,'" the assistant said. "As a coach, that's what you like because you know they're going to keep competing."

    The Packers crushed the Bears, 38-23, on Monday night, Sept. 29, in a game that served as the dedication of new Soldier Field.

    "They're a little better than what people think they are," an executive in personnel for a recent Bears' foe said. "Their offense, in general, is terrible, but they're pretty active on defense and fly around a lot."

    Three times this season the Packers have been a 7-point favorite. They hammered Detroit in Week 2 but were upset in Arizona the next week and in Detroit on Thanksgiving.

    "I would think if the Bears had to go to Green Bay 10 times nine of them would be a tough day," an assistant for another recent Bears' foe said. "I just think he (Brett Favre) is going to recognize man coverage and hit a couple big plays. The whole key for Green Bay is to keep the quarterback (Kordell Stewart) pinned inside."

    SERIES HISTORY: This is the 165th regular-season meeting. The Bears lead, 83-75-6.


    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Packers coach Mike Sherman said running backs coach Sylvester Croom had to think long and hard before he took the job at Mississippi State Sunday.

    "It was a very difficult decision for him," Sherman said Monday. "He wrestled with it for a while. He wasn't going to take it until yesterday. He wasn't really interested. But he finally decided it was something he had to do."

    Croom would have preferred to leave the Packers immediately and begin the gargantuan task of rebuilding a downtrodden program that was 8-27 in the last three seasons. However, Sherman requested that he remain with the team through the end of the season.

    "It was (at the Packers') request that we try to work through this," Croom said. "It would have been easier on me to be here full-time. But I have obligations to them, and I will honor those obligations.

    "Mike said he understood because of the importance of the recruiting and campus visits in January. He asked me to see if we can work through this and still be able to contribute to what we're doing up there. I can understand that."

    The Packers have two coaches on staff, assistant running backs coach Edgar Bennett and quality control coach Stan Drayton, who can help with the running backs.

    Bennett, 34, has made it clear that he would like to move into coaching from his position as director of player development. He has worked alongside Croom at almost every meeting and practice for three years.

    "The running backs, we would love to have ‘EB,'" fullback Nick Luchey said. "All it comes down to is having the guys respect you. The guys respect him."

    Croom met with MSU officials Friday in Green Bay and then visited Starkville Saturday before returning Sunday, when he informed Sherman of his decision.

    "I think it was his family," Sherman said. "He's close to his mom and his brothers and his daughter. They're all down there and Tuscaloosa is only 1 1/2 hours away.

    "He loved it here. He had said to me this is the best place he's coached in the National Football League. Just a class act. He's more than ready to do it."

    Seldom, if ever, did Croom raise his voice with players, but he appeared to be in complete charge of his position. The Packers lead the NFL in yards rushing (1,960) and yards per carry (5.3), and players and coaches said Croom deserved credit.

    "He helped me become more patient and disciplined," Ahman Green said. "If you do it exactly as he says you'll be OK."

    Croom knows something about racial barriers, having been a member of the second class of African-American football recruits at Alabama.

    "Of course, the pressure is going to be on him, but coach Croom is a strong individual," running back Tony Fisher said. "I think it's a great opportunity for him."

  • Tom Rossley might be the Packers' offensive coordinator — but make no mistake about who is in charge of this offense. It is Sherman all the way.

    "Mike Sherman is the No. 1 guy," Rossley said. "He's a creative thinker. His stamp is on it completely."

    The difference between Sherman and Mike Holmgren in Seattle, Andy Reid in Philadelphia and Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay is that Sherman lets his offensive coordinator call the plays. But Sherman meets with Rossley for so many hours each week that by kickoff Rossley basically is an extension of the head coach.

    On Tuesday, Sherman meets with Larry Beightol, the team's offensive line coach, to receive Beightol's recommendations for the run plays that week. Then Rossley meets with the entire offensive staff. Then Sherman joins the group with his thoughts.

    "My favorite part of the game is studying scheme and coming up with ideas," Sherman said. "I'm constantly looking at what other people are doing. I have a lot of confidence in my ability."

    After the game plan is introduced to the players by Rossley Wednesday morning, Sherman and Rossley spend the rest of the week scrutinizing how the selected plays look in practice. Every night, Sherman said he spends "a couple hours" with Rossley boiling down the plan.

    Together, their script of opening plays might extend beyond 15 to as many as 20 or 25. There have been nights at the team hotel on Saturday night when they even script openers for the second half.

    After practice on Friday, Sherman and the entire offensive staff meet for about 2 1/2 hours, deciding which of the four wide receivers, four tight ends (counting tackle Kevin Barry), three running backs and two fullbacks would best suit each play on the ready list.

    As late as Saturday night Sherman and Rossley are trading thoughts on the order of plays to be used on first and 10, first and 15, second and short, third and medium, third and long, and so on. Then they rank the plays in order on the playsheet Sherman carries on the sideline and Rossley lays out before him in the press box.

    "He's constantly grilling me, going over and over and over preparing for things," Rossley said. "Mike is such an organized person. You have to prepare more."

    Since early in the season Sherman has pressured Rossley to call a play much quicker than ever before. Most of the time, Rossley has lowered his head for the next call before the player with the ball is fully down. Drayton then tells Rossley the exact down and distance so he doesn't have to look up.

    It isn't often that Sherman will call for a specific play during that crucial three-to-five second interval. He might say, "We need to run it here," or "Take a shot now," but Sherman says trial and error has told him that two people cannot call the game at the same time.

    So in a matter of seconds Rossley calls something from their pre-determined list usually with silence in his headset and quarterbacks coach then Darrell Bevell immediately transmits the play electronically to Brett Favre.

    "We've been pretty good at breaking the huddle with 22 seconds left (on the 40-second clock)," Rossley said. "Calling these last (nine) games is the fastest tempo we've had. It's harder, but I'm finding that's the best way to do it."

    A sizeable number of plays are called with the clock stopped, and Rossley acknowledged that after discussion between them Sherman often exercises the final say.

    There have been times late in the week when the two of them each will write his own script of 15 plays from the hundreds that are available. Invariably, said Rossley, seven or eight will appear on both lists.

    They mesh, too, because Sherman's background as an offensive lineman and offensive line coach makes him more innovative in the run game and Rossley's background as a wide receiver and skill-position coach makes his more innovative in the pass game.

    Green Bay's best pass play is the screen; some scouts say no team runs it better. In a twist developed by Sherman and Rossley, Favre now has available a shallow crossing route going away from the screen if man-to-man coverage makes throwing the screen an impossibility.

    Some of the passing game, including dropback plays, third-down standbys and terminology, goes back to the West Coast roots planted here by Mike Holmgren. The bootlegs to the left and other pocket movement designed so defenses can't draw a bead on Favre aren't West Coast, nor is the counter run game favored by Sherman.

  • Mike Wahle and Mike Flanagan are better athletes. Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher play harder positions.

    But the Packers coaches and others around the NFL think guard Marco Rivera is their best offensive lineman by a slim margin.

    None of them is Jon Ogden or Walter Jones. You know — the towering, talented and also fundamentally sound type of offensive lineman that makes an exceedingly difficult job look easy.

    But the five Packers all belong in that next level down reserved for outstanding players that should be given consideration for the Pro Bowl.

    None of the five ever was given anything. Each has had to overcome harrowing obstacles to get to the peak of their professions.

    Wahle almost quit after being benched in 2000. A horrific leg injury and endless complications delayed the start of Flanagan's career by three full years. Clifton's collision with Warren Sapp was like being hit by a Volkswagen, according to one doctor. Tauscher lasted until the seventh round and then, just when his career was taking off, he was struck down by a devastating knee injury.

    After the ‘99 season, Rivera's second as a starter, a member of the Packers' staff said of Rivera, "He was very inconsistent. When he looked bad it was bad. He will never be one of those guys where you say, ‘Book it, he's the guy who will dominate.' But I think he can get it done."

    One month later, the Packers handed aging Raleigh McKenzie a $1.8 million signing bonus not only because Adam Timmerman had just signed with St. Louis but also because they weren't sure about Rivera.

    Flanagan pointed out last week that if he hadn't blown up his leg as a rookie in August 1996 it's entirely possible that Rivera never would have made the team. Flanagan had been drafted in the third round, Rivera in the sixth. The Packers didn't need Rivera because Lindsay Knapp was the third guard in ‘96 and Rivera was inactive for all 19 games as the 10th offensive lineman.

    "He's not stiff," offensive line coach Tom Lovat said in July 1998. "He's like a lot of guys that play. Not real supple but still adequate."

    Being damned by faint praise was nothing new for Rivera. He had a 27-inch vertical jump at the combine in ‘96 and lumbered 40 yards in just 5.31 seconds weighing 295. His five-year career at Penn State had been interrupted twice by major shoulder injuries.

    Actually, Rivera held up better in ‘98 than he did in ‘99. In ‘99, his total of sacks, knockdowns and hurries was a whopping 25, 11 more than what the other four starters averaged.

    A defensive coach for Detroit during those years remembered how the Lions loved the Luther Elliss-Rivera matchup.

    "We used to try to get into him early knowing he'd try to set hard and try to maul you and torque you," the coach said. "Then Luther would put the quick move on and go and it usually worked out pretty good for us. His feet weren't good enough and he wasn't strong enough to just try to get on a guy and torque him all the time."

    In August 2000, Rivera ended up pleading no contest in Brown County Court to a drunk driving (0.196 alcohol level) and speeding charge (95 mph in a 45-mph zone) that May, paid a $1,133 fine and had his driver's license suspended for seven months. Saying he was "embarrassed" and "ashamed" of his actions, Rivera said it would never happen again.

    "Since he got in trouble I see him out maybe once every year," Flanagan said. "He wasn't really out before, but now it's less and less. Maybe there was a refocus there, maybe there wasn't. He's married with two kids. Hey, it's football and family for him."

    That total of 25 sacks, knockdowns and hurries crashed to 10 1/2 in 2000, the second lowest number on the line. It was his breakout season, leading to a four-year, $10 million extension ($2.5 million bonus) in March 2001, and Rivera never looked back.

    Rivera gave up a sack to Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp in Week 16 of 2000. He has been partially at fault on three sacks in the 2 1/2 seasons since then, but that was the last full sack he has given up.

    He used to take bad sets. He used to whiff. He used to get bull rushed. He used to get beat by speed to his outside. He used to be slow reacting on stunts and blitzes.

    Today, in a remarkable transformation, Rivera has earned the right to be labeled an exceptional pass blocker.

    After giving up a total of 12 sacks, knockdowns and hurries in 2001, he cut that to a phenomenal 5 1/2 in 2002 and is at 7 1/2 after 12 games this year.

    "He's stopped trying to maul guys," said the former Lions coach who continues to study Rivera. "He's gotten a lot more patient with his technique. The stuff he used to go for, he doesn't seem to be getting beat on that. With age, he's gotten more confident."

    The immense improvement that Rivera made since 2000 also has carried over into his run blocking.

    In previous seasons Rivera was praised more for playing hurt than how he played. He played a month with a broken hand in ‘01 and never missed a game despite spraining his medial collateral ligament four times, two in each knee. But the emphasis probably should be on how he has taken his game to the elite level since the middle of last year.

    Between Weeks 7-11 last year Rivera had dominating games against Washington's Dan Wilkinson, Miami's Tim Bowens, Elliss and Sapp. This year, using his immense strength, he controlled Wilkinson one week after "Big Daddy" destroyed Arizona's good offensive line, helped shove Seattle's John Randle to the sidelines and blasted both Philadelphia's Corey Simon and San Francisco's Bryant Young. Rivera more than held his own against Sapp and pounded Buccaneers end Simeon Rice so often and with such fury on weak-side counter plays that by game's end Rice was turning his back to him.

    His brutally physical performance in-line against Simon caught the attention of diligent tape grinders across the league.

    "He's gone against some great players," offensive line coach Larry Beightol said. "Sapp. Simon. Young. Just shut them down. Just owned them."

    BY THE NUMBERS: 5 — The Packers had five turnovers in Detroit, the third time in their last 13 games (counting playoffs) that has happened. Since Mike Holmgren became coach in 1992 the Packers have had five or more turnovers 11 times. They are 3-8 in those games.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I would say he would be classified as an icon amongst all those who were part of the Packers. I think his contribution to the Packers really was with people away from Green Bay. He had great name recognition wherever he went." — Former Packers President Robert Parins on Hall of Fame running back Tony Canadeo, who died Saturday at age 84.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    The loss of Antuan Edwards for this game and perhaps the season will force changes in the Packers' base and dime defenses.

    Replacing Edwards at strong safety in the base will be Marques Anderson.

    The Packers will have to make a decision in the dime, where Edwards remained at safety opposite Darren Sharper.

    They could insert safety Curtis Fuller alongside Sharper. Or they might move slot cornerback Michael Hawthorne to safety and insert reinsert cornerback Bhawoh Jue into the slot.




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