NFC North News

The Bears will have to rely on defense once again, the Lions are taking a risky move at quarterback, and the Packers are hoping a minor injury to their starting quarterback isn't a sign of trouble to come. Get those stories and more player notes from the Vikings' divisional opponents.

CHICAGO BEARS

Any team coming off a 5-11 season with a fourth-round rookie starting at quarterback has a lot of questions to answer heading into opening day. For the Bears, most of the questions involve the offense, which was the NFL's worst last season and is more unsettled than the defense, which should be a team strength.

It's difficult to expect much from a team as weak at quarterback as the Bears seem to be. Quarterback Kyle Orton shows potential, but arm strength and confidence will only take him so far. The running game has flashed the ability to take the pressure off the young quarterback, but first-round pick Cedric Benson, who was supposed to provide a big boost to the ground game, was 36 days late reporting and won't contribute much in the early going. And, it remains to be seen how effective incumbent running back Thomas Jones will be when opposing defenses sell out to stop him, gambling that Orton won't be able to beat them.

The defense will have to carry the team, and they have that type of talent if everyone stays healthy and continues to improve, which is likely because of the youthfulness throughout the lineup. But beyond the defensive starters, depth is a concern, so if injuries mount up as they did last season, things could so south in a hurry.

Bottom line, an improvement over 5-11 is quite possible considering the advantageous early schedule, but the playoffs are a long shot at best.

*Three keys for the season:

1. WR Muhsin Muhammad must come close to the numbers he put up last season.

Muhammad earned a Pro Bowl trip after catching 93 passes for 1,405 yards and 16 TDs for the Panthers, who had no one else to go to after Steve Smith suffered a season-ending injury in September. Muhammad might find himself in a similar situation this year, considering no other wideout on the team is a proven NFL player.

2. The defense must play better than it did in the early going last season, when it ranked in the top 10 in several categories before injuries decimated the unit.

3. Rookie QB Kyle Orton must show that he can avoid the costly mistakes and sacks that have plagued every Bears quarterback except Rex Grossman in the past two years. Because of WR Muhsin Muhammad and rookie RB Cedric Benson, plus an upgraded offensive line, Orton is better equipped to succeed than his recent predecessors.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR Mark Bradley: Second-round rookie has every physical trait needed to be a star, and he made big plays in abundance during the preseason. But he has also made some bad plays in the past and struggled with the mental part of the game. The Bears plan to bring him along slowly, and he has the kind of game-breaking ability to contribute one or two plays every game that can make a difference.

DE Adewale Ogunleye: If he commands a double-team presence, the Bears will have taken a big step toward developing the style of defense they believe they have been building for years. No one else is nearly as much of a pass-rush threat, but talented players like MLB Brian Urlacher, WLB Lance Briggs and DT Tommie Harris will only be better if Ogunleye plays as well as he did in 2003.

QB Kyle Orton: He talks a good game and seems to have the ability to back it up. He doesn't get flustered by mistakes and actually seems to play better after an error.

DETROIT LIONS

An injury to backup quarterback Jeff Garcia means the Lions will probably begin the NFL season Sunday with just two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster — starter Joey Harrington and rookie Dan Orlovsky, a fifth-round draft pick from Connecticut.

Garcia suffered a broken left fibula and a badly sprained left ankle on the final play of the first quarter in the Lions' 21-7 preseason victory Friday night at Buffalo.

Although it is expected to take up to eight weeks for the fibula to heal — and possibly longer for the sprain — coach Steve Mariucci indicated he wants to keep Garcia on the active roster if there is any chance he will be available in December, when he hopes the Lions are battling for a division title and playoff berth.

Orlovsky has been impressive in training camp and the preseason, completing 29 of 54 (54 percent) of his passes for 356 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions, but the Lions don't want to be put into a situation where they have to depend on him as the starter if Harrington were to be injured.

Three keys for the season:

1. The Lions — as a team — must drag themselves out of a four-year spin in the NFL doldrums. They are coming off consecutive seasons of 2-14, 3-13, 5-11 and 6-10, and must muster the confidence to get themselves through difficult situations without falling back into their losing ways. That means a presence of strong and tough internal leadership which, so far, has not presented itself.

2. New offensive coordinator Ted Tollner has to expand the West Coast offense to get the most out of a talented group of young players, and quarterback Joey Harrington has to execute better than he has in his first three NFL seasons. Harrington now has playmaker receivers in Roy Williams, Charles Rogers, Kevin Johnson and Mike Williams, and he has a strong running game in Kevin Jones, Shawn Bryson and Artose Pinner.

3. The defense must be tougher and coordinator Dick Jauron must find a way to get to opposing quarterbacks despite the lack of a dominating speed rusher. The linebackers, in particular, must make plays at the line of scrimmage rather than five or six yards downfield. Defensive end James Hall is coming off an 11 1/2-sack season but the Lions have to give him some help pressuring the quarterback, whether it's with blitzes or other schemes.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

DT Shaun Rogers: When he's playing hard, Rogers is an awesome defensive weapon capable of disrupting the running game and also flushing quarterbacks out of the pocket with a strong inside push.

RB Kevin Jones: He got off to a slow start last year as a rookie due to injuries and coach Steve Mariucci's reluctance to give him the ball 20 times a game. In the second half of the season he gained 906 yards on 172 attempts (5.3 yards per carry); the Lions need a full season of that.

WR Charles Rogers: He has suffered a broken collarbone in each of the first two seasons. If he can stay healthy at split end, the combination of Rogers and WR Roy Williams at flanker will give Harrington two big-play threats on every down.

SS Kenoy Kennedy: The Lions haven't had a physical presence in their defensive secondary since they lost Bennie Blades to free agency after the 1996 season. With smallish CBs Dre' Bly and Fernando Bryant, they need a hitter to strike fear into receivers going over the middle. It's Kennedy's job.


GREEN BAY PACKERS

The sprained right ankle quarterback Brett Favre suffered in the preseason finale Sept. 1 at Tennessee won't keep the NFL's all-time iron man from making his 226th straight start Sunday.

The injury occurred when Favre was accidentally leg-whipped by defensive tackle Rien Long late in the first quarter, causing Favre to hobble off to the sideline. He missed the next three plays but returned in the same series and capped it with a short touchdown pass to Javon Walker.

Favre didn't play the rest of the game, left to sit on the bench for most of the second quarter with the ankle elevated and wrapped with an ice pack before he walked back to the locker room.

The injury wasn't considered serious. Nevertheless, there's grave concerns entering the season about how ineffective a revamped offensive line, featuring two new guards, protected the team's franchise player in the preseason. An exposed Favre took a beating the last two games against New England and Tennessee.

"We didn't protect him very well," coach Mike Sherman said. "That's something we have to get shored up ... or these quarterbacks are going to get killed."

Packers QBs incurred 12 sacks in the four exhibition games. The line

permitted a franchise-record-low 14 sacks all of last season.

Neither rookie Aaron Rodgers nor fourth-year Craig Nall did enough in the preseason to give the Packers hope they could withstand losing Favre for an extended period. Rodgers, anointed as Favre's heir apparent when he was taken in the first round of the draft, put together only one scoring drive in 20 series during the preseason.

The Packers' bid to win a fourth straight NFC North title comes down to Favre being on the field every week to direct an offense that will again have to compensate for the glaring shortcomings of a defense hardly unchanged from 2004.

Three keys for the season:

1. Besides putting Favre in harm's way, the reshaped line contributed mightily to unbecoming results on the ground for a potentially explosive offense that's predicated on the rushing dimension. All-Pro halfback Ahman Green averaged a lowly 2.3 yards in 26 preseason carries, while top backup Najeh Davenport was only slightly better with an average of 3 yards with the same amount of touches. A ball-control offense figures to be paramount as a way to minimize the damage that could be done by a shaky defense, but sustaining those necessary long drives will be difficult if the run game isn't up to snuff.

2. New defensive coordinator Jim Bates doesn't believe in gambling in pass coverage, preferring to eschew a healthy diet of blitzing by keeping both safeties back to provide backside help for the bump-and-run cornerbacks.

Still, if the Packers are going to be able to stay in every game, the low-risk approach has to yield some big rewards. The defense mustered just eight interceptions and a league-low-tying 15 takeaways, while conversely giving up a team-record 33 touchdown passes last season. A repeat performance in 2005 surely will keep the Packers out of the postseason.

3. The Packers have been slow starters the last two seasons under Sherman, opening 1-2 in 2003 and 1-4 in ‘04. Though they were able to recover each year and repeat as NFC North champions, the Packers can ill afford to continue the early-season trend. Their most winnable stretch comes right at the beginning with a road game against Detroit and back-to-back home contests against Cleveland and Tampa Bay. The schedule then becomes appreciably difficult, starting with a Monday night game at Carolina on Oct. 3. If they don't start 3-0, it's going to take a lot more than another late-season swan dive by Minnesota to keep the Packers atop the division.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

RB Ahman Green: The four-time Pro Bowl halfback is in the final year of his contract and is determined to have a big season so he can get paid like the LaDainian Tomlinsons and Clinton Portises of the NFL. Concerns about Green's production slipping could be warranted, however. His rushing output last season plummeted more than 700 yards from his franchise-best total of 1,883 in 2003. Green was held to only 61 yards in 26 carries in three preseason games this year, and he continued his mistake-prone ways with three fumbles. If Green falters this season, the offense won't be half as dangerous as what it can be.

P B.J. Sander: In the event the offense sputters from time to time, a lot will be riding on the left leg of the Packers' once-embattled punter. Sander has acquitted himself nicely of a wasted rookie season last year. The third-round draft pick from Ohio State bombed in the preseason, ranking last in the league with a gross average of 36 yards, and never kicked in the regular season though he was kept on the 53-man roster. This preseason, Sander was consistently long with his punts, ranking among the league leaders with a gross average of 45.4 yards. His net average was a respectable 37.3, up from 30.8 a year ago, in spite of a shoddy coverage unit in front of him. Creating a long field for the opposing offense to work with will greatly aid the team's suspect defense.

LB Nick Barnett: First-year coordinator Jim Bates likes the middle linebacker to be the centerpiece of his technically sound defense, which was the case when Bates had Zach Thomas in Miami. Bates sees a lot of similarities between Barnett and Thomas, though a big difference is Thomas has been selected to five Pro Bowls and Barnett is waiting on his first. Barnett has led the Packers in tackles each of his first two years in the league, including 162 last season. How much more of an impact player he becomes under Bates' tutelage will depend in part on whether Barnett curbs his tendency of overpursuing plays. Barnett also needs an assist from the defensive linemen to keep blockers out of his way, which has been easier said than done.

S Nick Collins: A mostly solid preseason earned the surprise second-round draft pick from Bethune-Cookman a starting spot on opening day. Collins fills the vacancy at free safety created by the departure of All-Pro Darren Sharper, who was released in the off-season after refusing to take a pay cut. Collins has shown flashes of being the ball-tracking, hard-hitting player that fellow Division I-AA product Sharper was earlier in his career. Sharper led the league with 31 interceptions since 2000, and the Packers desperately need a playmaker to revive their foundering defense.


Viking Update Top Stories