NFC North Defensive Analysis

While the Chicago Bears' personnel is expected to look almost identical to last year on defense, the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions each added a first-round linebacker they expect to start this season. Get the complete defensive breakdown from each of the Vikings' divisional rivals.


DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LE Adewale Ogunleye, LT Tommie Harris, RT Ian Scott, RE Alex Brown. Backups — T Tank Johnson, E-T Israel Idonije, T Alfonso Boone, T Dusty Dvoracek, E-T Michael Haynes, E Mark Anderson.

Like every NFL team, the Bears could use another big-time pass rusher, but otherwise it's a deep and talented group. Ogunleye had 10 sacks, while Brown had six. Both were Pro Bowl alternates. Haynes, the 14th overall pick in 2003, fell behind free agent Idonije on the depth chart and could be moved to tackle or become a utility player. Idonije can play inside or outside and has shown potential and enough athleticism to be effective on special teams. Inside, Harris made his first Pro Bowl and is a disruptive force capable of beating double teams with quickness at the three technique. Scott does the dirty work and is a solid run stuffer. Johnson (five sacks) and Boone play in the four-man tackle rotation as backups, and Johnson is effective in the nickel package. Rookie Dvoracek, a third-rounder, could play a key role if Johnson's torn hamstring isn't completely healed by training camp. Anderson is strictly an extra pass rusher at this point.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Lance Briggs, MLB Brian Urlacher, SLB Hunter Hillenmeyer. Backups — WLB Leon Joe, MLB Jamar Williams, LB Brendon Ayanbadejo, LB Jeremy Cain.

Urlacher went back to Hawaii for the fifth time after a one-year hiatus. He gives the Bears another pass rusher and makes highlight plays sideline to sideline. Briggs had 170 tackles, one less than Urlacher, and he's in a contract year unless the Bears unexpectedly get him re-signed before the end of the season. Briggs is almost as active as Urlacher but doesn't make as many big plays. On the strong side, smart and steady Hillenmeyer has become a solid starter, although he comes off the field in passing situations. There isn't much depth, but fourth-rounder Williams has the versatility to play all three positions.

SECONDARY: Starters — LCB Charles Tillman, RCB Nate Vasher, SS Mike Brown, FS Chris Harris. Backups — CB Ricky Manning Jr., S Danieal Manning, CB Dante Wesley, CB Devin Hester, S Todd Johnson.

Vasher went to the Pro Bowl on the strength of eight interceptions and 145 return yards. But big, physical Tillman was inconsistent for the second straight year. They are a complementary couple because Vasher is undersized but a great ball athlete, while Tillman can match up with the biggest wideouts. The secondary was torched by Steve Smith in the playoff loss, giving the group something to prove this season. The group is better and deeper with the addition of restricted free agent Manning Jr., who got a five-year deal worth as much as $21 million to fill the void at nickel corner left by Jerry Azumah's retirement. Manning is an upgrade who could start in a pinch. When the tough, heady Brown is healthy, the Bears' defense plays much better as a whole because he quarterbacks the secondary. But he's missed 18 starts in the past two seasons. Harris played well for a sixth-round pick as a rookie in ‘05, but he could be replaced by Danieal Manning, who was chosen 42nd overall and has impressive talent but is raw

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters — PK Robbie Gould, P Brad Maynard, LS Patrick Mannelly, PR Devin Hester, KR Rashied Davis, KR Danieal Manning.

Undrafted Gould (21 of 27 FG attempts) was a pleasant surprise last season as a rookie, and he has a much stronger leg than veteran Doug Brien or Paul Edinger, who preceded him. Normally reliable Maynard had a sub-par season, but he has a strong leg and generally can place his kicks with great accuracy. Finding reliable return men was a season-long problem that appears to have been solved with Manning and Hester (No. 57 overall). Both are legitimate home run threats, especially Hester. Davis is somewhat undersized but has the toughness to compete. Mannelly is one of the most reliable in the business.


DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LE Cory Redding, LT Shaun Rogers, RT Shaun Cody, RE James Hall. Backups — DE Jared DeVries, DE Kalimba Edwards, DT Marcus Bell, DE Bill Swancutt, DE Damian Gregory, DT Tyoka Jackson, DT Cleveland Pinkney.

This is a group that will be watched closely for several reasons. Most notably, Rogers might be the most talented player on the team but he's a big man who doesn't always lay it on the line on the practice field. Marinelli and defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson had to push him at times in off-season workouts but if he buys into the system, he could add to his Pro Bowl reputation and become a truly dominating player. With the departure of Dan Wilkinson, Cody moves into the front four, bringing less bulk and strength but adding speed, quickness and athletic ability inside. The other key man in this group is Edwards, a long and lean DE who never quite fit in his previous four NFL seasons. With Henderson's penchant for attacking the quarterback, Edwards will have a well-defined role this year. Hall had a career year with 11.5 sacks in 2004 but is a blue collar worker more than a sack producer. In DeVries and Bell, the Lions have role players who fit nicely and play well in the d-line rotation.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — SLB Teddy Lehman, MLB Boss Bailey, WLB Ernie Sims. Backups — James Davis, Alex Lewis, LeVar Woods, Andrew Battle, Donte' Curry, Paris Lenon.

Henderson and linebacker coach Phil Snow know who their linebackers will be but they're still uncertain how they're going to line up on Sept. 10 in the season opener against Seattle. Bailey and Lehman are coming off off-season surgeries and were unable to participate in the off-season mini-camps, so they're starting from scratch, possibly in new positions. With a premium on running to the ball and going sideline to sideline in Henderson's system, the Lions plan to move Bailey from SLB to MLB. Lehman, who was originally projected as an MLB, could play at SLB or backup Bailey. The big question is whether Sims, the No. 1 pick in the April draft, will be ready to take over the WLB job which has been occupied by Davis. Lewis has the speed and athleticism to handle coverage responsibilities in the nickel and dime packages.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Fernando Bryant, RCB Dre' Bly, FS Terrene Holt, SS Kenoy Kennedy. Backups — CB Jamar Fletcher, CB Keith Smith, CB Stanley Wilson, S Jon McGraw, S Idrees Brashir, S Daniel Bullocks, S Vernon Fox, CB Dee McCann, CB Marcus Hicks, CB Antonio Malone, CB Harrison Smith, S Marcus Demps.

Although he missed the Pro Bowl last year for the first time in his three seasons with the Lions, Bly remains the ringleader of the defensive secondary. He had six interceptions and is a playmaker, inevitably matched up with the opponent's top receiver. Bryant has to stay healthy, something he has been unable to do in his two seasons with the Lions, so this is an important year for him. He will be challenged by Henderson and has to make plays. The Lions parted company with veteran CBs Andre Goodman and R.W. McQuarters, preferring to go with youngsters Smith and Wilson, with Fletcher providing some veteran influence as well. Kennedy didn't have the impact expected of him in his first season in Detroit but should flourish in Henderson's system. Holt is the incumbent at FS but could face a stiff challenge for his job from Brashir or second-round draft pick Bullocks.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters — PK Jason Hanson, P Nick Harris, LS Don Muhlbach, KOR Eddie Drummond, PR Eddie Drummond. Backups — PR Dre' Bly, KOR Brian Calhoun.

Although Hanson is 36 years old and entering his 15th NFL season, special teams coach Chuck Priefer believes he is good for at least another one or two seasons. He is consistent on field goals and places the ball well on kickoffs. Harris is solid as Hanson's holder and led the NFL last season with 34 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Muhlbach, a two-year veteran once described by Lions president Matt Millen as "the Nolan Ryan of long snappers," is fast and accurate delivering the ball on punts, field goals and extra points. Drummond, a Pro Bowler in 2004, is coming off a subpar season in which he averaged only 6.0 yards on punt returns and 22.0 on kickoff returns, in part because he again battled injuries. Curry, Fox and FitzSimmons lead Priefer's coverage teams.


DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LDE Aaron Kampman, RDE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, DT Ryan Pickett, DT Cullen Jenkins. Backups — DE Michael Montgomery, Dave Tollefson; DT Corey Williams, Colin Cole, Kenderick Allen, Kenny Peterson, Johnny Jolly, Jerome Nichols.

Pickett was one of the team's few noteworthy off-season acquisitions. The former first-rounder bolted St. Louis in free agency for a four-year, $14 million contract that included $5 million in bonus money to fill the wide gap inside when the Packers chose not to re-sign Grady Jackson. Pickett, though, was dealing with weight issues in the off-season and acknowledged that he had to shed about 10 pounds to get under 320. The lighter, the better because Pickett has pass-rushing capabilities to go with his proven run-stopping prowess. He's part of a stout interior that has numerous combination possibilities that will include Jenkins, Williams, Cole and Allen, formerly of the New York Giants who was a late signee in free agency. Peterson, an interchangeable lineman who has contributed mostly from the tackle spot, is on the bubble to make the team. Kampman is the heart and soul of the line and was rewarded with a four-year, $21 million deal with $8 million in bonuses as an unrestricted free agent. The team's pass rush, though, languished last year with only 35 sacks and just eight by specialist Gbaja-Biamila. Since he's a liability against the run, new coordinator Bob Sanders will give consideration to using Gbaja-Biamila strictly on passing downs. That would allow the lengthy Montgomery to get on the field in early situations.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB A.J. Hawk, MLB Nick Barnett, SLB Ben Taylor. Backups — Roy Manning, Brady Poppinga, Abdul Hodge, Tracy White, Kurt Campbell.

The strength of the defense figures to lie here. The team surrounded Barnett, its enforcer his first three years in the league, with an equal by taking Hawk fifth overall in the draft and adding the gritty Taylor in free agency. As expected, Hawk adjusted well to his indoctrination to the pro game in the off-season workouts he was able to attend as he juggled completing his studies at Ohio State. He's a natural playmaker, and Sanders is inclined to have him on the field on a full-time basis, along with Barnett. Taylor, formerly of Cleveland, emerged as the top candidate to start on the strong side. He's well-versed at all three positions in the 4-3 scheme and is coming off his first injury-free season. Manning, Poppinga and White also will challenge for the job, though Poppinga is iffy to participate in camp as he continues to recover from a late-season ACL injury. Hodge, a third-round pick, enters camp as the understudy to Barnett. Like Hawk, Hodge has been a quick study with a nose for the football and could give Sanders pause about moving Barnett outside in order to get a second rookie in the lineup.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Charles Woodson, RCB Al Harris, FS Nick Collins, SS Marquand Manuel. Backups — CB Ahmad Carroll, Jason Horton, Mike Hawkins, Patrick Dendy, Jerron Wishom, Will Blackmon, Therrian Fontenot; S Mark Roman, Marviel Underwood, Tyrone Culver, Tra Boger, Atari Bigby.

The Packers have perhaps the best shutdown tandem in the league after signing four-time Pro Bowler Woodson to a seven-year contract worth more than $39 million in free agency to pair with Harris. However, most of the off-season workouts didn't include the two veterans. Woodson was jet-setting overseas and didn't bother participating in any of the voluntary practices, thus putting into question whether the talented, yet eccentric former Oakland Raider is committed to resurrecting a career marred by injury issues the last few years. Harris, meanwhile, deliberately skipped the non-mandatory workouts because he's demanding a new contract and has gone so far to threaten being a no-show for camp. The prolonged absences of the two high-profile players meant valuable reps for a stable of young cornerbacks, including Carroll, the demoted 2004 first-round pick who's resigned to playing nickel back. Roman, conversely, wasn't warm to the free-agent signing of Manuel, whose five-year, $10 million inheritance signaled a change at strong safety. Roman, though, will be given an opportunity to win the job back in camp, which could spell the difference between him sticking with the team and possibly being released. Collins left little doubt as a tenacious rookie starter last year that he's a keeper at free safety.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Kickers — Billy Cundiff, Dave Rayner. Punters — B.J. Sander, Jon Ryan. Long snapper — Rob Davis. Punt returners — Cory Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Charles Woodson, Robert Ferguson. Kick returners — Jennings, Samkon Gado, Najeh Davenport, Ahmad Carroll.

Two of the bigger battles in camp will involve the kickers and the punters. The Packers must replace their all-time leading scorer, Ryan Longwell, who pulled a Benedict Arnold and signed with division rival Minnesota in free agency. His proficiency notwithstanding, Longwell's rarely rivaled skill of handling inclement conditions late in the season is a huge loss. Dallas castoff Cundiff has a strong leg, but his accuracy (73.2 percent) isn't close to being in Longwell's league. Rayner, a onetime standout at Michigan State, handled kickoffs for Indianapolis last season but has attempted only one field goal in an NFL game. The competition will sort itself out in the preseason games, though another kicker could be added by the end of camp. As for the punters, Canadian Football League import Ryan outperformed incumbent Sander in the off-season workouts. Ryan's strength is his distance, but he must improve on his get-off and hang times to solidify the job. Sander, who doesn't have a strong leg, faces an uphill climb to earn a reprieve and try to make amends for his disastrous first season kicking last year. Whoever wins the punting battle likely will be the holder on kicks as well, although quarterback Aaron Rodgers and receiver Ruvell Martin have been working on it. Rookies Cory Rodgers and Jennings factor heavily in the return game after the team didn't retain the pedestrian Antonio Chatman.

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