NFC North Report

The Bears might have a more aggressive defense with a new coordinator, the Lions appear to be improving their weaknesses, and the Packers' aggressive defense was the undoing of the Seahawks. Get news, notes and quotes from the Vikings' divisional rivals.


Replacing the coordinator of a defense that was one of the NFL's best last season might seem like risky business, but head coach Lovie Smith has no doubts that he's got the right man for the job in long-time associate Bob Babich.

"Bob Babich is a good football coach," Smith said of his former linebackers coach, who was the first assistant he hired after getting the Bears' job. "I put him in that role because I believe in him, and he's done a great job with the players."

Not much about the Bears' elite defense is expected to change this year with Babich replacing Ron Rivera, but there could be some subtle differences.

"There really is no difference as far as the scheme is concerned," said veteran safety Mike Brown. "(But) I know we made some calls in the first preseason game early on that were really, really aggressive, things that we normally don't do. So maybe we're going to be more aggressive than we have been in the past."

That would be great with the players, who almost always prefer attack mode rather than reacting to what the offense does.

"I think the majority of our guys like to press the issue, instead of waiting back and letting the offense do what they do," Brown said. "We want to force them into things, and hopefully we get an opportunity to do that. In practice we're definitely working on things to force the issue."

Babich obviously doesn't want to be predictable, and he isn't ready this early to predict how much difference there will be between his defense and Rivera's, although Smith's input will influence Babich as it did Rivera.

"So many things dictate the way you call a game," Babich said. "Personnel, the way the game's going, the team that you're playing. I don't have any idea at this point (how different we'll be). We just want to make sure that we know what we're doing and play fast."

If the limited blitzes that the Bears plan for the preseason, including Monday night's game vs. the Colts at Indianapolis are effective, more will be seen in the regular season.

"Preseason games give you an opportunity to do things that you'd like to try out," Babich said. "Depending on how they work out, that will determine if we see that in the regular season."

Babich and Smith are closer in defensive philosophy than Rivera and Smith were, and they have a bond that dates to the mid 1980s, when both were assistants at Tulsa. Smith was a linebackers coach and Babich was a graduate assistant at first, and then a coach of tight ends, offensive linemen and safeties. When Smith was the Rams' defensive coordinator, he hired Babich as his linebackers coach before bringing him to Chicago.

Although Babich was the head coach at North Dakota State from 1997-2002, he had never been a defensive coordinator anywhere until Smith promoted him six months ago. He says his workload has increased, but not so much that it's unmanageable.

"It goes both ways," he said. "I have some more work to do, but also I don't have the individual position meetings and those type things, so I gain some time there."

Working on the Bears' blitz package — another way to make the defense more aggressive — has been occupying a lot of Babich's time, and he believes he's got enough capable athletes to put together an effective package. Strong safety Adam Archuleta was effective in that role with the Rams, and free safety Mike Brown has also shown a knack for it in the past.

"Both of them have proved in the past that they can blitz," Babich said.

Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher has been utilized as a pass-rush weapon in the past, even though he didn't record any sacks last season.

"Last year Brian (still) created a lot of problems," Babich said. "Not only did he make the quarterback throw it early, but guys were blocking him so other guys came free. They accounted for Brian Urlacher in the blitz package so other guys came free. I think he does an awful lot for our blitz package.

"We just need to make sure when we blitz we get to the quarterback, whether it's the blitzer or a lineman that frees up because of the blitz. We just need to make sure that if we apply pressure, that we can get the ball out of the quarterback's hand quick or get a sack."


The excitement surrounding the Detroit Lions centers on their offensive skill. The cynicism surrounding the Detroit Lions centers on their offensive line and defense.

But the offensive line and defense have shown progress through two exhibition games.

The line has allowed only two sacks, despite 75 pass attempts. That is encouraging, considering Jon Kitna was sacked 63 times last season, more than any other quarterback in the NFL.

"Our pass protection continues to be good," coach Rod Marinelli said. "That's improving, and we will continue working in that area."

The Lions have also been able to run the ball a little better after finishing last in the NFL in rushing last season.

"We would like to continue to get better in the running game," offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. "We need to kind of jell a little bit up front with the back and get on the same page with what we're doing.

"The timing of the running game and the back seeing it, that just takes a lot of work, and we've been doing a lot of that out here in the mornings, running the ball a great deal."

It seems to be working.

"It's just everybody being able to come together — them knowing where we're going to be at, us knowing what they're doing," running back T.J. Duckett said. "The more we play together, the better we'll understand each other."

The first-team defense has not allowed a touchdown, and the first- and second-teamers forced three turnovers in the first half of a 23-20 victory over Cleveland.

On paper, the Lions' defense didn't improve in the offseason. The Lions traded cornerback Dre' Bly. He didn't fit their system, but he was still their best playmaker. They also traded defensive end James Hall, while signing free agent Dewayne White, with whom the coaching staff was familiar from their days together in Tampa Bay.

Defensive coordinator Joe Barry came from Tampa Bay with a strong background in the "Tampa Two" system, and the hope was that his teaching would help the Lions play smarter and faster.

The Lions still seem thin at cornerback. Keith Smith is pushing Stanley Wilson for the starting job and the Lions like what they have in their safeties. Daniel Bullocks, taking over a starting spot in his second season, is progressing. Idrees Bashir has been solid, and rookie Gerald Alexander is starting to show something.

The linebackers need to make more plays, but Ernie Sims seems poised to follow up on his rookie performance with another strong season. The defensive line has been banged up. But White (groin), Shaun Rogers (knee) and Kalimba Edwards (ankle) are expected back soon.

Barry hopes that while the Lions' offense excites people, the defense will surprise people.

"We're going to keep plugging along," Barry said. "We're going to do what we do. I'm not going to sit here and make a bunch of bold predictions. There's one thing that we stress, and it's to play hard, play fast, be prepared and to finish. Those are the only four things that I consistently talk about with our group.

"Don't say a bunch of stuff that you can't back up. Just say those four things. If we can do those four things, I think we'll be pretty successful."


While the No. 1 offense started to exhibit signs of life, the defense as a whole is way ahead of the preseason curve.

The Packers' aggressive bunch forced six turnovers and had seven sacks in a 48-13 thrashing of Seattle on Saturday.

"I'm not going to jump the gun and try to say we're the best defense in the world, but I think we're going to be something to reckon with," middle linebacker Nick Barnett said.

The Brett Favre-directed offense, which was significantly better than its poor showing in the first preseason game, staked Green Bay to an early 17-3 lead.

An opportunistic defense then took matters into its own hands. Barnett (62 yards) and linebacker Tracy White (34 yards) scored in the second quarter on fumble returns caused by sacks of Seneca Wallace.

Defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and blitzing safety Atari Bigby had the big hits on Wallace, who started in place of Matt Hasselbeck.

"The defense is playing with a lot of confidence," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "It starts up front. They're doing an excellent job of controlling the line of scrimmage. The guys in the back end are just flying around. The communication and the continuity is where it needs to be. I'm excited where we're at on defense."

The Packers have rolled up 12 sacks and seven takeaways in the first two preseason games.

Defensive coordinator Bob Sanders stressed a fast start for the unit this year in hopes of carrying over the strong finish from last season. Green Bay had 13 takeaways to fuel a closing four-game winning streak.

The Packers tied for fifth in the league with 33 takeaways and ascended to 12th for total defense after languishing near the bottom for most of the season.

"It's the second year of having the scheme under our belts and playing together. We're out there jelling," Barnett said. "We still have some things to clean up. (But) I think we're on the right path."

The defense might have to carry the Packers early in the season because Favre has yet to click with a youthful supporting cast, which includes rookies Brandon Jackson at halfback and James Jones at receiver.

Defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins has set the tone in the first half of the preseason. He had two sacks and forced a fumble in the Aug. 11 win at Pittsburgh.

On Saturday, Jenkins sacked Wallace in the first Seattle series and added two tackles for loss.

Jenkins earned a starting job at defensive end ahead of Gbaja-Biamila late in the season last year. He then received a four-year, $16 million contract before he was eligible to become a restricted free agent.

At 6-foot-2, 303 pounds, Jenkins has rare versatility for a lineman. He plays outside on early downs, then moves inside in passing situations.

"He presents a lot of problems to offensive linemen," general manager Ted Thompson said. "He's unique in his physicality and his build and his balance. He's not your classic 6-foot-6 defensive end, but he's tough to handle."

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