Around the NFC North

The Bears' running game is getting more explosive, the Lions finally have Rod Marinelli's team, and the Packers defense has put up with five key injuries. Get those stories and three keys to the season for each of the Vikings' NFC North rivals.

CHICAGO BEARS

The Bears should have a better running game with rookie Matt Forte replacing Cedric Benson. Forte is faster and quicker, he catches the ball better and blocks betters, and he isn't expected to have any of the off-field problems that sealed Benson's fate. Veteran Kevin Jones should be an effective complement with his inside power and he appears to be almost all the way back from last season's knee surgery.

It remains to be seen if the offensive line is improved over last year's unit that got old almost overnight and didn't do a very good job of pass blocking or opening holes in the running game. Because of the injury to first-round offensive tackle Chris Williams, nothing has been added to this group. Last year's right tackle, Fred Miller, was cut; and left guard Ruben Brown was not offered a new contract. Both were way past their prime, but their replacements might not be upgrades.

Quarterback should be less volatile with Kyle Orton replacing Rex Grossman. Orton manages games better but isn't as dangerous downfield.

The defense has more than enough talent to be a top-10 group as long as injuries are kept to a minimum. But this is no longer a youthful and talented group. It's now a talented group that is looking at a narrowing window of opportunity.


Three keys for the season

1. The running game has to be much better. The Bears were dead last in average gain per rush last season (3.1 yards). A duplication this year will spell disaster for Orton or whoever plays quarterback because if the makeshift offensive line can't keep defenses honest by establishing the run, it sure won't be able to protect anyone in the passing game.

2. The defense must return to its 2006 level. With an offense in transition, especially early in the season, the defense will have to carry this team if it is to have any chance at the postseason. The talent is there. Almost everyone who matters is still around from that 2006 group, but some of them may have peaked.

3. Someone must assume the role of go-to receiver. It doesn't necessarily have to be any of the several mediocre wideouts on the roster. Second-year tight end Greg Olsen can be a force if given enough opportunities against mismatched linebackers and safeties.


DETROIT LIONS

Now more than ever before, the Lions are Rod Marinelli's team.

In his third year as the Lions' coach, Marinelli has cleared out the locker room and finally has the type of players he wants - lean, fast, tough, hardworking guys who will do anything to play. He also has made a commitment to the run and brought in more players who know the Tampa Two defense.

The question is whether that will translate into more wins. It's a sad statement that the Lions' seven wins last year were the most they have had since Matt Millen took over as team president in 2001. They haven't had a winning season since 2000 and haven't made the playoffs since 1999.


Three keys for the season

1. The Lions must run the ball at least well enough to open up the passing game for wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams, keep the pass rush off quarterback Jon Kitna and keep the defense off the field. The Lions finished last and second-to-last in rushing the last two years under pass-happy Mike Martz. New offensive coordinator Jim Colletto has installed a zone blocking scheme.

2. Kitna must make good decisions. Martz did not allow Kitna to audible. All adjustments were built into the plays. Colletto has given Kitna more control at the line of scrimmage. That should allow Kitna to take advantage of matchups, like single coverage on Johnson. But it also places more responsibility on his shoulders, and he has been known for throwing interceptions late in games.

3. The defense must improve. The Lions' defense allowed the most yards and points last season. The running game should help, but it's the defense's job to get off the field. The Lions forced a lot of turnovers last season, at least in the first half of the year, but they struggled to get off the field on third down - when opponents needed third down.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

The Packers were predominantly injury-free their first two seasons under Mike McCarthy. Year No. 3 isn't starting off the same.

After Green Bay rid itself of the collective headache caused by the circus-like return of retired Brett Favre a week into training camp with the trade that sent the legendary quarterback to the New York Jets, the Packers were deluged with painful setbacks.

For a team that returned all but two of its starters from last season's NFC runner-up, Green Bay is hobbling and wincing into the season opener on Monday night against Minnesota.

Five members of the starting defense, including linebacker A.J. Hawk (chest) and tackle Ryan Pickett (hamstring), were coping with significant injuries by the end of camp.

The offensive line was as unsettled as it was a month ago because of setbacks incurred by center Scott Wells (back) and rookie right guard Josh Sitton (knee), who is out indefinitely. Featured back Ryan Grant is a question mark after missing a lot of time with a bad hamstring.

On the positive side, Favre successor Aaron Rodgers, who has an injury history, has stayed out of the training room and had more than a few moments in preseason action when he seemed fully capable of directing a prolific offense.


Three keys for the season

1. An heir apparent no more. To quote head coach Mike McCarthy, it's quarterback Aaron Rodgers' "time to lead the football team." Rodgers will be the most scrutinized player in the league this season, with predecessor Brett Favre not far behind playing in the New York fishbowl. Rodgers has all of the tools to be successful right away, but zero starting experience and a body susceptible to injury are concerns.

2. Does Ryan Grant have an encore in him? Grant went from an unknown to a star-in-the-making in just the second half of last season, rushing for a league-high 1,159 yards and 11 touchdowns. Grant, though, will be hard-pressed to come charging out of the gate this season after missing all offseason workouts and the first week of training camp because of a contract squabble and then suffering a hamstring injury that sidelined him until the final week of the preseason.

3. Bringing rush hour to small-town Green Bay. The Packers' defense mustered all of eight sacks in the final seven games last season after it had 32 in the first 11 outings. As a way to try to rectify the situation and protect aging cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson in the process, previously conservative coordinator Bob Sanders is blitzing at will and added a new wrinkle on passing downs with an alignment of only two down linemen and four linebackers.



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