NFC North news, notes and quotes

Rod Marinelli's influence on the Bears defensive line could be key to a revival of that defense. The Lions used high school video of Matthew Stafford to quiz him before the draft. The Packers are anticipating good things from a rookie fullback. The Vikings' NFC North opponents are all gearing up for the season with new looks.

CHICAGO BEARS

The addition of Rod Marinelli, a well-respected defensive line coach, may be just what the Bears' underachieving yet talented front four needs to reach its potential, which is vast.

If Marinelli can get the various parts to work together as a unit, the Bears will finish a lot higher in sack percentage than they did last year, when they were a disappointing 29th. He has plenty of talent to work with.
Tommie Harris was voted to three consecutive Pro Bowls (2005-07) at the three technique, and even though he's battled nagging leg injuries the past two seasons, especially in ‘08, he remains a dominant player when he's close to 100 percent healthy.

"There's no doubt about (his importance to the defense), and I've known that since before I got here," Marinelli said. "His reputation has always been good. I've always watched him on tape. You need an under tackle in this system. He becomes a creator. If he gets a one-on-one, he's going to win. But now you're making things come to him, so it starts creating for the other players. He's one of the key spokes in the whole defense."

Adewale Ogunleye has had four separate seasons of nine or more sacks, and even though he turns 32 on Aug. 9, he's the Bears' biggest pass-rush threat outside.

"Wale is a veteran who's in tremendous shape," Marinelli said. "He's lean and he's smart. He's a 60-plus sack guy in his career (60 1/2). We've got to get him back up there and get those numbers again."

Ogunleye had just five sacks last season, but he had nine in ‘07.

At the other end spot, Alex Brown led the Bears in sacks last season, but he had just six, but he's had 35 sacks over the past six seasons and is solid against the run.

"These guys do everything well," Marinelli said. "They can stunt, they can rush, they play the run well, they're tough, they're smart, and all of them have a great upside."

Although the Bears lack a dominant nose tackle, they have great depth and a variety of options to choose from with young Marcus Harrison, run-stuffer Dusty Dvoracek and versatile Anthony Adams, who can also fill in at the three technique.

Marinelli's message is the same to all of the linemen.

"We want to create havoc and chaos under an umbrella of discipline, if that makes sense," he said. "So we've got to disrupt and do all these things, but we've also got to be gap-oriented. We've got to play our gaps, we've got to do our assignments, we've got to contain when we're supposed to contain.

"We have to do all of those little details. We've got to be extremely detailed at this position, and there's nothing too small. They all count. The simplest things are the most important things."

CAMP CALENDAR: Players report to Olivet Nazarene University in far south suburban Bourbonnais on Thursday, July 30. The first practice is Friday, July 31 at 3 p.m. The Bears return to Chicago briefly for a noon practice on Saturday, Aug. 8 and break camp following a 3 p.m. practice on Thursday, Aug. 20.

NOTES

  • Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub believes there were a lot of factors in Devin Hester's disappointing punt-return numbers last season.

    After making the Pro Bowl in 2007 and ‘08 while scoring 11 touchdowns on kick returns, he averaged a very un-Hester-like 6.2 yards per return and seemed more focused on getting out of bounds than up the field.

    "We had a lot of young players blocking for him, so he had a different picture of what was in front of him," Toub said. "And then, taking a lot of reps at wide receiver was a factor, too. But he's still the same guy. He still makes people miss. He's got great vision. He's still a threat back there.

    "He still has a lot of respect from other teams. Teams aren't going to just want to punt him the ball, I guarantee that."

    After averaging just 21.9 yards on kickoff returns, Hester was replaced by Danieal Manning, who led the NFL with a 29.7-yard average.

  • Backup RB Kevin Jones picked up 45 yards on 13 carries in the 2008 season opener, but he added just 64 yards on 21 carries in the next 15 games and still showed the lingering effects from 2007 knee surgery.

    This year the Bears are counting on a more consistent contribution from Matt Forte's backup.

    "We're a running football team," coach Lovie Smith said. "We're going to pound the ball quite a bit. That's why it's important for Kevin (to contribute)."

  • Kevin Payne and Craig Steltz are the tentative starting safeties heading into training camp, but the competition at those positions could be the most intense on the team this year.

    "We've got some quality guys trying to compete," said new defensive backs coach Jon Hoke. "Corey Graham's taking reps at free safety, transitioning from corner. Athletically, he will challenge those guys once he gets a feel totally for that position."

    The Bears also added veteran free agent Josh Bullocks.

    "He's been in the league for four years," Hoke said. "He knows football. His instincts show up, which is a good thing for us that you know what he can do a little bit."

  • Charles Tillman has forced 13 fumbles since 2005, the most among NFL cornerbacks, second most among all defensive backs and tied for ninth overall. Tillman forced four fumbles last season, trying for second among cornerbacks with the Vikings' Antoine Winfield, trailing only the Jets' Dwight Lowery, who had five.

    Tillman also has 20 career interceptions, the most by any active Bears player and tied for 14th in franchise history.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "We think we're a strong football team without adding anyone. You always like to improve at every position, but right now we feel like we can win with this group." — Bears coach Lovie Smith


    DETROIT LIONS

    Long before he landed the Lions' head coaching job, Jim Schwartz had heard a lot about the quarterback he would pick No. 1 overall in the NFL draft: Matthew Stafford.

    Schwartz used to be Tennessee's defensive coordinator. Dowell Loggains, the Titans' administrative assistant/coaching, had played for Randy Allen at Abilene Cooper High, before Allen went to coach Highland Park High.

    Loggains had seen Stafford play at Highland Park.

    "He and Jim Schwartz would spend time visiting with each other and talking in the office," Allen said. "And, of course, Dowell was talking up Matthew, not knowing that Jim Schwartz would get the head job at Detroit."

    After Schwartz landed the Lions job and started vetting candidates for the No. 1 pick, he asked friend and former Dallas personnel executive Gil Brandt, who lives near Highland Park High, to put him in touch with Allen.

    "Jim called me, and he wanted to know about Matthew," Allen said. "How many times had he led our team to victories in the last two minutes when we were behind? So I told him about all the games, and he wanted video."

    Highland Park High sent the video to the Lions, and they not only evaluated it, they used it to quiz Stafford. After the draft, Schwartz brought up Stafford's ability to recall those high school games in detail.

    "It was fun to look back at it," Stafford said. "I really didn't even know they were going to have it, and Coach Schwartz was watching it, and I was like, ‘Wow.' And I started remembering every play, and it was kind of weird."

    CAMP CALENDAR: First practice Aug. 1. Ford Field practice Aug. 8. Break camp Aug. 26.

    NOTES

  • Lions defensive end Dewayne White will donate $1,000 for every sack he makes during the 2009 season to benefit urban youth. After-School All-Stars (ASAS) is the leading national provider of high quality, comprehensive, school-based after-school programs that include academic support, enrichment and health and fitness activities. ASAS currently serves 72,000 youth in 14 cities. In Detroit, a portion of the funding benefits the Michigan After School Partnership. The organization's mission is to help keep children safe and help them succeed in school and in life.

  • The Lions have signed or reached agreements with four draft picks: Stafford, running back Aaron Brown (sixth round), linebacker Zack Follett (seventh) and tight end Dan Gronkowski (seventh). With Stafford signed, no major holdouts are expected in training camp.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I wouldn't say a big Lions fan, but I support them. My dad and I actually went to the last game that they won when they played Kansas City. I'm a Redskins fan because I like Clinton Portis. They also have Jason Campbell and that defense. The Lions — they're coming along — they have my good old friend Brandon Pettigrew. So hopefully he can put in a little work and they can win a game or two. They have some things that are looking up. If they go to the Super Bowl, I'll be there (laughs). I'll definitely be there." - Barry Sanders Jr., son of Lions great Barry Sanders, to Newson6.com.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    The Packers' beast of a blocker is about to be uncaged.

    Rookie fullback Quinn Johnson was champing at the bit all spring to push some people around and drive them to the ground. He'll finally get his opportunity beginning Aug. 1, when training camp opens.

    "I just love to be aggressive. I love to make contact," Johnson said.

    The fifth-round draft pick out of LSU will have the green light after he signed his first NFL contract July 22. Johnson became the sixth of the Packers' eight draftees to receive a deal, leaving the first-round tandem of nose tackle B.J. Raji and linebacker Clay Matthews to get locked up.

    While Raji is ticketed for a starting job at left end in Green Bay's new 3-4 scheme and also will rotate in at his natural spot and Matthews will contend for a starting job at outside linebacker, Johnson could emerge as a starter on offense right away.

    One of the more intriguing camp battles will be at fullback, where incumbents Korey Hall and John Kuhn not only will be fighting for playing time but also trying to save their jobs with Johnson in the mix.

    "He's learning from two very good veterans, guys that are very smart that know the system inside and out, and he definitely brings a bigger man, some juice to that position," said coach Mike McCarthy, in assessing Johnson after seeing him in organized team activities and the June minicamp.

    The 6-foot-1, 250-pound Johnson is cut in the mold of William Henderson, who, at 6-1 and 252, carved out a rugged, no-nonsense, effective reputation as a lead blocker in 12 seasons with the Packers until they released him in the 2007 offseason.

    Henderson played in 188 games, the fourth most in team history, and many in the organization believe Johnson can have the same type of staying power.

    When you watch him play (on tape) at LSU, when he hits you, he keeps moving forward," McCarthy said. "He definitely has that lead-blocking ability that you're looking for in tight situations, whether it be short-yardage, goal-line or first and second down, getting up and leading on those linebackers."

    Johnson is a converted linebacker and paved the way for 1,100-yard rushers his last two seasons at LSU. He sacrificed being in the limelight - he had only 16 carries in 39 games after making the switch to offense as a sophomore - by dishing out punishment on would-be tacklers. Johnson was credited with 70 pancake blocks last season.

    "I really enjoy making contact and being more of a lead blocker than anything," Johnson said. "That's just something I love to do, so it's not a problem at all. I'm doing what they ask me to do, and I'm doing what I love to do. So, you can't beat that."

    Having Johnson in the fold will allow the Packers, who have been reliant on a zone-blocking scheme under McCarthy, to incorporate more of the power running plays with which the offense thrived when Henderson was the lead blocker.

    CAMP CALENDAR: Players report July 31 to the team's facilities in Green Bay. Camp opens Aug. 1. An intrasquad scrimmage will be held at Lambeau Field on Saturday night, Aug. 8. The team has seven two-a-days scheduled in the first 20 days of camp, which will close Sept. 1.

    NOTES

  • Johnny Jolly is in the clear for the here and now, at least in the legal arena.

    The Packers defensive lineman's frequently delayed trial for a felony drug possession charge in his hometown of Houston was scrapped July 16, when prosecutors dismissed the case. The trial was supposed to start July 17, two weeks before players report for training camp in Green Bay.

    The reason for the dismissal was reportedly that the Houston Police Department recently acquired a new piece of equipment for measuring the amount of codeine in a liquid.

    Jolly was arrested in Houston in July 2008. He was charged with possession of at least 200 grams of codeine.

    The prosecutors reportedly intend to re-file the second-degree felony charge against Jolly after technicians from the police department's crime lab have been trained and accredited on the new equipment. A spokesperson for the Harris County (Texas) district attorney's office anticipated the charge would be refilled within three months.

    Jolly, 26, who faces a minimum of two years in prison if convicted, still could be subjected to disciplinary action, including a suspension, by the NFL in the interim.

  • A.J. Hawk's golf game wasn't up to par, but the Packers linebacker sure can strike a ball off the tee.

    Hawk started his debut in the American Century Championship celebrity golf event at Lake Tahoe, Nev., in auspicious fashion, swooping in to win the long-drive contest. The former first-round draft pick boomed a drive of 322 yards, a yard more than retired quarterback Chris Chandler.

    Hawk's play on the course was a different story, however. He finished 77th out of 88 guys in the 54-hole tournament held July 17-19 with a score of minus-18 points in the Modified Stableford system that was used. The scoring rewards players for a number below par on a hole and penalizes them for anything above par.

    Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has become a regular in the event, was on the plus side with 25 points to finish 46th.

    Former baseball pitcher Rick Rhoden repeated as the tournament champion with 74 points, three more than runner-up Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys quarterback.

  • The Packers are ready to unveil their remodeled practice field when training camp opens Aug. 1.

    Ray Nitschke Field, part of the team's workout facilities across the street from Lambeau Field, underwent a complete makeover this spring and summer.

    Features include permanent lights, bleachers for spectators from end to end on one side and a hybrid grass surface similar to that in Lambeau that has heating coils underneath, which will allow the team to practice outside later into the season.

    "I think our training camp is second to none, just from the environment that our fans create for us during training camp and the night practices with the lights and the stadium-type environment," coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think it will be great for everybody."

  • A prelude to the kickoff of training camp is the annual Packers shareholders meeting for the publicly owned team, slated for July 30 at Lambeau.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "It would be surprising to see. But, if he does go there, it would be a battle because I know his goal is to beat us and our goal is to beat him." - Packers receiver Donald Driver, on the anticipated return of friend and former teammate Brett Favre out of retirement to be the quarterback for the rival Minnesota Vikings.

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