Around the NFC North

The Bears are lacking depth after a season-ending ankle injury to RB Kevin Jones. The Lions have decided on the rookie quarterback. And a pair of high-profile Green Bay linebackers is looking at a reduced role. It's a big weekend in the NFC North, with the Bears and Packers meeting on Sunday night, and we've got the news and notes from all the divisional rivals.

CHICAGO BEARS

The season-ending ankle injury to backup running back Kevin Jones leaves the Bears lacking some depth, but it doesn't create an emergency situation.

Featured ball carrier Matt Forte was a workhorse last season, rushing for 1,238 yards on 316 carries and catching a team-best 63 passes. While the Bears planned to expand Jones' role this year after he carried just 34 times and caught two passes last year, there has never been any doubt about who the alpha male is in their backfield. And they still have two complementary backups in reliable, versatile eight-year veteran Adrian Peterson and third-year scat back Garrett Wolfe. They may add another runner to the mix, probably one effective in short-yardage situations, but they don't have to panic.

Peterson has averaged better than 4.0 yards per carry in three of the past four seasons, and he caught 51 passes in 2007. There were already plans to utilize Garrett Wolfe more. He averaged 13.0 yards per catch as a rookie in ‘07 but had just nine catches, and last year he averaged 4.6 yards per rush but got just 13 attempts.

Jones, who is scheduled to undergo surgery this week, was hurt when he hurdled a tackler and went out of bounds last Thursday night. He landed awkwardly on his left foot and then was hit late by linebacker Marcus Benard, who drew a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness.

"We were anxious to give him a lot of carries and see where he was, so that's tough," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "You hate to see it. But we've got three guys that we feel really good about."

Jones carried the ball just 34 times last season for a 3.2-yard average, but he was re-signed in the off-season to a two-year contract for $3.5 million as the top backup to Forte. He looked quicker and faster in training camp than he did last season when he was still slowed from late 2007 knee surgery. He was hoping for a return to the form that allowed him to rush for 1,133 yards and average 4.7 yards per carry as a Lions rookie in 2004.

But his preseason results were disappointing. On 24 rushing attempts, he managed 77 yards for a 3.2-yard average, with a long gain of 9 yards.

NOTES

  • QB Jay Cutler was sacked just 11 times while throwing 618 passes last season, giving him the lowest sack percentage in the NFL.

  • RB Matt Forte was used sparingly in the preseason, skipping the first and last games entirely, probably in anticipation of another workhorse-type season. Last year he had 379 touches, including a team-best 63 receptions and, with top backup Kevin Jones out for the season, Forte's load isn't expected to decrease.

  • TE Greg Olsen appears on the verge of a break-out season after winning the starting job from Desmond Clark. Even last year as an occasional starter, Olsen was second on the Bears with 54 receptions and 574 yards, and he led the team with five receiving TDs.

  • WR Devin Hester is the Bears' go-to guy, among wide receivers, after last year's 51-catch, 665-yard season, his first as a starter.

  • WR Earl Bennett did not catch a single pass last season as a rookie, but Bears coaches say he has made huge strides since then in route running and in his knowledge of the playbook.

  • CB Charles Tillman is not expected to play this week after missing all of training camp and all four preseason games following mid-June back surgery. But Tillman began practicing this week and has not been declared out for Sunday.

  • CB Zack Bowman missed three weeks with a hamstring injury, but he was playing well enough to start when he was hurt, and he started the final preseason game and picked off a pass on the first play from scrimmage.

  • FS Danieal Manning missed three weeks and three preseason games with a hamstring injury, but he played nickel back in the preseason finale and could return to the starting lineup Sunday night.

  • RB Garrett Wolfe is expected to get more touches than last season, when he had just 15 carries and no catches. With Kevin Jones (ankle) out for the season, Wolfe could finally have a consistent role in his third season.

  • RB Adrian Peterson has always been a dependable and versatile backup for the Bears, but last season he had just 20 carries, even though he averaged 5.0 yards per attempt. With Kevin Jones out for the season, Peterson should see more action.


    DETROIT LIONS

    To start or not to start. That was the question concerning rookie Matthew Stafford.

    And when Lions coach Jim Schwartz answered it, naming the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft the starting quarterback for the season opener Sunday at New Orleans, he even made a casual reference to Shakespeare.

    "A lot of those guys suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," said Schwartz, dropping the "Hamlet" quotation in the middle of a meaty paragraph about the offensive linemen and quarterbacks.

    Bad stuff happens to you. Others throw their expectations at you. Why worry?

    Schwartz took the bold course, choosing Stafford over veteran Daunte Culpepper. He said he did it because Stafford gives the Lions the best chance to win now, not just for Stafford's long-term development.

    "This isn't an experiment," Schwartz said. "This isn't an internship. We're not asking him to go out there and practice. He's out there to win, and that's the bottom line in this league."

    Schwartz said he is willing to ride the rapids with the rookie. He told Stafford that he would not be yanked the first time he throws an interception, so he doesn't need to look over his shoulder.

    "That doesn't mean I'm going to go out there and try to make many mistakes and test that," Stafford said, smiling. "I don't want to try to test that. I want to go out there and try to play as well as I can."

    Stafford threw an interception in each of the Lions' four exhibitions; Culpepper threw none in the three he played. But Stafford made bigger plays and has bigger upside. He knows X's and O's, and the coaches are confident he can handle the blitzes NFL defenses love to throw at young quarterbacks.

    "There are some guys that may benefit from sitting on the bench and watching somebody else, and those people typically don't have a grasp of the offense," Schwartz said. "They still need to learn what defenses do. Their knowledge isn't up to where it needs to be yet. He was a different case there. What he lacked is playing experience, and there's only one way to get that to him."

    The decision is controversial in Detroit. The Lions' last highly drafted quarterback was Joey Harrington, the third overall pick in 2002. Harrington played in his first two games as a rookie, then took over the job. As he went 18-37 as a starter in Detroit, he lost his confidence and saw a sports psychologist. He later said he was handed the job too quickly.

    General manager Martin Mayhew said in May there was a pattern among quarterback busts: They were taken by bad teams, rushed onto the field and not put in position to succeed. But Mayhew also allowed in May that some highly drafted quarterbacks had been able to play early, and veteran center Dominic Raiola said there was no comparison between Stafford and Harrington.

    "It's not even close," Raiola said. "It's a totally different guy you're looking at."

    Different talent. Different personality. When a reporter brought up the fear many Lions fans have - that he will be thrown in too quickly, that failure could ruin him - Stafford laughed.

    "That was put lightly," Stafford said. "I'm with you. I've been through success. I've been through failure. I've been through a lot - even this preseason. I played good in some games, poor in some games, made some bad decisions. But I try to learn from everything."

    NOTES

  • QB Matthew Stafford will become the first rookie quarterback to start a season opener for the Lions since Greg Landry in 1968. Landry started only one more game that season, but he made the Pro Bowl in ‘72. That's the last time a Lions QB made the Pro Bowl.

  • RB Kevin Smith is healthy after suffering a bruised hip in training camp. He sat out the exhibition finale at Buffalo, but that was mostly to rest.

  • TE Brandon Pettigrew is healthy after missing much of training camp with a quad injury. Pettigrew played the last two exhibitions and is expected to start as a rookie.

  • WR Calvin Johnson is healthy after missing much of training camp with a thumb injury. Johnson had a big season last year despite the Lions' 0-16 record, and he could benefit most from the decision to start Stafford, who threw down the field much more often than Daunte Culpepper in the exhibition season.

  • WR Bryant Johnson is healthy after missing much of training camp with skin injuries related to an off-season golf-cart accident. He needs to show he can handle a No. 2 role and keep defenses from keying too much on Calvin Johnson.

  • CB Phillip Buchanon returned to practice Monday after sitting out with a neck problem. He should be ready to start Sunday.

  • CB Anthony Henry returned to practice Monday after sitting out with a shoulder injury. He should be ready to start Sunday.

  • DT Sammie Hill, a fourth-round pick out of Stillman, improved so much over the course of the preseason that the Lions felt comfortable releasing veteran DT Shaun Smith. It is unclear if Hill will start, but he could make an impact early.

  • K Jason Hanson started kicking field goals in practice Monday for the first time since having knee surgery. He will try kickoffs later this week, then the Lions will decide whether they need to add a kicker for Sunday. Hanson should be able to handle at least field goals against the Saints.

  • QB Daunte Culpepper returned to practice Monday after sitting out last week with a cut foot. Coach Jim Schwartz said the injury had no bearing on the decision to start Stafford.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    The Packers' high-profile men in the middle of their deep linebacker corps may not be so prominent Sunday night, when Green Bay hosts the rival Chicago Bears to kick off the season.

    Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk - the team's first-round draft picks in 2003 and 2006, respectively - appear to be headed toward reduced roles as the Packers officially unveil their new 3-4 scheme.

    Both players should be in the starting lineup, but how much they play beyond the base looks remains to be seen.

    Hawk gave way to Brandon Chillar in the nickel packages by the end of the preseason. Chillar, who excels in pass coverage and blitzing the quarterback, stood out in August as an injury replacement for Barnett playing alongside Hawk at the inside linebacker positions.

    "A.J. has not been flashy ... (but) I still believe he has that ability," Packers inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said during training camp.

    Barnett, conversely, is a capable every-down player, but the Packers don't seem inclined to rush him into doing everything when the season starts.

    After nine months of recovery from a season-ending torn ACL last November, Barnett wasn't cleared for contact work in camp until the final two weeks, and he played in only one game. He was on the field for 25 snaps in the Sept. 3 exhibition finale at the Tennessee Titans.

    "You have to be smart on how you progress forward with any player coming back," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think Nick will definitely play in the game (Sunday). What packages and so forth that he'll play in, we'll find out Sunday night."

    Desmond Bishop was a playmaking standout as a backup at inside linebacker in the preseason, so he would be a logical fill-in for Barnett in the subpackages Sunday if the Packers decide to keep Hawk off the field as well.

    NOTES

  • WR Greg Jennings was cleared to practice this week and will play in the season opener against the Chicago Bears on Sunday night. Jennings had been out since suffering a concussion on the first possession of the preseason game at the Arizona Cardinals on Aug. 28.

  • QB Aaron Rodgers enters his second season as a starter on the heels of a superb preseason. Rodgers directed the first-string offense to nine touchdowns in 13 possessions and posted the second-highest passer rating (147.9) among all quarterbacks in the league, going 29-of-41 for 465 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions.

  • RB Ryan Grant starts the season the healthiest he's been in more than a year. Grant no longer is bothered by a hamstring injury that affected him most of last season, in which he rushed for more than 1,200 yards but lost much of his explosiveness.

  • WR Donald Driver is the graybeard of the team in his 11th season, but he hasn't lost a step in making things happen down field. Driver averaged 28.2 yards in five receptions with two touchdowns in the preseason.

  • TE Donald Lee enters the season as the starter for the third straight year, but his contributions figure to dwindle due to emerging second-year player Jermichael Finley, who led the team in the preseason with nine receptions. Lee and Finley will be featured in a lot of double-tight-end formations.

  • DL B.J. Raji didn't practice at the start of the week as he recovers from an ankle injury that knocked him out of the preseason finale Sept. 3 at the Tennessee Titans. The status of Raji, the No. 9 overall pick in this year's draft, for Sunday's game hadn't been determined. If he's activated, Raji would back up Johnny Jolly at left end and Ryan Pickett at nose tackle.

  • CB/KR Will Blackmon has yet to return to the field after he sustained a bruised thigh in the second preseason game, Aug. 22 against the Buffalo Bills. Blackmon, who is fourth on the depth chart at cornerback, is the team's primary return man. His status for Sunday's game is up in the air.

  • S Aaron Rouse practiced Monday for the first time since he suffered a pulled hamstring in practice Aug. 20. Rouse is the top backup at the position.

  • QB Matt Flynn is expected to practice all week, his first significant on-field work since he left the Aug. 22 game against the Bills with a sprained right (throwing) shoulder. Flynn is the only backup quarterback on the roster.

  • RB Brandon Jackson didn't practice Monday, and the outlook for his availability Sunday isn't clear. Jackson, slotted as the No. 3 halfback behind Grant and DeShawn Wynn, suffered an ankle injury in the Aug. 28 game against the Cardinals.


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