Around the NFC North
Despite a preseason that had him running for his life or ducking for cover far too often, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler can't wait for the regular season to begin.
That might seem odd, considering the Bears scored just 17 points in the five quarters that Cutler had played going into the final preseason game, during which he was sacked 10 times, threw two interceptions and compiled a passer rating of 62.4.
Questions about the reworked offensive line's ability to protect Cutler have not been answered to anyone's satisfaction, although the quarterback and offensive coordinator Mike Martz both insist there has been improvement. The other huge question was how quickly the offense would fully grasp Martz's thick playbook. Cutler, whose football intelligence is almost as impressive as his rocket arm, appears to have it down pat. But, unless all his receivers and blockers are on the same learning curve, there could be problems.
But Cutler says he's ready to play for keeps in Martz's scheme, starting with the season opener against the Lions on Sept. 12.
"I'm good," he said. "I met with Mike a lot since the preseason started, just talking through game plans. We're going to do more and more of that once the season starts getting a little bit closer, just talking Detroit. And from week to week I'm sure we'll have a lot of film sessions and going over the game plan. But I feel good about the system. I understand it, and I know what we're trying to get accomplished out there. So I'm ready for the real games to start."
Really? After getting blanked by the Cardinals on five possessions, plus a kneel-down at the end of the half?
"It's preseason," Cutler said. "We're (running some) plays just to run plays and getting game ready and season ready. We're not calling exactly what we want to call against exactly the right defense we want to get. We're not checking anything (changing plays). We're not making a ton of adjustments on the fly, either.
"Is there reason for concern? I mean, maybe. Maybe not. I'm not concerned. I don't think anybody in that locker room is really concerned (with) where we're at. I think we're happy with where we are. There's room to improve absolutely, but I think we'll be ready Week One."
No one who's seen Martz's offense hitting on all cylinders doubts that it can run like a racecar. Opening up the playbook requires better protection up front, but Cutler's ready to hit the gas pedal.
"We're going to open it up," he said. "Those guys will be expected to make it happen over there. They played a lot better this past game going back and looking at the film. I was a little edgy in the pocket moving around sometimes. I could have helped them out a little bit. That's what we're learning.
"With (guard) Lance (Louis) in there and with (tackle) Chris (Williams) on the left side, they're kind of still jelling together. Some of the calls are a little bit new to them as well with what we're doing protection-wise. So it's all coming together and I think once we get closer to Detroit we'll be OK."
Martz expected to see a better performance than he did last Saturday, but he'd rather deal with problems early and get them corrected before the regular season.
"There's so much information on them, they're so wound up and so tight, they wanted to play well so badly," he said. "We made some mistakes that I was a little bit surprised by, but fortunately you get that done now instead of the opener, and get that out of your system. We've had a real good clean-up week of practice on those things. I think that there's a cohesion now, particularly in the passing game."
Martz and Cutler both said the offensive line showed improvement in the third preseason game and looked better in film review than in the heat of the battle.
"Chris (Williams) did a nice job," Martz said. "Lance (Louis) was a standout. I wish I could show you tape of Lance on (Darnell) Dockett. He did a terrific job. Each week our group grows together and gets better and better. I'm very pleased with the progress, particularly in the protections with that group."
Defensively, the Bears have fewer concerns, although a spate of minor injuries at linebacker and safety throughout training camp and the preseason sometimes made progress fitful.
Safety will remain a concern until two players can be found who are sure tacklers and can make plays on the ball. The Bears seem to have a roster full of players who can do one or the other but not both. Rookie Major Wright was homing in on a starting job until finger surgery knocked him out of the final three preseason games, but he could still wind up starting early in the season.
Free agent Julius Peppers has made the d-line more dangerous and the pass rush more effective, which the Bears hope will mask shortcomings in the secondary.
Progress is measured differently for the Lions. When you are trying rise from the rubble left by former president Matt Millen's regime, a certain number of wins or making the playoffs aren't necessarily the indicators of success.
Start with this: Is there a blueprint? Is there a definitive, creditable rebuilding plan in place? And for once the answer is yes. President Tom Lewand, general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Schwartz, if nothing else, are executing a plan.
In their second year they have already built an offensive foundation. They drafted quarterback Matthew Stafford and tight end Brandon Pettigrew last year. Those two, joining receiver Calvin Johnson, gave the Lions a starting point.
The goal over the summer was to build onto that foundation, to add play-makers in order to give Stafford more options and to discourage opposing defenses from loading up on Johnson. To that end they drafted tailback Jahvid Best out of Cal, signed free agent receiver Nate Burleson and traded for tight end Tony Scheffler.
The Lions also solidified a long-time sore spot on the offensive line by trading for veteran left guard Rob Sims.
The first building block seems to be in place. The Lions are going to score points. Whether or not they win games will be determined by how quickly the next rebuilding phase comes along — the defense.
The Lions expended a lot of resources this summer toward building an NFL-level defensive line. They signed defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, drafted defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh with the second overall pick, traded for veteran tackle Corey Williams and aligned them with holdover Cliff Avril.
It's a respectable unit, one that gets off the ball and attacks. Teams in the preseason were deploying no-huddle tactics, screens and other short-hitting pass routes to neutralize the force of the Lions' front four.
Unfortunately, one unit does not a complete defense make. And the back seven remains in a state of disrepair.
The Lions have one proven linebacker — 32-year-old Julian Peterson. The other outside linebacker is first-year starter Zach Follett, who at this time last year was released and playing on the practice squad.
Middle linebacker DeAndre Levy is the leader of the defense, but he has been hobbled by injuries — first a back and now a groin.
As for the secondary, the Lions upgraded slightly at cornerback with Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade, and Louis Delmas is a potential Pro Bowl player at safety. But Delmas has been slowed by a groin injury.
Schwartz said that the identity of this team would be forged during training camp. If that's so, then this looks like a team that has to score 35 points a game to have a chance to win.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers will carry an air of supreme confidence into the season.
Open talk and even printed T-shirts compliments of linebacker Nick Barnett that expressed the Super Bowl aspirations harbored by the team at the start of training camp in late July was backed up by what was accomplished on the field the ensuing five weeks.
The Aaron Rodgers-led offense took center stage, running the defenses of the Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts ragged in the first three preseason games. With yards through the air and points aplenty for the starting group, plenty of people have taken notice, including those of an influential ilk.
"He had a really good year last year and has a lot of weapons," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said of Rodgers, who threw for 195 yards and three touchdowns in only one half in their teams' exhibition meeting Aug. 26.
"They really do some things that play to his strengths," Manning added. "He throws the ball down the field really, really well. He's a got a ton of ability."
Rodgers summed up his play in August as "very productive." That may be an understatement.
"The last two years, I felt real good about where we've been at the end of preseason, but I feel better this year because I think we have a little bit more of an identity on offense, where last year we made a lot of big plays but I don't really felt like we ever established kind of what we wanted to do," Rodgers said. "And, now it's pretty obvious. We're going to find ways to get the ball to (tight end) Jermichael (Finley) and find ways to get the ball to (receivers) Donald (Driver) and Greg (Jennings), Jordy (Nelson), James (Jones).
"When we get into a rhythm like we have this preseason on offense, we're going to be tough to stop. It's fun."
The Packers were all about fun times the second half of last season. They won seven of their final eight games to finish 11-5 and seemed poised to make a deep postseason run.
Putting up 45 points on scoreboard in an NFC wild-card game at the Arizona Cardinals on Jan. 10 wasn't enough for the Packers to advance, however. Arizona did them six points better, winning 51-45 in overtime on a fumble return by Karlos Dansby after a sack of Rodgers in the NFL's highest-scoring playoff game.
"I think we were as hot as any team in the league," Packers president Mark Murphy said. "It was a heartbreaking loss, but I think it's the kind of loss that will inspire us and help us in the future."
Cornerback Charles Woodson, one of the team's veteran leaders, couldn't let the sting of that loss go seven months later amid the heat of training camp.
"Defensively, we just dropped the ball," said Woodson, last year's NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "Didn't make any plays, let them run up and down the field, picking up completions on third down and scoring touchdowns and that sort of thing.
"We don't want to go into this season thinking we have an offense that can put up points so we can just go out there (as a defense) and whatever happens, happens. That's not taking any pride in what you do as a professional. We won't go out there like that."
Just the kind of tough talk to be expected from a team that is thinking big this season.
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