In the span of just five months, much has changed in the NFC North without much noise.
Most of the bang during downtime has been around the draft and the legal troubles of the Detroit Lions. But with minicamps underway, it’s 2012 season prediction time—that perfect opportunity to take a look at the Packers’ three northern rivals.
Looking at the NFC North from a distance, the landscape appears to be the same as it always was: a tough division made up of four very good quarterbacks, mixed in with some of the best running backs in the league.
The thing that makes this tough, though, is in large part thanks to the premier drafting of each team, and a few roster movements. That, and the fact that the Green Bay Packers only really managed to blow out one of their North rivals, the Vikings, during the entire 2011 season.
Detroit Lions At A Glimpse
After finishing 29th in rushing yards in 2011, the team’s main concern in camps during the break has been the ground game. Jahvid Best will be back and healthy after being placed on IR with concussion symptoms last year, and the offensive line has received some attention in the draft.
Generally, protection, protection, protection has been at the forefront of Jim Schwartz’s mind, when the running game wasn’t. Stafford was sacked 36 times last year, and failed on 136 third down attempts.
There was then the early exit in the playoffs (though the Saints were on fire at the time), a near win over the Packers in Week 17 and recently a bunch of legal scrutiny surrounding Mikel Leshoure to make everything worse.
Nevertheless, the Lions still have the best chance at stealing the Packers’ crown. Brighter expectations surround Green Bay’s defense this year, but there was still no answer for Johnson’s 244-yard total in both games last season.
Detroit has bolstered its offensive line and the Packers will still rely on the 12th-year defensive lineman Ryan Pickett to command the line this season. Last year, if Stafford wasn’t playing well, the Lions turned into a marshmallow. This year, Detroit has a running game, and the Packers’ rush defense can be mediocre when it wants to be.
Minnesota Vikings At A Glimpse
An ACL injury has basically destroyed everything in Minnesota, and even with Christian Ponder looking to hold onto his spot, Adrian Peterson low looks at a lengthy stint on the PUP list heading up to August.
However, ever since Peterson tore his left ACL and MCL on Christmas Eve, he’s been determined to return to the field for the season opener on September 9 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“What I envision is to be suited up and ready to roll. Full strength,” Peterson said, via Dan Wiederer of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “Anything else? I would be cheating myself.”
Further down the list, Percy Harvin still nurses a shoulder injury that has recently kept him away from the practice field. The good news is he isn’t expected to miss much time, which could work wonders for Ponder.
Like a lot of young quarterbacks, the Packers took advantage of Ponder last season when they could.
Rushing the passer from the outside, forcing a pass and then allowing Charles Woodson to do the rest was one particular error that caught Christian Ponder off guard in Week 10.
It’s hard to say whether or not the Packers will see the same success defensively against the Vikings next season, but Minnesota should expect to see a much more improved Ponder if nothing else. The Packers meet up with the Vikings in Week 13, so there’s plenty of time to judge the Vikings for yourselves.
Green Bay Packers At A Glimpse
Once upon a time, Packers fans would have hated being labeled as the best.
Coach Mike McCarthy seems to ignore it.
But bottom line, the 2012 schedule is mildly assuming this season, looking past the Week 1 match against the San Francisco 49ers.
Briefly, there may be a period this season where the Packers look lost. The hybrid Charles Woodson is somewhere between a corner and a safety—at least until the move eventually happens. Clay Matthews switches from left to right, and there are a bunch of talented rookies competing for playing time at competitive spots.
There are some consistency issues as well.
Jermichael Finley’s only multiple-touchdown game came in Week 3 last year against Chicago and over the weekend he claimed a lack of chemistry with Rodgers was to blame for the dropped passes in 2011, while the absence of running back Ryan Grant points the finger at James Starks this year, a player who only rushed for one touchdown in 13 contests.
Donald Driver will probably have an even quieter year. Backup safety M.D. Jennings could find more playing time after practicing with starters this week. And Graham Harrell is your man if Aaron Rodgers is banged up.
Chicago Bears At A Glimpse
Chicago has tried to its best to have a quiet offseason, but Matt Forte doesn’t want to keep any happenings on the down low. Forte still seeks a long-term deal, while Lovie Smith is on what some like to call a hot-seat and quarterback Jay Cutler returns from an injury-riddled season to find his offense still has some of the kinks he left them with in Week 11.
The Bears will get a good taste of Green Bay when the two teams clash in Week 2 on Thursday night, Sept. 13 on NFL Network.
Longtime leader and star linebacker Brian Urlacher has been open in the media recently, stating “the talent we have on this team is phenomenal,” and it’s hard to disagree after a busy offseason.
Backup quarterback Josh McCown was forced to toss two interceptions in the Packers’ 35-21 win at Lambeau the last time these two teams met last season back in Week 16.
While McCown can’t compare to Cutler, the Packers did surrender 121 rushing yards to Kahlil Bell, and Roy Williams also had 81 yards on the Packers’ defense in the midst of a five-touchdown Aaron Rodgers freakshow.
The Bears-Packers rivalry is always tooth and nail, but the Bears bring in another weapon this year that could throw the Packers’ defense into confusion.
Brandon Marshall figured to be Cutler’s new end zone pal, and it remains to be seen how the Packers will cover him.
Sending safety help is option one. Option two is the double-team, something most clubs will probably be in favor of in goal-line situations—considering Marshall has posted six 1,000-plus-yard seasons.
It always comes down to Cutler when looking at Chicago’s chances. When healthy in 2010, he threw three interceptions against the Green Bay’s D. It’s always about pass rush when the Packers play the Bears.