Sizing up The vikings’ competition in the NFC north
2012 record: 10-6, third, missed the playoffs.
Key addition: Coach Marc Trestman. The quarterbacking guru has brought out the absolute best in players such as Bernie Kosar, Jake Plummer, Scott Mitchell and former league MVP Rich Gannon. Now, he teams up with Jay Cutler, a guy who’s far more gifted physically than any of those players. Can the 57-year-old first-time NFL head coach bring his success from the CFL with him to Chicago? Who knows? But it will be fun to watch him try.
Key loss: Linebacker Brian Urlacher. The prototypical middle linebacker in the 4-3, Cover 2-based defense couldn’t play forever. His leadership and presence will be missed. But his breaking-down body won’t be. Rookie Jon Bostic has played well in the preseason. And D.J. Williams will help, too, once he returns from his calf injury.
Key number: 4. Number of Pro Bowlers (Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Julius Peppers, Henry Melton) who return from a defense that scored nine touchdowns and forced 44 turnovers.
Outlook: Trestman’s up-tempo West Coast offense is Cutler’s fifth different system in the past six seasons. From the outside, it doesn’t seem like a real good fit. Then again, Cutler has some Brett Favre in him, and he did pretty well in a West Coast scheme. Plus, Trestman’s track record with quarterbacks is impressive. And, well, let’s face it, the Bears couldn’t get much worse on offense than they were a year ago. Some wonder if Trestman can run an NFL team after five years and two Grey Cup titles with the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. That remains to be seen. But hiring Mel Tucker as defensive coordinator and having him basically keep Lovie Smith’s system intact shows a lot of savvy and little ego. The Bears fired Smith after a 10-6 season, 84 career victories, three division titles and a Super Bowl appearance. Cutler, in the last year of his contract, could be the next one shown the door if the Bears don’t return to the playoffs ASAP.
GREEN BAY Packers
2012 record: 12-6, first. Beat Vikings 24-10 in an NFC wild-card game; lost to 49ers 45-31 in the divisional round.
Key addition: Running back Eddie Lacy. When the Packers offense fell from No. 3 in 2011 to No. 13 a year ago, the reason was simple. Opponents had no reason to respect the running game. That probably changed at the draft when General Manager Ted Thompson took Alabama’s Lacy in the second round and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in the fourth.
Key loss: Left tackle Bryan Bulaga. The Packers simply cannot stay healthy. Losing Bulaga to a knee injury for the season derails coach Mike McCarthy’s grand plan to flip the right side of last year’s line to the left side. It also puts Aaron Rodgers’ blind side in the hands of rookie fourth-round draft pick David Bakhtiari.
Key number: 93. Games missed by starters a year ago. Numbers like this are far too common for the Packers, but Rodgers, McCarthy and Thompson always overcome.
Outlook: Before they addressed their running game, or complete lack thereof, the Packers used the 26th overall pick on UCLA defensive end Datone Jones. Once his ankle is healthy, which should be soon, Jones should help a Dom Capers-coached defense that was humiliated by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the zone-read offense in last year’s playoff loss at San Francisco. Jones has experience in this 3-4 scheme and should be able to set the edge. Also, look for Capers to use that playoff debacle to figure things out. The offensive line is a concern once again. But it’s not as if Rodgers has operated behind a great line in recent years. He was sacked 51 times a year ago, so he’s used to pressure. Like all great QBs, Rodgers makes bad things disappear. If Lacy lives up to expectations, Rodgers and his receivers will carry the team into the playoffs. How far they go from there is something the defense may have to decide.
2012 record: 4-12, fourth.
Key addition: Running back Reggie Bush. His impact on a soft running attack that ranked 23rd a year ago remains to be seen. But his five-catch, 103-yard performance in a 40-9 preseason victory over the Patriots was further proof that he’ll be a force in the short passing game. That makes things tough for defenses that have to deal with Calvin Johnson in the deep passing game.
Key loss: Defensive end Cliff Avril. Losing last year’s team sack leader (9½) is a concern, especially when you consider that two of the biggest question marks about this team are at end and cornerback. That’s not good in a division that features Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler.
Key number: 3. Number of rushes of 20 yards or more by a Lions running back in 2012. Is Barry Sanders too old to make that comeback?
Outlook: Good luck trying to figure out what the Lions will do from year to year. They could be 4-12 or 12-4 and no one would say they’re surprised either way. One thing we do know is Matthew Stafford, if healthy, will team with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and Johnson to sling the ball for close to 5,000 yards. Whether they’re doing it to crush opponents or come back from 25 points down remains to be seen. A revamped defensive line includes new faces at end [first-round draft pick Ziggy Ansah and former Bear Israel Idonije] and outstanding tackle Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. This unit probably has to dominate for the younger back seven to succeed in this division. Running the ball never has been a high priority for Linehan, but the Lions will try to run it more efficiently with Bush. That part of the offense basically is designed only to help the line protect Stafford. This year, that line has three new starters after losing tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus and guard Stephen Peterman.