Preseason means nothing. Well, preseason kind of means nothing. It all depends on the way you look at it. You certainly can’t look at team that wins the game and say; that team is better than the other. Let’s face it, the Browns beat the Packers 35-10 and I doubt anyone who knows remotely anything about the NFL would back the Browns in the regular season. In fact, I doubt anyone would back the Browns to win more than 5 games this season. Sorry Browns fans.
The preseason is used by different teams for different reasons at different times. Coaches use it to test rookies, to try out new plays, to blood players coming off the PUP, to run a different defensive/offensive system and a multitude of other reasons. So, both teams are at this at different stages of a preseason game so that’s why you can only pay heed to it if you know what to look for. That said, I am going to march on with the divisional previews and try and spell out where I think each team is at the moment. This preview will not feature any; ‘Oh they won in preseason and he beat him to the ball so therefore he is better’ waffle. Some players look outstanding in preseason simply because they are playing opposite a third string rookie who hasn’t a clue. I decided to start with the NFC North; the division I believe is the best in the NFL.
Green Bay Packers
I have no idea how the Packers have made it through the entire preseason without being hyped up to have already won the Superbowl this season. The Eagles were dubbed the Dream Team last year and received huge scrutiny and this season, all eyes are on the terrible comedy that is Tebow and the Jets. This bodes well for McCarthy’s team as they look to have an outstanding year this year.
The Packers almost had a perfect season last season. The reason the Packers were so good last year is well known; their Offense. Rodgers is outstanding and his team of Wideouts are the best in the League. I know, Calvin Johnson is the best, Andre Johnson is fantastic and Larry Fitzgerald is ridiculous. But as a unit go, Green Bay probably have the best WR team in the League. Rodgers’ over the shoulder throws to Jennings are impossible to defend and I wouldn’t be surprised if Goodell moved to outlaw them with a Jennings Rule! The Offense looks to be even better this season. The Packers, like the League demands, are a pass orientated team. Why wouldn’t you be with Aaron Rodgers at the helm? But when Rodgers has an off day, they need a Plan B. The Packers need a running game. Starks currently can’t offer that for Green Bay and now with the addition of the Cedric Benson, they have that credible running option. It is always prudent to have the ability to grind down the clock with running plays and keep the opponents Offense off the field. It isn’t an issue to keep Rodgers from being intercepted as his INT record last season was astonishing. Rodgers QB percentage was a record breaking 122.5 and he only threw for 6 interceptions. It is a matter of keeping the Offense on the field and grinding out the win. With Rodgers seemingly able to rip opponents Defenses apart at will, using both strategies is great game and time management. The only issue with Benson is his tendency to spill the ball. He needs to take better care of the football and with the limited workload he will face, this is something they will undoubtedly work on in Green Bay. Jeff Saturday has to get an honourable mention here as a great addition too. Green Bay really took advantage of his situation with the Colts and snapped him up. Randall Cobb will also be utilized more. This being his sophomore season, he will be better settled into the Offense now and we can expect to see him increase his catches. Donald Driver ain’t getting any younger.
So, where can they improve? Defense. The Defense was terrible last year. The Packers gave up 411.6 yards per game last year. That is one of the worst defensive performances ever. They depended on Rodgers to put up crazy numbers last year to create a cushion to pin the ears back and go after the quarterback. That is all well and good until Rodgers has an off day and the opposing Offense are clinical like The Chiefs and The Giants last season. But we all know the Packers; they build through the Draft. So, that’s exactly what they did this year. Any improvement will be better than last year but I believe they have real potential this year defensively. Clay Matthews came out and remarked that it just wasn’t good enough. When the players are motivated and the Defensive Coordinator is fired up, you better believe there will be a drastic improvement. Nick Perry was drafted to bring pressure on the outside and Jerel Worthy will work the inside with his 309lb frame with Clay Matthews. So far this preseason, they have looked good. As said above, let’s wait till regular season to pass verdict but so far so good. The secondary needs attention too. The legendary Charles Woodson isn’t getting any younger and the ‘Pickmaster’ needs some help. Jerron McMillian looked fearless in preseason and will be a good addition to the Defense. He may not win a starting spot straight away but adds depth to the safety position. Tramon Williams has looked equally as dangerous this preseason as has Davon House at Cornerback before he got injured. The Defense looks in solid shape and definitely set to make an improvement.
The Bears look good. They are set for a great 2012 season now that they have Cutler back. Jay Cutler had the Bears on the road to the Playoffs last season before he got injured and when that happened? Bye bye Bears. The faith that the Bears now have has been heightened even more in him. They know that with him at the helm, they are destined for success. The team knows that and more importantly, the fans know that. The Offense looks even more dangerous now with the addition of Brandon Marshall. This partnership was a potent one in Denver and they looked to have sparked it up again in Chitown. During preseason, they have connected for 8 catches and a score. This will be something that Cutler and Marshall will develop over the regular season and will, no doubt, trouble Defenses. Not only have they got the Denver partnership back up and running, they have hired Jeremy Bates as the new Quarterback coach. Bates worked with Cutler at Denver when he and Marshall were linking up so his hiring is a massive bonus for the Bears. During Bates’ tenure in Denver with the dynamic duo, they averaged 1,200 yards and 100 catches in the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Cutler alone posted 8,023 yards and 45 TDs in his two seasons at Denver before being traded to the Bears. With Marshall and Earl Bennett as targets along with the return specialist Devon Hester, the Offense is looking strong. Hester could be set to surpass Deion Sanders return record this season for the most non-offensive touchdowns. Opponents hate kicking to Hester and he is a testament to the importance of Special Teams to the League. Alshon Jeffrey was added in the second round of the Draft and he is looking explosive too. Pundits predict him to be a starter come Week 1 with some putting his name down for Rookie of the Year already. Jeffrey has great hands and is not afraid to go up and get the ball in coverage. Both Jeffrey and Marshall are a presence at over 6’ 3’’ Mike Tice really is spoiled for choice. Forte has a renewed contract so he is happy. The way the stats stand is that when Forte gets a lot of carries, the Bears win. Forte is paid and rearing to go and the Bears also acquired Michael Bush to carry the load so they have great options. The only issue with the Bears is the Offensive Line. They can’t afford to have Cutler on his back again this season. With the Offensive Line under constant intense pressure, the Bears tend to use the Running Backs and TE to block more and this limits their potential. Look at the way New England have revolutionised the TE position with the Gronk and Hernandez. This is something the Bears will not be able to utilize but don’t get me wrong, the Bears are definitely a Playoff team and a Superbowl contender.
The Defense is fierce. They were a top rated Defense last year and bar the injury to Brian Urlacher, all looks well in Chicago. Urlacher says he will be on the field come Week 1 but that now looks unlikely and he should be rested to avoid a reoccurrence. Briggs has been paid this year so he is happy. He is probably the best 4-3 OLB in the NFC North if not the best in the League. He will record a ridiculous amount of tackles this season for sure. I know that the Defense are aging but if you look at Ray Lewis, sometimes experience counts in Defense and you can afford to lose a step if your anticipation of the plays still gets you on the NFL’s Top 100 Players list. Other names that I shouldn’t even have to explain are Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije and Shea McClellin. These are the Pass Rush dream team and will sit high up the list in recorded sacks at the end of this season. The Bears have a solid home record. The Bears have a schedule in 2012 that could lend itself to a Playoff Berth easily if they win the games they are tipped to win against opponents like the Rams, the Jaguars and the Colts in the first 5 weeks.
Matthew Stafford just has to put the ball in a 10 mile radius of Calvin Johnson and it is a completion. Megatron is the best wide receiver in the league. Period. He is a complete mis-match for whoever he is up against. He has speed, great hands and just out-muscles coverage again and again. They talk about Revis Island in New York, well, then there must be Megatron Planet in Detroit. Teams attempted to double cover Tron last season and still came up short. Detroit’s problem last year was discipline. They were penalized more than any other team and Suh was ejected from the game for stomping on Evan Dietrich-Smith as a little Thanksgiving gift. They have to cut that out. Especially when players like Suh had their sack and tackles down by half on the previous year. He needs to get his head straight and get his production back up to where it was in his rookie year. Nick Fairley; that includes you.
Offensively, Detroit look good with Stafford in the driving seat. He had some awe inspiring performances last season. The shootout he had with Matt Flynn at the end of last season was ridiculous. Flynn is touted as amazing after that and he was, breaking Green Bay TD records but he was driven to that feat by Stafford who piled on the pressure. Flynn can thank Stafford personally for his place in Seattle and that 12 Million contract he signed to sit on the bench. There was a reason Joe Philbin didn’t bring him to Miami despite working with him and he has Stafford to thank for establishing his hype. One area that Detroit are seriously lacking in is the running game. Pundits were even saying that they ought to sacrifice an arm and a leg to get MJD from the Jaguars. I don’t agree. They can get a decent RB without such a big salary cap busting back like the formidable Jones Drew. Their production last season was a dismal 92 rushing yards per game. Granted, their backs were knocked out of the season with injuries but an improvement this year is needed. Jahvid Best is concussion prone and currently on the PUP list, missing the first 6 games of the season, so that needs addressing. They shouldn’t depend on the Stafford – Tron partnership to carry them the whole season. Especially not with Johnson at risk of the Madden Curse, right? I am a rational, logical human being but the Madden Curse scares me. 26.7% of Detroit’s last years offensive yards were came through Calvin Johnson. Detroit also possess two great Tight Ends in the form of Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. The Lions passed on 67.5% of their snaps last year and with the turmoil with the RB position, the TE will offer a good alternative. Scheffler had 18 completions and 3 TDs last season and the Lions will definitely build on that. He exploits the middle of the field and will give Stafford another credible option to gain yardage while protecting the football.
Defensively, Detroit are scary. They are aggressive and border on illegal play at times. On other occasions, they are just downright illegal. Their Defense are relentless and put intense pressure on the pocket. Kyle Vanden Bosh, Cliff Avril and Ndamukong Suh push high upfield and are always looking for the sack on every play. This is a risky style of play as it leaves gaping holes behind the D Line. Detroit are fortunate to have competent linebackers in the form of Stephen Tulloch to fill the voids and clean up. Tulloch signed a new 5 year contract for the Lions in March and he will be instrumental for them again this season. He recorded 111 tackles, 3 fumble recoveries and 2 interceptions last year. Defensive Coordinator Gunther Cunningham says the Defense are beginning to develop chemistry together and Jim Schwartz admits that they are still a work in progress. They are currently in the process of making subtle changes to their defensive schemes. They are using the wide-9 formation with the DE well outside the offensive tackles. We will have to wait and see what the outcome of these schemes are going to be in the regular season.
The secondary is another big concern. The Lions need Louis Delmas back to contend defensively this season against the likes of Rodgers and Cutler. He was injured last season against the Packers and the Lions suffered badly. Although many say he is an over hyped safety, when he got injured last year, the Lions fell to a lowly ranked 22nd out of 32 teams at pass defense.
Green Bay have gotten better. I know, scary. The Bears are better this season. Some even say they are the best Bears team since the 80s. Detroit are real contenders after years of disappointment and may well find themselves in the Playoffs again. So, where does that leave the Vikings? Probably last. Making Ponder the starter last season was great experience and he proved he has good potential. He was a little shaky at times last year but he needed that experience to become a credible QB in a really tough division. Adrian Peterson is apparently going to be a starter come week 1. It is doubtful that his number of carries will be monstrous considering his knee injury and the fact that he was eased into training camp with a ‘no-contact’ rule. We can expect similar easing into the new season and Gerhart being utilized as well. The Vikings use a very run orientated offense and they need Peterson healthy to maximize their potential. The O Line was surprisingly decent last year with Pro Football Focus ranking them as the 7th best Offensive Line. This success was mostly attributed to the steely performance of the offensive line and the most of the protection problems came from Ponder himself with him being attributed responsibility to 11 of his sacks. Before you start leaving comments slating that previous comment, QB are responsible for their own sacking if they hold on to the ball too long. This may be put down to rookie inexperience but he won’t have that luxury this season. With the addition of Matt Kalil in the Draft, the O Line has got even better. Ponder is playing better now that he has Kalil protecting him. This has pushed Charlie Johnson to left guard and the line looks solid. Percy Harvin is a dangerous receiver and special teams player. He should be utilized more this season to help Ponder. They are light on the receiving core though and they also lost Visanthe Shiancoe to New England. Leslie Frazier has a lot of work to do to convince the fans that he is a capable Head Coach. The Vikings had their worst season last season in two and a half decades and they don’t look offensively as if they can beat any of their NFC North rivals. Last year, they didn’t win a single game in the division.
On Defense, Jared Allen is an animal. He will always find a way through to the quarterback and deliver some punishment. No other player grounded the QB more than Allen in 2011 with 22 sacks. That is half a sack away from the NFL record. Along with Kevin Williams and Brian Robison, these guys are tough. So tough, that they receive a hell of a lot of game time, being on the field for a lot of snaps and this may start taking its toll on the players. Antoine Winfield is also a beast. In 2010, he was one of only a handful of cornerbacks that didn’t give up a single touchdown in the entire year. He can play outside, man the slot and stuff the run. He is aging but essential to the Defense. The outside line backer position for the Vikings looks weak. Greenway is the Vikings leading tackler for the last 3 seasons and is helped out by Henderson. The other positions will be filled by undrafted free agents and rookies in the shape of Dean, Nielsen and Paredes. Nielsen is touted as having good diagnostic skills and can stop the run. He lacks pass rushing skills but is supposed to be quick to pursue players on the edge.
The Vikings must continue to build for the 2013 season. They may have a difficult time in this 2012 season with the other teams in the division improving and they are likely to be in danger of suffering another 0-6 in the NFC North. They have some difficult opposition too in the Titans, Cardinals and 49ers. They must win their games against the Jaguars, Colts and Rams to stand any chance of calling this season somewhat of a success and build through the draft again next year.