NFC North Spin cycle: Week One

Posted Sept. 10, 2012 @ 5:28 p.m.
Posted By PFW staff

The Packers were a popular pick to win the NFC North, but after one game, they are looking up at the rest of the division. In PFW's NFC North "Spin cycle," we take a closer look at how all four North clubs fared on the first Sunday of the season.

BEARS

What we learned: The new-look Bears offense could be fun to watch. After a poor first two possessions, the Bears ended six of their next eight drives (one was a kneeldown for halftime) by putting points on the board. They racked up 41 points in about 46 minutes of game time and buried the rebuilding Colts. Jay Cutler showed off his new weapons, connecting with WRs Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on touchdown throws. RBs Matt Forté and Michael Bush complemented each other nicely. They only turned the ball over once, although it was a costly one, as Colts WLB Jerrell Freeman returned a Cutler interception for a touchdown. The Bears’ offense looked like one equipped to keep up with some of the league’s perennial offensive leaders. Rookie QB Andrew Luck was no match for the Bears’ defense, but perhaps the best development for Chicago’s “D” was that MLB Brian Urlacher received plenty of rest. He started but was pulled by head coach Lovie Smith early in the third quarter. Urlacher’s knee is still an issue to monitor, though.

What’s in store next: A short week and a much tougher opponent. The Bears will make the trip to Green Bay for the league’s first Thursday-night game of the season, and the Packers are trying to avoid an 0-2 start after falling to the 49ers at Lambeau Field on Sunday. The Bears have lost four in a row to their rivals, including the 2010 NFC championship game, and they have been held to 21 points or less against the Packers in each of their last nine games against them (2-7 record). Chicago added playmakers on offense in the offseason to close the gap in the NFC North. They showed more firepower in Week One and might need a similar output Thursday.

What the heck? … was up with the Bears’ offense in the early going? It looked completely discombobulated out of the gate. They opened by giving up a sack, getting flagged for a false start and going three-and-out after a bad snap. Cutler threw a pick-six on the first play of their next possession, putting the Bears in a hole. Cutler completed only one of his first 10 passes. The Bears were helped by some pass-interference penalties during the cold streak, and Cutler recovered, completing 20 of his final 25 pass attempts as the Bears outscored Indy 41-14 after falling behind. There was nowhere to go but up for the offense after that start.

LIONS

What we learned: The Lions' defense helped pick up the offense in a gritty 27-23 victory. Detroit limited St. Louis to one offensive TD and 251 yards on 55 plays (4.6 yards per attempt). The Lions shut down the run, limiting Rams RB Steven Jackson to 53 yards on 21 carries. Detroit's strength up the middle was evident Sunday, as DTs Nick Fairley, Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams each notched sacks. The secondary, which was down two starters (CB Chris Houston, FS Louis Delmas) and lost CB Dwight Bentley, held up well enough. The offense, meanwhile, gets points for resilency. QB Matthew Stafford wasn't at his best, throwing three picks, including one returned for a score. But with Detroit trailing 23-20 with less than two minutes left, he led the Lions on a nine-play, 80-yard drive ending in a five-yard TD pass to RB Kevin Smith with 10 seconds left. WR Calvin Johnson, who had catches of 20 and 18 yards on that final drive, looked like the elite go-to guy he is, catching 6-111-0 in seven targets.

What’s in store next: The passing game would figure to get a workout Sunday night at San Francisco. The 49ers, who won impressively at Green Bay in Week One, have an outstanding run defense. The 49ers' offense also figures to deliver a stronger test for Detroit than St. Louis. The Niners rushed for 203 yards on 29 carries in a 25-19 win at Detroit last season. That game is most remembered for the heated postgame incident between Lions head coach Jim Schwartz and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. Well before that, Detroit, then 5-0, frittered away a 10-0 first-quarter lead. The Lions will need to be sound vs. the run if they want to turn the tables on the 49ers.

What the heck? Clearly, the Rams went to school on Stafford, who threw all three of his inteceptions in the first half. On the first interception, Stafford fired a short, quick pass toward Lions TE Tony Scheffler near the goal line, but CB Janoris Jenkins saw it coming and made the pick. Thus ended the Lions' first drive. In the second quarter, Stafford was picked again, with Rams LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar breaking in front of Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew. Watching Dunbar diagnose and make the play was a thing of beauty. The final pick was of a similar ilk, a simply wonderful individual play by Rams CB Cortland Finnegan, who dropped his coverage inside and broke in front of a pass intended for Lions WR Calvin Johnson outside. The 31-yard TD return gave the Rams the lead late in the second quarter. Give Stafford credit for settling down — he didn't throw an interception in the second half — but the Rams very much had a read on him early. It's something the Lions surely will ponder as they prepare going forward.

PACKERS

What we learned: The most noteworthy factor in the Packers’ humbling 30-22 upset loss to the Niners in their regular-season opener is that the defense, which experienced a major decline last season, still has major problems, although veteran S-CB Charles Woodson would beg to differ. Woodson said he actually felt good about the defense's performance, but there was nothing good about a run defense that allowed 186 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and a pass defense that continued to have too many breakdowns in coverage. The RCB position, manned by Jarrett Bush and Sam Shields, and the nickel safety spot, where M.D. Jennings was replaced by rookie Jerron McMillan in the second half, remained particularly problematic. The offense should not be absolved from blame for the loss, however, as the Niners’ defense did an excellent job of keeping everything in front of it and taking away the big play — a strategy that has been effective vs. the Packers in three of the last five games going back to last season. 

What’s in store next: It doesn’t get any easier for the Packers, who now have only three days to prepare for a Thursday-night encounter with the archrival Bears. While the Packers were getting pummeled by the Niners, the Bears rebounded from a shaky start to clobber the Colts 41-21, showing off what appears to be a greatly improved offense with new weapons such as WRs Brandon Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery and RB Michael Bush. Normally, Bears-Packers bashes are close-to-the vest, "Black-n’-Blue" brawls. This game, though, could very well be a wild and woolly shootout in which the victor ends up being the last team to score.

What the heck? Where were the takeaways? After tying for the league lead with 38 takeaways last season, the Packers didn’t force a single turnover against the Niners on Sunday. Equally frustrating was the defense’s continually shoddy tackling while the Niners put on a tackling clinic. On Frank Gore’s 23-yard TD run, three different Packers defenders whiffed trying to bring down the hard-charging Niners featured back on his way to the endzone. On offense, WR Greg Jennings and TE Jermichael Finley gained less than seven yard per catch, with Finley continuing to have problems holding on to passes. Veteran WR Donald Driver, meanwhile, was mostly invisible. Finally, while the officiating in the game left a great deal to be desired, the Packers hurt themselves severely with 10 penalties for 77 yards, including nine in the first half.  

VIKINGS

What we learned: Adrian Peterson is still the man. Christian Ponder might yet be the man. The rest is very much still up for debate. Peterson probably pushed his limit on the pitch count, carrying the ball 17 times, and his 84 yards were a very welcome sign, as were the two TDs. But it was the eye test that mattered a lot, too. Peterson passed it, running with power and purpose the entire game, and he turned in one of his bravest performances. Ponder started slowly but ended up completing 74 percent of his passes and engineering the game-tying and winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime. Those were excellent signs.

What’s in store next: The Vikings will remain in the AFC South with a game against the Colts, knowing that they can’t squander a chance to go 2-0 in a season in which the Packers lost their opener (and have a tough Week Two game) and in which the known universe is expecting the Vikings to finish last in the NFC North. Peterson will be monitored this week and treated as seen fit. The Vikings will try to figure out some of their coverage deficiencies and clean up a few tackling issues on defense. Colts QB Andrew Luck had four turnovers but showed in the preseason he can dice up passive defenses.

What the heck? It's hard to defend the Vikings’ decision to have single coverage on the outside in the final minute as the Jaguars were coming down to try to take the lead in the fourth quarter. Sure, on paper the matchup favored the Vikings: No. 1 CB Chris Cook vs. Jaguars WR Cecil Shorts. But QB Blaine Gabbert got time and lofted a gorgeous fade to the front pylon, where Cook couldn’t get it and where Shorts could. There was no safety help on the play. But why not? It’s clear the Vikings are still a work in progress defensively, and they’ll have to rely on the front-four pressure (supplied Sunday in large doses by DE Brian Robison) to bail them out of some bad situations. But the coaching error, as this appeared to be, can’t happen. You need to give your corners a chance in this situation.