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ATPF Divisional Preview- NFC North

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Green Bay PackersWhen the Packers won the Superbowl three years ago it looked like they were about to become the dominant force. Even a shock playoff loss in 2011 didn’t change the perception given they had won 15 regular season games but a heavy defeat to San Francisco last year in the playoffs suddenly sees others ranked higher in the NFC. One reason for the lack of progress is that the Packers 2011 and 2012 drafts as yet at least didn’t yield much, a good 2013 draft added to the talent they already have however could have them challenging again this season and there are few teams better than the Packers at their best.

Offensively the Packers have a huge array of talent and leading the team is Aaron Rodgers who became the highest paid player in the NFL this offseason and rightly so, he is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL. At 29 he is at the peak of his powers, Superbowl MVP in 2010, NFL MVP in 2011 and in 2012 he passed for 4300 yards and 39 touchdowns on a down season. His all round abilities are unmatched, leadership, arm strength, accuracy, ball security, game management, elusiveness, Rodgers is in the top 10 in every one of those categories. Key to improving the offense however is reigniting a run game which hasn’t sparked since James Starks got hot in their Superbowl run three seasons ago. Drafting Eddie Lacy, a powerful, highly productive runner at Alabama and also Johnathan Franklin of UCLA gives them chance of some production. Star receiver Greg Jennings left for Minnesota and a big money deal and Donald Driver retired, for most teams that would leave a gaping hole, not Green Bay. Jordy Nelson battled injuries last year but had 1200 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011 while Randall Cobb led the team with 80 catches for 954 yards last year. James Jones is third on the depth chart and he caught 14 touchdown passes last season. Tight end Jermichael Finley’s stock has slipped a little in recent seasons and he isn’t a reliable pass catcher anymore yet he looked unstoppable a few years ago so the ability is there and he is still young. The big issue in Green Bay is the offensive line, Rodgers was sacked 51 times last year and the rushing attack wasn’t helped by poor blocking. Fourth year pros Marshall Newhouse and Bryan Bulaga man the tackle spots but both have problems with elite pass rushers. Inside T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton will play guards and Evan Dietrich-Smith takes over from retired Jeff Saturday at center. High powered doesn’t do the Packers offense justice but unfortunately the line has been the Achilles heel of the team too often and could be again, having success on the ground would help everybody and if doing so this unit can rank top 5 again as it should do.

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Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers

The defense of the Packers wasn’t bad last year until Colin Kaepernick tore them apart in the playoffs. Upfront ‘The Freezer’ B.J. Raji is an immovable object at nose tackle and alongside him Ryan Pickett is a cheeseburger short of 340 lbs. Mike Neal and first round rookie Datone Jones will be relied on to pressure quarterbacks from the defensive end position but of course Clay Matthews is the Packers main man when it comes to pass rushing. He had treble what the second best Packer had in sacks last year and is a dominant player. A year after being drafted in the first round, Nick Perry will be expected to do a lot more opposite Matthews with Dezman Moses who impressed in his rookie year breathing down his neck. Inside starters Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk are both good players but rarely are both fit which is an issue as the depth behind them looks shaky. Cornerback Tramon Williams is an excellent cover man and he will be joined by either 2012 starter Sam Shields, second year pro Casey Hayward or third year pro Davon House, all four will see plenty of playing time. At safety Morgan Burnett is a solid pro and he will be joined by either veteran Jarrett Bush or another sophomore defensive back Jerron McMillian. A defense which needs to give Clay Matthews more help did little to do so beyond drafting Datone Jones so it will be expected that the likes of Perry and Neal take a step forward. Overall a solid unit but one with few playmakers they ranked 11th last year and should be between 10 and 15 again.

2013 Predicted wins10-11

Playoff Prediction- Hard to envisage them not being there but a hellish schedule means they will likely be on the road although that didn’t stop them in 2010, this team are still major contenders.

Chicago Bears– The Bears have won 18 games the last two seasons without making the playoffs, the latter statistic cost long time head coach Lovie Smith and all of his coordinators their jobs and in his place is Marc Trestman from the CFL. Smith can feel hard done by but his biggest mistake was never protecting quarterback Jay Cutler properly after acquiring him in a blockbuster trade. Cutler has the talent to take the Bears deep and if he gets proper protection this could be the year.

Trestman’s first statement of intent was signing Jermon Bushrod in free agency; the pro-bowl left tackle’s acquisition would surely have delighted Jay Cutler. But Trestman didn’t stop there; he added Matt Slauson, an experienced starter with the Jets at guard and drafted Kyle Long in the first round to play opposite. Only 12 year vet Roberto Garza at center and right tackle Jonathan Scott in his second year with the team return to starting jobs, this unit looks enormously improved and Cutler’s best excuse has gone. Cutler is a polarising player, he has enormous ability, a cannon for an arm and can make all the throws yet has never been successful and is often criticised for a perceived lack of commitment to the cause. If he is kept upright at long last the Bears will finally see if he really is the man to take them back to the success this organisation expects. Cutler’s best target by far is Brandon Marshall, the pair had success in Denver and it continued last year after Marshall came from Miami. With 2012 first round pick Alshon Jeffery likely to improve the Bears have two big, powerful athletes on the outside and few defences will have the size at corner to match the duo. Tight end Martellus Bennett is a talented underachiever but is a fine blocker and a big target in centerfield. Matt Forte enters his sixth season in the NFL as undoubtedly one of the league’s top 10 backs, his powerful yet elusive one cut running style and excellence catching the football make him a huge part of the offense. The Bears are expected to run a west coast offense this year which will see quick release passes and a reliance on short completions with yards after the catch, Marshall, Jeffery and Forte are all capable of this and the scheme should limit Cutler’s issues with turnovers. The Bears new heavily upgraded line should make this offense much stronger, with Jeffery likely to improve and Bennett a further upgrade they can move from 28th in 2012 into the teens overall this year.

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Bears quarterback Jay Cutler

Defense has long been the Bears strongpoint and should be again under new coordinator Mel Tucker. The Bears led the league in interceptions and were third in scoring defense last year in addition to finishing top 10 against both pass and run. There was an argument for this being the NFL’s best defense especially considering the division they are in. Eight time pro bowler Brian Urlacher retired but he was no longer an elite player so his loss will be manageable. His place goes to tenth year pro D.J. Williams a free agent pickup from Denver, and another veteran free agent steps in at outside backer in former Panther James Anderson, both are on one year contracts and rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene will expect to start next year. Pro bowler Lance Briggs is amongst the league’s best 4-3 outside linebackers and will be the key to this group. Upfront star defensive end Julius Peppers headlines a strong trio of edge rushers with Corey Wootton and 2012 first round pick Shea McClellin both dangerous also. Tackle Henry Melton went to the pro bowl in his fourth season and is a terrific pass rusher from the inside, Stephen Paea is an improving nose tackle but depth is lacking here. The strength of the whole team is at corner, Tim Jennings may only be small but his 9 interceptions led the NFL in 2012 while Charles Tillman is another regular in Hawaii. Kelvin Hayden is a solid slot cover but depth again is the issue. Safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte return, they helped solidify a position which had long been an issue last year. The Bears ranked fifth overall last year but were better than that considering the turnovers they generated. Depth is the only worry this year but if the starters stay mainly healthy this is a contender for number 1 defense.

2013 Predicted wins8-9

Playoff Prediction- The NFC North usually sends two teams to the playoffs but all four need to be there to be satisfied. The Bears can edge their way in with their improved offense and then hope their defense can come up big to take them deep.

Minnesota Vikings- One of the biggest surprise successes last year was the Vikings. Adrian Peterson’s return from career threatening injury to 2000 yards rushing and the MVP award proved that he definitely isn’t human. Drafting three players in the first round and adding superstar receiver Greg Jennings only heightened expectations and the Vikings fans now expect not only a return to the playoffs but to win games in January. With a tougher schedule and teams likely to respect them more however the Vikings are far from certain to be playing into January.

Adrian Peterson was the offense last year and will be the main player again but as great as he is the passing game must help him out. Christian Ponder only mustered 2900 yards and 18 touchdowns compared to divisional rivals Matthew Stafford’s 4900 yards and Aaron Rodgers’ 39 touchdown passes. Ponder won’t match either quarterback again; he isn’t an elite talent as that duo are but he can still take a step forward. Jennings arrival helps; he replaces Percy Harvin who missed too much time for a number 1 receiver. Cordarelle Patterson was one of the three first round draft choices, he will need time but his talent is sufficient that he starts from week one. Tight end Kyle Rudolph a former first rounder is Ponder’s favourite red zone target. The offensive line which paved the way for Peterson’s year all return, a huge plus. Center John Sullivan is one of the league’s best and leads the unit, left tackle Matt Kalil went to the pro bowl as a rookie and man mountain Phil Loadholt plays opposite. Unheralded guards Brandon Fusco and Charlie Johnson both played at near pro bowl level to complete one of the league’s best lines. Adrian Peterson is the heart and soul of this offense but his ambition to top 2500 yards rushing is not going to be fulfilled. A run heavy offense which ranked 20th overall a year ago can improve on that if Ponder takes the next step, that however is not guaranteed so don’t expect a top 10 offense.

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Reigning NFL MVP Adrian Peterson

Historically the Vikings play good defense and will have too to return to the playoffs. Their defensive line is aging but in end Jared Allen and tackle Kevin Williams they have two of the league’s best. Opposite Allen veteran Brian Robison had 8.5 sacks last year and his backup Eversen Griffen had 8 and at tackle rookie first rounder Sharrif Floyd has the talent to push Letroy Guion for the start next to Williams. Linebacker Chad Greenway is a tackling machine (148 a year ago) but the other two spots see uncertainty. Erin Henderson is a playmaker but a move inside will ask more responsibility from him and Audie Cole a seventh round pick in 2012 will likely take Henderson’s old position on the outside. Fourth year pro Chris Cook and first round pick Xavier Rhodes are big physical corners, with Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery not to mention the Packers array of talent they need to be. Strong safety Jamarca Sanford and emerging star Harrison Smith complete a defense not short on talent. With one of the best rotations in the league upfront the Vikings question marks at linebacker can be erased. Their secondary is reliant on D.J. Hayden hitting the ground running in a division packed with receiving talent but he may be up to the task. The Vikings were 16th overall last year but should be knocking on the door of a top 10 spot this time round.

2013 Predicted wins- 6-7

Playoff Prediction The Vikings raised the bar of expectation last year but have an immensely difficult schedule and getting above .500 will be very hard to do. Even if they make the playoffs again you still can’t see Ponder taking a team deep into January.

Detroit Lions- So if the Lions finally became relevant in 2011 they were completely irrelevant again in 2012, tipped as NFL dark horses by some they perhaps believed their own hype. Losing their last 8 games on the way to a 4-12 season wasn’t so much a reality check but instead an absolute shocker for a team whose leadership is very much in question. They still have some talented players and a dynamic offense but even games they dominate often result in losses, a whole host of players and the entire coaching staff are fighting for their jobs, a winning season could save them but that will be hard to accomplish.

Matthew Stafford once again put up gaudy numbers but didn’t convert them into success, nearly 5000 yards passing means little when you win just 4 games, Stafford’s 17 interceptions were to be expected considering he attempted more passes than any quarterback in history. Put simply Stafford is the least of the issues in Motown but there is still room for improvement from him. The best player Detroit has is Calvin Johnson, undoubtedly the premiere receiver in football, Johnson shrugged off being double teamed on every play by breaking Jerry Rice’s single season receiving record last year. With bonehead Titus Young gone, the Lions will again start 10th year veteran Nate Burleson and once again Johnson will have to carry this offense on his back. Reggie Bush got payed handsomely to join Detroit, he gives the Lions another playmaker but has his limitations, expect powerful Mikel Leshoure to split carries and do more of the heavy lifting inside. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew is supposed to be the second biggest receiving threat on this time, his size creates mismatches but if he carries on dropping passes he may not get offered a second contract. The line of the Lions has been an issue for years and was again in 2012, three starting jobs are up for grabs but the likely replacements leave more questions than answers. Riley Reiff, last year’s first round pick will start at left tackle, opposite him a host of unproven players will fight it out and rookie Larry Warford will start at guard, he is a monster of a man but has questionable footwork. Center Dominic Raiola gets moved around too easily by defensive tackles and journeyman guard Rob Sims is far from a dominating presence. An offense that ranked third overall last year again will put up yards but they were only 17th in scoring so by no means was this an elite offense. With question marks over everyone bar Johnson it’s hard to predict what to expect from this frustrating unit.

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Lions receiver Calvin Johnson

The Lions defense ranked 13th in yards, acceptable enough but unacceptable was 27th in scoring defense averaging 27 points plus surrendered per game. The strength of this team has to be a hugely talented but inconsistent defensive line. Tackle Ndamukong Suh needs to work to change the perception of him from dirty player to dominant one which is what he was as a rookie. Nick Fairley is another with ability but his charge is underachievement and taking plays off. Rookie Ziggy Ansah, a Jason Pierre-Paul kind of athlete will provide an upgrade at end, opposite him will be free agent pickup Jason Jones another big powerful end on a huge offensive line, depth is more than adequate upfront but less so on the rest of the defense. The linebackers are able to perform adequately but there are no real playmakers in the group. Veteran Stephen Tulloch, the team’s leading tackler and DeAndre Levy are back but the third spot is up for grabs with no obvious candidate worthy of the start. The secondary suffered with a slew of injuries last year, the starting corners this year will be Chris Houston and rookie Daruis Slay, a man who should have the speed to run with the best of them. Safety Louis Delmas is the team’s best defensive back when healthy but he missed half of last year’s games, about par for the course with him. Glover Quin was the biggest signing made on defense, he can play either safety spot and has playmaking ability. This is a defense which could wreak havoc with its front four; it will surely be a priority. Average corners, a star safety who struggles to stay on the field and a modest group of linebackers temper enthusiasm and this is a defense that will struggle to finish better than the late teens overall.

2013 Predicted wins– 5-6

Playoff Prediction- The men in charge at the Lions may need to make the playoffs to save their jobs but in a brutal division the Lions look unlikely to show the consistency required to make that happen.

 

 

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Author: Dave

I have been an NFL fan since my first visit to the USA where I stayed in both Dallas and Houston. I have also visited New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Kentucky. I was hooked the first time I watched a Cowboys game whilst out there although I must confess I had little idea what was going on! Like a lot of British fans I just kept picking more and more up and now follow the NFL news daily and hopefully have a decent level of knowledge myself! I am a Cowboys fan for my sins, I loved the twin cities of Dallas-Fort Worth in my time there and the iconic Cowboys were of instant appeal. First and foremost however I'm a football fan and all my articles will be written impartially. I hope you enjoy our site, feel free to leave us your comments and opinions.

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