Remember the old Black-and-Blue division? Well, forget it.
Defense may not be dead in the NFC North, but it’s not at all well. The Lions and Packers employ a 5,000-yard and a 45-touchdown passer. The Bears acquired a slew of new receivers in an effort to upgrade their passing attack, which is saying something for a team that employed Mike Martz for two years. Pass-rushing superstars like Clay Matthews, Ndamukong Suh, Jared Allen and Julius Peppers still make their living in the NFC North, but then again, it’s easy to rack up sacks against quarterbacks who throw more than 40 passes per game.
The only old-fashioned running-and-defense team left in the former Black-and-Blue division is the Vikings, and they are mired in last place. The rust belt has gone high tech. And that’s a good thing -- at least until winter arrives and these high-performance offenses need to find their snow tires.
Green Bay Packers
Tweet-sized Preview: The 15-and-done team that outsmarted the whole NFL last season must not outsmart itself this season.
Biggest Change from 2011: Rookie pass rushers Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy will force opposing blockers to do more than just build a barbed-wire fence around Clay Matthews. The Packers recorded just 29 sacks last season as Matthews battled double-teams and opponents adjusted to Dom Capers’ too-cute-by-half strategies. The offense that averaged 35 points per game hasn’t changed much, and why on earth would it?
Overblown Story: Matthews’ “we beat ourselves” comments about the playoff loss to the Giants set off disrespect sirens and triggered a he-said, he-said war of words at the start of camp. Breaking news: The Packers did beat themselves in that playoff game -- three fumbles, eight dropped passes and a defense-wide brain cramp on an end-of-half Hail Mary by Eli Manning. The Giants played well, but they would not have won if not for a bunch of unforced errors. Deep down, the Giants know this too, but it was fun to pretend that Matthews said something controversial.
Undersold Story: The Packers were so thin at running back in mid-August that they had to cut one practice short when fullback John Kuhn sprained an ankle. There were not enough healthy running backs to continue. The team signed Cedric Benson to avert a crisis, but the Packers may have gotten too comfortable with their committee of journeymen running backs. Benson and oft-injured James Starks are adequate runners. After that, the Packers might as well just empty the backfield.
Telling Stat: The Packers rushed five defenders on 36.3 percent of pass plays, the highest figure in the league. That’s a lot of blitzing for just 29 sacks. With Perry and Worthy joining Matthews and B.J. Raji, all of that blitzing should result in a lot more pressure.
Breakout Player: Randall Cobb, wide receiver. Cobb was an excellent kick returner but a forgotten man in an offense with more weapons than the SHIELD helicarrier last year. With Donald Driver aging, Cobb will see more action in three- and four-wideout sets. The former college quarterback is also Mike McCarthy’s first choice for an option pass.
Bottom Line: The Packers remain the favorites to win the NFC, but after an injury-filled camp, the gap between them and the other contenders in the division has narrowed. PREDICTION: 11-5.
Tweet-sized Preview: Jay Cutler and Matt Forte now have dangerous receivers, better protection and quality backups. Someone should have thought of these things last year.
Biggest Change from 2011: Mike Tice replaces Mike Martz as offensive coordinator, replacing the chuck-and-duck approach with a system that protects Cutler with more six-man blocking packages. Brandon Marshall gives Cutler a go-to receiver and BFF, while rookie Alshon Jeffery will provide another big target unless he gets too big. Jason Campbell and Michael Bush ensure that if Cutler and Forte get hurt, the Bears aren’t doomed to lose by scores of 10-3 and 13-10 anymore.
Overblown Story: The Bears’ run defense looked awful at times during the preseason, and Brian Urlacher’s lingering knee ailments could signal the end of another great middle linebacking era in Chicago. But Urlacher has been written off before, and run defense is not a big issue in the NFC North, where the Packers and Lions have zero good running backs to rub together.
Undersold Story: The Bears made no real changes to an offensive line that allowed 49 sacks last year. Tice’s emphasis on protection should help, but his quick hook with his linemen can also be a liability. J’Marcus Webb (11.5 blown blocks, 15 penalties last year) appeared to win the starting left tackle job early in camp, but Tice made him play into the fourth quarter of the first preseason game, then gave backup Chris Williams first-team reps in the next set of practices. After the third preseason game, Tice blamed the Bears’ poor run blocking on the team’s emphasis on pass protection, which makes you wonder how so many teams manage to be good at both. When Tice was the line coach, Martz was typically blamed for the excessive sacks. If the problem persists, Tice will have no one to blame but himself, though he will probably seek out some alternatives.
Telling Stat: Five different receivers were targeted for between 40 and 70 passes last year. That’s not “sharing the wealth”; that’s a lack of offensive focus. Marshall gives the Bears an obvious first option. Everyone else can get in line for their touches.
Breakout Player: Jeffery, the Bears’ second-round pick, looked like Terrell Owens at South Carolina until he got too well acquainted with the training table in his senior year and started to look like Tony Siragusa. Jeffery has been svelte, focused and productive in training camp, making him the prime candidate to be Marshall’s wingman. Jeffery’s favorite food is lasagna, so Cutler must make sure his passes lead Jeffery into the middle of the field, not Olive Garden.
Bottom Line: The Bears were 7-3 before Cutler’s injury and should bounce back to where they were before everything fell apart last year. The weak offensive line and so-so secondary will keep them from overtaking the Packers, but they will be in the playoff hunt. PREDICTION: 10-6.
Tweet-sized Preview: Bad boys, bad boys, what you gonna do, what you gonna do when they come for Suh?
Biggest Change from 2011: The Lions are coming off a playoff appearance, not a decade-long stint as the laughingstock of the league. That’s a pretty big change. They also have a reputation as the NFL’s biggest goon squad, thanks to 147 penalties, some nationally televised jolly stomping and seven offseason arrests. Personnel-wise, little has changed.
Overblown Story: The arrests made it easy to paint the Lions with a broad brush, and bad behavior cost the team a potential starting cornerback in Aaron Berry, whom the team released as a warning shot to the others. But the key to the Lions’ success isn’t a Mad Max defense, but an offense that produced 6,337 yards last season. When Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and the other passing weapons are clicking, the Lions do not need Mortal Kombat tactics to win games.
Undersold Story: Like the Packers, the Lions are dangerously thin at running back. Jahvid Best will miss part of the season with concussion issues, and Mikel LeShoure is suspended for the first two games of the year. Journeyman Keiland Williams and practice-squad hopeful Joique Bell was one of the stars of the preseason, but a team whose leading rusher gained 390 yards last season doesn’t want to enter the season counting on practice-squad heroes to carry a huge share of the load.
Telling Stat: The Lions used a shotgun formation on 68 percent of offensive plays, the highest figure in NFL history. The Packers and Patriots get more attention, but the Lions have the most wide-open, spread-oriented offense the NFL has ever seen.
Breakout Player: Titus Young, wide receiver. Young caught 17 passes for 171 yards and four touchdowns in the Lions’ final four games. His speed makes him an excellent complement to Calvin Johnson: He can beat single-coverage on deep routes or keep the defense honest on screens. Like many other Lions, Young needs to cut back on the penalties. He committed nine of them last season, including one unnecessary roughness foul, which is one more than a 175-pound receiver should ever commit.
Bottom Line: With the best offense no one talks about and a defense that is famous for all the wrong reasons, the Lions will find themselves on both sides of some 35-31 shootouts. Ultimately, the healthy Bears pose a bigger threat to their playoff hopes than the referees or the Michigan state district attorney’s office. PREDICTION: 8-8.
Tweet-sized Preview: Adrian Peterson can walk on water, which is why he gets stuck towing the team’s life raft.
Biggest Change from 2011: With the Donovan McNabb exhumation a distant memory, Christian Ponder now has an uncontested crack at the starting quarterback job. Rookie left tackle Matt Kalil is the lynchpin of a rebuilt offensive line. Receiver Jerome Simpson and tight end John Carlson provide extra options for an offense that considered running Peterson and Percy Harvin into the ground a viable strategy last year.
Overblown Story: The one thing the Vikings have always done right in recent years was defend the run, which is why there was a minor panic in Minnesota when the team gave up 260 rushing yards to the 49ers in the preseason opener. But several key starters (including linemen Jared Allen and Kevin Williams) sat out that game, while newcomers like safety Harrison Smith looked solid, despite the debacle. The run defense solidified in later preseason efforts. The days of the “Williams Wall” allowing 985 rushing yards in a season are long gone, but run defense still promises to be one of the Vikings’ few strengths.
Undersold Story: Peterson’s return from a Christmas Eve ACL-MCL injury has been remarkable. It has also been incredibly risky, and former stars who have been down the same road (including Jerry Rice) are worried that Peterson is rushing his rehabilitation. No one wants to see a Boobie Miles incident, but the Vikings did nothing to reduce their reliance on Peterson. Really, it’s not like they had to draft a kicker in the sixth round. The team’s hurry to get Peterson on the field in what should be a rebuilding year could prove dangerously shortsighted.
Telling Stat: Allen and bookend pass rusher Brian Robison combined for not just 30 sacks, but 42 hurries. The Vikings’ pass rush can be an equalizer for them when the offense is sputtering. Robison said that he wants to record double-digit sacks this season, but he may have to get in Allen’s way to do it.
Breakout Player: Kyle Rudolph, tight end. Rudolph made some acrobatic catches last season and will be a major weapon in an offense built around a two-tight end attack.
Bottom Line: The Vikings are paying for the sins of the Brett Favre era, when they let the roster get dangerously old in a quest to capture some rapidly fading magic. Ponder, Rudolph and rookies like Kalil and Smith are part of a rebuilding effort, while Allen, Williams and many others are leftovers from a failed Super Bowl run. Peterson is somewhere in between, and even his superhuman rehabilitation effort won’t pull this team out of last place. PREDICTION: 5-11.
All stats provided by Football Outsiders.