NFC North preview (cont.)
What the Bears do best: Build linebackers.
Is there a position and a team more closely linked than linebackers and the Chicago Bears? From Bill George to Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Brian Urlacher, linebackers in Chicago are revered, and the Bears still turn out one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL. With Urlacher coming off a wrist injury that cost him 15 of 16 games last season, the Bears hope that some sustained health will finally visit a defense that has all of the pieces to be great.
Linebacker Lance Briggs has been named to five straight Pro Bowls, just the fourth linebacker in franchise history to do so (George, Butkus, Singletary) and he's led the Bears in tackles in each of the last two seasons. The addition of Julius Peppers along the defensive line -- helping to knock pulling offensive lineman to the ground -- should only increase the opportunity for the Bears linebackers to make plays.
What the Bears need to improve: Protect Jay Cutler.
Cutler didn't help himself by forcing passes into tight spots in 2009, but the Bears offensive line didn't do him any favors either. The Bears brought in O-line coach Mike Tice during the offseason to help shore up the team's biggest weakness -- the question is, does Tice have enough time and enough good players to do it. While the Bears have several moving parts along the line, left tackle Chris Williams, a first-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2008, is the most important key to Cutler's protection. Longtime center Olin Kreutz had offseason Achilles tendon surgery and should improve after spending most of 2009 in subpar health.
The biggest challenge for the line of scrimmage will be holding sturdy in a Mike Martz offense that demands so much out of an offensive line. Martz's old Rams didn't score points because of its skill players alone. They had a firm, physical line that was up to the rigors of pass-blocking. Chicago's crew will have to prove it can do the same.
Which Bear needs to step up: Wide receiver Devin Aromashodu.
While the "other" Devin (Hester) gets most of the pub in Chicago, Devin Aromashodu is more of a prototypical wide receiver. At 6-2 and 201 pounds, Aromashodu has the length to become a dependable player in Chicago's retooled offense. Though he has started just three games in five NFL seasons, Aromashodu offered a few glimpses of his potential at the end of 2009. Over the second half of last season, he caught 24 passes for 298 yards and four touchdowns and found himself as one of Cutler's favorite targets. While Hester, Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox have more seasoning, Aromashodu's upside should not be overlooked.
Predicted record: 8-8.
The Bears were big players in the free-agent sweepstakes, grabbing Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna, among others, to end a slide of three years without the postseason. So many things have to go right in Chicago -- Martz and Cutler have to click, Urlacher has to stay on the field, Peppers has to live up to his huge contract. With Green Bay and Minnesota as clear-cut favorites, the Bears have an uphill slog.
What the Lions do best: Rush the quarterback.
If Ndamukong Suh's treating Jake Delhomme's head like a bottle cap is any indication, the Lions are going to offer a beastly defensive front.
Just as Jim Schwartz used to do in Tennessee, where he was Jeff Fisher's longtime defensive coordinator, the Lions have put together a strong, attacking front four with Suh starring as a latter-day Albert Haynesworth. (The happy, effective Albert, of course). To Schwartz, read-and-react defenses are for other teams. He is all about attacking, attacking and then attacking some more. With Kyle Vanden Bosch -- the former Titan - reprising his role as enforcer along the edge, the Lions' front four will do everything in its power to shrink the pocket, keep opposing running backs contained, and keep quarterbacks' heads on a swivel -- either by their own power or Suh's.
What the Lions needs to improve: Turnover differential.
Detroit was ranked 32nd (last) in the all-important turnover differential, finishing 2009 at an unsightly -18. Part of that was due to rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford finding his way in the league (he threw 20 interceptions), but the Lions need more help from the secondary in creating turnovers.
Detroit got rid of its starting cornerbacks from 2009 and traded for Chris Houston (Atlanta), signed free agent Jonathan Wade and drafted Amari Spievey (University of Iowa) in the third round. It's a hodgepodge of players and systems that will have to learn on the fly. Safety Louis Delmas, in his second year, will be leaned on heavily to make sure things coalesce in the secondary.
Which Lion needs to step up: Wide receiver Nate Burleson.
This is a familiar role for Nate Burleson -- starting alongside a dynamic, rangy wide receiver. In Minnesota, it was Randy Moss. In Detroit, it's Calvin Johnson. The Lions made Burleson a huge priority in free agency, signing the veteran to a five-year, $25 million deal on the first day the market opened. If Burleson can be a threat, opponents will have to think twice about the double and triple teams that weekly flow to Johnson's side of the field. Burleson likened the Detroit Lions situation to that of the New Orleans Saints post-Katrina -- a team playing in an economically-depressed region that eventually became a part of a city's healing. The Lions have a ways to go to become the newest version of the 2009 Saints. But if Burleson contributes, the road might be a shorter, happier journey.
Predicted record: 6-10.
A four-game improvement from 2009 sounds right for a team that begins with three of its first four games on the road (at Chicago, at Minnesota, at Green Bay). The first home game? The Eagles in Week 2. The league didn't do the Lions any favors by loading them up with tough roadies to start, but Schwartz won't make any excuses. The year will be a better one, but the playoffs remain a couple of years away.
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