2011 Division Preview: NFC North
The Lions are tough to predict, capable of breaking out or busting once again
The Packers are once again the class of the division and should win it
Pass protection is a major issue facing defending division champion Chicago
SI.com is previewing all eight divisions throughout the week in anticipation of the 2011 season kicking off. (Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org)
For the first time since 1997 (back when it was called the NFC Central), the Black-and-Blue Division enters a season featuring a Super Bowl champion. It was the Packers who topped the NFL world 14 years ago, and this season it's again Green Bay holding the crown.
The rest of the NFC North doesn't figure to give the Pack an easy ride back to the top. Some might not even remember that Chicago walked away with the division title last season, with 10-6 Green Bay barely squeaking into the postseason. Those two traditional rivals sit as the North favorites entering the 2011 season, but Detroit and Minnesota are not far behind.
What the Packers do best: Play aggressive defense.
Dom Capers' blitzing, shifting 3-4 attack has the benefit of a game-changer at each level -- B.J. Raji at nose tackle, Clay Matthews at linebacker and Charles Woodson at corner. Matthews and Raji combined for 20 sacks last season, with 13 ½ coming from Matthews alone.
The Pack's 47 regular season sacks in 2010 ranked second in the NFL to Pittsburgh's 48, but that pressure was also a prime catalyst behind Green Bay's 24 interceptions (No. 2 in NFL) and plus-10 turnover margin (No. 4). Capers gives opposing quarterbacks looks that they don't see elsewhere, which makes his defense one of the league's toughest to play against.
What the Packers must improve: Their run game.
After losing Ryan Grant in Week 1 last season to ankle and knee injuries, the Packers nickel-and-dimed their way through the 2010 season on the ground. Brandon Jackson was a pleasant surprise, rushing for a team-leading 703 yards, but the team's second leading rusher was Aaron Rodgers at 356 yards. That all changed in the playoffs, with James Starks coming out of nowhere to rumble for 123 yards in Green Bay's first-round win at Philadelphia.
Starks may have the inside track on the starting gig this season, with Grant trying to get back to form. Dmitri Nance and fullback/fan favorite John Kuhn could also be in the mix. No matter who Aaron Rodgers hands off to, the numbers must be better. The Packers were 24th in the league in rushing offense last season -- and considering the trouble their offensive line has had protecting Rodgers at times, they need someone to take the pressure off the passing game.
Which Packer needs to step up: Mike Neal.
Green Bay suffered one key loss on its defense when Cullen Jenkins bolted for Philadelphia via free agency. That leaves Mike Neal to replace Jenkins and his seven sacks from the right end spot. The problem so far is that Neal's been dealing with a sprained knee and has been unable to play this preseason. He's still the Packers' best option to step into Jenkins' shoes, so he must not only get healthy, he must produce.
Predicted record: 11-5
Sure, you have to be concerned about a post-Super Bowl letdown. But you also have to take into account that Rodgers took a leap from very good to great in the playoffs last season and may be entering his prime. You also must factor in Green Bay's defense, where the whole is better than the sum of its parts. There's too much talent here to expect a major step back.
What the Bears do best: Keep opponents off the board.
At least, when the Bears are at their best, they do it with defense. Last year, en route to an 11-5 finish, Chicago forced 35 turnovers (third-best in the NFL) and allowed 17.9 points per game (fourth-best). Contrast that to 2007-09 -- the Bears finished 16th, 16th and 21st, respectively, in points allowed.
The strength of Chicago's D still starts up the middle with Brian Urlacher. Coming off a season-ending injury in 2009, Urlacher returned to Pro Bowl form last season with 125 tackles. The defensive line is fierce too, with Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije forming a potent tandem off the end. Chicago allowed a lot of passing yards last season -- nearly 3,600 of them -- but allowed the second-least TD passes in the league and had 21 interceptions.
What the Bears need to improve: Pass blocking.
There may not be a more obvious area for improvement on any team in the league heading into the 2011 season. You would have thought the Bears' offensive linemen had personal vendettas against Jay Cutler the way that they protected their QB last season. Cutler was sacked an NFL-leading 52 times, with backups Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie each taking two sacks of their own during the regular season.
With that in the rear-view, the Bears drafted bulky tackle Gabe Carimi in the first round of April's draft and slotted him in on the right side. They moved 2010 draft pick J'Marcus Webb to the left tackle spot and replaced Olin Kreutz with Roberto Garza at center. Chicago is hoping all that shifting also helps revitalize a running game that finished 22nd in the league last year.
Which Bear needs to step up: Webb.
As a rookie last season, Webb was frequently victimized in the passing game and was one of the biggest culprits responsible for Chicago's elevated sacks total. His preseason debut at left tackle was a misfire too, with Buffalo's Shawne Merriman blowing past him twice for sacks.
Webb has good size and decent athleticism, but the stakes are raised in his second season as he's now responsible for Cutler's blindside.
Predicted record: 9-7.
Until we see the O-line in action during the regular season, it's hard to get a real read on the Bears. One thing we do know for sure: the early schedule is tough. In its first eight games, Chicago visits New Orleans, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, and hosts Atlanta, Green Bay, Carolina and Minnesota. Only that game against the Panthers looks like a sure win. Getting back to the postseason is going to be a major challenge.
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