NFC North: Beware the Bears' Defense and the Packers' Offense
By Tom Pollin
CHFF’s Black and Blue Previewer (@tjpollin)
The Chicago Bears became the first team in the NFC North this season to find themselves all alone in first place without taking the field last weekend. The Minnesota Vikings dropped a half-game behind the Bears after losing to the Washington Redskins 38-26.
This weekend the Bears and Lions face off against each other for the second consecutive season on Monday Night Football, this time in Soldier Field. The Lions defeated the Bears last season on Monday night in Week Five 24-13 to run their season opening record to 5-0.
In the other NFC North this weekend the 3-3 Packers follow-up on their dominating victory over the Houston Texans with a trip to St. Louis to play the 3-3 Rams while the Minnesota Vikings host the Arizona Cardinals.
With a full slate of games for the NFC North this weekend here are the things you need to know.
1. The Lions will need to play more than the fourth quarter to defeat the Bears on Monday night.
After the Texans were overpowered by the Packers last Sunday the Bears became the beneficiaries of their overall drop in the Quality Stats rankings. The Bears are now not only No. 1 in the Overall Power Rankings they are No. 1 in every defensive Quality Stat across the board.
The Lions have taken a step backwards so far this season. They are a two fourth quarter comebacks, against the Eagles last week and against the Rams in Week One, from being 0-5 as they prepare to travel to Chicago. They also found out this week that team doctors don’t consider running back Jahvid Best recovered enough from concussions suffered last season to allow him to return to the team.
Without Best the Lions will be counting on the inconsistent Mikel LeShoure to continue to carry most of the load at running back, at least for the number of times the Lions plan to run the ball. The Lions inability to sustain a consistent running attack plays right into the Bears’ strengths on defense.
The Bears are No. 7 on defense in Rushing Yards per Attempt so it won’t be easy going for anyone in the Lions’ backfield when they do run the ball.
When Matthew Stafford drops back to pass he gets to try and beat the No. 1 defense in causing Negative Pass Plays (sacks and interceptions). The Bears’ front four as a unit, no just Julius Peppers, has been a strength of the team so far in 2012.
While the Bears’ defense is playing at a Super Bowl Champion level their offense has still struggled to gel so far this season. They launched an offensive explosion in the second half two weeks ago against the Jacksonville Jaguars but Cutler is still ranked No. 25 in the Real Quarterback Rating and No. 24 in Offensive Passer Rating, although those numbers are improving since the first month of the season.
The Lions sustained consistent pressure all game last week against the Eagles and based on the Bears No. 31 rank in allowing negative pass plays, they could spend a lot of time Monday night chasing Jay Cutler all over the Soldier Field turf.
The Lions could also spend plenty of time moving backwards in Soldier Field on Monday. They did everything possible to try and beat themselves against the Eagles, committing 16 penalties for 132-yards. So far in 2012 the Lions are averaging 8 penalties for 77.8-yards each game in penalties. They’ll continue to struggle to win games until they quit surrendering three-quarters of the field in position each week.
The Lions have lost four straight football games against the Bears in Chicago and have lost their last seven of eight overall against the Bears. Lovie Smith is 8-2 on Monday Night Football as head coach of the Bears. It’s tough to see a way that record won’t be 9-2 on Monday morning.
2. Will the Lions kick to Devin Hester?
The Lions surrendered a kickoff and punt return for touchdowns two weeks in a row. This week they face a return man who lives to make opposing kick coverage teams look bad and who is also someone who makes that happen a lot in prime time games.
Last season Hester went on a streak where, if he wasn't scoring himself, was providing excellent field position for the offense to work with. The amazing part was opposing special teams coaches continued to kick to him.
Opponents have tried to kick to the sidelines against him but Hester's peripheral vision is so good that he's taken returns down the sidelines and still managed to thread his way through tacklers.
Hester has been close to breaking a couple of returns this season but is still looking for a breakout opportunity to ignite another touchdown streak. The Lions' subpar kick coverage teams may be just what he needs.
3. Which Packers team shows up in St. Louis?
The Packers would have beaten any of the other 31 teams in the NFL last Sunday Night. The Houston Texans were just the unfortunate ones to be on the opposite sideline and taking the beating. This is also a team that surrendered an 18 point halftime lead and lost to the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago.
While Jeff Fisher has made an immediate impact in improving the play of a team so bad that they finished 2011 with the second worst record in the NFL, they still have some growing pains to work through before they can say for certain that they’re ready to be perennial playoff contenders again.
The Rams have ramped up their defense dramatically so far this season. Their No. 5 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt, No. 5 in Defensive Passer Rating, No. 8 in Defensive Real Quarterback Rating and an impressive No. 6 in the Defensive Hog Index.
While the Packers exorcised a number of demons last week (which seems like too much exercise and besides, demons can steer you to the best pre-game tailgate food) they’re still a team that struggles to give Aaron Rodgers time to throw
They’re currently ranked No. 20 in the Offensive Hog Index, mainly because of their No. 23 rank in allowing Negative Pass Plays. Rodgers has only thrown four interceptions so far this season but he’s been sacked 23 times, second most in the league.
They’re also No. 16 in Rushing Yards per Attempt and Alex Green, who it appears, will be the No. 1 running back going forward, only rushed for a 2.95-yards per attempt average last week.
While the Rams appear to be an improving team they don’t have nearly enough firepower to beat the Packers right now. Also, Mike McCarthy is 2-0 against the Rams in St. Louis as the Packers’ head coach. They should have plenty of juice to get the job done this week against the Rams.
4. How well will the Vikings recover from their RGIII experience?
In the first quarter last week against the Redskins, the Vikings had the ball three times in the red zone never finished the deal. They settled for a field goal each time. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter, when they were behind 31-12 that the Vikings finally dented the end zone.
Even with the impressive record the Vikings have put together so far they are a young team that is still a work in progress. It’s not going to be an easier time for them when the Arizona Cardinals travel to Minnesota this Sunday.
Arizona is No. 2 in the league in Bendability. The Cardinals force opposing teams to drive 20.37-yards for each point scored against them (or 142.59-yards for every seven points), a tough assignment for an offense that is having trouble scoring to start with.
Arizona is also No. 2 on defense in Real Quarterback Rating and No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating. Christian Ponder is No. 21 in Real Passing Yards per Attempt and will be facing the No. 6 defense against in Real Passing Yards per Attempt.
As tough as the Cardinals are to score against though, this game may come down to which defense can create good enough field position for their offense, or even put the ball in the end zone themselves.
John Skelton will be starting at quarterback in place of the injured Kevin Kolb on Sunday after not having started since Week One. He also gets to line up behind the No. 32 Offensive Hog unit in the league, allowing Cardinals' quarterbacks to be sacked 27 times so far this season. This may be just what Jared Allen needs to have a breakout game.
The big advantages the Vikings have is being at home and playing a team that is 16-28 on the road with Ken Whisenhunt as head coach. That should be enough to carry them through on Sunday.
5. Spreadapedia NFC North Numbers of the Week.
Spreadapedia is a database that contains every point-spread plus numerous details for every NFL game since 1978 and is available for use by Cold, Hard Football Facts Insiders. There are over 100 filters for researching teams and trends in any way you find interesting (or profitable). Here are some numbers too look at for the NFC North for Week Seven.
This will be only the second time that Lovie Smith’s Bears have played on Monday Night Football after a bye week. The Bears beat the Eagles on Monday Night Football last season after their bye week. Smith's record against the Lions is 11-5 S/U but only 7-8-1 ATS. On Monday night in general he is 8-2 S/U and 7-3 ATS.
Smith is 5-3 S/U and 3-4-1 ATS coming off a bye and facing Jim Schwartz who is 0-2 S/U and 0-1-1 S/U against teams coming off their bye week.
For the Packers, head coach Mike McCarthy is 35-19 S/U and ATS the week after playing an away game, 20-11 S/U and ATS when winning that game the previous week and 17-11 S/U and ATS is he beat the spread the previous week.
Jeff Fisher is 5-1 ATS and coming into the game against the Packers on a 3-game ATS win streak.
For more Spreadapedia trends and information on becoming a Cold, Hard Football Facts Insider see 66 Week 7 ATS Trends That Hit 60% or Better.
NFC North power rankings through Week Six.
Chicago Bears - No. 1 in the Quality Stats Power Rankings with a defense that may be the best Lovie Smith has had in his time as head coach with the Bears. If the offense can begin to live up to the preseason hype this team can be as dangerous as anybody in the playoffs.
Green Bay Packers - They blow past the Minnesota Vikings for the No. 2 spot in the rankings after dismantling the Texans in Houston last week. Can they continue a return to dominance in the division with an injured Greg Jennings and disgruntled Jermichael Finley narrowing the options Aaron Rodgers has to keep his offense running in high gear? Only time will tell.
Minnesota Vikings - Some of the team's flaws are beginning to show the last couple of weeks. Christian Ponder has done a good job of protecting the ball and also showing signs of being a leader who can rally the offense but he still has trouble getting the ball down the field. Part of that problem is the shortage of options he has on offense. The Vikings still need a reliable deep threat to go along with "All-Everything" Percy Harvin and someone who can come through in short yardage situations.
Detroit Lions - They did some good things last week, putting Michael Vick under consistent pressure and not losing their cool when they found themselves trailing by 10 points in the fourth quarter. They begin to challenge in the power rankings when they stop trying to beat themselves, 16 penalties for 132-yards, enough said.
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