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NFC North: Previewing the NFL’s Toughest Division

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The NFL regular-season kickoff tonight will feature a couple teams from the NFC North - which may be the toughest division in the NFL this year, particularly on defense.

The NFC North is home to the top defense in the league the past two years in the Vikings and Bears, and both look to be top units again this year. Meanwhile the Lions have added talent on defense as well which could raise their game. So have the Packers.

Defensive fronts in particular look very good: Linval Joseph, Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Trey Flowers, Damon Harrison, Mike Daniels, Da’Shawn Hand, and Kenny Clark highlight an extremely talented position group across most of the NFC North.

There is no shortage of talent on offense either. From Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, to Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Kirk Cousins, to Matthew Stafford, Kerryon Johnson and Kenny Galloway, to Tarik Cohen, David Montgomery and Allen Robinson.

But for all the notoriety of the division’s prolific passers - Rodgers, Cousins, Stafford - the NFC North looks to be taking a step back to it’s roots of the old Black and Blue NFC Central division. Stocking up on defensive talent, and offensive schemes that look to run the ball more across the division set the stage for a bit more old school football.

Let’s take a deeper look into how the Vikings’ competitors stack up.

Chicago Bears

The reigning NFC North champs enter the 2019 season with a key coaching change: Chuck Pagano replaced the architect of the Bears’ #1 ranked defense last season, Vic Fangio.

Pagano, who was unemployed last season after being fired as head coach of the Colts in 2017, will be under a lot of pressure to maintain the dominance of Fangio’s defense led by Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Eddie Jackson. But invariably a new coordinator brings new scheme adjustments and play-calling, which even with largely the same starting lineup, will alter results. Particularly with a head coach from the offensive side of the ball.

For Pagano, who’s never had the top defenses Fangio’s had in recent years, replicating Fangio’s success last year would easily be his best defense ever. The Bears led the league in points allowed, takeaways, and points scored, while ranking third in yards allowed. In his six seasons with the Colts, he never came remotely close to those metrics.

Pagano has a history of blitzing more than Fangio, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bears blitz more than a year ago. That will create big play opportunities - one way or another - that could end up costing the Bears. Especially against experienced QBs.

If the Bears defense becomes slightly less dominant, whether fewer takeaways, allowing longer drives, more big plays, or more points, that creates more difficult situations for the Bears offense, and quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Pro Football Focus did a piece on Trubisky that really highlighted how the mediocre or worse quarterback benefited from the favorable situations his defense put him in last season. It also pointed out that QBs leading the league in negatively graded throws are remarkably stable in doing so year after year. QBs like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Blake Bortles, Joe Flacco, Jameis Winston, and Trevor Siemian. Trubisky also had one of the lowest grades (32nd) from a clean pocket, which also suggests a more entrenched problem.

The point here is what if Trubisky finds himself in more situations where he is trailing, faces more pressure, or needs longer drives to score?

Last year the Bears offense was #9 in points, but only #21 in yards - highlighting the favorable situations the Bears defense put them in. It’s not unreasonable to predict a decline in the Bears’ offensive points ranking if their defense fails to deliver for a second year.

The other aspect of the Bears offense that helped Trubisky was Matt Nagy’s play-calling. Nagy did an excellent job of play-calling, but was also helped by being a new head coach with only a 6 game track record of calling plays as an Offensive Coordinator in Kansas City. Now teams will have had a chance to study Nagy’s tendencies and play-calls and be better prepared for them.

In terms of personnel changes over last season, 3rd round draft pick David Montgomery looks to be an upgrade over Jordan Howard, but Howard was basically a 1,000 yard rusher for the Bears for the last three years, and it’s difficult to see Montgomery eclipsing that much as 2nd fiddle behind Tarik Cohen.

Beyond that, the Bears switched their center and left guard from last season, so this year James Daniels will play center, and Cody Whitehair left guard. 30-year old right guard Kyle Long, who’s had some not so nice moments in camp, has been on the downslide the past couple years, and it’s a fair question if he can right the ship going forward.

Defensively, the Bears effectively traded safety Adrian Amos for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a slight downgrade and small part of the price the Bears pay for Khalil Mack, who’ll be a $26MM cap hit for the next five years starting in 2020. They also appear to be going with Buster Skrine at slot CB, rather than Sherrick McManis, who did a nice job last season in relief of the now departed Bryce Callahan. McManis has been seeing action at safety, however, so he figures to be a prominent backup in any case.

Matt Nagy has chosen to basically not play his starters during the preseason, so we’ll see if that was a good decision on national TV to start the season against the Packers.

Overall, while the folks over at Windy City Gridiron are busy predicting big things for the Bears this season, defending picking Mitch Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes, and other silly things, it’s not so silly to expect the Bears to take a step back this year, for all the reasons cited above.

Looking at Jacksonville’s dive from 2017 to 2018 shows what can happen to a team with a mediocre QB and good running game when their top defense takes a step back.

Detroit Lions

This is the 2nd year for Lions’ head coach Matt Patricia, whose debut last season was something of a flop. A former Patriot, just like Lions’ GM Bob Quinn, Patricia has spent most of his time trying to import the Patriots scheme and players to the Motor City.

His most recent Patriot acquisition is defensive end Trey Flowers, who along with mid-last season acquisition Damon Harrison, and former Packer Mike Daniels, should combine along with A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand, to make the Lions’ defensive line perhaps the most formidable in the division.

The Lions secondary, however, is a little more suspect. While they have safety Tracy Walker, and cornerback Darius Slay - both good players - Rashaan Melvin and Quandre Diggs will give up some plays. Slot cornerback Justin Coleman has struggled against the run, as has Slay to a lesser degree, and LB Jarred Davis.

But if the Lions pass rush and run defense is as stout as it appears on paper, that should help the Lions back-end defend against bigger plays in the passing game.

Offensively, Matt Patricia abandoned his attempt to install the Patriots’ Erhardt-Perkins system and hired former Seahawks (and Vikings) OC Darrell Bevell to install his West Coast scheme instead. If it’s anything like what he did in Seattle (but it may not be), Lions’ RB Kerryon Johnson could have a featured role. Johnson was a 2nd round pick for the Lions last year, and had a promising rookie campaign - similar to Aaron Jones in production last year. 5.4 yards per carry, but only 118 carries. The Lions also have CJ Anderson at RB to spell Johnson.

In the passing game, the Lions also added Danny Amendola as a slot receiver, to complement Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay. Matthew Stafford also has a new target at Tight End - first round pick TJ Hockenson - who had a promising preseason.

The Lions’ offensive line is probably best described as about average. Left tackle Taylor Decker is probably their best lineman, and this year Frank Ragnow, the Lions’ 1st round pick in 2018, is switching from guard to center. On either side of him is Graham Glascow and apparently Kenny Wiggins, while expensive free agent Rick Wagner is at right tackle. It will be interesting to see how this group adapts to Bevell’s scheme. But overall, the Lions’ offensive line can be a weak spot at times, as was the case last year against the Vikings when they allowed 9 sacks and a total of 27 pressures in one game.

Overall, that’s a lot of good weapons at Stafford’s disposal, and Bevell is an experienced offensive coordinator that can design a good scheme and game plan around them. I would expect more from the running game under Bevell, and a more efficient passing attack.

The Lions have the tools to be much more productive than their #25 ranking a year ago, but how much progress Bevell is able to make in year one remains to be seen. The Lions’ defense could emerge as a top 10 unit this year, and that could make them a pretty tough match-up, especially if they’re able to improve offensively.

Green Bay Packers

This season marks a new coaching era for the Packers after long-time head coach Mike McCarthy was fired late last season. New head coach Matt LaFleur (39) comes into the job pretty green, having had only 2 seasons as an offensive coordinator - one with the Rams under Sean McVay and another with the Titans under Mike Vrabel - before taking his first head coaching gig. He was mainly a QB coach prior to that. LaFleur also hired Nathanial Hackett as OC, who was fired last season in Jacksonville mid-season after going 3-8 and falling to near the bottom of the league in points scored.

But LaFleur’s new pupil, Aaron Rodgers, doesn’t seem to be taking his coaching all that well. Rodgers has voiced his displeasure with aspects of LaFleur’s scheme (the same Shanahan-based scheme the Vikings run), lack of audible ability (which LaFleur has now granted him), to how special teams practices are run and other aspects of the team. Clearly the soon-to-be 36 year old two-time MVP thinks he’s got more to offer than 39 year-old LaFleur, and he’s probably right in many ways. But LaFleur is the head coach, so there will be an on-going tug-of-war between him and Rodgers for control of the team.

All that serves as backdrop for the Packers installing a new offensive scheme for the first time in over a decade, which doesn’t necessarily play to Rodgers’ improvisational strengths. Beyond that, the Packers offensive line isn’t as strong as it was in Rodgers’ hey-day years ago, with middling performance outside of left-tackle David Bahktiari, who’s one of the best in the business.

The Packers have also been trying to find more potent receivers behind Davante Adams, but have yet to have anyone step up. Equanimeous St. Brown, whom the Packers hoped would step-up, was placed on IR. Marquez Valdes-Scantling looks to be WR2 for the Packers, with Geronimo Allison replacing Randall Cobb in the slot. Additionally, 3rd round draft pick TE Jace Sternberger was placed on IR, leaving a diminished, near 33 year-old Jimmy Graham to carry the load at tight end.

Lack of chemistry seemed to plague the Packers passing game most of last season, and it remains to be seen if that improves this year.

LaFleur’s scheme is likely to feature more of a running game than the Packers have had in the past (they were last in the league in rushing attempts last year), which features Aaron Jones. Jones had very good production on limited carries last year (5.5 yards per carry, but only 133 carries), so there’s potential for a decent Packers’ ground game if they feed Jones the ball more.

That would seem integral to any Shanahan-based scheme, along with an under-center QB, play-action, etc., but with Aaron Rodgers having the green-light to audible as he pleases, it remains to be seen how well the Packers scheme will come together. In the past, most teams were happy to have Rodgers hand the ball off, as it takes the ball out of their best play-maker. We’ll see what happens this year, but I suspect Rodgers will adapt LaFleur’s scheme into some sort of hybrid, which is what Peyton Manning did in Denver with Gary Kubiak’s scheme. That was one of the least productive offenses for Kubiak since his first and last seasons with Houston.

Defensively, this is Mike Pettine’s 2nd year as defensive coordinator for the Packers, and they made a big overhaul at edge rusher to help the Packers anemic pass rush last season. Gone are Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, replaced by Za’Darius and Preston Smith, along with #12 overall draft pick Rashan Gary. It’s interesting that the Packers were willing to pay over $100 million combined for the services of both Smiths, something their former teams were not willing to do - even though they could’ve easily afforded it. That’s a bit of a red flag for any free agent - when their team allows them to walk without an offer. The pair has averaged 13 sacks a season combined over their 4 year careers to date, which isn’t much considering the $30 million combined average salary the Packers gave them.

The Packers also drafted edge rusher Rashan Gary with their #12 pick in the draft. Gary also comes with red flags for lack of production at Michigan, especially compared to his line-mate there Chase Winovich. That story continued in preseason, as Gary had only one QB hurry in 44 pass rush snaps, while 3rd round pick Winovich had 3 sacks, 1 hit, and 8 QB hurries in 53 pass rush snaps.

So, while there is change at the edge rusher position in Green Bay, it remains to be seen if it is improvement.

The defensive secondary has also been a problem for the Packers, with about as many blown draft picks in recent years as they’ve had at edge rusher.

This year the Packers acquired Adrian Amos from the Bears, who should help their back-end at safety. The Packers also spent a first-round pick at safety, acquiring Darnell Savage. They replace 2014 1st round pick Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, who was traded last season, and 2017 2nd round pick Josh Jones, who was cut.

At cornerback, the Packers drafted Jaire Alexander in the 1st round last season, and so far he seems to be their best pick in recent years, although that isn’t saying much. He played in 13 games last year, and allowed a 100+ passer rating when targeted in 7 of those.

Kevin King, who the Packers drafted with the first pick in the 2nd round back in 2017, continues to have durability issues. He played in only 6 games last year, allowing 100+ passer ratings when targeted in 3, while in 2017 he allowed a 102.9 passer rating when targeted over the 9 games he played. King went on IR last season with a hamstring injury, and another hamstring injury this year caused him to miss all of the preseason. He is expected to be the other starter at outside cornerback.

36 year-old Tramon Williams is expected to start at slot corner, while Josh Jackson - a 2nd round pick last year - is expected to play the Packers’ dime safety spot. Jackson struggled at corner last year, giving up a 112.7 passer rating when targeted.

Overall the Packers are hoping to improve on their 22nd ranked defense last year, which like most Mike Pettine defenses in recent years, struggled more against the run than pass.

Bottom Line

The NFC North could have 3 of the top 10 defenses in the league this year, between the Vikings, Lions, and Bears. It’s also a division that features Aaron Rodgers and a number of talented skill players on offense at wide receiver and running back.

Offensively, there are three new schemes debuting in the division this year - Matt LaFleur’s, Gary Kubiak’s, and Darrell Bevell’s. Each of those are likely to feature more of a ground game than in the past, to go along with the Bears’ ground-heavy attack.

Defensively, only the Bears have a new coordinator and scheme, which could lead to a step backward, while both the Lions and Packers have added a lot of talent on that side of the ball.

All of that makes for a tough division, and perhaps a division more reminiscent of the old Black and Blue NFC Central - or as much as that’s possible in today’s era of passing and increased player protections.

I’m going with the Vikings to win the division narrowly this year over the Bears, with the Lions improving and the Packers not so much. We’ll see how it plays out, beginning with tonight’s NFL kickoff between the Bears and Packers.

Poll

Which NFC North Team will have the highest ranked defense this year in points allowed?

This poll is closed

  • 62%
    Vikings
    (332 votes)
  • 30%
    Bears
    (161 votes)
  • 4%
    Packers
    (23 votes)
  • 2%
    Lions
    (13 votes)
529 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Which NFC North offense will score the most points this season?

This poll is closed

  • 67%
    Vikings
    (227 votes)
  • 0%
    Bears
    (3 votes)
  • 5%
    Lions
    (20 votes)
  • 26%
    Packers
    (88 votes)
338 votes total Vote Now