by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2013, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games. Next up for our previews will be the NFC North, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2012 straight-up, pointspread, and “over/under” records included...

GREEN BAY (Straight-Up Record 11-5 in Regular Season; Pointspread Record 9-7 in Regular Season; Over/Under 8-8 in Regular Season; Lost 45-31 at San Francisco in NFC Divisional Round)...Can the Packers keep deluxe QB Aaron Rodgers healthy if they can’t keep their tackles healthy? That’s pretty much the question for Green Bay, which won the NFC North in 2012 and 2011, after capturing the Super Bowl from the wildcard slot in the 2010 season. Within months after moving top OLman Brian Bulaga from RT to LT to protect Rodgers’ (39 TDs, 8 ints. LY) blind side, the G.B. brain trust saw their plans blown up along with one of Bulaga’s ACLs. Because of previous injuries at the tackle positions, now in charge of Rodgers’ left side is rookie fourth-rounder David Bakhtiari, a three-year starter for a downtrodden Colorado team. He is being given a “crash” course in reading NFL defensive schemes while he tries to minimize the contact on $110 million QB Rodgers, who has been picked off only 14 combined times in the last two years, but was sacked an NFL-high 51 times in 2012.

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Bakhtiari (or whoever the LT) will be given extra help, of course. But perhaps the biggest assistance for the rocket-armed Rodgers would be 2013's improved rushing attack, expected to be aided by the addition of top pick Eddie Lacy of Alabama and 4th-rounder Johnathan Franklin of UCLA, plus a return to health of Super Bowl contributor James Starks. At the end of last season, 5-8 smurf DuJuan Harris and still-developing big back Alex Green were trying to give G.B. an overland force, but not very successfully. The Pack has now gone 43 straight games without producing a 100-yard rusher (Brandon Jackson, Oct. 10 of 2010 was the last). That is the longest current string in the NFL. Not exactly Vince Lombardi stuff.

Worse yet for the Packer offense, WR Greg Jennings has defected to the hated Vikings for a bigger payday (and then has criticized his former QB), and G.B. wideouts (e.g., Jordy Nelson & Randall Cobb) have been stung by a series of nagging injuries in preseason.

On the positive side, there are indications that the Packer defense might be improved despite the decision to let do-everything impact DB Charles Woodson (35 years old) depart for Oakland. In last year’s playoffs, Green Bay enjoyed a virtual walkover in the Wildcard Round when Minnesota QB Christian Ponder was unable to play due to an arm problem, leaving run-oriented Joe Webb to make his first start of the season.

That easy 24-10 victory left the Packers overconfident and vulnerable in their ensuing playoff game, a contest that turned out to be a 45-31 defeat in San Francisco, when Colin Kaepernick led a 579-yard assault against a confused G.B. defense that allowed a record 181 QB rushing yards to Kaepernick, most of them on Pistol formation zone-option plays. Thus, “579" has become the offseason mantra for TY’s defenders. And defensive coordinator Dom Capers, after consulting in the offseason with some of his counterparts at the college level, has spent some time of virtually every team practice on countering the read-option.

With the Pack facing zone-read QBs Kaepernick & RG3 in the team’s first two games, G.B. GM Ted Thompson “reached” a bit in the draft to land big and quick UCLA DT Datone Jones, who has seen plenty of the scheme during his time at UCLA, and has also proven himself as a fierce pass-rushing 4-3 DT. A deeper defensive front overall will allow Capers to rotate valuable DT/NT B.J. Raji more often, keeping him fresher for important late-game situations. 2012 top draft pick Nick Perry (OLB/DE) returns after last season’s early injury. In the secondary, coaches are hopeful CB Tramon Williams can return to his Super Bowl form, while young corners Casey Hayward (6 ints. as a rookie LY) and Micah Hyde (5th round TY) have shown plenty of promise.

PK Mason Crosby, he of the strong but sometimes errant leg, missed 12 of 33 FGs LY, but his cold-cranking power is considered valuable for Lambeau’s December and January games.

The presence of the heady and amazingly-accurate Rodgers (the NFL’s all-time leader in passing ratings) and a solid cast of receivers has been enough to carry the Packers to the top of the North the last two years despite all the sacks and Green Bay’s disrespected ground game. So also has the defense been good enough to win the division. But the Giants in 2011 and 49ers in 2012 have shown that the Packer stoppers have not been good enough to lift the team to another Super Bowl. Perhaps Lacy’s power running will help both Rodgers and the Packer defense (which is not long on impact players). With Rodgers, another North title is doable, even with a very tough 2013 schedule. But rising powers elsewhere in the NFC are likely to frustrate any Title Town Super Bowl hopes.

MINNESOTA (SUR 10-6; PSR 9-7; O/U 7-9; Lost 24-10 at Green Bay in Wildcard Round)...The Vikings enter 2013 with high hopes. Not only because they have one of the league’s dominant weapons in Adrian Peterson (whose 2097 YR were only 8 short of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record of 2105), but also because of a developing aerial game and what appears to be a bountiful draft. The Vikes are expecting QB Christian Ponder to take another step forward in his third year after hitting 62% for 2935 yards, with 18 TDs and 12 ints. last season. A late-week sore arm kept Ponder from having a chance to upset the Packers in last year’s playoffs, as run-oriented Joe Webb got the call at cold Lambeau Field, where he hit only 11 of 30 in the Vikes’ loss to their arch-rivals. (If Webb makes the team TY, it will have to be at WR).

Despite some erratic play last season, Ponder demonstrated plenty of ability, indicating the best is yet to come from the 25-year-old, who missed key target Percy Harvin (62 recs. in just 9 games) for much of last season. Now, Harvin (currently injured) is gone for good to Seattle, following in the footsteps of previous Minny WR Sidney Rice. Still, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave believes he has the material on hand to make a run in the North, especially with veteran WR Greg Jennings moving over from Green Bay and with 6-2 big-play type Cordarrelle Patterson arriving in the draft to use with the likes of Jerome Simpson & Jarius Wright, plus high-qualilty red-zone target, TE Kyle Rudolph (9 TDs on 53 catches LY).

Peterson (only 28), whose “miracle” season came in the wake of ACL surgery near the end of 2011, says he would like to hit the 2500-yard mark in rushing in 2013 and eventually set his sights on Emmitt Smith’s all-time record of 18,355 yards, which is still literally miles away. But Minny HC Leslie Frazier, the former Chicago DB, is trying to quash that talk a bit, saying that another 2000-yard season (Peterson averaged 6.0 ypc LY) is not vital in order for the Vikes to have a successful 2013. Among other things, Frazier likely is aware that seasons following a 2000-yard campaign have not been inordinately productive for targeted RBs (Tennessee’s “CJ2K” collected only 1364 YR and 4.3 ypc in 2010 after his 2006 YR and 5.6 ypc in 2009). Plus, another 348 Peterson carries--as last year--are likely to begin shortening the career of one of the top RBs in NFL history. So, look for Peterson to get a little more rest this season and for QB Ponder to saddle a little bit more of the load.

Moreover, insiders say Frazier is brimming with confidence about this year’s defense after the unit finished a middle-of-the-pack 16th last year. A little more ball-control by Ponder should help, but also a draft that has added depth to an already-strong front seven. Florida DT Sharrif Floyd (Round One) and Penn State LBs Gerald Hodges (Round Four) & Mike Mauti (Round Seven due to knee problems) have looked as right as rain in the rugged Minny stop unit in camp among rock-ribbed regulars such as DT Kevin Williams and LBs Chad Greenway & Erin Henderson. DE Jared Allen (only 10 sacks LY due to injury) is in his contract year and seeking another big payday. Frazier finally cut ties with tough-tackling CB Antoine Winfield. Big corner (6-2, 212) Chris Cook has always impressed when healthy, and draftee Xavier Rhodes (6-1½; round one) from Florida State has a similar makeup.

HC Frazier is wisely trying to keep this team from becoming to reliant on the exploits of the remarkable Peterson. And he should have success in that area as this season develops. Ponder was too inconsistent last season, but some of his throws (e.g., escaping from the pocket, or rolling left) when he was playing well were eye-popping. Like most teams in the NFC North, the Vikes face a particularly rugged schedule (Games One & Two both on the road at Detroit & Chicago, the Steelers in London, road games at the Giants, Cowboys, Seahawks & Ravens!). But the relentless Peterson, their deep defense, kicker Blair Walsh (35 of 38 FGs LY as a rookie), and the improving Ponder should give Minny enough to stay ahead of the Lions and Bears in the North. Chasing down the Packers and making the playoffs are tougher chores, but possible. However, advancing in the 2013 NFC playoff race might be asking a bit too much.

Note that of the Vikes’ 7 overall losses in 2012, only one (Week Two at Indy 23-20) was by fewer than nine points.

DETROIT (SUR 4-12; PSU 6-10; O/U 10-5-1)...After their victory-bankrupt season of 2008 (0-16 under Rod Marinelli), the Lions had slowly but steadily climbed their way to respectability under Jim Schwartz, going 2-14 in 2009, 6-10 in 2010, 10-6 and a wildcard berth in 2011. Then came last year’s backslide to 4-12 amid an annoying series of receiver injuries, continuing defensive problems (Detroit was 27th in points allowed), and turnovers (33; only five teams were worse). The Lions were -16 in turnover margin.

Last year’s 4-4 start was good enough to be in contention at the midway point. And the Matthew Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson connection (good for 122 recs. and a record 1964 yards) was nearly unstoppable. But last year’s failings were too many. Complementary receivers either couldn’t stay on the team (Titus Young suspended) or stay healthy (Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles). While Megatron was playing through injuries and double or triple coverage, no other Lion WR had more than 33 catches. Stafford fired away for 4967 YP (20 TDs, but 17 ints.).

But too often the Lions were either trailing big early or blew advantages late. The season ended with eight straight losses, including the infamous 34-31 overtime defeat to Houston on Thanksgiving, when Schwartz challenged a miss-called TD run that was already going to be reviewed, Ndamukong Suh tossed a leg at the groin of Houston QB Matt Schaub, and Detroit’s all-time kicker Jason Hanson missed a FG that would have won the game. 2012 ended with eight straight losses, so changes were in the offing.

The most important additions have been the signing of free-agent RB Reggie Bush from Miami, with the hope that the dual-threat will explode on the fast indoor track at Ford Field and remove some of the extra attention usually given to Calvin Williams. And the draft has brought a still-learning raw talent at DE in BYU’s 6-5 Ghanian-born Ezekiel Ansah, who will play next to Suh to create one of the more intimidating DL pairings in the league.

But Detroit’s “deletions” from 2012 are considerable, including the retirement of kicker Hanson and LT Jeff Backus, the free-agent loss of DE Cliff Avril, DT Sammie Lee & RT Gosder Cherilus, and the release of aging DE (but defensive leader) Kyle Vanden Bosch. Several of those players do not appear to have been replaced in kind.

The Lions have added “flawed” FA DBs CB Ronald Bartell (injury history), S Glover Quin (was picked on while with Houston), and S Chris Hope (12th season) in an effort to help correct their perennial secondary problems, which have cost the team many a victory in the Megatron era. But doesn’t it also seem to be the case that many offensive coordinators enjoy attacking the Lions’ defense, featuring Schwartz’ preferred Wide-9 defensive front? Block the front four, and there have been plenty of holes behind. The Lions were 27th in points allowed LY, with 27.3 pg.

Better ball security, improved running with Reggie, better balance to aid their Megatron, and tighter coverage on defense are the goals in training camp for Schwartz. The first three seem quite achievable, as does a greatly improved record above last year’s weak 4-12. Whether that translates into a playoff spot in the deep NFC chase is hardly as obvious.

NOTE: The good-offense, poor-defense Lions were 10-5-1 OVER the total last season; only 2-6 as a favorite.

CHICAGO (SUR 10-6; PSR 7-9; O/U 9-7)... The Bears were cruising last year at midseason, with a 7-1 record and an intimidating takeaway defense. But then Chicago’s lingering OL problems came home to roost, as Jay Cutler in Game Nine was hurried, intercepted (twice), and hammered (had to leave with a concussion) in a 13-6 home loss vs. Houston. With then-backup Jason Campbell at the controls the next week at San Francisco, Chicago was routed 32-7. Although Cutler returned the next week, the Bears’ 3-5 second half of the season for a 10-6 finish was just enough to keep them out of the playoffs. And just enough to cost Lovie Smith his job despite nine mostly successful seasons in Chicago.

It was the failings on offense that most bothered GM Phil Emery, now in his second year in charge of the team. Thus, incoming is head coach Marc Trestman, a well-known QB coach and offensive coordinator brainiac who has enjoyed success the last five years with Montreal of the CFL. Trestman’s last NFL gig was as assistant HC with Dave Wannstedt’s 2004 Miami Dolphins. So, the 55-year-old, late-arriving head coach has something to prove in the NFL. Although creative, Trestman’s offensive scheme is also considered to be a bit complex, something that has challenged the already-challenged Cutler in the Windy City.

So far, things have gone along okay. But the new verbiage and long play calls associated with Trestman’s system can’t be considered early positives when many teams are opting for uptempo, no-huddle packages that favor sideline signals from coaches and bypass using QB helmet radio calls altogether. One big plus for Cutler is that he is almost always in tune with favorite WR Brandon Marshall, who caught 118 balls for 1508 yards and 11 TDs in 2012. Another big target, 6-3 Alshon Jeffery, had 24 catches despite knee problems in his rookie season. And TE Martellus Bennett arrives from the Giants. Lanky WR Marquess Wilson appears to be a seventh-round steal in the draft after a troubled senior season playing for Mike Leach at Washington State. Under Trestman, record-setting Devin Hester will focus on his devastating returns rather than at WR.

But, to virtually no one’s surprise, there are still concerns about the OL in Chicago. There are three new starters; four if RT J’Marcus Webb doesn’t pick up the pace. LT Jermon Bushrod arrived from the Saints, LG Matt Slauson from the Jets, and RG Kyle Long from the University of Oregon. Meanwhile, starting C Roberto Garza is in his 13th year. Do you think Cutler feels secure behind that unit going into the season? Neither do we.

The defense often paced the way for the Bears in 2012, leading the league with 44 takeaways, 24 ints., and 9 defensive TDs. The Bears were +20 in turnover margin. Those numbers will be tough to match this season, not only because they were so outstanding in 2012, but also because Lovie and his defensive emphasis have departed, along with defensive leaders MLB Brian Urlacher (retired after not being re-signed) and OLB Nick Roach (to Oakland).

Many Chicago veterans (including Cutler, Hester, S Major Wright, CB Charles Tillman, kicker Robbie Gould) are beginning this season in the final year of their contracts. GM Emery says there will be no extensions until after the season. That might lead to a sense of urgency. But (more likely) it is a sign that Emery is intent on infusing the team with lots of new blood should any veterans disappoint. And, with the professorial Trestman returning to the NFL, another likely problematic OL, and the volatile Cutler all in the mix, disappointment seems to be in the stars for the Bears in 2013.


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