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6 Things To Know About The NFC North

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Though it has been topped by one particularly successful squad for the last four years, the NFC North is annually one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, with four bitter rivals vying for superiority in one of the most prideful settings in the league.

One of those teams helped kickoff the NFL preseason on Sunday night in Canton, where the Minnesota Vikings defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 14-3, in the annual Hall of Fame Game.

As the Vikings and their three divisional rivals sort out their rosters and get ready for the 2015 NFL campaign over the next month, various storylines are forming in each corner and setting the stage for what should be a tremendous year. Here are six things you need to know about the NFC North.

1) Teddy is ready for a big sophomore season

While most of the stars from both the Vikings and the Steelers sat out the annual preseason opener on Sunday night, Minnesota showcased second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and in his first true prime time appearance as a pro, the 22-year-old did not disappoint.

Bridgewater led the Vikings on their opening drive of the evening and showed off all the things that drew him such rave reviews as a rookie. He was active in the pocket, moving around and giving his receivers time to get open. But he didn’t look to run too much and actually ended up taking off with the ball just once, for a six-yard gain. For the most part, Bridgewater dropped back, stepped up and picked apart the Pittsburgh defense.

The young quarterback ended up completing 5-of-6 passes for 44 yards. His lone miss came on a designed rollout screen for Mike Wallace on second down inside the red zone, which Bridgewater tossed low at the receiver’s ankles. The incompletion contributed to the end of Minnesota’s opening drive, which stalled at the Pittsburgh 10-yard-line. Bridgewater was otherwise flawless, but that miss left a bitter taste in his mouth. After the game he took accountability and spoke about learning from it and making better decisions.

“I wish I could’ve hit Mike in the flat right there,” Bridgewater said. “I kind of got a little greedy. I was hoping to hit Kyle Rudolph on a corner route and he tripped up, so I got to Mike late. [Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner] talked to me and said ‘Hey, that play starts with Mike.’ That’s one of those deals where I have to continue to stay within the system. Sometimes it’s good to be aggressive. But in that case, if I hit Mike, we’ll avoid fourth down.”

So far, Bridgewater is saying, and more importantly doing, all the right things to become the franchise quarterback the Vikings believe he can be.

After taking over the quarterback job in Week 3 last season, Bridgewater started 12 of Minnesota’s final 13 games, including each of the last 11 and emerged as one of the league’s best rookie signal callers. He completed better than 64 percent of his passes and finished just shy of 3,000 yards passing in 13 games. He also tossed 14 touchdown passes, but decision-making was a bit of an issue, leading to 12 interceptions. Perhaps that was why he was so hard on himself after he missed Wallace on Sunday night.

“He didn’t act like a rookie,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s a guy who wants to get better. You tell him he did something wrong, and he just says OK and does what he has to do to get better.”

While Bridgewater made some mistakes, the Vikings went 6-6 in the games he started during a 7-9 season, so he also got a lot right.

Now that the Vikings have their house back in order with Adrian Peterson returning to the field this season, Bridgewater and his team are expected to take a big step up for the 2015 campaign. Zimmer believes he’s ready, and early on during Minnesota’s training camp he’s noticed the team rallying around and buying into their young quarterback.

“The biggest difference I see in Teddy right now is his demeanor and the way the players gravitate towards him, the confidence level the team has in him,” Zimmer said. “ They liked him last year, but when he started performing you could see their confidence in him go up.”

Teddy looks ready to take the Vikings to the next level in year two, but he’ll have to keep progressing and learning in order for Minnesota to have a chance in a crowded division.

2) Clay Matthews is dealing with a knee injury

The four-time reigning NFC North champion Green Bay Packers are going to need all hands on deck on defense as they try to stop the elite offenses of their three division counterparts, and they’re hoping to get one of their key pieces back in the middle of that defense this week.

Packers linebacker Clay Matthews is currently dealing with a knee injury that has been termed by the team as “soreness,” but forced him to miss all five Packers practices last week. He was back on the practice field on a limited basis Monday, with Green Bay anxious to see how the knee responds.

“Clay Matthews is on a trial-and-error, trial return,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy told reporters on Monday morning before practice. “We’ll see how his workout goes today.”

Matthews reportedly made it through the day no worse for wear and told ESPN afterward that he felt fine, but the Packers are said to be monitoring the situation closely, especially going into Tuesday after Monday’s work.

The injury originally popped up at the outset of the first full week of camp, last week. After taking regular reps during the first few days of camp, Matthews said he developed some soreness in the knee and consulted the Green Bay training staff. At the advice of team doctor Patrick McKenzie, the Packers have been playing it safe with Matthews since. He missed Green Bay’s family night practice on Saturday, which made it more than a week since he had taken the field when he returned on Monday.

Matthews believes there is nothing to worry about in the long-term and expects to be back to full strength sooner than later, perhaps even before the team’s preseason opener on Thursday night in New England.

“Hopefully, I’ll be back sometime next week for that Patriots game, but I don’t know,” Matthews told the media late last week. “Sometimes my mind and body don’t align with each other, but we’ll see.”

Though he is a veteran, this is actually an important camp for Matthews, as he makes the official transition to a dual role in the Packers linebacking corps. The team plans to utilize the five-time Pro Bowler at both inside and outside linebacker in 2015 much like they did for the final two months of last season, when the switch helped catalyze the Green Bay defense toward the postseason. But there are still some kinks to work out there, particularly for his teammates as they try to get acclimated to the varying setups that will be in place for Matthews.

The adjustment puts an added emphasis on practice snaps and repetitions as a crucial part of the transition for all the players on the Green Bay defense. Matthews did get some valuable work in during organized team activities in the spring. But through the first two weeks of Packers camp so far, Matthews has been on the sidelines more than he’s been on the field at practice and the time he’s missed isn’t lending itself to a smooth transition. The sooner he can get back in the field, the better off and more prepared Green Bay’s entire defense will be.

“If there’s any solace [to take] it’s the fact that I’ve had four days to prepare to play inside before and I’ve had good games. It’s never an ideal situation to miss practice, but I’m not worried about that,” Matthews said. “It’s always important to get out there, get your practice reps, especially learning a new position, but I’m very confident in knowing the defense, especially coming from a different position. It’s not as if I’m completely blind to what’s happening in front of me. I’ll get back out there. I’ll be fine. I always am.”

3) Jay Cutler looks good so far under Gase

In Chicago, Jay Cutler is in the midst of perhaps the most important training camp of his career, and so far his work under new Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase has things looking up for the veteran signal-caller.

Cutler’s progress under Gase at Chicago camp has been impressive and the offensive coordinator even came to his new quarterback’s defense last Wednesday telling reporters that some of the outside impressions he had previously heard about Cutler couldn’t be further from the truth.

“His intelligence is way better than what I thought. His ability to communicate with his teammates [too], because he’s further ahead than everybody else. He’s able to get our wideouts on the same page,” Gase said. “Jay being where he’s at and having been in a few offenses, he recognizes a lot of the concepts we’re doing. So that makes it easier on him to jump ahead of the rest of the guys.”

Entering his 10th NFL season, Cutler is at a now or never moment in his career. He’s in the second year of the lucrative contract he signed in January of 2014, but the cap hit for the Bears to simply cut him and move on drops off dramatically after this season. Another poor year would likely mean the end of the road for him in Chicago.

Cutler’s career hit a low point last season when he found himself benched in favor of Jimmy Clausen for a Week 16 game against Detroit. It was the end of an odd season for Cutler. He finished 2014 as the NFL leader in interceptions for the second time in his career, but posted career highs in completion percentage and touchdown passes along with his second best yardage total and quarterback rating.

However, that was of little consolation to the Bears, who vastly undershot expectations and finished the year at 5-11. After the season, speculation ran rampant that the Bears were ready to move on from Cutler and either trade him or perhaps even swallow the huge cap hit to cut him just so they could be rid of him.

Instead, the Bears cleared out their coaching staff and brought in new head coach John Fox, who brought Gase with him from Denver. Gase and new quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains are now charged with resurrecting Cutler’s career. Though they’ve only been together for a short time so far, it seems they’re making significant progress. Cutler revealed to reporters last week how much more comfortable he is in the new Chicago offense.

“Any quarterback I think is going to be happy with [Gase],” Cutler said. “He does an exceptional job of communication, making sure the quarterbacks are comfortable, making sure [we] are on the same page when we go on the field,” Cutler said of Gase. “He doesn’t want to call a play and have me not know why he’s calling that play, so we do a lot of dialogue…it makes sure we’re all on the same page.”

It’s still early in camp, but Cutler doesn’t sound like the same surly malcontent he has been the last few seasons. Speaking with reporters at last Wednesday’s practice, he was downright pleasant about his progress under Gase and the team’s progress as a whole in their new offense. He sounded like a leader. And that has to be a great sign for the Bears.

“We’re right where we need to be,” he said. “Guys have done a really great job of learning this system. It’s not an easy system. It’s not something you’re going to pick up in 2-3 weeks. You have to put some time into this one and guys have done a really good job on the field and off the field. If you just do things on the field, and you don’t take it home with you, you’re not going to learn this system and we’re going to know pretty quickly. Everyone in the offense has put in time off the field so that when they get in the building, they know what to do.”

4) The Lions offensive line is a work in progress

After a successful 2014 campaign, in which they posted their best regular season record in 23 years and nearly made it out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 1991, the Lions set out this offseason to make tweaks to their roster and take the next step.

On offense, where Detroit has a franchise quarterback, one of the league’s most talented receiving corps and a strong stable of running backs, that meant upgrading their offensive line, which ranked in the middle of the league in 2014 according to Pro Football Focus.

Only two pieces remain in starting position from the group that finished last season: left tackle Riley Reiff and right guard Larry Warford. The anchor of the line for the last decade plus had been center Dominic Raiola. But Raiola, a veteran of 14 seasons with the Lions, was not re-signed after ranking as one of the league’s worst centers in 2014 according to PFF.  Raiola will be replaced by 2014 third round pick Travis Swanson, who impressed as a rookie while filling in for Warford and Raiola last season.

Veteran Rob Sims, who started all 16 games at left guard last season, was also not retained. So to Swanson’s left a competition is underway between two players the Lions picked up on Day 1 of the 2015 NFL Draft. For now, the first team reps at left guard are going to Manny Ramirez, a 2007 fourth round pick of the Lions, who has started every game in front of Peyton Manning for the Denver Broncos the last two seasons. Ramirez was re-acquired by Detroit on draft night from Denver in a trade that also saw the Lions get Denver’s 2015 first round slot (No. 32) and a couple fifth rounders in exchange for Detroit’s first round slot (No. 23).

Then, with that Broncos’ first round pick, the Lions nabbed another building block for their line in guard Laken Tomlinson out of Duke. Tomlinson is currently getting second team reps behind Ramirez, but is expected to move quickly into a primary role on the Lions line. But Detroit general manager Martin Mayhew acknowledged last week that team is comfortable with Ramirez taking the starting role out of camp and letting Tomlinson develop.

“I think the best players should play,” Mayhew said. “I think day one, when Laken got here, Manny got here the same day and Manny was obviously ahead of him as a professional football player. I think he will stay ahead of him until Laken passes him.”

The competition is even more wide open at right tackle. Detroit would love to see LaAdrian Waddle emerge and regain his role as the starter after an ACL tear ended his season early last year. But as he recovers from that injury, Waddle has begun camp on the physically unable to perform list and his status for the start of the season is in doubt.

At the moment the competition is between Cornelius Lucas, an undrafted free agent who started three games there last season, and Michael Williams, a former tight end who is making the transition to tackle.

Though that right tackle spot is still a concern, the Lions offensive line looks significantly improved now from last season, and the group Detroit has invested in is coming together nicely. While it appears to have turned overnight, this rebuild up front has been a long time coming for the Detroit. They drafted Reiff in the first round in 2012, nabbed Warford and Swanson in the third round in 2013 and 2014 respectively, then drafted Tomlinson in the first round in 2015. With those four plus Waddle, Lucas and Ramirez, Detroit has the makings of a great young line with some depth.

Offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn believes that could put the Lions in position to be one of the league’s truly elite offenses in 2015 and going forward.

“If you do it right, you can get a cohesive group that can play together for a while, and that’s hard to find in the NFL,” Washburn told the Detroit News. “You don’t find many lines that play together over more than three to four years, and if you can get something like that, the Lions will be fortunate.”

5) Aaron Rodgers thinks it’s funny we’re tracking his training camp INTs

Much has been made of rookie Marcus Mariota’s pristine training camp thus far with the Tennessee Titans but Aaron Rodgers, the league’s best quarterback, isn’t having the same kind of success at Packers camp.

And that’s just fine with him.

Rodgers won the league MVP award for the second time in his career last year after leading the Packers to a 12-4 mark while completing over 65 percent of his passes for 4,381 yards and 38 touchdowns against just five interceptions, a career-low since he became a starter. In the postseason, he nearly led the Pack back to the Super Bowl if not for a late game collapse by the team in the NFC Championship Game.

But after throwing his fifth interception of camp already last week, Rodgers started getting questions about the cause of his uncharacteristic inaccuracy. Perhaps reporters were wondering whether Rodgers was suffering lingering effects from the calf injury that slowed him late last season. The Packers quarterback scoffed at the notion that anything was wrong with him and revealed how different his practice decision-making is from him game day decision-making.

“I threw five [interceptions] last year in the regular season, so I know how to play in those games,” Rodgers told reporters on Thursday. “The [practice] playbook is exponentially larger than the regular-season, game-week plan. So we’re trying different things. There’s different guys out there running routes who might not be in there when it is the actual game time. So you make different throws, you’re working through different plays. Sometimes the defense makes the plays.”

Among the defenders making plays on Rodgers so far have been a pair of rookies, undrafted free agent corner LaDarius Gunter, who now has two picks of Rodgers, and first round pick Damarious Randall. And that’s fine with Rodgers too. According to the Green Bay quarterback, the only way the Packers are going to figure out what they have talent-wise on both sides of the ball, at wide receiver and at cornerback, is if guys are given opportunities to make plays, and that’s one of his many goals each year at camp.

“You have to show it in practice in order for me to feel comfortable making those throws in the game,” Rodgers said of his receivers. “That’s kind of what this is all about. You make some of these throws and see how the guys respond, and if they’re making the plays, then they’re going to get more opportunities in the preseason and probably be around for the regular season.”

Green Bay wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who rose from second round draft pick to become one of the league’s most productive wideouts, in part through his work with Rodgers during these camps, told ESPN that he is appreciative of the opportunities to be a practice playmaker. He also noted how those 50/50 balls Rodgers often throws in practice can be a learning experience for a young receiver about when is the right time to stop trying to catch the ball so that you can make sure the corner doesn’t either.

“You’re in a tough situation with those because you want to go win them, you want to try to catch them….if you don’t then it’s hard to really break it up. The choice there is do you think you can win it, or do you need to break it up and move on,” Nelson said. “We want to gain the trust of the quarterback that if he throws it up, we’ll come down with it — us or nobody — and make the play. We want those chances. Practices are a good time for it.”

6) AP is shaking off the rust, but you won’t see him much this preseason

After sitting out all but the opening game of last season following charges of child abuse, Adrian Peterson will be back on the field for the Vikings this season, carrying Minnesota’s hopes on his now 30-year-old legs. As he returns to action, Peterson is as confident as ever in his ability to shoulder the load for an offense and meet the lofty goals he has set forth for himself annually.

Before his team went to Canton, Peterson told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he feels he already has a Hall of Fame résumé, but he wants more. He still has the league’s all-time rushing record — currently held by Emmitt Smith at 18,355 yards — in his sights, though he’s more than 8,000 yards behind Smith in that regard. He also wants to be remembered as the greatest to ever play the game.

“Not just the greatest running back,” he says. “The greatest player.”

Another outstanding season in 2015, after last year’s layoff, would go a long way toward accomplishing those goals, and Peterson thinks he can run for 2,500 yards this season. First he has to get back into game action, and that didn’t happen in Canton on Sunday, as coach Mike Zimmer held Peterson out of the Hall of Fame game, a customary move involving veteran players of Peterson’s stature and especially of his position. Zimmer has been fairly mum on if Peterson will get any preseason game reps this August, but he hasn’t received preseason touches in four years and AD isn’t sure he needs them this year either.

While many have pointed to rust as a potential factor in Peterson’s return, as he gets ready to take his first NFL game snaps in a full calendar year, he believes his time away from the game could prove to be more of a benefit than a hinderance.

“My body is so much fresher, so that’s good,” Peterson said. “And I think not being able to be a part of last year, that alone will just have me eager to play harder and faster and with more passion. That’s just the way I play anyways, but with that on top, I’ll definitely be out there with more energy and more excitement.”

Rust is generally associated with players coming back from a year off due to injury, and Peterson isn’t in that situation. He told ESPN that he pushed his training to another level in the year he was away from the game and because of that he feels as good as he ever has.

“I definitely feel stronger, having the extra time to let the body rest, for one, and then train even more. In season, you probably lift twice a week, just to keep things sharp and keep your strength up through the season. But having the type of time I had, I was able to push my body to the max, knowing I had enough time to recover and be ready for OTAs [organized team activities] and camp. I feel stronger. I feel more explosive.”

A stronger, fresher, more explosive Adrian Peterson would be a huge get for the Vikings and now that the team has a steady quarterback and a stout defense to go along with him, it might be enough to allow them to make some noise in the NFC North.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys