2011 NFL Division Preview
OffenseThe Chicago defense will once again be the strength of the team, we’ll see if they have enough strength to carry them to the playoffs.
Important Acquisitions: None, although it’s tough to improve on this high flying offense
Toughest Player Losses: Matt Tauscher
Key Player: Ryan Grant
The “If” Factor: One, as in “if they can break the Patriots’ 2007 scoring record”
2010 Offensive Ranking: 5th Passing, 24th Rushing
The Packer’s offense comes into the 2011 season as one of the best units in all of pro football. Aaron Rodgers solidified himself last year among the very best signal callers in the game today, and his group of receivers is also one of the best around. The offensive line is consistently reliable and they have a stable of running backs at their disposal, giving them flexibility and depth at the position.
Basically, this is the blueprint for how to build an offensive roster in the year 2011. It really is that simple. Just pay attention to what the Packers do offensively and you’re seeing what the league is going to look like for the near future. Just like when Bill Walsh figured out the West Coast offense, and it was so obviously dominant that pretty much every other team was running a version of it within a decade, this Green Bay offense is what all the other offensive coordinators have been working towards.
It started with the Patriots and Colts airing the ball out in the early part of the 2000s, led to the Sean Payton and the Saints confounding the league with their attack, and now the Packers offense is the new way to score points in the NFL. Will offenses morph again? Of course they will, because defenses will eventually figure out a way to stop the Pack Attack. But for now, and most likely for the foreseeable future, this is what successful offenses are going to look like.
Their offensive philosophy is at the cutting edge of the game right now, and the Packers will continue to put up huge numbers. If they stay relatively healthy, especially Aaron Rogers, the team has the chance to have a historically potent offense.
Important Acquisitions: None, tough to improve on this lot
Toughest Player Losses: Cullen Jenkins
Key Player: A.J. Hawk
The “If” Factor: Higher than you’d think, this unit’s success is based on pressuring the quarterback, which can be an inconsistent trait.
2010 Defensive Ranking: 5th Passing, 18th Rushing
The Green Bay defense comes back as essentially the same group as we saw in 2010. Which is to say a group that was good enough to get their team a Super Bowl victory.
The Packers are yet another team that is dispelling the old school notion that defense wins championships. That just isn’t the case anymore. It used to be that you won it all with a dominant defense and an offense that simply didn’t lose you any games. Now it’s the opposite, you win a Lombardi trophy by having a dominant offense and a defense that is good enough to keep you in games.
That is exactly the way this defensive squad is built. It’s good enough against the run, and stops the opponents passing attacks by putting pressure on the quarterback with an aggressive, uphill 3-4 scheme.
Clay Matthews had a break out year in 2010, just getting’ in there and blowing things up. As silly as that commercial is, it does make one really good point, the key to playing good defense in today’s NFL is speed, the quicker you get in there the quicker you can blow it up. And that’s what this Packers defense does, it bends without breaking, and gets enough big plays to give their high scoring offense the chance to outscore the other team.
As the great John Madden once said, the team that scores the most points is going to win the game. Man do I miss having that guy in my life.
2010: 11-5, NFC North Division Champion
Better or Worse in 2011: Worse, this is a tough division and 11 or 12 wins is going to be tough for any of them
The Chicago Bears come into 2011 with big expectations. Not surprising, considering they lost in the NFC championship game last year to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers.
After taking a closer look though, the Bears might have gotten a little farther than their talent and strategy were likely to take them. They were able to get a first round playoff bye with only 11 wins, an advantage that usually takes at least 12 or more. Then they got to play the Seattle Seahawks, a team that snuck into the postseason with a losing record, and upset a beleaguered New Orleans team at home in their only playoff victory.
They aren’t likely to have so much good fortune this year, and with such a tough division I just don’t see them repeating their 2010 success, let alone building on it.
Important Acquisitions: Marion Barber, Gabe Carimi (R), Dave Sanzenbacher (R) (alright, only because I want to hear John Gruden say his name), Chris Spencer, Roy Williams
Toughest Player Losses: Greg Olsen, Olin Kreutz
Key Player: Devin Hester
The “If” Factor: I don’t see a lot of ifs here, because I don’t see any realistic upside for this unit, as the now famous saying goes, they are who we thought they were.
2010 Offensive Ranking: 28th Passing, 22nd Rushing
Chicago runs the Mike Martz offense, a complicated high powered scheme that confounds defensive coordinators with well timed option routes. Oh wait, that would be true if this were 1999. Too bad it’s 2011 and Bill Belichick showed the world how to stop the Martz attack a decade ago. The Greatest Show on Turf was an innovative reaction to the zone blitzing schemes of the late ‘90s (which were a reaction to the west coast offenses of the early ‘90s), but turned out to be an offensive philosophy that wouldn’t stand the test of time.
Whether it’s because of how much it asks of the quarterback, that it requires receivers to make overly complicated split second decisions on the fly, or simply that it was too easy to disrupt with even the slightest amount of pressure on the receivers when they come off the line, no Martz led offense has been successful for years. The Bears finished in the bottom third of the league in both passing and rushing in 2010, and unless they change philosophy, or Jay Cutler finally becomes a thinking quarterback and not just a guy with a cannon arm, there isn’t much room for improvement in 2011.
Instead of upgrading their offensive philosophy, Chicago spent the offseason attempting to acquire the type of players that can flourish in the Mike Martz offense. Note the key word here is attempting, because their two biggest additions, Marion Barber and Roy Williams, both ex-Cowboys, don’t fit the mold.
Receivers in the Martz system are asked to run precise routes, and have the mental talents to adjust those routes on the fly depending on how the defense reacts after the ball is snapped. Neither of these are things that Williams does well.
Despite his lack of success in Dallas, Williams does bring with him a Texas size ego to the windy city. He made it clear when he was in Dallas that he saw himself as a clear cut number one receiver, something that a Mike Martz offense doesn’t strive to have. Williams had some success with Martz in Detroit by doing his own thing and generally being a physically superior player. Now that they’re reunited, a big “if” is if Williams can swallow his ego and except his role as just another player in the system.
Yet another round peg being forced into a square hole is the other Dallas castoff, running back Marion Barber. When I think if the perfect back for the Martz offense there can be none better than the now Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk. Faulk was smart, consistent and athletic in the open field. He was great in pass protection and even better when he was used in the passing game. Most of his rushing yards came off of misdirections and draws. The grand total of those things that can also be said about Marion the Barbarian? Absolutely none of them.
Barber is a downhill runner who does his best work wearing down opposing defenses with a power running style. He’s not a great receiver out of the backfield, hauling in the sum total of 11 receptions in 2011. The Bears could use Barber in short yardage situations, but would have been better served to try to pick up a more Martz friendly back this offseason. Say a speedy, agile guy like Darren Sproles, or even Reggie Bush, who always reminded me of Marshall Faulk minus the football IQ.
Matt Forte will be the biggest if for the offense this year, which is an underhanded way of saying that I actually believe in Jay Cutler just a little bit. He’s had some success in the system so far, and 2011 should be another solid year for him. Sure, he’s good for a few bad decisions and questionable character moments that will frustrate the Chicago faithful, but in the end he’s still a good NFL quarterback. Good but not great, which is pretty much what we’re going to see from this offense in 2011.
Important Acquisitions: Vernon Gholston (remember him?), Stephen Paea (R)
Toughest Player Losses: Danieal Manning
Key Player: I’m going with Brian Urlacher here
The “If” Factor: None, well maybe a half an If
2010 Defensive Ranking: 20th Passing, 2nd Rushing
The Chicago defense carried the team to the NFC Championship game last year, and will have to have an equally good 2011 if the Bears are to have the same kind of success this season.
This unit comes back pretty much intact, so they have a great chance to repeat their success. They were tremendous against the run, largely due to a superb year by All Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. Urlacher, the prototype for a middle linebacker in the Tampa Two defense, had 125 tackles and 4 sacks last year, coming back from a subpar 2008 and a 2009 campaign lost to injury. Urlacher is the key to this defense, and the only “if” I see is whether Urlacher has enough in the tank to repeat his production from 2011, or if last year was a great player giving us one last glimpse at how great he can be.
The Bears are going to need the defense to be just as good against the run, and even better against the pass, as they were last year if they are going to see the playoffs again. One potential under-the-radar addition that could help the team pressure the quarterback from the front four, a must in the Chicago defensive scheme, is the pickup of ex-New York Jet Vernon Gholston. And yes, I am serious here.
Gholston showed enough talent for New York to take him early in the first round of the draft, who then proceeded to play him out of position. Adjusting to the NFL can be hard enough, sometimes it’s just too much to ask of a young player to learn a new position, and the difference between rushing the passer from a three point stance and reacting to plays as a stand up linebacker can be huge. Gholston will now have the opportunity to play the position his skill set is most suited for, an outside speed rushing defensive end in a 4-3. No more excuses, if he doesn’t get the job done in Chicago there will be no question that he just doesn’t have what it takes to be a difference maker in the NFL.