Biggest concern for NFC North Teams
By Alex Williams
Alex Williams takes a look at the biggest question marks surrounding the NFC North teams entering 2019
The NFC North looks to the strongest divisions in football. Playoffs and beyond should be on the minds of three of the four teams, but what concerns and questions still remain as the 100th season kicks off Thursday night.
Can the Bears get their offense ticking?
You could ask whether the Bears are spiralling into the kicking abyss. But just like 2018, their season won’t be defined by kicking between the uprights. Instead, it will rest on whether this offense, lacking a superstar standout player, can take a step forward in 2019.
Looking at the Bears offense in the preseason, it’s tough to judge their efficiency or even predict how they will look in the Thursday night opener. Mitchell Trubisky didn’t throw a single pass in preseason. In fact, the entire offensive starters went largely absent across the four games.
If there’s question marks on Trubisky, then there’s even more on who he’s throwing to. Do the Bears have a legitimate 1,000 yard wide receiver? If healthy, Anthony Miller and Allen Robinson have the talent to do so. The tight-end position is also a concern. Trey Burton ended 2018 with just over 500 yards. That seems his ceiling and with other mouths to feed, topping the same mark seems optimistic.
Rookie David Montgomery could be the piece needed to elevate this offense. Bears fans were only teased with the one preseason appearance of Montgomery, but he looked all he was billed to be and more. A dynamic back who can be productive in both the ground and air game, it will be interesting how he pairs with mismatch back Tarik Cohen.
Can the Vikings Offense Be A Top Unit in 2019?
It’s quite baffling that, on paper, this offense already isn’t. Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph are certainly all play-makers. So why isn’t this unit being talked up more?
Well it’s the glue that holds these names together, the silent partner. Yes, the offensive line. Pro Football Focus ranked them 29th in the league in 2018. The interior was much to blame and it was the focus over the off-season. 1st round selection of Garrett Bradbury already looks a lock at the centre position for years to come. Through the preseason, the offensive line looked comfortable in Stefanski/Kubiak’s zone-running scheme. They were able to run the ball with consistency and in the one game Cook featured, he ripped off a 88 yard touchdown, enabled by excellent blocking.
A lot will fall, as it always has, on the arm of Kirk Cousins. In theory, he should thrive in this new offense, which will utilise heavy play-action, similar to his time in Washington. However, he had a shaky preseason. Against the Cardinals, he completed just 3 passes from 13 attempts and just looked off-pace all game.
In the tough NFC North, this offense will match up against three teams that all have upgraded their defenses. Not much needs to be said about the Bears defense, but the Lions and Packers have both added big pieces to their defensive line and linebacking groups respectively.
Are the Lions destined for mediocrity?
On the face of it, the Lions have a lot of good, productive players. They have a well balanced offsense headed by Matthew Stafford, impressive running back Kerryon Johnson and wide receiver duo of Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. Rookie tight-end TJ Hockenson adds a redzone threat to Stafford’s arsenal.
Flip it to the defense and it’s a similar story. Damon Harrison, Trey Flowers and Mike Daniels lead an impressive defensive line. Darius Slay remains a ball-hawk on the outside.
But who is going to elevate this team to a playoff berth? What game-changing, game-wrecking stars do they possess? Stafford has been a stat sheet god since he came into the league, but is yet to take the Lions past the first game of the playoffs. Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay are a dynamic duo, but are either capable of 1,500+ yards or double digit touchdowns?
Damon Harrison is the best run stuffer in the league, but he plays less than half of defensive snaps. The defensive line has talent and depth, but no pass rusher who can wreck a game.
Kerryon Johnson and TJ Hockenson are the interesting pieces in this Lions team. Before his injury, Johnson averaged over 5 yards a carry. His workload will increase in 2019, so expect a breakout year. The Lions look to be bottom feeders in the NFC North, but if any of their “very good” players can take a step forward, they could make some noise.
How will Rodgers play in LaFleur's offense?
This has been the question on every beat reporter, analyst and fan alike, since LaFleur’s appointment. This chatter continued over the off-season, into the preseason and into week one.
Rodgers is in the rare situation of having to learn an entirely new offense in the twilight of his career. He’s of course smart and talented enough to adapt, but how smooth will the transition be?
In many ways, Rodgers had free rein in the Mike McCarthy offense. This won’t be true under LaFleur. His offense isn’t built for audibles at the line of scrimmage. It uses pre-snap motions and unique route combinations to forces the defense to show their hand. It relies on timing of routes, where precision is imperative.
However, Aaron Rodgers is Aaron Rodgers. He’s made a living by playing off the cuff, extending plays, redirecting receivers. How will the dynamic of the 35 year old QB and the 39 year old first-time head coach play out?
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