The Green Bay Packers will be aiming for their fourth straight NFC North Division title this season, but each of their division opponents looks to be improved from last year.
Here’s a look at some of the divisional story lines:
Finally, the Bears’ rebuilt defense gets a chance to show what it can do.
The Bears open the season at home against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday in what they hope is the start of a run to the playoffs after coming up short six of the past seven seasons.
A big reason for that optimism is an overhaul that added five-time Pro Bowl player Jared Allen and fellow end Lamarr Houston, among others.
The defense didn’t show much during the preseason, with the starters seeing limited time and not exactly dominating when they did play. Injuries were a factor, too.
But the Bears insist there’s no reason to worry about their defense.
“I don’t feel that trepidation,” coach Marc Trestman said. “The whole defense wasn’t together at one time during it. We’re going to have to come together. It’s going to be a process working together, getting to know each other, how each other works. But the talent level’s there.”
The Bears are counting on improved play from an overhauled defense after that group ranked among the worst in the league and in franchise history a year ago. They strengthened the line and added depth. But they didn’t show much during the preseason, and that has at least some fans antsy.
The starters had trouble stopping rollout plays in the second preseason game against Jacksonville and wasn’t particularly effective against the run. A week later, Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks had their way with the Bears in a 34-6 pounding that sent some chills through Chicago.
The Bears gave up more yards per game in the preseason than all but three teams and were third worst in scoring defense.
Then again, Allen missed the first preseason game because his wife had a baby, and sat out against Seattle because of a bruised shoulder.
Safety Chris Conte missed the start of training camp while recovering from shoulder surgery and sat out the first two preseason games. Then he suffered a concussion against Seattle and did not play the following week against Cleveland.
Rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller hurt his ankle during the Jacksonville game and sat out the remaining two preseason matches.
The Bears also changed defensive schemes after sticking with the cover-2 last season, Mel Tucker’s first as defensive coordinator. They’re still running a 4-3 set. The language and responsibilities are different, and they weren’t about to tip their hands with the play calls in the preseason.
That changes now.
“We’re hungry,” cornerback Tim Jennings said. “We’ve got attitude from last year. The coaches feel the same way as well as the players do. The attitude we have is setting the tone. We have to go out there and get into a fast start. We’ve still got the same mentality: The more takeaways we get, give our offense back the ball, we can put more points on the board. So we still have that mentality, but we really still have a bad taste in our mouth from last season.”
The Bears ranked 30th overall and last against the run while tying Jacksonville with a league-low 31 sacks. They gave up 2,583 yards rushing and 5.3 per carry — both club records — so it would be hard for them not to improve.
Still, there are concerns.
It’s not clear who the starting safeties will be with Conte, Danny McCray and Ryan Mundy in the mix for two spots. “I think we’re going to still wait and see,” Trestman said.
There is also that curiosity: How will this defense look?
“All the additions that we brought to this defense, I’m excited about it,” Jennings said, “and I just can’t wait to get us all together and get us come Sunday, and see where we’re at.”
Jim Caldwell’s first game as coach of the Lions will be on quite a stage — at home on a Monday night against the New York Giants.
That’s a prospect so exciting his face lit up a bit after he was asked about it.
“It’s a great platform for our team, for our city, for our organization,” Caldwell said. “It is a unique opportunity. It doesn’t come around very often, and for us, obviously, it’s the only night game we have.”
The season opener would be big no matter the circumstances, especially with Caldwell new in charge after the Lions replaced coach Jim Schwartz in the offseason. Now, the spotlight will be even brighter. Detroit has not opened the season on a Monday night since 1971.
The prime-time opener underscores how far the Lions have come since their 0-16 season in 2008, but they’ve still had their share of exasperating moments. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh weren’t able to push Detroit to the playoffs last season, and Schwartz was fired after the team collapsed down the stretch.
There’s pressure on everyone in 2014. Suh is in the final year of his contract, and fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley was demoted during the preseason, although he was listed with the first team on a depth chart Monday.
Fairley stressed the fact that on longer drives, backups have to come in anyway.
“The group of guys that we’ve got in there now, we’re working to get better as a unit, and to have our rotation down to where when the fourth quarter comes, everybody’s fresh,” he said.
Elsewhere on the depth chart, second-year tackle LaAdrian Waddle is listed as a starter. He started eight games last season, while offensive linemen Dominic Raiola, Rob Sims, Riley Reiff and Larry Warford started 16 each.
Detroit made a handful of additions this offseason, such as wide receiver Golden Tate, but overall, the core of talent won’t look much different than last year. What has changed is the coaching staff — and what better way for Caldwell to make his debut with his new team than in a nationally televised game?
“My first Monday night game was when I was (an assistant) with Tampa and we actually played against the St. Louis Rams, I believe,” Caldwell said. “I just remember the buzz in the air. People had all day to get ready for the game. It didn’t happen in the middle of the afternoon where they only had a few hours, maybe they went to church and then ran to the ballpark or whatever. You have literally all day to get ready for it, so there’s a huge buildup.”
The Vikings will have seven new starters in their base defense this season. The scheme itself is a lot different, too, using more man-to-man coverage, blitzing and disguises than in the past.
After giving up the most points in the NFL last year, the Vikings have been busy undertaking a renovation project that started when Mike Zimmer was hired as head coach. Players showed some progress during training camp, winning all four exhibition games, and now it’s time to gauge improvement for real.
“Keep doing the things that we’ve done in the preseason, we can go out and beat anybody,” Zimmer said. “But we have to go out and do them. We can’t talk about it.”
Three positions were still open as August ended. One, strong safety, has remained that way after the relatively surprising release of veterans Chris Crocker and Kurt Coleman. Robert Blanton has been listed first on the depth chart, with Andrew Sendejo behind him, but Zimmer declined to declare a winner.
“We’ll see how it goes in practice this week,” Zimmer said.
Cutting Crocker and Coleman, like so many roster moves in the NFL, came down to special teams. Blanton and Sendejo are two of the team’s best players on those units.
“They had a tough decision upstairs, and I just tried to come in and do my job,” Blanton said.
As for the middle linebacker, with Jasper Brinkley ahead of Audie Cole, Zimmer said he’s decided, without revealing the starter following practice Monday. Same for nickel cornerback, between Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels. Those announcements will come Sunday before kickoff at St. Louis, Zimmer said.
The 53-man roster decisions were relatively easier on offense, with a few backup spots left up for grabs after the final exhibition game. The NFL’s suspension of wide receiver Jerome Simpson created an opportunity for both Adam Thielen and Rodney Smith, undrafted rookies who spent last year on the practice squad.
For Thielen, the native of Detroit Lakes and product of Minnesota State University, this was a happy weekend. Most of the celebrating was by his friends and family, though. He said between 10 and 15 of his buddies drafted him in their fantasy football league.
Another familiar face for Minnesota fans on the final roster was tight end MarQueis Gray, the former quarterback and wide receiver for the Minnesota Gophers. He spent last season with Cleveland, making an impression on offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
“He’s trusting me a lot to be here, obviously, because he wants me to be here,” Gray said. “So I’ve just got to make sure I do my part and uphold all the great things he’s said about me.”