Title contenders again

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Todd Mishler | September 1, 2016

It's the first time since 2011 that the Green Bay Packers aren't waving the NFC North championship banner entering a season.

The Green and Gold stumbled badly after starting 6-0, finishing 10-6 and one game behind Minnesota in the division standings in 2015.

Most pundits have Mike McCarthy's squad returning to its perch atop the North this fall. However, the Vikings are expected to battle Green Bay for that spot, and both teams should be factors in the postseason. Although, Minnesota took a big hit Tuesday when QB Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the year with a knee injury.

Green Bay earned its seventh consecutive playoff berth, showing spark and resiliency in its two playoff contests, but that doesn't mean General Manager Ted Thompson stopped tweaking an otherwise experienced, talented and deep roster.

Still, the Packers must answer several questions and need to bounce back from their demoralizing and disappointing regular season.

Offensively, they allowed 46 sacks, the second most in the last six years, McCarthy relinquished and then took back play-calling duties, Eddie Lacy managed 758 yards and three touchdowns rushing after surpassing 1,100 yards and combining for 20 TDs in his first two years.

Granted, injury woes to the offensive line and receiving corps played  vital roles in a lack of chemistry and production, which saw the typically explosive Packers plummet to 23rd in yards per game and 28th in third-down percentage.

Although Dom Capers' defense enjoyed its moments, it finished 15th in yards allowed and 21st in points given up. The Packers finished sixth against the pass but 21st versus the run, a continuing bugaboo. Green Bay tied for seventh in sacks with 43, but 19 of them came in three games. The Packers still missed tons of tackles and tied for 29th in allowing 14 plays of 40-plus yards.

Green Bay's offensive woes forced the defense to play more minutes, inside linebacker Sam Barrington was lost for the year in the first game and cornerbacks Sam Shields and rookie Damarious Randall were up and down, finishing 25th and 62nd in the ProFootballFocus.com rankings, respectively.

And while quarterback Aaron Rodgers always is the team's most important piece, wide receiver Jordy Nelson was last year's most valuable player. That's because he missed the entire campaign with an ACL injury, and his absence influenced most or all of the team's other troubles. The absence of his big-play ability created a huge trickle-down effect, making the Packers' offense a shell of itself.

But barring another rash of injuries, Cheeseheads are optimistic that the offense will reclaim its spot among the league's best.

Nelson was on track for the regular season, which starts at Jacksonville on Sept. 11, athletic tight end Jared Cook was signed as a free agent, third-round pick Ty Montgomery returns after missing most of his rookie season and the offensive line remains one of the NFL's top units, although four of the starting five — including center JC Tretter — are scheduled to be free agents after the season.

Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and rookie Trevor Davis have battled in the crowded receiver contingent, while second- and sixth-round picks Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy and veterans Don Barclay and Lane Taylor did the same thing among the blockers. Second-year ball toter John Crockett was impressive before being injured.

Defensively, the young but talented secondary looms as a bright spot, Pro Bowler Clay Matthews has rejoined Julius Peppers to give Green Bay a strong, deep group of pass rushers at outside linebacker and Thompson added depth and athleticism to the unit — four of his first five draft picks were defensive players, including Kenny Clark with the No. 27 selection, a versatile run stopper who must replace B.J. Raji after the latter surprised everybody by retiring.

The defense also is looking for big years out of inspirational leader Mike Daniels upfront, second-year Jake Ryan at ILB, improvement and big plays from sophomore DBs Randall, Quentin Rollins and LaDarius Gunter and contributions from rookie linebackers Blake Martinez and Kyler Fackrell.

Veteran Tim Masthay fought off Green Bay native Peter Mortell for the punting job, but then in a puzzling move was released in favor of Jason Schum, who has been cut numerous times by several teams. The Packers have one of the best kickers in Mason Crosby.

Meanwhile, fan favorite John Kuhn's job at fullback was handed to second-year special teams standout Aaron Ripkowski.

As usual, a lot of questions remained in figuring out the fluid bottom five to 10 spots on the roster, which needed to be trimmed to the final 53 on Sept. 3.

Several variables were in play, including injuries to receiver Jeff Janis and center Corey Linsley, not to mention the four-game suspensions of defensive lineman Mike Pennel and cornerback Demetri Goodson.

Thompson always keeps at least a couple of undrafted free agents, and guys such as safeties Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans, nose tackle Brian Price and receiver Geronimo Allison were among the candidates.

Fox has Bears headed in right direction

The Chicago Bears rebounded from three consecutive setbacks to eventual playoff teams to start the 2015 season, improving to 5-6 before dropping four of their final five outings to miss the playoffs for the eighth time in nine years.

However, fans are optimistic that the winds of change are blowing through Chicago in the second year with coach John Fox and GM Ryan Pace in charge.

And the main reasons are a continued makeover of the defensive front seven and offensive line — with a distinct Denver flavor from the former Broncos coach — the return of 2015 first-round draft pick Kevin White after the wide receiver missed his entire rookie campaign and the fact that much-maligned quarterback Jay Cutler is coming off the best season of his 10-year career.

Chicago brought in defensive lineman Akiem Hicks from New England and linebackers Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman from Denver and Indianapolis, respectively, to boost its firepower.

The Bears finished a respectable 13th in points allowed and 14th in total yards and ended up fourth in pass defense despite a franchise-low eight interceptions and registering 35 sacks, which ranked 22nd.

They hope to remedy the latter statistic with first-round pick Leonard Floyd joining veteran pass rushers Willie Young, Pernell McPhee and Lamarr Houston.

Still, the secondary lacks talent and/or is unproven, and coordinator Vic Fangio's unit must improve on its No. 22 run defense, which could be tough with guys like Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Green Bay's Eddie Lacy on the schedule.

Offensively, the brain trust brought in Bobby Massie from Arizona and Manny Ramirez from Detroit to help stalwart Kyle Long upfront. But two months later, Ramirez, who played for Fox in Denver, retired. And Long has been sidelined with a shoulder injury.

Still, any help is welcome news for Cutler, who recorded his highest passer (92.3) and second-lowest interception (2.3) ratings. He threw 21 scoring passes and only 11 picks, the fewest of his career except for seven in 2011, when he played in 10 games.

White's debut gives the Bears another big weapon outside to go with fellow 6-foot-3-inch and No. 1 ball catcher Alshon Jeffery, who missed seven games, and 6-4 Marquess Wilson. That trio should open things up for tight end Zach Miller, who inherits the top spot after Martellus Bennett was shipped to the Patriots.

Another missing piece is veteran Matt Forte, who left for the New York Jets in free agency after combining for nearly 1,300 yards. Forte turned in five 1,000-yard seasons and caught 44 or more passes in all eight years in the Windy City. His heir apparent is second-year player Jeremy Langford.

Another important change is at offensive coordinator, where Dowell Loggains tries to keep Cutler productive  after Adam Gase took the head coaching job at Miami.

Chicago finished 21st in yards per game and 23rd in points and in passing offense, although it was reflective of Fox's philosophy and ended 11th in rushing.

Despite hiccups in two late-season defeats, Robbie Gould remains one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL and Pat O'Donnell made good progress in his second year at punter.

Da Bears should find out a lot about themselves early as they face road games against Houston and Dallas in the first three weeks, plus trips to Indy and Green Bay during the first seven contests.


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