NFL Midseason Grades: NFC North
By Ed Wilkins, co creator of the Stiff Upper Lip Podcast.
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Green Bay Packers (6-2) – 1st in NFC North
Offensive Points Per Game: 31.6 (3rd in NFL)
Defensive Points Per Game: 25.5 (13th in NFL)
Angry Aaron Rodgers is a tough, tough prospect for opposing defenses. He is the only QB in the NFC North anywhere near the MVP conversation, has thrown 24 touchdowns to just two picks and, in Davante Adams, he has the Mark Anthony to his Caesar.
Adams leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns despite missing multiple games with various ailments and is playing at an All-Pro level, catching basically anything that is thrown even near his way with his ridiculous catch radius. Bob Tonyan is a revelation at tight end and, with a rotation of Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon, the Packers run a pick-your-poison type offense under Matt LeFleur.
The defense looks more like a Goosebumps novel though – a choose your own adventure mess that gives up plenty of chunk gains in the secondary. Kenny Clark’s early season exit is an enormous loss for the Packers, who have allowed 111 rushing yards per game, and aren’t getting the same outside pressure as last season without his enormous frame hogging the attention of opposing guards.
That said, Jaire Alexander is playing at a high level in the secondary and should receive the NFC’s All-Pro nod. Still, the main problem for the Packer’s defense is Mike Pettine’s base Dime package – they feature six defensive backs on a vast proportion of snaps, daring oppositions to run on them. Which they do.
Sitting at 6-2, the defense hasn’t cost them too much, and they regularly beat up on inferior teams. Over the course of the past eight games, they have controlled the ball to an average of just under 35 minutes per game, and Mason Crosby has kicked just 11 field goals (fourth fewest among teams having played 8 games) compared to 28 extra points (second most among teams having played 8 games).
The clear cut favourites in the NFC North, the Packers aren’t without flaws, but, given the fact that there will be at least one NFC East side in the postseason this year, you wouldn’t bet against them making a deep playoff run, a fun fact that will plaster a smile across the chops of fellow GX contributor Max Saito. And deservedly so.
Minnesota Vikings (3-5) – 3rd in NFC North
Offensive PPG: 27.1 (12th)
Defensive PPG: 29.3 (23rd)
Resurgency, thy name is Dalvin Cook. You’ll notice that earlier I said that Aaron Rodgers was the only QB entering the MVP conversation. That’s true, as Kirk has steadied the ship manfully but has thrown just 34 attempts over the past two games. Instead, Dalvin Cook has rushed for a whopping 858 yards over just seven games, accruing 12 tuddies, a raft of broken tackles and 48 (!) first downs along the way.
He’s also accrued 158 receiving yards including a 50-yard tuddy versus the Pack as well. Cook is well and truly in the MVP conversation, but he has benefitted from Gary Kubiak’s outside zone scheme which maximises his lateral quickness, and especially the Minnesota O-Line which looks like the best run blocking unit in the NFL. With Adam Thielen playing like Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson’s breakout, the sky is the limit for the Vikings Offense, who have been in the top 3 in DVOA over the past six games.
Mike Zimmer’s once vaunted defense has been the weak point of this team though. Through key losses in free agency of Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and the entire CB room, the Vikings defense has looked all at sea at times.
Jeff Gladney, picked 31st overall, has been something of a disappointment this far, as the whole secondary has struggled. The biggest loss for the team though has been the lack of Danielle Hunter – the star defensive end has been on IR since the off season with a herniated disk in his neck. Without his sack totals, the Vikings defense has found generating pressure tough and have been burned over the top repeatedly.
There have been positives – with Minnesota shifting to more of a Tampa 2 look over the past couple of games, the defense has conceded fewer chunk plays, and Eric Kendricks is playing like a man possessed, leading the team in tackles and recapturing his All-Pro form from last year.
The Vikings sit 3-5. That’s less than ideal for their playoff hopes, especially considering that they still have games versus the Bucs and Saints, but they have an outside chance at the postseason.
Chicago Bears (5-4) – 2nd in NFC North
Offensive PPG: 19.8 (29th)
Defensive PPG: 21.1 (9th)
Ah, the Bears. Would that it were, boys. After a 5-1 start that fooled nobody bar Matt Nagy, the Bears have slipped down to 5-4 and their offense has sputtered. They rank 31st in offensive DVOA, beaten to the booby prize by a Jets side seemingly playing at right angles to sense.
It’s not as if they’re bereft of offensive talent either, even if their offensive line seems a little green compared to previous campaigns.
They have a solid stable of pass catchers headed by the NFL’s equivalent of Frank Grimes; Allen Robinson, and a unique do-it-all piece in Cordarrelle Patterson. However, they lack any sense of cohesion in playcalling, and one of the limpest rushing attacks in the NFC featuring the wildly underperforming David ‘Treacle-feet’ Montgomery (14 carries for 30 yards anyone? No takers? Cool).
Nagy may well be ousted at the end of the season, and at this point the seat of his pants must be getting worryingly hot. Chuck Pagano’s tush on the other hand? Cool as a cucumber. His Bears defense are maulers against the run (although that will be put to the sword this week when Dalvin Cook arrives in town), as well as being a capable unit against the pass.
They’re suffering though, from the same syndrome that has affected them in the latter part of last season. Exhaustion. When the summary of your first ten drives against the Titans reads: Turnover on Downs, Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt, Punt, Half, Punt, Fumble Returned for Tuddy, Field Goal; you are going to be flagging come the fourth quarter.
The truth is, Mack and Co. can win games by themselves. But that’s not a sustainable way to do it, and the defense won’t score points every week. I think a regression back to the mean is inevitable at this point. The Overall grade for this bears side is a C. Fail to resolve these issues that have now plagued this team for the better part of two seasons, and we could see this grade slide down to a big fat F.
Detroit Lions (3-5) – 4th in NFC North
Offensive PPG: 24.6 (19th)
Defensive PPG: 30.0 (26th)
Matt Stafford’s time in Detroit seems to me to be more Greek tragicomedy than the story of a sports franchise. Or, better yet, Les Misérables (Matt Patricia looks for all accounts like someone who goes fishing for valuables in the sewer in his days off). No matter how teeny tiny the ray of hope glinting from the sky over Detroit during the off-season, the Lions started to believe their own hype and look primed to collapse in a dumpster fire of self-propagating hubris.
With Matt Stafford dealing with a concussion suffered against Minnesota, Kenny Golladay, their best offensive player other than Matt Stafford, boomeranging onto IR again and bright spot tight end T.J. Hockenson dealing with numerous minor injuries, the offense looks like a unit without any game breaking talents.
Offensive Tackle Hal Vaitai seems like an extremely poor pickup to replace the departing Rick Wagner too, having given up numerous pressures and looking as statuesque as an Easter Island Head in the run game.
The Lions aren’t without bright spots – Punter Jack Fox is playing like a man possessed, howitzering his punts with extreme prejudice, ranking first in both yards per punt and punts downed inside the 10, D’Andre Swift looks like he has gotten over his heartbreaking error week one vs da Burrs, and the pick of Jeff Okudah 3rd overall looks like a home run in these early stages.
They’d have one of the better corner duos in the NFL if alas, they could finally hold on to their blue-chip talents. Alas, Darius Slay left for greener pastures over the offseason. And that story is a microcosm of the season for the Lions; one step forward, and between one and three steps back. Come to think of it, isn’t that the story of the Detroit Lions?
Not to pile on for the Lions fans, but their last five games are a murderer’s row of the Bears, Packers, Titans, Buccaneers and Vikings. Based on their recent form, they’ll be lucky to scrape one win through that, and with their only other games being against Washington and Carolina, it’s likely another losing season for Detroit, one that may end in the top brass casting Matt Patricia back into the sewer from whence he came.