The Pi-Rate Ratings

September 1, 2008

NFC North Preview

NFC NORTH PREVIEW

 

With this preview, I will reveal the PiRate Ratings for each of the four teams in the NFC North Division.  Following those ratings are the Mean Ratings and my own biased opinion (last year’s final PiRate Rating combined with how much stronger or weaker I personally think each team is compared to last season).  That will give you three different ratings for the teams.

 

When all three ratings predict the same side to win a game against the spread, then that is a playable line.  If all three ratings agree on the winner of the game, and the Las Vegas Line is single digits, then that becomes a playable game on the Moneyline.  The reason for not playing any double digit spreads is that the Moneyline odds would be too prohibitive for a double digit favorite, where just one loss could result in a losing season.  During the season, I will also supply a list of games to be played with an imaginary bank account.

 

The predicted records are not tied to the PiRate or Mean Ratings; they are strictly from my biased ratings.

 

The NFC North should see an exciting race.  While the Vikings and Packers appear to have better talent than the Lions and Bears, it is conceivable that all four teams will still have a shot at taking the division on Thanksgiving Day.

 

This division matches up with the AFC South in interconference play.  The AFC South is the toughest division of that conference, and I expect the NFC North to win less than eight of the 16 games—possibly as little as five or six.  A 9-7 record could win the division if the teams beat up on each other in intra-divisional play.

 

Unlike the NFC East, the North is deficient in talented quarterbacks.  Without Brett Favre, the next most gifted passer is Jon Kitna at Detroit.  The other three teams will go with inexperienced, untested, or unskilled signal callers.

 

Chicago Bears

 

PiRate

100.0

Mean

102.9

Biased

99.1

Run Offense

C

Pass Offense

C

Run Defense

B+

Pass Defense

C

Special Teams

A+

Predicted Record

6-10

The Bears averaged 21 points per game last year with Brian Griese and Rex Grossman splitting the starts.  Griese is gone, and Grossman is now second string.  The new quarterback is Kyle Orton, who is more suited for a short passing game.  I don’t think Orton and his receivers will force defenses to stay honest unless wideout Devin Hester emerges as a consistent deep threat.  Rashied Davis and Marty Booker won’t be confused for Randy Moss, as neither has exceptional quickness.  The Bears will throw short, and secondaries will cheat up.

 

The running game will get no help from the passing game.  Chicago averaged just 3.1 yards per rush last year, and that wasn’t because they were trying to convert numerous short yardage plays.  The offensive line couldn’t open holes because defenses could frequently sell out to stop the run.  Rookie Matt Forte from Tulane is not going to improve on the paltry performance displayed by Cedric Benson.  Adrian Peterson is a serviceable pass catching back for obvious passing downs, but he’s nothing like his namesake in Minneapolis.

 

Defensively, Chicago is very much like the Bear teams of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  The Dick Butkus of this team is Brian Urlacher.  Arguably the best at his craft today, Urlacher can flatten a quarterback and intercept a pass with equal proficiency.  Fellow linebackers Hunter Hillenmeyer and Lance Briggs provide adequate support.

 

The defensive line is anchored by ends Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown.  Enemy runners will not exploit the off-tackle hole against them.

 

The secondary is a liability but not an out-and-out weakness.  The backline quartet gets the benefit from an exceptional pass rush.

 

Devin Hester puts the “special” in special teams.  He’s simply the best return man since Travis Williams played with Green Bay in 1967.  There’s talk that Coach Lovie Smith might reduce the amount of time he spends returning kicks and punts in favor of getting him more time at wide receiver.  I believe that could be a huge mistake.  Field position is extremely important, and Hester virtually guarantees the Bears a shorter than normal field whenever he returns a punt or kick.

 

Detroit Lions

 

PiRate

96.2

Mean

96.5

Biased

97.8

Run Offense

D

Pass Offense

B+

Run Defense

C

Pass Defense

D-

Special Teams

B

Predicted Record

5-11

Detroit is still a year or two or three away from competing for a playoff berth, but in a weaker than normal division, the Lions could easily flirt with playoff contention.  Last year, the Lions shot out to a 6-2 record at the halfway point of the season, but the schedule was much tougher in the second half with five games against playoff teams.  The Lions went 0-5 in those games.

 

The Lions cannot run the ball and cannot stop enemy passes.  If the NFL was only a touch football league with nothing but passing, then Detroit could match up with just about any other team.

 

Quarterback Jon Kitna has put together back-to-back 4,000 yard passing seasons, but I don’t expect to see a three-peat.  Offensive coordinator Mike Martz is calling the plays in the city by the Bay, and new O.C. Jim Colletto will rely on a more balanced attack, at least until he finds out the Lions cannot run the ball.

 

Rookie Kevin Smith will get first crack at starting at running back.  Smith is not a bruiser, and he will not be durable enough to carry the ball 20 times a game.  Tatum Bell has speed and quickness but he cannot blast through the line for three yards on third and two. 

 

The receiving corps is a definite asset, but their numbers may suffer in the new offense.  Roy Williams, Calvin Johnson, Shaun McDonald, and Mike Furrey give Detroit the best four-deep set of receivers in the NFC, and H-back Sean McHugh gives Kitna another option.  Look for Johnson to have a breakout year and begin to live up to his potential.

 

The offensive line is the biggest glaring weakness on the attack side.  When it’s all said and done, the best teams in pro football are those with the best offensive and defensive lines.  This line will not open holes for the backs, while the new schemes will cause a weakening in pass protection.  Look for the offense to take a step back and fall from 22 points a game to less than 20.

 

The Lion defense failed to roar last year, and it can only improve this year.  If it fails to improve, or even gets worse than last season, then Coach Rod Marinelli could be out of a job by the time Detroit plays its annual Thanksgiving Day game.

 

Last year, the Lions gave up 4.3 yards per opponent rush.  Tackle Cory Redding is the lone bright spot versus the run.  New nose tackle Chuck Darby could be an improvement against the run at that position, but it will come at the expense of the pass rush.  The pass rush will suffer with the departure of Shaun Rogers.  That leaves end Dewayne White as the only strong pass rusher, and offenses will be able to key on him when they pass.

 

Linebacker Ernie Sims has a good chance of leading the NFC in tackles if he stays healthy for 16 games.  That isn’t necessarily a good thing; leading in tackles frequently equates to having a defense that stays on the field too much and has fewer than normal stars.

 

To put it bluntly, the Lion secondary is poor.  They surrendered 4,131 yards last year and may only improve this year because the new offense will shorten the game by a half dozen plays.  The Lions allowed more than 70% of opponent passes to be completed for an average of 7.3 yards per attempt. 

 

Jason Hanson is one of the better kickers in the league, and punter Nick Harris is an asset.  Unfortunately, he is used too much.

 

Detroit will take a step back this year, and Coach Marinelli could be on the firing line.  The offense is going to regress while the defense improves slightly.  It adds up to a season more like the second half of 2007. 

 

Green Bay Packers

 

PiRate

106.3

Mean

101.4

Biased

101.6

Run Offense

B

Pass Offense

C+

Run Defense

B

Pass Defense

B

Special Teams

B-

Predicted Record

9-7

With Brett Favre behind center, the Packers would be a cinch to repeat as NFC North Champions.  Aaron Rodgers cannot possibly duplicate Favre’s 2007 season even if he looked quite capable in limited duty.  Expect a considerable amount of slippage in the passing game, which in turn will help enemy run defenses to gain more of an advantage when the Packers run the ball.  Rodgers will not be close in durability to Favre, and should he go down, there are two rookie quarterbacks left on the roster.  I don’t expect Rodgers to play every down in all 16 games, and that could force Green Bay to find a recently cut veteran as insurance.

 

When Rodgers passes the ball, he will have a better than average group of pass catchers.  Donald Driver and Greg Jennings will get open enough times to allow Rodgers a chance to shine.  Both can turn a seven yard route into a 20 yard gain.  The depth here is a liability, as all of the reserves have glaring weaknesses.  James Jones is inconsistent; Ruvell Martin lacks experience; and top draft pick Jordy Nelson is a step slow.  Green Bay has a fantastic pass catching tight end in Donald Lee, but he provides little blocking support for the run.  Rookie tight end Jermichael Finley shares the same asset and liability.

 

Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson give the Packers an above average one-two punch at running back, but a lot of that had to do with Favre’s ability to keep defenses pass conscious.  The Green Bay offensive line is more adroit at pass blocking than run blocking, and the running game could suffer greatly if Rodgers cannot vertically stretch opponents’ defenses. 

 

The defense is above average but not spectacular.  Up front, end Aaron Kampman is one of the top pass rushers in the league.  End Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila keeps pass blockers honest, but he is strictly a pass rusher and not a run stuffer.  Tackles Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly provide adequate run stopping ability, but the Packers are vulnerable to a top running back like that Peterson fellow 280 miles west.

 

Middle linebacker Nick Barnett is no Ray Nitschke, but he’s better than average at his position.  He is equally adept at defending the run and the pass.  Fellow Linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brady Poppinga have their limitations, but they give the Packers the best trio in the division.

 

The secondary is beginning to gray, and that could become a problem if cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson slow down a bit.  The Packers use man to man defense more than most teams, and quickness is extremely important for success.

 

It can be hard to kick and punt at Lambeau Field after September, but kicker Mason Crosby and punter Jon Ryan are two of the better specialists in the league. 

 

Green Bay will go as far as Rodgers can take them.  If he can stay healthy and start at least 14 games, and if he can post a passer rating of 80 or better, the Packers should win the division.  I’m just not confident he can do both.  I expect quite a bit of slippage, and the Packers will lose three or four more games in 2008 than they did in 2007.  Playing four tough teams from the AFC South rather than the Chargers and their three weak sisters in the AFC West will take its toll. 

 

Minnesota Vikings

 

PiRate

105.6

Mean

101.1

Biased

102.6

Run Offense

A+

Pass Offense

C-

Run Defense

A+

Pass Defense

C

Special Teams

B+

Predicted Record

10-6

In 1969 and 1970, the Vikings relied on a time-consuming offense and first-rate defense to post back-to-back 12-2 seasons with little help whatsoever coming from its passing game.  Times have changed, and that type of offense will not work today.  The Vikings have the best running game in the NFL, but unless they can improve their passing game, the purple and white will be nothing but blue come January.

 

I believe the Vikings can improve by one or two games this season.  Quarterback Tavaris Jackson will rely on a heavy dose of play-action passes and let the run set up the pass.  I expect Jackson to improve just enough to lead the Vikings to the top of the standings in the NFC North.  If he suffers an injury like last year, new backup Gus Frerotte can provide adequate relief but he doesn’t have the stamina to be a longtime solution.

 

The offense revolves around the running game, and Adrian Peterson is the 21st Century Walter Payton.  Peterson came within four yards of becoming the first runner to gain 300 yards in an NFL game.  He finished the year with 1,341 yards and a 5.6 yard average.  Backup Chester Taylor ran for 844 yards, and he is a former 1,000 yard rusher.  Fullback Thomas Tapeh is a bull and can block like a third guard.  Tapeh also provides a nice safety target in passing situations.

 

The offensive line is obviously more skilled at blocking for the run than the pass, so it goes without saying that more play-action passes would benefit the big guys up front.  This has the potential of being the best offensive line in the NFC if they can cut down on the high number of sacks allowed (38) last year.

 

The Viking defense will not call for comparisons to the Purple People Eater defense of a generation ago, but it is the best in the NFC at stopping the run.  Pat and Kevin Williams are the dominant defensive tackles in the league when it comes to stuffing the run.  End Jared Allen is equally proficient at that task, but he should earn his keep by bringing the morbid pass rush back to life. 

 

Linebackers E.J. Henderson, Chad Greenway, and Ben Leber take anything that gets past the first wave and stops it before it gets to the secondary.  With an improved pass rush, they shouldn’t have to blitz as much as last year, and that will make the short passing zones all the better.

 

An improved pass rush should make the secondary look respectable.  This is where opponents have exploited the Viking defense, but it will be tougher to do so this year.  Expect Minnesota to trim 25 yards or more off their passing yardage allowed per game in 2008 (264).  If rookie free safety Tyrell Johnson lives up to his billing and flashes the exceptional talent he possesses, it could be the final piece of the puzzle that leads to a division title.  Much will ride on how well Aaron Rodgers plays at Green Bay, but I believe the Vikings are the early season favorite to wear the Black and Blue crown in 2008. 

Advertisements

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: