The NFC North managed to send two teams to the playoffs, but neither won a game. In short, the division that promised so much, failed to deliver. After all, when you look at the start to the year the Detroit Lions made, and the quest for the unbeaten season of the Green Bay Packers, it seemed inevitable at one point that an NFC North team would, in the least, be competing for the NFC Championship.
It didn’t, as defenses caved and the offenses couldn’t overcome. However, the NFC North was more than just about these two teams. No, it was also about how different things could have been for the Chicago Bears if Jay Cutler hadn’t gone down hurt, and questioning just where the Minnesota Vikings are going right now.
So let’s look at some of the players who surprised us the most from the year gone by, as we continue to break down the 2011 season.
Henry Melton: From -7.3 (2010) to +11.2 (2011)
Melton went from a backup and situational role, to full-time starter in 2011, and the added responsibility went a long way to bringing out the best in him. In 2010, he tallied just three sacks, three hits, and 12 hurries as he didn’t turn his quick first step into an awful lot of pressure. Compounding this was the fact he was even more of a liability on the 77 plays he spent in run defense. So his shift to a player who not only started, but looked competent defending the run and picked up 39 combined sacks, hits, and hurries (third-most of all defensive tackles), is commendable.
Biggest Drop Off
Israel Idonije: From +9.0 to -1.0
It wasn’t a terrible year from Idonije. It did seem the Bears decision to not rotate the Canadian-born defensive end, impacted upon his productivity, especially in pass rushing situations. Idonije is still a fine defender of the run, and is capable of making plays in the passing game. However, you can’t help but feel the Bears would benefit from cutting into the 944 snaps he had this year by finding a situational rusher to ease his load.
Corey Graham: +3.4 from 89 snaps
Sure it’s a small sample size, but there was enough in watching Graham fill in for D.J. Moore covering the slot to wonder just how the special team’s ace would handle a role as part of the defense. The soon-to-be free agent did more in 89 snaps than some do in five times as many so maybe this will be the year a team gives him a shot to make his way into their sub-package D.
Chris Houston: From -4.5 to +3.7
After the 2010 season, it was widely acknowledged the Lions needed to get better at the cornerback spot, and part of that thinking seemed to include moving on from Houston. Detroit didn’t find much help in free agency or the draft, so Houston was given another chance to impress and fared much better in 2011. Tasked with tracking a team’s top receiver at times, Houston made himself the Lions No. 1 cornerback with a series of solid displays in allowing just 52.9% of passes to be completed with him in primary coverage (down from 61.4% the year prior).
Biggest Drop Off
Corey Williams: From +9.2 pass rushing, to -4.2 pass rushing
Lost in the Lions’ excellent season was the somewhat disappointing play of Williams this year. Back in 2010 when everyone was raving about Ndamukong Suh, it was interesting to note Williams wasn’t far from being as productive a pass rusher on a per-snap basis. You couldn’t say the same this year with Williams generating less pressure, and doing far less damage to QBs (just six combined hits and sacks). Williams did a decent job playing the run, but can he get back to his explosive best in 2012?
Willie Young: +11.7 from 259 snaps
There’s a case to be made for Tony Scheffler, but in the end you just can’t ignore how productive Young was when he got on the field. His four sacks, four hits, and 19 hurries on 157 pass rushes put others to shame as Young showed the kind of speed off the edge that indicates he needs more time, especially in obvious passing situations. He’ll be one player immensely affected by what happens with Cliff Avril and his contract.
Green Bay Packers
Bryan Bulaga: From -22.7 to +14.5
After a pretty rough rookie year (remember those games against Dallas, Detroit, and the Giants), Bulaga did display some talent in the Packers’ playoff run before the Super Bowl provided the perfect matchup for Lamarr Woodley to school him. The Packers’ right tackle has built on that to put forth the kind of season that should have earned him more All-Pro consideration than it did, taking a huge step forward in every conceivable way. Another great job, it would appear, of the Packers picking up the right offensive lineman in the draft.
Biggest Drop Off
B.J. Raji: From +15.8 to -20.7
The crazy thing is some people watched Raji leaning on linemen and thought he had a good year this season. Used a lot less over the nose, Raji struggled to impact games anywhere near the level he did as when the Packers made their way to a Super Bowl in 2010. His number of defensive stops dropped from 31 to 10, and his total number of QB disruptions fell by 19. If you thought Raji wasn’t playing as much as last year and that would explain his drop off/invisibility, you’ll do well to note he only ended up playing 150 snaps more in 2010, and that was mainly down to playing in an extra three games in the playoffs.
D.J. Smith: +5.6 from 267 snaps
The Packers may have re-signed A.J. Hawk in 2011, but as you watch him spend most of his plays doing a whole heap of nothing, you can’t help but think the Packers may be better off with someone a bit more dynamic to partner with the excellent Desmond Bishop. In limited action, Smith showed a lot of promise, and arguably has more upside than Hawk at this point in his career.
John Sullivan: From -8.9 to +22.5
Sullivan can rightfully feel done wrong by missing out on the Pro Bowl, but can take comfort in the fact the Vikings recognized his superb performance with a shiny new contract. Doing a better job of opening up holes than he’s ever done before, Sullivan helped make the Vikings’ line more respectable than it ever seemed to be, and finally made Vikes fans forget about Matt Birk (to a degree). Finally healthy, he’ll need to kick on next year and show 2011 was no flash in the pan.
Biggest Drop Off
Chad Greenway: From +11.4 to -3.3
It’s been a few years since we saw Greenway at his peak in 2008, and this was another where his play didn’t live up to his reputation. His work in run defense continues to impress, but as an every-down linebacker Greenway is turning into something of a liability in coverage where he earned a horrendous -17.8 grade. Perhaps you can blame some of this on a Vikings coverage unit that seemed lost at times, but there’s no mistaking the issues Greenway himself had.
Erin Henderson: +21.7 from 590 snaps
On the back of one season, Henderson may have overtaken his brother as the best linebacker in the family, so it’s imperative the Vikings re-sign him. The younger Henderson brother looks every bit the three-down player, getting off blocks to make plays, and looking more comfortable in coverage as the season went on.