LONDON -- The Detroit Lions face the Atlanta Falcons at Wembley Stadium Sunday as part of the NFL’s International Series. How do the Lions come away with a win and a 6-2 first-half record? Here are four keys.

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1. Calvin Johnson: The star wide receiver practiced for the first time this week and said Thursday he could take his decision of whether or not to play all the way to Sunday. Unlike the past two weeks, though, this game might mean a bit more to him. As a huge international soccer fan, playing this game in Wembley Stadium would truly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Johnson. And doing it while facing his hometown team, the Atlanta Falcons? That might be too good for him to pass up. If he bases it solely on his health, however, he truly becomes a coin-flip decision. Detroit could use him back in the lineup because the offense has been somewhat stagnant due to his and other injuries to skill-position players.

2. Who plays tight end? The Lions have been down three tight ends for most of the week, and the two who have practiced -- Kellen Davis and Jordan Thompson -- have been with the Lions’ 53-man roster for all of a week. Davis has never even played for Detroit before. If Brandon Pettigrew, Eric Ebron and Joseph Fauria all don’t play, that’s a big spot for a free agent off the street and a practice squad player. Depending on Johnson’s status, this could severely limit Matthew Stafford’s options.

3. Get to Matt Ryan: The veteran Atlanta quarterback has been good at avoiding pressure and sacks this season, even as his offensive line has crumbled around him due to injuries and ineffectiveness. But Ryan hasn’t faced this type of defensive front this season, and while Drew Brees had time on some plays last week, he was pressured enough to force bad decisions, including 10 incompletions and a turnover during the Lions’ rally late in the fourth quarter. If Detroit can do similar things to Ryan, this could be a big game for the Lions’ defensive line.

4. Defend Roddy White and Julio Jones: It’s unlikely the Lions will be able to take away both players, as they have combined for four 100-yard games this season (Jones with three, White with one). White and Jones represent one of the toughest receiving tandems the Lions have faced all season, and covering both while pressuring Ryan will be the key for defensive success. It would not be a surprising strategy to see the Lions not blitz much and have the front four try to create pass pressure and stop the run game, leaving seven players to drop into coverage. This might be a game where Detroit would want to allow more on the run in order to shut down the pass.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was 13 yards away from Jerricho Cotchery when the Carolina Panthers receiver caught a swing pass at his own 48-yard line in the third quarter of Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.

In 1.4 seconds, Clinton-Dix had closed the gap.

The story would be better if the Green Bay Packers rookie made the tackle, but then safeties coach Darren Perry might not have anything to hold over the first-round pick.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsRookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has become one of the Packers' surest tacklers.
In what was his first NFL start, Clinton-Dix led the Packers with eight tackles (including seven solo stops). That he missed Cotchery on what turned out to be a 9-yard catch-and-run actually sat well with Perry for one reason: Clinton-Dix was aggressive in his pursuit.

"Coach sees us out there giving effort, 100 percent effort, whether we miss the tackle or we make it, he can live with that," Clinton-Dix said Friday. "Once he sees us coming up short or kind of hesitating on making the tackle, then he really has a problem."

In just seven NFL games, the 21st overall pick went from the guy who was caught flat-footed on his open-field missed tackle that led to Seattle Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette's 33-yard touchdown in season opener to perhaps the most aggressive pursuer in the Packers' secondary.

Since the opener, Clinton-Dix has been charged with only one missed tackle, according to Pro Football Focus, although it should be noted that it did not give him a missed tackle against the Panthers.

But the Packers coaches gave him one.

"He's a guy that once he sees stuff, he comes down hill and goes and gets it," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "He doesn't hesitate. He shoots his gun so to speak. You saw him on Sunday, he had to cover space and made one really nice tackle, and then he missed one. But he's going after it aggressively. I think people, over a period of time, receivers know that when you've got a big safety coming downhill on them, it affects that middle of the field."

For the first six games, Clinton-Dix split time at free safety with second-year pro Micah Hyde, who started every one of them. But in the last three of those, Clinton-Dix actually played more snaps than Hyde, which made it only a matter of time before he took over as the starter and played every snap like he did against the Panthers.

"He's really come into his own and is starting to show that he can cover the field as well as fit within the run game and not only fit, but make big plays in space, which we haven't seen for some time since we lost Nick [Collins] and some of those veteran safeties and corners," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. "It's good to have a guy like that who you know you're going to be able to count on for years."

The Packers may have to count on him even more on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. Veteran starting strong safety Morgan Burnett has not practiced all week because of a calf injury and was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report.

Plus, Clinton-Dix might have his toughest matchup of the season if he's asked to cover Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.

But he will have capable help. If Burnett can't play, either Hyde or Sean Richardson would start at the other safety spot. The Packers like Hyde's coverage ability, which is why he moves to the nickel spot when the Packers employ five defensive backs, and Richardson is an up-and-comer who has contributed in spots -- like his tackle for no gain on Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart on third-and-1 in the first quarter of Sunday's game.

It's an embarrassment of riches at safety, a position where last year the Packers could barely find one productive starter, and they have Clinton-Dix to thank for that.

"This is the way it's supposed to be," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Brandon Marshall brushed off any potential distraction caused by last week’s locker room flap on the heels of Chicago’s 27-14 loss to the Miami Dolphins, and plans to use the frustration from the defeat and residual drama as “fuel” for Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots.

Asked Friday how he’s moved on from last week’s disappointment, Marshall said, “Do what I’ve been doing my whole career. Just get up every single day, put one leg in my pants, then the next one, and go to work. That’s all I do.”

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Marshall sees the latest situation as an opportunity for the team to take a major step toward developing. The Bears have lost three of their last four games, and are coming off a loss to Miami that caused Marshall to make several pointed remarks regarding the performance of the offense.

Before the team opened the locker room for reporters, Marshall could be overheard addressing the team. A source inside the locker room said some of the receiver’s remarks were directed at quarterback Jay Cutler, who on Thursday denied that was the case.

“We’ve got a really talented group, close-knit group,” Marshall said after practice Friday. “We’re in a tough spot right now, but you can really grow when there’s tension and when you’re in an uncomfortable position, and I think we are. But this team is built to persevere in situations like this. We go on the road in San Francisco, against the Jets, and we play well. We play well enough. That’s what we have to do this week is take it one game a time and fight our way back into this thing.”

Marshall took issue with how reporters characterized what they heard outside the doors of the club’s locker room as the receiver addressed the team.

“Man, you guys [in the media] are the most powerful people in the world,” Marshall said. “You guys influence the masses. When you use words like ‘rant’ and ‘tirade,’ that’s sexy. It sells papers. It boosts readings. But that’s B.S., and you guys know that.”

Did Marshall leave his frustrations from Sunday’s loss in the locker room?

“No,” he said. “It’s fuel. You’ve got to take that frustration and use it as fuel. I’m going to be frustrated until we run a few [wins together] in a row. So you just have to take it and use it as fuel. That’s the good thing about playing in professional sports. You can let the negative stuff tear you down or you can take it and build off of it, and use it as fuel. And I’ll be determined to get the job done.”
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings could be without cornerback Josh Robinson on Sunday, after Robinson injured his ankle during individual drills on Thursday.

Robinson did not practice on Friday, indicating his availability for Sunday is in some doubt. The cornerback said after practice, however, that he's feeling better after rolling his ankle on Thursday, and he sounded optimistic he could still play Sunday.

Robinson
"We were just going through the motions and not really trying to go full speed or anything like that [when the injury occurred]," Robinson said. "That should help as far as recovery time."

Asked about Robinson's availability for Sunday, coach Mike Zimmer said, "I don't know. We'll find out a little bit more tomorrow."

If Robinson were unable to play, rookie Jabari Price would likely be next in line.

With John Sullivan ready to return from a concussion this week, the Vikings won't need Joe Berger to start at center on Sunday, but it seems possible Berger could find his way into the lineup at right guard instead. He saw some first-team snaps at the spot this week, while Vlad Ducasse worked his way back from a knee injury. Berger and Zimmer were coy about the plan for the offensive line, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see Berger in the lineup on Sunday.

"I may or may not know that," Berger said when asked whether he has been told if he'll start on Sunday. "If you guys don't know that, I'm going to let the coach tell you."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- For the second straight week, the Green Bay Packers spent Friday facing the possibility of playing without two of their four starting defensive backs.

 Last Sunday against Carolina, they got one of them back -- cornerback Tramon Williams -- but played without cornerback Sam Shields.

A week later, they're again concerned about Shields, who has yet to practice because of the knee injury he sustained on Oct. 12 at Miami. The Packers listed him as doubtful for Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints. Davon House would make his second straight start if Shields can’t play.

This time, the other issue is at safety, where Morgan Burnett has yet to practice this week because of a calf injury he sustained against the Panthers.

The situation might be more troublesome this week considering the Saints' high-powered offense, which ranks second in the NFL in yards.

On Thursday, coach Mike McCarthy expressed concern that Burnett's injury was not progressing as fast as he would have hoped.

But on Friday, there was a hint of optimism in his voice.

"Morgan was in here bright and early [going] through the treatments," McCarthy said. "He's obviously going through the Friday routine defensively with the walkthroughs and the classroom, so we'll give him every, plus it's a night game, too. We have more time."

The Packers have options if Burnett can't play. They could start Micah Hyde, who lost his starting spot to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix last week, but still played as the nickel defensive back. Or they could go with up-and-comer Sean Richardson and leave Hyde as the nickel.

Defensive end Datone Jones (ankle) was ruled out even though he practiced on a limited basis Thursday.

"Datone, actually, he went for it yesterday," McCarthy said Friday. "I appreciate him out there pushing through it. Frankly, watching the individual work with Mike Trgovac, our D-Line coach, you could clearly see he's not ready. So he's not going to make it."

Here's the full injury report:
  • Out: DE Datone Jones (ankle)
  • Doubtful: CB Sam Shields (knee)
  • Questionable: S Morgan Burnett (calf)
  • Probable: RB James Starks (ankle)

Packers vs. Saints preview

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
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Recent history suggests we could be in for a lot of points in prime time when the New Orleans Saints (2-4) host the Green Bay Packers (5-2) on Sunday night inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The past three meetings between Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Packers counterpart Aaron Rodgers have averaged more than 70 points per game, with more than 2,000 total passing yards and a combined 19 touchdown passes.

For that trend to continue, the Saints need to recapture their missing mojo. While the Packers have been among the hottest teams in football during a four-game win streak, the Saints have been maddeningly up-and-down all season, even in their victories. New Orleans is 2-0 at home this year, though, and it has won 13 straight prime-time home games by nearly 20 points per game.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky discuss this week's matchup:

Triplett: Rob, the Packers have always reminded me a lot of the Saints in that they look untouchable when their offense gets hot. Is their offense playing as well right now as it ever has in the Rodgers era?

Demovsky: It's close, Mike. But several players this week said they're still not quite to where they were in 2011 when, as offensive lineman T.J. Lang put it, they "could do whatever they wanted." But there's no question Rodgers is dialed in. His only interception, which came in the opener, went off the hands of Jordy Nelson. And here's why the offense might be close to resembling Rodgers' MVP season of '11: He's starting to spread the ball around more. The offense isn't just Nelson, like it was the first three weeks. In Sunday's win over the Panthers, Rodgers hit nine different receivers. That's the way he operated in 2011.

What's the difference with the Saints' offense right now than when it clicks like it has so often in the past?

Triplett: I'll give you the same answer. It's close. Brees and the Saints have still looked excellent at times, and they lead the NFL in yards per play. But they've shot themselves in the foot too much with a total of 12 turnovers and seemingly one bad stretch in every game. Sunday, Brees threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns through three quarters at Detroit. Then they collapsed in the fourth quarter, including a really bad interception.

But all of the elements are still there. Brees has been mostly sharp and accurate with short passes, and he finally rediscovered the deep passing game Sunday. His biggest problem: He has thrown seven interceptions while under duress. The run game has been as good as ever during the Brees-Sean Payton era. They need Jimmy Graham healthy, but he's on the way. They need consistency more than anything else, and playing at home should help kick-start things.

What kind of a defense will the Saints be facing on Sunday night? Green Bay has reminded me of the Saints on that side of the ball with so much inconsistency over the years.

Demovsky: Up until Sunday against the Panthers, it was a defense that was reliant on taking the ball away. The Packers had 11 takeaways (including eight interceptions) in their four previous games but they finally played a solid defensive game where turnovers weren't the overriding difference. Yes, they did have one interception against Carolina, but it wasn't the reason they shut down Cam Newton & Co. The Packers forced three-and-outs on four of the Panthers' first five possessions. If there's an area where they're still a little shaky, it's against the run. They finally climbed out of last place in rushing defense, but not by much. They're 31st this week.

What's been the bigger issue for the Saints on defense: their secondary or their lack of a pass rush, which was supposed to be a strength?

Triplett: The two go hand in hand. The defensive line is a disappointment because, as you said, it was supposed to be a strength and the Saints are loaded with talent with outside linebacker Junior Galette and ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks. Instead, they've just been OK. But they remain the greatest reason for optimism, and they just played their best game last week at Detroit.

The secondary is a much bigger concern. Top cornerback Keenan Lewis remains excellent, but they've struggled badly at the No. 2 and No. 3 cornerback spots with a variety of players. They lost safety Jairus Byrd to a season-ending injury, and fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro has battled inconsistency and some uncharacteristic missed tackles. This matchup against Green Bay's offense is daunting, to say the least.

You mentioned that the Packers aren't relying solely on Nelson, which is interesting. The Saints have actually done an OK job keeping the most dangerous weapons in check (Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, etc.). But they've been in big trouble against deeper offenses like Atlanta's and Dallas' because they spread the Saints thin and burned them underneath. I know Randall Cobb and Eddie Lacy could cause problems. Do they go even deeper than that?

Demovsky: The emergence of rookie receiver Davante Adams has gone a long way toward diversifying their offense. Even if teams want to sit back in Cover 2 and roll one safety toward Nelson and the other toward Cobb, they now have Adams, who has good size and speed. Rodgers has looked to him more often of late, and he has a touchdown catch in two of the past three games. If they can get their tight ends involved, then they might be virtually impossible to stop, but so far they haven't gotten much from that spot.

The Packers' two losses have come in loud environments -- at Seattle and at Detroit -- and the Superdome certainly fits into that category. Despite all of their struggles this season, why should the Packers be worried about playing the Saints down there?

Triplett: That could be the great equalizer for the Saints. They're much more dangerous at home -- and for some reason almost unstoppable in home night games. Obviously the atmosphere has a lot to do with it. It's truly one of the loudest venues in the league. And that helps both the offense and the defense quite a bit because of communication. Plus they've got the fast track to work with and no weather conditions, which suits their style (though it won't hurt Green Bay's offense). And players also said they get into the idea of playing in that prime-time showcase knowing everyone is watching. As Brees said, "You feel like you want to kind of back up the reason for them putting you on [that stage]."

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Has it really been eight years already?

The last time the Chicago Bears visited the New England Patriots, on Nov. 26, 2006, quarterback Tom Brady was juking linebacker Brian Urlacher on an unforgettable 11-yard run en route to a hard-fought, 17-13 win.

The Patriots had ripped up their natural-grass field the week before and installed FieldTurf on a permanent basis.

"It goes fast," Brady said of the eight years. "Before that game, we played the Jets in a rainstorm, and the field really started off crappy that year. The start of the year, it was like a sandpit."

The Bears' return to New England for the first time since that game, and ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Michael C. Wright (Bears) break down the matchup:

Reiss: Give us a feel for the state of the Bears team from a locker room solidarity standpoint. Any sense of how receiver Brandon Marshall's remarks were received?

Wright: Well, you're talking about a locker room with 53 players, meaning 53 individuals who all view things differently. On one hand, you've got players who saw Marshall's remarks as something that needed to be said. On the other, you've got guys who believe he needed to keep those sharp criticisms in house. Ultimately, all of these guys have to continue to play together and unite to reach the goal, which obviously is to defeat the Patriots. Bears general manager Phil Emery recently took part in a chat on the team's official website and likened the situation to a family. There will be disagreements and different points of view, but ultimately, it's all love. So I think the Bears will quickly forget about Sunday's drama once they get into the thick of preparation for the Patriots.

The Patriots looked like a tired team during their 27-25 win over the New York Jets, especially on defense. How much of a change can we expect from this team with plenty of rest and 10 days to prepare for the Bears?

Reiss: If it doesn't change, Mike, then I think they are in trouble. I probably gave them a little more leeway on that performance than others because it was their fourth game in 18 days (three in prime time), and they had no full-speed practices to adjust to the season-ending loss of signal-caller Jerod Mayo five days earlier. I thought they looked tired, and some players said as much after the game. The tackling was sloppy, and there was just no snap in their performance. Looking ahead, the concerns are in the front seven, where they are thin and still banged up. They are pretty deep in the secondary, especially at cornerback. I'd expect a better performance Sunday than we saw Oct. 16.

Patriots followers had been hoping the team might make a run at defensive end Jared Allen in the offseason. How would you characterize his impact on the Bears defense?

Wright: Very minimal at this point, Mike, and I don't quite understand exactly why. I think a combination of factors have limited Allen's ability to make a real impact on the defense. During the preseason, Allen missed time to attend the birth of his daughter. Then, the team held him out of the third preseason game due to a bruised shoulder. Two days after the team's Sept. 22 win over the Jets, Allen was diagnosed with pneumonia, which caused him to lose 15 pounds and forced him to break a streak of 113 consecutive starts.

Meanwhile, Allen's backup, Willie Young, is putting together a career year (seven sacks). The Bears originally brought in Young to be a starter at defensive end, but when Allen became available in free agency, the club pounced and made Young the backup. But while Allen was missing time dealing with injuries and illness, Young stepped up and earned significant snaps. Now, it appears Allen has been relegated to a lesser role. Allen contributed half a sack in last week's win over the Miami Dolphins but didn't receive much playing time. Reporters asked Allen about that after the game, and all he could say was we'd have to ask the coach.

What I find a little odd is the Patriots rank fairly high in terms of points allowed, and they're also doing pretty well in terms of takeaways (tied for most in the NFL), yet there's the perception that New England's defense isn't very good. I know they've struggled against the run, but why is that the case, and where -- in terms of the defense's strengths -- do you think New England matches up best against Chicago's struggling offensive attack?

Reiss: They've had three really bad games against the run, giving up 191 to the Dolphins in the season opener, 207 to the Kansas City Chiefs and then 218 to the Jets. Like most things in football, it's never really one thing. I thought the game plan against Miami was a bit flawed because they played Chandler Jones as a 5-technique defensive end in the 3-4 and, overall, they were hurt by the inside zone runs. Against Kansas City, Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis are no slouches, and that was just a beatdown in a frenzied environment in which the Patriots didn't enter the boxing ring with the emotion needed to win. Then, the Jets game had those dynamics in play where they were without Mayo for the first time, had others banged up and were fatigued quickly. As for where the Patriots match up best with the Bears, I'd relay what Darrelle Revis said Wednesday -- the unit is at its best producing turnovers. What Revis didn't say, but you can probably confirm best, is that Chicago has been generous in that area.

With Matt Forte, Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Jay Cutler, that's a pretty high-powered offensive package of five key players. What are some of the reasons they haven't been more explosive?

Wright: The No. 1 reason is turnovers, and Cutler has committed more of them than anyone else (10) on the team, with opponents scoring 37 points off the quarterback's generosity. In each of the four losses, Cutler turned the ball over multiple times, yet in each of the victories, the quarterback didn't commit a single turnover. Headed into the game against the Dolphins, Bears coach Marc Trestman, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and even Cutler himself pointed to turnovers being the common denominator in each of the losses. Yet for whatever reason, the Bears haven't been able to fix the problem. I think Trestman, as a play-caller, shares in some of the responsibility because he probably needs to lean more on the rushing attack. Forte is averaging 4 yards per carry this season, yet in the first half last week, the Bears handed off to him just twice. Yes, the Bears ran just 18 plays in the first half. But the team needs to make Forte a more focal part of the game plan, which would enable Cutler to utilize play-action more effectively. Also, I believe there might be a problem brewing at right tackle with Jordan Mills. In each of the past two games, the Bears have had to give Mills help in protection, which obviously reduces the number of targets you can send out on routes.

Let's look at the other side of the ball. It's sort of rare to hold possession for 19:06, be outgained by 100 yards and have 12 fewer first downs than the Jets, yet still come out victorious. I know the offensive line has struggled, but can you give me an overview of some of the issues on offense?

Reiss: It starts on the offensive line. Our good friends at ESPN's Stats & Information passed along these numbers that reflect some of the instability: The Patriots have had nine different offensive linemen play at least 100 snaps, tied for the most in the league. Furthermore, New England is the only team to play six different players for at least 100 snaps at the three interior offensive line positions. Part of that has been injury-based, while part of it has been performance-based. They opened the season with tackle Marcus Cannon at left guard despite never playing him there in the preseason. He lost the job after three weeks, as did first-year right guard Jordan Devey. Things have stabilized a bit in recent weeks, and, not surprisingly, the offense has looked better in the process. It has helped that tight end Rob Gronkowski is just about back to 100 percent after being eased back into the mix coming off his torn right ACL. What a difference-maker.

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Former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher pretty much told everyone what they already knew Wednesday, when he said former teammate Jay Cutler fits the category of “elite" in salary only.

Don't take that as a dig at Cutler or sour grapes on the part of Urlacher, who departed the organization unceremoniously prior to the 2013 season. Even Cutler didn't seem to take offense to Urlacher's comments.

"No," Cutler said when asked if he took issue with Urlacher saying he hasn't produced like an elite quarterback.

"No," Cutler responded when asked if such commentary bothered him coming from an ex-teammate.

Cutler certainly possesses "elite" tools: toughness, a cannon for an arm, underrated mobility, and the intelligence to diagnose quickly and make the necessary adjustments. But when it comes to producing at an elite level on the field, Cutler falls short of the truly elite signal-callers around the NFL, players such as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers.

"Financially, he is one of the elite guys in the NFL," Urlacher said during an interview with 87.7 FM The Game in Chicago. "He just hasn't produced like an elite quarterback."

That's an absolutely fair assessment, and came in response to Bears general manager Phil Emery remarking during an online chat on the team's official website that Cutler's winning record as a starting quarterback (59-52) makes him elite. Having covered Emery since he first set foot through the doors at Halas Hall, the general manager -- who absolutely should show support for his starting quarterback on the team's official website -- probably exaggerated a tad and used flawed logic in calling Cutler elite.

If merely a winning record makes for an elite quarterback, the league seemed to be teeming with them at the start of the season. Coming into this season, 25 active quarterbacks possessed winning records as starters.

Currently, players such as former Bears quarterback Rex Grossman (.532), Mark Sanchez (.532), Michael Vick (.547) and Alex Smith (.550) win at a higher clip as starters than Cutler, yet none are cashing in at his level.

Smith signed a four-year deal worth $68 million in August, while Vick, now a backup, signed a one-year deal in March worth $5 million to join the New York Jets.

Cutler, meanwhile, receives a base salary of $22.5 million this season ($5 million was converted into a signing bonus in March) as part of a seven-year, $126.7 million contract extension signed earlier this year, which places him atop the list for quarterback salaries in 2014, ahead of the New York Giants' Eli Manning ($15.15 million) and the other Manning in Denver ($15 million).

Rodgers, who signed a five-year, $110 million contract last year, has the highest average annual salary among quarterbacks at $22 million, but his base salary for 2014 is $900,000 (he received $16.2 million more in bonuses). By the way, he's winning games, too.

"You look at the Bradys, the Mannings, the Rodgers, the [Drew] Brees, those guys win every year, even with no one around them," Urlacher said. "Rodgers has no offensive line. He wins. Brady has no receivers. He wins.

"And you look at Jay. He's got Brandon [Marshall], Alshon [Jeffery], Matt [Forte], this great offensive line, Martellus Bennett, and they can't seem to put it together, for some reason. I'm not sure if that's his fault, but for some reason, they just can't figure it out."

What we can deduce though is Cutler, who has had a direct hand in each of Chicago's losses this season, falls short of elite.

Cutler tossed an interception and was credited for two fumbles in the team's loss to the Miami Dolphins. Cutler has thrown 14 touchdown passes and seven interceptions this season, and, interestingly, all the picks came in the club's four losses. Yet the quarterback turned the ball over only once (a fumble in a Week 3 win over the Jets) during the team's three victories.

And while the organization continues to stand behind Cutler, the quarterback stressed it is not doing so blindly.

"Everything I do is critiqued," Cutler said. "Every step I take, every read I make, ball location [it's all critiqued]. I think that's the farthest from the truth when we are in the meeting room. Anytime you lose a bunch of games, you're going to be under scrutiny. It's going to be tough. It's going to look not how you wanted it to look going into the season. So coaches and quarterbacks are judged on their records, on wins and losses, and right now we're behind the eight ball in that category."
LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Chicago Bears rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller (hand, hip) returned to practice on Thursday wearing a protective brace on his fractured right hand.

The official injury report listed Fuller as having limited participation.

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“I talked to him after practice. He said it went well,” Bears head coach Marc Trestman said.

“Our decision with Kyle is day-to-day in terms of how he’s working. He practiced today to the full extent of practice. We’ll see how that is tomorrow and we’ll continue to evaluate it daily. We certainly want him to feel comfortable playing and not to have the concerns that he can hurt himself more with what he has. We certainly wouldn’t put him out there if we thought that was the case.”

Linebackers Lance Briggs (ribs) and Jon Bostic (back), tight end Martellus Bennett (hamstring) and right tackle Jordan Mills (foot) were also limited.

Three players were held out of practice: defensive end Jared Allen (rest), safety Danny McCray (knee) and KR/WR Chris Williams (illness).

Safety Chris Conte (shoulder) practiced without restrictions for the second consecutive day and is expected to be available Sunday when the Bears travel to New England. Conte was inactive in Week 7 after failing to finish four of the Bears' first six regular-season games.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings center John Sullivan has passed the NFL's concussion protocol and is in line to play Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coach Mike Zimmer said Thursday.

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Sullivan was a limited participant in practice Thursday, but Zimmer said the center "did everything."

Guard Vlad Ducasse also returned to practice in full after injuring his knee last Sunday in Buffalo. Zimmer, however, would not say for certain whether the Vikings would use the same five offensive linemen against the Buccaneers.

"Everything's a little in flux with the injuries, so we'll see," Zimmer said.

Linebacker Gerald Hodges (hamstring) returned to practice on a limited basis, and defensive end Corey Wootton was a full participant after the lower-back injury that kept him out of Sunday's game also limited him Wednesday. Safety Antone Exum missed practice with an ankle injury, however, and cornerback Josh Robinson left practice early after injuring his ankle in individual drills. Zimmer said he wasn't sure how the injury would affect Robinson's status for Sunday.

"He wasn't going very fast when he did it," Zimmer said.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In the recent annals of performances by rookie quarterbacks, the number of times Teddy Bridgewater's been taken to the ground has been startling.

The Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback has been sacked 15 times in just four games, or on 11 percent of his dropbacks.

In other words, according to ESPN Stats and Information, Bridgewater is on pace to be the most frequently-sacked rookie quarterback in the league since the Dallas Cowboys' Chad Hutchinson in 2002. He's been pressured on 27.9 percent of his dropbacks, and he's thrown just one touchdown pass against five interceptions so far.

Bridgewater
 I've heard some talk recently about the idea that the Vikings could be "ruining" Bridgewater by exposing him to so much pressure -- and running the risk of either getting him injured or making him skittish -- as a rookie. The name David Carr usually comes up in these conversations as a cautionary tale, after the former first overall pick was subjected to 76 sacks in the Houston Texans' inaugural season, and then another 173 in the following four seasons, before the Texans let him go.

It's true that the list of the most-sacked rookie quarterbacks in history (usually passers playing for bad teams behind leaky offensive lines) includes a number of busts: Carr tops the list at 76, followed by Tim Couch at 56, Jake Plummer at 52, Dieter Brock at 51, Tony Banks at 48 and Rick Mirer at 47. But then we come to names like Warren Moon and Jim Kelly (albeit after time in the CFL and USFL, respectively), and Andrew Luck, who was taken down 41 times as a rookie and pressured on 28.8 percent of his dropbacks while playing for a team that threw the ball 627 times. Phil Simms took 39 sacks as a rookie. Russell Wilson was sacked 33 times, Joe Flacco 32 and Ben Roethlisberger 30.

It'd be one thing to worry if Bridgewater was showing signs of letting the rush affect him, either by taking off early or hurrying throws to avoid sacks. We've seen him rush throws on a couple occasions, but not to the point where I'd attribute it to something more deep-seeded than a rookie still figuring out his timing in the NFL. He rebounded from two interceptions on Sunday, making some of his best throws when he stood in the pocket and fired decisively to a receiver, and offensive coordinator Norv Turner sounded pleased on Thursday with how composed Bridgewater has remained in the face of all the pressure.

"He's got good sense in the pocket. He's getting better at getting the ball out," Turner said. "He threw the ball away a couple times Sunday when there was nowhere to throw it, where against Detroit [on] those plays he took sacks. We're working on getting him a lot quicker, we're working on design to help get the ball out quick, we're working on protection so we don't have to have the conversation about how he handles it."

If the Vikings keep giving up pressure to the point where Bridgewater's sack totals are pushing into the 50s, then we might have something to worry about long-term. But right now, the issue seems to be affecting the Vikings' ability to win in the present more than it's stunting Bridgewater's growth. The amount of pressure the Vikings have allowed is alarming, especially from an offensive line that was supposed to be one of the team's strengths. But the Vikings were drawn to Bridgewater in part because of how masterfully he handled pressure in college, and any sense of a maladjustment because of what he's faced as a rookie probably is premature.
BAGSHOT, England – Nick Fairley doesn’t regret how he reached this point now that he’s playing the most consistent and best he has in his career. There are times, though, where he will let his mind percolate the possibilities of what might have been.

What could have happened if he had committed himself to being in shape sooner?

The fourth-year Detroit Lions defensive tackle knows why the question is asked, too. For the first three seasons of his career, Fairley was inconsistent and unable to stay on the field for long stretches, either because of being out of shape or injured.

His play yo-yoed between flashes of dominance and stretches of invisibility – a long way away from the dominant defensive lineman who helped Auburn win a national championship in 2010, becoming a first-round draft pick in 2011.

[+] EnlargeNick Fairley
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltNick Fairley is in better shape and it's translated well to the field, as he's having his most consistent season.
“It’s in the back of my mind,” Fairley said. “But I’m not trying to let it bother me. I’m just moving forward and I’ll put my best foot forward from here on out.”

In the past seven games, that foot has been a large reason why the Lions have the top-ranked defense in the NFL. While Ndamukong Suh often demands double-teams from opposing offensive linemen, teams now have to be more wary of Fairley.

Even though Fairley’s numbers are down from the past two seasons statistically (14 tackles, one sack this season), he has become a far better and more consistent player for the Lions in 2014. He is the No. 9 defensive tackle in the league according to Pro Football Focus – ranked sixth in rushing the passer and ninth against the run.

He’s becoming what general manager Martin Mayhew hoped when he declined Fairley’s option for a fifth season during the offseason, making him a free agent following this year.

“He’s playing well,” Mayhew said. “I think the coaching staff has done a great job working with him, teaching him the right way to go. His linemates, or teammates, have high expectations for him.

“He’s obviously taking the lead on getting his weight down and getting in better condition and hired a chef and helped with that process. I think Nick gets a lot of credit for that. I think it’s great what he’s doing and I’m glad he’s doing that and I want him to keep doing it.”

Mayhew talks with Fairley often about a gamut of things, but said not about his contract. Even though Fairley is having a good season, Mayhew said he is not talking about future contracts with anyone, including Suh and Fairley.

Fairley is at least doing what Mayhew hoped he would, so it puts him in the conversation for a contract if both players want it.

And with Fairley, there might be room to improve, too, as this is the first time in his career he has been playing with consistency. And even though he thinks about it, it doesn’t bother him he didn’t get into better shape sooner because he believes he is at the beginning of a long career.

“I can’t call how it would be,” Fairley said. “But I think I would be up there in the top [among defensive tackles], you know what I’m saying, be recognized a lot more.”

One of his biggest supporters – from the time he was struggling until now – has been the guy he lines up next to play after play, Suh.

“He’s a guy that’s going to be a dominant force in this league for many years to come,” Suh said. “I don’t expect anything less from him.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: He has the talent to be better than me and he’s just got to continue to work and take care of business like he’s been.”
BAGSHOT, England – While his teammates were hanging around playing video games or heading down into London on Tuesday to see of the city, Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah had something more special in mind.

For the first time in six years, he went to see his sister.

Elizabeth Giddings is a stay-at-home mom in North London, watching her two children. She knew her younger brother was headed to England with the Lions, but she figured she wouldn’t see him until later this week or this weekend.

Ansah
Ansah changed that. He hopped in a cab and told the driver to take him to her address. Then he knocked on her door. She opened it.

“She just like fell on the floor,” Ansah said. “Like overwhelmed.”

That’s what happens when family that lives a world away surprises one another. Giddings and Ansah are two of five siblings, and while Ansah saw the rest of them on a trip back to Accra, Ghana, in March, he had not seen his sister seven years older than him.

They stay in touch by email, Facebook and Skype, but have not been in the same room together for more than half a decade. Ansah said they haven’t seen each other because he works in the United States – and before that went to college there at BYU – and she has lived overseas and not in Ghana. So when he showed up, they spent around five or six hours together and Giddings made her brother a traditional African meal featuring chicken and rice.

He also spent time with her two children, including a 10-month old he had never met. Another of Giddings' sons wore the Spiderman costume Ansah bought him for Halloween the entire time.

“He was excited about it,” said Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who had not spoken with Ansah specifically about the trip.

As an added bonus, Ansah also got to see his mother, Elizabeth, because she has been in London staying with his sister.

Ansah said his sister is planning to attend the game against Atlanta at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

So while Ansah had to come to England for work like the rest of his teammates, he was able to also have a long-awaited family reunion before most of the football work got started. While it has been disappointing to not see her more often, he understands why.

“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Ansah said. “I just have to live with it.

“But I’m happy I was able to see her.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Ask Eddie Lacy about his home, and the Green Bay Packers running back can't tell you much -- except what his family has told him.

That will change next week, when he returns to New Orleans to start his bye week. And he'll spend it in the house his family longed for ever since theirs was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

His parents finally moved into that new house in August -- while Lacy was busy with training camp -- after living in a trailer for the better part of a decade since the disaster wiped out their home in Gretna, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans.

"They sent me pictures," Lacy said this week. "They're excited to have their own house, their own back yard, pretty much everything is theirs. It's not a trailer. They've got a lot of room. It's crazy, but they're definitely more comfortable."

Lacy will see that soon enough.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesEddie Lacy has seen his numbers drop in his sophomore season but could be in line for a big workload against the Saints.
First, he has business to take care of on the other side of the Mississippi, where the Packers play the Saints Sunday night at the Superdome.

In what can perhaps be described as a disappointing encore to his rookie season, Lacy is coming off his most efficient game of the season. Last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, he rushed for 63 yards on just 12 carries. His 5.3-yard average was his second best of the season, behind only his 105-yard performance on 13 carries two weeks earlier against the Minnesota Vikings.

Lacy was in full grind-it-out mode against the Panthers. Unlike the game against the Vikings, when he had a long run of 29 yards, he did not have a gain longer than 11 yards against Carolina. He also matched his season high with three catches.

ProFootballFocus.com credited Lacy with nine broken tackles on rushes and receptions combined, although the Packers' coaching staff said their total was well into the teens.

Despite a reduced number of touches this season -- an average of 13.1 carries per game this season compared to 18.9 last season -- Lacy has four rushing touchdowns in his last four games. During most of that stretch, he has split snaps with James Starks. But with Starks battling an ankle injury that kept him out of practice Wednesday, Lacy could go back to being the workhorse back he was last season, when he led all NFL rookies with 1,178 rushing yards.

"You want to score, you want to get 100 yards, you know, you want to do everything that makes you look good," Lacy said. "But I just want to be able to contribute, and that's pass blocking, getting out on the check-down, the whole nine yards. I may not have 100 yards. I may not even get 60, but you know, the yards that I do have definitely will contribute and make sure we're in a great position to win the game, which is the ultimate goal."

So if Lacy's trip goes according to plan, he'll travel with the Packers to New Orleans on Saturday, have a productive game in a victory on Sunday night, fly back with the team to Green Bay early Monday morning and then turn around and head back to New Orleans on Monday night.

And he'll finally see that house.

"It's a great feeling, especially for me coming home," Lacy said. "I don't have to worry about coming home, staying in the trailer and sleeping on the sofa no more. I get to come home to a house, air conditioning, everything's working, [a] sofa, my own bed. It's just a homely feeling now."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Jordy Nelson doesn't want you to know everything about the ins and outs of the back-shoulder play, except he's quick to point out one thing.

"First and foremost, it's not a play," the Green Bay Packers receiver said. "For us, it's a complete reaction."

There is no signal or pre-snap adjustment.

[+] EnlargeJordy Nelson; Aaron Rodgers
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJordy Nelson and Aaron Rodgers have the on-field chemistry necessary to execute the back-shoulder fade, one of the NFL's toughest passes to defend.
Not even Nelson, one of the NFL's best at executing the play -- check that, the pass -- knows it's coming until the ball sails off the hand of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

"It's all on the quarterback and what they decide to do and where they want to place the ball," Nelson said. "For us, it's just, run our routes. The main thing would be to make sure you get your head around and are able to adjust to the ball."

If the receiver doesn't even know it's coming, what's a helpless cornerback or safety in coverage supposed to do about it?

"If you have a quarterback that can throw it, the quarterback typically throws it at the defender's head," Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "So you never see the ball."

It goes against everything coaches like Whitt teach their defensive backs, whose first priority is always to take away the deep throw. The back-shoulder fade -- which is essentially a purposefully underthrown pass -- is the perfect counteraction to a defender intent on taking away the go, or fly, route.

"As a secondary player, you're always taught to be on top of a route, control the deep routes," Packers safety Micah Hyde said. "When you get on top, to have to react to a ball that's underthrown, that's the hardest thing for the DB."

But not just any receiver can pull it off. The bigger and longer the receiver, the easier it is to execute. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, Nelson might have the perfect build to do so. It's why you won't see Rodgers throw it very often -- if ever -- to his No. 2 receiver, Randall Cobb, who at 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds is better-suited to play in the slot.

Then there is the experience factor. Someday, rookie receiver Davante Adams (6-1, 215) might see that throw from Rodgers. But until Rodgers knows Adams can react to the ball in the air the way Nelson can, it's not likely to happen.

"It comes with experience," Hyde said. "You've got to have chemistry with the quarterback, because it's a hard throw. To throw the ball before the receiver even stops, it's hard. I played quarterback back in the day [in high school]. It was hard then, and I'm sure it's 10 times harder now with these fast receivers. You've got to have a lot of chemistry, and I think some guys in the NFL, a lot of guys in the NFL, don’t have that experience that A-Rod and Jordy have."

As if it wasn't difficult enough to defend, oftentimes it comes with a subtle shove from the receiver.

"And boom, it's never being called," Whitt said. "It's a good play."

Except that it's not a play.

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