NFC NORTH

FOUR DOWNS: NFC North style

Posted Oct 18, 2013

Senior writer Tim Twentyman takes a look at four key issues facing the four teams in the division as Week 7 of the NFL looms large

Here are four issues facing the four teams in the NFC North as we prepare for Week 7 of the NFL season.

FIRST DOWN

THE JOSH FREEMAN ERA IN MINNESOTA BEGINS

Josh Freeman will start at quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings when they take on the New York Giants on Monday Night Football.

Freeman takes over the reigns of the offense less than two weeks since joining the team Oct. 8. That’s how bad the quarterback play has been in Minnesota.

Freeman replaces Matt Cassel, who started the previous two games (one win and one loss). Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier announced that Christian Ponder will be Freeman's backup and Cassel will now be the No. 3.

"I like the things that he's done in his career, along with what he's done since he arrived here with our football team," Frazier said of Freeman to Tom Pelissero of USA Today.

"The time that he's put in, how well he's adapted to our system, and I like his work ethic. He's done enough for us to say we want to give him this opportunity — which is something we had in mind when we acquired him. We think now is the time."

The Vikings are 1-4 on the season and very close to being out of the NFC North race before November.

Freeman was released by Tampa Bay after completing a league-low 45.7 percent of his passes with a passer rating of just 59.3 in the Bucs first three losses.

The Vikings are hoping he can regain some of last year’s form, when he set career highs with 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns.

Only the Jacksonville Jaguars have thrown fewer touchdown passes this season (3) than the Vikings’ five.

SECOND DOWN

WHERE’S THE DEFENSE?

Through the first six games of the season last year, the Chicago Bears defense allowed 21 points or more in a game just twice.

They have yet to hold an opponent under 21 points in any of their first six games this season.

Henry MeltonBears' DT Henry Melton (Photo: AP Images)

What a difference a year and a few injuries can make.

To see the Bears defense ranked 20th in the NFL is a little odd, I have to admit.

The Bears have lost three starters -- four if nickel cornerback Kelvin Hayden is added to the list: DTs Henry Melton and Nate Collins and middle linebacker D.J. Williams.

The Bears have started five different combinations along their defensive line the first six games and rank 30th in the NFL with just eight sacks. They had 21 at this point last year.

"What gives me confidence is I know we haven’t played as well as we can play yet with the guys we have in there. I know that," Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker told ESPN.com this week. "I know the areas where we need improvement, I see where it’s correctable, and it’s not necessarily ability (holding back the defense).

"Everything that we’ve seen that we can do better on tape, we feel like we can correct it through coaching, teaching, motivation, drill work and things like that we can take and practice fast and take into games. That’s what we feel about this group."

THIRD DOWN

"KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON"

No one in Green Bay appears to be overreacting to rash of injuries that have recently plagued some big names on the Packers roster. After losing starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga earlier this season, the Packers have been dealt serious injuries to linebacker Clay Matthews (thumb) and receiver Randall Cobb (leg) and might not have receiver James Jones (leg), who led the team in touchdown catches last year, for a week or two.

"No one is overreacting. Our theme is ‘keep calm and carry on,’" McCarthy told the Green Bay Press-Gazette this week. "So, you historians probably appreciate that. In 1939 issued by the British government right before World War II in anticipation of the bombing of the major cities. So, that’s what we’re talking about."

Six weeks into the season, the Packers’ have six players on injured reserve. Nine were listed on Thursday's report and four have been ruled out for Sunday’s game against Cleveland, including starting linebackers Matthews and Nick Perry.

Don’t feel too bad for the Packers, though. They still have MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a much-improved run game and that’s better weaponry than a lot of teams that are healthy.

FOURTH DOWN

HOME COOKING

The Detroit Lions will be enjoying some home cooking.

The Lions sit atop the NFC North with a 4-2 record and have already played half of their road games this season.

They play their next two at home vs. Cincinnati and Dallas, before a week of with the bye, and six of their next nine games are at the friendly confines of Ford Field.

"It’s a nice setup," receiver Calvin Johnson said. "We have two good home games. Our thing is to go 8-0 at home and protect that home field. We have a very good team. Last game we played a complete game just about. The last couple of games, offense, defense and special teams contributed. We tried to keep that going."

The Lions have 13 takeaways this year, which is tied for fourth in the NFL, and eight of those have come at Ford Field. They forced three interceptions and fumble in both wins over Minnesota and Chicago.