The NFC North division is the NFL's "black and blue" division for a reason. This division plays hard-hitting football, and nobody makes it to the playoffs without some bumps and bruises along the way.
In 2019, this division posted a combined 34-29 record, with the Vikings and Packers (both of whom made the playoffs), plus the Bears all posting winning records. But each team used a different strength to their advantage to get there. And as the teams have changed over the offseason, here are the biggest strengths for each of these teams entering the '20 campaign.
Chicago Bears' defense
This was also the Bears' biggest strength last year. In Chuck Pagano's first season as the defensive coordinator, the Bears finished in the top ten in total defense (8th), passing defense (9th), rushing defense (9th), and scoring defense (4th). They also bring back a number of familiar faces and have some new ones in the mix as well. All-world pass rusher Khalil Mack is looking for redemption after posting just 40 tackles (made 47 in 2018), 8.5 sacks (12.5), eight tackles for a loss (10), and 14 quarterback hits (18) last year. Defensive end Akiem Hicks (10 tackles, sack, 5 QB hits) wants to make up for lost time after missing 11 games with a dislocated elbow.
The inside linebacker tandem of Danny Trevethan and Roquan Smith (combined for 171 tackles and 7 TFLs) will anchor the middle of this defense again, while Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller (collectively snagged 5 interceptions and deflected 17 passes) are back to man the secondary. As far as the new blood goes, the biggest edition is $70 million man Robert Quinn, who's expected to upgrade the pass rush opposite Mack. Barkevious Mingo (220 career tackles, 10 sacks) hopes to add depth behind Trevethan and Smith, John Jenkins has been added to the defensive line, while Tashaun Gipson gives the Bears' secondary a boost.
The Bears also have a talented group of rookies with cornerback Jaylon Johnson, outside linebacker Trevis Gipson, and defensive tackle Trevon McSwain. Mack's younger brother, Ledarius, also is trying to make the team this season. The only downside for the Bears is that they'll need to replace nose tackle Eddie Goldman, safety Jordan Lucas (both opted out due to COVID-19), and cornerback Artie Burns (torn ACL). But it wouldn't surprise me if this unit once again ranks in the top 10.
Detroit Lions' passing game (again)
Matthew Stafford was putting up some of the best numbers of his career last year (64.3 completion percentage, 2,499 passing yards, 19 TD passes, 8.6 ypa) before injuries cost him half the season. Kenny Golladay shined again (65 catches, 1,190 receiving yards, 11 TD's), as did fellow receivers Marvin Jones Jr. (62, 779, 9), and Danny Amendola (62, 678, 10.9 ypr). Rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson made the most of his chances (32, 367, 2) and looks like a future star. The end result was the Lions leading the division in passing offense (243.8 ypg), finishing second in total offense (346.8 ypg), and sixth in the NFC in touchdown passes (28).
All five players are back, and Stafford is healthy, so I see the Lions being even more productive this year. Rookie running back D'Andre Swift will not only make Stafford's day easier, but he'll also add another layer to this offense. If Swift can make Detroit's rushing offense a success, their passing game will be even more dangerous.
Green Bay Packers' defense
The Packers finished as the league's eighth-best scoring defense last season (19.6 ppg), led the NFC in interceptions (17) and forced fumbles (10), and were ninth in sacks (41). And despite losing linebacker Blake Martinez (led team with 155 tackles) in free agency, this unit still returns plenty of talent. The linebacking corps is still very strong thanks to Preston and Za'Darius Smith (no relation, combined for 25.5 sacks last year), and 2019 first-rounder Rashan Gary has immense potential. They also have an impressive defensive line that features Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster, Montravius Adams (88 combined tackles), and Kenny Clark (62 tackles, 11 TFL's), who just signed a four-year, $70 million extension.
Adrian Amos (84 tackles), Kevin King (5 interceptions, 3.5 TFLs), and Jaire Alexander (17 pass deflections) will make this secondary a forced to be reckoned with again. The Packers held their division rivals to 20 points or fewer in five of their six meetings in 2019, and you can expect to see continued improvement from this unit in '20.
Minnesota Vikings' running backs
Dalvin Cook was finally healthy last season after only playing 15 games in his first two seasons and showed why the Vikings invested a high draft pick in him. His 1,135 rushing yards ranked 10th in football, and his 1,654 yards from scrimmage and 13th rushing touchdowns both ranked seventh. Cook is great, but this position is the team's biggest strength because of the depth behind him as well.
Alexander Mattison and Mike Boone were more-than-capable backups, as they combined for 735 rushing yards, and they both averaged more yards per carry (4.6, 5.6, respectively) than Cook (4.5). Meanwhile, Ameer Abdullah made his impact on special teams (325 kick return yards), and fullback C.J. Ham contributed to the passing game (149 receiving yards, 8.8 ypc). All five players are back this season, and if the Vikings offensive line can improve, this backfield will be even more productive.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of chicagobears.com)