[size=18px]Coaching style: NFC North [/size]

Michael Harmon / FOXSports.com
Posted: 21 days ago

My review of the NFL's head coaches and their philosophies continues with the NFC North.

It's a division in flux, as Lovie Smith of the Bears stands as the lone returning head coach. In a league long thought only to recycle coaches of NFL past, the three coaches who make up the balance of the division are first-time head coaches.

The division now consists of two coaches of great defensive pedigree in Smith and Detroit's Rod Marinelli, and two coaches from offensive backgrounds in Green Bay's Mike McCarthy and Minnesota's Brad Childress. The traditional black-and-blue NFC North is changing to embrace the high-flying passing game so prevalent throughout the league. Only the Bears figure to remain run-focused, as the defensive-minded Marinelli will have Mike Martz at the offensive controls. This division won't play like your father's NFC North in 2006.

I'll begin this analysis with the "veteran" Lovie Smith.

[size=18px]Chicago Bears: Lovie Smith[/size]

Offensive analysis
Smith has full confidence in his young and athletic defense. As such, the offense in two years in Chicago has been predicated on a strong running game. Part of that can be attributed to the instability at quarterback and lack of big playmakers in the passing game. A full season with either Rex Grossman or Brian Griese might help to balance the equation. Smith is no stranger to high-scoring offenses, having coaches in St. Louis and Tampa Bay.

In each of Smith's last three NFL stops (including the current Chicago run), he's had a running back capable not only of picking up yards on the ground but who also factored heavily in the passing game. Thomas Jones had a career year in 2005 after being left unopposed in camp because of Cedric Benson's failure to sign a deal. Jones is back for 2006, but has expressed his unhappiness with the trade rumors that swirled around the time of the NFL draft. Barring a deal later in the summer, look for a split of the workload this season with Benson fully integrated into the system.

The Bears hope to find out whether Grossman can be their quarterback of the future and the present this summer. He offers an ability to go downfield that has been lacking.

Grossman's injury last year forced rookie Kyle Orton into action. Orton has the arm to make deep throws, but it's clear that Smith wasn't ready to put the ball in the rookie's hands. As such, Muhsin Muhammad was limited and players such as Bernard Berrian went under-utilized. I suspect that a two-headed running attack and health for Grossman (or Griese, if he wins the job) will open up the passing game. They'll certainly see their share of short fields as a result of stellar defensive play.

Who benefits? Thomas Jones, Cedric Benson, Muhsin Muhammad, Rex Grossman

Past stars: Warrick Dunn, Marshall Faulk, Keyshawn Johnson, Kurt Warner, Torry Holt

Defensive analysis
Smith has delivered immediate improvement on the defensive side of the ball in each stop during his career and turned a number of good players into great ones. He employs an aggressive defensive philosophy that relies heavily on playmaking linebackers. Under Smith's guidance, Hardy Nickerson and Derrick Brooks became dominant NFL players in Tampa Bay. He went to St. Louis and turned Leonard Little into a star despite playing primarily only on passing downs. We're all aware of Brian Urlacher's good play, but look at how the games of the other linebackers and defensive backs have improved under Smith.

The Bears ranked 11th in rushing yards allowed in 2005 at 102 yards per game. Most impressive was that opponents gained only 3.7 yards per game on the ground and scored only nine rushing touchdowns. Alex Brown and Tommie Harris have become adept at clogging the rushing lanes, which allows Urlacher, Briggs and Hillenmeyer to make hits at the line of scrimmage.

The aggressive style of play and mix of blitz packages employed by Smith forces rushed decisions by quarterbacks and a plethora of turnovers. His defenses typically get better year over year as players acclimate to the system. Smith's 2003 Rams defense tied for the third-most turnover total in the last decade. His opportunistic defenses have ranked among the leaders in defensive touchdowns, and the sack total rises annually. With all of that said, everyone's still trying to figure out what happened in the playoffs against Steve Smith.

Who benefits? Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Nathan Vasher, Mike Brown

Past stars: Leonard Little, Grant Wistrom, Dre' Bly, Kevin Carter, Hardy Nickerson, Derrick Brooks

[size=18px]Detroit Lions: Rod Marinelli[/size]

Offensive analysis
The Lions hired former St. Louis Rams guru Mike Martz to turn around an offense rich in talent but lacking in production. Joey Harrington will likely be traded or released in the coming weeks, leaving Jon Kitna and Josh McCown to battle for the top spot. Whoever wins the job can look to Martz's successes with Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger to feel good about their chances with the offensive talent assembled in Detroit. Look for a spread offense that makes use of the deep receiving corps and allows Kevin Jones redemption for a subpar 2005 campaign.

Kevin Jones battled ankle concerns in rushing for fewer than 700 yards and five touchdowns. He failed to deliver on the promise shown in late 2004. Part of the problem was that the Lions were unable to sustain a downfield passing game, and defenses stacked the line against him. The bigger issue was that Jones didn't run with the same authority as he had his rookie season. The openpassing attack will allow Jones to rush for 1,000 yards again and increase his touchdown total toward double digits.

We've seen Martz run to great success with a similar cast in St. Louis. The quarterbacks have experienced a little more fanfare than Warner or Bulger had before their breakout seasons, but ultimately it's the same story of a player looking for a chance. The thick playbooks (Mike Williams estimated on a national radio show that they were four to five times thicker than last year's) are filled with wrinkles to thwart every coverage scheme and require precision. The receiving corps is working hard to learn the intricacies of the scheme, salivating over the possibility of putting up numbers similar to those achieved by Rams receivers in the past. The adage warns that "Rome wasn't built in a day," and Martz certainly has his hands full with Detroit's recent struggles, but he also has more tools and resources at his disposal.

Who benefits? Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, Kevin Jones, Roy Williams, Jon Kitna and Josh McCown

Past stars: Marshall Faulk, Kurt Warner, Marc Bulger, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce

Defensive analysis
Marinelli's defensive units in Tampa ranked in the top 10 in total defense in nine of his 10 seasons and in the top 10 in points allowed in every season. During his tenure, the Buccaneers racked up an incredible 416 sacks, 328 of which were achieved by the defensive line, a total that ranked first in the NFL. He emphasizes technique and, as the Lions have learned quickly in mini-camp, discipline and hard work.

For the past decade, the Buccaneers successfully stuffed the run and set up long third downs. The Lions will look to employ the same style upfront to have Shaun Rogers, Dan Wilkinson and Shaun Cody shoot the gaps and then allow the linebacking corps to make plays. In this defensive system, Boss Bailey and rookie Ernie Sims have the ability to become stars immediately.

The huge sack totals of the Buccaneers alluded to earlier will be difficult to reach in short order, as the Lions don't have a premier defensive end to rack up double-digit totals. In fact, the Lions ranked 24th in the category last year with 31. For the Lions, this season will be about establishing a consistent pass rush to aid Dre' Bly and Fernando Bryant on the wings. The sacks will come through off-season efforts and development in year two.

Who benefits? Boss Bailey, Ernie Sims, Dre' Bly

Past stars: Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Anthony McFarland, Donnie Abraham, John Lynch

[size=18px]Green Bay Packers: Mike McCarthy[/size]

Offensive analysis
McCarthy assumes the head coaching job in Green Bay after serving as the offensive coordinator for the 49ers last year. With the exception of last season's struggles by Alex Smith and 49ers offense, McCarthy has had great success in each of his prior assignments. He entered the NFL as an offensive assistant for the Chiefs in 1993 and was elevated to quarterbacks coach in 1995. McCarthy previously worked with Brett Favre as quarterbacks coach in 1999 before joining the Saints as offensive coordinator for four seasons. In his third year in New Orleans, the Saints ranked third in the league in points scored with 432.

During his tenure in New Orleans, McCarthy was blessed with either Ricky Williams or Deuce McAllister as his primary running back. Both players topped 1,000 yards annually and opened the game for Aaron Brooks and the passing game. The top ball carrier topped 300 carries annually. McCarthy worked to establish the power ground game and set up the pass. This season, McCarthy inherits a backfield of Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport who are returning from injury. Green was a 23-touch per game player before his injury, but it's likely that Davenport factors more prevalently in the game plan this season. They will serve as a potent combination, and a workload split will keep Green fresh on the field.

Packers fans and fantasy owners can be encouraged by the patches of brilliance from Aaron Brooks and the Saints offense during McCarthy's four years in New Orleans. Note that I said patches. Though the overall rankings in terms of yardage and points might have been high, there were also a number of high turnover efforts. The return of Brett Favre means that the passing game will yield at least 3,000 yards. Their success in 2006 will be predicated on keeping wide receivers healthy and finding some consistency on the offensive line. If not, Favre will begin flinging downfield to nobody in particular again, which is not good for anybody.

Who benefits? Brett Favre, Ahman Green, Donald Driver

Past stars: Brett Favre, Rich Gannon, Aaron Brooks, Elvis Grbac, Andre Rison, Joe Horn

Defensive analysis
McCarthy has been around defenses that utilized strong linebacker play and a heavy pass rush. The Saints ranked second in the NFL in sacks over the past decade and Kansas City was led by Derrick Thomas during McCarthy's tenure. As such, the Packers addressed the middle of their defense in this year's draft. A.J. Hawk and Abdul Hodge were added to the linebacking corps to work alongside Nick Barnett. The athletic trio will always be around the ball and will clean up the efforts of Aaron Kampman and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila up front.

The Packers ranked 23rd in rushing defense at 126 yards per game, but they got stingy around the goal line and surrendered only 10 rushing touchdowns. They'll need more assistance from Ryan Pickett and Cullen Jenkins up the middle. I do believe the move to add depth to the linebacking corps will help push the defense upward.

Kampman and K.G.B. do great work in pressuring the quarterback and allowing linebackers to make plays. Kampman provided a career-high 6.5 sacks last season and K.G.B. added his customary eight sacks. They'll be counted on to provide pressure again this year and make life easier for Harris and Ahmad Carroll on the edge.

Who benefits? A.J. Hawk, Nick Barnett, Al Harris

Past stars: Derrick Thomas, Donnie Edwards, Reggie White, Darren Sharper

[size=18px]Minnesota Vikings: Brad Childress[/size]

Offensive analysis
Childress joins the Vikings after a tremendous run as coordinator with the Eagles. Under his guidance, the Eagles ranked in the top 10 in terms of point production three times in six years. The Eagles coaching staff stressed discipline and execution, which is why they are one of the least penalized teams each season and commit few turnovers.

Ordinal out of range

Childress joins the perfect situation in the backfield, as it is currently stocked with talented backs. The Eagles utilized multiple running backs during his tenure, often relying on players such as Brian Westbrook as much in the passing game as they did in the running game. Think back to 2003, when Westbrook teamed with Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter as part of a three-headed attack. That season, the Eagles ranked 11th in points scored. I expect new acquisition Chester Taylor to take on the featured role with 15-20 touches per game, but look for Mewelde Moore and Ciatrick Fason to also receive touches. All backs will be aided immensely by the acquisition of lineman Steve Hutchinson from Seattle.

The Eagles emphasized the short passing game under Childress, taking the occasional shot deep but mainly working methodically downfield. The running back factors prominently in the passing game, as does the tight end. Childress wants to limit turnovers and take what the defense gives him. Veteran quarterback Brad Johnson is the perfect quarterback to run Childress' efficient ball control offense.

Who benefits? Jermaine Wiggins, Chester Taylor, Koren Robinson, Troy Williamson

Past stars: Donovan McNabb, Chad Lewis, Brian Westbrook, Ron Dayne, Chris Chambers

Defensive analysis
The Vikings secondary was opportunistic in 2005, rising up to rank third in interceptions but they still ranked 19th in points allowed at 21.5. The big issue for the Vikings was that they were unable to sustain a pass rush, ranking near the bottom of the NFL with only 34 sacks.

The Vikings ranked 19th against the run at 115 yards allowed per game with 14 touchdowns. Minnesota has worked diligently the last two seasons to build a defensive presence, adding players such as Kenechi Udeze, Erasmus James and Chad Greenway to complement a core of strong veteran players. Pat and Kevin Williams are effective in plugging running lanes, but they'll need stronger efforts from the linebacking corps to stop the big play.

Minnesota has built a strong defensive backfield with veterans Antoine Winfield and Darren Sharper working alongside former second-round picks Fred Smoot (Redskins) and Tank Williams (Titans). The key to their success will be the push given up front by Udeze and James. If they can both stay healthy and progress as expected, the Vikings defense stands to improve in other categories to catch up with the high interception total.

Who benefits? Antoine Winfield, Erasmus James, Kenechi Udeze, E.J. Henderson

Past stars: Hugh Douglas, Troy Vincent, Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter

Next, I'll put the coaches of the AFC and NFC West and South under the microscope. Enjoy your weekend.

FOXSports.com fantasy contributor Mike Harmon would welcome your comments and feedback. You can also learn more about him by reading "Welcome to my world."

Coaching style: NFC North