PFF: Young, Smith, Cook join Jennings as NFC North 'secret superstars'

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PFF: Young, Smith, Cook join Jennings as NFC North 'secret superstars'

Pro Football Focus is currently running a series on the "Secret Superstars" of the NFL. Players who performed better than the media or even the numbers said were dubbed as the secret stars of their respective teams. Last week the NFC North was broken down, and Bears Insider John Mullin wrote his story on cornerback Tim Jennings being named the Bears unknown star.

Here is a look at the rest of the division, and who Pro Football Focus named as each team's behind-the-scenes superstar.

Detroit Lions: Willie Young, DE

With all the star power on the Lions' defensive line, Willie Young had to fight to even make a roster spot in 2010. The sixth round draft pick was inactive for all but two games his rookie season, but Turk McBride's off-season departure bumped Young up to the No. 4 defensive end in 2011, behind Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson.

And Young made the most of his time on the field, as PFF notes "of all 4-3 defensive ends with at least 100 pass rushes, Young had the fourth highest Pass Rushing Productivity Rating (13.4)." In other words, Young knows how to get to the quarterback. He recorded 3.0 sacks in 2011, and could be in line for an even bigger role in 2012 alongside defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

Green Bay Packers: D.J. Smith, ILB

Packers' inside linebacker A.J. Hawk has been one of the few draft busts under Ted Thompson, but the general manager, like the Lions,also may have struck gold in the sixth round.

The 5-foot-11 linebacker was considered undersized coming out of Appalachian State last year, and was assumed to play a role on special teams more than anything defensively for the Packers. With starters Desmond Bishop and Hawk manning the 3-4 defense, the rookie Smith played zero defensive snaps until Week 12 against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day. Including that Week 12 game, Smith recorded 33 tackles and an interception in four consecutive starts.

Thompson and the Packers have been reluctant to part ways with Hawk, but Smith's impressive showing last year could force Green Bay's hand to insert him in the starting lineup.

Minnesota Vikings: Chris Cook, CB

Knee injuries cost the 2010 second round draft pick a decent amount of his rookie season, but Cook came back strong in 2011. PFF noted one play in particular, when Cook broke up a Matthew Stafford pass intended for Calvin Johnson late in the fourth quarter. That contest, which PFF called Cook's "coming out party," saw the second year cornerback allow just three catches on six targets, and two passes defended.

Cook was arrested for domestic assault during the year and was dismissed by the team, but he seems to have his legal troubles behind him. He is expected to enter the season as one of two Vikings' starting cornerbacks, and at 6-foot-2 will be valuable in defending the likes of Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson and Brandon Marshall.

For the Blackhawks defense, change is the new normal

For the Blackhawks defense, change is the new normal

Ulf Samuelsson saw the changes the Blackhawks made this season, his hiring as assistant coach being one of them. Soon he’ll be working with the team’s defensemen, another area that’s had some upheaval.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity here, some uncertainties and some moving parts that I probably, typically haven’t seen going into a season. So that makes it even more interesting and challenging,” Samuelsson said. “So I’m looking forward to this opportunity to really develop and work with some of the younger players.”

From its immediate coach to its personnel, the Blackhawks’ defense is dealing with plenty of change that will continue when the season begins this fall. The Blackhawks have had some addition (Connor Murphy, Jan Rutta and Jordan Oesterle) but dealing with the subtraction (Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk) will nevertheless be tough. Coach Joel Quenneville said on Friday that pairings are a work in progress.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we're going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” he said. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

For Murphy, who was acquired in the deal that sent Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes, there are no set expectations as to where he fits yet.

“With any team you go into training camp proving where you’re going to be. Everyone has to come in and earn certain positions, especially me being a guy who they’re not as familiar with; I have to show what I can do,” Murphy said. “I definitely want to bring a more physical edge to defending at times and be able to skate well, have a good reach, make smart reads and try to help out with whatever’s needed with that.”

As for young players, the opportunity is there. Gustav Forsling admits he wasn’t happy that fellow Swede and role model Hjalmarsson was traded. But Forsling, who looked strong coming out of camp last September, knows he has to take advantage of the situation.

“Of course, I want to take the next step and play more,” he said. “I want to keep progressing my game and keep developing.”

The same goes for Jordan Oesterle, who the Blackhawks signed to a two-year deal on July 1.

“When I wanted to come here the opportunity was tremendous. Just the chance to come in and try to make the top six is there, it’s a battle with a number of us guys but that’s all you ask for in the situation I’m in,” he said. “Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more. I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Again, the Blackhawks could re-address defense once they implement Marian Hossa’s long-term injured reserve after the season begins. General manager Stan Bowman said there’s “no exact plan” right now on how they use that space – “that’s probably going to be dictated by where we’re at when we get to October, how the team’s playing, what areas are strong, what areas we want to add to,” he said.

It remains to be seen on that front. Regardless, from coaching to personnel, much has changed with the Blackhawks defense. 

Familiar problems for Fire in loss at New York City FC

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USA TODAY

Familiar problems for Fire in loss at New York City FC

A game which paired two of the top teams in the MLS standings didn’t deliver in a traditional sense, but did produce a wild game on Saturday.

The Chicago Fire looked like a team coming off a break in Saturday’s 2-1 loss at New York City FC. The Fire played up a man from the 12th minute on, but defensive lapses throughout and a lack of crispness in front of goal cost the Fire.

After a first half in which the Fire (11-4-5, 38 points) were outshot 7-4 despite the man advantage, NYCFC (11-6-4, 37 points) scored twice in the first five minutes of the second half and held off the Fire’s late surge.

For much of the match, the Fire struggled to complete passes and couldn’t even put shorthanded New York City under pressure. Once the Fire fell behind 2-0, David Accam, who entered the match as a halftime sub, got the Fire within one with a long-range effort that slammed in off the bottom off the crossbar.

The final 30 or so minutes resembled the Fire’s previous struggles this season of playing against teams defending deeply. The Fire couldn’t score against Orlando when the Lions were down two players on June 4. Later in June in the U.S. Open Cup, the Fire couldn’t score against USL opponent FC Cincinnati which defended deep the entire match.

NYCFC took the lead two minutes into the second half on a David Villa volley where Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson was screened on the shot. A few minutes later Frederic Brillant rebounded his own header on a set piece to double the lead.

Accam’s goal finished off a stretch of three goals in eight minutes, but the Fire couldn’t beat former goalkeeper Sean Johnson again despite 25 shots.

The loss snapped the Fire’s 11-match MLS unbeaten run and tightened up the Eastern Conference race. Toronto FC, which tied NYCFC in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, is up a point on the Fire. NYCFC is now a point behind the Fire with an extra game played.

Before the red card, the Fire caught a big break when a Bastian Schweinsteiger turnover nearly led to a penalty kick. Johan Kappelhof slid to knock the ball away from Herrera in the fourth minute, and appeared to miss the ball, but the ref did not give the penalty to the hosts.

Fire defender Brandon Vincent was announced as a starter before the match, but the club said he suffered a left quad strain in warmups and was replaced by Michael Harrington in the lineup.