Well, week 3 is finished and we're heading into week 4. I think I've seen enough to have a pretty good handle on how the rest of the season will play out in the NFC West.
Prior to the beginning of the season, many analysts predicted that the West would be the most competitive division in football. I know of at least one that went so far as to say it would be "the best division in football". We can probably lay both of those predictions to rest. This is the way it looks right now:
SEA 2 1 64 50
SF 2 1 53 70
AZ 1 2 63 66
STL 0 3 32 68
So as you can see, Seattle leads the division in both points scored and fewest points allowed. So far none of the other three teams have made a strong statement about their hopes to win the division, but let's take a close look at all four teams....
St. Louis Rams
St. Louis was the sleeper pick to take the division in many peoples minds. Well, it's been a rough start. You can point to the loss of Orlando Pace and Richie Incognito as the reason for many of the Rams current woes. They began the season with a loss to the Panthers, excusable, but disappointing. In week two they followed up that performance with a very close loss to the Niners. In that game, however, they may have incurred a greater wound than simply a notch in the loss column. Marc Bulger was sacked 6 times, and hurried and hit several more. Following the absolute spanking the <blink blink> Tampa Bay Buccaneers put on them this last week, Linehan said to the media that Marc Bulger was playing with two broken ribs.
Now, I'm no genius, but if my starting QB has broken freaking ribs I'm sitting him on the bench for a couple weeks. Marc looked timid and completely unable to throw the deep pass. MAYBE THAT'S BECAUSE HIS RIBS WERE BROKEN! I'm still trying to figure out the coaches' decision on this one. They're off to an 0-3 start, and that's an awful big hole to dig out of.
When you're talking about a defensive line that can claim the likes of Draft sensation-Adam Carriker, veteran pro-bowler La'Roi Glover, and sack artist Leonard Little, you expect your front four to hold their own. Shockingly enough, however, every single sack that the Rams' defensive line has pulled down this year are accounted by Clifton Ryan, Trevor Johnson, and James Hall. The unsung guys are producing, and that's always good. Will Witherspoon at this point has only 14 tackles to his name, but he's been flying around the field like a man possessed. Oshiomogho Atogwe (say that five times fast... or five times at all) has been a huge contributor as well, hauling in a pick and 16 tackles.
The weapons are still there, Isaac Bruce and Tory Holt may be another year older, but they look as good as ever. Athletically, they've got what they need on defense. You'd like to see a little more size in the front seven, but their speed more than makes up for it. Oh yes, and don't let the stats so far this year fool you... Stephen Jackson is still a beast.
Where to start? Well, how about defense. Here's an interesting tidbit: Four out of their top five leaders in tackles are defensive backs (Chavous, Ron Bartell, Jerome Carter, and Atogwe). That's never good. I've just mentioned how athletic the front seven are, but ultimately no one will care what your 40 time is if you can't keep the running game contained within the box. It's good to have DBs that can tackle, but I'm sure no DC wants to rely on them to act like linebackers on a weekly basis.
Moving on to offense. Drew Bennet, Dane Looker, and Randy McMichael have combined for a total of 12 catches, 129 yards, and 0 TDs in the first 3 games. In other words, they've basically been non-factors. When did the greatest show on turf devolve into a pair of guys that the defense can double cover because the QB won't be looking in anyone else's direction? Linehan's decision-making in placing Marc Bulger out there while he was already injured was terrible. It could have resulted in losing Bulger for the year - it really only would have taken one good hit to do it. As it stands right now, the Rams are crippled by injuries to their offensive line, as well as to Stephen Jackson and Bulger. Even Holt is a little banged up. But as for the biggest negative for this team right now... next week they're heading to Dallas, and I don't think there's very many people that believe that they'll come back with anything other than an 0-4 record.
Season PredictionDon't despair just yet Rams fans. You will have something to cheer about at some point this season. S-Jax is out next week, Bulger's hurting, the O-line is in shambles, and the front seven look scared to make a hit.... BUT... it can't last. Your boys will get healthy, and Leonard Little will not, and can not be held sackless for long. This is a guy who's averaged 11.5 sacks per year over the past 6 years. The Rams that everyone expected will eventually show up, but a little too late to salvage the season completely. 5-11 finish, and last place in the division. If you really need something pertaining to your team to cheer you up right away, there's always this:
Arizona is a team on the rise. Perhaps. Is it a bad thing that it looks like your best player is coming off the bench? Issue numero uno in the desert right now are the following two statlines:
Matt Leinart - 46/85 54.1% for 454 yards. 2Td to 3Int. 62.6 passer rating
Kurt Warner - 15/20 75.0% for 258 yards. 2Td to 0Int. 150.0 passer rating
Keep in mind that the only team Warner's faced to get those stats were the Baltimore Ravens, while Leinart earned his facing the Niners and Seahawks. Out of the blue this QB controversy appears, but it's really an illusion. The Cards understand the best thing they can do for themselves is to stick with Leinart, they're playing for the future.
For a 1-2 team, they've looked impressive. Especially this past week in their loss to the Ravens. Yes, Leinart was inept, but when Warner came into the game the Ravens were knocked completely back on their heels. After an impressive comeback, the Cards turned a blowout into an extremely exciting game.
This team is stacked with so much weaponry you could mistake them for a desert militia. Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald are two of the best young wideouts in the league, and a sophomore QB couldn't ask for a better situation in which to be placed. It's not all about the youngsters, however. The Edge is back! Thank you Whisenhunt, thank you Russ Grimm. Who would have thought that in a division featuring Frank Gore, Stephen Jackson, and Shaun Alexander, the top RB would be Edge? James' numbers are as follows: 277 yards on 60 carries for a 4.6 avg and 2 TDs. Superior to any other RB in the division stacked with RB stars. Fantasy league masterminds everywhere are shaking their heads.
Quentin Moses was a very savvy pickup. I like the direction this team is headed, especially on defense. The secondary looks pretty darn impressive this year, led by safety Adrian Wilson. Adrian is one of the best, and I'm sure Cardinals fans will be watching him make outstanding plays for many more years. Let's give credit where credit is due though, because Eric Green, Terrence Holt, and Roderick Hood have played excellent football out there so far this year as well. The front seven looks like it will be led by the front four, their line features some impressive guys... don't overlook Darnell Dockett. 8tk, 2.5sacks, and 1FR already this year. As for the most underrated defender in the league, I'd say look no further than Karlos Dansby. Too many football fans have never even heard of this guy, but the fouth-year tackling machine out of Auburn won't have that problem much longer if he keeps playing like he has been.
Leinart, Leinart, Leinart. Pull your head out of... ahem... the sand, boy. Congrats on hanging out with hollywood starlets and playing off the field like Tom Brady, but guess what? On the field right now, you're a 62.6 rated passer with a grey old backup that can still play circles around you. It's time to wake up and lead the team. Your O-line is solidifying, your WR corps is excellent, and your running game is great. It's a sad thing when you have to look to your QB when identifying the weak link on the team.
As for defensive negatives... where the heck is Alan Branch? Have they even given the kid a jersey yet? So far this year his statline reads goose egg after goose egg. For a guy that was hailed as the steal of the draft, a little more was expected. At some point, Q-Moses and Branch need to step up and start making an impact, because it hasn't happened yet. Similar to the Rams, they have a lot of speed on defense, but so far other than Dansby, their LB corps hasn't been their strong suit. They need to be.
This is an impressive looking team with a whole lot of potential. But I still predict a 7-9 season without making the playoffs. They're 1-2 right now, and next week the Steelers come to town. Just in case Whisenhunt and Grimm don't already know what to expect from that game, they can call up the Bills, Browns, and 49ers to get the full scoop on that horror story. After week 4 they'll be 1-3, and with the question marks they have at QB, I don't see them doing any better (or any worse) than 6-6 from there on out. If Leinart proves to be something more than just an Orange-County party boy hanging out in the desert, maybe the Cardinals will be the team to beat in the West next year. But not this one.
San Francisco 49ers
I am a Niner-fan. One of the Niner faithful. Oh, such high hopes I had before the season began. Thanks for bringing me back to reality, Alex Smith.
At 2-1, this is a great start for SF. For the past 6 years, Niner fans have had to put up with cheering for bad teams, but last year's overachieving squad gave us hope, and the offseason pickups and strong draft had everyone feeling the Niners were a team on the rise. Well, they are, but to be honest, there's still a couple very big holes in this team.
"DEFENSE! DEFENSE!" Now when the fans chant it from the stands, it's more than just a hope and a prayer that one will show up. Patrick Willis may be the best thing that's happened to this team in quite some time. Speed, tackling ability, toughness... I'm sure Mike Singletary is having a field day coaching this kid. The linebacking corps is pretty deep, especially at MLB, and for the first time for many years the 49ers front seven looks like a squad to be reckoned with. Bryant Young, 14 year veteran, has gobbled up 4 sacks in just 3 games. That puts him on pace to have the best season of his career. Marques Douglas is finally looking like the guy the Niners hoped he would be, and has piled up 14 tackles and a sack and a half of his own.
The biggest positive for the Niners, though, is without a doubt the 80-million dollar man. Yes, the guy that everyone said wasn't worth it, Mr. Clements. In week 2, Nate Clements single-handedly won the game for the Niners, punching the ball out of Holt's hands moments before he galloped into the endzone for what would have been the game-winning TD. The Niners secondary has been transformed from their weakness into their strenght. Oh what a difference a year makes. Michael Lewis, Nate Clements, Walt Harris et all have been their backbone so far, and will have to continue to be if SF expects to win more games.
You may have noticed that nowhere in the "positives" section did I mention anything to do with offense. That's because there has been almost nothing noteworthy happening on that side of the ball. Alex Smith is seemingly regressing back to the terrible play of his rookie season, not a good sign for SF. So far this year he's shown that he can't read more than one receiver at once, and that has led him into the annoying habit of holding on to the ball way too long. Even worse, though, is what happens when he's pressured. True QBs step up in the pocket when edge rushers fly in. This not only reduced the amount of yardage lost if a sack occurs, but also allows the passer to retain the zip on his throw. Alex looks incapable of stepping up in the pocket, and that's a bad sign.
Frank Gore has felt the brunt of the poor passing game. The aerial ineptitude has resulted in opposing defenses having no respect for the pass, and Frank is the guy that all eleven sets of eyes are aimed at every down. Despite giving up 37 points last week to the Steelers, the defense is holding up it's end of the bargain, but can the offense do the same?
Although he doesn't have fumbilitis, Alex Smith looks very much like the Rex Grossman of the West Coast. Improvements are necessary, otherwise things will go downhill from here. I don't think those improvements will happen. I see the Niners finishing without a playoff berth, at 8-8. Their defense really does look strong, and a good D will carry a a team a long way. In the Niners case, I see that D carrying them to 6 more wins. Next week SF plays the Seahawks, it should be a good game. And speaking of the Seahawks...
So far this year the Seahawks have had their ups and downs. The loss to the Cardinals had to sting as their division record started off on the wrong foot at 0-1, but victories against the Buccaneers and Bengals have their confidence flying high. Beating a pair of good teams will do that. On paper, next week's game in San Francisco should go well for Seattle, but as I'm sure Seahawk fans recall, the same thing was said of their last four meetings. San Fran has won 3 out of those 4. It will be interesting to see how Seattle responds to being swept by the Niners last year.
The Seahawks have yet to play a bad looking game this year. Even in their loss, for much of the game it looked like they were in charge. There's not much doubt that this will be a strong team all year long.
Well, to be blunt, there's a lot of them. Adding Patrick Kerney to the mix on their defensive line was a move that made a lot of sense, and will pay dividends all year long. Rocky Bernard is eating up blockers and putting the occasional pressure on the passer, which is exactly what Seattle needs out of him. There's playmakers in several different positions on defense this year, and the two biggest ones are both at linebacker. Julian Peterson (18 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FR) and Lofa Tatupu (21 tackles, 1 int) are two of the fastest LBs in the NFL and could both be pro-bowlers this year.
Shaun Alexander has had a solid season so far in the midst of frustrated NFC West RBs. He's piled up respectable numbers, with 275 yards off of 66 carries for a 4.2 avg and 2 tds. The WR corps may be getting old, but they're still making plays. Bobby Engram (a couple of drops notwithstanding) has been making plays, and Deion Branch and Nate Burleson have been as solid as Hasselbeck has needed them to be. The ball is getting spread around, in fact, of Hasselbecks 5 passing TDs, 1 went to Engram, 1 went to Branch, and 2 went to Burleson. While we're on the topic of Hasselbeck, he's been the best QB in the West so far. He's thrown for 751 yards with a 64.9% completion rate. His 5 touchdowns already and career high 7.7 yards per attempt have resulted in a QB rating of 97.1. Niiiiiice.
Shaun Alexander is playing with a broken wrist. Even though it's not the kind of injury that should keep him off the field, it has to make Seahawk fans nervous, especially after that lingering foot problem. They dumped Jerramy Stevens in the offseason, finally ridding themselves of the problem-child tight end, but it doesn't look like they had a playmaker to replace him with, and they didn't go out and find one either. I'm splitting hairs here, because to be honest, this is a pretty good looking team.
On defense, the loss of Hamlin looks like it made a big difference. I'm not sold on Seattle's secondary. Even though they faced down the Bengals attack and came away with a win, I wouldn't be confident in Seattle's ability to stay strong against an elite passing team, such as the Patriots or Colts. Deon Grant has been fantastic so far (15 tackles, 1 int, 1FR), but they're going to need more than just one playmaker out there where wideouts roam.
I know it was two weeks ago now, but I'm still shaking my head at that botched handoff that basically cost them the game against the Cardinals. We're talking about a Seattle team that plays in the noisiest stadium in the league. They should be prepared, and mix-ups like that just shouldn't happen. Aaaaaanyway, the Seahawks are going to have another good year. I see them hauling in an 11-5 record and winning the division convincingly. The playoff competition this year in the NFC may come down to the Cowboys, the Bears, the Packers, and the Seahawks. I think they match up well against all of those teams except for the Cowboys. If things roll the right way this year, we may see Seattle back in the Super Bowl for another shot.