NFC West: Final Word

September, 11, 2009
9/11/09
4:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando


Five nuggets of knowledge about this weekend's games:

Clements, Fitzgerald in spotlight. Larry Fitzgerald averaged 99.6 yards receiving per game vs. the 49ers in his first six matchups against them. That average has fallen to 63.3 yards per game in four meetings over the last two seasons. The difference? Nate Clements. The veteran cornerback signed with the 49ers before the 2007 season and quickly distinguished himself as a difference-maker in this matchup. Fitzgerald has still managed to find the end zone, but his receiving yardage totals against the 49ers in the Clements era (20, 156, 31, 46) cannot compare to what they were from 2004 to 2006 (94, 47, 102, 129, 133, 93). Clements plays Fitzgerald physically and does not back down. Fitzgerald has worked hard to improve his game, with spectacular results. Can he solve Clements more consistently?

 
 G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images
 Jason Smith is one of several NFC West rookies expected to play a prominent role this season.
Little matchup problem for Seattle. Strange as it might seem, Sean Locklear's addition to the Seahawks' offensive line several years ago helped Seattle overtake St. Louis in the NFC West. For reasons possibly having more to do with style than substance, Locklear matched up favorably with the Rams' top pass-rusher, Leonard Little, providing needed security for quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Locklear and Little are still around, but Locklear's move from right tackle to the left side leaves Ray Willis to match up with Little. Willis isn't as skilled in pass protection. And while injuries have slowed Little in recent seasons, he should be at his best early in the season. It's a matchup to watch.

Game management issues key. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has generally proved adept at managing games. He anticipates situations (such as the time he ordered a fair catch to set up a free kick before halftime of a game last season) and does not fluster easily. Game management might become a little tougher now that Whisenhunt has resumed offensive play calling following Todd Haley's departure to the Chiefs. Will it suffer? On the other sideline Sunday, the 49ers' Mike Singletary will not be calling plays, but he still must prove himself as a game manager. The team botched its late-game management at Arizona last season. Former offensive coordinator Mike Martz admitted fault, but the head coach is ultimately responsible. A repeat performance would raise questions the 49ers would rather not face.

Quarterback question marks. The Rams' Marc Bulger is coming off a finger injury and heading into a season pivotal to his future with the team. The 49ers' Shaun Hill wasn't particularly convincing in competing for the starting job. The Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck is coming off the worst season of his career amid questions about his durability. Even the Cardinals' Kurt Warner expressed concern about his offense following an unimpressive preseason showing by the first-team offense. Bulger and Hill in particular could use fast starts. Hill has never started an NFL regular-season opener or faced the pressure associated with being a long-term starter. If the 49ers are going to lose, Hill cannot be the problem.

Rookies playing prominent roles. Horrible 2008 seasons set up the Seahawks and Rams for draft-day success. First-round right tackle Jason Smith and second-round middle linebacker James Laurinaitis will start for the Rams. First-round linebacker Aaron Curry and second-round guard Max Unger will start for the Seahawks. While all four will play prominent roles, Cardinals first-round running back Beanie Wells is a Week 1 wild card. He will not start, but the Cardinals will probably give him carries. To what degree Wells capitalizes could significantly affect the NFC West race. A dynamic running threat in Arizona would make the Cardinals a complete team offensively.

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