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Friday, November 4, 2011
Final Word: NFC West

By Mike Sando

NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9:

DeMarcus Ware
Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware will be facing a Seattle Seahawks offensive line that has allowed a league-high 28 sacks.
Huge weekend for sack opportunities: The Seattle Seahawks, having allowed a league-high 28 sacks, must contend with the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware, who collected four of his 12 last week. The San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith and Justin Smith have a combined nine sacks over four games. They now face a Washington Redskins offense that took 10 sacks against Buffalo. The St. Louis Rams, coming off a six-sack game against New Orleans' Drew Brees, now face an Arizona Cardinals offense that allowed six against Baltimore last week.

Quarterback continuity at a premium: The 49ers' ability to protect Alex Smith and keep him healthy was a concern heading into the season. Smith had missed games to injury last season. He had missed an entire season previously. He had started 16 games in a season just once. Heading into Week 9, Smith is the NFC West ironman at the position. Arizona's Kevin Kolb has a turf-toe injury that could sideline him Sunday. St. Louis' Sam Bradford, who took every snap in 2010, has missed two games and could miss another. The Seahawks' Tarvaris Jackson is back in the lineup for the first time since Week 5. Smith, meanwhile, is on pace to make his ninth start in a row dating to last season.

More on that 49ers pass rush: The team is getting good pressure despite sending four or fewer pass-rushers on 82 percent of opposing dropbacks, the third-highest percentage in the league, according to Doug Clawson of ESPN Stats & Information. That figure is up from 73.1 percent last season. All four sacks against Cleveland last week came with the 49ers rushing four or fewer. That gives the team added flexibility in coverage. Opposing quarterbacks have been under duress on 20.4 percent of dropbacks, up from 11.9 last season. Aldon Smith's addition is key. Smith, who plays in sub packages, has six of his 6.5 sacks on plays when the 49ers rushed four or fewer.

Marshawn Lynch and the end zone: Getting the ground game going stands as a top priority for the Seahawks over the final nine games of the season. The team expects to have its projected offensive line starting for the second week in a row after not playing together since Week 1. Marshawn Lynch hasn't found much running room, but he does have a rushing touchdown in three consecutive games. He's looking to become the first Seattle runner since Shaun Alexander in 2005 to score one in four consecutive games. The Cowboys allowed 239 yards rushing to Philadelphia last week after entering the game allowing a league-low 69.7 yards per game.

Power backs in spotlight: With Bradford and Kolb limited or out entirely, running backs Steven Jackson and Beanie Wells could play more prominent roles when the Rams and Cardinals play at University of Phoenix Stadium. Both are big, bruising backs. Both are running with attitude. The Rams allowed a season-low 56 yards rushing against a New Orleans team that leans heavily on the pass. Before that, however, the Rams had allowed at least 168 yards on the ground four times. The Cardinals have been more vulnerable against pass than run, but Washington and Minnesota each rushed for 172 yards against Arizona.