NFC West: 2011 Week 8 coverage
October, 30, 2011
SEATTLE -- Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 34-12 home defeat against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8:
What it means: The Seahawks are going to have a very hard time challenging within the division after losing back-to-back games against Cleveland and Cincinnati. They trail the San Francisco 49ers by four games in the standings with nine games remaining. No team since realignment in 2002 has overcome greater than a 3.5-game deficit this late in a season.
What I liked: Rookie cornerback Richard Sherman tracked the ball nicely and picked off Andy Dalton's deep pass down the right sideline when the Bengals were threatening to build on a 17-3 lead. Sherman was starting after the team lost Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond to season-ending injuries. He broke up another pass, enabling teammate Kam Chancellor to collect an interception. Punter Jon Ryan tracked down Bengals return specialist Pacman Jones to prevent a touchdown. Tarvaris Jackson's deep pass to Ben Obomanu against cornerback Leon Hall covered 55 yards and gave the Seahawks a needed jolt late in the third quarter. Jackson topped 300 yards passing, making it clear he needs to remain the starter moving forward.
What I didn't like: Seattle's offensive line, playing with its projected starters for the first time since Week 1, struggled in all phases. Tight end Anthony McCoy had another drop. Even Sidney Rice had some issues. On defense, Seattle gave up the big play to A.J. Green. Linebacker David Hawthorne, who picked off a pass against Cleveland last week, appeared to have the coverage when the Bengals, playing without starting tight end Jermaine Gresham, found Donald Lee for a big gain over the middle. The Bengals fared better than expected on the ground even though they were without Gresham and suspended running back Cedric Benson.
Poor game management: The first-half clock ran out on Seattle after the team went for it on fourth down deep in Bengals territory with no timeouts remaining. The sequence resembled what happened to the team against San Diego last season. Yes, officials arguably should have stopped the clock when Bengals players lingered on the pile, preventing Seattle from attempting another play. But every coach must factor for such risks. Seattle went into halftime trailing 17-3 when the score should have been 17-6, at worst. Down 17-12 with 8:55 to play in the game, Carroll opted for a two-point conversion, which failed.
Questionable QB juggling: Carroll left himself open to further criticism with his handling of the quarterback situation. Charlie Whitehurst started even though Jackson was available. Whitehurst struggled. Carroll switched to Jackson. If Jackson were healthy enough to play, why not start him? It was defensible for Carroll to see how things went with Whitehurst, possibly buying additional time for Jackson to make a fuller recovery. The team listed Jackson as its starter before the game, only to send Whitehurst onto the field for the first series. Jackson took a hit late in the game, after the outcome was decided, and doctors checked out his knee on the sideline. He went back into the game and tossed an interception for a touchdown, turning a sound defeat into an embarrassing one.
CB thinking rewarded: The Seahawks traded Kelly Jennings to the Bengals before the season as part of an overall effort to get bigger at cornerback. That thinking appeared sound when Sherman used his size to make that leaping interception along the sideline. Sherman also contributed on the interception from Chancellor. Meanwhile, Seahawks undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin beat Jennings for a 31-yard gain up the right sideline.
Special-teams implosion: The Seahawks' special teams have dropped off this season through a combination of injuries and poor play. Brandon Tate's 56-yard punt return for a touchdown put away the game for the Bengals. Jones probably should have scored on an earlier return, but Ryan caught him. Jones apparently injured his hamstring injury on the play.
Injuries of note: Defensive end Chris Clemons left the game with a knee injury, then returned.
What's next: The Seahawks visit the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9.
October, 30, 2011
Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' game against the Cleveland Browns in Week 8:
What it means: The 49ers have a four-game lead in the NFC West with nine games remaining, unless Seattle overcomes a 27-12 deficit in the final two minutes (that game was ongoing as I published this). No NFL team since realignment in 2002 has blown more than a 3.5-game division lead after Week 7. The 49ers now are 6-1 for the first time since the 1998 season. They have a 5-1 record outside the division, setting themselves up to run away with the NFC West if they win most of their division games.
What I liked: Frank Gore topped 100 yards rushing in the first half. This was his fourth 100-yard game in a row, a career best. Alex Smith was efficient and showed good instincts when pump-faking to set up a first-half completion. Smith also scrambled for first downs on two third-down plays in the first half. He avoided the mistakes Cleveland needed him to make in order for the Browns to threaten in this game. Michael Crabtree caught a touchdown pass for the first time this season. On defense, the 49ers' linebackers dominated Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya in protection, putting pressure on Colt McCoy. That was the case when free safety Dashon Goldson picked off McCoy in the end zone after the Browns gained offensive traction in the second half. NaVorro Bowman enjoyed another standout game in his first season as a starter. Rookie first-round pick Aldon Smith collected another sack, giving him 6.5 for the season.
What I didn't like: Defensive end Ray McDonald suffered a hamstring injury and did not return. He had been playing very well for the 49ers. The team did not need him in this game but will miss him if he's lost for any significant period of time. Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis suffered an arm injury of unknown severity. Alex Smith's efficiency dropped after halftime. The 49ers were in control, so it didn't matter a great deal, but better efficiency is important.
Diving deep into playbook: The 49ers found left tackle Joe Staley for a 17-yard reception. They found nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga for an 18-yard gain. No one can say the 49ers don't like to have some fun.
What's next: The 49ers visit the Washington Redskins in Week 9.
October, 30, 2011
Thoughts on the Arizona Cardinals' 30-27 road defeat against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 8:
What it means: The Cardinals have now blown second-half leads in losing to Washington, Seattle, the New York Giants and Baltimore, making it tough to build on what progress they did show while building a 24-6 halftime lead against the Ravens. At 1-6, the Cardinals face three consecutive road games following a Week 9 home date with St. Louis, which appeared reborn while upsetting New Orleans.
What I liked: Kevin Kolb absorbed quite a bit of punishment early, but hung tough and drove the Cardinals in position to take a first-quarter lead. His 66-yard completion to Larry Fitzgerald was the longest play against the Ravens this season. Beanie Wells played despite a knee injury and scored a go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter. Rookie first-round pick Patrick Peterson, having already revived the Cardinals' punt-return game this season, scored on an 82-yarder to give Arizona welcome breathing room. The Cardinals finally turned the page at outside linebacker, giving rookie Sam Acho the start over an inactive Joey Porter while also finding time for O'Brien Schofield. Both players recorded sacks. Richard Marshall's interception was a big play for Arizona. The Cardinals held Joe Flacco without a touchdown pass. They allowed only 107 yards rushing, a respectable number.
What I didn't like: The passing game remained inconsistent. The pressure Baltimore put on Kolb was a big factor. Kolb remained hit-and-miss in how he dealt with the pressure. Sometimes, he scrambled to make plays, as when he found Early Doucet in the first half. He somehow avoided a sack that might have moved the team out of realistic field-goal range while trailing 27-24. Other times, Kolb risked sacks and turnovers. He's an adventure at a position where teams need consistency over time. The Cardinals converted just twice on 11 third-down opportunities. The offense managed only 207 yards compared to 405 for the Ravens. On defense, cornerback A.J. Jefferson had a rough game against Anquan Boldin. The Cardinals eventually changed up their coverage plan as a result. Jefferson was not on the field late.
What's next: The Cardinals are home against the St. Louis Rams in Week 9.
October, 30, 2011
Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 31-21 victory against New Orleans in Week 8:
What it means: The Rams scored one of the biggest upsets of this NFL season, giving them a badly needed boost heading into an easier portion of their schedule. The Rams saw encouraging developments on multiple fronts. This outcome gives them hope for a strong finish to the season, particularly once quarterback Sam Bradford returns from a high-ankle sprain. This game takes the heat off coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney for the time being, at least.
What I liked: The Rams, though badly outmatched based on how the teams had performed before Week 8, were competitive from the start. Their defense kept them in the game early. Rookie Greg Salas' 17-yard reception on fourth-and-2 moved the Rams into position for the field goal that gave them a 3-0 lead. Rookie first-round pick Robert Quinn, who blocked a field-goal try during preseason, blocked a punt in this game, setting up a Steven Jackson touchdown run for a 10-0 lead. Jackson dominated with his running, topping 150 yards. The workload showed he's fully recovered from the quadriceps injury he suffered in Week 1. Chris Long had three sacks, a breakout game. Quinn also got pressure as a pass-rusher at times. The Rams played with attitude. Their defense, despite playing without all its top corners, somehow prevented Drew Brees from building on his five-touchdown game against Indy. Safety Darian Stewart's interception return for a touchdown to close out the Saints provided the proper punctuation to a game the Rams dominated.
What I didn't like: Quarterback A.J. Feeley, subbing for Bradford, missed Brandon Lloyd twice on consecutive plays that should have produced touchdowns. Lloyd dropped a pass to kill a drive in the fourth quarter when the Rams needed to sustain drives. I could go through the game picking nits, but why? The Rams easily could have mailed it in for this game. Bradford's injury gave them an out. They did not do that. They deserve credit for that. Brees' scoring pass in the final seconds made the game appear closer.
Streak ends: Until this game, the Rams had not run an offensive play all season while leading on the scoreboard. The 2005 Houston Texans did not run an offensive play while leading until Week 7 that season. The Rams can finally put to rest this dubious streak.
What's next: The Rams visit the Arizona Cardinals in Week 9.