NFC West: 2013 NFL Week 12 Double Coverage

Kaepernick-GriffinGetty ImagesColin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin are both trying to end their teams' two -game losing skids.
At one point this game looked like it might be a fun one. Two young, electric quarterbacks leading teams with big playoff aspirations on "Monday Night Football."

The narrative has shifted over time. The 49ers remain firmly in the playoff hunt, but quarterback Colin Kaepernick has not taken the leap many expected, whether because he lacks receiving targets or because of his own performance.

The Redskins aren’t in any playoff race, done in by their own inconsistent play. And the honeymoon period for quarterback Robert Griffin III officially has ended. The 3-7 record isn’t just his fault and he’s capable of strong games, but he’s a work in progress in the passing game. For Washington, a win might not turn its season around, but it certainly would take some sting off recent defeats and make the Redskins feel a little better. 49ers reporter Bill Williamson and Redskins reporter John Keim break down the matchup.

John Keim: Bill, we’ve been consumed with Griffin’s up-and-down season. But he’s not the only young QB enduring growing pains. Why has Kaepernick not had the season many expected? Is it just injuries to others?

Bill Williamson: It starts with a lack of receiving weapons. He hasn't had much to work with beyond Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis for much of the season. Kaepernick has had his moments and his Total QBR is 62.5, which is 11th in the NFL. He had Total QBR performances of 99 and 99.8 in Weeks 7 and 8, respectively. So, he has ability. But he has struggled in the fourth quarter all season.

Like Griffin, Kaepernick is in his second season as a starter and it hasn’t been as smooth as his first season. John, which quarterback do you see having the better game Monday night?

Keim: Well, one quarterback is facing a pass defense that has struggled and that’s Kaepernick. Opposing quarterbacks have a 99.2 passer rating against Washington compared to 74.8 when facing the Niners. I also see both defenses trying to force the other quarterback to beat them. Teams have done this against Griffin sometimes by sitting on the play-action and, because of it, taking away favored routes. Griffin has been up-and-down and has been under a harsher microscope overall than probably any young quarterback. I wonder how he’ll respond Monday after a difficult game and subsequent few days. He’s a competitor so he won’t back down. But the matchup for Kaepernick is just better and more conducive to success.

At the start of the season this game looked like it would be a big one. But the Redskins are 3-7 and have lost two straight and the Niners, while better off, have lost two straight. Again, is this just about injuries, are they not playing as well, or did they just have a two-game stumble?

Williamson: I think it’s a stumble. The 49ers were 6-2 and on a five-game win streak before losing to Carolina and New Orleans. The 49ers lost those two games by a total of four points. San Francisco could have easily won those games. San Francisco has played outstanding defense all season. The offense has struggled in the past two weeks. But I can see this team getting it together pretty quickly.

John, can you see the Redskins hanging in this game?

Keim: The problem for Washington is that to win a game like this the Redskins must do more than play well on one side of the ball -- and probably need a good effort in all three phases. That’s something they haven’t really had this season and I don’t know why I’d expect that to begin Monday against a good team. But hang for a while? Sure, but it will be difficult. They’ll need a turnover or two early to help. While I think Kaepernick will have a stronger game, it’s not like he’s been lights out and the Redskins could make him work for a while; they’ve been good at making teams one-dimensional (yet still struggling). However, they’ve had problems against mobile quarterbacks this season and his ability to extend plays will be big. I don’t think this will come down to a final drive as it has the past two weeks for Washington.

It does look like the Niners’ defense is still one of the best. We know about the big names on this group, but what makes them so effective overall? And how have they fared against option quarterbacks?

Williamson: This defense has been top notch all season. It’s well-coached, and varied. It is tough against the run and its secondary has been strong against the pass. The Saints scored just two touchdowns at home against San Francisco. That tells you something about this defense. The pass rush has sagged some with Aldon Smith out for five games due to personal reasons. He’s been back for two games and is still working his way into shape. The 49ers need to get him back in a groove. As far as option quarterbacks, they have fared pretty well against them and I don’t expect this week to be different.

John, can you see the Redskins’ offense challenging the 49ers’ defense?

Keim: Challenging? That will be tough because the Redskins need to prove they can throw the ball against a good pass defense. This is, by far, the best defense Washington has faced. In fact, of the Redskins’ first nine opponents, none is currently ranked in the top 16 in yards allowed, though two teams are in that category for points allowed (Philadelphia, San Diego). The Redskins will have to make big plays in the pass game early, something they haven’t done a lot of this season, and it sounds as if the 49ers will try to stop the run with just their front seven, making it tougher to move against them. Washington also continues to have issues in pass protection and Griffin still sometimes hesitates and therefore misses open guys. The Redskins have also turned the ball over quite a bit, not a good thing against a team that is plus-6 in turnover differential.

Double Coverage: Colts at Cardinals

November, 22, 2013
Angerer-PalmerGetty ImagesPat Angerer and the Colts defense will try to slow down Carson Palmer, who has a 6-2 TD-to-INT ratio over his past three games.
Yes, there’s a football game being played in the desert on Sunday.

With all the hype surrounding the matchup of Arizona coach Bruce Arians facing the Indianapolis Colts for the first time since he was their interim coach in 2012, it’s easy to forget that a game will kick off.

Colts quarterback Andrew Luck can pose as many problems as any other quarterback in the league but if one coach knows him, it’s Arians. And the Cardinals have been playing well as of late on both sides of the ball.

Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Colts reporter Mike Wells discuss this weekend’s game:

Weinfuss: Obviously this game goes beyond more than football; how do you anticipate the Colts responding to seeing Arians on the opposite sideline?

Wells: It won’t be on the same level as when they faced Peyton Manning last month, but there will be some emotions involved. Arians took over a team that had its world shaken up when Chuck Pagano took time off to battle leukemia last season. Arians was responsible for making sure the team was mentally and physically ready each week. That wasn’t an easy thing to do, especially with a rookie quarterback. But Arians obviously did a good job leading the way. The Colts won 11 games and reached the playoffs. The job Arians did is a major reason why he’s the head coach in Arizona. Do you think he will be even more motivated this weekend?

Weinfuss: Arians will definitely be more motivated this weekend but he’ll also be more emotional than he has been this season. We’ll see how well he can keep those emotions in check and then channel them Sunday, which he said will be the hardest time for him. After all the pregame hugs and pleasantries are exchanged, I think Arians will just be focused on getting the Cardinals a seventh win and one step closer to the playoffs. This is a big game for both sides and Arians doesn’t want to be the reason the Cardinals falter.

How has the Trent Richardson trade worked out for the Colts? Are they seeing the return on investment they expected?

Wells: Richardson has been a topic of discussion every week since the Colts acquired him in the middle of September. That’s expected when you consider that Richardson hasn’t rushed for more than 60 yards in a game as a Colt and the team gave up a first-round pick for him. Some fans are ready to call the deal a bust and say the Cleveland Browns pulled one over on Colts general manager Ryan Grigson. I’m not ready yet. Key word being “yet.” Richardson hasn’t lived up to expectations so far, but I think part of the problem is he had to get use to things on the fly. I believe he needs a full training camp with the team before you can fully value the trade. The criticism will taper off some if Richardson can improve his 2.8 yards a carry average before the season ends.

Quarterback Carson Palmer threw for 419 yards last week. Do you think Palmer will be able to play well the rest of the season?

Weinfuss: This weekend will be the true test. He played better against teams like Atlanta and Houston, then broke out against Jacksonville -- none of those teams are anything to write home about -- but if Palmer can put it together against the Colts, then he might be onto something for the rest of the season. Arizona showed in Jacksonville it can put up points and yards when the running game falters. Usually when that happens, teams bring their pass rush and don’t stop, and it overwhelms some of the younger players on Arizona’s offensive line. Palmer’s a vet and knows what he has to do, but when he doesn’t have much time, like any quarterback, he can’t make good decisions. The game at Jacksonville was the first time Arizona’s offense looked complete and I think it gave the Cardinals enough confidence going forward to continue at this pace.

Speaking of offenses, where has Reggie Wayne’s injury hurt the Colts and have they been able to make up for his loss?

Wells: Wayne’s loss has impacted the entire offense. T.Y. Hilton is doing his best to fill the role of Luck’s go-to receiver. Nobody has stepped up to be the Colts’ second or even third receiver behind Hilton. That’s where the problem really is for the Colts. They signed Darrius Heyward-Bey in the offseason to start opposite of Wayne, but he’s been a disappointment. The Colts are doing it by committee to try to make up for Wayne’s loss. Luck completed passes to eight different players in their last game against Tennessee. That’s the philosophy they’ll continue to use the rest of the season because there is no replacing Wayne.

Speaking of receivers, Larry Fitzgerald was a ball boy with the Minnesota Vikings when I covered them in 2000 and 2001. I still remember him constantly picking Randy Moss' and Cris Carter’s brains for pointers. Things have worked out pretty well for Fitzgerald. He’s one of the premier receivers in the league. Is his future in Arizona or do you think the Cardinals will eventually have to trade him?

Weinfuss: If he’s willing to restructure his current contract, his future -- and the rest of his career -- will be in Arizona. If he’s not, the Cardinals will trade Fitzgerald this offseason but only if they get enough compensation to continue rebuilding.

Julius Peppers and Tavon AustinAP PhotosJulius Peppers' Bears and Tavon Austin's Rams will add another chapter to an old rivalry.
The St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears have been playing each other seemingly forever. The series dates to 1937, when the Rams franchise was based in Cleveland.

Much has changed over the years, with the Rams moving around before settling about 4 1/2 hours south on I-55.

Sunday's game between the teams will be the 89th in their history, but it represents much more for each.

At 6-4, the Bears are still in the hunt for the NFC North Division and, failing that, a potential NFC wild-card berth. The Rams are clinging to their playoff lives at 4-6 and probably need to win out to reach the postseason. Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright take a closer look at Sunday's matchup.

Wagoner: There's been lots of talk about the quarterback situation up there, something that we can relate to in St. Louis. Josh McCown seems like he's done a good job filling in for Jay Cutler. What does he bring to the table that allows him to have success, and how do teammates view him?

Wright: Aside from the immense physical gifts such as athleticism and his ability to make up for whatever limitations he may have in terms of arm strength with anticipatory skills, McCown possesses an engaging personality that makes his teammates play hard for him. Bears general manager Phil Emery in the past has called McCown "a glue guy." Having played for several teams where he gained experience as a starter and worked behind quarterbacks such as Kurt Warner and Jon Kitna, McCown has taken what he's learned and applied it to his own play while relaying some of those experiences to Chicago's younger players. That's part of the reason McCown is widely considered a fatherly figure in the locker room. McCown's teammates respect him immensely because the veteran knows his role and works just as hard as starter Jay Cutler to be prepared to assume that role when the situation calls for it.

Speaking of backup quarterbacks, this game is certainly going to be a Backup Bowl and Kellen Clemens seems to be settling in as the replacement for Sam Bradford. What does he bring to the table and how confident is the team in his ability to get it done down the stretch?

Wagoner: After reading your response about McCown, I was tempted to just copy and paste it and simply sub in Clemens' name where appropriate. Clemens' numbers are about what you'd expect from a backup and fall in line with his career totals. He had pretty much the ideal game you'd want him to have against Indianapolis. He didn't have to throw much, but when he did, he made no mistakes and took advantage of big-play opportunities. What's more, he's completely unafraid to step up in the pocket and take a hit to deliver the ball or pull it down and try to make something happen with his legs. His teammates respect him and it shows in the way they battle for him week to week. To be sure, Clemens is no Bradford, but he has already given the Rams all they want on the field and has been a key mentor in the locker room for his many young teammates.

Switching gears a bit, Chicago's defense has taken an obvious step backward this year. How much of that do you attribute to the change in coaching staff and how much is a product of aging core players on the defense at large?

Wright: There's a little bit of all of that going on, but the biggest blow to the defense by far has been injuries. The Bears lost starting nickel corner Kelvin Hayden for the year before the season even started, then lost franchise defensive tackle Henry Melton with a torn ACL only to see his replacement, Nate Collins, lost for the season with the same injury. Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman landed on the injured-reserve list due to a torn triceps suffered Nov. 10, and seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs has been out the past three games with a small fracture in a shoulder. Oh, did I mention the Bears also lost starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, starting defensive tackle Stephen Paea has been in and out of the lineup -- and there's a chance he could miss Sunday -- with a nagging turf toe injury and defensive end Shea McClellin missed the past two games due to a strained hamstring? So injuries have destroyed chemistry for the Bears. Considering all the defense has gone through, it's somewhat a surprise it hasn't performed more poorly.

With the Rams coming off a bye, what areas needed the most work during the time away, and is the team confident it was able to sufficiently address them?

Wagoner: I suppose the simple answer to this question is they needed to work on everything during the bye week, but it's more detailed than that. The Rams are again the youngest team in the league and the thing they struggle with most is consistency. They simply haven't been able to string together good performances. So the mission over the bye was to get healthy, get their young guys extra reps in practice and try to position themselves to follow up a dominant win against Indianapolis with another strong performance this week against the Bears. Most notably, they must find a way to be better week to week on defense. They've had some thoroughly dominant performances surrounded by clunkers. Without Bradford, the margin for error is even smaller, so it falls on the defense to pick up the slack by putting up strong performances every time out. The Rams were riding high after the win against the Colts. They believe they can win every week. We'll see if the bye served them well or killed whatever momentum they might have built in Indy.

On the subject of that defense, the Rams clearly have a tall order coming Sunday. With Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte and the emergence of Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett, this seems like as good a group of skill position players as the Bears have had in a long time. Do you view it that way and what does that mean for the team moving forward?

Wright: Absolutely, it's probably the best they've had collectively in the past 20 years and signifies a shift in philosophy for the organization. Prior to the addition of coach Marc Trestman; the Bears always spent their money to build elite defenses while sacrificing quality on offense. But Emery has made it clear the Bears want to start fielding more explosive offenses while continuing the tradition of strong play on defense. So the Bears have invested heavily on offense in free agency and the draft, and it appears they'll be able to keep the group together for a long time, especially if they can secure Marshall for the long term because his contract is set to expire after next season. So while it appears the Bears are set on offense, they've got to immediately turn the attention back to the defense, which is aging and has several players coming up on the end of their contracts at season's end. Tillman's deal is about to expire and the team must decide if it wants to continue to invest huge cap dollars in defensive end Julius Peppers. I'd expect an interesting offseason for the Bears this spring, and a radically changed defense in terms of personnel in 2014.

Last spring, it seemed that a good portion of the Chicago fan base really hoped that somehow Tavon Austin would fall to the Bears. He's obviously made plenty of noise recently for the Rams and seems to be ascending. How much is there that we haven't yet seen from this guy?

Wagoner: Austin is still just scratching the surface of his big-play potential. His breakthrough performance against the Colts was nice, but now it's up to him and the Rams to find a way for him to duplicate it on a more regular basis. Responsibility for Austin's early-season struggles was shared by all parties -- some of it was his struggles to catch the ball and run good routes consistently, some was a product of an offense unsure how to deploy him best -- but it seems things are opening up for him a bit. The Rams have made a more concerted effort to get him the ball down the field in recent weeks as opposed to throwing the short screens and hitches that went nowhere in the first half of the season. That doesn't even include his home run ability as a returner. Austin still has plenty of room to get better, but in the meantime, his breakout game should not only bolster his confidence but open some other things up for the offense.