NFC West: Anthony McCoy

Vernon Davis took no snaps on the perimeter and just one from the slot during San Francisco 49ers practice Tuesday.

Davis
The subject is of interest after Davis, a career tight end, suggested he would be working with wide receivers. The truth is that Davis will remain a tight end even if he does line up in the slot or outside the numbers a little more frequently.

Davis has averaged 19.0 yards per reception, tops among tight ends over the past two regular seasons and playoffs, when lined up in the slot or outside the yard-line numbers, according to Doug Clawson of ESPN Stats & Information. He has six touchdowns on these plays, including four during the playoffs after the 2011 regular season. He caught seven passes on seven targets for 259 yards on those plays.

For perspective, I've put together a chart showing 2012 regular-season reception totals for prominent NFC West tight ends, broken down by whether the player lined up wide, in the slot or as an inline tight end.

Jared Cook, formerly of the Tennessee Titans and now with the St. Louis Rams, caught a high percentage of passes from the slot. These tight ends caught very few of their passes after lining up as wide receivers outside the yard-line numbers. I don't think Davis is going to suddenly start operating from that area regularly. Doing so would essentially remove him from the running game while making it tougher for him to motion into the formation.

Snap judgments: Seahawks' mindset

June, 18, 2013
6/18/13
12:47
PM ET

Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider made headlines in 2010 for their willingness to constantly churn the Seattle Seahawks' roster. Three years later, they've built the roster to a point where player retention has become a bigger focus.

As the chart below shows, Seattle has on its 90-man roster players responsible for logging 87.4 percent of offensive and defensive snaps last season. That is the highest percentage in the division.

The chart at right shows the 2012 contributors no longer on the roster. Note that tight end Anthony McCoy landed on injured reserve after suffering a torn Achilles' tendon during organized team activities.

Seattle moved on from defensive tackle Alan Branch, defensive lineman Jason Jones, linebacker Leroy Hill and cornerback Marcus Trufant after those players played fairly meaningful roles in 2012. The draft brought defensive tackles Jordan Hill and Jesse Williams. Free-agent addition Cliff Avril will affect the rotation at linebacker, where Hill's production had waned. Antoine Winfield replaced Trufant as Seattle sought to upgrade its nickel corner position.

Note: The percentages at defensive back changed slightly for Seattle since Monday when I included the 122 snaps safety Jeron Johnson played. I had accidentally excluded his snaps from consideration.
NFL rosters are mostly set until training camp, making this a good time to revisit a subject we hit pretty hard after the draft: how much raw playing time from last season each NFC West team will have to replace in 2013.

A few highlights and notes:
  • Most turnover: The Arizona Cardinals return 28.9 percent of their 2012 snaps at quarterback, the lowest percentage for any team at any position group. The St. Louis Rams are at 29.6 percent returning at running back. The Cardinals' secondary is at 30.8 percent returning, followed by the Cardinals' running backs at 36.9 percent. Those are the only four positions with less than 40 percent of 2012 snaps remaining on the roster. Arizona has the lowest percentage returning overall (60.9 percent).
  • Least turnover: The Rams have 100 percent of their quarterback snaps from 2012 still on the roster. The 49ers' running backs (99.4 percent) were next. Nine of the teams' position groups return at least 90 percent.
  • Injury factor: The percentages would be lower at some positions if we removed from consideration players who might not be available because of injuries. Those players include receiver Michael Crabtree, running back Kendall Hunter, receiver Kyle Williams and receiver Mario Manningham of the 49ers and defensive ends Chris Clemons and Greg Scruggs of the Seahawks. Tight end Anthony McCoy remains with Seattle, but he is on injured reserve, so I did not count his snaps as returning.
  • Suspension factor: Several NFC West players are facings suspensions to open the 2013 season. I did not remove their 2012 snap totals from consideration because all of the players are expected to factor for their teams this season.
The paragraphs accompanying Matt Williamson's effusive offseason report card Insider affirm the NFC West's status as a division on the rise.

Two "A" grades, one B-plus and a B forced me to find a spot on the NFC West fridge for his report card between the Little League team picture and the list of chores for the week.

"I love what Arizona has done this offseason," Williamson wrote at one point.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Rams' roster "has improved immensely" under coach Jeff Fisher, leading Williamson to suggest "three teams out of the NFC West might end up going to the playoffs" following the 2013 regular season.

"Along with Seattle," Williamson writes of the San Francisco 49ers, "this might be the best team in the league -- and this offseason only reinforces that notion for me."

Williamson uses the word "stacked" to describe both the Seahawks' and 49ers' rosters.

So, what could have gone better for NFC West teams to this point in the offseason? We covered that ground a few weeks ago. Since then, the 49ers' Michael Crabtree and the Seahawks' Anthony McCoy suffered torn Achilles' tendons. Seattle learned it would lose defensive end Bruce Irvin to a four-game suspension. The Rams lost Isaiah Pead and Rokevious Watkins to one-game bans.
Good morning, NFC West, and Happy Memorial Day.

This holiday Monday figures to be a slow one around the NFL. I'd normally throw some burgers on the grill, but our family has a 12-hour drive ahead after spending the past few days with relatives for a niece's graduation and a sister's wedding reception.

I've got the laptop and a wireless card at the ready in case news breaks.

No teams have organized team activities (OTAs) scheduled Monday, which means there shouldn't be any injuries along the lines of the torn Achilles' tendons Michael Crabtree and Anthony McCoy suffered last week.

The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have OTAs set for Tuesday and Wednesday. The 49ers also have one Thursday. The Seahawks have one Friday.

Every team in the division has OTAs scheduled to begin Monday of next week.
Fifth-round tight end Luke Willson was one of the more impressive players in rookie camp with the Seattle Seahawks recently.

It's looking like the team will need him.

Anthony McCoy, who started five games and played 45.5 percent of the offensive snaps in 2012 as the second tight end in Seattle's two-tight sets, suffered a torn Achilles' tendon, according to Mike Garafolo of USA Today.

This is not a crushing injury for the Seahawks, but it affects depth. It could put pressure on Willson to develop ahead of schedule for a fifth-round choice. Sean McGrath, Cooper Helfet, Darren Fells and Victor Marshall are the other tight ends on the roster.

Seattle might have been on its way to becoming more of a three-receiver team anyway following Percy Harvin's addition. Teams play with a combination of five running backs, receivers and tight ends on each play, and Seattle would seem to have three wideouts -- Harvin, Sidney Rice and Golden Tate -- good enough to command playing time along with running back Marshawn Lynch and tight end Zach Miller.

The Seahawks had three wide receivers on the field for 32 of the 55 read-option plays they executed during the 2012 regular season and 13 of 23 during the playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The chart shows how frequently the Seahawks used their tight ends on first and second downs during the regular season and playoffs, excluding kneel-down plays. There were more snaps with zero or one tight end than with two or more.

McCoy joins the San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree among NFC West players recovering from torn Achilles' tendons suffered during organized team activities (OTAs) this week. Their teams both appear likely to lean on rookie tight ends from Rice to serve as primary backups to established starters. San Francisco used a second-round choice for Vance McDonald after watching Delanie Walker leave in free agency. Willson played with McDonald at Rice and could fill the No. 2 role behind Miller.
Percy Harvin and Tavon AustinGetty ImagesSeeing Tavon Austin (right) go the the Rams at No. 8 validated Seattle's trade for Percy Harvin.

RENTON, Wash. -- The more the Seattle Seahawks watched game tape on Tavon Austin, the more they realized the West Virginia receiver would not last long in the 2013 NFL draft.

Back in mid-March, the Seahawks could not know Austin would land with the NFC West-rival St. Louis Rams. They had recently traded the 25th overall choice to the Minnesota Vikings to acquire another multidimensional wideout, Percy Harvin.

John Schneider, the Seahawks' general manager, felt relief Thursday when the Rams traded up eight spots in the first round to make Austin the first skill-position player selected.

It's not that Schneider was happy to see such an elite talent land in St. Louis. Quite the opposite. Even the Seahawks' suffocating secondary could have its troubles against a receiver as gifted as Austin. It's just that the way the first round played out affirmed the Seahawks' decision to acquire Harvin. They could not have secured another wideout with as much playmaking potential had they held onto the 25th overall pick.

Austin wasn't going to be there for them.

Once the Rams moved up from 16th to eighth for Austin, no NFL teams selected a wideout until the Houston Texans drafted Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins at No. 27. Cordarrelle Patterson went to the Vikings two picks later.

"Quite honestly, it made me feel at peace just because of where we were with the Percy deal when it started," Schneider said following the third round Friday night.

Both Hopkins and Patterson are obviously talented, but if they had struck evaluators as fitting into the Austin/Harvin mold, teams would have been tripping over one another in a rush to draft them earlier.

Schneider's thinking came into clearer focus in the weeks since Seattle made the move for Harvin before free agency opened March 12.

"I really wasn't quite sure, didn't feel really strongly about the difference makers at the receiver position at that level of the first round [in the 25th-pick range]," Schneider reflected. "And then the closer we got to the draft, the tape on Austin, it just kind of became obvious that he was going to be an extremely high pick."

That commentary should please Rams fans and Seahawks fans alike. Each team's leadership thought Austin was special. The Seahawks knew they had to deal for Harvin if they hoped to land a similar player. Not that Austin and Harvin are interchangeable. While both threaten the end zone as receivers, runners and returners, Harvin has a much sturdier build. He's part running back and part receiver in a much fuller sense. But touchdowns are touchdowns, and both teams expect their new wideouts to supply them multiple ways.

"We really do think Percy is our No. 1 pick," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He is part of this class."

Acquiring Harvin and addressing other areas of the roster during free agency left Seattle without significant needs entering this draft. That allowed the Seahawks, already loaded in the backfield with Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, to indulge in Texas A&M running back Christine Michael.

This was a luxury pick and arguably a nonsensical one. It's also the sort of move smart organizations make. Seattle didn't have a need at quarterback when the team used a third-round draft choice for Russell Wilson last season. That move worked out pretty well.

The Seahawks could realistically be in the market for a new back two years down the line if Lynch's bruising style shortens his career. Having Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter on the roster didn't stop the San Francisco 49ers from using a second-round choice for LaMichael James last year. The 49ers took some heat when their 2012 draft class failed to produce much, but such is life for contending teams.

"We'll let these guys go at it, make sure everybody is aware of the competitive opportunity and hopefully that continues to make them elevate," Carroll said. "Sometimes there is a subtle way they help us by making other guys play well."

Not that Seattle was without needs entirely.

"Defensive tackle was definitely a need for us -- adding depth to the position," Schneider said. "That was the one spot that quite honestly, when you're putting it together, you are nervous you are maybe pushing players because of the need."

Seattle used its third-round choice (87th overall) for Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill. He'll probably contribute more as a pass-rusher than a run stuffer, differentiating him clearly from Alan Branch, who left in free agency. The Seahawks felt the talent at defensive tackle was about to drop off quickly as the third round gave way to the fourth. That gave them additional incentive to grab Hill.

The Seahawks hold 10 picks in the fourth through seventh rounds. Schneider and Carroll previously found K.J. Wright, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor in that range. Others such as Turbin, Walter Thurmond, Jeremy Lane, Anthony McCoy, J.R. Sweezy and Malcolm Smith came to Seattle in those rounds.

There might not be a Tavon Austin or Percy Harvin out there, but as the Seahawks and Rams discovered, that was the case eight picks into the draft.
We've got much to discuss as our NFC West predraft positional rankings continue with input from Matt Williamson, resident scout for ESPN.com.

Tight ends are up next, followed later Wednesday by the offensive lines.



Sando: Five current NFC West tight ends entered the NFL in the first three rounds of their draft classes. San Francisco's Vernon Davis, Seattle's Zach Miller and St. Louis' Jared Cook are playing under contracts featuring a combined $59 million in guaranteed money. Their deals are scheduled to consume $23.7 million in combined cap space for 2013. Still, I could see every team in the division except for the St. Louis Rams drafting one in the first few rounds.

Williamson: I'd be shocked if I moved San Francisco out of the No. 1 ranking, especially if the 49ers drafted one, which I expect them to do. Vernon Davis is clearly the best tight end in the division. Cook may end up being that some day, but I do not trust him yet.

Sando: The Cardinals were the only NFL team without a touchdown reception from a tight end last season. Bad quarterback play had quite a bit to do with that, of course.

Williamson: Arizona has to be fourth even though I think Rob Housler can become a player. Jeff King and Jim Dray are the backups there.

Sando: Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has said he "loved" Housler coming out of college and thought about drafting him as a big receiver. Overall, however, he would prefer his tight ends to be multidimensional players -- guys who block and catch well. Davis and Miller fit that profile. Each had 12 receptions, including one for a touchdown, during the playoffs last season. Both will enter the upcoming season more familiar with their young quarterbacks. But with John Carlson leaving Seattle one year ago and Delanie Walker leaving San Francisco this offseason, the Rams could now own the best one-two punch at the position heading into the draft.

Williamson: Miller came on strong. We could argue Cook versus Miller, but I give the Rams the edge over Seattle at tight end overall because Lance Kendricks is a decent backup who still has upside.

Sando: The Rams are obviously going to feature Cook in their receiving game. They gave him $19 million guaranteed while watching their more proven wideouts leave in free agency. Cook is going to serve as a wide receiver in some ways. Does that make Kendricks more of the traditional in-line tight end?

Williamson: Kendricks will never be a true inline 'Y' dealing with the Chris Clemonses of the world, but he can do that moreso than Cook. Cook is very much a receiver.

Sando: I can't argue with your tight end rankings too much, Matt. I'll be interested in seeing whether Miller picks up where he left off last season. This will be a position to revisit after the draft, too.

The Seattle Seahawks announced Dexter Davis' release from the team Tuesday. This was not big news. Davis was a seventh-round choice in 2010. Injuries had diminished his effectiveness. The team had released and re-signed Davis previously.


In the bigger picture, Davis' release provided an opportunity to revisit that 2010 draft. Three Seattle choices from that year have earned Pro Bowl honors, most in the league and one more than the division-rival San Francisco 49ers. Both teams had two first-round picks that year.

Pro Bowl selections can be a bit arbitrary as the league scrambles to fill holes in its all-star rosters. They're not a definitive measure of draft-class success. Having three draft choices achieve that status within three seasons is a good thing, however.

Sixteen teams drafted in 2010 at least one player who has subsequently achieved Pro Bowl status. The other 16 teams combined to draft zero from their 126 combined selections.

Russell Okung, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor earned Pro Bowl honors for Seattle. Mike Iupati and NaVorro Bowman did so for the 49ers. Daryl Washington did so for the Arizona Cardinals. Bowman and Washington have already signed contract extensions. The others are candidates for extensions in the not-too-distant future.

Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh Ric Tapia/Icon SMIPete Carroll's Seahawks and Jim Harbaugh's 49ers have continued their rivalry into the offseason.
The 2012 battle for NFC West supremacy between the San Francisco 49ers' and Seattle Seahawks' has turned into a perceived battle this offseason.

"It just feels like the Seahawks make a move, then the Niners make a move," former NFL quarterback Damon Huard said Wednesday during our conversation on 710 ESPN Seattle. "The Seahawks sign Percy Harvin, then the Niners go get Anquan Boldin. The Niners just signed Nnamdi Asomugha, they signed Colt McCoy, and now it's the Seahawks' turn to sign a quarterback. It really feels like this competition that was so fun to watch last fall has carried over into the offseason between the Niners and the Seahawks."

That's what it feels like from this angle, too. So, when ESPN's Bill Polian listed 49ers general manager Trent Baalke among his top six executives Insider without a mention of Seattle counterpart John Schneider, I knew some Seahawks fans would take offense.

"Schneider should be on there," SamW9801 wrote in commenting on the Polian piece.

I'm going to ratchet up the discussion with an assist from Tony Villiotti of draftmetrics.com. Tony identified ranges of picks by how frequently teams have found five-year starters within those ranges.

Using those general ranges, displayed at right, I've put together a chart at the bottom of this item comparing the 49ers' and Seahawks' draft choices since 2010.

Baalke took over the 49ers' draft room roughly a month before the 2010 draft. Schneider became the Seahawks' GM that offseason. The 49ers then underwent a coaching change after the 2010 season, at which point Baalke assumed the GM title officially. We might cut Baalke some slack for selecting Taylor Mays, a player then-coach Mike Singletary valued. There were surely other times when both GMs followed their coaches' input, for better or worse.

Seattle has drafted 28 players during this period, three more than San Francisco has drafted. The Seahawks had more to work with from a qualitative point as well. Their median choice was No. 130 overall, compared to No. 165 for the 49ers.

It's pretty clear both teams know what they are doing in the draft.

Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and NaVorro Bowman have earned Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro honors for the 49ers. Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman have done so for the Seahawks.

Both teams have found franchise quarterbacks after the first round. Colin Kaepernick was chosen 36th overall in 2011. Wilson went to Seattle at No. 75 last year.

Neither team has missed in that first category, which includes players taken among the top 13 overall picks. Smith and Okung are elite players at premium positions.

Both teams have unanswered questions in that 14-40 range. The 49ers are waiting on receiver A.J. Jenkins to produce. The Seahawks haven't gotten much from guard James Carpenter. But in Iupati and Thomas, the 49ers and Seahawks, respectively, found players among the very best at their positions. Kaepernick's selection puts this group over the top for San Francisco. Seattle got eight sacks from Bruce Irvin as a rookie in 2012, so the Seahawks aren't far behind. It's just impossible to overlook the value a franchise quarterback provides.

Seattle has the edge in the 41-66 range. Mays is long gone from the 49ers. That leaves LaMichael James for the 49ers against Bobby Wagner and Golden Tate for Seattle. Wagner was an instant starter at middle linebacker and a three-down player who commanded consideration for defensive rookie of the year. Tate blossomed with Wilson at quarterback.

The Seahawks also have an edge in that 67-86 range, having selected Wilson.

Seattle holds a 7-3 lead in number of picks used between the 87th and 149th choices, a range producing five-year starters 16 percent of the time, according to Villiotti.

Both teams used picks in that range for players whose injury situations dragged down their draft status: Joe Looney in San Francisco, Walter Thurmond in Seattle. Both teams found starting linebackers in this range: Bowman to the 49ers, K.J. Wright to the Seahawks. Both teams found developmental running backs in that range: Kendall Hunter to the 49ers, Robert Turbin to the Seahawks. Both teams found Pro Bowl players: Bowman in San Francisco, Chancellor in Seattle.

Sherman, arguably the NFL's best cornerback, gives Seattle an edge in the 150 through 189 range of picks. Both teams found backup tight ends there. Anthony Dixon (49ers) and Jeremy Lane (Seahawks) have the potential to expand their roles.

The 49ers found starting fullback Bruce Miller in the final pick range, which runs from 190 to the end of the draft. Seattle found a projected starting guard there in J.R. Sweezy. Malcolm Smith is a candidate to start at linebacker for Seattle. Miller and Sweezy both played defense in college. Miller already has successfully transitioned to offense. Seattle believes Sweezy will do the same.

Summing it up: Both teams can feel good about their draft performance in the past three seasons. I doubt either team would trade its picks for the other team's. That makes sense. Teams draft the players they like best. The 49ers have six projected 2013 starters to show for their choices. The number is eight for the Seahawks, not counting Irvin or Tate. Seattle has had more choices and higher choices, and more openings in the lineup to accommodate those players. I think that shows in the results.

Weatherspoon-KaepernickUSA TODAY SportsAtlanta and San Francisco will square off Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Coach Mike Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons finally have that elusive playoff victory. One more home victory stands between them and the Super Bowl after Atlanta outlasted Seattle in the divisional round.

The San Francisco 49ers, overtime losers in the NFC Championship Game last year, are back on the verge of their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season. That 49ers team won it all with one of the all-time great ex-Falcons, Deion Sanders, playing cornerback for them.

Which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year? NFC West blogger Mike Sando and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas talked through the possibilities.

Sando: Pat, you just finished watching QBs Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan put on a show in the divisional round. If anyone upstaged them in these playoffs, it was 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick with his 181-yard rushing performance against Green Bay. Kaepernick had 263 yards passing, two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns. Kaepernick now owns victories over Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in his first eight starts. It's looking like he's going to be the key variable in this game against the Falcons.

Yasinskas: No doubt, Mike. I'm still trying to process what Kaepernick did against Green Bay, and I'm sure the Falcons are looking hard at that. They have to be worried, especially after what they put on tape against Seattle. They played a great first half, but Seattle QB Russell Wilson exploited them in the second half. The Falcons struggled with QB Cam Newton and the read-option offense in the regular season. The Falcons allowed quarterbacks to run for a league-high 8.9 yards per attempt (excluding kneel-downs) this season. Kaepernick can do the read-option, but the 49ers also can turn to RB Frank Gore in the traditional running game, and they can throw the ball. That's a scary combination, and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is going to have to come up with an innovative game plan against the team he once coached.

Sando: Some NFL coaching people I've spoken with thought the Packers had a horrible plan. Of course, that's easy to say after a team gives up 181 yards rushing to a quarterback. But from this view, it appeared as though the Packers played too much man coverage, turning their backs to Kaepernick and giving him too many free running lanes. Even before Kaepernick became the starter, San Francisco was known around the league for having a higher volume of running plays in its arsenal than other teams do. Kaepernick opens up another dimension. What was the key to Cam Newton's running success against Atlanta this season?

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesMichael Turner averaged 7.0 yards per carry in Sunday's win over Seattle.
Yasinskas: Newton and the Panthers used the read-option pretty much to perfection against Atlanta. Carolina got the defensive ends and linebackers to commit and Newton made the right calls. He's a unique talent, and so is Kaepernick. But I think San Francisco could present even more of a challenge due to Gore. Atlanta's defense had issues with the read-option. But the Falcons weren't all that great against any sort of running game. The Falcons use a lot of nickel packages, and that may put them at a disadvantage against the run. They might have to use a little more of their 4-3 base defense and keep middle linebacker Akeem Dent on the field more.

Sando: The 49ers' offensive personnel are heavier than just about any other team. That will force the Falcons to play their base defense on early downs. I dug up a couple of numbers from ESPN game charts to illustrate the point. The 49ers' opponents played nickel or dime defense on only 128 first- or second-down plays this season; for the Falcons' opponents, that number was 396. Against the Packers' nickel/dime defenses, Kaepernick carried 11 times for 107 yards, including his 20-yard touchdown run. He carried three times for 76 yards against the Packers' base 3-4 personnel. That included his 56-yard run. The 49ers can present matchup problems from their two-tight end offense because Vernon Davis (4.38 40-yard dash) and Delanie Walker (4.49) run well. Davis' 44-yard reception against the Packers was a great sign for San Francisco.

Yasinskas: Yes, I think San Francisco's offense is going to present all sorts of problems for Atlanta's defense. But I think the flip side is that Atlanta's offense is going to present matchup problems, even for a very good 49ers defense. Roddy White and Julio Jones command a lot of attention. But no defense can overlook tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas. Both are dependable and dangerous, as shown on Atlanta's game-winning drive against Seattle. Those are four very solid weapons. And let's not forget the fact that Atlanta's run game came to life against the Seahawks. If Michael Turner can show up again, San Francisco's defense is going to have its hands full.

Sando: The 49ers have sometimes let Patrick Willis match up with opposing tight ends. Willis has covered pretty well much of the time, in my view. The 49ers gave up a league-low 613 yards to tight ends, but they ranked only 21st in passer rating allowed (98.5) when opponents targeted the position. San Francisco allowed eight touchdown passes to tight ends. Only five teams allowed more. Kyle Rudolph had two scoring catches against San Francisco. Jermichael Finley, David Thomas, Brandon Pettigrew, Anthony McCoy, Anthony Fasano and Aaron Hernandez also caught touchdowns against the 49ers this season. The key for San Francisco will be pressuring Ryan without blitzing. That appears possible now that defensive end Justin Smith is back and playing pretty well.

Yasinskas: Yes, San Francisco's pass rush will be a key to this game. Atlanta's offensive line, which was a problem spot last season, has enjoyed a resurgence this season with the arrival of offensive line coach Pat Hill. He's had the line playing well most of the season, and the unit was particularly good against Seattle. Ryan wasn't sacked and was barely pressured. Hill's biggest accomplishment has been getting a solid season out of left tackle Sam Baker. Baker was a first-round draft pick in 2008. His first four seasons were filled with inconsistency and injuries, but he has stayed healthy this season and has played at a high level. The rest of Atlanta's offensive line doesn't have great individual talent. But Hill has this line blocking well for the passing game. The running game has been a different story. Turner had a big game against Seattle. But during the regular season, he wasn't the same back he was in past years. I think part of it is because age is catching up to him, but part of it is because the run blocking wasn't great. Atlanta has made the transition toward being a pass-first team, and the offensive line is much better at pass blocking than it is at run blocking. Still, coach Mike Smith believes it's important to have a running game, and he's going to try to establish one with Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers against San Francisco.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smith, DuJuan Smith
Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee/MCTJustin Smith turned in a strong performance Sunday in his first game back from a torn triceps.
Sando: Seattle, despite leading the NFL in fewest points allowed, ranked 30th in yards per rush allowed since Week 7. The Seahawks resorted to risky tactics after losing their best pass-rusher, Chris Clemons, to injury in the wild-card round. Seattle simply couldn't get to Ryan without compromising its coverage. Ryan threw an early pick against DB pressure, but after that, he completed 7 of 8 passes for 111 yards and a score when the Seahawks rushed a member of their secondary, according to ESPN Stats & Information. San Francisco rushed a DB just twice against the Packers on Saturday night. Justin Smith's ability to play 91 percent of the snaps for the 49ers following a triceps injury was huge for San Francisco. The 49ers need him. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith has 19.5 sacks this season, but none since he had two against Miami in Week 14. The 49ers need the Smiths to pick up where they left off before Justin's injury. That is a key to this game.

Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta's offensive line has to give Ryan time to throw the ball. A lot of Ryan's critics say he doesn't have a strong arm. But I think he has plenty of arm strength and he showed that with his long touchdown pass to White against Seattle. The key for Ryan in the deep game is for his offensive line to give him time. The Falcons like to use play-action, and that will help. But I think it also helps the offensive line that this game is in the Georgia Dome, so false starts won't be a problem. You brought up a good point last week in showing that Ryan's statistics haven't been as good at home as on the road. That's true. But the Falcons need to capitalize Sunday on the home-field advantage. This franchise has been around since 1966, but it's the first time a championship game will be played in Atlanta. After years of playing second fiddle to the Braves and college football, the Falcons have become the biggest thing in town. Fans finally are embracing this team, and the noise in the Georgia Dome could be a big help for the Falcons.

Sando: The 49ers allowed 38 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season. That was tied for third-fewest (Seattle allowed 40, sixth-fewest). I kept waiting for Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor to deliver a game-changing hit. It never happened. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are the big hitters for the 49ers. They need to be tone-setters down the field. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the physical aspect of this game plays out. That's an area where the 49ers need to win. I tend to think they will, as long as Justin Smith can give them 90 percent playing time once again. How do you see this one going?

Yasinskas: The 49ers probably are the more physical team, and I was very impressed with how they played overall against Green Bay. But following a hunch, I'm taking the Falcons 31-27. I think putting an end to the playoff-win drought will allow Atlanta to be loose and relaxed, especially in the case of Ryan. Playing at home also helps. Atlanta's defense needs to show up for 60 minutes this time. If it does, I think Atlanta has enough offensive firepower to score points even against a good defense and win this game. I see the Falcons going to the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history.

Sando: I'm not sure if I feel better or worse about the Falcons after watching that game against Seattle. The Seahawks had zero pass rush and I think that was the difference in the game, particularly at the very end. Looking ahead to Sunday, the Falcons have the more accomplished quarterback, but so did the Packers and Patriots and Saints. Kaepernick beat them all. I would give the Falcons the edge at receiver despite Michael Crabtree's development. Atlanta has the better kicker. I'd give the 49ers an edge on the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker and in the secondary. We were talking about Tony Gonzalez earlier. Great player, but would he even start for the 49ers? Not over Vernon Davis, crazy as that sounds. San Francisco is better at running back, too. Maybe the Falcons will pull out another wild one at home, but I just think the 49ers are better. I'll take them to win it 30-17. If the Falcons win, they were better than I thought at every step this season.

LANDOVER, Md. -- Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 24-14 victory over the Washington Redskins in a wild-card playoff game Sunday at FedEx Field:

What it means: The fifth-seeded Seahawks will face the Atlanta Falcons in a divisional-round game in the Georgia Dome on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. This was their first road victory in a playoff game since the 1983 season. They will face a Falcons team that has not won a playoff game with Mike Smith as head coach. The Falcons rode Matt Ryan's stellar play and the NFL's easiest schedule to the top seed in the NFC. The Seahawks have now won a playoff game following two of Pete Carroll's first three seasons as head coach.

What I liked: The Seahawks stuck with their plan and kept plugging away even though they weren't getting points for long stretches. Marshawn Lynch atoned for his fumble near the Washington goal line by breaking a 27-yard touchdown run on third-and-5 to give Seattle its first lead of the game. Quarterback Russell Wilson was out front blocking on this play and others.

Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas showed outstanding range in sprinting over to pick off a deep pass from Robert Griffin III. That play showed the Redskins wouldn't be able to throw the ball down the field without incurring significant risk. Thomas had three picks during the regular season. That's a good number for a safety, but Thomas has the talent to produce more turnovers. This was a big one.

The Seahawks took advantage of matchup advantages at tight end. Zach Miller made a difficult catch early and his catch for a two-point conversion was key. Miller also had a 22-yard reception on his way to a four-catch, 48-yard game. Washington allowed 10 touchdown passes to tight ends during the regular season, third most in the NFL.

What I didn't like: Seattle's defense got steamrolled in the first quarter as the Redskins amassed a 129-9 yardage lead and 14-0 scoring lead. Alfred Morris ran without much resistance. Griffin threw two short scoring passes. Just like that, Seattle was behind by 14 points, its largest deficit of the season and largest since New England led the Seahawks by 13 points.

Tight end Anthony McCoy dropped a pass shortly before halftime, one reason Seattle settled for a field goal when a touchdown would have put the Seahawks into the lead. Lynch then lost a fumble on a run from the Washington 1-yard line on the first possession of the second half. Those miscues cost Seattle as many as 11 points, keeping the Redskins in the lead, 14-13, through three quarters.

The Seahawks kept racking up yards without getting enough points over the second and third quarters. Wilson took five sacks. He has now taken 11 sacks over his past two games after taking eight over his five previous games combined. Wilson also appeared to make a couple of questionable decisions, a rarity for him. He was fortunate Washington did not intercept him in the end zone during the first half.

My field position: Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is worth how much again? More than a billion, right? That kind of loot would buy a lot of sod. The playing surface at FedEx Field was a disgrace. It's tough to know whether it contributed to a couple of knee injuries suffered in this game, but why take the risk? The weather was beautiful for January, but the field looked as though it had weathered a tractor pull recently.

Injury update: The Seahawks lost defensive end Chris Clemons to a knee injury in the second half. Kicker Steven Hauschka returned after suffering an injured ankle. Punter Jon Ryan kicked off while Hauschka was out.

Lynch does it again: Lynch carried 19 times for 131 yards, his 11th game of the season with at least 100 yards rushing.

Second-guessing Shanahan: The Redskins left Griffin in the game even though it was clear early that a knee injury was hurting him. The move backfired. Griffin struggled as the game progressed. He then injured the knee even worse in the fourth quarter. Washington declared him out. The Redskins had won a game with Kirk Cousins in the lineup this season. They couldn't have been worse on offense with Cousins in the game once it became clear Griffin couldn't function.

What's next: The Seahawks face NFC South champions Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
LANDOVER, Md. -- A few thoughts from the FedEx Field press box as the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins warm up on the field about 30 yards away:
  • Peter Morelli is the referee. The Redskins have to hope officials watch closely for the aggressive tactics Seattle's cornerbacks use in coverage. Morelli's crew called only two of 62 penalties for illegal contact in the NFL this season. His crew was right at the NFL average with 17 calls for defensive pass interference. His crew was ranked tied for second with 12 penalties for defensive holding. Here's the deal, though: Morelli's crew is not working this game. It's an all-star crew. Referees are directly responsible for calling roughing the passer. Morelli called four such penalties this season, right at the NFL average.
  • The word on Morelli. Football Zebras is increasingly becoming a resource for officiating analysis. Its thoughts on Morelli: "Pete Morelli always gives a yeoman-like performance; he’s not going to win you over with style points, but he runs a tight ship." Note that the NFL removed head linesman Dana McKenzie from this game to avoid potential conflict with Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall stemming from a previous incident.
  • White on white. The Seahawks are wearing their white pants and white jerseys for this game.
  • Watch for tight ends. The Redskins have allowed 10 touchdowns to opposing tight ends this season. Only Houston (11) and Denver (11) have allowed more. The Seahawks' Zach Miller and Anthony McCoy could be players to watch. Each had three touchdown receptions during the regular season. Seattle's tight ends had zero touchdowns during the 2011 season.
  • Putting on the clamps. Seattle has allowed 10 touchdown passes to opposing wide receivers. That ranks fifth in the league and is in line with some of the Seahawks' division rivals. The top five in fewest scoring passes allowed to wideouts: Atlanta Falcons 7, San Francisco 49ers 9, Cincinnati Bengals 10, Seahawks 10, St. Louis Rams 10. Arizona ranked 15th with 14 allowed.
  • Guard in cross hairs.. The Seahawks think rookie right guard J.R. Sweezy has Pro Bowl potential. They're also taking a risk playing such an inexperienced player against a team known for unleashing confusing blitzes. Sweezy struggled against Arizona in the opener and again, at times, against St. Louis in Week 17. He did not play much in between. I'll be watching to see how well he handles protections.

The teams will be announcing inactive players soon. I'm not expecting big surprises. Of course, If I were expecting big surprises, they wouldn't be surprises.

NFC West: Injury situations that matter

December, 26, 2012
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Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals placed second-year tight end Rob Housler (shoulder) on injured reserve. Receiver LaRon Byrd (knee), receiver Early Doucet (concussion), guard Mike Gibson (calf), tackle Nate Potter (ankle), fullback Anthony Sherman (knee) and safety Adrian Wilson (illness) did not practice Wednesday. Arizona is now without its top two tight ends entering the season. Housler is out and former starter Todd Heap was released. Potter's injury is concerning because he could be diminished, or the team could have to play D'Anthony Batiste at left tackle in his place. The 49ers' Aldon Smith will be gunning for the NFL's single-season sacks record.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams held out cornerback Cortland Finnegan (thigh), running back Steven Jackson (foot), linebacker James Laurinaitis (back) and center Scott Wells (knee). Safety Craig Dahl (knee) was limited. Not much new here. The same players appeared on the Rams' injury report last week. All played during the Rams' victory at Tampa Bay. Finnegan was limited to 54 percent of the defensive snaps. Rookie Trumaine Johnson showed he can play well with increased snaps. He played 94 percent. Laurinaitis appeared to play well. He played every snap against the Bucs. Wells played every snap as well. Jackson played 82 percent. The Rams appear to be limiting snaps in practice as a precaution.

San Francisco 49ers: Injuries to key players are mounting for the 49ers. Tight end Vernon Davis (concussion) and defensive lineman Justin Smith (elbow) did not practice. Davis did not finish the game at Seattle. Smith has not played since the second half at New England two weeks ago. Receiver Mario Manningham (knee) is out for the season. It's looking like Randy Moss, Delanie Walker and Garrett Celek could see more playing time than usual. That was already the case against Seattle. Moss played 74 percent of the snaps. He had been in the 30 percent range before the 49ers lost Kyle Williams and Manningham to season-ending injuries. Celek played 51 percent of the snaps against Seattle. Walker was at 77 percent. Justin Smith's injury is making life tougher for an defensive line rotation that lacks depth. It's also creating fewer favorable matchups for Aldon Smith.

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks held out from practice receiver Sidney Rice (knee), tight end Anthony McCoy (back), tackle Breno Giacomini (elbow), running back Marshawn Lynch (back), linebacker Leroy Hill (hamstring), cornerback Walter Thurmond (hamstring) and defensive end Red Bryant (foot). Cornerback Marcus Trufant and defensive tackle Alan Branch practiced. Both have been injured recently. Trufant has been out for weeks. Thurmond's continued absence could hurt if the team loses starting corner Richard Sherman to a suspension. The NFL is expected to rule on Sherman's case as early as Thursday. Fellow corner Brandon Browner remains suspended until the team's first playoff game.

7-9 reasons these Seahawks are better

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
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The Seattle Seahawks' 58-0 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday was big around here.

Not just for the historic margin, either.

[+] EnlargePete Carroll
Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsNo doubt, Pete Carroll's decision to start rookie QB Russell Wilson has been a key to Seattle's success.
It was big because it killed a running joke on the NFC West blog, one Seahawks fans couldn't escape since the 2011 season finished. No matter how much progress Seattle appeared to be making, fans from other teams could point to consecutive 7-9 records as evidence the team was mired in mediocrity under coach Pete Carroll.

The victory over Arizona left Seattle with an 8-5 record. Even a disappointing finish would leave the Seahawks with a record better than 7-9. This will surely come as a relief to some.

Comments sections have overflowed at times with gratuitous references to the numbers seven and nine. Those in the know would either laugh, roll their eyes or bristle.

We even put together an entire post on the subject back in May.

"49ers have won 5 super bowls since '79," 49ers5bowls wrote.

"Pete Carroll's drag racing team nailed a 7.9 quarter mile," unislaya added. "Nobody believed it, so they asked him to do it again."

"Pete Carroll finished P90X in 79 days," EDTGO piled on.

"We were 7-9 in year 1, we improved to 7-9 in year 2 and I think we can be an even better 7-9 team in year 3," was how Lock.Down put it, claiming to be paraphrasing Carroll.

References to the number 58 might be more appropriate from this point forward. First, though, let's look at 7-9 quick reasons why Seattle is better this season:

  • The GM: General manager John Schneider led the way as Seattle defied convention by using a third-round choice for quarterback Russell Wilson.
  • The coach: Carroll had the guts to start Wilson over Matt Flynn when the decision appeared risky.
  • The QB: Wilson himself has made the biggest difference on the field. He has 15 touchdowns with three interceptions over his past eight games.
  • Health: Seattle has been healthier this season than in the recent past. Having left tackle Russell Okung and receiver Sidney Rice in the lineup consistently has helped.
  • Young talent: Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner had two more interceptions Sunday, giving him four on the season. Fellow rookie Bruce Irvin collected his eighth sack. So many other recent draft choices are contributing, including middle- and later-round picks. Cornerback Richard Sherman was a fifth-rounder in 2011, for example.
  • Big returns: Thanks to Leon Washington, the Seahawks rank third in kickoff return average. That is up from 10th last season. The improvement has been 3.55 yards per return.
  • Real McCoy: Seattle appeared to miss Kellen Winslow Jr. early in the season. The lesser-known Anthony McCoy has increasingly become a factor as a receiving tight end. He showed up when needed during a victory at Chicago, and again with a 67-yard reception Sunday.
  • Ryan's impact: Punter Jon Ryan was already good, but he has quite possibly been even better this season. His net average is 41.7 yards, a career high. Seattle has downed 47.4 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line. That is up from 35.8 percent last season. Other factors can influence the percentage, but the more, the better.

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