NFC West: Antonio Brown

A rookie punter's arm could be the difference between 2-0-1 and 1-2-0 records for the St. Louis Rams in NFC West play.

Johnny Hekker's scoring pass for the Rams against Seattle provided St. Louis with its only touchdown during a 19-13 victory in Week 4. Hekker completed two more passes Sunday, including one for a fourth-and-8 conversion during a go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, to help the Rams force a 24-24 tie against San Francisco.

According to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information, Hekker now has a chance to join Bob Parsons (1977) and Tom Skladany (1981) as the only players listed as punters to finish a season with at least three completed passes and a 100 percent completion rate. Parsons completed all four attempts for the Chicago Bears. Skladny completed all three for the Detroit Lions.

While Hekker was going 2-for-2 against San Francisco, the Seattle Seahawks were getting completed passes from receivers Golden Tate and Sidney Rice during a 28-7 victory against the New York Jets.

The left-handed Tate's pass to Rice produced a 23-yard touchdown even though the receiver's throwing motion made it look like he was throwing a javelin.

"After it left his hands, I give him a 10," Rice said. "It was a spiral, and I scored. Before that, I give him a two. His throwing motion was the worst. I thought we traded for [Tim] Tebow for a second."

Hekker looked more like a quarterback when he threw. That was the plan all along.

There's little sense in taking the bait when San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tells a radio program Michael Crabtree "has the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver."

Anyone with a strong grasp of NFL history would place Cris Carter, Raymond Berry and Steve Largent on a short list for receivers with the surest hands.

Hall of Famer Ken Houston, speaking for a 2008 piece on all-time great wideouts, stood up for AFL stars Otis Taylor and Lionel Taylor.

"Lionel Taylor, I mean, he would catch a BB," Houston said.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, speaking for the same piece, said Randy Moss, then with New England, had the best hands in the NFL at that time (2008).

"A lot of guys can catch," Thompson said then. "He can catch on any platform, as we say in scouting. He can adjust and catch it over the top of somebody's head, catch it falling down, and it doesn't matter if he is covered."

With Moss now on the 49ers, it is possible Crabtree does not possess the best hands among wide receivers on his own team.

Oops. I wasn't going to take the bait on this one, but now it's too late. Time to regroup.

Bottom line, I suspect Crabtree has impressed Harbaugh this offseason, and Harbaugh would like that to continue for as long as possible. By offering such strong public praise for Crabtree, Harbaugh is setting a standard for Crabtree to meet this season. He realizes Crabtree has the ability to meet that standard, or else he wouldn't make the statement.

We should all recall Harbaugh's calling quarterback Alex Smith "elite" and promoting him for the Pro Bowl last season. Then as now, Harbaugh was standing up for his guy. Smith enjoyed the finest season of his career and even outplayed the truly elite Drew Brees at times during the 49ers' playoff victory over New Orleans. The way Harbaugh backed Smith played a role in that performance, in my view.

Back to Crabtree. He has the ability to rank among the most sure-handed receivers in the game. He has not yet earned that status, but now he has little choice, right?

As the chart shows, Crabtree finished the 2011 season with 12.2 receptions per drop, which ranked 28th in the NFL among players targeted at least 100 times. Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL with 80 receptions and only one drop. Those numbers are according to ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver should have caught the pass with ordinary effort."

Crabtree suffered six drops last season by that standard, a few too many for the player with the best hands his head coach has ever seen on a wide receiver.

Video: NFC 411 on Seahawks' Doug Baldwin

December, 22, 2011
12/22/11
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Doug Baldwin's 46 receptions for the Seattle Seahawks include 21 for successful conversions on third down, the third-highest total in the NFL.

I touched on that and the information in the chart below for the NFC 411 videos we produced this week. The setting is a little different for my segment this week. I remained in California following San Francisco's game Monday night and am celebrating Christmas with family here before returning for the 49ers-Seahawks game Saturday.
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Scout's take: 49ers vs. Steelers on MNF

December, 15, 2011
12/15/11
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Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. offered thoughts Thursday heading into the San Francisco 49ers' game Monday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Candlestick Park.

Mike Sando: This game against the Steelers provides the 49ers with an opportunity to defeat a quality opponent on a national stage, while keeping control of the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff race. My sense is that the 49ers, though still a good team, have plateaued a little bit lately.

Matt Williamson: I think that is a good word. They might have hit their head on the ceiling. The talent has taken them as far as it will. That does not mean they cannot win playoff games. But this is a bad matchup for them against the Steelers. The 49ers lost to Arizona and the Cardinals are running the Steelers' defense. They've gotten better at it, but that defense has been clicking for the Steelers for years. They know what they are doing and they are going to give San Francisco's offense a hard time.

Mike Sando: The 49ers have taken 18 sacks over their past three games after allowing seven in their previous six. They aren't getting Frank Gore going as well on the ground, and Gore is banged up.

Matt Williamson: Their young offensive line does not pick up blitzes very well. They get beat one-on-one, especially on the right side. Ike Taylor can do a good job against Michael Crabtree. Troy Polamalu and the Steelers do well against tight ends. I just do not know where the 49ers' offense is going to come from. Alex Smith is not a guy who, when everything is going wrong, puts the team on his back.

Mike Sando: Several key players could miss this game for both teams -- Joe Staley and Patrick Willis for the 49ers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley for the Steelers. And then Ben Roethlisberger's ankle is an issue.

Matt Williamson: Roethlisberger will have had 10 days to rest. Everyone in the world knows he is going to play. Charlie Batch is not good.

If Harrison doesn't play and Ben doesn't play, I'll take the 49ers. But if Ben is out there at even 50 percent, I am taking Pittsburgh. The matchup is not good for the 49ers.

Mike Sando: The 49ers are strong on defense. What makes you think the Steelers' offense would be OK without Roethlisberger near full strength?

Matt Williamson: If you are the Steelers and Ben is not moving well, put him in the shotgun, go three wide receivers all day with a back in the backfield and get it out quick. Don't even have him dropping back. Get the ball out quick to Antonio Brown especially, and Hines Ward. Do the quick three-step passing game out of the shotgun.

Mike Sando: Back to the 49ers' offense. One thing they've struggled with some is yards after the catch. They led the NFL at 6.8 yards after the catch per reception last season. That has fallen to 5.2 this season. And the Steelers' defense leads the NFL in fewest yards allowed after the catch on average at 4.3, an astounding 1.7 yards better than the next-best team, Houston.

Matt Williamson: I don't see a real good after-the-catch wide receiver in the group for San Francisco. Ted Ginn would catch only bombs. Michael Crabtree is not nifty. He is a slower, power guy. Vernon Davis can be, but his role has been diminished heavily and I'm not sure how well he grasps the offense, and they need him to help the tackles. I'm not sure who would be the guy, unless they dropped more passes off to Gore and Kendall Hunter.

Mike Sando: The 49ers have dramatically cut Gore's role as a receiver. That's one reason their team yards after the reception has fallen. Then there is the red zone. San Francisco ranks last in touchdown percentage there.

Matt Williamson: Every weakness is exaggerated in the red zone for a quarterback. There are a lot more bodies in a smaller space, a lot more molecules bouncing off the walls. You have to be a little more accurate, a little better anticipation. Donovan McNabb was not that great in the red zone. He was not an anticipatory thrower or very accurate. Smith has some of those qualities, too, but less. He is not as talented. But I know he's done well in the red zone before. One thing that comes to mind is a lack of involvement from Vernon Davis.

Mike Sando: Davis finished last season with eight catches for 50 yards and four touchdowns in the red zone. He has four catches for 48 yards and three scores there this season. Delanie Walker had five catches for 22 yards and no scores in the red zone in 2010. He has one catch for a 6-yard touchdown against Detroit in the red zone this season. But Smith's completion percentage has fallen from above 70 to around 40 in the red zone since last season. Sacks are up. Gore's carries in the red zone are up. His receptions are down. I'm not sure what is wrong down there, but improved efficiency in that area would certainly help Monday night.

Williamson and I will be among those participating in an in-game chat Monday night. I'll be at the game. Williamson will monitor remotely. Jamison Hensley from the AFC North blog will join us on the chat from Candlestick Park.

Golden Tate exception to NFC West rule

September, 27, 2010
9/27/10
6:24
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Fourteen rookies have returned punts in the NFL this season.

Six of the 14 play for NFC West teams. A seventh, Jorrick Calvin of Philadelphia, was a Cardinals draft choice this year.

Seattle's Golden Tate leads NFL rookies with a 25.2-yard average on five returns. The other five rookie punt returners from NFC West teams have 13 returns for 66 yards, good for a 5.1-yard average. They have also accounted for four of the seven fumbles by rookie returners this season.

The Arizona Cardinals' Andre Roberts did not fumble in his NFL debut as a returner Sunday, but two punts sent his way bounced off teammates. The Oakland Raiders recovered both times. Both punts were shorter than anticipated. Roberts might have been lined up too deep on one of them.

"I’m not down on Andre," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt told reporters Monday. "He is a young player. He has got skill in that area and we have to continue to work with him. Fortunately, we were able to still win the game and now we can work on that without the negativity of a loss."

The chart ranks NFL rookie punt returners by average yards per return. Tate looks like a natural for the role. He has returns of 63 and 31 yards in his first two games (Tate was inactive for the opener).

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