NFC West: Ben Leber

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC West

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
10:00
AM ET
video
Catch us if you can.

That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.

It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.

By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.

It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?

The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.

Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.

The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.

First Down

The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?


Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.

Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.

Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.

Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.


Second Down

The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?


Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.

Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.

Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.


Third Down

Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?


Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.

Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.

Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.

Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.


Fourth Down

If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?


Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.

Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.

Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.

Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.

 
Former St. Louis Rams receiver Steve Smith announced his retirement through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Wednesday.

The story by itself shouldn't mean much to Rams fans.

Smith, after all, started only two games in 2012 while trying to overcome serious knee injuries. He was never a player the Rams were counting on for significant contributions.

Smith's retirement is notable in another context, however. His name tops what should be a relatively short list of players to disappear from the game in 2013 after making at least one start for the Rams last season.

Last season, 16 players made zero regular-season appearances in an NFL game after starting at least once for the Rams in 2011. One such player, linebacker Chris Chamberlain, probably would have played with New Orleans had he not suffered a knee injury. Many of the others languished for lack of interest.

A quick look at the list of 15 players beyond Chamberlain: Adam Goldberg, James Hall, Fred Robbins, Tony Wragge, Jason Brown, Cadillac Williams, Rod Hood, Al Harris, C.J. Ah You, Mark Levoir, Ben Leber, Nick Miller, A.J. Feeley, Mike Sims-Walker and Mark Clayton.

Hall, Robbins, Goldberg, Wragge and Brown started at least half the games in 2011. Some others found opportunities because the Rams suffered from an unusual number of injuries that season.

Still, as the Rams improve and build around younger players, including quite a few drafted in the first two rounds, they should have less room on their roster for stopgap veterans. At receiver, for example, none of the Rams' players is even 26 years old. Players such as Smith, Sims-Walker and Clayton wouldn't fit.
In a perfect world, the St. Louis Rams would address all their needs through the draft.

The team might yet pull it off over the next couple offseasons, thanks to the bounty of picks the Rams collected from trading the second overall choice in 2012.

Needs outnumbered resources in the immediate term, however, leading the Rams to patch their linebacker problem with shorter-term solutions.

Rocky McIntosh recently joined Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan as veteran additions at the position. Haggan, 32, is the oldest player on the team, but as the chart shows, the Rams remain young overall at every position. They have the NFL's youngest roster on average.

The Rams need McIntosh, Dunbar and Haggan to outperform some of the veteran linebackers subtracted from the roster: Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga, Bryan Kehl and Chris Chamberlain.

That seems like a reasonable expectation.

McIntosh, 29, was in his fifth season as a starter for the Washington Redskins when the team decided Perry Riley, then 23, provided a more athletic alternative. The Redskins, with McIntosh and the now-37-year-old London Fletcher at inside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme, already had plenty of veteran moxie at the position. They needed speed. McIntosh probably fit better in the 4-3 defense Washington ran previously.

Scouts Inc. liked McIntosh more than the Redskins did, calling him an "active playmaker" with "great range inside out to the ball."

Dunbar, signed from New Orleans, figures to start at one outside linebacker spot. McIntosh is an early favorite to start at the other one. James Laurinaitis is entrenched in the middle.

The position remains a bit unsettled. The Rams do have a couple of younger options, but with no hitting allowed till training camp, it's tough to know how those players project. The Rams' veteran additions give them insurance, and probably more than that. I'd expect the team to start two veterans on the outside.

McIntosh played for would-be Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in Washington. Williams is suspended indefinitely, but the Rams are installing what is essentially the same system Williams ran with the Redskins. That puts McIntosh at a significant advantage over younger players less familiar with the scheme and unproven in the NFL.

NFL rosters undergo massive changes each offseason. That has been particularly true in 2012 as limits increased from 80 to 90 players.

As much as I'd like to comply with requests to publish specific roster breakdowns for age and other factors, the changes require quite a bit of time to process.

A few trends are coming into focus regarding the NFC West already:
Enjoy your Friday. Hope to see you at the rescheduled NFC West chat. I'll publish a reminder later Friday.

2011 NFC West game changers: Week 10

November, 15, 2011
11/15/11
6:10
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No NFL play from Week 10 affected win probability more than the one the Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams are still trying to figure out.

The Browns' botched/missed/blocked field-goal try from 22 yards was the fifth-shorted miss in the final three minutes of a game since 1983. But it might not have been a miss at all. The Rams are convinced defensive end James Hall blocked it. They have sought a scoring change.

Whatever the case, the Browns' missed chance with the Rams holding a 13-12 lead increased St. Louis' win probability from 33.6 percent to 70.9 percent, according to Aloko Pattani of ESPN's analytics team. The 37.3-point swing was the largest for any play from Week 10. It tops our weekly list of pivotal plays from games involving NFC West teams. All five plays helped NFC West teams win, and all four division teams won in the same week for the first time since divisional realignment in 2002.

Clutch pass completions by Arizona's John Skelton filled three of the top-five spots this week, led by his 37-yarder to Larry Fitzgerald on a third-and-10 play with 2:55 left in the fourth quarter and the Cardinals trailing Philadelphia, 17-14. Skelton's 5-yard scoring pass to Early Doucet later in the drive ranked third on the list.

Fitzgerald's 37-yard reception and two for touchdowns helped him earn NFC honors as offensive player of the week. He's averaging 17.6 yards per reception, a five-yard gain over last season and higher than his single-season best of 14.9, set in 2008.

Two of the five plays listed in the chart involved special teams, including David Nixon's forced fumble and Ben Leber's recovery for the Rams during a Josh Cribbs punt return for Cleveland with 10:53 left in the game.

The latest on Rams' Sam Bradford

November, 6, 2011
11/06/11
12:32
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Chris Mortensen says the St. Louis Rams are "optimistic" quarterback Sam Bradford can return from a high-ankle sprain Sunday.

The Rams listed Bradford as questionable on their Friday injury report. Bradford has not played in 21 days. High-ankle sprains generally take longer to heal, but Bradford has a better chance because his left ankle is the injured one. He plants on his right ankle when throwing.

I've had a hard time projecting a winner for the Rams' game at Arizona, in part because the quarterback situations have been muddied. I went with the Cardinals because they're home and I suspect Arizona should be able to run the ball well, but even that's tough to know for certain with Beanie Wells less than full strength and the Rams coming off a strong showing against New Orleans.

Bradford's availability at less than full strength adds another variable that is difficult to quantify.

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The St. Louis Rams are not the first team to flop miserably amid expectations for improvement.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Tim Heitman/US PresswireThe Rams have struggled to stop the run this season. Dallas' DeMarco Murray torched them for 253 yards on 25 carries.
At 0-6 heading into a seemingly impossible matchup with New Orleans, the Rams have almost no shot at contending for the NFC West title this season.

Their best bet could be trying to emulate the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers. Both teams flopped early last season despite elevated expectations. Both teams also recovered, and both have played well enough to post winning records heading into Week 8 this season.

The Lions opened 2-10 last season. The 49ers were 0-5. Both finished 6-10. They are a combined 10-3 this season (9-2 if we discard the game they played against one another).

The Rams still have two game against 1-5 Arizona, two against 2-4 Seattle and one against a Cleveland team that has gotten to 3-3 with victories over winless Miami and Indianapolis.

Sam Bradford's injury is complicating efforts to build on a 424-yard performance at Green Bay two weeks ago. I think the offense will improve and build momentum once he returns, particularly with Steven Jackson healthy and Brandon Lloyd in the lineup at wide receiver.

The problems on defense are what could drag down the Rams and possibly even precipitate sweeping organizational changes, in my view.

The inability of coach Steve Spagnuolo to coax better play from that side of the ball has been surprising. The problems go beyond injuries at cornerback. The inability to acquire and develop young defensive players for the future stands out when analyzing the roster.


As the chart shows, the Rams have allowed more rushing yards through six games than all but two teams since the 2000 season. Worse, they have very few ascending young players to develop on that side of the ball. James Butler and Craig Dahl are their backup safeties. Ben Leber, Josh Hull and Bryan Kehl are their backup linebackers. Darell Scott and Gary Gibson are their backup defensive tackles.

Of all the backups on defense, only rookie defensive end Robert Quinn projects as a potential front-line player for the future. That would be OK if the defense were playing at a high level and featured ascending young players. But starters James Hall, Fred Robbins, Justin Bannan, Brady Poppinga, Chris Chamberlain and Al Harris are either nearing the end or qualify as veteran stopgaps.

The prospects for sustained long-term improvement on defense appear limited as a result.

Around the NFC West: QB's missed chance

October, 26, 2011
10/26/11
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One play from Charlie Whitehurst stood out more than the others during the Seattle Seahawks' 6-3 defeat at Cleveland in Week 7.

It stood out enough for me to list it second among the five observations posted Tuesday.

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle takes a much closer look at the missed opportunity. He diagrams the play and explains in detail how Whitehurst should have dodged a defender and thrown a likely touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Morrah. Instead, Whitehurst threw away the ball as if afraid to make a mistake or unsure of how to handle the situation.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says the team was pleased with Robert Gallery's performance against Cleveland. Noted: I watched Gallery closely and also thought he was better. The offensive line in general wasn't the problem for Seattle, save for a few breakdowns from rookie right tackle James Carpenter. Quarterback play and tight end play seemed like much bigger problems.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says Whitehurst showed why he's the backup.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic checks in with an orthopedic surgeon for thoughts on what could be wrong with Beanie Wells' injured knee.

Also from Somers: a comprehensive look at the Cardinals' roster with an eye toward what the team could realistically change following its 1-5 start. Somers: "So, put all that together and here's what you have: a rookie tight end (Rob Housler) who needs to play more. A young linebacker (Sam Acho or O'Brien Schofield) who should be starting. A high-priced linebacker (Stewart Bradley) who needs to find a home, and nose tackle (David Carter) who's earned more time."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the team is trying to help its offense by having coordinator Mike Miller down on the field during games.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with Rams special-teamer Chris Chamberlain, who has worked his way into the starting lineup at linebacker. Chamberlain did not seem assured of a roster spot when the Rams signed multiple veteran linebackers in free agency. Thomas: "Chamberlain made the final 53, and five games into the 2011 season, he found himself in the starting lineup against Green Bay. One of those free agents, Zac Diles, didn't make the final roster. Another of the free agents, Ben Leber, was benched after three lackluster starts, giving way to Chamberlain." Noted: The fact that Chamberlain has worked his way into the starting lineup is great for him, but also a symbol of what's wrong with the Rams this season. They signed all of those veteran linebackers precisely because they didn't want to rely on special-teams players at linebacker.

Also from Thomas: the Rams' run defense is on a record pace. Not the good kind, either. Thomas: "The Rams are allowing 183.8 rushing yards a game, a pace that would have them yielding 2,941 yards on the ground by season's end. And that would smash by nearly 500 yards the previous franchise record for most rushing yards allowed in a season, a dubious mark belonging to the 2008 Rams of head coach Scott Linehan and interim head coach Jim Haslett. Those Rams yielded 2,475 yards."

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis offers personal thoughts on what the Rams leadership is going through.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says 49ers receiver Braylon Edwards ran a variety of pass routes at top speed upon his return from a knee injury Tuesday. Maiocco: "Edwards underwent arthroscopic surgery Sept. 19 on his right knee to repair a torn meniscus. It appears as if he will be available to return to action Sunday at Candlestick Park against the Cleveland Browns, the team that made him the No. 3 overall selection in the 2005 draft."

Also from Maiocco: The 49ers are seeking counsel from ... MC Hammer.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News looks at NaVorro Bowman's emergence as a key contributor for the 49ers.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle checks in with Fox analyst and former NFL fullback Daryl Johnston for thoughts on the 49ers' run schemes. More here.

NFC West Stock Watch

October, 25, 2011
10/25/11
1:00
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Coach Ken Whisenhunt and GM Rod Graves. The men who got much of the credit for reviving a dormant franchise get most of the blame now that the Cardinals have lost five games in a row and 14 of their last 17 dating to last season. Ownership opened its wallet during the offseason, spending for Kevin Kolb and quite a few free agents. The product on the field hasn't improved sufficiently. The record has gotten worse. Kolb hasn't met expectations. A trip to Baltimore in Week 8 isn't likely to trigger a turnaround. Arizona lost seven in a row at one point last season, winning only when the dysfunctional Denver Broncos arrived. The current Cardinals have a home game against the Rams in Week 9 before a three-game road trip. This team could easily be 3-10 or 2-11 when Cleveland visits in Week 15.

2. Coach Steve Spagnuolo and GM Billy Devaney. The problems on defense stand out as most troubling for the Rams' coach and GM. Just about all of the free-agent additions on defense -- Justin Bannan, Quintin Mikell, Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga, etc. -- were supposed to help shore up the run defense. The Rams have only gotten worse in that area, maintaining their No. 32 ranking in rushing yards allowed after Dallas' DeMarco Murray set a franchise record with 253 yards Sunday. Spagnuolo's expertise is on the defensive side of the ball. Some drop-off in pass defense would be understandable given injuries at cornerback, but there's no way the Rams should be this bad against the run. The team's low-keyed approach to upgrading at wide receiver also backfired. Adding Brandon Lloyd could be too little, too late.

3. Charlie Whitehurst, Seahawks QB. Completing 12 of 30 passes for 97 yards against Cleveland left Whitehurst in dubious company. In Seahawks history, only Stan Gelbaugh ever had fewer yards to show for as many attempts in a single game. Whitehurst was inaccurate even on some of the passes he completed, including a sideline pass to Sidney Rice that should have gone for a touchdown. Whitehurst's throw was far enough outside to lead Rice right out of bounds, preventing him from reaching the end zone. This was a giant step backward for Whitehurst and the offense.

[+] EnlargeDavid Hawthorne
AP Photo/Tony DejakDavid Hawthorne was a bright spot for the Seahawks on Sunday.
RISING

1. David Hawthorne, Seahawks LB. Eleven tackles, one sack and one interception constituted a rebirth for Hawthorne, who seemed to play more freely than at any point this season. I was tempted to list teammate Red Bryant in this spot after Bryant blocked two field goal attempts and provided strong run defense, but Bryant was already regarded as one of the most important players on the team. His stock was already high, in other words. Also, the penalty against Bryant for head-butting Cleveland Browns tight end Alex Smith killed whatever fleeting hopes the Seahawks had for a last-minute comeback victory.

2. Braylon Edwards, 49ers WR. Edwards had only four receptions for 48 yards through the 49ers' first two games. A knee injury sidelined him for four games, but now Edwards appears ready to rejoin his teammates for practice this week. He'll step into an offense that has shown general improvement over the past month. Playing time shouldn't be a problem for him, either, now that starting receiver Josh Morgan is on injured reserve with a broken leg. Edwards and Michael Crabtree give the 49ers two big targets to pair with tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Edwards' ability to make plays downfield should help the offense.

3. LaRod Stephens-Howling, Cardinals RB. A hand injury had sidelined Stephens-Howling early in the season and limited him some during his return. That changed Sunday when Stephens-Howling turned a short pass into a 73-yard touchdown when the Cardinals were desperate for a spark. Stephens-Howling's role in the offense could grow with Beanie Wells suffering a knee injury.

Rams bench Sims-Walker, Leber vs. Pack

October, 16, 2011
10/16/11
11:46
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Mike Sims-Walker never appeared on the St. Louis Rams' injury report this week.

The team named him inactive Sunday purely on the merits after the veteran receiver dropped three passes, including one for a potential touchdown, during a 17-10 defeat to the Washington Redskins' in the Rams' most recent game.

Rookie receivers Austin Pettis and Greg Salas are both active for the Rams. Danario Alexander is starting in Sims-Walker's place opposite Brandon Gibson.

The Rams' inactive list against Green Bay was also significant as it applied to the team's situation at linebacker and in the secondary. Starting linebacker Ben Leber is inactive, meaning Chris Chamberlain will start. Veteran cornerback Rod Hood, signed during the bye week after the team lost Bradley Fletcher to a knee injury, is not active for this game. Justin King, Al Harris, Josh Gordy and Brian Jackson are the active corners.

Leber, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings, would presumably have a good feel for the Packers.

2011 Rams Week 3: Five observations

September, 27, 2011
9/27/11
6:22
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Five things I noticed while watching the St. Louis Rams' 37-7 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3:
  • No one blocked Terrell Suggs. The Rams got cute early with an end-around to rookie tight end Lance Kendricks. Nobody blocked Suggs, one of the Ravens' best players, on the play. How could this happen? The play established two dynamics early. One, the Rams weren't feeling great about their conventional running game even though Steve Jackson was active. Two, they weren't going to fool this veteran Ravens defense, either. Even if Suggs had missed Kendricks, linebacker Jameel McClain was also rushing toward the play unblocked. Losing 8 yards on second down ruined the Rams' opening drive. Later, with the Rams facing third-and-6 while trailing 7-0, they failed to block Suggs coming from the other side of the formation. Again, how can this happen? The Rams had six blockers for six pass-rushers, only to leave the very best rusher of them all, Suggs, completely unblocked. It is possible quarterback Sam Bradford was supposed to account for Suggs after the snap or by setting the protection a certain way, but that was not my inclination. The Rams would be better off punting on third down than allowing Suggs a clear path toward their franchise QB.
  • Flacco had a perfect pocket. The Rams had no shot at pressuring Joe Flacco when the Ravens' quarterback found Torrey Smith for a 74-yard touchdown. Right defensive end James Hall dropped into coverage. Left defensive end Chris Long lined up wide enough to jam Ravens tight end Ed Dickson at the line. Long was at the Baltimore 25-yard line just inside the yard-line numbers and well outside right tackle Michael Oher when Flacco was setting up in the pocket at his own 20 on the hash nearest Long. Running back Ray Rice picked up blitzing linebacker Ben Leber. Flacco delivered the ball before the Rams could do anything about it. Smith's speed on the play was startling. He was at the Baltimore 35 when Flacco released the ball. He covered an additional 21 yards before catching it at the St. Louis 44. Aenaes Williams might not have been able to defend this one. Of the three scoring passes Smith caught, the second one was the truly regrettable one from a Rams standpoint, with safety Darian Stewart getting caught peeking into the backfield.
  • The Jason Smith complaints are overblown. Coach Steve Spagnuolo had seen enough in the second half after Smith, the Rams' right tackle, gave up pressure more than once during a tough stretch. Spagnuolo benched Smith, but singling out Smith for the Rams' problems on the line would be unfair. The rest of the line also struggled once the Rams fell behind. I considered it progress when Smith got into a brief altercation with Lewis, drawing a 15-yard penalty. The Rams need not revisit the Richie Incognito era, but they need their linemen to play with an edge. Smith came to the Rams out of college with a tough-guy reputation that proved misleading. He missed half his rookie season to injuries and has hardly been an enforcer type, one reason guard Harvey Dahl appealed to the Rams in free agency. Smith has played through the ankle injury, first thought to be a high sprain, that he suffered in the regular-season opener. Now, he's scrapping with Lewis.
  • Bradford cannot find anyone open. Bradford scrambled effectively for the Rams early in the game, but only because none of his receivers appeared open. Bradford also paid a price. The Ravens' Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis buried him following a scramble on the Rams' second possession. Could anyone come up with a worse scenario for the Rams than one pitting Bradford alone in the ring against the tag-team combination of Ngata and Lewis? Not likely. Bradford got up limping. This was surely the play when he suffered the sprained toe that is bother him this week. Ngata, listed at 350 pounds, rolled across Bradford's lower legs after right after Lewis made the tackle. Don't blame the offensive line for this injury. Bradford actually had time to throw very early in the game, but life changed for him once the team fell behind.
  • The Rams have no chance playing from behind. That might change a little once Jackson and top receiver Danny Amendola return to health. For now, though, the Rams just need to survive their rough first-half schedule while hoping their division rivals falter. The final eight games feature six NFC West opponents, plus Cincinnati and Cleveland. Life will get worse before it gets better. Getting Bradford to Week 9 in one piece must be the priority.

We'll find out Wednesday whether Jackson is a full participant in practice. The Rams have a bye in Week 5, but if Jackson is ready to play a bigger role this week, the Rams have at least a chance against Washington on a short week for the Redskins.

Sorting through NFL fines from Week 2

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
3:22
PM ET
The Pittsburgh Steelers' Doug Legursky drew a penalty for a block to the back of the lower legs against the Seattle Seahawks' Al Woods in Week 2.

That play also drew a $7,500 fine from the NFL during what turned out to be a costly game.

As reported earlier in the week, the NFL also levied a $15,000 fine against Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock in that game. Brock is appealing the fine. Officials flagged him for hitting Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the knee area. Brock claimed he was tripped on the play.

The Arizona Cardinals' Jeff King also drew a $7,500 fine for a flagrant facemask penalty during a punt return against the Washington Redskins.

As the chart shows, six additional penalties from games involving NFC West teams did not draw fines from the league. More on the Kerry Rhodes penalty in a bit.

On Kroenke's postgame Spagnuolo chats

September, 20, 2011
9/20/11
7:17
PM ET
Team owner Stan Kroenke was the first person I saw upon entering the St. Louis Rams' locker room Monday night. He stood near one of the main entrances.

The Rams had returned from the field following their 28-16 road defeat to the New York Giants. Rules require teams to open their locker rooms to reporters following a 10-minute cooling-off period, but in this case, the locker room remained closed for an extended period without the head coach emerging for his scheduled news conference.

Why the delay? Kroenke, who took over last year as majority owner after years in a minority role, sometimes meets with coach Steve Spagnuolo following games.

"I do deeply apologize for being late at the postgame conferences," Spagnuolo told reporters in St. Louis on Tuesday. "I want you to know that it is not out of any disrespect. ... I have visited a couple times with Mr. Kroenke and I value that time. He’s great. I appreciate him coming in and talking to us and myself and that’s kind of what’s happened, but we’ll get that squared away and I promise you that we’ll take care of you like we should."

I pass along this information as a window into the often vague coach-owner dynamics. Kroenke doesn't reveal much about himself publicly and isn't one to comment on day-to-day team operations. That he would meet with the team and head coach following games shows a level of engagement we might not normally know about.

A few more Rams-related notes from Spagnuolo's day-after game media session:
  • The team does not expect defensive lineman C.J. Ah You to be available in the near future following wrist surgery. That leaves a clearer path for rookie first-round choice Robert Quinn to remain active on game days. Quinn had a sack in his debut Monday night.
  • Receiver Danny Amendola has improved range of motion in his dislocated elbow and will not practice Wednesday, but the team is considering his status day-to-day. That's an indication Amendola could return sooner rather than later, although it's premature to say he'll be back this week.
  • Linebacker Ben Leber (groin) is also day-to-day, while rookie receiver Greg Salas injured his ribs (X-rays were negative).
  • Running back Cadillac Williams has a "low-grade" strained hamstring that will require monitoring. That could be a concern depending upon whether Steven Jackson can come back from a quadriceps strain this week. Spagnuolo said he is "hopeful" on Jackson given that Jackson made an effort to be ready Monday night, an indication Jackson is close to returning.
  • The Rams limit Danario Alexander's reps in practice to protect Alexander's surgically repaired knee. That can affect how many reps Alexander plays in games as well.
  • Spagnuolo thought the Rams' offensive line made strides from Week 1 to Week 2, but the overall offensive timing was still not there consistently enough.

2011 NFL team age ranks at 53-man cuts

September, 4, 2011
9/04/11
11:43
AM ET
The NFL's mandatory reduction to 53 players provides an opportunity to revisit team age rankings.

Every team has young players. Every coach can speak to youth at specific positions.

It'll be tough for the Arizona Cardinals or St. Louis Rams to blame any defensive struggles on overall youth, however. Both teams rank among the NFL's three oldest on defense, behind Pittsburgh, according to the rosters I maintain for every team in the league.

Arizona defenders Nick Eason, Darnell Dockett, Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, Paris Lenon and Adrian Wilson are all in their 30s, as are Rams defensive players Fred Robbins, James Hall, Justin Bannan, Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga and Quintin Mikell.

Seattle has three defenders in their 30s: Raheem Brock, Marcus Trufant and Junior Siavii. San Francisco has two: Justin Smith and Carlos Rogers.

The chart ranks teams by overall age, from oldest to youngest. I've also included rankings for defense, offense and specialists. Ages are calculated to the day, not just to the year. For example, the 49ers' Andy Lee and Adam Snyder are both 29, but Lee was born 193 days later. Those days count in the calculation.

The defending conference champs reside at opposite ends of the age spectrum, proving there's more than one way to build a championship-caliber team. I'd rather be young and bad than old and bad, however, given the potential for improvement.

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Thoughts on Gilyard, Rams' initial cuts

September, 3, 2011
9/03/11
1:38
PM ET
The St. Louis Rams promised to begin alerting players of their release early Saturday.

Receiver Mardy Gilyard, communicating through his verified Twitter account via Rams beat reporter Jim Thomas, was among those getting the dreaded news.

Gilyard, a fourth-round choice in 2010, faced an uphill fight as a raw prospect trying to learn a new offense coming out of a shortened offseason amid increased competition. The Rams drafted two receivers this year. They got Donnie Avery back from injury, and Avery outperformed Gilyard in preseason.

Gilyard's immediate future appears clouded. Players with fewer than nine appearances on 45-man game-day rosters during their lone accrued season remain eligible for the practice squad. Gilyard played in 11 games last season, rendering him ineligible. That's a shame for him because Gilyard could use a place to develop. But with new coordinator Josh McDaniels taking over the Rams' offense, the dynamics changed for Gilyard and other holdovers.

Other Rams cuts so far, according to Thomas, included tight end Fendi Onobun and former Houston Texans linebacker Zac Diles, signed in free agency.

I thought Onobun might stick in the short term while the team figured out whether Michael Hoomanawanui would be available following a calf injury, but Onobun wasn't from the same physical mold. He's a converted basketball player without much of a blocking pedigree. Diles started 10 games last season. The Rams also added linebackers Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga in free agency, and Bryan Kehl had a strong camp.

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