NFC West: Brian Orakpo

Final Word: Seahawks at Redskins

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
11:44
AM ET
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North » AFC: North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about the Seattle Seahawks' wild-card playoff game against the Washington Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field:

Rookie showcase. Washington's Robert Griffin III (102.4) and Seattle's Russell Wilson (100.0) are the only qualifying quarterbacks in NFL history to finish their rookie seasons with NFL passer ratings in triple digits. They also are the first full-time rookie starting quarterbacks to face one another in an NFL playoff game. Houston's T.J. Yates was a replacement for Matt Schaub when he went against fellow rookie Andy Dalton in the playoffs last season.

Wilson and Griffin aren't alone among rookies playing prominent roles for their teams. The Redskins, led by Griffin and 1,600-yard rusher Alfred Morris, have a league-high 46 touchdowns passing, rushing or receiving from their rookies this season. The Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts are tied for second with 30 apiece.

Seattle also got 12 sacks from its rookies. Bruce Irvin had eight of them. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner finished his rookie season with 140 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks as an every-down player.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsSeattle quarterback Russell Wilson has shown steady improvement when facing heavy defensive pressure this season.
Picking their spots. Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said he counted nine all-out blitzes for Washington against Dallas in Week 17.

The Redskins collected a league-high 12 interceptions while blitzing during the regular season. Wilson, after struggling against pressure early in the season, has eight touchdown passes with no picks against five or more pass-rushers since Week 8. He has hit on six deep passes against five-plus rushers over that period, third most in the NFL. Deep passes are those traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage before the reception.

Wilson has eight overall touchdown passes on these deep throws, tied for second most in the NFL. He has thrown none of them on the road, however. His completion rate on these throws drops from 53.3 percent at home (16-of-30) to 28.6 percent on the road (8-of-28).

Pictures of health. The Seahawks enter the playoffs with zero starters on injured reserve unless you count guard James Carpenter as a player Seattle was counting on. Nickel pass-rusher Jason Jones and nickel cornerback Walter Thurmond are the most prominent Seahawks on IR. The Redskins' IR list features starters Adam Carriker, Brian Orakpo, Fred Davis, Jammal Brown and Brandon Meriweather. Also, nickel cornerback Cedric Griffin missed four games to a suspension and is returning.

Watch that play fake. The Seahawks have increasingly used play-action to great effect from the shotgun formation. Wilson has completed 14 of 15 such passes over the past five games. Both defenses must be wary. Griffin's average target depth jumps by a league-high 5 yards on play-action throws. His Total QBR score is a 13th-ranked 58.4 without play-action. It jumps to 86.8, fourth best in the league, when using the tactic. Seattle's defense ranks 24th in QBR allowed (74.4) against play-action. Washington's defense ranks third (46.9) by this measure.

Cornerback playmaking. Griffin, Wilson, Morris and Marshawn Lynch will command most of our attention as the most productive offensive players for each team.

There should be some outstanding battles in the secondaries as well. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is one of four players over the past 10 seasons with at least eight interceptions and three forced fumbles in one season (Charles Woodson and Ed Reed are two others to do it).

Sherman and fellow corner Brandon Browner tick off opposing receivers with their aggressive, sometimes against-the-rules tactics. The Redskins haven't gotten many calls along those lines. They made only seven first downs this season via penalties for illegal contact, defensive pass interference or defensive holding this season. That is half the NFL average and second fewest in the NFL behind Cleveland (six).

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Seattle's Clemons primed for Rams encore

September, 29, 2012
9/29/12
8:15
AM ET
Seattle's Chris Clemons is coming off a four-sack first half against the Green Bay Packers.

The Seahawks' next opponent, St. Louis, noticed.

Rams fans should already be quite familiar with the veteran defensive end.

Clemons has a league-high 6.5 sacks against St. Louis since Seattle acquired him from Philadelphia for defensive end Darryl Tapp (Seattle also received a fourth-round choice as part of the deal). Clemons has collected five of those 6.5 sacks in the Edward Jones Dome, site of the Seahawks-Rams game Sunday. That included three sacks against the Rams in Week 11 last season, when Mark LeVoir was the Rams' left tackle on an emergency basis.

The chart shows sack leaders against St. Louis since 2010. Clemons appears to have a favorable matchup in Week 4.

Former Seahawks draft choice Wayne Hunter is the Rams' starting left tackle after the team lost Rodger Saffold to a knee injury. Hunter has been playing despite a knee injury of his own. He did not practice Friday and was listed as questionable on the injury report. The Rams also claimed tackle Joe Barksdale off waivers from Oakland.

Rams: Dream/nightmare scenario

May, 25, 2012
5/25/12
9:00
AM ET
» AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Rams in 2012:

Dream scenario (8-8): Sam Bradford takes every snap on offense for the second time in three seasons as the Rams protect their franchise quarterback with sensible play-calling. It's the sixth time a Jeff Fisher-coached team finishes 8-8, but no one is complaining after the Rams' 15-65 run over the previous five seasons. Trusting offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to salvage right tackle Jason Smith becomes one of the surprise success stories of the 2012 season, and a critical one for the Rams' efforts to re-establish Bradford.

Turns out the Rams were not fibbing when they suggested Brian Quick, the receiver they took in the second round, ranked up there with first-rounder Justin Blackmon on their board. The constant threat of Steven Jackson and Isaiah Pead out of the backfield creates favorable matchups for Quick and the Rams' underrated receivers. Bradford publicly downplays a Week 2 victory over Robert Griffin III and Washington, but it feels good to win at home against the player St. Louis could have selected second overall this year.

Watching Janoris Jenkins score on a fourth-quarter punt return in Patrick Peterson's house improbably stakes the Rams to a 6-5 record, stirring visions of the postseason. It's certainly sweet to finally win within the division again. The Rams lose to San Francisco the following week and ultimately finish the regular season with a respectable defeat at Seattle, but the season is a success by any measure.

Nightmare scenario (3-13): Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks expose Bradford to significant punishment as Smith and the line struggle to find their bearings. Bradford doesn't want to talk about the ankle injury he aggravated at some point in the season's first month, but it's clearly a factor. Facing Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh, Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Julius Peppers, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Cameron Wake and Clay Matthews in the first seven games leaves Bradford limping toward the bye week, his confidence shaken.

Jackson continues to plug away, but we've seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well for the Rams. The depth at receiver is indeed improved, but Bradford doesn't have any truly dynamic weapons. Quick understandably needs seasoning, but with Blackmon and Arizona's Michael Floyd challenging rookie receiving records, the Rams look bad for trading down. It's tough finding open receivers with Smith struggling at tackle, anyway.

First-round pick Michael Brockers and free-agent addition Kendall Langford upgrade the run defense, but life as an every-down defensive end is tough for Robert Quinn. The veteran outside linebackers signed as stopgaps represent only a minor upgrade from last season. Off-field issues dog Jenkins, and the defense fails to meet expectations. Critics conveniently blame Gregg Williams' suspension, but the problems are more complex than that.

The Rams head into the offseason with another high draft choice, one they'll almost certainly have to invest in a playmaker of some sort.
Arizona Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd was fifth and Seattle Seahawks pass-rusher Bruce Irvin sixth on John Clayton's list of 10 new draft choices likely to make the greatest immediate impact.

"Floyd's presence may force defenses into more zone coverages, because it will be hard to double Larry Fitzgerald and match up man-to-man against Floyd," Clayton theorized. "Irvin is probably the draft's best pass-rusher and should put up double-digit sack numbers early in his career."

Let's consider that a launching point for a discussion EDTGO jump-started from his luxury box in the comments section of an earlier item on Arizona's draft thinking.

"Floyd will be starting and will have the best position of the rookies to get stats," he wrote.

Rookie receivers making at least 10 starts from 2009 through last season averaged 46 receptions for 721 yards and five touchdowns, according to Pro Football Reference. Cincinnati's A.J. Green and Tampa Bay's Mike Williams had the most receptions of the group (65 apiece). Green, Williams and Julio Jones each topped 900 yards. Those three joined Torrey Smith as the only ones with more than six touchdown receptions.

We shouldn't forget about St. Louis Rams second-round receiver Brian Quick. He has a good chance at starting. The Rams thought Quick reminded them of Terrell Owens from a physical standpoint. Owens had 35 catches for 520 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, making 10 starts.

The status for San Francisco 49ers first-round receiver A.J. Jenkins could be tougher to define initially. He could wind up starting if the Randy Moss experiment does not work out. He could also ease into the role, getting fewer opportunities as the 49ers run their offense through other players primarily.

Double-digit sacks from Irvin might be enough to eclipse for impact the projected receiving numbers from Floyd, Quick or Jenkins.

Five rookies since 2009 have collected at least 10 sacks. San Francisco's Aldon Smith, with 14 sacks last season, was the only one to do so as a backup. Von Miller, Brian Orakpo, Clay Matthews and Ndamukong Suh -- all first-round choices, as were Smith and Irvin -- reached double digits in sacks while starting at least 13 games.

Carlos Dunlap had 9.5 sacks in 12 games, none of them starts, for Cincinnati in 2010.

Irvin should benefit from the Seahawks' very specific plans for him. The team got nine sacks in zero starts from Raheem Brock in 2010. Irvin will play a similar role and a similar percentage of the snaps, giving him a very good chance to eclipse Brock's total -- if he's talented enough to produce those numbers. Brock played about 50 percent of the snaps for Seattle in each of the last two seasons.

Who else deserves our consideration?

"Janoris Jenkins has a shot ... assuming he can keep his head on straight," ramm428a wrote.

"Yep," randdles wrote, "Jenkins will get to face five of the top QBs this year, he could make a big impact."

Matthew Stafford, Robert Griffin III, Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are among the high-profile quarterbacks Jenkins, a second-round cornerback with first-round talent, will face in his initial season with the Rams. Jenkins will face those quarterbacks by Week 8, giving him a chance to shape perceptions early.

Devin McCourty and Joe Haden are the only drafted cornerbacks to exceed five interceptions as rookies over the past three seasons.

"Michael Brockers could have a huge impact," JohnnyP3180 wrote of the Rams' first-round choice. "Not flashy, but he could make the biggest difference for his team."

That might be true, but as a run stuffer, Brockers probably won't accumulate the stats players often need to draw acclaim. We'll be sure to monitor Brockers' contributions closely regardless.

.

Silver linings: Seahawks vs. Redskins

November, 28, 2011
11/28/11
1:09
PM ET
The facts: The Seattle Seahawks fell to 4-7 with a 23-17 home defeat to the Washington Redskins.

The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
  • Marshawn Lynch reached 100 yards rushing for the third time in his last four games.
  • Starting cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner picked off passes.
  • Strong safety Kam Chancellor delivered a big hit early in the game, an indication recent fines have not diminished his aggressiveness.
  • Lynch and second-year receiver Golden Tate caught touchdown passes.
  • Seattle's offensive line generally played well, helping to limit the Redskins' Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan to a half-sack between them.
  • Leon Washington had 51- and 35-yard kickoff returns.
  • Seattle held the Redskins to 30 percent conversions on third down and one touchdown in three red zone possessions.
  • Red Bryant blocked a field goal attempt and an extra point attempt.
  • Seattle did not fumble and won the turnover battle.
  • The Seahawks, though held to one sack, finished the game with nine quarterback hits, two apiece from Brandon Mebane and Clinton McDonald.
Looking ahead: The Seahawks face the Philadelphia Eagles at home on Thursday night.

Sando's best guesses: Week 12 predictions

November, 24, 2011
11/24/11
9:56
AM ET
The record stands at a halfway decent 24-11 in picking NFC West outcomes for the 2011 seasons.

Going 2-0 for a second consecutive week will require an underdog winning in Week 12, if one can consider a 9-1 team to be an underdog.

Let's cut right to the predictions. The 49ers play Thursday night. All other games are Sunday:
  • San Francisco 49ers at Baltimore Ravens, 8:20 p.m. Earlier in the season, Detroit was the choice to beat the 49ers mostly because convention said San Francisco would lose a road game against a good team in the Eastern time zone. What is conventional about these 49ers? Not much. The 49ers won that game. They've won eight in a row. They've been more consistent than the Ravens. Those following the NFC West this season have seen Baltimore fall behind Arizona 24-6. They've seen the Ravens lose at Seattle. They've seen the 49ers play well just about every week, posting a 4-0 record in Eastern time. Sando's best guess: 49ers 19, Ravens 16.
  • Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams, 1 p.m. ET. Cannot pick the Rams. Will not pick the Rams. They have scored 21 second-half points in their last six games, and now they are down to their third-string left tackle. The Cardinals have their own problems, but they have more points in fourth quarters (65) than the Rams have scored in second halves (51). Perhaps the Rams can rise up and atone for their crushing defeat at Arizona three weeks ago. Sando's best guess: Cardinals 17, Rams 13.
  • Seattle Seahawks vs. Washington Redskins, 4:05 p.m. ET. Protecting Tarvaris Jackson could be tough for Seattle against Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. That stands out as the biggest concern for the Seahawks thanks to issues on the right side of their offensive line. Defense and the home crowd should be enough, however. Sando's best guess: Seahawks 16, Redskins 10.

To review, I predicted a 17-13 victory for Seattle over St. Louis last week (24-7 actual score) and a 23-13 victory for San Francisco over Arizona (23-7 actual score).

Will the 49ers make it nine in a row?

NFC West injury situations that matter

November, 23, 2011
11/23/11
8:17
PM ET
Arizona: Quarterback Kevin Kolb appears close to returning from the toe and foot injuries that have sidelined him since Oct. 30. He estimated taking more than a third of the reps in practice Wednesday. All signs point to a likely return for Kolb against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, but he'll need to continue practicing to work through some of the rust. Tight ends Todd Heap and Rob Housler were limited, as was running back Beanie Wells. Injuries at quarterback, running back and tight end will affect any offense. Wells' knee hasn't let him carry a full load, costly for the Cardinals after the team traded Tim Hightower and lost Ryan Williams to injured reserve.

St. Louis: The Rams are severely limited at offensive tackle and cornerback. Those are tough areas to be so shorthanded against Arizona. Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell is an imminent threat to the Rams' offensive line after St. Louis lost both starting tackles and its backup left tackle. Larry Fitzgerald obviously faces favorable matchups against the Rams' secondary now that St. Louis has placed 10 cornerbacks on injured reserve. The Rams practiced without their defensive leader Wednesday — middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has a foot injury. Losing him would prove devastating. The situation at tight end is also limiting the Rams. Mike Hoomanawanui is out for the season. Promising rookie tight end Lance Kendricks suffered a concussion against Seattle and was limited Wednesday.

San Francisco: Receiver Michael Crabtree (foot), cornerback Chris Culliver (shoulder), tackle Anthony Davis (ankle), receiver Braylon Edwards (knee) and running back Frank Gore (knee) were limited in practice Wednesday and listed as probable for Thursday. The team does not expect to have fullback Bruce Miller (concussion) for its game at Baltimore. The 49ers' relative strength and versatility at tight end affords them flexibility in dealing with injuries at fullback and wide receiver. The team doesn't need to lean heavily on three-receiver groupings because tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are good receivers. Veteran fullback Moran Norris could return this week. The 49ers also use nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga as a fullback in certain situations.

Seattle: The biggest concern, in my view, centers around whether quarterback Tarvaris Jackson can remain in the lineup for the remainder of the season as he plays through a pectoral injury. Jackson was limited Wednesday. He's facing a Redskins defense featuring strong outside rushers in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. Defensive tackle Alan Branch (ankle), cornerback Byron Maxwell (ankle), receiver Ben Obomanu (knee/ankle) and receiver Sidney Rice (knee) did not practice. The Seahawks have sufficient depth at all those players' positions and most of those players are expected to be available Sunday.

Final Word: NFC West

September, 30, 2011
9/30/11
1:30
PM ET
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

Assessing the 49ers' chances in Philly. The Eagles, losers of two in a row, haven't lost three games in succession since a 2007 stretch played mostly without their starting quarterback. The 49ers, winners at Cincinnati in Week 3, have not won games in successive weeks since the 2009 season (a bye interrupted their lone two-game winning streak last season). They have not won road games in successive weeks since beating Carolina and Indianapolis in Weeks 10-11 way back in 2001. Beating the Eagles in Philadelphia would open eyes to just how much change Jim Harbaugh has affected in a short period of time.

Yakety YAC, help the quarterback. Three NFC West teams rank among the NFL's bottom five in yards after the catch on a per-reception basis, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Seahawks rank 31st at 3.7 yards. The 49ers and Rams are both in the 4.3-yard range. The 49ers have no receptions longer than 39 yards and none longer than 26 by a wide receiver. Michael Crabtree's longest catch this season covered 8 yards. The Arizona Cardinals are the exception within the division. They have five wide receivers and tight ends with at least five receptions and a 5.0 YAC average. Seattle's Doug Baldwin (8.0 YAC) is the only other non-running back in the division to meet that standard. The St. Louis Rams' Brandon Gibson has averaged eight-tenths of a yard after the catch.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswireThe Cardinals' secondary will be tested by Eli Manning, who's coming off a four-TD performance.
Cardinals' pass defense in focus. Few teams push the ball down the field as aggressively as the Cardinals' Week 4 opponent. Giants quarterback Eli Manning ranks third behind Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger in how far past the line of scrimmage his passes travel on average. The Giants are one of five NFL teams averaging at least 8.8 yards per pass attempt. The Cardinals are one of eight teams allowing at least 8.0 yards per attempt. Manning, coming off a four-touchdown game at Philadelphia, tossed three scoring passes in his last visit to University of Phoenix Stadium (2008). He ranks tied for second in the NFL with eight completions on passes traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Sam Bradford's long-term health. The Rams' quarterback has taken 11 sacks in three games, a total he did not reach until Week 5 last season. He's facing a Washington Redskins defense that ranks sixth in sacks per pass play. Anyone else think former Rams coach Jim Haslett, now the Redskins' defensive coordinator, wouldn't mind introducing Bradford to pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan? The pressure is on a not-quite-healthy Steven Jackson to give the Rams needed offensive balance.

Seahawks have choices on defense. Seattle was able to shut out the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald in the second half last week in part because Arizona's other weapons weren't all that threatening. Without Beanie Wells to worry about, Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas spent less time in the box and more time helping in coverage. Thomas would ideally provide similar support against Falcons receiver Roddy White this week, but doing so could carry additional risks against an Atlanta offense with more varied weapons. Falcons rookie Julio Jones caught six passes for 115 yards against Tampa Bay in Week 3, including a 49-yarder. On the positive side for Seattle, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has taken 13 sacks, the same total he took into Week 10 last season. That 49-yard strike to Jones marked the first time in eight tries this season Ryan has completed a deep pass (defined as one traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage).

2011 Cardinals Week 2: Five observations

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
3:46
PM ET
Five things I noticed while watching the Arizona Cardinals' 22-21 defeat to the Washington Redskins in Week 2:
  • Confusing penalty situation early. Officials flagged Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes for unnecessary roughness on the Redskins' first possession. I thought officials flagged Rhodes because Rhodes' hand had inadvertently struck an official during a fight involving several players. Looking at replays, the offending hand actually belonged to Redskins tackle Jammal Brown. Rhodes was not fined for the play.
  • Jeff King gets featured. Todd Heap's signing was supposed to mean more than King's signing for the Cardinals' passing game, but King was the only tight end on the field when he caught a 21-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. The Cardinals went with base personnel (two backs, one tight end) on this play. Larry Fitzgerald was on the weak side, with King releasing freely. King has two touchdowns in as many games for Arizona. The Cardinals have targeted him five times and Heap three times.
  • Early Doucet is the second-best WR. Andre Roberts dropped a ball. Chansi Stuckey fumbled. Doucet, who had a 70-yard scoring reception in Week 1, impressed with a short reception over the middle in traffic for a third-down conversion. The Cardinals have targeted Doucet seven times on third down, most on the team. Four of those targets produced first downs, including the 70-yarder. A fifth went for a 12-yard gain on third-and-25.
  • Beanie Wells blocked Brian Orakpo. It happened midway through the third quarter, but the interception Kevin Kolb threw on the play got all the attention. Wells, who enjoyed a strong second half running the ball, has not been known for his work in pass protection. He walled off Orakpo on this play, giving Kolb time to move from the pocket and reset himself.
  • No pass-rush when it mattered. Leading 21-19 with less than five minutes to play, the Cardinals blitzed both inside linebackers on first down. Neither came close to getting pressure. Joey Porter dropped into coverage on the play and gave up a reception to tight end Fred Davis. The Redskins beat blitz pressure with quick passes on the next two plays. Then, with three wide receivers still on the field, the Redskins ran up the middle into field-goal range against a smaller defensive front. Arizona could have used some luck, too. The Cardinals tipped but could not intercept passes on consecutive plays before the Redskins made the winning field goal.

And that concludes this tape-delayed version of five observations coming off a short week. NFC West predictions for Week 3 are coming in a bit.

Around the NFC West: Rams' RB questions

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
8:46
AM ET
Depth at running back wasn't supposed to be a problem for the St. Louis Rams this season.

Signing veterans Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood gave the team better options behind starter Steven Jackson.

Two games into the season, a quadriceps strain is threatening to keep out Jackson for another week, while hamstring problems are keeping Williams from practicing.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Jackson took limited reps in practice Thursday, while Williams hoped to get some work in Friday. Jackson: "I was able to get out there today, practice a little bit, get a few reps in. I'm starting to familiarize myself with the game plan and knowing what Baltimore does. So mentally, I'm right on key with the team. I just have to continue over the next few days to see how the quad reacts to me actually doing physical work that's football related."

Also from Thomas: Williams takes responsibility for a "bonehead move" against the Giants on Monday night.

Will Horton of RamsHerd breaks down Sam Bradford's pass distribution against the Giants. Horton: "After drafting Lance Kendricks, there was talk that Josh McDaniels might try to emulate the 2010 Pats. But if Monday's game is any indication, expect much more of a Broncos-like attack. Fantasy prognosticators, take note of how often Mike Sims-Walker and Brandon Gibson were targeted between 10 and 20 yards out from the line of scrimmage. Both could fill that coveted 'Brandon Lloyd' slot." Noted: We should find out over the course of the season how much the Rams' success in the passing game had to do with their own improvement vs. the Giants' injury problems on defense.

Also from Horton: Thoughts on the Pro Football Focus review of the Rams' effort in Week 2.

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis thinks the Rams can beat the Ravens, a team he sees living on reputation defensively.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers think officials erred on a critical offside penalty against Ahmad Brooks in Week 2.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says 49ers quarterback Alex Smith felt fine Monday, a day after suffering a concussion.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Jim Harbaugh must open up the 49ers' offense after gaining no more than 209 yards in either of the team's first two games. Noted: Establishing some semblance of a running game would give the 49ers much better options on offense while boosting their yardage totals.

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers will spend 10 days on the road during their trip to Ohio. Inman: "Sandwiched between games Sunday at Cincinnati and Oct. 2 at Philadelphia is a five-day layover in Youngstown, Ohio, hometown of the DeBartolo family, which purchased the 49ers in 1977."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' extended road trip is designed to combat a poor record in the Eastern time zone, but the team has struggled similarly on the road in other time zones, too. Branch: "San Francisco is 3-19 in the Eastern time zone since 2003. Then again, the 49ers aren't so hot in the Central time zone (4-20) over their past eight non-winning seasons. And they've gone 2-7 away from home in the Pacific time zone since 2003 -- proving they can get their clocks cleaned without moving their clocks forward."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with defensive coordinator Gus Bradley for thoughts on the switch from Aaron Curry to K.J. Wright at strong-side linebacker. What Bradley has to say about Wright differentiates the rookie from Curry. Bradley: "K.J. is very instinctive. He plays very smart situational football. He’s just such a quick study. He picked up on this stuff that we taught him playing Sam linebacker."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks "finally ran out of patience" with Curry. Williams: "While Curry has floundered, other linebackers taken after him in his same draft class have flourished. Washington’s Brian Orakpo (selected No. 13), Houston’s Brian Cushing (No. 15) and Green Bay’s Clay Mathews (No. 26) all have a Pro Bowl to their credit in young careers. Earlier this season during training camp the Seahawks restructured Curry’s contract, making it easier to part ways with the underperforming linebacker at season’s end if they choose." Noted: The Seahawks' general manager, John Schneider, was with the Packers when they took Mathews and B.J. Raji in the first round of that 2009 draft.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says it's not clear how serious Beanie Wells' hamstring injury might be. Noted: Wells' durability has been a concern throughout his NFL career. Hamstring injuries tend to linger. The Cardinals lack sufficient depth behind Wells to challenge defenses over the course of a game without him. They can be much more physical in the running game with Wells than they can be without him.

Also from Somers: Darnell Dockett says the Cardinals need to reduce penalties without letting opponents push them around. Dockett: "We just have to be smart. I always emphasize to my team, 'Don't never be a punk. If somebody do something to you, you do something back.' If you just continue to let them do it, then you're going to have a long day. We're not going to let nobody just push us in the helmet, push in the back, step on our hands and do crazy stuff. You have to respond sometimes but also you got to be smart about it." Noted: Over the last couple seasons, Dockett has tried to push around the Seahawks. He elbowed Matt Hasselbeck in the neck area after a play two seasons ago. He also hit Chris Spencer in the back area with his helmet. Neither of those incidents carries much weight when the teams play again Sunday because there's been so much roster turnover. I informally polled Seahawks offensive linemen to see whether the elbowing incident had come up among them this week. The few I spoke with didn't even know about it.

More from Somers: The Cardinals' offensive line played well at Washington.

Final Word: NFC West

September, 16, 2011
9/16/11
1:30
PM ET
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireArizona's Kevin Kolb fared well in Week 1 when the defense brought at least five pass-rushers.
Handling the pressure. Only Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers ranked higher than the Arizona Cardinals' Kevin Kolb in NFL passer rating (139.2) when defenses brought at least five pass-rushers in Week 1, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Kolb led the league in QBR (98.7) in these situations among players with at least one pass attempt, completing six of 11 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns. His Washington Redskins counterpart, Rex Grossman, put up solid numbers overall, but his NFL passer rating (70.3) and QBR (13.6) lagged badly against five or more rushers. The Cardinals weren't shy about bringing pressure against Carolina, but they struggled to stop Cam Newton in these situations.

About those early kickoffs. For years, the Seattle Seahawks struggled to win games kicking off at 10 a.m. PT unless they were played in St. Louis, where the long-struggling Rams made for an inviting opponent. Times changed last season. The Seahawks went 1-1 in early games, beating the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field after losing in St. Louis. Seattle joins Arizona among Western teams playing early games Sunday. The Cardinals were 3-0 in 10 a.m. PT kickoffs the last time they felt good about their quarterback situation, in 2009. They were 0-4 in early kickoffs for 2010.

Sam Bradford's downfield throws. Bradford and Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels went into the season saying they planned to incorporate more downfield throws into their offense. It did not happen during an opening-week defeat against Philadelphia. Four of Bradford's 30 attempts (13.3 percent) traveled at least 15 yards in the air. The percentage for Bradford was 13.7 last season, lowest among qualifying quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Bradford and the Rams should have additional downfield opportunities against the New York Giants' injury-depleted secondary.

49ers' offensive aggression. Coach Jim Harbaugh kept a straight face while telling reporters the team was being aggressive against Seattle when it ran the ball in traditional passing situations. The 49ers ran the ball six times on third-down plays when they needed more than a yard for a first down. This included four plays of third-and-4 or longer. The 49ers converted none of these six rushing plays. The approach was good enough to defeat a Seattle team that wasn't getting much accomplished offensively until late. How well the 49ers fare when opening up the offense against Dallas stands as a leading NFC West storyline for Week 2.

Tough duty for tackles. NFC West offensive tackles face some brutal matchups this week. DeMarcus Ware (Dallas), Brian Orakpo (Washington), Ryan Kerrigan (Washington) and James Harrison (Pittsburgh) are coming after NFC West quarterbacks. The Giants have been playing without injured defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, but if either one plays against St. Louis on Monday night, add their names to the list.
Power Rankings Linebackers ESPN.com IllustrationSan Francisco's Patrick Willis ran away from the field in our voting for the NFL's best linebacker.
ESPN.com’s NFL writers rank the top 10 linebackers in the league today. Next week: Top 10 cornerbacks.

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis beat out a strong and diverse field for top billing in ESPN.com's latest positional power rankings.

All eight panelists ranked Willis among their top three, elevating the 26-year-old perennial Pro Bowler above James Harrison and DeMarcus Ware as our No. 1 linebacker in the NFL.

Even 12-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis, the dominant linebacker of his era, pointed to Willis as a worthy successor to his undisputed reign. Not that Lewis is finished just yet. He placed fifth in the rankings behind Willis, Harrison, Ware and the Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews. But there was no more complete linebacker than Willis.

"Nobody in the NFL plays their position better than Patrick Willis, and that is saying a lot," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc., whose insights helped shape my ballot. "He is as good a linebacker as Peyton Manning is a quarterback, as Andre Johnson is a receiver, as Adrian Peterson is a running back. He has no weaknesses."

Willis, a three-time Associated Press All-Pro first-team selection, is the first 49ers player since Ronnie Lott to earn Pro Bowl honors in each of his first four seasons. Joe Thomas and Peterson are the only other 2007 draft choices with four Pro Bowls.

Apples and oranges: Comparing linebackers from 3-4 schemes to their 4-3 counterparts proved problematic for some panelists. AFC East blogger Tim Graham ranked Ware first among pass-rushers three weeks ago, but only ninth among linebackers.

"Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis would be great linebackers in a 3-4 or a 4-3," Graham explained. "DeMarcus Ware and Cameron Wake might not even be linebackers if they played in Indianapolis, Tennessee or Minnesota. At some point, I had to value elite pass-rushing abilities on my list even though those players aren't universal-type linebackers."

There was room for differing views. ESPN.com's John Clayton and AFC North blogger James Walker ranked Ware first among linebackers and first among pass-rushers. AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky ranked Ware first among linebackers and second among pass-rushers.

"Separating Ware, Willis and Harrison is like splitting hairs, because it really depends on what you want in a linebacker," said Walker, who went with Ware, Willis and Harrison atop his ballot. "Ware is a slightly better pass-rusher than Harrison, and Willis is a future Hall of Famer in his prime. Age also has to be a consideration if you’re building a defense, and Harrison will be 33 in May. But they're all great."

First things first: Graham and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert joined me in ranking Willis first. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson had Willis second only to Harrison.

"When I think of linebacker play in the current day, James Harrison pops out," Bill Williamson said. "I think he’s the gold standard of complete linebacker play. Look at his signature play in the Super Bowl against Arizona. That play will forever be part of NFL lore. Patrick Willis, who is also a great player, doesn’t have that play on his résumé. Plus, Harrison is an ornery cuss on the field. The man was born to be a 'backer."

Willis can't match Harrison in Super Bowl memories -- he could use a quarterback, for starters -- but he's not hurting for signature plays:
Lewis pointed to Willis when ESPN's Dana Jacobson recently asked him which young linebacker reminded Lewis of himself.

"I just love the way he plays the game," Lewis said. "He plays the game with a fire. He reminds me of myself -- a lot, a lot, a lot."

Unanimous decisions: The top five finishers received votes from all eight panelists. The gaps between highest and lowest votes fell between four and seven places for all but Willis, who ranked no lower than third.

Seifert ranked Lewis third. I had Lewis 10th and feared I might be measuring him against himself. No list of top linebackers would be complete without him, I thought, but a younger generation is taking over.

Hugs for Suggs: Lewis' teammate, Terrell Suggs, finished just out of our top 10 despite getting a No. 5 ranking from Kuharsky.

[+] EnlargePatrick Willis
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswirePatrick Willis has averaged nearly 149 tackles per season since joining the league in 2007.
"I unabashedly love Suggs, and frankly would have placed him higher if I thought there was any way he needed help to crack the top 10," Kuharsky said. "To me, there is a great deal of subjectivity in ranking this position when mixing guys from 4-3s and 3-4s, so I did a lot of know-them-when-I-see-them ranking. Suggs is absolutely a top-10 guy to me."

Clayton, Seifert, Graham and I did not list Suggs on our ballots while searching for the right mix of 3-4 and 4-3 talent.

Fit to be tied: The players tied for ninth on our list illustrate the varied criteria for the position. Kansas City's Tamba Hali is a pure pass-rusher in the Chiefs' 3-4 defense. Carolina's Jon Beason is a traditional 4-3 linebacker with the versatility to play multiple spots. He changed positions twice in 2010.

Beason peaked at No. 5 on my ballot. NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas had Beason sixth and considered ranking him higher.

"There was a time when I would have ranked Beason in the same echelon as Willis," Yasinskas said. "I think he has a chance to re-emerge if Carolina can put a better team on the field, particularly by getting better at defensive tackle and keeping blockers off Beason. If that happens, I think Beason can be as good as any linebacker in the league."

Youth on his side: New England's Jerod Mayo appeared on six of eight ballots, ranking sixth overall between Lewis and Urlacher. At 25, Mayo was one of two linebackers younger than Willis to earn a spot among the top 10. Matthews, 24, was the other. Graham ranked Mayo third.

"Nose tackle Vince Wilfork might be the anchor of the Patriots' defense, but Mayo is the one who ties their defense together," Graham said. "Mayo is a tackling machine who compensates for shortcomings at outside linebacker and injuries along the defensive line. He would be a star in any system."

On an island: Four linebackers received a single vote. That list featured Brian Orakpo (Clayton), Lance Briggs (Seifert), London Fletcher (Walker) and Wake (Graham).

Best doesn't mean most valuable: Matt Williamson called linebacker the toughest position to evaluate. I'll close by passing along a few of his thoughts:

  • "Willis is so exceptional it would be a coin flip with Ware. Willis has no weaknesses, but if I were a general manager, I would take Ware because pass-rushers are so hard to find. You can get away with a C-level middle linebacker and still have a good defense. You can have a two-down run-stopper and pull him out in nickel."
  • "Ray Lewis would not be in my top five at this point. For his age, he is still exceptional and a borderline Pro Bowler, but he doesn't run like he did. I remember when I was with the Browns, I looked at every report the team had written since 1999 and Lewis had the highest grade ever given out. He was nearly perfect."
  • "Hali is a one-trick pony, a pass-rusher, but he is great at it -- as good as any pass-rusher in the league."
  • "Beason is like Patrick Willis, but he is 95 percent of him. He can play outside, inside, he's smart -- but there is so little around him that people don't realize how good he is."
  • "Pass rushing is Clay Matthews' greatest gift, but he is the prototypical outside linebacker. He's a great technician and way more explosive and athletic than people realize. He's good in coverage, not great, but they line him up all over."
  • "London Fletcher is underrated, but not in this conversation. How Beason is to Willis, Fletcher is to Lewis. He is smaller and slower than Lewis, good among older guys."
  • "Brian Urlacher is still a really good player, but the top 10 might be a stretch. I would take him ahead of Lewis, behind Beason and Willis among 'Mike' 'backers. He is good in coverage. People forget that he was a safety at New Mexico. He doesn't run like he used to and is just not as dynamic as he was in the day."
  • "The Steelers have the best linebackers in the league. LaMarr Woodley is very strong and in that conversation too. Definitely top 15. Harrison is great against the run, extremely strong and one of the few linebackers in the league that is a difference-maker from an attitude standpoint. He brings attitude to the table like a Jack Lambert or a Dick Butkus or a Ray Lewis type. He is feared. He is one of the best leverage players in the league, great in pursuit, tenacious as hell. The other guy to know about is Lawrence Timmons. He will be spectacular."

A closer look at Steven Jackson's TD

September, 27, 2010
9/27/10
4:44
PM ET
Washington Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett knows better than most what St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson can accomplish from three-receiver personnel on second-and-long.

Haslett was the Rams' interim head coach when Jackson gashed the Dallas Cowboys for an 18-yard gain under those circumstances two seasons ago. That game marked the Rams' most recent home victory -- until Jackson's 42-yard touchdown run on second-and-14 helped St. Louis defeat the Redskins 30-16 in Week 3.

The play showcased Jackson's ability and, if you looked closely enough, what it takes to turn a short or medium gain into a momentum altering big play.

Jackson had lost 4 yards on the previous play, so this was a likely passing situation. The Rams set up the touchdown with two wide receivers left, one right, Jackson nearly 8 yards deep in the backfield and Daniel Fells, the tight end, in a three-point stance next to right tackle Jason Smith. The Redskins countered with only six defenders in the box.

Jackson took the handoff and ran off tackle to the right. Fells turned Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo to the inside. Smith turned Redskins linebacker Rocky McIntosh to the outside. Mark Clayton, the wide receiver on the right side, impeded cornerback DeAngelo Hall near the line of scrimmage. Left guard Adam Goldberg let linebacker Andre Carter knife into the backfield, shoving Carter hard enough to prevent him from getting back into the play.

Jackson cut back to his left at the 35, making safety Kenny Moore miss. Moore had launched his body at Jackson instead of trying to wrap him up (Jackson's 245-pound frame poses an injury risk to defensive backs). Moore missed Jackson and chopped down teammate Vonnie Holliday back at the 37. Jackson was at the 33 by then. Receiver Brandon Gibson hustled from the far left side past the right hash, where he decked cornerback Phillip Buchanan.

Center Jason Brown and left guard Jacob Bell had shoved nose tackle Albert Haynesworth off the line, with Brown peeling off to prevent linebacker London Fletcher from making the tackle near the 30. Hayesworth had made his way back into the play near the 28, but left tackle Rodger Saffold was waiting for him. Buchanan, having been shoved by Gibson, flew into Haynesworth's legs just as Saffold arrived. Haynesworth stood no chance.

Receiver Danny Amendola, working from the left slot, hustled across the formation and back in search of someone to block. He wasn't needed in the end. Jackson outran safety LaRon Landry to the end zone.

Injury note: Jackson suffered a strained groin during the game. The Rams described his status as day-to-day.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offers thoughts on the Rams' draft before passing along this anecdote regarding first-round choice Sam Bradford: "After the Rams completed their draft, Bradford (back home in Oklahoma) called Rams Park to get the phone numbers for each player chosen by the team. Bradford wanted to call every Rams draft pick to welcome them to the team and express his enthusiasm for work with them in rebuilding the franchise. That’s impressive."

Also from Miklasz: Mardy Gilyard gives the Rams a playmaker. Miklasz: "For weeks, GM Billy Devaney said his goal in the draft was to add playmakers, and Gilyard is that. Tough, quick, elusive and extremely competitive. Can return kicks and punts. Plays with confidence and edge. He’ll add production and personality to a bland receiver corps."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates the Rams' dealings with free-agent running back Brian Westbrook. Thomas: "Westbrook's left knee, which was first injured playing basketball at DeMatha High School in Maryland, requires careful maintenance. The knee usually swells up if he practices or plays on artificial turf. And it wasn't unusual for Westbrook to miss practice over the past couple of seasons to let the knee rest."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times provides a transcript from Seattle scout Matt Berry's comments regarding first-round safety Earl Thomas. Berry: "He has the ability to change the game from the safety position and have an impact on the ball. So that stuff jumps out on tape. As a scout, when you see a guy flying sideline to sideline. You see him anticipating the ball."

Also from O'Neil: Berry on first-round tackle Russell Okung. Berry: "So you kind of watch him, and you see him grow and get better. And you see the games where he struggles and you see the games where he played, the last two games against Texas, playing against [Brian] Orakpo and then against [Sergio] Kindle, he was the dominant player on the field. You really noticed how he finishes and how he competes, down in and down out. Those things are really attractive at that position, going forward with your evaluation."

Greg Johns of seattlepi.com says LenDale White is looking to redefine himself in Seattle. Titans coach Jeff Fisher: "As far as LenDale falling out of favor, he practiced. He was prepared to play. I think I can't blame him for wanting to play more. That's the kind of players you want on your roster. Considering the circumstances, he handled things. There were issues I don't need to bring up. I thought he handled things reasonably well."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals probably would not offer a lucrative deal for free-agent guard Alan Faneca. Meanwhile, restricted free-agent guard Deuce Lutui remains unsigned. Somers: "According to a source, Lutui has been working out with a trainer in town and has stayed in touch with (line coach Russ) Grimm. Cardinals officials are surprised Lutui hasn't chosen to sign the tender. He wants a long-term deal, which is understandable, since the $1.759 million is not guaranteed. If the Cardinals cut him, Lutui doesn't get it."

Phil Barber of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says 49ers coach Mike Singletary wasn't upset with LeGarrette Blount for the running back's decision to sign with Tennessee instead. Barber: "Singletary said something else that fascinated me. You expect coaches to speak to the people surrounding potential picks -- coaches, teammates, family members -- before the draft. They call it due diligence. But guess how Singletary spent yesterday and today. Calling those same people to ask what he can do to get his new draft picks, and even undrafted free agents, ready to succeed at the NFL level."

Draft Watch: NFC West

March, 31, 2010
3/31/10
1:00
PM ET
» NFC History: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: History in that spot.

St. Louis Rams

The Rams' decision at No. 1 will likely come down to quarterback Sam Bradford or defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy.

NFL teams have taken three quarterbacks first overall in the past five years. Alex Smith (49ers, 2005) has been mostly disappointing, although he has shown signs of progress lately. JaMarcus Russell (Raiders, 2007) is looking like a flat-out bust. Matthew Stafford (Lions, 2009) hasn't played long enough for anyone to know.

The Rams won't find much comfort in analyzing defensive tackles taken first overall lately. NFL teams haven't drafted one first overall since the Bengals selected "Big Daddy" Dan Wilkinson in 1994.

Nine of the last 15 top picks were quarterbacks. Four were linemen. One was a running back. One was a receiver.

Seattle Seahawks

The sixth overall choice is high enough for Seattle to select the top-rated player at one of the less important positions. That's what the Redskins did when they drafted safety LaRon Landry sixth in 2007 and what the 49ers did when they chose tight end Vernon Davis sixth a year earlier.

The alternative could be selecting the second-rated player at one of the marquee positions. Andre Smith (Bengals, 2009) was the second offensive tackle selected in his class. Vernon Gholston (Jets, 2008) was the second defensive end in his class, though he became a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL.

It's also possible the Seahawks could find the first offensive tackle or defensive end available at No. 6. The probably won't look for a cornerback that early. Adam "Pacman" Jones (Titans, 2005) was the last corner taken sixth overall.

The Seahawks also hold the 14th overall choice. Three of the last five players taken in that spot were defensive backs, including the Jets' sensational Darrelle Revis. The Bears found the third-rated tackle at No. 14 when they drafted Chris Williams in 2008, but Seattle probably will not have that option in this draft. Too many teams ahead of the Seahawks could be targeting tackles. It's one reason Seattle could take one sixth.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers could use an offensive tackle. The 13th overall choice hasn't been particularly lucky at the position. The Saints' Jammal Brown, chosen 13th in 2005, is the only offensive lineman selected in the spot since the Houston Oilers drafted Brad Hopkins in 1993.

Relatively few offensive linemen have gone between the 11th and 16th picks during that time.

The last four picks at No. 13: defensive end Brian Orakpo (Redskins, 2009), running back Jonathan Stewart (Panthers, 2008), defensive lineman Adam Carriker (Rams, 2007), defensive end Kamerion Wimbley (Browns, 2006). Orakpo and Wimbley are 3-4 outside linebackers. The 49ers could use another one of those.

San Francisco also holds the 17th overall choice. Guard Steve Hutchinson (Seahawks, 2001) was the last true star taken in that slot. More recently, defensive ends Jarvis Moss (Broncos, 2007) and David Pollack (Bengals, 2005) haven't panned out. Moss reportedly contemplated retirement amid struggles adapting to a 3-4 scheme last season. A neck injury forced Pollack into retirement before he had a chance to develop.

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals could use another linebacker and they could do much worse than finding a player as good as Clay Matthews, who went to Green Bay at No. 26 last year.

The 26th spot, which also produced potential Hall of Famers Alan Faneca and Ray Lewis years ago, hasn't been as kind to other teams recently.

Tackle Duane Brown (Texans, 2008), defensive end Anthony Spencer (Cowboys, 2007), defensive tackle John McCargo (Bills, 2006), center Chris Spencer (Seahawks, 2005) were 26th overall picks.

The Cardinals can't do much worse than the 49ers have fared at No. 26. San Francisco drafted tackle Kwame Harris (2006) and quarterback Jim Druckenmiller (1997) in that spot.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC WEST SCOREBOARD