NFC West: Bryan Robinson

Week 5 rematches: NFC West vengeance?

October, 5, 2011
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NFC West teams went 0-3 last season against the teams they face in Week 5.

They lost those games by a combined 99-31 score.

Much has changed since then. Let's take a look:

Cardinals at Vikings

Score last season: Vikings 27, Cardinals 24 (OT)

Key play: Brett Favre's 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the final minute of regulation tied the game, forcing overtime after the Cardinals had built a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead. Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards in the game.

Biggest change: Both teams have new quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb for Derek Anderson in Arizona, and Donovan McNabb for Favre in Minnesota. Also, the Vikings have a new head coach (Leslie Frazier) while the Cardinals have a new defensive coordinator (Ray Horton).

Storyline: McNabb keeps a home in Arizona and was available to the Cardinals when their quarterback situation was in flux, but the team showed no interest in him. He is now trying to hold off a change to rookie Christian Ponder.

Lineup changes for Arizona (12): Beanie Wells for Tim Hightower at running back, Kolb for Anderson at quarterback, Daryn Colledge for Alan Faneca at left guard, Rex Hadnot for Deuce Lutui at right guard, Todd Heap for Ben Patrick at tight end, Andre Roberts for Steve Breaston at receiver, Anthony Sherman for Reagan Maui'a at fullback (although the team opened its 2010 game at Minnesota without a fullback), Dan Williams for Bryan Robinson at nose tackle, Daryl Washington for Gerald Hayes at linebacker, Clark Haggans for Will Davis at linebacker, A.J. Jefferson for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback, Patrick Peterson for Greg Toler at cornerback.

49ers vs. Buccaneers

Score last season: Buccaneers 21, 49ers 0

Key play: Josh Freeman's 1-yard scoring pass to tackle Donald Penn midway through the fourth quarter put an exclamation point on the 49ers' first home shutout since 1977.

Biggest change: Jim Harbaugh has replaced Mike Singletary as the 49ers' head coach.

Storyline: Alex Smith gets a shot at Tampa Bay after watching Troy Smith struggle against the Bucs as the 49ers' starting quarterback last season. Troy Smith's approach centered around striking for big plays. The Bucs took away the big plays. Alex Smith gives the 49ers a chance to be more efficient.

Lineup changes for San Francisco (12): Alex Smith for Troy Smith at quarterback, Joe Staley for Barry Sims at left tackle, Adam Snyder for Chilo Rachal at right guard, Bruce Miller for Moran Norris at fullback, Isaac Sopoaga for Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle, Ray McDonald for Sopoaga at defensive end, Ahmad Brooks for Manny Lawson at outside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman for Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker, Carlos Rogers for Nate Clements at cornerback, Tarell Brown for Shawntae Spencer at cornerback, Donte Whitner for Reggie Smith at strong safety.

Seahawks at Giants

Score last season: Giants 41, Seahawks 7

Key play: With Seattle already down 14-0 in the first quarter, the Giants returned Leon Washington's fumbled kickoff return to the Seattle 4, setting up Ahmad Bradshaw's touchdown run on the next play.

Biggest change: Tarvaris Jackson is the starting quarterback for Seattle. Charlie Whitehurst was a fill-in starter for Matt Hasselbeck when the teams played last season.

Storyline: The Seahawks' so-far-unproductive ground game faces a Giants run defense that has struggled. Seattle's young line improved in pass protection last week. Can it take a step forward in run blocking this week?

Lineup changes for Seattle (16): Sidney Rice for Deon Butler at receiver, Jackson for Whitehurst at quarterback, Russell Okung for Chester Pitts at left tackle, Paul McQuistan for Mike Gibson at left guard, Max Unger for Chris Spencer at center, John Moffitt for Stacy Andrews at right guard, James Carpenter for Sean Locklear at right tackle, Zach Miller for John Carlson at tight end, Brandon Mebane for Junior Siavii at defensive tackle, Alan Branch for Craig Terrill at defensive tackle, Red Bryant for Kentwan Balmer at defensive end, K.J. Wright for Aaron Curry at linebacker, David Hawthorne for Lofa Tatupu at linebacker, Leroy Hill for Hawthorne at linebacker, Brandon Browner for Kelly Jennings at right cornerback, Kam Chancellor or Atari Bigby for Lawyer Milloy, depending on Chancellor's availability.

2011 UFA market: NFC West scorecard

August, 23, 2011
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With training camps winding down, I've found time to update rosters and put together team-by-team reference material for unrestricted free agency.

The names below match official NFL counts.

These are for players with at least four accrued NFL seasons whose contracts expired following the 2010 season. I've added comments for each team.

Arizona Cardinals

Re-signed (8): Ben Graham, Matt Ware, Hamza Abdullah, Ben Claxton, Lyle Sendlein, D'Anthony Batiste, Deuce Lutui, Stephen Spach.

New to team (7): Chansi Stuckey, Richard Marshall, Daryn Colledge, Nick Eason, Stewart Bradley, Floyd Womack, Jeff King.

Still unsigned (3): Alan Faneca, Jason Wright, Bryan Robinson.

Signed elsewhere (5): Steve Breaston (Kansas City), Gabe Watson (New York Giants), Ben Patrick (Giants), Trumaine McBride (New Orleans), Alan Branch (Seattle).

Comment: Sendlein, Colledge and Bradley were the big signings. Marshall provides needed depth at cornerback. Faneca and Wright announced their retirements. The Cardinals weren't aggressive in trying to re-sign the players they lost to other teams. The biggest move Arizona made, acquiring Kevin Kolb from Philadelphia, did not involve a UFA.


San Francisco 49ers

Re-signed (4): Ray McDonald, Tony Wragge, Dashon Goldson, Alex Smith.

New to team (5): Braylon Edwards, Jonathan Goodwin, Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, David Akers.

Still unsigned (5): Brian Westbrook, Troy Smith, Demetric Evans, William James, Barry Sims.

Signed elsewhere (6): David Baas (Giants), Travis LaBoy (San Diego), Jeff Reed (Seattle), Aubrayo Franklin (New Orleans), Takeo Spikes (San Diego), Manny Lawson (Cincinnati).

Comment: Re-signing McDonald signaled Franklin's departure. Getting Goldson back on the relative cheap was a victory. The 49ers wanted to keep Baas, but not at the price he commanded. The team thinks NaVorro Bowman has a bright future in Spikes' old spot at inside linebacker. Lawson wasn't strong enough as a pass-rusher to stick around. Safety depth is improved.


Seattle Seahawks

Re-signed (7): Raheem Brock, Junior Siavii, Brandon Mebane, Leroy Hill, Matt McCoy, Michael Robinson, Kelly Jennings.

New to team (8): Branch, Zach Miller, Robert Gallery, Jimmy Wilkerson, Atari Bigby, Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, Reed.

Still unsigned (7): Jay Richardson, Craig Terrill, Chester Pitts, Brandon Stokley, Ruvell Martin, J.P. Losman, Lawyer Milloy.

Signed elsewhere (8): Will Herring (New Orleans), Olindo Mare (Carolina), Matt Hasselbeck (Tennessee), Chris Spencer (Chicago), Jordan Babineaux (Tennessee), Sean Locklear (Washington), Amon Gordon (Kansas City), Ray Willis (Washington).

Comment: Adding Jackson as the starting quarterback was the most significant move for the 2011 season. Mebane was the most important re-signing for the longer term. Hill was a bargain relative to how he's playing right now. Miller and Rice were the types of young, talented players who rarely change teams in free agency. The Seahawks were outbid for Herring and Mare. Can street free agent David Vobora fill some of the void Herring left?


St. Louis Rams

Re-signed (2): Adam Goldberg, Gary Gibson.

New to team (9): Daniel Muir, Quinn Ojinnaka, Harvey Dahl, Ben Leber, Zac Diles, Jerious Norwood, Cadillac Williams, Quintin Mikell, Mike Sims-Walker.

Still unsigned (5): Chris Hovan, Michael Lewis, Darcy Johnson, Clifton Ryan, Mark Clayton.

Signed elsewhere (4): Daniel Fells (Denver), Laurent Robinson (San Diego), Derek Schouman (Washington), Kevin Dockery (Pittsburgh).

Comment: Dahl and Mikell were the big additions. Clayton could return if and when his surgically repaired knee allows. Sims-Walker is a wild card. The team didn't flinch when any of its own UFAs signed elsewhere. Most of the moves made on defense were designed to improve St. Louis against the run. Remember that newcomer Justin Bannan was not a UFA. Denver released him.
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NFC West: What's left in free agency

August, 23, 2011
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The time has come for some accounting now that the top unrestricted free agents have found homes. Others continue to wait.

I've put together charts showing how many and which UFAs for NFC West teams remain unsigned. The deadline passed Saturday for teams to make qualifying offers to these players.

The charts rank unsigned UFAs from oldest to youngest. I've ordered the players this way because so many older players find out through free agency where they stand.

A couple players, Alan Faneca and Jason Wright, have announced intentions to retire. They have chosen to go out on their own terms. Retirement becomes a process for others. Free agency comes and goes, the phone seldom rings, teams get on with their lives and before long, a player realizes he is finished.

Some players listed below could help teams if they found the right situations. Lawyer Milloy started 16 games for the Seattle Seahawks last season. The St. Louis Rams have kept in touch with Mark Clayton to monitor the receiver's recovery from knee surgery.

Note: UFAs are defined strictly as players whose contracts expired following at least four accrued NFL seasons. Released players are not UFAs in the same sense even though they can sign with any team.

Kevin KolbChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesSigning Kevin Kolb signals that the Cardinals are ready to bounce back after a transition season.

Kevin Kolb's arrival from Philadelphia gives the Arizona Cardinals renewed hope at quarterback and clear direction following Kurt Warner's retirement.

It provides a fresh start after a forgettable 2010 transition season for Arizona.

So much has changed for the Cardinals since their Super Bowl appearance following the 2008 season. Other rosters around the league have turned over since then, of course, but not every team was coming off a Super Bowl appearance.

Quite a few teams have sought change. For the Cardinals, it just happened.

Warner's departure, while easily the biggest change, was far from the only one. Between five and eight starters from that Super Bowl game project as starters in 2011, depending upon how many of the team's unrestricted free agents re-sign.

When Steve Breaston left the Cardinals for Kansas City this week, drawing attention to the cumulative effect of Arizona's roster upheaval, a Seahawks fan drew parallels between Seattle's post-Super Bowl decline and the Cardinals' plight last season.

"Don't misunderstand," Ricky Frey wrote on my Facebook wall, "I'm a Hawks fan, but it seems eerily familiar to watch this happen and know what happened to Holmgren/Mora. Writing on the wall?"

Not if Kolb has anything to say about it. Acquiring a relatively young, potentially ascending quarterback puts Arizona in position to avoid the decline Seattle experienced as a Matt Hasselbeck struggled with injuries while the roster around him withered away. The NFC West remains in transition overall, and the Cardinals know it.

"It’s obviously winnable, but it’s funny to think that everybody thinks you can just step in and win it," Kolb told reporters Friday. "You’re talking about NFL football teams here. I know last year 7-9 is what won it, but it doesn’t matter. ... The door is open, we know, and we’ll be ready to kick it in when it’s time, but it’s not going to be an easy task."

Larry Fitzgerald, Levi Brown, Darnell Dockett, Adrian Wilson and the recently re-signed Lyle Sendlein started for Arizona in the Super Bowl and remain starters in 2011. Another starter from that Super Bowl game, Gerald Hayes, was released this week. Three more are becoming unrestricted free agents: Deuce Lutui, Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson.

Six Arizona starters from that game are retired or did not play last season: Mike Gandy, Warner, Edgerrin James, Terrelle Smith, Chike Okeafor and Monty Beisel. Seven more play for other teams: Reggie Wells, Leonard Pope, Anquan Boldin, Antonio Smith, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle and the recently traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Some were role players. Others were tougher to replace.

Breaston was a backup on that team, but he played extensively as the third receiver and finished the season with more than 1,000 yards.

Kolb's addition headlined a flurry of transactions the Cardinals announced Thursday and Friday.

Sendlein, safety Hamza Abdullah, cornerback Michael Adams, tackle D'Anthony Batiste, center Ben Claxton, punter Ben Graham, fullback Reagan Maui'a and tight end Stephen Spach re-signed.

Five draft choices have signed. Guard Daryn Colledge, defensive end Nick Eason, tight end Jeff King, receiver Chansi Stuckey and linebacker Stewart Bradley have signed as free agents from other teams.

Re-signing Sendlein while adding Kolb, Colledge and Bradley suggests the 2011 team is still coming together, not necessarily falling apart.
Alex Smith and Matt HasselbeckGetty ImagesAlex Smith and Matt Hasselbeck are both eligible for free agency this offseason.
It is possible, even likely, that the NFL and its players will continue their staring contest through the 2011 draft -- even with a ruling from U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson.

The appeals process could take weeks or longer, during which time it's unlikely the league would open for business. We're probably doomed to status quo, in other words.

But if ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson is correct, Judge Nelson will most likely end the lockout, leading to an immediate appeal -- a scenario I think would lead, eventually, to the league opening for business under 2010 rules while the sides continued their battle in the courts.

Those 2010 rules set the bar high for free agency. Only players with six accrued seasons would qualify for the unrestricted market. Starters such as Arizona's Steve Breaston, San Francisco's Dashon Goldson and Seattle's Brandon Mebane would lose leverage and most likely return to their teams under relatively modest one-year deals.

The players listed in the chart -- those with at least six accrued seasons and no contracts for 2011 -- would be free to explore opportunities elsewhere.

Options and implications for this type of free agency in the NFC West:

Arizona Cardinals

Overview: The Cardinals suffered more personnel losses than they could weather last offseason. They would benefit from a return to 2010 rules, however, because the restrictions would keep multiple starters off the market. Their list of potential free agents with six-plus seasons features no front-line players. The Cardinals would be better off focusing on a new deal with Larry Fitzgerald, who is entering the final year of his contract.

Top priority: Finding a veteran quarterback. Derek Anderson isn't expected back. Marc Bulger's name is heard most frequently in connection with the Cardinals. He turned 34 this week and did not attempt a pass in a regular-season game while with Baltimore last season. Bulger struggled during his final seasons with the Rams, but the team was falling apart around him. He last finished an NFL season with more touchdowns than interceptions in 2006. The down year has surely helped him get healthy.

Players in flux: Breaston, starting guard Deuce Lutui and starting center Lyle Sendlein wouldn't have enough accrued seasons to become unrestricted under 2010 rules. The situation is particularly difficult for Breaston, who has battled through knee problems without getting a long-term deal.

Veteran variable: Starting left guard Alan Faneca has considered retirement. The Cardinals invested in veteran guard Rex Hadnot for depth last offseason. The team lacks young depth on the line, but if Lutui and Sendlein return, the Cardinals have some flexibility.

Name to keep in mind: Ike Taylor, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cardinals are hoping Greg Toler can build upon an up-and-down 2010 season. Taylor would give the team options. He played under new Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

St. Louis Rams

Overview: The Rams' most important players tend to be younger starters under contract for the long term (Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold, Sam Bradford, Jason Smith). Most of their top veterans are also under contract (Steven Jackson, Fred Robbins, James Hall). Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is out of the picture after signing with the Washington Redskins following his salary-related release.

Top priority: The Rams could use a veteran guard with some nastiness. The team has invested heavily in its line, but this group could use more of an edge. Bringing back receiver Mark Clayton should be another consideration even though Clayton is coming off a serious knee injury. The rapport Clayton had with Bradford was strong.

Players in flux: Defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Clifton Ryan would remain property of the Rams under 2010 rules, as would cornerback Kevin Dockery and receiver Laurent Robinson. Gibson was the only full-time starter of the group last season. The Rams are expected to seek an upgrade at that position even with Gibson coming back.

Veteran variable: Adam Goldberg started all 16 games on the offensive line last season. The Rams could stand to upgrade, but I see value in bringing back Goldberg as a backup. He can play every position on the line but center. Goldberg has also taken an interest in mentoring younger players. His value off the field is a consideration.

Name to keep in mind: Daniel Graham, TE, Denver Broncos. Graham could make sense for the Rams in free agency. He played under the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, and could help upgrade the run blocking. Seattle has connections to Graham as well.

San Francisco 49ers

Overview: The 49ers signed some of their better young players to long-term contracts well before labor pains became so severe. Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley come to mind. The lockout has made it tougher for the 49ers' new coaches to get a feel for players. The 49ers like their talent overall and haven't been big players in free agency over the past couple of seasons. That isn't likely to change.

Top priority: Finding a starting quarterback trumps everything else. Alex Smith can become a free agent. Backups David Carr and Troy Smith are not expected back. The 49ers aren't expected to use the seventh overall choice to select or acquire a quarterback. Coach Jim Harbaugh prides himself in coaching up quarterbacks, but he needs quarterbacks to coach.

Players in flux: Goldson, outside linebacker Manny Lawson and defensive lineman Ray McDonald are among the 49ers players that would fall short of the six-season requirement for unrestricted free agency.

Veteran variable: Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin played last season under a one-year franchise deal. The price tag for re-franchising Franklin appears prohibitive. The 49ers took a wait-and-see approach with Franklin because they hadn't seen him perform at a high level over the long term. They'll need a new nose tackle if Franklin departs.

Name to keep in mind: The 49ers' staff is coming mostly from the college ranks, so there aren't obvious connections to players from other NFL rosters. I expect the 49ers to focus more on re-signing some of their own players, from Spikes to David Baas and beyond.

Seattle Seahawks

Overview: The Seahawks have a long list of players without contracts for 2011. That was mostly be design. The team would like to continue turning over its roster without investing too much in older players such as Matt Hasselbeck, Raheem Brock and Olindo Mare.

Top priority: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Hasselbeck is headed for free agency and could leave if another team gives him some of the longer-term assurances Seattle has resisted. The Seahawks have shown some interest in Philadelphia Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, a player they inquired about last offseason. They still have Charlie Whitehurst. They could draft a quarterback early.

Players in flux: Defensive tackle Mebane heads the list of Seattle players who would not reach free agency under the rules used in 2010. General manager John Schneider called Mebane a "steady pro" when asked about him at the combine. That sounded like faint praise and an indication the Seahawks are not yet prepared to pay top dollar for Mebane if, and when, he hits the market.

Veteran variable: The Seahawks have a few of them, including Mare and Brock. But let's focus on offensive linemen Sean Locklear and Chris Spencer. They combined for 31 starts, but neither appears to be a priority for re-signing. Stacy Andrews is a candidate to step in for Locklear at right tackle. Max Unger could replace Spencer. Coach Pete Carroll thinks the team has upgraded its young depth on the line.

Name to keep in mind: Robert Gallery, guard, Oakland Raiders. Tom Cable's addition as offensive line coach makes Seattle a logical destination for Gallery, who has declared his intention to leave the Raiders.

Age before beauty in the NFC West

March, 8, 2011
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The NFL draft provides teams an opportunity to get younger.

Invariably, older players wind up playing extensively when injuries strike and/or some of those youngsters prove not quite ready for the big leagues.

In Arizona last season, 36-year-old Bryan Robinson made 16 starts at nose tackle even though the Cardinals used a first-round choice for the position.

In San Francisco, 36-year-old tackle Barry Sims started at least seven games for a third consecutive season, proving valuable when a broken leg sidelined Joe Staley.

In St. Louis, James Hall, now 34, and Fred Robbins, who turns 34 this month, started every game and provided stellar play on the defensive front.

In Seattle, strong safety Lawyer Milloy, the oldest non-specialist in the division, collected four sacks while starting 16 games.

Teams will once again add fresh young talent this offseason. Some of the older players will fade away. Others will rise up and produce again.

A few thoughts on the chart, which lists the 20 oldest non-specialists in the NFC West:
  • Cardinals guard Alan Faneca is considering retirement. The team has veteran guards in relief, but leadership could be a concern.
  • Brandon Stokley immediately showed his value to Seattle as a slot receiver. He also suffered another in a long line of concussions. It's hard not to wince every time he takes a hit.
  • Raheem Brock had nine sacks for Seattle. His contract is expiring. The team could use his production and Brock has earned a raise, but to what extent did his performance reflect a contract-year spike? Rewarding an older player following one strong season can be tough for a rebuilding team.
  • Arizona's Clark Haggans has a $2.5 million salary and $500,000 roster bonus this season. I'd be tempted to bring him back.
  • Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt defended Joey Porter's play, suggesting the veteran pass-rusher played more snaps than anticipated, diminishing Porter's ability to contribute as consistently. That is fair, but Porter surely will not return under his current deal, which carries a $5.75 million salary.
  • Takeo Spikes has continued playing well at inside linebacker for the 49ers. Will the 49ers' new staff move on in an attempt to get younger? Seems like Spikes should have value to a new staff in a transition year.
  • Another veteran linebacker, Na'il Diggs of the Rams, was playing well last season until suffering a torn pectoral. Looks like the Rams need to make outside linebacker a priority in the draft.

And now, on with the chart ...

In-depth look at NFC West defenses

December, 23, 2010
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I've asked Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information to sift through defensive charting information for performance clues regarding NFC West teams.

Among his findings, with my thoughts as well ...

San Francisco 49ers

What they do well: The 49ers appear very stout against the run while in their base 3-4 with seven defenders in the box. The Steelers (2.8 yards per carry) and Jets (2.8) are the clear 1-2 in this area, but the 49ers come in at 3.5, third-best in the league. The NFL average is 4.4 yards.

What they do not do as well: The 49ers stay in their base 3-4 defense a league-high 21.3 percent of the time against three or more wide receivers. San Francisco has not fared well when doing so. The 49ers realize only slight gains against the run in these situations, but they allow an additional yard per pass attempt -- up to 8.1 from 7.1 -- when staying in their base 3-4 against three-plus wideouts. The 49ers also struggle in general against passes traveling at least 15 yards. Opponents have a league-high 108.7 passer rating on these throws.

My thoughts: The 49ers' pass defense hasn't been as good as expected even though the team has gotten younger and more athletic at safety. San Francisco has also faced some top quarterbacks, including Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers. Matt Cassel is also enjoying a strong season. Kyle Orton was playing well when the 49ers faced Denver. Sam Bradford was also more efficient back when the 49ers faced him.

Arizona Cardinals

What they do well: Arizona has been much better against run and pass when loading the box with more defenders than offenses have available to block them. Against the run, the Cardinals allow 3.3 yards per carry with a loaded box, down from 4.5 when not loaded. The Cardinals allow a lower completion percentage (52.4 vs. 63.1), passer rating (70.8 vs. 85.3), yards per attempt (6.7 vs. 7.3) and yards after the catch average (2.8 vs. 3.3) with a loaded box.

What they do not do as well: The Cardinals' inability to slow down opposing running games out of their base defense with seven defenders in the box hurts them. Arizona is, in some ways, average overall against the run, allowing 4.4 yards per carry. That number balloons to 5.2 per carry against the Cardnials' base 3-4 with seven defenders in the box, third-highest in the league (4.4 is average).

My thoughts: The Cardinals should be much better against the run after using a first-round draft choice for nose tackle Dan Williams. Williams has improved, but 36-year-old Bryan Robinson has continued to start. Any team with Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and two big safeties, notably Adrian Wilson, should hold up better against the run. The Cardinals have been weak at linebacker, compromising the defense up front and in the secondary. Campbell hasn't played as well as expected, either, and a shoulder injury has made life tougher for Dockett.

St. Louis Rams

What they do well: The Rams have been above average with their third-down passing defense when they bring in an extra defensive back, especially when the opponent's pass attempt does not go beyond the first-down marker. Using that as our criterion, the Rams are allowing a 42.5 percent completion percentage, good for third in the NFC. The league average is 47.2 percent. The Rams are allowing a 54.0 passer rating in these situations (league average is 69.9). St. Louis' extra-DB packages have also been the best in the NFC West at making sure teams do not gain first downs after catching the ball short of the first-down marker. The Rams allow 34.2 percent of completed passes short of the marker go for first downs. The NFL average is 37.3 percent.

What they do not do as well: Like the Cardinals, the Rams struggle out of their base defense with seven defenders in the box. They allow 5.18 yards per carry in these situations, right ahead of the Cardinals' 5.2 average.

My thoughts: The Rams haven't faced as many elite quarterbacks this season after going against Rodgers, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Brees and Matt Schaub when all five were enjoying monster years in 2009. That has helped. The Rams were also stronger than anticipated at linebacker until losing Na'il Diggs to a season-ending injury. Defensive tackle Fred Robbins has been stout, but the Rams need another big interior defender to pair with him. They need help at linebacker, particularly on the weak side. This defense appears well-coached.

Seattle Seahawks

What they do well: Their strongest unit appears to be their five-plus DB pass defense, with a caveat. The overall numbers aren't great, including an 84.7 passer rating, which is above the league average (81.1). But Seattle has gotten 22 of its 32 sacks when going with these "small" packages. Opponents are completing only 54.9 percent of their passes against these packages, which ranks fourth in the NFL (60.1 is average). When the Seahawks do allow completions against these packages, however, they tend to be big ones. Seattle has allowed 30 pass plays of at least 20 yards against its small sets.

What they do not do as well: Seattle has struggled against short-to-intermediate passes (those thrown 14 or fewer yards past the line of scrimmage). The Seahawks are allowing a 102.4 passer rating on throws in that range, well above the NFL average of 89.2. Seattle allows 4.7 yards after the catch on these throws, a yard more than the league average and the second-highest figure in the league. If the Seahawks were just average at allowing yards after the catch, they would have allowed about 125 fewer yards on these throws.

My thoughts: The coaching staff has sometimes effectively unleashed creative blitzes with extra defensive backs. Strong safety Lawyer Milloy has led the way. But Seattle has essentially fielded three defenses this season. The first one featured Red Bryant, Colin Cole and Brandon Mebane along the line, providing cover for a healthier Lofa Tatupu at middle linebacker. The second one struggled without two and sometimes three of those linemen. Tatupu's health also deteriorated. The third defense has Cole and Mebane, but no Bryant, who is on injured reserve. The Seahawks have tried to adjust. They tackled much better against the Falcons.

Around the NFC West: Cards' heartbreak

November, 8, 2010
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Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals couldn't hang with Brett Favre when the game was on the line Sunday. Strong safety Adrian Wilson described a "money" pass from Favre to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. Said nose tackle Bryan Robinson: "You can actually hear that ball just whistling by when he throws. They stuck in there. The finished the game, and we didn't." Favre set a career high with 446 yards passing. He has also had a six-touchdown game against Arizona, in 2008. The Cardinals have lost three in a row for the first time since the 2007 season. They've blown the past two games. Derek Anderson's turnover-free performance stands as one positive for Arizona from this game. The Cardinals aren't going to face Favre every week, after all.

Also from Somers: postgame notes and thoughts, including one about how the Cardinals have eight touchdowns on returns and 11 by conventional means.

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals' lose-from-ahead defeat in Minnesota stung. Larry Fitzgerald says the team's Super Bowl defeat ranks atop the list. Fitzgerald: "But this is right up there. We had them down, man. We had them."

Also from Bickley: That pass to Shiancoe was the play of the game.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic thinks the Cardinals should pursue Donovan McNabb during the offseason. McNabb is a declining older player unable to keep a job. Wait, that was Kurt Warner.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com offers postgame Cardinals notes, including these regarding younger players: "Safety Rashad Johnson got his first career interception, but he was in no mood to talk about it after the way the game ended. O’Brien Schofield not only got his first work at linebacker but stripped Percy Harvin on the kickoff that Michael Adams returned for a touchdown. Andre Roberts got his first NFL touchdown on a nifty 30-yard catch-and-run at the end of the first half (pictured below). His troubles seem to be fading into the background. Let’s hope so."

Also from Urban: Ken Whisenhunt took a glass-half-full approach to the defeat. Urban: "Whisenhunt praised his team’s effort and didn’t sound like a coach who was interested in chastising his players for falling short. Building on what the Cards did positively is the only option."

More from Urban: Joey Porter suddenly has five sacks on the season after collecting two more Sunday. Porter: "Earlier in the week I don’t get no interviews, I get a couple sacks and you all surround me like I did something amazing. You all are the same people that told me three weeks ago I didn’t have it no more. So I get two sacks and I have 10 people waiting for me. I ain’t got nothing to prove to you all. I will be there where I need to be. Someone starts off slow and don’t have any sacks you think I should have, I don’t get no interviews. I get two sacks and you all want to be in front of me. I find that funny." Production does tend to make players relevant.

More yet from Urban: The Vikings sacked Anderson six times overall, including four times beginning with the Cardinals' final possession of regulation.

Answering age-old questions in NFC West

October, 22, 2010
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The most recent NFC West mailbag featured a question from Michael asking for positional age rankings.

Updating rosters around the league allowed me to make calculations for each position based on to-the-day ages for each player. A few highlights:
The first chart shows where each NFC West team ranks in age by position.

The second chart shows age rankings for starters only.

The Rams and 49ers have two of the three youngest starting offensive lines in the league. The Cardinals have the oldest starting linebackers. The Rams' receivers remain in flux as injuries mount, but that group ranked 31st in average age with Week 6 starters Brandon Gibson and Mardy Gilyard in the lineup.

NFC West teams have three of the eight oldest starting defensive lines. The Rams rank fifth with James Hall and Fred Robbins in the lineup. Cardinals nose tackle Bryan Robinson, 36, pumps up the average age for Arizona's defensive line. Switching to rookie Dan Williams would give the Cardinals the third-youngest starting line in the league.

NFC West Penalty Watch: Week 5

October, 15, 2010
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The penalty charts produced here each week during the season generally single out players flagged the most.

This time, I'd also like to acknowledge players who have cut down on penalties.

San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis had 10 penalties in 2008 and 12 last season. He has only one through five games in 2010. The 49ers' Parys Haralson (eight last season) and Josh Morgan (seven) have one apiece this season.

Arizona Cardinals guard Deuce Lutui had 13 penalties in 2008 and five last season. He has one through five games in 2010, meaning the improvement he showed last season is carrying over.

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant incurred nine penalties in 10 games last season after returning from a back injury. He has only one penalty in four games this season and that one seemed questionable, as I recall.

The charts break out penalties across specific categories, starting with a look at players with the most false-start penalties through Week 5. Totals count declined penalties based on data from Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information.

The second chart ranks NFC West players by most penalties for offsides, encroachment and neutral-zone infractions.

The next chart ranks NFC West players by most penalties for defensive pass interference.

The final chart shows penalties against NFC West quarterbacks.

The 49ers' inability to get plays into the huddle on time resulted in delay penalties against Alex Smith. Smith also has three penalties for intentional grounding.

Around the NFC West: Cards 'in the tank'

September, 24, 2010
9/24/10
9:38
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Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Adrian Wilson considers the Arizona defense to be "in the tank" following it's soft showing against the Falcons. I don't use the word "soft" lightly here, either, but I cannot recall an Arizona defense getting pushed around to this degree. At one point, Falcons receiver Brian Finneran decked Wilson with a left to the head. Wilson had appeared to take a swing at Finneran. Finneran fired back quickly and Wilson went to the turf. Shouldn't it be the other way around out there? Also, Falcons tackle Tyson Clabo moved Darnell Dockett off the line repeatedly. I also thought the Falcons' line shoved around the Cardinals' nose tackles, Bryan Robinson and Dan Williams. It was just an ugly day all the way around for Arizona. Wilson: "I don't really have anything nice to say. We got whupped. We didn't even put up a fight, so it's hard for me to even say anything right now. Anything I say is going to be negative, so I don't want to go that way."

Also from Somers: an expanded look at the defensive problems.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Ken Whisenhunt wasn't very specific in terms of what to expect from Beanie Wells in Week 3. Wells said Wednesday that he will "definitely" play against Oakland.

Also from Urban: Larry Fitzgerald prepares to face Nnamdi Asomugha by going against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in practice.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Philip Rivers is used to hearing play calls in his headset from Charlie Whitehurst. The two will be on opposite sides Sunday.

Also from Farnsworth: Deon Butler has six receptions in two games after catching 15 passes all last season.

Brian McIntyre of scout.com breaks down playing time for the Seahawks against Denver in Week 2. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu played every snap.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times passes along a transcript from offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates' weekly in-season interview session. The Chargers' defense is similar in approach to the one Seattle faced in Week 1. Bates: "You know, San Francisco came from the San Diego family so definitely, each 3-4 is different. San Francisco and San Diego are a lot alike, and there's the New England (style), kind of a mind of their own. You've got the Jets and you've got Baltimore, and they're unique. Then you've got Pittsburgh. A lot of people outside of football say, 'Hey, you're playing a 3-4 team,' but everyone has their own identity, their own style. And it's a challenge that each week you play a 3-4 team, you've just got to crack the code."

Also from O'Neil: Colin Cole is playing well for Seattle.

Greg Johns of seattlepi.com looks at the Seahawks' shifting offensive identity. The team used three wide receivers extensively in Week 2, partly because Seattle fell behind.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says new Seahawks president Peter McLoughlin should follow Tod Leiweke's lead. Leiweke has basically hired himself to take over some of the duties he has handled for years.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole wants more pressure from his front four. That's easier to generate at home. Thomas: "This Sunday's opponent, Washington, presents a pass-rushing challenge because not only is quarterback Donovan McNabb still mobile at age 33, but head coach Mike Shanahan likes to have his QBs throw on the move with bootlegs and rollouts." The schedule sets up favorably for the Rams from a preparation standpoint. They face Shanahan in Week 3 and Shanahan's former understudy, Jeremy Bates, in Week 4.

Also from Thomas: Steven Jackson offers thoughts on exploiting mismatches. Jackson: "If we want to spread a team out and run in a nickel package where it's three receivers, and they want to keep their big guys in, I think we should take advantage of the mismatch. So if you have a linebacker guarding Danny (Amendola), you should take advantage of that mismatch. If we're going to spread them out and (they) go small, then you do vice versa and run the ball. So we've just got to figure out what the defense's trying to do, what's their game plan. And once we figure that out, I think that's what we should do, take advantage of that."

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says it's looking as though Brandon Gibson will be active for the Rams in Week 3 while Laurent Robinson deals with a foot injury. I'm interested in seeing Gibson get some snaps. His absence from the 45-man roster would have been unexpected based on what Gibson showed in 2009.

Also from Wagoner: more on Gibson and Mardy Gilyard.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com offers this in a chat transcript: "(Ted Ginn Jr.) did not practice Wednesday, and it's questionable whether he'll be available to play Sunday against the Chiefs. Kyle Williams did practice, so he will definitely be available. I think Ginn will be held out another week." Getting Williams back to return punts sounds great in theory, but the 49ers should be a little nervous about sending a rookie into his first regular-season game at Arrowhead Stadium. Rookies Walter Thurmond (Seattle) and Phillip Adams (San Francisco) muffed punts last week. Another rookie, Golden Tate, fared better.

Also from Maiocco: He disagrees with the thought that the 49ers ran their two-minute offense without using enough clock time Monday night. I'm with him on this one. The 49ers needed a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie. Leaving time on the clock for a potential onside kick would have made little sense, because the Saints could have recovered with good field position, setting up a field goal. Leaving time on the clock would have made more sense if the 49ers had trailed by a margin other than eight.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye is looking forward to a Kansas City return. Raye is not the only one. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky played for the Chiefs. Offensive line coach Mike Solari coached for Kansas City.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says 49ers rookie Nate Byham is earning more playing time.

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News is having a hard time finding Michael Crabtree in the 49ers' offense. I thought Crabtree would catch four or five passes per game. He still might. It's early.

David White of the San Francisco Chronicle says Alex Smith began to change perceptions about himself with that two-minute drive against New Orleans.

Beanie Wells among Cardinals' inactives

September, 12, 2010
9/12/10
2:53
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ST. LOUIS -- Injured running back Beanie Wells wasn't expected to play Sunday after not practicing all week. Sure enough, Wells was among the players named inactive.

Tim Hightower will start at running back, which would have happened anyway, and Hightower will probably get more carries than usual. This marks the second consecutive season an injury suffered before the opener will affect Wells' snap counts. The ankle injury he suffered in camp as a rookie made him play catch-up.

Also inactive for Arizona: receiver Andre Roberts, cornerback A.J. Jefferson, cornerback Brandon McDonald, linebacker Cyril Obiozor, center Ben Claxton and nose tackle Gabe Watson.

The Cardinals will have two rookie receivers active and Roberts, a third-round choice, is not one of them. The undrafted Max Komar appears likely to return punts. Fellow undrafted rookie Stephen Williams is active as a receiver.

Watson's inclusion on the list reflects his standing behind rookie first-round choice Dan Williams as the primary backup to Bryan Robinson.

NFC West Penalty Watch: Dirty laundry

September, 10, 2010
9/10/10
2:43
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St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford makes his NFL regular-season debut against some rough-and-tumble Arizona Cardinals defenders.

The chart, put together with information from Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, shows NFC West defensive players with the most penalties since 2005 under categories labeled roughing the passer, unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct, taunting, horse-collar tackle, personal foul, disqualification and 15-yard facemask.

These penalties include only those committed while playing for NFC West teams. They include playoff games.

Joey Porter, signed by the Cardinals in free agency, has eight such penalties since 2005. Bryan Robinson, signed by the Cardinals in 2008, ranks tied for ninth on the list with four. He had four additional penalties in these categories while playing for Cincinnati from 2005 to 2007.

Not that Bradford needed anything additional to think about.

Post-camp roster analysis: Cardinals

August, 30, 2010
8/30/10
5:50
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Matt Leinart apparently has no idea where he stands with the Arizona Cardinals. That makes it tough for the rest of us to predict exactly what might happen.

Will Leinart start at quarterback for the Cardinals in Week 1? Will he serve as the backup? Will the Cardinals release him? Might they trade him?

The next week to 10 days should provide answers. NFL teams have until Saturday to reduce their rosters to 53-man limits, with the 75-man deadline passing Tuesday.

After looking at the Seahawks' roster earlier Monday, here's a quick run through the Cardinals:

Quarterbacks (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.0

Keepers: Derek Anderson

Looking safe: Max Hall

On the bubble: Leinart, John Skelton

Comment: Coach Ken Whisenhunt's handling of Leinart suggests there's more than tough love at work here. It's fair to question whether Leinart fits into the team's plans at all this season. The smart move, it seems, would be to keep Anderson, Leinart and the winner of the Hall-Skelton competition. But it's clear Whisenhunt isn't convinced Leinart has what it takes to be a starting quarterback.

Running backs (8)

Average number kept since 2003: 5.3

Keepers: Tim Hightower, Beanie Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Jason Wright

On the bubble: Reagan Maui'a, Charles Scott

Also: Alfonso Smith, Nehemiah Broughton

Comment: Scott arrived via trade this week after Broughton suffered a season-ending knee injury. Maui'a could be the choice heading into the regular season. Scott provides depth for the final exhibition game, but it's unlikely he would be refined enough as a blocker to factor into the offense in a meaningful way. Smith's speed caught my attention early in camp.

Wide receivers (11)

Average number kept since 2003: 6.1

Keepers: Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, Early Doucet

Looking safe: Andre Roberts, Stephen Williams

On the bubble: Onrea Jones, Max Komar

Also: Isaiah Williams, Darren Mougey, Mike Jones, Ed Gant

Comment: Gant serves a suspension to open the season. Roberts will make the team as a third-round pick. Williams pretty much wrapped up a spot with his latest strong performance (at Chicago). Jones and Komar could be competing for a sixth and final spot at the position.

Tight ends (4)

Average number kept since 2003: 3.1

Keepers: Ben Patrick, Anthony Becht, Stephen Spach

Also: Jim Dray

Comment: The team released Dominique Byrd on Monday. The top three appear set. Not much drama here. Dray looks like practice-squad material.

Offensive linemen (12)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.9

Keepers: Lyle Sendlein, Alan Faneca, Brandon Keith, Reggie Wells, Levi Brown, Deuce Lutui, Rex Hadnot, Jeremy Bridges

Looking safe: Herman Johnson

Also: Ben Claxton, Tom Pestock, Jonathan Palmer

Comment: Lutui could be trending toward a spot back in the starting lineup despite reporting to camp overweight. Johnson also reported overweight. He isn't a starter, and that's why I listed him separately from the keepers (even though it's an upset, most likely, if Johnson does not stick).

Defensive line (9)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.4

Keepers: Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, Dan Williams, Bryan Robinson

Looking safe: Alan Branch, Gabe Watson, Kenny Iwebema

Also: John Fletcher, Jeremy Clark

Comment: This position appears pretty much set. I would expect seven to earn roster spots.

Linebackers (14)

Average number kept since 2003: 7.1

Keepers: Gerald Hayes, Paris Lenon, Clark Haggans, Joey Porter, Daryl Washington

Looking safe: Will Davis, Cody Brown

Bubble: Monty Beisel, Reggie Walker

Also: O'Brien Schofield, Steve Baggs, Mark Washington, Chris Johnson, Pago Togafau

Comment: Hayes and Schofield could open the season on reserve/physically unable to perform, opening two roster spots. Beisel and Walker could be competing for the final spot at this position.

Defensive backs (13)

Average number kept since 2003: 8.9

Keepers: Adrian Wilson, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Kerry Rhodes, Greg Toler, Trumaine McBride, Matt Ware

Looking safe: Michael Adams, Hamza Abdullah, Rashad Johnson

On the bubble: Marshay Green

Also: A.J. Jefferson, Trevor Ford, Justin Miller

Comment: Toler could be passing McBride on the depth chart as the starting right cornerback, fulfilling expectations. Johnson appeared more physical early in camp. Haven't heard much about him lately, though.

Specialists (3)

Average number kept since 2003: 2.9

Keepers: Jay Feely, Ben Graham, Mike Leach

Comment: Arizona has three on the roster and that's how many the team will keep. Simple enough.

Valuing that veteran seasoning

August, 11, 2010
8/11/10
12:01
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Age can be a sensitive subject, even in the NFL. Especially in the NFL, where a couple down seasons past age 30 can leave even accomplished players on the outside.

Teams try to find the right mix of youth, players in their primes and older veterans.

The St. Louis Rams, one of the NFL's youngest teams last season, signed a few players well in their 30s this offseason as they tried to add seasoning. Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt pointed to veteran leadership as one of the things he likes about his roster.

I've gone through NFC West rosters to see how many players in their 30s each team employs. The numbers were about what I would have expected.
Arizona (13): punter Ben Graham 36, defensive tackle Bryan Robinson 36, kicker Jay Feely 34, snapper Mike Leach 33, guard Alan Faneca 33, linebacker Clark Haggans 33, linebacker Joey Porter 33, tight end Anthony Becht 33, linebacker Paris Lenon 32, linebacker Monty Beisel 31, safety Adrian Wilson 30, tackle Jeremy Bridges 30, center Ben Claxton 30.

San Francisco (13): kicker Joe Nedney 37, tackle Barry Sims 35, snapper Brian Jennings 33, linebacker Takeo Spikes 33, fullback Moran Norris 32, cornerback William James 31, quarterback David Carr 31, guard Tony Wragge 30, defensive end Demetric Evans 30, defensive end Justin Smith 30, cornerback Nate Clements 30, center Eric Heitmann 30, safety Michael Lewis 30.

Seattle (10): kicker Olindo Mare 37, safety Lawyer Milloy 36, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck 34, guard Ben Hamilton 32, receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh 32, guard Chester Pitts 31, receiver Deion Branch 31, tight end Chris Baker 30, defensive tackle Craig Terrill 30, defensive tackle Colin Cole 30.

St. Louis (8): defensive end James Hall 33, defensive tackle Fred Robbins 33, quarterback A.J. Feeley 33, center Hank Fraley 32, linebacker Na'il Diggs 32, kicker Josh Brown 31, snapper Chris Massey 30 and punter Donnie Jones 30.

Several other players turn 30 this season: nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (49ers), guard Adam Goldberg (Rams), linebacker Gerald Hayes (Cardinals), kicker Shane Andrus (49ers), guard Reggie Wells (Cardinals) and cornerback Marcus Trufant (Seahawks).

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