NFC West: Gregg Williams
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
"I know this week as we’ve started meeting as a staff, that they’re probably great and they’re enjoying the fact there’s a little bit of a break in the staff meetings downstairs and I’m here with you instead of with them because we have a lot of work to do," Williams said. "We started early this week and we’ll be working hard and doing that knowing that you all want a winner.”
Even before the Rams officially hired Williams as defensive coordinator, many began wondering what his addition would mean to the Rams in terms of player evaluations and needs in the NFL draft and free agency.
By all indications, Williams isn't going to spend the next few months poring over tape of college prospects or traveling all over the country to pro days. Instead, Williams will spend his time in a sort of football laboratory, cooking up coverages, blitzes and more in an effort to help the Rams defense take the next step in its development.
"I told Gregg that this time around he’s going to be the mad scientist," Fisher said. "So he’s not going to do a lot of player evaluations. I’m not going to take his time up in evaluating unrestricted free agents and getting ready for the draft. I want him to take this defense and run with it and let us handle that part."
Fisher brought Williams back with the sole intention of helping the Rams move from a top 15 defense to a top 10 or better group. For most of his coaching career, Williams has had a reputation for aggressive, ball hawking defenses which feature aggressive press coverage and exotic blitz packages. Part of his job during this time will be figuring out how those principles mesh with what the Rams already have in place.
For example, the Rams finished third in the NFL in sacks in 2013 and seem to have a knack for generating pressure with just the front four. That would seem to alleviate the need to come with extra pass-rushers as much as Williams might be used to. That could allow him to concoct some different and unique ideas for third-down situations.
That isn't to say Williams is going to abandon what he believes in. Fisher wanted him all along for a reason, because they have similar beliefs on how to attack opposing offenses.
After Williams and Fisher were done speaking Thursday, Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis discussed what Williams' addition means for the defense. He's well aware that Fisher envisions Williams as one of the final pieces toward making the Rams a top 5 or so defense. He understands the expectations.
"We wouldn't have it any other way," Laurinaitis said. "You want to have that expectation way up there, and he has it and we have it. Quite frankly, there's no excuses for this defense not to be there. That comes from myself, from all the guys, talking to them. We're fired up, and I think it's just really an understanding that we have to elevate our game. There's absolutely no excuses. We should be a top 5 defense."
What Dr. Williams cooks up in the lab over the next six-plus months will go a long way in helping them get there.
And then there were the St. Louis Rams, who finished a respectable 13th in the league in points allowed but finished fourth in the division in terms of record and defense. That isn't preventing some NFL analysts from looking at the Rams' defensive foundation and seeing a group capable of unseating the Seahawks on the NFL's defensive throne.
In fact, over at NFL.com, Gil Brandt named the Rams his "defense on the rise," just behind five other defenses capable of becoming the next dominant group in the NFL.
Brandt writes that the Rams have "two thirds" of the needed parts to become an elite defense, citing the strength of the front seven but acknowledging the need for help on the back end. There's no doubt about that. The Rams' greatest needs defensively this offseason include a rangy free safety type and potentially even another starting caliber cornerback. An outside linebacker to complement Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis would also make sense.
Of course, another reason for Brandt's optimism as it comes to the Rams defense is the pending addition of Gregg Williams as the defensive coordinator. Brandt writes that Williams should help take the defense to the next level.
That's an opinion shared elsewhere. SI.com's Don Banks called Williams the best coordinator hire of the offseason.
I'm inclined to agree with both takes as the Rams have been building toward a dominant defense since the arrival of coach Jeff Fisher. Many of the pieces are in place. Now, they need to add the final touches and let Williams mold it all together to maximize an extremely talented young group on a consistent basis.
A roundup of Thursday's Rams stories appearing on ESPN.com. ... In the Ram-blings, we took a look at the latest round of rumors and speculation concerning the Rams and Los Angeles. ... Next, it was my column on why the time has come for the Rams to stop spending big in free agency and keep developing their young players. ... From there, we continued our series on possible future Hall of Fame Rams with a look at receiver Isaac Bruce. ... Finally, we offered some thoughts and reaction to the mock drafts of Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay.
Speaking of the mock drafts (both links are ESPN Insider content):
Here's Kiper's latest offering.
Here's McShay's updated picks.
Tavon Austin joined ESPN's Toni Collins with thoughts on a number of topics relating to the memorabilia industry.
SI.com has its own updated mock draft following a similar blueprint as the Kiper/McShay takes.
NFL.com's Adam Schein ranks the Rams No. 8 as one of the most interesting teams to watch this offseason.
ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Rams and Gregg Williams have agreed to a deal to make Williams the team's defensive coordinator.
It's a move two years in the making after Williams originally accepted the same role in 2012 but never did the job after serving a suspension for his role in the bounty scandal with the New Orleans Saints.
Williams served as a defensive consultant for the Tennessee Titans in 2013 but technically hasn't been a defensive coordinator for a game since his time in New Orleans.
There will be no sweeping changes in terms of the general defensive philosophy but Williams will certainly add his own flavor. To get a handle on how we got here and what Williams brings to the table, ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett discussed the move.
Wagoner: Mike, it's been a long, strange trip to get to this point where Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams can finally reunite. You were there during the ups and downs of Williams' time in New Orleans. First, what are some of the things he can bring to the table from solely a coaching perspective?
What stood out even more was the way Williams lit a fire under his players as a passionate leader and motivator. And he noticeably instilled confidence in them. He brought a lot of the same qualities in his first season that we talked about this past year with Rob Ryan. Obviously you can't ignore the bounty scandal, though, when describing those traits because Williams took it to such extremes.
Do you think it was hard for Fisher to make this move with the bounty scandal still so fresh in Williams' past?
Wagoner: In all honesty, I was under the impression that this ship had sailed. Fisher was hesitant to even talk about Williams during the week leading up to the Titans game this season and he fired Williams' son, Blake. But apparently their friendship survived all of those things or they were at least able to reconcile enough to give it another go. When Williams first got suspended, Fisher seemed to be a bit taken aback by it. I wondered if Williams didn't provide all of the information. It put the Rams in something of a difficult spot that first season. The timing of all this seems a bit strange because Williams shook loose from Tennessee a while ago. I wonder how much time has been spent working out the details. At the end of the day, this was clearly what Fisher wanted all along so perhaps now the Rams can finally have some stability at defensive coordinator.
You mentioned the bounty scandal. One thing that raises a red flag with this hire is the lack of discipline the Rams had in 2013. They drew a lot of silly penalties. That's always been a part of Fisher teams and it doesn't seem Williams' style will do much to harness that. What were your impressions of his ability to walk the line between instilling discipline in his players while not taking away their edge?
Triplett: I don't ever remember penalties being a big problem with the Saints. In fact, many people pointed out during the bounty debate that the Saints had one of the league's least-penalized defenses during Williams' tenure. But I still think that's probably a fair concern since I wouldn't exactly characterize Williams as "disciplined." He wants to create big plays, and he blitzed a ton while he was in New Orleans. And sometimes that gambling nature led to breakdowns and big plays for the offense. It worked wonders in 2009, when the Saints led the NFL in combined turnovers in the regular season and postseason. But they had playoff blowups at Seattle and San Francisco the next two years.
The same goes for big hits, obviously. Williams saw the value in what he always called "remember me" shots, and sometimes that led to unnecessary roughness penalties. But it was never a case of the Saints playing "dirty" on defense or taking cheap shots to hurt guys. The philosophy was to be aggressive as possible within the rules (though the reward program was where they went too far).
You'll see that philosophy on display right away during summer practices. The defensive guys will annoy the offense by constantly swatting at the ball and trying to pry it loose and diving on every ball that hits the turf. And you'll hear Williams shouting often. The energy level will be unmistakable.
Wagoner: It should be a good thing for the Rams to have some stability at the position, finally. One more thing while I've still got you. One area that drove Rams fans nuts this year was a commitment to a lot of "off" coverage with corners playing soft zones. It would seem Williams doesn't abide by that approach. Can you shed some light on his approach to coverage schemes and how it might alter the type of players for the secondary the Rams will be looking for this offseason?
Triplett: You're right. His corners played a ton of man-to-man coverage in New Orleans -- often times pressing -- while doing a lot of blitzing. But I'm not sure that's always his approach. It's just how he decided to do things in New Orleans since he trusted the defensive backs' ability to cover more than the front four's ability to generate pressure without blitzing.
When he was here, he had corners like Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter and safeties like Darren Sharper and Malcolm Jenkins, who all played very well during those years. Greer and Porter weren't very big or physical, so he doesn't necessarily require a big, physical corner. But he'd obviously like to find guys he can trust in man coverage.
Wagoner: There's no doubting the move makes sense for the Rams. Given the caliber of defenses the Rams face in the NFC West division, Williams' hire should help nudge them toward the elite status necessary to close the gap on Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona.
ST. LOUIS -- As the St. Louis Rams announced Wednesday that they fired defensive coordinator Tim Walton, the easy reaction wasn't necessarily to wonder why he was fired but why the Rams waited so long to do it.
It took all of about 10 minutes to understand. The Rams already had their replacement lined up, and technically, the replacement is the replacement's replacement. Got that?
ESPN NFL Insider Chris Mortensen reported that the Rams will hire Gregg Williams to be their new (old?) defensive coordinator only moments after the team sent out a release announcing it was parting ways with Walton.
What a long, strange trip it's been for Williams and the Rams.
A brief history: Soon after the team named Jeff Fisher as head coach in January 2012, Fisher hired Williams as his defensive coordinator. Fisher and Williams were best friends and had worked together in Tennessee, where the Titans were regularly among the league's best defenses.
Not long after that, the Rams and Williams were forced to part ways because the NFL suspended Williams for his role in the bounty scandal in New Orleans. The Rams allowed Williams' son, Blake, to serve as a de facto coordinator in addition to his role coaching the team's linebackers.
Walton's defense struggled mightily early in the season, especially against Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco. Rumors persisted that Fisher took on a larger role in calling the defense around midseason, and the group finished in the middle of the pack once again.
But Walton's contributions were questionable as the secondary struggled with passive coverage schemes and the defense allowed a completion rate of 68.1 percent, tied for worst in the league.
Despite those struggles, Walton was in his first year as a coordinator and Fisher said he didn't anticipate making any changes to the coaching staff this offseason.
Perhaps Fisher didn't anticipate the Titans making wholesale changes to their coaching staff, where Williams served as a defensive consultant in 2013.
Which brings us to Wednesday and the report that Williams and Fisher are set to reunite. Given the way things ended between the two sides the first time around, it was fair to wonder if the bridge had been burned and reconciliation was even possible.
Fisher said in 2012 that he wouldn't rule out bringing Williams back at some point, but it seemed plenty had changed since. When the Rams and Titans played in November, Fisher didn't exactly offer up warm fuzzies when asked whether he talked to Williams much.
“I really never talked to him during the season anyway,” Fisher said then. “I'm sure I'll see him on Sunday.”
From Williams' side, one had to wonder whether his son's firing would create a wedge between the two sides.
Apparently, none of that was enough to damage the long and close friendship forged by Fisher and Williams.
From a pure football perspective, the move makes sense. Williams and Fisher built the attacking, aggressive defensive scheme favored by both coaches and will continue to deploy it in St. Louis.
Williams' involvement in the bounty scandal is sure to bring questions, but there's no denying his positive impact on Tennessee's defense in 2013. The Titans finished 14th in total yards allowed and 16th in scoring defense with Williams helping out after finishing 27th in total yards and last in scoring defense in 2012.
With Williams back on board, it's safe to expect the Rams to take on the personality that Fisher wanted to see from the get-go -- less of the soft zone, huge cushion coverage calls paired with relentless pressure from the front four and exotic blitz packages.
Those are all calling cards of a Williams defense and will almost certainly be staples of the Rams' scheme in St. Louis.
Given the state of the NFC West, where elite defenses are the rule, the Rams' middle-of-the-pack finish in the first two seasons under Fisher simply hasn't been good enough. While the unit didn't take any steps back in 2013, it also didn't make the leap forward to the top-10 group many hoped it would become.
To reach that level, Fisher appears poised to bring back the man he wanted all along.
Any time the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans meet, memories of Super Bowl XXXIV are sure to come to the fore. In one of the greatest Super Bowl finishes of all time, the Rams emerged with their lone championship during their time in St. Louis.
A lot has changed since, but neither team has managed to get back to the promised land and it seems like a long shot either will this season. This week, the Rams and Titans renew acquaintances at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky discuss some things worth watching, including an interesting role reversal for one of the key figures in that Super Bowl.
Wagoner: Well, it's pretty obvious what the big story is going to be this week. Jeff Fisher is facing his former team for the first time since taking over as the coach in St. Louis. As is to be expected, Fisher is downplaying that whole angle, but you were around him a lot in his years in Nashville. Do you expect Fisher to have a little something extra for his old team this week?
Kuharsky: It would be so much better if it were in Nashville. Then we’d have the crowd reaction as a part of it, too. Still, it’s intriguing. He will definitely have something (or some things) drawn up that he feels will uniquely exploit the schemes and styles of his former underlings Mike Munchak, Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams. If those things work, I’d expect Fisher will then talk about how one of his assistants who was once in Tennessee -- Chuck Cecil, Dave McGinnis or even Ray Sherman -- was instrumental in the design. Fisher didn’t leave with hard feelings, and I believe he wishes the organization well. Still, any proud former employee in this sort of circumstance wants to outperform the former employer. He’s talked about it meaning more for the guys on the roster who were once Titans.
Jared Cook had a monster opening day but has been quiet since. Cortland Finnegan missed some time hurt. What’s the status of those guys?
Wagoner: Cook has really struggled dealing with teams giving him more attention and, more specifically, being physical with him at the line of scrimmage and downfield. He stopped on a route last week against Seattle, and it resulted in an interception. The Rams have gone back to more of a power running scheme that has also limited his snaps because he doesn’t bring much to the table as a blocker. Finnegan won’t say it, but I believe he was banged up at the beginning of the season; his first four games were downright brutal. He returned last week against Seattle, and for now he’s working exclusively in the nickel as the team’s third corner rather than just bumping inside in those situations. Given that he’s only a little more than a year into a monster contract, it’s hard to categorize him as anything but a disappointment for the price.
A lot will be made of the Fisher-Tennessee connection, but I’m more intrigued by the Gregg Williams situation. The way things went down with him and the Rams, and between Williams’ son Blake and the Rams, had to have created some tension on all sides. What has Williams’ impact been down there in Tennessee, and what exactly is his role?
Kuharsky: By title, he’s senior assistant/defense. In practice, he’s not-quite defensive coordinator. Gray is still calling the plays, but Williams’ influence is undeniable. This defense had no personality or attitude last season. Now it’s the backbone of the team. It mixes it up and disguises its looks up front, it blitzes more often and it plays far more man-to-man. Bernard Pollard has been a great fit who has talked with swagger and backed it up. Some guys most people have never heard of -- defensive end Ropati Pitoitua and middle linebacker Moise Fokou -- have been very good additions. Williams certainly had a say in bringing those guys in. He has stayed in the background and seems comfortable there. I would imagine he and Gray are excited to put together a plan to make Kellen Clemens uncomfortable.
How do you think Clemens will respond in his second start since Sam Bradford went down?
Wagoner: To paraphrase one of the great philosophers of our time, Mr. Dennis Green, Clemens proved last week against Seattle that he is what we thought he was. He’s a tough, gritty, consummate professional who can occasionally extend plays with his legs and make something happen. He’s also consistently inaccurate, a bit indecisive and has a knack for costly turnovers (though his two interceptions Monday night weren’t completely his fault). Another week to work with the starters should help, but he was a bit sore after Monday night’s game against Seattle. The Rams don’t need him to throw for 300 yards and five touchdowns, but they do need him to convert in the red zone and not turn the ball over.
There are something like 16 players from the Fisher era remaining in Tennessee, one of whom is running back Chris Johnson. The Rams have been better defending the run the past two weeks, but they need to prove they can keep doing it. It appears Johnson has struggled after the team made efforts to help him in the offseason. What’s going on with Johnson, and is he (and the Titans' offensive line) capable of taking advantage of the Rams’ run defense?
Kuharsky: The Titans are built on a philosophy of throwing it when they want to, not when they have to. That’s a mistake because the revamped line and Johnson are not equipped to run it they way they think they can. Jets fans get a kick out of this, but to a large degree the Titans' hope things will get better comes from Shonn Greene. The bigger back was brought in as a compliment to CJ, but he got hurt in the opener and made it back only the week before the bye; he has hardly played. They need him to emerge and contribute. Based on current numbers, the Rams are the third-softest run defense the Titans will have seen this season. If they can’t run Sunday, it will really speak to their issues.
Chris Long and Robert Quinn looked really good against Seattle. Have they been giving everyone problems like that?
Wagoner: Quinn certainly has. Through the first half of the season, he’s really starting to realize his immense potential. I believe he’s the Rams’ best player right now, and have felt that way since the beginning of the season. He’s an athletic freak who gives slower tackles problems. He feasts on inferior players, but he can get it done against good tackles as well. Long was banged up earlier in the season but has battled through it and is starting to find his stride. Given the situation on offense right now, the Rams need this duo to take over games on a regular basis and set the tone for a defense that, before last week, had largely disappointed this season.
Breakdown: The Rams drew a Monday night home game against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 8, a huge improvement from last season, when St. Louis spent Week 8 in London absorbing a 45-7 defeat to New England. This game against Seattle will mark the Rams' first Monday nighter at home since the 2006 season. That is clearly progress. The Rams went undefeated at home in the division last season. They were 4-1-1 overall against NFC West opponents. This can become a statement game for the Rams.
The Rams got two prime-time games overall, both at home against division opponents. The San Francisco 49ers visit the Edward Jones Dome in Week 4, a tough trip for the 49ers on a short week after they open against playoff teams Green Bay, Seattle and Indianapolis.
Complaint department: I suppose we could complain about drawing Steven Jackson in the Atlanta Falcons' home opener, when Jackson figures to be fresh as ever. But that would be a stretch. The Rams have no three-game road trips. Their bye falls at a good time. They have two home games on national television for the first time since 2004. They have that Monday night game at home. They bailed from the London trip that could have robbed another home game from fans. All in all, the Rams came out just fine, even if they could do without another Week 17 game at Seattle.
Familiar faces: Jackson, the Rams' career rushing leader, isn't the only familiar face on the schedule. The Rams face former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in Jeff Fisher's return to Tennessee on Nov. 3. That's one to circle on the schedule. Their date with one-time defensive coordinator candidate Rob Ryan falls on Dec. 15.
Rams Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, at Dallas, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Thursday, Sept. 26, San Francisco, 8:25 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, at Houston, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 20, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Monday, Oct. 28, Seattle, 8:30 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 24, Chicago, 1:00 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 1, at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, New Orleans, 1:00 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, Tampa Bay, 1:00 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, at Seattle, 4:25 p.m.
The reinstatement means Williams will accompany his new team, the Tennessee Titans, against his would-be team, St. Louis, at the Edward Jones Dome. Williams' title with the Titans is senior assistant/defense.
The Rams had hired Williams as defensive coordinator before the NFL suspended him. They decided against retaining Williams, and have yet to hire a coordinator. They did not retain Williams' son, Blake, who had coached linebackers and reportedly played a role in making the defensive calls.
"Commissioner Roger Goodell today notified Gregg Williams and the Tennessee Titans that Williams’ contract with the Titans has been approved and that he has been reinstated," the Titans announced. "The commissioner cited several reasons for the reinstatement, including Williams’ forthcoming acknowledgement of and acceptance of responsibility for his role in the bounty program at the Saints, his commitment to never again be involved in a pay-for-performance or bounty system, and his pledge to teach safe play and respect for the rules at all levels of the game. The commissioner emphasized that Williams must fully conform to league rules, and will be subject to periodic monitoring to confirm his compliance."
Periodic monitoring? I'm not sure what that entails, but suffice to say, Williams surely must know he's out of second chances.
Williams worked with Rams coach Jeff Fisher when both were with the Houston Oilers and Titans through most of the 1990s. Williams' hiring in St. Louis last offseason seemed to signal a commitment to an edgier, more in-your-face style of defense. But with Williams' reputation taking a big hit and the NFL continually stressing player safety, I wondered whether a team would ever take a chance on Williams in the future.
The Rams seem better off without Williams' baggage, in my view. The subject will be worth revisiting once the Rams make their hire and Williams makes his mark on the Titans' defense.
"I have known Gregg for over two decades and have seen him work his way up from a quality control coach to a head coach," Titans coach Mike Munchak said, according to the team. "He will bring a great deal of defensive knowledge and energy to our staff. The decision to bring him here only came after going through a thoughtful and thorough process."
It's not looking like the St. Louis Rams are holding a spot for him.
That's one way to read the news that the Rams have fired Williams' son, Blake, from their staff. The younger Williams coached linebackers. He also was thought to be a playcaller on defense.
The Rams hired Gregg Williams as coordinator before the NFL banned him for involvement in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher told reporters Monday that the team hoped to have a new coordinator in place within a couple weeks. That meant Williams could not be named coordinator unless the NFL reinstated him quickly.
Blake Williams' familiarity with his father's defensive system enhanced his value as the Rams adjusted on the fly to losing Gregg Williams unexpectedly. I would assume the Rams would have a spot for Blake Williams on their staff if Gregg Williams were to serve as coordinator.
Williams was known for blitzing frequently and significantly compromising coverage to do so. Spagnuolo is known for showing greater discretion.
The chart shows the Saints deploying five-plus pass-rushers 29.3 percent of the time this season, down from 51.1 percent last season. The drop of 21.8 percentage points is the largest in the NFL.
Seattle also shows up in the top 10.
The Saints used added pressure 65.1 percent of the time against the 49ers in the divisional playoffs last season. Alex Smith completed 13 of 26 passes with two touchdowns, four sacks and a 28.4 Total QBR against the Saints in those situations last season. He completed 11 of 15 passes with a touchdown, no sacks and a 96.0 QBR score when New Orleans rushed him with four or fewer defenders.
Second-year pro Colin Kaepernick, not Smith, is expected to start for the 49ers against the Saints on Sunday. He has completed 9 of 17 passes for 137 yards with one touchdown, five first downs, one fumble and a 16.1 QBR score against five or more rushers. That included 6 of 9 passing for 100 yards with a touchdown, no sacks, three first downs and a 99.6 QBR score against Chicago in his lone start.
Kaepernick hasn't played enough for us to draw much meaning from those numbers.
Smith has completed 52 of 72 passes (72.2 percent) for 614 yards with eight touchdowns, one interception, three sacks, 38 first downs and an 83.6 QBR score against added pressure this season.
Some teams are pressuring at a higher rate this season. Coaching changes have influenced some of the numbers on both ends of the spectrum.
Indianapolis (plus-23), San Diego (plus-18.3), Atlanta (plus-6.6), Oakland (plus-5.1), St. Louis (plus-4.8), San Francisco (plus-4.5) and Miami (plus-2.7) are at the other end. They are the only teams increasing their pressure percentages by more than one point.
A few thoughts on developments Sunday morning:
- Gregg Williams in the house: Gregg Williams' indefinite banishment from the NFL continues, but the St. Louis Rams' would-be defensive coordinator can attend games as a fan, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports. Might this be an early step toward reinstatement for Williams? Not necessarily. Schefter notes that the NFL banned Williams from the game, making him unemployable until further notice. He says Williams is out of the league, whereas New Orleans' Sean Payton is merely suspended. That makes Williams banned, not suspended. Interesting distinction.
- RB Steven Jackson active: The Rams will have Jackson against Seattle despite a groin injury. The team has named rookie second-round choice Isaiah Pead inactive behind Jackson, however. Daryl Richardson, another rookie, remains ahead of Pead. But now Pead has fallen behind even Terrance Ganaway, a rookie sixth-round choice of the New York Jets. The graduation schedule at the University of Cincinnati, where Pead attended, prevented the rookie from joining his teammates until June 7, later than most rookies. Did that set him back?
- Quick's opportunity: Rams rookie second-round receiver Brian Quick is active against the Seahawks. Veteran receiver Steve Smith is not. Perhaps the Rams wanted Quick's size against Seattle's big, aggressive cornerbacks.
- 49ers will have Ginn: Return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. is active for the San Francisco 49ers against the New York Jets. Running back Brandon Jacobs remains at least another week away from returning. Rookie first-round pick A.J. Jenkins is inactive. He hasn't been a factor to this point in the season. That isn't a big surprise given improved depth at the position and the 49ers' frequent reliance on personnel grouping with two tight ends and/or two running backs.
- Sopoaga out, as expected: The 49ers' base defense took a hit with news that nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga will miss the Jets game with a knee injury. Ricky Jean-Francois will get more snaps. The 49ers' base defense figures to see more snaps for a second week in a row after the team opened against Green Bay and Detroit, teams San Francisco defended primarily with its sub packages.
- Sweezy in the lineup: Right guard John Moffitt is inactive for Seattle, as expected. Rookie J.R. Sweezy gets the start, but the team does have options at guard. James Carpenter is active for the first time since suffering a knee injury last season. He projects at left guard eventually and figures to get work in that spot against the Rams. That could avail Paul McQuistan, the current left guard, to play right guard if needed.
What it means for the NFC West:
- The decision clears Vilma to play against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12 (and all season). Vilma had previously been suspended for the full season. The other suspended players either would have returned before facing the 49ers (Will Smith) or no longer play for New Orleans (Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove). Vilma is an important part of the Saints' defense. Having him should help against the 49ers' running game.
- Vilma's availability to the Saints could enable the team to part with Barrett Ruud, the linebacker acquired from Seattle by trade last month. The Seahawks are in line to receive a late-round draft choice from the Saints in return if Ruud remains on New Orleans' roster for an undisclosed number of games. Seattle appears less likely to collect on that trade now that Vilma is available.
- The reversals affected players, not coaches. The St. Louis Rams will remain without Gregg Williams, who was suspended indefinitely after becoming defensive coordinator for St. Louis.
Williams has been suspended indefinitely for his role in the Saints’ bounty program. Williams declined comment on the bounty scandal and said the golf event was “all about the kids,’’ who benefit from his charity foundation.
Williams left the Saints for the St. Louis Rams immediately after last season. He previously issued a public apology for his role in the scandal. The fact Williams is staying quiet might seem out of character. But it’s probably the smartest thing Williams can do right now. If he is ever going to have a chance to work in the NFL again, staying quiet and humble is his best approach.
Although NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been stern when handing out punishments in the past, he also has shown a willingness to give people second chances (see Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress). Williams was the only player, coach or administrator that did not appeal his suspension.
There have been many that have said Williams never again should be allowed to coach in the NFL. That might end up being the case.
But Williams is at least making an effort not to anger Goodell, any further and that could score him valuable points in the long run.
"Shouldn't that have been expected?" he asks. "Two of the QBs in the race are career backups (Matt Flynn had one really good game, but doesn't sample size mean anything anymore?). The other is a middle-round draft pick. They have three back-ups, so it shouldn't shock anyone that none of them are starter-quality."
Mike Sando: Thanks for the question. Unfortunately, the replay official has initiated a challenge and the referee, me, has overturned the premise.
Seattle's quarterback competition could not be settled without exhibition games. There was never an expectation one candidate would jump to a huge lead before training camp. The fact that no one has seized the job does not necessarily mean the team has no quarterbacks worthy of starting. Coach Pete Carroll was going to promote competition through the offseason and into training camp. That was the plan in the absence of exhibition games.
I covered the Seahawks' final minicamp practice last week and didn't even think to report on whether one of the quarterbacks had won the job. Yet, it's unusual to divide reps three ways. That isn't sustainable. At some point, the Seahawks will have to decide whether they're comfortable enough with Flynn and rookie Russell Wilson to consider moving past 2011 starter Tarvaris Jackson or adjusting his $4 million salary.
If the job remains unsettled deep into training camp, you'll be onto something. In retrospect, that happened with Arizona during its 2010 competition between Derek Anderson and Matt Leinart. Neither really stepped forward to seize the job. Before long, it became clear the Cardinals had no viable starter. We don't have enough evidence to say whether Seattle is headed down a similar road, but you're right about Flynn, Jackson and Wilson having much to prove.
joe_cool35 read the earlier item on the NFL's all-22 video release and thought the effects could be far-reaching.
"Another perspective where this can help the general public comes from the coaching perspective at the collegiate and high school levels and possibly even younger," he wrote. "Players are being taught and drilled with proper mechanics from a younger and younger age. Having the ability to dissect the premier players at their respective positions can serve as a great instructional for players of all ages."
Mike Sando: Good point. It's been tough to analyze schemes without seeing all 22 players at the same time throughout a play. Also on this subject, I can pass along additional information from the NFL, which has answered a few of my questions:
- While the NFL's Game Rewind broadcasts will remain in high definition, the all-22 video will be in standard definition. NFL teams have shot the all-22 video in broadcast-quality standard definition, according to video directors I've spoken with over the years. It's my understanding that some teams shoot the video in HD, but the video exchange system is set up for SD.
- The general public will receive what the teams receive: each play shot from elevated cameras along the sideline and end zone, showing all 22 players on the field for every play, with no frills. The video does not include sound.
- The focus this season will be on making available the content. The league has not ruled out making production improvements in the future.
- The video will be available online and via tablet (iPads and select Android devices) and delivered through the Game Rewind system. The $69.99 price buys access to all 256 regular-season games on demand (not live, of course).
I've been a Game Rewind subscriber for years. The quality for network broadcasts is outstanding if you've got the necessary bandwidth. The experience wasn't nearly as good when I had a 1.5 Mbps DSL connection. Upgrading to 12 Mbps and higher made a pronounced difference in quality.
Will from Boston offers additional information regarding Steven Jackson following our discussion Tuesday morning.
"He is one of just eight running backs to rush for at least 9,000 yards and catch 360 passes in his first eight seasons," Will writes. "He did it in the second-fewest number of games. Jackson needs 907 rushing yards and 31 catches to become the 12th running back to reach the 10,000/400 mark."
Mike Sando: Interesting stuff. Pro Football Reference confirms that Edgerrin James needed fewer games than Jackson to reach 9,000 yards rushing with 360 receptions, and that only 11 players have reached 10,000 yards receiving with 400 receptions.
Paul from San Francisco passes along a link to one of the "Secret Superstar" pieces from Pro Football Focus, this one analyzing Arizona Cardinals nose tackle David Carter.
Mike Sando: This is an interesting series and one we'll monitor, Paul.
St. Louis Rams fans should note that one of the players singled out, Perry Riley, displaced linebacker Rocky McIntosh from the lineup last season. The Rams signed McIntosh in free agency after the Redskins decided they could upgrade with a younger player.
Pro Football Focus has given McIntosh consistently low marks in its grading. The Rams badly needed help at the position, however, and McIntosh does have experience in their defensive system, having played for Gregg Williams in Washington until the 2009 season.
JC from parts unknown noticed that the San Francisco 49ers are planning to spend another week in Ohio between games, this time surrounding visits to Minnesota (Week 3) and the New York Jets (Week 4).
"Do you think more teams will follow and use this strategy, or is any team also doing it?" he asks.
Mike Sando: Ohio makes sense for the 49ers in part because their ownership is from the state.
Arizona remained on the road between East Coast trips a few years back, losing road games to Washington and the Jets. The Cardinals play back-to-back road games only once this season, on opposite coasts (at Jets, at Seahawks).
Seattle has St. Louis-Carolina and Miami-Chicago trips, but I've heard of no plans to remain on the road between those games. The Seahawks should be rested before the second trip; they have a bye before visiting the Dolphins. They had a bye between their only back-to-back games in the East last season.
San Diego faces a Denver-Tampa combination at one point. Oakland does not play back-to-back games in the East.
The team might yet pull it off over the next couple offseasons, thanks to the bounty of picks the Rams collected from trading the second overall choice in 2012.
Needs outnumbered resources in the immediate term, however, leading the Rams to patch their linebacker problem with shorter-term solutions.
Rocky McIntosh recently joined Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Mario Haggan as veteran additions at the position. Haggan, 32, is the oldest player on the team, but as the chart shows, the Rams remain young overall at every position. They have the NFL's youngest roster on average.
The Rams need McIntosh, Dunbar and Haggan to outperform some of the veteran linebackers subtracted from the roster: Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga, Bryan Kehl and Chris Chamberlain.
That seems like a reasonable expectation.
McIntosh, 29, was in his fifth season as a starter for the Washington Redskins when the team decided Perry Riley, then 23, provided a more athletic alternative. The Redskins, with McIntosh and the now-37-year-old London Fletcher at inside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme, already had plenty of veteran moxie at the position. They needed speed. McIntosh probably fit better in the 4-3 defense Washington ran previously.
Scouts Inc. liked McIntosh more than the Redskins did, calling him an "active playmaker" with "great range inside out to the ball."
Dunbar, signed from New Orleans, figures to start at one outside linebacker spot. McIntosh is an early favorite to start at the other one. James Laurinaitis is entrenched in the middle.
The position remains a bit unsettled. The Rams do have a couple of younger options, but with no hitting allowed till training camp, it's tough to know how those players project. The Rams' veteran additions give them insurance, and probably more than that. I'd expect the team to start two veterans on the outside.
McIntosh played for would-be Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in Washington. Williams is suspended indefinitely, but the Rams are installing what is essentially the same system Williams ran with the Redskins. That puts McIntosh at a significant advantage over younger players less familiar with the scheme and unproven in the NFL.