NFC West: Jake Ballard

GLENDALE, Ariz. – It pained Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians to watch Jake Ballard play football.

Not because of Ballard’s performance, but because of the knee pain Ballard was suffering through every play. It finally got to the point Tuesday when Ballard, a 27-year-old tight end who was entering his fifth season, decided to retire. He announced it Wednesday.

“You could tell it was getting worse instead of better,” Arians said. “He had a nice few OTAs where it looked like it was going to get better. But [in] the last MRI, he was bone on bone and there’s nothing he can do about it at his age.”

The torn ACL Ballard suffered in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis in 2012 caused him to miss the next season and a half, but knee issues predated that injury.

Ballard missed the final two games of the 2011 season with a PCL injury, according to an Associated Press story. Before the NFC Championship Game in 2011, Ballard underwent a “little procedure,” according to the story. Following the Super Bowl, the Giants waived him with the hopes that he’d go through waivers undetected and they could put him on injured reserve. The New England Patriots claimed Ballard, who didn’t play the entire 2012 season while recovering on the physically unable to perform list.

New England released him on Aug. 30, after he played during the preseason. Ballard spent the next two months on his couch waiting for a call. Finally, Arizona signed him on Nov. 4 and he played in eight games, starting three.

But apparently his knee never fully recovered. He missed Tuesday’s practice with a sore knee, according to Arians, and decided to retire the same day.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Late in the Wednesday morning pre-practice locker room session, the news started to spread that tight end Jake Ballard had retired. confirmed his decision Wednesday afternoon.

Ballard said in a statement released to Pro Football Talk that he made the decision Tuesday. By 11 a.m. Wednesday, his locker with the Arizona Cardinals belonged to Max Starks. Ballard missed practice Tuesday with a sore knee.

His knees have been an issue since Ballard tore an ACL late in Super Bowl XLVI with the New York Giants. He was claimed off waivers that offseason by the New England Patriots, but missed the 2012 season. Arizona signed him midway through last season and Ballard played in eight games, catching seven passes for 75 yards.

He was expected to be a starter this season in Cardinals coach Bruce Arians’ two-tight end offense, but his retirement opens the door for two players in particular. Rob Housler will likely become the starter across from John Carlson, leaving an opening for the fourth tight end.

Arians has talked highly of Darren Fells, the basketball power forward turned tight end. While he’s only been playing pro football for about 17 months, Fells has progressed enough to be considered for that roster spot. He has improved his blocking, the most crucial part of the game when it comes to Arians’ scheme, and he’s been sure-handed during his stay in Arizona.

Ballard’s void also likely secures a job for Housler, who has had a good camp but hasn’t lived up to the expectations that came with being a third-round pick in 2011. Rookie Troy Niklas also will be given more responsibility this season.

Arians has raved this offseason about how good the Cardinals’ tight end room looks. That changed in an instant, but the Cardinals have options to replace Ballard.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- As he does every day during training camp, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians addresses the media after the morning walk-through. Here's a recap of what Arians discussed:
  • Arians
    Tight end Jake Ballard will miss Sunday's afternoon practice with a thigh bruise, Arians said. Ballard is expected to return Monday.
  • Arians said Bobby Massie and Paul Fanaika have strong holds on right tackle and right guard, respectively, and they are their jobs to lose.
  • Patrick Peterson won't be playing offense this season, Arians said, and he'll be only a situational punt returner.
  • Arians said the most disappointing part of the Cards' first training camp practice Saturday was the number of mental errors by veterans on offense.
  • Arians was pleased with how rookie quarterback Logan Thomas performed in his first practice but said, “He still has to learn when to throw the ball extremely hard and when to throw it accurately. A strong armed, young quarterback has that problem. He gets all jacked up and wants to show it off.”
  • When asked if he's seen an arm as strong or stronger as Thomas', Arians said he had in former Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre and former Cleveland quarterback Spergon Wynn.
  • Arians was impressed by linebacker Alex Okafor starting in the fourth organized team activity of the offseason. That's when Arians started thinking Okafor could have a significant role this season.
  • Linebacker Kenny Demens just has to keep playing like he has and he'll make the team, Arians said.
  • Arians wouldn't speak about John Abraham's absence but reiterated that the linebacker's absences are excused.
  • Arians also said rookie tight end Troy Niklas is “way behind” because of all the time he missed this offseason due to injuries.
Sometimes bigger is better. At least when it comes to tight ends.

One priority for the Arizona Cardinals during the offseason was to improve their tight end room. Coach Bruce Arians wanted tight ends that fit his mold -- guys who are bigger, stronger, faster and love to block. Midway through last season, Arizona began to transition its tight end unit by signing 6-foot-6, 275-pound Jake Ballard. John Carlson, who's 6-5, 248, was added during the early part of this year's free agency and Troy Niklas -- 6-6, 270 -- was drafted in May.

Arians wanted his tight ends to be bigger. He got what he wanted.

"That's always been my philosophy," Arians said. "I don't want a guy that's really a wide receiver and you're only hope to run the football is if they put a nickel in there and he can block him and in base defense, not going to block anybody. My experience (is) it's always been a detriment rather than guys who can do both."

Arians has one of those tight ends that's more of a wide receiver than a bruising blocker off the line.

Rob Housler, who's entering his fourth season with the Cards, has a basketball player's body. He can be quick in the open field and looks as comfortable as most wideouts running a route off the line. But that's not what Arians wants.

He wants to see his tight ends be a combination of the old school definition of the position combined with a sprinkle of new school. And that's why Ballard and Niklas have coaches giddy with excitement. They're both big men who enjoy contact at the line of scrimmage yet they're both athletic enough to run routes, catch tough passes and turn up field to make plays. Ballard showed what he's capable of in eight games last season, but Niklas was sidelined for most of the offseason while recovering from sports hernia surgery before suffering a broken hand.

But it's Carlson who's impressed the most during organized team activities and minicamp.

"John has done a really, really good job," Arians said. "First off, he's extremely bright. He picked up the system extremely quick. He plays full speed all the time and has got outstanding hands. His issue in the past ... he's not an overwhelming blocker but he's more than adequate."

Each new addition to the tight end room brought more competition. While some players wilt at the first sign of having to play for their job, Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer said that hasn't happened yet with the Cards.

"It's been phenomenal to have John here for a number of (reasons)," Palmer said. "Mainly, he's really pushed that tight end group. He's really brought the best out of Robby. Bringing competition to that spot has really helped Robby improve."

While Carlson, Ballard and Niklas look similar in stature, Palmer said each brings a different asset to the field.

"We have three different guys with three different strengths -- four guys really (including Housler)," Palmer said. "We all kinda feed off of each other. There's one guy that's fast. There's one guy that's big and powerful. There's one guy that kinda does it all. I think that's what Coach Arians kinda envisioned in that position -- not a bunch of the same guys but a bunch of different guys."
TEMPE, Ariz. -- One staple to any Bruce Arians-coached offense is having two tight ends who can produce -- and preferably at high levels.

Last season, however, that was not the case as injuries marred Rob Housler's season and Jim Dray was more of a blocking back than a receiving threat. Then Jake Ballard stepped in during the bye week and provided some offensive relief as a blocking tight end.

So it made sense for the Cardinals to re-sign the restricted free agent to a one-year deal, the team announced Tuesday, just a few minutes after free agency began. With Dray and Kory Sperry both hitting free agency and unlikely to return, and depsite the addition of John Carlson last week, Ballard could make a run as the starting tight end opposite Housler. And with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer, Arizona has upgraded its offense to where quarterback Carson Palmer will have enough options at receiver, running back and tight end.

Ballard said last season that his knee, which he injured in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, was better, but he needed more time to get back into football shape. With a full offseason to prepare -- he was signed off his couch last November, he said -- Ballard will be in full football shape by the time training camp rolls around. It's not too early in their tenure together to say signing Ballard to a one-year deal is a vintage move by Arians and general manager Steve Keim. They will give Ballard a year to prove himself, and if he comes through, they will reward him next offseason.

Eight games wasn't a large enough sample size. During that time, however, Ballard caught seven passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 10.7 yards per reception. His usage was sporadic and sometimes curious. He started three games, but wasn't fully utilized in any of them, finishing with a season high of three catches at Tennessee.

Expect those numbers to go up this season.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- With the 2013 season not even in the books for three weeks, it was time to decide who was the best of the best for the Arizona Cardinals this past year. My inaugural postseason awards were both standard and outside the box.

So, without further ado, I present my 2013 awards:

Offensive MVP: Michael Floyd, wide receiver. It may not be the popular choice, but Floyd was the most valuable player to the Cardinals offense. His breakout year eased the pressure on Larry Fitzgerald and caused teams to think twice about double or triple teaming Fitzgerald -- even though most did. And what did Floyd do? Just catch 65 passes for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns, setting career highs in just his second season. But that wasn't his most important contribution to the Arizona offense. For a team that was struggling to secure first downs, especially when the down marker ticked to third, Floyd was a beacon of first-down hope. Between weeks 10 and 16, he had 25 straight receptions that went for first downs. And of his final 34 catches, 30 moved the chains. There's not a bigger impact a player could have, with the exception of catching touchdowns, than giving his team a fresh set of downs. Add on the game-winning touchdown against Seattle and Floyd's contributions to the offense were worthy of him being the offensive MVP.

[+] EnlargeDansby
AP Photo/John CordesKarlos Dansby was all over the field this season -- setting career highs in tackles and interceptions while notching 6.5 sacks.
Defensive MVP: Karlos Dansby, linebacker. In his return to the Cardinals, Dansby proved age is just a number. He had a career season despite missing out on the Pro Bowl yet again. As the on-field conductor of the Cardinals' sixth-ranked defense, Dansby didn't just put his teammates in the right positions to make plays, he went out and made them himself, impacting games from all three levels of the defense. His career-high 114 solo tackles and four interceptions to accompany his 6.5 sacks proved his versatility. To top off a career year, he returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Dansby came into training camp slimmer than he's been and it was evident in his ability to get in the backfield and chase defenders from sideline-to-sideline. And when he dropped back in coverage, he got his hands on the ball. His overall impact from front to back and side to side made him worthy of being the defensive MVP.

Special teams MVP: Justin Bethel, gunner. This was almost a no-brainer but I did consider punter Dave Zastudil. But how many gunners have special teams game plans built for them? He was named to the Pro Bowl after finishing with 21 special teams tackles, four downed punts inside the opponents' 10 and two blocked field goals. He also recovered a muffed kickoff. Bethel's ability to get past double teams constantly made him a threat to kick returners. Opponents would normally double and often triple team Bethel, forcing him out-of-bounds before he had a chance to break free. When he had a step on his defenders, it was tough for them to catch Bethel, who'd often bring down kick returners within a few yards of them fielding the punt which, in turn, would give the Cardinals great field position.

Assistant coach of the year: Brentson Buckner, defensive line coach. Buckner had a tough task. For as well as the defensive line did in pass rush situations in 2012, it was equally as bad against the run finishing 28th. He challenged the defensive line in an early-season meeting and it responded by becoming the No. 1 run defense in the league. Buckner's experience as an NFL player and his honesty endeared him to his charges, who laid it on the line for Buckner.

Rookie of the year: Tyrann Mathieu, safety. He made an instant impact, forcing a fumble in his first game, and didn't slow down until a knee injury forced ended his season after Week 13. Mathieu's athleticism and nose for the ball earned him playing time and his versatility kept him on the field. Other Cardinals' rookies contributed but none had as large of an impact as quickly as Mathieu.

Best offseason move: Trading for Carson Palmer. Without Palmer, all the interceptions included, where would the offense have been? In the hands of backup quarterback Drew Stanton. Capable, I'm sure, but Stanton hasn't thrown a pass in an NFL game since 2010. Palmer's addition gave the Cardinals a reliable thrower who made passes that hadn't been completed in Arizona since the Kurt Warner days.

Best in-season move: Trading Levi Brown. Signing tight end Jake Ballard, receiver Brittan Golden or linebacker Marcus Benard were also considered. But trading Brown set the Cardinals up for future success. He was moved after Week 4 and was instantly replaced by second-year tackle Bradley Sowell, a more athletic and nimble tackle, who found his footing along with the rest of the line midway through the season. Sowell brought athleticism and the ability to slow down an outside pass rush.

Veteran of the year (8-plus years): John Abraham, linebacker. Initially signed to be a pass-rush specialist, Abraham was thrown into the starting rotation after Week 3 and proved to everyone, including himself, that at 35 he still had what it takes to be an every-down player. All he did was have 11.5 sacks, to move onto the top 10 in history and earn his fourth Pro Bowl nod.

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 9
Preseason Power Ranking: 26

Biggest surprise: No one expected Arizona to struggle like it did throughout the first half of the season because an offensive mastermind, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, was in charge. Likewise, nobody expected the Cardinals to go on a tear through the final nine, going 7-2 to finish 10-6. A 10-win season for the Cardinals isn't to be ignored. They're tough to come by, but Arians was able to accomplish it in his first season, which nobody expected. He proved himself as a head coach at 61 and showed how great his offense is when a team can learn and execute it.

Biggest disappointment: Arians was dead set on riding running back Rashard Mendenhall this season with rookie Andre Ellington as his backup. And while Mendenhall was serviceable, it wasn't a successful move. Mendenhall finished with 687 yards on 217 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per carry -- just 35 more than Ellington on 99 more carries. Partially to blame for Mendenhall underachieving was a turf-toe injury that limited him for most of the season, but when he was healthy, he showed his true speed in only two games. Other than that, he struggled to break through the line as often as the Cardinals needed him to. He's not the future for Arizona at running back. That belongs to Ellington.

Biggest need: Everyone thinks the most obvious need is a left tackle, but with how the offensive line played during the last eight games, it may be the least of the Cardinals' worries. Arizona needs a big, fast safety who can defend tight ends. The 29 tight ends who faced the Cardinals this season accounted for 1,247 yards and 17 touchdowns on 98 receptions. The yards accounted for 30.7 percent of the total by opposing receivers and the 98 receptions were 26.7 percent of the catches made by opponents. But the most telling stat, and the difference between wins and losses, are the 17 touchdowns by opposing tight ends, which are 58.6 percent of the 29 total allowed by the Cardinals' secondary.

Team MVP: There were a handful of Cardinals who had good seasons on both sides of the ball, but there was one who really kept the pulse of the team alive. Veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby was shunned by Miami and took a huge pay cut to come to Arizona, and he proved to everyone in the league that, at age 32, he still had it. He was second in the NFL with 114 solo tackles, 6.5 sacks -- his most since his eight in 2006 -- and a career-high four interceptions. But his ability to impact a top-six defense near the line of scrimmage, sideline-to-sideline and then dropping back in coverage made him the most important player on the team.

Cason, Ballard step up for Cardinals

December, 15, 2013
videoNASHVILLE -- Antoine Cason knew all week his time had finally come.

It had been a tough season for Cason, who went from being an everyday starter at cornerback for the San Diego Chargers to being the third or fourth option for his new team, the Arizona Cardinals. But when rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu went down with a season-ending knee injury, the direction of Cason’s season changed.

And he proved to everyone during the Cardinals’ 37-34 overtime victory against the Tennessee Titans that he’s more than capable of seeing the field. But he wasn’t the only one who made a statement. Tight end Jake Ballard replaced Rob Housler in the starting lineup and while catching all three of his targets for just 13 yards, he had the Cardinals’ lone receiving touchdown.

“Jake played great,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “They were going to play a ton of cover two and the tight ends were going to have to play big and they did.”

But it was Cason who stole the show and saved the day.

He had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter that put the Cardinals in what they thought was command, 34-17, and then another in overtime that led to the winning field goal.

“They picked on the wrong guy once too many times,” Arians said. “Twice too many times and Antoine has been waiting his turn and it was great to see him make those plays. It was huge plays, especially the touchdown.”

Cason nearly dropped the interception he returned for a touchdown but was able to keep his focus long enough to secure it. But just because he had two interceptions in his first significant action of the season doesn’t mean the six-year vet is going to bask in the afterglow.

“It feels really good,” Cason said. “I know I have a lot of work to do, so this week for me now that I’m thinking about the game and everything that’s happened to get back to my fundamentals this week and try to get better.

“I will get better for next week. So, that’s really what’s going through my mind as crazy as it sounds. I definitely feel I will get better throughout the rest of the season.”

Quarterback Carson Palmer said Cason’s heroics set an example for the younger Cardinals, who Palmer had to make sure didn’t lose focus heading into overtime. He made sure they understood what was at stake.

But for them to see Cason come off the bench and make two influential plays against the Titans shows that it’s possible for anyone to play that role.

“Cason hasn’t played much [and] he can make the critical play, the game-saving, the game-winning play,” Palmer said. “It’s good for guy’s confidence.”

Ballard to start in place of Housler

December, 15, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- This may be the chance Jake Ballard needed.

As has been a trend around the Cardinals this season, another player will have an opportunity to see the field because of an injury to a teammate. Ballard will start Sunday against the Tennessee Titans because tight end Rob Housler was ruled inactive because of a groin injury.

Ballard has played 67 snaps this season, an average of about 13.5 per game. Although he was signed in early November, Ballard has been waiting for an opportunity to showcase his rebuilt knee. During his five games, Ballard has caught just two passes for 44 yards and has been used – when he does play – in primarily a blocking role.

Without Housler, however, the tight end passing game won’t be as potent. Housler had the speed and athleticism to spread the field off the line. And while Jim Dray is more of a short-pass option, Ballard does have some speed to get away from defenders. His 29-yard catch against Indianapolis showcased how well his knee, which he blew out in Super Bowl XLVI and missed all of last season because of, has recovered.

FTP: Ballard waiting for playing time

December, 6, 2013
Flush the Pocket will be your daily morning dose of the Arizona Cardinals. It'll recap the top storyline from the previous day and give you a look at what everyone is saying locally and nationally.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Jake Ballard's tenure in Arizona started out better and faster than even he could have imagined.

Just six days after he was signed on Nov. 4, Ballard played 22 snaps in his first game since Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. But since then his appearances have dropped each game. He played 15 snaps at Jacksonville, including one that featured a 29-yard catch, and 12 against Indianapolis before seeing the field for just four snaps Sunday in Philadelphia.

While it's better than sitting on his couch, where he spent the first eight weeks of the season looking for a team to pick him up after he rehabbed his ACL, there hasn't been a real reason for the decrease in his snaps.

“I'm going to do what the coaches are going to ask me to do and whatever I can do to help the team,” Ballard said. “We've been playing pretty well with what they had going. (TE) Robby (Housler) and (TE) Jim (Dray) are doing great jobs. I'm just going to bide my time and wait until I get a chance to do whatever they ask me to do, I guess.”

Ballard has a better feeling for the playbook and the scheme, he said. He also feels like the coaching staff is starting to trust him more.

When he'll start getting a bigger role is still to be determined, and it may not happen Sunday against the Rams.

“We'll wait and see,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “See what his role is in the game plan.”

In other news…

Kent Somers of writes about Andre Roberts’ decreased role.

Craig Morgan of writes about the Cards’ need for an NFC West win.

Kyle Odegard of writes about Bradley Sowell’s challenge.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Four weeks after trying him out, the Arizona Cardinals signed tight end Jake Ballard to a one-year contract, the team announced Monday.

In a subsequent move, Arizona released rookie tight end D.C. Jefferson.

Arizona brought in Ballard for a tryout during the week of Oct. 14, but the team didn’t think he could last the whole season. Ballard tore his ACL in Super Bowl XLVI with the New York Giants. He missed all of last season as a member of the New England Patriots, who cut him after training camp.

In 15 games with the Giants -- one in 2010 and 14 in 2011 -- he had 604 yards and four touchdowns on 38 receptions.

Jefferson, who was drafted in the seventh round of April’s draft, was active for four of the Cardinals’ eight games this season but didn’t catch a pass.

Grading the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI

February, 5, 2012
QUARTERBACK: Eli Manning completed 30 of 40 passes for 296 yards, one touchdown and a 103.8 NFL rating. He did not turn over the ball, which was huge for the Giants during their 21-17 victory. Manning's 38-yard sideline strike to Mario Manningham showed the raw arm talent that made Manning the first player selected in the 2004 NFL draft. Not many quarterbacks can make that throw. Manning made it when the Giants trailed, 17-15, with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Manning completed his first nine attempts for 77 yards and a touchdown, staking the Giants to an early lead as they dominated time of possession to begin the game. Manning made effective use of his running backs and tight ends, executing a mostly conservative game plan. But the Giants settled for field goals too frequently. Both teams had trouble striking on pass plays down the field until Manning found Manningham in the clutch. The two had failed to connect deep down the right sideline earlier in the fourth quarter. Manning's pass was a bit wide. Manningham could have done a better job getting his feet down. Grade: A-minus.

OFFENSE: The Giants came to life in the fourth quarter, a theme for them all season. They also avoided turnovers, a huge key. That excused their earlier offensive struggles, but we'll cover them anyway. New York twice committed drive-dooming penalties after crossing midfield. A first-half holding penalty against guard Kevin Boothe on a third-and-1 play proved pivotal. The infraction wasted Brandon Jacobs' 10-yard run, setting up third-and-1. The Giants went from driving toward likely points and a potential 16-3 lead to watching Tom Brady execute a 96-yard touchdown drive as New England pulled in front, 10-9. Then, with the Giants trailing 17-15 in the fourth quarter, a penalty for illegal procedure left the Giants in another third-and-10 situation, leading to another punt. The Giants did enjoy success early in the game. They were fortunate to recover their own fumbles, especially when Ahmad Bradshaw lost the ball deep in Giants territory. Losing tight ends Travis Beckum and Jake Ballard to injuries left New York with only one available tight end, Bear Pascoe. Grade: B

DEFENSE: Justin Tuck's pressure on Brady forced a safety on the Patriots' first offensive play. That was a sensational start for the Giants. Tuck closed out the game with a third-down sack with 39 seconds remaining. The Giants failed to get enough pressure between those plays, allowing Brady to shred their defense for stretches. But Brady averaged only 6.7 yards per attempt. The Giants held the Patriots to 17 points, about two touchdowns below their regular-season average. Jason Pierre-Paul was effective batting down passes. Chase Blackburn made his presence felt with a de-cleater hit on BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He also picked off a deep pass for Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots' quickness in general and Danny Woodhead's in particular gave the Giants problems, especially with Brady having time to operate. The Giants caught a break when Wes Welker got wide open and dropped a pass that would have moved New England into field-goal range while leading with about four minutes left. Grade: B-plus

COACHING: The Giants left 57 seconds on the clock when Bradshaw scored on a run up the middle to take a 21-17 lead. Bradshaw tried to sit down at the 1-yard line, but his momentum carried him into the end zone. The points were nice, but leaving that much time on the clock for Brady carried risk. The offensive plan seemed conservative and without enough play-action passing early. That was to be expected given Tom Coughlin's philosophy. That showed up when Coughlin handed off instead of taking a shot deep down the field on an early second-and-1. Grade: B

SPECIAL TEAMS: Lawrence Tynes made both field-goal attempts. The Giant did not allow a punt return. They forced New England to begin three drives inside their own 10-yard line. The Patriots never started a drive outside their own 29. No complaints here. Grade: A
The leaping grab Hakeem Nicks made in the end zone for the New York Giants stood as a pivotal moment in their postseason victory over the 15-1 Green Bay Packers last week.

Vernon Davis was the one making impressive catches for the San Francisco 49ers during their playoff victory over the 14-3 New Orleans Saints.

Rain could make holding onto the football tougher for both teams in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park on Sunday.

With that in mind, I've put together a chart showing regular-season catch-to-drop ratios for 49ers and Giants players with at least 10 receptions. The numbers come courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the offending player should have caught the pass with ordinary effort, and only when the receiver is 100 percent at fault."

According to this standard, "Passes thrown just outside the receiver's reach or those falling incomplete when pass interference should have been called do not meet the standard."

These are blatant drops, in other words.

Wide receiver is one position where the Giants have an obvious talent advantage over the 49ers. San Francisco needs improved play from Michael Crabtree in particular. He failed to catch contested balls against New Orleans. Kyle Williams is another 49ers receiver to watch.

49ers running back Frank Gore tops the list of Giants and 49ers players with the fewest receptions per drop. He caught the ball well against the Saints, however.

NFC West Penalty Watch: Critical non-call

November, 18, 2011
New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin thought referee Tony Corrente and crew should have flagged San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis for holding in the final seconds of their game Sunday.

"I think that it’s safe to say that that was defensive holding, yes," Coughlin told reporters this week.

Coughlin's counterpart, Jim Harbaugh, thought Willis operated within the rules when the Pro Bowl linebacker met Giants tight end Jake Ballard with an aggressive jam near the line of scrimmage.

"His arms never got involved," Harbaugh told reporters. "He was playing Ballard off the line, saw his head dip down and I thought it was an outstanding play. There’s allowed to be contact within the first five yards. I have to disagree with coach on that, that he was tackled. I didn’t see Ballard be tackled by Patrick Willis."

For Coughlin, banking on such a call from Corrente might have been a losing proposition. More on that in a bit.

The non-call helped turn over possession on downs, allowing the 49ers to run on the clock on a 27-20 victory at Candlestick Park.

Replays showed Willis lowering his right shoulder and driving it into Ballard's midsection at the line of scrimmage. Willis placed his left hand just below Ballard's right hip. Pausing the video did make it appear as though Willis were preparing to execute a form tackle. The impact lifted Ballard off the ground. But when Ballard landed, he released freely. By then, 49ers defensive end Justin Smith had batted down Eli Manning's pass.

The play made me wonder whether this particular officiating crew called these types of penalties more or less frequently than the crews associated with the other 16 referees. Turns out the crew working the 49ers-Giants game, headed by Corrente, is the only current crew to make zero defensive holding calls against linebackers since the start of the 2009 season.

There have been 59 such calls since 2009, according to ESPN Stats & Information. A referee's crew sometimes changes membership, potentially affecting tendencies, but Corrente's crew has remained largely the same since 2009. Every other crew, including the one led by Clete Blakeman, who has been a referee only since 2010, had made at least one defensive holding call against a linebacker since 2009.

What does this mean? Perhaps nothing. It's possible Corrente's crew has worked games featuring fewer potential holding calls against linebackers. It's also possible his crew is more lenient on these calls.

In this case, a call against Willis would have been more controversial than a non-call, in my view. I'm not convinced Willis violated the rules. Making a call in that situation would have given the Giants a first down, wiping out Smith's pass breakup. Had the Giants then scored and won in overtime, officiating would have been the story of the game.

It's a footnote at this point, but an interesting one given Corrente's history.