NFC West: Jamal Williams

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Cardinals' decision to sign veteran center Melvin Fowler and release backup center Donovan Raiola sent me through my notes from recent pass-rush drills in Arizona.

No doubt, the Cardinals' backup centers struggled in those drills. That's pretty typical, though. Centers are often a little more nimble than other offensive linemen, at the expense of power. My one note on Raiola from Cardinals camp included the line, "78 blew up 50" to reflect Alan Branch defeating Raiola.

Fowler started the first five games with Buffalo last season before suffering an injury against San Diego. His replacement, Duke Preston, played very well against Jamal Williams in a victory over the Chargers. Preston remained the starter. Fowler became a free agent and remained unsigned until now. His agent, Eric Metz, also represents Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. Folwer, 30, has started 60 regular-season games. Raiola, 26, had no starts.

The Scouts Inc. report on Fowler reads this way:

Fowler is six-year veteran who has been a very steady performer in the middle of the Bills' offensive line. He has above-average size and strength, but wins with quickness, technique, intelligence and toughness. Fowler does a great job to snap and step quickly while taking proper angles to gain leverage. He has good hand use and foot agility to stay connected. He can slam and chip well to the second level or scoop offset-defenders with great quickness and technique. He doesn't have great power to get movement on the larger defensive tackles in the league and can be walked back some when one-on-one verse bull rushers. He has excellent flexibility and understands how to set and reset quickly to recover as the play unfolds. He has excellent instincts and a tremendous feel for the game, making all the line calls up front. He reacts quick to changing fronts and blitzes to keep Buffalo's offensive line in the best blocking schemes. Fowler has been very durable over the past few seasons and has become a mainstay on this improving Buffalo offensive line.

This looks like an upgrade for Arizona, at least on the surface, and something the Cardinals probably needed to do.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Dude in Brooklyn writes: Sando, I didn't realize you were so expert with faint praise. Your statement that the 49ers have the best defense in the division couldn't have been less enthusiastic. "Based on what we have seen," "I know they played some weak offenses," "there was a sense they were improved" ... that is not the language of a convinced man.

2008 Defense Yards Per Game
Yards Per Pass Play 3rd Down Pct. Red Zone Pct.
PPG
SF
13 14
12
8
23
ARI
19
24
28
28
28
STL 28
31
17
30
31
SEA 30
27
23
17
25

Fair enough. But why, Mike Sando? There is both an easy positive and negative argument for why the 49ers' defense is the best. They were statistically superior in nearly every category and did so with a crappy offense that constantly left them in bad position with three-and-outs and turnovers. Their per-play stats are top-10 or just below.

Over the course of the season, they played all the same teams except for two, so the schedule argument is bogus. If anything, the Cards should be demoted for not having to play their own offense when the rest of the division had to. The squad has a good mix of experience and youth and includes five former or current Pro Bowlers and several players that are developing quite well.

As for the negative argument ... there's almost nothing good to say about the Rams or Seahawks. I'll leave the Rams alone because they're rebuilding. Yes, the Seahawks had major injuries on offense, but the defense was as healthy as the others in the division. It was bad because it was bad. Are the additions going to be enough? How important are the personnel losses? That defense has more questions than answers and did nothing well last year.

As for the Cards, their defense was 19th despite the advantage of a fourth-ranked offense. Some say they have a good secondary, but they couldn't defend the pass all year. Is a nickel back [Bryant McFadden] and a third-rounder [Rashad Johnson] going to solve their pass-defense woes? For those who think the Cards have a good secondary, I'll leave Sando with a homework assignment that will disabuse you of your rose-tinted glasses: What was the last team to allow more passing TD's than the 2008 Cards?

Mike Sando: The Cardinals allowed 36 passing touchdowns last season. I suspect the 1981 Colts were the last team to allow more (37) in a season. Not good.

To address your broader point, we might be answering different questions. The evidence you cited was from last season. Which NFC West team had the best defense last season? The 49ers, of course, by almost any measure. Which NFC West team will have the best defense in 2009? The 49ers, probably.

Back to the Cardinals. When they were bad, they were really bad. When they were good, they were really good. The 49ers were more consistent defensively. Arizona allowed six touchdown passes to Brett Favre in a single game. Horrible. But when the Cardinals needed to control Matt Ryan and Jake Delhomme in the playoffs, they did it well. That means more than how the 49ers fared in a meaningless game against Buffalo.

The Cardinals can play with a violence and ferocity that is unmatched in the division. That is how they recovered a league-high 17 fumbles last season. The 49ers recovered six. The fumble-forcing hit Darnell Dockett put on Zak Keasey last season comes to mind. The knockout shot Adrian Wilson put on Trent Edwards was another example. Patrick Willis is the only other player in the division to inflict that type of punishment (the hit on Jets receiver Brad Smith last season comes to mind).

The problem in this division is that none of the teams can count on having a strong pass rush. The 49ers could develop one if Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson flourish in the
3-4. The Seahawks could rediscover one if Patrick Kerney gets healthy and some of their recent draft choices develop, etc. But can any team in this division truly count on its pass rush?

(Read full post)

Bulger, Rams receivers out of sync

August, 17, 2008
8/17/08
4:42
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

St. Louis' first-team offense continues to mystify, but watching the Rams' 7-6 victory over San Diego last night provided a few clues. A few observations:

  • First and foremost, quarterback Marc Bulger was not in sync with his receivers. He is a much better quarterback than what we saw in this game. His protection was good enough. Bulger appeared to throw early and behind his intended targets.
Bulger and Drew Bennett appeared to be reading from different playbooks at times. This can happen when the quarterback and receiver are interpreting blitzes and coverages differently. The Sporting News examined this in a 2000 story about the Rams' offense (current offensive coordinator Al Saunders was the receivers coach at the time).
  • The Redskins' quarterbacks also put up shaky numbers when starting out in Saunders' offense. I pulled up the stats from an Aug. 13, 2006 exhibition game between the Redskins and Bengals.
Saunders, the Rams' new offensive coordinator, was in his first year with the Redskins at the time. Jason Campbell, Todd Collins and Mark Brunell combined to complete barely half of their passes with no touchdowns and three interceptions in that game. The Redskins also lost Clinton Portis to injury when the running back made a tackle on an interception return (perhaps Steven Jackson's holdout spared the Rams last night).
  • Rams left tackle Orlando Pace needs the preseason work. Chargers backup Jyles Tucker threw Pace aside before drilling Bulger as the quarterback threw right before halftime. Bulger was shaken up. He's not accustomed to getting blasted in the back when Pace is in the lineup.
  • Leonard Little's return to health gives the Rams an active defensive front. Little gave starting Chargers tackle Jeromey Clary problems. Adam Carriker also brought pressure up the middle after pushing aside Chargers left guard Kris Dielman. I spoke with Little a few days ago. "I'm going to be productive," he said. "That is my whole thing this year."
  • The Chargers rested defensive starters Jamal Williams, Luis Castillo, Shawne Merriman, Stephen Cooper, Quentin Jammer and Antonio Cromartie. That's why I would have expected more from the Rams' passing offense, even without Torry Holt. The communication between quarterback and receiver must improve.
  • This was not a case of the Rams failing to hold up physically. Their starting units held up reasonably well while working against lots of San Diego backups.
  • Darren Sproles, the Chargers' 181-pound running back, took out Rams defensive end Chris Long with a block at the knees. Sproles appeared to be the only blocker assigned to Long on the play.
  • Long makes hustle plays. He accelerated out of the backfield to take down a runner after an 8-yard gain. We are not seeing Long making big plays yet. Without regard for draft status or paycheck values, it's tough to say the Rams are better right now with Long on the field. Backup James Hall appears somewhat rejuvenated this summer. I expect Long to improve as he plays more.
Those are a few things that stood out while watching the first half of this game. I'm going to take a look at the Packers-49ers game next.

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