NFC West: Julius Peppers

Rapid Reaction: Seahawks 42, 49ers 13

December, 23, 2012
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SEATTLE -- Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 42-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers at CenturyLink Field in Week 16:

What it means: The Seahawks improved their record to 10-5 and secured a playoff berth while establishing themselves as arguably the hottest team in the NFL. Their quarterback, Russell Wilson, strengthened his credentials as a candidate for offensive rookie of the year. The 49ers can still claim the NFC West title with a home victory over Arizona in Week 17, but securing a first-round bye appears less likely. That could be a concern for San Francisco given injuries affecting key players Justin Smith (elbow), Vernon Davis (concussion) and Mario Manningham (knee).

Playoff picture: Green Bay can secure the second seed in the NFC and a first-round playoff bye with a victory over Minnesota in Week 17. Seattle appears likely to become the fifth seed, but if the Seahawks beat St. Louis and the 49ers lose at home to the Cardinals, the Seahawks would get a home game as the third seed. I'll post the official scenarios once I get them. Check out ESPN's Playoff Machine for potential outcomes.

What I liked: Seattle's physical play on both sides of the ball and on special teams stood out from the beginning. Guard J.R. Sweezy, a surprise starter at right guard, took out Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis at the knees to help spring Marshawn Lynch's 24-yard touchdown run. Left tackle Russell Okung drove back the 49ers' Aldon Smith to spring Lynch on another run. Safety Kam Chancellor put big hits on Davis, Bruce Miller and Frank Gore to set the tone. And when Red Bryant blocked a David Akers field-goal try to set up Richard Sherman's fumble return for a touchdown, the Seahawks were on their way.

Seattle receivers Doug Baldwin and Sidney Rice made difficult catches in this game. That was a huge change from when the 49ers claimed a 13-6 victory over the Seahawks in Week 7. That was one of the main reasons Seattle jumped to an early lead.

For San Francisco, Willis' acrobatic interception of a pass out of Robert Turbin's hands gave the 49ers a chance to stem the Seahawks' momentum.

The 49ers also did a good job maintaining their pass coverage down the field when Wilson scrambled to buy time. Wilson took sacks for a short loss and gained small amounts in situations in which lesser defenses have allowed the quarterback to complete passes down the field. Wilson's serpentine scramble for a 6-yard gain was impressive, but Seattle still had to punt on the next play. That was a victory for the 49ers' defense.

Michael Crabtree beat Sherman for a 35-yard gain early in the third quarter.

What I didn't like: Officials called a couple 15-yard penalties on plays that appeared to be big hits, not dirty ones. Chancellor's big hit for Seattle knocked Davis from the game. Officials flagged Chancellor, but nothing about the hit appeared outside the rules. Later, officials flagged the 49ers' Chris Culliver for hitting Baldwin while safety Dashon Goldson was putting a WWE-style body slam on the wideout. This play appeared consistent with what we've come to expect when these teams battle it out.

Later in the game, the 49res lost Manningham after Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill hit Manningham low. Years ago, that type of hit might have sparked a brawl. But with current rules discouraging players from hitting high, that type of play could become more common.

The 49ers have proven they can win in hostile environments. Victories at Green Bay, New Orleans and New England provide all the evidence anyone should need. Still, there have been some game-management issues that could be concerning. Fumbled snaps were the issue at New England. This week, the 49ers wasted timeouts and took delay penalties while trying to operate amid deafening noise. Some of those issues are understandable, but the 49ers should expect better on that front.

San Francisco, despite having rushed for 175 yards against Seattle in the previous meeting, went three-and-out with three passes on its first drive. Rainy conditions seemed to make this an ideal time to test a Seattle defense that had allowed a league-worst 5.3 yards per carry from Week 7 through Week 15. The score was out of hand before the 49ers had a chance to establish anything on the ground. Of course, having Gore cough up the football when Chancellor took him down hard might have suggested this was going to be a tough night for the 49ers regardless.

QB comparison: Wilson, ranked second in NFL passer rating and first in Total QBR since Week 6, continued his recent run of efficient play. His four scoring passes more than offset the one pick he threw on a pass off his receiver's hands. Kaepernick struggled with crowd noise and wasn't as accurate or sharp as he had been recently. He threw a pick in the end zone and was fortunate Seattle could not hold onto another pass thrown into coverage. Wilson was much more purposeful than Kaepernick in the way he moved to buy time and avoid sacks.

Third-down domination: The Seahawks converted 11 of 12 times (92 percent) on third down against the 49ers. They scored four touchdowns on four possessions in the red zone. Seattle's defense held the 49ers to 3-of-11 (27 percent) on third down and one touchdown on four red zone possessions.

Stuck on 19.5: Aldon Smith still needs 3.5 sacks to break Michael Strahan's single-season record since 1982, when sacks became an official stat. Smith went without a sack against the Seahawks, leaving him at 19.5 for the season. He faces an Arizona defense that has improved its pass protection despite allowing three sacks to Chicago's Julius Peppers on Sunday.

Lynch does it again: Lynch topped 100 yards rushing for his third consecutive game against the 49ers.

Another block: Bryant's blocked field goal was his fourth over the past two seasons. He has also blocked an extra-point attempt during that time.

Davis concussed: The 49ers announced with 10:19 remaining in the second quarter that Davis would not return to the game. Davis plays nearly all the offensive snaps when healthy. He hasn't been a big factor as a receiver lately, but they valued him for his blocking and for the attention he drew as a big receiver with speed. Garrett Celek took snaps in the two-tight-end sets once Davis departed.

Brown shaken up: The 49ers lost starting cornerback Tarell Brown to injury with 9:17 remaining in the second quarter. Brown was injured while Wilson scrambled for a short gain. He was down on the ground for several minutes as trainers tended to him. Medical staff helped Brown off the field. Brown was able to return a short time later.

Ironman streak ends: 49ers defensive end Justin Smith was named inactive with an elbow injury, ending his streak of starts at 185 regular-season games. That was the longest active streak for a defensive lineman in the NFL. Ricky Jean Francois started in place of Smith at right defensive end.

What's next: The 49ers are home against Arizona. The Seahawks are home against St. Louis.
The NFL handed down only one fine from 16 personal fouls stemming from NFC West teams' final games using replacement officials.

The low number was telling.

Commissioner Roger Goodell usually metes out fines for such penalties when the league feels as though the flags were thrown for good reason.

In this case, Seattle's Brandon Browner was the only player receiving a fine for Week 4 flags from NFC West teams' games. He'll pay $7,875 for unnecessary roughness committed against Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings. Officials flagged Jennings, too, but they did not fine him.

The chart shows all Week 4 personal fouls against individual NFC West players or their opponents, sorted by team and shaded for your viewing pleasure.

The NFL did levy a $15,750 fine against Philadelphia's Jason Babin for a horse-collar tackle against Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling. Officials did not flag Babin on the play, although the penalty appeared to be blatant.

Rams, Seahawks already going deep on line

September, 21, 2012
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The San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals have started the same five offensive linemen through two games of the 2012 NFL season.

That doesn't sound too impressive, but the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams should be envious. Both teams have already had seven players start on their lines, including two apiece at left tackle. And it's only Week 3.

Seattle expects to have left tackle Russell Okung back from a bruised knee when Green Bay visits CenturyLink Field on Monday night.

The Rams are expected to be without left tackle Rodger Saffold for the next month or so. They'll have a backup left tackle against Julius Peppers and the Chicago Bears on Sunday.

St. Louis might find inspiration in the Seahawks' experience at Soldier Field last season. Seattle limited Peppers to one sack during a 38-14 victory in Chicago with Paul McQuistan starting at left tackle for the injured Okung.

The chart reflects lineups through Week 2 only, excluding the Thursday night game between Carolina and the New York Giants.

Hurdles rising for NFC West left tackles

September, 18, 2012
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Arizona, St. Louis and Seattle won games Sunday with the following backups getting most or all of the snaps at left tackle:
  • D'Anthony Batiste, Cardinals: He's starting in place of the injured Levi Brown. Batiste struggled against Seattle's Chris Clemons in the opener. I thought he was generally effective during the Cardinals' 20-18 victory at New England. He had problems during a third-down sequence deep in Cardinals territory, drawing a flag for holding and then giving up a sack. Batiste was not consistently a liability, however. The Cardinals helped him on occasion but did not consistently funnel extra blockers toward Batiste's side. Batiste was not a significant limiting factor for the offense. In fact, I thought pressure came from other areas more frequently. Quarterback Kevin Kolb did a good job moving in concert with his linemen, so there were fewer surprises for the guys up front.
  • Wayne Hunter, Rams: Hunter took over for Rodger Saffold after Saffold suffered a sprained knee during the Rams' victory over Washington. The Rams had to settle for a field goal before halftime after a holding penalty against Hunter moved back the offense. A third-quarter holding penalty set back the offense again. The Rams were best when Sam Bradford threw quickly from three-receiver sets. That could be a remedy for their tackle situation. Bradford completed all nine of his third-down attempts against the Redskins. The Rams expect Saffold to miss at least one month. They caught a break against Washington when the Redskins lost Brian Orakpo to a season-ending injury. Hunter could be matched against Julius Peppers in Week 3.
  • Frank Omiyale, Seahawks: Omiyale started against Dallas while Russell Okung was recovering from a bruised knee. Okung is expected back to face Clay Matthews and the Green Bay Packers' defense on "Monday Night Football" in Week 3. The Seahawks helped Omiyale some of the time. Omiyale held up without assistance when protecting Russell Wilson's blind side during a 22-yard scoring pass to tight end Anthony McCoy. Dallas' Demarcus Ware finished the game with no sacks. Seattle rushed for 182 yards while allowing only two sacks, one of which resulted from an unblocked rusher coming free on Wilson's front side, away from Omiyale. Seattle got through this game as well as could be expected. The team has averaged 3.5 yards per rush with Okung and 4.4 yards without him. The per-carry average was slightly higher without Okung last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. There are other variables, however. Okung is easily the most talented option at tackle.

Looking at the schedule, every NFC West left tackle faces a tough test in Week 3. San Francisco's Joe Staley matches up against Minnesota's Jared Allen. Batiste faces Philadelphia's Trent Cole. Hunter draws Peppers while Okung or Omiyale faces Matthews.
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals do not yet know which players will start at offensive tackle for them.

The Cardinals do have a pretty good idea which players those tackles will have to block in passing situations this season.

The list includes Jared Allen and Jason Babin, who combined for 40 sacks last season while ranking first and third, respectively, in that category. Overall, the Cardinals face nine of the 17 NFL players with at least 10 sacks last season, plus another player, John Abraham, who finished with 9.5. There are also players expected to reach double figures in sacks this season after failing to do so in 2011. Mario Williams and Clay Matthews head that list.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic identifies D'Anthony Batiste (left) and rookie Bobby Massie (right) as potential favorites to start at tackle after a triceps injury knocked out left tackle Levi Brown, perhaps for the season.

Batiste, 30, started four games for Atlanta in 2007. Massie, a fourth-round choice, started 29 consecutive games at right tackle to end his career at Mississippi.

The chart shows the Cardinals' 2012 schedule, plus projected top pass-rushers from the left and right sides of each opponent's defense. Those pass-rushers' sack totals from 2011 appear in parenthesis.

Rams: Dream/nightmare scenario

May, 25, 2012
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AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rams head into the offseason with another high draft choice, one they'll almost certainly have to invest in a playmaker of some sort.
Thoughts on Seattle Seahawks first-round pick Bruce Irvin after reading John Clayton's piece questioning the selection:
  • Specific role: The Seahawks envision Irvin as a situational pass-rusher for now and the evenutal successor to Chris Clemons in the "Leo" role. Clemons was a 236-pound linebacker coming out of college. He had a 4.7-second time in the 40-yard dash, went undrafted as a junior and floundered in Philadelphia. The Seahawks acquired him with a specific role in mind. Clemons ranks eighth in the NFL with 22 sacks over the last two seasons, more than Julius Peppers, James Harrison, Clay Matthews, Dwight Freeney, Trent Cole, Jason Pierre-Paul and others. Clemons now weighs 255 pounds and has become much stronger against the run. Irvin is Clemons' height (6-foot-3) and weighs 245 pounds, but he is much faster, having run the 40 in 4.4 seconds. The plan would be for Irvin to grow into a bigger role, not to remain a situational player forever.
  • Value at No. 15: Draft analysts did not anticipate Irvin's selection at No. 15. It's impossible to know whether the Seahawks could have drafted Irvin later than that. Three teams running variations of the 4-3 defense selected defensive ends in the first round. Irvin went first, followed by Shea McClellin to Chicago at No. 19 and Chandler Jones to New England at No. 21. Jacksonville, picking 38th, was the next 4-3 team to select a defensive end (Andre Branch). There was a six-pick window for 4-3 teams to select a pass-rusher in the first round. Seattle opened the window. Chicago and New England closed it, with the Patriots trading up to make sure the window did not slam on them. The Seahawks liked Jones, but concerns over a toe injury raised questions about how early they would select him. They were comfortable with the off-field issues Irvin carried into the draft.
  • Whether Irvin starts: Aldon Smith collected 14 sacks in a situational role with San Francisco last season. Robert Mathis had three seasons with double-digit sacks as a reserve at various points in his career with Indianapolis. Years ago, a young Anthony Smith put together three consecutive seasons with double-digit sacks despite rarely starting for the Los Angeles Raiders. The plan is for Aldon Smith to become a starter this year. Mathis continued to produce as a starter. Anthony Smith's sack numbers fell. Clemons is the best comparison for Irvin. They have physical similarities. They are playing in the same scheme. The same coaches and personnel people decided they fit the same role.

Irvin will be a fun player to watch during training camp. Dexter Davis is another Seattle pass-rusher to keep in mind. He missed all but one game last season after suffering a hip injury and could be overlooked heading toward the season.

Wrap-up: Seahawks 38, Bears 14

December, 18, 2011
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Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks during their 38-14 victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Week 15:

What it means: The Seahawks (7-7) kept themselves alive in the NFC playoff picture through a mix of big-play defense and special teams, backed by continued efficient play from quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. The team has matched its victory total from last season and can finish with a winning record by beating San Francisco (home) and Arizona (road) in the final two weeks.

What I liked: Strong safety Kam Chancellor forced an early turnover. Also in the first half, free safety Earl Thomas picked off a pass deep in Seahawks territory. Defensive tackle Red Bryant scored on an interception return set up by K.J. Wright's quarterback pressure. Cornerback Brandon Browner scored on an interception return. Marshawn Lynch scored a touchdown for the 10th consecutive game in which he has played. Lynch ran more effectively than the raw stats indicated. His average suffered from a 2-yard scoring run and some unfortunate early play calling in the red zone. Jon Ryan and the punt coverage team pinned the Bears deep in their own territory to give Seattle an early edge in field position. Jackson got hot early in the second half, finding Golden Tate and Ben Obomanu for long gains, setting up another Lynch TD, this one to tie the game. Jackson completed 19 of 31 passes for 227 yards, one touchdown and a 94.4 NFL passer rating.

What I didn't like: The Seahawks, by pitching the ball outside to Leon Washington instead of hammering straight ahead with Lynch, conceded the conventional running game on their first possession in the red zone. Seattle also left its backup left tackle, Paul McQuistan, alone against Bears defensive end Julius Peppers on a third-and-13 play from deep in Seattle territory. That unsurprisingly led to a sack, forced fumble and Bears touchdown to erase a 7-0 Seahawks lead. Center Max Unger, though enjoying a strong season overall, remained inconsistent with his shotgun snap placement. He was too high against St. Louis last week and too low this week, resulting in fumbled snaps both times.

What's next: The Seahawks are home against the 49ers in Week 16.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 16, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Forget about running the ball: The San Francisco 49ers own the NFL's longest ongoing streak of games without allowing an individual 100-yard rusher. The streak dates to Ryan Grant's 129-yard game for Green Bay in Week 11 of the 2009 season. The 49ers' Week 15 opponent, Pittsburgh, hasn't allowed very many, either. Baltimore's Ray Rice (twice) and Houston's Arian Foster are the only players to rush for 100-plus yards against the Steelers since the 49ers' streak began. We should not expect much from Frank Gore and Rashard Mendenhall on Monday night, in other words.

Keep an eye on that fourth quarter: The 49ers are allowing only 14 points per game. That would be the second-lowest average allowed in franchise history if sustained over the season. Opponents have scored 42.3 percent of their points against the 49ers in fourth quarters, however. The 49ers have allowed 27 fourth-quarter points in their three defeats this season. Their past eight opponents have scored only 104 points, or 13 per game, but they scored half of them in fourth quarters. Can the 49ers finish against the Steelers?

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireSeahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has 969 rushing yards in 12 games this season.
Riding the Marshawn Lynch train: Lynch rushed for 573 yards in 12 games with the Seattle Seahawks last season. He has 969 yards in 12 games this season. While Lynch managed only 44 yards on 17 carries against Chicago in his Seahawks debut last season, his hard-nosed running gave Seattle a needed edge in an upset victory. The way Seattle won that game -- with tough defense, a big back and an efficient quarterback -- showed how coach Pete Carroll envisioned winning games. Can the Seahawks do it again?

Nothing comes easy: The Arizona Cardinals are tied with Denver for the most games decided by seven or fewer points this season (10). Fifteen total points separated Arizona from its opponents in the four games won with John Skelton as the Cardinals' primary quarterback. The opponent this week, Cleveland, has played close games against the Cardinals' NFC West rivals. The Browns beat Seattle by three (6-3), lost to St. Louis by one (13-12) and played the 49ers relatively close in San Francisco (20-10). The Browns' likely starting quarterback Sunday, Seneca Wallace, started four games last season. Two were decided by a total of four points.

Shuffling lines: The St. Louis Rams head into their game against Cincinnati having started nine players on their offensive line, tied for second-most in the NFL this season. The Rams and Seahawks are the only teams in the league without any offensive linemen starting all games at the same position, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Seattle has weathered the turnover fairly well, but facing the Bears' Julius Peppers without injured left tackle Russell Okung could be problematic.

Opponent injuries help Seahawks' cause

December, 5, 2011
12/05/11
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The Seattle Seahawks' last two games have cost them two of their best offensive players.

Receiver Sidney Rice and left tackle Russell Okung are finished for the season.

Injuries are part of the game, of course, and Seattle's next two opponents can offer corroborating evidence:
  • St. Louis, Week 14: The Rams have placed 10 cornerbacks on injured reserve this season. Like the Seahawks, they are playing without both starting offensive tackles. An ankle injury has sidelined their quarterback, Sam Bradford. Coach Steve Spagnuolo said Monday the Rams weren't sure if Bradford would return this week.
  • Chicago, Week 15: A trip to Chicago in December is rarely fun for the Bears' opponents. Facing the Bears without Okung's presence against Julius Peppers will be daunting. However, the Bears are hurting worse after losing quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. The knee injury Forte suffered Sunday will sideline him for weeks.

The Seahawks are 5-7. They have a better-than-expected chance at reaching 7-7 before San Francisco visits in Week 16. Matching their 7-9 record from last season once appeared unlikely. Not any longer.

Earlier: Seattle, Arizona suddenly have playoff hopes.
Justin SmithAP Photo/Paul SakumThe 49ers' Justin Smith has collected 8.5 of his 21.5 sacks after the third quarter since 2008.

The try-hard guy, long revered by NFL fans for overcoming physical limitations with all-out effort, has not been universally loved.

Established veterans with a feel for how to practice during long, demanding regular seasons can become resentful when the try-hard guy's misplaced fury produces unwanted collisions.

So, for the sake of clarity, the try-hard guy is excused from this conversation about pass-rushers so relentless, they wear down opponents over the course of a game.

We're talking about players with enough talent to command significant playing time, many as high draft choices or big-ticket free agents. We're talking about the San Francisco 49ers' Justin Smith, one of two NFC West players to receive votes in ESPN.com's Power Rankings for defensive players. Patrick Willis was the other.

"Justin Smith is a relentless player who wears down opponents by coming after them each and every play," BigBrad184 wrote in response to this item Wednesday morning. "I don't have any stats to back this up, but it seems like he often gets many of his sacks in the fourth quarter because of the fatigue he causes to offensive lineman."

Interesting thought.

"Maybe breaking out Smith's sacks by quarter over the past few years is a project for Sando," BigBrad184 concluded.

Done deal. John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Information responded to my request for the statistical evidence BigBrad184 was seeking. Smith does rank among the NFL leaders for fourth-quarter sacks in recent seasons, but two other NFC West players, including one of Smith's teammates, rank higher on the list.

More on the results in a bit. First, a look at the methodology.

Fisher provided a file with quarter-by-quarter sack totals for every player since 2001. I filtered the information to consider:

  • The last three seasons. There was no sense comparing totals for eight-year veterans against players entering the league more recently. At the same time, three seasons was long enough to pile up adequate numbers.
  • Players with at least 10 sacks. This reduced qualifying players from 668 to 99, a more manageable number featuring more "name" players.
  • Late-game production. I then divided the remaining 99 players' fourth-quarter and overtime sack totals by their total sacks, producing percentages that might tell us which players tend to wear down opponents.

The 49ers' Smith collected 8.5 of his 21.5 sacks in fourth quarters or overtimes since 2008. That worked out to 39.5 percent, which ranked 22nd among the 99 qualifying players.

Philadelphia's Darren Howard, who did not play in 2010, led the way with 75.8 percent of his sacks (11.5 of 16.5) after the third quarter. He was on the Eagles' roster for two of the three seasons in question and never played even half the defensive snaps in either year. But he was highly effective as a situational player, at least when measured by sack totals. Only Jared Allen (15) and Joey Porter (14) had more total sacks after the first three quarters.

There was no way to tell whether players with higher late-game sack percentages had more or better late-game opportunities for reasons unrelated to being relentless. Players operating within superior schemes or alongside better teammates certainly benefited. Overall, players collected more sacks in second and fourth quarters, no surprise given that teams attempted 6,130 additional passes during those quarters over the past three seasons, a likely reflection of two-minute situations.

The San Francisco 49ers' Parys Haralson (52.9 percent) and the St. Louis Rams' Chris Long (48.6 percent) ranked highest in fourth-quarter sack percentage among current NFC West players with at least 10 sacks over the past three seasons. Haralson was seventh in the league. Long was ninth. Former 49er Tully Banta-Cain was 10th (48.4 percent), while Arizona's Joey Porter (44.4 percent), St. Louis' Fred Robbins (44.4 percent), ex-Seahawk Lawrence Jackson (44.0 percent) and current Seahawk Chris Clemons (41.0 percent) ranked among the top 20.

Were these guys merely slow starters? Were they strong finishers? Did they wear down opponents over the course of games? The numbers do not answer those questions definitively, but they provide a starting point for discussion.

I was also interested in seeing which players collected a disproportionate number of sacks earlier in games. They were, at best, tone setters. At worst, they failed to finish or failed to adequately wear down opponents. The previous disclaimers applied to them as well.

As the chart below shows, three of the 10 qualifying players with the lowest percentages of late-game sacks have NFC West roots.

Arizona's Calais Campbell has 5.5 of his 13 sacks in first quarters, but only one in fourth quarters or overtimes. The 49ers' Manny Lawson collected 11 of his 12 sacks in the first three quarters. Darryl Tapp, traded from Seattle to Philadelphia in the deal for Clemons, has 4.5 sacks in each of the first two quarters, but only two in second halves (one after the third quarter).

A few other observations with an eye toward the NFC West:

  • Porter (six) and Campbell (5.5) rank among the top seven in most first-quarter sacks. The 49ers' Smith is right behind with five.
  • Arizona's Darnell Dockett has nine of his 16 sacks in second quarters. Eight players have more second-quarter sacks over the past three seasons, but all are edge-rusher types. Dockett plays end in a 3-4 scheme.
  • Pittsburgh's James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are a third-quarter nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Harrison leads the NFL with 15.5 sacks in third quarters. Woodley is second with 12. Former Cardinal Calvin Pace ranks in the top 10 with 7.5.
  • Porter and Allen are tied for the most fourth-quarter sacks in the NFL over the past three seasons. Each has 14 (Allen also had one in overtime). DeMarcus Ware and Robert Mathis are next with 13.5, followed by Dwight Freeney and Julius Peppers with 12.5.

Back to the original question: Is the 49ers' Smith a relentless player who wears down opponents, producing fourth-quarter payoffs?

He might be, but he produces well enough across all quarters to transcend the try-hard label and probably even the relentless label as well. He's a beast.
Glen Coffee's sudden retirement from the San Francisco 49ers following only one season came as a shock.

Former NFL prospect Rich Williams had the right idea when he opted out of the 2002 draft and moved on with his life -- without leaving any employer hanging.

It's tough to fault Coffee for giving the NFL a try despite the ambivalence he later said he was feeling all along. The financial stakes were high and making a hasty decision to step away would have damaged any attempts to come back. The way things went, Coffee departed the NFL knowing for sure football was not for him. It was a bad break for the 49ers.

Back to Williams. Allison Glock's piece about him for ESPN The Magazine was one of the better offseason reads I've come across this year.

Williams says he has no regrets about walking away from a football career analysts thought he would begin as a mid-round draft choice. While Julius Peppers, John Henderson, Dwight Freeney, Albert Haynesworth and Charles Grant headlined the 2002 class of defensive linemen, Williams went about becoming a teacher, an evangelist and a competitive strongman.

Williams holds world records for grip strength. According to Glock's story, he lifted a 163-pound anvil by the horn and carried it 60-plus feet -- with one hand.

As for Coffee? His agent, Todd Crannell, said Coffee has worked toward his degree at Alabama, channeled his competitive energy into boxing and followed his brother's career as a running back at South Carolina.

"Glen played four years in high school, four in college and one in the NFL -- enough to know if he likes it," Crannell said. "If someone worked at McDonald's for nine years and wanted to quit, no one would wonder why. The money in the NFL is different, obviously, but money has no value to Glen. The NFL is such a brand that it's hard for people to understand when someone just does not like it."

Bears, Soldier Field rough on Seahawks

January, 16, 2011
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Aaron CurryAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesSeattle's Aaron Curry waits as teammate Marcus Trufant is tended to following an injury.
CHICAGO -- Michael Robinson watched two Seattle Seahawks teammates leave Soldier Field on stretcher boards before emerging from a pileup with damaged ribs.

The veteran fullback winced while dressing at his locker following the Seattle Seahawks' 35-24 divisional-round playoff defeat to the Chicago Bears. Losing in the playoffs hurt, no doubt, but the medical implications seemed so much more significant -- particularly with NFL owners determined to extend the regular season by two games.

"They gotta do something to the roster size on game day," Robinson said. "They're going to have to. They're killing us, man."

Seattle played its 18th game of the season Sunday, counting playoffs.

Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu made it through the game despite suffering a concussion that left him staggering during the final stages of a wild-card victory over New Orleans. Tight end John Carlson and cornerback Marcus Trufant were less fortunate. They remained hospitalized overnight while their teammates traveled home. Both suffered concussions. Neither appeared responsive while doctors huddled around them.

Coach Pete Carroll said he expected Carlson and Trufant to be OK, but this was Trufant's second concussion in nine games -- both suffered while going low to tackle larger players. Of course, hitting opponents too high can cost players in the wallet.

"Look at all the injuries that happen during a 16-game season," Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons said. "Eighteen games, yeah, you might have guys make it through the season, but I think it will cause a lot more injuries."

Carlson leaped high to avoid safety Danieal Manning following a 14-yard reception along the Seattle sideline. Manning hit Carlson legally. Carlson tumbled to the ground face-first, landing like a diver striking the bottom of an empty pool. He did not move. Carlson's left arm stuck out away from his body in a manner that appeared unnatural.

The play carried immediate physical ramifications for Carlson. It carried psychological and strategic ones for his teammates. Seattle had just fallen behind, 7-0, when Matt Hasselbeck found Carlson open in the left flat. The play appeared relatively routine to that point.

Seattle's only other tight end, Cameron Morrah, suffered a turf-toe injury later in the game. He returned, but quarterback Hasselbeck said the issues at tight end reduced the Seahawks to exploring only one corner of the giant play sheet coordinator Jeremy Bates prepares each week. Options in the running game diminished substantially.

Another tight end, Chris Baker, was already on injured reserve.

Carlson had caught two scoring passes, both after beautifully executed play-action fakes, during Seattle's 41-36 victory over the Saints.

"We had some creative stuff [in the plan] like we had last week with John Carlson," Hasselbeck said. "Because of Julius Peppers and because of their blitz, we are a heavy leave-the-tight-end-in and leave-the-running-back-in-to-block kind of team. Obviously, in our run game, short yardage, goal line, all of those situations, we no longer had any of those."

The score was 21-0 midway through the third quarter when Trufant cut down tight end Kellen Davis following a 3-yard reception. Again, there wasn't much special about the play. But it was obvious right away Trufant wasn't getting up on his own. Medical personnel hurried onto the field with a stretcher board while Trufant lay motionless.

Like Carlson, Trufant left the field on a motorized cart. Straps immobilized their bodies.

"All indications are that both are OK," Carroll said. "It was a serious concussion on the field for both of those guys."

While labor uncertainty clouds the immediate future for the NFL and its players, owners have been unrelenting in their pursuit of an 18-game season. The idea has appeal for season-ticket holders already paying full price for two home exhibition games. Owners proposed expanding rosters and changing how injured reserve lists operate. Players countered by asking for less contact during offseason practices, among other concessions.

"I think it's a give-and-take situation," Clemons said.

Injuries and long-term labor concerns weren't the only stories for the Seahawks on a cold, snowy afternoon.

The Bears were clearly the better team in all the critical areas. That realization brought clarity and perspective to Seattle's most unusual season. The first team to win its division with a losing record played well enough in Week 17 and in the wild-card round to enter the offseason with signs of clear progress.

"This team has taken big strides within even the last three weeks," strong safety Lawyer Milloy said. "Three weeks ago, I couldn't have told you how we would have responded when the world champions were up on us 10-0."

Seattle turned that 10-0 deficit to New Orleans into one of its most memorable victories. Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard run became national news. Hasselbeck, with four touchdown passes in that game and three more against the Bears, appeared viable again.

There were nits to pick Sunday. The Seahawks' receivers, notably Mike Williams, failed to compete well enough for contested balls. More broadly, the team will need to continue its ongoing roster overhaul. Finding the next quarterback should be a priority.

Those issues can wait for another day.

The Seahawks' late run dragged down their draft status from eighth to 25th in the overall order, a price Seattle will happily pay.

"This is extremely important for us, to feel that we can come together and we can find our level and potential of this team," Carroll said. "We played very well these last couple weeks and we practiced beautifully. ... There were times during the season you would have thought it could have gone another way."

Final Word: Seahawks at Bears

January, 14, 2011
1/14/11
4:00
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Divisional Final Word: Ravens-Steelers | Jets-Patriots | Packers-Falcons | Seahawks-Bears

Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Seahawks-Bears divisional game at Soldier Field:


[+] EnlargeCurt Warner
AP PhotoSeattle's Curt Warner scored the game-winning touchdown in the Seahawks' last road playoff victory, a 27-20 win against the Dolphins in 1983.
It's been a long road for Seattle. The Seahawks will be looking for their first postseason road victory since upsetting the Miami Dolphins following the 1983 season. They are 1-7 on the road during the postseason and 0-1 at a neutral site (Detroit, Super Bowl XL). Seattle won that divisional-round game at Miami by committing only one turnover and forcing five. That Seattle team, like this one, was breaking in a new head coach (Chuck Knox then, Pete Carroll now). That Seattle team, like this one, was the fourth seed in its conference. That team, like this one, beat the No. 5 seed in the wild-card round. Those Dolphins, like these Bears, were the No. 2 seed.

Matt Hasselbeck, the week after. Seattle's veteran quarterback is coming off the fifth game of his career with at least four touchdown passes. He played well the following week in three of the previous five opportunities. One notable exception: the time in 2006 when Hasselbeck, having picked apart the New York Giants' defense during a 42-30 victory a week earlier, struggled in defeat at Chicago. Seattle's inability to block Tommie Harris was pivotal to that outcome. Containing defensive end Julius Peppers, something Seattle did better than anticipated in Week 6, stands out as a key this time.

Emphasis on turnovers. Every coach talks about them. Carroll sets aside one day each week to focus on them. Turnovers are a greater threat to Seattle this week. Chicago has forced more of them than any team in the league since Lovie Smith arrived as head coach before the 2004 season. The Bears tied for third in the NFL this season with 35 forced turnovers (21 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries), according to the team and the NFL. Seattle lost 32 turnovers this season (17 at home and 15 on the road, counting playoffs). The Seahawks have lost only two in their past three games, however, after suffering 13 in their previous four.

Score to settle: Seahawks vs. Bears

January, 11, 2011
1/11/11
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CutlerRob Grabowski/US PresswireIn their 23-20 win over Chicago in Week 6, the Seahawks sacked Jay Cutler six times.
The Seattle Seahawks and Chicago Bears needed 130 offensive plays, 18 punts and more than three hours to decide their Week 6 matchup at Soldier Field.

Sizing up their impending divisional-round playoff rematch shouldn't require so much trouble.

"I think Seattle is going to get killed," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "I’m not a believer at all."

Uh, oh. This could get ugly.

"Matt Williamson is the perfect person to offer counterbalance on the Seahawks," NFC West blog regular fundadfor2 wrote. "He couldn't think less of our team or players. Heck, he did a list showing the top 15 or 20 rookies this season, and Earl Thomas wasn't to be found. Neither was Russell Okung. Matt seems to have an axe and is looking for a grinding wheel."

Not quite.

Williamson once ranked the Seahawks 11th when our 11 other panelists had them 17th to 27th. He did single out both Thomas and Okung for praise during various installments of his weekly rookie watch. It's possible Williamson is basing his thoughts on what he saw from Seattle during its nine double-digit defeats this season.

Of course, the Seahawks did win at Chicago 23-20 in that Week 6 game. And they did just shock the New Orleans Saints 41-36 in the wild-card round, with Matt Hasselbeck outdueling Drew Brees.

"Chicago had best hope that this doesn't come down to the QB position," fundadfor2 wrote. "Matt Hasselbeck has been very good in the playoffs, and Jay Cutler -- well, I do believe this is his first sniff of the postseason. The game is different. The pressure is different. ... Cutler is up and down, and I don't expect him to have one of his better days."

This conversation began on the NFC West blog Monday when I threw open the subject for discussion. I also reached out to Williamson and ESPN college football analyst Brock Huard, the former Seahawks quarterback and current co-host on 710ESPN Seattle. Huard outlined four keys to the game from Seattle's perspective:

  • Can the makeshift Seahawks offensive line handle the Bears' front four? Huard: "Lovie Smith would love to hit and pressure with their defensive line so Matt Hasselbeck can't take advantage of one-on-one mismatches outside or beat the blitz with his quick decision-making."
  • Can Jay Cutler take care of the football and Mike Martz be patient in his play calling? Huard: "With Colin Cole back in the middle of Seattle's defensive line and Brandon Mebane playing the best ball of his career, will the Hawks be able to win in early run-down situations as they did in Week 6? If so, Martz's patience will be tested."
  • Can Seattle corners Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings make a play on the ball? Huard: "They have one interception each all season and Cutler will give his receivers a chance downfield."
  • Can the Seahawks' front seven get off the ball without the half-step advantage Qwest Field creates? Huard: "With a projected high temperature of 10 to 13 degrees, the field will slow down the game at the line of scrimmage, and a 10 a.m. PT kickoff has been a Seattle stumbling block."

The early kickoff didn't seem to hurt Seattle much against Chicago in Week 6. I don't think it's a big factor for the playoffs. Seattle is arriving Friday, just in case.

And in a surprise, Seattle has collected 22 of its 37 sacks on the road this season, including a season-high six against the Bears. Defensive backs collected 4.5 of those six sacks, however, and Seattle has become more reliant on its defensive ends to pressure quarterbacks lately.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Jerry Lai/US PresswireMatt Forte finished the regular season strong, gaining at least 90 yards in each of the Bears' last three games.
"The Bears win because of their running game and defense," adambballn wrote. "The Saints didn't have the ability to take advantage of the Seahawks' bad run defense due to the amount of injuries they suffered at running back."

No doubt, New Orleans ran out of options at running back with Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory on injured reserve. The Saints lacked balance. Drew Brees attempted 60 passes. That played into the Seahawks' strengths in a loud environment. Brees was good, but not good enough to match one of Hasselbeck's most impressive efforts.

"The answer is simple," jogan13 wrote. "Stop Cutler, make him make bad decisions and you will win. The Bears don't play well from behind, especially if they are throwing a lot. Keep the pressure on Cutler, throw in some zone blitzes. In the end, the Seahawks will win by 14 or more."

Sounds optimistic. Cutler actually has much better passing numbers when trailing. He has seven touchdowns and eight picks when leading, but 13 touchdowns and eight picks when trailing. Elias Sports Bureau has all the situational numbers here.

One question I have is whether Martz's pass-happy instincts will prevail under pressure.

"Too many Bears fans ignore the Martz factor," DiLune2 wrote. "NFC West teams/fans are very familiar with him. He will lose his mind in big games. He will absolutely forget he has a running back because he wants to prove how smart he is. I don't see why people expect a different result from him this weekend."

Lovie Smith hit the override button on Martz near midseason. The Bears have become much more of a running team since carrying only 14 times against Seattle. Cutler passed for seven touchdowns, two interceptions and a 107.6 rating on play-action attempts this season. That reflects a running threat.

Running back Matt Forte joined Walter Payton as the only players in Bears history with at least 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in the same season.

"Martz has changed everything he believes in and is playing in a wintry town," Williamson said. "Cutler has been very good and the line, though still a weakness, is starting to sort of jell. The defense is top three in the league behind Green Bay and Pittsburgh. They rush four, Julius Peppers is an animal, their defensive line is good, they are good at all levels, they are great tacklers, they are exceptional at causing turnovers and even though Seattle's special teams are fantastic, Chicago is the only one I have ahead of them, mostly because of Devin Hester.

"Simply put," Williamson added,"I think the Bears are a good football team."

OK, but the Seahawks just beat one of those. Hasselbeck burned the Saints' gambling defense for four touchdown passes. Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards. Brees had better success against the "Bandit" packages that gave Cutler so much trouble in Week 6, but Brees is better than Cutler, so that wasn't such a shock.

"Lynch will need to have another big game," Hawkfannumber1 wrote. "Hasselbeck will need to be more concerned with turnovers against the Bears' defense, but he also won't need to score as much. I don't think either team will score more that 24 points. The defense will need a different game plan. The Bears will be ready for the 'Bandit' package this time. They will still need to get a ton of pressure on Cutler to get the defense off the field. If Cutler has time, he will play much better. Lastly, don't kick it to Hester."

We should probably mention Leon Washington in here somewhere, too. Opponents have contained Seattle's return specialist in recent weeks. He had a 42-yard kickoff return against the Bears.

That was nearly three months ago. Much has changed.

The Bears were without Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs then. Seattle was without Brandon Mebane, one of the team's best defensive linemen. Okung was making his second NFL start after coming back from ankle problems that have continued to bother him all season. His ability to match up against Peppers proved critical in Week 6.

[+] EnlargeRussell Okung
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenRussell Okung's matchup with Bears DE Julius Peppers will be critical for Seattle's offense.
"I think this game hinges on a few things, but the absolute key hinge is Russell Okung," Trynfadethis wrote. "If he can't win his matchup against Julius Peppers, then the Bears dominate. We can assume the Bears will stop the run. That's fine. The question is, if Hasselbeck has time, can they stop Mike Williams, Brandon Stokely, Ben Obomanu, Cameron Morrah and a rediscovered John Carlson? I think it's pretty simple. If the Bears don't change up bigtime on defense, then Seattle will score 24-plus points unless Hasselbeck really just tanks. So then it's on Cutler to score more."

The Bears have scored at least 31 points in two of their past three home games. All three were against playoff teams. They scored 31 against Philadelphia, 38 against the New York Jets and seven against New England.

Cutler did throw six picks over the final four games, though.

"An inexperienced playoff QB (Cutler) with a history of being a head case -- not a good combination," jeff0621 wrote.

"An old QB who hurts himself running five yards with no contact whatsoever -- not a good combination," Les_ Grossman_ countered, alluding to Hasselbeck's ill-fated touchdown run at Tampa Bay in Week 16.

Bears fans and Seahawks fans -- a good combination. Let's bring in a self-described Green Bay fan. Take it away, ZTA.

"With a couple of exceptions, the Bears have been playing solid defense," ZTAclerk wrote. "It's hard to stop the Patriots, as we've seen, and the Jets can be feast-or-famine. Seattle played a really good, balanced game against the Saints and was definitely assisted by the 12th man. If the Seahawks can put together a solid offensive gameplan around a quick Bears defense and keep the special teams from giving the Bears short field, the game can be close. If the special teams fail or the offense lets the Bears' defense dictate the game, I can't see them winning on the road."

ESPN's Trent Dilfer said he thought the Bears would probably hold Seattle to between 13 and 17 points (see video below), putting little pressure on Cutler to do anything out of the ordinary.

The score was 23-20 last time, but Seattle's Jon Ryan punted a season-high 10 times in that game. The 18 combined punts marked a single-game season high for both teams.

Hasselbeck did find Williams for 10 receptions and 123 yards. The temperature was 61 degrees that day, however, and Hasselbeck was rested coming off a bye week. His left wrist had yet to be broken and his hip, which now requires periodic draining, was healthy.

Hasselbeck has thrown 35 interceptions over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. He was hot last week, but consistency has been a problem. Hasselbeck has put together strong performances in back-to-back weeks only once in 2010, and that was after sitting out Week 9. That's why his brilliant performance against the Saints came as such a pleasant surprise for Seattle fans.

"I think what everyone is overlooking is that the Saints' defense completely collapsed in the wild-card game," goldfngr_77 wrote. "How much of that performance was a great offensive outing by the Seahawks (Lynch's eye-popping run not withstanding) and how much was the Saints' defense laying an egg? When you look at the makeup of this Bears defense, they have a lot of playoff experience and many with Super Bowl experience. I don't think you will see them implode at home the way the Saints did on the road, and that will be the difference in the game."

Sounds logical.

Of course, if the wild-card round proved anything, it's that logic doesn't always apply.

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