NFC West: Keyshawn Johnson
Their NFC Championship Game preview begins at the 4:35 mark of the above-linked podcast. Check it out.
Tucker expects the Falcons to play well after finally claiming their first postseason victory since coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan arrived in 2008. He thinks the Falcons will be well-prepared for Colin Kaepernick's running.
"Ultimately, however, I just think the 49ers have better football players, especially on the defensive side of the ball," Tucker said. "I think they are better up front on both sides of the ball, and that that is what will ultimately carry the day."
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. envisions the Falcons picking off Kaepernick once or twice, but he's leaning toward the 49ers as well. As for Soderberg? He makes his pick at about the 13:10 mark.
Related: Check out ESPN's expert picks for the week. Chris Mortensen and Keyshawn Johnson are taking the Falcons to beat the 49ers.
Merril Hoge, Chris Mortensen, Mark Schlereth, Seth Wickersham and Keyshawn Johnson are picking the Green Bay Packers to defeat the San Francisco 49ers in the teams' divisional playoff game Saturday.
K.C. Joyner is calling the 49ers' offense overrated while pointing to diminished run blocking, the absence of a downfield passing threat and questions on special teams in explaining why San Francisco is vulnerable.
What kind of respect is this for the team that stood No. 1 in ESPN's NFL Power Rankings three weeks ago?
ESPN's Tedy Bruschi and Herm Edwards made their Packers-49ers picks in the video above. One of them did pick the 49ers. I'll make my guesses Friday, as usual.
- "Sunday NFL Countdown" features Trent Dilfer's look at the "different paths" Vernon Davis and Mike Singletary have taken since Singletary sent Davis to the locker room during a 2008 game. The timing is right for this one with Davis and the 49ers facing Singletary's Minnesota Vikings. This show begins Sunday at 10 a.m. ET.
- "NFL Matchup" features Sal Paolantonio, Ron Jaworski and Merril Hoge looking at how the Arizona Cardinals' disguised coverages fouled up Tom Brady, and if they'll bother Michael Vick; how Seattle's blitz will be key against Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers; and how Alex Smith uses pre-snap adjustments to benefit the 49ers' offense. This show airs Sunday at 3:30 a.m. ET on ESPN and 8:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2.
- "Monday Night Football" features the Seahawks and Packers from CenturyLink Field. A two-hour pregame show features Cris Carter, Mike Ditka, Tom Jackson, Keyshawn Johnson, Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter, Stuart Scott, Dilfer, Steve Young, Rick Reilly and Lisa Salters.
What, nothing on the St. Louis Rams? Must be another case of West Coast bias.
While Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless were debating Terrell Owens' alleged diva tendencies in the video above, I was revisiting notes from our 2008 package on all-time great NFL receivers.
Owens ranked ninth on the list even though our seven panelists -- Hall of Famer Raymond Berry, former Green Bay Packers receiver and longtime scout Boyd Dowler, longtime coach/executive Mike Holmgren, Hall of Fame defensive back Ken Houston, Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, former receiver Keyshawn Johnson and Packers general manager Ted Thompson -- were not unanimous in their support.
Owens, released by the Seattle Seahawks this week, would be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 2017 class unless he plays this season. He has Hall of Fame numbers across the board: sixth in receptions, second in receiving yards, second in receiving touchdowns.
A sampling of what our panelists said back in 2008:
- Dowler: "Terrell Owens drops too many passes. He probably drops too many passes to be on this list, but he makes so many that are so good, it's incredible. The ones he drops, he comes right back. I can't eliminate him. He is so big and so strong. You talk about how the guy has to be tough. Well, he is the epitome is toughness. To play when you are hurt and don't miss games, it isn't good enough to just go out there. If you go out there and play, you have to play the same. Some guys are capable of doing that. Some guys are not. Coach Lombardi used to tell us some guys can't play with a hang-nail. Some can play with a broken leg."
- Houston: "Paul Warfield was a tough guy. Lance Alworth was a tough guy. Quiet as he was, he took a lot of beatings for the balls he caught. And then you go with Charley Taylor, I thought was extremely tough. James Lofton was, I like to say, a mean receiver. He would fight you. He'd catch it and he took quite a few hits before he got the ball. Back then, you couldn't run across the middle and catch the ball without fighting your way across the middle first. And I guess the guy that I would put in that category from today's receivers is Terrell Owens. To me, if I had to pick a receiver out of today's guys, I'd pick him over Randy Moss because he's tough. Say what you want to about him, he will go across and catch the ball. It's probably going to end his career because of it, but I've seen Randy and he's great -- I love to watch Randy Moss -- but I've seen him kind of deny some passes across the middle where he just didn't want to go in there and catch those kinds of balls. And so to me, that guy is a throwback, Terrell Owens."
- Moon: "Bigger defensive backs can't stay with him because of his quickness. Smaller defensive backs can't stay with him because of his strength. He can just bully them around. And once he catches the football, he is so dangerous afterwards because he is so big and he knows how to run with the football after the catch. And again, he's been in three different offenses with San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas and he still continues to put up numbers. Some guys, you can say they are system guys. Even though he has kind of been in the same system two of those places, still, when you change teams, it can be a little bit difficult if you are not a great player."
That was a sampling. I'm sure we'll be revisiting this one when Owens finally does become eligible for the Hall.
"Former hoops standout and high-jumper has had to endure four positional coaches in four years and would be best with simplified assignments, but possesses a unique combination of body length, hand-eye coordinator, hand strength and leaping ability," Nolan Nawrocki wrote for Pro Football Weekly's draft preview.
The Rams watched Jacksonville select Justin Blackmon fifth overall, one spot ahead of where the Rams were picking. Then, after trading down, they watched Arizona select the next wide receiver, Michael Floyd.
Blackmon and Floyd were the highest-rated receivers in the draft, but there was no consensus either qualified as a clear No. 1 wideout. The Rams traded back, took defensive tackle Michael Brockers at No. 14 and then watched the San Francisco 49ers use the 27th overall choice for A.J. Jenkins, a player the Rams had rated not far behind Blackmon, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Blackmon, 6-1 and 207, did not fit the physical profile for wide receivers considered elite enough for teams to to draft among the top three overall choices (see chart). Quick fits that profile -- starts, but no guarantee he'll turn into that type of player.
But would the team really trade up two spots in the 2012 NFL draft to select Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon with the fourth overall choice? I do not think that is likely, but a recent report caught my attention.
"Rams and Eagles among about four teams interested in trading up to No. 4 with Browns, sources say," a headline in the Cleveland Plain Dealer said Friday.
The story itself says nothing about the Rams expressing a specific interest in acquiring that choice to select Blackmon or anyone else. It refers to public comments from Rams coach Jeff Fisher suggesting Cleveland could be one potential trading partner.
"At the NFL owners meetings last month, Fisher said he'd consider trading up with the Browns depending on what they wanted in return," the story said. "He didn't specify which player he'd trade up for, but the Rams are believed to have interest in Blackmon. Fisher re-iterated Friday that he'll trade up, down or stay where he is."
If the Rams absolutely had to have Blackmon or any one player in this draft, they could have held onto the No. 2 overall choice. Instead, they traded that pick to Washington with an eye toward building for the long term. They are in position to choose from a group that could include Blackmon, tackle Matt Kalil, cornerback Morris Claiborne, running back Trent Richardson and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, among others.
We've discussed whether Blackmon would be worthy of such an early choice and, earlier, how the 6-foot-1, 207-pound prospect compares physically to wideouts drafted among the top three selections.
I've noticed a differentiation in physical attributes and career success among receivers based upon standing within the first round.
The first chart shows wide receivers drafted among the top three overall choices since 1990. All were at least 6-3. They averaged 220 pounds. Five of the six have been selected to a Pro Bowl as a wide receiver (as opposed to a returner).
The second chart shows receivers drafted fourth through sixth overall, also since 1990. Half were at least 6-3. They averaged 205 pounds. Two are just getting started, making it premature to evaluate their careers. One of the other four, Torry Holt, earned Pro Bowl honors as a wide receiver.
How high? Would the St. Louis Rams take him second overall?
History suggests Blackmon doesn't fit the physical profile for wide receivers selected among the top three overall choices. That feeds into the thinking St. Louis might trade back from the No. 2 overall selection before taking the talented wideout from Oklahoma State.
NFL scouting combine officials measured Blackmon at 6 feet and seven-eighths of an inch. Blackmon weighed 207 pounds. The height will round to 6-foot-1, plenty tall to play wide receiver in the NFL, but quite a bit shorter than the wideouts teams have selected among the top three overall choices since 1985: Calvin Johnson, Braylon Edwards, Larry Fitzgerald, Charles Rogers, Andre Johnson and Keyshawn Johnson.
Four additional receivers come under consideration when we expand the range to players drafted among the top five overall choices. A.J. Green (6-4), Peter Warrick (5-11), Michael Westbrook (6-3) and Desmond Howard (5-10) were selected fourth overall since 1985.
Height isn't everything in a wide receiver, but those drafted earliest have generally been taller and heavier than Blackmon. Will that apply to Blackmon as well? On a side note, he isn't running at the combine after suffering a hamstring injury last week.
"Jerry got every ounce out of everything that he had, every day," Young said. "If we had gotten all of Randy Moss every year, all his whole career, I think he'd be knocking on the door of Jerry Rice."
Moss ranked second only to Rice in the 2008 piece we put together ranking the greatest receivers. Raymond Berry, Boyd Dowler, Mike Holmgren, Ken Houston, Warren Moon, Keyshawn Johnson and Ted Thompson were panelists.
Mike Sando: Good discussion to have. Keyshawn Johnson raised similar concerns during the "Audibles" show Thursday on ESPN. He said he'd rather take hits to his upper body, including his head, than take hits to his legs.
The hit Fitzgerald took during the exhibition season came on a pass that was slightly high. Houston Texans safety Eugene Wilson hit Fitzgerald just above the knee, causing torque on the joint. NFL.com still has the play online as part of this highlight package. Hitting Fitzgerald low made more sense on this play because Fitzgerald was leaping when he made the reception. The 5-foot-10 Wilson wasn't going to hit the 6-foot-3 Fitzgerald high. It wasn't much of an option, though he could have hit Fitzgerald higher than the thigh.
My sense is that plays often happen too quickly for defenders to make calculated decisions about taking out receivers at their knees. I could be wrong, though. We could see more plays along those lines. The defensive players I've heard from generally say they'll continue playing the way they've been playing. There were a couple illegal plays out of hundreds in Week 6. We're not talking about something that happens every play or even every 50 plays. Defenders were already cutting down receivers at the legs in some cases, and that will continue. Defenders were already hitting receivers high, and that will continue.
Another former NFL receiver, Sterling Sharpe, told NFL Network viewers he thought receivers needed to do more in protecting themselves. Sharpe showed clips of Fitzgerald to illustrate how receivers should settle into zones, not run through them, when catching passes. The clips showed Fitzgerald apparently recognizing zone coverage and deciding to cut off his routes, allowing him to take punishment more on his terms. Sharpe thought Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson invited the controversial hits they absorbed in Week 6 by running through zones.
Also: thoughts from various experts.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The last time we checked in with Trent Dilfer heading into a Cardinals game, he liked Arizona's chances against the Giants during a Week 12 matchup. He thought the Cardinals' opponents would have better plans for Arizona's offense come playoff time.
Arizona has scored 95 points in three playoff games to reach the Super Bowl, but Dilfer is giving the Cardinals' very little chance now that Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has two weeks of preparation time.
A few highlights from an ESPN conference call featuring Dilfer, Keyshawn Johnson and Cris Carter:
Dilfer: "This matchup is completely in the favor of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I understand the incredible playoff run that [Larry] Fitzgerald's had. I understand what the Cardinals are doing offensively. They've found balance and Todd Haley is calling great plays, but, as I watch the tape, nowhere do I find an area where the Arizona Cardinals have an advantage -- not in talent, but in scheme.
"Everything the Pittsburgh Steelers do matches up great against the Arizona Cardinals. They don't fear the huge vertical threat by Larry Fitzgerald because they understand how to play this type of defense. ... If they can only commit seven to the run game and play two safeties, they know how to take away the perimeter receiver. If Kurt Warner wants to try to force him the ball early, this game can get away from the Cardinals real quick.
"In the history of this game, it's usually more about the sum of the parts, not playmakers. ... In this game with two weeks to prepare ... this does not become who has the best player on the football field. You give Dick LeBeau this type of time to construct his cover schemes and his blitz schemes and he will know how to take away the best players on the field. ... Nobody does a better job in breaking down an offense's weakness than Dick LeBeau. They definitely have some big holes in that offense and he will expose them early and often."
Dilfer said the Cardinals can win by forcing turnovers, "but I'm also a big believer that you can't go into a game depending on getting the other team to turn the ball over and play bad. You've got to approach the game like you're going to win it, getting their best effort."
The Cardinals have defied analysis. They've played better than anyone expected. I'll provide some highlights from Johnson and Carter below. They seem to like the Cardinals' chances more than Dilfer does, particularly with Kurt Warner's big-game experience.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Scott Linehan's reputation will take a hit if he interviews with the Raiders after citing family reasons for turning down the 49ers' offer.
David Fucillo of Niners Nation echoes those sentiments.
Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee explains Linehan's potential interest in the Raiders. Linehan and Tom Cable played together at the University of Idaho. They also coached together at UNLV.
Niners scout Todd Brunner says college quarterbacks John Parker Wilson, Rhett Bomar and Pat White impressed him at the Senior Bowl.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers took a chance on defensive back Jimmy Williams despite the player's off-field troubles.
Bob Young of the Arizona Republic quotes Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson as calling Anquan Boldin a "stand-up guy" who probably needed time to cool off following a sideline exchange with offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
The Arizona Republic's photo gallery following the NFC Championship Game is definitely worth a look. Stunning photography.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Travis LaBoy plans to play in the Super Bowl despite his injury problems.
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals would miss J.J. Arrington if the running back's knee injury prevented him from playing.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com tells the stories of two fans who survived game-day heart attacks. The men visited team headquarters and met with players.
Scott Bordow of the Arizona Republic says Boldin should apologize for his recent behavior.
Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune examines how Boldin's sideline exchange with Haley might help Haley while hurting Boldin.
Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind says Haley conceivably could have been the Steelers' offensive coordinator if he had accepted a job offer from Pittsburgh years ago.
Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times recalls how Haley could have been with the Bears -- along with Kurt Warner.
Jim Corbett of USA Today looks at the emotional impact of the Cardinals' success.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo has confirmed the hiring of his coordinators. Spagnuolo: "Both are very strong leaders, character people. They're exactly what I laid out (Monday) in terms of faith, character, core values, and team first. I'm looking forward to working with both of those guys."
VanRam of Turf Show Times wonders what the Rams might do if the Lions took an offensive tackle instead of a quarterback with the No. 1 overall draft choice.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says NBC has hired Mike Holmgren to participate in its Super Bowl pregame show.
John Morgan of Field Gulls sizes up potential free agent Shaun Cody and examines how he might fit in Seattle.
Gary Washburn of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says ESPN's Keyshawn Johnson thinks the Seahawks should draft Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree. Cris Carter warns against drafting a receiver that early.
Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks' hiring of Tim Lewis rounds out Jim Mora's coaching staff.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, addressing reporters in a news conference that has recently concluded, repeated the line about nobody picking his team to win a playoff game.
While plenty have picked against Arizona to this point, the Cardinals are adding believers. Seven of the 13 forecasters to make picks on our site -- here and here -- are taking the Cardinals to beat the Eagles and advance to the Super Bowl.
Picking the Cardinals:
- Seth Wickersham
- Merril Hoge
- Mark Schlereth
- Keyshawn Johnson
- Cris Carter
- Tom Jackson
- Bill Simmons
Picking the Eagles:
- David Fleming
- Eric Allen
- Mike Golic
- Mike Ditka
- Ron Jaworski
- Chris Mortensen
Allen and Golic played for the Eagles when the Cardinals were their NFC East rivals.
Note: This item was updated after Jaworski and Mortensen made their picks. Thanks to cyclonem31 for the heads up.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat revisits Mike Martz's worst day as an NFL coach, pinning the blame largely on Bill Belichick. Martz and Belichick meet again when the Patriots visit the 49ers in Week 5.
Dan Brown of 49ers Hot Read quotes ESPN's Keyshawn Johnson as saying Martz, the 49ers' first-year offensive coordinator, won't be able to stick with the run because a pass-happy approach is in his blood.
Also from Brown: New England has beaten 29 of 31 NFL teams on the road. The 49ers are one of them. This week marks the first time the Patriots have visited Candlestick Park under coach Bill Belichick.
Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle says 49ers tight end Vernon Davis blamed his emotions for an outburst during the Saints game.
Also from FitzGerald: The 49ers' pass protection "leaked like a bad trumpet valve" in the Big Easy. Coach Mike Nolan defended the protection schemes, comparing them to the ones the Saints use. One huge difference: Drew Brees gets rid of the football as quickly as any quarterback in the league.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the word "interim" isn't part of Jim Haslett's title as head coach of the Rams. That comes as a surprise to me after the Rams sent out a news release beginning this way: "Chip Rosenbloom, owner and chairman of the St. Louis Rams, announced the appointment this morning of Jim Haslett as interim head coach of the Rams, effective immediately." The title is a matter of semantics because there's no such thing as a permanent coach.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat says Rams rookie Chris Long planned to call outgoing coach Scott Linehan and thank him for his contributions.
Also from Korte: Haslett initially feared for his family when his phone rang in the middle of the night. Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom was on the line with a job offer.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says an NFL team owner doesn't become a true owner until he fires a coach. Rosenbloom has done that now.
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams ownership made the best possible move in elevating Haslett to head coach. He suggests executives John Shaw and Jay Zygmunt are no longer running the football operations.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch assesses Haslett's intensity, noting somewhat surprisingly that the fiery coach might be teaching elementary school if football weren't an option.Also from Coats: Rams players blame themselves for Linehan's firing.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks have an abundance of receivers now that Deion Branch and Bobby Engram are healthy.
Also from O'Neil: Look for Sean Locklear to start for Seattle at right tackle against the Giants in Week 5. Also, defensive tackle Craig Terrill is resting a sore knee.
Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune says Branch expects to play against the Giants. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck: "He looks really fast and seems really fast. I don't know how to measure it, but the routes we have been running, he has looked good."
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer provides a medical update on the Seahawks. The team is in much better condition following its bye week.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says injured Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin is resting at home. The team doesn't know when Boldin might return to the field, but all tests have produced encouraging results.
Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune says the Cardinals aren't sure if Boldin suffered a concussion against the Jets.
Also from Tulumello: Just how bad were the Cardinals in Week 4?
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com said the team would stay on the road for back-to-back games on the East Coast if coach Ken Whisenhunt had the opportunity again.
Scott Allen of RaisingZona.com looks ahead and looks back on each team in the NFC West.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Kyle from Austin, Texas, writes: I know it's a long way off and a lot can happen between now and the draft. But, for the sake of argument, if you're Mike Nolan and the rest of the 49ers brass, where do you try go with your number one pick next year? QB? WR?
Mike Sando: I would seek pass-rush help or a dominating nose tackle, with the offensive line as a fallback. First-round quarterbacks and receivers fail at a high rate. Rarely do they produce good things as rookies. Offensive linemen tend to become at least serviceable starters. Ideally, the 49ers would improve their pass rush or find the anchor they need to run the 3-4 and still hold up against the run. Imagine how good Patrick Willis might become with a dominant nose tackle in front of him. Scary.