NFC West: Knowshon Moreno

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It has been at least 13 years and probably more since a team dominated a Super Bowl the way the Seattle Seahawks did Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, winning 43-8 over the Denver Broncos. They scored touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams -- all after recording a safety on the first snap of the game. And they didn't give up any points until the end of the third quarter after building a 36-0 lead. The result is a report card that would be the envy of an Ivy League college applicant.

PASSING OFFENSE


It was as good as it had to be. Russell Wilson's passer rating was 123.1, eight different players caught his passes and he wasn't sacked or intercepted. Seattle raced out to a huge first-half lead, so Wilson didn't need to put up gaudy stats to win. But he was 4-of-5 for 64 yards on third-down plays in the first quarter, when the game was still in doubt, and he was still flinging it around in the fourth quarter as the Seahawks padded their lead.


RUSHING OFFENSE


Marshawn Lynch struggled to find room against Terrance Knighton and a Broncos defensive front focused on stopping the run. But Seattle's yards-per-carry average got a boost from Percy Harvin's 15-yard and 30-yard runs on jet sweep plays, and Lynch was able to muscle into the end zone on second down from the 1-yard line after a pass interference penalty in the end zone set up the game's first touchdown.


PASSING DEFENSE


Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning won his fifth MVP award for a season in which he threw a record 55 touchdown passes. But he was a mess all night against Seattle's pass rush, throwing two interceptions. Led by Cliff Avril, Seattle's line moved Manning off his spot all night and batted down some key passes while the big, physical defensive backs made life miserable for Broncos receivers before and after the catch. The "Legion of Boom" lived up to its name, outmuscling the top-scoring offense in NFL history.


RUSHING DEFENSE


Total domination. And yeah, the Broncos had to get away from the run because they were down 15-0 before they had a chance to run their offense. But Seattle's front bottled up Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball, holding Denver to 27 yards rushing on 14 carries, forcing a fumble (that Denver recovered) and stripping the Broncos of any chance to maintain any level of balance on offense.


SPECIAL TEAMS


Harvin barely played all season. Finally healthy, he was a difference-maker in the biggest game of his career. Seattle's 22-0 halftime lead looked tough to overcome, but the 29-0 lead they had 12 seconds into the half after Harvin's 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown looked impossible. Seattle's kick coverage team held electric Denver return man Trindon Holliday in check.


COACHING


Give Pete Carroll the grade for the full year, as every move he made seemed to pay off. He had enough faith in his defense to let Manning start the game with the ball after he won the coin toss and to kick a first-quarter field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-short inside the Denver 10. He also stayed aggressive even as his team was rolling early, calling timeout on a Denver fourth-and-2 from the Seattle 19 with 1:06 left in the first half. Seattle didn't even try to move the ball in the final minute after stopping the Broncos and taking possession, but it showed a coach in control of the game. You also have to hand Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn the victory over Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase in the matchup of hot head-coaching candidates.


There was a time, when John Elway wore a helmet at work instead of a tie, when the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks were division rivals.

From 1977 to 2001, the two teams did their football business together in the AFC West and now these former division rivals, who have gone their separate ways since -- through good times and bad -- now arrive to Super Bowl XLVIII as the matchup many wanted to see.

The Broncos' league-leading scoring offense -- which produced an NFL record 606 points with Peyton Manning at quarterback -- against Seattle's league-leading defense (14.4 points per game), a physical, brash group that led the league in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and interceptions.

It is the first time the league's No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense have met in the Super Bowl since 1990, when the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants authored a classic, a 20-19 Giants win decided when Scott Norwood's kick drifted wide right.

ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game:

Legwold: Terry, in your mind, what are some of the major decisions John Schneider and Pete Carroll have made to put the Seahawks in this position?

Blount: Jeff, first and foremost, the one decision that almost everyone will point to is selecting Russell Wilson with a third-round draft choice two years ago when so many experts felt Wilson was too short to be an effective starter in today's NFL. That led to another big decision when Carroll named Wilson the starter after the team had signed Matt Flynn to a big-money deal -- a brave move, to say the least. But pointing to one move doesn't begin to tell the story of a team that Schneider and Carroll completely revamped over the past four seasons. Only four players remain from the team they inherited in 2010. Schneider and Carroll's strengths are their trust in each other and their ability to make stars, or at least quality starters, out of players that other teams overlooked such as cornerback Richard Sherman (a fifth-round pick), slot receiver Doug Baldwin (undrafted) and guard J.R. Sweezy (a seventh-round pick). They also made one of the best trades in team history, acquiring Marshawn Lynch from Buffalo in 2010. It's an example of how Schneider and Carroll are willing to take chances on players who might have had off-the-field issues.

Let me ask you a similar question, Jeff. Elway gets huge props for convincing Manning that Denver was the place for him to end his career, but obviously, it took more than one move to get the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Aside from Manning, what has made Elway's tenure so successful?

Legwold: Elway's mission, for owner Pat Bowlen, when he took the job, wasn't just to make the team competitive as quickly as possible after the 4-12 finish in 2010, but to fix the cracks in the foundation. This meant addressing the personnel and salary-cap issues that needed to be dealt with if the team was going to succeed over the long term. Elway always says people talk to him about a "win-now philosophy," but he wants the team to win from now on.

Elway and the Broncos' front office cleaned up the cap a bit, and though Elway is a former quarterback, he thinks big picture. They've drafted plenty of defensive players -- 11 of 23 picks under Elway -- and they've made finding the guy they want more important than simply making big-ticket splashes in free agency, other than Manning of course. Signing players to one-year deals with little or no signing bonuses, such as Shaun Phillips (10 sacks), Paris Lenon and Quentin Jammer (two starters and a situational player in the defense), have made it go. Starting center Manny Ramirez was released by the Lions at one point. John Fox, hand-picked by Elway, and his staff also have gotten more from players who were holdovers such as Knowshon Moreno and Demaryius Thomas. Toss in some big-time draft hits -- Von Miller and Julius Thomas -- and you have back-to-back 13-3 finishes.

For their part, the Seahawks have played quality defense all season long. Terry, how do you think they will attack Manning?

Blount: They will line up and say, 'This is who were are and what we do. Beat us if you can.' I honestly don't think they'll change a thing. Whether it's a rookie calling the signals or one of the all-time greats such as Manning, the Seahawks don't believe anyone can outperform their defense. They are as talented a group as I've seen. Two things set them apart: incredible overall speed, especially at the linebacker spots, and a physical approach that borders on all-out violence and intimidation. Calling for crossing patterns over the middle against this bunch is asking for punishment. The one thing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said they will do is change the wording and signals on their calls. And what they must do in this game is get a push up the middle on the defensive front and force Manning to move in the pocket. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane, Tony McDaniel and Clinton McDonald have to outmuscle Denver interior linemen in this game.

Seattle's Legion of Boom secondary is an extraordinarily talented group that includes three players who were voted into the Pro Bowl. They play a lot of press coverage and almost dare a quarterback to try to beat them.

Jeff, does man-to-man coverage help or hurt Manning and his receivers?

Legwold: Man coverage almost never hurts Manning, unless those defensive backs consistently knock the Broncos' receivers off their routes, or Mother Nature brings a windy night. And not just a breeze, but something on the order of the 40-mph gusts the team faced on a frigid night at New England this season. But even then Manning was sharp and aggressive on a late drive to tie the game at 31-31. Where some defenses have had some success this season -- Indianapolis, New England and to a certain extent Jacksonville -- was when they essentially tossed aside the idea of adding pressure to try to get Manning, because he gets the ball out too quickly, and play as physically as possible against the Broncos' receivers to disrupt their routes and disrupt the offense's timing. That said, Manning still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts to go with 295 yards and two touchdowns against the Jaguars. And while the Patriots held him to a season-low 150 yards on Nov. 24, Manning still looked sharp late, throwing the ball in a game in which the Broncos rushed for 280 yards because New England often left six-man fronts after dropping so many players into coverage. In the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, who used much the same philosophy as in November, Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. The mix for some kind of defensive success is usually to get the Broncos receivers out of sorts and find a way to pressure Manning in the middle of the field so he can't step into the throws.

Staying at quarterback, Terry, how do you think Wilson, certainly well-known for his poise and maturity, will handle his first Super Bowl behind center?

Blount: I realize it's a lot to ask of any second-year quarterback to enter this setting and not have it effect his performance, but Wilson is an extraordinary young man. I've said all season that he has the unusual quality of being at his best when things appear to be at their worst. He thrives on the big stage. I've never seen him rattled, and when he does make a mistake (such as fumbling on the first play in the NFC Championship Game), he acts like it never happened. And I've never seen any athlete who prepares with the time and detail that Wilson prepares. You can't fool him. People often compare him to Fran Tarkenton because of his scrambling ability, which is true. But in some ways, I see him more of a Bart Starr-type quarterback, a man who had the ultimate respect of his teammates, understood the skills of the men around him and made them better. Wilson said his goal every game is to be the calm in the storm and stay in the moment. Well, there's no moment like this one. It's cliché to say, but I think he truly believes he was born for this moment.

Jeff, there has been a lot of talk about how extreme weather conditions could benefit the Seahawks and hinder Manning's ability to throw the football the way he normally would. Do you think that's overblown?

Legwold: There may be no more overblown idea circulating around than Manning's ability to play in the cold. The cold-weather stats are always tossed around, but there are at least two of those games in some of the totals people are using when Manning played only one series because the Colts had their playoff position wrapped up. One of those was in Denver to close out the 2004 regular season (32 degrees at kickoff; Manning threw two passes in the game). The wind has been a far-bigger deal for Manning. Post-surgery, he has had to make some adjustments to his game because of some grip issues in his right hand. He wears a glove on his throwing hand in a variety of temperatures now. This season, he wore it in New England (22 degrees, wind chill of 6 degrees), against Tennessee (18 degrees), as well as in Houston (kickoff temperature was 58 degrees) and at Oakland in the regular-season finale, when the kickoff temperature was 70. And with the glove on his throwing hand in 10 games this season, including both of the Broncos' playoff wins, Manning has thrown 33 touchdown passes to go with five interceptions. He's had four 400-yard games and six games when he attempted at least 40 passes. People have scrutinized every wobble of every pass this season, but somehow he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. And wobbles or not, Manning has not been sacked and the Broncos have punted only once in this postseason.

In the Seahawks' defense, Terry, how big of an impact did signing Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in free agency have on that group?

Blount: It's this simple: The Seahawks would not be playing in the Super Bowl without them. Seattle's big weakness last year was the lack of a consistent pass rush and a lack of depth on the defensive line. Not anymore. Along with those two, Seattle also signed veteran defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, a mountain of a guy who has been a disruptive force inside. Bennett may be the most underrated defensive linemen in the NFL. He has been everything the Seahawks hoped for as a hybrid down linemen who can play end or tackle effectively. He is a relentless, high-motor guy who never takes a play off. Avril is a gifted speed-rusher whose claim to fame is his uncanny ability to knock the ball out of a quarterback's hands and force a fumble, something he has done five times this season and 13 times over the past three years.

Jeff, everyone talks about the matchup between the Seahawks' No. 1 defense against the Broncos' No. 1 offense, but how do you think Denver's defense matches up against Seattle's offense and its power-running game with Lynch?

Legwold: Since Champ Bailey's full return from a left foot injury he originally suffered against the Seahawks in the preseason -- Bailey played in just five games in the regular season and was shut down for several weeks after a failed return in early December -- the team has played far better. It's surrendered 17 or fewer points in each of the past four games, including both playoff wins. And while Denver's numbers, as well as its play at times for that matter, haven't always been pretty, the Broncos do play better out of their base defense.

They will be in their base defense against the Seahawks if Seattle chooses to pound Lynch out of a two-tight-end or two-back set. They inserted a veteran, Lenon, into the middle linebacker spot down the stretch in the base to add some bulk. With Lenon, Nate Irving and Danny Trevathan at linebacker, they have speed to the ball if their defensive end can consistently set the edge. Against some of the power teams they have faced this season, including those with some read-option things in the offense such as Washington and Oakland, the Broncos showed a little more of a 3-4 look on early downs. It will be intriguing if the Seahawks -- seeing the Broncos have done far better in the heavier looks -- try to run against the nickel and dime packages and how the Broncos respond.

Terry, if the Seahawks win, what players beyond Wilson will have had the biggest roles to make it happen?

Blount: Probably the defensive linemen we mentioned earlier: Bennent, Avril and the defensive tackles getting pressure on Manning. If they do, the Legion of Boom will shine and come up with an interception or two that could change the outcome. No matter how well this rugged defense performs, it won't matter unless Wilson can throw effectively. Having receiver Percy Harvin on the field could help, but it really comes down to the same story all season. If Lynch has a punishing day running the ball, someone will be open for a big play in the passing game.

Jeff, if you had to pick one thing that Denver must do to win this game what would it be?

Legwold: Overall, they have to manage the moment. Teams don't win the Super Bowl as they go through all the build-up, but plenty have lost it when they got distracted by the bright lights and attention only to forget why they were in the Super Bowl city in the first place. As Phillips put it: "If guys want to party in New York, New York will still be there next week." But on the field, they have to keep Manning clean, give him some space to work in the pocket and with that their receivers have to play with an edge, fight for both their real estate and the ball.

A few thoughts on Beanie Wells' thoughts

December, 26, 2012
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Beanie Wells needs 766 yards rushing in Week 17 for his second consecutive season with at least 1,000.

The odds are higher that Wells will return to the Arizona Cardinals for a fifth season with the team. How much higher? That one is open to interpretation.



The subject hadn't even occurred to me before Wells brought it up this week. The team's quarterback situation has been that consuming.

If the Cardinals were to convene a summit to discuss their most pressing issues entering the offseason, where would Wells' future rank? General manager, head coach and quarterback would comprise the top three. Upgrading the offensive line would rank right up there.

The situation at running back would rank among the top five, probably.

Ryan Williams will presumably be back despite having suffered two season-ending injuries since Arizona made him a second-round pick in 2011. Wells, a first-round choice in 2009, has missed 12 games over the past three seasons. Together, the two highly drafted backs have missed more than 40 percent of regular-season games.

The past four years have proved that Arizona cannot count on Wells for consistently excellent performance. He has started 23 of 47 possible games over the past three seasons. Even when Wells rushed for 1,047 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, he was limping toward the finish line on a bad knee. He underwent surgery in the offseason. The team took a cautious approach to his return.

Wells suffered a turf toe injury that sidelined him from Week 4 through Week 11. He has yet to average more than 3.9 yards per carry in a game this season despite scoring three rushing touchdowns against Detroit in Week 15.

The unforced fumble Wells lost in defeat to Chicago last week played a leading role in coach Ken Whisenhunt benching Wells despite limited options at the position. A running back with greater equity built up would have gotten additional chances. Wells hasn't built up that equity.

Setting expectations for Steven Jackson

September, 23, 2012
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The St. Louis Rams have announced Steven Jackson as their starting running back Sunday despite a groin injury.

I'm guessing we'll still see rookie Daryl Richardson get chances to run the ball in this game against the Chicago Bears. Jackson missed practice during the week. If the Rams can move the ball without him, they presumably will.

This will mark the second time since 2008 that Jackson has played in a game after the team listed him as questionable with a groin injury, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The other time, Jackson carried 22 times for 70 yards (3.2 per carry) during a 20-3 victory over Seattle in 2010.

Knowshon Moreno and Michael Turner are the only other backs since 2010 to carry the ball 10-plus times after their teams listed them as questionable with groin injuries. Moreno has 21 carries for 90 yards (4.3 average) in those situations. Turner has 14 carries for 44 yards (3.1 average). Beanie Wells has six carries for 19 yards when listed that way.

Veteran running backs are often more valuable than rookies in pass protection, particularly against blitzes. Chicago has rushed five or more defenders only 22.7 percent of the time, however. That is the sixth-lowest total in the NFL through Week 2.

The Rams (17.9 percent) and San Francisco 49ers (22.4) have also played defense without sending added pressure with much frequency.
Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams after checking out ESPN's 300 highest-rated fantasy players for the 2011 season:

Steven Jackson will presumably serve as the Rams' primary back in goal-line situations under new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The team does have additional options with Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood on the roster.

With McDaniels as head coach for all but four games, the Denver Broncos' running backs had 16 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons. Knowshon Moreno scored 12 of those 16 touchdowns. Moreno had 42 carries, 11 for touchdowns, from opponents' 10-yard line and closer. Jackson had 37 carries, six for touchdowns, in those situations over the same two-year span.

Danny Amendola is again a threat to lead the Rams in receptions, but he hasn't been much of a touchdown scorer.

Unranked fantasy sleeper: Lance Kendricks' omission from the top 300 jumps out right away. He appears capable of leading the team in touchdown receptions based on how the Rams have used him so far in preseason games. That could be an optimistic assessment given the struggles rookies can face, but Kendricks will be a factor.
The NFC West held three of the first 10 picks in the 2009 NFL draft.

All three project as starters for the 2011 season, but none appears headed for Pro Bowl status -- yet.

I've brought the Arizona Cardinals' Beanie Wells, chosen 26th overall that year, into the discussion with one question in mind: Which of these four 2009 first-round selections has the brightest future?

"Yuck," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. replied when I asked for an opinion via email. "I would guess Michael Crabtree. I expect Jim Harbaugh to get a lot out of this young man."

Williamson sees Crabtree as a good fit in Harbaugh's West Coast system, where Crabtree "can use his big body and run-after-the-catch ability."

As for the others? Williamson sees "plenty of upside" along with quite a few question marks.
  • Jason Smith, chosen second overall by the St. Louis Rams, started 15 games at right tackle last season. That represented progress after injuries sidelined Smith for half of his rookie season.
  • Aaron Curry, chosen fourth by the Seattle Seahawks, started 16 regular-season games and two playoff games without great distinction.
  • Crabtree, the 10th overall choice, led the 49ers in touchdown receptions with six. He caught 55 passes, down from the pace he set during an abbreviated rookie season.
  • Wells regressed significantly from his rookie season in terms of production. Injuries were a factor. The team used a second-round choice for running back Ryan Williams this year.

With Williamson's help, I've gone through 2009 first-round picks and ranked them by division. The NFC North led the way easily. The NFC West ranked seventh, ahead of the AFC West, which had five first-round choices, including three among the top 12 picks, without getting much in return.

Williamson said he would take Wells over Knowshon Moreno, the running back Denver took 12th overall, simply on upside. He used the word "superstar" to describe the future for Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman.

Williamson does not think much of Mark Sanchez, but neither can he fault the New York Jets for taking the quarterback fourth overall, based on team results. Aaron Maybin, selected 11th overall by Buffalo, was Williamson's lowest-rated choice of the round.







Rams downplay need for running back

April, 26, 2011
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Adding depth at running back and finding a possible successor for Steven Jackson has become an occasional topic around here as the St. Louis Rams head toward the draft.

The Rams sound more inclined to seek a complementary back than an eventual replacement.

"In our minds, (Jackson) is still playing at an extremely high level," general manager Billy Devaney told reporters Tuesday. "So, we don't feel like, 'Gosh, we'd better start looking down the road.' This kid is as good as there is. We don't feel any pressure to start lining somebody up to take Steven Jackson's place."

That is the politically correct thing to say and, most likely, the truth as well. Coach Steve Spagnuolo cast the Rams' search for a running back in the "complementary" mold.

"People call them 'third-down backs, sub backs, change-of-pace backs,' " Spagnuolo said. "There’s all those kinds of things you could throw in there. The one thing, you guys that know (coordinator) Josh (McDaniels) a little bit and his history, he’ll take what’s given to him and work around it. So, we’ll see what we have when all of this putting together is finished."

McDaniels' teams have drafted six running backs over the years: Knowshon Moreno and Laurence Maroney in the first round, Cedric Cobbs in the fourth, Justise Hairston in the sixth and two backs, Spencer Nead (fullback/tight end) and Antwoine Womack, in the seventh.

Excluding Nead, most were at least 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds.
Shawn from Atlanta writes: Hey Mike, love the site and the commentary over the years! My question is: why is everybody considering Blaine Gabbert as a Top 10 prospect with a high floor, but his stats haven't shown him to be an NFL sure thing? He regressed in his junior year and only won one big game (Oklahoma in 2010) during his career. On the flip side, he has been bad in the two bowl games he has played in (and the pick against Iowa was one of the worst plays I have ever seen). Help me out Mike. What am I missing? From a concerned 49ers fan.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
AP Photo/Darron CummingsMissouri QB Blaine Gabbert had 16 touchdown passes last season.
Mike Sando: I know people in the NFL who think Gabbert will be the first quarterback selected, so he must be doing something right. Others have suggested they don't even consider him to be a first-round talent. Teams value quarterbacks highly in the draft. If Gabbert is one of the top few quarterbacks, he'll very likely be a first-round choice. We've had at least two first-round quarterbacks in each of the past nine drafts. Twelve of the 26 first-rounders since 2002 went among the top five. It's no shock if Gabbert's gone before the 49ers select at No. 7.

Supporters say Gabbert has an appealing mix of accuracy, size and athleticism. He was an all-academic selection in the Big 12. He appears likely to grasp offenses at the NFL level. He doesn't have an obvious weakness, other than playing in a spread passing offense. He also makes a positive impression in the intangibles department. That can put teams at ease as they try to minimize risk at the position.

Gabbert's 2010 stats were indeed underwhelming by major prospect standards. He finished the season completing 63.4 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, not very impressive for top prospects. Teams are going to value the whole package -- smarts, accuracy, overall makeup -- more than they are going to value raw stats.


Seth from Newport News, Va., writes: I am sad to see Oshiomogho Atogwe go. I am excited though, that Darian Stewart can make a big step this year. With Atogwe signing with the Redskins, I feel he is more worried about money and personal stats. I understand Jim Haslett is one reason he went there, but does anyone really see the Redskins competing for a championship anytime soon? The Rams are closer than them. You are telling me no teams that are considered contenders were interested? I wish Atogwe well and hope the best for him, but I think he should have gone to a contender.

Mike Sando: At a certain point, Atogwe needed to look out for himself. He needed to take a lucrative offer when he had the opportunity. He had made good money to this point in his career, but poor timing had prevented him from maxing out. The Redskins made him feel wanted at a time when teams are playing it safe. I can't fault Atogwe at all.


Ray from Corona, Calif., writes: The 49ers' most pressing need is cornerback and if they don't get at least two, they are doomed to continuing mediocrity. They should aggressively pursue and pay top dollar for Nnamdi Asomugha. It would allow them to release Nate Clements and his inflated salary, then maybe renegotiate and re-sign him. It gives them more options in the draft if Patrick Peterson doesn't fall to them. Prince Amukamara is very good, but doesn't merit a No. 7 overall first-round pick. If Peterson is gone already, the 49ers should draft one of the great pass-rushers such as Robert Quinn, Da'Quan Bowers or Von Miller, and go for a quarterback in the second or third round with Andy Dalton or Colin Kaepernick at picks 45 or 76. The cornerback, DeMarcus Von Dyke of Miami, might be available in the second round, also.

Mike Sando: The cornerback situation in San Francisco does need addressing, but I wouldn't necessarily make it the focus of so many offseason resources. The 49ers are not two cornerbacks away from contending. The big-money cornerback additions over the years -- Clements, Asante Samuel, Dunta Robinson and Champ Bailey come to mind -- haven't always put their teams over the top.


Joshua from Nebraska writes: What are the chances the Rams go after Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray in the third or fourth round to be a change-of-pace back to play behind Steven Jackson? Would his ties to Sam Bradford make this more likely?

Mike Sando: Murray has had durability concerns, but he's known for excelling as a receiver out of the backfield. He would also provide value as a kickoff returner. That means Murray could contribute right away, a plus for any rookie.

The Rams do need to bolster the position behind Jackson, and even start thinking about a long-term alternative. I couldn't argue against Murray if he lasted into that third-round range, but he could be gone by then. His history with Bradford at Oklahoma would be a small plus, but it likely would not influence the Rams unless Bradford offered a strong negative opinion, which would seem unlikely.

On a side note, Josh McDaniels, the Rams' new offensive coordinator, has been with teams that drafted the following running backs: Knowshon Moreno, Justise Hairston, Laurence Maroney, Cedric Cobbs, Spencer Nead and Antwoine Womack.


Joe from Fort Collins, Colo., writes: Hello, Mike, just a comment about the Arizona Cardinals' defense. The offense had so many three-and-outs, which led to the defense being on the field so long. I really think if the offense can get turned around, then the defense would really shine and build off that No. 1 red zone ranking. Also, didn't Derek Anderson remind you of Kent Graham? Strong arm but horrible accuracy.

Mike Sando: The Cardinals did, improbably, lead the NFL in touchdown percentage allowed in the red zone this past season. They were at 39 percent. The rest of the league was at greater than 50 percent. Holding Seattle's struggling red zone offense to three touchdowns in 15 qualifying possessions helped the percentage a great deal. Arizona's other opponents scored touchdowns 24 times in 54 chances (.444).

Atlanta, San Diego, Tampa Bay and Kansas City combined to score 12 touchdowns in 18 red zone possessions against Arizona.

You're right about the Cardinals' defense needing more help from the offense. Kurt Warner masked weakneses throughout the roster. That's what top quarterbacks do.

On the bright side: St. Louis Rams

January, 21, 2011
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The premise: We spend much of the offseason focusing on teams' problems. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. and I discussed some of those Friday during a wide-ranging conversation on the NFC West, but there were also some positives. I'm breaking out one for each team, continuing with the St. Louis Rams.

St. Louis Rams

Matt Williamson: Sam Bradford will have to learn a new system with Josh McDaniels as the coordinator, but I don't think it's going to be a big stumbling block for him. He is very bright. McDaniels is a very good offensive mind. He did good things with Kyle Orton, and Kyle Orton is a very average player. In Denver, they had all those light, athletic offensive linemen and McDaniels changed everything. I don't think he has to change much in St. Louis. He also got a ton out of Brandon Lloyd, who was awesome this year and hadn't shown much in the past. Maybe McDaniels can get one of those so-so receivers to step up for the Rams.

Mike Sando: McDaniels has a reputation for being a little pass-happy. Does his hiring mean bad things for Steven Jackson?

Matt Williamson: I think he wants to run the ball. He drafted Knowshon Moreno with the 12th pick in Denver with the intentions of having that guy, and he wanted that position to be a very well-rounded, do-it-all player. Moreno has been hurt and underachieved, but he played well at the end of the year. Now, McDaniels has that guy in Jackson. He will be a versatile, all-around guy. They just need to use a third-round pick on a versatile young back and give him 150 carries.

Under the microscope: 15 little things

December, 16, 2010
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Fifteen little things I noticed while watching NFC West teams play in Week 14:
  • Referee Jerome Boger suffered two replay reversals during the Arizona game. I thought his crew should have flagged Denver Broncos tight end Daniel Graham for a facemask penalty to end Michael Adams' interception return. Speaking of Adams, he's all over the place, including on special teams.
  • Cardinals rookie linebackers Daryl Washington and O'Brien Schofield caught my attention. Washington had close to a breakout game. He hit hard on defense, picked off a pass and downed a punt at the Denver 3.
  • What's with all the dropped passes, Arizona? The Cardinals are strong at receiver, but that group is failing to make the routine plays, let alone the big ones Arizona needs to spark its offense. Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Early Doucet dropped passes early in the game Sunday. Fullback Jason Wright dropped one, too.
  • Quarterbacks sometimes look silly trying to make blocks. Arizona's John Skelton looked good cracking back on Broncos linebacker Jason Hunter during Breaston's reverse. Separately, Skelton showed good athleticism for a big quarterback when he avoided the initial rush, stayed on his feet by touching one hand to the ground, escaped outside and cut up the sideline for extra yardage. Skelton wasn't particularly fluid, but he moved effectively.
  • Darnell Dockett can't get a break on the health front. He tried to pummel Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno on one play, only to miss high and suffer a head-on collision with 330-pound teammate Dan Williams. Dockett, slowed by shoulder issues this season, including stinger issues, was clearly hurting after this play.
  • Fitzgerald and Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey went after one another with vigor. Bailey drew offensive interference against Fitzgerald on one play. Fitzgerald drove Bailey 13 yards downfield while blocking for Tim Hightower's 11-yard run on third-and-5.
  • St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford took a beating against New Orleans. His offensive line held up OK for the most part, however. The Saints got pressure by freeing defenders via effective blitz calls. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma sneaked around the outside on a delayed blitz and hit Bradford's arm hard just as the quarterback was throwing. Bradford easily could have been injured here.
  • Along the same lines, a well-conceived Saints blitz forced Bradford into intentional grounding.
  • Rams left tackle Rodger Saffold shows good athleticism. He pulled across the formation and picked off a linebacker on the other side while springing Steven Jackson for a 10-yard gain in the second quarter.
  • Bradford wasn't solely to blame for the costly interception he threw right before halftime. Saffold set to the outside in pass protection and quickly lost inside leverage against defensive end Will Smith. Smith got immediate pressure on Bradford, affecting the throw. Malcolm Jenkins' 96-yard interception return for a touchdown changed the game.
  • Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is playing aggressively. He'll probably get fined for delivering a clothesline-type hit against the Saints' Reggie Bush. Those types of hits can make offensive players wary.
  • There's still a place for San Francisco 49ers fullback Moran Norris in the 49ers' offense even though quarterback Alex Smith sometimes plays his best without a fullback on the field. Norris dominated individual matchups against Seattle linebackers in the running game. I saw him flatten Lofa Tatupu, drive back David Hawthorne and move out Aaron Curry.
  • 49ers right guard Chilo Rachal still has some troubles, as when Curry beat him for a shot on the quarterback. Rachal did some good things in this game, too. Tatupu got too high on one play and Rachal made the linebacker pay. Rachal lifted Tatupu, drove him onto his back and flopped on him.
  • The Seahawks' injury-induced personnel changes on offense cost the team sometimes. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck spent extra time getting players lined up right before taking a third-and-2 sack in the second quarter.
  • The rushing numbers weren't there for Seattle's Marshawn Lynch -- he's not going to make big plays on his own when the holes aren't there -- but there's a lot to like about how he plays. I saw him make positive contributions in pass protection, as a receiver and as a tone-setter with stiff-arms and high-impact collisions. Not many players at any position can say they dropped the 49ers' Patrick Willis in a collision both players saw coming. Lynch made it happen in the second quarter.

We're at 15 already. Thanks for the positive feedback on the inaugural "15 little things" item, which ran last week. I'll keep these coming.

Tim Hightower's fumbling in perspective

October, 31, 2010
10/31/10
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Tim Hightower's fumbling issues this season wouldn't matter so much if, say, most other running backs lost the ball just as frequently.

The reality, however, is that Hightower has put the ball on the ground more times per carry than any NFL running back with at least 50 attempts this season. Hightower also averages more yards per attempt than any of those backs, one reason the Arizona Cardinals have been reluctant to take him off the field.

The chart ranks players with at least 50 rushing attempts by most fumbles per carry. The information reflects only fumbles during rushing attempts. The San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore ranks tied for 11th on the list with three such fumbles. He also has one fumble following a reception.

Hightower and Ahmad Bradshaw, from the New York Giants, are the only NFL running backs to lose at least three fumbles this season.

Wrap-up: Broncos 31, Seahawks 14

September, 19, 2010
9/19/10
7:05
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What it means: The Seattle Seahawks are less impressive when playing on the road against a less accommodating opponent. Their pass rush stands a better chance at home, where crowd noise helps Chris Clemons and the defense get a jump on the opponent. And if the Seahawks are going to suffer turnovers on offense and special teams, they're going to lose games, same as everyone else.

Big Revelation: Golden Tate got the message when Seahawks coach Pete Carroll named the rookie inactive despite a mostly impressive offseason. The first time Tate touched the ball, he gained 63 yards on a punt return to set up Matt Hasselbeck's touchdown pass to Ben Obomanu. The decision to deactivate Tate in Week 1 worked out perfectly. Seattle won its opener while getting good production from its receivers, and Tate had extra motivation to tighten up aspects of his game. He added a 52-yard reception against Denver.

Hindsight: The Seahawks' former leadership strongly considered selecting Knowshon Moreno with the fourth overall choice in the 2009 draft -- right up until the night before the first round. Concerns over Moreno's top-end speed prevailed, leading the Seahawks to select linebacker Aaron Curry instead. Moreno hurt the Seahawks repeatedly Sunday, including a touchdown run that gave Denver a 24-7 lead in the third quarter.

Trending: Personnel changes on the offensive line caught up to the Seahawks in this game. They suffered multiple penalties on the line, including in critical situations. Building continuity on the line will take time.

What's next: The Seahawks return to Qwest Field for a game against the San Diego Chargers.

Mailbag: Seahawks' draft options

February, 19, 2010
2/19/10
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Shep Hawk from Roseville, Calif., writes: Mike, I think the Seahawks are going to surprise a lot of people in the draft. Many think they should get a QB, OT and RB in their first three picks. I think that's nice, but that No. 6 pick will have high value. I see them staying true to the board, and I see them getting another 2-3 picks before it's over.

I like Eric Berry falling to them at No. 6. Dan LeFevour or Colt McCoy make sense later at QB. The best medicine in Seattle would be a pass rush that takes the pressure off the secondary, and a playmaker RB to take the pressure off Matt Hasselbeck. They will get their lineman with coach Alex Gibbs. I see a Ted Thompson, Green Bay-like draft -- finally one that will make sense. What does Mike think?

Mike Sando: You're absolutely right about the pass-rush making a secondary look better. Works every time. I could also see the Seahawks moving back to recoup picks, as you suggested. Not having a third-round pick will eat at them. I say there's a good chance Seattle will find a way to gain a pick in that round.

At running back, I thought Seattle would get one in the first three rounds last year. Knowshon Moreno was a consideration in the first round, but like other teams picking among the top 10, there were concerns about taking a running back that early when the player in question did not have excellent speed.

There are a couple wild cards this year. Gibbs and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates were in Denver when the Broncos racked up rushing yards with lower-valued backs in a zone scheme. That comes to mind every time I think about Seattle possibly taking an offensive lineman or running back early. The Seahawks could do it, but if they do not, we shouldn't be surprised.


Javier from Denver writes: For the past couple of seasons everyone has been saying that the Seahawks need to draft a QB early to be the heir to Matt Hasselbeck. What about Seneca Wallace? I know that he is not really a pocket passer and that the Seahawks record with him starting has been poor, but I feel like that isn't really all on him. Hasselbeck's numbers the past couple of seasons I think shows that his injuries aren't the only thing holding the Seahawks back. Doesn't Seneca give the Hawks time to make sure they can get the right QB with all the right tools around him? Ryan, Flacco, Sanchez, Roethlisberger and Rivers all had pretty good teams to support them.

Mike Sando: Wallace has shown he can be a pocket passer, at least in the West Coast offense. His height makes it tough to see over linemen sometimes, but there have been times in the past where I thought he needed to run more. Nothing about how he played in relief last season made me think the Seahawks would be better with him starting, though.


Michael from Salem, Ore., writes: Just wondering what you thought about the Cards going after QB Jason Campbell? I actually still think Matt Leinart should be given a shot without having another potential starting QB looking over his shoulder, but I just think it is an interesting thought. Campbell should be a restricted FA with no CBA and thus it may make no sense for the Cards to use a draft pick on him; but what if the Redskins drafted a new QB and cut Campbell? For the right price, what are your thoughts on the Cards signing him? Campbell appears to have the physical attributes (tall, strong, mobile) to be a good QB. He, like Leinart, hasn't really shown much over his career, but Campbell has never had the Cards' WR talent, either.

Mike Sando: If Campbell were cut, sure, pick him up. Might as well. I would not trade for him, though. The Cardinals need their draft choices to restock. They've done a pretty good job in the draft. It's unclear to me whether Campbell would be a huge upgrade over Leinart, who already knows the system. For that reason, and because we both agree Leinart should get a shot this season, I'm inclined to think they should go with Leinart and see what happens.


Greg from Seattle writes: Hi Mike, I noticed a lot of talk about Donovan McNabb to the Niners in this week's chat. Am I alone in thinking this may not be such a great fit? McNabb is an older player with injury concerns. He is a sub 60 percent in an offense that emphasizes completion percentage. He plays for a talented offensively-minded HC and has never played in another system. The playcalling in Philadelphia tends take a lot of responsibility out of McNabb's hands. While I like many things that McNabb brings to the table, I don't necessarily see him as a tremendous upgrade for the 49ers, especially at the cost of a first round pick. Transitioning into a new, less inspired offense, it would not surprise me at all if he struggled.

Mike Sando: McNabb has completed at least 60 percent of his passes in each of the last three seasons. I have pointed out a few of the potential risks, including the one about how he would have to transition from the only offense he has known, and that could be tough. The bottom line, I think, is that the Eagles aren't going to trade their starting quarterback, most likely.


Edward from Tempe writes: Sando, I have been following the Cards and found it interesting that both Rod Graves and Ken Whisenhunt are doing "Business As Usual" during this current off-season. Is it just me or do you think that the Cardinals front office need to put more of an emphasis on retaining some of the players that could possibly relocate? I understand how the organization goes through their process of selecting free agents, the draft and retaining core players, but we are talking about the possibility of a few high profile players walking away or being shipped away. How are other high-profile players expected to look at Arizona as a winner when they can't seem to keep good players? How can an organization that has gone through so much futility expect to keep and retain the same winning attitude when players don't feel like they are wanted or needed?

Mike Sando: Let's accurately define what the Cardinals mean when they talk about business as usual. I think they're talking about how to approach this offseason amid some of the labor uncertainty. They are not talking about taking a ho-hum approach to the offseason. Graves and Whisenhunt seem to be on the same page. This offseason presents some significant challenges for the organization.

And while some good players have walked away from the Cardinals in recent seasons, the team has signed Anquan Boldin, Darnell Dockett, Larry Fitzgerald, Kurt Warner, Adrian Wilson and others to multiyear deals or extensions in the last several years. Boldin and Dockett want new deals again. Fitzgerald had all the leverage in getting his extension. Warner visited the 49ers before getting his deal. But the bottom line is the same. All those guys were happy with the deals when they signed them, so it's unfair to say the Cardinals do not re-sign good players.


Jason from Rochester, N.Y., writes: Thanks for the great work all year, Mike. Looking forward to your offseason coverage of the West. Loved the idea behind the Trade Column and wanted your take on the potential of Seattle working that deal (Deion Branch and picks to Denver for Brandon Marshall). Certainly, Tim Ruskell was not afraid to make a deal (both good and bad). John Schneider seems to be cut from a different cloth based on his track record. With Paul Allen's checkbook open, is it realistic to think Seattle will actually work a trade? I would love for them to investigate all of the names that have been rumored. But I am intrigued by a couple of names: Brandon Marshall, Antonio Cromartie, Osi Umenuyora. Also, what about Schnieder pulling Aaron Kampman over from GB to play Carroll's "elephant" spot?

Mike Sando: Thanks for the support, Jason. A few factors make me think Seattle is likely to make a trade this offseason. Schneider has described himself as a little more aggressive than his former boss, Ted Thompson (and Thompson made trades). The uncapped year makes trades easier, in theory. The Seahawks will be trying to get younger, so they could be more apt to ship out a veteran or two. I could also see the Seahawks moving back a couple spots in the draft if an opportunity comes along, perhaps recouping a third-round choice.

Kampman will be coming off knee surgery, so I'm not sure that type of move would make sense. The Seahawks might already have the personnel to run that type of defense. Remember, too, that Carroll seems to be flexible. I got the feeling he used an elephant linebacker because he had Brian Cushing, not necessarily the other way around. But we shall see.

The Brandon Marshall trade could come down to what Jeremy Bates and the staff think about Marshall from their time together in Denver.


Chad from Oshkosh, Wis., writes: Sando, thanks for feeding my football fix each day. Any news on the Rams' Oshiomogho Atogwe? Last I heard, he is not being franchised, but will likely be given the highest tender as a restricted free agent. Any chance he isn't in St. Louis next season? Perhaps with my Niners?

Mike Sando: You're welcome. The Rams have an interesting decision to make here, at least in my view. They could actually give Atogwe the lowest tender, worth less than $1.3 million, and then decide later whether to match any offers from other teams. That move might risk goodwill with Atogwe. It might risk a poison-pill scenario. It might end badly for the Rams, who would receive nothing in return if they allowed Atogwe to leave.

The alternative is tendering Atogwe for nearly $7 million, which from a cost standpoint would be pretty much like franchising him, even though it would be within the RFA framework.

Atogwe is a good player but not a franchise player in the way we would view an elite quarterback, running back or defensive end. We've seen teams regularly use the franchise tag for these sorts of players. Karlos Dansby comes to mind. Leroy Hill comes to mind. Even Aubrayo Franklin could be in a similar mold this offseason, although his value as a 3-4 nose tackle is probably higher.

The tag has helped teams keep these players without ever regarding them as true franchise players.

To answer your question, yes, I could see Atogwe winding up elsewhere one way or another, even if the Rams would prefer to keep him. I think they might at least listen to offers.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 18, 2009
12/18/09
4:00
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesSan Francisco's Alex Smith is hoping to fare better than most quarterbacks have in Philly this season.



Alex Smith in perspective. The 49ers' quarterback has a much higher rating on the road (93.3) than at home (73.8) this season, but he is facing an Eagles defense that makes life rough on quarterbacks. Quarterbacks have 21 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and a 77.3 rating against the Eagles this season. Those numbers could be helpful when analyzing how Smith performs in this game. It's a bigger deal if Smith plays well and leads the 49ers to victory than if he struggles some and the 49ers lose the game. The progress Smith is making should be measured over the second half of the season -- not one game, even with the 49ers' playoff chances potentially at stake.

Wakeup call in Philadelphia. Upsetting the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field would keep alive the 49ers' playoff hopes no matter what division-leading Arizona does against the Lions. Few teams have found themselves in the 49ers' current predicament. San Francisco is only the third West Coast team to visit the Eagles for an early kickoff since the beginning of the 2005 season. The Seahawks won a close game there in 2007. The Chargers lost a close game there in 2005. The 49ers also lost there in 2005, 42-3, but Smith was behind Tim Rattay on the 49ers' depth chart back then. Only two current 49ers starters -- center Eric Heitmann (then at right guard) and cornerback Shawntae Spencer -- were in the lineup for that 2005 game at Philly. While much has changed, including the stakes, the 49ers are 0-4 this season and 2-21 since 2005 in games kicking off at 1 p.m. ET.

Shuffling along the lines. All four NFC West teams could have new starting combinations on their offensive lines this week. The Seahawks are moving right guard Max Unger to center. The Rams will have two new starting guards after releasing Richie Incognito and placing Jacob Bell on injured reserve. The 49ers could get left tackle Joe Staley back from injury. The Cardinals could move Jeremy Bridges into the lineup at left tackle while Mike Gandy continues to battle an injured pelvis. The changes appear most problematic for the Rams, who are already a mess offensively. They haven't scored more than 23 points in a game this season (the Texans, who visit St. Louis in Week 14, scored 24 points in the first 18 minutes of their game against Seattle last week).

Wells, Hightower in focus. The Cardinals can probably beat the Lions over ground or through air. This might be a good week for the team to restore confidence in running backs Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower after both lost critical fumbles last week. Arizona faces a Lions team that allowed 308 yards rushing to the Ravens last week. Wells ranks second in rushing yards to Denver's Knowshon Moreno among rookie running backs. He has appeared due for a 100-yard game for some time. Despite the fumble against San Francisco, Wells carried 15 times for 79 yards, an impressive showing against a strong run defense. Wells runs hard and seems to relish contact. If he's going to have a breakout game during the regular season, this would seem like a good time.

Seahawks have been here before. For the second time this season, Seattle coach Jim Mora has challenged his team following a blowout defeat in Texas. Just like last time, the Seahawks are facing one of the NFL's worst teams the following week. Last time, Mora suggested jobs were on the line following a 38-17 defeat to the Cowboys. The Seahawks failed to respond, falling behind 14-0 at home against the Lions before finally rallying to win the game. This time, Mora shook up his offensive line following a 34-7 defeat to the Texans. The Seahawks face the 1-12 Bucs at home this week. Tampa Bay has failed to exceed seven points in three of its past four games. For the Seahawks, falling behind 14-0 cannot be an option. Can it?

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

A few thoughts and observations through the first half of the 49ers' exhibition opener against the Broncos at Candlestick Park:

  • Alex Smith has not seized the moment. Mike Singletary has given Smith most of the reps through the first half. Smith held the ball far too long in taking a sack on his first possession. He could have thrown to Arnaz Battle, but instead he froze. Smith did make a few good throws, but I thought his numbers were better than his performance through the first half. He threw into the ground when he had Glen Coffee open short against pressure.
  • Shaun Hill was sharp early. Hill appeared more confident and decisive than Smith. Yes, he also held the ball too long in taking a sack, but most of his problems stemmed from fullback Zak Keasey's troubles in pass protection (admittedly when he found himself overmatched against linemen).
  • Vernon Davis did not disappoint. The fastest tight end in the league caught two passes from Hill early in the game. He showed he can get downfield and catch the ball. The 49ers did not need him in protection all the time.
  • Adam Snyder was competent at right tackle. The offensive line generally kept the 49ers' quarterbacks clean. The sacks weren't the fault of the line, generally. Snyder cleared out his man to spring Coffee for a nice run up the middle, with Tony Wragge's trap block also playing a role in the gain.
  • Manny Lawson did not stand out. The 49ers' pass rush had problems, in part because the Broncos threw the ball quickly. Manny Lawson never seemed close to getting pressure on Kyle Orton. Ahmad Brooks came closer. He was bearing down on Orton on the pass Dre Bly picked off. Not sure if the pressure affected Orton, but this play seemed to validate what we've seen from Brooks in camp so far. Lawson did make a tackle 13 yards downfield -- after he bit on a play fake near the line of scrimmage.
  • Kentwan Balmer was in there. But the Broncos' Chris Kuper pushed Balmer aside in clearing the way for Knowshon Moreno to convert on third-and-1.
  • The 49ers' secondary is ball hawking. And that is something I haven't had to type in a long while. Nate Clements baited Orton into an end-zone interception by leaning outside, then darting back to play the ball. Bly and safety Reggie Smith also picked off passes. Exactly what the 49ers need from their secondary.
Those were some of the things I noticed. The 49ers' offensive line seemed to play well for the most part. Joe Staley (of all people) did have a problem at one point, with the Broncos' Kenny Peterson coming off Staley's block to drop Coffee for a loss. The bottom line right now is that Smith needs to show more to win this quarterback competition.

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