NFC West: Matt Moore

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Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?

Arizona Cardinals: This was a tough assignment because I'm not of the mind that teams should rush out to sign free agents at inflated prices. In most cases, NFC West teams should let the market settle before striking. My first inclination for Arizona would have the Cardinals seeking to stabilize the quarterback position. Much depends upon whether Kevin Kolb remains in the picture. Kolb is due to receive a $2 million roster bonus March 17. Free agency begins five days earlier, potentially giving Arizona some time to decide upon its course. Indianapolis' Drew Stanton is a free agent and would come to Arizona already knowing the offense coach Bruce Arians is installing. Miami's Matt Moore was someone I thought might project as a solid backup with the potential to start if needed, but he re-signed with the Dolphins. Not that Stanton or Moore would excite anyone, but after watching John Skelton and Ryan Lindley struggle last season, the Cardinals need to get better at quarterback as soon as possible. They need options.

St. Louis Rams: The Rams would be well served finding a right tackle in free agency, knocking off a clear need before the draft. The big question, as usual, is whether the price would make sense. But after using 16 starters on the offensive line over the past two seasons, St. Louis could justify the investment. New England's Sebastian Vollmer or Minnesota's Phil Loadholt would give the Rams an imposing presence on that side of the line. Both are proven and young, an ideal combination. Last offseason, the Rams spent big for veteran center Scott Wells, with underwhelming results. Wells was 31 years old at the time. He struggled getting and staying healthy. He had played 111 regular-season games when St. Louis signed him. Vollmer (51) and Loadholt (63) have played 114 games between them. They've got fewer miles. In looking through the available tackles, I also noticed Sam Baker, who played left tackle for Atlanta when Rams line coach Paul Boudreau was with the Falcons. Baker has been hurt, however.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers could use depth along their defensive line and insurance for Justin Smith while the All-Pro end recovers from arm surgery. Oakland's Richard Seymour has the experience, versatility and talent to instantly upgrade the 49ers' rotation. Signing Seymour to a short-term deal would be the goal here. San Francisco could address the line further by re-signing its own free agents and targeting a future starter in the draft. Signing Seymour would be a shorter-term proposition as the 49ers attempt to maximize their championship window. The team would be buying time to acquire and develop longer-term solutions along the line. General manager Trent Baalke did recently say he thinks the team has adequate depth along its line. He suggested that coaching philosophy explained why the 49ers used such a limited rotation last season. Whatever the case, San Francisco could stand to add defensive linemen. I can't endorse signing Seymour to a lucrative deal, but if the 49ers could get good value, the move could make sense.

Seattle Seahawks: Again, there's no urgency to overspend early in the signing process. Seattle mostly needs to continue building through the draft. Targeting 49ers tight end Delanie Walker should appeal on a couple of levels, however. It would give the Seahawks a chance to weaken a division rival while helping their own offense and special teams. Walker matched or set career highs in receiving yards (344), receiving touchdowns (three) and yards per reception (16.4) last season. He's 28 years old and possesses versatility Seattle could use as the team continues to diversify its offense. Seattle has more pressing needs, of course. Defensive end is a position for the Seahawks to address while Chris Clemons recovers from knee surgery. I'm not sure the team should rush out to sign one of the older pass-rushing veterans such as John Abraham or Dwight Freeney. But if Seattle targeted a veteran pass-rusher early in the process, that would be defensible, too.
NFL quarterbacks play in different systems with different coaches under different circumstances.

Some are going to suffer additional turnovers for reasons beyond their control.

Alex Smith would know this better than most quarterbacks after changing head coaches and offensive coordinators frequently during his first six NFL seasons.

Smith seems to be the right player in the right place at the right time lately.

The San Francisco 49ers' quarterback, credited by coaches for managing risks expertly, has not thrown an interception since a Week 12 game at Baltimore last season. He heads into the 49ers' game Sunday night against Detroit as the only player with no interceptions since that time through Week 1 (min. 100 dropbacks).

The chart, from ESPN Stats & Information, ranks these qualifying quarterbacks by lowest percentage of interceptions and would-be interceptions (passes dropped by defenders).

Smith is riding a franchise-record streak of passes without an interception. The 49ers have gone six consecutive games without a turnover. One more game and they would tie the 2010 New England Patriots for the longest streak in NFL history.

Gunther Cunningham, the Lions' defensive coordinator, says it's only a matter of time before the turnover odds even out. Smith suffered two turnovers, a lost fumble and an interception, during a 25-19 victory at Detroit last season.

The dropped interception stat is one we don't see too frequently. The Lions' Matthew Stafford has more of them since the 2011 opener (six) than any quarterback, including one against San Francisco. Matt Hasselbeck is second with four. Smith had two last season, both during a 48-3 victory against Tampa Bay.
Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has promised/threatened to leave his starters on the field til they get things right in the team's exhibition game Friday night.

His top two quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb and John Skelton, could use any extra work that comes their way.

E.J. from Redondo Beach, Calif., hit the NFC West mailbag with a request: "Whiz keeps talking about Kolb and Skelton needing to play better (staying in the pocket/finding the open man), but Kolb and Skelton only average about 5-6 attempts per game. How do their snaps/attempts compare around the NFL?"

The Cardinals have played two exhibition games. Most teams have played only one. An injury shortened Kolb's first start. Those and other factors complicate stat comparisons.

Instead, I've put together a chart showing percentages of team attempts for quarterbacks from the four teams with competitions at the position.

Kolb has indeed accounted for the smallest percentage of attempts (13.6) among quarterbacks competing for starting jobs. Tennessee's Nick Stephens has a lower percentage, but he's not a candidate to start. We should expect Kolb to play extensively against Oakland at University of Phoenix Stadium on Friday night, health permitting.
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross checked in Monday with thoughts on the team's quarterback situation.

There was nothing too earth-shattering from a news standpoint, but if you're a head coach or quarterback, these are the sorts of public musings from an owner that are unwelcome.

"I don't think they're going to rush (Ryan Tannehill) into anything," Ross told NFL.com. "He's going to have to win the starting job. I think Matt Moore will probably be the starter, and I wish him the best."

Ross' aggressive public style played a role in Jim Harbaugh and Jeff Fisher choosing NFC West teams over the Dolphins during the last couple offseasons, in my view. Separately, free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn was widely linked to the Dolphins through their new coach, Joe Philbin, but Flynn identified Seattle as his preferred destination.

Coaches in particular appreciate their owners leaving the football commentary to others. They don't want to feel public pressure from above, especially from owners without strong football backgrounds.

Ross' comments Monday appeared reasonable. It's just that head coaches generally do not want their team owners setting expectations for a quarterback race, especially when they've gone out of their way to emphasize competition for the starting role.

Also: James Walker's thoughts on Ross.

Bringing pressure? Some QBs simply shrug

November, 29, 2011
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The best NFL quarterbacks are good against standard and added pressure alike.

Aaron Rodgers comes to mind. The Green Bay Packers' quarterback leads the NFL in Total QBR when opponents send four or fewer pass-rushers, and also when they send five or more, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Alex Smith's stronger production against five or more pass-rushers has stood out all season.
  • Smith vs. four or fewer rushers: six touchdowns, four interceptions and 16 sacks in 222 dropbacks, with a 47.7 QBR (50 is average) and an 84.7 NFL passer rating.
  • Smith vs. five or more: seven touchdowns, one interception and 14 sacks in 106 dropbacks, with a 57.2 QBR and 105.9 NFL rating.

Multiple factors can produce such a disparity. A quick-thinking quarterback armed with a strong game plan and a solid protection scheme can have an advantage against added pressure. Quarterbacks working behind weaker offensive lines could suffer against standard pressure if opponents got to them without sacrificing coverage. Having additional players in coverage affords defenses with additional combinations in coverage, another consideration.

The chart immediately below ranks quarterbacks by the largest QBR disparity when facing five or more pass-rushers vs. four or fewer. Smith and Arizona's Kevin Kolb are among 11 quarterbacks with higher QBR scores against five or more rushers. They have done better against pressure, in theory. Ranking higher on the list isn't necessarily desirable; like Rodgers, a top quarterback should produce in both areas.

Fifty is an average score, with 100 as the limit.

QBR differential is an imperfect measure because point differentials nearer the margins (zero and 100) carry more significance than they do nearer the middle of the range. But the disparities are still helpful in showing how quarterbacks perform, in general, across these situations.

Rex Grossman, who heads the first chart, completed 9 of 12 passes for 117 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions and one sack when the Seahawks sent five or more rushers against him Sunday. He completed 17 of 23 passes for 197 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and no sacks against standard pressure.

The final chart shows the 22 qualifying quarterbacks with better QBR numbers when facing four or fewer pass-rushers, again ranked by percentage difference.

Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson and St. Louis' Sam Bradford show up on this list. There is Rodgers, down at the bottom, nearly equally strong in each situation.

Chat wrap: Resetting 2011 expectations

November, 10, 2011
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The midseason standings force teams to set new goals. The San Francisco 49ers can think about playoff positioning. The Seattle Seahawks can focus on continuing to improve their ground game. The St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals can try to get their quarterbacks heading in the right direction.

The latest NFC West chat illustrated how much expectations have changed.
Jason from New York has a hard time thinking the San Francisco 49ers can reach a Super Bowl with Alex Smith. He wonders whether Jim Harbaugh would do "whatever it takes" to land Andrew Luck.

Mike Sando: First, let's pause for a moment and consider this: A 49ers fan is now worried about Alex Smith's ability to reach the Super Bowl. We've gone from wondering whether Smith should re-sign with the team to wondering if Smith could beat out Colin Kaepernick to wondering how long before Kaepernick would take the job to wondering if Smith can be a Super Bowl quarterback. I'd say the season is already a success. Jim Harbaugh values quarterbacks, but I do not see the 49ers mortgaging everything for a shot at the top pick. Harbaugh strikes me as the type who thinks he can win without an all-time great behind center.

Jesse from Sacramento asks where Sam Bradford ranks in the NFL this season. He sees three touchdown psses, three interceptions and four fumbles, three of them returned for scores. He thinks Bradford should rank below Colt McCoy, Matt Moore, Curtis Painter and Blaine Gabbert.

Mike Sando: I'd put Bradford in the bottom five of the league this season even though I think some of the struggles are directly related to: Steven Jackson missing time, the team running out of talent at receiver, a tough schedule, an underachieving offensive line and Bradford getting injured just as the team was finally upgrading with Brandon Lloyd at receiver. I think Bradford needs to demonstrate more than once over the remaining eight games that he can be a difference maker.

Jake in Taghaz, Afghanistan sees Matt Hasselbeck playing well for Tennessee and asks whether he would have put up similar numbers for Seattle.

Mike Sando: Hasselbeck would have been more vulnerable to injuries in Seattle because the protection was not good early in the season. I think he would be putting up better numbers than he did last season and better numbers than his replacements are putting up, but he would not be producing the way he is in Tennessee, where the protection has been better. I would counter that only by saying Seattle has better weapons at receiver than Hasselbeck enjoys in Tennessee, so that is a consideration. Overall, I think Seattle would have a chance to win more games if Hasselbeck were the quarterback. But part of me also thinks keeping Hasselbeck for this season would have risked a higher choice in the draft. This team needs its next quarterback. Finding that next quarterback would have been tougher had Hasselbeck stayed.

cards_need_heart from Arizona asks what steps the Cardinals can take to help their offensive line. He thinks the line is similar to the one Kurt Warner played behind, but he sees quarterbacks taking longer to throw the ball. He doesn't want to team to draft for need, as it did in landing Levi Brown, but wants a quick fix.

Mike Sando: There is no quick fix. The Cardinals haven't drafted young prospects on their offensive line. They have patched with veterans. They have even replaced veterans with veterans. They need to use the draft to upgrade at outside linebacker and offensive tackle.

Enjoy your Thursday evening. I'm going to check out the Oakland-San Diego game for a bit.

LuckWatch: Seahawks' QB maneuvering

November, 9, 2011
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Andrew LuckJim Z. Rider/US PresswireAndrew Luck has thrown at least three touchdown passes in six of Stanford's nine games this season.
The Seattle Seahawks' handling of the quarterback situation this season has produced quite a bit of confusion.

When in doubt, follow the money.

Signing Tarvaris Jackson to a contract averaging $4 million a year -- less than what the team is paying its left guard, tight end and backup quarterback -- revealed plenty about the Seahawks' plans for the position.

The move told us the Seahawks were serious about drafting a quarterback in 2012, whether it's Andrew Luck or another prospect likely to be chosen early. Saying so outright would have sent the wrong message to fans and the current team, of course, but a $4 million bet on Jackson wasn't much of a bet at all.

The related decision to part ways with Matt Hasselbeck, who commanded $9 million a year on the market, told us Seattle saw little point in squeezing a couple additional victories from a team that wasn't going to contend for a championship, anyway.

The Seahawks would almost certainly be better with Hasselbeck, provided their former long-time starter could have held up physically behind a young, inconsistent line. But how much better would they have been? Enough to finish 7-9 or 8-8 and out of the running for a top quarterback in the draft? What then?

Swapping Jackson for Hasselbeck fell short of a blatant "Suck for Luck" mantra, but not all that far short. Teams finishing 4-12 last season picked second through fourth. Teams with five victories were fifth and sixth. Teams with six victories picked seventh to 13th.

After watching the Seahawks fall to 2-6, it's looking like Seattle will have a shot at drafting a quarterback early, even if another team winds up with Luck.

Which offenses have improved, regressed

October, 27, 2011
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The 2011 NFL season is far enough along to make fuller statistical comparisons between this season and last.

The chart shows how NFC West teams have changed from last season in various offensive statistical categories. The ones marked with red text and underlines stood out to me when putting together the chart. A few thoughts:
  • If the 49ers were not winning, we could easily point out how they are averaging fewer yards per game this season while ranking 31st in passing yards per game, 24th in first downs per game, 27th in third-down percentage and 29th in sacks allowed per pass play. These would all be signs of a sickly offense that hasn't progressed sufficiently from the dark days of Mike Singletary. But because the 49ers have limited turnovers, improved their running game and played well enough on defense and special teams to go 5-1, all is well, right? The 49ers are averaging an additional 8.7 points per game. They are much smarter and more efficient on offense.
  • The Seattle Seahawks are averaging 35 fewer yards and 3.2 fewer points per game this season. They were not very good on offense last season. Their defense is healthier and better than it was through most of last season, and the offensive line should improve with better health. Robert Gallery looked much better at left guard following his return from groin surgery. Max Unger should be back at center soon. The drop in yards per game is the sixth-largest for an NFL team. Their drop in yards per play (.5) is the fourth-largest from last season.
  • The Cardinals are averaging an additional 69.2 yards per game, the fifth-largest jump from last season behind Carolina (158.2), New England (110.7), New Orleans (94.6) and Buffalo (73.6). Their field goal percentage is down 31.8 points from last season, by far the largest drop for any team in the league. Percentages are up overall. Interceptions per pass play are up slightly. No team in the league has improved its punt-return average as much as Arizona, a reflection of Patrick Peterson's addition.
  • The St. Louis Rams are scoring 8.8 fewer points per game, the third-largest drop from last season behind Indianapolis (11.3) and Jacksonville (10.1). The team's touchdown percentage in goal-to-go situations has plummeted. Sam Bradford has completed only 1 of 10 passes in goal-to-go situations. Only teammate A.J. Feeley (0-of-3) and Miami's Matt Moore (also 0-of-3) have completed a lower percentage this season. By comparison, Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick has completed 7 of 10 such passes with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. Tom Brady has nine touchdowns and no interceptions on these throws. Bradford has one touchdown and one pick.

On to the chart ...

2011 Week 7: NFC West game changers

October, 24, 2011
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A disputed penalty prevented the Seattle Seahawks' Leon Washington from topping our Week 7 chart for most pivotal play in the NFC West.

Washington's 81-yard punt return would have given the Seahawks a 7-3 lead in a game they lost, 6-3. A penalty against Kennard Cox for an illegal block in the back wiped out the touchdown, creating a huge momentum swing and inviting ridicule.

This was a bad call, replays showed, but Mike Pereira, the NFL's former officiating czar, makes a good point in his column for Fox. What looked like a bad call on replay looked very much like an illegal block in the back when watched at live speed.

Had the return stood, the Seahawks' win probability for the game would have jumped from 37.7 percent to 63.1 percent, according to Alok Pattani of ESPN's analytics team. That 25.4-point difference would have topped our win probability chart. It does not because the official play-by-play sheet counts the penalty as part of the play. There are not separate calculations for penalties. It's assumed the rules violation enabled the play.

That left LaRod Stephens-Howling's 73-yard touchdown reception from Kevin Kolb atop the list this week. The play improved the Arizona Cardinals' win probability from 15.4 percent to 37.6 percent, based on how similar plays have affected outcomes in similar situations previously.

The most pivotal play for any NFL team: D.J. Williams' strip-sack of Miami's Matt Moore for Denver in overtime, which changed the Dolphins' win probability from 75.8 to 23.8.

I asked about the penalty against Seattle's Red Bryant for head-butting the Cleveland Browns' Alex Smith. That one affected win probability less than I would have anticipated. The Browns were already at 98.3 percent before that play.

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The St. Louis Rams made tremendous statistical gains on defense last season. Kerry Byrne breaks down some of the differences from 2009 to 2010 in his recent piece for SI.com.

Are coach Steve Spagnuolo and the Rams headed for even better things on defense in 2011 after using their first-round pick for defensive end Robert Quinn?

"The Quinn pick told the football world that Spagnuolo intends to win in St. Louis much the way he won in New York -- with a dominating group of Defensive Hogs," Byrne writes. "The unit he'll put on the field in 2011 has the potential to be the very best in the league."

Michael from St. Louis pointed out Byrne's piece to me via Facebook and questioned whether the Rams' defense would actually join the NFL's elite this season. I think Byrne is on the right track. Spagnuolo does have the Rams' defense headed in the right direction.

I do see question marks, however. James Hall and Fred Robbins enjoyed unusually strong seasons for their ages. Can the Rams bank on more of the same? The defense also lost safety Oshiomogho Atogwe to the Washington Redskins in free agency.

Opposing personnel matters, too. Some of the statistical gains St. Louis made from 2009 to 2010 reflected which quarterbacks the team faced.

The chart ranks the Rams' opposing quarterbacks by their passer ratings against St. Louis in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. The team's 2010 performances against Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel stand out as notable, although the Rams were 1-3 against those quarterbacks.

The Rams benefited in 2010 by removing Kurt Warner (twice), Peyton Manning, Matt Schaub, Brett Favre (2009 version) and even Vince Young (2009 version) from their schedule. They face Rodgers, Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick, Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Joe Flacco this coming season.

Mailbag: Troubling reality on QB front

January, 21, 2011
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Chris from Houston writes: What free-agent quarterbacks do you expect Arizona to be looking at this offseason? I know of Marc Bulger, but who else is there for them to even consider that wouldn't require a trade? Thanks! Love the blog! Thanks for helping keep us all sane until next season.

Mike Sando: Thanks, Chris. This could be a rough offseason for signing or even acquiring quarterbacks from other teams.

One, the list of quarterbacks likely to hit the market is once against weak. Two, a lockout would prevent teams from trading for players -- even via draft-day trades involving picks. A lockout lasting past the draft would limit options further, in other words.

Peyton Manning and Michael Vick are scheduled to become free agents, but Manning is going nowhere, obviously, and the Eagles will presumably keep Vick, too. Brett Favre is retiring, it appears, so forget about him.

The next tier of quarterbacks with expiring contracts goes like this: Matt Hasselbeck, Kerry Collins, Chad Pennington and Bulger. These are older, likely declining players -- not necessarily guys to build around. Pennington's health is a major issue. Vince Young is available.

Several highly drafted, not-yet-old quarterbacks could hit the market, but none has met expectations. That list will feature Kyle Boller, Patrick Ramsey, Rex Grossman, J.P. Losman, Alex Smith and Matt Leinart. The Cardinals aren't bringing back Leinart, obviously, and the other guys on this list will not project as starters.

Tarvaris Jackson, Brodie Croyle and Matt Moore could be available, too.

Several career backups could become available: Todd Collins, Todd Bouman, Billy Volek, Bruce Gradkowski, Seneca Wallace, J.T. O'Sullivan, Chris Simms, Luke McCown, etc.

Still not sold?

The names get smaller from there. Brian St. Pierre, Jim Sorgi, Charlie Frye, Kellen Clemens, Drew Stanton, Troy Smith, Brian Brohm, Caleb Hanie, Jordan Palmer, Dennis Dixon ... we're not finding the Cardinals' next starter from that list, either.

Arizona should probably make a play for Bulger, consider drafting a quarterback and see how the trade market shakes out. The Cardinals have too many needs, in my view, to part with multiple picks of value for an unproven quarterback such as Kevin Kolb -- unless they're convinced that quarterback will become a very good player.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 17, 2010
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Taking aim at Cassel. Matt Cassel appears likely to start for Kansas City against St. Louis in a game with playoff implications for both teams. Cassel has 13 touchdowns and three interceptions on the road this season. The Rams have generally fared well at home against "name" quarterbacks, including MVP candidate Philip Rivers (77.4 rating in the Chargers' 27-20 defeat at St. Louis). Visiting quarterbacks have six touchdowns, six interceptions and a 76.0 rating against the Rams. The Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan (101.8) and the Arizona Cardinals' Derek Anderson (85.1) were the only ones with ratings of 80 or higher.

[+] EnlargeRams quarterback Sam Bradford
AP Photo/Tom GannamRams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford has struggled at times in the fourth quarter. He has thrown two touchdowns and seven interceptions in the final period.
Bradford's fourth-quarter push. Cassel has seven touchdowns and no interceptions in fourth quarters this season. The Rams' Sam Bradford, though impressive during a fourth-quarter push against San Francisco, needs to finish stronger more consistently. He has two touchdowns and seven picks in fourth quarters, same as Carolina's Matt Moore. A little better luck would help Bradford. The intercepted shovel pass he threw near the goal line while leading a rally against the Falcons comes to mind. Still, Bradford's fourth-quarter rating ranks 38th among the 47 quarterbacks with at least 15 attempts.

Playoff picture not yet in focus. The Rams and Seattle Seahawks, both 6-7, will earn playoff spots if they win their final three games. They play one another in Week 17, making it impossible for both to finish 9-7. Arizona could win the division at 7-9 if the Rams and Seahawks tied one another to finish 6-9-1 apiece. San Francisco could win the division at 7-9 if the Rams and Seahawks lost their next two (the 49ers visit St. Louis in Week 16). The 49ers would be 5-1 in the division under that scenario.

Seattle's defense on the run. The matchup with Michael Turner and the Falcons' running game appears problematic for Seattle. The Falcons have finished with more than 30 rushing attempts six times this season, including four times on the road (topped by a 50-carry game at New Orleans). They are averaging 152.3 yards rushing per game against the NFC West this season (221 vs. Arizona, 98 vs. San Francisco and 138 vs. St. Louis). Turner has seven 100-yard rushing games overall. The Seahawks have allowed 155 yards rushing per game over their last seven games.

Returning to Carolina. The Arizona Cardinals have set a franchise record with nine return touchdowns. The Carolina Panthers have allowed five return touchdowns this season. Only Cincinnati (eight), San Diego (six) and Minnesota (six) have allowed more. The Cardinals' Adrian Wilson might be due for one. He has watched teammate and fellow safety Kerry Rhodes score two return touchdowns this season. If Wilson is going to get one, where better than in his native North Carolina?

Around the NFC West: 49ers gearing up

December, 16, 2010
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Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says the 49ers face a tough matchup against the Chargers on Thursday night. Maiocco on the matchup between 49ers left tackle Barry Sims and Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips: "Sims will make his fifth start after taking over for Joe Staley, who is out with a broken fibula. Sims has generally fared well in pass protection, but he has yet to face a threat like Phillips, who has recorded 10 sacks on the season. Sims has some experience going up against Phillips, as Sims spent nine seasons in the AFC West prior to signing with the 49ers three seasons ago. The 49ers' running backs will also face a big challenge in blitz pickup. Both Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon did their parts last week, as they picked up blitzes to allow Smith to make plays to burn the aggressive Seattle defense last week."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee previews the 49ers' matchup against San Diego. Barrows: "No quarterback likes to throw deep as much as Philip Rivers, and the San Diego signal caller has several big-bodied targets. San Francisco's defense usually handles big receivers well, but the secondary is susceptible to the long ball."

Also from Barrows: thoughts on Mike Singletary's job security in relation to how the 49ers finish. Barrows: "At this point, the 49ers are a long shot to win the division, and the best they can finish is 8-8. Strong, or at least solid, finishes have become a 49ers trademark in recent seasons. Mike Nolan did it in 2006 and 2007. Singletary went 3-1 in 2008 and 2009. But those rallies, in my opinion, only helped mask the stench of the season and provided false hope for the year ahead."

More from Barrows: Alex Smith looks back fondly on his time with Norv Turner as 49ers offensive coordinator.

Sam Good of 49ers.com says the 49ers got strong play from nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin against Seattle.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Smith hadn't even thought about playing a homecoming game against San Diego. Smith: "San Diego (7-6) boats the league's top-ranked pass defense (173.4 yards a game) and is three weeks removed from flummoxing Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, who tossed four interceptions in a 36-14 loss to the visiting Chargers on Nov. 28. Opposing quarterbacks have a 72.9 rating against San Diego, the second-lowest figure in the NFL."

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Smith misses Turner. Brown: "Of all the 49ers offensive coordinators to come and go, Turner's departure stings most for Smith. The quarterback describes 2006, his lone year with Turner, as the best of his career. Smith threw for a career-high 2,890 yards that season as his passer rating improved from the 40.8 he posted as a rookie to 74.8. A year after throwing one touchdown pass against 11 interceptions, the numbers jumped to 16 and 16. That's not exactly Joe Montana-type stuff, but Smith felt as if he was trending upward."

Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News offers thoughts as 49ers defensive end Justin Smith prepares to make his 153rd consecutive start, this one on a short week.

David White of the San Francisco Chronicle offers more on Alex Smith's reunion with Turner.

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Ron Bartell is eager to get back on the field as the Rams fight for a playoff spot. Bartell was a rookie in 2006 when the Rams had a shot at the playoffs late in the season. Bartell: "At this point, it's now or never. I've been here six years, and I haven't been in this situation before. The excitement that everybody has, I want to be a part of that. Sitting out last weekend was tough enough. So there's no way in the world I'll be sitting out again. I'm going to play regardless."

Also from Coats: The Rams say they are preparing more for the Chiefs' offensive system than for a specific quarterback.

Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams need to shore up their perimeter run defense and become more efficient on offense in the red zone.

Also from Miklasz: where Sam Bradford stands heading into Week 15. Miklasz: "Bradford has had his moments, including the two-minute drill to tie the game at San Francisco at the end of the fourth quarter. He's made other money throws to put opponents away late in games. But if you want to go by the raw numbers, there's this. In the fourth quarter of games this season, Bradford has two touchdowns, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 59.3."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Saints' blitzes against the Rams worked well enough for upcoming opponents to copy them. Thomas: "The Saints got after Bradford like nobody else has this season, with the possible exception of Arizona in the season opener. According to Post-Dispatch count, New Orleans blitzed Bradford 25 times. Overall, including plays where the Saints got to him with just a four-man rush, they sacked him three times and hit him seven additional times. Even on plays when Bradford wasn't hit, the pressure was enough to disrupt several other pass plays, forcing Bradford to throw the ball away or throw it with less accuracy, preventing him from stepping into the throw or leading to a tipped pass."

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says Bradford is re-growing the beard he wore while playing well in November.

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Seattle receivers Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu caught passes in practice Wednesday. Both are returning from injuries. Williams on his foot/ankle situation: "It feels OK, I feel OK. I’m excited. It’s been a very frustrating last few weeks. I was trying to get into my groove, but then had a couple of bumps. I’m excited to get back out here and bring the energy and try to be a shot in the arm for our group and for our offense."

Also from Farnsworth: Seattle's Jordan Babineaux faces a Falcons team featuring brother Jonathan Babineaux.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says Obomanu is not yet catching the ball naturally. Obomanu: "You just have to adapt a little bit. The thing about receiver is you want to be able to catch the ball naturally. But at the same time, I'm trying to adjust and figure out some things. It's a day-by-day thing, and hopefully by the end of the week, I'll be comfortable with some kind of way to make it work to help the team out Sunday."

Also from O'Neil: Seahawks veteran Lawyer Milloy is happy to be in the playoff race.

Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune points to Red Bryant's knee injury as a turning point for Seattle this season. Boling: "Chris Clemons continues to be the most consistently dependable defender, having upped his sacks total to 10 with admirable energy and effort. But it is in keeping with the theme of irony that on one play in the Oakland game, when Clemons was hustling in to make a play, that he accidentally struck Bryant and caused the injury that seemingly triggered the defense’s downfall. It’s been that kind of a season."

Liz Mathews of 710ESPN Seattle says Falcons receiver Roddy White credits Jim Mora for helping him develop into a top player.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says two years and multiple quarterbacks separate Arizona and Carolina from the NFC postseason game they played following the 2008 season. Somers: "Since August, the Cardinals have gone from Matt Leinart to Derek Anderson to rookie Max Hall, back to Anderson and now to rookie John Skelton. The Panthers have gone from Matt Moore to rookie Jimmy Clausen, back to Moore, back to Clausen, to Brian St. Pierre, and back to Clausen."

Also from Somers: Skelton wants to improve his completion percentage.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com touches on Skelton's development before noting that Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt wants to make measured use of LaRod Stephens-Howling on offense. Whisenhunt: "You’ve got to make sure to track how many plays he’s been getting. You don’t want to lose him."

Where QBs rank against stacked fronts

December, 2, 2010
12/02/10
12:19
PM ET
Following up an earlier item, I've put together charts showing where NFL quarterbacks rate when throwing against eight-man boxes and loaded boxes (those where potential rushers outnumber blockers).

The first chart ranks the 12 quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts throwing against eight-man boxes. Most of these quarterbacks play for teams with top running backs.

Thanks to Allison Loucks of ESPN Stats & Information for providing the numbers.


The second chart shows where quarterbacks rate against loaded boxes (more potential rushers than blockers).

I expanded this chart to include quarterbacks with at least 15 attempts. This allowed the Arizona Cardinals' Derek Anderson and Max Hall to qualify for inclusion.

NFC West High Energy Player of the Week

November, 2, 2010
11/02/10
3:00
PM ET
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 8.

The St. Louis Rams are giving middle linebacker James Laurinaitis extra down time during their bye week.

[+] EnlargeJames Laurinaitis
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonJames Laurinaitis made his presence felt in the Rams' victory on Sunday.
Laurinaitis needs the rest to let a sprained knee recover, but he's earned the break outright.

The second-year pro from Ohio State was all over the field Sunday as the Rams defeated the Carolina Panthers 20-10 -- the seventh time in eight games Laurinaitis & Co. have held their opponents to 18 or fewer points.

Laurinaitis finished the game with eight tackles, including three for losses, one sack and a tone-setting interception on the Panthers' first play from scrimmage.

"They tried to come out with some kind of trick stuff," Laurinaitis told reporters after the game. "I think we had the deep option covered. I see [Panthers receiver] Steve Smith kind of running a drag. Eventually the quarterback's going to look at him and I don’t think he saw me dropping back."

Laurinaitis was tough to miss for the rest of us.

He made a third-down tackle to end Carolina's third drive. His tackle for a 2-yard loss helped stop the Panthers' fourth drive. Late in the third quarter, Laurinaitis tackled Jonathan Stewart for a 3-yard loss, then sacked Moore for a 6-yard loss on third-and-13.

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