NFC West: Michael Turner

Potential landing spots if Jackson leaves

February, 26, 2013
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Back in October, New England was looking like a good potential future fit for St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson.

Atlanta might be a better one now as we consider the possibilities following news that Jackson plans to void his deal with the Rams, becoming a free agent next month.

The Patriots have traditionally been open to older backs such as Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor, Corey Dillon, Sammy Morris, Antowain Smith and LaMont Jordan. But with Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden as the top three backs and Danny Woodhead also possibly in the mix, New England could be set at the position for the immediate future.

The Falcons, meanwhile, could plausibly stand to upgrade from Michael Turner, who recently turned 31 and is coming off an 800-yard season with a 3.6-yard average. Jackson, who turns 30 in July, is riding a streak of eight seasons with at least 1,000 yards.

Turner is scheduled to earn $6.9 million in salary with an $8.9 million cap number in 2013. Jackson, scheduled to earn $7 million from the Rams if he remains on the team, could save the Falcons against the cap relative to Turner by signing a deal for a few million per season.

Those are some initial thoughts, anyway, on potential landing spots for Jackson if and when he hits the market. Jackson will presumably seek a winning team. New England (.750) is first and Atlanta second (.700) in regular-season winning percentage over the past five seasons. The Rams are last (.244) despite going 7-8-1 last season.

Update: Denver could be another consideration. Look for a few thoughts from Bill Williamson on the AFC West blog in the not-too-distant future.

A look at where Steven Jackson stands

February, 26, 2013
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No NFL player has more offensive touches or yards from scrimmage since 2004 than the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson.

That is both good and bad for the Rams' career rushing leader.

Jackson, who plans to void his contract to become a free agent March 12, has accomplished a great deal since entering the NFL as the 24th player chosen in the 2004 draft. He also has high miles as his 30th birthday approaches in July, raising questions about how much longer he can produce.

The two charts show where Jackson ranks in scrimmage yards and rushing yards over the course of his career. Note that NFC West rivals Frank Gore and Larry Fitzgerald also rank among the top five in scrimmage yards over the same period.

Separately, Jackson's rushing total (10,135) is easily best among players who also entered the NFL in 2004. Michael Turner (7,338), Willie Parker (5,378), Julius Jones (5,068) and Kevin Jones (3,176) trail him on that list.

Jackson ranks 26th on the NFL's all-time rushing list after posting his eighth consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards rushing. He needs 509 yards to overtake Ricky Watters for 20th. He needs 1,561 yards to overtake Fred Taylor for 15th. He needs 2,145 yards to overtake former teammate and Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk for 10th on the list.

Jackson would need 3,550 yards to overtake LaDainian Tomlinson for fifth.

Ryan-ShermanUSA TODAY SportsIf Matt Ryan and the Falcons come out throwing, Seattle CB Richard Sherman stands ready.
Northwest meets Southeast when the Seattle Seahawks visit the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC divisional playoff game Sunday.

Seattle is fresh off its first road playoff victory since 1983, having won 24-14 at Washington in the wild-card round. The Seahawks are now 2-1 in postseason play during Pete Carroll's first three seasons as head coach.

As for the Falcons, well, you know the story. They're the No. 1 seed in the NFC and they'll be playing at home. But as NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas can attest, they haven't accomplished anything yet.

That's where we pick up the conversation.

Yasinskas: The world knows the Falcons have yet to win a playoff game in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era. That places enormous pressure on the Falcons, and the Seahawks look a little reminiscent of Atlanta's past two playoff opponents -- the Packers and Giants, who each went on to win the Super Bowl. The Seahawks won their last five regular-season games and seven of their past eight. Throw in their playoff victory against Washington on Sunday and you've got a team that's red hot. Atlanta has the better record and home-field advantage, but the playoff drought brings tremendous pressure. If the Falcons don't win this time around, the patience of owner Arthur Blank will become very thin.

Sando: The Falcons' past struggles in playoff games have invited skepticism from a lot of us. I've taken heat from some Falcons fans this season for allegedly underrating Atlanta in the power rankings. How good is this team right now and how much confidence should Falcons fans have in this team against Seattle?

Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta fans have shared their opinions with me about where you ranked the Falcons on your ballot. But you might not have been that far off. The Falcons were a bit of an enigma much of the season. They were winning a lot of games, but weren't winning them impressively. They did come on late in the season, aside from a meaningless loss to Tampa Bay in the season finale. This is a team with a tremendous amount of individual talent, and the Falcons are very good at home. But they can't afford to revert back to their early-season ways of playing just well enough to win, because that might get them beat.

Sando: The Seahawks are playing without the burden of expectations. They are very good at quarterback, running back and in the secondary. The read option has added an unconventional element to their offense. Still, winning a 10 a.m. PT game on the road against a very good offensive team will be tough. The Seahawks have started slowly in their past two games. I think they'll have a harder time if that happens again. Along those lines, have the Falcons been able to jump on teams early at home and finish them off? One memory I have is watching Arizona pick off Ryan five times.

Yasinskas: The Arizona game was the only time in Ryan's life (including college, high school and youth league) when he's thrown five interceptions in a game. That was a fluke. Some of those balls were tipped. Ryan generally is very efficient. And starting fast is one of the trademarks of Ryan and the Falcons. Since Ryan entered the league in 2008, the Falcons have scored more points on their first offensive drives than any team in the NFL. They pride themselves on starting fast, and they're particularly good at that in the Georgia Dome.

Sando: The Seahawks fell behind St. Louis and Washington early. They have shown an ability to come back. They were down by 13 to New England and won. They trailed Washington by 14 points and won. They're not slow starters by rule. Seattle was tied with Atlanta for seventh in first-quarter touchdown drives (11) during the regular season. It has been in only the past couple weeks that teams have thrown off the Seahawks early with their blitzes. Seattle came out passing against the Redskins. We'll see heavier early doses of Marshawn Lynch on Sunday.

Yasinskas: I'm certain we will see heavier doses of Lynch. Stopping the run is not Atlanta's strength. The Falcons ranked 21st against the run in the regular season and they've been known to have problems with power runners. That's why it's crucial for the Falcons to get an early lead and force the Seahawks to pass. The other thing I think you'll see is a lot of middle linebacker Akeem Dent. The Falcons used a lot of the nickel package in the regular season, and that kept Dent on the sidelines. But against the Seahawks, I think it's more important for the Falcons to focus on stopping the run, and they'll want Dent on the field for that.

Sando: Interesting. Seattle could counter by shifting into its three-receiver offense and then going with its read-option package. Lynch scored the winning 27-yard touchdown against the Redskins on an option run from three-receiver personnel against Washington's nickel defense. The option has become a reliable tactic for Seattle. Opponents have a tough time determining whether Lynch or Russell Wilson is going to run with the ball. They also must respect the play-action passing game. The Seahawks had 11 rushes for 110 yards on option runs on Sunday. They had 224 yards rushing overall. I noticed Cam Newton had 202 yards rushing in two games against the Falcons this season. What was the nature of those rushes and do you see anything Seattle can cull from that?

Yasinskas: Newton did have success against Atlanta, but the Falcons still were able to split with the Panthers. They also held Robert Griffin III to one carry for 7 yards in an early victory at Washington. They won against another mobile quarterback in Michael Vick. So the Falcons have some experience in facing mobile quarterbacks and the read option. I'm sure they used the bye week to prepare to see it again because they knew they'd be facing Wilson or Griffin. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is the key player against the read option. He's the leader of the defense and probably the best player on the unit.

Sando: The Panthers had 21 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown using the option against Atlanta in Week 4. There will be other keys to this game. Wilson's ability to deal with the Falcons' blitzes could be one of them. Wilson had seven touchdowns, no picks, three sacks and the NFL's third-best Total QBR score (87.2) against five-plus pass-rushers from Week 8 through Week 16. That included going 6-of-6 for 91 yards and a score with a perfect 100.0 QBR against the 49ers' blitzes during a 42-13 victory in Week 16. Wilson wasn't quite as good in this regard against the Rams in Week 17, taking three sacks against their pressure. The Redskins held Wilson to a season-low 9.7 QBR against the blitz. Wilson has taken eight sacks against the blitz over the past two games after taking eight total over the previous 15 games.

Yasinskas: Wilson is incredibly poised. But he still is a rookie coming into a tough venue in a playoff game, so I'm pretty sure defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will try every way possible to pressure him. Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford were the only quarterbacks all season to have much success against Atlanta's blitzes. Nolan likes to mix things up. The Atlanta pass rush starts with defensive end John Abraham, but Nolan has found ways to complement him. Nolan's not afraid to drop defensive end Kroy Biermann into pass coverage and let a linebacker or a defensive back blitz. The Falcons often talk about "disguising" their pass rush, and I'm sure they'll try to do lots of that against a rookie quarterback.

Sando: Wilson has generally improved as the season has progressed, but he has been hit-and-miss all season against DB pressure. Wilson has three touchdowns, two picks, four sacks and a 17.9 QBR score when opponents rush a member of the secondary. He did make Minnesota, Miami and San Francisco (twice) pay for the tactic, however.

There's so much to consider in this matchup, Pat, that we haven't even gotten to one of the most crucial ones. Seattle's 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner and 6-3 Richard Sherman can be dominant cornerbacks. They disrupt receivers' timing and generally get under their skin. You might recall Carolina's Steve Smith just about losing it against Sherman earlier this season. Even the Redskins' left tackle went after him Sunday. If the Falcons win this game, Ryan is going to be the reason, I think. Should the Falcons' receivers like their chances? Or could we see Ryan becoming a bit tentative against big, physical, ball-hawking corners?

Yasinskas: I think the Falcons have to come out and be very aggressive with their passing game. It's the strength of their offense. This is a different team from those of the past. Michael Turner is at the end of his career and this is not a running team any longer. Roddy White and Julio Jones are big, physical receivers, so I say let's see strength on strength with Seattle's corners. I think White and Jones can get open against anyone, so the Falcons need to take their chances. Plus, this passing game is about more than just Jones and White. They command so much attention that tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas could be forgotten. I think Douglas and/or Gonzalez could end up being key players in this game.

Sando: Seattle has been very good against tight ends for the most part. I'd be surprised if Gonzalez factored in a big way. Seattle has allowed three touchdown passes to tight ends this season, tied for second-fewest in the NFL. The Seahawks have allowed 10 scoring passes to wide receivers, the fifth-fewest in the league. Sherman had eight picks and three forced fumbles this season, joining Ed Reed, Charles Woodson and Walt Harris as the only players to reach those totals in a season over the past decade. The Seahawks are not as strong at nickel corner, however. And with leading sacker Chris Clemons likely out with a knee injury, life could get tougher for Seattle in the secondary.

Yasinskas: Mike, like just about everyone in the media, I'm skeptical of the Falcons because of their recent playoff losses. But I think this is the year they finally get a victory in the postseason. This is a different team from past years. I think the Falcons will put the game in Ryan's hands and I think they'll win 28-20.

Sando: I think the Falcons are finally ready to break through and win in the postseason. I'm just not sure they've drawn the right opponent to make that happen. Seattle is the more physical team. The Seahawks have beaten seven teams that finished the regular season with a winning record (the number is two for Atlanta). While Seattle was posting the NFL's best strength-of-victory percentage, the Falcons were fattening up on the NFL's easiest schedule. Atlanta is at once the No. 1 seed and the team stepping up in class. Ryan's going to need a great game to prove wrong my 27-20 prediction for another Seahawks victory.

Quick Take: Seahawks at Falcons

January, 6, 2013
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Five things to know about Sunday's Seattle Seahawks divisional-round playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome next week:

1. Beast mode: Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch has reached 100 yards rushing in 11 games this season, counting the playoffs. He faces a Falcons defense that allowed 100-plus yards to Tampa Bay's Doug Martin (142), Arizona’s LaRod Stephens-Howling (127), Carolina's Cam Newton (116), Washington’s Alfred Morris (115) and Denver’s Willis McGahee (113). The Falcons never had a running back with more than 103 yards in a game. Michael Turner had 103 against Carolina in Week 4 and 102 against Dallas in Week 9.

2. QB options: The Seahawks have enjoyed great success with option runs featuring Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson. They had 110 yards on 11 such carries during their wild-card victory over Washington. The Panthers' Newton had a 72-yard touchdown run during a 30-20 victory over the Falcons this season. He had 202 yards rushing against Atlanta this season, more than any other player gained against the Falcons.

3. Opposites: These teams from the Southeast and Northwest have more than geography to differentiate them. The Seahawks have the second-youngest roster in the NFL, counting players on various reserve lists. The Falcons have the fifth-oldest roster. The Seahawks have the NFL’s best strength-of-victory percentage (.534), meaning the teams they defeated had a higher winning percentage than the teams anyone else defeated. The Falcons played the NFL’s easiest schedule. The Seahawks had the NFL's highest percentage of called running plays (49.8) this season. The Falcons had the seventh-lowest percentage of called runs (35.1).

4. Wilson cools off: Seattle's rookie quarterback led the NFL in Total QBR (84.1) from Week 10 through the conclusion of the regular season. The 36.7 QBR score he posted against Washington in the wild-card round was his lowest in a game since a Week 7 defeat at San Francisco. That included a 9.7 QBR number on 17 drop-backs when the Redskins pressured with five or more pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Falcons ranked fifth in QBR allowed (29.4) when rushing five or more defenders. They pressured on 29.3 percent of drop-backs, right near the league average.

5. Injury impact: The Seahawks lost starting defensive end and leading pass-rusher Chris Clemons to a potentially serious knee injury Sunday. Clemons played 86.4 percent of the Seahawks' defensive snaps on his way to 11.5 sacks during the regular season. No other defensive lineman or linebacker on the team has played more than 62 percent of the snaps this season. Losing Clemons likely would force rookie Bruce Irvin into an every-down role, a big adjustment with consequences against the run.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Good morning from Candlestick Park, where parking lot attendants have been on duty since 4 a.m. local time, bracing for a busy weekend in the Bay Area.

With so much going on, I wasn't going to sit around and wait for traffic to cut off arteries into the stadium. So, I arrived at the Stick just a few minutes early (390).

This seemed like a good time to put together an item updating our 2012 NFC West Gridiron Challenge fantasy league.

A quick glance at the highest scores for Week 4 showed one man standing above all others. That man isn't really a man. It's my 7-year-old son. Seriously. His team put up 184 points in Week 4, more than any of the 1,500-plus entries scored, thanks to 29 from Aaron Rodgers, 31 from Tom Brady, 22 from Michael Turner, 22 from Jamaal Charles, 12 from Larry Fitzgerald, 15 from Jordy Nelson, 16 from Rob Gronkowski, six from Jay Feely and 31 from the San Francisco 49ers' defense.

This shows fantasy football is all about skill and preparation. My son put in at least 30 seconds of research in setting a lineup that outscored all but 22 teams out of more than 200,000 entries in the broader Gridiron Challenge competition for Week 4. "Yeah, I had the 49ers' defense going," he knowingly said to a friend earlier in the week, when I knew his team had done well, but not this well.

Moving along, my lineup for Week 5: Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Brandon Lloyd, Julio Jones, Vernon Davis, David Akers and the New York Giants' defense (against Cleveland).

Best of luck to you.

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.

Final Word: NFC West

September, 7, 2012
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Pressure situation. The San Francisco 49ers must pressure Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, of course. They'll be counting on second-year linebacker Aldon Smith to pick up where he left off last season. Smith, who set a 49ers rookie record with 14 sacks, goes from situational rusher to every-down player this season. Can he remain as effective over the course of a full game? The 49ers averaged one sack per 12.3 drop-backs with Smith on the field last season. The average fell to one sack per 23.2 drop-backs when Smith was on the sideline. Smith played not quite half of the defensive snaps. Side note: Rodgers took only 13 sacks at Lambeau Field last season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiThe 49ers may have been 6-2 away from Candlestick Park last season, but Alex Smith did not perform very well on the road.
Road worrier. The 49ers went 6-2 on the road last season. Quarterback Alex Smith made key plays in road victories over Detroit, Seattle and Philadelphia in particular. Smith tossed only five touchdown passes in eight road games, however. He was one of only five qualifying quarterbacks whose contributions resulted in negative expected points, according to the Total QBR metric unveiled last season. John Skelton, Mark Sanchez and Blaine Gabbert were the only ones with lower QBR scores on the road (Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady were the three best).

Although Smith tossed only two interceptions on the road, he took a league-high 31 sacks. I'll be watching to see whether Smith and the 49ers can reduce the negative plays in their first road game. By the way, Smith was terrific at home in 2011. He trailed only Rodgers, Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan in home QBR.

Run, run, run. The NFC West was the NFL's only division with four 1,000-yard rushers last season. All four return as starters in 2012. The St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson opens in Detroit, where the Lions surrendered 100-yard rushing games to running backs Frank Gore, Michael Turner and Matt Forte last season. The Rams have built their offense around Jackson. They expect to be more run-oriented than at any previous time in Jackson's career. "We're going to use the run to set up the pass, the play-action, settle Sam [Bradford] down in the games. I have to set the tempo initially for each and every game," Jackson said. Bradford completed 50.6 percent of his play-action attempts last season. That ranked 32nd out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks.

Rookie QB rules. Conventional wisdom says Matt Flynn, not rookie Russell Wilson, should be starting at quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Conventional wisdom says rookie quarterbacks should struggle, particularly on the road. Can Wilson, thus far exceptional for a rookie, be the exception to conventional wisdom at Arizona? Wilson's relatively short stature hasn't held him back so far. Conventional wisdom says he could be vulnerable to having passes batted down. If it happens, though, the Cardinals might deserve more credit than Wilson deserves blame. Arizona batted down 18 passes last season, third-most in the NFL. The rest of the league averaged 10.1 per team. The Cardinals batted six passes from 6-foot-4 Alex Smith, four from 6-1 Rex Grossman, two from 6-6 Joe Flacco, one from 6-2 Tony Romo and one from 6-2 Donovan McNabb. Wilson stands 5-foot-10 5/8.

Mismatch ... or not? The Seahawks invested heavily in upgrading their pass rush this offseason. They drafted defensive end Bruce Irvin in the first round and signed veteran interior pass-rusher Jason Jones. There will be cause for concern in Seattle -- and celebration in Arizona -- if the Seahawks' revamped pass rush can't generate pressure against the Cardinals' vulnerable offensive line. Arizona heads into this game with two unproven tackles. D'Anthony Batiste, 30, replaces injured Levi Brown on the left side. Batiste has never started at left tackle. He owns four career starts at guard, all in 2007. Five teams have cut him. Rookie fourth-round choice Bobby Massie starts on the right side.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.
EARTH CITY, Mo. - The St. Louis Rams used two running backs on 12 percent of plays last season, the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL.

Mughelli
That's going to change in a big way under new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

To that end, the Rams signed veteran fullback Ovie Mughelli on Saturday. Age (32) and a 2011 knee injury (torn MCL) made the two-time Pro Bowl choice available to NFL teams this offseason. The former lead blocker for Michael Turner in Atlanta has ties to the Rams' front office (general manager Les Snead), coaching staff (offensive line coach Paul T. Boudreau) and roster (guard Harvey Dahl) from their time together in Atlanta.

Mughelli, 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, played 38 percent of the Falcons' offensive snaps in 2010, a high number for a fullback in the current NFL.

The Rams used two backs 123 times last season, the fifth-lowest total in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That figure will surge with Schottenheimer taking over for Josh McDaniels as the Rams' offensive coordinator.

Schottenheimer's Jets ran 370 plays with two backs last season, the eighth-highest total in the league. That works out to 36 percent of the time for the Jets and 12 percent of the time for the Rams. The league average was 27 percent.

The knee injury Mughelli suffered against Detroit in October appeared grotesque on replays, but Mughelli assured fans the damage wasn't all that bad. Brit Miller, Todd Anderson and former tight end Ben Guidugli were the fullbacks under contract to St. Louis before Mughelli's addition.

Rams running back Steven Jackson has said he prefers running behind a fullback. He'll get that chance in 2012.

The Rams open training camp Sunday.

Roughly 90 percent of currently signed NFL halfbacks are not yet 28 years old.

I'm counting one, Fred Jackson, older than 30. (He is 31.) Willis McGahee and Michael Turner are 30. The rest are younger.

Teams will add a few older backs as the draft and training camps approach, but the NFL is a young man's game, particularly at halfback (as opposed to fullback).

The San Francisco 49ers' agreement with Brandon Jacobs, 29, gives the NFC West four of the 11 oldest halfbacks in the NFL. Leon Washington is also 29. Frank Gore and Steven Jackson turn 29 this year.

I touched on that issue, the Arizona Cardinals' young backs and the 49ers' potential thinking on Jacobs -- all in the video above.
The recently re-signed Marshawn Lynch improved his financial outlook dramatically with a strong finish to the 2011 regular season.

Lynch led the NFL in rushing yardage over the final nine weeks. He was at his best even though the Seahawks kept losing offensive linemen. The team used three starting combinations over the final nine weeks.

Lynch
Backup guard Paul McQuistan was the left tackle when Lynch ended the San Francisco 49ers' 36-game streak without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Seattle played its final four games with McQuistan at left tackle and Lemuel Jeanpierre at right guard. Breno Giacomini played well enough in relief at right tackle to earn a new contract and the inside track on starting in that spot for 2012.

The power and fury Lynch showed through his running style gave the Seahawks' offense a needed edge. Throw in his late-season production and Lynch went from potential marginal free agent to a player Seattle felt good about securing for more than one season.

I've broken out Lynch's production by down over the final nine weeks. That information is in the first chart below.

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The second chart shows how players from the first chart fared in yards per carry by down. Lynch had consistent averages and yardage totals across first and second down.

Thanks to Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information for helping with the numbers.

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Was 49ers' Roman right about Saints' D?

January, 12, 2012
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Greg Roman, the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator, naturally wasn't going to disrespect an opponent heading into a playoff game.

Sure, the New Orleans Saints' opponents have averaged 5.0 yards per rushing attempt this season, the 29th-worst figure in the NFL, but there was an explanation.

"Those guys do a really good job against the run; I think statistics are misleading," Roman said Wednesday. "A lot of people have popped runs on them down by 30. What does that do? It inflates the stats. When they had to run, I didn't see those 30-yard runs."

Roman was correct in a sense. Indianapolis did break runs covering 42 and 24 yards when trailing the Saints by at least 30 points. Those runs were pretty much meaningless.

But the Saints' opponents also broke runs covering 42, 41, 39, 34 and 29 yards when the scoring margin was eight or fewer points either way, what we would consider to be one-score differentials. Opponents had 16 runs of 15 yards or longer in these situations.

The 49ers, by comparison, gave up no runs longer than 34 yards and only four longer than 18 yards. They were leading by 23 when Arizona broke a 34-yarder in Week 11. They were up by 13 when the Rams broke a 27-yarder in Week 17. The trailed Philadelphia by seven and led Pittsburgh by six when those teams broke runs for 24 and 21 yards, respectively.

The first chart shows all runs against the Saints by score differential. The second chart shows each run against the Saints covering 15-plus yards. There were 27 of them. The Saints led by six points on average at the time of those runs. The 49ers gave up 10 such runs by comparison. They led by three points on average during those runs.

Thanks to Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information for his assistance.
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Passing league? NFC West runs strong

January, 1, 2012
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Four of the 13 players with at least 1,000 yards rushing this season call the NFC West home.

All four run with power.

Two in particular -- Arizona's Beanie Wells and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch -- have racked up yardage after contact. Both rank among the NFL's top four in total yards after contact. And among those players with at least 1,000 yards, Wells and Lynch rank high in percentage of yards gained after contact (see chart, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information).

Week 17 gives us one last chance to see Wells, Lynch and St. Louis' Steven Jackson in action this season. Along with San Francisco's Frank Gore, they give the NFC West more 1,000-yard rushers than any division. The AFC North, AFC South and AFC West have two apiece. The AFC East, NFC East and NFC South have one apiece. The NFC North has none after injuries sidelined Matt Forte (997 yards) and Adrian Peterson (970).

Six other backs are within 150 yards of 1,000 this season: Shonn Greene (999), Chris Johnson (986), Fred Jackson (934), Michael Bush (911), DeMarco Murray (897) and Rashard Mendenhall (890). Murray is sidelined by injury.
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Tough sledding: Eight not enough for Gore

November, 3, 2011
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Not that Frank Gore's candidacy for MVP needs defending, but just in case: The San Francisco 49ers' running back has gained 28.6 percent of his rushing yards against eight or more defenders in the box.

That's the highest percentage among all players with at least 400 yards rushing this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

I put together the chart below after Lotharun2 asked in the comments section of an earlier item where Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy ranked in yards against these stacked defenses.

McCoy has 17 carries for 72 yards against eight or more defenders in the box. That works out to a healthy 4.2-yard average. But with a dynamic quarterback and playmakers on the perimeter, the Eagles make it tougher for defenses to load up against the run. In my view, that explains why McCoy has gained a relatively low percentage of his runs against eight or more in the box.

The 49ers prefer heavier personnel groupings featuring two tight ends. They have enough speed at tight end to enjoy flexibility from these groupings, but the team has not consistently put an emphasis on downfield strikes.

Wrap-up: Falcons 30, Seahawks 28

October, 2, 2011
10/02/11
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Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 30-28 home defeat against the Atlanta Falcons:

What it means: The Seahawks fell to 1-3 overall and 1-1 at home, putting them in a rough spot heading into a road game against the New York Giants. But their offense made significant strides, giving the team hope. Seattle can build upon this performance despite the disappointing outcome. Tarvaris Jackson played his best game of the season, at least temporarily validating coach Pete Carroll's decision to stick with him after a mostly unproductive start to the season.

What I liked: Seattle showed greater potential on offense. Sidney Rice's 52-yard scoring reception from Jackson served notice, again, that the Seahawks' big-ticket addition in free agency is a difference maker in the passing game. Jackson made an effort to get Mike Williams involved. Williams caught a touchdown pass before leaving the game with a head injury. Jackson also made a clutch scramble for a first down in Falcons territory when the Seahawks needed points in the fourth quarter. Marshawn Lynch, contained most of the day, broke free for an 11-yard scoring run as the Seahawks pulled within 27-21 late in the third quarter. Jackson's mobility helped buy time on a late scoring pass to Ben Obomanu as the Seahawks rallied to within 30-28. Also, receiver Doug Baldwin bounced back from a huge hit to make a 30-yard reception. He took another big hit, this one helmet to helmet, making a key reception in the fourth quarter. There was no flag. Baldwin returned to the game and kept making plays. He's been a huge find for Seattle.

What I didn't like: The Seahawks had trouble mounting much of a pass rush even though the Falcons had allowed 13 sacks through three games, the same total Atlanta had allowed heading into Week 10 last season. Ryan's ability to operate without pressure put the Falcons in good position. Allowing two first-half rushing touchdowns to Michael Turner hurt even though Turner wasn't breaking off long runs as a general rule. The Seahawks are sometimes overdependent on Chris Clemons for sacks. A holding penalty against cornerback Brandon Browner helped the Falcons sustain a fourth-quarter drive while Atlanta was protecting a 30-28 lead.

Key play: The Falcons' ability to beat pressure with a third-down dump pass while leading 27-21 early in the fourth quarter moved them into position for a field goal that gave them a 9-point lead.

What's next: The Seahawks visit the New York Giants in Week 5 before having a bye in Week 6.

Scout's take: Where Kolb, Cardinals stand

September, 28, 2011
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Kevin Kolb and the Arizona Cardinals must be doing something right.

They lead the NFL in yards per pass attempt on first down (11.0), just ahead of the New England Patriots (10.9) and the unbeaten Buffalo Bills (10.8).

They rank among the top 10 in the same category on third down (7.8).

Kolb has hurt teams with the deep ball, completing 4 of 7 attempts for 158 yards on passes thrown more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. His 22.6-yard average per attempt on these throws ranks among the NFL's top five, just ahead of Drew Brees' 21.9 average.

Running back Beanie Wells, though sidelined against Seattle in Week 3, ranks first with 3.3 yards per carry gained after contact, just ahead of Adrian Peterson (3.2), Ricky Williams (3.0), Peyton Hillis (2.9) and Michael Turner (2.8).

But after a tough 13-10 defeat at Seattle in which Kolb and the offense faltered too frequently, the Cardinals have little to show for some of their statistical accomplishments. They are 1-2 heading into their Week 4 game against the New York Giants.

What does it all mean? Where do the Cardinals stand? What should we make of Kolb as the team's new quarterback? Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. provided the following thoughts on Arizona when I reached out to him this week:
  • On the Cardinals overall: "Being improved at the quarterback position is going to go a long way. They still have noticeable warts, however. Their defense is a real problem. They are one of these teams like [the] Rams' offense where the lockout did them no favors. They look lost in coverage. Their pass rush isn’t great to begin with. Those things could come around, but they need more bodies to compete in those areas, too. The offense is fine. The line is playing better than I expected them to, especially on the interior. Not that Beanie Wells is great, but they missed him. You can’t put everyone in the world on Larry Fitzgerald if he is there. In the end, they are a six-win type of team with a chance to be better against their schedule."
  • On Kolb as the answer: "It’s too early to really say this is a good move or a bad move. He has played three games and hasn’t been with the team long. He has done some good things. He is an average physical specimen by NFL standards. He has no wonderful traits, but he is not bad in any area, either. When times are good and he has a clean pocket, the play goes to script, he delivers the football well. When things break down or he has a lot of bodies around him, he struggles. He’ll probably get better. He hasn’t played a ton of snaps."
  • On the Kolb trade itself: "In the end, you get better at the quarterback position. Giving up Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wasn’t that big a deal for me. Ray Horton is the new defensive coordinator. He wants to run a Steelers-type defense, and I can’t think of another corner in the league who is less Steeler-like than Rodgers-Cromartie. They want guys to play off coverage, come up and hit you, play the run. He doesn’t do that at all. It was not that big a loss to your team. People look at it on paper and say it was too much to give up. I thought his name value was a lot more than his real value to Arizona."

I've spoken with Williamson this week regarding each NFC West team and will continue to share his thoughts. He's on Twitter at @WilliamsonNFL if you'd like to reach him directly.

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