NFC West: Montario Hardesty

The hit San Francisco 49ers safety Donte Whitner put on New Orleans' Pierre Thomas set a physical tone for one of the NFL's best defenses Saturday.

It also knocked Thomas from the game with a concussion.

Tough break? Yes, but not entirely unexpected. Thomas became the seventh starting running back to leave a game against the 49ers after suffering an injury. One of them, Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy, returned a short time later. He was slow to get up after blocking the 49ers' Ray McDonald in pass protection.

The chart shows how starting runners have fared against the 49ers this season. The two highest rushing totals came when Patrick Willis was either sidelined by injury (Week 16) or rusty following a month-long layoff (Week 17). Overall, opposing starters averaged about 12 carries for 41 yards against the 49ers this season.

The New York Giants will have starter Ahmad Bradshaw when they visit San Francisco in the NFC title game Sunday. Bradshaw missed the teams' game at Candlestick Park during the regular season. He missed four games overall.

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NFC West Stock Watch

October, 25, 2011
10/25/11
1:00
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Coach Ken Whisenhunt and GM Rod Graves. The men who got much of the credit for reviving a dormant franchise get most of the blame now that the Cardinals have lost five games in a row and 14 of their last 17 dating to last season. Ownership opened its wallet during the offseason, spending for Kevin Kolb and quite a few free agents. The product on the field hasn't improved sufficiently. The record has gotten worse. Kolb hasn't met expectations. A trip to Baltimore in Week 8 isn't likely to trigger a turnaround. Arizona lost seven in a row at one point last season, winning only when the dysfunctional Denver Broncos arrived. The current Cardinals have a home game against the Rams in Week 9 before a three-game road trip. This team could easily be 3-10 or 2-11 when Cleveland visits in Week 15.

2. Coach Steve Spagnuolo and GM Billy Devaney. The problems on defense stand out as most troubling for the Rams' coach and GM. Just about all of the free-agent additions on defense -- Justin Bannan, Quintin Mikell, Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga, etc. -- were supposed to help shore up the run defense. The Rams have only gotten worse in that area, maintaining their No. 32 ranking in rushing yards allowed after Dallas' DeMarco Murray set a franchise record with 253 yards Sunday. Spagnuolo's expertise is on the defensive side of the ball. Some drop-off in pass defense would be understandable given injuries at cornerback, but there's no way the Rams should be this bad against the run. The team's low-keyed approach to upgrading at wide receiver also backfired. Adding Brandon Lloyd could be too little, too late.

3. Charlie Whitehurst, Seahawks QB. Completing 12 of 30 passes for 97 yards against Cleveland left Whitehurst in dubious company. In Seahawks history, only Stan Gelbaugh ever had fewer yards to show for as many attempts in a single game. Whitehurst was inaccurate even on some of the passes he completed, including a sideline pass to Sidney Rice that should have gone for a touchdown. Whitehurst's throw was far enough outside to lead Rice right out of bounds, preventing him from reaching the end zone. This was a giant step backward for Whitehurst and the offense.

[+] EnlargeDavid Hawthorne
AP Photo/Tony DejakDavid Hawthorne was a bright spot for the Seahawks on Sunday.
RISING

1. David Hawthorne, Seahawks LB. Eleven tackles, one sack and one interception constituted a rebirth for Hawthorne, who seemed to play more freely than at any point this season. I was tempted to list teammate Red Bryant in this spot after Bryant blocked two field goal attempts and provided strong run defense, but Bryant was already regarded as one of the most important players on the team. His stock was already high, in other words. Also, the penalty against Bryant for head-butting Cleveland Browns tight end Alex Smith killed whatever fleeting hopes the Seahawks had for a last-minute comeback victory.

2. Braylon Edwards, 49ers WR. Edwards had only four receptions for 48 yards through the 49ers' first two games. A knee injury sidelined him for four games, but now Edwards appears ready to rejoin his teammates for practice this week. He'll step into an offense that has shown general improvement over the past month. Playing time shouldn't be a problem for him, either, now that starting receiver Josh Morgan is on injured reserve with a broken leg. Edwards and Michael Crabtree give the 49ers two big targets to pair with tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Edwards' ability to make plays downfield should help the offense.

3. LaRod Stephens-Howling, Cardinals RB. A hand injury had sidelined Stephens-Howling early in the season and limited him some during his return. That changed Sunday when Stephens-Howling turned a short pass into a 73-yard touchdown when the Cardinals were desperate for a spark. Stephens-Howling's role in the offense could grow with Beanie Wells suffering a knee injury.

Wrap-up: Browns 6, Seahawks 3

October, 23, 2011
10/23/11
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Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 6-3 road defeat to the Cleveland Browns in Week 7:

What it means: The Seahawks took a huge step backward offensively with Charlie Whitehurst running an offense that was missing center Max Unger and running back Marshawn Lynch. Whitehurst didn't do enough to maintain whatever momentum he had generated in helping get Seattle over the top against the New York Giants two weeks ago. In fact, he made it nearly impossible for anyone to reasonably call for him to remain the starter. Tarvaris Jackson, who missed this game due to injury, seemed like a viable alternative by comparison. This was an ugly defeat for Seattle and one the team can blame squarely on its offense.

What I liked: Red Bryant blocked two field goal attempts. Leon Washington provided an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown, negated only by a questionable penalty for an illegal block in the back. The plays from Bryant and Washington were precisely what Seattle needed to stay competitive despite the horrible showing on offense. Strong safety Kam Chancellor continued to add a physical presence in the secondary, blitzing effectively and making players pay for carrying the ball downfield. He lifted Montario Hardesty off the ground and planted him on his back late in the game as Seattle held the Browns to a field goal attempt. Linebacker David Hawthorne played his best game of the season, making big hits and collecting an interception in the red zone. Defensive end Chris Clemons was disruptive, pressuring Browns quarterback Colt McCoy and roughing him up.

What I didn't like: Whitehurst held the ball too long and made poor decisions at critical times. Tight end Anthony McCoy dropped multiple passes. Ben Obomanu dropped one late in the game when Seattle needed to rally. Bryant lost his cool late in the game, delivering an after-the-play head-butt that led to his ejection and allowed the Browns to run out the clock. This was also a horribly officiated game, I thought. Mike Carey's crew applied differing standards for pass-interference penalties, allowing the Browns to get away with hooking Sidney Rice around the waist, only to call them for such a penalty late in the game. The call negating Washington's return seemed touchy and inconsistent with the way Carey's crew allowed contact in the back during the 49ers-Lions game last week.

Injuries of note: The Seahawks lost cornerback Walter Thurmond to an ankle injury. Running back Marshawn Lynch injured his back during warm-ups and did not play. Lynch's absence affected the game plan and put more pressure on Whitehurst to deliver.

What's next: The Seahawks are home against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8.

JV feel to Seahawks-Browns game early

October, 23, 2011
10/23/11
1:47
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The backup center snaps to the backup quarterback, who hands off to the backup running back. What sounds like scout-team work is actually the Seattle Seahawks' starting offense against Cleveland in Week 7.

The team knew starting center Max Unger and starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson would miss the game. They did not know running back Marshawn Lynch would suffer a back injury during warm-ups, making him a last-minute scratch from the lineup.

The Browns are countering with an offense featuring Montario Hardesty at running back instead of the injured Peyton Hillis.

This game is scoreless entering the second quarter. Penalties are sustaining drives better than offensive plays are sustaining them. This is a game the Seahawks will have to grind out on defense, it appears.

Frank Gore, Next Level Player of Week

October, 18, 2011
10/18/11
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The San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore gashed the Detroit Lions up the middle Sunday and averaged 8.3 yards per carry before contact thanks to a couple long runs.


Those were among the reasons ESPN Stats & Information named him the Next Level Player of the Week.

Gore has rushed for 127, 125 and 141 yards, respectively, in his last three games. He has one touchdown in each of those games.

The only downer for Gore so far: He has dropped three passes on 17 targets this season. Only the Cleveland Browns' Montario Hardesty has as many drops on so few targets (six drops, 16 targets). Overall, though, Gore is providing good production despite sharing time with rookie Kendall Hunter.

I did not know this til Tuesday, but teammate Alex Smith won the award last week.

Earlier: Ndamukong Suh's thoughts before Gore broke free for gains of 47 and 55 yards against Detroit.

Sam Bradford has completed less than 50 percent of his passes through four games in part because his teammates have suffered from a league-high 12 dropped passes.

I've put together an updated chart showing every NFC West drop this season. ESPN Stats & Information defines drops as incomplete passes where the offending player should have caught the pass with ordinary effort, and only when the receiver is 100 percent at fault. Passes thrown just outside the receiver's reach or those falling incomplete when pass interference should have been called do not meet the standard.

The chart also shows how many times each player has been targeted. Targets show how many times a player is targeted, whether or not a catch should have been made. Note that the San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis has 19 receptions in 23 targets, a very high percentage.

The Rams' league-high total is two more than Cleveland. The 49ers have seven, which is tied for seventh-most. The Arizona Cardinals have three, tied for 26th-most. The Seattle Seahawks have two, none by wide receivers. Only the New England Patriots, with one, have fewer.

The Atlanta Falcons' Roddy White leads the NFL with six drops. The Browns' Montario Hardesty is next with four. The Rams' Lance Kendricks is among three players with three.

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