NFC West: Pat Williams
A few thoughts and observations:
- Catching on: This team is catching the ball well throughout the roster. Coach Pete Carroll alluded to at least a half-dozen "circus" catches already from Sidney Rice. Guys fighting for playing time and roster spots are also making the impressive appear routine. Isaiah Stanback, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin and Pat Williams were among those catching my attention Saturday. Williams stole the ball from safety Josh Pinkard after Pinkard undercut the route. I'm still not sure how Williams caught the ball. Stanback made a leaping grab in the end zone. Tate seized possession of a pass to the flat that cornerback Marcus Trufant contested closely.
- The more you can do: Stanback, former quarterback at the University of Washington, could have additional value as teams transition to 46-man rosters on game days. Fullback Michael Robinson also would qualify as an emergency quarterback for a team keeping only two on its 53-man roster. Stanback and Robinson are both strong special-teams players.
- Whitehurst watch: Third-string quarterback Josh Portis stood out Saturday. He's having a strong camp and the team plans to keep him around in some capacity. Carroll heaped praise upon Portis after practice: "He is in command of the offense as much as he could be at this time. He is handling the huddle well and he's very confident. He has a great delivery and a very strong arm and he is very poised. He has just been a real pleasant surprise. We're real excited about him being the third guy right now and knowing that in time he is going to gain knowledge of the offense, get settled in and let that ability come to the front. This is an extremely big get for us in free agency." Carroll offered no specifics when I asked whether Portis could realistically compete for the No. 2 job, which Charlie Whitehurst currently holds. Pushing an undrafted rookie into the No. 2 role sounds ambitious and could be a long shot. The footing beneath Whitehurst has softened since Carroll committed to Tarvaris Jackson as the starter, however.
- Legging it out: Offensive linemen must run laps around the field immediately after committing false-start penalties. I wasn't sure right tackle James Carpenter was going to make it through practice. He's a huge man built to maul other huge men at the line of scrimmage. He's not a candidate for the cross-country team. Of all the offensive linemen guilty of false starts Saturday, left tackle Russell Okung appeared most comfortable taking his laps. Carpenter is having a strong camp, by the way.
- Injury watch: Receiver Mike Williams is practicing again after sitting out with an unspecified leg injury. I was watching to see if he opened up and ran full speed. If he did, I missed it.
- One last note: More than 2,100 fans packed the hill overlooking practice. The Seahawks have limited space for fans at practices because Lake Washington and Interstate 405 frame the facility narrowly. Fans park off-site and then ride buses a short distance to the facility.
I'll be heading to San Francisco 49ers camp beginning Monday, with an extended trip to St. Louis from Rams camp scheduled the following week. It's great having football back.
- Kurt Warner, Cardinals QB. He is the second alternate behind the Eagles' Donovan McNabb. McNabb will be named to the NFC squad when either Brett Favre or Drew Brees advances to the Super Bowl. Warner would be named to the team if Favre or Brees withdrew from the Pro Bowl after losing in the NFC title game.
- Antrel Rolle, Cardinals FS. He is the second alternate behind the Saints' Roman Harper. If the Saints advance to the Super Bowl, safety Darren Sharper would withdraw from the Pro Bowl. Harper would also make himself ineligible. Rolle would then earn Pro Bowl honors, although injuries might also prompt him to withdraw.
- Sean Morey, Cardinals special-teamer. Morey is the first alternate. He would replace the Vikings' Heath Farwell if Minnesota advances to the Super Bowl.
- Justin Smith, 49ers DE. Though Smith plays end in the 49ers' 3-4 defense, he qualifies as an "interior defensive lineman" in Pro Bowl balloting. He would be named to the game as a second alternate if the Vikings advanced to the Super Bowl. Minnesota's Kevin Williams (starter) and Pat Williams (first alternate) would withdraw.
Adrian Wilson ranks first in fan balloting among strong safeties. Antrel Rolle ranks second behind the Saints' Darren Sharper among free safeties.
Those are among the revelations upon looking at Pro Bowl balloting through Monday. Voting is ongoing here.
Among the other highlights, with emphasis on the NFC West:
- The Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald leads NFC receivers while ranking fifth among all players from the conference. Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Adrian Peterson and Brett Favre are ahead of him.
- No quarterback from the NFC West ranks among the top five.
- The 49ers' Frank Gore ranks third among NFC running backs, with the Rams' Steven Jackson fifth. Peterson and the Falcons' Michael Turner rank ahead of Gore. The Panthers' DeAngelo Williams ranks fourth.
- The 49ers' Vernon Davis ranks third among NFC tight ends. The Falcons' Tony Gonzalez and the Saints' Jeremy Shockey rank ahead of him.
- The Cardinals' Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ranks fourth among NFC cornerbacks behind the Eagles' Asante Samuel, the Vikings' Antoine Winfield and the Packers' Charles Woodson.
- The 49ers' Patrick Willis ranks first among NFC inside linebackers.
- The 49ers' Andy Lee ranks fifth among NFC punters. Former Cardinals and Seahawks punter Jeff Feagles ranks first.
- Speaking of former NFC West players, the Vikings' Steve Hutchinson ranks first among NFC guards. The Eagles' Leonard Weaver ranks second among NFC fullbacks. The Cowboys' Allen Rossum ranks fifth among NFC kickoff returners.
- The Cardinals' Darnell Dockett ranks fourth among NFC defensive tackles behind the Vikings' Pat Williams and Kevin Williams and the Redskins' Albert Haynesworth.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times looks into the legend of Walter Jones. The Seattle tackle could return from two knee surgeries Sunday. O'Neil: "So many superlatives have been draped across his 6-foot-5 frame that it's hard to realize just how truly remarkable his journey has been. He has gone from super-sized talent hidden away at a small boarding school to a lineman Mike Holmgren called the best offensive player he has ever coached. Not Brett Favre, Joe Montana nor Steve Young, but Walter Jones. And with that assertion, Holmgren joined a chorus that stretches back to the coaches at Holmes Community College."
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks face a challenge when Jay Cutler visits Qwest Field.
Also from Williams: Veteran safety Lawyer Milloy could get more playing time with the Seahawks. Williams: "Part of that may be out of necessity. With Josh Wilson suffering a high-ankle sprain against San Francisco and likely out for a month, the Seahawks are down to three healthy cornerbacks. That means starting safety Jordan Babineaux could be needed to fill in at corner in passing situations, with Milloy subbing for Babineaux at safety."
John Morgan of Field Gulls looks into Greg Knapp's play-calling and doesn't like the bootleg.
Greg Johns of seattlepi.com says the Seahawks are counting on cornerback Kelly Jennings after losing Marcus Trufant and Wilson to injuries.
Taylor Price of 49ers.com says Adrian Peterson isn't the only Vikings player for the 49ers to worry about Sunday.
John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says the Vikings have about 630 pounds of Williamses waiting for Frank Gore. Center Eric Heitmann: "I've played against them a few times over the years. They are very stout run defenders. Pat is very hard to move, and he has a good first step. You can't fall asleep on Pat ever. Kevin is one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL. Has the whole package -- physical, strong, quick, has a good pass rush. They're definitely a group we're going to have to be at our best in order to be successful."
Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat offers a podcast featuring 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill, who doesn't read blogs and didn't know Maiocco had been producing one for several years. Thanks, Shaun!
Also from Maiocco: Peterson has something to prove against the 49ers.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee checks in with 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye for thoughts on Favre. The two were together with the Jets, but it wasn't a natural pairing.
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Hill isn't gunning for the Vikings even though he spent four seasons with them as a third-stringer. His career there consisted of two kneel-down plays. Hill: "I did good. I got credit for two rushes and minus-2 yards."
David Fucillo of Niners Nation wonders why Hill's numbers dip noticeably in third quarters.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch explores the Rams' offensive decline since the Greatest Show on Turf days. Coats: "In a way, the deck is stacked against the regrouping Rams. They're trying to scratch out a productive attack under a first-time head coach whose background is entirely in defense, a first-time coordinator who brought in a new offense, and with an overhauled roster that is young and inexperienced in some key areas. Heading into Sunday's home-opener against Green Bay, the Rams rank last in the 32-team NFL in scoring and 31st in total offense."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' defense is coming up short on third down. That's what happens when a team doesn't rush the passer effectively.
Also from Thomas: The Rams are relatively healthy except for rookie first-round choice Jason Smith.
More from Thomas: The Rams' home opener is sold out, presumably thanks to Packers fans.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat says Steven Jackson wants more touches after averaging 18.5 through two games. Korte: "Jackson averaged 27 touches in 2006 when he rushed for 1,528 yards and caught 90 passes for 806 yards."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals are very pleased with second-year defensive end Calais Campbell. Somers: "Campbell has started only two games, but he has given strong indications that he one day could be better than Smith. And that day could come soon. Campbell, though, doesn't see it like that. He looks at his statistics and kicks himself that he has only a half-sack. He thinks of all the times the quarterback slipped from his hands."
Also from Somers: Cardinals rookie Beanie Wells is carrying a football almost everywhere he goes. The running back must donate $200 to charity every time he drops it. Teammates are encouraged to knock it loose.
Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic says the Cardinals know what they're up against when Peyton Manning visits Sunday.
The Dude in Brooklyn writes: Sando, I didn't realize you were so expert with faint praise. Your statement that the 49ers have the best defense in the division couldn't have been less enthusiastic. "Based on what we have seen," "I know they played some weak offenses," "there was a sense they were improved" ... that is not the language of a convinced man.
Fair enough. But why, Mike Sando? There is both an easy positive and negative argument for why the 49ers' defense is the best. They were statistically superior in nearly every category and did so with a crappy offense that constantly left them in bad position with three-and-outs and turnovers. Their per-play stats are top-10 or just below.
Over the course of the season, they played all the same teams except for two, so the schedule argument is bogus. If anything, the Cards should be demoted for not having to play their own offense when the rest of the division had to. The squad has a good mix of experience and youth and includes five former or current Pro Bowlers and several players that are developing quite well.
As for the negative argument ... there's almost nothing good to say about the Rams or Seahawks. I'll leave the Rams alone because they're rebuilding. Yes, the Seahawks had major injuries on offense, but the defense was as healthy as the others in the division. It was bad because it was bad. Are the additions going to be enough? How important are the personnel losses? That defense has more questions than answers and did nothing well last year.
As for the Cards, their defense was 19th despite the advantage of a fourth-ranked offense. Some say they have a good secondary, but they couldn't defend the pass all year. Is a nickel back [Bryant McFadden] and a third-rounder [Rashad Johnson] going to solve their pass-defense woes? For those who think the Cards have a good secondary, I'll leave Sando with a homework assignment that will disabuse you of your rose-tinted glasses: What was the last team to allow more passing TD's than the 2008 Cards?
Mike Sando: The Cardinals allowed 36 passing touchdowns last season. I suspect the 1981 Colts were the last team to allow more (37) in a season. Not good.
To address your broader point, we might be answering different questions. The evidence you cited was from last season. Which NFC West team had the best defense last season? The 49ers, of course, by almost any measure. Which NFC West team will have the best defense in 2009? The 49ers, probably.
Back to the Cardinals. When they were bad, they were really bad. When they were good, they were really good. The 49ers were more consistent defensively. Arizona allowed six touchdown passes to Brett Favre in a single game. Horrible. But when the Cardinals needed to control Matt Ryan and Jake Delhomme in the playoffs, they did it well. That means more than how the 49ers fared in a meaningless game against Buffalo.
The Cardinals can play with a violence and ferocity that is unmatched in the division. That is how they recovered a league-high 17 fumbles last season. The 49ers recovered six. The fumble-forcing hit Darnell Dockett put on Zak Keasey last season comes to mind. The knockout shot Adrian Wilson put on Trent Edwards was another example. Patrick Willis is the only other player in the division to inflict that type of punishment (the hit on Jets receiver Brad Smith last season comes to mind).
The problem in this division is that none of the teams can count on having a strong pass rush. The 49ers could develop one if Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson flourish in the
3-4. The Seahawks could rediscover one if Patrick Kerney gets healthy and some of their recent draft choices develop, etc. But can any team in this division truly count on its pass rush?
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Add Bryan Pittman's name to the list of veteran long snappers headed to Seattle for a free-agent visit with the Seahawks.
Pittman spent the last six seasons snapping for the Texans before becoming an unrestricted free agent. He never missed a game until the NFL suspended Pittman, Deuce McAllister, Will Smith, Kevin Williams, Pat Williams and Charles Grant in a hotly disputed case involving diuretics. All six insisted they had done nothing wrong.
Pittman is making the trip to Seattle with his wife for a visit scheduled to take place Friday, agent Kevin Gold confirmed. Pittman attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Auburn, Wash., and the University of Washington. He joins former Broncos snapper Mike Leach among known candidates for the snapping job in Seattle. Leach is also visiting the Cardinals.
The Seahawks list two snappers on their roster: Ryan Senser and Tyler Schmitt. Jeff Robinson, an unrestricted free agent, handled snapping duties last season. A back injury prevented Schmitt from playing last season while raising questions about his future.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
We can now say definitively what I've been telling hopeful NFC West fans for weeks: Your team probably wasn't going to make a play for Albert Haynesworth.
The Redskins signed Hayesworth to a deal that makes it virtually impossible for the defensive tackle to exceed expectations. Haynesworth will be looking to do what nine of the highest-paid defensive tackles failed to do last season: win a playoff game.
Most of the highest-paid defensive tackles signed new or renegotiated contracts over the last two offseasons. The nine leaders in average annual salary:
- Tommie Harris, Bears. Five sacks for 9-7 Bears.
- Shaun Rogers, Browns. Dominated much of season before fading for 4-12 Browns.
- Tommy Kelly, Raiders. Started every game for 5-11 Raiders.
- Kris Jenkins, Jets. Dominated early, wore down late for 9-7 Jets.
- Cory Redding, Lions. Started 13 games for 0-16 Lions.
- Kevin Williams, Vikings. Had 8.5 sacks for division-winning Vikings.
- Marcus Stroud, Bills. Started every game for 7-9 Bills.
- Pat Williams, Vikings. Started 14 games for division-winning Vikings.
- John Henderson, Jaguars. Started 14 games for 5-11 Jaguars.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Cardinals won't be benefiting from those StarCaps suspensions, after all. They can still take out half of the Williams Wall when the Vikings visit University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 15.
Vikings defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, cleared to play despite the NFL's attempts at suspending them, are strong enough against the run to shut down the Cardinals' last-ranked running game. That is a given.
But if Arizona decides to spread the field with four receivers, as the Cardinals often have this season, Pat Williams would probably come off the field. He might even come off the field against three receivers.
We'll have to see if the Vikings adjust their plan to keep Pat Williams on the field, but Ellis Wyms and/or Fred Evans would be his replacement against pass-oriented personnel groups if Minnesota holds to its defensive form.
Personnel use in the first halves of games can reveal a team's intentions independent of game situations (such as falling behind). The Cardinals have used three or four wide receivers at least 55 percent of the time in eight of the 12 first halves I've charted this season. This includes every game but the Week 2 game against the Dolphins.
The rate dipped to 40 percent against the Eagles and 35.3 percent against the Rams over the last two games. But the rate has been 80 percent or higher in two other games.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Only a court injunction can stop Darnell Dockett's streak of 61 consecutive regular-season starts from becoming the longest among active NFL defensive tackles.
The Vikings' Pat Williams holds the streak at 70 games, but a four-game suspension could intervene as early as Sunday. Williams was back at practice Thursday, so perhaps the streak will live for a while.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The NFL's decision to suspend six players for four games apiece should help the Cardinals jump-start their ground game.
Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, the Vikings' often-immovable defensive tackles, were among the six players suspended. That means neither will play when Minnesota visits University of Phoenix Stadium for a Week 15 game against the Cardinals.
The suspensions also disqualify the six players from consideration for the Pro Bowl, which could help the Cardinals' Darnell Dockett earn a spot. Both Williamses earned Pro Bowl berths after the 2007 season. Dockett participated in the game as an alternate after the Bears' Tommie Harris withdrew from the game.
(Note: ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports that at least one player is planning to file for an injunction in U.S. District Court on Wednesday morning.)