NFC West: Ray Rice

San Francisco 49ers safety Dashon Goldson deserves a long-term contract after playing the 2012 season under the franchise tag.

Coach Jim Harbaugh indicated as much during his news conference Tuesday.

"He's somebody that I think that you reward," Harbaugh said. "Plays every game. Can find the ball. You know that he’s out there. And opposing offenses know that he’s out there. He tackles and does everything that you’d want a safety to do. Yeah, I feel like you reward those types of people. Who do you reward if you don’t reward those type of people?"

Goldson, 28, plays the enforcer role well. Two plays during Super Bowl XVII stood out.

On one, Goldson arrived to the pile late and delivered a shot to running back Ray Rice's head area. Rice was clearly upset after the play. He yelled across the line of scrimmage toward Goldson while returning to the huddle. One play later, Rice lost a fumble.

Goldson also brought down Ravens running back Bernard Pierce with a violent tackle along the sideline. Pierce had gained eight yards on the play, his longest run of the day. But he was slow to get up from the hit. Pierce, who had carried nine times for 30 yards to that point in the game, gained three yards on three additional rushes.

The hits from Goldson might not have affected the production for Rice and Pierce, but they represent the tone-setting qualities a physical safety can bring to a defense.

Rewarding Goldson is a priority.

"Yes, that's very fair to say," Harbaugh said.

Grading the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII

February, 3, 2013
NEW ORLEANS -- The San Francisco 49ers' tremendous second-half rally came up short. Here's a look at how things played out in Super Bowl XLVII:


After a shaky first half, Colin Kaepernick was spectacular as he rallied the 49ers back into the game. Kaepernick led them to 17 points in a span of 4:10 in the third quarter. Kaepernick also scrambled for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Michael Crabtree finished with five catches for 109 yards and one touchdown. Kaepernick's second-half play was brilliant. But he did throw the first Super Bowl interception in franchise history. Joe Montana never threw one. Steve Young never threw one. Montana and Young have Super Bowl titles. Kaepernick doesn't.


Frank Gore wasn't much of a factor early on as the 49ers fell way behind. But Gore had a few key runs, including a 6-yard touchdown in the third quarter and two big runs in the fourth quarter. Kaepernick didn't have any explosive plays off the read option, but his scrambling ability caused major problems for Baltimore's defense. Backup running back LaMichael James lost a second-quarter fumble that helped the Ravens take a 14-3 lead.


Joe Flacco completed 13 of 20 passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns in the first half as San Francisco's secondary struggled and the pass rush was quiet. But, just like everything else, the pass defense improved in the second half. Still, it wasn't good enough.


This wasn't a big problem for the 49ers because the Ravens came out throwing in the first half. But the 49ers held Ray Rice in check when he did run.


San Francisco allowed Baltimore's Jacoby Jones to return the second-half kickoff 108 yards to take a 28-6 lead. But the 49ers did stop a fake field goal attempt in the second quarter and David Akers made three field goals.


Jim Harbaugh did a nice job of getting his team back into the game after the power outage early in the second half. But Harbaugh's team, particularly Kaepernick, seemed uptight in the first half. Harbaugh is known for being extremely intense. I can't help but wonder if his high-pressure style might be why his team started so poorly. Harbaugh's play-calling at the end of game, when the 49ers failed to score on four plays from within seven yards of the end zone, also leaves him open for plenty of criticism.

Joe Flacco, Aldon SmithGetty ImagesRavens quarterback Joe Flacco will face his toughest challenge in Aldon Smith and the 49ers.
NEW ORLEANS -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is riding one of the greatest postseason runs an NFL quarterback has ever ridden.

Only six quarterbacks have thrown more touchdown passes in a single postseason than Flacco, who has eight in these playoffs.

But the San Francisco 49ers will provide Flacco's toughest test of the postseason. Since Vic Fangio took over as the 49ers' defensive coordinator in 2011, San Francisco has allowed the fewest points (15.7) and second-fewest yards (301.3) on a per-game basis.

NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley break down the matchup between this strong-armed quarterback and stingy defense.

Hensley: Everyone laughed at Joe Flacco when he said he was the best quarterback in the NFL this offseason. Look who's laughing now. I'm not saying Flacco is the best quarterback in the league, but he's playing at a different level right now.

Sando: I know "playing at a different level" sounds like a cliché, but it’s really true. The smart numbers back this up in a big way.

Consider that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers finished first through fifth, respectively, in Total QBR for the regular season. All posted figures in the 70s or higher, well above the 50-point mark reflecting average contributions to winning.

I think we’d all agree that those guys were very good. Flacco finished 25th with a 46.8 mark. So, unless Flacco somehow defied a system that correctly identified the best and worst quarterbacks in the NFL, there was some reason for skepticism entering these playoffs.

Yes, the Ravens have won playoff games in past seasons with Flacco at quarterback, but he has been much, much better during this postseason -- not just relative to the regular season, but relative to past postseasons as well.

Flacco's eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions tell us as much. So do the advanced stats. Flacco’s Total QBR has spiked to 77.5, third-best in the playoffs. It ranged between 17.6 and 41.9 for him in previous postseasons.

Hensley: The difference with Flacco is his ability to get the ball downfield. He's averaging 16.7 yards per completion by going deep to Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. I expect a similar game plan from the Ravens, especially after watching how Matt Ryan was able to hit some big plays against the 49ers in the first half of the NFC Championship Game. How does San Francisco go about slowing down Flacco?

Sando: The 49ers gave up a 46-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones on a blown coverage in the NFC Championship Game. These longer passes have been a bit of problem for the 49ers during the playoffs. That is a concern in this game.

During the playoffs, the 49ers have allowed 66.7 percent completions with three touchdowns and one interception on passes traveling more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. The 49ers are allowing 17.6 yards per pass attempt on these throws. The numbers were much more impressive during the regular season (36.3 percent completions, two TD passes, six picks, 10.5 yards per attempt).

The 49ers' pass rush, diminished since Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith suffered a triceps injury in Week 15, finished strong in the NFC Championship Game. San Francisco needs to pick up in the Super Bowl where it left off against the Falcons.

Hensley: What has impressed me just as much as Flacco's downfield passing has been his decision-making. He's not chucking the ball downfield any chance he gets. Flacco is waiting for the one-on-one matchups and exploiting them. That's the main reason why he hasn't thrown any interceptions in the playoffs. In fact, Flacco hasn't been picked off since he had an interception returned 98 yards for a touchdown against Denver on Dec. 16. He has gone 19 quarters of play without throwing one, a span of 162 passes. That's an amazing stretch for Flacco, whose previous best streak was 137 passes. A big reason why Flacco hasn't thrown interceptions is he's getting time to throw. If the 49ers can get pressure on Flacco, especially early, he has to continue to take care of the ball.

Sando: The 49ers do not blitz much. They have sent five or more pass-rushers just 6.9 percent of the time in two playoff games, easily the lowest rate this postseason (32.4 percent for everyone else). They really need Aldon Smith and Justin Smith to play well. Neither has dominated for some time. Aldon Smith did get pressure on Matt Ryan as the NFC Championship Game progressed. That was one reason the 49ers put Ryan under duress on six of his final 12 drop backs.

What kind of pass protection should we expect from the Ravens?

Hensley: Based on the playoffs, I would expect a very safe pocket for Flacco. The Ravens made a change on the offensive line and it has totally changed the passing game. Left guard Jah Reid was placed on injured reserve with a toe injury just before the playoffs began. That meant right tackle Kelechi Osemele moved to left guard, left tackle Michael Oher shifted to right tackle and Bryant McKinnie got out of John Harbaugh's doghouse and into the starting lineup at left tackle.

The result: four sacks allowed in three playoff games. The key matchup is McKinnie versus Aldon Smith. McKinnie has given up just one sack in the playoffs, but he has been inconsistent throughout his career. If the 49ers get too much heat on Flacco, look for the Ravens to get the ball to Ray Rice in space whether it's on swing or screen passes. Rice has been quiet in the playoffs as a receiver (four total catches) but he's dangerous in the passing game. Just look at fourth down-and-29 in San Diego.

Sando: If the 49ers could hand-pick two inside linebackers to chase Rice around the field, they would probably pick the ones they’re taking into this game, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They should be OK in that aspect of the matchup. But there are no guarantees Aldon Smith, playing with a shoulder injury, is going to consistently win those pass rush battles against Bryant McKinnie.

Yes, McKinnie’s career has been disappointing in recent seasons, but he was the seventh pick of the 2002 draft because he has talent.

McKinnie was at left tackle last season when the Ravens limited the 49ers to zero sacks. We should note that Justin Smith gave McKinnie problems in the running game. Still, though, that 16-6 defeat for the 49ers stands as one of three zero-sack games for San Francisco’s defense over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. The 49ers’ offense scored only 22 points in those three games, however. It’s not like the Ravens were in any obvious passing situations against San Francisco last season.

Hensley: Some Ravens players have told me that the key to their running game is getting linemen to the second level, especially against Bowman, who is getting a lot of respect here in Baltimore. The Ravens need the running game to work early to avoid those obvious passing situations you pointed out, Mike, and set up the play-action, which Flacco uses quite well.

This game is such a role reversal for Flacco after going through Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the AFC gauntlet. He's now the experienced quarterback compared to Colin Kaepernick. After eight playoff games and three trips to the AFC Championship Game, he understands what it takes to win in the national spotlight. He needs to convert third downs, produce touchdowns in the red zone (he already has five touchdowns inside the 20 this postseason) and not make costly turnovers. If the Ravens are going to win, it's going to be because of Flacco.

A little secret about those running backs forced to run against stacked defenses play after play: They don't really exist.

Check out the chart. It shows 2012 rushing yardage leaders against loaded box counts (those featuring more defenders in the box than the offense has available to block them).

None of the leaders has more than 58 rushes against loaded boxes.

Minnesota's Adrian Peterson plays for a one-dimensional offense. Opponents seemingly must worry only about stopping him to beat the Vikings, right? It sounds good, but Peterson, despite nearing the 2,000-yard mark for the season, has carried against loaded boxes only 39 times. His other 250 carries came against more favorable number counts.

Peterson has 87 carries for 582 yards against eight or more in the box, but the Vikings had at least as many blockers available for some of those plays. San Francisco's Frank Gore ranks second to Peterson in carries (85) and rushing yards (279) against eight or more in the box. The 49ers favor heavier personnel groupings on offense, however. As a result, they often have blockers available for each of those defenders in the box.

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 24, 2012
Charles TillmanJohn J. Kim/Getty ImagesChicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman makes his first appearance on our MVP Watch list.
The Chicago Bears have owned one of the NFL's best records, backed by a dominant defense. They haven't had an obvious MVP candidate.

How about Charles Tillman?

The 10th-year cornerback earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time last season. He blanketed the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson during a 13-7 victory Monday night.

With two forced fumbles against the Lions, Tillman has 32 for his career. That ranks tied for third since Tillman's rookie season (2003) and the most for a defensive back, according to the Bears. Tillman has two picks and scored on both.

Tillman is playing very well. He's playing for a dominant defense. His team is winning. He makes the MVP Watch list this week, his first appearance.

Tillman joins MVP Watch mainstay J.J. Watt as the only defensive players to appear on the list this season. Lawrence Taylor was the most recent defensive player to win the Associated Press version of the award. He won following the 1986 season.

Note: ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

Setting expectations for Pead, James

August, 8, 2012
The St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers used second-round draft choices for running backs this year.

Both teams have established, older runners coming off productive seasons.

The Rams' Isaiah Pead got extensive reps Wednesday while veteran Steven Jackson received a day off. The 49ers' LaMichael James returned to practice after missing time with illness. Both young backs should get extensive work during the exhibition season, but what about when the games start counting?

Change-of-pace roles seem most likely. Jackson and the 49ers Frank Gore, while older, have remained productive lately. Both are good all-around players.

The Rams envision Jackson posting an eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season while Pead provides a few hundred yards. That was the model for Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer when he was running the New York Jets' offense.

For some perspective, I put together a list showing the 10 second-round draft choices with the most rushing yardage as rookies since 2000. Three of the 10 produced as rookies in tandem with 1,000-yard rushers:
I'm looking forward to seeing James in 49ers camp upon arriving there Sunday.

There's little sense in taking the bait when San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tells a radio program Michael Crabtree "has the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver."

Anyone with a strong grasp of NFL history would place Cris Carter, Raymond Berry and Steve Largent on a short list for receivers with the surest hands.

Hall of Famer Ken Houston, speaking for a 2008 piece on all-time great wideouts, stood up for AFL stars Otis Taylor and Lionel Taylor.

"Lionel Taylor, I mean, he would catch a BB," Houston said.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, speaking for the same piece, said Randy Moss, then with New England, had the best hands in the NFL at that time (2008).

"A lot of guys can catch," Thompson said then. "He can catch on any platform, as we say in scouting. He can adjust and catch it over the top of somebody's head, catch it falling down, and it doesn't matter if he is covered."

With Moss now on the 49ers, it is possible Crabtree does not possess the best hands among wide receivers on his own team.

Oops. I wasn't going to take the bait on this one, but now it's too late. Time to regroup.

Bottom line, I suspect Crabtree has impressed Harbaugh this offseason, and Harbaugh would like that to continue for as long as possible. By offering such strong public praise for Crabtree, Harbaugh is setting a standard for Crabtree to meet this season. He realizes Crabtree has the ability to meet that standard, or else he wouldn't make the statement.

We should all recall Harbaugh's calling quarterback Alex Smith "elite" and promoting him for the Pro Bowl last season. Then as now, Harbaugh was standing up for his guy. Smith enjoyed the finest season of his career and even outplayed the truly elite Drew Brees at times during the 49ers' playoff victory over New Orleans. The way Harbaugh backed Smith played a role in that performance, in my view.

Back to Crabtree. He has the ability to rank among the most sure-handed receivers in the game. He has not yet earned that status, but now he has little choice, right?

As the chart shows, Crabtree finished the 2011 season with 12.2 receptions per drop, which ranked 28th in the NFL among players targeted at least 100 times. Larry Fitzgerald led the NFL with 80 receptions and only one drop. Those numbers are according to ESPN Stats & Information, which defines drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver should have caught the pass with ordinary effort."

Crabtree suffered six drops last season by that standard, a few too many for the player with the best hands his head coach has ever seen on a wide receiver.
MoJo from Tucson, Ariz., asks a fairly open-ended question regarding the Arizona Cardinals' leading rusher.

"How much respect did defenses show to Beanie Wells last season?" he asks.

Mike Sando: An answer would be difficult to quantify with information available to me.

We can say with some certainty that opposing defenses were not loading up against Wells relative to other running backs. The opposite appears to be true.

Wells ranked 18th out of 19 qualifying backs in percentage of first- and second-down rushes against "loaded" fronts, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Loaded fronts are those featuring more defenders in the box than the offense has blockers to account for them. The list featured backs with 200-plus carries on first and down.

The percentages would not account for plays when teams passed the ball, perhaps as a response to those loaded fronts. In the Cardinals' case, it's plausible to think opponents would make Larry Fitzgerald the focus of their game plans, limiting how frequently they felt comfortable dedicating additional resources to stop a running back.

However, it's also clear Wells didn't fare well enough against those loaded fronts to force adjustments from defenses. He averaged 4.53 yards per carry against unloaded fronts and only 1.46 yards per carry against loaded ones. That differential, displayed in the second chart, exceeded three yards per attempt, the largest gap among the 19 qualifying backs.

For example, Frank Gore and Steven Jackson both averaged about .74 fewer yards per carry against loaded fronts. Marshawn Lynch averaged 0.5 fewer yards per carry. Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendhenhall, Baltimore's Ray Rice and Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew averaged at least 1.6 additional yards per carry against loaded fronts.

But with a relatively small percentage of carries coming against loaded fronts, one long run could skew the averages.

Lynch had 40- and 29-yard runs against loaded fronts. Gore had two 14-yard runs against loaded fronts. Jackson had 13- and 10-yard runs against them. Wells' longest run against a loaded front covered six yards. He also lost six yards on such a run.

Blocking is another factor to consider. Perhaps the Cardinals did not block these runs as well as other teams blocked them.

That leads me back to the original point. It's tough to quantify a respect factor even though some evidence suggests Wells wasn't commanding as much as other backs commanded.

Jeff from Las Vegas asks what happens when a player such as Terrell Suggs suffers a serious injury before the season.

"Does he still get paid in full, or at some reduced rate?" Jeff asks. "Does it matter if he was working out or doing some activity not related to football? Do most players have insurance to cover their salary?"

Mike Sando: The collective bargaining agreement does allow teams to withhold salary from players suffering non-football injuries.

Suggs has built up considerable equity with the organization during his career, however, and it's not like he was jumping a Harley-Davidson over the fountains at Caesars Palace. Players routinely work out on their own. Sometimes, they get hurt.

Suggs' coach, John Harbaugh, recently said Suggs will remain a team leader while rehabbing. Withholding Suggs' salary would be inconsistent with those comments.

Suggs' contract calls for him to earn $4.9 million in base salary for 2012. His deal runs through the 2014 season. The team would have the right to place Suggs on the "non-football injury" list and withhold salary while Suggs' contract continued to run.

Players placed on the non-football injury list while in the final year or option year of their contracts can have their contracts tolled, or frozen.

"However, if the player is physically able to perform his football services on or before the sixth regular season game, the club must pay the player his negotiated Paragraph 5 Salary (pro rata) for the balance of the season in order to toll such player's contract," the labor agreement reads. "If such player is taken off N-F/I during the period when such action is allowed by League rules, his contract will not be tolled."

Those are the contractual considerations. Some of them do not apply to Suggs because he's not in the final year of his deal. Again, I wouldn't expect the Ravens to play hardball with someone they value so much.

As for players purchasing insurance against such injuries, I doubt it's very common.

Costs would seem prohibitive for lower-profile players earning less money. The payoff wouldn't seem sufficient for players having already earned millions. However, I do not know how many players have such policies.

NCAA players sometimes purchase such insurance, but very few have ever collected, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Jason from Madison, Wisc., viewed Merril Hoge's recent comments in response to Kurt Warner as evidence there's no room on ESPN for views "that are not full-bore in support of a sport." He says Hoge wouldn't know to what extent repetitive blows to the head have contributed to issues observed in boxers and, perhaps increasingly, in football players.

"If the possible outcome is permanent brain damage," Jason writes, "and you do not know exactly what level of contact causes it, are you really being the less reasonable person if you say, 'I am not sure if I would let my kids participate' instead of blindly following along with the pack trying to find way to rationalize what they have done and are doing?

"You are coming off as nothing but an NFL cheerleader and as such it is apparent that your content is not worth reading."

Mike Sando: Don't shoot the messenger, Jason. The item presented both views fairly. Warner's comments were reproduced in full and presented first. I thought Warner's response was understandable, and said so. I also thought it was clear Hoge had thought through the issue to a greater degree.

My oldest son plays tackle football and loves it. I would not let him keep playing if he suffered a serious concussion. That is a reasonable stance to me. I also think it's reasonable for Warner to have reservations about letting his sons play. There's room for more than one view on this subject. The way I presented the piece Friday demonstrates as much, in my view.
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.

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.

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.

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.


Passing league? NFC West runs strong

January, 1, 2012
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.

Silver linings: Rams at Steelers

December, 26, 2011
The facts: The St. Louis Rams fell to 2-13 with a 27-0 road defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16.

The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
  • Steven Jackson carried 24 times for 103 yards, his fourth 100-yard game of the season and 31st of his career. Only Ray Rice and Arian Foster had topped 100 yards against the Steelers previously this season.
  • Jackson joined Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, Eric Dickerson, Curtis Martin, Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders as the only running backs with seven consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
  • Cornerback Josh Gordy picked off a pass for the second game in a row.
  • Nick Miller had a 17-yard punt return and a 10.3-yard average.
  • The Rams committed no turnovers. In fact, they became the first team since at least 1940 to rush for 164-plus yards and commit no turnovers while getting shut out by 27 or more points. I'm not sure whether that counts as a silver lining, but it's an amazing note.
  • The Rams held the Steelers to one third-down conversion in seven attempts, one reason they narrowly won time of possession.
  • Rookie Robert Quinn had a tackle for loss.
Looking ahead: The Rams close the regular season with a home game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Final Word: NFC West

December, 16, 2011
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Forget about running the ball: The San Francisco 49ers own the NFL's longest ongoing streak of games without allowing an individual 100-yard rusher. The streak dates to Ryan Grant's 129-yard game for Green Bay in Week 11 of the 2009 season. The 49ers' Week 15 opponent, Pittsburgh, hasn't allowed very many, either. Baltimore's Ray Rice (twice) and Houston's Arian Foster are the only players to rush for 100-plus yards against the Steelers since the 49ers' streak began. We should not expect much from Frank Gore and Rashard Mendenhall on Monday night, in other words.

Keep an eye on that fourth quarter: The 49ers are allowing only 14 points per game. That would be the second-lowest average allowed in franchise history if sustained over the season. Opponents have scored 42.3 percent of their points against the 49ers in fourth quarters, however. The 49ers have allowed 27 fourth-quarter points in their three defeats this season. Their past eight opponents have scored only 104 points, or 13 per game, but they scored half of them in fourth quarters. Can the 49ers finish against the Steelers?

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireSeahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has 969 rushing yards in 12 games this season.
Riding the Marshawn Lynch train: Lynch rushed for 573 yards in 12 games with the Seattle Seahawks last season. He has 969 yards in 12 games this season. While Lynch managed only 44 yards on 17 carries against Chicago in his Seahawks debut last season, his hard-nosed running gave Seattle a needed edge in an upset victory. The way Seattle won that game -- with tough defense, a big back and an efficient quarterback -- showed how coach Pete Carroll envisioned winning games. Can the Seahawks do it again?

Nothing comes easy: The Arizona Cardinals are tied with Denver for the most games decided by seven or fewer points this season (10). Fifteen total points separated Arizona from its opponents in the four games won with John Skelton as the Cardinals' primary quarterback. The opponent this week, Cleveland, has played close games against the Cardinals' NFC West rivals. The Browns beat Seattle by three (6-3), lost to St. Louis by one (13-12) and played the 49ers relatively close in San Francisco (20-10). The Browns' likely starting quarterback Sunday, Seneca Wallace, started four games last season. Two were decided by a total of four points.

Shuffling lines: The St. Louis Rams head into their game against Cincinnati having started nine players on their offensive line, tied for second-most in the NFL this season. The Rams and Seahawks are the only teams in the league without any offensive linemen starting all games at the same position, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Seattle has weathered the turnover fairly well, but facing the Bears' Julius Peppers without injured left tackle Russell Okung could be problematic.

Four 1,100-yard rushers in one division?

December, 7, 2011
Passing is generally the key to victory in the NFL.

This helps explain why quarterbacks earn the most money, why teams often draft pass-blocking tackles over top runners and why fullbacks have become endangered.

Teams still value running the ball, of course. Defenses would have an easier time defending quarterbacks if they knew with certainty a run was not coming. And every team seeking support for young or average quarterbacks would be better off with a strong ground game.

NFC West teams fall into this group. Each team in the division is on pace to produce a 1,000-yard runner.

One division has produced four 1,000-yard rushers in a season five times since divisional realignment in 2002. Each NFC West team's leading rusher is on pace for at least 1,100 yards. Only one division, the AFC North in 2010, has produced four players with at least 1,100 yards since realignment.

Frank Gore's yardage production for the 49ers has leveled off in recent weeks. Continued strong defense and increased production from quarterback Alex Smith have helped the team keep winning. Facing two backup quarterbacks -- Arizona's John Skelton and St. Louis' A.J. Feeley -- simultaneously lowered the bar for the 49ers in recent weeks.

I would expect the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch to gain the most rushing yardage in Week 14 among NFC West backs. Seattle wants to field a run-first offense, which makes sense this week.

The Rams rank second in most sacks per pass attempt, a threat now that Seattle's best pass protector, Russell Okung, has landed on injured reserve. The Rams are averaging fewer than one offensive touchdown per game. That gives Seattle a good chance to win without taking as many chances through the air. The Rams have allowed more rushing yards than any team in the NFL.

Note: With an assist from Anicra in the comments, I updated the projected totals for Jackson, Lynch and Wells to reflect their participation in only 11 games this season. I had previously divided their rushing totals by total team games (12 apiece), using the average to project totals for the remaining four games.

2011 Gridiron Challenge: Rough RB week?

November, 24, 2011
Inside the 2011 NFC West Gridiron Challenge after Week 12:
  • Leader: msclemons67, again, but with Jay Cutler suffering a broken thumb, it's time to search for another quarterback.
  • High score of the week: ChampLeonard and The Big Hurt, each with 156 points. Both got 21 points from the San Francisco 49ers' defense against Arizona, as did our leader.
  • Lowest score on first page of leaderboard: 89 points, by kcarter617. Fred Jackson's injury was part of the problem. Denarius Moore?
  • My team: tied for 463rd and falling fast (76.1 percentile) after an 80-point week featuring three whole points from the receiver position.
  • My wife's team: tied for 730th place and falling. Stands in 58.9 percentile.
  • Dan Graziano's team: tied for 493rd and falling (73.7 percentile) after getting two points from his wide receivers.
  • Note of the week: It's looking like a rough week for running backs. DeMarco Murray appears less valuable without a healthy fullback. Ray Rice and Frank Gore face tough defenses. Arian Foster and Matt Forte lost their quarterbacks, which could give them more touches in lower-scoring offenses. I'm going with Murray and Rashard Mendenhall because they're reasonably priced and I needed the extra pretend money to buy back Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton at premiums following their bye weeks. Does Steven Jackson get going against an Arizona defense missing nose tackle Dan Williams?

Best of luck to your team this week. Tom Carpenter's column specifically for the Gridiron Challenge does single out Mendenhall, among others, as potential strong values.