NFC West: Rob Ryan
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
It is a scary thought, considering the Saints' defense already had more problems against the Seahawks in that 34-7 loss in Week 13 than it has had against any other offense all season. The teams meet again Saturday in the playoffs.
"I know he's an elite player when he's healthy, so absolutely [he adds a degree of difficulty]," Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said of Harvin, a fast and elusive receiver who has played in only one game this season because of a lingering hip injury. "He's had a couple weeks to get healthy and get back with [offensive coordinator Darrell] Bevell and that offense, and they do a great job. And they do a hell of a job of using all of his talents. One time he's lining up at running back and at receiver. And hell, they'll put him at center, probably, and hike the ball. So he's all over the place.
Added Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins: "He definitely adds a lot of unknown to their offense. And he accounts for a lot of explosive plays when he's in there. So I'm sure we'll see something exotic with him."
Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, however, insisted that he isn't worried about Harvin's presence, because he has so much faith in the way cornerback Keenan Lewis has performed against top receivers throughout this season. Lewis is expected to play Saturday, despite suffering a concussion last week.
"We have Keenan Lewis, who's been shutting guys down all year," Galette said. "So we probably won't see much of [Harvin]."
With or without Harvin, the Seahawks create some of the most unique challenges in the league for opposing defenses.
Quarterback Russell Wilson is elusive, and he is just as dangerous throwing outside of the pocket as he is running the ball -- a painful lesson the Saints learned time and time again in that first meeting, when he threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns, and ran eight times for 47 yards.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks also feature one of the league's most punishing runners in Marshawn Lynch, who breaks a ton of tackles and becomes even harder to stop once he reaches the second level of the defense (another painful lesson the Saints learned, this time during the infamous "BeastQuake" run in their Jan. 8, 2011, playoff meeting).
The Saints admittedly focused too much on containing Lynch in the first meeting this season. They did hold him to 45 yards on 16 carries, but they overreacted to him at times and made more discipline errors than they have in any other game this season. A lot of the Seahawks' big plays came off play-action fakes or when the Saints overpursued in the backfield.
"We had aggressively planned on attacking their run game, which we did for the most part," Ryan said. "But anything other than that, we did not execute very well.”
When asked what the Saints learned from that first meeting, Ryan said, "Pretty much everything."
"We really didn't play our style of game at all," Ryan said. "I think that's really the only game that I just don't think we were ourselves at all. Whatever it was, we made mental mistakes, we made fundamental mistakes, some technique things. We pride ourselves on playing the game the right way. I don't think we really did that.
"Obviously the execution of their quarterback was something to be seen. Hopefully he doesn't have that type of game against us again, or we're in big trouble."
Galette said the Saints did learn from those mistakes. He said it was a confidence boost for the Saints when they played much more disciplined and effective against the Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton in Weeks 14 and 16 (a 31-13 victory and a 17-13 loss).
Chronicled here and many other places during the past week, Ryan's last-minute change of heart about taking the Rams' coordinator job apparently offered no added incentive for the Rams.
St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher was asked once more if he took a little added satisfaction from beating Ryan but stuck to the high road once again in response.
“Not at all ... I commented on the record," Fisher said. "When people change their mind, they change their mind and I was fine with that. He’s a good coach, they’ve got a good coach and he’s done a nice job with their defense.”
Of course, out in public, Fisher will likely never acknowledge that he took a little extra joy in beating Ryan and the Saints but it's hard to believe there isn't even just a small iota of pleasure from it.
As for his team, the players never even got to meet Ryan before he moved on to the Big Easy. End Chris Long, as is his custom, provided the best line on the topic.
"I had forgotten about that," Long said. "I think that’s just something people outside the building are wondering more about. He was our coach for like maybe 12 hours on like, the internet."
On Sunday, Ryan was the Saints defensive coordinator well beyond the internet but probably wouldn't have minded having it limited to the confines of the web.
A roundup of the weekend's Rams stories appearing on ESPN.com. ... In Saturday's Ram-blings, we discussed Ryan's comments about passing on the Rams' job. ... From there, we looked at three things to watch in Sunday's game as well as a closer look at three important match ups in the game. ... Finally for Saturday, it was a look at an under the radar roster move and what it likely meant for rookie receiver Tavon Austin's status. ... By Sunday morning, Austin's status became official as he was declared inactive because of an ankle injury. ... Rapid Reaction provided quick thoughts on the Rams' win. ... Then we examined the dominance of defensive end Robert Quinn and his case for Defensive Player of the Year. ... Finally, we did our best to play armchair psychologist and figure out the young and inconsistent Rams.
Saints reporter Mike Triplett breaks down the continued road woes of the Saints and what it could mean in the big picture.
At stltoday.com, Jeff Gordon hands out a report card for the Rams that would land them in the mix for valedictorian.
Jim Thomas chronicles all of the day's happenings in his game recap.
Gordon also took part in his game day chat.
Appearing Sunday morning, columnist Bernie Miklasz had a good piece on the loyalty of Rams' fans being tested.
At FoxSportsMidwest.com, Nate Latsch says the Rams defense provides hope for the future.
Five quick thoughts on the Rams' win from Turf Show Times.
While the New Orleans Saints come to the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday with plenty to play for, the St. Louis Rams have been eliminated from playoff contention.
The scenario of the Rams playing out the string and the Saints pushing for prime seeding in the NFC is one we've seen before. But, for whatever reason, the Rams have beaten or played the Saints tough in recent meetings. In addition, Rams coach Jeff Fisher has a history of success against New Orleans.
In this week’s edition of Double Coverage, ESPN.com Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Saints reporter Mike Triplett discuss the Rams’ relative success against the Saints, and much more.
Wagoner: The Rams are out of the mix for the postseason and again playing a much better New Orleans team at home. In 2011, the Rams stunned everyone by knocking off the Saints in a somewhat similar situation. It seems New Orleans has struggled to find traction on the road this year. Anything in particular you can point to for those problems?
Triplett: Well, first of all, the Saints hate that question. But it keeps coming up this year because they have struggled quite a bit on the road -- they're 3-3, and two of their wins were surprisingly low-scoring. The Saints actually have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 (24-14). But part of the reason they catch so much heat for looking so human on the road is because they play so super-human at home (as former linebacker Scott Shanle said recently).
There’s no one real consistent theme for their road struggles. Sometimes it has been weather conditions or footing -- neither of which will be an issue on Sunday. And sometimes, of course, they just come out flat. But I don’t expect that from the Saints this week since they know how much is on the line with the playoffs looming.
Nick, with no playoff hopes to inspire the Rams, do you see them treating this game with the same intensity? I know they’re coming off two losses on the road. Have you seen any signs that they can bounce back and cause trouble for the Saints?
Wagoner: Speaking of questions teams hate, Fisher doesn't appreciate anything that looks at the big picture or beyond the next game. For all the problems this team has, effort and buy-in aren't on the list. The Rams have nothing tangible to play for this season, but this is the youngest team in the league and there are plenty at Rams Park who have long insisted that the target year for a breakout is 2014. To get there, they need to continue to make strides over the final three weeks, so I would expect them to put up more of a fight to close out the season.
As it pertains to the Saints specifically, the Rams have a habit this season of playing good teams pretty tough, save for San Francisco. They've beaten Arizona, Indianapolis and Chicago, and they gave Seattle all it could handle at home. There's no guarantee they can carry that over to Sunday, but after two bad performances the past two weeks, I expect a more representative performance against New Orleans.
One storyline that intrigues me here is the presence of Rob Ryan. The Saints went from a former Rams head coach at defensive coordinator (Steve Spagnuolo) in 2012 to one who looked like he was about to become the Rams' coordinator this year. How has Ryan been able to turn around that defense in one year, and what are the biggest differences?
Triplett: Yeah, the Saints definitely owe the Rams an apology for that one -- or a thank-you note. Ryan has made a huge impact. His two most important qualities are probably his attitude and his creativity. Players immediately responded to his enthusiasm and his energy level. They say Ryan makes the game fun, something players have said about him throughout his career. Just as important, he has shown enough flexibility to mold his defense around the players he’s working with (which became a necessity when they suffered a handful of key summer injuries).
I've been especially impressed by the way Ryan has featured young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, among others. And he’ll throw a ton of different looks at teams from week to week and series to series. I’m shocked that this is the first time Ryan’s had a winning season as a defensive coordinator. He obviously found the right fit for himself in New Orleans.
Tell me about the Rams' defense. Any chance they can hang with the Saints’ potent offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and the running backs who catch passes out of the backfield?
Wagoner: The Rams' defense has been especially hard to figure. They expected to be a top-10 group but haven't been able to do it for a few reasons. The pass rush has games where it absolutely dominates and takes over. Robert Quinn has emerged as one of the game's best and Chris Long is still dangerous. When the pass rush is humming, it makes life miserable for opponents. That's the Rams' best hope for slowing down the Saints.
But the Rams don't match up all that well with New Orleans on the back end. The secondary has struggled mightily, especially at safety. Graham is a matchup nightmare for all teams, and he could really expose the Rams’ issues at safety. The Rams drafted linebacker Alec Ogletree to help neutralize guys like Graham, and he could get the call on Sunday. He's a former safety playing linebacker and has at times flashed elite cover skills for a linebacker. But I think he's flattened out a bit in that area in recent weeks while his run-stopping skills have improved. The secondary is going to require major upgrades in the offseason, and given the Saints' weapons, anything short of a dominant pass rush will make for a long day for the Rams.
While we're talking about the Saints' offense, it seems like it's as good as ever, with Drew Brees putting together another monster season. You see that group every day and every week in games. Are there weaknesses that can be exploited, and how have teams found success in slowing them down?
Triplett: Every once in a while, the Saints’ passing offense does get slowed down. The best way to succeed against them is to get physical and disruptive in coverage -- bumping and chipping guys at the line, pushing the envelope within the five yards of contact and trying to stay tight on them down the field. It worked for New England (in heavy man coverage) and Seattle (more zone coverage). But it’s easier said than done. The Panthers tried to play physical this past week, but they didn't have the manpower to stop Graham and receiver Marques Colston. The Saints usually burn defenses with their “pick your poison” offense since they are so deep and versatile.
Interesting that you brought up Ogletree. I liked him as a possible pick for the Saints in April. Instead, they drafted another disruptive athlete -- Vaccaro -- who has made a nice impact in a versatile role. One of the main reasons the Saints drafted Vaccaro was because they liked his ability to cover slot receivers like Tavon Austin. I saw Austin’s breakout performance a couple weeks ago. Any chance he can be that X factor on Sunday?
Wagoner: Well, Austin suffered an ankle injury against Arizona last week and Fisher has called him day to day. If Austin plays, it’s possible his ankle could slow him down a bit. Considering his game relies so much on speed and elusiveness, an ankle injury could affect him more than it might other players. If he’s OK, he certainly could be an X factor. Without Sam Bradford at quarterback, the Rams really struggle to put together long drives. They need big plays to keep up in most games, and Austin is the one guy capable of consistently providing them. If they don’t have him, it’s going to make an already difficult task even tougher.
For a Monday night game in early December, this is as good as it gets. The 10-1 Seattle Seahawks play host to the 9-2 New Orleans Saints in a game that could decide home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs.
The last time these teams faced each other was in a playoff game following the 2010 season, which Seattle won 41-36. Drew Brees passed for 404 yards and two touchdowns for the Saints, and Marshawn Lynch rushed for 131 yards, including the legendary 67-yard "Beast Quake" touchdown run in the fourth quarter for the Seahawks.
If this game is anything like that one, it will be one heck of a show.
The Seahawks will have to try to stop Brees with a reworked secondary after a week in which two Seattle cornerbacks (Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner) ran afoul of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Thurmond was replacing Browner as a starter due to Browner’s groin injury.
The whole suspensions issue put a damper on a big week. Now everyone will see whether the Seahawks can overcome it or whether Brees will make them pay.
ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Saints reporter Mike Triplett look at the key issues entering the game:
Blount: Mike, this is a great matchup between the veteran Brees and a young quarterback who idolized him in Russell Wilson. Wilson always saw Brees as someone he could emulate, a player who, like him, wasn't tall but had a great arm and great leadership qualities. As someone who sees Brees every week, how do you compare them?
Triplett: I don’t know that much about Wilson, but I certainly see why he would choose Brees to emulate. It’s remarkable how Brees, at just 6-foot, has been able to not only succeed in the NFL but truly dominate. It would take me too long to rattle off all the reasons why Brees is so successful. For one thing, he’s as competitive and driven as any athlete I've ever been around. That shows in his work ethic both in the offseason and during the season. He also sees the field (through passing lanes since he can’t peek over the top) and anticipates things about as well as any quarterback who has ever played the game. He's not as mobile as Wilson, but he's elusive in the pocket and avoids sacks. I'd say both guys are proof that those intangible qualities count for a lot in the NFL, even if you don't have prototypical size.
I haven't seen the Seahawks' offense light up scoreboards in the few games on national TV this season, especially early in games. Can Wilson keep pace if the Saints are able to put points on the board?
Blount: Most of the time, he hasn't needed to because the defense has played so well. However, after watching him now for two seasons and seeing his growth, I believe Wilson is capable of doing whatever he needs to do to win football games. He has proven it over and over. Three times this season he has led the team to a fourth-quarter comeback, and he’s done it seven times in his brief NFL career. Wilson never is going to be the type of guy, like Brees, who puts up huge passing numbers. That’s not what they want him to do in an offense that wants to run the football with Lynch. But Wilson has demonstrated he can adjust the game plan to fit the needs of the moment. Frankly, he is one of the best I've ever seen at finding a way to win.
The Seahawks have a lot of weapons on offense, and now have added Percy Harvin to the mix. Obviously, Rob Ryan has a done a good job in getting New Orleans' defense back on track. How do you see him approaching this game against Seattle’s power running game with Lynch and a mobile quarterback in Wilson?
Triplett: I know this: Ryan will definitely have a plan. He is one of the league’s most innovative game-planners. Former player Scott Fujita described him as a “mad scientist.” We saw that quality more than ever two weeks ago when the Saints played the San Francisco 49ers. Ryan unveiled two new packages for that game, including a five-linebacker formation to corral the 49ers’ run game and the threat of the read-option. We may see the same thing this week, or maybe a new wrinkle since he likes to be unpredictable. I know the Saints’ defensive players will be amped to prove they’re just as good as the more-hyped Seahawks defense. Ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks, outside linebacker Junior Galette and cornerback Keenan Lewis are having breakout years, in particular.
Seattle’s defense has obviously been outstanding this year as well. How do you think they’ll hold up against the Saints’ versatile offense? Who might match up against tight end Jimmy Graham and running back/receiver threats Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, among others?
Blount: The first thing to watch is how the backups in the secondary handle going against a wily veteran like Brees. No doubt he’s going to test Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane. And Graham is a major concern. The Seahawks have struggled at times this season against tight ends. In this case, they might have cornerback Richard Sherman shadow Graham as much as possible. And this is a big test for strong safety Kam Chancellor. The key for the Seahawks is the defensive line, much improved over last year, getting to Brees and taking some of the pressure off the depleted secondary.
Mike, if you had to name one area in which the Saints must outplay the Seahawks in order to win the game, what would you pick?
Triplett: Easy one: turnovers. I know you could say that about every team in every game. But it’s especially huge in this matchup. For one, the Seahawks lead the NFL with 26 takeaways. I imagine that’s why they’re second in the NFL in points scored (27.8 per game) even though they don’t have a prolific offense. The Saints need to set the pace in this game and try to force Seattle to keep up with their offense. They can’t afford to give away any freebies or short fields. And based on what we’ve seen from the Saints this season, I think they can do that. Their run game started slowly but has improved. And they showed a patient offensive approach in a Week 5 victory at Chicago and in their last two wins against San Francisco and Atlanta. The Saints have turned the ball over just 13 times, and they lead the league in average time of possession.
Terry, how do you think the Seahawks will handle this game if they don’t set the tone? To be honest, I expected a bit of a sophomore slump from Wilson and the Seahawks, since we see it so often in the NFL. Why have they been able to avoid that? And do you think there’s any risk of the pressure affecting them in a game of this magnitude?
Blount: None whatsoever, Mike. In fact, Wilson thrives on games like this. He is at his best when things seem their worst, along with playing at a high level in the most difficult situations and the high-pressure games. That character trait is what makes Wilson such an exceptional athlete. He never gets rattled. Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said Wilson has the one trait all great quarterbacks need: “A short memory.”
Both the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints are riding the winning wave into Sunday’s showdown in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
And both teams are starting fresh on the sidelines. The Saints welcomed back coach Sean Payton from a one-year suspension; the Cardinals are adjusting to life with first-year coach Bruce Arians. One thing both these men have in common is a love of yards.
This will be a matchup of the long ball, as quarterbacks Drew Brees and Carson Palmer like putting up big numbers with a deep passing game. Which team will continue its winning ways?
Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and Saints reporter Mike Triplett break down Sunday’s matchup.
Josh Weinfuss: How much has Payton’s return to the Saints been felt so far this season?
Mike Triplett: Payton made a ton of changes in the offseason, from a dramatic overhaul of the defense to the team’s conditioning program to the run-blocking schemes. But so far during the Saints’ 2-0 start, I think the No. 1 area where his return has made an impact is in the team’s confidence. They’ve pulled out two gutty victories -- one which required a last-minute goal-line stand against the Atlanta Falcons and one which required an improbable game-winning field goal drive in the final seconds at Tampa Bay.
Neither performance was perfect, but the Saints were incredibly resilient in both games. Last season, they became unsure of themselves -- especially as the losses started to pile up during their 0-4 start -- something rarely evident in previous years. Now, you can see they’ve got some of that classic “swagger” back.
Of course, the Saints have a huge advantage in the confidence department because they’ve got a Hall of Fame quarterback in Brees leading the way. ... Have the Cardinals started to develop some new confidence of their own in their new signal-caller, Palmer?
Josh Weinfuss: They have, and it’s obvious. For the past few seasons, the Cardinals haven’t had consistency under center, and it’s showed with significant losing streaks. With the addition of Palmer, who’s not just an accomplished quarterback but a talented one at that, the Cardinals' offense feels it can make the plays it hasn't made in years. There have been a few examples already, such as a fade to Larry Fitzgerald for a touchdown in Week 1 or a 36-yard wheel route to Andre Ellington last Sunday. The receivers know they only have to worry about getting to where they’re supposed to be and Palmer will find them -- about a 180-degree change from last season, when Cardinals receivers would hope the ball would be close enough for them to make a play. And that confidence on offense carries over to the defense. Last year, the defense believed it had to score for the team to win. This year, it feels like all it has to do is get the ball back to the offense to win a game.
While we're talking defense, what kind of major changes did Rob Ryan make when he was hired as defensive coordinator, and how are the Saints responding?
Mike Triplett: Ryan has changed the defense significantly in everything from scheme to attitude. For starters, he’s a 3-4 guy, while Steve Spagnuolo was a 4-3 guy. But Ryan doesn’t really stick to one scheme or alignment -- and he’s had to get especially creative, because the Saints had so many injuries on the defensive line and at outside linebacker this summer. He’ll often use three or four safeties on the field together, moving them around from snap to snap. Sometimes he’ll have four down linemen. Sometimes he’ll have no down linemen, with all 11 guys standing up in an “amoeba” formation.
Ryan is very reminiscent of former New Orleans coordinator Gregg Williams in that sense. And the Saints players have clearly responded well to that approach under both coordinators. What they like best is they feel like Ryan tries to put them in positions and matchups that play to their strengths. And, sure, this much variety can lead to mental errors (a criticism that has dogged Ryan in past stops) -- but the players at least feel they’re being aggressive and attacking rather than sitting back in read-and-react mode. As I said, that seems to have brought out their confidence and their fire so far this season.
Speaking of a little “fire” on defense, what kind of early impact has New Orleans native Tyrann Mathieu made in Arizona? The Cardinals have done a pretty good job of plucking defensive players from down here at LSU.
Josh Weinfuss: Mathieu has been a pleasant surprise for everybody except the Cardinals. They expected him to come in and play at the very high level -- which is why they took the risk of drafting him in the third round in April while every other team all but ignored his presence. Palmer has compared Mathieu's closing speed to Troy Polamalu’s; Mathieu's football IQ draws locker-room raves. And his presence on the field is that of a veteran, not of a rookie ... and definitely not of someone who missed a full year of football. Mathieu made the jump to the second team early in organized team activities and minicamp, and he was a starter in the Cards’ nickel package by training camp. He’s proven himself in coverage, making the game-ending tackle against Detroit’s Nate Burleson last Sunday. And Mathieu has lived up to the Honey Badger persona, which he’s gracefully re-adopted this year. He tried to distance himself from it, but neither the fans nor his play allowed for that. That includes the play of the game in Week 1, when Mathieu tracked down Rams tight end Jared Cook to punch the ball out of his hands and prevent a touchdown. Big plays is what this kid does.
How long can Brees maintain his own high level of play, and are the Saints a legitimate 2-0 team?
Mike Triplett: I think Brees, at 34, is still very much in his prime, and I don’t really see him slowing down anytime soon. He had an uncharacteristically sluggish performance at Tampa Bay but rallied to lead a brilliant last-minute field goal drive. He’s the No. 1 reason the Saints always have a chance to win. And if the Saints can improve the defense and run game around him this season, I think he’ll be back in more of a comfort zone and not feel like he has to do everything himself as he did last season (5,177 passing yards, 43 touchdown passes, 19 interceptions).
As for the Saints overall, they’re very legitimate. They were obviously lucky to beat Tampa Bay after a sloppy offensive performance. But for the second week in a row, the improved D bailed them out. And we know the offense will get rolling sooner or later, making New Orleans a very dangerous team. The Saints need to fix their run game and their red zone offense. But we’ve already seen great flashes from go-to playmakers like Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston.
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be a tough environment for the Cardinals to come into on Sunday. Will they at least have their best weapon, Fitzgerald, at their disposal?
Josh Weinfuss: Short answer? Yes. But there’s a caveat. I think Fitzgerald will definitely play, but the question is how effective he will be. He's likely looking at a limited week in practice to ensure he doesn't re-aggravate that balky left hamstring, but the chances of Fitzgerald missing this game are slim. As he said last week, if he can’t be effective as a receiver, he can at least be a decoy. The Saints will have to plan for him, because the second they don’t pay attention to Fitzgerald, hurt or healthy, he’ll make sure he makes them pay.
Breakdown: The Rams drew a Monday night home game against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 8, a huge improvement from last season, when St. Louis spent Week 8 in London absorbing a 45-7 defeat to New England. This game against Seattle will mark the Rams' first Monday nighter at home since the 2006 season. That is clearly progress. The Rams went undefeated at home in the division last season. They were 4-1-1 overall against NFC West opponents. This can become a statement game for the Rams.
The Rams got two prime-time games overall, both at home against division opponents. The San Francisco 49ers visit the Edward Jones Dome in Week 4, a tough trip for the 49ers on a short week after they open against playoff teams Green Bay, Seattle and Indianapolis.
Complaint department: I suppose we could complain about drawing Steven Jackson in the Atlanta Falcons' home opener, when Jackson figures to be fresh as ever. But that would be a stretch. The Rams have no three-game road trips. Their bye falls at a good time. They have two home games on national television for the first time since 2004. They have that Monday night game at home. They bailed from the London trip that could have robbed another home game from fans. All in all, the Rams came out just fine, even if they could do without another Week 17 game at Seattle.
Familiar faces: Jackson, the Rams' career rushing leader, isn't the only familiar face on the schedule. The Rams face former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in Jeff Fisher's return to Tennessee on Nov. 3. That's one to circle on the schedule. Their date with one-time defensive coordinator candidate Rob Ryan falls on Dec. 15.
Rams Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, at Dallas, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Thursday, Sept. 26, San Francisco, 8:25 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, at Houston, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 20, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Monday, Oct. 28, Seattle, 8:30 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, at Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 24, Chicago, 1:00 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 1, at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, New Orleans, 1:00 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, Tampa Bay, 1:00 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, at Seattle, 4:25 p.m.
The St. Louis Rams, without a defensive coordinator during Jeff Fisher's first season as head coach, hired the Detroit Lions' Tim Walton to do the job. Coordinator hires tend to be big news, but this one lacked drama in the end. The Rams, after meeting with big names such as Rob Ryan and Dick Jauron, hired Walton in pursuit of the status quo. They knew his familiarity with their scheme would make it easier to pick up where they left off last season, but with more manpower.
This week carries additional promise.
The NFL scouting combine begins Wednesday. Kevin Seifert, Bill Williamson and Paul Kuharsky will be representing our blog network at the combine this year.
Also this week, the NFL window for naming franchise players opens. Teams can begin using the franchise tag Monday, but there's no rush. The window for naming franchise players remains open through March 4. Free agency begins March 12.
NFC West teams named two franchise players last offseason. Arizona and San Francisco both waited until March 2 before using the designation. The Cardinals' franchise player, Calais Campbell, agreed to terms on a five-year contract about three months later, on May 10. The 49ers' franchise player, Dashon Goldson, signed the one-year franchise offer on July 26, returning him to the pool of franchise candidates this offseason.
Teams named 21 franchise players last year, an NFL record. Teams used six of those 21 tags to prevent punters and kickers from reaching the market as unrestricted free agents. Three more tags went for safeties. Another went for a tight end.
Then as now, the relatively affordable franchise offers associated with non-premium positions can make franchise tags appealing from teams' perspectives.
We'll take a closer look at NFC West specifics relating to the tag in a bit.
NEW ORLEANS -- The St. Louis Rams made news during Super Bowl media day when they made an unusual announcement: Rob Ryan would not become the team's defensive coordinator.
The Rams had never announced Ryan's hiring. When news broke that Ryan would be hired, a Rams official could not confirm the story. The official said Ryan was scheduled to visit team headquarters the next day, but that nothing was imminent in terms of a hiring.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen says the Rams changed their mind on Ryan. The Rams said they decided against hiring Ryan after "extensive" discussions about defensive philosophy.
This is a good non-hire by the Rams if Ryan were indeed unable to adjust. The Rams did not need a schematic overhaul on defense. They needed someone to coach the defense.
Fisher noted that the team did not make an official announcement on the hiring of Ryan, but his team will publicly confirm that Ryan will not join the staff.
Last week, a source had told ESPN that Ryan would be hired as the Rams' defensive coordinator.
The boisterous Ryan was fired as defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 8, soon after owner Jerry Jones said he would make major changes to a team that finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
Passing along: Chris Mortensen's thoughts on the Rob Ryan hiring in St. Louis, Trent Dilfer's take on how Joe Flacco should attack the San Francisco 49ers' defense, and Herm Edwards' thoughts on New Orleans' firing of former Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo.
It also has the potential to liven up NFC West rivalries given Ryan's propensity for speaking his mind freely.
Ryan will serve as the St. Louis Rams' coordinator after the team went through 2012 without one. Head coach Jeff Fisher, assistant head coach Dave McGinnis, secondary coach Chuck Cecil and new linebackers coach Frank Bush were also defensive coordinators in the NFL previously.
The Dallas Cowboys fired Ryan as coordinator after last season in part because they hoped to generate more turnovers, according to coach Jason Garrett.
"It also didn't help Ryan that his flamboyant and boastful personality was never a good fit with the button-downed Garrett," Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote. "After making a few statements that turned into bulletin board material for opposing teams in 2011, Ryan was instructed by Garrett to tone it down before the 2012 season. He did his best [to] stay out of trouble with his mouth in 2012, but his penalty for going on the field to jaw with an opposing player in a game against Cincinnati didn't sit well with Garrett."
The Rams already played with attitude in 2012 while posting a 4-1-1 record in the division. With Ryan and a veteran defensive staff, one of the NFL's youngest teams won't be hurting for experience on the sideline and coaching booth.
Ryan served as defensive coordinator for Oakland, Cleveland and most recently Dallas before reaching an agreement with the Rams. He has favored a 3-4 defensive alignment in the past, but the Rams aren't looking for a new system. I anticipate Ryan adjusting to the defensive style Fisher favors.
Fisher played for and coached under Ryan's father, Buddy, years ago. Fisher and Rob Ryan have not worked together previously.
The answer: not as high as I would have anticipated.
The chart shows where Ryan's defenses in Oakland (2004-2008), Cleveland (2009-2010) and Dallas (2011-2012) ranked in the NFL over his full tenures with those teams.
Rankings in any one season could have been higher or lower. These rankings take a longer-range view. The final column shows where the Rams ranked in 2012 without anyone holding the title of defensive coordinator.
Every situations was different. Producing a No. 25 ranking with lesser personnel might be more impressive than producing a No. 15 ranking with more talented personnel. Injuries played a significant role in the Cowboys' defensive struggles this season.
I'll take a closer look if the Rams hire Ryan. For now, though, the position remains open in St. Louis.
- Arizona: The Cardinals are reportedly planning a second interview with Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy as the team searches for a new head coach. Some speculation points to McCoy preferring San Diego for the presence of quarterback Philip Rivers. That seems logical. However, most of the information regarding the candidates appears anonymously. A small number of people are in position to know the details. Most of those people have something to gain from what information is released and how that information is presented. It's tough to know what McCoy really thinks, but the quarterback situation in Arizona isn't going to excite any candidate.
- St. Louis: Coach Jeff Fisher is searching for a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Rob Ryan, most recently defensive coordinator for Dallas, is reportedly the favorite to fill the same role for the Rams. Very little information has filtered out of Rams headquarters on this subject, however.
- Seattle: Coordinators Darrell Bevell (offense) and Gus Bradley (defense) are getting second interviews with Chicago and Philadelphia, respectively. Bevell and CFL coach Marc Trestman are finalists with the Bears. Another prominent Seahawks assistant, Tom Cable, has not surfaced as a candidate elsewhere. If Bradley left, I suspect he would want to take along defensive line coach Todd Wash. The two coached together with Tampa Bay previously. They played together and coached together at North Dakota State. However, the Seahawks would have to let Wash out of his contract. Dan Quinn, the Seahawks' former defensive line coach, would be a logical candidate to replace Bradley in Seattle if Bradley did get the Philadelphia job. Quinn is the defensive coordinator at Florida.
- San Francisco: Not much new here. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has been linked informally to Jacksonville based on his past association with Jaguars general manager David Caldwell. Niners director of player personnel Tom Gamble interviewed with the New York Jets.
The Cowboys' defense struggled amid injuries. Ryan would give the Rams a proven coordinator with strong personality to lead the defense. The Rams already played with attitude on defense. Ryan would only enhance that aspect of the team's play, I would think.
Nothing with Ryan and the Rams was official just yet, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It's a story to monitor at this point.
In other news, we've got playoff games fast approaching. I'll be catching a Saturday morning flight to San Francisco for the 49ers' divisional round game against the Green Bay Packers later in the day. Dan Bickley, Mike Jurecki and I previewed that game and the Seattle Seahawks' matchup with the Atlanta Falcons in our latest Friday conversation on XTRA Sports 910 AM. Here's the audio .