NFC West: Roman Harper
The Seahawks' next opponent, St. Louis, noticed.
Rams fans should already be quite familiar with the veteran defensive end.
Clemons has a league-high 6.5 sacks against St. Louis since Seattle acquired him from Philadelphia for defensive end Darryl Tapp (Seattle also received a fourth-round choice as part of the deal). Clemons has collected five of those 6.5 sacks in the Edward Jones Dome, site of the Seahawks-Rams game Sunday. That included three sacks against the Rams in Week 11 last season, when Mark LeVoir was the Rams' left tackle on an emergency basis.
The chart shows sack leaders against St. Louis since 2010. Clemons appears to have a favorable matchup in Week 4.
Former Seahawks draft choice Wayne Hunter is the Rams' starting left tackle after the team lost Rodger Saffold to a knee injury. Hunter has been playing despite a knee injury of his own. He did not practice Friday and was listed as questionable on the injury report. The Rams also claimed tackle Joe Barksdale off waivers from Oakland.
- The stands are as red as I can recall seeing them. The atmosphere has matched the occasion.
- Forcing three first-quarter turnovers was a dream scenario for the 49ers. The team did a good job converting in the red zone after the second turnover. But with four total first-half turnovers and only a three-point lead, the 49ers are not exactly cruising.
- Coach Jim Harbaugh showed confidence in Alex Smith early, and it paid off. Having Smith throw from his own end zone seemed risky, but Smith converted a short pass to Michael Crabtree. I thought the 49ers played a little too aggressively on the series when Smith took a sack on third down. Mixing in an additional running play would have seemed smarter, and not just in retrospect. But Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman weren't going to play it overly safe. They set an aggressive tone and paid for it when Smith took a sack and lost the ball near midfield in the final seconds of the half. Smith held the ball too long and did not protect it well enough.
- Looked like Harbaugh wanted to call timeout before Smith threw incomplete in the red zone on third down. The 49ers settled for a field goal and a 17-0 lead.
- Vernon Davis should have matchup advantages throughout the game, as expected. He's getting the best of safety Roman Harper. No one on the Saints can cover Davis. The key, of course, is Smith having enough time to set up while Davis gets deeper downfield.
- Fantastic interceptions from Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown. Goldson outfoxed Drew Brees, lurking behind tight end Jimmy Graham before pouncing on the ball. Brown's leaping two-hand snatch appeared more impressive at full speed than in slow motion. That was a big-time play. Goldson, Brown and Carlos Rogers now have 18 interceptions during the regular season and playoffs.
- Adam Snyder is playing center for the 49ers after Jonathan Goodwin suffered an apparent leg injury. Snyder moved from right guard to center, with Chilo Rachal taking over at right guard. Snyder's versatility is key. One more injury on the line would cause big problems, however.
- Smith has taken a couple big hits, including one from Harper that appeared to include helmet-to-helmet contact. Critics call Smith a game manager. It's hard to envision the 49ers managing a victory without him. Rookie Colin Kaepernick has hardly played.
- The 49ers are obviously the more physical team. Donte Whitner and the defense have roughed up Pierre Thomas and tight end Graham. They have separated the Saints from the ball. But with Brees throwing a couple touchdown passes to close the gap, this game is only beginning. I think the 49ers need at least 10 more points to feel good about this one.
That's it for now. Hope you're enjoying the game.
Kyle from New Jersey asks which coaching candidate could turn around the St. Louis Rams with the right personnel in place.
Mike Sando: Jeff Fisher and Steve Spagnuolo could. My point is that the personnel must improve for any coach to succeed there. Just about all we learned about the personnel in 2011 was negative. The Rams are close to starting over on their offensive line. They need more top-line talent at receiver. They need a young running back. They need outside linebackers and defensive tackles. They could use cornerbacks, too, now that Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher are coming off serious injuries.
Gino from Ohio asks about the Seattle Seahawks drafting a quarterback.
Mike Sando: In theory, they have to. In reality, they might do so only if they can get one early. They already have their short-term starter in Tarvaris Jackson. They already have a developmental quarterback they like in Josh Portis, unless their feeling on him have changed. With Jackson coming back as no worse than the No. 2, and with Portis in place, the Seahawks do not really have room for another backup quarterback. They need someone with the potential to start relatively quickly, and it's no sure thing they will find one drafting 11th or 12th overall.
Chris from Broadview Heights, Ohio asks whether the Cleveland Browns, with ex-Philadlephia executive Tom Heckert advising Mike Holmgren and Pat Shurmur, might send some of their draft bounty to Arizona for quarterback Kevin Kolb.
Mike Sando: That is a good "talker" but not something I expect to happen. Too many things would have to come about. Tom Heckert, Mike Holmgren and Pat Shurmur would have to like Kolb. Arizona would have to pay a $7 million bonus to Kolb in March just to have him on its roster heading into the draft. The Cardinals would have to feel good about drafting a quarterback early, something they have not done under coach Ken Whisenhunt.
49ertime from California asks about the Saints' ability to cover tight ends. He asks whether we should expect good things from Vernon Davis.
Mike Sando: I see opportunities for the 49ers in this area. Davis had some productive games late in the season. He needed time to grasp the offense and has turned a corner in that regard, according to Davis and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. That makes sense. Meanwhile, the Saints' Roman Harper is banged up and could not run with Davis, anyway. I do think this is an area for the 49ers to exploit.
Thanks again to those who contributed. Appreciated, as always. I'll be heading over to 49ers headquarters shortly to catch Jim Harbaugh's post-practice interview session. I'm sure he'll pass out full game plans to all.
We are under no illusions here. The NFC West has not always produced formidable teams top to bottom. Three other divisions have produced more divisional-round playoff appearances under the current format.
It's just that the NFC West has produced more than a few playoff success stories, and the 2011 San Francisco 49ers can write their own chapter by defeating the New Orleans Saints on Saturday. The matchup is going to dominate conversation on the blog this week even as the St. Louis Rams move to hire a head coach.
This season marks the fourth since realignment with every NFL division still playing in the divisional round. New England (seven), Indianapolis (6), Pittsburgh (5), Philadelphia (5) and Baltimore (5) lead the league in divisional-round appearances over the past 10 seasons, counting this one. Seattle is one of four teams with four. Every other NFC West team has made it twice, starting with the 49ers nearly a decade ago.
The football-related aspects of the Saints-49ers matchup interest me the most. I offered some early thoughts after the Saints' victory over Detroit secured New Orleans' trip to Candlestick Park. There will be more.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com outlined quite a few keys to the game. A couple regarding the Saints' defense stood out: "The Saints must scheme up their pass rush because they're lacking in individuals who can get to the quarterback. Strong safety Roman Harper led the Saints with 7.5 sacks. As a team, the Saints recorded 33 sacks -- spread out among 15 -- that's right, 15 -- different players. ... The Saints defense does not have a lot of playmakers. This is not like the team in 2009 that won the Super Bowl. On that team, safety Darren Sharper had nine of the team's 26 interceptions. During this regular season, the Saints recorded only nine interceptions." Noted: The matchup between San Francisco's defense and New Orleans' offense should not obscure other matchups pivotal to the outcome.
Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers will play the Saints differently than the Lions did. Lynch: "Lions middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch had a horrible game. He was constantly manipulated by Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Tulloch was also late covering the middle in the Lions two-deep defense. That won’t happen with 49ers linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, who have more speed and hopefully, more awareness than Tulloch."
Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat lists reasons the 49ers can beat the Saints. Cohn: "The Niners have a top-notch home red-zone defense (allowing TDs just 25 percent of the time), while the Saints scored touchdowns only seven times out of 22 chances on grass this season in the red zone. The Saints will move the ball, but the Niners defense should be able to hold them to field goals."
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee runs through the longest plays San Francisco allowed this season. Noted: Four of the five longest ones occurred during the first four weeks of the season.
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' offensive line has improved dramatically.
Also from Inman: 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin on facing his former team, the Saints.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates the Rams' coaching search, noting that Jeff Fisher is expected to make a decision by Tuesday or Wednesday. Thomas: "The only possible hangup, according to two sources, is the potential of a possible move by the franchise to Los Angeles. The move from Houston to Tennessee was grueling for Fisher during his 17 seasons with that franchise. It's something Fisher doesn't want to go through again. Even with those concerns, it's not known if that's a deal breaker with St. Louis." Noted: On the other hand, Fisher went to USC and was said to have some interest in the San Diego job had it come open under the right circumstances. The possibility of a move years from now wouldn't seem to be a deal breaker, in my view.
ESPN's Adam Schefter says former Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is already working for the Patriots as an offensive assistant, and his role will change to offensive coordinator next season.
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks need to re-sign several key players before free agency. Boling: "Seahawks fans might trigger a seismic event from outrage if running back Marshawn Lynch takes his beastly style elsewhere. And Red Bryant has likewise become an exemplar of spirited toughness for the Seahawks on defense. These two are at the top of the list of 18 unrestricted free agents with whom the Seahawks may exclusively negotiate."
Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune hands out grades for the 2011 Seahawks, including a "C" for special teams. Williams: "Leon Washington was solid, but not as explosive as last season. Punter Jon Ryan had another good season, and kicker Steven Hauschka made people forget about Olindo Mare. The usually solid coverage units gave up three return touchdowns and were one of the most penalized groups in the NFL this season."
Will Brinson of CBSSports.com quotes CBS analyst Charley Casserly as saying the the Arizona Cardinals could provide a landing spot for Peyton Manning if the Colts part with the quarterback. Casserly: "Jim Irsay in interviewing general manager candidates has told them he will make the decision whether Peyton Manning is back. He will not put that on the new general manager. Right now there have been absolutely no discussions according to the Manning camp between Manning and Irsay about extending that deadline. In fact, it would make no sense to me for Manning to agree to that. Why give up the opportunity to talk to other teams? One team to watch? The Arizona Cardinals. They can get out of the Kevin Kolb contract and also Ken Whisenhunt's been down this road before. A veteran quarterback coming in at the end of his career? Kurt Warner." Noted: The Cardinals could get out of the Kolb deal by declining to pay a $7 million bonus in March. If Manning were available, however, he would have more than one team interested in him. I'll have more on this in a bit.
Alex Smith, making his first exhibition start under a labor agreement featuring added protections for players, took a brutal pounding Friday night.
The New Orleans Saints hit him hard on each of the 49ers’ first three offensive possessions. Defensive end Will Smith drilled Smith twice. Safety Roman Harper tagged him on a blitz.
There wasn’t much the 49ers could do to combat the pressure packages New Orleans sent at the 49ers early in the game. Smith has been practicing in the 49ers’ new offense since only Aug. 4. The 49ers are installing a new offense. They're worried more about lining up right and executing center exchanges cleanly than game-planning for blitzes.
The Saints, meanwhile, benefit from a superior roster and excellent overall continuity. Their defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, loves to punish quarterbacks.
This was a bad combination for the 49ers. No wonder they've asked Colin Kaepernick to hand off so frequently since Kaepernick replaced Smith a few minutes ago. The Saints lead, 10-0, early in the second quarter.
The Arizona Cardinals announced Larry Fitzgerald's addition to the game Sunday night after Green Bay's Super Bowl berth knocked Packers receiver Greg Jennings from the game. Fitzgerald was a first alternate this season.
The following Packers will now miss the Pro Bowl: Jennings, starting tackle Chad Clifton, starting outside linebacker Clay Matthews, starting cornerback Charles Woodson, backup cornerback Tramon Williams and starting free safety Nick Collins.
Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett landed on the NFC roster as an injury replacement after Minnesota's Kevin Williams withdrew from the game.
Seattle's Earl Thomas could be in line to replace Collins at free safety. Thomas, a rookie, was named an alternate to the Pro Bowl.
Update: Roman Harper of New Orleans gets the call instead, despite a rough outing against Seattle in the playoffs.
- There was nothing fancy about the personnel or formation.
- Seattle lined up in its base offense with two backs and one tight end, John Carlson. The strong side was to the left, and that is where Lynch ran initially.
- Seattle had been favoring zone runs all game, but this play -- "17 Power" -- featured man-on-man blocking. Players said Seattle had not run the play all game.
- With this run, the Seahawks averaged 10.5 yards per rush on 10 carries from base personnel against New Orleans, according to my charting.
- Lynch might never have escaped the backfield if fullback Michael Robinson, lined up in the offset-I formation, hadn't slammed into linebacker Jonathan Vilma, creating space.
- Even so, linebacker Scott Shanle should have made the tackle about two yards into the run. No one blocked him. Count this as missed/broken tackle No. 1.
- Receiver Ben Obomanu motioned right to left, sealing safety Roman Harper on the edge.
- Right tackle Sean Locklear had the easiest job. He stood up and danced with defensive end Alex Brown.
- Right guard Mike Gibson pulled across the formation, helped Carlson turn linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar outside and then rocked cornerback Tracy Porter five yards past the line of scrimmage.
- It got worse for Porter. Much worse.
- Center Chris Spencer and left guard Tyler Polumbus steered defensive tackle Remi Ayodele to the weak side.
- Left tackle Russell Okung blocked defensive end Will Smith, but Smith came off the block in time to trail Lynch and get both hands on the running back's hips at the Seattle 35-yard line. This would be missed/broken tackle No. 2.
- Spencer blocked Darren Sharper on the second level, but Sharper disengaged in time to make contact with Lynch eight yards downfield. Ayodele also made contact with Lynch at this point. These would be missed/broken tackles Nos. 3 and 4.
- Cornerback Jabari Greer caught Lynch at midfield along the right hash, but Lynch ran right out of his grasp. Missed/broken tackle No. 5.
- Porter caught up to Lynch at the New Orleans 36, but he made a bad mistake. Porter tried to tackle Lynch high. Lynch, cradling the ball in his right arm, discarded the 186-pound corner with a left hand straight out of a George Foreman fight. Porter tumbled nearly five yards downfield, landing on his right shoulder and rolling on the ground. This was missed/broken tackle No. 6.
- Perhaps sensing Lynch could go all the way, multiple teammates rallied to the cause. Polumbus and receiver Mike Williams were first on the scene. Locklear and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck were gaining as Lynch crossed the 30.
- Hasselbeck did not really block Brown, but he slightly impeded the big defensive end. Asked later if he were "looking" to block someone, Hasselbeck deadpanned that he was looking, but just looking.
- Brown dove at Lynch's feet and just missed along the right sideline at the 16. This was missed/broken tackle No. 7.
- Polumbus was at the 12 by now and in perfect position to shield Harper as Lynch cut back toward the middle.
- Greer had hustled back into the play by now, but Hasselbeck seemed to know Lynch would score. The quarterback raised his right arm as Lynch crossed the 4-yard line, with Greer a step or so behind.
- Harper had ducked under Polumbus at this point, but he dived and missed at the 2. This was missed/broken tackle No. 8. Lynch sidestepped just enough to make sure Harper would not get him.
- Carlson, Spencer and Obomanu were also inside the 5 at this point.
- Lynch dove onto his back in the end zone and popped to his feet as Carlson, Hasselbeck, Polumbus, Spencer, Williams and Obomanu swarmed him.
- This was the longest run of Lynch's career by 11 yards and it gave Seattle its first 100-yard rusher of the season.
Not a bad way to punctuate one of the bigger playoff upsets in NFL history.
Only six NFL teams have committed fewer penalties for false starts than the Saints, but left tackle Jermon Bushrod has six of them.
The chart shows accepted and declined penalties, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information.
Also from Miklasz, with Bryan Burwell: quick thoughts following the game.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch offers a Rams report card with a C-minus grade for Bradford. I thought Bradford might fare a little better against the Saints after watching Matt Hasselbeck pick apart their defense a few weeks ago. The interception Bradford threw in the red zone proved crushing. The Saints returned it 96 yards for a touchdown. The potential 14-point swing prevented the Rams from keeping the game close.
Also from Coats: a long list of defensive injuries put the Rams at an even greater disadvantage Sunday.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Jackson expressed pride but mixed emotions after reaching 1,000 yards rushing for the sixth season in a row. Thomas: "And on the play in which Jackson actually went over 1,000 yards for the season -- a 20-yard gain in the first quarter -- he fumbled for the first time this season. New Orleans recovered at its 39 and marched 61 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead."
Also from Thomas: The Saints made the pivotal plays Sunday.
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com says the Rams appeared to avoid serious injuries against the Saints. Also: "The Rams clearly missed RB Kenneth Darby on third downs, where he is helpful in blitz pickup. He missed the game with a rib injury. ... Something has to give for the offense in the red zone. They have really struggled in recent weeks to punch it in for touchdowns and have been settling for a lot of field goal attempts. To win this division, that must improve."
Nakia Hogan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune checks in with Bradford and the Saints for thoughts on how the Rams' rookie quarterback played Sunday. Bradford on the interception returned for a touchdown: "To be honest, I thought I had it, but I just wasn't able to put enough on the ball." Saints coach Sean Payton: "He is having a very good season as a young player. He shows you all the things you want and hope for as an organization with your first-round pick."
James Varney of the New Orleans Times-Picayune says Bradford's ability to chase down Saints safety Roman Harper stood out as a memorable play Sunday even though the play wound up not counting.
Cardinals free safety Antrel Rolle, sidelined by a concussion during a divisional-round loss at New Orleans, was named to the NFC squad. He replaces the Saints' Darren Sharper. Another Saints safety, Roman Harper, was first alternate. Sharper and Harper became ineligible to play in the game, scheduled for Sunday, when their teams advanced to the Super Bowl.
It's not clear whether Rolle's injury situation will affect his availability for the game.
But when he goes to renegotiate his contract, which balloons in value for 2010, he can do so as a one-time Pro Bowl selection.
- 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.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike SandoThe 49ers hold the 10th, 43rd, 74th, 111th, 146th, 171st, 184th, 219th and 244th choices in the 2009 draft. For perspective, I've singled out the last four players chosen in those spots.
The Lions' selection of USC receiver Mike Williams with the 10th overall choice is enough to raise those familiar red flags for receivers drafted in that range. The last 10 receivers drafted between seventh and 10th overall were Ted Ginn Jr., Troy Williamson, the aforementioned Mike Williams, Roy Williams, Reggie Williams, David Terrell, Koren Robinson, Plaxico Burress, Travis Taylor and David Boston.
How many of those once-highly regarded wideouts would you want on your team right now? Not many. Only four have NFL jobs. For those hoping the 49ers might draft a USC quarterback [Mark Sanchez] in the first round instead, it's been done at No. 10 recently and with unconvincing results.
Justin Tuck at No. 74 in 2005 stands out as a terrific value, but I also credit the Giants for developing him.
The 49ers could use a young prospect at safety. They could do worse than the Ravens did when they made Dawan Landry the 146th player chosen in 2006. Landry became a starter as a rookie.