NFC West: Ryan Kerrigan

The St. Louis Rams finished tied for the NFL lead in sacks with 52 last season.

William Hayes collected seven of them while playing on a one-year deal worth $900,000. That was a bargain by NFL standards.

The Rams rewarded Hayes on Tuesday with a three-year contract worth $10.5 million,'s John Clayton reported. So, while other NFC West teams seek pass-rush help, the Rams can generally feel good about their abilities in that critical area.

Hayes, who played 34 percent of the defensive snaps last season, returns to a group already featuring 2008 first-round draft choice Chris Long and 2011 first-rounder Robert Quinn.

Long has 42 career sacks, more than any player from the 2008 draft class. Cliff Avril (39.5), Calais Campbell (27.5), Lawrence Jackson (19.5) and Jason Jones (18.5) are next on that list. Hayes, a fourth-round choice in Tennessee that year, ranks eighth on the list with 15 sacks. Rams teammate Kendall Langford is 10th with 9.5 sacks since 2008.

Quinn's 15.5 sacks in two seasons rank fifth on the list of 2011 draft choices. San Francisco's Aldon Smith tops that list with 33.5 sacks. Von Miller (30), J.J. Watt (26) and Ryan Kerrigan (16) also outrank Quinn.

Quinn's 10.5 sacks last season ranked fourth among 2011 draft choices.

Seattle's Clemons primed for Rams encore

September, 29, 2012
Seattle's Chris Clemons is coming off a four-sack first half against the Green Bay Packers.

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.

Sam AchoAP Photo/Paul ConnorsArizona LB Sam Acho should be pumped as his playing time increased heavily late last season.

Pull up a chair. Now, hand it over to Chase from Arizona and watch him pummel me with it.

A good rant can be so cathartic. This one, delivered to the NFC West mailbag, stemmed from my contention that teams tend to sign 35-year-old veterans as backups when they haven't acquired or developed younger alternatives.

I think it's a fair point, except I didn't word it the same way when offering thoughts regarding Clark Haggans' recent re-signing with the Arizona Cardinals.

"Haggans was 30 years old and his sack numbers were declining when Arizona signed him in free agency from Pittsburgh before the 2007 season," I wrote. "The fact that Haggans remains viable five years later is a tribute to him. It also reflects the Cardinals' protracted search for anyone as good, let alone better. Missing on 2009 second-round choice Cody Brown remains costly."

The wording I used wasn't as precise as it should have been, and Chase took me to task for it. Did he ever.

"Mike, why do you continually talk bad about Arizona and their OLBs?" Chase wrote. "Sam Acho had a breakout year as a rookie and played on par with Ryan Kerrigan, who everyone loves right now. Two rookie OLBs outplayed Acho: Von Miller and Aldon Smith, both top 10 picks. So, where exactly is your lack of faith coming from?"

Chase had me ducking for cover at this point.

"You mentioned it was because we brought back Haggans, but you fail to realize Haggans was brought back on a one-year contract as a backup," he continued. "What's wrong with bringing in an experienced player, one familiar with the team, the personnel and the scheme, to be a backup?"

This was getting good. And it was about to get better.

"You act like that move reflects poorly on O'Brien Schofield. Schofield, after all he went through when he was drafted til now, has emerged as a talented young LB. He had 4.5 sacks in no starts! He made key plays to help win games! He's able to drop in coverage and he's adequate against the run!"

At this point, Chase reached into his wallet. I knew what was coming. It could be only one thing. The dreaded "homer" card. Chase didn't just play it, either. He flipped it at my Pacific Northwest chest.

"But you believe Seahawks LBs are set and K.J. Wright is the man," he concluded, "even though he didn't play as well as Acho, and only played as good as Schofield. You're such a damn homer, Sando."

A good rant can be so cathartic. This one stemmed from my contention that teams tend to sign 35-year-old veterans as backups when they haven't acquired or developed younger alternatives. I think it's a fair point.

Chase took my comments about Haggans -- specifically, the part about the Cardinals' inability to find anyone better -- as a criticism of Acho and Schofield, the Cardinals' promising young pass-rushers. That wasn't my intent.

I like the Cardinals' young outside linebackers and have said so. Acho and Schofield getting more opportunities as the 2011 season progressed, as it should have been (and as the playing-time percentages indicate in the chart).

My point on Haggans was this: Ideally, the Cardinals would have a hard time finding a spot for a 35-year-old backup outside linebacker. Ideally, they would have better options with younger players. Ideally, they would be thanking Haggans for all his contributions while moving forward with someone younger. They did that with Joey Porter and it was the right thing to do. Acho's emergence hastened the move.

San Francisco took this route with Takeo Spikes last offseason. The 49ers respected and valued Spikes, who was 34 at the time, but they knew NaVorro Bowman was ready to take his place. Bowman earned All-Pro honors. The Seattle Seahawks parted with Lawyer Milloy, then 37 and another respected vet, because they were so excited about Kam Chancellor. Chancellor went to the Pro Bowl.

Arizona is justifiably excited about Acho and Schofield. There's no shame in bringing back Haggans, either. He should be a good backup and spot starter when needed. I just thought it was fair to point out the other side as well.

As for Wright and the Seahawks' linebackers, there's really no comparison to make. Wright is not an outside pass-rusher. He's a strong-side linebacker in a different scheme.

Seattle does have question marks at linebacker, in my view. The position was a need heading into the draft. We've certainly covered the Aaron Curry mistake in detail. Meanwhile, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. expressed strong reservations about Barrett Ruud, a linebacker Seattle signed in free agency.

In any event, thanks for the feedback, Chase. The chair didin't taste so bad.

Rams: Dream/nightmare scenario

May, 25, 2012
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Rams in 2012:

Dream scenario (8-8): Sam Bradford takes every snap on offense for the second time in three seasons as the Rams protect their franchise quarterback with sensible play-calling. It's the sixth time a Jeff Fisher-coached team finishes 8-8, but no one is complaining after the Rams' 15-65 run over the previous five seasons. Trusting offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to salvage right tackle Jason Smith becomes one of the surprise success stories of the 2012 season, and a critical one for the Rams' efforts to re-establish Bradford.

Turns out the Rams were not fibbing when they suggested Brian Quick, the receiver they took in the second round, ranked up there with first-rounder Justin Blackmon on their board. The constant threat of Steven Jackson and Isaiah Pead out of the backfield creates favorable matchups for Quick and the Rams' underrated receivers. Bradford publicly downplays a Week 2 victory over Robert Griffin III and Washington, but it feels good to win at home against the player St. Louis could have selected second overall this year.

Watching Janoris Jenkins score on a fourth-quarter punt return in Patrick Peterson's house improbably stakes the Rams to a 6-5 record, stirring visions of the postseason. It's certainly sweet to finally win within the division again. The Rams lose to San Francisco the following week and ultimately finish the regular season with a respectable defeat at Seattle, but the season is a success by any measure.

Nightmare scenario (3-13): Road games against Detroit and Chicago in the first three weeks expose Bradford to significant punishment as Smith and the line struggle to find their bearings. Bradford doesn't want to talk about the ankle injury he aggravated at some point in the season's first month, but it's clearly a factor. Facing Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh, Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan, Julius Peppers, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Cameron Wake and Clay Matthews in the first seven games leaves Bradford limping toward the bye week, his confidence shaken.

Jackson continues to plug away, but we've seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well for the Rams. The depth at receiver is indeed improved, but Bradford doesn't have any truly dynamic weapons. Quick understandably needs seasoning, but with Blackmon and Arizona's Michael Floyd challenging rookie receiving records, the Rams look bad for trading down. It's tough finding open receivers with Smith struggling at tackle, anyway.

First-round pick Michael Brockers and free-agent addition Kendall Langford upgrade the run defense, but life as an every-down defensive end is tough for Robert Quinn. The veteran outside linebackers signed as stopgaps represent only a minor upgrade from last season. Off-field issues dog Jenkins, and the defense fails to meet expectations. Critics conveniently blame Gregg Williams' suspension, but the problems are more complex than that.

The Rams head into the offseason with another high draft choice, one they'll almost certainly have to invest in a playmaker of some sort.

NFC West leads way in rookie sacks

December, 5, 2011
A quick look through the NFL rookie sack leaders shows NFC West teams with three of the top 10 producers, led by the San Francisco 49ers’ Aldon Smith with 9.5.

This is how it should be.

NFC West teams drafted two of the first three outside pass-rushers in 2011.

Denver’s Von Miller, the first pass-rusher chosen, leads all rookies with 10. 5 sacks. The 49ers’ Smith, drafted seventh overall, was the second outside rusher chosen. The St. Louis Rams’ Robert Quinn, tied for eighth on the list with five sacks, was the third outside rusher chosen. Houston’s J.J. Watt has more sacks than Quinn, but as a 3-4 defensive end, he’s not a pure outside rusher.

Arizona’s Sam Acho has outproduced his draft status as a fourth-round choice. Acho has five sacks in the Cardinals’ past seven games, though three of Arizona’s past four opponents have held him without one.

Sacks aren’t the only measure of a pass-rusher’s performance. The good ones tend to rack up a lot of them, however.

Charles Haley holds the 49ers' rookie record since the NFL began tracking sacks in 1982. He had 12.5 sacks during the 1986 season. Dana Stubblefield had 10.5 sacks during 1993, his rookie season.

Smith needs 3.5 sacks over the 49ers' final four games to pass Haley. He has all 9.5 of his sacks in the 49ers' past nine games, including two during the 49ers' division-clinching victory over St. Louis on Sunday.

Silver linings: Seahawks vs. Redskins

November, 28, 2011
The facts: The Seattle Seahawks fell to 4-7 with a 23-17 home defeat to the Washington Redskins.

The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to feature a bright spot or two.
  • Marshawn Lynch reached 100 yards rushing for the third time in his last four games.
  • Starting cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner picked off passes.
  • Strong safety Kam Chancellor delivered a big hit early in the game, an indication recent fines have not diminished his aggressiveness.
  • Lynch and second-year receiver Golden Tate caught touchdown passes.
  • Seattle's offensive line generally played well, helping to limit the Redskins' Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan to a half-sack between them.
  • Leon Washington had 51- and 35-yard kickoff returns.
  • Seattle held the Redskins to 30 percent conversions on third down and one touchdown in three red zone possessions.
  • Red Bryant blocked a field goal attempt and an extra point attempt.
  • Seattle did not fumble and won the turnover battle.
  • The Seahawks, though held to one sack, finished the game with nine quarterback hits, two apiece from Brandon Mebane and Clinton McDonald.
Looking ahead: The Seahawks face the Philadelphia Eagles at home on Thursday night.

Sando's best guesses: Week 12 predictions

November, 24, 2011
The record stands at a halfway decent 24-11 in picking NFC West outcomes for the 2011 seasons.

Going 2-0 for a second consecutive week will require an underdog winning in Week 12, if one can consider a 9-1 team to be an underdog.

Let's cut right to the predictions. The 49ers play Thursday night. All other games are Sunday:
  • San Francisco 49ers at Baltimore Ravens, 8:20 p.m. Earlier in the season, Detroit was the choice to beat the 49ers mostly because convention said San Francisco would lose a road game against a good team in the Eastern time zone. What is conventional about these 49ers? Not much. The 49ers won that game. They've won eight in a row. They've been more consistent than the Ravens. Those following the NFC West this season have seen Baltimore fall behind Arizona 24-6. They've seen the Ravens lose at Seattle. They've seen the 49ers play well just about every week, posting a 4-0 record in Eastern time. Sando's best guess: 49ers 19, Ravens 16.
  • Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams, 1 p.m. ET. Cannot pick the Rams. Will not pick the Rams. They have scored 21 second-half points in their last six games, and now they are down to their third-string left tackle. The Cardinals have their own problems, but they have more points in fourth quarters (65) than the Rams have scored in second halves (51). Perhaps the Rams can rise up and atone for their crushing defeat at Arizona three weeks ago. Sando's best guess: Cardinals 17, Rams 13.
  • Seattle Seahawks vs. Washington Redskins, 4:05 p.m. ET. Protecting Tarvaris Jackson could be tough for Seattle against Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. That stands out as the biggest concern for the Seahawks thanks to issues on the right side of their offensive line. Defense and the home crowd should be enough, however. Sando's best guess: Seahawks 16, Redskins 10.

To review, I predicted a 17-13 victory for Seattle over St. Louis last week (24-7 actual score) and a 23-13 victory for San Francisco over Arizona (23-7 actual score).

Will the 49ers make it nine in a row?

NFC West injury situations that matter

November, 23, 2011
Arizona: Quarterback Kevin Kolb appears close to returning from the toe and foot injuries that have sidelined him since Oct. 30. He estimated taking more than a third of the reps in practice Wednesday. All signs point to a likely return for Kolb against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, but he'll need to continue practicing to work through some of the rust. Tight ends Todd Heap and Rob Housler were limited, as was running back Beanie Wells. Injuries at quarterback, running back and tight end will affect any offense. Wells' knee hasn't let him carry a full load, costly for the Cardinals after the team traded Tim Hightower and lost Ryan Williams to injured reserve.

St. Louis: The Rams are severely limited at offensive tackle and cornerback. Those are tough areas to be so shorthanded against Arizona. Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell is an imminent threat to the Rams' offensive line after St. Louis lost both starting tackles and its backup left tackle. Larry Fitzgerald obviously faces favorable matchups against the Rams' secondary now that St. Louis has placed 10 cornerbacks on injured reserve. The Rams practiced without their defensive leader Wednesday — middle linebacker James Laurinaitis has a foot injury. Losing him would prove devastating. The situation at tight end is also limiting the Rams. Mike Hoomanawanui is out for the season. Promising rookie tight end Lance Kendricks suffered a concussion against Seattle and was limited Wednesday.

San Francisco: Receiver Michael Crabtree (foot), cornerback Chris Culliver (shoulder), tackle Anthony Davis (ankle), receiver Braylon Edwards (knee) and running back Frank Gore (knee) were limited in practice Wednesday and listed as probable for Thursday. The team does not expect to have fullback Bruce Miller (concussion) for its game at Baltimore. The 49ers' relative strength and versatility at tight end affords them flexibility in dealing with injuries at fullback and wide receiver. The team doesn't need to lean heavily on three-receiver groupings because tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are good receivers. Veteran fullback Moran Norris could return this week. The 49ers also use nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga as a fullback in certain situations.

Seattle: The biggest concern, in my view, centers around whether quarterback Tarvaris Jackson can remain in the lineup for the remainder of the season as he plays through a pectoral injury. Jackson was limited Wednesday. He's facing a Redskins defense featuring strong outside rushers in Ryan Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo. Defensive tackle Alan Branch (ankle), cornerback Byron Maxwell (ankle), receiver Ben Obomanu (knee/ankle) and receiver Sidney Rice (knee) did not practice. The Seahawks have sufficient depth at all those players' positions and most of those players are expected to be available Sunday.

NFC West: Injury situations that matter

November, 9, 2011
Arizona: Kevin Kolb's turf-toe injury will either push John Skelton into the lineup or force Kolb to play at less than full strength. The Cardinals appear likely to go with Skelton against Philadelphia unless Kolb can practice at some point during the week. That is because Kolb is new to the Cardinals' offense and wasn't able to practice last week. "It's not like he can just pick it up and go," coach Ken Whisenhunt told reporters. Kolb did not practice Wednesday. Rookie fullback Anthony Sherman continues to miss practice with an ankle injury. Running back Beanie Wells (knee) was limited. The entire starting offensive backfield is hurting, in other words, and that's a significant concern. Tight end Todd Heap's role could increase in his second game back from a hamstring injury.

St. Louis: Quarterback Sam Bradford (ankle), running back Steven Jackson (foot) and emerging safety Darian Stewart (ankle) were among the limited participants in practice Wednesday. Bradford did not practice at all last Wednesday, so his participation this week looks like progress. The Rams remain without starting right tackle Jason Smith (head). They do not seem worse for his absence, but depth on the offensive line is thinner. Depth at linebacker and defensive tackle is running a bit low. Linebacker Bryan Kehl has a high-ankle sprain. Kehl and rookie tight end Lance Kendricks (foot) did not practice.

San Francisco: Frank Gore's injured ankle was the No. 1 concern as the 49ers practiced Wednesday. Gore was in uniform and participating in individual drills, but reports suggested he was favoring the ankle. Still, his participation at all on a Wednesday suggests the injury is something Gore can manage. Defensive end Ray McDonald, sidelined by a hamstring injury last week, also took part in individual drills. Quarterback Alex Smith was fortunate to avoid injury on the big hit he took from Washington's Ryan Kerrigan last week. Consider it a reminder that Smith needs to get rid of the ball more quickly against talented pass-rushers such as Kerrigan and those on the New York Giants awaiting him Sunday.

Seattle: Receiver depth was in flux as the Seahawks practiced Wednesday. Sidney Rice, bothered by shoulder trouble early in the season and foot problems more recently, missed practice with multiple as-yet-undisclosed ailments. Mike Williams practiced despite a foot/ankle injury. Kris Durham went on injured reserve with a torn labrum. Deon Butler came off the physically unable to perform list. Doug Baldwin and Ben Obomanu provide good depth. Coach Pete Carroll was coy on Rice's ailments, but there was no reason to expect Rice to miss the game Sunday. Quarterback Tarvaris Jackson continues to play through a pectoral injury that could be affecting his performance on more demanding throws. That's a concern against a Baltimore defense featuring Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata and others.

Around the NFC West: On the Rams' future

November, 9, 2011
The St. Louis Rams have gone from NFC West favorites to 1-7 in less than two months.

That makes them one of the more disappointing teams in the NFL along with Philadelphia and a few others. Nothing short of a complete reversal over the remaining eight games will invite obvious questions about the team's overall direction. Even a strong finish might not justify staying the course, depending on one's viewpoint.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch touches on these and other issues during his weekly Rams chat Tuesday. He was "dumbfounded" by the team's decision to cover Larry Fitzgerald with a linebacker on a key play Sunday. He thinks Sam Bradford has regressed. And he finds it tough to defend Steve Spagnuolo's 9-31 record as head coach over the last two-plus seasons. Noted: It'll be extremely difficult to justify staying the course if the Rams' record does not improve significantly, and if the feeling after the season is that Bradford has regressed. I don't think Bradford had sufficient support early in the season. The Week 1 injury to Steven Jackson negatively affected the offense and Bradford in particular. The situation at receiver became a mess, and when the team finally did something about it, Bradford wasn't healthy enough to benefit. One so-so game back from injury isn't enough to evaluate Bradford. How the quarterback performs over the second half of the season will largely influence whether the team's current leadership gets another chance, I would think.

Also from Thomas: a look at the Rams' situation at receiver and how Mark Clayton's activation from the physically unable to perform list could change the dynamics. Thomas: "Clayton played flanker, also known as the 'Z' position, most of the time last year before his Game 5 knee injury in Detroit. But he played the slot his first two seasons in the league for Baltimore, so he could pick up some of the slack there following Greg Salas' injury."

More from Thomas: The Rams need help at linebacker and are checking out the possibilities.

Matt Maiocco of has this to say about Alex Smith during a player-by-player review of the 49ers' offense from Week 9: "He started at quarterback and played very well. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 200 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. His passer rating was 109.7. He also was sacked twice, including a devastating blind-side hit from Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan but still managed to hold onto the ball. Took big hit on first-drive sack because he tried to extend the play. Kerrigan's sack occurred 5.5 second after the snap. Smith did well just to keep from fumbling. ... There were a couple dropped passes that could've added another 40-plus yards to his numbers."

Also from Maiocco: a defensive player-by-player review. On free safety Dashon Goldson: "Started at free safety and had an interception in his second game in a row. He also had five tackles and a quarterback hurry. Came up fast from his spot to drop Helu for 2-yard gain on short pass. ... Had tremendous break on pass intended for tight end Fred Davis to make diving interception late in the first quarter near midifield."

More from Maiocco: a midseason report on the 49ers' defense. Maiocco on the defensive MVP: "Middle linebacker Patrick Willis. Again, Willis is the team's best defensive player. And as the 49ers open the second half of the season with a 7-1 record, Willis must be considered on the short list of players in serious contention for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Willis and NaVorro Bowman have formed a sideline-to-sideline tackling duo unmatched in the NFL. Willis was outstanding in pass coverage, too. He also forced three fumbles and recovered two in the first eight games."

More yet from Maiocco: a midseason report on the 49ers' offense. Looking ahead: "The focus of the offense will always be Gore and the run game. But the 49ers must also find a way to get big-chunk plays in the passing game from Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Braylon Edwards. The 49ers do not have to open up the offense and change their philosophy in the second half of the season. But they need to take advantage of their big-play chances while also being more consistent on third downs. The 49ers rank 26th in the league, converting just 31.1 percent their third-down chances."

One more from Maiocco: a midseason report on the 49ers' special teams.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee has this to say about 49ers rookie Aldon Smith during a defensive player-by-player report: "Smith should be listed as a defensive end as that has been his primary position this year. He enters the game in third-down packages and has rarely been inserted at outside linebacker. In today's NFL, a players who goes in solely on passing downs sometimes ends up playing more than the starter, especially when the 49ers get out to leads in games. Smith has made the most of his snaps. He leads the team with 6.5 sacks and is candidate for defensive rookie of the year. Sunday's game was the first since Week 4 that Smith did not have a sack. 13 tackles, 6.5 sacks.

Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News explains why Gore is so close to passing Joe Perry on the 49ers' career rushing list.

Clare Farnsworth of hands out midseason awards and honors Chris Clemons as Seattle's best player. The best addition in free agency? Farnsworth: "Alan Branch. The big signings after the lockout-eliminated offseason were Sidney Rice, Zach Miller, left guard Robert Gallery and QB Tarvaris Jackson. But the best of this class has been Branch, the former Arizona Cardinal who has settled in and exceled at the three-technique tackle spot in the Seahawks’ 13th-ranked run defense. How good has Branch been? Pro Football Focus has him ranked as the best D-tackle in the league."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times offers thoughts on Deon Butler's activation from the PUP list. O'Neil: "Butler's lower right leg was broken in two places last December in San Francisco. The injury, similar to the one suffered by running back Leon Washington, was serious enough that doctors questioned if Butler could resume his NFL career. Butler's recovery has proceeded in a way that's fitting for someone with his speed: He's returned faster than many expected."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune gives the Seahawks a weak 'C' grade through the first half of the season. Williams on the running game: "Year 3 of Seattle establishing a dominant run game has been much like the first two years -- a disappointment. The Seahawks have 406 rushing yards on first down -- 24th overall in the league. And they’ve run the ball a league-low 175 total rushes. So even with the renewed emphasis with renowned zone blocking guru offensive line coach Tom Cable on the staff, the Seahawks have not run the ball enough. But Seattle did show a marked improvement running the ball last week at Dallas, with Marshawn Lynch rushing for 135 yards on 22 carries – the first time he’s carried the ball more than 20 times this season. Lynch’s and Justin Forsett’s contracts are up the end of the season, while Leon Washington is in the first of a four-year deal, so Seattle could see some personnel changes with this group in 2012." Noted: Former offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates would have to laugh at the league-low number of rushing attempts, given that his allegedly pass-happy approach wasn't what the team wanted on offense. Falling behind in games has its consequences, however.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic looks at where the Cardinals need to improve, notably at quarterback and on the offensive line. Somers on Kevin Kolb: "At least the Cardinals hope whatever is wrong with Kolb can be fixed. Kolb has made plays that provide hope; the 73-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald against the Redskins comes to mind. But Kolb has played poorly over the past month, and now he's dealing with a right-foot injury that includes turf toe. The Cardinals need to find a way to bring out Kolb's best, and maybe that will take a whole season and full off-season."

Darren Urban of says Kolb is "touch-and-go" on a potential return to practice this week. Urban: "Reports on both ESPN and NFL Network both said he was unlikely to play against the Eagles. Kolb, at least publicly, is expressing slightly more optimism."

Also from Urban: Thoughts on Kolb's background in Philadelphia, and on his upcoming return. Urban: "As if he was cleaning up for his high school reunion, Kolb got his hair cut late last week, removing his curly locks and looking much more like a businessman. Perhaps that’s fitting, since -- given the struggles both himself and his current team have had -- this meeting with his former team is less reunion and 'more of a business trip.'"

QBR ranks: On the 7-1 Alex Smith

November, 7, 2011
Alex SmithAP Photo/Cliff OwenAlex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers own the second-best record in the NFL.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith sensed pressure, sprinted toward the left sideline and gathered himself as if to throw.

The Philadelphia Eagles' Brandon Graham hit Smith. The ball hit the ground. Quintin Mikell picked it up and ran 52 yards for a touchdown, stretching the Eagles' lead to 24-10.

That sequence from Week 5 last season was a defining one for the 2010 49ers.

Smith encountered similar circumstances Sunday. Sensing pressure against the Washington Redskins, he rolled toward the left sideline and gathered himself to throw. He brought the ball back to begin the throwing motion just as the Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan delivered a big hit Smith never saw coming.

The difference this time: Smith held onto the ball. There would be no momentum-turning fumble return for the other team. I'm not sure how much credit Smith deserves for that result. Kerrigan appeared to drive the ball back into Smith's body. But the result was obviously better, and that is what mattered for the 49ers. They are 7-1 this season after dropping to 0-5 last season with that defeat to the Eagles.

Ends justify means in the NFL, but that doesn't mean the 49ers' opponents fear Smith the way they fear other quarterbacks with winning records and lofty NFL passer ratings. The fact that the 49ers have less reason to fear Smith largely explains why the team is doing so well with him behind center, in my view.

Eight other quarterbacks have winning records and NFL passer ratings of at least 90. All eight significantly outrank Smith in Total QBR, which reflects how much quarterbacks affect their teams' chances for winning on a play-by-play basis. All eight have far more passing yards, a higher average per attempt, more touchdown passes, far more first downs and considerably more long completions.

This confirms what we should know from watching games. Most of the other eight quarterbacks -- Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Schaub and Ryan Fitzpatrick -- have proven themselves to be better than Smith. NFL teams have said as much by rewarding those other eight quarterbacks with sizable long-term contracts.

With Smith's deal expiring at year's end, his contract situation will need addressing.

If the 49ers continue on their current course, they'll have a first-round playoff bye, which could actually work against Smith by depriving him of a likely postseason victory. Still, given that the 49ers have proven they can win with Smith, they would presumably want him back.

Of those eight other quarterbacks mentioned above, Fitzpatrick compares to Smith more closely than the others. He's known more for being bright and managing games than for dominating them by carrying the offense.

But Fitzpatrick, who signed a six-year deal worth $59 million earlier this season, does outrank Smith by a wide margin in Total QBR, 61.6 to 42.8 (with 50 being average). Most of the difference stems from the sacks Smith has taken. But Smith has taken only five sacks over the 49ers' last four games, down from 14 over their previous three. And he does own the highest single-game QBR score in the NFL this season, a 98.2 out of 100 for his efforts during a 48-3 victory over Tampa Bay.

All things to consider while evaluating where quarterback play factors into the 49ers' success. It's an important question for the 49ers as they determine how much to value Smith and how to proceed at the position in the future. In the meantime, they can be thankful Fitzpatrick wasn't their quarterback Sunday. The Bills' starter finished his team's game with a 2.9 QBR, lowest among 26 qualifying quarterbacks Sunday.

The chart shows QBR scores for NFC West quarterbacks by week and for the season.

Quick thoughts on how NFC West passers graded out in Week 9 according to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point:

  • John Skelton, Cardinals (53.9 QBR, 85.7 NFL rating): Skelton completed 20 of 35 passes for 222 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions, three sacks and one fumble (recovered by Arizona) during the Cardinals' 19-13 overtime victory against St. Louis. He became the first quarterback since Rodgers in 2008 to take two safeties in one game, but he also threw the tying touchdown pass in the final five minutes of regulation. He also received some credit for yardage gained through an illegal contact penalty against the Rams during the tying drive.
  • Sam Bradford, Rams (46.1 QBR, 73.3 NFL rating): Bradford completed 23 of 36 passes for 255 yards with no touchdowns, one interception, four sacks, no fumbles and a 2-yard gain on his only rushing attempt. He added a modest 2.8 expected points, according to the QBR formula. The division-high 1.4 clutch rating in the chart below reflects game situations, not how well Bradford performed in them. The column for "clutch weight average" reflects the significance of game situations defined by score, time remaining, etc.
  • Alex Smith, 49ers (44.5 QBR, 109.7 NFL rating): Smith completed 17 of 24 passes for 200 yards with one touchdown, no interceptions, two sacks and no fumbles during the 49ers' 19-11 victory at Washington. He ran four times for 9 yards, gaining 8 of those yards on a first-and-10 carry during a drive to a field goal. His passing added a modest 3.6 expected points to the 49ers' total. Sacks and penalties offset most of that. In the end, Smith added 1.1 total expected points on a modest 32 plays.
  • Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks (25.9 QBR, 40.4 NFL rating): Jackson completed 17 of 30 passes for 221 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions, one sack, no fumbles and two carries covering 3 yards during the Seahawks' 23-13 defeat at Dallas. He was the only quarterback in the division with a negative total for expected points, this despite the positive contribution he made in drawing an interference penalty against the Cowboys with a heads-up scramble and throw.

The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 9. Dallas' Tony Romo ranked third among all NFL quarterbacks for his performance against Seattle, while Washington's John Beck ranked 24th, lower than any player involved in a game featuring an NFC West team.

Wrap-up: 49ers 19, Redskins 11

November, 6, 2011

Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 19-11 road victory over the Washington Redskins in Week 9:

What it means: The 49ers emerged from Week 9 with a 7-1 record and a five-game lead in the NFC West. They have gone 4-0 in games kicking off at 10 a.m. PT, one of many ways this team differs from its recent predecessors. The 49ers now have three of their next four games at home. They have a shot at clinching the division title in Week 11.

What I liked: The 49ers controlled yet another game with defense, special teams, the running game and selective strikes through the air. They again showed the offensive creativity that has made the game more fun for players. This included a few more unusual formations and personnel groupings. Their ability to free fullback Bruce Miller for a 30-yard touchdown reception also stood out. Frank Gore became the first player in 49ers history to reach 100 yards rushing in five consecutive games. Free safety Dashon Goldson made a terrific play in undercutting tight end Fred Davis for an interception.

What I didn't like: The 49ers' run defense was a little too forgiving early, allowing a 16-yard run on the Redskins' first possession. Coach Jim Harbaugh wasn't happy with game officials for their administration of a couple of penalties, but whatever the problem, San Francisco nonetheless incurred potentially costly penalties for delay of game and a false start. Tight end Vernon Davis could not control a potential touchdown reception. Davis also fumbled. Gore suffered his fourth dropped pass of the season, matching his total for 2010. Quarterback Alex Smith held the ball too long, inviting a crushing hit from the Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan. The 49ers collected just one sack from a Redskins team that allowed 10 last week.

What's next: The 49ers are home against the New York Giants in Week 10.

Update: The 49ers did not score a rushing touchdown, ending their streak of seven games with at least one and none for the opposition.

49ers' Aldon Smith on record sack pace

October, 19, 2011
With 5.5 sacks for the season, all of them over the last three games, San Francisco 49ers rookie Aldon Smith is on pace to finish the regular season with 14.5.

That would tie the sack-era NFL rookie record Jevon Kearse set in 1999. Sacks became an official stat in 1982.

Mel Kiper Jr. expected Smith to make an immediate impact despite facing a transition to the 3-4 defense. Smith is doing more than making an impact. He's turning into a candidate for defensive rookie of the year.

The Washington Redskins' Ryan Kerrigan is another prominent candidate. He has two sacks, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles, one interception and a touchdown. Denver's Von Miller has five sacks and also could factor, although the Broncos reduced his role recently.

Smith ranks fifth in the NFL in sacks and first among rookies. He also has a safety.

Veteran Parys Haralson remained the 49ers' starting outside linebacker for San Francisco against Detroit in Week 6. But the Lions' pass-oriented offense led to more snaps for Smith and the 49ers' nickel defense. The same was true when San Francisco faced Philadelphia in Week 4.

The chart, provided by ESPN Stats & Information, shows game-by-game snap counts for the 49ers' linebackers this season. Smith played a season-high 62 snaps against the Lions.

Final Word: NFC West

September, 30, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

Assessing the 49ers' chances in Philly. The Eagles, losers of two in a row, haven't lost three games in succession since a 2007 stretch played mostly without their starting quarterback. The 49ers, winners at Cincinnati in Week 3, have not won games in successive weeks since the 2009 season (a bye interrupted their lone two-game winning streak last season). They have not won road games in successive weeks since beating Carolina and Indianapolis in Weeks 10-11 way back in 2001. Beating the Eagles in Philadelphia would open eyes to just how much change Jim Harbaugh has affected in a short period of time.

Yakety YAC, help the quarterback. Three NFC West teams rank among the NFL's bottom five in yards after the catch on a per-reception basis, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Seahawks rank 31st at 3.7 yards. The 49ers and Rams are both in the 4.3-yard range. The 49ers have no receptions longer than 39 yards and none longer than 26 by a wide receiver. Michael Crabtree's longest catch this season covered 8 yards. The Arizona Cardinals are the exception within the division. They have five wide receivers and tight ends with at least five receptions and a 5.0 YAC average. Seattle's Doug Baldwin (8.0 YAC) is the only other non-running back in the division to meet that standard. The St. Louis Rams' Brandon Gibson has averaged eight-tenths of a yard after the catch.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US PresswireThe Cardinals' secondary will be tested by Eli Manning, who's coming off a four-TD performance.
Cardinals' pass defense in focus. Few teams push the ball down the field as aggressively as the Cardinals' Week 4 opponent. Giants quarterback Eli Manning ranks third behind Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger in how far past the line of scrimmage his passes travel on average. The Giants are one of five NFL teams averaging at least 8.8 yards per pass attempt. The Cardinals are one of eight teams allowing at least 8.0 yards per attempt. Manning, coming off a four-touchdown game at Philadelphia, tossed three scoring passes in his last visit to University of Phoenix Stadium (2008). He ranks tied for second in the NFL with eight completions on passes traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Sam Bradford's long-term health. The Rams' quarterback has taken 11 sacks in three games, a total he did not reach until Week 5 last season. He's facing a Washington Redskins defense that ranks sixth in sacks per pass play. Anyone else think former Rams coach Jim Haslett, now the Redskins' defensive coordinator, wouldn't mind introducing Bradford to pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan? The pressure is on a not-quite-healthy Steven Jackson to give the Rams needed offensive balance.

Seahawks have choices on defense. Seattle was able to shut out the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald in the second half last week in part because Arizona's other weapons weren't all that threatening. Without Beanie Wells to worry about, Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas spent less time in the box and more time helping in coverage. Thomas would ideally provide similar support against Falcons receiver Roddy White this week, but doing so could carry additional risks against an Atlanta offense with more varied weapons. Falcons rookie Julio Jones caught six passes for 115 yards against Tampa Bay in Week 3, including a 49-yarder. On the positive side for Seattle, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has taken 13 sacks, the same total he took into Week 10 last season. That 49-yard strike to Jones marked the first time in eight tries this season Ryan has completed a deep pass (defined as one traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage).

Final Word: NFC West

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

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireArizona's Kevin Kolb fared well in Week 1 when the defense brought at least five pass-rushers.
Handling the pressure. Only Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers ranked higher than the Arizona Cardinals' Kevin Kolb in NFL passer rating (139.2) when defenses brought at least five pass-rushers in Week 1, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Kolb led the league in QBR (98.7) in these situations among players with at least one pass attempt, completing six of 11 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns. His Washington Redskins counterpart, Rex Grossman, put up solid numbers overall, but his NFL passer rating (70.3) and QBR (13.6) lagged badly against five or more rushers. The Cardinals weren't shy about bringing pressure against Carolina, but they struggled to stop Cam Newton in these situations.

About those early kickoffs. For years, the Seattle Seahawks struggled to win games kicking off at 10 a.m. PT unless they were played in St. Louis, where the long-struggling Rams made for an inviting opponent. Times changed last season. The Seahawks went 1-1 in early games, beating the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field after losing in St. Louis. Seattle joins Arizona among Western teams playing early games Sunday. The Cardinals were 3-0 in 10 a.m. PT kickoffs the last time they felt good about their quarterback situation, in 2009. They were 0-4 in early kickoffs for 2010.

Sam Bradford's downfield throws. Bradford and Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels went into the season saying they planned to incorporate more downfield throws into their offense. It did not happen during an opening-week defeat against Philadelphia. Four of Bradford's 30 attempts (13.3 percent) traveled at least 15 yards in the air. The percentage for Bradford was 13.7 last season, lowest among qualifying quarterbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Bradford and the Rams should have additional downfield opportunities against the New York Giants' injury-depleted secondary.

49ers' offensive aggression. Coach Jim Harbaugh kept a straight face while telling reporters the team was being aggressive against Seattle when it ran the ball in traditional passing situations. The 49ers ran the ball six times on third-down plays when they needed more than a yard for a first down. This included four plays of third-and-4 or longer. The 49ers converted none of these six rushing plays. The approach was good enough to defeat a Seattle team that wasn't getting much accomplished offensively until late. How well the 49ers fare when opening up the offense against Dallas stands as a leading NFC West storyline for Week 2.

Tough duty for tackles. NFC West offensive tackles face some brutal matchups this week. DeMarcus Ware (Dallas), Brian Orakpo (Washington), Ryan Kerrigan (Washington) and James Harrison (Pittsburgh) are coming after NFC West quarterbacks. The Giants have been playing without injured defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, but if either one plays against St. Louis on Monday night, add their names to the list.