NFC West: Tampa Bay Bucs

Posted by's Mike Sando

As NFL teams fight for positioning heading toward the playoffs, we take a quick look at the top six seeds in each conference heading into Week 12.

If the current standings held, the AFC playoffs would feature the Ravens visiting the Jets and the Colts visiting the Broncos. The NFC playoffs would feature the Redskins visiting the Cardinals and the Bucs visiting the Packers.

The Titans, Steelers, Giants and Panthers would have first-round playoff byes. The Redskins defeated the Cardinals at FedEx Field in Week 3. The rematch would be at University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cardinals haven't lost this season.

Four teams that won at least 10 games last season have losing records so far: Seattle (10-6 to 2-8), Cleveland (10-6 to 3-6), San Diego (11-5 to 4-6) and Jacksonville (11-5 to 4-6).

Silver linings: Seahawks at Bucs

October, 20, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

The facts: Seattle lost for the third consecutive time, falling 20-10 at Tampa Bay.

The upside: Even the worst defeats tend to offer a bright spot or two ...

  • The Seahawks' special teams provided favorable field position. Josh Wilson averaged 36.5 yards on four kick returns. Justin Forsett had a 24-yard punt return. Jon Ryan's net average was 42.8 yards. Lance Laury and Jordan Babineaux had big hits on the coverage teams. Olindo Mare missed a field-goal attempt for the first time this season, but the special teams were strong overall.
  • Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane was disruptive at times. Linebacker Leroy Hill made big hits on Ike Hilliard and Jerramy Stevens. He probably would have picked off a pass if teammate Lofa Tatupu hadn't also fought for it.
  • Rookie defensive tackle Red Bryant made a positive impact in his first game action since the regular-season opener.
I watched this game on TV from St. Louis, keeping a notebook to record potential silver linings. There simply weren't many.

Rapid Reaction: Bucs 20, Seahawks 10

October, 19, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

The Seahawks combined inept offense with an often pedestrian defense to fall further from relevance in the NFC West. They are 1-5 heading into a Week 8 matchup at San Francisco, a game featuring teams that have suffered a combined seven defeats in a row.

Seattle lost more than the game against Tampa Bay. Pro Bowl middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, already suffering through a subpar season by his standards, did not return after suffering an unspecified injury of unknown severity.

Injured quarterback Matt Hasselbeck may or may not return in the next week or two, but the Seahawks shouldn't fool themselves into thinking everything will be fine if and when Hasselbeck returns to the lineup. The Seahawks' season was spiraling downward before a recurring back issue sidelined Hasselbeck indefinitely.

Seattle converted only twice on third down. The Bucs converted 10 of 18 times. The Seahawks' defense still kept the score close enough for a team with a competent offense to challenge. But the Seattle passing offense poses virtually no threat in its current state. The situation at receiver remains disjointed at best. The offensive line isn't meeting expectations.

The running game and special teams were problematic for Seattle last season. Those areas were relatively strong against the Bucs, no consolation after a third consecutive defeat.

Audibles: NFC West Week 7 preview

October, 17, 2008
Posted by's Mike Sando

San Francisco 49ers (2-4) at New York Giants (4-1), 1 p.m. ET

Trusting the Giants' Eli Manning is a lot easier than trusting the 49ers' J.T. O'Sullivan, even after Manning tossed three picks against the Browns in Week 6. That's where this game hinges.

Defenses are forcing O'Sullivan into interceptions at a furious rate. O'Sullivan has thrown seven picks in his last three games. The 49ers are 0-3 largely as a result.

The solution -- handing the ball to Frank Gore more frequently when the 49ers are leading -- appears almost too obvious. Look for that story line to get a rest this week. The Giants have the offensive line and playmaking ability to take the lead and force the 49ers into obvious passing situations. The combination should fuel a lopsided Giants victory.

Turnovers can be the great equalizer, something the Rams proved against the Redskins in Week 6. I just don't see the 49ers winning the turnover battle. The 49ers lead the NFL with 15 giveaways. The Giants rank third with only four.

Dallas Cowboys (4-2) at St. Louis Rams (1-4), 1 p.m. ET

The Rams are playing with an edge that helped them upset the Redskins while also nearly costing them the game. While they don't need any more 15-yard penalties from guard Richie Incognito, the new attitude players are showing under Jim Haslett does give them a chance to compete and possibly pull an upset.

It's probably wise to discount what the Rams had become under Scott Linehan. Their talent was better than that. The Rams thought their defensive line would provide a strong pass rush this season. I just question whether the Rams can score enough points to put the Cowboys in obvious passing situations.

This is a game Dallas should win even without Tony Romo. But the Cowboys can't take the outcome for granted. The Rams will beat teams that underestimate them.

Seattle Seahawks (1-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2), 8:15 p.m. ET

Seneca Wallace probably gets the start at quarterback for Seattle. A calf injury figures to limit his mobility, which was one of his strengths. I also question whether Wallace will be sharp enough after missing so much practice time in recent weeks.

The Seattle passing game simply isn't functioning at a high enough level for the Seahawks to beat good teams, particularly on the road. It's a stretch to think that will change dramatically with Wallace replacing Charlie Frye.

The Bucs think big-play receiver Joey Galloway has a chance to return from injury this week. That's fitting from a Seattle perspective. The Seahawks' defense is giving up big pass plays and Galloway -- traded by Seattle in 2000 -- figures to find openings deep downfield.

Bucs' Garcia not in 49ers' plans

September, 14, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

SEATTLE -- The 49ers answered the phone when the Bucs called to offer Jeff Garcia in a trade, but San Francisco wasn't interested in shaking up its quarterback situation further.

Acquiring Garcia two games into the season would undermine J.T. O'Sullivan, who is coming off his first NFL start. The 49ers were generally pleased with O'Sullivan in the opener. They appreciate what Garcia once meant to the franchise, but they also know Garcia is best suited for the West Coast offenses he has run over the years.

The 49ers went with O'Sullivan as their starter largely because he knew the system. They also know Frank Gore is the key to their offense. They hope O'Sullivan can do enough in the passing game for the 49ers to win with Gore and a strong defense.

O'Sullivan makes his second career start today against the Seahawks at Qwest Field.

Predicting the Seahawks' record

September, 3, 2008
Posted by's Mike Sando

The Seahawks strike me as a 10- or 11-win team this season, but their schedule gives them a shot at an even better record. Seattle draws the Cardinals late in the season, when Arizona's depth on the offensive line could be a problem.

I could see the Seahawks stumbling at San Francisco, perhaps overlooking the 49ers the way they seemed to look past the Cardinals in Arizona last season. Seattle also tends to struggle playing early games on the East Coast, but the Week 7 trip to Tampa Bay kicks off at night. I give the Seahawks a better-than-expected chance at winning that game.

A game-by-game look at the schedule makes for a fun exercise this time of year. We can't know how healthy certain teams will be at certain points of the season. Sometimes it's not who teams play as much as when they play them.

My initial thought was that Seattle would split its games against Dallas and New England in Weeks 13 and 14, but I gave the Seahawks losses for the sake of this exercise.

As usual, these are for entertainment purposes only, unless I'm right.

1. Win at Bills
2. Win vs. 49ers
3. Win vs. Rams
4. Bye
5. Lose at Giants
6. Win vs. Packers
7. Lose at Bucs
8. Lose at 49ers
9. Win vs. Eagles
10. Win at Dolphins
11. Win vs. Cardinals
12. Win vs. Redskins
13. Lose at Cowboys
14. Lose vs. Patriots
15. Win at Rams
16. Win vs. Jets
17. Win at Cardinals
This forecast shows a 5-1 record against NFC West teams. The Seahawks went 6-0 in the division during their Super Bowl season (2005) and 5-1 against the NFC West in 2007. Seattle lost at Arizona after Matt Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander fumbled that exchange in the fourth quarter, an inexplicable lapse for a veteran team.

Posted by's Mike Sando

 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
 A lot of things fell into place for J.T. O'Sullivan to become the 49ers' starting quarterback.

Niners quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan has shocked the masses by suddenly emerging as the 49ers' starting quarterback. Some things seem so unlikely, they must be destined. Consider what had to happen for O'Sullivan to arrive in his current position:

  • O'Sullivan had to play for the Detroit Lions last season.
  • O'Sullivan had to become a free agent this offseason.
  • The 49ers had to change offensive coordinators for the fourth time in four seasons.
  • The Lions had to fire offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
  • The 49ers had to hire Martz as offensive coordinator, despite initial indications they wouldn't make such a move (noted here).
  • The 49ers had to widen their quarterback competition after choosing not to name 2005 first-round choice Alex Smith as the automatic starter.
  • Shaun Hill's arm had to tire enough for the 49ers to give more reps to another quarterback, in this case O'Sullivan (assuming that was indeed the reason Hill initially faded in this race).
  • O'Sullivan had to practice well enough for the 49ers to consider him seriously.
  • O'Sullivan had to play well enough in exhibition games to win the job.

That last one was most important, but things have also fallen into place for O'Sullivan. The trend continues this weekend. The UC-Davis product plans to attend the Aggies' opener Saturday -- conveniently located at San Jose State, minutes from 49ers headquarters.

(Read full post)

Posted by's Mike Sando

49ers Projected StarterPos.Drafted by Rd.Pick
Nate Clements CBBills121
Walt HarrisCBBears113
Takeo SpikesILBBengals113
Bryant JohnsonWRCardinals117
Justin SmithDEBengals14

The 49ers might not have a place on the field for the player they drafted first overall in 2005, but they regularly stock their lineup with first-round choices from other teams.

Five projected 49ers starters entered the NFL as first-round draft choices for other teams. This figure counts the recently signed Takeo Spikes, who is expected to eventually supplant Jeff Ulbrich on the depth chart.

The other NFC West teams are carrying a combined three starters fitting the same description: Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney (Falcons), Seahawks linebacker Julian Peterson (49ers) and Cardinals running back Edgerrin James (Colts).

The 49ers and Rams each have only four projected starters from their 2005 and 2006 draft classes. The Cardinals and Seahawks have six apiece. The difference is significant.

Tampa Bay, Washington, Oakland and the New York Jets have joined the 49ers in building lineups checkered with first-round choices from other teams. Indianapolis almost never finds its starters from another team's draft classes, regardless of the round (defensive end Raheem Brock, a seventh-round choice of the Eagles, is the only Colts starter drafted by another team).

The 49ers rank among the league leaders in retaining their own draft choices -- their roster features 35 such players -- but only 10 of them are projected starters. The league average is more than 12. Indianapolis has 17. New England and San Diego have 14. Arizona leads the NFC West with 15. The Rams and Seahawks each have 12.

San Francisco can pump up those numbers by developing its younger players. None of this team's second-round draft choices is scheduled to start this season (Justin Smiley left for the Dolphins). Rookie receiver Josh Morgan, a sixth-round choice, looks like a future starter. Developing rookie defe
nsive lineman Kentwan Balmer and second-year receiver Jason Hill will be important. And everything changes if Alex Smith emerges as more than J.T. O'Sullivan's backup.

Rams heavy on offense

August, 12, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

The Rams are carrying 12 receivers, most in the league and two more than the average. What it means: The teams is carrying only 34 players on defense, two fewer than average and tied with New Orleans and Tampa Bay for fewest in the league.

Roster spots are especially precious given the hard 80-man limits. Some teams still favor one side of the ball over the other by wide margins. 

Indianapolis and Detroit were the only teams carrying more defensive players than offensive players (five more for the Colts, one more for the Lions) based on rosters as they stood Monday night. Teams with the largest imbalances favoring offense: Tampa Bay plus-9, St. Louis plus-8, Green Bay plus-7. All have offensive-minded head coaches.

The numbers can be fluid based on how one accounts for special-teams players (Rams receiver Dante Hall has been primarily a punt returner, for example). Injuries can also affect how many players teams carry at various positions. But as diminished roster sizes affect teams during camp, self-made imbalances can heighten the effects.

Loading up on the ACC

July, 23, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

If ACC football is as down as our Heather Dinich suggests (via Tony Barnhart at, perhaps the conference could do a better job replacing the many players it sends to the NFL. Rosters remain fluid this time of year, but I track them closely and I recently counted 337 former ACC players in the league, second to the SEC (375) and slightly ahead of the Big Ten (328).

I counted more former ACC players in the NFC West -- 48 -- than in any other division. Every team in the division is carrying 10 or more players from ACC schools (Seahawks 14, Rams 13, 49ers 11, Cardinals 10). The Bucs and Jets lead the league with 16 apiece. The Eagles -- by my count -- are carrying a league-low five.

Those numbers will contract with the mandatory roster reductions heading into the season, but Seattle led the league in ACC players much of 2007. Seven of the Seahawks' projected starters played for college programs currently affiliated with the ACC: Matt Hasselbeck (Boston College), Kelly Jennings (Miami), Darryl Tapp (Virginia Tech), Leroy Hill (Clemson), Walter Jones (Florida St.), Sean Locklear (N.C. State) and Patrick Kerney (Virginia).

Posted by's Mike Sando

RankTeamPersonal Fouls Since 2001
1Tampa Bay127
5NY Giants119
7New England116
12New Orleans108
17Green Bay101
22San Francisco93
24San Diego92
25Kansas City89
26NY Jets87
28St. Louis86
31 Houston71

Our earlier item on dirty players leads naturally to a discussion of dirty teams.

Years ago, the Oakland Raiders of Jack Tatum, George Atkinson and Skip "Dr. Death" Thomas seemed to revel in their image as renegades. Their reputation became part of the mythology of the game, backed by menacing NFL Films soundtracks.

Let's rely on something more tangible for this discussion: personal-foul data. ESPN researchers produced a comprehensive list of personal-foul totals since 2001, allowing us to sort them by team, coach and player.

The data showed 3,221 personal-foul penalties during regular-season games since 2001, an average of about 100 per team. Officials have flagged Tampa Bay with more personal-foul penalties than any team during this time (127), followed closely by Arizona and Detroit with 124 apiece. Officials have flagged Seattle with 57, by far the fewest in the league. Houston, which entered the league in 2002, is next with 71.

Arizona has employed more than its share of personal-foul violators since 2001. Safety Adrian Wilson leads the NFL with 17 personal-foul penalties during that time. Also since 2001, linebacker Chike Okeafor leads the NFL with eight roughing-the-passer penalties, and former Cardinals pass rusher Kyle Vanden Bosch ranks tied for 14th with five. (Note: Okeafor and Vanden Bosch committed some of those fouls while wearing other uniforms).

One of our researchers, Benjamin Lerner, looked at which teams have benefited from the most -- and least -- personal-foul penalties called against their opponents. Those numbers might tell us about perceptions. If Team A was known for dirty play, as an example, might officials subconsciously call fewer personal-foul penalties against Team A's opponents?

We cannot answer such a question, but it's a fun thought in July. Back with those numbers in a bit.