NFC West: Tony Gonzalez

NFLN survey/Super Bowl player: Rams

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
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ST. LOUIS -- As part of the on-going reveal of answers to the NFL Nation survey which polled 320 players on a variety of questions, we've reached the release of the answer to a poll question that I don't believe is much different than the one asking which player is most respected by his peers.

The only twist here is that the question asks which player (active, non-teammate) would you like to see in the Super Bowl? The pre-requisite was that the player named couldn't have already been to one. Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson edged Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez to take top honors as a whopping 88 players received votes.

Two things struck me as I asked around the Rams locker room.

First, how much many of the players would simply like to have a winning season or just get to the playoffs let alone a Super Bowl. I'm confident in saying that these Rams would have voted for a current teammate if given the chance.

Second, I was a bit surprised not to hear Steven Jackson's name mentioned a bit more. Now, many players named a friend playing somewhere in the league and Jackson's name did come up, but I wondered if it would be more popular. When looking at the Falcons, though, it's clear most players think of Gonzalez before Jackson.
Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan USA TODAY SportsSeattle's Russell Wilson, left, and Atlanta's Matt Ryan have their teams on different paths.
The last meeting between the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks was memorable.

In last season's divisional playoff matchup, the Falcons jumped out to a 20-point lead only to see rookie quarterback Russell Wilson rally the Seahawks to a 28-27 edge late in the game. Atlanta's Matt Ryan engineered a last-minute drive that ended with Matt Bryant's game-winning, 49-yard field goal and a trip to the NFC Championship Game.

The teams are headed in opposite directions now, as the 8-1 Seahawks keep soaring and the 2-6 Falcons continue to descend.

How will things unfold Sunday in Atlanta? It's not looking good for the home team. The Seahawks nearly lost to the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, so they are sure to come to the Georgia Dome refocused.

ESPN.com's Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Seahawks reporter Terry Blount break down the matchup between Atlanta and Seattle:

McClure: I talked to ex-Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher before the season, and he said the Seahawks were, by far, the best team in the league based on having faced them last year. He also picked them to win the Super Bowl. Do you think the Seahawks are the favorites, or did the game against Tampa Bay show they are vulnerable?

Blount: Vaughn, they've shown a lot of vulnerability this season, long before the game last week. They won several times when, statistically speaking, they should have lost. But the bottom line is they find a way to win. They are an incredibly confident bunch that believes in each other. And the Seahawks should get better down the stretch when both starting offensive tackles return and receiver Percy Harvin finally gets on the field. Seattle still is capable of reaching the Super Bowl, but a couple of things must improve -- pass protection and run defense -- down the stretch if the Seahawks are going to live up to expectations. They are living on the edge right now, maybe too much so.

The mood around the Falcons must be pretty depressing these days. I've always found the hardest teams to cover were the ones that everyone expected to be good and entered a season with high expectations but ended up having a horrible year. So what's it like around there, inside the team headquarters and around the city?

McClure: The fans, of course, are irate about the direction of the team and are calling for coach Mike Smith to be fired. More surprising to me, this being my first season around the team, is how much criticism has been directed toward Matt Ryan. Both Smith and Ryan have handled the negativity well. The closest I've seen Smith come to showing his frustration with the season was after last Sunday's loss to Carolina, when his face was bright red and he had a distraught look on his face. But team owner Arthur Blank came over and gave Smith a reassuring embrace.

Ryan has kept a positive outlook throughout, although his performance has been far below expectations. The vibe Ryan gives off -- remaining upbeat -- rubs off on the players around him. I'll be curious to see how some of the veteran players handle the second half of the season, particularly if the losses keep piling up. Speaking of Ryan, he has thrown seven interceptions over the past two games -- and he hasn't faced a secondary as strong as Seattle's. How well are both Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas playing?

Blount: Until the Tampa Bay game, I felt Thomas was the best defensive player in the league. He missed a few tackles against the Bucs, but he also had a controversial interference call go against him. Tampa didn't throw much at Sherman, a wise decision. I think Ryan is a bit of a victim of not having his starting receivers out there, but if he or anyone he throws to makes a mistake, this secondary will make them pay.

Vaughn, it looks like Tony Gonzalez, one of the all-time great tight ends, is going to end his career on a losing team. It's a bit of a surprise the Falcons didn't move him before the deadline. I know he is an extremely popular player with the Atlanta fans. Was that a factor in the decision? What happened there?

McClure: The Falcons were adamant about having no intention of moving Gonzalez. Once that was made clear around the league, no teams even bothered to inquire before the deadline. That being said, even Gonzalez understood the reason behind the media- and fan-driven speculation. He knew returning to Kansas City sounded like an enticing option, considering the Chiefs are undefeated, and it would have allowed Gonzalez probably his best chance to win a Super Bowl ring before he retires at season's end. But Gonzalez told me he only would have been open to listening to a trade if the Falcons felt it would be best for them. Obviously, they didn't.

I expect Gonzalez to go out a champion no matter how the team finishes, just because he represents everything that's right about the NFL. More players should strive to be like him. It looks like the Seahawks have a model citizen themselves in Russell Wilson. How is his development going in his second season?

Blount: It's hard to judge just how good Wilson could be, because he has been under siege most of the time with poor pass protection from the patchwork offensive line. Wilson has been under duress on 40 percent of his passes, the most in the league. But he has this innate ability to perform at his best when things seem to be at their worst. He has led the Seahawks to victories in three games they trailed in the fourth quarter. Two of those games were won in overtime. He actually seems to thrive on pressure circumstances. I've covered many great athletes, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone better than Wilson at making the big play in the most difficult moments.

The last time these teams faced each other was an exciting playoff game. Obviously, a lot has changed since then, but can the Falcons surprise the Seahawks on Sunday?

McClure: I just don't see it happening. The loss of top receiver Julio Jones to season-ending foot surgery instantly made the Falcons' offense far less potent. The offensive line isn't as strong as it was last season. Although the Falcons believed they upgraded with Steven Jackson over Michael Turner at running back, an early-season hamstring injury has kept Jackson from hitting stride. And the defense hasn't gotten much better than the one that surrendered 491 yards to the Seahawks in last season's playoffs. To win Sunday, Ryan has to be flawless and Jackson needs to rush for 100-plus yards.

 
TEMPE, Ariz. – When it comes to the Arizona Cardinals’ problems defending tight ends, cornerback Patrick Peterson may have summed it up best.

“Tight ends been giving us hell lately,” the two-time Pro Bowler said.

Hell might be cooler than the pressure on the Cardinals to slow down Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez this week. For a defense that rebranded itself with one of the best lines in the NFL, tight ends have been its Achilles’ heel.

Of the four receivers who have caught more than 100 yards against the Cardinals, three were tight ends. There was Jared Cook from St. Louis, who had 141 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener. Then New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham got 134 yards and two touchdowns. And San Francisco’s Vernon Davis torched Arizona for 180 yards and two touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeTony Gonzalez
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe Cardinals have not done well against tight ends this season. Now they get to face Tony Gonzalez.
Even the tight ends who didn’t hit 100 had productive outings. Carolina’s Greg Olsen had 79 yards and Seattle’s Zach Miller had 40 and a score.

“It’s like that every week. We’ll try to wear them down slowly but surely, hopefully by the end of the year we’ll shut them out,” defensive coordinator Todd Bowles said with a laugh. “There’s been some coverages, one or two busts here or there, and then schematically there’s been a miscommunication. We’re trying to figure all that out this week and come out and try to hold them down this week.”

Coming up this week isn’t just another tight end. He might be the greatest of all time.

For 17 years, Gonzalez has perplexed defenses. Teams have thrown every defense imaginable at him, and he’s worked his way through them all. Standard. Gimmick. Double-teams. Triple-teams. Two high. One high. All of it.

The latest strategy to slow Gonzalez down, Arizona cornerback Jerraud Powers saw on tape, is to place two defenders in front of him at the line of scrimmage it’s a punt. But how might the Cardinals slow Gonzalez, who’ll retire after this season second on the NFL’s all-time receptions list.

“We just have to get our hands on them,” linebacker Jasper Brinkley said. “A couple of games that you saw, we weren’t getting our hands on the tight end. They’re not getting touched off the line of scrimmage. As great as he is and great as he has been, you have to be able to get your hands on those guys to mess the timing up for the quarterback.”

If Gonzalez gets past the Cards’ initial jam at the line of scrimmage, then it’s about communicating, Peterson said, and making sure people are in the right positions.

Still, once Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan targets Gonzalez, the Cardinals have only a few options left. One being breaking up his hands when the pass arrives, said linebacker Karlos Dansby.

“He’s going to catch the ball,” Dansby said. “If it’s anywhere close to him, he’s going to catch it. You’ll see him make one-hand catches. The guy’s a Hall of Famer. So you just got to study as much film as you can to try to eliminate some of his passes.”

Everyone seems to have a word to describe Gonzalez. Brinkley used "crafty." Dansby used "savvy." Even Cardinals coach Bruce Arians had one: "best."

“Probably the best of all time,” Arians said. “It’s fun to go against the best when you coached or played and say, ‘I played against this guy or coached against this guy.’ Tony Gonzalez is that guy. He’s as good as it gets. He has all the tricks to the trade. He’s still athletic but he knows how to get himself open, especially down in the red zone.”

If the Cardinals trust one another, Peterson said, or play with better technique, according to Dansby, they could slow down the best tight end better than they’ve stopped other tight ends this season.

Well, that and one more thing.

“Now that we have the best covering linebacker in the game in Daryl [Washington],” Peterson said, “I believe we’ll have a fair opportunity to match up pretty well.”
A run of high-profile injuries in the NFC West specifically and the NFL in general has focused attention on what can be done to prevent them.

John from Bakersfield, Calif., was among those raising the subject through the NFC West mailbag. He suggested the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens might be additionally vulnerable at present after playing more games than other teams over the past couple seasons. Baltimore (38 games), San Francisco (37) and New England (37) have played the most games over that span.

"The Ravens this year gutted their defense and saw Dennis Pitta go down already, while the 49ers are reeling from all their injuries," John wrote. "The curse of Super Bowl losers and winners is the fact that most teams that go deep into the playoffs over a few years time play so many more games and get get beat up so much more than the tier of teams right below them. You have to really take your hat off to the Patriots for getting deep so often, but even they seem worn out at the end lately, and I believe it has to do with having to play the extra games. What do you think?"

[+] EnlargeMajor Wright and Vernon Davis
Paul Kitagaki Jr./Sacramento Bee/MCT/Getty ImagesSan Francisco's Vernon Davis has been one of the NFL's most durable tight ends in recent seasons.
The thinking makes sense, but there are several factors to consider.

What about the additional offseason downtime players won through the collective bargaining agreement? Shouldn't that help offset injuries? But wait, might an extended run of inactivity make players additionally vulnerable to injury when they suddenly resume an intense practice schedule? The answers could be different for different players at different positions working under different head coaches with different conditioning programs and different practice schedules on different playing surfaces in different weather.

See where this is headed?

I'd like to see the relationship between total snaps played and injury rates for individual players over long periods of time, adjusted for age, position, body type, injury type, circumstances of injury and any other factors that might create different risk levels.

Pitta ranked 24th among NFL tight ends in snaps played over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, counting playoffs. His 1,384 snaps played over that two-year run fell far below the leaders. Ten tight ends played between 1,750 and more than 2,100 snaps over that span, led by the 49ers' Vernon Davis and followed closely by Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez, three of the more durable tight ends around (a contributing factor in their presence atop the list of snaps played).

Merely correlating teams' total games played to future injury rates seems futile because rosters change and most teams play a similar number of games.

Twenty-five of the 32 teams played between 32 and 34 games over the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Those teams averaged 61.7 adjusted games lost to injury in 2012, according to Football Outsiders. The seven teams with between 35 and 37 games played over the period in question averaged 74.3 adjusted games lost in 2012, including a league-high 108.1 adjusted games lost by Green bay, which played a league-high 37 games over the previous two seasons.

What does that prove? Probably nothing. The six teams playing 34 games over the 2010 and 2011 seasons averaged 37.2 adjusted games lost in 2012, far below the 69.4 average for the 19 teams with 32 or 33 games played. That likely doesn't mean much, either.

The statistical correlation between 2010-11 games played and 2012 adjusted games lost to injury is .066, an insignificant figure. But we already knew that would be an imprecise way to secure the answers we're seeking. This is one area where the NFL and its teams will be pushing to collect and interpret data.
NaVorro Bowman's fourth-and-4 pass breakup all but delivered the San Francisco 49ers to victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.

The play was notable for a few reasons.

Having Bowman, an inside linebacker, in coverage against a wide receiver with Roddy White's credentials would seem to favor the offense. But as White dragged across the formation, Bowman blanketed him and made contact before quarterback Matt Ryan delivered the ball, making this a legal play.

Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons' 13-time Pro Bowl tight end, came open on the play, but Ryan seemed to lock in on White from the beginning. There was logic to Ryan's thinking with a linebacker in coverage.

Bowman and fellow inside linebacker Patrick Willis both had underneath coverage responsibilities on this play. Their ability to remain on the field and make plays in nickel situations sets them apart from traditional run-defending inside linebackers.

In the end, Bowman's breakup will go down as the most pivotal play on the 49ers' road to the Super Bowl -- not just on an anecdotal basis, but also on a statistical one.

The play produced change in win probability of 31.5 percentage points, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was the largest positive swing for any play during the 49ers' first 18 games of the season.

The chart, courtesy of Dean Oliver, shows the 49ers' 10 most pivotal positive plays of the season by change in win probability. Colin Kaepernick appears on the list four times. Alex Smith does not appear on the list.

Tony Gonzalez and what might have been

January, 22, 2013
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With Tony Gonzalez leaning toward retirement after 16 NFL seasons and 1,242 receptions, I turned back the clock in my mind to 1997, the year San Francisco tried to draft the tight end from California.

The 49ers were in a wheeling and dealing mode in that 1997 draft. They came away with three players -- Jim Druckenmiller, Marc Edwards and Greg Clark -- after trading away all picks in the fourth through seventh rounds.

"While they rated [Jim] Druckenmiller as the best player available at the 26th pick, the 49ers tried to trade up for Miami's No. 15 in order to take Cal tight end Tony Gonzalez," John Crumpacker wrote at the time in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Alas, Kansas City moved up to 13 in a trade with Houston and tabbed the Golden Bear."

Alas, indeed.

Druckenmiller would play in six NFL games, starting one. Edwards, a fullback the team envisioned in the Tom Rathman mold, started 82 of the 134 regular-season games he played. Clark, a tight end, started 39 of the 55 games he played.

As for Gonzalez? He has 237 starts in 254 games and ranks second to Jerry Rice on the NFL's list for all-time receptions. His total for receptions is 50 percent greater than the career total for any tight end. Shannon Sharpe is second with 815 receptions.

The chart ranks 1997 draft choices by most Pro Bowl appearances. Two NFC West players, Walter Jones and Orlando Pace, made the list. Also in 1997, the Arizona Cardinals drafted cornerback Tommy Knight with the ninth overall choice.

Weatherspoon-KaepernickUSA TODAY SportsAtlanta and San Francisco will square off Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Coach Mike Smith, quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons finally have that elusive playoff victory. One more home victory stands between them and the Super Bowl after Atlanta outlasted Seattle in the divisional round.

The San Francisco 49ers, overtime losers in the NFC Championship Game last year, are back on the verge of their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season. That 49ers team won it all with one of the all-time great ex-Falcons, Deion Sanders, playing cornerback for them.

Which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year? NFC West blogger Mike Sando and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas talked through the possibilities.

Sando: Pat, you just finished watching QBs Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan put on a show in the divisional round. If anyone upstaged them in these playoffs, it was 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick with his 181-yard rushing performance against Green Bay. Kaepernick had 263 yards passing, two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns. Kaepernick now owns victories over Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in his first eight starts. It's looking like he's going to be the key variable in this game against the Falcons.

Yasinskas: No doubt, Mike. I'm still trying to process what Kaepernick did against Green Bay, and I'm sure the Falcons are looking hard at that. They have to be worried, especially after what they put on tape against Seattle. They played a great first half, but Seattle QB Russell Wilson exploited them in the second half. The Falcons struggled with QB Cam Newton and the read-option offense in the regular season. The Falcons allowed quarterbacks to run for a league-high 8.9 yards per attempt (excluding kneel-downs) this season. Kaepernick can do the read-option, but the 49ers also can turn to RB Frank Gore in the traditional running game, and they can throw the ball. That's a scary combination, and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is going to have to come up with an innovative game plan against the team he once coached.

Sando: Some NFL coaching people I've spoken with thought the Packers had a horrible plan. Of course, that's easy to say after a team gives up 181 yards rushing to a quarterback. But from this view, it appeared as though the Packers played too much man coverage, turning their backs to Kaepernick and giving him too many free running lanes. Even before Kaepernick became the starter, San Francisco was known around the league for having a higher volume of running plays in its arsenal than other teams do. Kaepernick opens up another dimension. What was the key to Cam Newton's running success against Atlanta this season?

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesMichael Turner averaged 7.0 yards per carry in Sunday's win over Seattle.
Yasinskas: Newton and the Panthers used the read-option pretty much to perfection against Atlanta. Carolina got the defensive ends and linebackers to commit and Newton made the right calls. He's a unique talent, and so is Kaepernick. But I think San Francisco could present even more of a challenge due to Gore. Atlanta's defense had issues with the read-option. But the Falcons weren't all that great against any sort of running game. The Falcons use a lot of nickel packages, and that may put them at a disadvantage against the run. They might have to use a little more of their 4-3 base defense and keep middle linebacker Akeem Dent on the field more.

Sando: The 49ers' offensive personnel are heavier than just about any other team. That will force the Falcons to play their base defense on early downs. I dug up a couple of numbers from ESPN game charts to illustrate the point. The 49ers' opponents played nickel or dime defense on only 128 first- or second-down plays this season; for the Falcons' opponents, that number was 396. Against the Packers' nickel/dime defenses, Kaepernick carried 11 times for 107 yards, including his 20-yard touchdown run. He carried three times for 76 yards against the Packers' base 3-4 personnel. That included his 56-yard run. The 49ers can present matchup problems from their two-tight end offense because Vernon Davis (4.38 40-yard dash) and Delanie Walker (4.49) run well. Davis' 44-yard reception against the Packers was a great sign for San Francisco.

Yasinskas: Yes, I think San Francisco's offense is going to present all sorts of problems for Atlanta's defense. But I think the flip side is that Atlanta's offense is going to present matchup problems, even for a very good 49ers defense. Roddy White and Julio Jones command a lot of attention. But no defense can overlook tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas. Both are dependable and dangerous, as shown on Atlanta's game-winning drive against Seattle. Those are four very solid weapons. And let's not forget the fact that Atlanta's run game came to life against the Seahawks. If Michael Turner can show up again, San Francisco's defense is going to have its hands full.

Sando: The 49ers have sometimes let Patrick Willis match up with opposing tight ends. Willis has covered pretty well much of the time, in my view. The 49ers gave up a league-low 613 yards to tight ends, but they ranked only 21st in passer rating allowed (98.5) when opponents targeted the position. San Francisco allowed eight touchdown passes to tight ends. Only five teams allowed more. Kyle Rudolph had two scoring catches against San Francisco. Jermichael Finley, David Thomas, Brandon Pettigrew, Anthony McCoy, Anthony Fasano and Aaron Hernandez also caught touchdowns against the 49ers this season. The key for San Francisco will be pressuring Ryan without blitzing. That appears possible now that defensive end Justin Smith is back and playing pretty well.

Yasinskas: Yes, San Francisco's pass rush will be a key to this game. Atlanta's offensive line, which was a problem spot last season, has enjoyed a resurgence this season with the arrival of offensive line coach Pat Hill. He's had the line playing well most of the season, and the unit was particularly good against Seattle. Ryan wasn't sacked and was barely pressured. Hill's biggest accomplishment has been getting a solid season out of left tackle Sam Baker. Baker was a first-round draft pick in 2008. His first four seasons were filled with inconsistency and injuries, but he has stayed healthy this season and has played at a high level. The rest of Atlanta's offensive line doesn't have great individual talent. But Hill has this line blocking well for the passing game. The running game has been a different story. Turner had a big game against Seattle. But during the regular season, he wasn't the same back he was in past years. I think part of it is because age is catching up to him, but part of it is because the run blocking wasn't great. Atlanta has made the transition toward being a pass-first team, and the offensive line is much better at pass blocking than it is at run blocking. Still, coach Mike Smith believes it's important to have a running game, and he's going to try to establish one with Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers against San Francisco.

[+] EnlargeJustin Smith, DuJuan Smith
Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee/MCTJustin Smith turned in a strong performance Sunday in his first game back from a torn triceps.
Sando: Seattle, despite leading the NFL in fewest points allowed, ranked 30th in yards per rush allowed since Week 7. The Seahawks resorted to risky tactics after losing their best pass-rusher, Chris Clemons, to injury in the wild-card round. Seattle simply couldn't get to Ryan without compromising its coverage. Ryan threw an early pick against DB pressure, but after that, he completed 7 of 8 passes for 111 yards and a score when the Seahawks rushed a member of their secondary, according to ESPN Stats & Information. San Francisco rushed a DB just twice against the Packers on Saturday night. Justin Smith's ability to play 91 percent of the snaps for the 49ers following a triceps injury was huge for San Francisco. The 49ers need him. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith has 19.5 sacks this season, but none since he had two against Miami in Week 14. The 49ers need the Smiths to pick up where they left off before Justin's injury. That is a key to this game.

Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta's offensive line has to give Ryan time to throw the ball. A lot of Ryan's critics say he doesn't have a strong arm. But I think he has plenty of arm strength and he showed that with his long touchdown pass to White against Seattle. The key for Ryan in the deep game is for his offensive line to give him time. The Falcons like to use play-action, and that will help. But I think it also helps the offensive line that this game is in the Georgia Dome, so false starts won't be a problem. You brought up a good point last week in showing that Ryan's statistics haven't been as good at home as on the road. That's true. But the Falcons need to capitalize Sunday on the home-field advantage. This franchise has been around since 1966, but it's the first time a championship game will be played in Atlanta. After years of playing second fiddle to the Braves and college football, the Falcons have become the biggest thing in town. Fans finally are embracing this team, and the noise in the Georgia Dome could be a big help for the Falcons.

Sando: The 49ers allowed 38 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season. That was tied for third-fewest (Seattle allowed 40, sixth-fewest). I kept waiting for Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor to deliver a game-changing hit. It never happened. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are the big hitters for the 49ers. They need to be tone-setters down the field. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the physical aspect of this game plays out. That's an area where the 49ers need to win. I tend to think they will, as long as Justin Smith can give them 90 percent playing time once again. How do you see this one going?

Yasinskas: The 49ers probably are the more physical team, and I was very impressed with how they played overall against Green Bay. But following a hunch, I'm taking the Falcons 31-27. I think putting an end to the playoff-win drought will allow Atlanta to be loose and relaxed, especially in the case of Ryan. Playing at home also helps. Atlanta's defense needs to show up for 60 minutes this time. If it does, I think Atlanta has enough offensive firepower to score points even against a good defense and win this game. I see the Falcons going to the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history.

Sando: I'm not sure if I feel better or worse about the Falcons after watching that game against Seattle. The Seahawks had zero pass rush and I think that was the difference in the game, particularly at the very end. Looking ahead to Sunday, the Falcons have the more accomplished quarterback, but so did the Packers and Patriots and Saints. Kaepernick beat them all. I would give the Falcons the edge at receiver despite Michael Crabtree's development. Atlanta has the better kicker. I'd give the 49ers an edge on the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker and in the secondary. We were talking about Tony Gonzalez earlier. Great player, but would he even start for the 49ers? Not over Vernon Davis, crazy as that sounds. San Francisco is better at running back, too. Maybe the Falcons will pull out another wild one at home, but I just think the 49ers are better. I'll take them to win it 30-17. If the Falcons win, they were better than I thought at every step this season.
The Associated Press and Pro Football Weekly/Professional Football Writers of America have announced their all-NFL first teams for the 2012 season.

I've compiled the results here and compared them against our all-division team.

As expected, Seattle's Richard Sherman earned all-league honors from both the AP and PFW/PFWA despite failing to land on the NFC's Pro Bowl squad. Pro Bowl voting took place before the NFL overturned a four-game suspension against Sherman for alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The NFC West is heavily represented on all-league teams despite no representation for the St. Louis Rams or Arizona Cardinals on these first teams (I did not list the AP second-team honors). The 49ers (six) and Seahawks (four) gave the NFC West 10 of 27 representatives on the AP first team.

I used slightly different position names for some spots on the all-division team. Those are noted parenthetically next to the players' names.

Ryan-ShermanUSA TODAY SportsIf Matt Ryan and the Falcons come out throwing, Seattle CB Richard Sherman stands ready.
Northwest meets Southeast when the Seattle Seahawks visit the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC divisional playoff game Sunday.

Seattle is fresh off its first road playoff victory since 1983, having won 24-14 at Washington in the wild-card round. The Seahawks are now 2-1 in postseason play during Pete Carroll's first three seasons as head coach.

As for the Falcons, well, you know the story. They're the No. 1 seed in the NFC and they'll be playing at home. But as NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas can attest, they haven't accomplished anything yet.

That's where we pick up the conversation.

Yasinskas: The world knows the Falcons have yet to win a playoff game in the Mike Smith-Matt Ryan era. That places enormous pressure on the Falcons, and the Seahawks look a little reminiscent of Atlanta's past two playoff opponents -- the Packers and Giants, who each went on to win the Super Bowl. The Seahawks won their last five regular-season games and seven of their past eight. Throw in their playoff victory against Washington on Sunday and you've got a team that's red hot. Atlanta has the better record and home-field advantage, but the playoff drought brings tremendous pressure. If the Falcons don't win this time around, the patience of owner Arthur Blank will become very thin.

Sando: The Falcons' past struggles in playoff games have invited skepticism from a lot of us. I've taken heat from some Falcons fans this season for allegedly underrating Atlanta in the power rankings. How good is this team right now and how much confidence should Falcons fans have in this team against Seattle?

Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta fans have shared their opinions with me about where you ranked the Falcons on your ballot. But you might not have been that far off. The Falcons were a bit of an enigma much of the season. They were winning a lot of games, but weren't winning them impressively. They did come on late in the season, aside from a meaningless loss to Tampa Bay in the season finale. This is a team with a tremendous amount of individual talent, and the Falcons are very good at home. But they can't afford to revert back to their early-season ways of playing just well enough to win, because that might get them beat.

Sando: The Seahawks are playing without the burden of expectations. They are very good at quarterback, running back and in the secondary. The read option has added an unconventional element to their offense. Still, winning a 10 a.m. PT game on the road against a very good offensive team will be tough. The Seahawks have started slowly in their past two games. I think they'll have a harder time if that happens again. Along those lines, have the Falcons been able to jump on teams early at home and finish them off? One memory I have is watching Arizona pick off Ryan five times.

Yasinskas: The Arizona game was the only time in Ryan's life (including college, high school and youth league) when he's thrown five interceptions in a game. That was a fluke. Some of those balls were tipped. Ryan generally is very efficient. And starting fast is one of the trademarks of Ryan and the Falcons. Since Ryan entered the league in 2008, the Falcons have scored more points on their first offensive drives than any team in the NFL. They pride themselves on starting fast, and they're particularly good at that in the Georgia Dome.

Sando: The Seahawks fell behind St. Louis and Washington early. They have shown an ability to come back. They were down by 13 to New England and won. They trailed Washington by 14 points and won. They're not slow starters by rule. Seattle was tied with Atlanta for seventh in first-quarter touchdown drives (11) during the regular season. It has been in only the past couple weeks that teams have thrown off the Seahawks early with their blitzes. Seattle came out passing against the Redskins. We'll see heavier early doses of Marshawn Lynch on Sunday.

Yasinskas: I'm certain we will see heavier doses of Lynch. Stopping the run is not Atlanta's strength. The Falcons ranked 21st against the run in the regular season and they've been known to have problems with power runners. That's why it's crucial for the Falcons to get an early lead and force the Seahawks to pass. The other thing I think you'll see is a lot of middle linebacker Akeem Dent. The Falcons used a lot of the nickel package in the regular season, and that kept Dent on the sidelines. But against the Seahawks, I think it's more important for the Falcons to focus on stopping the run, and they'll want Dent on the field for that.

Sando: Interesting. Seattle could counter by shifting into its three-receiver offense and then going with its read-option package. Lynch scored the winning 27-yard touchdown against the Redskins on an option run from three-receiver personnel against Washington's nickel defense. The option has become a reliable tactic for Seattle. Opponents have a tough time determining whether Lynch or Russell Wilson is going to run with the ball. They also must respect the play-action passing game. The Seahawks had 11 rushes for 110 yards on option runs on Sunday. They had 224 yards rushing overall. I noticed Cam Newton had 202 yards rushing in two games against the Falcons this season. What was the nature of those rushes and do you see anything Seattle can cull from that?

Yasinskas: Newton did have success against Atlanta, but the Falcons still were able to split with the Panthers. They also held Robert Griffin III to one carry for 7 yards in an early victory at Washington. They won against another mobile quarterback in Michael Vick. So the Falcons have some experience in facing mobile quarterbacks and the read option. I'm sure they used the bye week to prepare to see it again because they knew they'd be facing Wilson or Griffin. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is the key player against the read option. He's the leader of the defense and probably the best player on the unit.

Sando: The Panthers had 21 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown using the option against Atlanta in Week 4. There will be other keys to this game. Wilson's ability to deal with the Falcons' blitzes could be one of them. Wilson had seven touchdowns, no picks, three sacks and the NFL's third-best Total QBR score (87.2) against five-plus pass-rushers from Week 8 through Week 16. That included going 6-of-6 for 91 yards and a score with a perfect 100.0 QBR against the 49ers' blitzes during a 42-13 victory in Week 16. Wilson wasn't quite as good in this regard against the Rams in Week 17, taking three sacks against their pressure. The Redskins held Wilson to a season-low 9.7 QBR against the blitz. Wilson has taken eight sacks against the blitz over the past two games after taking eight total over the previous 15 games.

Yasinskas: Wilson is incredibly poised. But he still is a rookie coming into a tough venue in a playoff game, so I'm pretty sure defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will try every way possible to pressure him. Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford were the only quarterbacks all season to have much success against Atlanta's blitzes. Nolan likes to mix things up. The Atlanta pass rush starts with defensive end John Abraham, but Nolan has found ways to complement him. Nolan's not afraid to drop defensive end Kroy Biermann into pass coverage and let a linebacker or a defensive back blitz. The Falcons often talk about "disguising" their pass rush, and I'm sure they'll try to do lots of that against a rookie quarterback.

Sando: Wilson has generally improved as the season has progressed, but he has been hit-and-miss all season against DB pressure. Wilson has three touchdowns, two picks, four sacks and a 17.9 QBR score when opponents rush a member of the secondary. He did make Minnesota, Miami and San Francisco (twice) pay for the tactic, however.

There's so much to consider in this matchup, Pat, that we haven't even gotten to one of the most crucial ones. Seattle's 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner and 6-3 Richard Sherman can be dominant cornerbacks. They disrupt receivers' timing and generally get under their skin. You might recall Carolina's Steve Smith just about losing it against Sherman earlier this season. Even the Redskins' left tackle went after him Sunday. If the Falcons win this game, Ryan is going to be the reason, I think. Should the Falcons' receivers like their chances? Or could we see Ryan becoming a bit tentative against big, physical, ball-hawking corners?

Yasinskas: I think the Falcons have to come out and be very aggressive with their passing game. It's the strength of their offense. This is a different team from those of the past. Michael Turner is at the end of his career and this is not a running team any longer. Roddy White and Julio Jones are big, physical receivers, so I say let's see strength on strength with Seattle's corners. I think White and Jones can get open against anyone, so the Falcons need to take their chances. Plus, this passing game is about more than just Jones and White. They command so much attention that tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas could be forgotten. I think Douglas and/or Gonzalez could end up being key players in this game.

Sando: Seattle has been very good against tight ends for the most part. I'd be surprised if Gonzalez factored in a big way. Seattle has allowed three touchdown passes to tight ends this season, tied for second-fewest in the NFL. The Seahawks have allowed 10 scoring passes to wide receivers, the fifth-fewest in the league. Sherman had eight picks and three forced fumbles this season, joining Ed Reed, Charles Woodson and Walt Harris as the only players to reach those totals in a season over the past decade. The Seahawks are not as strong at nickel corner, however. And with leading sacker Chris Clemons likely out with a knee injury, life could get tougher for Seattle in the secondary.

Yasinskas: Mike, like just about everyone in the media, I'm skeptical of the Falcons because of their recent playoff losses. But I think this is the year they finally get a victory in the postseason. This is a different team from past years. I think the Falcons will put the game in Ryan's hands and I think they'll win 28-20.

Sando: I think the Falcons are finally ready to break through and win in the postseason. I'm just not sure they've drawn the right opponent to make that happen. Seattle is the more physical team. The Seahawks have beaten seven teams that finished the regular season with a winning record (the number is two for Atlanta). While Seattle was posting the NFL's best strength-of-victory percentage, the Falcons were fattening up on the NFL's easiest schedule. Atlanta is at once the No. 1 seed and the team stepping up in class. Ryan's going to need a great game to prove wrong my 27-20 prediction for another Seahawks victory.

Around the NFC West: No fumbled chances

October, 26, 2012
10/26/12
9:24
AM ET

Larry Fitzgerald has dropped only two passes in 218 targets since the start of the 2011 seasons.

That is impressive, but it also comes as little surprise.

It's news in the NFC West whenever Fitzgerald drops a ball, so when it happened during a Week 5 game against the St. Louis Rams, reports noted that the Arizona Cardinals receiver had gone 159 targets without one.

Here's a lesser-known note on Fitzgerald: He hasn't fumbled in a regular-season game since 2008.

Fitzgerald has made 337 receptions without fumbling since Josh Wilson, then with Seattle, forced the ball loose following a 21-yard Fitzgerald reception in the third quarter of a Nov. 16, 2008 road game against the Seahawks. Cardinals teammate Anquan Boldin recovered that fumble.

Arizona hasn't lost possession on a Fitzgerald fumble since it happened three times during a four-game period in 2007.

Of the 33 players with at least 200 receptions since 2009, Fitzgerald is the only wide receiver without a fumble. Tight ends Tony Gonzalez and Brent Celek also have no fumbles and 200-plus catches during that span.

The San Francisco 49ers' Michael Crabtree is the only receiver besides Fitzgerald with at least 200 catches since 2009 and fewer than two fumbles.

The players with the most -- Davone Bess has 14 fumbles during that span, for example -- tend to be return specialists.

Note: The fact that I'm acknowledging the potential jinx factor in this sentence absolves me from any blame if Fitzgerald or Crabtree suddenly start coughing up the football.
There's little sense in taking the bait when San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tells a radio program Michael Crabtree "has the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crabtree suffered six drops last season by that standard, a few too many for the player with the best hands his head coach has ever seen on a wide receiver.
Eight of John Clayton's 10 best tight ends have one thing in common: a Pro Bowl quarterback.

Vernon Davis, ranked fifth, was an exception.

We hear quite a bit about tight ends taking pressure off quarterbacks, but it's tough for any tight end to produce at an elite level without a high-producing quarterback. Zach Miller might have landed on this list a year ago, but his production fell sharply with Seattle last season -- more a reflection of quarterbacks and the offense than of Miller.

Davis' 26 touchdown receptions since 2009 rank second only to Rob Gronkowski (27) among NFL tight ends. He has always had a strong rapport with Alex Smith.

Davis' playoff production sets him apart from most tight ends. He had 10 receptions for 292 yards and four touchdowns in two postseason games.

Torry Holt's formal retirement from the NFL -- as a St. Louis Ram, fittingly -- will touch off the usual discussions about Hall of Fame worthiness.

In the meantime, consider this an appreciation.

Holt was the NFC West wide receiver opponents feared most during the first five or six years following divisional realignment in 2002. He could beat defenses with his speed and then make spectacular, seemingly impossible plays on the ball against coverage.

Terrell Owens left the division following the 2003 season. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin were still ascending. Holt's teammate in St. Louis, Isaac Bruce, remained formidable, but Holt was increasingly the dominant force.

From 2000 through 2007, Holt strung together eight consecutive seasons with at least 81 receptions and 1,188 yards. That included two 1,600-yard seasons and four others with at least 1,300 yards. He averaged 19.9 yards per reception in 2000 and 106 yards per game in 2003, figures that led the NFL in those seasons.

My previous job as a Seattle Seahawks beat reporter provided a first-hand view for some of Holt's finest moments. His eight catches for 154 yards and three touchdowns against Seattle during a 2006 shootout at the Edward Jones Dome stands out. The Rams trailed 27-21 with three minutes remaining when Leonard Little forced a Maurice Morris fumble. Less than a minute later, Holt's 67-yard touchdown catch had the Rams in the lead.

Safety Michael Boulware had deflected the pass and nearly intercepted it. Holt somehow gathered the ball, a deep heave from Marc Bulger, and ran into the end zone for the go-ahead score.

"Until he caught it, I thought I was catching it," Boulware said at the time. "I'm still kind of ... I can't believe that he caught it."

Holt was a Seahawk killer in those days. He finished his career with 91 receptions for 1,247 yards and eight touchdowns in 16 games against Seattle. But Holt did not discriminate. He lit up Arizona with 101 receptions for 1,417 yards and nine scores in 15 games. Holt had 116 receptions for 1,542 yards and seven touchdowns in 21 games against San Francisco, a team he faced in the NFC West before and after realignment.

Purely by coincidence, I cued up that 2006 Seahawks-Rams game on Tuesday night when my kids asked if they could watch an old game on their DVD player before bedtime.

We watched Holt dominate, at one point catching a 9-yard scoring pass against Marcus Trufant before Trufant could even turn to locate the ball. After a while, my youngest son, 7, asked whether Holt was in the Hall of Fame. The question was premature, as Holt will not be eligible for another five years. But the case for him is a strong one.

Holt had more receptions and receiving yards than any player from 2000 to 2009. He was fifth in receiving touchdowns during that time, a respectable total that suffered because the Rams had other options. He won one Super Bowl and played in another.

The Rams have struggled to replace Holt in recent seasons. They hold the sixth pick in the 2012 draft and could select Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, if available. Holt, the sixth player chosen in 1999, set the bar high.

Sando chat scheduled for 1 p.m. ET

January, 5, 2012
1/05/12
9:26
AM ET
There will be no first-round playoff bye for the NFC West chat.

Hope to see you there at 1 p.m. ET.

All NFC West subjects are on the table.

Here's one I ran across Thursday morning: Vernon Davis ranks tied for 79th in red zone targets this season. He has nine, well below the totals for some of the leading tight ends in the playoffs. Jimmy Graham has 28, Rob Gronkowski has 26 and Aaron Hernandez has 24. Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Gonzalez have 21.

Davis ranks eighth in touchdowns per red zone target among players with at least nine targets, however. He has four red zone TDs.

Get him the ball.
Our ongoing discussion on tight ends raised questions about which ones possess the best -- and worst -- hands.

"Any way you can add in 'thrown to' and 'drops' in this stat?" Furfanam asked in one comments section.

Consider it done.

Jason Vida of ESPN Stats & Information produced the information. I've broken it out in four charts. A few notes on the findings:
The first chart ranks NFL tight ends by most receptions. It also shows number of targets, drops and drop percentage. Witten, Jacob Tamme and Gates were the only tight ends with at least 50 receptions and no more than two dropped passes.



The second chart shows lowest drop percentages among tight ends targeted at least 20 times last season. Miller's standing atop the list backs up James Walker's contention that the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end was underrated in our power rankings.



The third chart ranks NFL tight ends with at least 20 targets by the highest percentage of dropped passes.

ESPN Stats & Information's totals on Bajema matched my charting. I had Bajema dropping passes against Tennessee, Denver and Arizona.



The final chart focuses only on NFC West tight ends, ranking them by lowest percentage of dropped passes.

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