NFC West: Wes Welker

49ers vs. Broncos preview

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
8:00
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Prime time is the right time for a game between teams that entered the season at the front of the Super Bowl conversation.

At least that is how Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. sees it.

"You face any other top teams in the league, you always want to get up for them," Harris Jr. said. "It’s Sunday night prime time, so we want to have a good showing. We want to go out there and show we’re definitely a contender, definitely one of the top teams. ... They have a great team; they’ve been together for a while, so they know how to play together in these big games."

The San Francisco 49ers will be the fifth team the Broncos (4-1) have played this season that won at least 10 games in 2013 -- "we’ve had a salty schedule," is how Broncos coach John Fox has put it -- and the 49ers (4-2) own the only win against the Dallas Cowboys this season and have won three in a row.

ESPN's 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup:

Legwold: Paul, it seems, at least from the outside, like there has been plenty of turmoil this season with reports 49ers players are tuning Jim Harbaugh out and that Harbaugh won’t return after this season. What’s the mood in the locker room? And how do you think Harbaugh interacts with the team?

Gutierrez: It’s important to note that most, if not all, of these reports have come from national reporters, particularly from a certain league-owned media outlet. And to the conspiracy theorist in me, that means the leaks are coming from within the 49ers and above Harbaugh’s pay grade. As I’ve said before, Harbaugh likes to make his players uncomfortable because he believes that brings out the best in them. I wonder if that same mentality is being thrust upon Harbaugh’s coaching skills. As far as the locker room goes, to a man and on the record, the players say they have Harbaugh’s back, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick saying he would go to "war" with his coach. And technically, Harbaugh still has a year left on his deal. It’s just that talks of extension have been tabled until after the season. It has made for a wild ride thus far, no doubt, and Harbaugh has made a point to wander through the locker room to chat with players during media access periods during the week.

Speaking of bedside manner, Fox has been seen as a folksy players' coach from yesteryear, at least, to the outsider. How much of his personality has rubbed off on the players, and is that a reason the Broncos have been able to shake off the sting of last February’s Super Bowl disaster?

Legwold: When Fox missed four games last season because of heart valve surgery, the word most of the players, as well as the coaches on Fox’s staff, used to describe what was missing while Fox was away was "energy." Those who have worked with him say Fox’s greatest attribute, beyond the on-field work, is giving those in the organization the belief their job is an important part of the process, no matter where the job fits within the organization. Yes, the Broncos have won plenty of games along the way, and having Peyton Manning at quarterback is a spectacular starting point for any head coach, but Fox has support in the locker room, in the executive offices, and a contract extension signed this past offseason. That said, he has also been the guy in charge when the Broncos have come up short, and in the case of the Super Bowl, 35 points short.

Moving toward the field, how have the 49ers' wide receivers helped Kaepernick?

Gutierrez: At first, it was a hot mess. The 49ers seemed to forget they were a team built on a power running game, and Kaepernick looked out of sorts with all of the shiny toys at his disposal, with Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd joining Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin as wideouts, and tight end Vernon Davis. Then, about Week 4, the 49ers rediscovered their identity behind running back Frank Gore and, voila, the passing game blossomed. This past week, Kaepernick threw three touchdown passes to three different wideouts without an interception. Crabtree might be his favorite receiver, and Lloyd has become his most explosive down the left sideline, but Boldin is his Mr. Dependable underneath. It is, without a doubt, helping Kaepernick’s maturation process. Especially since there does not seem to be any selfishness going on with the receivers. Just healthy competition. At least, that’s how it looks when the team is winning.

Manning, meanwhile, does not seem to have missed a beat after losing receivers Eric Decker to the New York Jets and Wes Welker to injury. Is Manning simply so good that he elevates the play of those around him, or is it a scheme thing in Denver?

Legwold: In all that Manning has done in his career, the fact he has lifted his play to its current level following spinal fusion surgery in 2011 -- his fourth neck surgery -- is a remarkable achievement. The guy has started 37 games for the Broncos and thrown 107 touchdown passes in those games. The offense was built for him; he runs it with complete freedom to change any call to any play at any time. And at this stage of his career, with his work habits, he might think the game better than anyone who has played the position. But all of that said, there is a perfect-storm effect in Denver as well. Adam Gase is an innovative risk-taker as an offensive coordinator who paid his coaching dues to earn his spot. Receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas are elite players, Welker is routinely called the best slot receiver in the NFL by opposing coaches, and in his time with Manning, Emmanuel Sanders will go from a player folks thought was pretty good to Pro Bowl worthy. So Manning has been very good for the Broncos, and the Broncos, with Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway calling the personnel shots for the team, have built a quality landing spot for Manning.

Some teams have been aggressive coming after Manning with the blitz, like the Cardinals, while the Jets consistently dropped eight into coverage last weekend. How do you think the 49ers will approach it?

Gutierrez: Let’s just say, both ways. Yes, the 49ers brought the house against the St. Louis Rams’ Austin Davis, sacking him five times (the total doubled the 49ers’ season sack total to 10) and pressuring him on 44 percent of his dropbacks (a season high for the 49ers), but, as you know, Manning loves it when teams blitz him. His 2.25-second release is the second best in the league, again, per our friends at ESPN Stats & Info. Yet, his 92.8 total rating when not pressured since joining Denver in 2012 is the league’s best, and the 49ers rank 23rd in pressure percentage. So yeah, the best way to affect Manning is by bringing pressure. Just pick your poison in doses, I guess, right? What might make it all a moot point is the potential loss of All-Pro inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who injured a toe Monday night. We’re talking about a linebacker corps already missing the suspended Aldon Smith and the recuperating NaVorro Bowman.

Manning, who needs two touchdown passes to tie Brett Favre's career record (508), always comes across as disinterested in records and his legacy. But surely, holding the passing touchdown record would mean something to him, right? How important do you think holding the mark would be to him?

Legwold: This is all something he will have to get used to as many of these records approach, especially if he plays one or two more seasons following this one. Certainly his legacy is important to him, but it gets lost sometimes because he is so competitive. People talk about his intellect and his ability to digest information and recall things he has seen in his career. But it would be impossible to play as many consecutive games as he played before his spinal fusion surgery kept him out of the 2011 season (208 consecutive regular-season games) and to push himself as hard as he does if he were not one of the most competitive people in the game. So, in that vein he wants Super Bowls and knows his career clock is winding down. So, though the records will be something he respects, and at some point enjoys, his desire to play for a Super Bowl champion trumps everything right now, including the touchdown mark.

One of the most interesting side stories in the NFL between now and the start of free agency next March will be how what will happen with a potentially powerful receiver class.

Michael Crabtree and the San Francisco 49ers will surely be watching closely.

There are 10 receivers who are poised to be free agents after the year that have to be considered top-flight wideouts. Crabtree is one of them.

ESPN Insider Mike Sando polled general managers Insider and coaches to put together a ranking of the top 10 potential receiver free agents. Crabtree ranked third on the list behind Dallas' Dez Bryant and Denver's Demaryius Thomas. Among the others on the list were Green Bay's Jordy Nelson at No. 4, Denver's Wes Welker at No. 7 and Atlanta's Roddy White at No. 9.

This what Sando wrote about Crabtree:
The 49ers had a hard time signing Crabtree as a rookie in part because Crabtree thought he was worth more than what players in his draft slot generally received. That difficult negotiation remains in my mind as Crabtree approaches free agency. He missed some of last season with a torn Achilles' tendon, placing greater importance on the 2014 season for setting his value. Will this be another tough negotiation? “Crabtree and Bryant are probably the two most talented guys on the list,” one of the GMs said. “Demaryius Thomas would be up there. Some people will worry about Crabtree's personality a little bit.”

This is how I would rank the top three: Thomas, Bryant, Crabtree.

Regardless, Crabtree would be highly sought after in free agency if it gets to that point. The 49ers have enough current salary cap room to potentially get a deal done with Crabtree done this year. Also, if it gets to that point, the 49ers could give Crabtree the franchise tag.

Whether Crabtree is signed this year or not, I'm sure others on this list will be signed. It will both lessen and set the market. Receivers will be in the spotlight in the NFL and Crabtree's future is a big part of the intrigue.
Looking back on three things discussed here before the Seattle Seahawks' second exhibition game of the 2013 preseason, a 40-10 victory at home against the Denver Broncos on Saturday night:

1. The starting QBs. Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson combined to complete 19 of 28 passes for 290 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and one sack. Manning took a hard hit from Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner and was slow to rise following the play, but he finished that drive with a touchdown pass to Wes Welker and played extensively thereafter. Wilson's perfectly delivered 33-yard sideline strike to Golden Tate against Champ Bailey was a highlight for Seattle. Both quarterbacks impressed and both played extensively, one reason this game felt more intense than the typical preseason matchup.

2. No-huddle defense. The Seahawks forced a three-and-out on the Broncos' first possession, but Manning had little trouble directing Denver's offense from that point forward. Ronnie Hillman's fumble near the goal line killed one drive after 14 plays and 79 yards. The Broncos lost two fumbles on their first four possessions. Seattle's defense gets some credit for that, but not for handling the Broncos' fast-paced offense.

3. Winfield factor. The Seahawks sought to upgrade their nickel defense when they signed slot corner Antoine Winfield in free agency. Winfield was the nearest defender when Manning completed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Welker, but it wasn't clear to me whether Winfield had the coverage exclusively or if he was passing off Welker to another defender. Either way, Welker scored from the slot on the play. While with New England last season, Welker caught 10 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown against Seattle.

Note: I filed this in the third quarter because there was nothing more to see in relation to these three areas of interest.

Three things: Broncos-Seahawks

August, 17, 2013
8/17/13
3:00
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Three things to watch for Saturday night in the Seattle Seahawks' second exhibition game of the 2013 season, set for 10 p.m. ET at home against the Denver Broncos:

1. The starting QBs. The Seahawks' leadership begged Peyton Manning to consider signing with the team in March 2012. Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider flew to Denver for a chance to meet with Manning, but the quarterback wouldn't engage them. Seattle came out fine by drafting Russell Wilson, who tied Manning's rookie record for touchdown passes. The Broncos and Seahawks are thrilled with how things turned out. Fans will get a chance to see both QBs in the same stadium Saturday night.

2. No-huddle defense. Carroll welcomed a chance to play the Broncos during preseason because his defense could use the work against Manning's no-huddle pacing. How will the defense fare? Carroll: "He’s as good as you can get. … We’ve emphasized it all week long knowing that it will be around for the rest of the season."

3. Winfield factor. The Seahawks signed slot corner Antoine Winfield to upgrade their nickel defense against receivers such as the Broncos' Wes Welker. Last season, Welker caught nine passes for 129 yards and a touchdown against Seattle while working from the slot. No player had more catches or yards from the slot against Seattle all season. Will this game give us a better feel for how the Seahawks will match up in that regard? Might Walter Thurmond get some chances to defend the slot as well?
Wes WelkerAP Photo/Elise AmendolaRobert Kraft's insight on how the Wes Welker deal fell apart has implications for the entire league.
PHOENIX -- New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft's comments regarding the Wes Welker situation made for compelling theater at the NFL owners meeting Monday.

Reporters long familiar with the Patriots' ways could not believe what they were hearing. Some of what Kraft said has applications to the NFC West with regard to the franchise tag, the salary cap and how teams value players.

Kraft, addressing what he called misconceptions about the team's efforts to re-sign Welker, concluded that the Patriots and Welker both lost when the receiver signed with Denver. He blamed Welker's agents for miscalculating the market. He used the word "bogus" when told agent David Dunn had said the Patriots never made an offer. He questioned whether Welker would last more than one year with the Broncos. And he called the Patriots' offer superior to the one Welker signed with Denver.

The comments provided a window into the emotional side of NFL franchise ownership. Kraft was ticked off about losing Welker. He was ticked off about how the Patriots' handling of the situation had been portrayed. He wasn't going to take it anymore, and he went off.

I've singled out a few of his comments for application to the NFC West.

Kraft: "For a couple years, we tried to get a long-term deal done with him. We couldn’t do a deal and we wound up franchising him at a very high number [$9.5 million]. In retrospect, I wish we could have wrapped that into an arrangement where it was part of a longer-term deal. But I really believe in this case, his agents misrepresented, in their mind, what his market value was."

NFC West application: The Patriots were the ones who set unrealistic expectations for Welker when they used the franchise tag to keep him off the market. Their decision to franchise Welker set his value at $9.5 million per season even though New England did not value him at that level over the course of a long-term deal. We've seen this happen in the NFC West with Karlos Dansby, Dashon Goldson, Oshiomogho Atogwe and other franchise players. In their case as in Welker's case, the franchise tag served its purpose in the short term while complicating efforts to strike a long-term deal.

Kraft: "When you come right down to the bottom line, he accepted a deal in Denver which is less money than what we offered him. In fact, he has a one-year deal in Denver for $6 million. Our last offer, before we would have even gone up and before we thought we were going into free agency, was a $10 million offer with incentives that would have earned him another $6 million if he performed the way he had the previous two years. But in Denver, he’s going to count $4 million against the cap this coming year and $8 million the second year. There is no guarantee that he plays the second year there. He will get $6 million the first year. Our deal, he would have gotten $8 million the first year."

NFC West application: Such candor is refreshing because it encourages smarter analysis of the contracts we hear misrepresented in some initial reports. We learned recently that the reported two-year, $15 million deal between Cliff Avril and the Seattle Seahawks was actually for $13 million, with $7 million of that in the second year. It could become a one-year deal for $6 million with a $2.25 million cap penalty in 2014 if Seattle releases him after one season. Next, we'll want to see the real numbers on the reported four-year, $36 million deal for St. Louis Rams tackle Jake Long.

Kraft: "Wes Welker, just to be very clear, was our first choice to be with the team. When free agency came, and his agents kept on insisting on a very high number that was beyond our number, we had to go work alternatives. Our second alternative was Danny Amendola. He had offers from other teams. So we made a judgment that Wes, unfortunately, probably wouldn’t be with us. We made this commitment to Amendola."

NFC West application: Amendola is getting $10 million in guaranteed money from the Patriots, so he's coming out just fine financially. Still, the Welker fallout in New England creates a potentially tricky situation for Amendola, who left the Rams for New England on a five-year contract. Welker was beloved not only by Patriots fans, but also by two Boston icons in Kraft and quarterback Tom Brady. Amendola will have to perform at an exceedingly high level to make this deal work from an emotional Patriots perspective.

Kraft: "Let me tell you what’s happened in the NFL this year. The top 25 players have received $700 million. How many Pro Bowls do any of you think, cumulatively, those 25 players have gone to? Anyone have a guess? Six. So cumulatively, the players that got $700 [million] -– 25 players –- so that tells you that the trend is going to signing young, up-and-coming players. There were 52 starters –- and a starter is someone who plays more than eight games -- who have been cut this year, and 41 of them are over 30 years old. I don’t think this has ever happened the same way in the league."

NFC West application: Great info from Kraft, for starters. What he's saying lines up exactly with the lessons taken from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston not quite three weeks ago. It was becoming clear then that the San Francisco 49ers, having already invested heavily in their defense, would have to let some key players leave in free agency. Sustainability was the issue. Sure enough, the 49ers parted with Goldson, Delanie Walker and Isaac Sopoaga. Those players had been together with the 49ers since 2007. Walker and Sopoaga arrived even before that. Just as the Patriots did not feel OK paying whatever it took to keep Welker, a player they valued, the 49ers made tough choices, too.
A quick look at the contract figures suggests the New England Patriots valued St. Louis Rams free agent Danny Amendola more than they valued their own Wes Welker.

Bush
Amendola
After all, they gave Amendola a five-year deal for $31 million after watching Welker take a two-year, $12 million deal from the Denver Broncos.

The numbers aren't always what they seem, and in this case, I have a hard time taking them at face value.

Reports suggest the guaranteed money was $10 million for Amendola and $12 million for Welker. That could mean Amendola's five-year, $31 million deal is effectively a two-year deal for $10 million. That would not mean the Patriots signed Amendola to a phony deal. It would just mean New England could get out of the contract painlessly after two seasons.

The question here in the NFC West is whether or not the Rams should have paid enough early in the process to keep Amendola from getting away. I don't think there's a clear-cut answer. We've gone over some of the variables time and again.

I tend to think St. Louis would have had to pay a premium to keep Amendola, and that Amendola was unlikely to return once he hit the market. That makes it tough to judge the Rams as though they could have kept Amendola for what the Patriots wound up paying -- whatever that might be in the end.

Related: Mike Reiss offers thoughts on ESPNBoston.com. Field Yates also has some analysis there.
News that New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker is signing with the Denver Broncos could create an opening for St. Louis Rams receiver Danny Amendola.

In fact, I suspect the Patriots risked losing Welker in part because they knew Amendola would be available to them in free agency.

Amendola and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were together in St. Louis for the 2011 season. Amendola was hurt that year, a big disappointment for McDaniels.

"He has great quickness in a short area and when you talk about a smaller guy, he has that great ability to create some separation," McDaniels said of Amendola in 2011. "You gotta be really tough, you gotta be able to create some separation quick because you don't have all day to run a 5-yard route sometimes. You gotta get open. He does that and he has great hands and he’s really tough. He is everything you want in that regard."

Related: thoughts on Amendola; Amendola's worth to Rams.
The St. Louis Rams' Danny Amendola, like Wes Welker of New England, is a cat-quick slot receiver from Texas Tech with experience in Josh McDaniels' offense.

Neither receiver has a contract for the 2013 season. Neither was named his team's franchise player. Both could become unrestricted free agents March 12.


McDaniels' presence in New England as the Patriots' offensive coordinator would seem to make Amendola a viable fallback option for the team if Welker were to leave in free agency. As Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com wrote Monday, there were increasingly reasons to think Welker and the Patriots would reach agreement before the signing period opens. But with ESPN's Adam Schefter reporting Wednesday that Welker planned to test the market, it's good to remember that there are no guarantees.

If Welker were to re-sign with the Patriots, where would Amendola fit beyond New England or St. Louis? Would any team value him more than the Rams would value him?

Those aren't easy questions to answer. Amendola, like Rams teammate and fellow free-agent candidate Brandon Gibson, was with Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles before coming to the Rams. Before that, Amendola was with Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys in 2008, when Garrett was offensive coordinator.

Sometimes those past connections come into play when a player reaches free agency. Reid is the new head coach in Kansas City. Garrett fills the same role in Dallas. Reid's receivers coach, David Culley, is the same one he had in Philadelphia when Amendola was there in 2009.

But even if Amendola's ties to those teams' coaches were relevant, neither Kansas City nor Dallas appears to have a pressing need for a slot receiver. The Chiefs' Dexter McCluster and Tony Moeaki combined for 62 receptions from the slot last season, according to game charting from ESPN Stats & Information. The Cowboys' Miles Austin and Jason Witten combined for 83 slot receptions.

There could be other suitors, of course. There are other connections, too.

Amendola's offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, Marty Mornhinweg, has the same role with the New York Jets. One of his former offensive coordinators in St. Louis, Pat Shurmur, has the same job with the Eagles.

Again, though, does either team have a pressing need? Jeremy Kerley caught 43 passes for 612 yards from the slot for the Jets last season. Jason Avant had 50 catches for 609 yards from the slot for Philadelphia.

With Amendola coming off two injury-shortened seasons, the Rams should have a better shot at keeping him without overpaying, particularly if Welker re-signs. That would be good for St. Louis given the value Amendola has provided on third down in particular.

"He has great quickness in a short area and when you talk about a smaller guy, he has that great ability to create some separation," McDaniels said of Amendola in 2011, when he was the Rams' offensive coordinator. "You gotta be really tough, you gotta be able to create some separation quick because you don't have all day to run a 5-yard route sometimes. You gotta get open. He does that and he has great hands and he’s really tough. He is everything you want in that regard."

Searching for ways to slow Tom Brady

December, 12, 2012
12/12/12
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A few thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' defense matching up against the New England Patriots' offense in Week 15:

  • Pressure tactics. The 49ers rely on standard pressure 80 percent of the time, tied for fifth-highest. That means they send more than four pass-rushers on 20 percent of dropbacks. The approach sets up well against New England. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is good just about all the time, but he's particularly dangerous when teams trade coverage for pressure. Brady has 18 touchdowns, no picks and a 92.2 Total QBR score against five-plus rushers. As the chart at right shows, Brady is actually tougher to sack when teams come after him with additional rushers.
  • Trouble in the slot. Patriots receiver Wes Welker is a tough matchup for most teams. The 49ers' struggles against the St. Louis Rams' Danny Amendola comes to mind here. Amendola caught 11 passes for 102 yards against San Francisco in Week 10. He was trouble for 49ers slot corner Carlos Rogers. Welker fits the same mold. The 49ers might need to double-cover Welker. Fortunately for them, New England remains without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski. Before Monday night, Welker had caught 31 of 35 passes for 443 yards and two touchdowns from the right slot. He had more than double the targets from there as from anywhere else.
  • What has worked. The Miami Dolphins held Brady to 4 of 15 passing with two sacks and a 4.4 QBR score on first down, including 3 of 11 when rushing four or fewer defenders. Arizona was one of the few teams to succeed against New England while pressuring. Brady completed 1 of 4 passes for nine yards on third down when the Cardinals rushed five or more. However, the Patriots lost tight end Aaron Hernandez to injury in that game, affecting their plan. Overall, Brady has completed 25 of 33 passes with seven touchdowns, no interceptions, three sacks and a 98.1 QBR score when teams pressure him on third down.

Searching for weaknesses on Brady isn't very satisfying. I've been looking through his numbers from various personnel groups on various downs against various defensive personnel. Not much jumps out as a clear vulnerability.

The 49ers will of course need to pressure Brady with four-man rushes. A big game from NFL sacks leader Aldon Smith would certainly help. He has 15 sacks in his last seven games and 19.5 for the season.

San Francisco will also want to punish Welker and the other receivers after the catch. Brady is going to complete a high percentage of passes, most likely. There must be a price.

Seattle and Arizona fared well in limiting yards after the catch against New England. They also beat the Patriots. Getting Welker and teammates to the ground quickly could be a must against an offense as efficient as this one.

The 49ers rank seventh in yards after catch allowed per reception (2.7). Pittsburgh (2.4), the New York Jets (2.5) and Seattle (2.5) lead the league.

The chart below shows the Patriots' QB stats by opponent. Ryan Mallett completed 1 of 4 passes for 17 yards with one interception against the Houston Texans on Monday night.

Where Seahawks' pass game hits groove

December, 8, 2012
12/08/12
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Our Friday look at the St. Louis Rams' deep passing game required sorting quarterback production by how far passes traveled past the line of scrimmage.

The Rams' Sam Bradford was more effective than most on passes traveling more than 35 yards past the line, for example.

In filtering passes by distance, I noticed a sweet spot for Seattle's Russell Wilson between 16 and 25 yards downfield.

Wilson leads the NFL in passer rating and Total QBR on passes traveling that distance. He attempted only one of them against Arizona in Week 1, completing it for a 27-yard gain while going into two-minute mode shortly before halftime. The Seahawks were conservative in their handling of the rookie quarterback in that game. They're giving him more of the playbook heading into a Week 14 rematch with Arizona.

Arizona's defense ranks second in passer rating allowed and fourth in QBR allowed. The team Wilson dissected last week, Chicago, ranks higher in both. And as the chart shows, the Cardinals' defense has had problems defending passes thrown in the 16-25 range where Wilson has flourished. Arizona has allowed pass plays of 25-plus yards on these throws to Tom Crabtree, Roddy White, Lance Kendricks, Wes Welker, Brent Celek, James Jones, Zach Miller, Harry Douglas and Vernon Davis.

Sidney Rice leads the Seahawks with 10 receptions for 222 yards and a touchdown on these throws. Miller has seven catches for 165 yards on them, followed by Golden Tate with three for 93 yards, Doug Baldwin with three for 62 yards, Ben Obomanu with two for 52 yards and Anthony McCoy with two for 42.

Rice had four catches for 36 yards and a touchdown against Arizona in Week 1.

NFC West Stock Watch

November, 13, 2012
11/13/12
9:57
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Falling

1. Wayward Rams rookies. The St. Louis Rams battled to a 24-24 tie in San Francisco without cornerback Janoris Jenkins or receiver Chris Givens. Coach Jeff Fisher named both players inactive for violating team rules. Jenkins had been struggling in recent weeks. Givens was coming on strong and had produced at least one 50-plus reception in five consecutive games, a rookie record. The Rams ran their offense through Danny Amendola, but they certainly could have used another big-play threat in such a close game. Jenkins and Givens saw their stock fall Sunday.

2. 49ers run defense. The Rams weren't the first team to have success with inside runs against nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and the 49ers' usually stellar defense. Steven Jackson (101 yards), Marshawn Lynch (103) and Ahmad Bradshaw (116) have topped 100 yards rushing against San Francisco over the 49ers' past four games. The team had allowed just one 100-yard rusher (Lynch) over its previous 43 games.

3. Isaiah Pead, Rams RB. The rookie running back lost a critical fourth-quarter fumble against the 49ers. The 49ers took over at the St. Louis 20 and scored a quick touchdown for a 21-17 lead with 8:29 remaining in regulation. Pead fumbled during a kickoff return following a 49ers touchdown. The miscue was part of a 19-second sequence in which a 10-point Rams lead turned into a four-point Rams deficit.

4. Rams' opposing QBs. The Rams sent 49ers quarterback Alex Smith to the sideline with a concussion Sunday. They previously picked off Seattle's Russell Wilson three times and sacked Arizona's Kevin Kolb nine times. The rough treatment largely explains why the Rams are 2-0-1 in the NFC West after going 0-6 in the division last season.

Rising

1. Danny Amendola, Rams WR. Amendola caught 11 passes on 12 targets for 102 yards against the 49ers. Penalties wiped out a 62-yard punt return and an 80-yard reception for Amendola. So much for easing back into the Rams' offense following a five-week injury absence. Amendola ranks 14th in the NFL with 14 third-down receptions despite missing all that time. His 12 third-down receptions for first downs rank tied with Wes Welker and Steve Johnson for 12th most in the NFL.

2. Sam Bradford, Rams QB. Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady overshadowed Bradford in the Rams' two most recent games before Sunday. Bradford stepped up in class against the 49ers' defense and won more battles than he lost. He completed 8 of 12 passes for 102 yards on third down. He completed 14 of 19 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter and overtime.

3. Ball hogs. The Seattle defense forced the New York Jets into five three-and-out possessions. The Seahawks' offense possessed the ball for 12:05 of the fourth quarter. Seattle has held possession for more than 24 of 30 minutes in fourth quarters over the team's past two games. Lynch leads the NFL in rushing yards (270) for fourth quarters and overtimes. He had six carries for 60 yards in the fourth quarter Sunday. Lynch finished with 127 yards. His production helped Seattle's offense finish what its defense started.

4. Rams offensive line. Rodger Saffold returned to the lineup at left tackle, but the Rams were still without projected starters at left guard and center. Together, the line won more battles than it lost against the 49ers' defense. Bradford took two sacks in 39 drop backs. Jackson topped 100 yards rushing. The Rams finished with 159 yards rushing and a 4.3-yard average. They had 458 yards
Levi Brown's injury and an underwhelming quarterback competition were supposed to doom the Arizona Cardinals in 2012.

The team surprised skeptics by winning its first four games anyway.

The injury news has worsened. The Cardinals have fallen to 4-2 as they prepare to face the Minnesota Vikings in Week 7. Arizona will be without quarterback Kevin Kolb and safety Kerry Rhodes. The team is listing cornerback Greg Toler and fullback Anthony Sherman as doubtful.

The Cardinals should have a healthier Darnell Dockett after a hamstring injury slowed the veteran defensive end previously. Strong games from Dockett and defensive end Calais Campbell figure to be key against the Vikings' Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin.

Peterson and Harvin each have four games with 100 yards from scrimmage this season, as the chart shows. Harvin had another game with 98. Peterson ranked fifth (628) and Harvin eighth (603) in yards from scrimmage through Week 6. Larry Fitzgerald (430) and Andre Roberts (304) lead the Cardinals in that category.

Three players have reached 100 yards from scrimmage against the Cardinals this season. Miami Dolphins receivers Brian Hartline (253) and Davone Bess (123) did it in Week 4. Buffalo's C.J. Spiller (110) did it last week.

Marshawn Lynch (97), Wes Welker (95) and Stevan Ridley (95) came closest.

The Vikings' Peterson expects to play despite an ankle injury that sidelined him part of the week. He practiced Friday and expects to start.

Wrap-up: Seahawks 24, Patriots 23

October, 14, 2012
10/14/12
7:28
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Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks' 24-23 victory against the New England Patriots in Week 6:

What it means: The Seahawks improved to 4-2 with a comeback victory that should at least temporarily silence calls for the team to replace rookie quarterback Russell Wilson with backup Matt Flynn. Wilson connected on big plays early, then found Sidney Rice for the winning 46-yard touchdown pass with 1:18 remaining. This was exactly what Wilson and the Seahawks needed heading into a road game against the San Francisco 49ers.

What I liked: Wilson completed passes for 50 and 24 yards to Doug Baldwin, the latter for a touchdown, as Seattle jumped to an early lead. Wilson also scrambled for a 9-yard gain on third-and-4 to sustain that scoring drive. The decision to try a trick play in the second half, when the offense was struggling, worked out when Golden Tate drew a pass-interference call on a deep ball from Rice. The fourth-down scoring pass from Wilson to Tate was a big positive.

Seattle’s defense shut down the Patriots’ running game most of the time after New England had hurt opponents with a balanced attack. Richard Sherman put his size to use against Deion Branch in picking off a Tom Brady pass in the third quarter. Fellow cornerback Brandon Browner also made an impact with a huge hit on Patriots receiver Wes Welker. Sherman seemed to have a strong game. Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas picked off passes.

The Seahawks forced Brady into two grounding penalties at critical times. One prevented the Patriots from attempting a chip-shot field goal before halftime. Another forced the Patriots into third-and-20 with 4:47 left in the fourth quarter and the Patriots holding a 23-17 lead.

What I didn’t like: The Seahawks too frequently couldn’t stop Welker before or after the catch. That was a key variable heading into the game. Seattle figured Welker would get his catches, but coach Pete Carroll hoped the Seahawks could stop him from doing damage after the catch. Seattle had ranked third in fewest yards allowed after the catch (per reception).

Seattle’s run game had trouble getting traction. The Patriots were the first team this season able to control Marshawn Lynch from the beginning. That put additional pressure on the Seahawks in other areas, where the team hasn’t been as strong.

What’s next: The Seahawks visit the 49ers for a Thursday night game in Week 7.
Just a quick note here on a fairly significant milestone within the division.

Larry Fitzgerald stands 48 yards short of 10,000 for his career heading into the Arizona Cardinals' game against Buffalo on Sunday. He has averaged 67.4 yards per game this season. Fitzgerald has reached or exceeded 48 yards in 95 of his 129 regular-season games (73.6 percent).

The Bills have allowed 48 or more receiving yards to eight players through five games this season.

Five players have reached 100 yards against Buffalo in 2012: Wes Welker (129), Michael Crabtree (113), Vernon Davis (106), Rob Gronkowski (104) and Dwayne Bowe (102).

Fitzgerald is coming off an eight-catch, 92-yard game against St. Louis.

The chart shows the four youngest players to reach 10,000 career receiving yards before age 30. All four have played for current NFC West teams. Former Seattle Seahawks receiver Steve Largent ranks fifth. He was 31 years and 83 days old when he passed the milestone.
Tom Brady was on injured reserve with a knee injury the last time his New England Patriots visited the Seattle Seahawks.

The year was 2008.

The Seahawks had a 2-10 record. Seneca Wallace was their starting quarterback. Mike Holmgren was their coach. Pete Carroll was at USC.

Now, for the really different part: The Seahawks' defense, currently ranked No. 1 in yards allowed, ranked 30th back then. It had allowed six total rushing and passing touchdowns in its previous two games, one more than the 2012 team has allowed in five games this season.

Brady is back and leading the NFL's top-ranked offense against Seattle's top-ranked defense in Week 6. The teams kick off Sunday afternoon at CenturyLink Field, Brady's first road start against the Seahawks. The matchup has us talking already.

Mike Sando, NFC West blog: The last time an NFC West team drew New England, Arizona pulled off one of the more shocking upsets of the season, holding Brady to 18 points and leaving Gillette Stadium with a 20-18 victory. New England lost Aaron Hernandez to injury in that game. The Patriots have regrouped. They've scored 113 points in three subsequent games. Was that Arizona game an aberration, or should the Seahawks' defense expect similar results?

James Walker, AFC East: It feels like two different offenses since New England’s loss to the Cardinals, Mike. New England looked shell-shocked after losing Hernandez in that game. He's usually such a big part of the Patriots’ game plan that they had trouble adjusting on the fly. But New England made the proper changes. Tight ends no longer are the first option; now receiver Wes Welker is the top target. New England is no longer passing the ball 60 or 70 percent of the time; its run-to-pass ratio was 54-31 this past week against the Denver Broncos. The Patriots also used a no-huddle offense in all four quarters for the first time in that game. Can New England keep up that kind of pace, especially on the road? The Patriots are concerned about crowd noise in Seattle. Will the 12th man affect this game?

Sando: Yeah, the crowd will be a factor because the defense is good enough to make it one. Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo combined for 19 points in Seattle. Brady and the Patriots are playing better offensively than Green Bay or Dallas, though. One key will be whether Brady can get the ball out to Welker quickly enough to avoid Seattle's pass-rushers. Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons and Jason Jones could have big games against the Patriots' offensive front if Brady holds the ball. But Welker should have a big advantage against nickel corner Marcus Trufant. Welker leads the NFL with 24 receptions from the slot over the past three games. Seattle's opponents haven't gone after Trufant all that much, but St. Louis slot receiver Danny Amendola did give him some problems. Welker is a tough matchup for everyone and should be a tough one for the Seahawks.

Walker: Seattle’s pass rush is the biggest concern for New England. Brady’s sack totals have gone up each of the past three seasons, and he already has been sacked 12 times in five games. Brady is not a young pup anymore and only has so many hits left in his 35-year-old body. New England’s pass protection hasn’t been the same after losing left tackle Matt Light and Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters in the offseason. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and guard Logan Mankins also have played hurt this year. The Patriots have done things schematically to counter their shaky pass protection. New England is running the ball more, and the no-huddle has slowed down opponents. But you wonder whether the inconsistent pass protection eventually will catch up to New England this season, especially this weekend against a good Seattle defense.

Sando: Seattle's defense was good last season, and it's better in 2012. This is a legitimate top-five defense with big, pressing cornerbacks and the potential for a strong pass rush, particularly at home. The Seahawks are allowing 3.2 yards per carry overall and 3.0 when we remove quarterback scrambles (Brady isn't exactly a running threat). There's speed at every level of the defense. Holding the Patriots' offense to a reasonable level -- say, somewhere in the 20-point range -- should be realistic as long as Seattle fares OK against Welker. The bigger question is whether Seattle's offense can score enough points to win the game. Russell Wilson is coming off his best game, but the offense isn't putting up enough points.

Walker: New England’s defense has improved in a lot of areas. The front seven is more physical and the pass rush is better, specifically with the addition of first-round pick Chandler Jones. However, New England is still 30th against the pass and continues to give up chunks of yards through the air. The safety play has been horrific at times. I think Seattle’s best chance to win is using play-action over the top. Patriots coach Bill Belichick usually tries to take one thing away, and I assume the focus this week will be Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. There will be plenty of opportunities in the passing game if Wilson can take advantage. Speaking of taking advantage, your NFC West division has crushed the AFC East at nearly every turn. What is going on here? Is this a special year for the NFC West, and will Seattle repeat what the Cardinals did by knocking off the top dog in the AFC East?

Sando: I've gone into several of these nondivision games a little skeptical about whether the NFC West team would score enough to win. The offenses in Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis lag in the rankings. But the defenses and special teams have more than made up the difference. I think Seattle has a winning formula and a good shot at pulling it off, but I still think Brady is more likely than Wilson to reach 20-plus points.

I've had similar thoughts before and been wrong. I really thought some of these top opposing quarterbacks would enjoy greater success against the NFC West. Brady, Jay Cutler, Rodgers, Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III, Romo, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford are a combined 2-8 against the division, and both victories were against St. Louis. Those quarterbacks have seven touchdown passes and nine picks against the division. Outside the division, NFC West teams have gone 10-0 at home and 11-3 regardless of venue.

I'll probably wind up picking the Patriots, but Seattle's defense gives the Seahawks a good chance.

Walker: It looks as if the AFC East is having a second consecutive down year, and the arrow is certainly pointing up for the NFC West. But the Patriots are a legit team. Barring significant injuries, I expect New England to carry the banner for the division all season. I’m 15-2 predicting AFC East games this year, so I feel pretty confident in my picks. I think New England will pull this one out. The Patriots’ offense is very balanced, and their tempo puts a lot of pressure on teams. If they score points early, it could put too much pressure on Wilson to answer. Wilson has beaten Rodgers, Romo and Newton this year. But I don’t think Wilson will add Brady to that list.

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