Final Word: NFC West

September, 7, 2012
9/07/12
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

Pressure situation. The San Francisco 49ers must pressure Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, of course. They'll be counting on second-year linebacker Aldon Smith to pick up where he left off last season. Smith, who set a 49ers rookie record with 14 sacks, goes from situational rusher to every-down player this season. Can he remain as effective over the course of a full game? The 49ers averaged one sack per 12.3 drop-backs with Smith on the field last season. The average fell to one sack per 23.2 drop-backs when Smith was on the sideline. Smith played not quite half of the defensive snaps. Side note: Rodgers took only 13 sacks at Lambeau Field last season.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiThe 49ers may have been 6-2 away from Candlestick Park last season, but Alex Smith did not perform very well on the road.
Road worrier. The 49ers went 6-2 on the road last season. Quarterback Alex Smith made key plays in road victories over Detroit, Seattle and Philadelphia in particular. Smith tossed only five touchdown passes in eight road games, however. He was one of only five qualifying quarterbacks whose contributions resulted in negative expected points according to the Total QBR metric unveiled last season. John Skelton, Mark Sanchez and Blaine Gabbert were the only ones with lower QBR scores on the road (Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady were the three best).

Although Smith tossed only two interceptions on the road, he took a league-high 31 sacks. I'll be watching to see whether Smith and the 49ers can reduce the negative plays in their first road game. By the way, Smith was terrific at home in 2011. He trailed only Rodgers, Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan in home QBR.

Run, run, run. The NFC West was the NFL's only division with four 1,000-yard rushers last season. All four 1,000-yard backs return as starters in 2012. The St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson opens in Detroit, where the Lions surrendered 100-yard rushing games to running backs Frank Gore, Michael Turner and Matt Forte last season. The Rams have built their offense around Jackson. They expect to be more run-oriented than at any previous time in Jackson's career. Jackson: "We're going to use the run to set up the pass, the play-action, settle Sam [Bradford] down in the games. I have to set the tempo initially for each and every game." Bradford completed 50.6 percent of his play-action attempts last season. That ranked 32nd out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks.

Rookie QB rules. Conventional wisdom says Matt Flynn, not rookie Russell Wilson, should be starting at quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks. Conventional wisdom says rookie quarterbacks should struggle, particularly on the road. Can Wilson, thus far exceptional for a rookie, be the exception to conventional wisdom at Arizona? Wilson's relatively short stature hasn't held him back so far. Conventional wisdom says he could be vulnerable to having passes batted down. If it happens, though, the Cardinals might deserve more credit than Wilson deserves blame. Arizona batted down 18 passes last season, third most in the NFL. The rest of the league averaged 10.1 per team. The Cardinals batted six passes from 6-foot-4 Alex Smith, four from 6-1 Rex Grossman, two from 6-6 Joe Flacco, one from 6-2 Tony Romo and one from 6-2 Donovan McNabb. Wilson stands 5-10 5/8.

Mismatch ... or not? The Seahawks invested heavily in upgrading their pass rush this offseason. They drafted defensive end Bruce Irvin in the first round and signed veteran interior pass-rusher Jason Jones. There will be cause for concern in Seattle -- and celebration in Arizona -- if the Seahawks' revamped pass rush can't generate pressure against the Cardinals' vulnerable offensive line. Arizona heads into this game with two unproven tackles. D'Anthony Batiste, 30, replaces injured Levi Brown on the left side. Batiste has never started at left tackle. He owns four career starts at guard, all in 2007. Five teams have cut him. Rookie fourth-round choice Bobby Massie starts on the right side.

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this item.

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