Running into defensive walls: Every NFC West team but St. Louis faces an AFC North opponent this week. And, wouldn't you know it, this is the first week since the 1970 merger when one division -- the AFC North -- features the four top defenses in fewest yards allowed (thank you, Elias Sports Bureau). Arizona faces Baltimore's top-ranked defense, allowing 272.7 yards per game. Seattle faces second-ranked Cincinnati (278.5), while San Francisco faces fourth-ranked Cleveland (291.0). How has the AFC North done it? Not without five games, including four victories, against NFC West offenses.
One reason the Rams are winless: Teams from the NFC East and AFC North have played 14 games against the NFC West. The St. Louis Rams have played zero games against the NFC West. They are the only team heading into Week 8 without a division game in their rear-view mirror. That will not change until Week 9. Even at their worst, however, the Rams have often played Week 8 opponent New Orleans tough. The Saints needed a return touchdown for a 28-23 victory over the Rams in 2009, when St. Louis finished 1-15. And in 2007, when the Rams were 3-13, one of their victories was over the Saints.
When faced with five-plus rushers, 49ers QB Alex Smith has excelled against the pressure this season.
Fraying around the edges: The 95-yard touchdown pass Arizona allowed to Mike Wallace last week followed a pattern for the Cardinals. Wallace caught the ball outside the yard-line numbers, where cornerbacks often find themselves without much help. Arizona is allowing 67.0 percent completions and 9.8 yards per attempt on passes outside the numbers, contributing to a league-worst 95.6 Total QBR on these throws, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Ravens' offense has struggled on outside throws in recent weeks, but that could be about to change.
Alex Smith beating pressure: The Browns have sent five or more pass-rushers on better than 46 percent of opponents' dropbacks this season, the fourth-highest rate in the league. Opposing quarterbacks have a 90.9 NFL passer rating when they get rid of the ball against Cleveland in these situations, but 12 sacks in 86 dropbacks have helped the Browns rank ninth in Total QBR allowed (34.9) when they send at least five rushers. The 49ers' Alex Smith trails only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady in completion percentage and NFL passer rating against five-plus rushers, but he has also taken nine sacks, dragging downs his QBR to 52.2, which ranks only 17th.
What's the Bengals' nickel worth? Something has to give Sunday when the Seattle Seahawks flood the field with wide receivers against a Bengals defense that hasn't had its cornerback depth tested much. Seattle ranks 12th in pass plays featuring three or more wide receivers. The Bengals' defense leads the league in fewest yards per pass and carry when opponents use these personnel groupings. However, only four teams have faced fewer dropbacks than the Bengals against three-plus wideouts. That helps explain why Morgan Trent (15.5 percent of defensive snaps) and ex-Seahawk Kelly Jennings (7.5) are the Bengals' only backup corners to play this season. The Bengals have used three safeties, including backup Gibril Wilson, roughly a quarter of the time. Pacman Jones' expected activation as the Bengals' third corner adds another dynamic. The Seahawks need to win their matchups when Sidney Rice, Mike Williams, Doug Baldwin, Ben Obomanu and/or Golden Tate are on the field together. They also need better quarterback play, but that's another conversation.