NFL Nation: Carnell Williams

Peter from Rutland, Vt., points to Anthony Dixon's failed third-and-1 rushing attempt in the NFC Championship Game as one reason the San Francisco 49ers might have signed former New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs.

This play escaped my attention in the Jacobs item Tuesday. I suspect the play-by-play file I consulted did not encompass the NFC Championship Game.

"Dixon got stuffed by the Giants on a key third-and-1 attempt," Peter recalled. "He danced instead of smashing. That's why they took a chance on Jacobs. Dixon is not a reliable power back."

Perhaps, but Jacobs failed to convert a fourth-and-1 rushing attempt in the same game, and he has never been known for his hard-nosed running.

Dixon converted both of his rushing tries during the regular season when needing a single yard on third or fourth down. He missed that one attempt during the postseason, but Jacobs converted only 4 of 8 regular-season tries and 5-of-11 overall when counting the postseason.

I went back and watched Dixon's failed play just to be sure what happened. Dixon did not set a new standard for powerful running on the play, but neither did he have much room to run.

The 49ers shuffled their offensive line and brought onto the field two defenders, Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga, for additional blocking. The line, left to right, featured Vernon Davis, Alex Boone, Adam Snyder, Jonathan Goodwin (center), Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis, Joe Staley and Smith. Sopoaga lined up to the right in an offset-I formation.

The blocking was not very good. Mathias Kiwanuka shed Smith immediately and blocked Dixon's path off tackle. Chris Canty got between Anthony Davis and Staley in time to affect Dixon. Dixon did hesitate and step to the side as he sought an opening. Again, though, the blocking was not great.

While an NFL offense should be able to pick up a third-and-1 on the ground, I've thought the 49ers needed to occasionally break from tendency in these situations, not just with a pass but with a deeper strike to Vernon Davis. Previous 49ers coaching staffs succeeded with this tactic.

The 49ers had beaten the Giants for an 18-yard pass to Delanie Walker on a third-and-1 play when the teams met back in Week 10. Perhaps the 49ers' staff knew the Giants would be ready if they tried another pass. And, as noted, the team should be able to pick up a third-and-1 rushing play.

But with such a heavy formation to the right side, the Giants were ready for Dixon. They also took advantage of the fact that Smith, though a great player, plays defense and isn't a polished blocker.

The chart shows 2011 regular-season conversion stats for NFC West running backs on third and fourth downs with 1 yard needed for a first down. There's a reason teams use quarterback sneaks.

2012 NFC West UFA scorecard: update

March, 16, 2012
3/16/12
12:30
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Michael Robinson's expected re-signing with the Seattle Seahawks would give the team a league-high four re-signings in the unrestricted free-agent market.

Red Bryant, Paul McQuistan and Heath Farwell previously re-signed.

Seattle and the other NFC West teams have added only two UFAs from other teams, however. I've put together UFA scorecards for each team in the division. Ages are in parenthesis. Here goes ...

Seattle Seahawks

UFA unsigned (age): defensive end Raheem Brock (33), defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson (31), safety Atari Bigby (30), quarterback Charlie Whitehurst (29), linebacker Leroy Hill (29), linebacker Matt McCoy (29), defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (28), linebacker David Hawthorne (26), running back Justin Forsett (26), linebacker David Vobora (25)

UFA re-signed: Farwell (30), Robinson (29), McQuistan (28), Bryant (27)

UFA added: none

UFA lost: tight end John Carlson (27)

Franchise player: none

Comment: Forsett has provided value, but the Seahawks will want to add a power back as depth behind Marshawn Lynch, who re-signed before free agency. Mike Tolbert, a free agent from the San Diego Chargers, could be worth a look if the running back market remains soft. Tolbert weighs 243 pounds, has 21 total touchdowns over the past two seasons, and caught 54 passes in 2012. The price would have to be right after Seattle committed to Lynch.

San Francisco 49ers

UFA unsigned: fullback Moran Norris (33), tight end Justin Peelle (33), safety Madieu Williams (30), quarterback Alex Smith (27), receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (26), guard Chilo Rachal (26), safety Reggie Smith (25)

UFA re-signed: cornerback Carlos Rogers (30), linebacker Tavares Gooden (27)

UFA added: none

UFA lost: guard Adam Snyder (30), linebacker Blake Costanzo (27), receiver Josh Morgan (26)

Franchise player: safety Dashon Goldson (27)

Comment: Randy Moss and potential addition Rock Cartwright do not appear in the listings because they were not unrestricted free agents. Re-signing Alex Smith and finding additional receiver help appear to be the top priorities. The 49ers are showing little outward urgency on either front, however.

Arizona Cardinals

UFA unsigned: defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday (36), kicker Jay Feely (35), long-snapper Mike Leach (35), outside linebacker Clark Haggans (35), outside linebacker Joey Porter (34), offensive lineman Floyd Womack (33), punter Dave Zastudil (33), tackle D'Anthony Batiste (29), safety Sean Considine (29), guard Deuce Lutui (28), safety Hamza Abdullah (28), tackle Brandon Keith (27), receiver Early Doucet (26)

UFA re-signed: none.

UFA added: Snyder (30)

UFA lost: cornerback Richard Marshall (27)

Franchise player: defensive end Calais Campbell (25)

Comment: The Cardinals have been in a tough spot. They would have faced criticism had they declined to pursue Peyton Manning. They could now face criticism for sacrificing the first week of free agency while waiting for Manning. The reality is that Arizona probably wasn't going to be all that aggressive in the market this offseason, anyway. It did hurt losing Marshall to the Miami Dolphins after coordinator Ray Horton called him the Cardinals' defensive MVP.

St. Louis Rams

UFA unsigned: cornerback Al Harris (37), quarterback A.J. Feeley (34), offensive lineman Tony Wragge (32), linebacker Brady Poppinga (32), punter Donnie Jones (31), offensive lineman Adam Goldberg (31), guard Jacob Bell (31), receiver Brandon Lloyd (30), cornerback Rod Hood (30), running back Cadillac Williams (29), defensive tackle Gary Gibson (29), receiver Mark Clayton (29), tackle Mark LeVoir (29), tight end Stephen Spach (29), safety James Butler (29), tight end Billy Bajema (29), quarterback Kellen Clemens (28), running back Jerious Norwood (28), linebacker Bryan Kehl (27), linebacker Chris Chamberlain (26), cornerback Justin King (24)

UFA re-signed: none

UFA added: cornerback Cortland Finnegan (28)

UFA lost: none

Franchise player: none

Comment: The Rams are not looking to re-sign many of their own free agents. They want to turn over the roster, and that is happening in a big way. The team's failure to secure playmaking help for quarterback Sam Bradford stands out as the biggest theme to this point. Finnegan was a welcome addition, but he isn't going to score many touchdowns.

The chart below shows a general overview.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Hillis

When the Denver Broncos selected Peyton Hillis in the seventh round in April's draft, they weren't expecting him to be their next standout tailback.

They simply liked Hillis as a football player. They liked him as an under-the-radar tailback. But they didn't think of him as a starter in the NFL. They liked him equally well as a soft-handed fullback who could be a receiving threat out of the backfield. They also liked him as a potential H-back. The Broncos looked at the big, fast kid from Arkansas who was best known as the lead blocker for Darren McFadden and Felix Jones and they saw a Dallas Clark-like player.

Denver saw a lot they liked in a player they had a fourth-round grade on. When Hillis was still available in the seventh round, Denver -- which thought it had solved its need at running back in the fifth round by taking Arizona State rookie Ryan Torain -- jumped at the chance to take him. They didn't know where they'd play him, but they knew they got a good player.

With four games remaining in the season and a playoff berth looming for the 7-5 Broncos -- whose magic number to win the AFC West is two heading into Sunday's home game against the Kansas City Chiefs -- Hillis has become much more than a good football player.

He has become a savior of their offense. If not for Hillis, the balanced attack for which Denver is famous wouldn't be possible.

After season-ending injuries to Torain, Michael Pittman, Andre Hall, Anthony Alridge and an injury to Selvin Young, the Broncos broke the emergency glass and inserted Hillis in the lineup as a tailback. They had no other choice.

And he has been flourishing.

"We knew he was an athlete when he first stepped foot here in Denver, the way he can catch the ball and the way he can run with the ball, we knew we had somebody special," Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall told reporters in the locker room Thursday. "There definitely hasn't been a dropoff at running back since he's been back there."

The Broncos are used to this type of sudden impact at this position. Denver has had nine running backs rush for 100 yards in a game since 2004, the most in the NFL.

Hillis has made an instant impact. His rushing totals increased in each of his past four games. He had 129 yards on the ground in Denver's 34-17 road upset over the Jets on Sunday. He is averaging 4.8 yards a carry and he has four rushing scores.

With McFadden struggling all season because of turf toe injuries and Jones done for the season in Dallas, the lead blocker for the two first-round picks from Arkansas is stealing the show in the NFL. Hillis' early success after an obscure college existence reminds some in the NFL of the situation Brandon Jacobs endured while at Auburn. He was overshadowed by Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams before he transferred to Southern Illinois. Now Jacobs is making a for himself.

Hillis, 22, is certainly making a name for himself in Denver. His teammates love the happy runner with that lovable southern twang. Hillis won over his teammates in Cleveland on Nov. 6 when he converted a first down on fourth-and-short with a second-effort run. The play ignited a Denver comeback that was the spark to a streak in which the Broncos have won three of four games despite all of the injuries at tailback and on defense.

"I'm just glad I have come in here and fit in," Hillis said. "I think some people might be surprised but I feel like I'm a versatile guy who could come in here and help and I hope that's what I'm doing."

The Broncos are winning and Hillis, who is 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, is a big reason why. Quarterback Jay Cutler said Hillis, who has 4.5 speed, is a perfect Denver running back.

"I think this running scheme is kind of designed for him," Cutler said. "It is one cut, get downhill, get your five or six yards and every once in a while you can break a 30- or 40-yarder if you get up on the safeties. He has done a good job. He is a smart kid, and I think we have used him effectively. We have tried to play off his strengths. We haven't put him in the position where we have had to ask him to do things he can't do. He has stepped up to the challenge and has been fun to watch."

The Broncos aren't necessarily looking at Hillis as a stopgap answer at tailback. There are those in the Denver organization who believe he will have a role as a tailback next season. The team also likes Torain and he will get a chance to play when he recovers from a knee injury. And it wouldn't be a surprise if Denver added a veteran. But there will be room for Hillis.

"He has proven that he can play tailback," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said."He is better with the ball in his hands at the tailback position running the football or catching the pass out of the backfield. He is going to get a chance to play more tailback because of what he has done and how he can break tackles."

Hillis, a star high school tailback in Arkansas, wasn't expecting the chance to be a running back in the NFL, but he isn't ready to let it go, either.

"I hope I get to continue to play tailback," Hillis said. "But I'll do anything the team wants me to do."

And that's exactly why the Broncos drafted him in the first place.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News reminds the 49ers that they could have drafted Aaron Rodgers instead of Alex Smith in 2005. That's true, but in looking at the second through 10th overall picks from 2005, the 49ers also could have fared worse. Picks two through 10: Ronnie Brown, Braylon Edwards, Cedric Benson, Carnell Williams, Adam Jones, Troy Williamson, Antrel Rolle, Carlos Rogers and Mike Williams. Nice draft.

Matt Maiocco of Instant 49ers warns readers before reluctantly pursuing the same storyline. He also describes the 49ers' thinking going into that 2005 draft. Coach Mike Nolan thought Rodgers was more NFL ready, but he figured Smith would be better over the long term.

Also from Maiocco: a look at the 49ers' receivers, notably rookie Josh Morgan.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee scored a phone interview with Rodgers after the former Cal and current Green Bay quarterback landed in the Bay Area for the Packers' exhibition game against the 49ers Saturday night. Rodgers wasn't happy about slipping into the latter stages of the 2005 draft's first round, but he's diplomatic about the situation three years later.

Mike Tulumello of the East Valley Tribune explores how the Cardinals wound up with two Phoenix-area products on their offensive line (Deuce Lutui and Lyle Sendlein). Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt takes a shot at Lutui for making "bonehead mistakes" -- including penalties.

Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune becomes the first NFL beat reporter to use the word "delineating" while previewing an exhibition game. He'll be watching to see how Seattle quarterback Charlie Frye and the young receivers fare.

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic describes Whisenhunt's approach to the quarterbacks as a balancing act. Matt Leinart is the regular-season starter, but Kurt Warner gets the start Saturday night. As Whisenhunt once said: "It's going to be a tough job for Matt to keep."

Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer talks about the "greased pole" that can turn promising rookies into afterthoughts at about this time each summer. Rookie linebacker David Hawthorne has been highly impressive to this point, but now he must sustain the fast start. Veteran linebacker D.D. Lewis has been counseling Hawthorne. Lewis earned a roster spot unexpectedly years ago. As a service to readers, the P-I also manages to work in a photo of Seahawks cheerleader Melanie Brown. More from the photo shoot for the 2009 Seahawks calendar here.

Also from Farnsworth: Emotions run high for some as they move belongings from the Seahawks' old facility to their new one. Clare has spent an estimated 23.9 hours per day in the old facility's media room since the facility opened in 1986.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch outlines five things to watch in the Rams' exhibition game against the Chargers: quarterbacks, rookies, Orlando Pace, the secondary and young linebackers. The Rams could look to sign a veteran linebacker if the young prospects don't show better beginning tonight.

Also from Thomas: An outline of areas in which the Rams must improve during their second exhibition game. The Chargers seem to be playing along by resting key players, including quarterback Philip Rivers. Tight end Antonio Gates remains on the physically unable to perform list, and LaDainian Tomlinson no longer plays during the fake games. The Chargers' approach to the exhibition season has changed now that Wade Phillips isn't running their defense. Phillips is known for game-planning during the preseason.

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch details Richie Incognito's journey into the starting lineup at right guard. Toward the bottom of the story, coach Scott Linehan says he's more optimistic about Steven Jackson's holdout now that the sides have had some recent conversations.


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