NFL Nation: Greg Zuerlein

Rams-Bears: Matchup breakdown

November, 23, 2013
ST. LOUIS – A look at three individual matchups to watch in Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears.

Rams left tackle Jake Long vs. Bears defensive end Julius Peppers

A couple years ago this might have been one of the premiere individual battles you could find anywhere in the NFL. Make no mistake, Long and Peppers are still very good players but they might not be at the level they once were.

Still, this is one of the most important matchups in this game. Peppers’ combination of speed and athleticism remains even if the numbers aren’t jumping off the page as they once did.

“He’s a great player, day in and day out,” Long said. “He’s got such long arms, he’s got power, he’s got speed to take down the edge, so it’s a good battle to go up against him. I’m excited. It’s going to be fun.”

Through the first 10 games, Peppers has posted 29 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception returned for a touchdown.

Long has struggled against elite rushers this year, particularly with Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware, a player not unlike Peppers in terms of size and skill set. But Long has also been much better in the past month or so since the Rams switched to a more run-heavy attack.

If the Rams can get the run game going – an area Long can help jump start – it should allow for the Rams to keep Peppers off balance and Long to dictate the matchup.

Rams cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson vs. Bears receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall

There’s no receiver combination in the league more physically imposing than Jeffery and Marshall. That duo has caused nightmares for opposing defenses with its ability to outjump and outmuscle opposing corners for the ball.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall has 64 catches for 828 yards and eight touchdowns this season while the 6-3, 216-pound Jeffery has 54 catches for 818 yards and three touchdowns.

There isn’t a cornerback duo in the league equipped to match Marshall and Jeffery in terms of sheer size.

“It’s a matchup issue,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “They’re very, very talented. Both quarterbacks Jay [Cutler], obviously was playing well before he went down, but Josh [McCown] does a really good job putting the ball up to them. They’ve got confidence. These guys can outjump and outreach. We’ve got a battle on our hands, but our corners … ‘Jenks’ is a leaper and ‘Tru’s' got length, so we’ll just see how it goes.”

At 5-10, 198 pounds, Jenkins is the smaller of the Rams’ options and must be on top of his game in terms of timing his leap. He’s had mixed success in those situations this year but hasn’t faced a challenge of this size just yet.

Johnson has improved in 2013 and at 6-2, 208 pounds is more suited to take on players like Marshall and Jeffery.

The Rams have been more aggressive in coverage in recent weeks, playing more press coverage at the line of scrimmage. That may be the best way to keep the Bears duo from winning jump balls. A good jam at the line of scrimmage can throw off timing and allow the Rams defensive line to get after McCown before he can get the ball down the field.

Rams punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein vs. Bears returner Devin Hester

Rams fans still have nightmares about Hester’s game in St. Louis in 2006 when he returned two kicks for touchdowns.

Much has changed in terms of Hester’s role since then as he no longer contributes much to the offense and has even been in the mix as a cornerback. But he remains Chicago’s primary returner with a strong kick return average of 28.23 yards and 13.25 yards per punt return to go with a touchdown.

“He’s not playing any offense, but he’s still very, very dangerous,” Fisher said. “I think, considering the fact that his role on offense has been reduced or limited, he’s going to be more inclined to bringing the ball out and has that desire to make plays. So, it makes him very dangerous and they’ve always had great confidence in him.”

The onus falls on Hekker and Zuerlein to help neutralize the player who is probably the most dangerous returner in league history.

Hekker has been as good as any punter in the league so far in 2013, leading the league in net punting with an average of 43.51 yards.

Zuerlein hasn’t yielded much in the way of returns, either, averaging 65.88 yards per kickoff, fifth most in the league. The coverage units have been good in this regard, too, as Rams opponents have started an average of 80.4 yards from the end zone on their drives, second furthest away in the league.

Upon Further Review: Rams Week 8

October, 29, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- A review of four hot issues from the St. Louis Rams' 14-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

The final sequence: Much to the credit of quarterback Kellen Clemens and the Rams offense, they put together an impressive drive on the game's final possession. A drive that started at their 3 put them within a yard of a game-winning touchdown and a play to pull off the upset in regulation. The final drive had proved to be a clinic on run-pass balance with seven called runs and six called passes (one was nullified by a Seattle penalty). All of those play calls had worked well and the continued use of the run game had Seattle off balance. It all made sense. Until the final play. On fourth-and-goal at the 1, the Rams called for a pass that coach Jeff Fisher said was designed to give Clemens multiple options while getting the ball out of his hand fast. Running back Zac Stacy was injured earlier in the quarter but had run twice on the drive for 26 yards. After getting his sprained ankle rewrapped, there was some confusion on the sideline on third down. He entered on fourth down, though, and it looked like at the very least he could serve as a decoy. Instead, the Rams split him out wide, leaving no threat of the run in the backfield with Clemens against a blitzing Seattle defense which sold out to get after the quarterback. From there, Clemens' read was to throw what amounts to a touch pass to receiver Brian Quick in the corner of the end zone. It fell incomplete and the Rams lost, leaving many Rams fans still scratching their heads.

[+] EnlargeZac Stacy
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesZac Stacy rushed for 134 yards in Monday night's loss to the Seahawks.
A big miss: It's probably unfair to put much of the blame for Monday night's loss on Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein. Zuerlein had been perfect entering the game and already had been good on all three of his field goal tries. But when he offered up his first miss of the season -- a 50-yarder that doubled as his longest try of the year -- you couldn't help but feel it would be costly. As it turned out, Zuerlein's miss was crippling because the offense proved incapable of scoring a touchdown to overtake Seattle on that final drive. Had Zuerlein connected on the 50-yarder, the Rams would have had a chip shot to win it on the final drive.

Stacy's the guy: Entering Monday night's game, Stacy's early success had come into question because it came against porous run defenses such as Jacksonville and Houston. With the help of an offensive line that was blowing Seattle's sixth-ranked run defense off the ball, Stacy erased all doubt Monday night. Known for getting yards after contact, Stacy had big enough holes most of the night that he was able to rely on his vision and balance more than ever as he recorded 90 of his 134 rushing yards before contact. For the Rams' sake, they better hope Stacy's ankle injury isn't anything serious because he's really settling into a groove.

Defense isn't enough: The Rams defense put on a show Monday night, racking up seven sacks and holding Seattle to 135 yards and seven first downs. Take away the 80-yard touchdown by Golden Tate and it was nearly a flawless performance from that group. That's what makes the loss that much harder to swallow. Seattle became the first team since the 2010 Miami Dolphins to win a game while posting 135 yards or less and seven or fewer first downs in a game. That's what happens when you are minus-2 in the turnover battle and fail to score a touchdown on four trips into the red zone.

Locker Room Buzz: St. Louis Rams

September, 8, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- Observed in the locker room after the Rams’ 27-24 victory against Arizona.

A long way to go: Make no mistake; the Rams were pleased to come away with a win, especially after trailing by 11 in the fourth quarter. To a man, though, everyone in the locker room agreed with this assessment from coach Jeff Fisher: “We have a long, long way to go,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of areas we have to address but most of those were self-inflicted wounds."

Many mistakes: Speaking of self-inflicted wounds, the Rams were not pleased with their miscues in Sunday’s victory. The penalty problems of the preseason carried over as the Rams drew seven flags for 59 yards.

A winning habit: Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein booted his second game-winning field goal at the Edward Jones Dome in the past three games the team has played at home. The unflappable Zuerlein is so calm his teammates expressed no surprise that he stepped up and kicked the game-winning 48-yard field goal.

VIPs: The Rams had no shortage of very important people in the locker room after the game. Owner Stan Kroenke checked in and former NFL coaches Marty Schottenheimer and Jim Fassel stopped in to visit with their sons Brian and John, both of whom are on the Rams’ staff.

The St. Louis Rams' Greg Zuerlein connected on all 13 field goal tries, including four from 50-plus yards, during his first five NFL games. He made 10 of 18 tries from that point forward, missing six of nine kicks from at least 50 yards.

Some of the misses were from unreasonable distances, but the pattern was pretty clear. That is why John Fassel, the Rams' special-teams coach, advised Zuerlein to spend much of his offseason resting. Zuerlein, who had kicked almost nonstop from college through the pro evaluation process and into his 2012 rookie season, did not kick for three months during the recently completed offseason. The idea was for Zuerlein to gain strength so he could remain more consistent throughout his second season.

Fortunately for us, Zuerlein, punter Johnny Hekker and snapper Jake McQuaide did participate in one of those "Dude Perfect" trick-shot videos. Hekker is the star of the show, but Zuerlein also makes an appearance, at one point banking a field goal try off a basketball backboard and through the hoop.

"I was out here while they were filming it," Fassel told reporters Sunday, "and it took them a couple hours, and every single one you see is legit -- no trick photography. The one off the roof 70 yards into the pool was ridiculous."

Some of the shots took about 20 takes to execute, Fassel estimated, a figure he considered amazingly low given the level of difficulty.
The Seattle Seahawks have announced Steven Hauschka's re-signing with the team.

The veteran kicker could still face competition in training camp from a drafted rookie, rookie free agent or even from another veteran.

But with Hauschka under contract, every team in the NFC West has a kicking option on its roster.

The chart at right shows field-goal percentages over the past five years for veteran and rookie kickers. The percentages are similar. Some kickers face tougher circumstances based on variables such as distance, venue, weather and situations. But in looking at the percentages overall, teams might feel better about going young at the position.

The chart below shows 2012 field-goal percentages for current NFC West kickers Phil Dawson (San Francisco 49ers), Jay Feely (Arizona Cardinals), Greg Zuerlein (St. Louis Rams), Hauschka and David Akers, formerly of the 49ers.

Hauschka suffered an injury during the playoffs last season. The team signed Ryan Longwell on a short-term basis.

The chart below shows which NFC West unrestricted free agents have signed this offseason. The list does not include players who were released or otherwise did not qualify for UFA status.

Phil Dawson's contract agreement with the San Francisco 49ers, announced by Dawson via Twitter, gives the team a veteran kicker to replace David Akers.

Dawson has made 14 of 15 tries from 50-plus yards over the past two seasons. He has made 13 of 14 tries from 40 to 49 yards over that span.

Akers, possibly diminished after undergoing hernia surgery, made 9 of 19 tries from 40 yards or longer last season. The 49ers reaped savings under the salary cap by releasing him this offseason.

Dawson turned 38 in January. While his addition does not preclude the 49ers from using one of their league-high 14 draft choices to add competition at the position, Dawson would be a heavy favorite to emerge as the 49ers' kicker in 2013 based on his credentials.

Dawson ranked 25th in kickoff touchback rate (39 percent) last season, lower than Akers (46.0) and the NFL average (44.1). Weather could have been a factor some of the time. Dawson had 14 kickoffs when the listed temperature was below 40 degrees, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That figure ranked tied for third-most in the NFL behind Mason Crosby (25) and Josh Brown (17).

Dawson has made 9 of 10 field-goal tries over the past three seasons when the temperature was beneath 40. That included his lone attempt from 50-plus yards.

Brad Seely, the 49ers' special-teams coach, was with Dawson in Cleveland previously.

Rookie kickers have made 86.7 percent of field goal attempts over the past five seasons. Veteran kickers have made 83 percent over the same period.

That is something to keep in mind when wondering what veteran kicker the San Francisco 49ers might pursue after releasing David Akers this week.

While the 49ers likely will sign a veteran, they should consider using one of their league-high 12 draft choices -- a total expected to rise when the NFL distributes compensatory selections -- for the best rookie kicker they can find.

Those percentages for rookies versus veterans say as much.

Of course, field goal percentages aren't everything because all attempts aren't created equal, even when from the same distance. It's also possible an aversion to trusting rookie kickers has removed from the pool all but the exceptional ones, distorting comparisons to a broader field of veteran kickers.

But that 86.7 percent success rate should get the 49ers' attention as they seek low-cost alternatives to an acclaimed veteran such as Akers, whose 69 percent success rate ranked 34th out of 36 qualifying kickers last season.

Minnesota's Blair Walsh (92.1 percent), Baltimore's Justin Tucker (90.9) and St. Louis' Greg Zuerlein (74.2) combined to make 86.3 percent as the only rookies to attempt field goals last season.

Filtering for venue and distance, I noticed that rookies made 29 of 42 (69 percent) field goal tries since 2008 when kicking outdoors on natural grass from longer than 40 yards. Veterans made 621 of 913 (68 percent).

The results cited here are far from conclusive, which is the point. A rookie kicker might not be a bad option for the 49ers.

Phil Dawson, Rob Bironas, Nate Kaeding, Lawrence Tynes, Nick Folk, Josh Brown, Mike Nugent, Jason Hanson, Ryan Longwell, Shayne Graham, Olindo Mare and Nick Novak are among the veterans without contracts for 2013. Check out our Free Agent Tracker Insider for ranks of kickers Insider and all free agents.
Recent pieces from Adam Schefter and Mel Kiper Jr. Insider have focused attention on some of the strongest decisions NFC West teams made during the 2012 NFL draft.

With Kiper's 2012 draft re-grade in mind, I've put together a list showing the NFC West rookie draft choices providing the most value relative to draft status, at least in my view.

I've ruled out players drafted in the first two rounds, figuring those players should produce relatively early in their careers. I've ruled out special-teams players, figuring teams can find those throughout the draft. And I've ruled out mid-round picks contributing as backups, figuring those players should contribute as backups.

We're left with eight players, four of them drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, three by the St. Louis Rams and two by the Arizona Cardinals. The San Francisco 49ers did not need their rookies as much this season.

St. Louis' Trumaine Johnson arguably should be on the list. He made three starts and picked off two passes as a third-round choice. In the end, that seemed reasonable for a player drafted 65th overall. Johnson's teammate, kicker Greg Zuerlein, would lead any list of special-teams draft choices in the division.

I left off the Cardinals' Ryan Lindley even though he became Arizona's starting quarterback as a sixth-round choice. Lindley exceeded expectations in becoming a starter. However, he had zero touchdown passes and seven interceptions while ranking last in Total QBR (9.8) among the 43 quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts during the regular season.

Fantastic finish? Rams, 49ers cannot decide

November, 12, 2012
Danny AmendolaAP Photo/Jeff ChiuOn the first play of OT, Danny Amendola hauled in what would have been an 80-yard pass. The play was called back for an illegal formation.

SAN FRANCISCO -- There were so many compelling stories waiting to be written on this confounding November Sunday at Candlestick Park.

We'll have to settle for all of them.

The San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Rams made it so, with a few assists from referee Clete Blakeman and his proactive officiating crew.

This 24-24 tie did more than fittingly push the all-time series record between the teams to 61-61-3 during regular seasons.

This one also reestablished the Rams' credentials as a newly competitive team under first-year coach Jeff Fisher.

It challenged San Francisco's status as NFC West bullies, serving notice, again, that the NFC West has become the sticks-and-stones division, to borrow a favorite phrase from 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.

It left the Rams at 3-5-1 while weakening the 49ers (6-2-1) heading into their "Monday Night Football" matchup against the Chicago Bears in Week 11.

It opened the door, at least a little, for Seattle (6-4) to push for a division title, not just for a wild-card berth.

Mostly, this game boggled the mind.

"I don't know exactly how it feels," Harbaugh said.

It didn't feel good.

"We didn't lose, but we didn't win, and if we didn't win, then I'm not really interested in it," Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis said.

There was so much evidence to process.

There was Rams quarterback Sam Bradford putting together the signature drive of his three-year-old career, a 14-play march to the go-ahead touchdown with 1:13 left in regulation. This was Bradford at his best. When the game was finally finished, he had completed 11 of 12 attempts to Danny Amendola and 26 of 39 overall.

"Big-picture wise, we scored points and we needed to score points," Fisher said. "We've been struggling to get the ball in the end zone and we got the ball in the end zone against a good defense."

There was Amendola returning from a nasty shoulder injury to make what would have been -- and perhaps what should have been, depending upon your view of Blakeman's crew -- the pivotal 80-yard reception in overtime. Officials flagged the Rams' illegal formation. Replays showed the call might have been correct, but officials threw the flag well after the fact and well down the field, and only after conferencing. Strange and anti-climactic.

"It was a roller coaster," Rams defensive end Chris Long said. "I feel like we won two games, maybe lost one and tied one today. It was unbelievable. I've never been a part of anything like that. I don't know how to think."

There was more, including young 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick coming off the bench for a concussed Alex Smith to rally his team into position for what would have been the winning 41-yard field goal in overtime, had David Akers not missed wide left. The 49ers thought Smith suffered the concussion on a fourth-and-1 sneak. They cannot be sure how long Smith will miss, but they're a lesser team in the short term without him, no question.

Kaepernick can run, but can he run the offense? He struggled with accuracy under admittedly tough conditions. Smith had been getting all the meaningful reps recently as the 49ers successfully recommitted to their regular offense.

"They lost their quarterback, but obviously their backup is talented enough to not lose the game for them," Fisher said.

As endorsements goes, that one felt like a tie.

There was also Rams rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein driving home what would have been -- and perhaps should have been, depending again upon one's view of officiating norms -- the winning 52-yard field goal some 12 minutes into overtime. We could fault the Rams for entrusting a rookie holder, Johnny Hekker, with clock management in such a situation. But this also seemed like a strange time to enforce the game clock to what seemed like a stricter standard than usual.

Zuerlein missed from 58.

"There shouldn't be a question as to whether or not you get a field goal off to win in overtime," Fisher said. "Apparently, Johnny lost track of the time. That happens. We don't want to say it's OK -- it's certainly not OK -- but he was focused on Greg and focused on protection and just lost track of it, I guess."

Hekker, a free agent the Rams signed in part for his arm, completed two fourth-down passes on fake punts, one from his own end zone and the other during that 14-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Hekker, empowered by Fisher to audible if the opponent rushes a cornerback at the expense of coverage, did just that with the first-half clock winding down and the Rams facing fourth-and-4 from their own 10. He later completed a fourth-and-8 pass to tight end Lance Kendricks for a 19-yard gain.

Late last season, the 49ers outfoxed the Rams in devastating fashion, Akers completing a pass to Michael Crabtree on a fake field goal when St. Louis didn't even know Crabtree was on the field.

The fake punts Sunday told us those days are over.

"The first one, we were trying to block the punt before the half," Harbaugh said. "We sent our corner. They can throw a pass when they see that, and that takes a lot of gumption to do it, and they did it. The second one, again, was well-executed on their part. Tough break for us to get that done on us, but tip your hat to them."

So much had happened by game's end that some players couldn't recall specifics.

Bradford could only smile and shrug when asked about the timeout St. Louis had called with 1:13 left in regulation. The Rams followed that timeout with Bradford's 2-yard scoring pass to Austin Pettis for a 24-21 lead, but the clock stoppage gave the 49ers sufficient time to respond.

Kaepernick, taking over at his own 22 with 1:03 to play, scrambled for 19 yards on first down. The clock stopped again on the next play when Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson suffered an injury. Kaepernick followed with a 10-yard scramble and a 13-yard pass to Kyle Williams. Five seconds remained when David Akers’ 33-yard field goal forced overtime.

The Rams didn't seem to care.

Bradford went deep for Amendola on the first play of overtime. Amendola separated from Carlos Rogers while the ball was in the air. He caught the ball at the San Francisco 45 and ran all the way to the 2 before Donte Whitner finally tackled him.

The game was only beginning -- again.

Each team would possess the ball two additional times before time ran out with St. Louis completing a 24-yard pass to near midfield. The Rams faced third-and-23 on the play after taking an 8-yard sack and a 5-yard penalty for delay.

The sack was particularly costly. It was also frustrating, at least for the Rams. They had first-and-10 from their own 38 with 24 seconds remaining. A couple more completed passes might have moved them into range for another field-goal try. Zuerlein has made five from 50-plus yards, including one from 60. But the Rams couldn't stop the pass-rush combination that New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride had so famously complained about.

Left guard Shelley Smith wouldn't say much about it, but Saffold overheard the questioning and nodded from his stool at the adjoining locker. The nod suggested Saffold felt as though Justin Smith, the 49ers' All-Pro defensive end, had held Shelley Smith to give teammate Aldon Smith a clearer path to the quarterback -- just as Gilbride had said the 49ers did with regularity, and in violation of holding rules.

"Justin Smith did a real good job of faking the rush and being able to grab him," Saffold said. "That allowed Aldon Smith to get around. You try to collapse it down so they'll run into each other and slow down the rush, and we were able to do that maybe three or four times, but a couple times where [Shelley Smith] needs to be firm and I need to get depth, it's harder to pass off some of the run-play action that we saw."

That's a lot of Smiths -- Shelley, Aldon and Justin, to say nothing of Alex -- and a lot to sort out. Confused? So were some of the players.

"I didn't know you could tie," 49ers free safety Dashon Goldson said. "When I saw both sides walking onto the field, I was like, ‘Where’s everybody going?'"

There was no winning or losing locker room to visit, just a lot of mixed emotions.

"I'm pissed," Long said. "We're all pissed in here because we feel like we won that game. They played a really good game, too, and they are a really good team.

"But I think we're going to see a lot of those battles for years to come here because we are a different team now. I think they know that from playing us now."

John Clayton's midseason All-Pro team

November, 7, 2012
San Francisco 49ers fans periodically ask when the team's 2012 draft class might begin contributing on the field.

Like other top teams, the 49ers drafted late in the order. Their roster was already quite strong. That combination has made it tougher for the 49ers' rookies to earn playing time. It doesn't necessarily mean their draft choices are falling short. It just means they're not playing yet.

With an assist from Hank Garguilo of ESPN Stats & Information, I've put together charts showing games played, games started and offensive/defensive snap counts for every 2012 NFC West draft choice through Week 6.

The 49ers are the only team in the league with zero snaps from their 2012 class. The 6-0 Atlanta Falcons' draft choices have played 25 snaps, the second-lowest total. The 30 remaining teams have gotten at least 215 snaps and an average of more than 700.

Seattle ranks fifth with 1,092 snaps from 2012 draft choices, followed immediately by St. Louis at 988. Arizona ranks 14th with 806. Right tackle Bobby Massie has played 424 of those, more than any team has gotten from its fourth-round choices. Seattle leads the league in snaps from seventh-rounders while ranking second in snaps from third-rounders. The Rams are second in snaps from second- and seventh-rounders.

Arizona Cardinals

Quick notes: Michael Floyd is getting work as the fourth receiver. He had a 24-yard reception Sunday. He has seven catches for 84 yards and a touchdown. ... Massie is getting valuable experience. He's been a liability in pass protection against some opponents. That was to be expected. ... Cornerback Jamell Fleming's playing time has fluctuated based on Greg Toler's availability. ... Ryan Lindley becomes the No. 2 quarterback behind John Skelton now that Kevin Kolb is injured. The team could conceivably re-sign Rich Bartel in the future. The Cardinals do like Lindlely's potential, however.

Seattle Seahawks

Quick notes: Bruce Irvin has 4.5 sacks, including one to help preserve a victory at Carolina. ... Second-round choice Bobby Wagner has provided a significant upgrade at middle linebacker. He opened the season as a starter and member of the base defense. His has become an every-down player over the past two weeks, with positive results, including when he ran down Cam Newton for a loss. ... Russell Wilson owns two fourth-quarter comeback victories in his first six starts, two more than Seattle managed last season. He is the first rookie since the 1970 merger to throw winning touchdown passes in the final two minutes of two games. ... Robert Turbin's speed and power have impressed. ... J.R. Sweezy impressed in camp and started the opener, but he wasn't ready. ... Greg Scruggs is healthy again and figuring into the pass-rush rotation.

San Francisco 49ers

Quick notes: Trenton Robinson has played on special teams, but he has been inactive recently. A.J. Jenkins has been active without playing. The 49ers have established players ahead of him at wide receiver. They also use two backs and/or two tight ends frequently, diminishing opportunities for wideouts to get on the field. Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and Randy Moss are competing for those limited snaps. ... LaMichael James' arrival provided incentive for Kendall Hunter, who has met the challenge. Might there be a role for James later in the season? So far, the 49ers haven't even activated veteran Brandon Jacobs. ... Joe Looney projects as a potential future starter at guard, but there might not be an opening if Alex Boone continues playing well. Boone seized the job while Looney was recovering from foot surgery. ... Darius Fleming suffered a knee injury and remains on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. ... The team released sixth-rounder Jason Slowey. ... Seventh-rounder Cam Johnson is on the practice squad.

St. Louis Rams

Quick notes: First-round defensive tackle Michael Brockers has recovered from an ankle injury well enough to become a big part of the Rams improving run defense. ... Brian Quick made a key reception over the middle to help the Rams beat the Seahawks, but fourth-rounder Chris Givens has made a bigger impact among the Rams' rookie wideouts. Givens has a reception of at least 50 yards in each of the Rams' last three games. That is a first for any NFL rookie since Willie Gault in 1983. ... Janoris Jenkins has been a playmaker at cornerback all season. He suffered a significant lapse in coverage at Miami, but overall, Jenkins has shined. ... Fifth-rounder Rokevious Watkins reported out of shape and landed on injured reserve. ... Sixth-rounder Greg Zuerlein has transformed the Rams' offense with his extended field-goal range, although he struggled some in Week 6. ... Seventh-rounder Daryl Richardson has a 5.2-yard average per carry and 246 yards rushing. He has won playing time from second-rounder Isaiah Pead, who has not been a factor.

NFC West Stock Watch

October, 16, 2012

1. Alex Smith, 49ers QB. Three interceptions and four sacks marked a rough day for the 49ers quarterback. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. followed up Smith's performance with an Insider piece Insider pointing out Smith's limitations relative to other quarterbacks. Williamson: "Smith isn't a bum. He is a solid NFL quarterback and can make plays with his arm and his legs. But when comparing the 49ers to the other top teams in the NFC like New York, Chicago, Green Bay and Atlanta, forcing Smith to win games is the recipe for victory against the 49ers."

2. Jim Harbaugh, 49ers coach. The 49ers' 26-3 defeat to the New York Giants was their most lopsided at home since 2009. An occasional defeat generally wouldn't knock down a coach's stock, but there were extenuating circumstances surrounding this one. The statement Harbaugh released Friday might have come off as bold and brash if the 49ers would have backed it up with a fundamentally sound performance against the Giants. They did not.

3. Greg Zuerlein, Rams kicker. Zuerlein had been a team MVP candidate before missing 52- and 37-yard field goal tries that were well within his range during a 17-14 defeat to the Miami Dolphins. Zuerlein also missed a 66-yarder for a shot at forcing overtime. All three missed wide to the left. Coach Jeff Fisher: "The wind really took the last one. He clearly had the distance. It's just too bad for him. The other two, the short one, I think he probably pulled it a little bit and the other one the wind took it -- the longer one, the 50-plus yarder." There was plenty of special-teams blame to go around for the Rams. Zuerlein had made 15 consecutive field goal tries to begin his career, so his misses stood out.

4. Misguided fullbacks. The Rams' Brit Miller tried to return a kickoff and fumbled, setting up a Dolphins field goal in a game St. Louis would lose by three points. Reagan Maui'a, the Arizona Cardinals' backup fullback, incurred a delay penalty for spiking the ball following a 7-yard reception to the Buffalo 36-yard line in the fourth quarter. The drive died a few plays later as the Cardinals, down 16-13 at the time, missed a scoring opportunity. Arizona lost valuable field position and wound up suffering a turnover on its next possession.


1. Russell Wilson, Seahawks QB. Wilson played a leading role in Seattle's 24-23 victory over New England. He showed outstanding deep accuracy and poise under pressure in winning for the fourth time in his last five starts. Wilson completed five passes for 200 yards on throws traveling more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. That included the winning 46-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice with 1:18 remaining. Wilson threw the ball 55 yards with a smooth delivery requiring no extra effort. A 50-yard strike to Doug Baldwin showcased everything that makes Wilson dangerous. He rolled left to avoid pressure. He quickly set up to throw along the yard-line number at the Seattle 12. With a defender rushing toward his front side, Wilson threw the ball 50 yards in the air and back to the middle of the field. Baldwin caught it inside the left hash.

2. Wide receivers. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald passed 10,000 career receiving yards, joining Randy Moss as the only players to reach the milestone before age 30. The leaping one-handed grab Fitzgerald made along the sideline didn't count because he was out of bounds. Still, it was worth a mention. Moss had a 55-yard reception for the San Francisco 49ers. St. Louis' Brandon Gibson had a seven-catch, 91-yard game. Teammate Chris Givens had a 65-yard reception for his third consecutive game with a catch longer than 50 yards. Rice caught the 46-yard game-winner against New England in the final two minutes. Fellow Seahawks receivers Golden Tate (66-yarder) and Doug Baldwin (50-yarder) had even longer receptions for the team.

3. William Powell, Cardinals RB. An undrafted free agent in 2011, Powell carried 13 times for 70 yards as Arizona set a season high with 182 yards rushing. Powell also had one reception for 8 yards. He was easily the Cardinals' most effective running back.

4. Pete Carroll, Seahawks coach. The team's ability to post a 4-2 record while developing a rookie quarterback provides some short-term validation for Carroll's plan. Conventional wisdom said the team should have gone with Matt Flynn. Conventional wisdom said starting a rookie quarterback would undermine efforts to outscore teams led by Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Tom Brady. Seattle is 4-0 against those quarterbacks. The formula has worked most of the time so far. As for in-game coaching, Carroll came out fine. The Patriots' failure to get even a field goal attempt from deep in Seattle territory right before halftime recalled the time in 2010 when Carroll lost a similar gamble. Bill Belichick was on the wrong side this time.

Wrap-up: Dolphins 17, Rams 14

October, 14, 2012

Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams' 17-14 defeat to the Miami Dolphins on the road in Week 7:

What it means: The Rams can function well enough to win offensively even without injured top receiver Danny Amendola, but they still have to do the little things well to win, particularly on the road. Penalties, turnovers, a blown coverage and missed field goals will doom most visiting teams. The Rams were no exception Sunday despite a 294-100 edge in first-half yardage.

What I liked: The Rams ran the ball and stopped the run with much greater efficiency than seemed likely against this opponent. The Dolphins had led the NFL in rushing yards allowed, both overall and by carry. They also ranked eighth in rushing yards gained. No matter. The Rams built a 147-4 lead in rushing yardage at one point deep into the second half.

Quarterback Sam Bradford made impressive throws. His aggressive, accurate pass to tight end Lance Kendricks for a 23-yard gain right before halftime seemed to drop over the linebacker's helmet with only inches to spare. That was a gutsy throw delivered without hesitation. Bradford threw accurately to convert a fourth-down pass as St. Louis, trailing 17-6 at the time, drove for a touchdown. Bradford capped the drive with a 1-yard scoring run on a sneak, then brought the Rams within three points with a conversion pass delivered while scrambling to his right.

What I didn't like: Rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein missed from 52 and 37 yards in the first half after making every attempt previously this season. Those misses contributed to the Rams trailing at halftime despite their statistical dominance. Down 17-14 in the final seconds, Bradford inexplicably took a sack on third down. Zuerlein then missed a 66-yard try as time expired. Bradford cannot take a sack in that situation. Bad play by him. Zuerlein had made from 60 yards this season and would have had a better chance Sunday if Bradford hadn't taken the sack.

Penalties against the offensive line and tight end Matthew Mulligan set back the Rams. Some were understandable given the difficult matchups St. Louis faced while playing three backups on the line against a talented defensive front. I kept thinking how much better Bradford will look once the Rams' current leadership has had time to upgrade its offensive line. Bradford fared pretty well under the circumstances, but the penalties still hurt.

Cornerback Janoris Jenkins and receiver Chris Givens fumbled during special-teams returns. The Dolphins recovered Givens' fumble. Givens was fortunate officials used replay to overturn another apparent fumble. Jenkins and Givens are talented rookies. They're big contributors for the Rams. There will be some growing pains. The hope here, from the Rams' viewpoint, is that both learned lessons Sunday.

What's next: The Rams, 3-0 at home this season, face the Green Bay Packers at the Edward Jones Dome in Week 7.

Rapid Reaction: Dolphins 17, Rams 14

October, 14, 2012

MIAMI -- A few thoughts on the Dolphins' 17-14 victory over the St. Louis Rams.

What it means: After a slow 1-3 start, the Dolphins have won two in a row to climb back to .500 (3-3). Miami is overachieving beyond most people's expectations. This is projected to be a rebuilding year with a rookie quarterback, but Miami is a tough out each week and starting to win close games.

Tannehill stands tall: The Rams' defense knows how to get after the quarterback. One week after sacking Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb nine times, St. Louis sacked Dolphins rookie Ryan Tannehill two times and hit him three additional times. But Tannehill stood tall and fought back with 185 yards and two touchdowns passes. Tannehill's passer rating was 112.0.

Third option: All season, the Dolphins have been waiting for a third receiver to step up opposite starters Brian Hartline and Davone Bess. It turns out Marlon Moore finally shows up in Week 6. Moore recorded three receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown. Opponents are focusing more on Hartline and Bess that it opens up opportunities for other players like Moore to step up.

Good field-goal karma: This season, it has been the Dolphins' missing key field goals. But that luck changed on Sunday, as the Rams missed two big attempts that were costly in the first half. St. Louis kicker Greg Zuerlein was 2 for 5, and the trio of misses haunted the Rams. Miami kicker Dan Carpenter, who has struggled this season, made his only field-goal attempt.

What's next: The Dolphins have a much-needed bye week to rest and get healthy. Miami will play three of its next four games on the road, and it starts with a big division road game Oct. 28 against the rival New York Jets. New York won the first meeting in a 23-20 overtime thriller in Week 3.

Rapid Reaction: Rams 17, Cardinals 3

October, 5, 2012
Thoughts on the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals following the Rams' 17-3 victory Thursday night in the Edward Jones Dome:

What it means: The Rams improved to 3-2, the first time they've had a winning record since the 2006 team was 4-3. They are 3-0 at home and 2-0 in the NFC West after going 4-26 against their division rivals from 2007 through last season. The Cardinals dropped to 4-1 while failing to reach 300 net yards for the fifth time this season. This game affirmed the NFC West's status as a hard-hitting division. Injury costs were high for both teams.

What I liked: Both teams started quickly on offense. Both teams played tenacious defense for most of the game. The Rams connected on two game-changing deep balls from Sam Bradford. Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb took a pounding, which was bad, but in the process he showed, again, that he's not brittle or lacking in toughness. He took eight sacks last week and nine in this one. Kolb kept battling and drove the Cardinals deep into Rams territory in the fourth quarter by completing 8 of 9 passes before his next completion gained only 3 yards on fourth-and-goal.

The Rams, despite problems on their offensive line, got Steven Jackson going for 76 yards on 18 carries. Rookie Daryl Richardson had nine carries for 35 yards. St. Louis hasn't gotten much push this season. The production from Jackson and Richardson was encouraging for the Rams.

What I didn't like: The injuries, the overmatched offensive lines, the dropped passes, the missed opportunities for pass connections well down the field, Jackson disappearing from the St. Louis offense for stretches, the Rams punting to Patrick Peterson from deep in their own territory while protecting a 14-point lead in the final minutes.

The Rams will not be the same offensively without top receiver Danny Amendola, who watched most of the game wearing a sling after suffering a shoulder injury while diving for a pass. It's not clear how much time Amendola might miss, but the Rams appeared lost without him until Bradford suddenly found rookie Chris Givens for a 51-yard touchdown to put away the game. The Cardinals lost running back Ryan Williams to a shoulder injury after the second-year back absorbed a brutal hit from Darian Stewart. Arizona was already without running backs Beanie Wells and LaRod Stephens-Howling.

Going after Peterson: In a big shock, the Rams attacked Cardinals cornerback Peterson and had success doing so, including when Bradford found Amendola for a 44-yard gain early. At times, the Rams' Janoris Jenkins looked like the best young corner on the field.

Quinn's big night: Rams defensive end Robert Quinn collected three sacks. Quinn has been quick off the edge this season, but power teams have exploited his weak run defense. The Cardinals posed no threat on the ground. That allowed Quinn to chase the quarterback without concern.

Legatron strikes: The Rams bucked convention when they cut veteran punter Donnie Jones and veteran kicker Josh Brown in favor of rookies. That move is paying off big.

Rams rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein connected from 53 yards. He has made all 13 attempts this season. Zuerlein connected from 58 and 60 yards last week.

Rookie punter Johnny Hekker also showed off a strong leg, posting a 56.9-yard gross average with three of his seven punts downed inside the 20. Peterson had a healthy 15.2-yard average on five punt returns, but he didn't find the end zone -- a welcome change for the Rams, who allowed two Peterson return scores last season.

What's next: The Cardinals are home against Buffalo in Week 6. The Rams visit Miami.



Thursday, 10/16
Sunday, 10/19
Monday, 10/20