2012 NFL Previews: NFC West
Written by Rohit Ghosh
Follow @RohitGhosh on Twitter
49ers are Best in the NFC West…Again
I’ll start off by saying that this is a weak division overall. Although the group is much improved from last season, mostly due to a healthy and focused Sam Bradford and improved offense from the Seahawks, the Niners should easily win the NFC West. Sure, Kevin Kolb might get back to how he was playing at one point in Philly and make Arizona a factor in the division, but let’s not start living in a fantasy world. Niners win the division, and lose no more than two games within it.
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San Francisco 49ers
It’s been close to a decade since the Niners have been a NFC powerhouse. They’re now in a class of their own in the division, and last year’s 13-3 record was not ‘lucky’. The team might not repeat another 13-win season, but I’ll be surprised if they win fewer than 11 games. They had a seven win improvement from 2010 to 2011 employing their physical ground game and defense all season to finish very close to a Super Bowl appearance.
Most interesting about their offense last year was that it didn’t necessarily improve statistically from the previous season. Despite finishing 26th in total offense (311 yards/game), the Niners were a better team because they held on to the ball and finished the season with a +28 turnover differential. Quarterback Alex Smith cut down his 10 interceptions from the previous season to just five last year while completing 61.3 percent of his passes for 3,144 yards with 17 touchdowns. Those numbers will improve given that San Francisco has added more weapons and depth to their offense. The running back corps will feature Frank Gore (1,211 yards, 4.3 yds/carry, 8 TD), Kendall Hunter (473 yards, 4.2 yds/carry, 2 TD), Brandon Jacobs (571 yards, 3.8 yds/carry, 7 TD, from NY Giants), and LaMichael James (RB, Oregon). General Manager Trent Baakle even convinced Randy Moss to hop on the squad while adding Mario Manningham from the Giants, and getting another strong prospect via the draft in receiver A.J. Jenkins. All these extra options give Coach Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith more flexibility in an offense that was a bit too predictable last season.
Now we get to the fun part: the defense. The Niners finished the season second in the league in points allowed (14.3/game), fourth in total defense (308 yards/game), led the league in rushing yards allowed (77.3 yds/game, 3.5 yds/attempt) and management wisely didn’t do much tinkering with this side of the team. Ends Justin Smith (58 tackles, 7.5 sacks), NT Isaac Sopoaga (31 tackles) and Ray McDonald (39 tackles, 5.5 for loss) are back while Patrick Willis (97 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) leads an insanely dominant group of linebackers with NaVorro Bowman (team-best 143 tackles in 2011), Aldon Smith (37 tackles, 14 sacks), and Ahmad Brooks (50 tackles). The group was a big part of the Niners’ number one ranked run defense, and there’s no question they will continue to remain one of the league’s best when it comes to any defensive stat.
This year’s team is better than the 2011 version, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate a higher win total. They have road games in New Orleans, New England, and Green Bay while playing the Super Bowl champs at home too. I’m projecting an 11-5 record for SF along with the division title and a deep playoff run.
I’ve often heard the weather up in Seattle is on the gloomy side. With the direction the sports teams have been going (Washington and Washington State aren’t dominating anything, no NBA team, no Ichiro), that outlook won’t be changing any time soon even with some clinging on to the notion that the Seahawks might be the surprise team out of the NFC West this year. A 7-9 record (2010) isn’t going to win them the division anymore, and with doubt surrounding who starts at QB for them (Matt Flynn or rookie Russell Wilson), the Seahawks will depend on running back Marshawn Lynch and their defense to be one of the better units in the league. If all the stars align this team could sneak up to 10 wins. In all honesty though, that’s the best-case scenario.
Last year’s offense was just brutal. Rather, the term “inconsistent” would do more justice. They managed just 20.1 points and 304 yards, and constantly suffered from a lack of leadership and consistency at the quarterback position. Management decided to fix that in the offseason by bringing in Flynn from the Packers who is currently battling with Wilson for the starting job. It looks like Flynn hasn’t done anything to disappoint the front office, and could get the starting role; however, Wilson has potential and will serve as a dual threat throughout the season, ready to take over the starting spot in case Flynn struggles.
Lynch ran for 1,202 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns last year, but he’s going to need some help this season if the team wants to make any sort of noise. The Seahawks drafted Robert Turbin from Utah State to handle some of the short-yardage situations. The receiving unit depends heavily on the health of Sidney Rice (32 receptions, 484 yards, two TDs). If he can stay on the field he’ll be their number one option, but he missed seven games last season and has a injury problems his entire career. The team needs Golden Tate to have a breakout season, and who knows, maybe T.O. will be back in form. With all this said, the issue on the offensive end still begins and ends with the line. The offensive line allowed 50 sacks last year, and only helped produce 110 rushing yards per game. Assuming guys like John Moffitt and Russell Okung can stay healthy, the unit should improve since the starting five is returning intact.
The defense was the only glimmer of hope last season when it improved to allow just 19.7 points and 332 total yards per game. Eleven of the top 12 tacklers are back this year, and are ready to wreak havoc on oppositions even without any superstar names in the lineup. The D was forced to stay on the field for way too many plays because of how poor their offense was, but still managed to rank ninth in total defense. The Seahhawks allowed the seventh fewest yards per play, and QBs only had a 74.8 rating against them. Seattle was also tied for fourth in yards allowed per rushing attempt. The only defense better in the NFC West was San Francisco, and we all know how well the 49ers can rush the passer. The pass rush is the biggest weakness for the Seattle defense, and drafting Bruce Irvin was a step forward in fixing that hole. This defense is already top ten in the league, and has the potential to be a top five unit.
The line for number of wins has Seattle at 7. This is a tough one because the team can finish anywhere between 5-11 and 9-7 depending on how the QB situations unravels. The entire team is a project and is currently one of the league’s youngest teams. I project them to finish with an 8-8 record.
After starting with a poor 3-7 record last year, the Cardinals got their act together in the second part of the season and finished with a respectable 8-8 record. The team needs to get some quality play from their starting quarterback whether it ends up being Kevin Kolb or John Skelton or it will risk wasting Larry Fitzgerald’s career with below-average passing.
Kolb will most likely start the season as the team’s starter after completing 57.7 percent of his passes for 1,955 yards with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions last year. Skelton will be his backup coming off a season where completed 54.9% of his passes for 1,913 yards with 11 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while replacing Kolb.
With Ryan Williams finally healthy, Arizona will have a nice duo at the running back position with him and Beanie Wells. Wells rushed for 1,047 yards on 4.3 per carry with 10 touchdowns last year. The Cardinals also drafted Michael Floyd in the first round to draw some of the opposing defense’s attention away from Fitzgerald (80 receptions, 1,411 yards, eight TD), and will hopefully get some contributions from guys like Early Doucet and Andre Roberts.
The offensive line allowed 50 sacks in 2010, and 54 sacks in 2011, the second highest total in the league. The unit is clearly limiting the team’s success, and hopes the additions of ex-Niner Adam Snyder, Nate Potter (Boise State), and Bobby Massie (Ole Miss) improve the line substantially.
The defense might not have started last season on a strong note, but improved as the season went on allowing only 18.3 points per game over the final nine games of the season. Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett anchor the defensive line while three youngsters (O’Brien Schofield, 37 tackles, 4.5 sacks; Daryl Washington, 107 tackles, 13.5 for loss, nine passes defended; Sam Acho, 40 tackles, 7 sacks) lead the linebackers. Also look for NT Dan Williams to make an impact. He was out last season with a broken arm, and a healthy Williams would make the job much easier for the inside linebackers.
Not too many people noticed how well the Cardinals finished the season last year. They went 7-2 in their final two games, and probably should have won their game with the Bengals. The defense is outstanding, and with an improved offensive line, I realistically project them to go 7-9. I wanted to put them at 8-8, or even 9-7. Am I being too optimistic? Probably, but I like the balance of the schedule and know the team can rely on the defense.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams are coming off an injury filled 2-14 season, one that tested a fan’s allegiance with weeks of sub-par play and plenty of relevant front office changes. Jeff Fisher will be the third head coach in the last six years while Sam Bradford starts his his third NFL season with his third offensive coordinator. The Rams are hoping that Fisher’s experience and composure can bring some consistency to the team.
There’s only one way to say this: the offense needs to improve. New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, previously with the Jets, has his work cut out for him as he inherits a team that put up a league low 12.1 points and 284 total yards per game last year. In 2010, things were looking good for Bradford who went on to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. However, 2011 wasn’t as successful as a new offensive coordinator and injuries limited any sort of quality production. The team’s 2012 success, or lack thereof, will depend heavily on how Bradford progresses.
Steven Jackson will continue to do work at the running back position coming off a season where he ran for 1,145 yards with five touchdowns while also catching 42 balls for 333 yards and another touchdown. He is the only Rams player with seven straight 1,000-yard seasons. The addition of rookie Isaiah Pead from Cincinnati should provide some relief for Jackson in the 2012 season.
In 2011, the offensive line allowed a league-high 55 sacks which is absolutely horrendous. The only addition to the offensive front was center Scott Wells, previously from Green Bay. He is an upgrade, and the leadership should help the unit out immediately. Tackle Jason Smith has yet to live up his draft hype, and will need to step up this season to keep his job.
The defense gave up 25.4 points and 358 total yards per game, but weren’t as bad as the numbers would indicate. The offense was too often unable to move the football putting the defense in tough situations. In addition to defensive tackle Michael Brockers out of LSU (1st round pick), free agent tackles Kendall Langford (20 tackles, 1 for loss) and Trevor Laws (20 tackles, 1 sack) will provide some depth inside. Ends Chris Long (37 tackles, 13 sacks) and Robert Quinn (23 tackles, 5 sacks) will help make this group one of the better units in the league.
As stated previously, how this team does depends entirely on Bradford. The Rams went from one of the oldest teams to one of the youngest, and will be a project for Coach Fisher. I have their projected record at 5-11 mostly because of how inexperienced the team is. They did exactly what they needed to in the offseason and addressed their weaknesses. It’s now just a matter of letting those pieces gel and building chemistry. It will take a couple of years before the team gets closer to the .500 mark.