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Friday, September 5, 2008

KD's NFC West Preview

Published also at www.armchairgm.com

As the 2008 NFL season dawns, the fortunes of the NFC West reside where they have been in recent seasons...the division sucks. The NFL version of baseball's National League Western Division, often referred to as the "NL Worst", the NFC West is home to arguably the two worst teams in the NFL, and a team which has made the postseason in a non-strike year just once since 1975. And even the division's best team, the four time defending champion Seattle Seahawks enter the season with more questions than answers, starting with the health of All-Pro quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
Hasselbeck is expected to start the season opener despite back issues which go back to last year, at least. Another question is who is Hasselbeck going to throw to? With D.J. Hackett gone and Bobby Engram and Deion Branch injured, the most experienced receiver on the roster is Nate Burleson. The Hawks picked up a couple of second tier running backs in an attempt to re-start the running game following the departure of Shawn Alexander, Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett. The signing of left guard Mike Wahle and the drafting of tight end John Carlson should offer Hasselbeck a bit more blind side protection, which is his "back" side in the pocket. Courtney Taylor will likely see most of the opposite side snaps in place of Branch, although Branch declared himself ready to play this week on Wednesday. Rookies Jordan Kent and Logan Payne will play in the Hawks multi-wide set, with RB Maurice Morris the short yardage back. The Hawks are also thin defensively, especially in the secondary, where they will start a second year pro and a rookie. If Hasselbeck struggles with his back, it will be imperative backup QB Seneca Wallace stays within Paul Holmgren's game plan, turnovers and ineffectiveness will have the defense on the field more than anyone would like. The Hawks did catch a big schedule break, after their season opener in Buffalo, two home games follow, against the Rams and 49ers, then the bye week in Week 4. If the Hawks can get to the bye with no further injury problems and a record no worse than 2-1, they could be looking at their fifth consecutive division title and sixth playoff spot in a row.
The St. Louis Rams are coming off a 3-13 season which prompted changes on Scott Linehan's coaching staff. New offensive coordinator Al Saunders is joined by new QB coach Terry Shea and RB coach Art Valero. Linehan has turned over the offense to Saunders, with the hope their combined NFL experience can turn around the Rams often inept offense. The Rams problems last year can point to both lines. All-Pro OL Orlando Pace was lost for the season in Week 1, while the Rams DLine accounted for the fewest sacks in the NFL. The return to form of Pace and injured defensive end Leonard Little will go far in once again in stabilizing the Rams running game and pass rush.
Quarterback Marc Bulger follows along in the same vein as his predecessors in St. Louis, Trent Green and Kurt Warner. What they lacked in mobility they made up with pocket awareness and an uncanny ability to wait til the last second before executing the play. Problem is, for a "timing" type QB to be successful, he needs protection, and he needs another threat around him. Pace and his OLine buddies will need to have Bulger's back alot more this year, and will also need to not only open, but keep open, holes for superstar RB Steven Jackson. The Rams, to some, surprisingly released Isaac Bruce, leaving off-season pickup Keenan Burton and rookie Donnie Avery to run alongside Torry Holt. While both players, especially Burton, bring much needed speed to the Rams offense, one must remember they are both still young and also learning a much more complicated offensive system, which the Rams staff understands will require patience. The Rams dominating linebacking corps, led by Will Witherspoon and Quinton Culbertson will be joined by Chris Draft in what is hoped to remain one of the top run defenses in the league.
Fresh off what he calls "the best pre-season of my career", Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner enters the season with his rear view mirror covered. No more looking over his shoulder at the ever shrinking shadow of Matt Leinart. The only thing that can knock Warner from his starter's role is an injury, no longer will the Cards QB situation revolve like the stage at Phoenix' Celebrity Theatre. Plagued by fumbleitis his whole career, Warner will need to keep the turnovers to a manageable level, with the talent of his receiving corps and the still productive Edgerrin James in the backfield, the Cardinals should rack up the points this season. Backup running back Tim Hightower, a legit breakaway threat, had a tremendous camp and should average a dozen or so touches per game. Tight end Ben Patrick is a solid route runner with good hands and an excellent on the run blocker. WR Anquan Boldin caused a minor flap in camp over his contract situation has told the Cardinals he will give 100% on the field, teams with All-World teammate Larry Fitzgerald, giving the Cards the best one-two WR tandem in football. On the defensive side, the move of Antrelle Rolle to safety, where he will pair with the league's best DB, Adrian Wilson. Rolle, a former cornerback, had problems in tight coverage situations, the freedom the safety position brings should alleviate that concern. Wilson, so dominating he on occasion will line up as a linebacker in certain coverages, is coming off a camp Coach Ken Whisenhunt described as "stunning."
The San Francisco 49ers surprised most everyone by naming journeyman quarterback J. T. Sullivan the opening day starter over Alex Smith. The 49ers must improve on their league worst 145 yards per game passing average in 2007, and have signed former Rams standout WR Isaac Bruce to help in that area. Former Rams head coach and offensive genius Mike Martz is in as the new coach and won't have any trouble designing a new offensive scheme, the problem will be in having the necessary pieces to execute it. RB Frank Gore is a legitimate 2000 yard from scrimmage guy, but despite his ability to find open ground, will find the going tough if O'Sullivan can't bring respect to the passing game. Defensively, cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris are former All-Pros, with Clements propensity to gamble has led to big plays by the offense. Harris is more of a stay at home kind of guy, yet is always scrambling to cover for Clements, which takes him out of his comfort zone.
With the Rams and 49ers likely not to reach ten wins combined, the Seahawks and Cardinals are left to fight for the division amongst each other. The problem there is they will struggle to win 18 games combined, leaving for a tighter than expected race. The Cardinals end the season against Minnesota, at New England, and home vs. the Hawks, while Seattle's final stretch is at St. Louis, home vs the Jets, and at Arizona. Seattle's first month may go farther in deciding the division however, with so many injuries, a 1-2 or 0-3 start could doom their hopes right off the bat.
I see the division thusly;
Arizona Cardinals 9-7 Seattle Seahawks 8-8 St. Louis Rams 5-11San Francisco 49ers 4-12
The division will be decided in Week 17, with the Cards and Seahawks squaring off in Arizona with identical 8-7 records. The Cards, realizing what was at stake and with a sell-out crowd going nuts in a nationally televised affair, jump on the Hawks early and continue the onslaught with a double digit route.

1 comment:

ssreporters said...

NO! You jumped on the Arizona bandwagon to 2nd place too?!

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