Yes the NFL season’s first quarter is complete and in the books. Before you know it, teams worthy of post season play will be clinching their divisions and others battling for Wild Card weekend. The NFC West is a very intriguing division; just a few years ago the Seattle Seahawks represented the division in the playoffs with a subpar 7-9 record. That sent boos from fans coast to coast and a wave of laughter from their peers and a bucket full of comments from media pundits suggesting the NFL change the rules to not allow any team under a 8-8 record into the playoffs.
Every NFL season, every NFL weekend, and every game brings something new, a different scheme fit, explosive performances, team meltdowns, last minute wins, a bounce or tip of the ball for a big play, surprises from all directions and not to mention top performances and season ending injuries.
ARIZONA CARDINALS – Record 4-0 Grade: A+
I’m eating crow and drinking a beverage of choice because of this team and so are several other NFL Insiders and Analysts. Coach Whisenhunt, his staff and players along with the organization won’t admit it but they were all wondering what direction their team would be heading after a preseason that was labeled a quarterback debacle. Quarterback Kevin Kolb is managing the game and making enough plays to help his team win (ranked 9th in passer rating with a 97.6, 62.6 completion percentage throwing for 7 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions). We have yet to see the Kolb of old, you remember the quarterback that was the star of 2011 football follies in every way possible prior to getting injured. Per Mike Sando ESPN.com NFC West Blogger –The Cardinals are the first team since the 1941 Giants to go 4-0 without reaching 300 net yards in any game. Kolb is blessed throwing the ball to the best receiver in the NFC West in Larry Fitzgerald who has been targeted 38 times with 22 receptions and 2 touchdowns. If their offensive line can keep Kolb upright, they’ve allowed 13 sacks thus far, the connection of Kolb to Fitzgerald could heat up.
Defensive coordinator Ray Horton and the Cardinal defense have a lot to do with the early success in 2012. He brought the 3-4 defense from Pittsburgh, implemented it for the 2011 season, after some growing pains, Horton added his twist to a already proven scheme, and teams are struggling to figure out the code in the first four weeks. The household names on defense are DB Adrian Wilson, DT Darrell Dockett and CB/Return specialist Patrick Peterson as well as a few others, but when I’m breaking down film it’s LB Darryl Washington who jumps off the screen. He was an undersized linebacker (girth) out of TCU that has developed into a prime time player. Washington has an athletic skill set, positional attributes, length, speed in coverage, explosive tackling skills and very good awareness with football instincts. His production is exceptional in the first quarter (34 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 pass defended and a force fumble). I gave the Cardinals an A+ because of their early play and I know how hard it is to go undefeated in the NFL, regardless of what I thought of them coming out of preseason.
SAN FRANCISCO – Record 3-1 Grade: A
Coach Harbaugh and the 49ers’ front office did a good job during the off season building through free agency and the draft to strengthen their championship foundation. Quarterback Alex Smith has been blessed with a healthy and very good offensive line that not only protects him in the pocket, but is extremely productive in opening holes for Frank Gore. The 49ers displayed a downhill power running game against the Jets with 245 rushing yards and even the quarterbacks got into the fun. Smith has managed the game well with a 67.3 completion percentage on 113 attempts, 5 touchdowns and 1 interception for a 98.1 passer rating. While he is not lighting it up, he is not killing them either.
The 49ers’ defense ranks in the top 5 in points allowed (4th at 16.2), total yards (3rd at 277.2), passing yards allowed (5th at 197.8), and rushing yards allowed (5th at 79.5). They remain stout at the point of attack, playing downhill and very solid on the backend against the pass. The best linebacker combination in the NFL still resides in the Bay Area in NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, who are ranked in the top 12 of defensive production with 80 total tackles, 7 passes defended, 2 interceptions and 1 recovered fumble. If the offense and special teams can maintain or increase their production the defense will win the divisional crown.
St. Louis – Record 2-2 Grade: B-
Here is a team that had a record of 15-65 over the past several seasons, driving their fan base into the ground head first. Owner Stan Kroenke hired Head Coach Jeff Fisher, who is a proven winner over time and a player’s coach with a personality that has permeated throughout the organization and into the fan base. When the Rams have taken the field since week one they have felt they’re going to win, which is much different than in the past. As the sideline reporter for the Rams Radio Network I know, because the eyes don’t lie, Fisher and his staff have changed the mindset of a losing franchise.
This team has struggled with major injuries to the offensive line, OC Scott Wells is on Designated IR for several more weeks, OT Rodger Saffold suffered a knee injury and will be sidelined for over a month. The patch work line up has done a very good job keeping quarterback Sam Bradford fairly clean and upright. RB Steven Jackson is limping through the early part of the season with a strained groin. The young receivers are starting to find their rhythm with Bradford. Bradford has displayed that if you give him time he will pick apart a secondary at all levels. He is mobile outside the pocket by scheme design, and he has the ability to slide and avoid with accuracy on the move. Once there is stability within the front and SJ39 gets healthy this will be an offense that the other 31 teams will take note of. The Rams are currently 27th overall in total offense (20th rushing, 27th passing), and are improving on 3rd down conversion each and every week.
The Rams defense has played good in all four games. Most people are saying the strength of this defense is at the cornerback position with Cortland Finnegan (3 interceptions with a pick six) and rookie Janoris Jenkins (1 interception) have been huge bright spots. As I broke down the film, the front seven (particularly the front four) have applied steady and consist pressure flushing the opposing quarterbacks out of their drop zone or squeezing the pocket to force them to throw from several platforms. The combination of DE Chris Long (2 sacks, 7 tackles) and DE Robert Quinn (3 sacks, 9 tackles) coming off the edge has put a lot of pressure on the quarterback drop zone. Once DT’s Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers find inside cohesiveness, the interior line has a chance to be very good. The Rams’ defensive bell cow is again off to a great start, I’m talking about MLB James Laurinaitis leading the team in tackles with 39. His production and leadership are special. The Rams are currently 14th overall in total defense (26th rushing defense, 12th passing defense).
Were the biggest transformation on this young team has taken place thus far is on special teams. Place kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter John Hekker are rookies but are playing like seasoned veterans. Zuerlein has stirred up national attention for his field goal performance. He is 12 for 12 and has set a Rams’ record with a long of 60 yards. Hekker has performed very well for a non-drafted rookie. He has a 39.4 net, a long of 66 and even a touchdown pass. The Rams’ coverage units are tops in the league with youth, speed and solid tackling skills. The youngest team in the NFL is growing up fast and the rest of the NFC is taking note of what Fisher is doing in the Show Me State. I gave them the grade of B- because this young team is playing combative football as I call it, do whatever it takes to keep it close and win it at the end.
SEATTLE – Record 2-2 Grade; C+
In the last two seasons Coach Carroll has done a great job filling holes and building the Seahawk roster. While they still have areas of concern at offensive line and receiver positions, they have built a very aggressive, explosive and fast defense which ranks 2nd in the NFL in points allowed and total defensive rushing yards. They have speed off the edge, length, explosive tackling with man coverage ability and the backend along with linebackers that roam and hit playing downhill.
Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson took over the helm beating out Matt Flynn (UFA) and has not looked back. While the rookie quarterback has played well, the playbook opened up to him has been limited. As expected he has stubbed his toe. In 4 games started he has 60.6 completion percentage, 4 touchdowns, 4 interceptions and a 73.4 quarterback rating, but has a very bright future once he gets a better feeling of the NFL’s defensive landscape.
I think the Seahawks have the best second effort running back in the NFL in Marshawn Lynch (92 touches, 423 yards, 4.6 yards per attempt, 105.8 yards per game, 2 touchdowns). He is the king of “yards after contact”, there is a reason his nickname is the BEAST! He and rookie RB Robert Turbin will carry the load on offense and protect their young quarterback, but at some point this team, limited at receiver production outside the numbers, will need to make plays in the passing game to have offensive success in 2012.