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Monday metatarsal musings
Seven games into the 2011 NFL season, the NFC West had basically been decided.
The San Francisco 49ers had just defeated the Cleveland Browns to run their record to 6-1, while the Seahawks were 2-5 and the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams had just one victory each.
The Cardinals would rally to win seven of their final nine games, while the Seahawks would go 5-4 down the stretch. The Rams? They would win one more game. But none of it really mattered, because the NFC West was over before it was over, because the 49ers went 13-3 in the regular season and then all the way to the conference championship game in the postseason.
But the NFC West of 2012 is not that NFC West, or the same division the Seahawks dominated from 2004-07.
Yes, the 49ers still sit atop the division at 5-2, as they were the only team in the NFC West that won in this week that concludes tonight with the Chicago Bears playing the Detroit Lions – two teams the Seahawks will meet on the road. But the Seahawks and Cardinals are 4-3 and the Rams, at 3-4, already have one more victory than they did all of last season.
But the real change has been in the way these four teams are playing.
It all starts with defense. Hard-hitting, aggressive and, at times, suffocating defense. The 49ers rank No. 1 in the league in average yards allowed, with the Seahawks at No. 6, the Cardinals at No. 7 and the Rams at No. 10. And they’ve been even stingier when it comes to points, as the Seahawks rank second (12.9) to the Bears (12.8) in average points allowed by the defense, with the 49ers at No. 3 (13.3) and the Cardinals at No. 4 (15.9).
When it comes to moving the ball, however, that’s another story. The 49ers rank No. 9 in average yards gained, but they have the No. 29 passing offense in the league. The Rams rank No. 28, the Seahawks No. 30 and the Cardinals No. 31 in total offense – although the Seahawks’ running game ranks No. 8.
What’s it all mean? While each team in the division can cause problems, each also has problems. So, unlike last season, this thing is far from over.
Take the Seahawks. They are 0-3 on the road against the division, with Thursday night’s seven-point loss to the 49ers following a four-point loss to the Cardinals in their opener and a six-point loss to the Rams in Week 4.
But they still get to play each of these teams at CenturyLink Field, in their final four games – the Cardinals on Dec. 9, the 49ers on Dec. 23 and the Rams on Dec. 30. And, five of their remaining nine games will be played at CenturyLink, where the Seahawks not only are 3-0 but have beaten the Green Packer Packers and New England Patriots.
The 49ers have to play five of their remaining nine games on the road – including at Arizona next Monday night, at New Orleans, at New England and, of course, at Seattle. They also have a Monday night game against the Bears at home.
The Cardinals also will play five of their remaining nine games on the road – including the Monday night matchup with the 49ers next week, followed by games at Green Bay and Atlanta. And they still have to play the Bears at home and at the 49ers on the road.
Playing this check-their-schedule game can be misleading because as former Seahawks coach Chuck Knox always used to say, “It’s not who you play, it’s when you play them.”
But in the NFC West this season, it’s also about how they’re playing.
“We knew this was going to be a battle,” linebacker and leading tackler K.J. Wright said after Thursday night’s loss at Candlestick Park. “We knew they were going to come out running. They knew we were going to come out running. We knew they were going to play tough defense. They knew we were going to play tough defense.
“That’s just how it’s going to be in this division. We just have to find a way to make sure we’re the best defense on the field.”
With that said, here’s a look at three things that have worked during the Seahawks’ 4-3 start and three things that need work as they prepare for Sunday’s game against the Lions in Detroit – and the remainder of their regular-season schedule:
Marshawn Lynch – As 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said before Thursday night’s game, “He’s the best back we played last year. He broke more tackles than any back we played against last year.”
Lynch also broke more than his share of tackles in rushing for 103 yards on 19 carries at Candlestick Park. It was his third 100-yard performance this season and gave him 652 rushing yards – which ties him for third in the league with the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, just a broken tackle or two behind the Texans’ Arian Foster (659) and Redskins’ rookie Alfred Morris.
The Seahawks’ Beast Mode back remains the best thing about an offense that continues to experience growing pains under rookie QB Russell Wilson, who followed the best statistical game of his NFL career against the Patriots last Sunday with his least productive game on Thursday night against the 49ers. But the passing game must continue to develop to force opposing defense to play the Seahawks honest.
The defense, and especially cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman – They survived surrendering 475 yards to the Patriots. They allowed the 49ers only one touchdown drive. Browner and Sherman continue to provide tough, aggressive coverage – so much so that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh wondered aloud whether they were playing “within the rules.”
Browner and Sherman can’t back down. The defense can’t let up. Not in this division.
The special teams – They have slipped to seventh this week, according to the rankings compiled by Football Outsiders, after being second last week and for much of the season. But they’re still very special.
Heath Farwell is having a Pro Bowl season covering kicks. So is Jon Ryan, who is third in the league in average (50.4 yards) and 10th in net average (41.4). Leon Washington continues to come oh-so-close to breaking a scoring return, and ranks fourth in the league in kickoff return average (31.7). Steven Hauschka has scored 50 of the team’s 116 points and is 13 of 15 on field goals.
WHAT NEEDS WORK
Third downs – With the exception of the Week 5 win against the Panthers in Carolina, the Seahawks are not converting often enough on the pivotal down and allowing their opponents to convert too often.
Against the Panthers it was 50 percent for the offense (seven of 14) and 18 percent for the Panthers (two of 11). But for the season, it’s 32.6 percent (29 of 89) and 38.5 percent (35 of 91). One plays into the other, because converting on third downs allows the offense to stay on the field, which means the defense won’t be on the field as much – and should improve its performance on the one down where the Seahawks’ defense has had problems.
The passing game – Only the Jaguars are averaging fewer yards passing (144.8) than the Seahawks (161.9), and the league average is 241.0.
It’s not all the growing pains that Wilson is experiencing. His receivers dropped at least four passes against the 49ers, any of which could have altered the outcome of the game. Flanker Sidney Rice leads the team with 22 receptions and tight end Zach Miller has 14. But the passing game needs more production from split end Golden Tate (13 receptions) and for slot receiver Doug Baldwin to get and stay healthy.
Red-zone production – On 18 trips inside their opponents’ 20-yard line, the Seahawks have scored 72 points – fourth fewest in the NFL. Worst yet, they have scored just six touchdowns, tied for the second fewest in the league. They do have 10 field goals, which ties for third highest in the league.
But as coach Pete Carroll lamented after the Seahawks came away with only two field goals in Thursday night’s loss, “Again, you keep kicking those field goals it makes it very tough. We need to convert those drives into touchdowns. In this kind of setting, it would have been enough to win a football game.”
And move into sole possession of first place in the new-look NFC West. Read