With all the changes in the NFC West between seasons, I wanted to get an idea of what the 9ers will be facing within the division when the regular season starts. Every year there are 2nd and 3rd year players who step up into starting positions, rookies who could possibly make a big impact, and coaching changes that result in offensive or defensive scheme changes. So I watched the Cards-Steelers game and listened to the Rams-Jets and Seahawks-Chargers games. I also listened to the Panthers-Giants game last night because the 9ers own Carolina's 1st round draft pick next year and I wanted to scope out the situation there. My report, for what it's worth, is below.
QB: Kurt is still the man in AZ and he played well, moving the chains easily and treating blitzes as opportunities. The news is that former USC QB Matt Leinart seems to have regained his confidence and played very, very well. St. Pierre, who was given an opportunity to compete for the backup position, wasn't in Leinart's class.
RB: Beanie Wells didn't play because of injury, but Tim Hightower has come to play this year - he's lighter, faster, stronger, and seems to have an attitude. If Wells can play as advertised, this could be a deadly combo.
OL: It's solid, with one glaring exception - Mike Gandy at LT. He was beaten both inside and outside several times. It may be just preseason rust, but he didn't look good at all. He bears watching.
WR: Fuhgitaboutit. It's Fitzgerald and Boldin, and unless the 9ers develop a better pass rush on Warner this year, they will put some serious hurt on the red and gold.
DL: Former 9ers DC Billy Davis was hired as DC and he's installed a standard 3-4. Third-year draft pick Allan Branch is the NT and 2nd-year DE Calais Campbell is the LDE. Watch out for both of these guys. Campbell was in the Steelers' backfield all night and Branch was driving the C back into the QB whenever on the field. I had both of these guys pegged as potential busts when they were drafted. And that's why nobody pays me to evaluate potential. Both of them played some 2-gap and did well against double teams.
LB: Billy Davis has installed his zone blitz package already and was exercising it early and often against the Steelers. He had guys coming from everywhere, but without much success. Big Ben refused to go down and was elusive in the pocket. But now we know what to expect from the Cards - heavy blitzing from the get-go.
DBs: DRC is going to be hard to beat - he plays fast and physical. Wish he played for us. But they have solid players at both safeties and CB, so this is a strength for them this year. They will make the 9ers pay for passes that are off target and have the speed to match up well against our receivers.
Overall:Only a good pass rush is going to neutralize the Card's passing game and their OL is slightly suspect. Their run game will be improved, but nothing we can't handle. The defense is their weakness this year, just like last year, but it isn't the secondary, it's the front seven that may be susceptible to draws and screens because of overpursuit and overeager young players. A heavy dose of Gore and good play action can put points on the board against the Cards.
RB: Steven Jackson is still a stud, but nothing we can't handle. Antonio Pittman wasn't bad, but he's not starting material.
WR: Donnie Avery is injured and nobody else looked decent. TE Randy McMichael may be their best receiver.
OL: How old is Richie Incognito? LT Alex Barron looked a little rusty at first and then played well. This line is definitely suspect - the Jets pass rushers overwhelmed them early, sacking Bulger three times.
DL: Another team switching to a 3-4 defense, but it appears to be a Nolan-like hybrid with lots of four down linemen and little blitzing. The big surprise here is that Chris Long does not appear to play in space very well as an OLB. But they still have some good players, including DE Leonard Little and DT Adam Carriker. They didn't play well against the Jets, however, and their personnel doesn't appear to be a good fit for the 3-4.
LB: OLB Will Witherspoon and rookie ILB James Laurenitis were the only players to impress, but it won't be enough.
DBs: They've got a couple of decent safeties in J. Butler and O. Atogwe, but the starting CBs are suspect. Speedster Justin King and Johnathan Wade could have breakout years if they get on the field enough.
Overall: They're still the Lambs and they still don't have the personnel to break out of the cellar. Throwing or running, we can score points on the Lambs because their defense is still pathetic, although it's still early and there was little blitzing. The OL is pretty creaky and susceptible to a good pass rush if we can find one. But Jackson is still a beast, so I would drop the SS into the box and concentrate on him until they show a passing game.
QB: Matt Hasselbeck is back and looking smooth and confident. But I really think Seneca Wallace is the better QB because of his mobility. But either one can beat you in their hybrid WCO, if it's that. They're changing the offense, but to what exactly I can't tell. Maybe more of a power running game but with a WCO heart?
OL: Walter Jones is back at LT, but for how long? Rookie C/G Max Unger saw lots of time at OG and it looks like they plan on plugging him right in. They were good at opening holes for the runners, but not so good in pass pro, but that could just be rust.
RB: They're looking for a few good RBs because the only guy they've got that looks good is Julius Jones. Forsett and Duckett are both pluggers without the size or quickness to be starters. I don't know what the 'Hawks are thinking, but they could do better than this.
WR: The receiver to watch out for is TE John Carlson who has the size, speed, hands, concentration, and body control to become a real star. The primary WRs will be N. Burleson and Housh, though, and either one can burn a secondary. Not much behind them, though, as the 'Hawks tried 15+ guys at the position.
DL: They're staying with their 4-3 and the 9ers would be wise to game plan for their two DTs, Brandon Mebane and Cory Redding, as they were dominating when they were in there. Mebane, a Cal product, has phenomenal strength and Redding is a totally different player now that he's out of Detroit. You know DE Patrick Kearney already, and newcomer Nick Reed made a very strong showing on the other side.
LB: Just writing their names makes me queasy - MLB Lofa Tatupu, OLB Aaron Curry, OLB Leroy Hill. Curry will also see duty as a pass rusher on 3rd downs. Curry is very, very dangerous and can lay some serious hurt on very big guys. Although LT looked pretty good against them in his four carries, the Chargers could not run against the starting front seven with much success.
DBs: CB Ken Lucas got burned bad on a couple of plays and M. Trufant didn't really see much action. This unit didn't play well and the Chargers racked up 300+ yards. This is the weakest unit on defense.
Overall: It's hard to tell what the heck they're trying to do on offense, but the QB/receiver situation is pretty solid. After J. Jones, though, there isn't much, so I would put the heat to a suspect OL and disrupt the passing game with blitzes. On offense, I would attack their secondary as Lucas didn't look good at all and M. Trufant is too short to defense big WRs. The safties looked ordinary.
RB: DeAngelo Williams is a solid starting back and looked good on his six carries for 29 yards. J. Stewart didn't play, but Mike Goodson did and looked pretty good. They have three RBs who can get yardage.
OL: With Jordan Gross on one side and Jeff Otah on the other, this is an OL built for the running game. Nobody is going to overpower these guys and the G-men looked outclassed with the starters in.
WR: Neither Steve Smith nor M. Muhammad played, but Dwayne Jarret did and looked decent in limited action. The surprise here are the hands on FB Brad Hoover. Look for him to get more balls thrown his way during the regular season.
DL: Pathetic. Nobody played well and the Giants just ran over them, literally. Even Giants QB D. Carr(formerly a Panthers QB) ran for double digits. Julius Peppers and Everette Brown looked OK at DE, but were unable to get any serious pressure on the QBs. Of the DTs, Corvey Irvin and Marlon "Big Fave" Favorite looked the best, and neither was a starter. This is a bad situation.
LB: Remember Dan Conner from last year's draft? Well, he's putting the hurt to people at MLB in Carolina. He's a force and one of the few bright spots on defense. The rest looked like scrubs,
DBs: Rookie Sherrod Martin is looking very, very good at CB - he's got the size, closing speed, and great instincts. He was on my mock draft and I regret we didn't take him with that 2nd rounder - he could become a star. Everyone else was ordinary to bad. With the exception of Sherrod, this appears to be a weak unit.
Overall: The offense seems pretty solid with great RBs and good WRs, but if Jake goes down, McCown likely won't be able to carry the load. The defense was pretty bad and it looks as if they just don't have the personnel to turn it around. Given the division they're playing in, I see them coming in third behind the Saints and Falcons but ahead of Tampa Bay with an 8-8 record. No playoffs this year and the 9ers end up with a draft pick at 15-18. If Delhomme gets hurt, make that a 6-10 record with our draft pick at 13-16, which would make me a very happy camper.