So the Arizona Cardinals are on top of the NFC West with a 3-2 record after beating the Saints at home, and this with an undrafted free agent rookie QB as the starter. The Seahawks and Rams are tied for second and the 49ers are dead last at 0-5. Last week the Cardinals had a shocking upset over the New Orleans Saints and the Rams got pummeled by the Lions. What can we expect this week from the NFC West teams?
This week the Oakland Raiders travel across the bay to take on the San Francisco 49ers. The Raiders are 2-3 and are coming off a huge win over the San Diego Chargers, a team that had beaten them 13 times in a row. How did the Raiders do it? Special teams and defense. In the first few minutes of the game the Raiders blocked a San Diego punt that rolled through the end zone (no Taylor Mays acrobatic toe-tapping here) for a safety. Their first offensive points were off a FG, and then they blocked another San Diego punt which they recovered for a touchdown. This would put them up 15 points early. Their defense mostly held strong, though they're vulnerable to the deep pass. At the end of the game Phillip Rivers had a chance to win the game on a late drive and was stripped. The consequent fumble was run back for a touchdown, which was the first defensive touchdown for the Raiders since 2007.
So how do the 49ers beat the Raiders? Attack them deep and attack the edges to soften up the middle. If Singletary insists on running the ball up the middle the Raiders defensive line will shut them down. However, other than Nnamdi Asomugha, their secondary is weak. They're tied for 7th in the league in pass plays of over 20 yards and 6th in pass plays of over 40 yards. Opposing QBs have had a rating of 101.2 against them and their defense has given up an average of 26.2 points a game.
If I were offensive coordinator I'd open up with a deep bomb to Vernon Davis down the middle. As the defense is trying to recover from the big gain I'd follow up with a quick bubble screen pass to Michael Crabtree. I'd keep punching them that way hard and often and get the jump on them early in the scoring.
I absolutely would not run between the tackles until after I'd used the edges and the deep ball to soften them up, because their defensive line is pretty good.
Defensively I'd also attack. Neither Campbell nor Gradkowski are top-notch QBs. I think Gradkowski is tougher than Campbell and can provide more of a spark for that offense and I'd rather face Campbell. I'd put pressure on whichever one is playing to try to force them into errors. I would not sit back and let them throw short passes to build up the confidence. This is a game that the 49ers should win, however I've said that about too many games this year to have much confidence this week.
The 49ers need to play mistake free because the Raiders will try to cause turnovers (they had two FF in last week's game alone). Ball protection is vital, which is a bit scary for this offense.
San Diego/St. Louis
The Rams seem like a team that the Chargers will have a big game against, specifically Phillip Rivers. I've already talked about the weakness of the Rams secondary, and that's not been improved much. The Rams tackling regressed last week against the Lions, and they had a tough time getting pressure against the Lions offensive line. I can't see them getting pressure against the Chargers.
The best the Rams can hope for is to keep the ball out of Phillip Rivers hands which means turning to Steven Jackson. I don't think he's fully recovered from his groin injury yet--there seems to be a tentativeness to his running still and he doesn't explode with the same power.
To beat the Chargers St. Louis is going to need career games from it's cornerbacks and safeties. Gates presents the same kind of match up problems that Vernon Davis does. Do you bring in an extra CB to match up speed and then lose the size matchup, or do you put a linebacker on him and lose the speed matchup? Do you go to zone underneath and then risk him finding the crease in the zone and breaking a tackle or two for a big gain?
In all honesty I just don't see any way that the Rams defense can step up and do that. The best they can do is slow down the bleeding. I'd send in a few MLB blitzes (which they don't do much of) and then rely on my special teams and offense to score points.
The Chargers special teams units are horrid this year, having given up three touchdowns on returns and having three punts blocked. The Chargers have given up an average of 26.9 yards per punt return (including a 94 yard TD), and 25.4 yard per kick return). This should give the Rams the edge on field position. The Rams have also had pretty good success in creating fumbles and that should play to their benefit as well, since the Chargers have fumbled the ball 9 times this year.
So in summary, the game plan for the Rams has to be to focus on creating fumbles, focus on getting great field position from returns, try to get a blocked punt, and try to make this a high scoring game.
Jay Cutler looks to be healthy enough to start this week against Seattle, which ought to be a huge sigh of relief giving the awful performance of Todd Collins. Mike Martz is actually turning Cutler into a decent QB, even if his 7 step dropbacks are getting his QB killed. Cutler's completion percentage thus far is 66.7%, by far the best of his career. He's got 6 TDs to 3 INTs, which is also the best ratio he's ever had, and his yards per throw is at 8.9 which is a yard and a half better than his previous average and is the second best in the NFL, behind Phillip Rivers' 9.6 average.
The Bears have a 4-1 record and the question many are asking is "Are they legitimate?". My answer is yes. As I pointed out above Jay Cutler is actually turning into a pretty good QB. If he keeps on that development path the Bears can rely on him to not lose games for them and to actually win the close ones. The Bears defense is strong with few weaknesses. The one big weakness that the Bears do have is their offensive line, which has been moved around and injured and is otherwise not a solid unit.
The 'Hawks brought the pressure against the 49ers and against the Chargers--however both of those games were at home in Seattle. This game is on the road in Chicago. Can the Seahawks bring the pressure on the road? If they can they make Jay Cutler's life very unpleasant and make their chances of winning much better. If they bring the pressure Earl Thomas will stand a much better chance of picking Cutler off and moving into first place in the NFL.
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Defensively they've got to get the pressure on Cutler. You want this with any any game, but Cutler is particularly susceptible to getting fluster and the timing is especially important in Martz's offense. Get him flustered and he'll take himself out of the game and then they have a good chance at shutting down Forte.
Offensively they need to use the quickness of Leon Washington to get to the outside. The Bears defensive line will shut down anything that comes between the tackles (they have the third best run defense in the NFL), so I'd use screens and tosses and short passes to back them up. I would focus on throwing the ball since the Bears are significantly weaker there. Matt Hasselbeck doesn't have the arm to throw deep so I'd focus on short routes and use them almost in place of the running game.
I still think the Bears will win this one easily and Cutler will have a great night. The Seahawks have the second worst passing defense in the league. Only the Houston Texans are worse, so I wouldn't expect much running from the Bears.