I've been away from the whole writing thing for awhile, but I can't let Danny get this site too popular without keeping my name attached to it. He asked if I'd be interested in doing a weekly NFC West round-up to provide an opportunity for those of you who aren't able to watch the other games to stay caught up on the division. I ended up having computer issues and wasn't able to get last week's article written in time, so this will be the first edition of a weekly series for the rest of the year.
I'm going to try not to get too in-depth; rather, I'll give a blow-by-blow overview of some of the things that stood out to me while rewatching the games. I'll focus on the contributions of the offseason additions for each team, as well as scheme changes and trends to keep in mind during their future matchups with the Hawks. Since everyone saw the San Francisco 49ers already, I'll just cover the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals this week.
The NFC West is no joke, folks. We knew coming into the season that the Rams and Cardinals were going to be improved from last season. After watching both games each team has played, I'm confident this division is the best top-to-bottom division in the NFL. The Rams are certainly a couple notches below the Seahawks and 49ers, and the Cardinals are a tick below them, but anything can happen on any given Sunday, and the Seahawks can't look past any division games this year.
Rams @ Falcons: L 31-24
After kicking a field goal with 0:40 left to win their week one game against the Cardinals, the Rams lost a hard-fought game in the Georgia Dome despite a furious second-half rally that brought them within a touchdown of the Falcons.
The game got ugly early. Steven Jackson ran in an 8-yard pass for a touchdown on the Falcons' opening drive. Then after two Jonny Hekker punts and one Matt Bosher punt, Julio Jones did his best Julio Jones impression with an 81-yard catch-and-run touchdown out of the right slot. The Rams responded with a 10-play scoring drive, but unfortunately for them, the tenth play was Osi Umenyiora's first career pick-six. The route was on.
The Rams were down 24-3 at halftime on the road against one of the best teams in the NFL. Sounds familiar, right? Well this game ended similarly. Both teams traded punts for most of the third quarter, then the Rams scored a quick touchdown (the first of Tavon Austin's career and his first of two on the day) entirely on Sam Bradford's arm. After forcing a three-and-out by the Falcons, the Rams struck with another quick scoring drive that included a Bradford scramble for 23 yards that showed Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson how it do in the NFC Best.
Down 24-17 with almost 12 minutes left in the game, St. Louis just needed to force another punt and put together a third consecutive scoring drive to tie the game. Giving up a nine-play, six-minute scoring drive wasn't what the doctor ordered. Bradford engineered an impressive 16-play scoring drive that included going for it on fourth down twice (converting one on their own and one on the back of a Desmond Trufant defensive pass interference) and culminated in Tavon Austin's second career touchdown.
With 2:09 on the clock and two timeouts, the Rams could've left themselves with a golden opportunity to tie the game, but after forcing a third-and-short, they lost track of Jason Snelling sneaking out of the backfield, and Matt Ryan hit him on a little flat route that went for 22 yards and sealed the game.
Bullet Holes (can I do this, Jeff Sullivan?):
- The Rams' defense is an aggressive, attacking unit. They didn't blitz very often, and when they did, Ryan often made them pay. But they generated a fairly consistent four-man pass rush. The Falcons countered by running a lot of quick three- and five-step drops, getting the ball out quick in short underneath routes.
- Both teams ran a ton of 11 formations (one running back, one tight end) with three wideouts. When the Falcons had Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas, and Tony Gonzalez on the field, St. Louis countered with Trumaine Johnson on White, Janoris Jenkins on Jones, and Cortland Finnegan on Douglas. This stayed consistent throughout the game. Interestingly, Tony Gonzalez was handled almost exclusively in man coverage by either rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree or rookie safety T.J. McDonald. Both acquitted themselves relatively well, as evidenced by the future Hall-of-Famer's four catch, 33-yard performance.
- I watched Ogletree a lot. Though he had an up-and-down game, I saw a lot that I liked. He's going to be a quality long-term starter with definite Pro Bowl upside. He played all three downs all game (Will Witherspoon came off in their nickel packages) and racked up a team-leading eight tackles (four of which came on the opening drive).
- Ogletree had a nice tipped pass on a blitz that was almost intercepted, and showed great discipline and instincts knifing through the line to tackle Quizz Rodgers for a loss. He's a terrifying blitzer. That'll be a real asset in his future.
- On consecutive plays: 1) Toss to Snelling; Ogletree "attacks" a block by half-heartedly leaning his shoulder into it, and is easily blocked out by whatever Kevin Cole is (Falcons' WR); 2) Ogletree knifes past a Tony G block to stuff Rodgers coming through the strongside A-gap on a 2nd-and-2 run; 3) Ogletree bites hard on play-action, then recovers impressively fast to pressure Ryan's throw on a bootleg; 4) Ogletree blows up Snelling on a green dog blitz, freeing Eugene Sims to sack Ryan and force a three-and-out that immediately led to the Rams' first TD.
- Running back Benny Cunningham, one of Jared Stanger's favourite prospects, is the Rams' kick returner. He didn't do much. Tavon Austin is the punt returner, and he wasn't super impressive, though the coverage was fairly good.
- Austin had an up-and-down game as well. He doesn't flash nearly like he did in college. He seems to be playing a little bit slow, like he's still catching up to the NFL; but he definitely isn't as unique of an athlete in the NFL as he was at West Virginia. He had a couple drops in the game, and he caught a pass on a curl route that he ran short of the sticks on third down. Big pet peeve of mine. Run your routes to the sticks! Both of his touchdowns were quality wide receiver plays from a young player.
- Early in the game, the Rams tried Austin in an end-around out of the strongside slot. It was bottled up easily at the line of scrimmage, but it looked like just the type of play he would've turned into big yards in college. Not saying he can't be the next Percy Harvin, but he certainly doesn't yet look like the otherworldly athlete Harvin did even as a rookie.
- The Rams lined up both of their starting tight ends in the fullback position on a few different occasions. Lance Kendricks didn't look too bad. Jared Cook is a laughably bad blocker. It's gotta be tough for someone as high-waisted as he is, but he hardly even tried.
- Rodger Saffold is baaaaaaaaaaad. He went down with a sprained MCL in the middle of the second quarter, and Kroy Biermann was already making a habit of beating him like a drum. It's crazy that the big offensive tackle is still only 25. He was replaced by Joe Barksdale, who will be starting for him at right tackle for the foreseeable future.
- Speaking of injuries, sophomore safety Matt Daniels had his leg rolled up on by Stedman Bailey, ending his season prematurely for the second year in a row. Both times were because of teammates crashing into his leg during a special teams play. Some dude named Mike Person took his roster spot earlier this week.
- The Rams went for it on fourth down three times: once at the 12:12 mark in the second quarter from the ATL 33 while down 14-0 (I wrote in my notes "ballsy"), and twice on their final scoring drive.
- When the Falcons came out in a 12 formation with both TE's inline on either side of the formation, St. Louis responded with their base personnel, meaning Ogletree was on Levine Toilolo on the strongside and Witherspoon was on Tony Gonzalez on the weakside. I'd love to experiment with Luke Willson vs Will Witherspoon to see what comes of that.
- This Rams offense is a huge change from the past. They run a lot of hurry-up with three- and five-wide, and their route combinations are designed to dictate a lot of quick, open reads for Bradford. Chris Givens, Austin Pettis, Tavon Austin, and even Jared Cook are all great RAC threats, and they're clearly trying to take advantage of that.
- The Rams offensive line was actually not terrible. Bradford did a good job evading some pressure, though he still tends to get antsy and stare at it rather than getting rid of the ball. After sticking with just four-man rushes for the Rams' first four possessions, Dirk Koetter mixed it up and brought a bunch of blitzes on their fifth possession. Bradford was immediately a mess.
- They didn't get great push in the run game though. Daryl Richardson is a quality back with good elusiveness and above-average vision, so he made up for some of it. That offense is gonna be good if they can shore up the OL.
- What really did the Rams in was lack of pressure on Ryan and special teams penalties. Literally the first time Ryan was hit was on the very last play of the first half. He was roughed up a little more in the second half, but the game was nearly lost already at that point.
- Due to quality punts, poor returner decisions, and special teams penalties, three of the Rams' first five drives began inside their own 11-yard line. That is BRUTAL for a team with a skittish quarterback, a so-so run game, and a below-average offensive line.
- The Rams' best field position of the night came with 3:15 left in the third quarter, when they started at their own 26-yard line. Not coincidentally, that was when they scored their first TD of the night.
Cardinals vs Lions: W 25-21
- Arizona's defense spent most of their time in nickel and dime to combat the Lions' three-, four-, and five-wide formations. Nickel was probably their base formation for this game. In nickel, they subbed out nose tackle Dan Williams for Mathieu and used Campbell and Darnell Dockett inside with Sam Acho and Lorenzo Alexander or John Abraham outside. In dime, they brought in Jefferson for Jasper Brinkley, leaving Karlos Dansby as the only linebacker on the field.
- Jefferson looked like a rookie in coverage for the most part, but he showed good instincts diagnosing the run, flashing through the A-gap for a great solo tackle for a loss on a draw play to Bush.
- Patrick Peterson followed Calvin Johnson around the field, naturally. A couple times they even trusted him in isolation outside with no safety help over the top. He had an alright day, despite Johnson's gaudy 6/116/2 line. A large chunk of that was the 72-yard touchdown which was just an indefensible play by both Stafford and Johnson. Otherwise he held the big wide receiver to five catches for 44 yards and a touchdown where he was screened off by Burleson and Mathieu didn't react to "defend" the fade. Megatron did have three drops, including one that would've been a touchdown that turned out to be a Peterson DPI anyway.
- The flashy cornerback was used on offense on a couple of plays. He ran a clear-out route from the weakside slot that got a lot of attention and freed Mendenhall for a long catch-and-run on a screen pass. Then he took an end-around handoff and flipped around to throw a 17-yard dart to Kerry Taylor that would've been a touchdown if he hadn't led him right out of bounds. Probably shouldn't critique the star cornerback/punt returner/wide receiver's quarterback skills too much though.
- Tyrann Mathieu had a good game. He looks the part already and I think he'll be a quality nickelback. He calmly disengaged from a block and tackled Joique Bell for a loss on a stretch play, and his fundamental solo tackle on the quick slant to Burleson may have saved the game for the Cardinals.
- Paul Fanaika started at right guard and that went about as well as you'd expect. That offensive line may have actually been passable with Jonathan Cooper this year. They were pretty shoddy in pass pro, even against the Lions' four-man rush, but they actually cleared some decent holes in the run game. It wasn't consistent though. It seemed like every run play went for either 11 or -1 yards.
- Rashard Mendenhall is looking as healthy and spry as Rashard Mendenhall can. He ran with fire and looked like he could hold down the starting job for awhile. Stepfan Taylor didn't flash in a good way or a bad way. Andre Ellington is the same quick lil' bugger he was in college, and Arians liked using him out of an h-back spot or in the slot.
- Going from a game of Sam Bradford to a game of Carson Palmer was striking. Even though Bradford looks better this year than he has in the past, Palmer is clearly a more talented quarterback. His pocket presence is superlative, and he still has plenty of arm.
- Andre Roberts looks like a favourite target of his. He looked for him often on underneath routes and when he got in trouble, and he was targeted on several deep, slow-developing routes. He's the type of receiver Seattle could have issues with, especially with a quarterback willing to sling it like Palmer.
- The pick-six is a perfect example of the downside of a quarterback who will sling it like Palmer. He was under significant pressure and needed to throw it away, and he hucked it at tight end Jim Dray like he half-expected Dray to continue his crossing route like it was against man coverage rather than settling down in the zone, and half like he was just throwing it away. Either way, he dropped it right in Deandre Levy's breadbasket. If Seattle can get consistent pressure on him, the LoB will eat.
- Defensive back Justin Bethel had a helluva day. He almost blocked a field goal in the first quarter, then he did block one later. He also hustled down on special teams and downed one of the thousands of punts at the 8-yard line. He did get so many chances to do that, though, and he only did it once. Never mind, he sucks.
More from Field Gulls:
- Seahawks v Jaguars preview podcast with Matt Erickson, via The Bold City Football Show
- Quick hitters on the Seahawks' 3rd Down offense
- NFL Odds Week 3: Seahawks vs. Jaguars against the spread (ATS)
- Something terrible is afoot: A look at Russell Okung's sprain and his immediate future
- Seahawks vs. Jaguars game preview: Know your enemy, via Big Cat Country