In pro football’s most physical division, the San Francisco 49ers enter 2013 as the defending NFC champions.
Now does that guarantee a repeat as division champs? No way.
Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks are poised to improve on last year’s campaign, while the St. Louis Rams have plans to make some noise as well. Only the Arizona Cardinals don’t look like a threat, but this league has seen teams surprise on more than one occasion.
San Francisco is also in a tough position as they’ll receive every opponents’ A-game after winning the NFC in 2012. With that said, let’s get to it and dissect our final divisional preview for the 2013 NFL season.
Arizona’s offense was the opposite of the Saints’ defense in 2012. Meaning, it was awful.
The offensive line gave up 58 sacks and the team’s quarterbacks combined for a 55.4 completion percentage. In addition, only 11 touchdowns were thrown against 21 interceptions. For the 2013 campaign, having Carson Palmer under center is an upgrade that provides optimism.
Larry Fitzgerald now has a quarterback to get him the rock, but what remains an issue is the offensive line. Jonathan Cooper was a great pick at No. 7 overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, however, he is out for the season according to Mike Sando of ESPN.com:
The Arizona Cardinals placed rookie first-round draft choice Jonathan Cooper on the season-ending injured reserve list Friday after determining his broken leg would need a full season to heal properly.
Even with Cooper out, Arizona must still find a way to run the rock. If not, this offense won’t be much better than 2012.
By far the better aspect of the Cardinals, Arizona’s defense only allowed a 54.3 completion percentage and snagged 22 interceptions. On the other hand, this unit also gave almost 2,200 rushing yards and a 4.3 yards per carry average.
So, to fix their inability to control the line up front, the Cardinals landed Kevin Minter and Alex Okafor in the 2013 draft. Minter brings the speed and lateral agility to run down anyone, anywhere in the box, whereas Okafor’s size and athleticism bolsters the pass rush.
And provided the front seven clogs lanes to a greater degree, Arizona’s secondary is capable of taking over games. Cornerback Patrick Peterson brings a No. 1 lock-down presence, and Jerraud Powers has the talent to keep this pass defense solid. If anything, the pass rush must hit another level to complement the coverage since this division will be won at the immediate point of attack.
In a nutshell:
The Cardinals must a way to increase the physical play at the line of scrimmage. Arizona remains rather weak up front on each side, but initially attacking from the snap will help improve upon 2012′s campaign.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Don’t anticipate any surprises from San Francisco’s offense this year. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has to continue developing as a passer and he’ll continue to be a scrambling threat as well. And expect him to drop back a few more times this year, because Frank Gore has some good wear on the tires, and he is 30 years old.
Regardless of Kaepernick’s attempts, his development will be imperative since Michael Crabtree is out for the time being. As reported by Will Brinson of CBS Sports, Crabtree may not be back until Week 10:
As expected, the 49ers placed wideout Michael Crabtree on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list Tuesday as the team worked its way down to 75 men on the roster.
Since May Crabtree’s been reportedly targeting to miss the first 10 weeks or so of the season at minimum. (A return in Week 12 has been optimistically thrown around; Terrell Suggs returned for the Ravens from an Achilles injury by Week 7, setting the stage for expectations to get too high.)
That said, expect bigger numbers for Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams and Quinton Patton. The offensive continues to be San Francisco’s bread and butter. The 49ers averaged 5.1 yards per carry in 2012 and scored 17 rushing touchdowns.
As long as this ground and pound philosophy continues to work, San Francisco is a serious playoff contender.
Losing Dashon Goldson isn’t going to hurt San Francisco’s defense much. The 49ers drafted safety Eric Reid and veteran Donte Whitner is still in town to minimize the opposing completion percentage.
One key weakness, however, was allowing big play after big play (see Super Bowl XLVII). But with Carlos Rogers on one side, and Tarell Brown, Nnamdi Asomugha and Tramaine Brock for depth the 49ers are set back deep. What must occur this year, though, are more forced turnovers and more sustained quarterback pressure. The 49ers only recorded 14 interceptions and 38 sacks in 2012.
All of the front seven comes back except for Isaac Sopoaga, but he is replaced by Glenn Dorsey. Dorsey provides front line depth next to Justin Smith, Ian Williams and Ray McDonald, so Patrick Willis and the linebackers will continue making plays at a sound rate.
In a nutshell:
Building a passing game identity will take head coach Jim Harbaugh’s offense to an unforeseen level. The physical play on each side of the line is dependable, but adding explosiveness offensively and forcing turnovers defensively is definitely needed if the 49ers want a return trip to the Super Bowl.
Seattle has arguably the most well-balanced offense in pro football. With Marshawn Lynch to punish defenses in the trenches, his production will easily allow Russell Wilson to work off play-action. By the same token, this street goes two ways as Wilson’s passing ability is strong enough to drop straight back and he’s also incredibly mobile when needed.
Coming off a year where he completed 64.1 percent of his throws, Wilson did so without any big time receivers at his disposal. Sidney Rice and Golden Tate split for seven scores apiece, which shows a glimpse of Wilson’s ability to spread the field. The addition of Percy Harvin was key this offseason, and although he will be out early on, he did bring some optimism to his situation on Twitter:
What’s goin 12th man just checkn in …I’m making serious progress …keep an eye on week 7…don’t hang them 11′s up…..we workn
— Percy Harvin (@Percy_Harvin) September 4, 2013
No matter when Harvin comes back Seattle’s attack won’t miss a beat. The offensive line has a strong case as the NFL’s best, which is a supreme advantage in the defensively tough NFC West.
Welcome to the best defense in the league. Seattle not only finished 2012 ranking No. 1 in points allowed per game (15.3), but it was No. 4 in total yards allowed. Led by Richard Sherman, The Legion of Boom is the top secondary in the NFL as it only allowed a 58 completion percentage and 15 touchdowns (while snagging 18 interceptions) last season.
Now the minute weakness of this defense was its front seven last year. Seattle logged only 36 sacks and did give up a 4.5 yards per-carry average. Well, this was addressed via the offseason by getting Michael Bennett (nine sacks in 2012) and Cliff Avril (9.5) via free agency.
In addition, the Seahawks landed Jordan Hill in the draft (he will reportedly miss time early according to Jason Bristol of CBS 21) and veteran Chris Clemons remains on a healthy path. From an article by Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com, he is expected to miss Week 1 but is gradually being eased back onto the field:
Just having Clemons on the practice field – in his helmet and No. 91 jersey – was a needed step in getting the Seahawks’ sack leader in each of the past three seasons back where he belongs, and the team needs him: at the hybrid Leo end position.
Clemons has been sidelined since tearing a ligament and meniscus in his left knee during the wild-card playoff victory over the Washington Redskins in January. He didn’t play during the Seahawks’ unbeaten preseason, and won’t play in Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Panthers in Carolina.
Nevertheless, Seattle’s defense brought in impressive talent and will keep rolling this fall.
In a nutshell:
Nothing needs to change in the Great Northwest. The offense has a dominant balance to control the tempo, while the defense is capable of amping up the pressure with man coverage behind it. Again, the Seahawks don’t need to change anything and we shouldn’t expect anything different from them.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
In 2012 the Rams averaged just 18.7 points per game, and ranked No. 18 in passing and No. 19 in rushing. That’s not explosive by any means, which is a major issue in such a physically tough division.
Fortunately, St. Louis got somewhat turned around by head coach Jeff Fisher by finishing 7-8-1 after going 2-14 in 2011. The Rams then continued addressing their offense by drafting Sam Bradford two fast receivers in West Virginia’s Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
Factor experienced targets like Austin Pettis and Chris Givens and that will only enhance Bradford’s options. To shine even more optimism, despite the loss of veteran back Steven Jackson, the Rams have unlimited potential in the young rushing tandem of Daryl Richardson and Zac Stacy.
As a result, don’t sleep on St. Louis’ offense in 2013. Plus the offensive line did reel in tackle Jake Long, arguably one of the best blindside blockers in the league.
Should the Rams emerge as a postseason contender, the biggest factor will be their defense. Led by sack-master Chris Long, St. Louis finished 2012 with a league-best 52 sacks (tied with Denver) and only gave up 16 passing scores (with 17 interceptions).
The vulnerability resided in completion percentage (66.2), rush yards per carry (4.3) and rushing scores allowed (18). Solving those concerns, however, occurred by drafting linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety T.J. McDonald. Ogletree’s overall athleticism helps contribute at multiple front seven spots, while McDonald will benefit from Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan holding things down at corner.
This cornerback tandem is among the best around, which forces plenty of passing attempts to the middle. Here, McDonald must capitalize on his opportunities otherwise St. Louis will get exploited early. But with the pass rush to disrupt timing, the Rams really need to stuff better versus the run which will minimize the defense’s susceptibility to play-action passes.
Failing to do so will keep them vulnerable down the seams and when in Cover 2, because McDonald must prove dependable back deep and in man coverage.
In a nutshell:
The Rams must boost up the attack on offense, although feeding Richardson and Stacy will keep opponents honest. With the defense, St. Louis just needs to keep the pressure pedal down and suffocate better against the run.
Fans of old-school smash mouth football love the NFC West. It’s a division owned by strong defenses and physical rushing offenses. As a result, the battle for winning the line of scrimmage is more important than in any other division.
All that said, Seattle has taken over San Francisco as the best in the NFC West. The Seahawks are the most complete team with a better traditional ground game, passing attack and secondary (and an upgraded pass rush). Although the 49ers are capable of matching them punch for punch, San Francisco’s offense took a hit with Crabtree being out for some time and the coverage must prove the ability to limit big plays allowed.
As for the Rams and Cardinals, each needs to establish a ground game and produce more from the aerial assault. Their defenses have concerns, albeit at different spots. St. Louis has to force more turnovers and control the game up front, whereas Arizona must apply more pressure and dominate better at the instant point of attack.
What also helps Seattle entering 2013 is that the team is not the defending division champs. There’s more pressure on the 49ers to repeat, which steals some of the expectations out of the Great Northwest. In turn, the Seahawks also just missed on upsetting the Falcons in the NFC Divisional round last January (which will provide motivation), not to mention they remain overall better than St. Louis and Arizona.
In short, this is a two team race for best in the west.
1. Seattle Seahawks
2. San Francisco 49ers
3. St. Louis Rams
4. Arizona Cardinals