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2011 Division Preview: NFC West

SI.com is previewing all eight divisions throughout the week in anticipation of the 2011 season kicking off. (Send comments to siwriters@simail.com)

DIVISION PREVIEWS:AFC: North | West | South | EastNFC: North | West | South | East

Save for one glorious Saturday in January, when the Seahawks hung 41 points on the defending champion Saints in the playoffs, the NFC West was a laughing stock last season. Seattle won the bumbling division with a 7-9 record, despite losing seven of its last 10 games.

The Seahawks' postseason triumph, however, made it seven straight seasons that an NFC West team has won at least one playoff game, with Seattle and Arizona both reaching the Super Bowl in that stretch. Is there a team in the mix that can contend for the ultimate goal? On paper, there may not be, but the division should be much improved in 2011. After last year's shenanigans, it would be hard not to.

What the Rams do best: Give Sam Bradford options.

This is far from the greatest offense in the world -- 26th in the league in points scored last season -- but the Rams have surrounded their young QB phenom with talent that figures to keep growing as he grows.

Last season, seven Rams had 20 catches or more, led by Danny Amendola's 85. In 2011, Bradford will be able to look for Mike Sims-Walker, who had 106 grabs combined over the past two seasons in Jacksonville and might be ready for a breakthrough. Oh yeah, and there's also Steven Jackson for Bradford to hand off to. Jackson had 1,241 yards rushing and 383 yards receiving last year. The Rams added Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood behind him, too, simply providing the offense even more weapons.

What the Rams need to improve: Big-play potential.

Despite throwing the fifth-most passes in the league and getting 330 carries from Jackson, the Rams just could not get the ball in the end zone. St. Louis failed nine times to reach the 20-point barrier, including a Week 17 dud at Seattle that cost the Rams the division.

The Rams' longest passing play in 2011 was a 49-yarder to Jackson, who also had the longest rush at 42 yards. St. Louis was the NFL equivalent of a baseball team without any home-run hitters -- it had to scratch and claw for every point all season long. That lack of pop bit the Rams in the end.

Which Ram needs to step up: Safety Quintin Mikell.

St. Louis went out and scored big in free agency by landing the ex-Eagle to play safety. Mikell should help on passing downs, but he's also very strong against the run -- the Rams gave up 4.5 yards per carry last season, a mark that they'd love to bring down this season.

Mikell's also a major upgrade over Craig Dahl, who started 13 games at the strong safety spot last season. While Dahl had 98 tackles and a pair of picks in 2010, he just isn't the dynamic caliber player that Mikell is.

Predicted record: 8-8

Given the way the NFC West shapes up this season, it's hard to dispute that the Rams are right up there talent-wise. Bradford should be even better in his second pro campaign, and the surrounding cast on both sides of the ball brings more to the table than St. Louis' 2010 roster.

But can the Rams survive their early schedule? In their first seven games, they host Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans and Washington, and visit the Giants, Packers and Dallas. Things settle down after that, so even getting to 2-5 or 3-4 might be enough to set the table for a division title.

What the Seahawks do best: Play to their strengths.

That somewhat implies that there were aspects of the game Seattle was particularly good at last year, an argument that's not really true. Seattle was a mediocre champion in a terrible division. But the Seahawks also beat the Chargers, won in Chicago and knocked New Orleans out of the playoffs.

They did that by various means -- against San Diego, they forced five turnovers; they harassed Jay Cutler into a terrible afternoon to beat the Bears; and they opened up the playbook to outgun the Saints. There are weapons on offense with new QB Tarvaris Jackson, new WR Sidney Rice and new TE Zach Miller joining running back Marshawn Lynch, receiver Mike Williams and a serviceable offensive line.

And the defense came up with just enough performances last year to get Seattle to 7-9 and into the postseason. Nothing looks spectacular here on paper, but the Seahawks showed an ability to win with smoke and mirrors last season.

What the Seahawks must improve: Pass protection.

Let's just come out and say it: The offensive lines in this division are not very good. And you could make a case for Seattle's line being the absolute worst throughout this preseason. Only Jackson's nimble feet at quarterback have prevented him from being sacked (or killed).

The biggest lingering problem right now is that left tackle Russell Okung, easily the best of the team's starting linemen, may not get back in time for the regular season because of an ankle injury. With him, this is a shaky unit. Without him ... eek.

Which Seahawk needs to step up: Linebacker Leroy Hill.

Seattle said farewell this offseason to Lofa Tatupu after six years and 549 tackles, so the versatile David Hawthorne's sliding back to the middle -- he had 117 tackles while playing mostly there in 2009, then picked up 106 tackles on the outside in 2010. Hill's the man responsible for filling Hawthorne's outside 'backer spot.

It's a tall order for Hill, who missed all but one game last year with an Achilles injury and has never played a full 16-game schedule. But the Seahawks are confident in Hawthorne and more than satisfied with their third linebacker, budding star Aaron Curry. So if Hill can even be adequate, this group could be pretty solid.

Predicted record: 7-9

This felt like a really solid offseason for the Seahawks. They added some terrific pieces, like Miller and Rice, that should have pushed a defending division champ over the top. Instead, Seattle will enter the regular season praying its offensive line can hold it together and banking on its defense to improve despite not making any real upgrades. It feels like this team will be better in 2012 than it will in 2011.

What the Cardinals do best: Throw the ball.

That is to say, the Cardinals should throw the ball well this season. They did not in 2010. Arizona threw for just 185.6 yards per game last year, the second-worst number in the league. But instead of Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall and Richard Bartel at QB, the 2011 Cardinals feature Kevin Kolb. Arizona's committed its future to the ex-Eagle and he will get every opportunity to prove he's worth it.

At his disposal is Larry Fitzgerald, arguably the best wide receiver in football, as well as tight end Todd Heap, who was brought over from Baltimore, and a host of young complementary options. Arizona's up to 281 passing yards per game this preseason, third-best in the league. If that success translates even a little to the regular season, Arizona's offense should be better.

What the Cardinals need to improve: Run defense.

Well, defense in general, but any chance Arizona has of doing that must start up front. The Cardinals came in 30th against the run last season, allowing 145 yards per game. In 13 of their 16 games they let opponents run for more than 100 yards

and twice gave up more than 200.

Considering Arizona traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to land Kolb, then lost Greg Toler to a season-ending ACL injury in the preseason, the pass defense could struggle. That means it's on the front seven to at least limit the damage done to Arizona on the ground. Can that happen with essentially the same group (plus LB Stewart Bradley)? For Arizona to have a chance, it must.

Which Cardinal needs to step up: Cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Any hope Arizona had of easing the 2011 No. 5 overall pick into the rotation went out the window when Toler blew out his knee. Peterson will probably wind up starting and may have to take on a lot of the responsibilities that used to fall to Rodgers-Cromartie, one of the NFL's best lock-down corners.

Predicted record: 5-11

After last season, it was worth starting over for Arizona. The move for Kolb should settle the quarterback position, though losing rookie RB Ryan Williams for the year may limit what Kolb can do. This is the division to be in if you've got a lot of questions, and the Cardinals do -- on the offensive line, at running back and throughout the defense. They might be better, but the record won't show it.

What the 49ers">49ers do best: Defend the run.

San Francisco ranked sixth in the league against the run last season, thanks to a decent front and the standout play of linebacker Patrick Willis. Matching that success could be difficult after the losses of NT Aubrayo Franklin and inside linebacker Takeo Spikes. Filling the gaps will be Isaac Sopoaga, who shifts from defensive end to Franklin's old spot, and second-year linebacker NaVorro Bowman.

Willis may see a spike from the 101 total tackles he registered last season given the inexperience around him -- in addition to Bowman, rookie Aldon Smith could eventually see a huge chunk of playing time on the outside. San Francisco didn't defend the pass well and barely generated any pass rush last season, so stuffing the run is a must.

What the 49ers need to improve: Blocking.

Given Jim Harbaugh's background as a University of Michigan star, he can no doubt appreciate the importance of winning games in the trenches. The 49ers were overwhelmed there last season and haven't shown many signs of life this preseason. San Francisco's QBs were sacked 44 times in 2010, while the running game struggled to stay consistent -- some of the blame resting on Frank Gore's absence for five games due to injury.

Four of the five line starters are back from 2010, with Adam Snyder and Jonathan Goodwin vying to replace David Baas at center. Gore's a terrific talent, so if the line can pull it together and create some holes for him, it may help keep Alex Smith upright at QB.

Which 49er needs to step up: Quarterback Alex Smith.

This is too obvious, really, but Smith is now entering his seventh year with the 49ers and it has become increasingly difficult to figure why they're sticking with him. Last year, San Francisco tried to bounce Smith for Troy Smith to no avail. This season, the main backup is rookie Colin Kaepernick, who hasn't looked near ready to command an NFL offense yet.

The offensive line issues haven't made -- and probably won't make -- Smith's job very easy. But he has Gore in the backfield, Vernon Davis at tight end, and a decent collection of wide receivers that now features Braylon Edwards. It's now or never.

Predicted record: 4-12

How excited can you get? The defense could be brutal, the offensive line looks like a sieve so far and the quarterback has already failed numerous times as a starter in the past. It is hard to envision the 49ers competing with any of the elite teams on their schedule.

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