The NFC West flipped upside-down last season. St. Louis entered the year as the prohibitive favorite after tying Seattle for the division's best record in 2010. The Rams instead imploded, dropping their first six games on their way to a 2-14 debacle.
Taking their place atop the division were the San Francisco 49ers, led by a rookie coach, a quarterback that everyone had deemed a total failure and a defense that just kicked the daylights out of most offenses it faced. Now, Jim Harbaugh's group, with Alex Smith still at the helm, heads into this season expected to defend its division crown. Can Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis turn the tables and shake up the NFC West yet again?
Aside from a bizzaro world divisional-round playoff game, in which Alex Smith outgunned Drew Brees to push San Francisco past New Orleans, the 49ers lived and died with their defense in 2011. More often than not, that formula paid off. The 49ers wound up leading the league in run defense (77.2 yards per game) and finished second in points allowed (14.3). They also picked off 23 passes, recovered a league-leading 15 fumbles, sacked the quarterback 42 times ... and you get the idea. This was an elite defensive unit last season. And with every critical piece returning in 2012, it should be again.
Kudos to Smith for a mind-boggling turnaround as San Francisco's starting quarterback in 2011, but the 49ers simply have to get more out of their passing attack this season. They're more than aware of that too -- after finishing 29th in the league in passing last season, the 49ers signed free agents Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, then spent a first-round pick on A.J. Jenkins. Those moves indicated that they didn't place all of their '11 struggles in this facet on Smith, but he has to deliver now that he has some weapons.
It is hard to ask a lot more from Smith, who put up a whopping 14 sacks and was a dominant presence during his rookie season. The 49ers, though, want him on the field more -- they used Smith only in pass-rush situations last season, with Parys Harelson starting at OLB. The plan is to get Smith into the starting lineup this year, with Harelson ready as a reserve. The upshot is obvious: San Francisco gets one of its best defensive players on the field a lot more. The challenge for Smith will be to prove that he can get the job done every down, including against the run.
The 49ers came out of nowhere in Jim Harbaugh's first season to post a 13-3 record and come within an eyelash of a Super Bowl berth. There will be no sneaking up on people this time around. San Francisco also faces trips to Green Bay, New England and New Orleans, plus a home NFC title game rematch with the Giants. We know the 49ers' defense will be stout, but the offense faces a tougher challenge.
The first two weeks of the 2011 season aside -- Seattle lost at San Francisco, 33-17; and at Pittsburgh, 24-0 -- the Seahawks went 7-7 and had a shot to pull out wins in at least six of those defeats. Seattle also pulled off upsets over Baltimore, the Giants and the Bears, the latter two coming on the road. Given how tough it can be to play in Seattle with the 12th man wreaking havoc, the Seahawks' 2011 road success bodes well for what's to come in 2012. If Seattle can convert a few near-misses into victories, the playoffs are a possibility.
Marshawn Lynch turned in a 1,200-yard season on the ground last year, at times going "Beast Mode" and carrying the offense on his back. But even with Lynch punishing defenses, the Seahawks still finished just 28th in total yards and 23rd in points scored. The neutered passing game was the main culprit, with Tarvaris Jackson tossing 14 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Enter Russell Wilson (and Matt Flynn). The Seahawks spent big money this offseason to sign Flynn away from Green Bay, but will go with the rookie Wilson at QB to start the season. Wilson's athleticism could be the spark this offense was missing. After all, he thrived last season at Wisconsin, taking advantage of the openings that the Badgers' potent run game gave him.
The Seahawks opened some eyes in Round 1 of the 2012 draft by reaching for pass rushing DE Bruce Irvin, but their second-round pick may wind up paying more dividends. Round 2 brought linebacker Bobby Wagner, who, after the recent trade of Barrett Ruud (to New Orleans, where Seattle's starting MLB in 2011, David Hawthorne, also signed), will handle starting duties in the middle of the 4-3 defense. Hawthorne had 72 tackles and three interceptions, so Wagner has some decent-sized shoes to fill.
The Seahawks might be one of the NFC's big sleeper teams, and people are rushing to the bandwagon after seeing what Wilson did in the preseason. Seattle's hopes for a return to the postseason may live or die based on its performance in a brutal October. The Seahawks open that month at Carolina, return home to host New England, then hit the road to play San Francisco and Detroit. An 0-4 stretch would effectively end the season for the Seahawks; 2-2 or better would let them dream big.
It's a fairly obvious and simple recipe for offensive success if you're the Cardinals: Put the ball in the hands of your unquestioned star. Even as Arizona searched last season for answers at quarterback and a second option at receiver to take the heat off Fitzgerald, the six-time Pro Bowl receiver still hauled in 80 passes for 1,411 yards. Both Fitzgerald and the Cardinals would like to see his TD numbers go up -- he had just eight last season -- but it's hard to complain about anything else. Fitzgerald remains one of the NFL's elite playmakers.
Thanks to Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals came up with big play upon big play in the return game last season. Arizona's defense, however, did not enjoy a similar success rate. The Cardinals forced just 19 turnovers all last season -- 10 interceptions (26th best in the league) and nine fumbles (tied for 19th). The defense still managed to hold things together despite that, finishing in the middle of the pack in points allowed. Life would be a lot easier in the desert, though, if Arizona could pop the ball loose a few more times in 2012.
Williams missed the entire 2011 season after tearing up his knee, so he will be what amounts to a redshirt rookie in 2012. Without Williams, the Cardinals leaned heavily on Beanie Wells, who responded with a 1,000-yard rushing season. Still, Arizona's run game did not strike fear into anyone. Williams, drafted in Round 2 of the 2011 draft, was supposed to provide that home-run punch. He should get an opportunity to do just that this year.
The Cardinals were pretty average on offense and pretty average on defense in 2011, so their 8-8 finishing record fit the bill. Unfortunately, it's hard to feel like Arizona really took a step forward in the past months, despite the draft additions of WR Michael Floyd and OT Bobby Massie, and the signing of free agent CB William Gay. Arizona still has not settled on a QB (Kevin Kolb or John Skelton) and there are huge question marks on the offensive line. A tricky schedule that features back-to-back away games against Green Bay and Atlanta won't help.
As the walls crumbled around him last season, Jackson put up nearly 1,500 total yards in 15 games. He was, for all intents and purposes, the St. Louis offense in 2011. And while the Rams no doubt want to improve on a pass game that finished 30th in the league last year, they'll try to set up the Sam Bradford-led aerial attack by punishing teams up front with Jackson, who has now topped 1,000 yards rushing in seven straight seasons. The arrival of second-round pick Isaiah Pead could take some of the onus off Jackson, which would allow him to maximize his impact.
The Rams could not block on offense and they couldn't stop their opponents from running all over them on defense. Improving both of those areas will be atop new coach Jeff Fisher's list for this season. St. Louis must do a better job protecting Bradford, who missed six games due to injury in 2011. All told, Rams QBs were sacked more times (55) than any other team's signal-callers. And St. Louis also finished 31st in the league in run defense, allowing more than 150 yards per game on the ground. The Rams simply have to be better in the trenches this season.
OK, that's two Rams, but St. Louis spent a lot of money to sign Finnegan away from Tennessee and rolled the dice on a red-flagged Jenkins in Round 2 of the draft in hopes of revamping its secondary. This duo should start the season paired at cornerback with another rookie, third-round pick Trumaine Johnson, also in the mix for playing time. St. Louis finished seventh in the league in pass defense last year, though teams barely had to throw due to the Rams' aforementioned inability to stop the run (only four teams saw less passes attempted against them in 2011). Assuming the Rams improve along the line, there should be more chances for their secondary to come up big.
Maybe Fisher will wave a magic wand and turn this Rams team into a contender overnight. The reality is that this looks more like a two- or three-year project. St. Louis has tough trips to Detroit and Chicago in September, plus a home back-to-back against Green Bay and New England in October, so staying on the right side of .500 might be tough. St. Louis should take some steps forward after a 2-14 2011, but the progress might be slow.