49ers Spearheading NFC West Resurgence, Division Built on Strong Defense, Coaching

49ers Spearheading NFC West Resurgence, Division Built on Strong Defense, CoachingThe Patriots saw it first hand on Sunday, the NFC West is for real.

After
years as the laughing-stock division in the NFL, the NFC West has had a
resurgence in this young season with two 2-0 teams — including perhaps
the best team in the league. We started to see a glimpse of this return
to glory last season when the 49ers won the division with a 13-3 record
and were one muffed punt away from a Super Bowl berth. Before 2011, no
team had won the division with more than 10 wins since the Super
Bowl-bound 2005 Seattle Seahawks.

Each team in the division is frighteningly similar –they are built on defense, have ordinary quarterbacks and they all have strong coaching.

The
49ers are not only the best team in the division, but they might be the
team to beat in the entire NFL. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has redefined
that team, bringing back his own variant of the vaunted west coast
offense that originated with San Francisco legend Bill Walsh. It’s a
perfect system for Alex Smith to run, downplaying all of his weaknesses
as a quarterback. Harbaugh’s playcalling seems to have brought a
confidence in Smith that we had yet to see in his eight years in the
league.

The
49ers defense could go down in history. NaVorro Bowman and Patrick
Willis
are both All-Pro inside linebackers, Justin Smith was the most
well balanced defensive lineman in the league last year and Aldon Smith is second only to Von Miller among promising young pass rushers. The 49ers
also have an underrated three-pronged cornerback attack in Carlos
Rogers
, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver.

We
saw on Sunday how great the Cardinals defense can be. All offseason,
the phrase du jour was, “If only they had a quarterback.” Turns out –
so far — they don’t need one. Because lets be honest, Kevin Kolb and
John Skelton are barely NFL quarterbacks. It would be wise to start
using Patrick Peterson under center more to run that wildcat play that worked so well on Sunday. Ever since Peterson got himself fully acclimated to the NFL
mid-way through last year, the Cardinals have been a different team,
winning nine of their last 11 games. The fact that Peterson can
contribute on offense, defense and special teams makes him all the more
valuable.

The
downfall of the 2012 Cardinals might just be their offense. The team is
2-0 thus far, but if you were only watching their offensive snaps it
would be difficult to believe. Arizona has two talented, young running
backs that can’t get anywhere behind their terrible offensive line and
Kolb can’t find All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald to save his life.
The Cardinals lost last year’s
starting left tackle Levi Brown to a torn tricep during the preseason,
but he’s been so bad in his six-year career that some thought his
replacement would be an upgrade. So far, that hasn’t been the case. His backup Anthony Batiste, has been a turnstile as a blind side protector for the
Cardinals' quarterbacks.

The
Seahawks are a team on the rise, and their week one loss to the
Cardinals looked a lot worse until the Patriots lost to the same team at home in
Foxboro. Russell Wilson is an exciting play maker behind center, and
running back Marshawn Lynch seems to be getting better every season he’s
in the league. It’s hard to believe that Lynch is still only
26-years-old. Beyond
that, the Seahawks haven’t had great success at finding a consistent
offensive line and they’ve taken a quantity over quality approach at
receiver.

The
Seahawks young defense is a completely different story. Their secondary
had three pro bowl players last year in Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and
Brandon Browner, and that didn’t even include perhaps their best
defensive back, second-year player Richard Sherman. Head coach Pete
Carroll
runs a unique 4-3 defensive scheme where he sticks athletic pass
rusher Chris Clemons at right defensive end and massive, 328-pound
run-stopper Red Bryant at left defensive end. Seattle’s defense got even
better this year when they drafted third-down pass-rusher Bruce Irvin
in the first round and starting middle linebacker Bobby Wagner in the
second round.

The
Rams may have the least promising team overall, but they also have the
quarterback with the most upside in Sam Bradford. Bradford was the first
overall pick out of Oklahoma in 2010, and was less than stellar in his
first two seasons, though it was forgivable for Bradford to underperform with no dependable receivers and a terrible offensive
line. This year, Bradford has looked like a different player with improved accuracy and better decision making. A quality quarterback
can mean a world of difference for a team. Josh McDaniels was
Bradford’s offensive coordinator and play-caller last year in a season
where Bradford majorly regressed. Patriots fans may be learning the hard
way that McDaniels isn’t an offensive cure-all.

Just
like the Cardinals and Seahawks, the Rams offensive line is a major
question mark. Starting left tackle Rodger Saffold will be
out for at least a month with an MCL sprain, which means that embattled
Jets-castoff Wayne Hunter will be protecting Bradford’s blindside. I
have one word of advice for the Rams signal caller, "duck".

The
Rams’ major problem last season was their beat-up
secondary. They addressed that issue in a major way this offseason by
signing free agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan and landing a major
steal in the 2012 draft in the second round with Janoris Jenkins.
Jenkins was the biggest enigma in this year’s draft due to off-field
issues, but if he can keep his hands clean, he could be an elite
starting cornerback in the league.

Each team in the NFC West may be playing slightly over their heads this year, but if the first two games are a glimpse into the future, this will be the division to watch in 2012 and could wind up producing two or three playoff teams, rather than their usual one.

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