Trending in the NFC West

| February 10, 2012

Nobody quite saw the San Francisco 49ers taking control of the NFC West like they did. With their relentless defense, they choked the life out of their rivals and eased to a divisional crown.

It wasn’t just the impressiveness of the 49ers that led to their divisional dominance. No, some poor play at the QB spot throughout the division, coupled with some porous offensive lines, made life easier for the Niners than it should have been. It means the St Louis Rams are in rebuild mode with a new front office and coaching staff. It means the Arizona Cardinals are reportedly looking at Peyton Manning to help them get closer to returning to the playoffs. And it means the Seahawks will likely be involved in another host of changes this offseason as they look to hit on the winning formula.

But what of the season just gone? Let’s breakdown some of the most surprising performances of the 2011 year.

 

Arizona Cardinals

Most improved

Adrian Wilson: From -6.5 (2010) to +16.1 (2011)

If you heard the comments from Wilson last year, you got a refreshing honesty when he said he didn’t deserve to make the 2010 Pro Bowl. The Cardinals’ safety was slowed by injuries and it really showed in his performance. Not so this year where he had possibly his best year to date making plays in the run game and in coverage. Wilson appears to be one of these players capable of getting better with age, with his instincts for where QBs are going really standing out.

Biggest drop off

Dan Williams: From +11.9 to +1.8

So Williams wasn’t terrible, but he missed time with injury and was arguably outplayed by his backup, David Carter. After his rookie year, we expected Williams to go on to prove himself one of the best two-down nose tackles in the league; that never came and instead we got fewer snaps, decreased production, and less to get excited by than his rookie year. He’s still young and has plenty of time, but years like this aren’t what you expect from a former first-rounder.

More snaps needed

LaRod Stephens-Howling: +4.5 from 144 snaps

You get the impression the Cardinals haven’t quite figured out how to get the best from ‘LSH’ just yet. Capable of big plays, his snap count is so heavily limited that it both impacts upon his opportunities to make plays, and somewhat telegraphs his role on the play. He’s no Darren Sproles, but the Cards would be wise to try to replicate some of the success the Saints have had using their own pocket-sized rocket to create mismatches.

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St Louis Rams

Most improved

Gary Gibson: From -2.7 to +12.8

So where did that come from? Gibson hardly impressed in 2010, failing to generate much pressure and looking less-than-stellar against the run. Yet, a year later, Gibson–despite being limited to 398 snaps–impressed in all phases: registering 14 QB disruptions on just 162 pass rushes, and 12 more defensive stops in the run game. The numbers aren’t big, but doing that on just 398 snaps, is impressive, and makes you think he could be in line for an increased workload.

Biggest drop off

Quintin Mikell: From +18.1 to -2.8

We ask again, what happened? Mikell, who ranked as our top safety of the 2010 season, moved from Philadelphia to St. Louis and failed to get anywhere close to replicating the form that earned him such a big deal. Mikell was found wanting in coverage in a scheme that didn’t generate as much pressure, and as a consequence, made fewer plays. Will Year 2 work out better? Familiarity with teammates suggests so, but a new coaching staff implementing a new scheme could negate that.

More snaps needed

Dorrell Scott: +2.6 from 246 snaps

Scott may struggle to get playing time with a talented trio of defensive tackles above him on the depth chart, but the Rams’ DT made plays in the running game when the opportunity presented itself. With Fred Robbins not getting any younger, there’s been enough from Scott to suggest he could handle an increased role in their base package.

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San Francisco 49ers

Most improved

Alex Smith: From -12.0 to +11.2

When Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach for the 49ers and picked up Colin Kaepernick in the second round of the draft, the writing looked like it was on the wall for Smith. It didn’t work out that way, with the oft-booed Smith taking his game to a whole new level. He wasn’t elite by any stretch, but his competent play put the 49ers in position to win games, and he didn’t cause them to lose them. What’s more, as the NFC Divisional game attests, he made plays when it was required of him.

Biggest drop off

Chilo Rachal: From +13.6 to8.2

The scary thing about that grade is that Rachal only played 241 snaps after earning a benching with a terrible start to the year. Before that benching (and after it), it was like watching two different players; gone was our Secret Superstar from 2010, and instead you had a guy who just struggled to dominate as he had in the run game a year earlier. Rachal has talent, but after not catching on with the coaching staff, you may think he’ll need to fulfill it elsewhere.

More snaps needed

Aldon Smith: +36.4 from 506 snaps

The 506 snaps isn’t a particularly low number, but the 49ers’ task this offseason is to work Smith into their base package defense without losing any of the productivity that led to him leading all edge rushers in our Pass Rushing Productivity Signature Stat. Smith was near unblockable at times, but he has some work to do in going from situational superstar to every-down playmaker.

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Seattle Seahawks

Most improved

Alan Branch: From +0.4 to +20.5

Branch flashed some potential in 2010, but failed to deliver it consistently for the Cardinals. Where he did exhibit this talent may have played an influential role in his 2011; he dominated in the Week 7 encounter with the Seahawks, who hoped he could bring some of that fire to their defensive interior when they added him in the offseason. He definitely did that–turning in one of the best seasons of any defensive tackle in the league; a constant nuisance in the run game. Good scouting or a gamble that paid off, Branch has delivered more than anyone could have hoped in Year 1.

Biggest drop off

Zach Miller: From +7.9 to -12.9

But not every signing for the Seahawk worked out this offseason. Miller was seen as a relatively safe investment after a year in Oakland where he looked the kind of complete tight end that we here at PFF love so much. Unfortunately, the Seattle offense didn’t seem tailored to Miller, who was unable to replicate his success in the passing game, while also falling off with his blocking. A shortened offseason couldn’t have helped, but he has to be hoping the offense finds a way to involve him as a more integral part next year.

More snaps needed

Golden Tate: +3.0 from 547 snaps

Is it time for Tate to become a bigger part of the offense? He found himself starting because of injuries to Sidney Rice and Mike Williams. With both players back and Doug Baldwin excelling in the slot, could we see Tate lose snaps? The talented receiver made plays when given the opportunity, and showed the kind of excellent hands quarterbacks love. The Seahawks need to get a player with his talent involved from the get-go rather than using him as a fall-back option if things go wrong.

 

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