NFC West tour: Rams QB thrives in new offense

Taking a look inside the camps of the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC West, where quarterback Sam Bradford is on the same page with new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in St. Louis, the Cardinals are counting on holdover defenders for big improvement in Arizona, and there's struggles all over offensively in Seattle, which could have as many as nine new starters on offense this year.


QB building early rapport with new St. Louis coordinator


As the Rams get closer to the start of the 2011 season, they have to be thanking their lucky stars that the 2009 team didn't manage to win more than one game that season.

If it had, quarterback Sam Bradford would likely be somewhere else. With Bradford, the team has improved, and St. Louis is perceived as an attractive landing spot for free agents. His presence also helped land Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator.

Said McDaniels, "Not only did they have the quarterback in place, obviously, with Sam Bradford, a guy who has the chance to truly be special. But there was a structure in place that I could learn from, a coach I could learn from, a front office I could learn from."

As for working with Bradford, McDaniels said, "We're not going to just run plays. We're going to use players. And Sam is good -- you can tell -- in using all aspects of this offense."

In this truncated offseason, where the McDaniels offense is being installed without the benefit of an offseason program, Spagnuolo has marveled as he watches his quarterback and coordinator work together.

Spagnuolo said, "I enjoy watching the interaction between Josh and Sam and seeing how intense Sam is at getting everything down perfect. That's who he is. I can see that he is very determined and motivated to be perfect in this thing. That's the guy. He's motivated to run this offense better than anybody who has run it."

Saturday night against Kansas City, the Rams scored on two first-half drives in which Bradford was 8-for-8 for 76 yards. Both touchdowns were in the red zone where the Rams have scored touchdowns on seven of eight trips this preseason. During the 2010 regular season, they ranked next-to-last in the league ion red-zone touchdowns.

At the end of last season, Bradford said he was looking forward to being in the same offense for his second season. That changed in a flash. Now, Bradford is experiencing first-hand what will be possible with McDaniels in charge.

He said, "Any quarterback would be crazy to tell you they wouldn't be excited to play with Josh. The challenge of learning another new offense is what makes it fun. It's not like it's something I've been doing for 12 years and it's repetitive and boring. I'm not tired of doing the same things every day. It's something new. Every day is a challenge. Every day I feel I am getting better. Every day out there I am getting more confident."

It shows in numerous ways. Asked the most obvious difference he has seen in Bradford from last year, running back Steven Jackson repeated the question to himself, thought for a moment, and said, "He's a lot more vocal early. We've had a couple practices here where we just have not been in sync as an offense, a lot of mental errors. Where last year he really didn't speak up until game day. He's now being vocal in practice and throughout the week."

Bradford also has high expectations and bristles when it is suggested that last year's 7-9 record was a positive result.

Said Bradford, "Are you kidding me? We didn't make the playoffs. We didn't win a playoff game. We didn't make the Super Bowl. You're telling us we had a great year?

"My expectations are for us to make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. If you don't think that way, you just settle. That's the worst thing in the world. If I came out and said last year that if we could just win four games it would have been awesome, that's terrible. Who wants to be 4-12? Why ever set expectations like that? It blows my mind."


Cards counting on holdovers for defensive improvement


To improve their offense, the Arizona Cardinals imported talent via trade and free agency. Their defense needed just as much work, yet the Cardinals are relying upon returning players producing more than last season.

The Cardinals have gone through the preseason with the same starting front seven as last season. That group could not put pressure on the quarterback, nor stop the run, and the Cardinals finished ranked 29th overall and 30th against the run last year.

To show improvement, they need marquee players. Strong safety Adrian Wilson had a poor season. End Calais Campbell's production dropped over the previous season. And outside linebacker Joey Porter, a free-agent signing in 2010, had just five sacks, despite playing the entire season.

The biggest change on defense is coordinator Ray Horton. He's saddled with some of the same challenges as his predecessors, who were fired.

Horton must figure out a way to bring pressure without having a premier rusher.

Porter has played well this preseason, but at 34, he's no longer good for double-digit sacks. His backup, O'Brien Schofield, has pass-rush ability but is short on experience.

He contributed as a rookie last season and has struggled this preseason

Horton's solution may come through creative schemes. In preseason, he has called several zone blitzes with end Darnell Dockett dropping into coverage.

Inside linebacker Stewart Bradley, a free-agent signing, is rushing the passer on third down. He's part of a nickel package that includes two down linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs.

If Horton's pressure schemes are going to work, the Cardinals' secondary has to hold up. The team is deep at cornerback, although it doesn't have a proven elite player.

Starter Greg Toler suffered a sprained left knee last weekend and could be out a while. That might mean a starting spot for Patrick Peterson, the fifth overall pick in the draft.

It's questionable, too, if Wilson will return in time for the season opener. He's trying to play with a torn biceps tendon and returned to limited work in practice last week.

Overall, it's hard to judge the Cardinals' defense this preseason.

Horton's focus has been on Carolina, the opponent in the season opener, and he's called games accordingly.

Horton also is in the midst of learning his players' strengths and weaknesses, a process that's going to take most of the season.

"We're not going to show everything in preseason that we can do to bring pressure," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

It's impossible to judge this defense over the preseason. Horton has installed a scheme similar to the Steelers' and that's a process that doesn't happen overnight.

Against Green Bay in game two, the Cardinals were able to win some one-on-one matchups and put pressure on Aaron Rodgers. That didn't happen against the Chargers and Philip Rivers.

What helps this defense is the schedule in the first month. The Cardinals open against Carolina, then follow with the Redskins, Seahawks and Giants.

There is time for this defense to grow, but then the Cardinals have been waiting a few years for that to happen.


Newcomers struggling within Seattle offense


It took the Seattle Seahawks 12 drives and three preseason games for the first-unit offense to get on the scoreboard in exhibition play - a 52-yard field goal by Jeff Reed in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos.

With the potential for as many as nine new offensive starters when the season begins, along with two rookies manning the right side of the line, a new quarterback, a new offensive line coach and a new offensive coordinator, it's no wonder the Seahawks are struggling to get into the end zone.

Tarvaris Jackson was sacked five times during his team's 23-20 loss at Denver. Seattle's young offensive line failed to contain the speed and athleticism of a Denver defensive front led by Pro Bowl player Elvis Dumervil and this year's No 2 overall draft pick, linebacker Von Miller.

Both players repeatedly crashed the edges and beat Seattle's green offensive tackles, Tyler Polumbus and James Carpenter, to get to Jackson.

Jackson has been dreadful so far in exhibition play, completing 27 of 48 passes (56.2 percent) for 181 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He has a pedestrian 62.9 passer rating, and is averaging a lowly 3.8 yards per attempt.

However, many of Jackson's struggles can be traced to head coach Pete Carroll's focus on evaluating the young talent on the roster, which means putting rookie offensive guard John Moffitt and tackle James Carpenter out on an island in passing situations to see how they fare.

And as expected, they have struggled under those circumstances, and the result has been Jackson getting hit repeatedly before he can get through his progressions, with no time to look down field for big targets Sidney Rice and Mike Williams.

But Carroll says it's important that his team find out what Moffitt and Carpenter can handle now before the regular season begins in two weeks.

He's still evaluating.

"Absolutely," Carroll said. "That's what we've been saying the whole time. Let's give him every look at every guy he can see and to try and get him as much exposure as possible. That's a really fast group. Dumervil flies, and Von's crazy fast coming off the edge. Those guys, they would give anybody problems.

"So it's all a learning process and we have a lot of ground to make up quickly and in short order. So we certainly want him to see as much as we can, and that's why we've been throwing him out there and just making him have to do it. We haven't tried to take care of him, we've made him have to block the protections as they're called for and he's learning at every turn. It's not just him; he's just one of the guys."

Learning on the run is great, but what happens if you're quarterback gets put in the hospital during that process? And what about establishing an offensive rhythm for your team to prepare for the regular season?

"It's a tough balance," Jackson said. "It's kind a double-edged sword. You want to see what your guys can do, so you know their strengths and their weaknesses. But at the same time you want to win the game. So you want to do well, so we can get into a rhythm and get our confidence going."



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