Grading the NFC West: Preseason report cards

Is the NFC West making the grade entering the regular season? Here, The Sports Xchange hands out grades to the 49ers and their three divisional rivals in the NFC West with report cards for each team entering the regular season.


49ers


PASSING OFFENSE: C
The pass protection in two of the 49ers' four preseason games utterly collapsed. Even in the preseason finale, Alex Smith was able to complete eight of 10 passes by going to three-step drops, and moving in the pocket. Smith's career has also been marred by inconsistency. This team has receiving talent, particularly with the addition of Edwards at receiver, but Will Smith have the time and accuracy to get him the ball?

RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus
Frank Gore simply can't stop smiling after signing his three-year, $21 million extension. A happy Gore could be a harbinger of good things. While the pass protection often faltered, the run blocking was excellent, as evidenced by Kendall Hunter's league-leading 231 rushing yards in the preseason. Gore will have ample backup with Hunter and Anthony Dixon.

PASS DEFENSE: C-plus
No one quite knows if the 49ers can improve on last year's 36 sacks. Rush linebacker Ahmad Brooks was a beast in training camp but remains a wild card. Brooks reported out of shape and has a checkered history. Likewise, the 49ers aren't sure what they are going to get out of rookie Aldon Smith. His inability to play in coverage could limit his playing time. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio loves to blitz, but how will the 49ers questionable cornerbacks hold up in coverage?

RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus
The 49ers and Steelers were the only two teams that did not allow a 100-yard rusher last year. However, the team lost two of its most staunch run defenders when nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (New Orleans) and linebacker Takeo Spikes (San Diego) left via free agency. Fangio might also scheme towards defending the pass this year with more blitzes, which can allow for big gains in the run game. Nevertheless, the team still has All-Pro middle linebacker Patrick Willis, a fast NaVorro Bowman to replace Spikes and possibly the best run-defending defensive end in the game in Justin Smith.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B
This unit has the perfect combination of veteran talent with kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee and a fine collection of young core players. The coaches decided to keep three players in C.J. Spillman, Blake Costanzo and Colin Jones, who will probably be exclusive to special teams. These units will also benefit from having the experienced Brad Seely as their coach over Kurt Schottenheimer, who had not coached special teams in over a decade when he took the job last year.

COACHING: C
No question Jim Harbaugh brings with him a veteran staff that will likely be a huge upgrade over Mike Singletary's group. However, Harbaugh remains a first-year NFL head coach coming from the college ranks. Even though he has plenty of NFL experience as a player and former Raiders assistant, Harbaugh will make mistakes, and in fact, with his substitution patterns in the preseason, he already has. Harbaugh, his staff and his team are likely to struggle in the first year. But as Harbaugh himself said, "This is the beginning."


Arizona Cardinals


PASSING OFFENSE: C
Kevin Kolb has developed some chemistry with Larry Fitzgerald, but there are questions elsewhere on the receiving depth chart. Tackles Levi Brown and Brandon Keith must prove they can protect.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C
The Cardinals showed some positive signs of improvement in the preseason. But until they do it in a regular season game, that means nothing. Beanie Wells looks lean and strong at running back.

PASS DEFENSE: C
It was bad last year and the corners are young and SS Adrian Wilson is playing with a biceps tear. New coordinator Ray Horton must find a way to generate pressure.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B
The return game with LaRod Stephens-Howling (kicks) and Patrick Peterson (punts) should be dynamic. Kicker Jay Feely is as reliable as they come. Coverage remains a question.

COACHING: C
Mike Miller will call all the plays for the first time. Horton calls defenses for the first time. Maybe they both will be successful but they are unproven now.


St. Louis Rams


PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus
QB Sam Bradford appears in command of the offense, and the players seem comfortable with coordinator Josh McDaniels' system. Red-zone efficiency was strong in the preseason, and rookie TE Lance Kendricks has been a difference-maker. RB Cadillac Williams will help on screens. This has the makings of a very productive passing game.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus
Adding Williams and Jerious Norwood can only help take the onus off Steven Jackson, but Jackson is primed to be part of a winning team. The added ability to throw should take players out of the box, which should create more opportunities on the ground.

PASS DEFENSE: B-minus
Questions at nickel back still have to be answered. The pass rush has added rookie Robert Quinn as a situational player, and he has exhibited excellent quickness. Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher are fine on the outside. However, in passing situations, the current option is to play Justin King in the slot or move Bartell inside and play 36-year-old Al Harris on the edge. Currently, the Rams have just four cornerbacks on the roster.

RUSH DEFENSE: B
This is a projection based on the belief that being gashed by Tennessee in the second preseason game was out of character. Fred Robbins and Justin Bannan inside should be stout against the run. And as linebackers Ben Leber and Brady Poppinga get comfortable, they will become gap disciplined.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B
This grade has a real chance of being much higher if there is any semblance of a return game. K Josh Brown and P Donnie Jones are as good as any kickers in the league. Coverage standouts like Chris Chamberlain and Dominique Curry will shine. The question is whether Danny Amendola will return kickoffs and punts or whether Norwood might handle kickoffs.

COACHING: A
Spagnuolo stays the course and is consistent. The Rams have a difficult first seven games, but he keeps his team focused on just the game ahead. The staff has grown together, and McDaniels is expected to help the offense get to another level.


Seattle Seahawks


PASSING OFFENSE: D
The Seahawks have failed to protect Tarvaris Jackson on a consistent basis during exhibition play, giving up seven sacks.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus
New offensive line coach Tom Cable's main task was to jumpstart Seattle's rushing game, but so far Seattle's averaging just 3.5 yards per carry.

PASS DEFENSE: B-minus
Seattle decided to go young, with CFL product Brandon Browner starting at corner along with veteran Marcus Trufant, and second-year products Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor filling the safety positions. Second-year pro Walter Thurmond and rookies Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell wait in the wings.

RUSH DEFENSE: B
The addition of a healthy Red Bryant at defensive end and Brandon Mebane returning to his more natural nose guard positions is paying dividends for Seattle. The Seahawks held opponents to 0-5 on fourth downs in the preseason.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Punter Jon Ryan remains consistent, but the Seahawks added a new kicker by claiming Steven Hauschka off the waiver wire. Hauschka was released by Denver. Leon Washington is set to handle return duties for another season.

COACHING: B-minus
Head coach Pete Carroll is ready for year two of Seattle's reclamation project. He'll lean on last year's experiences, including a playoff win, to help motivate a much younger roster. But with three of the team's first five games on the road, his team might struggle early.


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