Around the NFC West: What went right & wrong

A rundown of what went right and what went wrong in the 2011 seasons of the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC West.


Arizona Cardinals


WHAT WENT RIGHT: Arizona's defense made great progress and by the end of the season was playing the best it has in coach Ken Whisenhunt's five seasons. Ray Horton, Whisenhunt's third coordinator in five years, installed a 3-4 scheme similar to that of the Steelers, where he spent seven seasons as the secondary coach. By mid-October, players started to grasp the system. The insertion of young, talented players in the lineup helped. Sam Acho, a rookie, and O'Brien Schofield, in his second year, gave the team athleticism at outside linebacker. Cornerback Patrick Peterson, the fifth overall pick of the 2011 NFL draft, steadily improved and shows every sign of becoming an elite defender. Inside linebacker Daryl Washington, in his second year, is developing into one the NFL's best. Horton's biggest accomplishment, however, is that he got several key veterans to bounce back from poor seasons. Strong safety Adrian Wilson again became a physical force and a leader. Right end Calais Campbell was the defensive most valuable player. He was the club's best pass rusher and its best run defender on the line. On offense, the bright spots were much fewer. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald finished with fewer than 90 catches for the first time since 2006, when he missed three games with injuries. But his yards per catch was more than 17 for most of the season, nearly five yards better than any previous season. Running back Beanie Wells answered questions about his toughness, missing only one game despite playing most of the season with a knee injury that likely will require surgery. Wells gained more than 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his three-year career.

WHAT WENT WRONG: On offense, almost everything. The biggest problem is at quarterback, where the Cardinals continue to search for Kurt Warner's replacement. Kevin Kolb, obtained in a trade with the Eagles in July, missed seven games with injuries, including the last three with a concussion. Even when he's was healthy, Kolb didn't look the part of franchise quarterback. He didn't move in the pocket well, he made some poor decisions and he struggled to grow accustomed to a new offense. He did look better in his last full half of play, against the Cowboys, and coaches remain confident Kolb can be a successful starter in the NFL. His backup, John Skelton, showed promise is his seven starts. He is tough, resilient and doesn't wilt under pressure. But he also started slowly in almost every appearance. The biggest concern going forward is his accuracy. He misses too many receivers on short and intermediate routes. The club also is going to have to address its offensive tackle situation. Left tackle Levi Brown played well in the second half of the season but was inconsistent in the first half. Right tackle Brandon Keith's season was filled with injuries and too many blown blocks. Neither tackle is under contract for 2012, and the Cardinals need to make an effort to improve at those spots. They didn't draft an offensive lineman the last two seasons.


St. Louis Rams


WHAT WENT RIGHT: There wasn't much. A season that began amid high expectations went south very quickly, beginning on the first offensive play of the season. Running back Steven Jackson gave the Rams a 7-0 lead over Philadelphia on a 47-yard run, but suffered a strained quadriceps muscle on the play. Before the game had ended, the Rams also lost wide receiver Danny Amendola (dislocated elbow) and cornerback Ron Bartell (broken neck) for the season. That began a string of injuries that saw the season end with 17 players on injured reserve, including six cornerbacks, three wide receivers and three offensive linemen that started the season opener. The Rams had 17 players on the season-ending roster that weren't in training camp, including five that started on offense in the regular-season finale 34-27 loss to San Francisco. All four cornerbacks active for the final game against the 49ers were also not with the team in training camp. Only four players started all 16 games, with just one on offense. The one shining light was Jackson, who came back from his early-season injury to rush for 1,145 yards, the seventh consecutive season he had reached 1,000. Only six other backs in history have also done that. Jackson was able to also average 4.4 yards per attempt with a changing offensive line and against defenses geared to stop him. Defensively, despite rarely leading in games, end Chris Long had a career-best 13 sacks and continued the steady improvement he has shown since being installed as the fulltime left end last season. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis was again the anchor of the defense, making the calls and leading the team in tackles. Rookie right end Robert Quinn, who didn't play during his final season in college, showed improvement and had five sacks as well as blocking three punts. At the injury-ravaged cornerback spot, unheralded Josh Gordy competed in the passing game and had a team-leading three interceptions.

WHAT WENT WRONG: The injuries were the biggest factor. Amendola, who was quarterback Sam Bradford's security blanket and caught 85 passes in 2010, had five receptions in the opener when he was hurt. Amendola was to be Bradford's check-down option in the new scheme implemented by coordinator Josh McDaniels. When rookie Greg Salas eventually showed that he could be Amendola's replacement, he was lost for the season with a broken leg on Nov. 6. Bradford passed for 321 yards in an Oct. 16 loss to Green Bay, but injured his ankle on the final play of the game. He played just five more games and after backup A.J. Feeley, who was the quarterback in an Oct. 30 win over New Orleans, suffered a broken thumb on Dec. 4, Kellen Clemens started the final three games. Clemens was claimed on waivers from Houston Dec. 7. The injuries at cornerback resulted in the defense having to make adjustments and alter the scheme favored by coach Steve Spagnuolo, who was fired on Monday after three seasons at the Rams' helm. Bartell and cornerback Bradley Fletcher, who tore his ACL in a bye-week practice, were also good in run support, which was a significant shortcoming of the replacement corners. They competed in the passing game, but poor tackling among the entire secondary resulted in 15 runs of 20 yards or more, seven of 40 or more and five of 50 or more.


Seattle Seahawks


WHAT WENT RIGHT: Even though the Seahawks finished with their fourth straight losing season at 7-9, and an identical record as last season, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll feels much better about where this team is at compared to last year's playoff team. Defensively, Carroll is right. The Seahawks have one of the better young defensive backfields in the league, with second-year pro Earl Thomas earning his first Pro Bowl selection, and fellow 6-3, 232-pound safety Kam Chancellor and 6-4 cornerback Brandon Browner being selected as first alternates to the Pro Bowl. Add 6-3 rookie corner Richard Sherman, who finished with four interceptions this season in 10 starts, and the Seahawks have one of the most imposing defensive backfields in the league. Offensively, the Seahawks did a nice job of running the ball effectively the second half of the season. Marshawn Lynch's career-high 1,204 yards and 12 touchdowns are the most by a Seahawk since Shaun Alexander's MVP season of 2005 (1,880 yards, 27 touchdowns). Carroll established a blueprint for his team to win games, which included playing hard-nosed tough defense and creating turnovers, and offensively establishing a physical run game with play-action passing based off of that. Even with three of their projected five starters on the offensive line finishing the season on the injured reserve list, the Seahawks still managed to run the ball effectively.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Carroll had to deal with a lot of mental mistakes and penalties that come with having a young team. The Seahawks finished with a franchise-record 140 penalties on the year. And big free-agent signings receiver Sidney Rice and tight end Zach Miller failed to live up to the numbers they put up with their former teams, with Rice finishing the season on the injured reserve list, and Miller having to stay in and block to protect quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. The Seahawks also got off to a slow start, going 2-6 to start the year, and they still have yet to find the answer at quarterback. Jackson, signed as a free agent before the season, proved serviceable this season. However, Jackson had four opportunities this season against Atlanta, Washington, San Francisco and Arizona to bring his team from behind and failed to do so. The Seahawks need an upgrade there to improve as a team.


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