NFC West in focus: The defensive differences
ARIZONA CARDINALS THE SIGNING OF FREE-AGENT defensive end Chike Okeafor is the key pick-up of the offseason for the Cardinals defense, although high first-round draft pick Antrel Rolle no doubt will have an immediate impact at corner, as well. Those highlight a number of moves to bolster an overachieving defense that finally let go late in the season, long after it was apparent the offense wasn't carrying its load and the playoffs had slipped away. It was inevitable. A lack of talent in some spots and lack of depth overall was exposed in the defense. With Okeafor playing opposite Pro Bowler Bertrand Berry, coordinator Clancy Pendergast now has pieces with which to concoct more unpredictable schemes and game plans. Okeafor, a live-bodied athlete with a nasty on-field disposition, will be heavily involved in chasing the passer from the left side, making it tougher for foes to gang up on Berry on the right side. Adding veteran linebacker Orlando Huff, who played inside at Seattle but is listed on the first team outside with the Cardinals, and Rolle, who still has to master playing off a receiver, gives Pendergast more quality pieces for his tinkering. Three other returning but little-used players to watch will be end Antonio Smith, linebacker Gerald Hayes and free safety Quentin Harris. All appear ready to take on larger roles. Hayes is expected to step into the starting middle-linebacker spot after veteran Ronald McKinnon was not offered a new contract. Harris is the favorite to win what shapes up as the battle of training camp at free safety with Ifeanyi Ohalete, the 2004 starter, and Robert Griffith, a veteran signed during the off-season. Smith was the only real disappointment of the 2004 draft class but he appears to be on his way to finding a niche in the down-line rotation after making All-NFL Europe. He won't start, though. Pendergast also has to figure out what to do with Darnell Dockett, an effective rookie starter at under tackle last season, who might be better outside, and Kenny King, who would have been the under tackle had his season not been wiped out early by wrist surgery. King is back and ready to reclaim the job. One will start. The other is too good to sit. WHILE ON-FIELD NEWS IS in a calm before the training camp storm as most higher-ups wrap up vacations, the team's community service operation is in high gear. The Cardinals' cheerleaders "Show Team" has ended their 14-day trip to 11 military bases in Kuwait, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. The nine-member team put on two-hour variety shows at each base as part of the USO Tour. The cheerleaders visited five Army bases, three Marine bases, two Air Force Bases and one Navy base and performed in front of approximately 8,000 U.S. service personnel. The ladies traveled on Black Hawk helicopters and on a military C-130 aircraft. THE WHEELS ARE NOT moving at blinding speed with regard to signing 2005 draft picks. Thus far, only linebacker Lance Mitchell, a fifth-round pick, and receiver/returner LeRon McCoy, a seventh-round pick, have agreed to terms, both for three years. Five picks, four of them first-day selections who generally carry high price tags, have yet to sign, including first-round pick Rolle, who is expected to start at cornerback, and second-round pick J.J. Arrington, who is expected to push veteran Marcel Shipp to start at running back. The signings, however, parallel those of a year ago when the team didn't sign any draft picks until late July. NOT ONLY HAVE THE Cardinals tweaked and weeded out their playing roster for 2005, they've similarly addressed their in-house radio, television and Web site personnel. The Cardinals ended their relationship with long-time radio color analyst John Mistler and replaced him with a former Cardinals workhorse, Ron Wolfley. Wolfley has been active in the Phoenix market sports talk radio scene for years and has had roles with the Cardinals pregame radio broadcast team. During his decade on the field for the Big Red, Wolfley was a Pro Bowler four times. Wolfley join returning play-by-play radio voice Dave Pasch. The team also changed its sideline reporting position, adding Paul Calvisi, a longtime figure in sports television and radio in the Valley. Calvisi replaces Mike Jurecki, who not only no longer will be involved with the broadcast team, but no longer will write for the team's Web site, either. Jurecki remains a talk-show co-host on a Phoenix sports talk radio program. The Cardinals hired Brian Davis, who has a long sports broadcast history in the Seattle area, to call the action and Doug Plank to give color and analysis on all four preseason telecasts. Plank was 2005 Arena Football League Coach of the Year with the Georgia Force after leading it to the Arena Bowl in his first season on the sideline. Phoenix sportscaster Craig Fouhy will work the sidelines on preseason TV games. THE CARDINALS WILL CONDUCT a NFL Flag Football skills camp July 14-15 at the South Phoenix Salvation Army. The camp is open to kids between 8 and 18 for $40. In exchange the kids an opportunity to enhance their skills with instruction from current and former players. It also focuses on helping kids become better student athletes. QUOTE TO NOTE: "I have five kids and we are expecting twins in December. My house is crazy. It's just busy." - QB Kurt Warner, on off-field life following his move to Arizona. ST. LOUIS RAMS IT WAS CLEAR MUCH needed to be done for the Rams to improve their defense from a mostly disappointing 2004 season. The unit played better late in the year, but was then torn apart in a playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons. Getting accustomed to defensive coordinator Larry Marmie's system, as well as some key injuries, contributed to the problems, although by the end of the season, the defense ranked 17th in the league. One of the biggest problems was linebacker tackling and the absence of big plays. Signed quickly at the start of free agency were linebackers Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne. Coakley will man one outside spot, while Claiborne should give the Rams a veteran presence in the middle. Tommy Polley left for Baltimore, and Robert Thomas will be a backup. Another problem area was safety. Adam Archuleta played last season with a herniated disk in his back, and has spent the last few months recovering. Entering the offseason, Archuleta was the only safety under contract since Aeneas Williams will not return. The Rams signed veterans Michael Stone and Michael Hawthorne with the hope they will also contribute on special teams. Wide receiver Mike Furrey was switched to safety, while Oshiomogho Atogwe and Jerome Carter were selected in the draft. Other veterans added included Terry Fair and Corey Ivy. Defensive end Bryce Fisher left for Seattle in free agency, leaving second-year man Anthony Hargrove as the starter. But depth might be an issue. During the 2004 season, the Rams released punter Sean Landeta and signed Kevin Stemke. In the draft, the Rams selected Reggie Hodges in the sixth round. Following the subsequent release of Stemke, and with less than three weeks until the start of training camp, Hodges is the only punter on the roster. LEFT TACKLE ORLANDO PACE is one of the Rams' captains, so it made sense to ask him about any help he might give to rookie tackle Alex Barron. Said Pace, "I'm not a real vocal guy as you guys know, it's one of those things just lead by example. I extended my hand to Alex if he needs anything. If he has any questions, he can communicate something he might not be getting on the field. I have taken a leadership role in that aspect of it; other than that I will just be leading by example." After signing a long-term contract in March, Pace was present throughout the offseason and at minicamp. He's now 29 years old and beginning his eighth NFL season. He said, "I was talking to some of the younger guys and they said they remembered me playing in college when they were in junior high so that really made me feel old." AS TRAINING CAMP APPROACHES (Rams practices begin July 28), the education of tackle Alex Barron will resume. Rams rookies will be on the field for some refresher time before the start of camp, and Barron will be watched closely. Selected with the 19th overall pick in the first round, the Rams quickly said Barron would be the starting right tackle, a position where there was a revolving door in 2004. At the same time, coach Mike Martz emphasized that Barron needed significant work on his technique. In addition, while spending some time on the right side at Florida State, he was mostly a left tackle and now he would be only a right tackle. The coaches decided not to try and bring Barron along slowly. They threw a large part of the offense at him, and the result was an overwhelmed player. That's why a step back was taken at the team's minicamp, and Barron worked mostly with the second team. "If you try to nurse him along, then of course players normally don't have the same sense of urgency, and that's why we did what we did," Martz said. "So we'll let him regroup and catch his breath somewhat, then we'll put him back in the fire and see where he is. "He got a little shock. That's kind of a quarterback type of position on the offensive line. You have got to back off a little bit and let him absorb things a little bit where he gets to the point where he is confident enough to compete over there. Otherwise he will destroy all of his confidence. That's what we are trying to avoid." Said Barron, "It's been a big learning experience, trying to stay focused and learning a whole bunch of new stuff. I'm learning a new position basically. I've got to get accustomed to different techniques and things and just get comfortable with the footwork from playing on that side. "I think I'll be able to make the switch, but it's going to take a lot of time. It's not easy at all." Said Pace, who has played right tackle in the Pro Bowl, "It's a whole other world. Once you think of right tackle/left tackle, you think it is pretty much the same position, but there are so many different variables of playing that position as far as your hands and your feet." Concerning Barron's technique, Martz reiterated in stronger terms what he said on draft day. "From the technique standpoint, he is just so far away," Martz said. "He has to trust what we are teaching him to do with his pass sets and his punch and his arms. Until he can get consistent with that, it's going to be pretty hard. He was a great athlete who got by on athleticism. His technique was horrible in college." The Rams hope it gets better pretty quickly. WHO WOULD PLAY RIGHT tackle for the Rams if Barron proves he's unable to play with consistency this summer? Last year, Grant Williams began the season as the right tackle, but a succession of injuries affected his strength and he wasn't able to handle the position. Williams is now healthy, as is Scott Tercero, who underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason. The Rams prefer Tercero at guard, but he would be in the mix at tackle if necessary. Blaine Saipaia, another player the Rams would like to see at guard, started the final five regular-season games in 2004 at right tackle and also the team's two playoff games. He has gotten stronger in the offseason, and was the No. 1 right tackle at the team's minicamp as Williams and Tercero sat out most team drills. Said Martz, "We can be patient (with Barron) because we've got two or three other guys that can go out and play at right tackle. Whenever he's ready, he's ready." QUOTE TO NOTE: "Being placed in a critical position is overwhelming anyway, coming from one level to the next. I've just got to take it one day at a time, one practice at a time. It's two different positions and I've just got to fight through this." - Rams rookie tackle Alex Barron. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS BY JANUARY, THE SEAHAWKS couldn't rush the passer or stop the run, a deadly combination for a defense that finished last season ranked 26th in the NFL. By that measure, Seattle can't get much worse. But can the Seahawks' defense expect to be much better, either? Not on paper. The team parted with some of its best starters in DE Chike Okeafor, LB Chad Brown, LB Anthony Simmons and CB Ken Lucas. And there is reason to wonder if once-promising DT Rashad Moore will bounce back from another shoulder surgery. The front seven was already a problem before losing those players. DE Grant Wistrom is healthy again, however, and his energy should make a huge difference for the defense. Seattle actually ranked No. 1 on defense with Wistrom leading the way early last season. After losing Okeafor to division-rival Arizona, Seattle signed Wistrom's former St. Louis teammate, Bryce Fisher, to man the left side. Fisher matched Okeafor with 8 1/2 sacks last season, but Okeafor is a more established player. The Seahawks think Fisher will be better after having bone spurs shaved from a problematic foot. The Seahawks did manage to get younger and probably faster at linebacker, even without the speedy Simmons. Veteran LB Jamie Sharper should bring stability to the strong side, and second-year pro Niko Koutouvides and rookie second-round choice Lofa Tatupu should finally give Seattle life in the middle. The return to health of weak-side backer D.D. Lewis is also a good thing. The Seahawks did a nice job recovering from the departure of Lucas to Carolina in free agency. They added top cover man Andre Dyson and scrappy nickel back Kelly Herndon for less than it would have taken to bring back Lucas, a talented player with only one strong season on his resume. Lucas might flourish in Carolina given the Panthers' strong front seven, but Seattle should be fine without him. As much as anything, management is banking on a new defensive attitude to compensate for any losses in talent. Simmons was considered a bit of a head case, and he clashed with coaches. Okeafor was a high-effort player, but also a bit of a free spirit. Brown, a warrior of the first order, also marched to his own drummer a bit. "In talking with the coaches and in meetings and the responses they are getting, it's a real alive, die-hard group that really wants to do well," coach Mike Holmgren said. "The attitude is very, very positive right now. I hope there is a tremendous carryover that way." SEAHAWKS PRESIDENT TIM RUSKELL has quietly reshaped the scouting department. Former NFL safety Eric Stokes was promoted from personnel assistant to area scout for the Midwest. He joins a scouting department featuring Charles Fisher (northeast), Derrick Jensen (southeast), John Peterson (southwest) and Mike Phair (west). Scouting directors include Scott Fitterer (western region) and Mike Yowarsky (eastern region). SOME CONSIDER TIGHT END Jerramy Stevens to be a sort of "X" factor in the offense. He is an inviting target at 6-feet-7 and 248 pounds, and there are signs this might finally be his year. "Jerramy has had a good off-season," Holmgren said. "He has participated at a pretty high level so far this off-season, which is good. ... I have always thought he was a very fine football player. He might be that guy." FRANCHISE RUNNING BACK SHAUN Alexander made some waves with recent comments about his reluctance to play under a one-year contract. Some interpreted his remarks to mean Alexander might skip the regular season, but that seems unlikely. A closer look at Alexander's situation shows that nothing has changed for the five-year veteran. Alexander, who turns 28 in August, has said all along that he wants a long-term contract. He has never said definitively that he won't play under the one-year franchise contract. And even if he were to make such a statement, the financial realities suggest otherwise. Alexander would lose roughly $370,000 for every regular-season game he missed. Former franchise player Walter Jones tried that gambit three years ago. The Seahawks never came close to caving even though Jones, a left tackle, played a position considered more difficult to fill. He showed up for the third game of the 2002 season after losing nearly $500,000 in the process. Alexander refused to sign the $6.32 million tender upon being named the Seahawks' franchise player in February. NFL rules prevented him from negotiating with the team from mid-March until July 16. The sides engaged in no substantive negotiations before the dead period, and a sudden resolution seems unlikely once talks are allowed to resume. "The rules of the league say you have to sign the tender before we can negotiate a long-term deal," coach Mike Holmgren said. "He wants a long-term deal but won't sign the tender. It's a catch-22. "I just want to make sure he knows what his status is on the football team and how he is viewed. And then, realistically what are we really talking about? It is easy right now to say, 'I'm going to miss some games and I'm going to do this and that.' But what really are we talking about?" The primary issue is whether Alexander would be willing to miss $370,000 game checks. The Seahawks did not address the RB position in the draft or free agency. Maurice Morris and Kerry Carter would be the top two backs were Alexander to remain away. Neither possesses Alexander's talent. It's fair to wonder whether the Seahawks would function as well offensively without their leading rusher and scorer at their disposal. Two factors could help Seattle function reasonably well without him. One, Seattle is blessed with the presence of Jones and Steve Hutchinson on the left side of its line. Both are Pro Bowl-caliber players. Lots of backs could succeed behind them. The other factor is schematic. Alexander is in some ways a less-than-ideal fit for what Holmgren does offensively. For example, the Seahawks take him out of the game on obvious passing downs because Alexander doesn't block very well. The Seahawks are obviously more difficult to defend with Alexander in the lineup. The sense is that Alexander will be there when paychecks are on the line, no matter what kind of posturing takes place in the meantime.
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