Behind Enemy Lines – First Quarter Grades

After four games, the NFC West is about where the "experts" predicted they would be. The Rams are 2-2, the Cardinals are 1-3 and the 49ers are 0-4. .NET reporter Scott Eklund's analyzes how the teams are faring after the first quarter of the season.

San Francisco – The 49ers have been woeful on offense so far this season ranking 25th overall in the league with 15 points per game and there is little hope of improvement down the road. The team is cap-strapped and is relying on youngsters to mature too quickly and it is costing them in their passing game.

QB Tim Rattay dropped back 47 times against the Rams on Sunday night and while he registered 299 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, the Niners cannot rely on him to stay healthy or as productive for the whole season.

Head coach Dennis Erickson came into the season hoping to rely on RB Kevan Barlow as a workhorse-type back but that has not come to fruition. Barlow has been nicked up since game two and it is likely he will be dinged most of the season. Teams will continue to stack the box against the 49ers offense hoping to stop Barlow and making Rattay beat them. So far, that defensive plan has worked.

On defense, the Niners have some playmakers in LB Julian Peterson, CB Ahmed Plummer and S Tony Parrish, but they are surrounded by little else. S Ronnie Heard has come on as a sure tackler in the secondary, accounting for 21 tackles, good for fourth on the team.

The 49ers only have eight total sacks on the season and when the linebackers are getting more sacks than the line (Peterson has 2.5 sacks and LB Jamie Winborn has 2) it means the defense is blitzing too much. With the lack of pressure the secondary has been exposed to too many big plays and this must change or the Niners could be in for a very long season.

The special teams have been above-average. K Todd Peterson has been accurate, but his lack of range prevents some scoring opportunities outside the 35. KR Jamal Robertson has been excellent on kickoffs averaging almost 26 yards per return. P Andy Lee is averaging 40.8 yards per punt and has placed 33% of his kicks inside the 20.

Grades: Offense (D); Defense (C); Special Teams (B+)

Next Game: vs. Arizona, October 10th

St. Louis - The Rams have played one solid game (Sunday night against the 49ers), one mediocre game (a loss to the Saints) and two games they would like to forget (a win against the Cardinals and a loss to the Falcons).

Against the 49ers, head coach Mike Martz ran Marshall Faulk most of the night. The future Hall-of-Famer did not disappoint running for 121 yards on 23 carries. Backup Steven Jackson recorded the first touchdown of his career late in the second quarter capping the Rams scoring with a two-yard plunge.

The Rams offense has been sporadic at best this season following their leader, young QB Marc Bulger. Bulger is in his first full season of starting and this is his team now. He hasn’t made a lot of bad decisions, but he is not able to come up with big plays, which is strange with the high-octane offense the Rams have been known for.

WR Isaac Bruce is on pace for a 128-catch season, catching 32 passes in the first four games. Bruce is better than most second wide receivers in the league and with defenses focusing on the ever-dangerous Torry Holt, Bruce is finding lots of room to work his magic.

The offensive line has been the biggest detriment to the offense's productivity. LT Orlando Pace is one of the best but the rest of the line leaves a lot to be desired. Injuries and lack of talent have made this unit a liability and the Rams must find a way to get the most out of what they have.

The defense is currently ranked 27th in the league giving up over 367 yards per game. Even more disconcerting is the fact that they did not register their first turnover until the fourth game of the season when they got two (an interception and a fumble recovery).

The Rams have long been known as a ball-hawking defense but with the lack of a pass-rush, interceptions will be hard to come by.

Outside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa has had a Pro Bowl-caliber first four games. He leads the team with 29 tackles and is second on the team with 1.5 sacks. He plays sideline to sideline and is a playmaker in the making.

On special teams K Jeff Wilkins is off to another great start. Last season he set a record for scoring in the NFL and he is well on his way to another stellar season. So far he is 6 of 7 hitting two kicks from beyond 50 yards. His kickoffs are also deep enough to allow his coverage units to get down the field and pin opponents deep.

P Sean Landetta has been excellent in his own right, averaging 44.8 yards per punt, but his coverage units haven’t helped giving up almost 12 yards per return.

If not for the poor return and coverage units this area would have received an A.

Grades: Offense (B-); Defense (C); Special Teams (B+)

Next Game: @ Seattle, October 10th

Arizona – The Cardinals are quietly becoming a force within the NFC West. The offense is still bad but the Cardinals defense has stepped up, giving up only 14 points per game.

Head coach Dennis Green put all his faith in young QB Josh McCown early on and McCown may be maturing into the quarterback this team needs. McCown was brought to tears by his performance against a swarming Atlanta Falcons defense, fumbling three times, twice inside the red zone.

McCown recovered and was very efficient against the Saints on Sunday completing 12 of 18 passes for 157 yards. He made solid decisions all day and picked apart the Saints defense when the team needed it.

If the Cardinals didn’t have bad luck they wouldn’t have any luck at all. WR Anquan Boldin has been out since the first preseason game and will miss another four to six weeks with a knee injury. Rookie WR Larry Fitzgerald has been hampered by a myriad of minor nicks and bruises. He sprained an ankle in the preseason and is just starting to get back his explosiveness.

If they can continue to get good production from grey-beard Emmitt Smith at running back then McCown can use play-action to work his magic with his young talented wideouts. Smith continues to impress with solid running. He is averaging a robust 4.3 yards per carry, his best average in seven years and he is keeping defenses honest.

On defense the Cardinals have surrendered some yards (347 per game) but they have made plays when they needed to. They have been getting decent pressure on the passer and when the opportunity presents itself they make plays on the ball (four interceptions and seven forced fumbles).

DE Bertrand Berry may have been one of the quieter free-agent signings last offseason but his presence is being felt along the front seven. Offenses must always account for Berry on passing downs as he is a disruptor in the passing game.

K Neil Rackers, P Scott Player and the coverage units have been outstanding.

Rackers has hit 6 of his 7 field goal attempts this season including two beyond 50 yards. Player is averaging 43 yards per kick and has a net average of 39.3 yards. KR Josh Scobey has been solid with a 23 yards return average. This unit has been winning battles every week and look for that to continue.

This isn’t a playoff team yet, but the Cardinals may determine who ends up winning the NFC West whether the teams vying for it like it or not.

Grades: Offense (C-); Defense (B+); Special Teams (A)

Next Game: @ San Francisco, October 10th

.NET Reporter Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at sctthawk@yahoo.com.


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