Behind Enemy Lines – Year End Grades

Sixteen games in seventeen weeks have been completed and .Net's Divisional reporter Scott Eklund breaks down the good, the bad and the ugly in the NFC West.

St. Louis – The Rams finished 8-8 and in the playoffs for the second straight year, but the team fell well short of fans and pundits' expectations.

On offense the Rams wide-open attack was on display several times, but they lacked the ability to punch it in when they really needed to. Halftime adjustments by head coach Mike Martz left a lot to be desired as the Rams were outscored in the second half of games, 184 to 126.

The offense, led by QB Marc Bulger had few explosions this season, averaging only 19.9 points per game. Bulger finished the season with 3,964 yards, 21 touchdowns and 14 interceptions and his 66.2 completion percentage was the best of his career, but it didn't translate into more wins. Bulger also missed two games due to a sprained right shoulder and his four interceptions in the red zone led the NFL.

One weapon that emerged late in the season was rookie RB Steven Jackson. Jackson has power and speed and runs with an attitude. He took over as the starter behind Bulger in week 13 and rushed for 119 yards against San Francisco and 148 against Philadelphia. Against the Jets in the season finale he was held in check, but it is imperative that Martz get the ball into Jackson's hands on a regular basis.

The explosive tandem of WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce continues to produce. The two combined for 183 receptions, 2,664 yards and 16 touchdowns. Third and fourth receivers Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald also emerged as playmakers with each making key catches down the stretch to extend drives and put the team in scoring position.

The offensive line has been a constant concern for the Rams as they have struggled with pass protection, a must in Martz's wide-open attack. The Rams surrendered 50 sacks during the season and it doesn't look any better for the playoffs.

LT Orlando Pace has been solid all season but the vacancy at right tackle after Kyle Turley's bad back flared up in the preseason and he was placed on injured reserve. There is concern within the organization that Turley may not be able to play again and that has them thinking about offensive line help in the offseason.

On defense, look for a major reshuffling in the linebacking corps. Pisa Tinoisamoa has quietly been the best performer on the stop unit all season and his 92 tackles led the team. Opposite Tinoisamoa is Tommy Polley. Polley's play improved as the season went on but coaches were not happy with his lack of playmaking abilities. MLB Robert Thomas struggled most of the season and might be better suited on the outside with his size and speed. Look for the Rams to draft a true middle linebacker in April's draft.

The combination of Bryce Fisher and Leonard Little at defensive end paid dividends as Fisher led the team in sacks with 8.5. Little wasn't his typically disruptive self but he was double-teamed most of the season. Fisher plays the run well but was even better rushing the passer.

The defensive backfield needs to be upgraded with more talent and speed in the deep third as veteran FS Aeneas Williams might end his career following the playoffs. SS Adam Archuleta is solid against the run but he struggles in space and even with his speed he lacks playmaking ability.

Team MVP: DE Bryce Fisher

Final Grades: Offense (C); Defense (C); Special Teams (C-)

Next Game: @ Seattle, January 8th

Arizona – Head coach Dennis Green made some bold moves during the season, something that has become his trademark, but his decision to bench starting QB Josh McCown in week 11 in favor of Shaun King, may be the biggest reason this team is out of the playoffs.

With that decision the Cardinals went on to lose four straight games and essentially eliminate themselves from post season contention.

McCown played well in the final four weeks of the season but still continued to make mistakes in some of his decisions. Green will be monitoring the QB situation all offseason and McCown could be looking at some competition if Green likes the potential of a prospect, either in the draft or on the waiver wire.

RB Emmitt Smith has indicated that he may be up for returning for a third season in the desert but chances are that he will be moving on. Marcel Shipp was placed on injured reserve during the preseason with a dislocated and broken ankle. Expectations are that he should be ready in time for training camp, but if not, veteran Josh Scobey and Troy Hambrick will compete for the open spot.

The wide receiver corps is set and should be very explosive next season. The team really missed second-year wideout Anquan Boldin and they received a boost when he returned. Boldin, along with Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson form arguably the best wideout trio in the league. Fitzgerald came on at the end of the season and finished with 58 receptions for 780 yards and eight touchdowns. If the team can get 250 receptions for 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns between the three, the Cardinals could be looking at playing into late January.

The right side of the offensive line could look a lot different following the season. LT Leonard Davis, LG Reggie Wells and C Alex Stepanovich are set but the right side has struggled all season. This will be a focus all offseason as Green wants to open things up in his second season.

The defense played well most of the season, but breakdowns late in games cost the team dearly. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast ran an attacking scheme that put players in position to make plays.

DE Bertrand Berry is the first Cardinal defender to make the Pro Bowl since 1998 and he was the motor that ran the Cardinal defensive unit. His 14.5 sacks led the NFC and finished second in the NFL to Indianapolis Colts DE Dwight Freeney's 16.

DT Darnell Dockett is the other sure-fire starter along the line but some shuffling will take place this offseason.

SS Adrian Wilson led the team in tackles with 100 and his three interceptions ranked him second. He played well all season long and should have gone to the Pro Bowl as well.

At linebacker the Cardinals found a playmaker in rookie OLB Karlos Dansby and the plan is to get him on the field more to utilize his physical skills. He has pass-rush ability (five sacks) and he is a sure tackler. When he was on the field all he did was make plays and cause problems for opposing offenses.

Team MVP: DE Bertrand Berry

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

San Francisco – Head coach Dennis Erickson's job status is still up in the air as of this writing but even if he stays this team will be going through some serious changover.

The Niners will have the number one choice in April's draft but don't look for them to stay there. QBs Matt Leinhart and Aaron Rogers are widely considered the best prospects in the draft, but with the performances of starter Tim Rattay and backup Cody Pickett down the stretch, quarterback is not the team's number one priority.

RB Kevan Barlow was a huge disappointment after signing a big deal in the offseason and the team is expecting a return to form in 2005. He ran tentatively and missed numerous blocking assignments and was even benched late in the season. If he is not able to return to form, look for the 49ers to draft a runner sometime on day one.

The wide receivers didn't play poorly, but none of them are game-breakers. Starters Cedric Wilson and Brandon Lloyd are inconsistent, making tough catches at one moment and dropping easy ones later. Rookie WR Rashaun Woods was a big disappointment as he only had seven receptions for 160 yards and on touchdown. Look for the Niners to draft a big-time wideout early on in April's draft.

TE Eric Johnson was the clear-cut team MVP as he was the only consistent threat on the offensive side of the ball. Johnson finished the season with 82 reception for 825 yards and two touchdowns. Look for him to be even more involved in the passing-game next season.

Along the defensive front DE Andre Carter's back is still a concern but in Erickson's post-season press conference on Monday he stated that Carter's surgery went well and he should be ready to go by training camp.

DT Bryant Young continues to be the 49ers' most consistent interior defensive lineman, but he wore down as the season progressed. His three sacks led all defensive lineman and while he is better against the run, the team may need to address the tackle position early and often in the draft.

The team really missed the presence of LB Julian Peterson and his playmaking ability. He ruptured an Achilles tendon in week five and he is on pace to be back in time for training camp. He is the engine that makes the 49ers defense go and he will be a huge key for the team in 2005.

The secondary suffered a lot of injuries and with that some young players got a lot of playing time. CBs Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph are both rehabbing and should be ready to go sometime in training camp. Rookie CB Shawntae Spencer saw time in all but one game and he will be a nice nickel corner in 2005.

S Tony Parrish was moved to free safety late in the season and his presence deep was a key to keeping the big-plays to a minimum. He is a ballhawk and his skills at defending the pass are underestimated. If the team is smart they will keep him in the deep patrol and work on putting another safety closer to the line.

Team MVP: TE Eric Johnson

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

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