NFC West Quarterly Report

It's hard to believe, but we're already a quarter of the way through the season. The Seahawks again lead the NFC West with a 3-1 mark, but they have a resurgent Arizona squad nipping at their heels, and two other teams who have been disappointments. Read on to see who has impressed on each team, who hasn't and what to watch over the next four weeks.

Arizona Cardinals

There's a bit of a quarterback controversy forming in the desert. Of course, head coach Ken Whisenhunt has stated that second-year QB Matt Leinart is the quarterback of the team, but veteran Kurt Warner came in and played well in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens and it seems that this situation will linger throughout the season if the team hits a rough patch.

The Cardinals' running game has stepped up to take the pressure off their young signal-caller. RB Edgerrin James has rushed for 354 yards and three touchdowns behind a line that has continued to make progress heading back to the final nine weeks of last season. James' 4.4-yard per carry average is his best since 2004 and he appears to be quicker and that is a direct result of trusting his line more.

Everyone wants to heap all the credit on offensive line coach Russ Grimm because the line is performing at a much higher level than was expected. However, when you take a look at the production of the unit back to the final seven weeks of the 2005 season, you'll see that the continuity of the line was a big factor in the overall performance of the line.

This year, the Cardinals have had the same five starters along the line since the first day of camp – LT Mike Gandy, LG Reggie Wells, C Al Johnson, RG Deuce Lutui and RT Levi Brown. Anyone will tell you that, more than any other unit, the offensive line relies heavily on continuity and familiarity and as these players stay in the lineup and gain experience together, they will likely be able to grow under Grimm's guidance into one of the better young lines in the league.

On defense, the Cardinals rank 12th in the NFL, allowing 304 total yards per game. They've been excellent against the run allowing only 95 yards per game. A cause of concern has to be their lack of caused turnovers – two interceptions and three fumble recovers. They've also only posted four sacks. As the season goes along this needs to change or teams will wear down the Cardinals' defense.

Top offensive performer: James. He's been solid this year and has taken some of the pressure off of Leinart. He's running harder, making quicker decisions and he's hitting the hole harder than he had in recent years. His 354 yards ranks him second in the NFC and eighth in the NFL and as long as he stays healthy, a problem he's had recently, and the line remains intact, there's no reason to believe he won't remain at or near the top of the league for the next 12 games. Runner-up: WR Larry Fitzgerald.

Top defensive performer: S Adrian Wilson. Wilson is the emotional and statistical leader of the Cardinal defense. His versatility and instincts are really what set him apart. He's one of the best safeties in the NFL. Runner-up: DT Darnell Dockett.

Top rookie: Brown. He's started every game at right tackle since he stepped on the field and the reports have been that the coaches have been happy with his progress. He's been solid, for a rookie, in pass-protection (though his run blocking is what sets him apart) and the future looks bright for the rookie. Runner-up: WR/PR Steve Breaston.

Top free agent acquisition: C Al Johnson. He leads an improving unit and makes all of the calls and adjustments along the line. He's been a solid pickup for the Cardinals. S Terrence Holt.

San Francisco 49ers

Everyone's pick to overtake the Seahawks for the NFC West crown, the 49ers have continued the trend of "up-and-coming" disappointments from the NFC West over the past three years – Arizona held that honor in 2005 and 2006.

San Francisco's problems stem from third-year QB Alex Smith's lack of progress from a promising second season and now he's out for the foreseeable future with a separated shoulder suffered when Seattle DT Rocky Bernard sacked him in the first series of their game last week.

Even more concerning for the 49ers is the fact that their offensive line looked like a sieve allowing Seattle to beat the heck out of Smith and then backup Trent Dilfer as they totaled six sacks, numerous quarterback pressures and hurries as well as three turnovers – two interceptions and one fumble.

Because RB Frank Gore is one of the top runners in the league, the 49ers don't lack for a playmaker to turn to, but instead of throwing the ball, head coach Mike Nolan needs to figure out what identity the 49ers will have for the rest of the season and stick with that.

Defensively, things are in much better shape. Nolan is a defensive coach and he's brought a toughness with him and that is embodies by linebackers Derek Smith and Patrick Willis.

CB Nate Clements has shown why he's considered one of the best corners in the league with his early season play and his physicality in the secondary is something the 49ers have lacked over the past few years.

Top offensive performer: Gore. As stated before, Gore is the only consistent playmaker on San Francisco's offense. He's a tough runner with enough breakaway speed to break open games at any time. He's also become a leader and he's a player that Nolan and the offensive staff can turn to in times of trouble. Runner-up: WR Darrell Jackson.

Top defensive performer: Willis. He's been a physical presence on the inside for the 49ers and he's got the speed, athleticism and instincts to be one of the best in the league in the very near future. Willis leads the team with 38 tackles and basically makes plays from sideline to sideline. Runner-up: DE Bryant Young.

Top rookie: Willis. He's one of the early front-runners for rookie of the year and he's already a leader on an underrated defense. Runner-up: CB Tarell Brown.

Top free agent acquisition: Clements. He's been pretty much a shut-down corner for the 49ers and constantly mans the top wideout of the opposition. Runner-up: S Michael Lewis.

St. Louis Rams

The wheels have completely come off for head coach Scott Linehan. He's got outstanding skill-position talent on offense, but his line has been decimated by injuries and lackluster play. The loss of LT Orlando Pace, who had started to show signs of age, to a torn labrum and rotator cuff has only exacerbated the problems up front.

RB Steven Jackson, expected to build off a breakout season in 2006, will miss his second straight game this week with a groin injury, but even before the injury he was running tentatively and he even had trouble hanging onto the ball.

The passing game, long known as the strength of the Rams has been relatively anemic, averaging only 181 yards per game which ranks them 26th in the NFL. QB Marc Bulger played a couple weeks with broken ribs and Linehan has decided to sit the veteran signal-caller in favor of Gus Frerotte while he heals up.

On defense, the more things change the more they stay the same. The turnover along the defensive front-seven has been astounding, yet they still cannot seem to figure out how to stop the run. Much-ballyhooed rookie DT Adam Carriker was expected to make a difference in the middle, but he hasn't lived up to the preseason hype and it's shown as the Rams rank 29th in the league against the rush (157 ypg) and 24th overall.

At 0-4, the season is about over for the Rams so the emphasis needs to be on getting young players the experience they will need in 2008 to be contributors and to work on getting some continuity along an offensive line that looks like one of the worst in the league.

Top offensive performer: WR Torry Holt. St. Louis' offensive woes can't be blamed on Holt who has been the only consistent threat downfield for the Rams. Even though teams know he's their main-target, he still gets his catches, but better line play would help him get downfield for longer pass plays. Runner-up: QB Marc Bulger.

Top defensive performer: LB Will Witherspoon. He's been the only consistent performer for the Rams on defense. He's second on the team with 23 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss and he's also been one of their better cover-men. Runner-up: CB Corey Chavous.

Top rookie: RB Brian Leonard. He isn't the breakaway playmaker that Jackson is, but Leonard has picked up the offense well and made plays when he has been given the opportunity. With Jackson out for the second week in a row, Leonard will be counted on to pick up the slack in the backfield. Runner-up: DT Adam Carriker.

Top free agent acquisition: TE Randy McMichael. Before the season many would have mentioned Drew Bennett as the most likely recipient of the best free agent to come to the Rams in the offseason and that still may end up being the case, but to this point McMichael has been solid in an offense that doesn't use the tight end much. He's also been asked to block a lot more on passing downs because of the struggles along the offensive line. Runner-up: LB Chris Draft.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks have dealt with an injured running back and a "bend-but-don't-break" defense, not to mention getting wins over a resurgent Tampa Bay squad, an explosive Cincinnati offense and division-rival San Francisco – a team that beat them twice in 2006. If not for a mix-up in the backfield late in the game against the Arizona Cardinals, Seattle would likely be one of the 4-0 teams in the NFL.

As it is, Seattle has yet to play its best football, which has to be encouraging.

The offense has started off slow in three of its four games and were it not for a long kickoff return by Josh Wilson to start the game against Cincinnati, we would be talking about four straight games of slow starts.

Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck is playing some of the best football of his career and has a 100.1 QB rating – good for eighth in the league. He's also thrown seven touchdowns to only three interceptions and is completing 67.2-percent of his passes.

The line has also gelled nicely. Second-year guard Rob Sims has stepped in and solidified the left guard spot while third-year C Chris Spencer has taken over for the now-retired Robbie Tobeck in the pivot. Walter Jones is still considered one of the top left tackles in the league, but it's evident he isn't where he was two or three years ago.

The receiving corps has really started to come on and they don't even have arguably their best playmaker in D.J. Hackett who has been out with a high ankle sprain.

On defense, Patrick Kerney and Darryl Tapp have been solid at the end positions while the interior has been a pleasant surprise with rookie DT Brandon Mebane and veteran Rocky Bernard holding down the fort. Seattle ranks 13th in the league allowing 103 yards per game on the ground which is a vast improvement for where they were last year.

The linebackers have been stellar with Julian Peterson continuing to be the playmaker of the Seahawks' defense with 24 tackles and five sacks. Lofa Tatupu has been his typical self, organizing the defense, making the adjustments and leading the team with 31 tackles.

The secondary is brand new except for Marcus Trufant at corner, but Brian Russell and Deon Grant have stepped in and brought a calming presence to the deep patrol.

There's no reason to believe Seattle won't be the division winner should they stay healthy over the next 12 games.

Top offensive performer: Hasselbeck. He's on pace to throw for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns which would both be career highs. He's a steady leader of one of the more complex offenses in the league and he's making the correct adjustments to what the defense is showing. Runner-up: WR Deion Branch.

Top defensive performer: Peterson. How can you argue otherwise? All Peterson does is make plays. He's a monster off the edge and he has a knack for always being around the ball. Runner-up: MLB Lofa Tatupu.

Top rookie: Mebane. With Marcus Tubbs on injured reserve, Mebane was asked to step in and be an immovable object in the middle of the defensive line and he's helped Seattle's run defense immensely. Runner-up: CB Josh Wilson.

Top free agent acquisition: Grant. Both Russell and Grant have been solid in the deep patrol, but Grant has been better with safety help and when it's time to make tackles. Runner-up: DE Patrick Kerney.

Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET and Feel free to e-mail him here. Top Stories