The preseason kicks off Sunday night. Today and tomorrow we round out our look at the weaknesses of every team in the NFL. Today, the NFC West.Arizona Cardinals
Stronger Blockers Up Front
When an offense is compiled of an ageless wonder at quarterback, the best wide receiver in the game, the best compliment wide receiver in the game, and a promising rookie running back that is capable of handling the load right off the bat, points will be a plenty. If history wants to get in the way, the Cardinals are going to have a tough time getting back in to Super Bowl contention. The one aspect of this offense that can hold this unit back is arguably the most important, the offensive line. The talent in the trenches is in need of a couple of upgrades. While the unit as a whole took a major leap forward in 2008, the interior blocking or lack thereof was the main culprit in one turned out to be one of the worst rushing attacks in the league. A move from right tackle to left guard may be a smart move for the slow footed Levi Brown whom struggled as a pass protector in 2008. If that ends up being the case, an upgrade will be needed on the outside. No matter what, the Cardinals need to give a boost to the big uglies.
Steady Presence in the Middle
The Cardinals have been a strong offensive team for awhile now, but their defense was not even close to being up to par until this past season. The likes of Darnell Dockett, Adrian Wilson, and Karlos Dansby led the resurgence and are now complimented by a healthy mix of promising youngsters and solid veterans. They play a lot of hybrid defensive football, which plays well into their diverse athletes ont hat side of the ball. However when a defense plays such a complex scheme, it is vital that there is a steady presence in the middle. Gerald Hayes has been the starting middle/inside linebacker for three years however he has yet to record over 100 tackles in a season. He is a smart player that is good for the team’s continuity and chemistry, but there comes a point where an upgrade needs to be brought in so that the position can be on par with the rest of the defense.
San Francisco 49ers
Alex Smith is a sure thing bust. Nate Davis is a middle of the pack, possible backup signal caller in the league. Shaun Hill is your typical career backup that had a little bit of success for a half a season, but will not maintain that level throughout a full sixteen game schedule. If the Niners want to return to a competitive nature, or even just a level of respectability, they need to get their quarterback for the future in to the system. If not, that team will go nowhere. They have the talent on both sides of the ball to make one of those random one year runs that could possibly sneak them into the playoffs, but in terms of the long run, a quarterback that is slated to be the starter for the next decade needs to be brought in. Teams that are consistently hoping they have the next Kurt Warner or Tom Brady on their roster are the ones that are consistently looking up from the bottom of the standings. It is not a coincidence.
Ballhawk Difference Maker
There were only two teams in the NFL that forced fewer turnovers than the 49ers in 2009. A miniscule six recovered fumbles and twelve interceptions will not get it done in this league if you want to play deep into January. There are different ways the Niners can go about taking care of this issue. Beefing up the pass rush is always the popular strategy, but they already have a couple of promising young players up front that can get to the quarterback. Manny Lawson should be given at least another year because of his freakish athletic ability and everyone knew Kentwan Balmer was somewhat of a project coming into the league last year. That leaves the secondary approach where adding a ballhawk or two could elevate the Singletary defense into something that could really pan out. Whether or not Reggie Smith is moved to safety, the Niners still need to add a body in the middle with range and instincts. They have reliable cover men on the outside so that a smart player in the middle could really benefit from taking chances and going after the passing lanes.
Stronger Rushing Attack
The Seahawks scored just ten touchdowns on the ground in 2008, which ranked fourth from the bottom in the NFL rankings. The loss of Maurice Morris is nothing to be overly concerned about but when you consider they are left with a combination of Julius Jones, TJ Duckett, Justin Forsett, and rookie Devin Moore to control the ground attack, one has to believe this is going to be a struggle for the Seahawks in 2009. None of the above mentioned names are every down runners and even though the committee-based rushing games are the new fad in the NFL, you still need they dependable back that can beat a defense in multiple ways. With Matt Hasselbeck slowly declining, the ground game is going to become more and more vital over the next few years.
When the Seahawks signed Deon Grant to a six year deal in the spring of 2007, I’m assuming they planned on getting more than they have to this point from him. While he is a steady presence in the defensive backfield, 5 interceptions in 32 games is not what a team wants from one of the highest paid safeties in the league. Next to him is 31 year old Brian Russell whom has totaled just 1 interception in his 32 starts since the beginning of the 2007 season. It is fine to have one safety that is an in-the-box player that stuffs the run and direct traffic. But both Grant and Russell play that same role and neither of them are the kind of athletes that can cover a lot of ground and make plays against the pass. With a strong defensive line and even stronger linebacker corps, the run defense provided by the safeties can be compensated a bit for more of a cover-based talent.
St. Louis Rams
Gone are the days of Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt carving up defenses with their impeccable route running and catching ability. The Rams are now built on a power rushing attack riding on the wheels of Steven Jackson. While the depth behind him needs a boost, the targets that Marc Bulger has to work with will make it difficult for the offense to have any sort of production balance. The team’s top wideout returning is second year veteran Donnie Avery who averaged a mere 12.4 yards per reception on his54 receptions. The next most productive receiver/tight end that is returning to the 2009 squad? Tight End Randy McMichael (11 catches – 139 yards). The addition of Ronald Curry could help but there is nothing at the wide receiver position that will give Avery a run for his money as the team’s top target. With that in mind, I’m not even sure Avery is anything better than a slot receiver in a strong passing game. Bulger has the arm and the smarts to be a very respectable passer in this league, but he is not the kind of quarterback that can get it done with the tools, or lack thereof in St. Louis.
Interior Pass Rush
If there is one thing new head coach Steve Spagnuolo is going look to bring to St. Louis, it is a diversified pass rush. The Rams have a strong presence off the edge with solid depth, but there is almost nothing to speak of in the middle. While Spagnuolo will shift bodies around to create mismatches against the centers and guards, there still needs to be a boost in overall talent there. Not one of the team’s 30 sacks in 2008 came from a defensive tackle. This will be a huge and telling year for former first round pick Adam Carriker who should play a Justin Tuck type role in the new scheme being implemented. He does not have the tools Tuck has, but he has size and strength that could create those mismatches Spagnuolo is looking to exploit. However besides him, the Rams need a boost in talent if their pass rush is going to be in par with what the new head coach is looking for.