2012 Division Preview: NFC West
With a bevy of new weapons around him, Alex Smith must improve as a passer
If the Seahawks can survive a brutal October slate, they'll be in playoff contention
The Cards have to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald more, but must pick a QB first
The NFC West flipped upside-down last season. St. Louis entered the year as the prohibitive favorite after tying Seattle for the division's best record in 2010. The Rams instead imploded, dropping their first six games on their way to a 2-14 debacle.
Taking their place atop the division were the San Francisco 49ers, led by a rookie coach, a quarterback that everyone had deemed a total failure and a defense that just kicked the daylights out of most offenses it faced. Now, Jim Harbaugh's group, with Alex Smith still at the helm, heads into this season expected to defend its division crown. Can Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis turn the tables and shake up the NFC West yet again?
What the 49ers do well: Destroy opposing offenses.
Aside from a bizzaro world divisional-round playoff game, in which Alex Smith outgunned Drew Brees to push San Francisco past New Orleans, the 49ers lived and died with their defense in 2011. More often than not, that formula paid off. The 49ers wound up leading the league in run defense (77.2 yards per game) and finished second in points allowed (14.3). They also picked off 23 passes, recovered a league-leading 15 fumbles, sacked the quarterback 42 times ... and you get the idea. This was an elite defensive unit last season. And with every critical piece returning in 2012, it should be again.
What the 49ers need to do better: Throw the football.
Kudos to Smith for a mind-boggling turnaround as San Francisco's starting quarterback in 2011, but the 49ers simply have to get more out of their passing attack this season. They're more than aware of that too -- after finishing 29th in the league in passing last season, the 49ers signed free agents Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, then spent a first-round pick on A.J. Jenkins. Those moves indicated that they didn't place all of their '11 struggles in this facet on Smith, but he has to deliver now that he has some weapons.
Which 49er needs to step up: Aldon Smith, linebacker.
It is hard to ask a lot more from Smith, who put up a whopping 14 sacks and was a dominant presence during his rookie season. The 49ers, though, want him on the field more -- they used Smith only in pass-rush situations last season, with Parys Harelson starting at OLB. The plan is to get Smith into the starting lineup this year, with Harelson ready as a reserve. The upshot is obvious: San Francisco gets one of its best defensive players on the field a lot more. The challenge for Smith will be to prove that he can get the job done every down, including against the run.
Predicted record: 10-6.
The 49ers came out of nowhere in Jim Harbaugh's first season to post a 13-3 record and come within an eyelash of a Super Bowl berth. There will be no sneaking up on people this time around. San Francisco also faces trips to Green Bay, New England and New Orleans, plus a home NFC title game rematch with the Giants. We know the 49ers' defense will be stout, but the offense faces a tougher challenge.
What the Seahawks do well: Give themselves a chance.
The first two weeks of the 2011 season aside -- Seattle lost at San Francisco, 33-17; and at Pittsburgh, 24-0 -- the Seahawks went 7-7 and had a shot to pull out wins in at least six of those defeats. Seattle also pulled off upsets over Baltimore, the Giants and the Bears, the latter two coming on the road. Given how tough it can be to play in Seattle with the 12th man wreaking havoc, the Seahawks' 2011 road success bodes well for what's to come in 2012. If Seattle can convert a few near-misses into victories, the playoffs are a possibility.
What the Seahawks need to improve: Balancing their offense.
Marshawn Lynch turned in a 1,200-yard season on the ground last year, at times going "Beast Mode" and carrying the offense on his back. But even with Lynch punishing defenses, the Seahawks still finished just 28th in total yards and 23rd in points scored. The neutered passing game was the main culprit, with Tarvaris Jackson tossing 14 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. Enter Russell Wilson (and Matt Flynn). The Seahawks spent big money this offseason to sign Flynn away from Green Bay, but will go with the rookie Wilson at QB to start the season. Wilson's athleticism could be the spark this offense was missing. After all, he thrived last season at Wisconsin, taking advantage of the openings that the Badgers' potent run game gave him.
Which Seahawk needs to step up: Bobby Wagner, linebacker.
The Seahawks opened some eyes in Round 1 of the 2012 draft by reaching for pass rushing DE Bruce Irvin, but their second-round pick may wind up paying more dividends. Round 2 brought linebacker Bobby Wagner, who, after the recent trade of Barrett Ruud (to New Orleans, where Seattle's starting MLB in 2011, David Hawthorne, also signed), will handle starting duties in the middle of the 4-3 defense. Hawthorne had 72 tackles and three interceptions, so Wagner has some decent-sized shoes to fill.
Predicted record: 8-8.
The Seahawks might be one of the NFC's big sleeper teams, and people are rushing to the bandwagon after seeing what Wilson did in the preseason. Seattle's hopes for a return to the postseason may live or die based on its performance in a brutal October. The Seahawks open that month at Carolina, return home to host New England, then hit the road to play San Francisco and Detroit. An 0-4 stretch would effectively end the season for the Seahawks; 2-2 or better would let them dream big.