We've broken out three articles looking at the biggest surprises early this season. Before our sixth glorious NFL Sunday of the year, let's look at the eye-opening stories in the NFC South and West.
(And if you missed our first three, here goes: AFC East and North, AFC West and South, NFC East and North.)
The Atlanta Falcons laugh at the teams that use a change of schemes as an early-season excuse. Atlanta swapped out Mike Mularkey for Dirk Koetter on offense and Brian Van Gorder for Mike Nolan on defense. Both new schemes involved big changes. They are bold. Both coaching swaps look like upgrades. ... One concern for Atlanta's defense is their ability to stop the run. Both the Carolina Panthers' and the Washington Redskins' fronts pushed the Falcons around. ... Only New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in 2011 had a higher passer rating through five weeks than Atlanta's Matt Ryan.
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There is nothing consistent about the Panthers' offense. Sometimes the read option stuff works: Look at the two games where they averaged 209 rushing yards. Sometimes it falls flat: Their rushing totals in the other three games are 10, 60 and 82. The running struggles have not helped quarterback Cam Newton look comfortable. He's always going for shot plays. Nearly everything is vertical, and there aren't a lot of sustained drives. Newton often leaves the pocket too early, which was not happening last year.
The New Orleans Saints' defense has given up at least 400 yards every week. It's hard to see them turning their season around because they have zero pass rush. ... The Saints miss guard Carl Nicks a great deal. They've turned their passing game around the last two weeks, but the running game is so much worse than previous years. ... Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin looks like he belongs, but we've been surprised that he doesn't make more opponents miss. He plays tough and smart, but seems to be playing a step slow. Perhaps he's thinking too much like a lot of rookies. ... Coach Greg Schiano treats quarterback Josh Freeman like he doesn't know how much to trust him yet.
Defensive end Calais Campbell and linebacker Daryl Washington are both having Pro Bowl years for the Arizona Cardinals. ... It's hard to imagine the Cardinals' offense surviving. With an awful running game and offensive line, they need a quarterback that can raise the level of play of those around him. Quarterback Kevin Kolb has done a creditable job, but he's not that guy. ... The St. Louis Rams' defense is very consistent. They play on the edge like coach Jeff Fisher's old Tennessee Titans teams, and they occasionally cross it. There aren't many pass rush duos better than defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn. ... Quarterback Sam Bradford has his moments, but it's a little troubling when quarterback rookies like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill all look more composed than Bradford.
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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith is occasionally hesitant to pull the trigger, but it's hard to knock the strides he's made this year. He leads the NFL in passer rating and adjusted yards per attempt. It sounds crazy, but the 49ers' offense is almost as good as its defense. That's mostly the running game, but give Smith credit for being wildly efficient. ... The 49ers average 6.1 yards per carry as a team. That's silly. ... The offense is so good it has no use for guys like running back Brandon Jacobs and wide receiver Randy Moss.
I shouldn't be surprised anymore, but the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch is a top-five runner. He was so up and down with the Buffalo Bills and early on in Seattle, but he carries this offense every week. Robert Turbin fits beautifully as his backup. It's the Thunder-and-Thunder approach. ... The Seahawks' defense is greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts are pretty sweet. Give coach Pete Carroll credit for knowing what guys do well. Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons, Jason Jones and Red Bryant all have specific roles that they play very well. Bruce Irvin and Bobby Wagner add a ton of speed to the group. Wagner closes.