Before the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers took the field Thursday night, I tweeted that it felt like a game former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes and former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler would have loved to watch. And the way it played out, both coaches indeed would've thoroughly enjoyed it. Both teams established the run and both teams had trouble moving the ball through the air, with subpar quarterback play on each side. This resulted in a grand total of 19 combined points, with the Niners prevailing 13-6 in front of the home crowd. Yup, vintage blue-collar football.
Of course, San Francisco and Seattle are built to run the football, and both were successful Thursday night against typically stout rush defenses. In today's NFL, though, establishing the run just establishes field goals. (Something Bo and Woody would not be fond of.) And because neither team could make a play in the passing game, this contest became a defensive struggle to the point where it appeared that the defenses had a better chance of scoring than the offenses. Therein lies the problem with both squads.
Seattle left San Francisco with an 0-3 record in the NFC West and mounting concerns about its aerial attack (or lack thereof). The Niners sit atop the West at 5-2, but the same question remains from last season: Can they throw the ball effectively enough to beat elite teams in January/February? Both teams have championship-level defenses ... and lingering uncertainty at the game's most important position.
The Seahawks are overly optimistic that rookie Russell Wilson is their guy. The more I watch Wilson, the more concerned I become about his lack of height in the pocket. In last week's thrilling win over the New England Patriots, Wilson made some great throws down the field, but it was his movement in and out of the pocket that allowed him to see his targets. When teams have controlled their pass rush against Wilson, forcing him to stand tall in the pocket, the rookie quarterback has struggled. As he plays more games, Wilson will start to see a more disciplined rush -- like Thursday night -- and his performance will suffer. Is Matt Flynn a better answer? He might be, but Seattle seems to believe Wilson can overcome his lack of vision down the field.
Meanwhile, the 49ers will continue to win because few teams can match their overall talent level. San Francisco's passing ineptitude won't be exposed by less-skilled opponents. This is dangerous because it has a way of luring a team into a false belief. The 49ers must maximize Alex Smith's strengths as a quarterback (primarily getting the team into the right play at the line of scrimmage) and find ways to improve his weaknesses (spotty accuracy being chief among them). The Niners are a playoff team, and they can win postseason games with their toughness, defense and physical play. But can they win the Super Bowl? Only if they can improve their passing game.
Ten thoughts around the NFL
1) I'm sure Green Bay Packers offensive guard Josh Sitton got himself a game ball last week after blocking Houston Texans star J.J. Watt as well as anyone has all season -- at times, without any help. Sitton is the Packers' best offensive lineman, and his play allowed Aaron Rodgers to comfortably hold the ball and make plays in the passing game. Rodgers was great last week, but his offensive line provided ample time against a Texans defense that usually suffocates quarterbacks with constant pressure.
2) The Baltimore Ravens desperately need Terrell Suggs back, but they don't need an out-of-shape, 10-snaps-per-game player. They need the Terrell Suggs from last year. And it will take him some time to get back into the kind of shape he has to be in to ultimately make a difference. Bringing him back too soon would hurt this team, not help it. In times like these, patience is most critical.
3) While we're talkin' Ravens ... Everyone is asking how they will handle the loss of Ray Lewis, but as I wrote on Tuesday, the bigger challenge is replacing Lardarius Webb as the slot corner. First man up to attempt to fill this huge void? Corey Graham, the unrestricted free agent signed this offseason after spending the previous five years with the Chicago Bears. In the passing game, Graham will be challenged to cover man-to-man, and you better believe opposing quarterbacks will target him early and often, starting with Matt Schaub on Sunday in Houston. When opponents run the ball against Baltimore's nickel defense, Graham should prove sufficient in the slot. He is a good tackler with solid size and has been one of the Ravens' best special teams players. This shouldn't come into play very often on Sunday, though, as Houston is not a big nickel run team.
4) After getting some snaps as an extra tight end in the New York Giants' jumbo package last Sunday, offensive tackle David Diehl is almost ready to return to full action. But Big Blue's offensive line is playing so well, I'm not sure Diehl will immediately get his starting job back. This is the first time in a long time that New York's O-line has played this well in both run and pass. Sean Locklear has looked good at right tackle, playing as well as he did when he was in Seattle. Pat Flaherty has done an incredible job coaching this unit.
Brandt: In Cam's defense
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5) The Carolina Panthers seemed to have such a bright future coming off last season with a potential franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, a loaded backfield and a defense that could only improve. However, so far this season, the potential franchise quarterback has been barely an average quarterback, the running game has been poor and the defense has not made any positive strides. The offense's inability to carry this team has further exposed a glaring lack of talent on defense. The defense is still horrible in the red zone, still struggles to create pressure and still can't to get off the field on third down. Not to mention, Carolina's safety play might be the worst in the NFL.
6) The St. Louis Rams (3-3) have already won more games this year than all of last year, and they are doing this with an offensive line built on castoffs from other teams (other than starting right guard Harvey Dahl). Now, this isn't a spectacularly effective unit, but St. Louis is finding a way to get it done. The Rams offensive staff, led by coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, deserves credit here. Each week, I expect the offensive line to be completely exposed and fall apart, but St. Louis has held it together, even against a good Miami Dolphins defense.
7) The Denver Broncos really need another defensive tackle, and they seem like a team that might be aggressive near the trading deadline, possibly one willing to give away a 2013 draft pick for a player who can solidify the middle of the defense. The potential trade partner would have to be a team out of postseason contention with a free agent-to-be. Would Sedrick Ellis of the New Orleans Saints qualify? Only if the Saints keep losing. How about Glenn Dorsey of the Kansas City Chiefs? Only if the Chiefs are not planning on bringing him back. With the deadline extended this season to the Tuesday after Week 8, these potential scenarios will get interesting.
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8) The Dallas Cowboys' inability to run more than one play after recovering an onside kick late in last week's loss to Baltimore has many still wondering what Jason Garrett was doing. Tony Romo was asked about the play Wednesday during a conference call: "We just had guys that were 30 yards down field. In that position, sometimes you look at if you throw one of those guys the ball and they catch it, they're down the field and it's a different situation all together," Romo explained. "It comes up a lot of different ways. You just have to be prepared for the 90 different ways that they can come up at the end. That's just something you talk about constantly, so you can always get better as a team and improve. ... You'd love not to have a completion that only gets a yard, but there are also plays that you like in that situation. We look back, we just had guys down the field that needed to get back in the huddle that had a long way to go, and we'll look at that." To me, this is another indictment of Garrett as a game manager and, in a broader sense, as a head coach. Based on Romo's comments, it appears the 'Boys hadn't worked on this before, or at least not enough to make sure players understood the sense of urgency to get back to the line. These are game situations that must be covered repeatedly, and it appears that might not be the case in Dallas.
9) Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli went on a promotional tour this week to take responsibility for Kansas City's woes this year, and for struggling to completely turn around the franchise over the past three-and-a-half seasons. Pioli has one more year left on his deal after this season, and he must prove to owner Clark Hunt that he has a plan to fix the quarterback position. The longer he clings to the belief that Matt Cassel is the solution -- not the problem -- the longer the turnaround will take. Pioli must allow head coach Romeo Crennel to make the call on who starts at quarterback going forward, not force the issue with Cassel. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but a QB change here is not the desperate move -- it's the right move.
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10) Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has taken his share of criticism in D.C., based on the play of former starters Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman and John Beck. But this year with Robert Griffin III, Shanahan looks like an outstanding coach, with the ability to adapt an offense to the skill set of his premier player. The 'Skins' balanced attack is fun to watch, averaging 5.2 yards per rush and 8.3 per pass attempt. Those are incredible numbers, and Shanahan deserves a ton of credit.