From worst… to first

NFC WEST: Aggressive defenses help division go from being a pushover to doing the pushing around

eric.williams@thenewstribune.comSeptember 20, 2012 

Much has changed for the NFC West since 2010, when the Seattle Seahawks emerged as the punch line to a bad joke as the first team in NFL history to win a division title with a 7-9 record.

The division with the “little boy” reputation has put on its “big boy” pants and started beating up on the rest of the league.

The NFC West went 4-0 last week, only the second time that’s occurred since the league’s realignment in 2002.

And through two weeks, NFC West teams have a combined 6-2 record and are 5-1 against teams outside the division – the league’s best record against non-divisional opponents.

Since the NFL’s realignment, this is the first time that the teams from the NFC West have been 6-2 or better through the first two weeks of the season, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

And the NFC West’s wins have not come against patsies. San Francisco has victories at Super Bowl contender Green Bay and at home against Detroit; Arizona defeated the Patriots in New England, where quarterback Tom Brady had not lost a home opener as a starter; Seattle handled Dallas at home in a game that most league observers thought they had no shot at winning; and St. Louis outdueled Washington and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.

With San Francisco and Arizona tied atop the division at 2-0, the NFC West is the only division with two teams sporting unblemished records.

Seattle coach Pete Carroll said that the overall play in the division has improved since he arrived in January 2010. And it’s not just San Francisco carrying the load, although the 49ers won the division going away last season with a 13-3 record. Arizona finished second at 8-8.

“It is a very aggressive division – our style, San Francisco’s style and the way the Cardinals are playing defense,” Carroll said. “I don’t know much about the Rams. I haven’t seen them much yet, but what else is Jeff (St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher) going to do? He’s going to bring it.

“It’s shaping up to be a really cool division, and I think that people are going to look at it a lot differently than they have these past couple of years.”

As Carroll alludes to, the NFC West has eschewed the league trend of favoring a high-powered passing game by focusing on what the Seattle coach calls a more classic approach to playing football – an emphasis on a controlled offensive attack led by a dominant running game, a physical defense that forces turnovers and a focus on execution to win closely contested games in the fourth quarter.

It’s a philosophy similar to the one that AFC North teams Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have used effectively for years. All four AFC North teams finished in the top 10 in total defense last season, and all but Cleveland qualified for the playoffs.

Through the first two games of this season, Seattle (sixth), San Francisco (11th) and Arizona (13th) are in the top half of the league in total defense.

Even more important, the NFC West has a combined turnover differential of plus-3. Winning the turnover battle is considered by most NFL coaches to be the No. 1 indicator of how teams perform in the win-loss columns.

Carroll said although the numbers look good now, he still has to see how the rest of the season plays out.

“I can’t tell you how much, but we have improved,” Carroll said. “The 49ers have played so well last year and did such a good job throughout the season. They look like they’re really legit again. The rest of us are trying to catch up a little bit.

“It’s happening, though, kind of like the (Pacific-12 Conference in college). It seems to be growing out here in the West; everybody seems to be getting better.”

TATE FINED FOR HIT

A Seahawks spokesperson confirmed a report posted on the league’s website that receiver Golden Tate has been fined by the NFL for his hit on Dallas linebacker Sean Lee during Russell Wilson’s scramble for a 14-yard gain by in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game.

Although Tate was not penalized, the NFL determined that it was an illegal hit.

The league typically does not announce fines until Friday, but players who have been fined usually are notified by Wednesday.

According to the NFL’s 2012 Schedule of Fines, the minimum fine for such a hit is $21,000 for a first-time offense.

eric.williams@thenewstribune.com 253-597-8437 blog.thenewstribune.com/seahawks @eric_d_williams

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