NFL Midseason Grades: NFC West
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
In what is probably the most competitive division in football, the NFC West possesses four teams who are all still in the hunt for a playoff spot at the midseason mark. The wild West has had a representative from the division appear in seven of the last nine NFC Championship games and in five of the most recent eight Super Bowl matchups.
Let’s take a look at where each team stands at the halfway mark and assess whether that impressive playoff run is likely to continue for any of them.
Arizona Cardinals (5-3) – 2nd in NFC West
Offensive Points Per Game: 29.3 (6th in NFL)
Defensive Points Per Game: 22.5 (8th in NFL)
The Cardinals have already matched their win total from last season (5), in what is quickly becoming a season of genuine contention for a playoff berth for the team. Kyler Murray has blossomed into one of the superstars of the NFL and the team already has signature wins against divisional rivals, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers (before the Niners’ roster crumbled into injury-riddled purgatory).
The offense is cooking and has produced 422 yards per game, which paces the league and ranks 6th in terms of points per game. This is largely due to their rushing offense but despite rushing for 162.9 yards per game – which is 2nd best overall – the Cardinals will need more contribution from their backs in the second half of the year as Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds have both underwhelmed.
They must find more balance with their run game as Kyler Murray offers their greatest rushing threat. This approach may not be sustainable as defenses begin to tighten as we career towards the playoffs. Defenses will key in on this facet of the Cardinals’ attack and fortify their edges much more consistently, which could ask Kyler to do too much through the air. Having said this, the great Hopkins swindle of the off season could pay off in spades if the Cardinals are forced to rely on an aerial attack.
Defensively, the Cardinals are middle of the pack. They rank 19th in terms of yards per game conceded (370) and are 15th in the league for total defensive turnovers (10). They have 22 sacks on the season and will be looking for recent trade acquisition, Markus Golden, to inject some life into this area of their defense.
Haason Reddick is their leading sack artist with 5.0, but beyond that they have relied on the playmaking ability of Budda Baker to the tune of two alongside a quartet of others with the same amount. Golden started well in week 9 with a sack on debut, but it is an area where the Cards will need to improve in order to contain some of the higher-powered offenses within the conference. They also give up an average of 6.88 penalties on defense per game, which is third worst in the league.
Penalties is clearly an area where Arizona need to tidy up as their 7.75 per game on offense is the worst in the league. This could stymie their offense moving forward and lead them to slipping up in games that they should win.
Talking of such losses; games dropped to the Carolina Panthers and Detroit Lions prevent a pure ‘A’ grade overall as they are games the Cardinals could and should have won. These are NFC conference games that could have major ramifications to playoff seedings in the event that both the Cardinals and Seahawks finish on tied records.
The loss to the Dolphins in week 9 means that their fate is currently out of their control and this is magnified by the fact that their Pacific North-western rivals defeated the Miami squad in week 4, meaning that the Seattle maintain another tiebreaker over Arizona at present. A win in week 11 at CenturyLink Field will be absolutely pivotal for Murray and the Cardinals if they wish to battle for the Number 1 seed at season’s end.
Los Angeles Rams (5-3) – 3rd in NFC West
Offensive PPG: 24.1 (21st)
Defensive PPG: 19.0 (2nd)
The Rams are still very much in contention for a playoff berth this year and are quietly putting together a solid season. After a decidedly pedestrian 2019 in which they finished 9-7, expectations have been lowered for the 2018 NFC Champions, but they could quite conceivably emerge from the bloodbath out West with another divisional banner hanging from the rafters.
The offense has been inconsistent and is a unit that head coach Sean McVay will be looking to get back to 2018 form in order to make a deep playoff run this year. On the surface, the offense is not performing poorly with the passing game averaging 258.6 yards per game (13th in the NFL) and the multi-pronged run game rumbling for a seventh ranked 137.8 yards per game. However, the yardage only tells half the story.
Securing down and distance is key to moving the chains but unless the team is scoring, such stats are rendered redundant and the Rams rank a lowly 21st in the league for points scored at 24.1 per game. This simply will not suffice in a conference containing the supercharged Seahawks, an Aaron Rodgers led Packers offense and a Tampa Bay team fuelled by arguably the best triumvirate of receivers in tandem, being slung the rock by a modern legend of the game.
Jared Goff needs to up his game in order for the Rams to improve their scoring. Despite flashes of excellence and an impressive ability to thrive in play action (69% completion, 916 yards/6 TDs), the fifth-year signal caller is responsible for 8 of his team’s 12 turnovers this year. He has also struggled under pressure, completing only 37.5% of his passes when under duress. This simply is not good enough for the third highest paid player in the NFL and questions have to be raised as to whether or not he is holding back the Rams offense from their true potential.
This is something that McVay needs to answer. Deemed an “offensive guru”, McVay must be wondering what else can be done to improve the Rams’ scoring efforts. Their pass blocking has been terrific this season thanks to the ageless wonder Andrew Whitworth, alongside fellow bookened tackle, Rob Havenstein. The line as a unit has only surrended 10 sacks all season.
To take the next steps, McVay needs to ensure that he gets the ball into the hands of both Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods as much as possible, but the drops are concerning. With 25 drops, L.A. is the second worst team in the league, but this is correctable, and the team may have experienced its nadir in this area in 2020.
Defensively, the Rams have been one of the best teams in the league and this unit alone accounts for a solid grade overall. They have been good enough to account for the inconsistencies on offense and have been led again by the peerless, Aaron Donald. Donald is truly making his case for Defensive Player of the Year once again with nine sacks and three forced fumbles already this season.
Linebacker Leonard Floyd, the off-season acquisition has been a pleasant surprise with 4.5 sacks. Because of this, the expected drop off in play from the departed Cory Littleton has not occurred and Littleton’s playmaking ability has been replaced by an impressively deep safety corps including John Johnson III, Taylor Rapp, Terrell Lewis and impressive rookie, Jordan Fuller.
Overall, the Rams will be looking for the defense to keep rolling and the offense to catch up. Both tight ends, Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett will look to get fully healthy and rookie Cam Akers may have a greater impact as he becomes more assimilated within the playbook.
It is true that the Rams have only beaten one team with a winning record and that four of their five wins have come against the horrendous NFC East, but you can only beat what is in front of you and the Rams are primed to make a run in the second half of the season.
Seattle Seahawks (6-2) – 1st in NFC West
Offensive PPG: 34.3 (1st)
Defensive PPG: 30.4 (30th)
The Seahawks are a tough one to grade. If Pete Carroll honestly graded himself, he might be feeling as though an ‘F’ is more appropriate due to the abomination of a pass defense that he is trotting out every game.
Long gone are the days of the Legion of Boom as well as the preseason optimism of Seahawks fans that Quinton Dunbar, Shaquill Griffin, Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs could produce a quartet vaguely reminiscent of that fabled group. In fairness, injury has limited Jamal Adams to only three full games so far, Griffin has missed three, whilst Diggs and Dunbar have missed time due to a combination of discipline and injury.
Plenty has been written about this pass D, rightly and wrongly so. It is true that they have given up 362.1 passing yards per game and that they are a juicy matchup in fantasy football, but in the real life game the unit is fifth in the league for interceptions and is creating enough turnovers to ensure that the offense has a chance to keep ahead in games, more often than not.
The real concern amongst Seattle faithful has long been the pass rush. It was an area in which the Seahawks needed to improve during the off season and the trade for Jamal Adams as an in the box safety was never going to be enough to address this issue adequately.
Seattle has since traded for Carlos Dunlap, who had an extremely promising debut in the blowout loss to the Bills. Dunlap registered a sack, three tackles for a loss, two QB hits and was continually a disruptive presence. If this can continue and take some of the pressure off Adams to make plays at the line of scrimmage, then the pass defense could steadily improve as the season reaches its climax.
Realistically, an ‘F’ grade could never be given for a team that sits at 6-2 and possesses the current MVP frontrunner in Russell Wilson. Wilson has had a couple of turnover laden weeks recently against Arizona and Buffalo but goes through these spells every year and comes out firing on the other side. He continues to keep his team competitive despite the defense’s failings and will remain in the driving seat for the award for now.
Special mention has to go to D.K. Metcalf. Whether it was the three cone drill, limited route tree narrative, or the neck injury in college – the rest of the NFL must be kicking itself right now for passing on him and allowing him to fall into the Hawks’ talons. 788 yards receiving, alongside 8 touchdowns only tells half the story as we see athletic feats on a weekly basis from the sophomore standout.
There is a chance that Seattle could be without both Dunbar and Griffin at corner in week 10 and after having lost four of their last five games against a Sean McVay led Rams, this could be a decisive week in deciding whether or not the Seahawks are genuine contenders.
Top of the toughest division in football, number one offense on points per game and injuries galore that have very much gone under the radar – the Seahawks do not deserve less than a ‘B-’ despite the disappointing defense.
San Francisco 49ers (4-5) – 4th in NFC West
Offensive PPG: 25.0 (18th)
Defensive PPG: 23.0 (10th)
The injury ravaged reigning NFC Champions hobble into the second half of their season a shadow of their former self.
Everyone knows by now the fact that the Niners have suffered myriad injuries, but this is a situation replicated across the league for multiple teams. What has become apparent this year is that the boys from the Bay do not possess nearly as much depth as we previously thought they did.
The trade of DeForest Buckner during the off season was a surprise to many, but onlookers believed that San Francisco would be just fine as Nick Bosa would be the leader of that line. Unfortunately, Bosa is on season ending IR, but hope remained as they retained Dee Ford, drafted Javon Kinlaw and elected to pay Arik Armstead.
What has come to pass is not what many expected.
Arik Armstead cannot shoulder the load alone, and 22 tackles and 1.5 sacks is not enough of a return to justify the $85m, 5-year deal that was signed only a few months ago. Armstead’s performance is simply not enough for a unit that has mustered a mere 15 sacks on the season.
Kerry Hyder has 4.5 of these sacks and there is not another player who has more than two.
Despite this paltry production from the defensive line, the defense has managed to hold its own for the most part, giving away an average of 23 points per game, good for 10th in the league. Holding this ramshackle group together is the outstanding Fred Warner.
Warner is a prototypical playmaking modern linebacker and leads the team in tackles (74) and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. He also has a pass breakup and is second on the team in tackles for a loss and has a legitimate case as a contender for Defensive Player of the Year honours. Warner is sensational in coverage, giving up a mere 60.5 passer rating when targeted which leads the league for linebackers by some distance.
A special mention also has to go to Jason Verrett. The 2014 first rounder has had a career blighted by injuries, but has found his best form this season, registering an interception and three pass breakups on only 20 targets this season. He has had four games this season where he has allowed less than 10 yards receiving in what has been a sensational comeback year.
There have been a few bright spots on offense, such as the emergence of rookie Brandon Aiyuk. Aiyuk has a chance to grow into the number one wideout for the team, as he is more talented than the current incumbent Deebo Samuel, who has had a tumultuous season himself due to injury.
Trent Williams has also shone. Some observers believed that the veteran lineman was washed, but he has comfortably been San Fran’s best blocker and the drop off in the quality of protection for Jimmy Garoppolo when Williams is out is tangible.
Head Coach Kyle Shanahan needs to assess whether forging forward with Garoppolo under center truly is the best option for his team. As we look ahead to the second half of the season, it is clear that Nick Mullens is also not the answer as it is impossible to predict which version of Mullens will turn up from week to week.
The Niners will remain a tough out for most teams and could still conceivably make the playoffs but face a daunting schedule the rest of the way. They have only played each of their NFC West foes once, need to travel to New Orleans and will welcome the Bills to the Bay in week 13. Perhaps a 6/7-win season and premium draft position is an optimal result for this team?
…Although four teams from the division would be thrilling, wouldn’t it?