Fast start for NFC West defenses

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Arizona, Seattle and San Francisco defenses allowed only 36 points during Week 1.

They never allowed so few points in any week last season, coming closest in Week 9, when the Cardinals played the Rams and the 49ers had their bye week.

Even the rebuilding Rams played tough defense into the second half of their 2009 regular-season opener.

Perhaps this is simply what happens when NFC West teams face one another early in the season, before offenses hit stride. The hit Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson put on 49ers tight end Vernon Davis was Wilson at his best -- or worst, depending on one's view. Patrick Willis' leaping interception for the 49ers was another signature play. I also thought a few newcomers and others without Pro Bowls on their résumés helped NFC West defenses show more snarl than usual.

I came up with three per team:


1. Calais Campbell. The second-year defensive end made his first NFL regular-season start and continued to show why the Cardinals didn't pay huge money to keep Antonio Smith from hitting free agency.

Campbell stands 6-foot-8 and appears quite lean for a 3-4 defensive end. He batted down a third-and-2 screen pass from Shaun Hill to Frank Gore in the opener. Campbell was also strong against the run.

2. Alan Branch. A few more games like this one and Branch might drop the "underachiever" label that seemed appropriate to this stage of his career.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt offered only conditional praise for Branch early in training camp. He was more direct Monday: "I certainly liked what I saw. He showed up as a big guy playing some tackle and some end for us."

3. Gerald Hayes. New defensive coordinator Bill Davis unleashed Hayes on two early run blitzes. Hayes chopped down Gore and set the tone on defense for Arizona. He's been a steady veteran for years, so this wasn't a breakout performance. But he stood out.


1. Parys Haralson. Four hits on Kurt Warner got the quarterback's attention. Haralson showed why the 49ers extended his contract.

2. Justin Smith. The veteran defensive end pressured Warner and disrupted plays. He consistently gives the Cardinals problems.

3. Manny Lawson. The 2006 first-round choice wasn't as obviously effective as Haralson, but he did make a positive impact, once when he hit Warner to affect an interception and again when his pressure set up Smith for a sack.


1. Aaron Curry. Was this the same guy who carried veterans' helmets around training camp as part of his obligatory rookie duties? Curry carried himself like an NFL enforcer with 10 years in the league. Curry unnecessarily decked Rams guard Jacob Bell at or after the whistle on the Rams' first offensive play. Rams running back Steven Jackson might still be feeling the hit Curry put on him in the backfield.

2. Lawrence Jackson. The Seahawks' 2008 first-round choice caught my attention when he shed Rams tackle Jason Smith to tackle Jackson for no gain in the second quarter. Jackson picked up a third-quarter sack as well.

3. Josh Wilson. The cornerback's aggressive play made him a nuisance to the Rams' largely unestablished receivers.


1. James Laurinaitis. Fourteen tackles and a forced fumble separated Laurinaitis from the Rams' other linebackers. The Rams' defensive staff even left him on the field on the one play when Seattle used four wide receivers, one play after sending Laurinaitis on a blitz. Seahawks guard Rob Sims made some good blocks on Laurinaitis, but the Rams had to be pleased with the rookie overall.

2. Oshiomogho Atogwe. My appreciation for the Rams' free safety and franchise player continues to grow. He plays the ball exceptionally well and is a threat to pick off passes even when quarterbacks think they've put enough velocity on the ball. Atogwe also slips blocks effectively in the run game.

3. Gary Gibson. Adam Carriker's replacement at defensive tackle gave the Seahawks' interior offensive linemen trouble at times. Seahawks center Steve Vallos got away with holding Gibson on the first play of the third quarter. Gibson beat guard Max Unger to stop Edgerrin James for no gain late in the game.