Mailbag: Debating defense in the NFC West

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Dude in Brooklyn writes: Sando, I didn't realize you were so expert with faint praise. Your statement that the 49ers have the best defense in the division couldn't have been less enthusiastic. "Based on what we have seen," "I know they played some weak offenses," "there was a sense they were improved" ... that is not the language of a convinced man.

Fair enough. But why, Mike Sando? There is both an easy positive and negative argument for why the 49ers' defense is the best. They were statistically superior in nearly every category and did so with a crappy offense that constantly left them in bad position with three-and-outs and turnovers. Their per-play stats are top-10 or just below.

Over the course of the season, they played all the same teams except for two, so the schedule argument is bogus. If anything, the Cards should be demoted for not having to play their own offense when the rest of the division had to. The squad has a good mix of experience and youth and includes five former or current Pro Bowlers and several players that are developing quite well.

As for the negative argument ... there's almost nothing good to say about the Rams or Seahawks. I'll leave the Rams alone because they're rebuilding. Yes, the Seahawks had major injuries on offense, but the defense was as healthy as the others in the division. It was bad because it was bad. Are the additions going to be enough? How important are the personnel losses? That defense has more questions than answers and did nothing well last year.

As for the Cards, their defense was 19th despite the advantage of a fourth-ranked offense. Some say they have a good secondary, but they couldn't defend the pass all year. Is a nickel back [Bryant McFadden] and a third-rounder [Rashad Johnson] going to solve their pass-defense woes? For those who think the Cards have a good secondary, I'll leave Sando with a homework assignment that will disabuse you of your rose-tinted glasses: What was the last team to allow more passing TD's than the 2008 Cards?

Mike Sando: The Cardinals allowed 36 passing touchdowns last season. I suspect the 1981 Colts were the last team to allow more (37) in a season. Not good.

To address your broader point, we might be answering different questions. The evidence you cited was from last season. Which NFC West team had the best defense last season? The 49ers, of course, by almost any measure. Which NFC West team will have the best defense in 2009? The 49ers, probably.

Back to the Cardinals. When they were bad, they were really bad. When they were good, they were really good. The 49ers were more consistent defensively. Arizona allowed six touchdown passes to Brett Favre in a single game. Horrible. But when the Cardinals needed to control Matt Ryan and Jake Delhomme in the playoffs, they did it well. That means more than how the 49ers fared in a meaningless game against Buffalo.

The Cardinals can play with a violence and ferocity that is unmatched in the division. That is how they recovered a league-high 17 fumbles last season. The 49ers recovered six. The fumble-forcing hit Darnell Dockett put on Zak Keasey last season comes to mind. The knockout shot Adrian Wilson put on Trent Edwards was another example. Patrick Willis is the only other player in the division to inflict that type of punishment (the hit on Jets receiver Brad Smith last season comes to mind).

The problem in this division is that none of the teams can count on having a strong pass rush. The 49ers could develop one if Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson flourish in the
3-4. The Seahawks could rediscover one if Patrick Kerney gets healthy and some of their recent draft choices develop, etc. But can any team in this division truly count on its pass rush?

spooneycardsfan from Phoenix writes: Hey Sandman, I was going over your Roided-Out Rosters and was thinking about some brilliant dude [me] commenting on how much less physical the Pac-10 is from the other major conferences. When I think "physical" in football, I think run-stuffing brick wall defensive tackle, a la Albert Haynesworth. How many starting or Pro Bowl defensive tackles or noseguards are from the SEC versus other conferences?

Mike Sando: Check me if I'm wrong, but the Seahawks' league-leading count of players from the Pac-10 must have led you to dream dreams of a Ken Whisenhunt/Russ Grimm offense mauling away against a bunch of West Coast pretty boys. I'm onto you, spooney.

Great question, though, if for no other reason than it gave me a chance to dial up my roster spreadsheet. The mighty Big 12 Conferen
ce boasts six active defensive tackles with Pro Bowls on their résumés. The SEC is second with four, followed by the ACC with two and Conference-USA with one.

Darnell Dockett and Trevor Pryce are 290-pound defensive linemen with Pro Bowls on their resumes. Both are from the ACC. I have both listed as defensive ends, though.

Mike from Los Angeles writes: Mike, how serious are the Seahawks about Max Unger as a center? I know they are giving the usual platitudes about trying him at left guard first, but if he handles the calls well, is there a chance he starts opening day, with Chris Spencer moving to guard to take advantage of his athleticism? Has Unger even taken any snaps at center in any of the minicamps?

Mike Sando: Unger has taken a few snaps at center recently. I've watched Spencer long enough to know an injury will probably affect him at some point during camp. Unger probably will not need much of an opening to get on the field and take the starting job, in my view. I don't think it would be part of a master plan involving Spencer at guard, though. The more likely scenario, I think, would be for Spencer to miss some time, opening the door for Unger to work with the starters and never look back.

The injury situation at guard also could influence how quickly Unger gets into the lineup, and at what position. Rob Sims and Mike Wahle are coming off injuries. Are we sure both will make it through training camp and the regular season as healthy, productive starters? And if one or both falters, might Unger get a chance at that point?

We do need to see these players in pads, of course, but Unger looks like a guy who might be ready to play sooner instead of later.

gvidales from Chula Vista, Calif., writes: Hey sando, let me start off by saying that I love the blogs, but when people get offensive and talk a lot of smack, I mean, I don't think that is the reason these blogs were created.

Anyway, I am a life-long 49ers fan ... but is it me, or is the St. Louis Rams' defensive line one of the best in the NFL? They have Chris Long, who has a tremendous upside, Adam Carriker has had a fairly good career, but he is still young and I think he can only get better, Leonard Little is a proven veteran and although he is injury prone, he is still a good defensive end. Also, La'Roi Glover may not be as good as he once was, but I feel he has still something left in the tank.

So, why aren't people giving this unit the credit that I think it deserves? Is there something I don't know?

Mike Sando: Glover appears headed for retirement. He gave as much as his knees would allow him to give, but he is likely finished. The Rams did not re-sign him.

Beyond that, I would not want to count on Little's hamstrings and knees holding up over a full season. He is 34 years old. His starts have declined from 16 to seven to five over the last three seasons. We can see where that trend is heading.

Long should improve. Is he going to be a dynamic pass rusher? Not necessarily. The Rams knew that when they drafted him. Your take on Carriker seems about right. He should be a good player if his health improves this season.

A strong season from rookie draft choice Darell Scott would help this line improve in the middle. I'm not seeing much of a pass rush beyond Little, though, and that's a concern.