NFC West replay
ARIZONA CARDINALS HOT TOPIC The Cardinals' quest for offensive improvement will have suffered a huge setback if receiver Anquan Boldin's knee injury is serious. Boldin suffered a sprained right knee in the third quarter against Dallas. An MRI will determine the severity of the injury, but it's believed Boldin's suffered damage to his meniscus. That would be a similar injury to the one he suffered in training camp in 2004. He underwent surgery and missed the first six games of last season. . Boldin and fellow receiver Larry Fitzgerald are the team's only reliable threats. Take one of them away, and the dynamic of a struggling offense changes.Teams will be able to concentrate solely on Fitzgerald, because the Cardinals have no running game. Starting running back Marcel Shipp has been productive in past years, but this season he has nowhere to run. He's often met in the backfield by defenders. It was about this time last year that the Cardinals started to make a run, at least to respectability. It's hard to see how that's going to happen this year. "You cannot believe how disappointed I am right now," said coach Dennis Green. If the players know what's wrong, they're not saying. There are a lot of "I have to look at film" comments going around. "I would say we're somewhat of an enigma," said fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo. REPLAY VS. COWBOYS The Cowboys dominated up front on both sides of the ball, whipping the Cardinals physically in the 34-13 victory. They harassed quarterback Josh McCown all day and delivered several brutal shots. They shut down the Cardinals running game, which isn't a difficult thing to do, and turned their attention to pressuring the quarterback. The Cardinals defense wasn't able to reciprocate. Arizona gave up 146 yards rushing and forced just one turnover. REPORT CARD VS. COWBOYS PASSING OFFENSE: D -- The protection was poor and McCown was under a heavy rush all day. He did have a nice touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin. RUSHING OFFENSE: F -- It's still horrible. Backs are getting hit behind the line of scrimmage as the offensive linemen blow assignments or just flat get beat. PASS DEFENSE: C -- QB Drew Bledsoe had too much time to throw, and was not intercepted. RUSH DEFENSE: F -- The Cowboys whipped the Cardinals up front and rushed for 146 yards. Marion Barber III, a rookie, gained 127 yards. SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- Kicker Neil Rackers has made 22 straight now. The return games aren't helping a struggling offense. COACHING: D -- Dennis Green's decisions on the offensive line haven't panned out. The situation is getting worse, not better. ST. LOUIS RAMS HOT TOPIC Two games ago, it appeared unlikely the Rams would lift themselves off the mat and have any chance of salvaging the season. They fell behind New Orleans 14-0 on Oct. 23, and without head coach Mike Martz appeared headed nowhere, thanks to the absences of quarterback Marc Bulger, wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and defensive end Leonard Little. But they came from behind to beat the Saints, then battled the physical Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday and emerged with a 24-21 victory. Suddenly, the Rams are at 4-4, have a bye this week and will presumably face division rival Seattle on Nov. 13 with most of their injured players able to play. "This was a great win for our football team," interim coach Joe Vitt said after the Jacksonville victory. "Our goal was to be 4-4 at the bye, so we can scratch off our first attainable goal we set out to accomplish. The emotion that the guys played with, and the passion and the character, is just unbelievable. Every player and every coach on our staff got a game ball. "This one is behind us, we have a bye to get healthy and then it is on to Seattle." Last week was perhaps the strangest yet, with Martz announcing on Oct. 24 that he won't coach again this season while recovering from his illness. But Martz remained in the news as his future was debated frequently in print and in the electronic media. The "punching" and "counter-punching" was frequent between Martz and club president John Shaw. But, in the locker room, players managed to focus on the job at hand. Said a steely-eyed Vitt on Sunday, "I have said this before: I don't read the papers. I don't have time. I don't know how many players read the papers. We have said this to our players: When it is time for you to go in and talk about your contract and get an extension or be re-upped or talk about maximizing your earning power, nobody wants to hear our sad story. "When you cross the white lines on Sunday, that is what you are going to be judged on. So you better prepare to win, and you better be prepared to bring your 'A' game and be judged by that." Asked how the team came together, defensive end Tyoka Jackson said, "Because no one felt sorry for themselves. Because we knew Jacksonville wasn't going to feel sorry for us. They didn't come in saying, 'Let's ratchet it down some because they have some Hall of Famers who aren't going to suit up.' No, nobody really cares about the Rams. So the guys who were going to suit up took it upon themselves to play the best game they could possibly play against a very good playoff football team. And that's what happened." REPLAY VS. JAGUARS Running back Steven Jackson rushed for 179 yards on 25 carries, and scored a touchdown on a 19-yard pass play as the Rams beat the Jaguars, 24-21. The defense held running back Fred Taylor to 51 yards on 14 attempts after the first quarter, while safety Mike Furrey had his second interception in as many weeks. Leading 21-17 on the first play of the fourth quarter, Jaguars wide receiver Ernest Wilford bobbled a pass in Rams territory, Furrey intercepted it at the 33-yard line and returned the ball 37 yards to the Jacksonville 30-yard line. Four plays later, Jackson scored the go-ahead touchdown, and the Jaguars were kept off the scoreboard for the remainder of the game. Kicker Josh Scobee missed a 44-yard field goal with 9:30 left in the game, and quarterback Byron Leftwich threw four incompletions from the Rams' 45-yard line in the closing two minutes. REPORT CARD VS. JAGUARS PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus -- QB Jamie Martin had three interceptions that could have been killers, and without the 83-yard touchdown play to Kevin Curtis, he passed for just 117 yards on 12 completions. While the passing offense is limited because of injuries, the play to Curtis did show the Jaguars that they would take some shots down the field. RUSHING OFFENSE: A-minus -- RB Steven Jackson did total 179 yards, but 87 came on two plays. A 51-yard run salted the game away for the Rams in the fourth quarter and enabled them to run out the clock. For the game, not including kneel-downs, the Rams called 31 running plays and 23 passes. PASS DEFENSE: B -- With an undermanned secondary, the Rams limited WR Jimmy Smith to two receptions, although they had little answer to Ernest Wilford, who had six receptions for 145 yards and a touchdown. Most important, on the Jaguars' last possession, QB Byron Leftwich had four straight incompletions from the Rams' 45-yard line when they needed about 15 yards to get into field-goal range. RUSH DEFENSE: C-plus -- The Jaguars rushed for 221 yards and Fred Taylor had 165. But Taylor only had 51 yards after the first quarter, and totaled minus-4 yards on three fourth-quarter attempts. NT Ryan Pickett had a particularly active game with six tackles. SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- The coverage units have been solid, although the return team remains poor. Kicker Jeff Wilkins made his one attempt, a 41-yard field goal. The big play was a blocked punt for a touchdown that jump-started the Rams to a 7-0 lead. COACHING: A -- Interim coach Joe Vitt has kept the team focused and together, and his attention to detail has been what's necessary in a distracting time. The team has continued to play hard through adversity. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS HOT TOPIC The Seahawks are happy with their 5-2 record, but there is definitely room for improvement. The offense has been ranked among the league leaders all season in yards per game. RB Shaun Alexander remains on pace for a career season and QB Matt Hasselbeck is completing close to 65 percent of his passes thanks to fewer dropped passes. The team's pass protection and third-down conversion rate represent areas where coach Mike Holmgren wants improvement. Hasselbeck does a nice job avoiding sacks most of the time, but opponents are getting too many clear shots on him. Coaches might need to patch some holes in the protection schemes as Seattle hits the stretch run. The third-down conversion rate stands at 38.1 percent, which ranks 11th in the league. Seattle has the talent to convert closer to 45 percent. Plugging some leaks in pass protection would help. "Matt can't get hit too much," Holmgren said. "That is a simple fact of life. You can't get your quarterback injured if you can help it." The third-down defense ranks 10th at 34.7 percent after Dallas managed only 3-of-15 conversions Sunday. Washington scorched Seattle for 13-of-18 conversions, plus two more conversions by penalty, in a game that exposed some weaknesses in Seattle's defense. GOOD NEWS First-year team president Tim Ruskell spent the off-season remaking the roster to improve its overall attitude. He dumped some talented players in RT Chris Terry, WR Koren Robinson, LB Anthony Simmons and DE Antonio Cochran. There was reason to wonder if the team might suffer a dropoff as a result. Through seven games, it's clear Ruskell made decisions that improved the attitude as well as the level of play. The offense leads the league in yards per game. Second-year RT Sean Locklear is quickly developing into a solid starter. WR Bobby Engram enjoyed a fast start in place of Robinson before suffering cracked ribs. Robinson's frequent dropped passes are not missed. QB Matt Hasselbeck's completion percentage is up markedly as a result. The defense got younger and faster. Rookie MLB Lofa Tatupu brought a level of energy and preparation that has made him a leader already. DT Chuck Darby, signed from the Bucs, has set a standard for effort that has helped drive DTs Rocky Bernard and Marcus Tubbs. Bernard ranks second on the team with 4 1/2 sacks. DE Bryce Fisher, signed from the Rams, leads the team with five sacks. BAD NEWS The hiring of special-teams coach Bob Casullo has not produced the desired results. The return games lag near the bottom of the league in terms of average yards. Through seven games, there have been two fumbles and 10 penalties (one offsetting) on special teams. The team had to release underperforming P Leo Araguz, a Casullo favorite. Meanwhile, DE Grant Wistrom has only two sacks. That's not enough production from a guy who received a $14 million signing bonus as part of the contract he signed in 2004. Wistrom has played the run quite well, but the Seahawks need him to spend more time knocking down QBs. The loss of FS Ken Hamlin to head injuries was a tough blow. Coach Mike Holmgren had asked players to keep a low profile following a 42-10 victory over Houston, but Hamlin hung out until 2 a.m. at a club known to attract a rough crowd. An altercation quickly escalated and Hamlin was left with career-threatening injuries, including a fractured skull and a blood clot on the brain. He's out indefinitely. Injuries to Engram and WR Darrell Jackson have also taken a toll. Seattle managed to go 3-0 without them heading into the bye, but Dallas exposed the loss of starting talent. It's unclear whether the Seahawks can continue functioning at a high level in the passing game without one or both of the productive pass catchers. Engram should return after the bye, however, and that will help. REPORT CARD AFTER SEVEN GAMES PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus -- QB Matt Hasselbeck was awful in the season opener, but he responded by setting a franchise record for most consecutive passes without an interception. Hasselbeck still became too emotional at times, but not to the degree of past seasons. He was able to remain effective even after losing starting WRs Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram. Dropped passes were down considerably from past seasons. RUSHING OFFENSE: A-minus -- Seattle ran the ball effectively in six of its first seven games. Only the Cowboys prevented RB Shaun Alexander from doing damage on the ground. Alexander ranked among the top two rushers in the league for most of the first seven weeks. He ran harder than in past seasons, breaking more tackles. FB Mack Strong remained effective at age 34. Backup TE Ryan Hannam and WR Joe Jurevicius also made key contributions in run blocking. PASS DEFENSE: C-plus -- Seattle gave up too many long passes, including completions of more than 40 yards against the Jaguars and Cardinals. The Rams burned Seattle for pass plays of 25, 26, 27 and 28 yards, two of them for touchdowns. The pass defense was generally effective late in games, however, as Seattle avoided the last-minute collapses that defined its 2004 season. The Seahawks also went into their bye week with more sacks than all but two teams, a big surprise given concerns about the pass rush. RUSH DEFENSE: C-plus -- Seattle did not allow an individual 100-yard rusher in the first seven games. The Seahawks held opponents' starting running backs to a long gain of 16 yards. Those factors represented dramatic upgrades over recent Seattle defenses. The Seahawks ranked near the middle of the pack in rushing yards allowed, however, because of breakdowns against unconventional tactics. There was a 25-yard run by Jaguars WR Matt Jones; a 32-yarder by Falcons QB Michael Vick; a 13-yarder by Cardinals QB Kurt Warner; and a crushing 18-yarder in overtime by Redskins QB Mark Brunell. SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- The Seahawks are on their third special-teams coach in three seasons. They might have reason to look for a fourth if Bob Casullo fails to fix obvious problems. Casullo was behind the team's disastrous decision to keep ineffective veteran P Leo Araguz over promising young P Chris Kluwe. Araguz struggled so badly that Seattle mercifully replaced him with P Tom Rouen after four games. Kluwe, meanwhile, was enjoying a fine season for Minnesota. Seattle's return games have also been abysmal, reflected by a 5.2-yard average gain on punt returns. The kick-return game has been plagued by penalties and the occasional fumble. COACHING: B - Coach Mike Holmgren still needs to tighten up his pass protection, but it's tough to argue with a No. 1 overall offensive ranking for much of the first seven weeks. Holmgren deserves credit for wisely sticking with the run game even though everyone knows how much he loves to throw the ball. The defensive staff has done a nice job despite losing coordinator Ray Rhodes to a mild stroke before the season opener. The blitzing has become more effective, helping Seattle pump up its sack totals despite questionable pass-rushing talent. The special-teams coaching has left a lot to be desired.
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