NFL Week 14: Pre-game notes

Here's the scoop from around the NFL as teams get ready for Sunday. Included: A quarterback who might get pulled quickly, a tight end to watch, a wide receiver who isn't getting as many snaps as before, and an offense that now badly misses a receiver they let get away (and it isn't Minnesota). Also, expect to see running back Frank Gore join the other offensive rookies in the 49ers' starting lineup at some point during the final quarter of the season, maybe even this week at Seattle.

49ERS: There's a better than 50-50 chance that rookie RB Frank Gore gets a few starts in before the season ends even if starter Kevan Barlow is healthy, and that could begin with Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks. Barlow is owed close to $10 million in base salary over the next three seasons, so the team would like to be able to make a strong evaluation on Gore over the final part of the season. Gore has show impressive flash and power for a back his size, but he also has been susceptible to fumbling. Knowing what they have in Barlow, the 49ers want to get a better idea of what they have in Gore and see if he can carry the load as a featured back.

ARIZONA CARDINALS: One of the better stories for the team has been the play of reserve offensive lineman Fred Wakefield. For the first four seasons of his career, Wakefield played defensive end but this past off-season, he was moved to the offensive line. Wakefield is set to make his seventh start this season and has been able to handle himself fairly well at tackle and guard.

ATLANTA FALCONS: Head coach Jim Mora has benched starting FS Bryan Scott, who has struggled mightily this season. Scott has been a liability in coverage and doesn't have good instincts for the position according to personnel evaluators that scout.com has talked to recently. Sixth-year veteran safety Ronnie Heard, who played for Mora in San Francisco was was the 49ers' starting free safety last season, will take over the starting job.

CHICAGO BEARS: Don't be surprised if head coach Lovie Smith has a quick hook on struggling QB Kyle Orton Sunday if Orton continues to struggle. Rex Grossman is fully healed from his broken leg and has looked sharp during practice in recent weeks. Orton has done a good job managing the offense, but Grossman clearly was Chicago's best quarterback before he was injured.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: Look for the team to address its offensive line in next year's draft. While the unit made some strides this season, they lack dominance in any one area and only C Jeff Faine's starting job seems secure. Of Cleveland's last seven first-round draft picks, Faine is the only one currently in the Browns' starting lineup.

DENVER BRONCOS: TE Jeb Putzier has a roster bonus due in March but those close to the team tell scout.com that the team is expected to keep him on the roster. They feel he's still very important to the passing game.

GREEN BAY PACKERS: The final four games of the season could determine whether the team gives rookie RB Samkon Gado a realistic chance to be the starter next season. While he's still a bit raw and doesn't always hit the hole that his line opens up for him, Gado runs with power and has proven to be hard to tackle at times. With veteran backs Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport free agents after the season ends, it's not out of the question that Gado becomes Green Bay's next starting running back if the Packers feel he is up to the task.

HOUSTON TEXANS: The coaches have benched starting FS Marcus Coleman and will replace him with rookie S C.C. Brown. Coleman signed a contract extension last year but his play as waned considerably and he's shown a lack of discipline by being late for team meetings.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Third WR Brandon Stokley has seen less than a third of the offensive snaps over the last four games as the team is using more two tight end sets. The coaching staff is trying to get opposing defenses to commit an extra defender in the box and when they do, it's making it easier to pass. Fourth-year TE Bryan Fletcher has essentially taken over the No.2 role at the position recently. Fletcher has done a good job of improving his blocking and has gained the trust of QB Peyton Manning in the passing game. When scout.com had a chance to watch Fletcher during Senior Bowl practices in 2002, he was very impressive as a pass catcher but didn't show the ability to block well. That area seems to be vastly improved.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS: In what has to be a rarity in the NFL, head coach Mike Tice continues to substitute his offensive linemen freely during games if they struggle. Only starting LT Bryant McKinnie has been free of such moves. It's unheard of to make substitutions during games on the offensive line unless absolutely necessary as linemen need to get a cohesiveness going as a unit but so far, it's worked for Tice and the Vikings, who have won five straight after a 2-5 start and forged their way back into the playoff picture.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Amazingly, the team started the sixth different strong safety last week when journeyman CB Artrell Hawkins started in that position for the first time in his career. It appears it's Hawkins' job to lose for the rest of the season.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: One player who has fallen under the radar since he signed with the club is veteran MLB Ronald McKinnon. Since taking over the starting job for struggling second-year player Courtney Watson, McKinnon has done a decent job against the run. He signed a one-year deal with the team but could have a chance to return next season. Another player to look out for is rookie LB Alfred Fincher, who had an outstanding week of Senior Bowl practices earlier this year. He could wind up challenging for the starting job next season.

NEW YORK GIANTS: One of the areas where the coaches will work with RB Brandon Jacobs next offseason is getting him to run with his pad level lower. Jacobs is what scouts call a high runner meaning he runs high and is an easy target for defenders to knock down, which shouldn't be the case because of his immense size. The Giants still are using Jacobs often near the goal line, even though they also have Tiki Barber at their disposal.

OAKLAND RAIDERS: According to a team source, the Raidres have no plans to play rookie QB Andrew Walter at this point over the last four games. They want to get a better look at No.2 QB Marques Tuiasosopo who enters next season on the final year of his contract. Walter, who was impressive when given an opportunity in the preseason, could be in line to challenge for the position next year, however.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: The coaches want to get a good look at rookie LT Todd Herremans over the final four games of the season in order to determine if he's ready to take on the starting job full-time next season. Herremans will get matched up Sunday on Giants' RDE Osi Umenyiora, who is having a terrific season. Veteran LT Tra Thomas has three years left on his contract for a total of around $13.5 million in base salaries. Over the next three seasons, Herremans is owed about $1.5 million in base salaries.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: While many bought the move to let WR Plaxico Burress walk after last season, the Steelers clearly miss him in their downfield passing offense. WR Antwaan Randle El hasn't shown that he could stretch the field consistently and he doesn't have the size to fend off defenders. Look for the team to address that position in next year's draft. Free-agent pickup Cedrick Wilson - the 49ers' leading receiver last season - has been able to stretch the field for a 17.2 average on his 20 receptions, but Pittsburgh doesn't consider hime more than a No. 3 receiving option.

TENNESSEE TITANS: With starting TE Erron Kinney (knee) possibly out for the rest of the season, keep an eye on rookie TE Bo Scaife. In the four games where his role was increased due to injuries to tight ends above him on the depth chart, Scaife has 23 catches.


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