Behind enemy lines: Around the NFC West

The red zone no longer is a dead zone in Arizona, there's no worries in St. Louis even though the Rams' first-string offense has yet to score a touchdown in three preseason games, and the defending NFC champion Seahawks could be in trouble at tight end entering the regular season. These topics along with the latest player news from each of the 49ers' three rivals in the NFC West.

=================
ARIZONA CARDINALS
=================

Signs are growing that the red zone no longer is the dead zone for the Cardinals.

With upgrades on the line, signing the game's premier back, and drafting a promising rookie tight end to augment one of the NFL's most prolific receiving duos and a former MVP quarterback, the Cardinals now appear capable of punching it in.

That was among their major maladies last season, when they accumulated eye-popping passing yardage, and then, because they couldn't run the ball, almost always settled for three points instead of seven. The only thing positive to be said for that is that it made a record-breaking field-goal kicker out of Neil Rackers.

But the offense has come away with red-zone touchdowns in preseason outings against Pittsburgh and Chicago, yet still failed miserably at New England. It's a barometer of their improvement, but also a reminder that they still aren't quite where they need to be.

Acquiring right tackle Brandon Gorin in a trade Aug. 22 may make them better yet. Starter Oliver Ross is recovering from knee surgery after his initial campaign with the Cardinals in 2005 was thwarted by a series of injuries.

Gorin, a three-year starter for New England, hasn't yet won the job in his first week with his new team, but it appears to be only a matter of time -- and perhaps as soon as this week, when the team hosts Denver in the closing preseason game.

The Cardinals acknowledge that the first step in improving the rushing game, and with it their red-zone efficiency, is making a commitment to it. Too often too early they gave up on the run in 2005. Consequently, it wasn't there when they needed it. But in their latest preseason outing against the Bears, who have a playoff-caliber defense, the Cardinals rushed 38 times for 127 yards.

At the very least the Cardinals hope to present enough of a rushing threat to give opposing defensive coordinators pause before automatically playing zone coverage in the red zone, a luxury they had last year knowing they needed only to commit minimal personnel to stopping the Cardinals' run. In the process, those zone coverages took away passing lanes.

The threat of the run should give new life to the play-action series.

Running back J.J. Arrington has received the bulk of the preseason work with the first offense while the team allows Edgerrin James to save himself. Arrington is beginning to run like a confident NFL back. As a rookie in 2005, he was handed the starting job and then lost it to Marcel Shipp, now the No. 3 back, because Arrington too often had that deer-in-the-headlights look and froze.

"Our first offense can move the ball and I think we can score points, but I just don't think we have enough talented depth to play against the people we are playing against," coach Dennis Green said. "But I'm not concerned about the first offense and the players who will be playing for us when we go against San Francisco, St. Louis and Seattle."

PLAYER NOTES
--DE Bertrand Berry, the right-side starter, will miss the final preseason game after suffering a left knee injury. The move is largely precautionary for the team's leading sack man. An MRI was negative for major structural damage.
--DE A.J. Schable has gotten extensive work with starter Bertrand Berry (knee bruise) and backup Kenny King (hand surgery) out, and coaches have been pleasantly surprised. The opportunity probably enabled Schable to earn a roster spot.
--RB Edgerrin James, who doesn't care to play in preseason games, is getting a free ride from the Cardinals despite his being new to them, and at a time when they are attempting to improve the league's worst rushing attack. Through three preseason games, James has carried seven times for 1 yard. Backup J.J. Arrington, getting most of the work with the first unit, through three weeks has 67 yards on 20 carries. "Everything I've seen, I've liked," James said. "I know we're going to be all right."
--QB Matt Leinart is solidifying his position as the No. 2 quarterback ahead of John Navarre. During one stretch, Leinart completed 12 successive passes against the Bears, who had most of their first unit on the field.
--RT Oliver Ross, the starter, is back in Tempe doing rehab on his right knee after surgery on the meniscus. He is expected to return in the first three weeks of the season, although he remains a long-shot to make it back for the opener. When he returns, he will face a formidable new challenger for his job: Brandon Gorin, the New England Patriots starter the past three seasons, who was acquired in trade after Ross had surgery.
--RT Brandon Gorin (6-6, 308), a New England Patriots starter the past three seasons, was acquired in a trade and, with starter Oliver Ross recovering from knee surgery, immediately becomes a strong candidate to win the starting job with his new team. A tag-team of Jeremy Bridges and Fred Wakefield has been playing RT since Ross went down.
--OLB Karlos Dansby, the strong-side starter, continues to irritate management and coaches with his series of injuries that have caused him to sit out training camp and preseason games. Dansby is recovering from a left toe injury that he says precludes him from pushing off and has caused issues with his leg muscles. He was evaluated in Alabama two weeks ago, and no surgery was recommended. But, said Dansby, who is now back in Tempe, "It's a serious injury. They say (it could be a) career-ending injury." Dansby had three interceptions -- two of which were returned for touchdowns, and four quarterback sacks in a breakout 2005 season. He appears to have lost his job to Calvin Pace, and there has been talk that when Dansby returns he will be moved to the weak side.
--OLB Calvin Pace is one of the team's success stories of preseason and has all but wrapped up the starting strong-side starting job. Pace, a first-round pick at DE in 2003, was a huge disappointment as a rookie, posting one sack in 16 starts. He lost the job in 2004 to free agent Bertrand Berry. Last year, Pace nearly lost his position on the roster after he suffered a season-ending non-football injury during the bye week. Coaches asked him to make the position change in the spring, he was receptive, and he has dazzled them with his performance. The job was open because Karlos Dansby has had an assortment of injuries -- thumb surgery, strained groin, toe injury -- that slowed his off-season work and precluded him from doing anything since the team went to training camp.
--MLB Gerald Hayes, the projected starter a year ago before a knee injury sidelined him, is working with the first unit, started vs. Chicago, and appears to have won the job from veteran James Darling, who moved to the middle a year ago.
--LB James Darling, the starter in the middle a year ago when Gerald Hayes was out (knee surgery), has been moved to the weak side to compete with Orlando Huff and Darryl Blackstock. Darling is a fierce competitor, a veteran leader who has played outside before. The team was not happy with Huff a year ago and first moved Blackstock from the strong side to compete. Darling becomes a strong candidate to dislodge Huff.
--CB Antrel Rolle, the team's 2005 first-round pick who missed most of his rookie year to a knee injury, is coming back strong. He had an interception to set up a touchdown in a preseason game at Chicago. Rolle said later he thought the Bears were testing him.
--TE Leonard Pope (6-8, 265), a rookie third-round pick, each week gets more playing time, and while still listed third on the depth chart, has closed the gap with Eric Edwards and Adam Bergen. Pope caught a TD pass in the goal-line offense vs. the Bears.
--FB James Hodgins, who has battled an assortment of injuries that have kept him off the field for most of two years (shoulder, 2004; knee, 2005), was activated from physically unable to perform. He saw his first action at Chicago. Hodgins is a big body (6-1, 275) and was Marshall Faulk's lead blocker in St. Louis when the Rams won the Super Bowl. While the role of the fullback is limited in Cardinals' three-wideout sets, the role is invaluable in short-yardage and goal-line situations. There is a spot on the roster for a blocking fullback. Converted TE John Bronson has been filling it. Hodgins was the Cardinals starter in 2003. Starting FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo is more of a receiving/third-down back and not known as a strong lead blocker.

==============
ST. LOUIS RAMS
==============

To a man, there is a little panic that the Rams' first-string offense has failed to score a touchdown in three preseason games.

Coach Scott Linehan repeats the mantra that it's only the preseason. Quarterback Marc Bulger says the same thing. The question is whether they really believe it.

"It's not a big deal right now," Linehan insisted after Saturday's 16-12 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. "Because (if) we do that in the opener, or we do that in the first couple games, it's going to be a bigger issue. I'm not hung up on it. My biggest thing is I want us to go back and make sure we're taking care of the ball and eliminating the penalties. All that other stuff will come."

Still, Linehan was forced to acknowledge that in addition to the offense, overall it wasn't a very good effort for his first game on the road as a head coach.

"It just wasn't a very clean game," Linehan said. "We made too many mistakes, critical errors, whether it be a couple turnovers offensively and then some critical penalties. Defensively, we didn't get off the field, especially in the first half. They were able to sustain a couple long drives early."

The Chiefs opened the game with a time-consuming (7:14), 14-play, 64-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown. The next time the Chiefs had the ball, they ran 15 plays for 77 yards, using 6:56, although settling for a field goal.

The Rams, meanwhile, sputtered on offense. Playing without starting wide receivers Torry Holt (bruised sternum) and Isaac Bruce (hamstring), they gained just 89 yards in the first half and managed five first downs. Bulger had a passer rating of 46.8, completing 7 of 11 passes for 78 yards with an interception and was sacked once. Running back Steven Jackson totaled a mere 22 yards on 10 carries, and had five attempts for zero yards or less. Jackson did limited work early in the week because of a bruised heel.

"The heel was not a problem for me tonight," Jackson said. "I felt pretty light on my feet. We'd have a good run here and there, but we just couldn't quite put it together."

Said Linehan, "The negative plays tonight were our nemesis. We had a couple of penalties that pushed us out of scoring drives, and then we gave the ball away. I was happy with what our ones were doing in the preseason regardless ... We were doing a pretty good job of taking care of (the ball), and tonight we had a couple of turnovers. When you do that, you're not going to win."

One of the penalties wiped out a third-quarter touchdown pass from Bulger to wide receiver Kevin Curtis that followed a fumbled punt by the Chiefs. Bulger hit Curtis from 15 yards out on 3rd-and-3, but guard Richie Incognito was whistled for an illegal chop block. On 3rd-and-18, Bulger was sacked when left tackle Todd Steussie whiffed on an attempted block of Chiefs defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson. That nine-yard loss moved the Rams out of field-goal range.

"I don't mind the holding penalties all that much," Bulger said. "But the mental mistakes -- the offsides, the missed assignments -- man, there were just too many of those tonight."

He concluded, "If we're playing Denver here (the opening-day opponent), and we didn't score, then let's talk about it. But it's preseason. Who cares? I'm not worried about it, and I don't think the rest of the guys are."

PLAYER NOTES
--WR Isaac Bruce did not play against Kansas City because of a slight hamstring injury. During the week, when Bruce did limited work, it was said to be because of "camp legs." That was also the explanation when it was announced Bruce wouldn't dress for the game. But afterward, Linehan admitted that Bruce had injured the hamstring in a Wednesday practice. "His hamstring is probably about 80 percent," Linehan said. "He practiced about three-quarters speed most of the week. He says it doesn't feel very good. We actually went out and worked him out (during pregame), and he just felt like it was too tight. I didn't want to risk any further injury." --WR Torry Holt did not play against the Chiefs because of a bruised sternum suffered when he fell on the tip of the ball the previous week against Houston. Coach Scott Linehan said Sunday Holt would have an MRI Monday that is "precautionary." Added Linehan, "It's) just for piece of mind more than anything. It's fairly sore, but there's no reason other than to make sure there's nothing else in there with him."
--NT Jimmy Kennedy suffered what appeared to be a slight ankle injury against Kansas City. Kennedy left the game in the first quarter, but did come back and play. Kennedy had an MRI Sunday. Said coach Scott Linehan, "We don't have the results yet. He looked OK today and moved around better than we thought. He actually went back in, as you probably saw, and played a little bit. He's pretty doubtful to be available for this week's game, but I don't think it looks too bad. I think we might have dodged a bullet there."
--WR Kevin Curtis was kicked in the head on an interception in the first half and suffered a slight concussion. Curtis did return and play in the second half.
--LT Orlando Pace started against the Chiefs after not playing the week before because of ankle, knee and hip injuries. While most of the team's starters played into the third quarter, Pace was replaced by Todd Steussie in the first half. "It was a surprise to me, but I guess he (Linehan) just wanted me to get limited snaps today," Pace said.
--G Claude Terrell will undergo experimental surgery on his wrist and likely be placed on injured reserve. Terrell underwent surgery earlier in the off-season, but continued to experience pain. Three other doctors recommended he have surgery, and Terrell now has to choose what doctor will do the surgery.
--LB Drew Wahlroos returned to practice before the Kansas City game after missing time because of a broken bone in his hand suffered early in training camp. Wahlroos was cleared against the Chiefs, but did not play.
--FB Madison Hedgecock remains sidelined by a high ankle sprain.
--PK Jeff Wilkins saw his first action of the preseason against the Chiefs after not kicking at all in the first two games. Wilkins made a 48-yard field goal and two kickoffs reached the 1- and 2-yard lines.

================
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
================

The Seahawks could be in trouble at tight end heading into the regular-season opener at Detroit. Seattle's top three tight ends from last season are either injured or elsewhere.

Starter Jerramy Stevens is out until October following his second knee surgery since April. Backup Itula Mili suffered a knee injury during a recent preseason game at San Diego. Ryan Hannam, the third tight end from last season, signed with Dallas in free agency.

"I've always said the tight end position really is the key to our success," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "It kind of gets things going."

Will Heller, Matt Murphy and Keith Willis were the only healthy tight ends coming out of the San Diego game. They have a combined 18 catches in 50 regular-season games. Of the three, Heller and Murphy had the best chance at earning roster spots.

Stevens caught 45 passes last season. Mili caught 89 passes over the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Hannam emerged last season as perhaps the best blocking tight end the Seahawks have had under Holmgren.

"We've played really well at the position over the last few years with Itula and Jerramy and Hannam," Hasselbeck said. "Now it's up to these new guys who are brand new and they just have to play really well for us to get going."

Heller entered the NFL in 2003 as an undrafted free agent with Tampa Bay. He caught 12 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown in 2004, but injuries limited him to seven games last season. The Bucs did not make a serious effort to re-sign him. Heller is known mostly for his blocking, but he did make a 26-yard reception over the middle in the San Diego game.

Murphy came into the league with Detroit as a seventh-round choice in 2002. He spent the last three seasons with Houston, starting three games. He has three receptions in 24 regular-season games. Murphy was out of football this summer until Seattle signed him following the release of injured free agent Mike Gomez.

Backup players stepped up when needed last season, helping the Seahawks reach their first Super Bowl. Joe Jurevicius, D.J. Hackett, Sean Locklear, Maurice Morris, Marquand Manuel and even Jerheme Urban played well when injuries forced them into more prominent roles.

Jurevicius, Manuel and Urban are no longer with the team. Seattle needs players such as Heller to play better than they ever have before.

"That's the big question mark right now," Hasselbeck said. "The guys who are going to get to play due to injury, are they ready? Have they put the work in? Have they prepared themselves for this moment?

"Only time will tell."

PLAYER NOTES
--TE Itula Mili suffered a knee injury during Seattle's exhibition game at San Diego, leaving the position undermanned. The Seahawks are already without starter Jerramy Stevens. The team was not immediately sure how much time Mili would miss, but his absence will be felt.
--SS Mike Green suffered a foot injury during Seattle's exhibition game at San Diego. The Seahawks have some injury concerns at the position. Starter Michael Boulware is coming off knee surgery. The team was not immediately sure how much time Green would miss.
--WR Darrell Jackson said he doesn't plan to return from knee surgery until the regular-season opener at Detroit.
--WR Peter Warrick continues to suffer from problems with dropped passes. His latest drop came on a routine play during the San Diego game. Warrick has caught the ball better while working as a punt returner than in his role as a receiver.
--C Robbie Tobeck could return to practice this week after missing time to recover from shoulder surgery. OL Chris Spencer has played very well in Tobeck's absence.
--DT Rocky Bernard played much of the San Diego game without suffering any effects of the knee surgery he underwent during the off-season. This was Bernard's first game since last season. He scored an early touchdown by pouncing on a fumble in the end zone.


Niners Digest Top Stories