Around the NFC West: The Leinart era begins

Status update after Sunday's games among the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC West, where the St. Louis Rams emerged with another victory in Week 5 to take sole possession of first place in the division, and Arizona fell back into sole possession of the division cellar despite an auspicious starting debut by rookie quarterback Matt Leinart.

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Rookie quarterback Matt Leinart is going to experience some growing pains this year, but it's clear the club is better off playing him now than waiting until next year.

Leinart, the 10th overall pick in the draft, was billed being ready-made for the NFL. He is proving that to be true. He played well in his first career start against the Kansas City Chiefs, passing for two touchdowns in his first five attempts.

He also ran the two-minute drill well, nearly bringing the Cardinals back in the final minute of the loss to the Chiefs.

"He showed good poise, and I thought he had a good day," coach Dennis Green said. "he did a lot of great things."

Leinart's poise and intelligence are beyond that of most rookies. For instance, his first NFL touchdown pass came on an audible. He picked up that Kansas City was in a "sticky front", meaning eight men were on the line of scrimmage and there was man coverage on the receivers.

Leinart changed the ball and hit Anquan Boldin for the 49 yard score.

"Obviously it helps when you start like that," Leinart said. "It builds your confidence."

Coaches will continue to tailor the game plan around his skills. Leinart is good at play-action fakes, and he and running back Edgerrin James should be able to perfect that.

Leinart also is more mobile than his predecessor, Kurt Warner, so coaches plan on using him on more rollouts than they did with Warner.

That also will buy Leinart time to throw. The offensive line has had some protection problems this year.

Not all is well with this offense, however. Leinart made some mistakes in his first start. He threw a poor pass that was intercepted by Ty Law, and he took a costly sack in the fourth quarter, taking the team out of field goal range.

An inconsistent running game isn't providing much help. Edgerrin James rushed 24 times for 71 yards in the loss to the Chiefs and complained afterward that he carried only four times in the fourth quarter.

"We just got away from the run," said James, who gained 71 yards on 24 carries. "That's the stupidest thing. You have to be able to finish the game. You got to give us a chance, you know."

James carried four times for 10 yards in the fourth quarter.

Beginning with a possession that started with 9:29 remaining, the Cardinals passed on five straight plays.

"That's like something new to me," a frustrated James said. "I thought we played to win the game. You sit back and you wait and you say, 'O.K, this is when my opportunity will come, this is when we're gong to wear them down and we're go to play to win the game.' But it's like we're doing the opposite. We're playing to give the game away, it looked like. I don't know."

It's hard for the coaches to have confidence, however, when the Cardinals fail in short yardage like they did Sunday. Early in the fourth quarter, they had two chances to gain a yard for a first down and failed both times.

"We've got a certain amount of confidence in our passing attack," coach Dennis Green said. "I don't know if that's misplaced or not. And we don't have as much confidence in the running game, and I don't know if that's misplaced or not, to be honest with you. When you're 1-4, you're not sure of anything."

PLAYER NOTES
--- QB Matt Leinart made an impressive starting debut, completing 22 of 35 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. He also had an interception. Leinart was sacked four times.
--- RB Edgerrin James has yet to gain 100 yards in a game with the Cardinals. He had 71 yards on 24 carries against the Chiefs.
--- WR Larry Fitzgerald suffered an injury to his right hamstring and could miss significant time. He'll be replaced by Bryant Johnson, and Troy Walters will move up to the No. 3 role. The team doesn't have another receiver and might have to bring up Todd Watkins or Carlyle Holiday from the practice squad.
--- OG Deuce Lutui could get his first start if Milford Brown doesn't recover from an ankle sprain in time. Lutui saw his first action from scrimmage in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs. He has good run-blocking skills but needs work in pass protection.
--- OLB Karlos Dansby might be on the verge of returning to the starting lineup. He had nine tackles and two sacks last week, playing in nickel situations. Dansby could replace Calvin Pace on the strong side.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Who would have thought the Rams would be preparing to face the Seahawks at home this week with a chance to take a 1½-game lead in the NFC West?

But that's the scenario after another last-second victory left the Rams with a 4-1 record. Seattle was off last week, and is 3-1 heading into the division showdown on Sunday.

Cynics would point out that the Rams' last three victories have come over teams - Arizona, Detroit and Green Bay - that have a combined record of 2-13. But the Rams look at them only as wins, even if all have come cone down to the final possession and two, over the Cardinals and Packers, were secured when the opposing quarterback fumbled in the closing moments.

Following Sunday's win over Green Bay, coach Scott Linehan said, "We have had some emotional roller-coaster type games and they are all like that in this league and we just have to hang in there and play every play. Fortunately for us, we have been able to come out on the better end."

Fortunate might have been the way to describe the fumbled snap by Kurt Warner in the Rams' Sept. 24 win. However, recovering the fumble was the key, and that's what linebacker Will Witherspoon did.

Sunday, it looked like the Rams would totally fritter away a 23-13 lead and at best enter overtime when the Brett Favre-led Packers drove to the 11-yard line while trailing 23-20. But then, defensive end Leonard Little came roaring around left end and stripped Favre of the ball. Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy was there to wrap up Favre to keep him from falling on the ball.

When Green Bay guard Daryn Colledge couldn't secure the bouncing ball, Rams cornerback Jerametrius Butler did. It was a fitting end to the day for Butler, who was active for the first time this season because Fakhir Brown was out with an ankle injury. And Butler was on the field because Travis Fisher (groin) and Ron Bartell (calf) were hurting.

Some might call it luck, but wide receiver Torry Holt said of the way the game ended, "That was just hustle. That was just will -- something that coach speaks about. We knew it was going to come down to who was going to be strong-willed late in the game."

Said Little, who was drained after needing three IVs for dehydration during the game, "This team always fights. That's the difference between this team and the teams of the past. We're fighting till the very end. Today is another example of that. Arizona was an example of that. Last week (Detroit) was an example of that.

"Every week in this league, it comes down to which team makes that play and which team doesn't. Is it going to happen to us every week? I don't know. But it did today, so I ain't complaining."

It is happening because the Rams are forcing turnovers at an average of three per game, and because they only have three turnovers in five games. Last year, they had 37 turnovers and were minus-10 for the season. So far in 2006, they are plus-12. Quarterback Marc Bulger hasn't thrown an interception in 169 attempts this season and now owns the club record with 214 straight dating back to last season. The NFL record is 308 by Bernie Kosar.

Holt knows Seattle will be a big test for all those trends, to see what this team is really made of.

"I'm a results kind of guy," he said, "and I've played in enough big games and won enough championships to know that after only five games you don't start celebrating anything just yet. I want to see how this plays out at the end of the story. But right now, I like what I see."

PLAYER NOTES
--- LT Orlando Pace played the entire game after missing the previous week because of the after-affects of a concussion suffered Sept. 17 against San Francisco. Pace felt good after the game, and said he did not have the headaches he experienced after playing on Sept. 24 against Arizona.
--- CB Fakhir Brown was inactive against the Packers because of an ankle injury originally suffered against Arizona on Sept. 24. Brown played the following week against Detroit, but was able to practice only on a limited basis this past week.
--- CB Tye Hill, the Rams' first-round pick, started his first game against the Packers because of the ankle injury that forced Fakhir Brown to be inactive.
--- CB Jerametrius Butler was active for the first time this season with Fakhir Brown inactive because of an ankle injury. Butler then recovered QB Brett Favre's fumble in the final seconds that ensured the Rams' victory.
--- CB Travis Fisher was affected by a groin injury going into the game against Green Bay and had it tighten up during the game. He left and could have returned, but the decision was made to keep him out.
--- CB Ron Bartell was the nickel back with Fakhir Brown inactive because of an ankle injury. He missed time against the Packers because of a strained calf.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

The Seahawks used their bye week to get away, get healthy and get over their 37-6 loss at Chicago.

Players and coaches met Monday, as usual, then broke for a full week. Coaches remained in the office for another day or so, but nothing formal was scheduled. Just about everyone had scattered by midweek.

"They've been practicing hard, working hard," coach Mike Holmgren said. "We have a number of guys who need the time off because of injury. We did this last year, and they very much held up their end of the bargain."

The Seahawks won eight consecutive games following their bye last season. They went into that bye week riding the good feelings of their improbable last-second victory over Dallas. This time, the Seahawks are coming off their fattest margin of defeat since the 1997 opener.

Would this be the time to tighten the screws?

"I wasn't going to be punitive about it," Holmgren said of the lax bye-week schedule. "We played a stinker and we took one on the chin, and that's what it is. It happens. They've been practicing hard, working hard."

The Seahawks are 3-1 even though they haven't scored a touchdown in two of their four games. The offense has lacked continuity for long stretches, particularly against good defenses.

In the past, Seattle has used the bye week to fix problems through self-scouting. Holmgren felt that wasn't practical this time.

"Because the bye is a little bit early, the idea of self-scouting and making dramatic changes are not quite as important as if you had the bye after the half-way point," he said.

The staff did some self-scouting and analysis early in the week, but nothing too heavy. Pass protection is one area that needs improvement. Seattle has allowed 13 sacks through four games after allowing only 24 last season.

"One, we have to get the ball off on time," Holmgren said. "Two, a couple of sacks Sunday night, you had a great player going against a young player, (Tommie) Harris, who is young, but he took advantage of Chris (Spencer) a couple times.

"When you're rocking on your heels, and you have to throw it, and the other team knows it, and they have a good pass rush anyway, you're a little bit vulnerable, a little bit more vulnerable."

Seattle's protection improved as last season went along.

"We've had stretches before, where all of a sudden we felt we need sharper protection and we've done it," Holmgren said. "We're going to do the same thing this time. There's not a panic sense in the room.

"We just do what we always do, roll up our sleeves and go back to work. I'm giving them some time to clear their heads a little bit. We're 3-1, and they're off to a good start, and they've done some good things, and they've worked hard.

"Now I want them to look at the game, understand what happened in the game, and then put it behind us."

Holmgren hopes the time off energized a team coming off the shortest offseason in its history. Tight end Jerramy Stevens, strong safety Michael Boulware and cornerback Jordan Babineaux are expected to return from injuries following the bye. Running back Shaun Alexander could miss a couple more games.

"The last couple of years, we've been able to win the game prior to leaving on the bye, so it always made the time a little more fun," Holmgren said. I feel comfortable with this. The guys that are hurt are going to stay and get their treatment. There will probably be some guys coming in, lifting, and things like that. The guys that have family out of the area have a chance to go see their family, spend a few days with them and then come on back."

Seattle resumed its normal schedule on Monday in preparation for Sunday's first-place divisional showdown at St. Louis.

PLAYER NOTES
--- LB Julian Peterson is tied for the team lead with two sacks. Peterson had made a smooth transition after signing with Seattle as a free agent from San Francisco. One key to the transition: Some of his current coaches were previously with the 49ers.
--- RB Marquis Weeks remains on the 53-man roster for now, but that will change once RB Shaun Alexander returns from a broken foot. Weeks carried three times against the Bears, all in garbage time.
--- WR Nate Burleson wore a splint on his left thumb for the first few games. The bye week should let the soreness calm down. Burleson has dropped more passes than usual.
--- WR D.J. Hackett has made plays when given opportunities to play, but he will remain inactive for the foreseeable future. The team is going with Darrell Jackson, Deion Branch, Nate Burleson and Bobby Engram as its active receivers on game days.
--- P Ryan Plackemeier's net average took a beating against the Bears, dipping to a mediocre 35.3 yards thanks to some poor punts. Plackemeier has three punts downed inside the 20 and six touchbacks. His 45.3-yard gross average reflects a strong leg, but he still has to master the finer points of his craft.


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