Around the NFC West: Seahawks sitting pretty?

Taking a look inside the camps of the 49ers' three divisional rivals in the NFC West, where the two-time defending division champion Seattle Seahawks have a two-game lead over the 49ers and Rams with five games remaining to play.

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

Matt Hasselbeck's first game back from a knee injury seemed more like two games. There was the four-turnover first half, and there was the three-touchdown second half. The improvement Hasselbeck showed gives the Seahawks something to build on heading into their game at Denver on Sunday night.

The Broncos should win this game. They are playing at home and they have the look of an increasingly desperate team. The Broncos have fallen in the hotly contested AFC pecking order following two consecutive defeats. They need a victory to keep pace with San Diego and Kansas City in the AFC West.

Seattle, meanwhile, is sitting pretty with a two-game cushion in the NFC West, and a trip to Arizona waiting on the other side.

While all signs point to a Denver victory, the Seahawks are gaining momentum with Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander back in the lineup. They must start quickly in this game to prevent Denver from getting its ground game back into high gear.

"When you have your best players, your Pro Bowl-caliber players, come back, it's got to lift up the team," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "It just does."/p> Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has chosen this game for the debut of rookie quarterback Jay Cutler. As Holmgren noted this week, that type of decision isn't made overnight. Shanahan and the Broncos have clearly been pondering the move for several weeks. They presumably targeted the Seattle game at least in part because the Seahawks have not been a good road team this season.

Seattle's defense has been much more effective at home. There hasn't always been the right energy level away from Qwest Field. That's why it's so important for the offense to jump out on the Broncos early in the game.

The Seahawks were able to overcome a slow start last week because the Packers weren't a very good team. Hasselbeck tossed three first-half interceptions, but Green Bay converted the gifts into a mere seven points. The Packers added a fumble return for a touchdown before halftime, but they led only 14-12.

A similar first half at Denver could be disastrous. Cutler is a talented prospect who might enjoy a dazzling debut if he gains confidence early. But if Seattle can get a lead, the Seahawks' pass rush could force the rookie into costly mistakes. Fast starts have meant everything for the Seahawks this season; when they fall behind, the opposing team generally gets its ground game going and controls time of possession.

Hasselbeck's return gives the offense much improved tempo. That was evident against the Packers even when he struggled early. The way he runs the offense gives Seattle a chance to pull the upset.

"The first year when I got to the 49res, Joe Montana got hurt in the third game," Holmgren recalled. "When he came back -- he had back surgery -- you could just kind of feel the lift. He still wasn't 100 percent, but he came back. That happens. That is a real thing. Even Matt's not where he will be in a couple weeks, it still lifts everybody up."

Hasselbeck suffered a broken finger on his non-throwing hand against Green Bay. The injury is not a factor this week. His right hand is fine for throwing and handing off to Alexander, something the Seahawks will do frequently if game circumstances allow for it. Alexander is coming off a 40-carry, 201-yard game against the Packers. He hit the ground running in practice Wednesday, showing no effects from the broken foot he suffered earlier in the season.

***** ***** *****

The Seahawks appeared to make it through their game against Green Bay without suffering new injuries of consequence. That should be considered progress given how things have gone this season.

Hasselbeck said he was "very pleasantly surprised" by how well his right knee responded to its first game action in a month. Hasselbeck had not played since spraining the knee against Minnesota on Oct. 22. He hurt his non-throwing hand against the Packers, but the injury was not considered significant.

Alexander put to rest any questions about his left foot. The reigning league MVP carried 40 times for 201 yards and his strength appeared to hold up throughout the game. "I used to always crack jokes like I want to get the ball 50 times a game," Alexander said. "I've changed my mind now. Forty is good."

Alexander was making only his second start since doctors discovered a cracked fourth metatarsal in mid-September. He had been rusty and tentative while gaining only 37 yards against the 49ers a week earlier. He had trouble getting into a rhythm that game in part because turnovers allowed the 49ers to dominate time of possession.

Seattle again suffered from turnovers against the Packers, committing four in the first half. But the defense held up its end, and Holmgren stuck with the ground game throughout. Alexander worked his way into a rhythm and had success running from spread formations in particular.

The Seahawks still have to prove they can beat good teams. For now, they can take a measure of comfort knowing their offense might be coming to life with Hasselbeck and Alexander back in the lineup.

There were some shaky moments against the Packers, particularly early. Hasselbeck was rusty and couldn't get a break while throwing three first-half interceptions. He also lost a fumble that Green Bay returned for a touchdown. The three-time Pro Bowl passer was fortunate that his defense prevented the Packers from converting those turnovers into an insurmountable lead.

With the game still close at the half, Seattle was able to stick with its ground game and take pressure off Hasselbeck. Receiver D.J. Hackett found mistmatches from three-receiver sets, and Hasselbeck became sharper in his reads. Hackett's 23-yard scoring reception in the third quarter was huge for everyone's confidence.

"Bad stuff is going to happen," Hasselbeck said. "You just have to respond. You have to stay positive, and that is what I tried to do."

The team stayed positive, and also healthy. That gives Seattle as good a chance as most teams in a weak NFC.

"It was a great win for us and hopefully we can get hot down the stretch and build on this," Holmgren said.

***** ***** *****

Mike Holmgren went out of his way to call Jerramy Stevens' number in the red zone Monday night. His decision produced a 3-yard scoring pass that gave Seattle a 34-24 lead. The Seahawks need Stevens to become more consistent and make big plays down the stretch, something he's struggled to do this season.

Holmgren wasn't particularly convincing in saying he still has faith in his first-round pick from 2002.

"Last year the expectation level increased because of how well he played last year and I think he had a good year," Holmgren said. "Now this is what he can expect, this is what we can expect and this year it was like one of those early years a little bit.

"Start with the (knee) injury at training camp, and then re-injuring the knee, it's kind of been like that. So I think he's been fighting a lot of battles that way but my hope is, like the whole offensive team to be honest with you, that down the stretch here we can now all get better.

"All of us get better and he is very much included in that group."

***** ***** *****

The Seahawks haven't won in Denver since 1995. John Friesz was their starting quarterback at the time. Dennis Erickson was in his first season as their coach. Matt Hasselbeck was at Boston College. Mike Holmgren had yet to win a Super Bowl with Green Bay.

Seattle's struggles against the Broncos aren't much of a mystery. Hasselbeck took a stab at potential reasons for Denver's dominance in the series.

"I don't know ... John Elway, maybe?" Hasselbeck quipped. "That would be my guess. I was a big Elway fan growing up. I know they won a lot of games."

The Broncos hold a 19-4 series lead in Denver, where the Seahawks used to play once every year when they were in the AFC West before switching conferences in 2002.

***** ***** *****

The Seahawks have been rotating rookie Rob Sims into games at left guard. Floyd Womack remains the starter, but his history of injuries makes it tough for Seattle to count on him over the long haul.

Sims has talent and looks like he'll be starting by next season at the latest. By giving Sims some reps, the fourth-round pick continues to develop while the team protects itself against losing Womack to another injury. Womack has missed five games to injury this season.

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

It is fair to say that the Cardinals are not living on the Edge.

At 2-9 and assured of yet another losing season, the Cardinals totally ignored Edgerrin James, their $30 million running back, in a loss at Minnesota on Sunday.

And then James was not at a team walk-through on Monday, a day after carrying four times for 15 yards. A team spokesman said James was excused to be with an ailing relative in Florida. But by Wednesday, upon his return to practice, James had cooled and his sense of humor had returned.

"They're just trying to extend my career," he said.

Coach Dennis Green said benching James for most of the second half as the team tried to come back against a defense that is tough against the run was his strategic call, and that it isn't likely to repeat Sunday at St. Louis, where foes have had success rushing against the Rams.

"St. Louis has played 11 games. They've given up 100 yards (on the ground) in 10 of them, including us. Hopefully we'll have balance this week," Green said.

Green went out of his way when the team signed James as a free agent during the off-season to say that aside from his being one of the best rushers in the NFL, James' value included his ability to be an every-down back. James is a good receiver and a very good blocker picking up blitzes.

Yet, there he sat on the sideline while Matt Leinart passed for an NFL rookie-record 405 yards in the Metrodome.

"The ball is pretty much going to the (wide) receivers," Green said.

Running back Marcel Shipp and fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo saw most of the second-half action in passing situations.

James has not yet popped off about his entering the 12th game without a 100-yard rushing game -- the latest, by far, that he's ever gone without one. Nor has he yet popped off about the 2-9 record and a formidable closing schedule ahead.

"We were passing the ball on every down, I guess," was all James would say after the Minnesota game.

He has said very little to reporters for about a month now, perhaps his defense against going off on the plight of the team and himself after there was so much anticipation of success after he signed and Leinart was drafted.

"We expected to come in and throw," Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin said of the Vikings game, "but we didn't expect to throw that much. At least I didn't."

Added Leinart, "That's something that is tough when one of our best players is on the sideline all game. But the way we were attacking them and throwing the deep throw, everything was working and we were making plays. I'm just doing what's called, but it's tough."

The strategy had to be particularly galling to James, not only because it was the second-fewest carries he's ever had as a pro but because it also came on a day when his replacement with the Colts, rookie Joseph Addai, rushed for 171 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Philadelphia. Addai set a Colts franchise rookie record with four touchdown rushes.

"We really wanted to be balanced, but the further the week went on in preparation, we decided we were going to come out throwing and throw a lot," Green said. "And then at some point we were hoping to run the ball, obviously."

The Cardinals' six rushes tied their own NFL record for fewest in a game, set by the Chicago Cardinals against Boston in 1933.

And the loss assured another losing season -- about the only kind of season they've known since 1984, with the exceptions of 1998 (9-7) and 1994 (8-8).

It also reduced them to spoilers in the NFC West, where they were expected to push for a playoff berth. They host leader Seattle in Week 14, visit the Rams this weekend and then visit San Francisco in Week 16.

***** ***** *****

James was productive against the Rams earlier this year, gaining 94 yards on 24 carries. It was his second highest yard total this season.

James could not have been happy after last week's loss in Minnesota. Not only did he carry only four times, he spent most of the second half on the sideline as the Cardinals went almost exclusively to the pass.

For most of the year, James stayed in the game in passing situations. He's a good receiver and is decent at picking up the blitz, so there was no need to replace him. Over the last three games, however, Marcel Shipp and Obafemi Ayanbadejo have assumed that role, with James going out of the game.

Coach Dennis Green said it's because he wants to "have a role for everybody."

***** ***** *****

The Cardinals are 3-18 on the road under coach Dennis Green, with Sunday's visit to St. Louis -- where the team actually won last year -- upcoming on Sunday. Players were heartened by the team's near comeback win last weekend at Minnesota.

"This is the first time we have played pretty well on the road and had a chance to win," said QB Matt Leinart.

***** ***** *****

For the fourth time in his six starts, Leinart has been nominated for NFL Rookie of the Week. Leinart has yet to win it, but this time he has strong credentials, even though his team fell short in a comeback bid at Minnesota. Leinart passed for an NFL rookie-record 405 yards with one touchdown, completing 31 of 51 attempts in the Cardinals' 31-26 loss.

***** ***** *****

Twenty of Leinart's completions and 312 of those yards went to wideouts Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

"I thought we threw the ball very well and our receivers made the plays," Leinart said. "Our offensive line blocked their butts off all game. I thought they did an excellent job. We should be proud of the way we fought to the end."

Boldin posted his 18th 100-yard game, which ties him with Rob Moore as the Cardinals' franchise leader.

Fitzgerald, who was playing in his first regular season game in front of his hometown crowd -- he once was a Vikings ball boy -- had a career-high 172 yards receiving.

***** ***** *****

Backup quarterback Kurt Warner, who lost the starting position six games ago, says he is leaning toward playing next year, but likely won't make a decision until after the season. He is under contract for 2007 and 2008.

"I go back and forth," he said. "There are days that are more frustrating than others. I will take some time in the off-season to think about the situation and see where the organization is going from here."

***** ***** *****

The Cards scored in all three phases of the game at Minnesota, starting with J.J. Arrington's return of the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Safety Adrian Wilson returned a fumble 99 yards for a touchdown.

It was the first time since September 24, 1974 that the team scored on offense, defense and special teams.

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

Rams coach Scott Linehan knew he had made the right decision last week early in the game when rookie cornerback Tye Hill intercepted an Alex Smith pass.

Hill made an outstanding play on the ball, but then did some taunting, which moved the Rams from their 30-yard line to the 15. When Hill came to the sideline, Linehan was ready for him, with positive words about the interception, but adding how mistakes like the taunting aren't acceptable.

If that had happened the week before, Linehan would likely have been engrossed too much in his offensive play sheets, getting ready to call the plays, to have time to talk to Hill. But in this game, Linehan was there because he had turned over the play-calling to offensive coordinator Greg Olson.

"Those are the kinds of things that need to be addressed by the head football coach. Period," Linehan said. "Those are the kinds of things that were hard to do, to be honest with you, as a play-caller, because you've got to get in that zone, you've got to move over, get in your little phone booth, and kind of keep people away as much as you can. To me, at this point, in my tenure as a head coach, I feel better, and felt much better and much more comfortable with that situation yesterday.

"To be able and go down and have a discussion with one of our players that needs to be both positive and you need to ... there's got to be a discussion about what happened. An excellent play happened, and then a very bad decision happened after. Those are the kinds of things that have cost us."

Linehan said there other occasions when he was able to interact more with the defense or special teams.

"It was much better for me that way because as a play-caller, you really have to isolate yourself," he said. "You've got to take all the distractions of the game away so you don't get distracted yourself. The problem with that is that that works fine if you've been doing it and you've been somewhere for 10, 15 years, and you've got guys that are managing other parts of the game for you, I think that probably works OK. For me it wasn't ... the more and more I was doing it, the more and more I didn't feel it was working for me.

"I was able to put a lot more time into what we were doing in special teams. Keeping, not so much ... I'm not looking over (defensive coordinator) Jim's (Haslett) shoulder or anything like that, I just want to know how we're playing, what we're doing, and you have a better feel for, really, how you are playing. You get in situations where, for example on the last drive, where you decide whether you're going to go for a fourth down and things like that. I think as a head coach you have a much better feel for whether this is the right thing or the wrong thing to do as opposed to as a play-caller, and you act a little bit more emotionally."

In terms of the timing, after a tough loss to Carolina, Linehan said, "Unfortunately I've been through experiences where I've seen the same thing, and I know if you want to, and I said this last week ... if you continue to do things the same way, there's an old saying, 'you'll continue to get the same results.' I think we needed a change. As significant a change as who's calling the plays, I don't know, sometimes that gets overplayed too, but there needed to be a change on the sideline, the demeanor.

"I think you've got to take all the difficulty, let the ego take a back seat, and say, 'This is going to be better for the team'. Like I said yesterday, it was for our benefit yesterday. We've got to continue to make it our benefit. I don't really have that big of an ego. Sometimes it gets tested, but when it comes to things ... I just want to win, just like everybody else in our organization." While acknowledging that the plan would be that Olson would take over play-calling at some point, Linehan added, "I said the plan was initially I would call the plays. I may stay there, I may not, but at some point, if this is the staff we're hiring, this is the guy I'd like to have take over those duties once we're comfortable doing that. It's hard to put a date as to when that is, but I guess I decided after having about 100 yards of offense, and not crossing the 50, was probably a good opportunity to do it."

***** ***** *****

Hot is not a word to describe the Rams' run defense, but it was a word to describe defensive coordinator Jim Haslett when he was asked Monday about the rushing yardage the team continues to allow.

"I'm sick of talking about the friggin' yardage, OK?" Haslett said. "I pick up the paper every week, and I read about the yardage we've given up. It is what it is. We haven't done well. .. But you know what? We're ninth in the league in pass defense. We've given up four touchdowns in the last three games. I never see you guys write that.

"We're fourth in the league in turnovers; we got three turnovers (Sunday). You don't write that stuff. You always write the negative stuff. Well, write some positive stuff once in a while. Give the guys credit. We actually fit well (against the 49ers), the best we've ever played, and they still had 170 rushing on us. We're fighting as best as we can to stop the run, and we're going to keep working at it."

San Francisco running back Frank Gore had 134 yards and seven runs of 10 yards or more. One positive, actually, was that Gore's long run was 18. Entering the game, the Rams had allowed nine runs of 30 yards or more during the season.

The Rams are last in the league in run defense, allowing 154.8 yards a game and 5.2 yards per attempt, just ahead of the Colts. Haslett even talked about them.

"I look at the Colts who are right beside us (in run defense), and they're 10-1," Haslett said. The defense did stop running back Michael Robinson on a third-and-1 play late in the fourth quarter. The 490ers then kicked a 24-yard field goal to take a four-point lead, but the Rams drove 80 yards for the winning touchdown.

Noting who was responsible fore the big stop, Haslett said, "Actually, everybody played it pretty well, but there were three main guys. (Brandon) Chillar made an outstanding play getting off the block of Vernon Davis, Pisa (Tinoisamoa) kind of wrapped it up, and the guy who finished it all was Raonall Smith by knocking the guy back at the last second after a six-inch gain."

***** ***** *****

--With 10,282 receiving yards, WR Torry Holt has more yards in his first eight seasons than any receiver in league history. The previous No. 1 was Jerry Rice at 10, 273.

"It's another tremendous accomplishment," Holt said. "Again, I guess it goes back to my hard work, focus and dedication to the game of football. I want to thank my teammates for believing in me and giving me an opportunity to succeed on the football field as well as the coaches and management. It's a testament to everybody who believed in me when I came here."

Despite passing Rice, the Rams have had difficulty getting the ball downfield to Holt in the last month.

Said Linehan, "Torry gets very few looks that are what you consider one-on-one. We missed our one shot yesterday (against San Francisco), and that's the frustrating part, I guess, if you're going to say something's frustrating, is that you only get so many, and when you miss them, you know you're not going to get many more. I think we're seeing almost 95 percent zone coverage, which is allowing people to play either the two-deep look, or a deep coverage player and a guy underneath."

On one play to Holt, rookie linebacker Manny Lawson dropped back into coverage and intercepted a Marc Bulger pass.

"I've never seen an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense sprint to a point 25 yards down the field to cover one receiver," Linehan said. "Usually, that's a reaction. That's a Torry Holt coverage, the interception. That kid's an outside linebacker, who knows who the 'X' is, and has been told to go double the guy. We're getting a lot of that. That's one reason why you see Steven's (Jackson) numbers up in the passing game, because people are saying, 'We're not just going to let you throw the ball down the field to these guys. You're going to have to prove that you're patient enough to move the chain some too in the passing game.'"/p> Asked if he senses frustration on Holt's part, Bulger said, "Any competitor wants to help the team win. It's not that Torry just wants the ball, he wants to help the team win, and he knows he does that by making catches and scoring touchdowns. He knows we're going to do everything we can and continue to work to do everything we can to get him going, but in the mean time, these other guys have to take the pressure off.

"Steven's (Jackson) playing very well. Isaac (Bruce) had a big game, and has played pretty consistent all year. Kevin (Curtis) came up big two times yesterday. Eventually things will always come back to you."

***** ***** *****

Until the Nov. 19 game against Carolina, rookie OG Mark Setterstrom had not been active for any of the team's game. With OT Orlando Pace on injured reserve, Setterstrom was active against the Panthers and played 10 snaps at right guard.

Because Adam Goldberg struggled at left tackle as Pace's replacement against Carolina, LG Todd Steussie moved to left tackle for last Sunday's game against San Francisco. A left guard was needed, and Setterstrom was the choice to start. By all accounts, he did very well, especially in run blocking.

"He graded out the highest of all of the offensive lineman in his first start, which is pretty impressive," coach Linehan said. "He was a big factor in our ability to run the football. That's the reason we drafted him, that's the reason why he's here, and he's really worked hard to get himself ready to play. He's gotten a lot stronger, worked on scout team, and worked a lot on his upper-body strength, and he was able to really hold up and play well. He played as well as any rookie I've been around on his first start, that's for sure."

***** ***** *****

After being inactive against the 49ers, coach Scott Linehan said the team was leaning toward having kickoff returner Willie Ponder active this week against Arizona.

When Hill experienced some problems with his quadriceps in pregame warmups before the game against the 49ers, defensive backs Jerametrius Butler and Dwaine Carpenter were activated for the game.

"Had we been 100 percent there, we would've had the luxury of having Willie up, but we had to back ourselves up in the secondary," Linehan explained.

With Hill feeling better this week than he did last week in practice, if Ponder is active, either Butler or Carpenter (probably Butler) will be inactive.

***** ***** *****

With LB Isaiah Kacyvenski out this week because of a concussion, the Rams re-signed LB Jamal Brooks, and he will play on special teams this week. Brooks was originally released in October after Kacyvenski was signed.

Rookie DT Claude Wroten will again play some at defensive end because Victor Adeyanju is out with a broken bone in his arm.

Linehan of Wroten, "He can rush the passer, he has enough size to anchor against the run, but he does have pass-rush ability, which ends need to have. You can't just move a tackle out there because it will be five on four when it comes to pass protection, but he has the ability to get pressure on the quarterback at that spot. He's done some of it and it was always a contingency to move him there if something ever happened, and now it's reality."


Niners Digest Top Stories