Around the NFC West: Cards take over at top

Taking a look inside the camps of the 49ers' three divisional opponents in the NFC West, along with Week 7 report cards.

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


The Cardinals defense is coming off its best consecutive performances in years, and coach Ken Whisenhunt traces it back to a goal-line stand against Houston on Oct. 11.

Whisenhunt believes stopping the Texans inside the 5-yard line bolstered the unit's confidence.

Since then, the Cardinals have been dominant against the Seahawks and the Giants.

"That was tough, when they had the ball at the 1 three snaps, with the game on the line," Whisenhunt said. "I think that was the pivotal point where we took the step, or made that move to become a good defense."

Whisenhunt thought the Cardinals played too tight as a team in the first three weeks, which included two losses at home. The club had a bye in Week 4, and Whisenhunt talked to his players about loosening up and having fun.

"A number of people commented to me that the players were happier, they were laughing when they were coming off the field," Whisenhunt said of practice. "That was a significant shift in our mentality and our attitude, and it's really showed up in the last three weeks."

The defending NFC champion Cardinals have won three consecutive games to take over sole possession of first place in the NFC West with a 4-2 record.

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

Rookie running back Beanie Wells had the best game of his career Sunday, gaining 67 yards on 14 carries, including a 13-yard touchdown run. It was the first touchdown of his NFL career.

Wells, however, is not yet a threat to replace Tim Hightower as the starter, coach Ken Whisenhunt said. Wells isn't as effective a blocker or receiver yet, but he's more explosive than Hightower.

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

Receiver Anquan Boldin played a limited amount of snaps Sunday because of sprained right ankle.

Boldin played only in three- and four-receiver formations and barely played in the second half, when the ankle became stiff and sore. Boldin made a contribution in the first half, catching three passes for 75 yards.

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

As an offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, Whisenhunt gained a reputation for calling gadget plays, and he's continued that as a head coach.

He hadn't called one this season, however, until Sunday, when he had safety Antrel Rolle take a direct snap in the Wildcat formation.

Rolle faked a handoff, rolled right and threw to receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was wide open at the 5. Fitzgerald dropped the pass, and tight end Ben Patrick was called for holding, negating the play.

"Very seldom do you get somebody as open as Larry was on those plays," Whisenhunt said. "It's fun. It's a fun thing to do at practice. Our guys get really excited about it."

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

REPORT CARD VS. GIANTS

PASSING OFFENSE: B -- Kurt Warner wasn't as sharp as usual, but he made enough good throws to be productive. Warner was only sacked twice, and the Cardinals moved the ball through the air.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- The Cardinals averaged just 3.3 yards a carry, but rookie Beanie Wells had a 4.8-yard average and a touchdown. He's an explosive player who will only get more time.

PASS DEFENSE: A -- The Cardinals intercepted three passes and sacked Eli Manning twice. The secondary played an excellent game, and coordinator Bill Davis did a nice job of calling blitzes.

RUSH DEFENSE: A -- The Giants gained 107 yards but could never get anything consistent going. The Cardinals continue to prove to be an excellent run defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A -- The coverage teams limited returner Domenik Hixon, no easy task, and P Ben Graham gave the Cardinals good field position. The return teams handled the ball cleanly but didn't do much else.

COACHING: A -- Coach Ken Whisenhunt has changed the team's mind-set. It used to be awful on the road, but the Cardinals are 3-0 away from home this season, and the victory over the Giants was the club's most impressive regular-season win in years. The game plans on both sides of the ball have excellent in recent weeks.


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


After the Rams lost to the Colts 42-6 Sunday, coach Steve Spagnuolo was most disappointed by what he believed was the team disintegrating in the fourth quarter, especially the defense. Late in the third quarter, the Rams trailed 21-6, but an interception return for a touchdown made the score 28-6, and the Colts added two fourth-quarter scores for the final count.

Said Spagnuolo, "The first three quarters I thought we battled really hard against a good football team. That team over there is good. We all know that. They've got skill everywhere. They've been doing it for a long time. But (for) three quarters I think we all felt and believed we could possibly pull that thing off and win the game.

"Now the fourth quarter was different. It was disappointing. They made some plays. Things kind of fell apart. That's not us. We haven't seen that before. We've got to get back to what we're doing, which is just battling and playing hard."

Monday, however, Spagnuolo amended his thoughts somewhat. "After the game, I thought it was the whole quarter. Really, it was about three minutes that we played with not quite the intensity we had had. That has not been this team."
Spagnuolo knows he has a task ahead, keeping his team's head up, as the record has hit 0-7.

The Rams have lost 17 consecutive games, and this season they have had four games where they have scored fewer than 10 points, and been outscored overall 211-60, including 117-23 after halftime. In their home games, against Green Bay, Minnesota and Indianapolis, the count overall is 116-33.

Of the 53 players on the roster Sunday, 26 joined the team this year. With Detroit the next opponent on the road, Spagnuolo was asked how far away the Rams are from beating a team like Indianapolis.

Said Spagnuolo, "Well, we got some work to do there. That's a guess, (but) I feel like what we've got here and what we're doing, the attitude of the guys, I mean I believe that's how you build it. And I believe when you get over the hump and you get that win, we're looking for consistent winning. We're not looking to just get one win, we don't want to do this (motions up and down). So we keep trying to build it the way we build it and I do think there's some pieces there. When you go up against a team like this you need a few more pieces."

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

Rams players didn't disagree with coach Steve Spagnuolo's comments about the fourth-quarter problems.

Said safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who is dating the daughter of 49ers coach Mike Singletary, "We just didn't fight as hard in the fourth quarter as we had in the previous three, which is a little disappointing."

Added cornerback Ron Bartell, "You're getting paid to play. You have a responsibility to one another to play hard every play. I just don't think in the fourth quarter we can let what happened happen."

On a general note, running back Steven Jackson said, "We're playing good football here and there; we have spurts of it. We have to learn how to put four quarters of good football together, go back to the drawing board and learn how to win games. That's what the biggest issue is right now. We don't know how to win a game right now."

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

Jackson totaled 134 yards on 23 carries Sunday, including nine attempts for 95 yards in the third quarter when he had seven rushes of nine yards or more. However, all it led to was one third-quarter field goal. Jackson has yet to score a rushing touchdown this season.

Asked after the game, about not scoring this season, Jackson said, "Excuse me. Excuse me. We're 0-7 right now. And I'm just focused on getting this team turned around. ... There's 53 men on this team."

When asked how difficult it is to stay focused and how he approaches the difficult period the Rams are in, Jackson said, "Take a deep breath. You've got to start with yourself first. If you don't believe - it's hard to sell something you don't believe in. So I have to just go out there and run hard. And continue to show guys that I'm fighting for each and every yard in each and every game."

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

REPORT CARD VS. COLTS

PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus -- Save for a 50-yard play to WR Donnie Avery on a flea-flicker, very little was accomplished in the passing game. QB Marc Bulger's other 13 completions totaled just 90 yards and the long gainer aside from the 50-yarder was for 14 yards. Bulger had an interception returned for a touchdown, but the score was 21-6 at that point.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- The total numbers look great for RB Steven Jackson, but most of them came in the second half when the Rams were down by 18 points. In the first half, Jackson had just 33 yards on 10 attempts, and there was a consistent lack of production on first down. On eight first-half carries on first down, Jackson rushed for 27 yards, with six of three yards or less.

PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- Well, at least the Rams limited QB Peyton Manning to less than 300 yards. Manning passed for 235 yards and three touchdowns, with 168 yards coming in the first half. In reality, the Rams defended well on some long attempts, and the coverage was fine on a 27-yard touchdown pass to TE Dallas Clark that was thrown about as anyone could throw a pass between two defenders.

RUSH DEFENSE: B-minus -- The run defense competed, although there were a few "gash" plays: runs of 45 and 13 yards by Donald Brown and a 31-yard touchdown run by Chad Simpson in the fourth quarter. Joseph Addai was limited to 64 yards on 20 carries.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- Not really a factor in the game, although PK Josh Brown hit his two field-goal attempts and Danny Amendola did another solid job returning kicks. P Donnie Jones dropped four punts inside the 20-yard line.

COACHING: C-plus -- There's not much coaching can do when your team is basically outmanned. However, it was disconcerting when coach Steve Spagnuolo said he didn't know after the game whether WR Tim Carter had run a wrong route on an early-game third-down play from the 12-yard line and didn't know whether Carter had been benched after that misfire. Carter also had a drop on the second-down play that preceded it.


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


Offensive tackle Walter Jones likely will be out for at least another week. The team is maintaining hope he can return sometime this season.

Seahawks head coach Jim Mora said he's uncertain when Jones has been on the mend for over a month resting his surgically repaired, left knee after experiencing pain upon his return to practice mid-September.

The nine-time Pro Bowler is rehabilitating the injury with the hopes of returning some time this season. But Mora acknowledged on Monday he does not know if the 35-year-old team cornerstone will return this season.

"We'll see where he is Wednesday," Mora said about Jones. "There's always the hope, but we'll see. I don't know for sure yet."

Mora said the team's other starting offensive tackle, Sean Locklear (ankle), has the same status as Jones. Locklear has been out since suffering a high ankle sprain against San Francisco on Sept. 20. Both came out to watch the end of practice after finishing rehab for their injuries on Monday. "I can tell you this about Walt -- he's diligent in his rehab,"

Mora said. "He's doing everything you can possibly do to try and get back on the football field -- there's no question about that. It's a very frustrating process for him, as well as all of us. But it's certainly not for lack of toughness, certainly not for lack of effort and due diligence in terms of doing the work that he needs to do."

Asked if there was a make or break point in terms of making a decision on Jones, Mora acknowledged there is, and that the team and Jones are nearing that date. But Mora did not provide a timeline.

"There is a point where you just have to say, 'Is it going to happen, or isn't it?'" Mora said. "We're not there yet, but certainly we're closer to it. It's just a matter of getting a gauge for where Walt feels he is. And we're in the process of evaluating that."

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

Cornerback Marcus Trufant continues to work himself back into playing shape, working with the second unit on scout team during Monday's practice.

"I'm playing catch-up right now, trying to cram it all in, like you're cramming for a test (in college)," he said. "But I'm back on the field, trying to get back in tip-top shape while trying to get comfortable with everything. I'm soaking it all up and trying to put it all together."

Trufant's workout on Monday included catching extra balls from a JUGS machine after practice. Coach Jim Mora is hopeful Trufant can play on Sunday.

"He hasn't played football in a long, long time," Mora said. "He hasn't been in a game since our last game last year. He didn't do much in the offseason in terms of being able to condition for football. So we need to see where he is endurance-wise. Obviously, he's got to knock some of the rust off in terms of his technique, but he's doing that, and he's worked hard."

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

If starting offensive tackles Walter Jones (knee) and Sean Locklear (ankle) can't go, that leaves the left tackle position to newcomer Damion McIntosh. Mora said the veteran offensive lineman is coming along in terms of learning Seattle's offensive system.

"He still hasn't played in a game in quite a long time," Mora said. "So there's always that adjustment. But it's good for us to get this time, for him especially."

Seahawks center Chris Spencer said the fact that McIntosh is a veteran that has played in the league helps in terms of the communication on the field.

"He might be the guy," Spencer said. "From Day 1 he's been in, and we've been talking. He's been trying to hear my calls and I've been telling him what I'm doing, and why I'm doing it. And he seems to pick it up pretty fast.

"You know, he's a veteran guy. And football is football. It's different terminology changes, but the rest of it you just got to go out and play football.

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

REPORT CARD AFTER 6 GAMES

PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus -- The Seahawks rank 18th overall in passing offense. Seattle quarterbacks have thrown for 10 touchdowns this season. Nate Burleson is the team's leading receiver with 32 receptions for 398 yards and three touchdowns. Seattle has had trouble protecting the quarterback, giving up 15 sacks this season.

RUSHING OFFENSE: D -- Seattle's zone blocking scheme has struggled to get on track with three, starting offensive lineman out at different times during the start of the year. The Seahawks are ranked 28thoverall in rushing offense, averaging 3.5 yards per carry.

PASS DEFENSE: B-minus -- The Seahawks have a much-improved pass rush from last season, with 16 sacks on the season, good enough for a tie for sixth overall in the league. The team was torched by Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts a few weeks ago, but who hasn't received that kind of treatment from Manning this year. Seattle is tied for 16th overall in passing offense, giving up 220 yards per contest.

RUSH DEFENSE: C -- Seattle has played OK against the run this season, save for Frank Gore's 207-yard rushing performance in San Francisco in Week 2. Seattle is 13th in rushing defense, giving up 99 yards per contest.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- Seattle kicker Olindo Mare missed two field goals in a 25-19 loss to Chicago, drawing the ire of head coach Jim Mora. But he's been perfect ever since. Mare also is fourth in the league in touchbacks with 11. Punter Jon Ryan is second in the league in punting average at 49.9 yards per punt. Seattle's punt return game has struggled to get going.

COACHING: C -- Jim Mora has struggled in his return to the head coaching ranks. Part of the reason for Seattle's 2-4 start has been a rash of injuries the team has experienced, particularly on the offensive line. But in a year where Mora predicted the Seahawks would retool and instead of reload and compete for a playoff spot, the Seahawks have underperformed so far this season.



Niners Digest Top Stories