NFC West News & Notes - 9/20/06

In today's News & Notes - the Seahawks get ready to unleash their newest offensive weapon, the Rams continue to struggle with a new offensive scheme, the Cardinals' offensive line continues to be a "work in progess" (to put it mildly)...and the 49ers' offense might actually be showing some serious signs of life.


The Seahawks expect to utilize more four-receiver sets when wide receiver Deion Branch makes his Seattle debut Sunday against the Giants. Branch was inactive in Week 2 because coach Mike Holmgren wanted the former Super Bowl MVP to get more work in the offense.

The changes make additional sense this week given that Seattle is severely depleted at tight end. Starter Jerramy Stevens is probably out until after the bye week. Backup Itula Mili suffered a knee injury Sunday and could miss playing time. Branch will initially share time with Nate Burleson at split end. Darrell Jackson will remain a starter. Bobby Engram will continue in his role as the third receiver. D.J. Hackett appears to be the odd man out, at least for now.

"Right now, (Branch) and Nate are going to be splitting time at that position and we have to figure out how to practice Hackett," Holmgren said. "Darrell and Bobby, their roles won't change a great deal. It is a nice problem to have, but it will take some thought."

Jackson caught five passes for 127 yards and a touchdown during Seattle's 21-10 victory over Arizona on Sunday. Engram caught four passes for 51 yards. Burleson managed only one catch, for seven yards, and he dropped two passes.

The Seahawks did not sign Branch to a $39 million deal so he could serve in a backup role. The only question in the short term is whether Branch immediately becomes an every-down player. He and Jackson will be the main guys at the position. It's just that the particulars will need some time to settle out. "I don't want to give you (playing-time) percentages because those are too easy to change," Holmgren said. "Sometimes the game dictates, but we're going to try to get them all on the field a good portion of time."


--Former Seahawks DT Cortez Kennedy took his place in the Seahawks' Ring of Honor over the weekend. Kennedy is best known as an eight-time Pro Bowl choice who became the NFL's defensive player of the year on a 1992 team that went 2-14. Kennedy was emotional during a halftime ceremony recognizing his achievements. "I almost broke down and cried," Kennedy said. "I couldn't even watch the highlight film anymore, because I didn't know what I'd do."

Kennedy was one of the first interior defensive linemen to combine massive size with exceptional quickness. "He was an explosive big man who was more athletic than people gave him credit for," former teammate Terry Wooden said. "He was ahead of his time in regards to being over 300 pounds and could move and do the things he did."

--The Seahawks' problems on field goals can be traced to several factors. Rookie P Ryan Plackemeier is the new holder. And while new LS Derek Rackley performed very well in his first game with Seattle on Sunday, it always takes time for snapper and holder to get up to speed. Plackemeier dropped a snap Sunday, leading to the team's third blocked field goal in two games. "I tried to stop," K Josh Brown said. "I didn't want to kick it. Things were off and I felt the best option for me was to stop, but I couldn't stop fast enough."

Rackley's left hand appears to be dominant in his snapping, a difference from former snapper J.P. Darche, who recently went on injured reserve. "J.P. and I were on such a good rhythm that I would catch the ball and set it down, I wouldn't have to spin it at all, the laces were always away," Plackemeier said. "(Rackley) has a different rotation. I tried to spin the ball a little and it just slipped out of my hands.

"There are no excuses. It's not a very hard job and I should have got it done, but I didn't."

--LG Floyd Womack could miss six weeks after suffering a knee injury Sunday. The team is not yet sure on a timetable, but the injury is worse than first thought.

--OL Chris Spencer will start at left guard now that Floyd Womack could miss six weeks with an injury. Spencer is a 2005 first-round pick who has appeared ready to play all through camp.

--TE Itula Mili's status is in question this week after the veteran suffered a knee injury against the Cardinals. The Seahawks are taking a look at tight ends this week. They'll probably have to make a move this week.

--WR D.J. Hackett appears to be the odd man out in the receiving situation now that WR Deion Branch has arrived via trade. The team plans to have Branch share time at split end with Nate Burleson. WR Darrell Jackson and WR Bobby Engram will not have their roles changed, coach Mike Holmgren said. The question is whether there will be enough snaps for Hackett to contribute.


Oliver Ross was a key free-agent signing a year ago, but the right tackle struggled in his first year in Arizona. It's interesting, however, that he is now being viewed as the stabilizing force for an offensive line that's struggling. Ross suffered a knee injury on the second day of training camp and underwent surgery for torn meniscus. He practiced last week and was active Sunday in Seattle but didn't play.

It's expected that he'll be in the starting lineup this week against St. Louis. While Ross didn't play well last year, he's far better than the players who have tried to replace him. And there have been many. First, coach Dennis Green and his staff looked at Fred Wakefield and Jeremy Bridges there. Neither worked out. Then the club traded for Brandon Gorin. He wasn't the answer, either. Then it was Chris Liwienski's turn.

Less than a week after signing in Arizona after being cut by Minnesota, he was starting the season opener at right tackle. That didn't work out, either.

Last week, Liwienski and left guard Reggie Wells switched positions. Wells did fairly well, although he had key penalties for holding and false starts. If Ross returns as expected, Wells will move back to left guard. That's the lineup coaches envisioned him at when the season started.


--RB Edgerrin James has gained 137 yards on 44 carries in two games, but he's not conceding that the Cardinals won't have a solid running game this year. "I'm not a quitter," he said. "When I took this job, I knew that it wasn't going to be a cakewalk, but I'm not a front runner. We're going to keep fighting. I know I'm not going to let up, and I'm not going to let anyone else let up. You don't have to worry about us talking down about each other, because that is not going to happen."

--The Cardinals' defense has yielded touchdown drives at the start of each game this season. "We have to come and set a tempo," cornerback Antrel Rolle said. "That's twice our defense has come out and let them score right off the bat."

--The Cardinals had billed last week's game against Seattle as a measuring stick for their alleged progress. They were beaten, 21-10, so they weren't exactly encouraged by the results. "I know it sounds a little cliche-ish," Obafemi Ayanbadejo said, "but after two games what are you going to do, fold up shop? Call it, it's a wrap? I don't think so.

"It's too early to panic but you definitely have to be concerned when you go out there and don't take advantage of opportunities."

--CB David Macklin went from being a starter to the inactive list last Sunday. It's a strange move by coach Dennis Green. The Cardinals tried in the off-season to upgrade the position but didn't spend the money to do so in free agency. Macklin held off Eric Green all training camp, but one bad series put him in street clothes last Sunday. Green suffered a groin pull last week, so it's possible Macklin could return to the starting lineup. "We'll see," Green said. "We'll see."


The good news was that the Rams' first unit finally scored a touchdown and that it came in the red zone where there were four failures the week before. The bad news was that quarterback Marc Bulger was sacked six times, and the offense generated just three points in the second half in losing to the 49ers, 20-13. In those final 30 minutes, 29 plays netted just 118 yards.

"I'm not going to make any excuses," wide receiver Torry Holt said. "I'm not going to pinpoint anything. I think as an offensive unit as a whole, we're just not doing enough every down -- every series -- to put ourselves in a position to be effective."

Prior to the game, Holt had a noteworthy thing to say about the new offensive approach. "It's probably going to take some time for people that have watched us over the past seven years to get used to, but probably not for true football fans that understand the game. They know that you have to pick your spots, you want to be careful with the football; you don't want to throw into double teams.

"Especially with the way our defense is playing, you want to control the game. You hear that a lot now - quarterbacks controlling the game and I think he (Bulger) did a fine job of doing that last week."

For the second consecutive week, Bulger did not have an interception, which has happened only once before in his career. Also, Bulger has only had nine career games that he started and finished where he hasn't thrown an interception. The new emphasis on ball security, along with the new offense, appears to have Bulger tentative at times and the offense not able to establish a rhythm.

Linehan has pointed out that it took his offense in Miami until the eighth or ninth game to feel comfortable. That's tough to accept for those that want and expect instant results. "We're in a learning process," Bulger said. "We had the same system for eight years and now we have something different. "We just missed on two or three passes that could have made a major difference. On one play, I got sacked just as Torry (Holt) was going to come wide open. That's just so frustrating. We were so close to getting a touchdown on that play. Just another split second is what we needed."

Holt pointed out how a red-zone play in the first week failed in the timing, and the result was an incomplete pass. The same play Sunday ended up being a touchdown. "That one play is a perfect example of what I'm talking about," Holt said. "Small details that we used to know cold because we had been in the same offense forever, we now have to learn all over again. But the more we get out there in the heat of the game, the more we are learning how this thing can work. We're close. A lot closer than it looks. I know everybody can't see it. But I can. It's just a little tweak here, a little tweak there."

Added running back Steven Jackson, who had his second consecutive 100-yard plus game, "We're at that stage now where we're either hitting on all cylinders or we're struggling. But we're getting close. We have a new coaching staff and everyone is trying to get acclimated to a lot of new things. Then we have injuries up front to throw off our rhythm that we have been working on. There's just some things you need to overcome when you are playing on the road and the injuries don't help."

Linehan continues to preach patience, saying, "If you evaluate from where we are starting to the end of the year, I think you will see a progressive improvement. It's not easy to make a change, whether it's the offense and terminology and everything, but he (Bulger) is not making any excuses. He is out there managing the game and we'll continue to get better and get more throws and other guys will make more plays for him. I just think that offensively we just have to hang tough, hang in there and stick together and continue to improve."


--It was bad enough that the Rams entered the game against the 49ers with two changes in the offensive line from opening week. When center Andy McCollum went down with a knee injury against the Broncos, Larry Turner took his place. But coaches were concerned that the undersized Turner would have problems with San Francisco's defensive tackles. And, with McCollum out for the season, the decision was made to move left guard Richie Incognito to center and have Todd Steussie play left guard.

The move is probably a permanent one for Incognito, who was a center in college, but hadn't played before opening day since the 2003 season. However, the worst-case scenario occurred at the end of the first half when left tackle Orlando Pace suffered a concussion. To replace Pace, Steussie moved to left tackle and Adam Goldberg came in at left guard. Goldberg has been with the team since Sept. 2, when he was acquired in a trade with Minnesota.

"I think for the most part, initially, we were doing pretty decent," said Steussie. "Then when Orlando went down, it was another adjustment. I go out there and do my thing, but Orlando's a heck of a player. To lose that level of a player at any position is tough."

Said Incognito, "When we've got a makeshift offensive line in there at center and guard and then the tackle goes down, now the whole left side is down, it's tough to win a ballgame like that." Concluded right guard Adam Timmerman, "It's tough. On the road, communication is so important, and with new guys, it's not at its best. But that's just kind of an excuse. We need to play better even with all those things going on."

--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa missed some time in practice last week because of a sore foot, but was able to start in Sunday's game against San Francisco. However, Tinoisamoa was able to last only until the third quarter when he suffered a dislocated elbow after making a tackle on 49ers fullback Chris Hetherington. Tinoisamoa was somewhat off balance when making the tackle, and fell awkwardly to the ground.

"I ended up falling, and trying to brace myself," Tinoisamoa said. "My weight was just too much." X-rays showed no broken bones, and doctors were able to pop the bone back in place, but Tinoisamoa did not return to the game.

Afterward, he said, "It doesn't feel too bad right now. But I don't know if it's just the adrenaline keeping me up." It remains possible that Tinoisamoa could play in the next game against Arizona, pending results of an MRI.

-- The 49ers gained a total of 360 yards on 55 plays, and 194 of the yards came on four plays. Two were touchdowns, a 32-yard by Frank Gore and a 72-yard pass play from Alex Smith to Antonio Bryant.


--LT Orlando Pace returned with the team Sunday night from San Francisco after suffering a concussion on an extra-point attempt at the end of the first half. Tests were normal, and Pace felt better when he was at Rams Park Monday. He will be limited in practice until later in the week and won't be cleared to play against Arizona unless he's 100 percent.

--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa will be day-to-day this week after suffering a dislocated left elbow against San Francisco. A brace will be tried to see how he feels and to see if he will be available for Sunday's game against the Cardinals.

--WR Isaac Bruce had five receptions for 77 yards against the 49ers and moved into 11th place on the league's all-time receiving list. Bruce now has 823 catches, and passed Hall of Famer Steve Largent, who has 819.

--FS Oshiomogho Atogwe accepted responsibility for a mental error that led to a 72-yard touchdown play in San Francisco. CB Tye Hill turned WR Antonio Bryant loose in the Cover-2 defense, but Atogwe bit on a possible screen and was late getting over to cover Bryant.

--CB Jerametrius Butler, a starter in 2004 before injuring his knee and missing the entire 2005 season, was inactive Sunday for the second straight game. Butler has been passed in the secondary by Fakhir Brown and rookie Tye Hill.


Entering this season, the 49ers had been out-gained in the passing game in 26 consecutive games. So far, they have accumulated more yards than their opposition through the air in both games this season.
With a 1-1 record after a 20-13 victory Sunday over the Rams, the 49ers are obviously a much-improved team than the unit that finished last season at 4-12.

"Look at the roster and overall we're vastly improved," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "Just look at the surrounding cast around Alex (Smith) right now." The 49ers' best offensive player a year ago was receiver Brandon Lloyd, who accounted for 733 receiving yards. The 49ers were eager to get rid of Lloyd, eventually trading him to the Redskins for third- and fourth-round draft picks.

Now, the 49ers have receiver Antonio Bryant, who has 245 yards receiving in two games, as well as Frank Gore as the team's featured back. Gore led the 49ers in rushing last season with 608 yards, but was playing as a backup to Kevan Barlow, who was also traded. The 49ers' offensive line is improved from a year ago, and tight end Vernon Davis, the No. 6 overall pick, has brought another speed element to the offense.

The 49ers opened the season with an encouraging 34-27 loss at the Cardinals, but their victory over the Rams was just what Nolan said his club needed. "Success breeds success, so that's a good thing," Nolan said. "Late in the third quarter it dawned on me, whether we win or lose, we're playing a pretty good game. We're doing some good things. We got to do the things it takes to win. So if we had come out of without one, we would've been thinking, 'What's it going to take to get one?'"

The 49ers ranked last in the NFL in offense and defense last season. But through two games, the offense is among the best in the league, ranking sixth in total yardage. The 49ers rank first in the NFL in yards per play and Smith has not thrown an interception. The club ranks second in passing yards per play, and they've given up one sack in two games.


--After running back Frank Gore fumbled near the goal line, 49ers running backs coach Bishop Harris had some words for the second-year back. "He kind of got in my face," Gore said. But he said that his coach wasn't trying to fire him up. Instead, he wanted Gore to relax and stop trying to hit a home run on every play.

"He told me to remember on second down that we have another play," Gore said. Sure, enough Gore had other chances. He broke off a 32-yard TD run early in the second half to tie the score in a game the 49ers eventually won 20-13.

"They'd been over-shifting on the right side, and that was one time that Frank saw the cutback lane and he cut it way back," offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. "There was a crease on that one. And when you over-shift, that's the chance you take because if the ball does get backside, it's usually a big play."

--The 49ers overcame the loss of left tackle Jonas Jennings and left guard Larry Allen to post the victory over the Rams with a strong running game. The line also did not allow any sacks of quarterback Alex Smith. "Those guys did a great job," Smith said. "Everything starts with the guys up front. Everything. To lose those two starters and come back like they did, the guys worked extra hard to get ready this week to work as a unit. I can't say enough about them."

Niners coach Mike Nolan presented the offensive line with the game ball. Fill-in starters Adam Snyder and Tony Wragge both played well in the victory.

--QB Alex Smith called the play in the huddle. Then, the play was changed. When the new play was called, receiver Antonio Bryant liked what he heard. "Meet me in the end zone," he told everyone else in the huddle.

Smith threw a perfect pass down the right sideline to Bryant, who got behind the Rams secondary for a 72-yard scoring pass. The touchdown gave the 49ers a lead they would never relinquish.

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