The Cardinals continue to find creative ways to get the ball into the hands of receiver Anquan Boldin.
On Sunday, that meant putting him in the backfield in a one-back set. The team did that a handful of times earlier this season, but used Boldin there about 80 percent of the time in the first quarter against San Francisco.
The idea is to get Boldin matched against a linebacker or safety. Boldin runs a short route, then tries to make people miss on the run.
The Cardinals didn't use the formation much in the second and third quarters, but returned to it in the fourth. That's the formation they were in when Boldin took a short pass and turned it into a 54-yard touchdown.
It's a departure from the way Boldin was used last year, and it shows the influence of new offensive coordinator Keith Rowen.
Last year, Boldin was moved to the outside receiver's spot when the team drafted Larry Fitzgerald. That offense didn't include much pre-snap motion, so teams had no trouble figuring out where Boldin would be.
This year, he has moved all around the formation and has even taken a few pitches as a running back.
It's made him more effective, too.
Boldin and Fitzgerald have become the dynamic tandem the team was hoping for when it drafted Fitzgerald with the third overall pick in 2004. Fitzgerald, 22, has 82 receptions for 1,128 yards, becoming the youngest player in franchise history to hit the 1,000-yard mark.
Boldin, who has missed two games, has 68 catches for 992 yards.
"He reminds me of Marshall Faulk," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "I used to say I never carried out my fakes with Marshall because I was afraid I might miss something. You throw it to (Boldin) and you want to watch and see what's going to happen because you might miss something special."
Quotes and Notes
--The Cardinals have been penalized 32 times in the past three games, including 11 last week against San Francisco. Ten of those were called against the offense, including seven against the offensive line. Part of the problem, coach Dennis Green said, is that injuries have forced some offensive linemen to play out of position. They aren't moving their feet enough and are being caught grabbing defenders. False starts also are hurting the team.
--The Cardinals intercepted three passes against San Francisco, their first interceptions since Oct. 23. They went five games without one. Safety Robert Griffith got his first interception of the year.
"A couple of guys got off the schneid," he said. "This is the longest I've ever been without a pick."
--CB Antrel Rolle is expected to practice this week and, if all goes well, play Sunday against Washington. Rolle hasn't played since the third game of the season because of a knee injury. He underwent surgery, and the team didn't place him on injured reserve, hoping he could come back.
--K Neil Rackers might be able to return sooner than expected from a calf injury if he can limit his duties to placekicking. Rackers suffered a torn calf muscle in practice last week and was expected to miss three weeks. Coach Dennis Green thinks Rackers can return in a week or two if he isn't needed to kick off. That will mean carrying two kickers on the roster. Nick Novak took over for Rackers against San Francisco and made all three of his field-goal attempts.
REPORT CARD VS. 49ERS
PASSING OFFENSE: C -- Kurt Warner passed for 300 yards for the fifth time this year, but for the first time in a winning effort. The club should have scored more than one touchdown, however.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- The run game still is not very productive, but the Cardinals prefer to throw the ball anyway.
PASS DEFENSE: A -- The Cardinals let 49ers quarterback Alex Smith get off to a fast start, but they intercepted him three times in the second half.
RUSH DEFENSE: A -- The Cardinals did a nice job of staying in their gaps and not missing tackles. The 49ers gained just 51 yards on 20 carries.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- New kicker Nick Novak made all three field-goal attempts, although his kickoffs were short. A blocked punt led to three points by San Francisco.
COACHING: A -- The team is still playing hard, which is a credit to coach Dennis Green. The offensive game plan was creative, and the defense blitzed enough to rattle San Francisco's rookie quarterback.
Chris Simms learned the first lesson of being an NFL quarterback. Don't lose the football and you won't lose games.
Tampa Bay is 3-3 in games started by Simms this season. When the Bucs have had a positive turnover ratio, they are 3-0. When it has been a negative ratio, they are 0-3.
"You learn in a hurry, especially through playing, that mistakes can really kill your team," Simms said.
In the past four games, Simms has one interception and one lost fumble. The Bucs went 3-1 in those games, which were decided by an average of 3.5 points.
"He's done a good job," coach Jon Gruden said. "Let's give him credit on his decision-making. Sometimes the best play you can make is throw the ball away. You hate to admit that as a coach sometimes, but he's done a good job of that. He's been resourceful with his audibles.
"He's throwing the ball a bit earlier, with better anticipation. We've run the ball better, to be honest with you, and we run the ball more. I think when you do that, obviously, with success and you are not exposing yourself to these modern-day blitzes and a vast majority of looks that maybe you don't want to see repeatedly in the course of a game."
As a result, Simms has had just one interception in his last 99 passing attempts.
"Opposing coaches are going to test young quarterbacks," Gruden said, "and Simms certainly did get tested (Sunday) in some key passing situations. But his ability to protect the ball in the past few weeks has been very good. That's certainly a good reason why we have been able to win some of these tight games."
Quotes and Notes
--The 43-yard field-goal attempt by Todd France that was blocked by the Saints' Darren Howard was the result of a low kick.
"I thought it was a little bit low," coach Jon Gruden said. "We've got to be a little more stout on our protection, but trajectory was an issue there. But he did kick off well, and he made a key field goal."
--The Bucs used rookie Barrett Ruud to spell starting middle linebacker Shelton Quarles on Sunday.
"He did good. Barrett did a good job," Gruden said. "He's replacing a guy who's had a great season. But I thought he stepped in there in the running game and stuffed some holes and looked physical. I thought he did a good job, showed poise and athleticism."
--The Bucs had a new appreciation for the Saints after having to endure a game Sunday at half-empty Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.
"It's different," wide receiver Joey Galloway said. "Boy, it is different. I got on Booger (McFarland) and Michael Clayton (both LSU products) for these facilities that we're in right now. This is different. My hat goes off to those guys on that team to come here and play. It's a rough situation. And we kind of joke about One Buc all the time. Believe me, we'll be happy to get back to One Buc after this experience."
--Bucs coach Jon Gruden: "It's not the greatest day of my life, winning eight games. You're only judged on winning Super Bowls, as far as I'm concerned."
--RG Sean Mahan has a right ankle sprain. His status is unknown for Sunday's game at Carolina.
--DE Dewayne White played against the Saints despite a right knee sprain. His status for Sunday's game at Carolina is undetermined.
--PK Matt Bryant has a hamstring strain and could miss his second straight game. He is questionable for Sunday's game at Carolina.
--LB Marquis Cooper, who missed Sunday's game against the Saints with a chest sprain, is expected to return against Carolina.
--S Will Allen, who has missed the past three weeks with a knee sprain, is expected to return to action Sunday against Carolina.
Report Card vs. Saints
PASSING OFFENSE: C -- It was an unspectacular day for QB Chris Simms, who went 12-for-21 for 124 yards. But he did his job as a caretaker quarterback, managing the clock and avoiding turnovers.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- Cadillac Williams is showing signs that he is feeling healthy again. The Bucs rookie running back rushed for 96 yards on 22 carries. Williams' longest run was 22 yards, and he did not score a touchdown. But he put together his third straight solid performance. In his past three games, Williams has 296 rushing yards.
PASSING DEFENSE: A -- The Bucs' game plan was to stop the run and force Aaron Brooks to try to beat them. He couldn't. CB Ronde Barber tied a franchise high with three interceptions, including one at the goal line with 1:20 remaining.
RUSHING DEFENSE: B -- The Bucs did a decent job against the run, holding the Saints to 65 yards on 27 carries. Credit Chris Hovan and Anthony McFarland, who got penetration and allowed Shelton Quarles and Derrick Brooks to make tackles.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- PK Todd France got off to a rocky start, having his first field-goal attempt blocked. Edell Shepherd and Mark Jones did a better job in the return game.
COACHING: B -- It wasn't pretty, but a win on the road in the division is always huge. The Bucs defense did not allow a touchdown, but the offense is struggling in pass protection.
The Vikings have won five in a row since a 2-5 start, putting themselves in contention for a playoff spot. But that doesn't mean coach Mike Tice is satisfied with the way his team has been playing.
At his Monday press conference, a day after the Vikings' 21-16 victory at Detroit, Tice made it clear he does not consider his team to be approaching the elite level.
"No. No. No. No," Tice said for effect. "Not when you have minus-8 (tackles for losses as the Vikings offense did against the Lions). Eight TFLs in the game, I don't know how you can rank yourself as one of the better teams in the league."
While Tice has been pleased with the progress his offense has made as a whole, he expressed frustration following Sunday's victory with the play of the line. Lions defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson caused problems for starting guards Anthony Herrera and Adam Goldberg, both of whom were benched at various points.
Chris Liwienski replaced Herrera for a portion of the first half and Goldberg for a portion of the second.
"I will say the offensive line played extremely hard," Tice said Monday. "It's just that sometimes the guys you line up across from are better than you are. I think that was the case some (Sunday). They had a couple guys that were better than our guys, and that happens sometimes."
Tice said he had not yet considered any type of permanent rotation that might involve Goldberg, Herrera and Liwienski.
Tice wasn't happy with the performance of the special teams. The unit, which has been a strength for much of the season, struggled for a second consecutive week in the return game.
The Lions' Eddie Drummond averaged 23 yards on punt returns and 22.7 yards on kick returns.
"We've come off two mediocre games on special teams," Tice said. "We need to make sure that we stay on track with our special teams, and then losing our punter this week brings one more problem into the mix that we have to solve by Sunday."
Vikings punter Chris Kluwe injured his right knee on Sunday and is expected to miss at least a week. The Vikings will audition some punters Tuesday. Darren Bennett, who was cut by the Vikings after a rough training camp, could be in that group.
Quotes and Notes
--While Koren Robinson's 80-yard touchdown reception from Brad Johnson on the Vikings' first offensive play Sunday took only 10 seconds, it had been in the developmental stages much longer.
"We put that play in on Thursday, so I knew it was coming," Robinson said. "They said they wanted to go at (Detroit cornerback) R.W. McQuarters, and he happened to line up on me. Brad said that regardless, he was going to throw the ball, so I just took off. Then when I got up on him, I didn't think he was thinking that we were going to go deep. So when they opened up, it was kind of like a shuffle I gave him and had enough room that I went by him. Brad threw a perfect ball."
--St. Louis might be 5-7, but free safety Darren Sharper knows the Vikings' next opponent still has the potential to be explosive on offense.
"You know when you play against a team like that, they are going to put the ball in the air," he said. "They are going to try to get explosive plays, and the main thinking that you want to have is to keep them from stretching the field and getting points through big plays."
--Coach Mike Tice and his players were glad to see injured quarterback Daunte Culpepper at Sunday's game in Detroit.
"We were all shocked to see him," Tice said. "It was a pleasant surprise. It put a lot of smiles on a lot of guys' faces. I asked him to speak to the team, and he didn't want to do that. But he did briefly speak to the defensive team, which I thought was good. And it was good to see him with that big smile on his face, especially after the game when we won. He had that big smile on his face, so that was good. Good energy."
--Quarterback Brad Johnson surpassed 25,000 career passing yards in the fourth quarter Sunday, becoming the 51st player in NFL history to reach the milestone.
--Defensive lineman Eric Taylor, promoted from the practice squad last week, made his debut in the second quarter at Detroit.
--P Chris Kluwe is expected to miss Sunday's game against St. Louis because of an injury to his right (punting) knee suffered in the second quarter at Detroit. Kluwe also sustained a sprained left ankle later in the game, but the knee injury has proven to be more serious. The Vikings will bring in a few punters for a look Tuesday. Darren Bennett, who handled those duties for Minnesota last season, could be in that group.
--RB Mewelde Moore aggravated his sprained right ankle against the Lions on a first-quarter punt return and had only one rushing attempt for minus-6 yards. Coach Mike Tice said Moore is expected to be fine.
--CB Laroni Gallishaw's sprained right ankle will keep him out of Sunday's game against St. Louis.
--LB Heath Farwell, a key contributor on special teams, sprained his left knee at Detroit and is expected to miss Sunday's game.
--CB Fred Smoot, who has missed the past four games because of a fractured right collarbone, could return Sunday against St. Louis.
--DT Kevin Williams will do some on-the-field work Tuesday to test his injured right knee and then be evaluated. Williams, injured Nov. 27 against Cleveland, might be able to return for the Dec. 18 game against Pittsburgh.
REPORT CARD VS. LIONS
PASSING OFFENSE: B -- QB Brad Johnson threw for a season-high 256 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown strike to WR Koren Robinson on the Vikings' first offensive play. Johnson and Robinson also connected on a 45-yard pass to set up the Vikings' second touchdown. Johnson, who threw for 157 yards in the first half, continues to stay away from making any crucial mistakes. He has been intercepted only twice in 163 passing attempts, while throwing for eight touchdowns.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- RB Mewelde Moore aggravated his sprained right ankle on a first-quarter punt return, leaving Michael Bennett to handle much of the rushing load. Bennett finished with 79 rushing yards on 22 carries and one touchdown -- he also had a 5-yard touchdown reception -- but could have had more if the offensive line had done a better job of executing its blocking assignments. Lions DTs Shaun Rogers and Dan Wilkinson overpowered the Vikings at times, and Detroit finished with eight tackles for losses. Both LG Anthony Herrera and RG Adam Goldberg were benched for periods. Veteran Chris Liwienski, who lost his starting spot at left guard after nine games, subbed for both players at different times.
PASS DEFENSE: B -- The Lions' inept passing game was a big reason the Vikings gave up only 118 passing yards. Lions QB Jeff Garcia rarely challenged the Vikings defensive backfield, and his deep pass for Roy Williams late in the game was intercepted by SS Corey Chavous. Garcia's longest completion went for only 19 yards. CB Brian Williams, who continues to start in the place of the injured Fred Smoot, had a 75-yard interception return for a touchdown nullified by a penalty.
RUSH DEFENSE: B -- With the Lions' top running back, Kevin Jones, sidelined by injury, Detroit managed 105 yards on the ground. Detroit gained 49 of its yards on its only touchdown drive of the day, all by Artose Pinner. That included a 12-yard run that was the Lions' longest rushing play of the game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-minus -- Although his unit has been a strength for much of the season, special teams coordinator Rusty Tillman was unhappy with the play of his group Sunday -- especially on returns. Detroit's Eddie Drummond, a Pro Bowl return man whose production has declined this season, averaged 23 yards on three punt returns and 22.7 yards on three kick returns. His long punt return went for 38 yards, and his long kick return was 34 yards. The Vikings also lost punter Chris Kluwe, who suffered a strained right knee and sprained left ankle on separate plays. The sprained left ankle forced Kluwe to leave the game and resulted in kicker Paul Edinger having to punt twice in the fourth quarter. His second boot turned out to be a beauty, pinning the Lions at their 7 with Minnesota leading 21-16 late in the fourth quarter.
COACHING: B -- Mike Tice convinced his team that the Lions' coaching change last week would make Ford Field a hornet's nest. While that was far from the case, it gave Tice an angle to help keep his team focused and extend its winning streak to five games. Despite the victory, Tice wasn't pleased with the play of various units, in particular the offensive line. The offensive staff deserves credit for deciding to open the game with a deep pass right away, catching the Lions and overmatched CB R.W. McQuarters off-guard.
Atlanta FalconsHot Topic
How much longer will the Falcons extend their patience with struggling safety Bryan Scott?
The third-year veteran is nowhere near the fierce hitter who regularly made plays on the ball in the second half of 2003 and through the first four games of 2004.
If good character were the primary prerequisite, Chris Draft would still play linebacker in Atlanta, but he was deemed too slow to fit the scheme. The team should hold Scott and aging safety Keion Carpenter equally accountable and not settle for substandard tackling technique.
Scott clearly isn't the same player he was before suffering a concussion 15 months ago. Engaging in full contact seems to worry him enough that he bounces off a ball carrier more often than not.
Carpenter, a standup guy like Scott, isn't much better. He, too, struggles as a tackler and a ball hawk.
We'll never know if guys like Omare Lowe and Cam Newton are capable unless they're afforded a chance. It's doubtful the Falcons could expect much from seventh-year veteran Antuan Edwards, who seems indifferent to practicing hard and hasn't been active since he was signed last month.
After Carolina stomped his defense in a 24-6 loss Sunday, Ed Donatell cited no individuals, but the defensive coordinator promised the staff would do whatever's necessary to fix the problems.
Asked specifically about Scott's whiff on an attempted tackle of Panthers receiver Steve Smith, Donatell acknowledged that the 18-yard touchdown catch was avoidable.
"You've got to just keep re-emphasizing it," Donatell said of Atlanta's poor tackling technique. "We had a couple of early ones that hurt us in that ballgame. Steve Smith made a nice play on the one where he rolled and went for a touchdown, but we don't accept that. We look to correct it immediately. To play solid defense, you can't do those things."
Quotes and Notes
--The Falcons have lost three of their last four games, and coach Jim Mora believes he and his staff can take many different measures to reverse the course of a season that's fading fast.
He declined to elaborate about possible changes in personnel or schemes.
"I am not at a loss," Mora said Monday. "No, I think it is actually pretty clear, but that does not mean that it is easy. That doesn't mean that it is a quick fix. It is work. It is hard work. It is long hours. It is repetition. It is continuing to develop guys. It is having patience as well as being demanding and pushing. As a matter of a fact, I am not at a loss. It is probably quite contrary to what I feel. I think it is clear what we need to do."
--There seems no chance that Allen Rossum's knee injury, sustained on his 47-yard opening kickoff return at Carolina, will allow the specialist to play Monday night against the Saints.
That means DeAngelo Hall and Brian Finneran will share the punt returning job and that Justin Griffith, Michael Jenkins, Roddy White or T.J. Duckett could take turns returning kickoffs.
Mora likes the threat Hall brings with his 4.3 speed.
"I get the feeling when he touches the ball he has a chance to really make a big play," Mora said. "You will see him returning punts. I don't think that we will put him back there returning kickoffs. That is not what he has done in the past."
--MLB Keith Brooking played one of the best games of his career with 11 tackles and two passes defensed against Carolina. He jumped to tip Jake Delhomme's wobbly ball after Patrick Kerney batted it at the line of scrimmage in the second quarter.
--FS Bryan Scott had his first interception since Week 4 last year when he caught a ball that Keith Brooking batted into the air. That marked Scott's first pick in 26 games.
--RB T.J. Duckett rushed for just 4 yards on four carries, but his chances to run the ball were reduced by the offense's inability to reclaim the lead after the first quarter.
--QB Michael Vick never had a chance on the fateful fourth-and-1 attempt that resulted in Mike Rucker's 9-yard sack. LG Matt Lehr pulled outside and Rucker was unblocked. Vick hadn't been sacked five times in a game since a Week 12 shutout loss at Tampa Bay last year.
--WR Brian Finneran continued to prove that he will catch most balls in his vicinity. He make a great move to keep both feet inbounds along the Carolina sideline early in the second quarter to convert the first of his two third-down chances.
Report Card vs. Panthers
PASSING OFFENSE: D -- Five sacks, two interceptions and a 38.1 passer rating left Michael Vick frustrated and exhausted. The protection was a big disappointment because Carolina's pass rush blocked Vick's downfield vision and prevented him from seeing open receivers.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus -- No reason for excitement when the NFL's leading ground attack converts just one of five third-down attempts. Credit the Panthers with making three important stops that kept Warrick Dunn from breaking off long touchdown runs, but the receivers should've cleared more downfield room on those plays.
PASS DEFENSE: D -- No sacks for the third time in five games, a span that also included the one-sack effort in a home loss to Green Bay. Once again, UT Rod Coleman seemed to disappear behind double teams. Max protections kept LE Patrick Kerney from recording a sack. Blitz pickups were the norm for Carolina. Atlanta had no kind of pressure coming from the right side.
RUSH DEFENSE: D -- DeShaun Foster resembled Shaun Alexander more than a second-string back who continues to work behind ineffective Stephen Davis. FS Bryan Scott strikes no fear in opposing teams, all of whom know they're in great shape once they clear the linebackers' second layer of the defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- Todd Peterson missed his first kick of the year, falling to 18-for-19 when his 49-yarder fell short in the third quarter. He doesn't have the leg strength to try anything outside 45. Rookie P Michael Koenen had an awful day. Coverage was outstanding on punts and kickoffs, but returns suffered when Brian Finneran made two fair catches inside the 10 and Scott's holding penalty spoiled DeAngelo Hall's 22-yard punt return.
COACHING: D -- The decision regarding Peterson falls solely on coach Jim Mora's shoulders. Though the failed attempt came late in the third quarter, it affected the momentum that eluded Atlanta all day. Protection schemes for Vick were unacceptable. The team's weak spot, however, is the safety position, which coaches must address if they have any hope of salvaging a winning season.