NFC West News & Notes: 9/5/05

When San Francisco coach Mike Nolan said that he felt the 49ers could win the NFC West, it had to be taken with a grain of salt. No coach can enter a season writing off his team's playoff chances. And outside of the 49ers and perhaps a small handful of other teams, nearly everyone enters the 2005 season with a legitimate shot to be a postseason contender in the parity-driven NFL.

Another new coach trying to instill a new attitude in his team is Nick Saban in Miami. In an AFC East division that contains two-time reigning Super Bowl champion New England, the Super Bowl hopeful New York Jets and a young, talented Buffalo team, the Dolphins figure to face an uphill battle this season. "I don't believe we're a 4-12 team," said Saban of the Dolphins, which finished with that record in 2004. "I believe we're a lot better than that. But we have to do some things to go out and prove it."

Five of the 12 playoff teams last season did not reach the postseason the previous year, and three of the past five Super Bowl champions didn't make the playoffs the year before.

Much of that trend can be attributed to parity. When teams rise up from the depths, they typically do it against a weaker schedule. Then the following season, when expectations have grown, life can be much more difficult against a playoff schedule.

San Diego went from worst to first in the AFC West last year, but was 1-5 against playoff teams and 2-5 against winning teams. This year's schedule appears much more difficult, but coach Marty Schottenheimer is still looking forward with high expectations.

"I like our football team," Schottenheimer said. "I like the makeup of it, the personality that the players have."

Of course, 31 teams are trying to chase down one dominant franchise. While New England has won three of the past four Super Bowls, coach Bill Belichick doesn't want to hear about a Patriots "dynasty."

"I'll leave the comparisons and historical perspectives to everyone else," said Belichick. "We'll start the season at the bottom of the heap with everyone else -- same record and all trying to get to the same point."

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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HOT TOPIC


The Seahawks have the offense to contend for another NFC West title. Their revamped defense will have to jell quickly for Seattle to claim its first playoff victory since 1984.

Management spent the offseason ridding the defense of older, oft-injured players and questionable characters. As a result, there will be seven new starters on the defensive side of the ball. Coaches are excited about the changes, but they should also be a bit nervous.

One injury at defensive end could be disastrous. The depth drops off quickly after DE Grant Wistrom. Bryce Fisher, Alain Kashama and Joe Tafoya were the other ends coming out of camp. Seattle will probably look to sign another end, but the options appear limited.

The Seahawks will again lean heavily on an offense featuring Pro Bowl players at RB, LG and LT.

Three keys for the season:

1. The defensive line must stay healthy because there isn't enough depth behind the starters. DE Grant Wistrom is the only legitimate starter at end. The other starting DE, Bryce Fisher, was an emerging backup and sometime starter with breakout potential before signing with Seattle. DT Chuck Darby and DT Marcus Tubbs look like a winning combination on the interior. But Tubbs is the only prototypical DT on the team from a size standpoint.

2. MLB Lofa Tatupu must make a positive impact as a rookie. The Seahawks used a second-round pick on the undersized emotional leader of USC's defense. Some thought Tatupu lacked sufficient physical tools. The Seahawks think Tatupu has the instincts and intangibles to succeed in the NFL. They expect him to make the calls on defense and become the kind of leader he was in college. They need to be right.

3. The right side of the offensive line must play up to its potential. Seattle will be without starting RT Floyd Womack (triceps) for the first month of the season. Second-year pro Sean Locklear will be taking his place. RG Chris Gray gets beaten at the line too often, but he is a crafty vet with 90 consecutive regular-season starts. Another injury to that side of the line could put QB Matt Hasselbeck in jeopardy, a scary thought because Seattle lacks experience behind him.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

DT Marcus Tubbs:
He could be the key to Seattle's front seven. No other player on the team can stop the run and push the pocket quite like this 2004 first-round draft choice. Tubbs enjoyed a strong training camp and preseason after a disappointing rookie year. Fellow DT Chuck Darby, a newcomer from Tampa Bay, thinks Tubbs will become a perennial Pro Bowl choice in the future.

TE Jerramy Stevens:
Seattle's 2002 first-round choice finished the preseason with a 24-yard TD catch, wrapping up his best camp as a pro. Stevens has yet to prove he can be consistently effective over the course of a season. If he does, the offense will take another step.

WR Peter Warrick: The Seahawks aren't yet sure whether Warrick will make an immediate positive impact. They liked his quickness and body control enough to sign him for one season. Warrick will be given a shot at returning punts, an area of need now that veteran WR Bobby Engram has moved into the starting lineup. Warrick's spot in the receiving rotation figures to lag early in the season.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Jerome Pathon received his release Saturday as the Seahawks met the 53-man deadline. Pathon had clashed with coaches during his brief stay with the team. He leaves with the $300,000 signing bonus he received in April.

--WR Jerheme Urban beat out WR Jerome Pathon for the final roster spot at the position. The team kept seven receivers, one more than usual. There is a chance Urban still could be let go if the team adds a defensive lineman in the coming days.

--FB Leonard Weaver is the backup to veteran FB Mack Strong after capping an excellent camp with another outstanding exhibition performance Friday night. Weaver, a rookie who played tight end at Carson-Newman, is a good enough runner to double as a backup halfback. His emergence spelled the end for RB Kerry Carter and rookie sixth-round FB Tony Jackson. Weaver was not drafted.

--LB Isaiah Kacyvenski was again rumored to be on the roster bubble this summer, but he proved the skeptics wrong again. Kacyvenski landed a spot on the 53-man roster for a sixth consecutive season. He is not expected to start, but the former fourth-round pick from Harvard is a high-energy player whose work ethic is unassailable.

--RB Josh Scobey, claimed off waivers from Arizona last month, will be given a shot at returning kicks. Scobey had a 52-yard return in the final preseason game. Afterward, coach Mike Holmgren lauded the effort as exactly the kind of boost Seattle's special teams need. RB Maurice Morris has handled kick returns in recent season, without much distinction.

--S John Howell beat out former starting SS Terreal Bierria for the final roster spot at safety. The 6-3 Bierria was the kind of tall safety favored by previous management. New Seahawks president Tim Ruskell brought in Howell as a free agent from Tampa Bay, where Ruskell worked for 17 seasons. Howell is a high-impact player on special teams.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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HOT TOPIC


The schedule is weak and the roster is improved. That should be a recipe for the Cardinals reversing their long-suffering fortunes and reaching the playoffs.
But the giddiness comes with caveats. The offensive line, which was just short of scary during the preseason, could ruin everything. The left side is healthy and solid. But the team will start its fourth-string center in the opener at the New York Giants because of injuries, and on the right side, guard remains unsettled.

It won't matter how good the receiving corps is -- and with Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson, it is very good indeed -- if quarterback Kurt Warner has no time to throw. And the passing game will suffer more if there is not at least the threat of the run from rookie back J.J. Arrington. Look for veteran Marcel Shipp, a bigger, more powerful pounding-style rusher, to see more action as the season unfolds.

Initially, a much-improved defense will have to carry the team until the injured offensive linemen return and find a rhythm that might it a high-scoring unit. Adding DE Chike Okeafor, OLB Orlando Huff and CB Antrel Rolle to a unit that had DE Bertrand Berry, OLB Karlos Dansby and SS Adrian Wilson gives the team a quick, aggressive unit with a better pass rush and stronger pass coverage. However, questions regarding run-stopping, especially with middle linebacker Gerald Hayes (knee surgery) out the entire first month, remain.

Three keys for the season:


1. The offense must find a way to score. Putting up two touchdowns a Sunday isn't going to take the team beyond the six games it won a year ago when it rarely topped the 20-point mark. There is nothing wrong with the skill players -- quarterback Kurt Warner; backs J.J. Arrington and Marcel Shipp; receivers Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson -- but the center and right side of the line is in chaos. Starting center Alex Stepanovich (fractured hand) and backup Nick Leckey (ankle) will miss the opener. A third center is on Injured Reserve already. Offense is coach Dennis Green's pride and joy, and he was livid after it went belly-up in 2004. He is prone to impulsive decision-making when things aren't going well, but patience will be a virtue for a unit that has potential but isn't likely to approach it early.

2. Rookie running back J.J. Arrington must prove he belongs. That he rushed for at least 100 yards a game and was the only college player to surpass 2,000 yards as a senior at California earned him a second-round draft position. But during pre-season play, he rarely had the openings to make use of the quick slashing and dicing the team foresaw from him in the seams of a spread-formation offense. He also fumbled a couple of times when he took a hit. Backup Marcel Shipp, meanwhile, outplayed Arrington during a superb preseason, yet Shipp will be on the bench. Arrington must show that he is not another Leeland McElroy or Thomas Jones -- high picks who never produced for the team. Without the hint of the run, a potentially great passing game will suffer.

3. The defense must stop the run. The starting tackles haven't changed but putting free agent Chike Okeafor at left end opposite Pro Bowler Bertrand Berry, and free agent Orlando Huff at weak-side linebacker, and promoting Gerald Hayes to middle linebacker (although he'll miss the first month while recovering from knee surgery) are positive steps. Veteran James Darling must come through at middle linebacker initially, though, while Hayes is on the mend.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

CB Antrel Rolle.
The assumption is that pass coverage is automatically better with the addition of the first-round pick, but he still has to show that he can play off a receiver and he still has to answer the question regarding his speed to complement the physical nature of his game. He began to answer those questions positively during preseason, but he needs to show it for a year before the team can exhale.

RB Marcel Shipp.
Some day, Shipp is going to get his due. Two years ago, he outplayed free agent Emmitt Smith during preseason and then watched from the sideline until the game's career rushing leader became injured. Shipp took over and became the team's leading rusher. Three years ago, Shipp out-played Thomas Jones during preseason, but the team was committed to the high first-round pick and started Jones ahead of Shipp -- until it was obvious that Jones was a mistake. Shipp came on to become the team's rushing leader. After missing all of 2004 following surgery on a lower-leg fracture and dislocated ankle, Shipp has come back to out-play second-round draft pick J.J. Arrington during preseason -- but again, because the team has invested heavily in another player that it views as the future star, Arrington will start ahead of Shipp. Don't be stunned if Shipp eventually gets the call and challenges Arrington, at least in the short term. Shipp does not have flashy breakaway speed but he has a knack for averaging big numbers between the tackles, and he does have enough speed to get around the corner.

KR/PR J.J. Moses. The smallish veteran was signed during the final week of preseason after J.R. Redmond, who was ticketed for both return jobs as well as third-down back, saw his season end (dislocated shoulder). Moses provides just as much experience and perhaps even more quickness and speed. An unfortunate situation for Redmond may turn out to be a happy accident for the team.

TE Adam Bergen. The undrafted rookie took advantage of an injury to Eric Edwards to work with the first team during most of training camp and preseason, and the team was pleasantly surprised. Edwards (torn pectoral) is back on the practice field, but Bergen may start the opener, and he will see considerable situational duty. With the team intent on using three-wideouts spread formations, a tight end won't always be on the field.
The drafted rookies. All seven made the roster, a bit of a surprise, and it appears three of them will start: CB Antrel Rolle, RB J.J. Arrington, G Elton Brown.

PLAYER NOTES

--CB Robert Tate, who worked with the first team early in camp before rookie Antrel Rolle signed, was a surprise final cut. But expect him back if someone else doesn't grab him. The veteran was a casualty of injuries at center, where the top two are out of action for at least the first game, forcing the team to keep four. The secondary took the resulting hit. Tate is a re-sign candidate as soon as Alex Stepanovich and Nick Leckey return and the stopgap young centers are cut.

--S Ernest Shazor, despite a late preseason rally, was among final cuts but is a strong candidate for the practice squad. When the team was forced by injuries to keep four centers, Shazor became a casualty. The undrafted rookie, after a slow start caused by a hamstring injury and personal issues, began coming on midway through the preseason schedule. The coaches like him.

--TE Bobby Blizzard, who made All-NFL Europe and was expected to be a strong challenger for the starting job, was waived in the final cut down. He was among the biggest disappointments of camp. After a shaky start, during which he did not take ownership of a wide-open position among a very inexperienced field, he was further thwarted by a back injury.

-- RB James Jackson made the roster as the third back, nudging Damien Anderson off the roster. Jackson, however, is there on a J.R. Redmond Grant -- Redmond had the job sewn up before suffering a season-ending dislocated shoulder in the third preseason game. Jackson once was high in the plans at Cleveland.

-- FB Harold Marrow was a surprise keeper on the 53-man roster. While listed as a third fullback on a team that rarely will use one, Marrow made it because he is an excellent special-teams player.

-- FS Robert Griffith, a free-agent signee last winter, won one of the most competitive battles in camp, causing Quentin Harris to be moved to SS, and 2004 starter Ifeanyi Ohalete and rookie Ernest Shazor to be cut.

--Cs Adam Haayer and Shawn Lynch, who likely would not have made the team, both are on the initial roster because starter Alex Stepanovich and Nick Leckey are injured and not expected to play in the opener.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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HOT TOPIC


The Rams believe they have been flying under the NFL's radar throughout the preseason, and they don't seem to mind it. The team went through the summer with a quiet confidence that they think is something potentially special.

The offense has the potential to be explosive as well as powerful with running back Steven Jackson replacing Marshall Faulk as the starter. Still, the components are in place for a diversified offense, considering that quarterback Marc Bulger fell just 36 passing yards short of 4,000 last season despite missing virtually three games. Receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce each went over 1,000 yards, while Jackson and Faulk combined for more than 1,300 yards rushing.

Defense and special teams will determine how much better they are this season. The defense had just 15 takeaways in 2004, the run defense was poor and special teams were arguably the worst in the league. The Rams' average drive start was last in the NFL. Any improvement in those areas should make the offense even better.

Three keys for the season:


The offensive line must be stable and protect Bulger. The Rams selected Alex Barron in the first round of the draft with the hope that he would start at right tackle. However, Barron got off to a rough start in minicamp, and then missed the first two weeks of training camp while unsigned. Converted guard Rex Tucker is now the right tackle, and he has to show the consistency in his footwork to keep speed rushers away from Bulger.

The defense has to plug the gaps and minimize big plays. Last season, the Rams allowed 17 runs of 20 or more yards, the most in the league. Yet, there were nine teams that allowed more yards per rush than the Rams. The additions of Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley at linebacker have to make the run defense more consistent, and get the ball back for the offense.

The special teams need to show a glimpse of being special. More priority was placed on special teams in the draft and free-agent additions, and training camp was spent working with players on those units that would actually be on the opening-day roster. The Rams frequently lost the field-position battle because of poor special teams last season, with the offense often beginning drives inside their own 20-yard line.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Running back Steven Jackson:
In his second season, Jackson will start ahead of Marshall Faulk, although Faulk will still have an important role in the offense. Jackson combines power with speed, in a package that will be a handful for opposing defenses. He is also a solid receiver. With his propensity to churn out 10- to 15-yard runs, it's not out of the question to envision him rushing for over 1,500 yards.

Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy:
The team's first-round pick in 2003, Kennedy came on in the home stretch of the 2004 season after returning from a broken bone in his foot suffered in training camp. He has looked unblockable at times during training camp, and seems capable of being the force in the middle of the defense the Rams expected when he was drafted.

Punter Reggie Hodges:
The rookie has frustrated coaches with his inconsistency, and will be under the microscope on every kick. In the final preseason game, following the release of veteran Bryan Barker, Hodges had one solid 43-yard punt, then skied a 28-yarder. Punters seeking tryouts will likely be a frequent occurrence unless Hodges becomes more reliable.

PLAYER NOTES

--OT Orlando Pace suffered a slightly sprained ankle in the preseason finale against Kansas City, but the injury is not believed to be serious.

--RB Aveion Cason made the opening-day roster thanks to a solid performance in the final preseason game against Kansas City. Cason rushed 20 times for 67 yards, playing more than usual because of a concussion suffered the previous game by Arlen Harris. He is expected to be cleared for the season opener against San Francisco.

--DT Ryan Pickett remained sidelined by back pain, and did not play against Kansas City. His status for the season opener against the 49ers remains in doubt.

--FB Madison Hedgecock showed enough progress in training camp that the Rams released Joey Goodspeed in the cutdown to 53 players. The Rams don't use a fullback a lot, but the rookie Hedgecock is a good blocker on the move, while being a good receiver and strong on special teams.

--CB Terry Fair, who escaped serious injury while losing feeling temporarily below his neck in the third preseason game against the Lions, made the 53-man roster and is expected to be able to practice this week and be available for the season opener against San Francisco.

--LB Robert Thomas, a first-round pick in 2002, was traded to the Packers for CB Chris Johnson. Thomas lost his starting job in the offseason when the Rams signed linebackers Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley, and he wasn't good enough on special teams to justify his salary. Johnson has had injury issues in his two seasons with the Packers, but the Rams like his speed and envision him as a potential special teams contributor.

--QB Ryan Fitzpatrick had a passer rating of 95.8 in the preseason finale against Kansas City and led the Rams to a come-from-behind victory. A seventh-round pick this year, Fitzpatrick's poise won him a roster spot over second-year man Jeff Smoker.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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HOT TOPIC


First-year 49ers coach Mike Nolan heads into the season with the kind of confidence one would not expect from a man who inherited the worst team in the league.

"Just because we went 2-14 (last season), we don't have to can the whole thing," said Nolan, who has stated repeatedly this summer he believes the 49ers can win the NFC West.

The 49ers should get an immediate indication how they stack up in the division, as they open the season at home Sunday against the Rams. Their toughest game of the season comes in Week 2 when they travel to Philadelphia to play the Eagles.

Three keys for the season:


1. The offensive line must show dramatic improvement. No primary starter from last season returns at the same position on the offensive line. The 49ers signed free-agent left tackle Jonas Jennings and they hope to have center Jeremy Newberry back from injury. The other three linemen -- left guard Justin Smiley, right guard Eric Heitmann and right tackle Kwame Harris -- are back at different spots. The 49ers believe they can be a power-running team, but the onus is on the line as much as it's on running back Kevan Barlow.

2. The pass rush has to take the heat off the secondary. The 49ers don't have much depth behind starting cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Shawntae Spencer. The club's new 3-4 scheme will have to generate a consistent pass rush to prevent opponents from routinely striking for big plays. Outside linebackers Julian Peterson, Jamie Winborn and Andre Carter will have to use their quickness to come off the edge to harass quarterbacks. Defensive end Bryant Young should benefit from the new scheme, as well.

3. Quarterback Tim Rattay has to avoid the big mistake. Rattay, who beat out top overall pick Alex Smith for the starting job, has shown in the past he can be a quality player when he remains healthy. However, most of Rattay's struggles last year came at inopportune times. Seven of his 10 interceptions came in the fourth quarter, along with three lost fumbles. In order to keep Smith on the sideline, Rattay has to protect the ball better than he did a year ago.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR Arnaz Battle:
A year ago, he was the team's top special-teams performer. Now, Battle has earned a job as the starting flanker. Battle's athleticism gives the 49ers a lot of flexibility, as he spent most of his time at Notre Dame as a quarterback. Battle will likely continue to return punts, too.

LB Andre Carter: He has switched from a defensive end in the team's old 4-3 scheme to linebacker in the 3-4. This is Carter's contract year, so he will have all kinds of incentive to put together a big year. With the 49ers' shaky situation at cornerback, Carter will be counted upon to return to his 2002 form, when he recorded a career-high 12.5 sacks.

NT Anthony Adams: His ability to hold down the interior of the line will help determine whether the 49ers can stop the run. Adams looked to have some problems at the point of attack during the exhibition season. Adams might also be used this season on offense, as a fullback on short-yardage situations.

LT Jonas Jennings: Many believe the 49ers overpaid when they awarded the former Bills lineman $12 million in guaranteed money. There was little question, however, that the club needed to sign a left tackle in free agency, and Jennings was the best player available. His ability to keep Rattay upright will be a key to the offense's production.

PLAYER NOTES


--TE Eric Johnson, the team's leading receiver last season, is expected to miss the season opener with a partially torn plantar fascia under his right foot. Johnson did not play in any of the 49ers' exhibition games this summer.

--S Mike Adams will cover the opposition's slot receiver as the 49ers' nickel cornerback. He beat out veteran Willie Middlebrooks for the team's nickel job.

--RG Eric Heitmann will start over rookie Adam Snyder. Heitmann played three exhibition games at center and sat out the finale with a knee injury. He started all 16 games last season at LG.

--C Jeremy Newberry reported feeling in good shape after playing 12 snaps in the 49ers' exhibition finale. Newberry missed all but one game last season with knee and back injuries. He has undergone three surgeries on his stubborn right knee.

--QB Cody Pickett made the roster as the 49ers' fourth quarterback. He also played special teams during the exhibition season, and the 49ers might try to use him in that role in the regular season.

--CB Derrick Johnson earned a roster spot as a rookie after tying for the NFL lead with three interceptions during the exhibition season. Johnson is the 49ers' third cornerback behind starters Ahmed Plummer and Shawntae Spencer.

--LB Corey Smith turned heads during the exhibition season with four sacks in four games after being moved from his spot as a defensive end.


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