Seattle Seahawks (0-0) at Jacksonville Jaguars (0-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Craig Shemon, Erik Kramer
SERIES: 5th meeting. The Seahawks have won three out of four in the series, but the teams have not played since 2001.
*2004 rankings: Seahawks: offense 8th (8th rush, 13th pass); defense 26th (23rd rush, 23rd pass). Jaguars: offense 21st (16th rush, 19th pass); defense 11th (11th rush, 16th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio chose white uniforms for the opener, hoping the Seahawks would have to wear their dark blues on a hot day. But with heavy rain in the forecast, the running games will play a bigger role than the heat. Seattle usually hopes RB Shaun Alexander can bust a few big plays. But Jaguars DTs Marcus Stroud and John Henderson are the best inside tandem in the league, with Henderson going against aging RG Chris Gray, so the Seahawks might have to go more to their short passing game. The Jaguars are trying to implement a more vertical passing game, but in heavy rain they will have to hope RB Fred Taylor can handle 20-plus touches despite just four preseason carries while recovering from knee surgery.
FAST FACTS: Seahawks: Will travel an NFL-high 35,930 miles by air this season. Seven of their round trips are over 3,000 miles. ... Are 9-20 in road openers, but 2-2 under coach Mike Holmgren. Jaguars: Have an NFL-best .700 winning percentage (7-3) in home openers. ... Are 35-13 (.729) all-time when scoring first. ... Have won seven of their past nine season openers.
--DT Rocky Bernard was added to the injury report Thursday. He is probable with a knee injury. Bernard missed practice and wore an ice bag on the knee.
--C Robbie Tobeck has worked at guard in practice this week because the team is thin at guard heading into the opener. Tobeck will start at his usual center spot, but he could move to guard if LG Steve Hutchinson or RG Chris Gray were injured. Rookie first-round pick Chris Spencer would either take over at center or fill one of the guard spots, coach Mike Holmgren said.
--CB Andre Dyson continues to work with the starters on the left side, a strong indication he'll open the season in the lineup. The team has yet to announce a starter at the position.
--WR Joe Jurevicius is emerging as the favorite to be the third receiver entering the season. WR Peter Warrick is coming off knee surgery and still learning the offense. WR D.J. Hackett showed some promise during camp, but he'll miss the opener because of a knee injury. WR Alex Bannister is more of a special-teams player. And WR Jerheme Urban emerged from camp as the seventh receiver on a team that figures to keep six for most of the season.
--WR D.J. Hackett continues to miss practice and will miss the season opener. He has a sprained knee.
--RT Floyd Womack continues to miss practice and will probably miss the first four games. He has a triceps injury.
--LT Wayne Hunter continues to miss practice and will miss the season opener. He has a knee injury. Hunter is running and doing agility drills off to the side during practice. The team thinks he'll be able to return for the second game.
--K Josh Brown is kicking the ball well. His kickoff depth should benefit from warm conditions in Jacksonville for the opener. Brown had a field goal blocked during preseason, but only because he was kicking behind the No. 2 line.
--WR Cortez Hankton is questionable with a high ankle sprain but he returned to practice Thursday after missing practice Wednesday.
--DE Bobby McCray is probable with a wrist injury, but he practiced for the second consecutive day.
--WR Matt Jones will make his debut against the Seahawks after being drafted on the first round. He's still learning how to run routes after making the transition from wide receiver to quarterback.
--RB Fred Taylor, who had just four carries in the preseason after coming back from knee surgery, has practiced all week and will start. How long he'll be able to play and how effective he'll be remains to be seen.
--LT Mike Pearson, returning from knee surgery, practiced all week and isn't on the injury report. He'll start, though he'll split time with Ephraim Salaam.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The Seahawks lack experienced depth on their defensive line, but coach Mike Holmgren insists his team is fine up front. "Inside, we're as deep as we've been," Holmgren said. "I think our quality is pretty good there. Outside on the defensive line, I think we have pretty good players who haven't played very much. So that's one of the things we'll find out. How do we handle this?"
The depth on the inside took a potential hit when No. 3 DT Rocky Bernard tweaked a knee during practice Wednesday. The team added Bernard to its injury report Thursday.
The starting DT combination of Chuck Darby and Marcus Tubbs appears solid. Bernard and No. 4 DT Craig Terrill provide the depth. On the outside, DE Grant Wistrom is as healthy as he has been in years. The other starter, Bryce Fisher, has shown adequate pass-rush abilities. How well he holds up against the run remains unknown because Fisher has not been an every-down player for very long. The depth at DE appears suspect. Alain Kashama and Joe Tafoya are the third and fourth ends. Tafoya has 32 tackles and one-half sack in 35 career games. Kashama has one tackle.
Seattle will have to rotate numerous defensive linemen in the opener because the heat and humidity of Jacksonville can take a toll. "We're going to use everybody," Holmgren said. "They know it. We've talked to them about it. When you play in climates like that, everyone has to play. And am I concerned about our depth? No more than normal. I mean, we just know that everyone is going to play. The team's in pretty good shape. Physically, we're in pretty good shape."
As tropical storm Ophelia lingered in the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday, the Jaguars hoped they'd have decent weather for their season opener against Seattle on Sunday. It'll be the first home season opener in the three-year tenure of coach Jack Del Rio.
The weather forecast is now for just a 30 per cent chance of rain for the game.
A dry field should help the Jaguars, because they hope to unveil the new offense of offensive coordinator Carl Smith that will feature a vertical passing game.
On a wet field, the Seahawks would have an edge with running back Shaun Alexander, who gained 176 yards against the Jaguars in their last meeting in 2001. That's still the most yardage any back has ever gained against the Jaguars. Rainy conditions also would mean the heat wouldn't be as much of a factor. The Jaguars figure they have an edge if the temperatures are in the 90s because Seattle players aren't used to dealing with the heat.
The forecast is for temperatures in the mid 80s.
Also, Fred Taylor, who's making his return from knee surgery after having just four carries in the preseason, might not be as effective on a wet field with his cutback running. The Jaguars also are concerned about windy conditions because that would make the passing game more difficult to function. If the weather isn't good, it would also cut down on the Jaguars' home field advantage because Jaguars fans tend to stay home if there's inclement weather.
Last year, there were about 25,000 no-shows for the final home game against Houston even though the Jaguars were still in the playoff hunt. The Jaguars lost 21-0. The Jaguars, who covered up almost 10,000 seats this year, were granted an extension until 4 p.m. Friday in an attempt to sell enough non-premium tickets to lift the blackout. They were 850 shy of the 50,500 non-premium blackout number when they were granted the blackout Thursday night.
Arizona Cardinals (0-0) at New York Giants (0-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Bill Maas, Chris Myers
SERIES: 121st meeting in a series that dates to 1926. The Giants hold a 77-41-2 lead over the Cardinals. In their last meeting, Cardinals running back Emmitt Smith rushed for two touchdowns and the Cardinals moved a game out of first place in the NFC West with a 17-14 win at Sun Devil Stadium on Nov. 14, 2004. In their last meeting at Giants Stadium, on Dec. 15, 2001, Giants quarterback Kerry Collins fired a 4-yard scoring pass to Amani Toomer with 25 seconds left for a 17-13 victory. The Big Red has taken two in a row in the series but the Giants, a longtime NFC East rival before realignment, have won 11 of the past 16.
*2004 rankings: Cardinals: offense 27th (22nd rush, 24th pass); defense 12th (27th rush, 9th pass). Giants: offense 23rd (11th rush, 27th pass); defense 13th (28th rush, 8th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Cardinals QB Kurt Warner returns to Giants Stadium with a trio of playmaking receivers. The problem is Warner has limited mobility at best, and the Cardinals are starting their fifth-string center and a rookie right guard. That contributed to a rough preseason for rookie RB J.J. Arrington and continued poor offensive line play will disrupt Warner, who's game is based on timing. Giants QB Eli Manning appears to be over his elbow injury, but he'll have to shake off some rust and prove his arm strength is back. Look for the Giants to come out running the ball behind RB Tiki Barber in an attempt to open up the deeper passing lanes to WR Plaxico Burress and TE Jeremy Shockey. Manning must be careful, however, because the Cardinals have rebuilt their defense around speed.
FAST FACTS: Cardinals: Open on the road for the 17th time in the past 18 years. ... Warner is the NFL all-time leader with a career 65.9 completion percentage. Giants: Forty wins in season openers is tied with Chicago for the most in the NFL. ... Barber is the only active player to lead his team in career rushing yards (6,927) and receptions (474).
--TE Eric Edwards is likely to start. He is the Cardinals' lone tight end with experience, but he caught only five balls last season.
--TE Adam Bergen has the best hands among the tight ends, and the club used him in the preseason to stretch the field down the middle.
--MLB Gerald Hayes probably won't return until midseason from a knee injury. Hayes is a decent run stuffer, so his absence will be felt.
--WR Anquan Boldin had a quiet preseason, catching only six passes. But don't expect that to continue in the regular season. He'll be quarterback Kurt Warner's main target.
--WR Larry Fitzgerald is going to see a lot of press coverage this year. Fitzgerald needs to improve in that area before he'll see teams back off.
--FB James Hodgins should have a role in this offense, especially if the running game sputters. Hodgins is a devastating blocker and there are times he should be leading RB J.J. Arrington through a hole. The Cardinals, however, like using a one-back set.
--RCB Will Peterson (knee) has practiced the past two days, but coach Tom Coughlin wasn't willing to announce that he'll start Sunday. "Will has practiced pretty much every snap all week," Coughlin said, "and I think by Sunday, after having a couple of down days to rest, he should be ready to go."
--CB Corey Webster, the Giants' second round draft pick from LSU, would start if Peterson can't go, but with the Cardinals expected to use frequent three-WR sets, it might be the taller (6-4) Curtis Deloatch who starts, with Webster as the full-time nickel back.
--WLB Barrett Green (knee) isn't a starter these days, having given up that job to Carlos Emmons (who moved over from SLB). But he might play extensively. "We're going to have to juggle him, figure out how much he should play based on how he is playing, and I think we'll probably do that for a while," said Coughlin.
--SLB Reggie Torbor, a rookie last year, will be starting his first NFL game and the Cardinals figure to pick on him. "I am not concerned about that," he said. "I know my role and I know this position and whatever happens, I'm confident I'll manage to do a good job."
--QB Jared Lorenzen, who surprisingly made the team as the third-stringer over veteran Jesse Palmer, doesn't expect to see any action Sunday. The third QB can only come in if the coach isn't going to put the first two back in the game. But there is a question about the 6-4, 280-pounder's role if he comes in as a power back on third-and-1.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The offensive line will be under tremendous scrutiny Sunday against the Giants after a poor preseason showing. The Cardinals failed to put together a consistent running attack, and quarterback Kurt Warner was under constant pressure. It doesn't help that the team probably will start its fourth-string center, Shawn Lynch. The starter, Alex Stepanovich, has a broken hand and won't return until next week at the earliest. His backup, Nick Leckey, has a high ankle sprain and has been limited in practice. And the third center, Bill Conaty, is on injured reserved with a biceps injury. Leckey is listed as questionable but has shown improvement over the past week. But he has no experience, either. As a rookie last year, he played on special teams but did not take a snap from scrimmage.
Rookie J.J. Arrington is starting at running back, and he's not a bruiser. He needs some space in order to use his strength, which is speed. Don't be surprised if backup Marcel Shipp sees a nice amount of playing time. He is more physical than Arrington and is more apt to gain a few yards when there's no hole.
The Giants took Tiki Barber in the second round of the 1997 draft. They envisioned a reserve role, as well as special teams, for the bright but kind of small University of Virginia product whose twin, Ronde, was a defensive back they also considered. Nine years later, he is the Giants' all-time rushing leader, a Pro Bowl veteran with a career rushing average of 4.5 yards per carry. He is also the team's all-time leader in receptions, five ahead of Amani Toomer, but Toomer is a wide receiver whose primary job is to catch passes.
Oh, and Barber also has 22 career 100-yard rushing games - three more than Joe Morris - and in 2004 he had his best single-season rushing total of 1,518 yards, a 4.7 yards-per-carry average and 15 touchdowns, including one as a receiver. All of which has something to do with the Giants' home opener against Arizona, in which Barber will be counted on extensively to ignite the offense. And it is the reason the Giants announced that Barber has signed a two-year extension on his contract that currently runs through next season.
No terms were announced, but his agent, Mark Lepselter, did acknowledge that Tiki is scheduled to earn $4.5 million this year and in 2006, so the two-year extension, clearly, is worth more than that per season. "I'm just glad to get it over with," Barber said. "It's something we've been working on for a few months and I'm glad to get it done. It assures I'll be here for the rest of my career and I'm excited about that. This organization has been very loyal to me and I have been very loyal to them, and it will always be that way."
The 30-year-old Barber, listed at 5-10, 200, signed a six-year, $24 million contract in 2001 that included a signing bonus of $7 million. There was no indication that the two-year extension carries a signing bonus as well, though they usually do. Sunday, Barber will be operating with a new starting quarterback, Eli Manning, as well as a new right tackle, Kareem McKenzie. He should benefit from the downfield coverage that will be accorded new wide receiver Plaxico Burress and to a rejuvenated and finally healthy tight end Jeremy Shockey.
"I am excited about this team and this season," he says. "We can really get something accomplished, I believe."
St. Louis Rams (0-0) at San Francisco 49ers (0-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, Tim Ryan
SERIES: 111th meeting: Rams lead the series, 58-50-2, and have won 10 of the past 12 games. Since 1999, the two San Francisco wins have come at home, in 2002 and 2003.
*2004 rankings: Rams: offense 6th (26th rush, 5th pass); defense 17th (29th rush, 11th pass). 49ers: offense 26th (30th rush, 20th pass); defense 24th (20th rush, 19th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: To stay within shouting distance, the 49ers must win the turnover battle -- probably by a few. With a new 3-4 defense and a very shaky secondary, San Francisco will have to be aggressive in causing protection problems and coming after QB Marc Bulger. While Bulger isn't typically as strong on the road, he should have little problem moving the ball, especially if RB Steven Jackson has success on the ground. The 49ers have to score consistently to be competitive, which means an offensive line that played poorly in the preseason must come together. RB Kevan Barlow will get plenty of early carries as San Francisco attempts to control the clock. The Rams allowed 136.2 rushing yards per game last season, so the potential for a big ground game is there. If not, immobile QB Tim Rattay will take a beating.
FAST FACTS: Rams: Won nine of their past 13 season openers. ... Have outscored the 49ers 2,465-2,462 in 111 previous meetings. 49ers: Rattay threw seven of his 10 INTs and had three fumbles in the fourth quarter last season. ... S Tony Parrish has an NFL-high 23 INTs over the past four seasons.
--WR Isaac Bruce is now the NFL's active leader in receiving yards following the retirement of Jerry Rice. Bruce has 11,753 yards. Marvin Harrison is the active leader in receptions and receiving touchdowns. Asked about being first in yards, Bruce said, "It's big. But Jerry will always been No. 1 in my eyes. He's what every receiver in this league aims to be. We'll miss him."
--RB Aveion Cason could be the kickoff returner Sunday against the 49ers with CB Terry Fair likely out because of a neck injury. Cason received extra playing time in the final preseason game because RB Arlen Harris was sidelined with a concussion, and did enough good things to make the 53-man roster.
--RB Arlen Harris said he's ready to play after missing the final preseason game because of a concussion suffered Aug. 29 against Detroit. If healthy, Harris will compete with Aveion Cason for the job as kickoff returner.
--P Reggie Hodges will be under the microscope in Sunday's game against San Francisco. Hodges has been inconsistent throughout the summer. However, the Rams did not bring in any punters for tryouts this past week.
--OL Blaine Saipaia will likely be one of only seven linemen active for Sunday's game against the 49ers because of his versatility. Saipaia became the backup center when Larry Turner was released in the cutdown to 53 players. At some point in the preseason, Saipaia has played every position on the line.
--NT Anthony Adams will start at his listed position, but he might also see action at defensive end and on offense. Adams played some fullback this summer in short-yardage situations, and might be called up in the regular season. "I'm big and fat and can move people out of the way," said Adams, listed at 6-foot, 300 pounds.
--TE Eric Johnson wore an orthopedic boot on his right foot on Thursday and shows no signs of being available to play Sunday due to a case of plantar fasciitis. Johnson has not practiced since Aug. 9 but is listed on a game-to-game basis.
--TE Steve Bush figures to see a lot of action as the 49ers probably will not have start Eric Johnson available for the season opener. Coach Mike Nolan said Bush gives the 49ers more versatility because he can play on and off the ball.
--TE Billy Bajema will see a lot of action, along with Steve Bush, as the team compensates for the loss of starter Eric Johnson. Bajema could even start, depending on what the 49ers decide to do with their first offensive play.
--QB Cody Pickett, the team's No. 4 signal-caller, could see action on special teams Sunday. Coach Mike Nolan said it all depends on which players the staff decides to dress as part of their 45-man game roster.
--C Jeremy Newberry went through his one practice for the week. He took about 45 snaps during practice and declared himself ready for the game. Newberry is nursing a bad right knee, which essentially has no cartilage remaining. He will undergo major surgery when his season concludes.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
He doesn't get mentioned much when discussions of the NFL's top quarterbacks begin, but that could change this season if Rams quarterback Marc Bulger has the season he, and his teammates believe, he is capable of. Last season, Bulger passed for 3,964 yards, and he missed two full games and most of a third because of a shoulder injury. When he returned from that injury, he helped the Rams qualify for the playoffs and win a postseason game, posting a 106.3 passer rating in the final two games of the regular season and two playoff games. In those four games, Bulger passed for 1,287 yards, completing 67.6 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
Coach Mike Martz believes Bulger is ready to establish himself as one of the league's elite passers.
Entering the regular season opener against the 49ers, Martz said, "I think he's probably pretty close to where he was when last season ended, to be honest with you. He's really playing at a high level." Wide receiver Isaac Bruce is very impressed with Bulger's ability. "I think he realizes what he means to this team, and what he means to this offense now," Bruce said. "That was very evident when he went down last year vs. the 49ers here at home, and we missed him for those two games. Things didn't go as well as they should have when he was in there. I believe just having him in the offense makes everything a whole lot smoother."
Bulger has confidence in his ability and that of his teammates, but he also knows it's now put up or shut up time.
"For me personally, this is as happy as I've been going into the year," Bulger said. "Being confident in the line. Being confident in all my receivers, and not just the first two. Being confident in the tight end. It all looks good right now on paper. We should be scoring a lot of points. But we have to go out and get it done."
Concluded Rams defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson, "If we keep his jersey clean, I see a guy who has MVP-type potential."
The 49ers' new 3-4 defensive scheme will be put to an immediate test Sunday against the Rams, one of the more imposing offenses in the league. The 49ers struggled in the first two exhibition games before playing much better to close out the preseason. But coach Mike Nolan said the transition to a new defense is not necessarily what concerns him.
"It's not as significant as you might think," Nolan said. "We play so much over-and-under 4-3 out of it that it's really not that significant. The biggest thing is the guys playing together. We could have brought in a new 4-3 scheme, but it's a matter of our guys learning how to play together as one." The 49ers have three significant defensive players in new positions this season. Bryant Young moves from defensive tackle to defensive end. Andre Carter goes from defensive end to outside linebacker. And free safety Mike Rumph makes the switch from cornerback. A lot of pressure figures to be on Rumph, as the Rams figure to challenge the 49ers with their vertical passing game.
"It's going to be a tough challenge for the corners," Rumph said. "I know because I've been out there. I've already seen it as a corner, and I want to help them as much as possible. I think our corners will go out there and challenge them and I want to be there for them." The 49ers' starting cornerbacks, Ahmed Plummer and Shawntae Spencer, figure to get challenged often on Sunday. But it won't stop there. The 49ers can't feel confident about their depth in the secondary, and the Rams can test nickel and dime pass coverages better than any team in the NFL. Second-year player Mike Adams beat out veteran Willie Middlebrooks for the nickel back job. Adams will line up against the Rams' slot receiver in three-WR formations.
"I know they'll come after me," Adams said, "It's nothing new. I've always been an underdog kind of guy. I wasn't drafted, so I had to take what wasn't given to me all the time."