The Seahawks head to Washington carrying baggage filled with memories of poor performances on the East Coast. The team has also struggled with the Redskins' defensive personnel in recent seasons, even in Seattle. Overcoming that history will require continued commitment to the running game and improved pass defense.
Sometimes it seems as though coach Mike Holmgren needs a few weeks to realize how much he needs the ground game to succeed. Not this season. The concept became particularly appealing after QB Matt Hasselbeck took a beating from Jacksonville in the season opener.
Holmgren responded by leaning on RB Shaun Alexander during consecutive home victories over Atlanta and Arizona. Alexander has 50 carries for 284 yards and five touchdowns in those games. Hasselbeck has hardly been touched because containing Alexander is such a high priority for opposing defenses.
The Redskins will severely test Holmgren's commitment to the run. They will tempt him to spread the field and pick up chunks of yardage through the air. They would much rather take their chances with Hasselbeck than let Alexander control the game on the ground.
Washington is allowing only 65.5 yards rushing per game, second-best in the league, and coordinator Gregg Williams always seems to get the most from his personnel.
Alexander has done a better job of picking a running lane and bursting through quickly. In past seasons, Holmgren has complained a bit about Alexander forsaking the sure gain for a shot at the game-breaking play. Holmgren's preferred approach helps keep the chains moving even if Alexander might have to sacrifice the big play on occasion. But as Alexander proved last week against Arizona, sometimes he can have it both ways.
The Cardinals shut down a sweep to the right, only to have Alexander reverse course and break free for a 45-yard gain that resembled something Marcus Allen might have pulled off. The key is letting those plays happen instead of looking for them. "The one thing I thought (against Arizona), right from the beginning, I thought he ran real hard," Holmgren said. "I thought he slammed it up in there pretty good. Now, he made a couple plays by doing what he does and that's starting over there and coming back over this way. I've said it many times: I don't want to take that away from him because he makes plays.
"But there were times in there when we called plays basically up the gut on short-yardage situations or second-and-2 and he was running it like he wanted to get the two yards. That's a good thing."
Alexander leads the league in third-and-1 rushing, converting all four of his chances. His 21 rushing first downs also lead the NFL. "I don't think it's been different from any other years," Alexander said. "We just changed some of our packages. It just gets to be synched. It looks the same to me. I've watched some of the other games, and thought, is it different? It's not."
Defensively, Seattle needs to tighten up certain aspects of its pass protection. Each week this season, an opposing receiver has run free through the secondary thanks to a busted coverage. The latest instance produced a 45-yard gain for Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin. The Seahawks caught Boldin before he could score, but they can't afford to take their chances with Redskins WR Santana Moss, who is faster and more of a playmaker. Moss proved he could exploit undisciplined coverage when he caught two late touchdown passes during a 14-13 victory over Dallas two weeks ago.
"We have to be really sound in the secondary," Holmgren said. "I think that will be a big key to our season. I'm kind of laying it on them, I guess, but I think we have talented young guys back there and now we have to be real disciplined.
"The play where the guy ran down the field wide open, you're not going to see that too many times."
SERIES HISTORY: 13th meeting. Washington leads, 8-4. The Redskins have won the last three in the series, although this is the first meeting for Holmgren and Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. The Seahawks are 0-2 at Washington since winning there in 1995.
--Mike Holmgren was a senior quarterback at USC when the Trojans hired a line coach named Joe Gibbs. Some 35 years later, Holmgren and Gibbs are about to square off for the first time as NFL head coaches. Gibbs, now in his second stint with Washington, almost hired Holmgren to be the Redskins' offensive coordinator in 1988. The plan fell through when San Francisco promoted Holmgren to the same position with the 49ers. Holmgren's head-coaching career began with Green Bay in 1992, just as Gibbs was about to leave the game for more than a decade.
"He's one of the fine men in this business," Holmgren said. "I've always had tremendous respect for him and what he stands for, on and off the field. He's a Hall of Fame coach. He's deserving of everything he's got, and he's done a remarkable job."
--Gibbs was safely in retirement when the Steve Spurrier-led Redskins played Holmgren's Seahawks in one of the least artistic games of the 2002 season, or any season. Washington won, 14-3. "It was an ugly game, just a brutal game," Holmgren recalled. "I remember talking to Spurrier after the game, and he goes, 'Boy, we just set football back about ...'
"And it was true. It was just the worst thing I've ever seen. I was very disappointed in how we played that day. But you learn from everything. We've never had a game like that since, in my opinion. I didn't think we played hard enough. That's a terrible thing for a coach to have to say."
BY THE NUMBERS: 41.8, as in QB Matt Hasselbeck's passer rating on third down this season. Hasselbeck has completed only 7-of-21 passes on the pivotal down, leading to a rating that ranks 30th in the league.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "As the season goes along, they will get better and continue to get better. They are playing pretty good right now but I think their best games are ahead of them." - Coach Mike Holmgren on the Seahawks defense, which ranks eighth in the NFL heading into Week 4.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Seattle's punting game hasn't been very strong so far but the team appears confident that P Leo Araguz will work though his early inconsistencies. The team has gone through numerous punters since deciding not to re-sign veteran P Jeff Feagles after the 2002 season. Mat McBriar, Donnie Jones and Chris Kluwe are younger punters who came through Seattle in recent seasons, only to catch on elsewhere.
"(Araguz) didn't have a good day Sunday," coach Mike Holmgren said. "He's a good punter who I thought he didn't kick as well as he's capable of kicking. But he'll be fine.
"He's a veteran. He knows how to do it, and he knows what to do. So, I would just write that off (Sunday) as he'll have better days."
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--QB Matt Hasselbeck is sharing time with backup QB Seneca Wallace in practice. That was the case Wednesday. The idea is to keep Hasselbeck's arm fresh. The arm has bothered him since Hasselbeck took a hard shot on the last play of an opening-day loss in Jacksonville. Hasselbeck is not on the injury report.
--TE Itula Mili does not appear quite ready to return from an intestinal blockage because his strength has not fully recovered. He is not on the injury report, but he remains a candidate to be inactive Sunday.
--WR D.J. Hackett could become part of the offense this week because veteran WR Peter Warrick is questionable with a hamstring injury. Hackett could see time as the fourth receiver Sunday. He has deep-threat potential.
--LT Wayne Hunter will miss the game Sunday with a hamstring injury.
--RT Floyd Womack is listed as doubtful on the injury report. He is expected to return after missing this game.
--CB Kelly Herndon is probable with a neck stinger. He did not practice Wednesday but was expected to practice Thursday.
GAME PLAN: Trying to establish the ground game is a given, but Seattle must also focus hard on pass protection. The Seahawks improved that area over the last two weeks and the trend must continue against the Redskins' blitzing defense. Seattle has the personnel to spread the field and take advantage of the Redskins' nickel and dime packages, but only if QB Matt Hasselbeck has the time to throw. RB Shaun Alexander has improved his pass protection this season and he'll need to step up in that area again for Seattle to win this game. On defense, the Seahawks will need to use their speed to contain Redskins RB Clinton Portis, particularly on the outside.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Seahawks DE Bryce Fisher, who has three sacks in three games, vs. Redskins RT Jon Jansen, who is playing with two broken thumbs. Fisher has been a better pass rusher than expected, but he lacks the size and strength to deal with Jansen on running plays. Fisher does play with tenacity, however, and he should be able to make an impact on passing plays. One of the keys to this matchup could be whether Fisher has to be preoccupied with the run.
Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant, who his coming off his best game of the seasons, vs. Redskins WR Santana Moss, who caught two long TD passes in his most recent game. Seattle's coaching staff is putting the pressure on a young secondary to strike the correct balance between being aggressive and remaining disciplined. Trufant is one who could stand to be more aggressive. He could also use some more disciplined play from the safety position. Seattle's matchup with Moss could determine the outcome of the game because the Redskins are otherwise not a big-play team.
INJURY IMPACT: Offensive-line depth remains a bit of an issue this week because starting RT Floyd Womack and backup LT Wayne Hunter remain sidelined by injuries. Seattle should be fine as long as its starters remain available, but an injury at one of the tackle spots would really compromise what the team wants to do offensively. The situation should stabilize when Womack returns next week.
It's a good week to be getting out of the country. "We are really disappointed," Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green said of an 0-3 start, in which his touted offense has scored one touchdown. "We made a lot of changes the past couple of years, and we were hoping those changes would take hold and we'd be a lot better.
"It's not working. Things I felt real strongly would work for us, right now they are not working for us. The job I felt I could do, I have not been able to do right now. I am not happy about it." For a team intent on establishing runs, there seemingly would be no finer place than Mexico, where the Cardinals "host" the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in the first regular-season NFL game ever outside of the United States. The Cardinals cannot run the ball, and that is the root of their offensive woes. Rookie running back J.J. Arrington, a second-round pick, has been a huge disappointment (13 carries, 14 yards) and lost the job to veteran Marcel Shipp.
"He needs some blocking," Green said of Arrington. "Everybody is familiar with the kind of years that he has had (in college). Everybody is familiar with how J.J played and what role he had. A back has to have holes to run through. He has exceptional speed and he has tremendous ambition and he wants to do well. He's frustrated, but nobody's more frustrated than me."
The Cardinals have fallen into situations where they were forced to throw, but prior to reaching them, they didn't appear to be dedicated to running the ball with Shipp. That has to change, and this opponent normally would be the antidote. But the Cardinals offensive line, weak all year, loses right tackle Oliver Ross (hand) this week, to be replaced by a converted defensive end in his first offensive start, Fred Wakefield.
And quarterback Kurt Warner, who was on his way to rehabilitating his reputation, suffered a groin injury that will sideline him for about a month, putting Josh McCown back in the lineup. McCown was the starting quarterback in all six wins in 2004, but lost the confidence of Green, who tried to replace McCown then and eventually did so during the off season.
The line play and failure to establish the run have reduced the effectiveness of receivers Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson, who were expected to have eye-popping seasons and help the team erase the scoring malfeasance of 2004 that drove Green crazy.
But, it has gotten even worse.
Were it not for a 59-yard punt return by Reggie Swinton midway through the third quarter against the New York Giants in the opener to set up a 39-yard short-field scoring drive, the Cardinals would be approaching the end of the first quarter of the season without an offensive touchdown. They've been blanked in nine quarters since Fitzgerald caught a 1-yard scoring toss from Warner at the Meadowlands. "We shoot ourselves in the foot," Green said. "We've been doing that week in, week out.
"We had a vision of how we were going to rebuild this O-line. It hasn't work that way because of injuries. We've only really had two weeks of practice where we had (starting center) Alex Stepanovich. He played every single play as a rookie last year, which is very unusual.
"(Offensive tackle) Oliver Ross, who we signed as an unrestricted free agent out of Pittsburgh, is a very good run blocker. He was one of the key links in that 15-1 regular season that they had last year. Oliver hurt his knee in training camp. He missed about three weeks of training camp and he had only been back three weeks including training camp. Now he has fractured his hand. He is out. We've had to adjust on the fly. The injuries have been much more than you can anticipate. It's probably had the most effect on us."
SERIES HISTORY: 28th meeting. The San Francisco 49ers hold a 17-10 lead in the series over the Arizona Cardinals. The Cardinals have dropped seven of the last eight - including both last season, both in overtime. In their last meeting, on Dec. 12, 2004 in Tempe, Ariz., the 49ers rallied to a 31-28 overtime win when Todd Peterson made a 31-yard field goal after three touchdown passes by Ken Dorsey brought the team back to force overtime in the NFC West clash. The most memorable game in the series from the Cardinals' perspective came in 1988. Trailing 23-0 in the second half, the team rallied for a 24-23 win on Nov. 6 under coach Gene Stallings in the Big Red's initial season in Arizona.
--Hola, Mexico! The league sends the Cardinals as the designated home team to a country that supposedly has the largest fan base for American football outside of the United States. The Cardinals. Those lovable lugs who have for the better part of 50 years conducted a clinic on how not to do it. Tickets are selling as if this is a normal Cardinals home game. That is to say, they're selling poorly. The team has been at the bottom of the NFL in home attendance since the 20th century. Because sales were slow, the league stepped in and decided not to sell several rows of tickets low in the stadium, reducing the capacity at Estadio Azteca from more than 100,000 to 85,000. At last report, organizers still are roughly 30,000 short of a sellout.
At least the team won't lose money, thanks to the deep pockets of the league. This is the first regular-season NFL game ever played outside the United States. The league selected a matchup of two of its weaker members, leading skeptics to wonder if it ever would do this to a team that had something at stake. "The league asked us if we'd do it, because they wanted to have an international game," Cardinals coach Dennis Green said. "California, Arizona and Texas are the only three states that border Mexico. I think it's natural and adventurous in the game, so we said, 'Yes sir, we'll go and do it.'
"The good thing is that it is a nationally televised game and it's been a long time since the Arizona Cardinals have been on a nationally televised Sunday or Monday night game. We're going to do the best we can."
"The best we can" has resulted in an 0-3 start and non-winning records in all but one season since 1984. Not only is the game being exposed to the people of Mexico, it will be telecast to more than 200 countries worldwide - not the sort of showcase that is going to help the NFL with "the best we can" from the Big Red. "It's not up to me, I'm just a football coach," Green said. "Our organization down here in Arizona is very close to the border and we have a lot of fans down in the country of Mexico. We're going to have the Super Bowl here in a couple of years. We have a new stadium coming and a lot of things to be positive about. I think we're a natural choice.
"If you're going to go into Mexico City to play a game, the largest city in the world with 27 million, I think we'd probably be the natural team. It would be us or the Dallas Cowboys and I don't think there's any way Dallas would have given up a home game. They sell out their games and we do not sell out our games. It was easier for us to make that sacrifice and we made it."
--QB Josh McCown, who will start in place of injured Kurt Warner (groin), has five career touchdown passes against the 49ers and had a career-best 307 passing yards in an overtime loss to them last Dec. 12.
--RB Marcel Shipp, the team's rushing leader in 2002 and 2003 before missing 2004 to a lower leg fracture and dislocated ankle that required surgery, has come back to regain the starting position from rookie J.J. Arrington, who is averaging only a yard a carry.
Shipp had a career best 165 yards rushing against the 49ers on Oct. 26, 2003.
--The Cardinals are the only team with two receivers that have more than 250 receiving yards each through three games. Anquan Boldin's receptions have covered 269 yards, Larry Fitzgerald's 266. Fitzgerald and Boldin each are among the league top 10 in receptions, too.
--K Neil Rackers might be the sole beneficiary of the inept Cardinals offense. Rackers is 10 for 10 in field-goal tries with an offense that approaches the close of the first quarter of the season with one offensive touchdown. Four of Rackers' tries have covered at least 40 yards and two have covered at least 50, with a long of 54. To augment his field-goal accuracy, Rackers has followed his three-pointers with exceptional kickoffs. He is tied for the league lead with seven touchbacks.
--Since 1990, when the playoff format was expanded to 12 teams, only three that have started 0-3 reached the postseason. The last was Buffalo, five years ago. The Cardinals take an 0-3 mark to Mexico City to face San Francisco on Sunday.
BY THE NUMBERS: 22 - Road losses by the Cardinals in their past 23 road games. While Sunday's historic matchup with San Francisco in Mexico City technically is a Cardinals home game, it is away from home and it won't look or feel like a home game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I told them I better not see a camera. I don't even want to see a camera phone. This is a football game and it's a division game. It's an NFC West Conference game. It's an important game for us. We're 0-3 right now and San Francisco is 1-2. So we're not going in there for anything other than to play a much better football game with an optimistic approach." - Coach Dennis Green, on his winless Cardinals going to Mexico City to play in the first NFL regular-season game ever outside the United States on Sunday, against the San Francisco 49ers.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This is Josh McCown's shot at redemption. He was yanked as the starter at midseason in 2004, returning to the job late only because injuries forced it. Yet his record as the starter was 6-7 on a 6-10 team. He is athletic. He has had big games against the 49ers, but he can be rattled and forced into turnovers with the ball. He gets the start in place of injured Kurt Warner.
The line in front of him has been shaky all year and won't improve after losing RT Oliver Ross (hand) for this game. Fred Wakefield, a former starting DE, makes his first start on offense in Ross' spot.
Warner (groin) is likely out for at least three weeks.
Look for offensive coordinator Keith Rowen to take some of the heat off McCown by running Marcel Shipp more to establish a ground game, in turn allowing McCown to build confidence with play-action passes.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--QB Rohan Davey, a fourth-round pick by New England in 2002, signed a one-year contract, confirmation that starting QB Kurt Warner's groin injury will sideline him for several weeks. Davey initially will be the No. 3 QB behind Josh McCown and John Navarre. In 2003, Davey was NFL Europe Offensive Player of the Year.
--QB Josh McCown, 6-7 as the starter on a 6-10 Cardinals team last year, moves into the starting lineup in the wake of Kurt Warner's groin injury.
--QB Kurt Warner is expected to be sidelined until the team returns to action after a bye against Tennessee on Oct. 23.
--DT Russell Davis, who started 66 of the past 67 games dating to 2000, was placed on injured reserve (biceps) and may undergo surgery.
--DT Ross Kolodziej will start in place of injured Russell Davis against San Francisco.
--RG Adam Haayer, who replaced rookie Elton Brown during the Seattle game, is expected to remain in the lineup.
--RG Elton Brown, who cracked the lineup as a rookie, was yanked during the Seattle game and may lose his starting position this week to Adam Haayer.
--TE John Bronson (knee) was placed on injured reserve.
--CB Lamont Reid was promoted to the 53-man roster from the practice squad after starting CBs Antrel Rolle and David Macklin suffered injuries. Rolle (knee) is out and Macklin (hamstring) is probable for the game in Mexico City vs. San Francisco.
--WR Carlyle Holiday was signed to the practice squad. He made it to the Cardinal's final cut down during preseason.
GAME PLAN: Coach Dennis Green acknowledged that what he's attempting to do is not working. But don't look for the team to suddenly come out in the Wishbone - although with running QB Josh McCown starting in place of injured Kurt Warner he is equipped to do it. Instead look for a rededication to execution. The team is moving the ball - 321 yards a game - but has only one offensive touchdown as the season reaches the first-quarter mark this week. Penalties have led to most of the breakdowns. Turnovers are a close second. With San Francisco not posing an overpowering defensive threat, this might be a good week to get back to basics and just work the system hard to establish a pattern of success that has been missing from the first three battles. In other words, run Marcel Shipp, and run him, and run him.
Defensively, it would be a great week for the offense to start scoring points. The defense is battered by injuries. Weariness and lack of quality depth have been reflected in it giving up an average 23 points a game in the second half - including 27 last week to a team that had not scored a single point in the second half coming in, Seattle. The Cardinals are mindful that 49ers QB Tim Rattay had a hot hand last week and that RB Kevan Barlow routinely mows them over. The effort, then, might begin with clamping down on a below-average group of 49ers receivers to take away the pass, in turn creating more flexibility in how the Cardinals address Barlow.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
-Cardinals DEs Bertrand Berry, a 2004 Pro Bowler, and Chike Okeafor, who began his career with the 49ers, vs. 49ers QB Tim Rattay, who tied a career high with three touchdown passes last Sunday. The pass rush must disrupt Rattay, who grew up in Phoenix and played high school ball at Phoenix Christian. If Rattay has time to throw, the Cardinals' crippled CBs will be exposed and embarrassed by the 49ers no-name receiving corps. And if the passing game is in gear, RB Kevan Barlow won't have any more trouble complementing it with big rushing yardage than Shaun Alexander of Seattle did last week (140 yards, four touchdowns). Berry has three sacks this season, Okeafor one. Rattay had career highs of 417 passing yards and 38 completions against the Cardinals in an overtime win in San Francisco last Oct. 10.
--Cardinals defensive front seven, becoming too accustomed to being shelled on the ground, vs. RB Kevan Barlow, who has a history of pulverizing the unit. The Cards served up 140 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns to Seattle's Shaun Alexander last week and the specter of Barlow duplicating that hovers over the team. Already attempting to survive without its top two middle linebackers because of injury, the unit this week will play without starting DT Russell Davis, who has a bicep injury that ended his season. The outlook isn't brilliant, especially considering that Barlow rushed for a career-high 154 rush yards against the Cardinals on Dec. 7, 2003. If there is a ray of hope here, it is that Barlow's 2005 numbers (40 yards a game, 3.4 yards a carry) normally wouldn't scare anyone. But then, the Seahawks offense got well last week against this defense.
INJURY IMPACT: QB Kurt Warner (groin strain) will miss the game against the 49ers in Mexico City and is expected to be out through the Oct. 16 bye. QB Josh McCown, 6-7 as a starter in 2004, moves back into the lineup. Although coach Dennis Green spent most of his first off-season touting McCown's athleticism and moxie, Green seemed to lose confidence quickly in McCown and yanked him at midseason before injuries forced Green to put him back in the lineup late in the year. The Cards got Warner in free agency this past off-season. McCown was rusty when thrust into action at Seattle last week, quickly losing a fumble that led to a short-field Seahawks touchdown. QB John Navarre, who got one start as a rookie in 2004 before a fractured finger ended his year, will be the backup and could see action early if McCown struggles. As apprehensive as Green is about McCown, he seems to love Navarre. The team has signed Rohan Davey as the third QB during Warner's absence. This further sets back an offense that has scored one touchdown in its first three games, and none in the past nine quarters.
RT Oliver Ross (hand) is out Sunday and will be replaced by Fred Wakefield, who makes his first start since moving from DE a year ago. That's not likely to boost a unit that is averaging 321 yards a game but can't punch the ball into the end zone.
DT Russell Davis (bicep) was placed on Injured Reserve and may undergo surgery. Veteran Ross Kolodziej moves into Davis' starting spot on a unit that has been unable to stop the run and faces a back, the 49ers' Kevan Barlow, who has a history of running through it.
CB Antrel Rolle (knee) is out Sunday and will be replaced by Raymond Walls. The other starting CB, David Macklin (hamstring), is probable but unlikely to be a full strength. The CB situation probably will force the team to make the safeties a big part of the pass coverage, in turn reducing what they can do to assist the front seven in controlling the running game. It's not a pretty thought for a defense that has given up an average of 23 points a game in the second half as depleted depth caused by injuries becomes a critical factor.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
The Rams have had their moments offensively in the first three games of the season, but have yet to put together a complete game. They will have to be better against the Giants than they've been in order to win in a tough place to play, against a team playing its third home game of the season.
And they will most likely have to do it without wide receiver Isaac Bruce and with a banged-up running back Steven Jackson. Bruce suffered a hyperextended toe against Tennessee and is considered doubtful Sunday. Jackson suffered a cracked sternum against Tennessee, but is expected to play. After Bruce left the game against Tennessee in the second quarter, Kevin Curtis stepped up and caught five passes for 56 yards and the winning touchdown. Curtis played extensively at the end of last season when Bruce had a hamstring injury.
"You never want to have to go in that way, especially with Isaac going down. But that's the way the game is sometimes," Curtis said. "You've just got to be ready. ... Trying to fill Isaac's shoes; that's a lot bigger role." Said quarterback Marc Bulger, "A lot of teams say, 'If someone goes down, we have a guy that could start on most teams.' But literally, Kevin could start on at least half the teams in the NFL. He's come such a long way in the last couple of years."
Added Curtis, "I don't think of it in those terms. I know my role here, and learning from Isaac and Torry (Holt) has helped me tremendously."
Asked if the offensive plan changes without Bruce, coach Mike Martz said, "Not really. You know, 83 (Curtis) is in the game, and that's some really extreme speed. So, we tried (against Tennessee) to get him the ball a little bit, which we did. So, that kind of took some coverage things away from them, and they were forced to blitz you a little bit."
It also meant more balls for Holt, who had nine receptions for 163 yards against the Titans, including five for 106 in the third quarter.
Said Holt, "We have a bunch of guys that can make a lot of plays. So, really, there was no more pressure (with Bruce out). Just stay focused, just stay calm, and when he calls my number, work my route, work my technique, and try to get open."
The key for the Rams will be protecting Bulger, who has been sacked 15 times in the first three games. However, he wasn't sacked after rookie right tackle Alex Barron entered the game against Tennessee with 2:31 to go in the third quarter. While there will be times when Barron struggles with his technique or the complexities of the Rams' offense, he is able to sometimes recover from those mistakes with his extraordinary reach and athleticism.
Martz said he was pleasantly surprised by Barron's performance and his toughness. "When we drafted Alex ...you watch a guy play on tape and you kind of get a feel for the tenacity and how much he likes playing, for how he plays the game. He's awfully rough around the edges. When he came through minicamp, I was concerned about the toughness. I just didn't see it. But since the day he stepped into this facility in camp, he's remarkably different that what I remembered (of) him in minicamps.
"Everything that he's done, he's exhibited the toughness and that physical part of the game that I didn't know if he had or not, and that I think had allowed him to go away to where he is right now. I'd never have suggested that he could be here when he came back to camp and that's all to his credit and the credit of the line coaches getting him ready."
Now, he and the offense will have to be ready for a defense angry with how it played in San Diego last Sunday night.
SERIES HISTORY: 37th meeting. Rams lead, 25-11, but the Giants have won two straight.
--After three games, the Rams have seven takeaways, nearly half of their league-low total of 15 last season. In each game, they have had at least two, compared to 2004 when there was more than one turnover in only four games. Asked about the improvement, coach Mike Martz said, "I think there are a lot of things that make the difference. I think that the upgrade at linebacker and in the secondary from a personnel standpoint. No question about that. I think everybody's on the same (page) defensively. We went through that last year where we were kind of this and kind of that, and (defensive coordinator) Larry (Marmie) has had a chance now to put his defense in. And I think the defensive line is playing very well. They are putting a lot of pressure on the quarterback, making him throw off balance, and, I think, getting the ball knocked out of there.
"Some of those things, like the tipped ball in the game (against Tennessee), the one that goes to our safety. I think those things all combine, and we're playing fast. If you'll play fast on defense, and you'll chase that ball carrier, and you get more than one or two guys in the pile, something is good is always going to happen."
--With RB Steven Jackson out for a part of the game against Tennessee, Marshall Faulk looked like his old self. He carried four times for 46 yards. Said coach Mike Martz, "I think what you saw from Marshall is vintage Marshall. He's trimmed down. I think he's in great shape. I don't believe his skill has diminished at all. If he's lost any speed, maybe you could see it. I couldn't see it. The only issue about Marshall is the durability factor, and that's why we have him in the situation that he is in. Is he capable of doing all those things? Absolutely. How long will he last, that will be the only consideration."
WR Torry Holt said Faulk ratcheted things up a notch after Jackson was injured. "I could see when the coach told him Steven was a little hurt, he just went to another mode," Holt said. "It's like he put on his cape. He showed us vintage Marshall." In addition to his runs, Faulk also scored on a 13-yard pass play, which came before Jackson was hurt.
Said Faulk, "In the role that I'm playing, in order to measure myself - am I being successful? - I have to set goals, and I did that. When I touched the ball, it had to be a touchdown or a first down. That's being productive with the plays that you do have."
--Coach Mike Martz has been pleased with the progress of free safety Michael Hawthorne, who won the job in training camp, and had his first interception as a Ram against the Titans. "Here he comes in, and he's a factor now on defense and made some nice plays for us." So, you have to understand that he was a corner that has moved to safety too. The physical part of coming up and trying to hammer somebody, he has the size to do it. It's kind of contrary to being that cover guy on the outside. So, he's learning that, and he's willing to do it. He'll continue to get better, and better."
--WR Torry Holt leads the NFL in receiving yards with 358 and is tied for the top spot with 23 catches after three games. Yet, he doesn't garner nearly the number of headlines as outspoken pass-catchers like Terrell Owens and Randy Moss. Holt has had at least 1,300 receiving yards in each of the last five seasons. What is it about Holt that makes him so good? "Torry is very strong," coach Mike Martz said. "We tease Torry all the time that he could run forever. He just doesn't appear to get tired. I think he's as fast at the end of the game as he is at the beginning of the game, and I think that intimidates, because it's true. He just doesn't get tired. He's very, very strong. He's big-legged, strong-legged and looks like he's a strider, but he's really not. He's much faster than you would think when you line up on him. He's very strong to the ball, he makes plays when you need to have a play made."
Asked whether defensive backs underestimate him, Martz said, "I think that people who line up and play him never take him for granted. They doubled him quite a bit yesterday (against Tennessee). I think, in the media, because he's a pretty low-profile guy in that respect. He's not a low-profile personality, but in terms of the media stuff I think he is, and he's very comfortable with that."
BY THE NUMBERS: 67.7 - Yards per game the Rams have allowed on the ground through the first three games of the season. That ranks third in the NFL, compared t0 last season when they ranked 29th and 136.2 yards per game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "With DeJuan, this was one of his best games. DeJuan had an exceptional game again. He was in the right position on all these big plays. I couldn't be more thrilled with his performance. - Coach Mike Martz on starting CB DeJuan Groce.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--WR Isaac Bruce did not practice Wednesday because of a hyperextended toe. The capsule was not torn, so it's possible Bruce could play Sunday. However, it could be a game-day decision. Bruce is currently listed as doubtful.
--RB Steven Jackson did not practice Wednesday because of an injury to his sternum. Jackson is considered day-to-day, and might practice Thursday. He is questionable, and could play against the Giants with special protection built into his shirt.
--FS Michael Hawthorne is listed as questionable this week because of an ankle injury suffered against Tennessee. Hawthorne did not practice Wednesday, but ran on the side, and might practice Thursday.
--FS Mike Furrey, who switched from wide receiver in the off-season, would start Sunday against the Giants if starter Michael Hawthorne can't play because of an ankle injury.
--LG Tom Nutten, who had reconstructive surgery on his left great toe in the off-season, re-injured the toe against Tennessee but is probable for Sunday's game against the Giants.
--DT Jimmy Kennedy is the latest Rams player to miss practice because of the flu. Kennedy was not at practice Wednesday, but could return on Thursday.
GAME PLAN: The Rams' game plan against the Giants will be to limit the exposure of RT Alex Barron to DE Michael Strahan, so the offense can get into a rhythm. The plan is to get off to a lead and take the Giants' crowd out of the game. Defensively, the Rams will have to stop RB Tiki Barber and TE Jeremy Shockey from making big plays. They will also have to control the Giants' special teams, especially kickoff returner Willie Ponder.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Rams RT Alex Barron, making his first NFL start, vs. Giants DLE Michael Strahan, a perennial Pro Bowler. Barron came off the bench and played well for a little more than a quarter last week, but this outing will be a different world. Barron will be on the road in noisy Giants Stadium, and facing a savvy veteran like Strahan. He will have to make up for any mental mistakes by taking advantage of his physical ability.
Rams run defense vs. Giants RBs Tiki Barber and Brandon Jacobs. The Rams' defense has been better against the run this season, and none of the three teams they have played has totaled 100 rushing yards as a team. Big plays have been kept to a minimum. But this will be the team's biggest test, facing a versatile back like Barber, as well as a short-yardage power runner like Jacobs.
INJURY IMPACT: The Rams will watching closely the toe of WR Isaac Bruce, which was injured Sunday against Tennessee. LG Tom Nutten also injured his toe, but is expected to play this week against the Giants. ... FS Michael Hawthorne did not practice Wednesday because of a sprained ankle. ... RB Steven Jackson has a bruised chest, but is expected to play Sunday.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Quarterback Tim Rattay has been the man that the 49ers have wanted to replace since coach Mike Nolan took over in January. It took Nolan more than a month after getting the job before he first spoke with Rattay, the incumbent starting quarterback. If that didn't give everyone a clear indication of Nolan's thoughts on him being the long-term quarterback, then the 49ers' selection with the first overall pick in April's draft certainly did.
The 49ers chose quarterback Alex Smith of Utah with the No. 1 selection, and then made him the starting quarterback entering training camp. But when Smith struggled, Rattay won the starting job with an impressive exhibition season. Rattay has won over Nolan, but only to a degree.
After Rattay threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter of the 49ers' disheartening 34-31 loss last week to the Cowboys, Nolan spoke about Rattay's limitations. "You'd like to get the fourth quarter to look like the first three," Nolan said. "Everyone is affected by everyone. It's not just one guy's fault. Now some guys, great players, can overcome a lot of things, but we're not talking about that in this case."
But there have been times this season that Rattay has looked great. And this week he is facing the team, the Cardinals, against which he experienced his finest NFL game. Last season, Rattay completed 38 of 57 passing attempts for 417 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-28 overtime victory against the Cardinals. Rattay opened this season with a strong performance, compiling a 141.9 passer rating in the 49ers' season-opening victory over the Rams. Since then, his play has been wildly inconsistent. He struggled against the Eagles in Week 2. And last week, he played exceptionally well for three quarters before bombing in the fourth quarter.
Of his 17 career interceptions, Rattay has thrown 11 of those picks in the fourth quarter. Last season, seven of his 10 interceptions were in the final period, and he also lost three fumbles in the fourth quarter. When asked about his late-game difficulties, Rattay clearly had no answers as to why the breakdowns are occurring at the worst-possible times. "Obviously, I'm not trying to have turnovers in the fourth quarter," Rattay said. "I'm trying to win games. We're behind and trying to go down there and score. I'm not trying to throw the ball to the other team."
Rattay had two interceptions in the 49ers' loss to the Cowboys. The first one was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by linebacker Al Singleton. The second interception occurred when Rattay tried to hit receiver Otis Amey on a slant. Cornerback Terence Newman got a hand on the ball to deflect it to linebacker Dat Nguyen.
"On the one, the guy just tipped it," Rattay said. "I can't worry about that. I'm going to throw the same pass there. The second one was tight coverage and I didn't need to force it in there."
Rattay, and his low-key demeanor, is popular in the locker room, where his teammates say they have not lost any trust in the quarterback. "I trust Tim to the fullest, as a player and as a person," said receiver Brandon Lloyd, who caught two touchdown passes from Rattay against the Cowboys. "It comes down to we lost momentum and the plays weren't working for us."
Rattay will start his fourth game of the season on Sunday night against the Cardinals. His contract stipulates that if he plays more than 50 percent of the 49ers' offensive plays this season, he will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. But next year is a long ways away. As much as the 49ers wanted Smith to win the starting job this season, next year they will likely force the issue even greater.
SERIES HISTORY: 28th meeting. The 49ers lead series 17-10, including victories in the last three meetings. The 49ers' only two wins last season came at the Cardinals' expense.
--The foreshadowing of this move took place on Sunday. Outside linebacker Jamie Winborn, who started the first two games of the season, was replaced in the starting lineup by Andre Carter. Following the 49ers' discouraging 34-31 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Nolan spoke at length about some players whom he believed do not "trust" the system.
"We will find a place for those that think they have a better idea," Nolan said. At midweek, Nolan began trying to find a place for Winborn, who took Nolan's advice and cleared out his locker and did not practice. Nolan said he suggested that Winborn not practice with the team so that he would not risk an injury.
"There have been many teams inquire about Jamie," Nolan said. "Jamie has been relegated to a backup role for us, and he sees himself as a starter. And in respect to that position, I'm certainly entertaining thoughts of a trade."
--The 49ers are approaching this week's game no differently their usual Sunday fare. The 49ers face the Cardinals on Sunday night in the first NFL regular-season game played outside the United States. The NFL is expecting a sellout crowd of 85,000 at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, though there were 20,000 unsold tickets at midweek. "The important thing we stressed is this is a business trip," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "We're not going down there to do anything than to take care of business. We'll approach it that way.
"From the players' standpoint, staying close to the hotel will be something we'll try to do because nobody knows where they're going. I know we're going to supply some things for players to do if they stay at the hotel, as well as accommodate them if there's some things they want to do outside the hotel, but it will all be done under close supervision."
--Fullback Fred Beasley has also apparently fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. He did not start last week against the Cowboys, though he did play about two-thirds of the time the 49ers had a fullback on the field.
"What they ask me to do, I can't do anything but accept it and do my best when I'm out there," Beasley said. "I try to help this team win, whether I like it or not. If you look at the first game and the second game, it's evident what I can do. As far as how they feel about me, you have to ask them that. The only thing I know is when I'm on the field, I give 100 percent."
--Tackle Anthony Clement might be in the starting lineup at left tackle when he faces his former team, the Cardinals. "There are some personal things I need to take care of," said Clement, who signed with the 49ers last week. Starting left tackle Jonas Jennings is questionable with a shoulder injury. Clement, who spent his first seven seasons with the Cardinals, has not played left tackle since his rookie season.
--Nolan's forte is defense, so it has to be especially disconcerting that the 49ers' defense is the worst in the league through the first three games. The opposition has rolled up an average of 477 yards through the first three games. Now, Nolan said he will continue to get a little more involved with defensive coordinator Billy Davis.
"I've been involved the last couple of weeks and I'll continue to be involved with that," Nolan said. "It's a difficult thing for Billy to come into and assume my scheme. My scheme has evolved into a 49ers scheme right now because it's adapted to our players. In doing that (helping out) I can add a lot of experience to what's going on in there and that's what I will continue to do. Billy is our defensive coordinator and he's done a nice job. It's a tough duty trying to assume someone else's scheme and trying to make it fit to the players."
--Second-year receiver Rashaun Woods, who made the team's 53-man roster because it would've cost $2.5 million in cap space to cut him, was placed on injured reserve after undergoing surgery to repair damaged thumb ligaments. Woods did not suit up for the team's first three regular-season games. He sustained his thumb injury late last week, according to the team. Last year, Woods caught seven passes for 160 yards and a touchdown in 14 games. The 49ers traded back twice in the first round of the 2004 draft and selected Woods with the No. 31 overall pick.
"We don't have time to wait because we're already down in numbers to begin with," Nolan said. "We have seven (receivers) on our roster but we don't have seven healthy receivers. I can't wait six to eight weeks for a guy that's in a cast, especially at the wide receiver position."
--Nolan was still a little concerned with the home crowd in the 49ers' loss to the Cowboys. At the end of the game, Cowboys fans at Monster Park were so loud that they contributed to a 49ers' false-start penalty. And instead of running the two-minute offense from the shotgun formation, quarterback Tim Rattay was forced to go under center. "As I said when I took the job, our fans will be instrumental in our success," Nolan said. They were instrumental in our victory over the Rams. I would like them to keep their seat and cheer for us rather than give them to Cowboys' fans. Now, we have great fans and since we do have great fans, I'd like to see them all there."
BY THE NUMBERS: The 49ers' pass defense has been torched in the first three games, as Marc Bulger, Donovan McNabb and Drew Bledsoe have combined for a 109.3 passer rating against the 49ers.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If I were the home team, I wouldn't want to take my home game away from me. That's pretty evident because you do count on your fans." - Nolan on playing the Cardinals in Mexico City in a game that was originally scheduled for Arizona.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Mike Rumph, whom the club tried to move from cornerback to safety this season, is back at cornerback after an unsuccessful stint in the new position. But, now, even his availability for Sunday's game is in question because of a foot injury sustained during practice Wednesday. Second-year player Mike Adams will supplant Rumph as the starting free safety.
Rumph was expected to compete this week in practice against cornerback Willie Middlebrooks, among the team's final cuts, and rookie Derrick Johnson for a spot in the starting lineup Sunday against the Cardinals. Starting cornerback Ahmed Plummer is expected to be out two to six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle on Thursday. Adams has bounced between cornerback and safety since signing with the 49ers for $2,500 as an undrafted rookie in spring of 2004.
"I just got to get back in the playbook," said Adams, who played safety during the exhibition season. "For the most part, I know the technique and the assignments."
Rumph said he was gaining confidence at free safety after spending his first three seasons in the NFL as a cornerback. Rumph showed some flashes of being a good safety with some big hits, including a collision with Cowboys running back Julius Jones that forced a fumble. But Rumph made too many mistakes in coverage that resulted in big plays.
Also, the club signed receiver Jason McAddley to the 53-man roster, taking the place of receiver Rashaun Woods, who was placed on injured reserve after undergoing thumb surgery.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--LB Jamie Winborn led the 49ers with three tackles behind the line of scrimmage through the first two games. But he clearly did not fit into coach Mike Nolan's plans. Nolan excused Winborn from the team Wednesday as he tries to work out a trade to send Winborn elsewhere.
--C Jeremy Newberry probably will not practice because of a sore right knee, which threatens to end his season early. Newberry was called for two holding penalties Sunday against the Cowboys, but coach Mike Nolan said he did not believe those mistakes were a direct result of Newberry's injury. "He was on probably one of their best players (La'Roi Glover)," Nolan said. "He got called both times. He was just working his butt off to make the block."
--CB Willie Middlebrooks, originally acquired in a trade for DE John Engelberger, will get a chance to earn a starting job in his first game after the club re-signed him. Middlebrooks will compete with Mike Rumph for a starting cornerback job. Middlebrooks did not make the team's roster for the opening week of the season because he was not starting and he is not a contributor on special teams.
--WR Jason McAddley was signed to the 53-man roster after being among the team's final cuts in September. McAddley was needed because the 49ers barely have enough receivers to get through practice. Rashaun Woods was placed on injured reserve after thumb surgery, and practice-squader Marcus Maxwell is out a month or more with heel injury.
--QB Alex Smith said has already learned some valuable lessons from his experience on the sideline in the early part of his rookie season. "People keep telling me how games come down to the wire," Smith told the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times, "and I'm seeing that so many games are won and lost in the final two minutes. Teams that are successful in their two-minute offense are the ones that do so well. That's what I've learned in the NFL. It's not like that in college, where you can dominate games."
GAME PLAN: The 49ers have to fix their problems in pass defense against the Cardinals or it could be another long day. With the altitude in Mexico City, the 49ers will rotate a lot of players in and out of action in their front seven. They need to do a better job of getting to the quarterback with their blitz package. That is especially important this week against Josh McCown, making his first start of the season in place of an injured Kurt Warner. Rookie Derrick Johnson and Willie Middlebrooks will both see action at left cornerback, as it appears as if Mike Rumph could be unavailable because of an undisclosed foot injury.
The 49ers need to give those guys a lot of help, as far as limiting the time McCown has to throw. The beleaguered 49ers secondary will be starting two players at different spots, as Mike Adams moves from nickel back to free safety. Outside linebacker Andre Carter will get a lot more playing time over Jamie Winborn, who is now on the trade block, and he has to take advantage of his pass-rush skills to make an impact. Offensively, the 49ers found a pretty good rhythm for most of the game last week against the Cowboys. The run game is the foundation of the offense. Quarterback Tim Rattay is gaining a lot of trust in his receivers, as Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle appear to be developing nicely under the tutelage of receivers coach Jerry Sullivan. If the game is close, all eyes will be on Rattay, who has struggled in the fourth quarter of games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
49ers secondary, which has given up an average of 369 yards passing in the first three games and will have CB Mike Rumph and FS Mike Adams starting in new spots, vs. Cardinals WRs Anquan Boldin, Bryant Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, who comprise one of the league's best young corps; LE Bryant Young, who has gotten off to a strong start with four sacks in the first three games, vs. RT Ian Allen, who will probably make the start with Oliver Ross out with a hand injury; RT Kwame Harris, who appears to be settling into his new position quite well, vs. LE Chike Okeafor, who recorded 16.5 sacks the last two seasons with the Seahawks.
INJURY IMPACT: Cornerback Ahmed Plummer opted for arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle Thursday that could keep him out of action two to six weeks, he said. ... Receiver Arnaz Battle, who leads the team with 15 receptions for 171 yards and two touchdowns, is probably to play in Sunday's game against the Cardinals due to a hamstring strain. ... Linebacker Julian Peterson (hamstring) is questionable, but coach Mike Nolan believes he has a good chance to be in the starting lineup Sunday. ... Center Jeremy Newberry probably will not practice this week and might not play Sunday against the Cardinals because of a chronic right knee problem. Despite his injury, Newberry is listed as probable. If Newberry is unable to play, right guard Eric Heitmann would take his spot in the starting lineup. ... Left tackle Jonas Jennings is listed as questionable with a right shoulder injury that will keep him out of practice for at least a couple days of practice this week. ... WR Derrick Hamilton began the season on PUP, which makes him ineligible for the first six weeks of the regular season. ... TE Eric Johnson (foot) and WR Rashaun Woods (thumb) are on injured reserve.