The Seahawks haven't won in St. Louis since 1997. They won't win there Sunday without improving their third-down defense and avoiding the turnovers that have cost them against the Rams in past seasons. Seattle also must overcome the likely absence of injured starting wide receivers Darrell Jackson (knee) and Bobby Engram (ribs).
Seattle has done an outstanding job eliminating turnovers in recent weeks. The most recent turnover came when quarterback Matt Hasselbeck lofted an ill-advised sideline pass against Jacksonville in the opener. With that aspect of the game apparently under control, the Seahawks need to tighten up their third-down defense.
Washington's previously mediocre offense beat Seattle 13 of 18 times on third down last week. The Seahawks had never allowed that many third-down conversions in a game. More than half of the conversions came on third-and-9 or longer.
One problem is that Seattle lacks a consistent pass rush. The team wanted to land a marquee pass rusher in the draft, but it did not happen. And when DE Chike Okeafor left for Arizona in free agency, the pass rush weakened further. DE Bryce Fisher has done a nice job in spots, collecting three sacks through four games. But he is not the kind of dominant pass rusher who strikes fear in opponents.
Defensive end Grant Wistrom has played well overall, shooting gaps to foil running plays and pressuring opposing passers on occasion. But he is basically just a better version of Fisher. Rams left tackle Orlando Pace should be able to shut him down. Compounding matters is the fact that Seattle has never been a great blitzing team since Mike Holmgren arrived as coach in 1999. Seattle sacked Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell on two early blitzes, but Washington solved those breakdowns by refining its max-protect schemes. Brunell was not sacked again.
The Rams are going to throw the ball whether or not Seattle gets home with its pressure. The Seahawks' offense needs to set the pace in this game and not let up.
Running back Shaun Alexander has always run effectively against the Rams and that won't change Sunday. He leads the NFL in rushing after four games even though Seattle has faced tough run defenses against Jacksonville, Atlanta and Washington. The Rams' defense represents a step down in class and that should allow the Seahawks to succeed on offense even without Jackson and Engram. Joe Jurevicius and Peter Warrick are veteran receivers with very good hands.
As much as anything, the Seahawks must overcome their own recent ineptitude against their primary NFC West rival. The Rams won all three meetings last season, counting playoffs. They have won the last four in the series. Their passing game has found holes in Seattle's defense, completing long passes at key moments to win games.
The Seahawks will probably play a bit soft in coverage to prevent long plays through the air. That strategy might not work because the Rams' receivers are good enough to catch 18-yard crossing patterns all day, even with wide receiver Isaac Bruce probably sidelined by a turf-toe injury.
Seattle must improve its pass rush to force Rams quarterback Marc Bulger into turnovers. Rookie middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu has two sacks this season, a good sign for Seattle given that the Seahawks have succeeded in using the middle linebacker to sack Bulger in recent seasons. Tatupu comes off the field on passing downs, however, so he might not play much Sunday.
The Rams' pass-happy philosophy could keep Seattle's effective base defense off the field for long stretches. The Seahawks have yet to prove that their nickel and dime packages can win games.
SERIES HISTORY: 14th meeting. The Rams lead the series, 9-4, after winning all three meetings last season. The Seahawks are 0-3 at St. Louis since a 17-9 victory in 1997.
--Coach Mike Holmgren reviewed all three of the Seahawks' losses to the Rams last season while preparing to face them again Sunday. It was not a pleasant experience. "I was working by myself and I went into the offensive staff and I was afraid I was going to break furniture and throw the monitor out the window," Holmgren said. "It's just hard because we had our chances and we didn't capitalize on them. And then I didn't think we played very cleanly in those games for whatever reason.
"You give credit to your opponent, certainly, but we dropped passes, we had penalties. The first snap of the game down in St. Louis, Matt (Hasselbeck) and Shaun (Alexander) run into each other. Remember? They run right into each other and Matt hurts his leg. I just think we can play better than that."
--Divisional realignment in 2002 robbed the Seahawks of highly anticipated rivalry games against Oakland, Denver, Kansas City and San Diego. The Rams are becoming a rival, but the Seahawks need to beat them to hold up their end. "If they are always winning, we're not going to be their rival," Hasselbeck said. "They will make somebody else their rival. When I was at B.C., Notre Dame was always our rival, but we weren't their rival. That's just how it was."
Hasselbeck grew up in Boston rooting for the Red Sox. "There's the Yankees and Red Sox," he said, "and then there are four years in the NFC West. I don't know that it really compares, but we're working on it."
BY THE NUMBERS: 87.5 - Percentage of field goals K Josh Brown had made from 40-49 yards in the 19 regular-season games before his two 47-yard misses during an overtime loss to Washington last week.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think that's a fair question, but I don't think so. If I'm a defensive end and I have to go against Walter Jones and I have to get to the passer, and I've played against him a number of times and I have to get home, and I just can't get there, you might have something there. But as a team, I believe certain teams match up against other teams better. But the mental part, I'm not a part of that." - Coach Mike Holmgren on whether the Rams have gotten into the Seahawks' heads.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Seattle finally pulled the plug on the Leo Araguz experiment. The veteran punter was not getting the job done, leading Seattle to hold tryouts for punters on Tuesday. The team re-signed P Tom Rouen, who played for Seattle in 2003 and 2004, and had been released by Carolina. Rouen, 37, has not punted in a game since suffering a severely torn hamstring four games into last season. The injury occurred as Rouen tried to make a tackle on a punt return. He was averaging 42.0 yards gross with 10 of 26 punts downed inside the 20. His net average was a healthy 37.8 yards, his highest since the 1997 season.
Araguz, 35, was averaging 40.2 yards gross and 34.7 yards net, averages that ranked 29th in the league. "(Rouen) kicked very, very well (in the tryout) and he's healthy and he's a good holder," coach Mike Holmgren said.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--WR Darrell Jackson is not expected to play Sunday. He has a bone bruise in his right knee. The team thinks the injury will bother Jackson all season if he doesn't get some rest now. Jackson ranks third in the league with 29 receptions. The team listed Jackson as doubtful for Sunday. Coach Mike Holmgren basically said Jackson will not play.
--WR Bobby Engram is not expected to play Sunday. He has cracked ribs. The team listed Engram as doubtful for this game. Coach Mike Holmgren basically said Engram will not play.
--WR Joe Jurevicius is a favorite to start Sunday in St. Louis. He has size, experience and good hands, but not speed. The team will likely turn to Jurevicius while starting WRs Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram rest injuries. Neither is expected to play Sunday.
--WR Peter Warrick is a favorite to start Sunday in St. Louis. He has experience, good hands and outstanding body control, but not much speed. Durability is another concern; Warrick missed much of last season with a knee injury, and a hamstring injury prevented him from playing last week. Warrick is similar to starting WR Bobby Engram, who will likely miss this game with cracked ribs. WR Darrell Jackson is also expected to miss this game.
--P Leo Araguz received his release Wednesday after struggling for the first four games.
--P Tom Rouen is back with the Seahawks after the team released P Leo Araguz. Rouen has not punted in a game since suffering a severe hamstring injury while playing for the Seahawks early last season.
GAME PLAN: The Seahawks probably can't afford to get into a shooting match with the Rams because Seattle will be without its top two receivers. Seattle needs to focus on scoring early and running the ball effectively. RB Shaun Alexander has had big games against St. Louis. He'll need one Sunday if Seattle hopes to win in St. Louis for the first time since 1997. Falling behind could put too much pressure on Seahawks' the passing game. The Rams have some problems on their offensive line. Their scheme also exposes QB Marc Bulger to punishment. The Seahawks need to take advantage.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Seahawks LDE Bryce Fisher, a former Ram, vs. Rams rookie RT Alex Barron, making his second NFL start. Barron had plenty of help blocking Giants DE Michael Strahan last week. It's hard to envision the Rams dedicating similar resources to this matchup. Fisher has three sacks and he'll be looking to show the Rams that he is better than they thought. Fisher should be able to win this matchup as long as the Rams don't give Barron much help.
Seahawks WR Joe Jurevicius, a big target with soft hands, vs. Rams CB Travis Fisher, who has been exposed at times by poor play at the safety position. Jurevicius won't beat anyone with his speed, but he has been resourceful so far this season. This game will be different, however, because the Rams won't have to contend with injured starting WRs Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram. The Seahawks need Jurevicius to step up and play his best.
INJURY IMPACT: WR Darrell Jackson, WR Bobby Engram, LT Wayne Hunter and RT Floyd Womack almost certainly won't play. If they do, their effectiveness will be limited. Jackson and Engram rank among the NFL's top five in receptions this season. Their absence hurts.
When you whiff in your first three games while scoring one offensive touchdown, it takes only the slightest sign of success to turn gloom to giddiness. The challenge for the Cardinals, then, as they host Carolina on Sunday after ending their suffering with a rout of San Francisco in Mexico City, is keeping it in perspective.
First, San Francisco isn't very good.
Although it was exciting for the Cardinals to score 31 points, it doesn't take an astute NFL personnel guru to understand that the matchups were very favorable against a weak opponent playing a makeshift secondary. The Cardinals also were playing a makeshift secondary because of injuries, but the 49ers wideouts aren't the greatest, and Arizona's deficiencies in the secondary were mitigated by a fearsome pass rush by Bertrand Berry, Chike Okeafor and Ross Kolodziej.
The Cardinals appropriately celebrated the moment, but now must move past it. Dealing with the glow of a victory is a new experience. "I think we just feel better about playing a better game," said coach Dennis Green. "That's really the key. We are glad we are playing better and we hope to duplicate the style of play that we think is more indicative of the type of team we can be."
Having backup quarterback Josh McCown gunning the ball to Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald (where was Bryant Johnson?) for big yardage, and finally anointing running back Marcel Shipp the starter and letting him pound away with body-punch rushes, indeed caused the unit to more closely resemble that which was expected of it.
But again, it comes with a bit of an asterisk given that San Francisco was a weakened and weaker foe. Repeat that against the Carolina defense and then let the discussions of a Cardinals' turnaround begin. The Cardinals will have several advantages working for them when the Panthers visit Tempe, Ariz., where the midday desert heat remains close to triple figures.
The Panthers played on Monday night and have a short week followed by a long flight into the heat. It is a wonderful opportunity for the Cardinals to seize the momentum from the big win in Mexico, beat a high-quality opponent and then hit their bye week before returning against a beatable foe, Tennessee, at home.
But first, the task at hand: Carolina.
"They are an extremely good football team," Green said. "They are talented and very physical on defense and physical on offense, so we know we'll have our hands full. "This is an important week for us. This needs to be a slingshot for us. These two games surrounding the bye week are important. The ability to win coming into the bye and the ability to win coming out of the bye can be a slingshot for you."
SERIES HISTORY - Sixth meeting. The Carolina Panthers hold a 3-2 lead in the series over the Arizona Cardinals after winning the past two games. In their last meeting, on Nov. 21 last season, Carolina's Nick Goings rushed for 121 yards and three first-half touchdowns in a 35-10 rout of the Cardinals, who went into the game with a chance to even their record.
--WR Anquan Boldin is the subject of a documentary by NFL Films and the NFL Network on "Six Days To Sunday." He was tailed by a crew for a week leading up to the game in Mexico City against San Francisco last Sunday, in which Boldin caught eight passes for 116 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown pass from Josh McCown. The crew followed Boldin on the practice field and had a wireless microphone on him during the game for the documentary. The program airs at 9 p.m. (MST) on Friday on the NFL Network.
--It is difficult to determine where K Neil Rackers is of greatest value to the team. With his NFL record-setting 16 for 16 field-goal kicking through the first quarter of the season, he has accounted for two-thirds of the team's scoring. But his league-leading 14 touchbacks have given the defense a boost in field position.
Rackers is NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after his franchise- and career-record six field goals (40, 45, 48, 23, 43, 24 yards) last weekend, one short of the NFL record. It was the third consecutive game Rackers has had four or more field goals. His seven touchbacks against the 49ers were the most in the league since Jason Hanson's seven on Oct. 17, 1993.
Rackers leads the NFL in kicker scoring with 50 points. His 54-yard field goal at Seattle two weeks ago is the longest in the NFL this season. His two 55-yarders in 2004 also led the NFL. Rackers becomes an unrestricted free agent at season's end, and while the Cardinals have expressed interest in locking him up contractually, Rackers won't discuss his future until after a season that is shaping up as memorable - and profitable.
--For the first time since Jan. 2, 2000, the Cardinals had two receivers with 100 yards receiving in a game - Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Boldin caught eight passes for 116 yards and a touchdown in Mexico City against San Francisco. Fitzgerald had seven catches for 102 yards and a touchdown, the first by the offense in nearly 11 quarters. The last receiving duo to reach 100 yards each was Frank Sanders and Rob Moore, in the finale at Green Bay six seasons ago.
--Was it fuzzy match? A translation issue? Or just some creative numbers management by somebody? Reports out of Mexico had ticket sales for the Cardinals-49ers game moving slowly, with at least 25,000 unsold going into the week of the game. The league announced that it would take several of the low rows at Azteca Stadium out of inventory "to improve sight lines," reducing capacity to roughly 85,000.
And then the league announced a record-setting attendance of 103,467 on game day, when there appeared to be not an empty seat in the house.
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 - QB Josh McCown, who had career-highs passing in the win over the 49ers - surpassing his highs set against the 49ers in an overtime loss last season - now is 7-7 in his past 14 starts for the Cardinals, who are 7-13 overall (0-6 when he is not in the lineup) in their past 20 games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He threw the ball well and made some great throws. He loves to throw the ball high to Larry Fitzgerald and he loves to throw the ball inside to Anquan Boldin. He made those kinds of throws and completions." - Cardinals coach Dennis Green on QB Josh McCown's career-highs of 32-46 passing for 385 yards in the team's first win of the season, against San Francisco in Mexico City.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
It's a good thing the Cardinals re-signed veteran CB Robert Tate last week. Starter Antrel Rolle had suffered a knee injury that likely will end the season of the rookie first-round pick. The other starter, Robert Macklin, suffered a hamstring injury that forced him to leave and leaves him questionable vs. Carolina. CB Raymond Walls, starting in place of Rolle, came out because of a groin strain and might not play against the Panthers. Tate came in and made a key interception, forced a fumble and had several pass breakups.
Rookies Eric Green and Lamont Reid are the likely starters this weekend, with Tate offering more backup support. Look for the team to sign a CB for depth this week, and to very likely place Rolle on injured reserve.
--CB Antrel Rolle, the team's first-round pick and the eighth player chosen overall in the April draft, had knee surgery in Miami that revealed more meniscus damage than initially believed. He could be finished for the season. The most optimistic prognosis is an eight-to-10-week recovery period. "He had a scope and some repair work done that will pretty much end his rookie season," coach Dennis Green said.
--CB Eric Green, a rookie third-round pick, is expected to move into the lineup against Carolina in the wake of widespread injuries that caused the team to re-sign veteran Robert Tate last week and will likely cause it to sign yet another corner this week.
--CB Robert Tate was re-signed after being released in the final cut. He had appeared in every game last season and was a key player in nickel packages. He was cut this year because the team was forced by injuries at that point to keep more offensive linemen than it normally would have. Tate had an interception and forced a fumble in the win over the 49ers after three days of practice.
The Cardinals successfully cranked up the passing game against San Francisco behind backup QB Josh McCown, starting in place of injured Kurt Warner. Duplicating that against Carolina's defense will be quite a challenge, yet coach Dennis Green says, "I think we realize we have to throw the ball more." That might be taken as an admission that the running game behind a shaky offensive line can't be trusted. Yet for the long-term good of the team, it really needs to continue to develop the run. It has to run against the Panthers. Too often the Cardinals go pass-heavy, even before their losses get out of hand, and fail to establish any offensive rhythm.
The passing game obviously has impressive athletes who can pile up big numbers, but it will be made even better if a defense has to take RB Marcel Shipp as a serious threat. The only way to get him there is to run him at least 15-20 times. First-time starter Fred Wakefield was impressive in his debut at RT in Mexico City in place of injured Oliver Ross, who is not expected back yet this week from his hand injury. Rookie G Elton Brown took a big step forward in his development against the 49ers Bryant Young.
The line is playing better and the unit is ready to make a more serious dedication to running the ball.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Cardinals RT Fred Wakefield, a former DE making his second start on offense, vs. Panthers DE Julius Peppers, the second player chosen in the 2002 draft. Peppers is big, strong and athletic. Wakefield is not. Wakefield no longer is a defensive player because he lacks the quickness upon which the team wants to build, yet he will now be asked to block one of the best in the game at the position Wakefield once played, left end. Wakefield, on the field because Oliver Ross has a hand injury, survived his first pro offensive start without much scar tissue. The quarterback was kept clean and the running game was there when the team needed it. Wakefield was not a liability. But this time, against a premier player, one very capable of becoming an offense wrecker, it's a sizable challenge for the lead-footed Wakefield.
--Cardinals MLB James Darling, a versatile but not dazzling veteran, vs. Panthers RB Stephen Davis, who may still be gaining yardage at age 50. Davis has long been a menace to the Cardinals defense, dating to his early days with Washington when he terrorized the Cards in their NFC East matchups. Now at 31, he's still a load for defenders, especially those like the Cardinals who aren't league leaders at stuffing the run. Darling is not an overpowering physical specimen, but he is smart, he knows Davis well, and he knows the importance of not allowing the Panthers to run at will.
INJURY IMPACT: Panthers QB Jake Delhomme must be looking at the beat-up Cardinals CBs with glee. If his line can keep DEs Bertrand Berry and Chike Okeafor away from him, Delhomme should take advantage of the loss of starting CB Antrel Rolle, who had knee surgery last week and may be finished for the season. On the other side, starting CB David Macklin has a hamstring injury that might keep him out. That leaves rookies Eric Green and Lamont Reid, along with veteran Robert Tate, who turns 32 in another week, for coverage.
QB Josh McCown, after a shaky start, mitigated the loss of injured starter Kurt Warner (groin) with career-high passing statistics in a win over San Francisco. Warner is not expected to return until after the Oct. 16 bye. McCown, who goes into the Carolina game 7-7 in his last 14 starts, could with another strong performance set up a quarterback controversy when Warner is physically ready to return.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
It is something often said around Rams Park when the subject of offensive balance is broached. Before the season, coach Mike Martz said his goal was to run the ball more. For last week's game against the New York Giants, the Rams had several options in the game plan to establish the run, but it got off to a slow start and then tight end Roland Williams was injured.
That prompted Martz to say, "Let this be a lesson to all of you, each one of you, that's why you don't script and stay by the script. That's why you have to go in with a big basket of things to get to if you can't move the ball. You have to figure out how to move the ball. You have to score points, man, you have to go. To go in there and say we're going to do this, that and that, you don't know when you line up in that game, because you don't know what's going to happen.
"You don't know who you're going to lose, you don't know what they're going to do, you just don't know. So, to say you should carry the ball 30 times, well, that's nice. That would be just ducky. If we carried the ball 30 times in a game, and we lost 56-2, but he carried the ball thirty times. Our defense got them two points, but that's the way it is. You can't identify before a game, the National Football League just doesn't work that way. You can't say we're going to run it 30 times, and we're going to throw it 40 times. It just doesn't work like that. You have to win the best way you can."
So, how will the Rams try to win this week against Seattle in a key division home game? And with Martz trying to recover from what is believed to be endocarditis, which caused him to miss practice Wednesday and probably Thursday.
In last season's home game against the Seahawks, the Rams came out throwing and passed on the first 13 plays of the game. That helped build a 17-0 lead, and the Rams won, 23-12.
This year, the Seahawks enter the game with the league's 25th-ranked rushing defense. So, it stands to reason the Rams might try to run, but much depends on the production of tight ends Cam Cleeland and Blaine Saipaia. They both practiced for the first time Wednesday at the position. Cleeland has been out of football since the end of 2004 season, while Saipaia had been busy playing every position on the offensive line since the starting of training camp until trading in his No. 60 jersey for No. 49 this week.
"There are a lot of different things a tight end has to do," Saipaia said. "They have to know the passing combinations as far as which route they are running based off what the other guys are doing. They also have to know who to block on certain plays and certain looks. I have a handle on some of the blocking, but some of the passing things I have to pay special attention to, so I'm in the right place at the right time."
Cleeland caught the winning touchdown pass in the Rams' playoff victory over Seattle last season, and his off-season home is in Seattle. That's where he was when the Rams called Sunday, shortly after Williams suffered a serious knee injury.
"I was pretty much retired," he said. "I had a couple calls from teams before training camp, but nothing that I really wanted. I didn't want to uproot my family, but here it was pretty easy. I heard Roland got hurt. I didn't even watch the game. I know everybody. I know the system. It would be a lot easier for me to come back. Now it's just about getting physically back into shape."
The Rams have to do that as a team, playing tougher physically and mentally, and they will be doing it with a head coach that will have missed at least three practices in the last week.
SERIES HISTORY: 14th regular-season meeting. Rams lead the series, 9-4. The Rams have won three straight games in the series, plus a playoff game last January. In the three seasons the teams have been in the same division, the Rams are 3-0 at home.
--Coach Mike Martz had been feeling ill for more than a month, and last Friday missed practice before the game against the Giants when he was hospitalized for what was said to be a sinus infection. Wednesday, it was revealed that Martz believes he has bacterial endocarditis, an infection in the lining of the heart.
"I haven't been feeling good for four or five weeks and there is some type of infection in my body that has gotten worse," Martz told the Seattle media during a conference call. "They think they've identified what it is. This is something that if you let it go, it could become a real issue. They feel very confident that's what it is, but they have to confirm it. I am going to be very careful with this."
After making that revelation, the Rams issued a statement from Martz that said, "I have been ill for four or five weeks. Our medical staff is in the process of evaluating a number of diagnostic tests to determine the cause. Dr. (Doug) Pogue suspects a bacterial infection of a heart valve called endocarditis. This can't be confirmed for a number of days until a series of blood tests are concluded. Diagnosed early, this can be treated through a lengthy series of antibiotics with full recovery.
"However, this infection causes a great deal of fatigue and is somewhat debilitating. Consequently, I will limit my workday as much as possible until I can start to recover. I will not be at practice Wednesday or Thursday. Assistant Head Coach Joe Vitt will act on my behalf when I am unavailable."
A statement from Dr. Pogue said, "An extensive medical workup has been done and is ongoing through me and other consulting physicians. A definitive diagnosis has not yet been established, but we are continuing to pursue this aggressively and will do everything we can to restore Coach Martz to normal medical health."
Martz is still working with the game plan and scripting plays for practice in the morning. Said Vitt after Wednesday's practice, "He has scripted every play. He has scripted the practice. He set the practice format. We're just carrying it on. He's going to see it on film and critique it on film."
One of the causes of bacterial endocarditis is dental work, and Martz had some work done more than a month ago, which fits the time frame of when he started feeling bad. Describing how he has felt, Martz told Seattle reporters, "I can't explain to you the fatigue. You feel really good and then in the course of a couple hours you hit rock bottom."
--Strong safety Adam Archuleta knows the Rams defense will be challenged Sunday against Seattle, especially after such a poor performance against the Giants.
"We don't like it," he said. "It's embarrassing. So we have to go out there and erase that from our memories, and the only way to do that is go out and dominate this game."
That will be a tall order facing running back Shaun Alexander.
Said Archuleta, "He just produces. You give him a hole and he's going to find it. He's done it year-in and year-out, so you have to be disciplined and be in your lanes and make sure you tackle and hit him and make sure it a physical game for him."
Assistant head coach and linebackers coach Joe Vitt said, "He's a slasher, and they know how to block. He stays at the point of attack and if he gets through the first line, he can take it the whole way. He's one of the few backs in this league that can take it the distance. He has a second gear, and he can finish runs. So it's a challenge."
--With all the negatives surrounding the loss to the Giants, one bright spot was the play of rookie right tackle Alex Barron. He was making his first start, and fared well going against defensive end Michael Strahan. "For his first performance, to go against somebody like Strahan, and then have the success and play as well as he did and keep his composure, I thought he was outstanding in this game," coach Mike Martz said. "Which is comforting for us. Because I think under that kind of pressure, we've not had a guy yet step up to the plate and perform like that."
A humble Barron said, "Things went OK. I had some help from the guys. There were times when I was out there by myself and I had to anchor down and fight."
--The Rams beat the Seahawks three times last season, including a comeback on the road in which the Rams overcame a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win in overtime. The Seahawks were 3-0 entering that game and went 6-6 afterward.
Wide receiver Torry Holt questioned Seattle's toughness in his role as an ESPN analyst on draft day last April. That was the subject of discussion in Seattle this week. "Are you asking me if I think they're tougher than we are?" defensive end Grant Wistrom, a former Ram, was asked. "No. I think Torry thinks a lot of things, and if you put a microphone in front of him, Torry is going to say a lot of things. That's just the type of guy he is. He likes to talk a lot and he backs it up with the way that he plays.
"We take those things personal. I would be very disappointed in our team if we didn't come out and try to answer some of those criticisms or suggestions or whatever that he had about us last year."
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said, "We probably respect them a little more than they respect us. But that's OK."
Appearing on a conference call with the Seattle media, Holt said, "I was basically saying that we do have a mental edge against that bunch because we were able to beat them three times in one year. It could have been Cincinnati, if we beat them three times in one year, you're going to feel you have some type of edge over a particular squad. That's what I was making reference to, when I made that point."
BY THE NUMBERS: 1,312 - Total passing yards accumulated by QB Marc Bulger in the first four games of the season. That's second behind Donovan McNabb (1,333) in the NFL and it is a pace that would give him 5,248 yards for the season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're professionals. We're going to get paid no matter who the head coach is, and we have to go out and perform. At the end of the day nobody wants to hear our sad story. There are no excuses for losing, so we're out here practicing to win." - Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, asked why the absence of head coach Mike Martz from practice won't be a distraction.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With Blaine Saipaia moving from the offensive line to tight end, center Toby Cecil was brought back on the practice squad. He takes the spot of CB Duvol Thompson, who was released from the practice squad.
--TE Cam Cleeland practiced for the first time Wednesday after arriving late Monday night, and worked with the first unit during team drills.
--TE Blaine Saipaia experienced his first practice as a tight end Wednesday after playing or practicing at every line position since the start of training camp.
--TE Brandon Manumaleuna did not practice Wednesday because of a knee injury, and is not expected to play Sunday against the Seahawks.
--WR Isaac Bruce remains doubtful for Sunday's game because of a toe injury, but he did run on the sideline at practice Wednesday.
--T Rex Tucker practiced for the first time Wednesday since injuring his calf in the season opener against San Francisco.
--DE Leonard Little was limited in practice Wednesday because of a sore foot, but will play Sunday against Seattle.
--CB Chris Johnson missed practice Wednesday because of the stomach flu.
GAME PLAN: It comes down the basic fundamentals of the game. The Rams will strive to get a lead early, while stopping the Seattle running game. With Seahawks receivers Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram unlikely to play, the Rams' major goal will be to limit running back Shaun Alexander. They'll have a better chance if the Seahawks struggle to pass.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Rams DLE Leonard Little vs. Seahawks RT Sean Locklear - Locklear has been starting instead of the injured Floyd Womack, and he has held his own so far. But Little will be the fastest end he has faced.
Rams LBs vs. Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander - Led by LBs Chris Claiborne and Pisa Tinoisamoa, the Rams will have to be disciplined in their assignment, and not leave gaps for Alexander to run through.
INJURY IMPACT: Injuries to TEs Ronald Williams and Brandon Manumaleuna left the Rams thin at the position, leading to the signing of Cam Cleeland and moving OL Blaine Saipaia to tight end. Whether the Rams can run consistently could be determined by whether either can be productive.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Rookie Alex Smith will take over for Tim Rattay as quarterback when the 49ers face the unbeaten Colts on Sunday at Monster Park. Sure, there might be some tough times for the No. 1 overall pick. But, really, how much worse can it get for the 49ers? "We've had a lot of rough days over the past few weeks, wouldn't you say?" 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "Alex will be our quarterback, and it's about winning.
"I want to commit to every player we have, but it's about winning first. That's why we're doing this thing with Alex. He'll be the guy, and those rough days will happen. I recognize that, but I'm also pretty sure about what we have in Alex. You'd have to live in la-la land to think that there won't be some rough times, but I've got a lot of confidence in the guy in what he can do, both physically and mentally."
Smith gives the struggling 49ers something to build on for the future. After all, Rattay does not figure into the team's long-range plans. The 49ers have invested a lot of money in hopes that Smith can eventually help lead the 49ers back into prominence. The club signed him to a six-year, $49.5 million contract that includes $24 million in guaranteed money. But everybody realizes it will not be a smooth transition for the young quarterback. "I'm going to keep swinging and keep throwing," Smith said. "I'm a rookie. I'm young. I'm probably going to take some shots and get knocked down, but I just have to get back up and keep going forward. Everything is not going to be golden for me, and there are going to be some bad times. That's not unexpected."
Nolan was impressed by what he saw from Smith even while he struggled with his play during the exhibition season. Nolan said he watched closely to see how Smith reacted when things did not go well. "I think Tim has handled everything to this point extremely well," Nolan said. "Even he could see the writing on the wall in the long term because we drafted Alex No. 1. I believe he'll be very positive. He said, 'I'm a professional and I understand. I'll do my very best to be prepared in case something happens to Alex.'
"I thought he handled this situation extremely well. I understand his disappointment. If he wasn't disappointed, you'd ask yourself, 'Why didn't I do this four weeks ago?'" Rattay ranked 27th in the NFL with a passer rating of 70.3. He led the 49ers' to an opening-week victory over the Rams while compiling a 141.9 rating, ranking second in the league after one game. But it's been a steady decline since then.
Rattay was benched in the fourth quarter of the 49ers' 31-14 loss to the Cardinals on Sunday night in Mexico City. The 49ers scored two defensive touchdowns in the first quarter. In the 11 drives during which Rattay played, the 49ers' deepest penetration was the Arizona 45-yard line.
Smith has seen action in two regular-season games, completing six of 11 passing attempts for 34 yards. "I believe Alex is ready," Nolan said. "I think it's time to get Alex in the game. If we were 3-1, it would have been different, because as I've said all along, I didn't want to see Tim fail because the better he does, the better we do as a team. We are 1-3. There was never a timetable on the decision. I did commit to Tim early. I would stand by that and thought his experience did assist us in our offensive production that we had in the opener, but we are 1-3."
SERIES HISTORY: 41st meeting. The Colts lead 22-18, but the 49ers have won seven of the last eight meetings dating to 1969.
--Quarterback Tim Rattay said he wholeheartedly disagreed with coach Mike Nolan's decision to bench him in favor of rookie Alex Smith. But Rattay promised to continue to work hard and be prepared in case he was pressed into action. "Obviously, I don't want to be No. 2 and I don't feel like I should be No. 2," Rattay said. "But I understand the role and I'm going to prepare and be professional about it. I'll prepare myself to play and be ready to play."
Rattay said there were a lot of things that were outside his control when he watched the game film from the 49ers' 31-14 loss Sunday night to the Cardinals. Although he did not get into specifics, Rattay was clearly alluding to the breakdowns on the offensive line and the fact that the offense was without flanker Arnaz Battle and tight end Eric Johnson due to injuries.
--Coach Mike Nolan is still in the process of trying to work a trade to get rid of linebacker Jamie Winborn, whom he dismissed for the team despite saying there was nothing disciplinary involved. Nolan said he knew Winborn was not happy that he was demoted from the starting lineup, and he wanted to give Winborn an opportunity to play elsewhere. But who was going to take Winborn in the middle of the season at his $1.75 million salary?
The 49ers found themselves in a position of just trying to give Winborn away, when he still was considered one of the team's better players. When asked if they were going to be able to trade Winborn, Nolan answered, "I'm hopeful, for Jamie's sake, as well as our own. I'm very hopeful of that."
--The 49ers are statistically one of the worst teams in the league, having been outscored 132-76 while compiling a 1-3 record. But Nolan has not backed down from his preseason goal of the 49ers winning the NFC West. The only reason there is still hope for the 49ers is because the NFC West is among the worst divisions in the NFL.
"Our target has not changed," Nolan said. "When you look at it from a statistical measure, we are only a game out of first. I believe it's going to be a tight division as it goes. As go forward, it's my goal to get better and better.
"Hopefully, it continues to be a tight division, which we believe it will be, and at that time we'll be in the thick. Our goal has not changed. We're only one game out of first, which is kind of crazy but it is reality."
--Before there was Marc Bulger and Donovan McNabb and Drew Bledsoe and Josh McCown, the 49ers' defense was torched by somebody else. During his time running the scout team against the 49ers' first-team defense, rookie Alex Smith has had his way in practice throwing to such receivers as Rasheed Marshall, Marcus Maxwell and, even, fourth-string quarterback Cody Pickett.
"He takes all the defensive reps in practice, so he gets every bit as many repetitions in practice as the starting quarterback, but it's just running the opponent's offense," Nolan said of Smith's practice time. "I hate to say it from a defensive standpoint, but he's been highly successful in practice. That doesn't bode well for our defense some of the times. He's done an excellent job running someone else's attack. In finding the receiver and getting them the ball, he's done a great job."
--Smith becomes the first 49ers rookie to start at quarterback since 1997 when injuries to Steve Young and Jeff Brohm forced first-round pick Jim Druckenmiller into action against the St. Louis Rams. Druckenmiller completed 10 of 28 passes for 102 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in a 15-12 victory. He never started another game in the NFL.
--While the injuries pile up around him, the one constant in the 49ers' secondary is strong safety Tony Parrish. He has started every game since coming into the league with the Bears in 1998. Parrish has an amazing memory when it comes filing away each of his 116 NFL games. When asked how many times he has faced Indianapolis and Peyton Manning, Parrish answered correctly: once.
He even guessed the date, Nov. 5, 2000. Upon further review, he was correct again.
BY THE NUMBERS: The 49ers rank last in the league, averaging just 23:12 in time of possession per game, 131/2 minutes fewer than their opposition.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I traded for Joe Montana" - Coach Mike Nolan, before informing the media of his decision to start Alex Smith at quarterback over Tim Rattay.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The 49ers' offensive line is a mess because of injuries to center Jeremy Newberry and left tackle Jonas Jennings. Newberry is playing at less-than full strength because of knee and lower-leg problems. And Jennings will not play this week because of a partially torn labrum in his right shoulder, and he might require season-ending surgery. Recently signed backup Anthony Clement, a right tackle during his first seven seasons in the league, shifted to the left side to replace Jennings. He struggled mightily against Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry. If Jennings is unable to go, Clement will undoubtedly need all kinds of help against Colts pass-rush sensation Dwight Freeney.
"There's always game plan things that you take into consideration and that will be one of them," Nolan said. "I believe that everyone who plays Indianapolis addresses the Freeney issue, and that's obviously on the left side. It won't go unattended to as far as what we do offensively."
The 49ers added two players to their practice squad: safety Ben Emanuel and linebacker Ronald Stanley. They released tight end Erik Jensen from the practice squad.
--DE Bryant Young leads the NFL with six sacks through the first four games. Young has undergone a rejuvenation after recording from two to 3.5 sacks the previous four seasons. Young has made a smooth transition from defensive tackle in the 49ers' 4-3 scheme, to defensive end in the new 3-4.
--WR Brandon Lloyd is off to the best start of his career. Lloyd has 17 catches for 326 yards and three touchdowns, as he leads the 49ers in each of those statistics.
--P Andy Lee is off to a good start. He is averaging 43.1 yards per punt, including a fine net average of 38.7.
--LB Derek Smith, who has led the team in tackles every season he has been with the club, is atop that category once again. Smith leads the 49ers with 33 tackles, two head of LB Jeff Ulbrich. Smith is also tied for the team with three tackles for loss - sharing the top spot with Jamie Winborn, who is no longer on the squad.
--CB Derrick Johnson recorded the fifth-longest fumble return for a touchdown in team history when he scooped up a loose ball Sunday against the Cardinals and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown. Johnson, however, sustained a thigh strain and may not be able to play this week.
GAME PLAN: The 49ers have so many problems across the board, it's difficult to know where to start. Rookie quarterback Alex Smith gets his first career start, and it's imperative that the team do everything to protect their $49.5 million investment. Since tight end Steve Bush is of no importance to the passing game, having caught just two passes for 11 yards, you can expect him to help the 49ers' left tackle against Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney. Banged-up left tackle Jonas Jennings might not be able to play, so Anthony Clement is likely to start and rookie Patrick Estes could see action, too. The 49ers have to put Smith in a position to succeed with a lot of three-step drops and plays designed to get him outside the pocket. No telling what other unconventional plays you might see with Smith at quarterback. After all, Smith ran a gimmick spread offense while at the University of Utah. Defensively, the 49ers have to put some pressure on Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who has not been sacked this season.
The 49ers' secondary is an absolute mess. Defensively, the 49ers had only 18 available players in the second half of their game last week against the Cardinals. Fifth cornerback Willie Middlebrooks, among the team's final cuts this summer, could be in line to get a starting assignment against the Colts. The more receivers the Colts can put on the field, the more impossible it will be for the 49ers to match up with them. The 49ers have surrendering 368.3 yards passing per game, and opposing quarterbacks have compiled a 109.3 passer rating. The 49ers' best player through the first four games has been defensive end Bryant Young, who will likely start receiving more attention from opposing offenses.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
49ers cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer secondary, playing without Week 1 starters Ahmed Plummer and Mike Rumph and top backup Derrick Johnson, vs. the Colts receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, who will present all kinds of matchup problems for the 49ers.
LT Anthony Clement, a natural RT who looked out of place last week against the Cardinals, vs. DE Dwight Freeney, perhaps the best pass-rusher in the league.
QB Alex Smith, the rookie getting his first career start after taking over for Tim Rattay, vs. Colts pass defense, which has recorded 15 sacks and four interceptions this season.
INJURY IMPACT: LT Jonas Jennings will not play this week because of a torn labrum in his right shoulder. The injury could lead to season-ending surgery, though Jennings said he is determined to try to return in a couple weeks.
WR Arnaz Battle is questionable with a right knee sprain. He did not play last week.
Linebacker Julian Peterson (right hamstring) remains questionable after sitting out last week's game.
CB Derrick Johnson probably won't be able to play this week due to a thigh strain.
CB Willie Middlebrooks will likely start on the left side despite being listed as questionable with a groin strain.
C Jeremy Newberry will not practice this week but should start Sunday. He is hobbled by a chronic knee problem.
CB Ahmed Plummer opted for arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle last Thursday and will not play this week. He has a chance to return Oct. 23 when the 49ers face the Redskins.
WR Derrick Hamilton beganthe season on the physically unable to perform list, which makes him ineligible for the first six weeks of the regular season.
CB Mike Rumph (foot), TE Eric Johnson (foot) and WR Rashaun Woods (thumb) are on injured reserve.