NFC West News & Notes: 10/13/05

The 49ers and Cardinals have bye weeks upcoming, which means that the Seahawks and the Rams are the two division teams getting ready for opponents in today's NFC West News & Notes.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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The Seahawks have hit their stride offensively while their defense continues to play well enough to win most of the time. There's a positive vibe in the locker room after management weeded out players who didn't always grasp the team concept. But with the 0-4 Texans coming to Qwest Field on Sunday night, it's logical to wonder if the Seahawks are due for a letdown.

Seattle is coming off a 37-31 victory over St. Louis, after all, while the Texans are reeling.

Do not expect a Seattle letdown in this game. The offense is stocked with veteran players who take their work seriously. Their strong play at Qwest Field has quietly given Seattle a 16-3 home record since Week 16 of the 2002 season, a mark that trails only New England's 18-2 home mark during that same period.
Defensively, the Seahawks are a young team striving to get better. They have high-energy players at every position. All signs point to a strong performance against Houston's 32nd-ranked offense.

This Seattle team is different from so many of its flighty predecessors.

"It's coming from the feeling I get when I go down in the locker room, and the feeling I get on the airplane and different things," coach Mike Holmgren said. "They're having fun playing. The cynics aren't around here so much any more - you know, the couple players in the locker room who says, 'That's the coach talking again. Don't listen to him. ... They're screwing you on your contract.' Whatever. There's very little of that, as far as I know, now going on because there are a handful of new people in there.

"The other thing is, we have been able to avoid, so far, off-the-field distractions that can hurt a football team during the course of a season. It's still early, but the guys are being pretty responsible, as far as I can tell."

QB Matt Hasselbeck sees the same thing from inside the locker room. "I think every team I have been on, you have a group of guys that are really helping pull the team in the right direction and a couple guys that are pulling it in a wrong direction," he said. "Everybody else is sort of on the fence. I think for the first time since I have been in Seattle, we have an overwhelming majority going in the right direction. It is a contagious thing.

"I don't know how to explain it other than we feel really good about what we are doing, we believe in the program, we believe in what the coaches are asking us to do and we believe in each other. You feel like the guy next to you isn't going to let you down." Seattle owns the NFL's top-ranked offense in terms of yards per game. RB Shaun Alexander leads the NFL in rushing. Hasselbeck ranks fifth in passer rating. TE Jerramy Stevens ranks sixth among tight ends in receiving yardage. The team has not committed a turnover in its last three games, and Hasselbeck has gone 146 pass attempts without throwing an interception.

In the Texans, Seattle faces the NFL's only winless team and the only team that has yet to force a turnover. The Seahawks lack a dominant pass rush, but that shouldn't matter given that Houston has allowed 27 sacks in four games, putting QB David Carr on pace to absorb a league-record 108 sacks this season.
Seattle will have to make some adjustments this week because the Texans play a 3-4 defense. That could force Hasselbeck to be a bit more careful in making his presnap reads. But once the ball is snapped, Seattle will own advantages in most of the key matchups.

Alexander will never win awards for smashmouth running, but he has saved some of his best performances for the bright lights of ESPN. He rushed for a franchise-record 266 yards in a Sunday night game against Oakland in 2001, followed in 2002 by a five-touchdown first half during a Sunday night victory over Minnesota.

SERIES HISTORY - First meeting.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Coach Mike Holmgren conceded in 2002 that he might have had an easier time going young on defense instead of stocking the offense with so many draft choices. Three years later, those young players on offense are maturing into a top-notch group and it's the Seattle defense that is starting over with young players.
"If you had to, you could play defense with athletic guys and let them play and run around, and offense it's a little different," Holmgren said. "It's a little more precise, I would say, and I thought the experience was more important.

"Now, we're an effective defense, I think. Can we get better? Absolutely. We're effective because (rookie) Lofa Tatupu is making plays, because (fellow rookie) Leroy Hill is running around making plays. Some of our speed gets things done. And I think you play the game and are effective on defense that way."

--QB Matt Hasselbeck has had big games before, but his performance during a rare road victory at St. Louis carried qualities he hasn't always shown on the road. "The impressive thing for me was that he was pretty poised," Holmgren said. "At times, you watch him play and it gets a little hectic in there and he starts making audible checks and stuff. He gets hit and we start going in the wrong direction, particularly in domes where it's really noisy. I thought he handled it beautifully. I thought he really played a solid game that way." Hasselbeck set season highs for completion percentage (.711) and yards (316). This was his franchise-record 12th game with at least 300 yards, one more than Dave Krieg and three more than Jim Zorn.

BY THE NUMBERS: Seattle has put together nine touchdown drives of 80 yards or longer this season. The team had only one through five games last season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Lofa (Tatupu) is impressing more every week. He got his interception. Before that I think he had 10 tackles and a sack. He's just growing as a player and it's impressive. He's an impressive player." - DT Marcus Tubbs, on Seattle's rookie middle linebacker.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Seattle brought in six free-agent linebackers for workouts this week, but there were no immediate plans to sign any of them. The team does have some issues to resolve at the position, however.

Rookie MLB Lofa Tatupu and rookie OLB Leroy Hill are playing well enough to command additional playing time. Tatupu has started all season, but he had been coming off the field on passing downs until last week. Playing in relief of an injured D.D. Lewis, Tatupu picked off a pass in the nickel scheme.

Hill, meanwhile, continues to emerge as potentially the team's most intriguing outside pass rusher. Hill has been stuck on the bench behind Lewis too much of the time, but that could change in the near future, possibly even for this game. Lewis is a bit banged up and Hill appears to be everything Seattle needs in a weakside linebacker.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--WR Darrell Jackson could miss six weeks or more after undergoing knee surgery Wednesday in Miami. His orthopedic surgeon detected more damage than first thought. A precise timetable has not been announced, but this is an injury that could keep Jackson out longer than expected. The torn lateral meniscus was worse than first thought.

--WR Bobby Engram is still a ways away from returning. He definitely will not play Sunday against Houston. His cracked ribs are improving, but they could need a few more weeks before Engram is cleared.

--RT Floyd Womack is doubtful with a quadriceps injury. There is almost no chance Seattle will activate him Sunday. RT Sean Locklear is playing well enough to possibly keep the job.

--SS Michael Boulware practiced Wednesday and was not even on the injury report. He missed the second half of Seattle's victory in St. Louis after a collision left him with no feeling in his legs for a brief period. Boulware will remain in the starting lineup.

--CB Andre Dyson is doubtful for Sunday with a pulled hamstring. There is almost no chance he will be active for the game. That means CB Kelly Herndon will be in the lineup. Herndon has struggled this season.

--According to Mike Sando of the Tacoma News Tribune, WR D.J. Hackett (let hip) and LB D.D. Lewis (right knee) were added to the Thursday injury report. Both are probable.

GAME PLAN:
This game presents a great opportunity for Seattle to pad its sack totals, as well as forcing turnovers that will facilitate favorable field position and a comfortable victory over the NFL's worst team. Seattle DE Grant Wistrom is still looking for his first sack. He came close last week after getting around Rams LT Orlando Pace, and Wistrom has also delivered a few pressures and hurries. If he can't get home against the Texans, who have already allowed 27 sacks, Wistrom might need to reassess his game.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:


Seahawks LCB Kelly Herndon, who has struggled as the nickel corner, vs. Texans WR Jabar Gaffney. Herndon is making his first start of the season because Andre Dyson is injured. Houston has had all kinds of problems proptecting the passer. It all adds up to Herndon's best chance yet to have a solid game. Gaffney has only 10 catches this season and he probably won't have help from leading WR Andre Johnson, who is doubtful with a knee injury.

Seahawks RDE Grant Wistrom, who is still looking for his first sack, vs. Texans LT Chester Pitts, who is moving from LG as part of a shakeup on Houston's offensive line. The Texans have allowed 27 sacks in four games. Wistrom has zero sacks in five games. Something has to give and it figures to be Pitts. Wistrom is not playing particularly well this season, but he remains a high-effort player with enough talent to collect six or seven sacks in a season. He is due for the kind of breakout game that will somewhat offset his slow start. This would appear to be the week for Wistrom.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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The Cardinals, after blowing yet another game they had under wraps, limp into their bye at 1-4. That's 1-4 for the team that supposedly had upgraded its roster significantly and was the pick of just about everyone with a notebook or tape recorder to win the NFC West.

"We are stunned right now, but it is a young season," said receiver Anquan Boldin, who has had back-to-back 100-yard receiving games, but whose fumble against Carolina played a role in a 20-10 lead entering the final quarter becoming a 24-20 loss. "We still have a lot of football to play. During the bye week we are going to try to get healthy. We are going to try to correct our mistakes and we are going to come out the following week and let Tennessee have it."

As lousy as their injury-riddled, mistake-plagued opening five games have been, winning the division still is within the Cardinals' reach if they come out of the bye resembling the team they were believed to be. Losing quarterback Kurt Warner when he was playing well was a blow, but Josh McCown stepped in and passed for a career-high in yardage each of his two starts (385 vs. San Francisco, a win, and 394 vs. Carolina, a loss). Warner's groin strain is expected to be healed coming out of the bye and coach Dennis Green is going to have to make a decision.

McCown, despite helping Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin each become 100-yard receivers in back-to-back games, might have made Green's decision easier with three interceptions against the Panthers, including two after the Cardinals built that 20-10 lead. While they have suffered the sort of misfortunes that teams suffer playing football, they still should be playing better.

Losing first-round draft pick Antrel Rolle and two other cornerbacks to injury was a blow, as was losing starting nose tackle Russell Davis for the season last month. But the Cardinals' woes really can be traced to the basics of football: They still cannot run nor stop the run. And whenever a foe needs a big play on third down, it need look no further for relief than at the Cardinals cornerbacks of the moment - by the end of the Carolina game, the Cardinals were down to helpless civilians at the corners. Rolle is believed to be finished for the season, but others are expected back after the bye. "We had a safety (Quentin Harris) playing at corner and that was where they had one of their touchdowns," Green pointed out.

Even with its personnel losses, the Cardinals easily could be 3-2 and getting ready to take control of the West as expected had it not failed on the closing possession to score when in scoring position. "You just can't win very many games scoring 20 points in the National Football League," Green said. "If you looked at the 32 teams that played, very few would have scored 20 points and won."

And that is a recurring theme for the Cardinals, who were expected to run effectively with rookie second-round pick J.J. Arrington and veteran Marcel Shipp complementing the passing game. It is too early to write off Arrington as a bust, but he has contributed virtually nothing.

The offense has been far too reliant on Fitzgerald and Boldin. "We move the ball OK, but you've got to score points and you've got to be able to slam the door," Green said. "You have to be able to run the ball a little bit and have something to go to. I don't even know if we threw to the tight end.

"But you've got to be able to mix it up. I just think that whether you're passing or running, you've got to be able to get in there and score touchdowns."

NOTES, QUOTES

--FB Obafemi Ayanbadejo, the lead blocker, is frank in his assessment that the Cardinals not only need to run the ball better, but to make a stronger commitment to running the ball. "We're going to have to find a running game if we want to take it to the next level," Ayanbadejo said. "Maybe we need to think about how we want to do that. I'm sure the coaches will be thinking and talking things out - their brains are always working. I'm going to trust them to come up with a better plan."

In the wake of another game in which the Cardinals did not reach 100 yards rushing, Green acknowledged, "We are throwing probably more than we want to throw."

--Chances of CB Antrel Rolle, a rookie first-round pick, returning this season are slim following surgery on a torn meniscus in his knee. But the team has not yet placed him on injured reserve until it gets a better feel of what its postseason chances might be coming out of the bye, and a better read on how Rolle's recovery is progressing. But if the team does not beat Tennessee in a home game following this weekend's bye and drops to 1-5, setting up the need to finish 8-2 to have a reasonable chance for postseason play, don't be stunned to see Rolle go onto IR so another player can be activated for experience.

--Fellow rookie CB Eric Green, a third-round pick, suffered a shoulder injury against Carolina that still is being evaluated.

--Veteran CB Robert Tate (head) also was lost during the game vs. the Panthers but should be ready after the bye. With starting CB David Macklin (hamstring) and backup Ray Walls (groin) already out, the Cardinals were down to Lamont Reid, signed from the practice squad, and backup S Quentin Harris playing corner by the end of the Carolina game. All but Rolle are expected back coming out of the bye.

BY THE NUMBERS: 100 - Receiving yards on back-to-back weekends by Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. It had been 43 years since the Cardinals had a pair of receivers with 100 yards in back-to-back games. It was last done in the NFL four years ago.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It makes it tougher (without a running game). Teams start figuring out that they can stop the run with just their front four. They start dropping back and taking guys away. We have to get some sort of running game going because anytime you throw it as many times as we do it is going to be tough to win a ballgame." - Cardinals QB Josh McCown, after passing for career highs of 385 and 394 yards in successive starts in place of injured Kurt Warner, largely because the Cardinals have no running game support.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

With QB Josh McCown having passed for 385 and 394 yards in a win and a loss, and veteran Kurt Warner's expected return next week from a groin injury that has sidelined him for three weeks, coach Dennis Green will have a decision to make. And Green isn't going to be rushed into it. He said he has not decided when he will make the decision, but a safe bet is he won't do it until at least midweek going into the game.

The team returns to action at home Oct. 23 vs. Tennessee.

"It's not 100 percent pain-free yet, but as far as the strength and the movement and being able to do things, I feel really good," Warner said of his recovery.
Warner hasn't made the mistakes with the ball McCown has made, but McCown did get the team its only victory this season. And in 13 starts last season, McCown got the team its only six wins. He now is the starting QB in all seven of Green's wins in Arizona.

One decision that Green apparently has made is that the team is not committed enough to the running game. So run-blocking is special point of emphasis during the bye. The Cardinals have not reached the 100 yards rushing in any of their first five games and rookie second-round pick J.J. Arrington, a 2,000-yard rusher a year ago in college at California, has been no factor whatsoever.

The break comes at a particularly good time for the banged up cornerbacks. By the end of the Carolina game, the team had a converted safety and an undrafted rookie up from the practice squad on the field during Carolina's comeback victory. Although first-round pick Antrel Rolle (knee surgery) is not expected to be one of those returning, Eric Green (shoulder), Robert Tate (head), David Macklin (hamstring) and Ray Walls (groin) should be ready to face the Titans.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--MLB Gerald Hayes (knee) was placed on injured reserve. Hayes, the projected starter, initially was expected to be ready coming out of the bye.

--MLB James Darling will remain the starter with Gerald Hayes having gone on IR. The versatile veteran Darling initially was viewed as a strong candidate outside, where he started last season. But coaches liked free agent Orlando Huff, who had played inside at Seattle, better on the outside. It then became a battle between Hayes and Darling in the middle that Hayes won in camp before suffering the injury.

--DE Antonio Smith was signed from the practice squad to the 53-man roster. He has been up and down a couple of times. Smith, after a disappointing 2004 rookie season, had a big spring (six sacks in 10 games) in NFL Europe and continues to make progress.

-- TE Andy Stokes was re-signed to the practice squad after he had been released the week before.

-- T Alan Reuber was signed to the practice squad.

INJURY IMPACT: Tennessee no doubt will look at the Carolina game film and slobber over the potential for torturing the Cardinals CBs, but the story should be different by the time the Cardinals face the Titans coming out of the bye. Most of the injured corps of corners is expected back by then, including starters David Macklin and Eric Green.

QB Josh McCown had two games to make his case playing in place of injured Kurt Warner (groin), and it was a split decision. McCown put up big yardage numbers and got the team a win over San Francisco in Mexico City, but in the loss to Carolina showed that he will make mistakes under pressure in key situations. That won't escape the attention of Dennis Green or the Tennessee Titans as they prepare. Warner is expected to be ready to return coming out of the bye, giving Green a decision to make. While Warner was unable to lead the team to a win in his first three starts, he was not as mistake-prone with the ball.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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It has been a strange week at Rams Park.

On Monday, the team announced that coach Mike Martz was taking an indefinite leave of absence to deal with his recovery from acute bacterial endocarditis.
Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, now the interim head coach, is sticking with the schedule decided by Martz, which gave the players off Wednesday, with three days of work Thursday, Friday and Saturday, prior to the Monday night game at Indianapolis.

The Rams will prepare for that game as 13 1/2-point underdogs, given the Colts' undefeated record and the fact the Rams have lost two consecutive games in which they allowed 81 points to the Giants and Seahawks. Amid the news about Martz's departure, the Rams also released rookie punter Reggie Hodges and there was rampant speculation free safety Michael Hawthorne would also be jettisoned. Hawthorne was out of position on several plays in the loss to the Giants, and the problem repeated itself against Seattle.

It was announced that Hawthorne had a thigh injury when he was replaced by Mike Furrey, so a delay in him leaving could be traced to the injury. Big plays allowed and poor field position haunted the defense against Seattle, as the Seahawks began four possessions in Rams territory and another at midfield. Most of that was traced to the dismal punting of Hodges, who was released Monday and replaced by Bryan Barker. Seattle scored 27 points of their 37 points in those situations.

Said defensive end Anthony Hargrove, "You can't sit here and blame field position, because that's what we get paid to do, stop them. No matter what the field position is, we just have to show up and play anyway." After the game, Martz said, "The Seahawks did a nice job offensively keeping us off balance."

Offensively, coordinator Steve Fairchild will take over play-calling, a move that Martz has considered before, but continued doing. The Rams offense has been productive at times, but has also sputtered. Against Seattle, the Rams had a total of 53 yards on their first 12 plays. In the third quarter, they had 15 yards on seven plays in their first two possessions, which included a sack and an interception.

After the game, Martz said, "I did a bad job of calling plays in the second half, just not good. I would like to think that I could do a better job than that. I feel bad for these players because they played their hearts out, and in certain situations we didn't give them an opportunity or I didn't.

"I wasn't myself this week. The game plan wasn't clear for me. I probably should have let Steve (Fairchild) call the game. That's just that part that's in me, you want to just bulldog it." Now, Martz won't be bulldogging it, and someone else will be calling the offensive plays for the first time since 1999.

Said Vitt of Fairchild, "He's excited about the challenge."

How he and the team respond to that challenge will determine where the Rams go from here.

SERIES HISTORY: 41st meeting. Colts lead the series, 21-17-2. The teams have played only twice since the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995. That season, the Rams traveled to Indianapolis with a 4-0 record and lost 21-18. RB Marshall Faulk, then with the Colts, scored three touchdowns and rushed for 177 yards on 19 carries in that game. In 2001, with the Rams on the way to the Super Bowl, they beat the Colts in St. Louis 42-17.

NOTES, QUOTES

--DE Leonard Little, who was bothered by a back injury in Sunday's loss to Seattle, realizes the team's defense has to play better. The Rams' opponents have scored 81 points in the last two games. "We are not playing consistent defense," Little said. "That's a big thing. We are up and down right now, we play good at times and at times we play poorly. We've got to get together and do the things we need to do, like studying and not messing up on certain plays like we did (Sunday)."

Little wouldn't point fingers and said it's about the entire defense.

He said, "They (Seattle) had a lot of passing yards and it was up to the defensive line to put pressure on them. Which we did at times and at other times we didn't. The whole team is at fault for everything. You can't say you blame one position or one person, the whole team is at fault. We just didn't play that well during the game." Looking ahead to Indianapolis, Little was asked about the problems being fixed. He answered, "I hope so. If we don't fix it we are in trouble."

--TE Roland Williams believes he will be back after undergoing knee surgery. Williams was injured in the Rams' Oct. 2 game against the Giants and tore the three major ligaments in his knee. As for his recovery, Williams said, "Some people say eight months, some people say 12 months. But I think consistent with everything else in my life, I'll beat the odds. So I'll be back as soon as possible."

Williams was hit low by Giants cornerback Curtis Deloatch, which resulted in the injury.

"It wasn't illegal," Williams said. "It just wasn't one that was out for my best interests. I respect him. I don't have any hard feelings for him. That's a part of the game, and everything happens for a reason. We'll be fine. I'll see you next year."

--Amid persistent stories about problems in the team's front office, general manager Charley Armey recently signed a one-year contract extension that will keep him with the club through January, 2007. "I'm very happy to have my contract extended," Armey said. "I love St. Louis, and I enjoy working for the Rams. I think we've got a very good football team and a very good future." While having the title of general manager, Armey is not involved in contract negotiations. He runs the personnel department.

QUOTE TO NOTE:
"I didn't sleep well last night (Sunday), so we've been going 48 hours. This business is like an addiction. You keep coaching for the perfect game. You're constantly trying to find a way to get better. My worst day in football is better than anything else I could be doing." - Rams interim head coach Joe Vitt on the strains of coaching.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES


--WR Torry Holt, who suffered a minor knee injury in Sunday's game against Seattle, is listed as questionable on the injury report Wednesday. The Rams did not practice Wednesday. Holt is expected to play Monday night against the Colts.

--WR Isaac Bruce remains doubtful for Monday's game against Indianapolis because of a toe injury that has already had him inactive for two games.

--CB DeJuan Groce, who suffered a hamstring injury Sunday against Seattle, is considered questionable for Monday's game against the Colts.

--DE Leonard Little, who entered the Seattle game last Sunday with a sore foot, suffered a lower back injury and missed some time against the Seahawks. He is probable for Monday's game against Indianapolis.

--TE Brandon Manumaleuna, who has missed two games because of a knee injury, could return to the field Monday night. Manumaleuna worked with the scout team last Friday in practice, and has been upgraded to probable on the injury report.

GAME PLAN: Somehow, the Rams must figure out a way to outscore the Colts on Monday night. Indianapolis has allowed a total of 29 points in five games, but the highest rated offense they have played is Cleveland, which currently is 16th in the NFL. The Rams are ranked second in the NFL in offensive yards.
Defensively, the Rams are rated first in the NFL in third-down efficiency, but the problem is getting teams to third down. On first down, the Rams allowed 9.0 yards per first-down play against the Giants and 7.9 yards against Seattle. To have any chance at winning the game, the Rams must score and then slow down the Colts offense.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH


Rams secondary vs. Colts receivers - With CB DeJuan Groce questionable because of a hamstring injury, the Rams will be hard-pressed to control Indianapolis receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley. After Travis Fisher, the Rams might be forced to try Corey Ivy, Terry Fair and Chris Johnson at cornerback if Groce can't play, or is ineffective.

INJURY IMPACT: The war of attrition in the secondary has become a serious problem. CB Jerametrius Butler was lost for the season in training camp with a knee injury, and replacement DeJuan Groce injured his hamstring last Sunday against Seattle. At the end of the game, when CB Travis Fisher tweaked an ankle, the corners were Fair, Ivy and Johnson. Fair hadn't played in an NFL game since 2002, while Johnson never played in two seasons with the Packers because of injuries. Ivy was mainly a special teams player for the Buccaneers. ... The passing game could also be affected if WR Torry Holt (knee) has problems. Isaac Bruce is not expected to miss his third game because of a toe injury.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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Mike Nolan says he's a realist.

The 49ers coach realizes there are no quick fixes for the 49ers, who are 1-4 with their bye week upon them. He realizes that rookie quarterback Alex Smith is going to struggle a lot more than he's going to thrive this season. Yet, he also claims the 49ers' goal of winning the NFC West is still attainable.

"I'm not changing our goal," Nolan said. "We're still there and we are 1-4. There have been a lot of 1-4 teams that have went on and changed it. I do believe that this division will be close in the end. Hopefully, when we get it turned around we'll still be in the hunt." The turnaround would have to be one of the more extreme in league history. The 49ers own the league's worst defense through the first five games, and are next to last in offense.

The 49ers rank last in the league in first downs on offense and last in first downs on defense. They are 30th in third-down efficiency on offense, and 31st in third-down efficiency on defense. There just aren't too many places to look for hope for the 49ers. Moreover, left tackle Jonas Jennings, whom they awarded a $12 million signing bonus to sign as a free agent from the Bills, might need season-ending surgery on a torn labrum in his right shoulder. One of their better defenders, linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, is likely to require season-ending surgery to reattach his left biceps muscle.

Already, the 49ers have lost their biggest offensive weapon from last year, tight end Eric Johnson, to a torn plantar fascia muscle under his right foot. Johnson accounted for 82 receptions for 825 yards last year. Steve Bush, his replacement, has just three catches for 21 yards through the first five games. Also, cornerback Ahmed Plummer has missed two games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his left ankle. He is likely to miss another two or three games.

"In time, we may get Jonas Jennings and Ahmed Plummer back, and I believe that keeps us in the hunt," Nolan said. The success of the 49ers' final 11 games of the season will be based a lot on how well Smith performs. Smith, the top overall pick in the draft, was elevated into the starting role last week when Nolan decided to bench veteran Tim Rattay.

Smith will not leave the starting lineup unless he is injured, Nolan said. The rookie's debut was a rocky one. In the 49ers' 28-3 loss to the Colts, Smith threw four interception, lost one of his two fumbles, was sacked five times and had a passer rating of 8.5.

"Things didn't go as planned," Smith said. "I learned a lot. It wasn't all bad. I need to take everything from it I can or it would be for nothing. ... There's a long road ahead of me. The bumps in the road now are going to make me a better quarterback down the line." Afterward, Colts coach Tony Dungy went out of his way to give Smith some words of encouragement. Dungy told Smith that he was a Pittsburgh assistant when future Hall of Famer John Elway made his NFL debut against the Steelers in 1983.

"He said I looked a lot better than John Elway did in his first start," Smith said.

Smith has said repeatedly that he knows he will endure some growing pains as he adapts to the NFL after leaving college after an undefeated junior season at the University of Utah. But Smith said that does not mean he has low expectations for himself. "I still think I need to expect myself to be the best quarterback I can be," Smith said. "I know I can play better than that. I don't think it's bad to be frustrated or disappointed because I know it's a good thing. I know I can play here. At the same time, though, you don't need to kill yourself because I know the situation and there's a long season ahead of us."

Likewise, Nolan knows he has to be tolerant of the mistakes that are to be expected from a rookie quarterback. But, apparently, Nolan still thinks Smith can be the man to lead the 49ers to the NFC West title. "Oh, he'll have bad days in the future," Nolan said. "I'd like to see him improve each week but it would be dreaming for me to think he's not going to have a bad day as we go forward."

NOTES, QUOTES

--It was not all negative for rookie quarterback Alex Smith in his starting debut last week against the Colts. When asked what he did best, Smith spoke of his role in the run game. Often, the 49ers will call two plays in the huddle and the responsibility falls on the quarterback to choose the more advantageous play at the line of scrimmage. Thanks partly to Smith's decisions after breaking the huddle, Kevan Barlow rushed for a season-high 99 yards on 18 carries. Backup Frank Gore added 31 yards on eight carries. "That's something I take a lot of pride in, getting us into the right play," Smith said.

--Inside linebacker Jeff Ulbrich is out for the season, opting to undergo surgery to reattach the biceps tendon in his left arm. He sought the advice of several doctors, as well as other players who had a similar injury. Of course, his wife, Cristina, also had her say. "She's worried about life after football with the kids," Ulbrich said. Cristina was concerned that Ulbrich would never be able to throw the ball around with his kids if he did not have the surgery. If he did not have surgery, Ulbrich would have lost approximately 50 percent of his strength in the arm.

--Assistant head coach Mike Singletary must get backup ILB Saleem Rasheed ready to take Ulbrich's role on defense. Ulbrich was a leader on the defense, and ranks second on the unit with 41 tackles. "They're totally different," Singletary said. "Saleem is more like a cat. He's a cat-quick guy. He's a great athlete. Jeff is more of a dog. He's going to bite you. I haven't seen that in Saleem yet. He's got to grow some fangs real quick."

--ILB Saleem Rasheed, a devout Muslim, is a little more than a week into Ramadan, the month of fasting. Rasheed will go 30 days without food or water during daylight hours. He has been observing Ramadan since he was 12 years old, growing up in Birmingham, Ala. "You kind of get used to it," Rasheed said. "You condition your body and come up with a game plan and stick with it." Rasheed eats high-protein foods in the morning before the sun comes up and then meat-and-potatoes types of meals in the evening. Because he does not take water breaks or drink Gatorade during the day, he does all of his hydrating at night.

--Nolan said he would like Ulbrich, who aspires to be a coach after his career is over, to take part in some meetings and serve as a quasi-coach for the remainder of the season. Singletary said he would also relish the opportunity to work alongside the sixth-year player. "I'd definitely like him to be with me as much as he possibly could, so we could talk and challenge each other and learn together," said Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker. "I think that would be pretty neat."

BY THE NUMBERS: The 49ers have surrendered 160 points in five games, an average of 32 points a game. At this pace, the 49ers would allow 512 points for the season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not OK with losing. I'm not OK at all. Our expectation is to win, and that bothers me." - 49ers coach Mike Nolan.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The 49ers spent the bye week getting some of their younger offensive linemen into the mix. Guard/center David Baas, the team's second-round draft pick, spent a lot of the practice time at both positions. Also, guard/tackle Adam Snyder saw a lot of work in practice on the right side. Baas might have been a starter for the 49ers, but he sustained a torn hamstring muscle a week prior to training camp. He missed almost all of camp, which set him back and made it impossible for him to win a starting job at the start of the season.

"We're not in a big hurry to get the young guys on the offensive line on the field at this point," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "But they're going to be good. They could show up at some point."

The 49ers also remain high on Patrick Estes, a tight end in college who was converted to left tackle this summer. Estes initially saw playing time when Jonas Jennings was injured. However, the 49ers have since signed Anthony Clement, who will start as long as Jennings is out of action.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--WR Brandon Lloyd, who had two consecutive 100-yard receiving games, started to see some increased attention against the Colts. Lloyd did not have a reception, which was partly a result of his inability to get open and partly because rookie QB Alex Smith had a difficult time getting the ball down the field.

--TE Trent Smith has one catch for no yards this season, but coach Mike Nolan said the team is spending the bye week looking for ways to get possibly their best pass-catching TE on the field and making more of an impact.

--RT Kwame Harris has not shown the consistency the team would like to see out of him, but nobody is giving up hope he can be a solid player. He spent his first two seasons as a LT. "It's too bad that he hasn't been there for three years," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "He went there this year, so it's like a rookie starting again."

--P Andy Lee is having a pretty good season, with a net punting average of 38.7 yards. His gross average is 42.9. The 49ers have not had a punter with an average better than 42 yards since Tom Wittum had a 43.7 average in 1973.

--WR Arnaz Battle is not expected to be ready for the Oct. 23 game against the Redskins due to a right knee sprain. Battle did not play against the Cardinals on Oct. 2 and saw limited action Sunday against the Colts, as he was held without a catch. He is second on the team with 15 receptions for 171 yards and two touchdowns.

INJURY IMPACT:
LB Jeff Ulbrich was placed on injured reserve after scheduling surgery to reattach the left biceps tendon his arm. He was scheduled to undergo surgery on Thursday. LT Jonas Jennings has missed two games with 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 to practice next week. WR Arnaz Battle is doubtful with a right knee sprain. LB Julian Peterson (right hamstring) is questionable for the Oct. 23 game against the Redskins. He saw about five snaps Oct. 9 against the Colts after missing the previous week's game against the Cardinals. CB Derrick Johnson is questionable with a thigh strain. CB Willie Middlebrooks should be able to return to action after the bye week. He missed last week's game with a groin strain. C Jeremy Newberry has a chronic knee problem but is expected to play Oct. 23 against the Redskins. CB Ahmed Plummer is expected to miss two or three more games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery two weeks ago on his left ankle. WR Derrick Hamilton is on the physically unable to perform list, which makes him ineligible for the first six weeks of the regular season. It is unlikely he will play this season due to a torn ACL he sustained in the off-season.

CB Mike Rumph (foot), TE Eric Johnson (foot) and WR Rashaun Woods (thumb) are on injured reserve.


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