GameScout: The NFC West, Week Six

Is the NFC West Ready For Prime Time? It best be so, as the Seahawks and Rams take their acts to the big tent on Sunday and Monday night, respectively. Seahawks.NET, in conjunction with Scout.com, has the inside take on both games.

Houston Texans (0-4) at Seattle Seahawks (3-2)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 8:30 ET

SURFACE: FieldTurf
TV: ESPN, Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, Paul Maguire, Suzy Kolber
SERIES: First meeting.

*2005 rankings:
Texans: offense 32nd (11th rush, 32nd pass); defense 25th (26th rush, 23rd pass). Seahawks: offense 1st (5th rush, 6th pass); defense 17th (19th rush, 19th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: Desperate to provide better pass protection for QB David Carr, the Texans are looking to change as many as four starting assignments on their offensive line. This is as good a week as any to tweak the line as the Seahawks don't rush the passer particularly well, but the key for the Texans is running the ball consistently well. Their passing game needs the threat of the run to buy time and set up the play-action pass, and Houston also must control the ball to protect its defense. The Seahawks are without WR Darrell Jackson and likely Bobby Engram, but QB Matt Hasselbeck should have little trouble connecting with other targets if given the time. The Seahawks have 76 plays of 10 or more yards, and the Texans have to be especially concerned with RB Shaun Alexander, who has averaged 132.2 rushing yards, 5.2 yards per carry and 1.8 rushing touchdowns in five career home games played in primetime.

FAST FACTS: Texans: First primetime road game in franchise history. ... Carr has a 99.1 passer rating in past four starts against NFC teams. Seahawks: Have nine touchdown drives of 80 yards or longer. ... Hasselbeck has a franchise-record twelve 300-yard passing games.

Texans:

--WR Andre Johnson (calf) is not likely going to play. If he doesn't start, it will be the first NFL start Johnson has missed.

--WR Jerome Mathis is starting to make long stints on the training table look like a habit. The rookie played in the last two games but returned to the injury list with a sore knee after last Sunday's game. He is questionable for Sunday's game. He did participate in part of practice Thursday, but Dom Capers said he is not healthy enough to play Sunday at this point.

--CB Dunta Robinson said he is ready in case emergency return duties call. Robinson was drafted as a return specialist out of college, but then earned the starting job at corner. He has yet to return a kickoff or punt in the NFL, but with Jerome Mathis' status uncertain, Robinson could be called upon to spark the Texans' struggling return game.

--DE Jerry Deloach has missed two practices with a throat infection, but the Texans expect him on the field Friday.

--OLB Jason Babin is getting work on the service teams in practice, but there is still no timetable for his return. Surgery on his injured shoulder hasn't been ruled out, either.

Seahawks:

--WR D.J. Hackett has been added to the injury report as probable. His left hip is bothering him. Hackett did not practice Thursday, but he did practice Friday. Look for him to start Sunday.

--LB D.D. Lewis has been added to the injury report as probable. His right knee is bothering him. Lewis did not practice Thursday, but he did practice Friday. He will likely play Sunday.

--CB Andre Dyson (hamstring) missed practice again. He remained doubtful.

--CB Kelly Herndon is about to make his first start of the season Sunday because Andre Dyson has a pulled hamstring. Herndon has struggled a bit recently.

--LT Wayne Hunter missed practice Thursday and will not play Sunday. He is a backup.

--RT Floyd Womack missed practice Thursday and remained doubtful.

--WR Bobby Engram (cracked ribs) will not play Sunday.

--WR Darrell Jackson (knee) will not play Sunday.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

Texans:


The move may seem minor. It's not as if Chester Pitts is moving very far. He's basically stepping just a few feet to his left. Pitts isn't naive, though. He has played left tackle before. And after starting the past 20 games at left guard, Pitts realizes his job just became a lot more difficult.

For the first time since the 2003 season, Pitts took every repetition at left tackle during this week. He will start there during Sunday night's game at Seattle, giving the Texans more athleticism in their pass protection. "There are a lot of little nuances about tackle that I'm going to have to get back in the swing of early, but I feel like I'll be able to go out there and compete and do a good job against anybody in the league," Pitts said. "It's harder at tackle because you're dealing with better athletes who move better. They make you move your feet, and the more you move your feet the more chances you have to get out of balance.

"Being in balance all the time is what makes a good pass protector."

Victor Riley started the first four games at left tackle, but he has now shifted back to his natural position at right tackle. He will try to beat out Todd Wade for the starting job there. The Texans have consistently been beaten on the outside by quick pass rushers in their first four games. The Texans tried Pitts at left tackle in the off-season but wanted to keep him at guard, which is the position they drafted him to play.

Out of necessity, however, the Texans are moving him back.

"I think Chester is improved as a football player as a left guard because he has to play with balance," offensive coordinator Joe Pendry said. "And things happen quickly inside. You have to react so much quicker inside. So he's improved as a football player playing left guard. That will help in outside, too, because you have to play with balance out there because you get those guys in space."

Seahawks:

Seattle faces some additional challenges this week because the Houston Texans play a blitzing 3-4 defense. "It is a little bit different," QB Matt Hasselbeck said. "It is really not that complicated. There are enough teams that are running it now that it is becoming the norm in some regards. They do a lot of different things."
The Texans vary the number of down linemen and fill in the gaps with linebackers. They overload one side and then blitz from the other side.

"They give you a bunch of different looks," Hasselbeck said. "Even though they have 3-4 personnel, sometimes they will line up in a four-down scheme. You have to study up on what they give you and recognize it and go play."

Coach Mike Holmgren said the West Coast offense was originally designed to face the 3-4, which was prevalent in the 1980s. Most teams run 4-3 alignments, but there are several 3-4 defenses out there as the alignment has become more popular in the wake of the New England Patriots' success.

"You'll see teams, good football teams, come in with a 3-4, and the transition back to, particularly our pass protections, is not so alarming for us," Holmgren said.

"It's kind of the way things were designed in the first place. You still could get a matchup problem, linebackers on backs and things like that, that's what that defense does for you.

"But as far as who we're supposed to block, I hope it's not too confusing for us."


St. Louis Rams (2-3) at Indianapolis Colts (5-0)

KICKOFF: Monday, 9:00 ET

SURFACE: FieldTurf
TV: ABC, Al Michaels, John Madden, Samantha Ryan
SERIES: 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.

*2005 rankings:
Rams: offense 2nd (23rd rush, 3rd pass); defense 26th (12th rush, 28th pass). Colts: offense 15th (17th rush, 14th pass); defense 7th (16th rush, 9th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: Joe Vitt makes his debut as the interim Rams head coach for Mike Martz, and figures to get RB Stephen Jackson more carries. Martz is the mastermind behind the Rams' pass-heavy attack, but Vitt also has to be concerned about wearing down his defense. St. Louis has allowed an average of 9.0 and 7.9 yards on first down in its past two losses, and the Rams' depleted secondary will be overmatched against the Colts' deep receiving corps. That means the Rams can't afford to have many offensive drives that end without points. The Colts have allowed just 29 points in five games, but have yet to face an offense ranked higher than 14th. It's important that the Rams pick up positive yards on early downs to avoid long passing situations in which Colts DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who will be working against rookie RT Alex Barron, can pin their ears back and come after QB Marc Bulger.

FAST FACTS: Rams: Bulger passed 11,000 career passing yards in his 41st games, second fastest all-time behind former teammate Kurt Warner. ... RB Marshall Faulk needs 41 rushing yards to pass Franco Harris (12,120) for 10th place all-time. Colts: Their seven-game home winning streak is the longest since moving to Indianapolis in 1984. ... QB Peyton Manning has a career passer rating of 104.9 in 29 games against NFC teams.

Rams:

--FS Michael Hawthorne was released Thursday after making numerous assignment errors in losses to the Giants and Seattle.

--FS Mike Furrey, who was switched to the position in the off-season from wide receiver, will start Monday night against the Colts after the release of Michael Hawthorne.

--TE Brandon Manumaleuna, who has missed the last two games because of a knee injury, was back practicing with the first unit Thursday.

--OL Blaine Saipaia, who played tight end last week with Brandon Manumaleuna sidelined by a knee injury, changed his uniform number back to 60 from 49 and is a lineman again with Manumaleuna healthy.

--WR Torry Holt did not practice Thursday because of a knee injury and remains questionable on the injury report.

--CB DeJuan Groce did not practice Thursday because of a hamstring injury and is questionable for Monday's game against the Colts.

--DE Leonard Little said he will play Monday night despite a back injury. Little did not practice Thursday and is listed as probable on the injury report.

--WR Isaac Bruce, who has missed the last two games with a toe injury, remains doubtful for this week, but did some individual work in practice Thursday.

--G Claude Terrell was added to the injury report Thursday because of an injury to his shin. Terrell did not practice Thursday.

Colts:

--DE Dwight Freeney missed the last portion of practice Thursday but is expected to start the Rams game. According to Colts coach Tony Dungy, Freeney had a tough time "getting loose" and was allowed to sit out the remaining part of the workout.

--CB Joseph Jefferson (turf toe) is listed as doubtful but is hoping to be available for practice on Friday. Jefferson has missed the last four weeks.

--LB Keith O'Neil (shoulder) did not practice Thursday and is listed as questionable for the Rams game. O'Neil suffered a dislocated right shoulder against San Francisco.

--DT Vincent "Sweet Pea" Burns (knee) did not practice Thursday. Burns returned to practice last week after sitting out the first four regular season games with medial collateral ligament damage in his right knee. He was inactive for the 49ers game.

--LB Gilbert Gardner (ankle) practiced Thursday and may be able to play Monday night against St. Louis. Gardner has yet to play in a regular-season game after suffering a high right ankle sprain in the final preseason game at Cincinnati.

--RB James Mungro (knee) is questionable and probably won't be available for the Rams game. Mungro incurred a sprained right knee against Jacksonville four weeks ago.

--S Bob Sanders (biceps) practiced Thursday and expects to play Monday night against St. Louis. Sanders suffered a left biceps injury at San Francisco last week.

--TE Ben Utecht (chest/ribs), although listed as questionable, participated in Thursday's workout. Utecht may be cleared to play against the Rams this week.

--LB Cato June (knee) practiced Thursday and will start against the Rams.

--G Jake Scott (knee) will be in the starting lineup against St. Louis Monday night. Scott practiced Thursday.

--G Ryan Lilja (neck) is probable and will play against the Rams. Lilja practiced Thursday.

--DE Josh Thomas (knee) practiced Thursday and will be available for the St. Louis game. Thomas has been nursing a sore right knee all season.

--LB David Thornton (groin) went through a full practice and will start against the Rams. Thornton has been bothered by a sore groin since he intially incurred the injury at Baltimore in the season opener.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

Rams:


With the release of free safety Michael Hawthorne becoming official Thursday, the job is now in the hands of converted wide receiver Mike Furrey.
One year ago, Furrey was having a difficult time being active for games as the team's sixth receiver. He was one of the better special teams player on the roster, but ended up being active for only eight games all season.

So it was that the idea was hatched for Furrey to become a free safety. He gained about 20 pounds in the off-season and showed continued improvement, starting camp as the fourth free safety. Now he's starting Monday night against the Indianapolis Colts. Hawthorne had persistent assignment errors, and was benched in Sunday's game against Seattle. Furrey replaced him and had nine tackles.

"I prepare myself to play and to start, and to understand what's going on," Furrey said. "My only goal when I get into those kinds of situations is to make sure that I react, and get around the ball. I was just trying to get involved in everything - run and pass. I guess it worked out like that."

Disappointed the Rams lost the game, and that he missed a tackle on a Shaun Alexander touchdown run, Furrey said, "It's a situation where there's no excuses. I overran it. I should've made the tackle. That's my biggest regret of the game. (And) the ending has a big effect on how much fun it really is.

"But to finally get out there and just be able to get involved in a whole game situation was good for me."

Colts:

When it comes to running backs, Peyton Manning feels as if he's been blessed to have been able to play with two of the NFL's best. The Indianapolis Colts quarterback was drafted in 1998, joining a team that had Marshall Faulk already on the roster. At the end of that season, the Colts traded Faulk to the St. Louis Rams and promptly drafted Edgerrin James to take his place.

While Faulk and James have both had very productive careers, Manning says that he has found it hard to pick one above the other. "I feel very, very fortunate to have called both of those guys teammates," the Colts signal caller said this week. "With just the one year that he was here, Marshall was the guy that really taught me a lot in my rookie year. I always felt comfortable back there, in the shotgun especially, him back there next to me.

"I remember that it was kind of similar how (wide receiver) Marvin (Harrison) does. He (Faulk) would kind of call out the coverage and might even tell me what he might do. Our number one pass play that year was him on the option route. He caught 86 passes. That's a lot, especially when the defenses know you're going to throw it and he's turning it up the sidelines or breaking out or breaking in.

"At times, it was a little bit of street ball. 'Hey Marshall, just go get open.' Probably the best thing was to be able to see his understanding of defenses and coverages. I've always been a fan of Marshall's and to have a chance to play with him for that one year was real special for me. He took me under his wing a little bit and gave me some good advice. I enjoy seeing him when I get a chance in the off-season."

While James stepped into a bit of a void when he was drafted in 1999, the Colts offense hasn't missed a beat since he arrived on the scene. "There's no question those were huge, huge shoes to fill," Manning said. "They're different styles of backs, but they're similar in that they're both very productive in the passing game. But there was no question, when Edgerrin was drafted and being picked as high as they did, that they expected him to make that kind of impact.

"So the trade was made and that's the way it all went down. Marshall has certainly been outstanding in St. Louis. But there's no question the impact that Edgerrin has had here. When you have a one-back offense, you have to have the right guy. If you didn't have the right guy, you probably would see more of a fullback in there, more two backs, trying to pound up in there. But he's outstanding and he's proved that he can handle it. He's been a huge part of what we do."

Although it appears as if Faulk may be on the downside of his career, Manning isn't quite ready to see him leave the scene just yet.

"I don't know (if he's lost anything physically)," Manning said. "He's such a specimen, as far as athletically. I've seen him close - we played them a few years ago - so I know what he's capable of. He is, without a doubt, one of the all-time greatest receiving backs. Hands down. Nobody else is in the conversation. What he can do as far as route-running and coverages. He could any kind of route you wanted outside on a defensive back. And that's not to mention what he great runner he was with the football," he said.


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