NFC West News & Notes - 10/17/05

As the 49ers and Cardinals enjoy their bye weeks and the Rams get ready for a formidable challenge without their coach, the Seahawks beat up on the Texans and gain a measure of division supremacy in today's NFC West News & Notes.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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Shaun Alexander is making it increasingly difficult for the Seahawks to think about not re-signing him before free agency. The sixth-year running back is on pace for an MVP-type season heading into the Seahawks' upcoming matchup with Dallas at Qwest Field. Alexander continues to lead the NFL in rushing. He also is becoming more of a complete back by doing the less glamorous things, from pass blocking to fighting for the tough yards. And with four more rushing touchdowns Sunday night, Alexander added to his pedigree as the most dynamic red-zone runner in the game.

"I've been telling everybody: Our time is now," Alexander said.

Alexander has 715 yards rushing and 12 rushing touchdowns in six games. He ran for 141 of the Seahawks' team-record 320 yards rushing during a 42-10 victory over the Texans on Sunday night.

Maurice Morris added 104 yards on eight carries against Houston as the Seahawks piled up 459 yards. Seattle leads the NFL in total offense, averaging 407.2 yards per game.

"It's the fifth year I've been here, and I really think this team, especially this offense, kind of knows what talent we have," Pro Bowl left guard Steve Hutchinson said.

Alexander's running has been the key on offense. His representatives have been in contact with Seattle about a contract that could keep Alexander in Seattle past this season, but the sides have not come close to an agreement.

"They've been talking, which is good, but I just stay out of it," Alexander said.

REPLAY

Shaun Alexander scored four rushing touchdowns during Seattle's 42-10 victory over Houston at Qwest Field. This was an ugly game in many ways, but Alexander kept things interesting with some of the best running of his career. Alexander came out of the game in the fourth quarter, but Maurice Morris kept pounding away. Seattle topped 300 yards rushing against the Texans' 26th-ranked run defense.

Seattle racked up 459 total yards. Matt Hasselbeck passed for only 168 yards as the Seahawks turned over the offense to Alexander, who rushed for 141 yards, and Morris, who gained 104.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Matt Hasselbeck tossed an interception for the first time since the season opener. The Texans pressured him consistently, but Seattle countered by running for more than 300 yards.

--RB Shaun Alexander punched in four more rushing TDs while topping 100 yards for the fourth time in six games, leading Seattle over Houston on Sunday night. Alexander helped the Seahawks top 300 yards rushing in the game.

--RB Maurice Morris finished the game strong Sunday night after Seattle removed starting RB Shaun Alexander in the fourth quarter. Morris scored the team's fifth rushing TD while helping Seattle run for more than 300 yards. Morris finished with 104 yards on just eight carries.

--DE Grant Wistrom collected his first sack of the season Sunday night during the blowout victory over Houston. The Texans started double-teaming Wistrom late in the first half.

--WR Peter Warrick started Sunday night in place of D.J. Hackett, who is suffering from a hip injury. Warrick made a couple of big receptions, including gains of 27 and 20 yards.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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The Cardinals' offensive coaches spent the bye week trying to bolster a running game that's produced few yards and much frustration. The Cards rank near the bottom of the league in average yards per game (74.4) and average yards per carry (3.1). A quarterback has led them in rushing twice in five games, and of the team's 119 rushes, 40 have resulted in no gain or minus yardage.

"There is only one way you get better at something," coach Dennis Green said. "You have to change what you're doing, which we very well might do. We're studying a lot of different ways of doing things."

The Cardinals spent the week taking a long, hard look at themselves and at other teams around the league to see if there are ideas and schemes they could implement. Improvement, however, will take time, said offensive coordinator Keith Rowen. He's in his first season with the team, and there are a handful of new starters, too.

"Nothing happens overnight," he said. "We all want to be at an outstanding level, but the test of time for the top offenses is they've been together for years."

That doesn't absolve coaches, particularly Green, of blame. He put this offense together and chose to cut veteran offensive linemen he didn't think bought into his system.

The team is paying a price for that now.

GOOD NEWS

The passing game is improving each week. The offensive line is protecting better, and quarterback Josh McCown has thrown for more yards in the past two games than any other Cardinals quarterback has in consecutive games. McCown has passed for 783 yards and four touchdowns and has done a nice job of getting the ball to the team's best playmakers, receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

The defense is starting to play better, too. It struggled early in the year and didn't seem to be playing with the same fervor as it did last year. Early in the year, Green thought defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was scheming too much. But those schemes have been productive the last few weeks.
Pendergast has employed alignments featuring three and five down linemen. And his nickel packages have included an extra defensive end, Calvin Pace, as a rusher.

BAD NEWS

The running game is horrible, and it doesn't appear as if coaches trust it all. You can't blame them. Starting running back Marcel Shipp often has nowhere to run, and he doesn't have the speed to bounce outside to try and create something out of nothing. His backup, J.J. Arrington, has appeared tentative and has just 41 yards on 24 carries, a 1.7-yard average.

The passing game is producing yards but not enough points. That's evident in the team's red zone production, or lack thereof. It's scored touchdowns on just two of 15 possessions inside opponents' 20-yard line. That's 13.3 percent of the time. The defense isn't without fault. It's given up far too many long drives and still has trouble stopping the run at times.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Josh McCown has passed for 783 yards the past two weeks. That's the most passing yards in consecutive games in team history, surpassing Boomer Esiason's 1996 mark of 781 yards. Coach Dennis Green hasn't said if McCown will remain a starter. Kurt Warner is expected to return to practice this week, and Green will make a decision after evaluating Warner.

--QB Kurt Warner expects to practice this week after missing two games with a torn groin, but he might have lost his starting job for the third time in three years with three different teams. Josh McCown has played well, and the offense has been more productive.
"I've been there before," Warner said. "but it's out of my hands."

--K Neil Rackers has made 18 straight field goals, and half of those have been from 40 yards and beyond. In addition, Rackers leads the NFL with 16 touchbacks.

--RT Fred Wakefield, in his first year on offense after switching from defensive end, has played fairly well in his two starts. He held Carolina's Julius Peppers without a sack. "He's added a characteristic to our offensive line in terms of his demeanor, his personality and toughness," said offensive coordinator Keith Rowen.

--Three weeks ago, cornerback Robert Tate was at home, just hoping a team would call. In his two games since re-signing with the Cardinals, he has two interceptions and a forced fumble.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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In a short week after Monday night's game against the Colts, the Rams will be playing their first home game without head coach Mike Martz and against a team that has been a nemesis for them in the Edward Jones Dome.

Since 1999, as the Rams have compiled a 40-10 regular-season record at home, the New Orleans Saints have accounted for three of those losses. And don't bother mentioning that the Saints won't have running back Deuce McAllister available. Last season, with McAllister sidelined, running back Aaron Stecker rushed for 106 yards on 18 carries, including a 42-yard touchdown in the Saints' 28-25 victory on Sept. 26.

But the Rams have enough worries without spending time concerned about the Saints. The game against the Colts was played with Joe Vitt as the interim head coach and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild calling the plays. That marked the first time since 1999 that anyone other than Martz had called the team's plays.
Fairchild has been significantly involved in the offense since coming to the team in 2003, but game-day play-calling was not part of his responsibility. Martz had often talked about handing over the duty to Fairchild, but it didn't happen. Until now.

"The circumstances are not what you would want," Fairchild admitted last week. "Every time it gets brought up, it's kind of silly to be talking about me when the real story is about Mike's health. A year from now, this will not seem as paramount, but his health certainly will be."

As for taking over calling the plays, compared to Martz, Fairchild said of the head coach, "He's so good at it. When he first mentioned that to me, I thought, 'That's good.' But in some ways, he never should relinquish it. It's what he's done. He feels comfortable doing it. I'm not sure if I was ever in that role, that I'd be real comfortable giving it up, either."

While no one knows what the future will bring, this experience can be added to Fairchild's resume. If he is successful, who knows what will happen when Martz returns. Said Fairchild, on his desire to have more responsibility, "Whether it was here or somewhere, I was hoping to eventually get a chance to call some plays. These aren't the good circumstances to do it. You never want this type of thing to happen to anybody."

He did speak with Martz by phone last week, talking about the game plan, and figures that will happen this week. One thing he wouldn't talk about was what the future holds.

"It seems as each day goes by, Mike can step out a little further, and that's helped him as a head football coach," Fairchild said. "It's tough when he's doing two things. So that's kind of the role I've had here. Just to take whatever he will relinquish and try to do it well so he feels good about it.

"This is Mike's show. Mike's the guy. You do what you can do."

We'll see for how long.

PLAYER NOTES

--OG Claude Terrell has been named the starter at left guard, replacing Tom Nutten. Terrell played extensively last week against Seattle, but as a replacement for right guard Adam Timmerman.

--LG Tom Nutten is no longer starting. He has been replaced by rookie Claude Terrell.

--QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was the scout-team quarterback in preparation for the Colts, and had to imitate Peyton Manning. Fitzpatrick admitted making up as many hand signals as he could to give the defense a Manning look. "I'm sure I looked pretty silly out there at times making up some of that stuff, but it's necessary because he does a lot of audibling at the line," Fitzpatrick said.

--SS Jerome Carter was added to the injury report Saturday because of a hip problem. Carter was expected to play against the Colts on Monday night.

--DE Leonard Little returned to practice Saturday after missing two days of work because of a lower back injury.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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Things promised to be a lot better for the 49ers after last year's 2-14 debacle. Coach Mike Nolan was hired, and after assessing the talent on his club, he proclaimed the team's goal was to take command of the NFC West. Through the first five games of the season, however, the 49ers look worse than they did a year ago under the since-fired tandem of coach Dennis Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue.

Last year, the 49ers also started off 1-4. They were outscored 137-91 in those games. This year, they've been outscored 160-79.

The 49ers finished 26th in total offense and 24th in team defense. This year, they rank 31st in offense and last in the league in defense. They are allowing 109.2 yards more per game on defense, while gaining 56 fewer yards per game.

The 49ers are also on pace to surrender a franchise-worst 512 points this season.

A year ago, the 49ers were decimated by injuries, and things don't look a whole lot better this year. Tight end Eric Johnson, the team's best offensive player in 2004, is out for the season with a foot injury. One of the 49ers' better defensive players, linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, is also done because of a torn biceps.

The 49ers' big free-agent acquisition, left tackle Jonas Jennings, might require season-ending surgery on his right shoulder. Linebacker Julian Peterson and cornerback Ahmed Plummer have also missed significant playing time.

Despite all those difficulties, the 49ers remain convinced that they will turn things around this season. Nolan said he expects the team to start showing dramatic signs of improvement after the bye week, as rookie quarterback Alex Smith gets more comfortable in his role as the starter.

GOOD NEWS

In the final game before the bye, the 49ers' defense showed some signs of coming together in a 28-3 loss to the Colts. The 49ers showed a lot of enthusiasm despite playing with four of their top five cornerbacks out with injuries. Cornerback Bruce Thornton, just up from the practice squad, shadowed Colts receiver Marvin Harrison and limited him to seven catches for 17 yards. Thornton also had an interception, and may have worked himself into the role of the nickel back when everybody gets healthy.

Defensive end Bryant Young has been the rock of the unit, recording six sacks in his first five games, as the 49ers have struggled learning the new 3-4 scheme. But with all the injuries on defense, the 49ers will likely play the 4-3 more as the season goes on. It can also be seen as good news that the 49ers have started to play for the future at quarterback. Rookie Alex Smith has taken over the starting job from veteran Tim Rattay. Although Smith is expected to struggle immensely, at least it means that he's doing his learning now. The franchise should be better next season because of the lumps that Smith will endure as a rookie.

BAD NEWS

Coach Mike Nolan considers the offensive line and defensive backfield the two most important position groups on the team. However, those are spots where the 49ers seem particularly vulnerable. In addition, the 49ers do not have any offensive playmakers. Receiver Brandon Lloyd has been the team's best offensive weapon, but he is still wildly inconsistent. He was held without a catch against the Colts after recording two straight 100-yard receiving games.

The 49ers are weak at tackle, as veteran Jonas Jennings is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury that might require season-ending surgery. Veteran Anthony Clement, who hasn't played left tackle since his rookie season seven years ago, has struggled in the new spot. On the other side, Kwame Harris shows some signs of progress but then will have some stretches when he can't block anybody.

The line is serviceable, but center Jeremy Newberry is clearly not healthy. Newberry is playing on a bad knee. He has been called for three holding penalties this season, as his mobility is limited.

Defensively, the 49ers were not deep to begin the season in the secondary, and in the first five games, they've had four cornerbacks sidelined with injuries. They have not been able to stop anyone through the air, as opposing quarterbacks have compiled a 105.3 passer rating and are averaging 343.6 yards passing per game against the 49ers.

PLAYER NOTES

--LB Saleem Rasheed, who started Oct. 9 against the Colts in place of Julian Peterson, will make his fifth career start when the 49ers face the Redskins. Rasheed takes over for Jeff Ulbrich, the team's second-leading tackler, who has opted for season-ending surgery to reattach his left biceps tendon.

--RG Eric Heitmann has been grading out better than any of the team's other offensive lineman. Heitmann has been good in pass protection, as well as a player the 49ers have had some success running behind.

--WR Johnnie Morton, the team's No. 3 wideout, caught the only pass in Alex Smith's starting debut to someone other than a back or tight end. Morton has 10 catches for 112 yards in the 49ers' first five games.

--LB Jeff Ulbrich, who is out for the season after surgery to reattach the torn biceps in his left arm, plans to spend much of the remainder of the season working with assistant head coach Mike Singletary as a quasi-coach. Singletary has a lot of respect for Ulbrich's approach for the game.

--CB Bruce Thornton might get his second career start Oct. 23 against the Redskins. Thornton was impressive in his starting debut Oct. 9 against the Colts. He held Marvin Harrison to two catches for 17 yards and added an interception. The 49ers are hopeful rookie Derrick Johnson will be available after missing a game with a thigh strain.


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