GameScout: The NFC West, Week Eight

While the Seahawks scatter for their bye week, action continues within the division. The Rams face a tough Jacksonville squad, Arizona squares off against a Cowboys team looking to eradicate the memories of last week's collapse, and the 49ers hope to survive a severe test against the NFL's top defense.

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Arizona Cardinals (2-4) at Dallas Cowboys (4-3)
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GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF:
Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 10/30/05
SURFACE: Grass
TV: FOX, Matt Vasgersian, Brian Baldinger
SERIES: 83rd meeting. Dallas leads the series 53-28-1. Dallas has only faced three other teams - Philadelphia, N.Y. Giants and Washington - more than the 82 times they have faced the Cardinals in regular-season action. The Cowboys have won 20 of the last 30 meetings. Dallas had a 13-game win streak over Arizona (1990-96), the longest win streak against an opponent in club history. The Cowboys have faced the Cardinals just two times since Arizona moved from the NFC East to the NFC West.
2005 RANKINGS: Cardinals: offense 11th (31st rush, 4th pass); defense 15th (12th rush, 19th pass). Cowboys: offense 6th (14th rush, 9th pass); defense 7th (7th rush, 14th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals own the league's second-worst rushing attack, which is a bad omen considering Dallas already enters the game leading the league in average time of possession (34:14). The problem for the Cowboys has been capitalizing on drives (13 touchdowns in 27 red-zone possessions) and holding leads, which won't be easy fixes if RB Julius Jones misses a third consecutive game. Rookie Marion Barber is more solid in pass protection and would get the majority of the snaps again over Tyson Thompson. QB Josh McCown is expected to make his fourth consecutive for Arizona, but must get more help from his running game. The Cardinals' offense has just six touchdowns this season, and none on the ground.

FAST FACTS: Cardinals: With seven receptions, WR Anquan Boldin would become the fastest ever (32 games) to 200 for his career. ... K Neil Rackers has converted a franchise-record 20 consecutive field goal attempts. Cowboys: Coach Bill Parcells will make second attempt to tie Paul Brown (170) for ninth place on the all-time wins list. ... QB Drew Bledsoe needs five touchdown passes to pass George Blanda (236) and Jim Kelly (237) for 15th place all-time.

PERSONNEL NEWS:

Cardinals:


--T Fred Wakefield is expected to start at right tackle for at least one more week. The usual starter, Oliver Ross, is still out with a broken hand.

--OLB Karlos Dansby (knee) returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's workout. He's listed as probable.

--WR Bryant Johnson needs to play a bigger part in the offense. The third receiver, Johnson has just 13 receptions. The team cut its No. 4 receiver, Charles Lee, last week, leaving no experience behind Johnson.

--WR LeRon McCoy, a rookie, likely will be active Sunday for just the second time this season. McCoy will be the No. 4 receiver. He's very fast but he had trouble hanging on to the ball in preseason.

--KR J.J. Moses could be return punts this week, replacing Reggie Swinton, who has a torn ligament in his toe.

--RB Marcel Shipp is averaging just 2.5 yards a carry, and his longest run is 16 yards. Shipp rarely has room to run and he frequently has to dodge tacklers in the backfield because the offensive line is not blocking well.

Cowboys:

--QB Drew Bledsoe has been a part of five fumbled snaps in seven games. Without assessing blame, coach Bill Parcells noted that center Al Johnson didn't have any fumble problems last year with Vinny Testaverde and Bledsoe is the only part of the equation that has changed. "It's something that's completely unacceptable," Bledsoe said. "And it's something that can't be a problem for us going forward from here. It's simply something that can't happen anymore."

--G Ben Noll has been getting reps at right tackle, partly for depth purposes and partly because of the struggles of rookie right tackle Rob Petitti.

--T Ethan Brooks, signed last week for depth purposes following the injury to Flozell Adams, has been practicing at left and right tackle.

--K Shaun Suisham has a different presence in the locker room now that he is on the active roster rather than being a member of the practice squad. "I feel very comfortable," Suisham said. "It feels like I belong here." Cowboys coach Bill Parcells just needs to start getting his name right. He called him "Scott" on Monday after naming him the replacement for the released Jose Cortez.

Suisham, a rookie from Bowling Green, carried a 68 percent (45-of-66) career field-goal percentage in college, with a long of 52 yards. He went to training camp with the Steelers before being released and joining the Cowboys practice squad at the start of the season. "We've been looking at this player for quite awhile," Parcells said. "We kind of liked what we saw."

--RB Julius Jones (ankle) doesn't appear closer to playing than last week. He has missed the last two games. With a bye next week, the Cowboys could hold him out until a Nov. 14 matchup at Philadelphia.

--LB Dat Nguyen appears ready to go after missing the last three games with a stinger. Nguyen has been practiced without incident and has been removed from the injury report.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Cardinals:
Dennis Green decided to stick with Josh McCown as his starting quarterback, even though Kurt Warner has recovered from a torn groin muscle.
Green, however, won't say why he's starting McCown for a fourth straight game. "Oh, I'm not going to get into that," Green said. "We think this will help us win. Any decision we make, we take that into account, regardless of whether it's a real big decision or an every day decision."

This is a big decision. McCown is 2-1 this year as starter after going 6-7 last year. Green lost confidence in him and signed Warner to a one-year, $4 million deal. Warner hasn't played since suffering a torn groin muscle against Seattle in week three. McCown played well in his first two games, passing for a total of 783 yards. Last week, he struggled, missing several open receivers, including two near the end zone.

He is considerably more mobile than Warner, which had to have played a part in Green's decision. Dallas has an excellent pass rush, so the ability to run will work in McCown's favor. McCown's biggest challenge will be keeping a rein on his emotions. He's excitable, and he grew up a Cowboys fans, so playing in Texas Stadium will be special to him.

He's got to stay calm and make good decisions Sunday. "You just have to play smart football," he said. "Against Carolina, we have over 400 yards but we had (four) turnovers and we lost. Then we came out and we did not have a great game offensively (against Tennessee). But we were plus-1 in the turnover column. If you play smart football, you're going to give yourself a chance to win."

Cowboys: The Cowboys offense has been very conservative the past couple of weeks because of pass protection concerns. Often the Cowboys are running two-man pass routes, keeping a couple of their main weapons in as blockers in maximum protection schemes.

Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten and Throw-me-the-damn-ball receiver Keyshawn Johnson have spent an increasing amount of time blocking lately. Both are having to help tackles Rob Pettiti and Torrin Tucker, who replaced the injured Flozell Adams at left tackle. "If we pass it 25 times, usually I'm going out on 22 (pass) routes," Witten said of the offense with Adams at LT. "Now, if we're trying 25 passes, it's 12 or 15. It's a different role for me. Now you are protecting and helping block. It's another body on those guys. It's not always a double team. It's 'Chip this guy, watch this guy and then get out (into a pattern).'"

Coach Bill Parcells says he is doing what he has to do protect quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

Bledsoe, however, has been lobbying Parcells to open the offense back up. Assistant head coach/passing game coordinator Sean Payton, who also calls the plays, has also been in Parcells' ear about opening the offense.

Conservative play-calling was certainly a big factor in the loss to the Seahawks last Sunday. Pettiti had arguably his worst game of the season, giving up two sacks and two pressures and getting called for holding. Even though Tucker was solid, the play-calling was altered. "Torrin did a nice job, but it may have changed our approach because when Flo was out there, we never worried about him," Bledsoe said.


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Jacksonville Jaguars (4-2) at St. Louis Rams (3-4)
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GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF:
Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 10/30/05
SURFACE: FieldTurf
TV: CBS, Dick Enberg, Dan Dierdorf, Armen Keteyian
SERIES: 2nd meeting. The two teams have played just once in the regular season since the Jaguars entered the league in 1995. St. Louis posted a 17-14 victory in 1996 when they intercepted Mark Brunell five times to win even though the Jaguars outgained the Rams, 583-204, in yardage.
2005 RANKINGS: Jaguars: offense 24th (16th rush, 22nd pass); defense 5th (23rd rush, 2nd pass). Rams: offense 5th (22nd rush, 3rd pass); defense 28th (19th rush, 28th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Jaguars have already won tough road games against the Jets and Steelers, but to beat the Rams in a very loud indoor environment the Jaguars need a healthy RB Fred Taylor. He missed the team's last game with an ankle injury, but has practiced this week and needs to help the Jaguars control the clock. A strong start by Taylor would also set up the play-action pass for QB Byron Leftwich to test the league's No. 28 pass defense. Meanwhile, St. Louis' offense enters the game beat up. QB Marc Bulger's status is uncertain as he recovers from a sprained shoulder, and starting WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are expected to miss the game. That won't make life easy against the league's second-best pass defense, so expect to see plenty of RB Steven Jackson early on -- especially if Jamie Martin gets his second consecutive start in place of Bulger.

FAST FACTS: Jaguars: Have won four of their past five road games. ... Are 8-4 when RB Fred Taylor has at least 30 touches and 3-0 when he has at least 35. Rams: Won the only previous meeting, 17-14, at home in 1996. ... Are 41-10 (.804) at home since 1999. ... RB Marshall Faulk needs 15 rushing yards to pass Franco Harris (12,120) for 10th place all-time.

PERSONNEL NEWS:

Jaguars:


--LT Khalif Barnes, a rookie who has helped stabilize the line in his first two starts before the bye, will make his third straight start in St. Louis.

--RB Fred Taylor practiced for the second straight day Thursday. He's probable with an ankle injury and should start in St. Louis after missing the Pittsburgh game.

--RT Mo Williams, who left the Pittsburgh game with a calf injury before the bye, practiced for the second straight day and should start in St. Louis.

--MLB Mike Peterson has sore ribs, but practiced for the second straight day Thursday. He's probable and should start in St. Louis.

--G Vince Manuwai practiced for the second straight day despite an ankle injury. He is probable and should start in St. Louis.

Rams:

--QB Jamie Martin was especially sharp in practice Thursday, and is expected to be the starter Sunday against Jacksonville. Marc Bulger, out with a shoulder injury, will likely not play and hasn't practiced this week.

--QB Marc Bulger is expected to miss his second game because of a shoulder injury suffered Oct. 17 against Indianapolis. Bulger has been throwing this week, but has not practiced. He hopes to be back after the bye for the Rams' Nov. 13 game at Seattle.

--WR Torry Holt did not practice Thursday, and is considered doubtful for Sunday's game against Jacksonville. Holt expected to return Nov. 13 against Seattle, after the Rams' bye.

--WR Isaac Bruce is doubtful for Sunday because of a toe injury, although he expects to be back after the Rams' bye for the Nov. 13 game against Seattle. This will be the fifth game Bruce will be on the sideline.

--DE Tyoka Jackson did not practice Thursday because of a toe injury, but he is expected to play Sunday against Jacksonville. Jackson was held out as a precaution.

--LG Claude Terrell had a setback when he tried to practice Thursday, and might be unavailable for Sunday's game against Jacksonville. Terrell injured his neck against New Orleans, and suffered a stinger Thursday. He has to be able to practice Friday in order to play Sunday.

--CB Travis Fisher (groin) did not practice Thursday, but is expected to work Friday and play Sunday, as long as he doesn't experience any setbacks.

--DE Leonard Little, grieving over the Oct. 17 murder of his brother Jermaine, was absent again Thursday. Asked if he assumes Little won't play Sunday, interim coach Joe Vitt said, "I don't assume anything. I spoke to Leonard yesterday, and it's a day-to-day thing. But he felt better than the day before."

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Jaguars: If pro football is a game of attrition, the Jaguars appear to be in good shape as they head into their final 10 regular season games, beginning with St. Louis on Sunday. They only have four players on their injury report this week. All four of them are probable and all four practiced for the second straight day Thursday.

The four are running back Fred Taylor (ankle), right tackle Mo Williams (calf), guard Vince Manuwai (ankle) and middle linebacker Mike Peterson (ribs). That means the Jaguars will have all 22 starters healthy coming off their bye week. And they've lost only one starter with an injury, safety Donovin Darius with a knee injury, in the first six weeks of the season.

That's in direct contrast to last year, when the team was ravaged at defensive end, lost five players and wound up with linebacker Greg Favors starting at end. The Jaguars face only one team in the last 10 games that currently has a winning record, putting them in good shape for a playoff run.
They're trying to end a five-year playoff drought.

Rams: Mike Martz says there will be no more communication between himself and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild now that the head coach will be idle for the rest of the season. That puts Fairchild squarely in charge of an offense that Martz created. Interim head coach Joe Vitt keeps in touch with Fairchild to get an idea of what is being planned.

Asked about his communication with Fairchild during a game, Vitt said, "When our defense comes off the field, I click on quickly, 'Steve, what are you thinking?' I'll just remind him, here's the time left in the half, here's the time left in the quarter. Hey, look at the field position. We need three. What do you think? And he'll tell me.

"Then I'll shut it off and get as quickly as I can with the linebackers and make some adjustments there. Make those adjustments then get back on and see where we are. But that's Steve's baby. This offense was very successful before I ever stepped foot in this place."

With quarterback Marc Bulger likely out for another week, along with receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, the game plan is built around quarterback Jamie Martin. Vitt said of last week's plan, "We wanted to protect the ball. That was the No. 1 thing we wanted to do yesterday. We wanted to give (running back) Steven (Jackson) 20 touches. We wanted to get the ball in his hand and see what he could do. And he got that. We have to be more balanced now because of what we are dealing with.
"We wanted to let Jamie break a sweat, get into the rhythm of the game. It went the way we wanted it to go. He was able to make a big throw at the end of the game. So I don't think it has anything to do with being a defensive coach. It's just what you have to do on this particular day to win the game."

As for Bruce, Vitt commented on the time it is taking him to recover from a toe injury.

"This was the timetable that was originally set," Vitt said. "Isaac keeps working and working and working to come back, and he's hoping. Believe me; he'll be back as soon as he can possibly do it. He has such great pride."

Asked whether it would be risky for Bruce to return too soon, Vitt said, "I think it is. To return him now, this early, and lose him for the rest of the season could be fatal for us. Let's get him better, and when he's better he'll be that much better for us. I have told the team last week before the game, everybody is needed to win, but no one is necessary. The next guy has to step up and play."


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Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) at San Francisco 49ers (1-5)
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GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF:
Sunday, 4:15 ET
GAMEDATE: 10/30/05
SURFACE: Grass
TV: FOX, Craig Shermon, Dale Hellestrae
SERIES: 18th meeting. 49ers lead the series 13-4, but the Bucs have won three of the last four meetings. Tampa Bay's only road win was a 24-23 victory at Candlestick Park in 1980.
2005 RANKINGS: Bucs: offense 19th (5th rush, 23rd pass); defense 1st (1st rush, 7th pass). 49ers: offense 31st (23rd rush, 29th pass); defense 32nd (24th rush, 32nd pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: Because their defense lacks talent to match up against opponents man to man, the 49ers must take gambles. Look for them to stack up with eight men to stop the run early and attempt to put the pressure on Bucs QB Chris Simms making his first start of the season in place of injured Brian Griese. It's a dicey risk, however, considering Simms has a stronger arm and opposing quarterbacks have a 110.0 passer rating against San Francisco. The 49ers are expected to start QB Ken Dorsey with rookie Alex Smith slowed by a sprained knee. Tampa Bay has the league's top-rated run defense, but San Francisco must get production from RBs Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore to give Dorsey a fighting chance. The 49ers aren't great in pass protection and have no game-changing receivers, so Dorsey needs manageable passing situations in which to work.

FAST FACTS: Bucs: Simms has fewer NFL starts (two) than backup Luke McCown (four). ... WR Joey Galloway needs two more receptions to reach the 500-catch plateau for his career. 49ers: Lead the series 13-4, but Bucs have won three of the past four meetings. ... Are 9-1 at home against the Bucs.

PERSONNEL NEWS:

Bucs:


--RB Cadillac Williams (foot) took most of the reps as the Bucs' starting tailback Thursday but is still listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Niners. Bucs officials expect him to play.

--S Jermaine Phillips practiced again Thursday after recovering from a broken thumb and is probable for Sunday's game at San Francisco. "(The bye week) came at a good time," Phillips said. "I get a good four weeks under my belt and we're going to be good going to San Francisco."

--S Dexter Jackson is out with a hamstring strain.

--DB Torrie Cox will continue to handle the kickoff return duties against the 49ers. Cox is averaging just 17.3 yards per return.

--CB Ronde Barber needs one sack to become the first cornerback to record at least 20 interceptions and 20 sacks in a career.

49ers:

--S Ben Emanuel, who was signed just last week, saw a lot of action last week as a dime linebacker. He recorded two tackles in the loss to the Redskins. His job consists of covering the tight ends or a backs on the short zones. He will continue in that role this week against the Buccaneers.

--LT Jonas Jennings, who has a torn right labrum in his shoulder, will not play this week against the Buccaneers. It will be the fourth straight game he's missed with the injury, which will require surgery whenever he decides his season is over.

--WR Brandon Lloyd missed practice Thursday with soreness in his back and hip flexor. Still, coach Mike Nolan said he fully expects Lloyd to be available for Sunday's game against the Buccaneers.

--WR Arnaz Battle, whom the 49ers hoped would be available to return to action, probably will not play Sunday against the Buccaneers due to a right knee sprain. Battle has not played a full game since his Sept. 25 injury.

--QB Alex Smith will miss at least one game with a right knee sprain. He sustained a second-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament. Coach Mike Nolan said it is possible he could miss more than one game.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Bucs:
RB Michael Pittman, who is coming off a 127-yard rushing performance against the Dolphins two weeks ago, hopes he is not an afterthought in the Bucs offense if Cadillac Williams returns. "I hope so. Really, I hope so. But I'll leave that up to (coach Jon) Gruden," Pittman said. "If I'm not (involved), I never complain about that. When I get my opportunity, I'm going to make the most of it. But being honest and truthful, of course I want to be involved. I think I can make plays in the running game, make plays in the passing game. Use me any kind of way. As long as I get my hands on the ball, I'll be happy. But if not, if Cadillac is the main guy, I'll go with that, too, man, and wait for my opportunities to play."

While Williams was setting an NFL record with 434 rushing yards in his first three games as a pro, Pittman rarely saw the football. In the four games that Williams played before being sidelined by the injury, Pittman carried just 13 times for 79 yards.

"The first three games, I barely touched the ball at all, man," Pittman said. "And getting to start a home game, I was just fired up and ready to go. I really don't consider myself as a backup. Even though I am a backup, I consider myself as a starter in this league, and if Cadillac goes down, I'm already prepared to step up and have a big game. And the confidence I have now, and with my confidence, I think all my talent is finally showing."

49ers: Rookie quarterback Alex Smith will not play Sunday when the 49ers face the Buccaneers at Monster Park. Smith is out of action with a grade-two sprain of his right medial collateral ligament. The starting assignment falls to backup Ken Dorsey, who was the No. 3 quarterback just 10 days ago. Dorsey was behind Smith and Tim Rattay on the depth chart, but Rattay was dealt to the Buccaneers last week in a trade for a sixth-round draft pick.

Niners coach Mike Nolan said he does not have a lot of high expectations for Dorsey's play against the Buccaneers.

"He looked good - he did a good job," Nolan said of Dorsey's practice Thursday. "I don't want to get my hopes too high, but he did a nice job. We'll see how it goes. I'm saving my optimism for other things." Even with that admission, Nolan admitted that the 49ers probably have a better chance of winning right now with Dorsey than with Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Smith has struggled in his two starts, compiling a passer rating of 17.5.

Dorsey has not thrown a pass this season, but compiled a 1-6 record in seven starts last season in place of Tim Rattay. Dorsey completed 54.4 percent of his passes (123 of 226) for 1,231 yards with six touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Dorsey said he has gained about 10 pounds from last year and worked with offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler on his mechanics in the spring.

"I did a lot of working on it in the off-season," Dorsey said. "It's something I feel saved my career, really. It's something that has improved my accuracy on the ball and my velocity on the ball."

Dorsey said in the past he was throwing across his body. He has also developed a higher release point and is "finishing through my target," he said. Dorsey said he now has confidence that he can make all the throws.


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