NFC West News & Notes

While the 49ers and Cardinals do some soul-searching after embarrassing losses, and the Rams enjoy a week off, the Seahawks extend their divisional dominance in what could be a special season.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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If Shaun Alexander's value increases every time he touches the football, does it decrease every time backup Maurice Morris proves to be similarly effective running in Seattle's top-ranked offense?

Probably not. Alexander was beyond spectacular against the Cardinals on Sunday, punctuating his 173-yard performance with an 88-yard TD run to open the second half. Alexander had missed the end of the second quarter with a stomach ailment, but he appeared plenty healthy while outrunning three defenders on his long run. The play tied Alexander's franchise record for longest touchdown.

Alexander is playing for a new contract. The Seahawks are certainly benefiting from the arrangement, as Alexander is running harder than ever while doing more of the little things, notably pass blocking. His production only figures to continue when St. Louis visits Qwest Field this week.

Alexander has rushed for 119, 176, 150 and 126 yards in his last four games against the Rams. That works out to 571 yards, or 143 yards per game. Alexander also has four rushing TDs in those games.

The Seahawks have also gotten outstanding production from Morris, who topped 100 yards on eight carries against Houston. With Alexander sidelined temporarily Sunday, Morris' 12-yard run moved the Seahawks to within a half-yard of the end zone, setting up the touchdown that allowed Seattle to take a 17-6 lead into halftime.

The Seahawks are not a power running team. They still tend to set up the run with the pass. Alexander and Morris both appear suited to running within that context. Morris has succeeded whenever given the chance, but Alexander is the one putting up the huge numbers.

REPLAY

The Seahawks took care of business Sunday in Arizona, putting away the Cardinals early before coasting to a 33-19 victory in Sun Devil Stadium. Shaun Alexander delivered the knockout blow with an 88-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half. The run tied Alexander's franchise record for longest TD while staking Seattle to a 24-6 lead.

Alexander carried 23 times for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was efficient (105.8 rating) without being spectacular. He did not turn over the ball, a reversal from his four-interception debacle at Arizona last season.

The Cardinals hung around and actually outgained Seattle, but the Seahawks enjoyed a 208-71 advantage in rushing yards. Backup running back Maurice Morris carried five times for 30 yards, keeping the chains moving when Alexander left the game briefly with an upset stomach.

PLAYER NOTES

--RB Shaun Alexander matched his franchise record for longest touchdown with an 88-yarder to open the second half. Alexander outran three Arizona defenders on the play, which stretched Seattle's lead to 24-6.

--WR Joe Jurevicius caught his fifth TD pass of the season Sunday against Arizona. He leads the team in TD receptions and is proving to be a very effective receiver. Jurevicius suffered a shoulder injury of unknown severity.

--CB Marcus Trufant played his most aggressive game of the season Sunday against Arizona. He picked off a pass in the first half and delivered some big hits after short completions. Trufant is healthier this season in part because Seattle's run defense has improved, making it so Trufant doesn't have to make so many tackles in the run game. Trufant wasn't perfect Sunday. He did allow a TD pass late in the third quarter.

--C Robbie Tobeck delivered one of the most spectacular blocks of his long career Sunday, pancaking Cardinals DT Ross Kolodziej to clear the way for a 12-yard run by RB Maurice Morris. Officials initially ruled that Morris scored on the play, but he was ruled down at the 1 upon further review.

--P Tom Rouen did not have one of his better days Sunday against Arizona. His first two punts were boomed into the end zone for touchbacks. The miscues didn't matter much because Seattle was dominating the game.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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The most startling thing about the first half of the season is not that the Cardinals are 2-6. It's the stunning lack of improvement. If anything, this team appears to have regressed since the start of the season. Coach Dennis Green has changed quarterbacks and running backs, and shuffled the offensive line. Still, the team can't run the ball. It's had trouble protecting the quarterback, and the run defense is suspect.

Green has acknowledged his role in this failure, and his frustration, so often this season that he's sick of talking about it. "Nobody expects to be and nobody likes being 2-6," he said. "I think if you're going to beat a good team, you've got to play good football. You've got to do good things at the right time."

Offensively, the biggest shortcoming is the lack of a running attack, and it's especially obvious when the team gets in the red zone.

Arizona has scored touchdowns on just three of 21 trips there this season, and the club has yet to score a rushing touchdown. The biggest reason for the red-zone failure, Green said, is "not running the ball. Until you put pressure on people and make them have to play man coverage, if they are able to defend a 15-yard area with seven people, it makes it more difficult."

There are myriad reasons for the red-zone failures, and they highlight the team's lack of development. There have been dropped balls, bungled snaps and penalties. The details, it seems, escape the Cardinals. "We get down there a lot, and we put ourselves in position to score a lot," quarterback Kurt Warner said, "but we are coming out with three instead of seven. That changes the game a lot when you drive 80 yards and you come out with three points when you are inside the 10-yard line."

It would help if they at least had the threat of a running attack. The lack of it puts too much pressure on the passing game. "We can't just drop back and throw every time and expect to play mistake-free football," Warner said. "It has been frustrating, but we just have to get better. We have to find a way to improve."

REPLAY

The 33-19 loss to Seattle revealed no new problems for the Cardinals, but all of the old ones were clearly evident. They couldn't stop the run, as Seattle's Shaun Alexander gained 173 yards and scored two touchdowns. One of TDs, an 88-yard run on the first play of the second half, was the longest run ever against the Cardinals.

The offense made it inside the Seattle 10 three times and scored just one touchdown. Kurt Warner was intercepted three times and lost a fumble, but two of those turnovers came late in the game when he was taking chances.

PLAYER NOTES

--K Neil Rackers is still perfect this year, making all 26 of his field-goal attempts. Only one of those kicks came close to missing. The rest have been down the middle.

--The Cardinals shuffled their starting offensive line Sunday, and the results were mostly positive. C Alex Stepanovich moved to right guard, taking over for Elton Brown, who is out with a knee injury. Nick Leckey started at center. The protection was decent, and there were a minimal numbers of assignment errors, something that's plagued the club all season.

--DE Bertrand Berry might miss some time after suffering a strained left pectoral muscle against Seattle. Berry leads the team with seven sacks, so his loss would be a big blow. The club has little depth at the position. If Berry can't play, either Antonio Smith or Antonio Cochran would start.

--WR Bryant Johnson, a first-round pick in 2003, has just three touchdown catches in his career. He caught his third one against Seattle, and it was his first touchdown in more than a year.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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In the quiet of the bye week, with players off and more distance being created following the medical leave taken by coach Mike Martz, the Rams slashed one player from their potential list of unrestricted free agents with the signing of kicker Jeff Wilkins to a four-year contract through 2009. Wilkins has quietly established himself as one of the most consistent kickers in the league, and is the Rams' all-time scoring leader with 934 points and 193 field goals. He has made 16 of 24 field goals in his career from 50 yards or longer, including eight of his last nine over the last three seasons.

Martz, currently on a medical leave of absence, has often referred to Wilkins as "Money." He has eight game-winning field goals for the Rams.

This season, he has hit on 11 of 13 field-goal attempts and made all 23 of his extra points. Wilkins has a consecutive streak of 298 extra points, just three behind Norm Johnson, who is in second place.

Said Rams general manager Charley Armey, "He's been a proven commodity over the years, and he brings stability to that position. It's a huge phase of the game that you won't have to worry about. And he's quite an asset to us in our locker room, too." Wilkins has enjoyed tremendous success in St. Louis since 1997, after beginning his career with the Eagles and 49ers.

His agent, John Geletka, said, "When Jeff ends his career, he wants to end it in St. Louis."

The Rams are currently $3.2 million under the salary cap, and are also trying to lock up other players whose contracts expire after this season.

Most notable in that group are nose tackle Ryan Pickett, strong safety Adam Archuleta, center Andy McCollum and defensive lineman and captain Tyoka Jackson. Other potential unrestricted free agents are defensive tackle Damione Lewis, long snapper Chris Massey and guard Tom Nutten.

GOOD NEWS

After a 2-4 start, things looked bleak for the Rams, with coach Mike Martz on medical leave and quarterback Marc Bulger on the sideline after suffering a shoulder injury Oct. 17 against the Colts. Bulger went down with the Rams leading that game 17-0, and they lost 45-20.

However, the team responded to the leadership of interim coach Joe Vitt and was able to win two straight home games, against New Orleans and Jacksonville, with Bulger, wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, and defensive end Leonard Little on the sideline. Cornerback Travis Fisher missed the game against the Jaguars.

But the bye week comes at a good time, and by the time the Rams play at Seattle next Sunday, they are expected to have most of their missing players back. Most important, the offensive line has been strengthened by the progress of rookie right tackle Alex Barron.

BAD NEWS

The defense is very thin in the secondary, and big plays against it remain a problem. However, the Rams have adjusted in their nickel package, and they have been keeping linebackers Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley on the field more, so opposing offenses don't run as much with three receivers. Against the Colts on Oct. 17, Claiborne participated in just 12 plays.

The road, though, remains a trouble spot for the Rams, judging by their losses to San Francisco, the Giants and Indianapolis. This week becomes crucial, on the road against division leader Seattle. The Seahawks beat the Rams in St. Louis on Oct. 9 and a loss would give Seattle the head-to-head tiebreaker and a commanding lead in the division.

A St. Louis win would significantly close the gap and give the Rams a head of steam heading into their final seven games, five of which are against Arizona, San Francisco, Minnesota, Washington and Houston.

PLAYER NOTES

--PK Jeff Wilkins signed a four-year contract extension that will keep him with the team through the 2009 season. Wilkins was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2005 season.

--QB Jamie Martin will go back to the bench knowing he might not have had great stats, but the team won both games with him as a starter. Martin did connect with WR Kevin Curtis on an 83-yard touchdown pass against Jacksonville. "We got two wins. So, that's the most important thing," Martin said. "It doesn't matter what I did out there. To get two wins, it's huge."

--FB Madison Hedgecock has been an unsung hero in the success of the Rams' running game. The rookie fullback nudged Joey Goodspeed off the roster and has shown steady improvement, as well as contributing on special teams.

--QB Marc Bulger had a cortisone shot after injuring his shoulder Oct. 17 against Indianapolis to help the injury heal, but he doesn't expect to need that anymore. "I'll just go straight to Novocain if something else happens," he said.

--LB Drew Wahlroos was inactive for the Rams' season opener against San Francisco, and the special teams suffered. Wahlroos has been active for every game since, and the special teams have been consistently better, culminating with Wahlroos' blocked punt against Jacksonville that was run in for a touchdown by LB Brandon Chillar.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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The 49ers now hit the road, where they have been laughably bad in their three games this season. It looks as if second-year quarterback Cody Pickett, the third-stringer, will make his second NFL start on Sunday against the Bears at Soldier Field. Coach Mike Nolan likely will choose Pickett over Ken Dorsey, who initially was the backup to rookie Alex Smith.

Smith is expected to miss at least another game with a right knee sprain, and Dorsey is still hobbled by a left ankle sprain. In the 49ers' three games away from Monster Park, they have been outscored 125-34. They have failed to score an offensive touchdown in two of the three games. In fact, that is a common refrain for the 49ers. They have been competitive during their home games, but they have not scored an offensive touchdown in the last 195 minutes at home.

After a promising performance in a 15-10 victory over the Buccaneers, the 49ers bounced back with a stinker against the Giants.

They managed just 138 yards of total offense, and Pickett passed for just 102 yards. However, Pickett's performance was the most passing yards for a 49ers quarterback since Tim Rattay threw for 126 yards on Oct. 2 against the Cardinals. Rattay was benched the next week in favor of Smith, then traded to the Buccaneers.

"We hurt ourselves with penalties, and it's something we got to look at and try to fix," said Pickett, who became the team's fourth starting quarterback in the past five games.

Despite all their problems, Nolan has displayed such optimism that he threatens to undermine his own credibility. He contends that the 49ers are still on target to win the NFC West, despite their 2-6 record.

"We will take into account all the things that happened and learn from them and get better because of it," Nolan said. "We are not where we wanted to be at this point, at 2-6, but we feel there are an awful lot of things going in the right direction with a lot of young players."

REPLAY

The 49ers' offensive line, which was one of the keys to the team's upset victory a week earlier against the Buccaneers, had a miserable game in a 24-6 loss to the Giants at Monster Park. Right tackle Kwame Harris' number was called on three false-start penalties, and two more penalties of the kind might have been mistakenly blamed on others. He also had a holding penalty.

"Those are things you expect out of a Pop Warner player," Harris said. "You don't expect it out of a pro player."
The San Francisco defense generally played well, but it eventually wore down when the team's offense had seven three-and-outs in 10 possessions.

PLAYER NOTES

--C Jeremy Newberry might have to rest his ailing body as early as this week's game against the Bears. Newberry has played every game despite requiring pain-killing injections in his knee and both shoulders. He is going to have to rest for a week at some point, he has said, in hopes he'll be able to play the remainder of the year.

--RB Kevan Barlow gained just 4 yards on 10 carries against the Giants after rushing for a season-high 102 yards a week earlier against the Buccaneers. Barlow led the passing game with 41 yards on six catches.

--RB Frank Gore got more carries than starter Kevan Barlow for the first time this season. Gore rushed for 33 yards on seven carries against the Giants.

--WR Arnaz Battle returned to action after missing most of the past five games with a right knee sprain. Battle had two catches for 17 yards against the Giants.

--K Joe Nedney made both his of field-goal attempts against the Giants, knocking home kicks from 48 and 52 yards. Nedney has accounted for all of the 49ers' points in their past two games. His five field goals supplied the 49ers with a 15-10 victory over the Buccaneers on Oct. 30.


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