NFC West News & Notes - 11/8/05

News & notes from around the NFC West.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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The Seahawks can take a giant step toward winning the NFC West if they can defeat St. Louis in Seattle on Sunday. Seattle (6-2) holds a two-game lead in the division. Beating the Rams (4-4) would open a three-game lead with seven to play, all while giving Seattle a sweep of its primary rival in the division. The Seahawks beat the Rams in St. Louis last month.

A Seattle loss would reopen the division race.

"It's a huge football game," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said Monday. "Since we've been here (starting in 1999), this is as big as any game we'll play." The Rams beat the Seahawks three times last season. They remain a threat Sunday in part because interim coach Joe Vitt appears more inclined to stick with the running game. Rams RB Steven Jackson has given Seattle problems, but only when given enough carries. The Seahawks have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season and their defense is improved overall. But the Rams have had the Seahawks' number in recent seasons and this is not a game Seattle can take for granted. A year ago, the Rams overcame a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to win in Seattle.

"I like the fact we're at home," Holmgren said. "Our fans have been great. These are the games you like to coach in, you like to play in. It should be a heckuva deal." Seattle is 4-0 at home this season. The Seahawks have won 18 of their last 21 regular-season home games. Overall, Seattle has won four games in a row and six of its last seven. Only a last-second field goal off the upright in Washington has prevented Seattle from stringing together seven consecutive victories.

"I want to keep the thing going," Holmgren said.

NOTES, QUOTES

--C Robbie Tobeck unveiled a rare celebration dance after his highlight-reel block on Cardinals DT Ross Kolodziej. Tobeck peeled back and leveled an unsuspecting Kolodziej to spring RB Maurice Morris for a key 12-yard run. "I was supposed to go downfield and pick up a linebacker," Tobeck said, "but I saw that guy out of the corner of my eye and when you get a peel-back block like that, oh, we don't get that a lot. When you do get one once every couple years, you get excited."

Tobeck's teammates couldn't get enough of their 35-year-old center's impromptu antics. "Of all the things that I would say negative about Robbie, he's definitely one of the better dancers," QB Matt Hasselbeck quipped. "In fact, all of our offensive linemen are pretty good dancers. Pork Chop (Floyd Womack), definitely. Walt (Jones). Their wives, too. They are good dancers too. Christmas party, coming up."

--The Seahawks love the energy of their young defense, but the youth also equates to major breakdowns at times. On Sunday, MLB Lofa Tatupu blew a coverage that allowed little-used Cardinals TE Eric Edwards to break free for a 63-yard reception. The play would have gone for a 79-yard touchdown, but a penalty brought back part of the gain. "I smile when I think about our defense," coach Mike Holmgren said, "because these guys like Lofa and Leroy Hill are just out there playing. It's like their fifth year of college.

"They're just having a blast out there. Every once in a while, like Sunday, someone will run scot-free right down the middle. And in my calm way, I ask John (Marshall, acting defensive coordinator) what happened. But it happens. They make up for it with just the joy of playing. You go in that locker room and they're joking around and the feeling is so good."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES


--QB Matt Hasselbeck won't have to worry about coaches simplifying the game plan following a poor performance against Arizona. That was the approach coach Mike Holmgren took when Hasselbeck stunk up the desert in 2004 with four interceptions during a loss to the Cardinals. On Sunday, Hasselbeck did not commit a turnover while posting a 105.8 passer rating in a 33-19 victory. "I took that a little bit personal last year," Hasselbeck said, "but I've matured and grown up and learned from it. Be careful what you wish for, I guess is what I'd say. ... It's nice when it's simple, too. I spent a lot of time this week getting ready for these guys and also all our stuff. It doesn't have to be that complicated. You block the guy, you get open and throw the ball. But we've done a good job."

--RB Shaun Alexander's 88-yard run Sunday was the longest against the Cardinals in their 85-year history. Alexander now leads the NFL in rushing with 949 yards, putting him on pace for nearly 1,900 this season. He has 313 yards rushing and six rushing touchdowns against Arizona this season. After his triumphant performance in Arizona, Alexander was named the NFC's Offensive Player of the Week for the third time in eight games this season.

--WR Joe Jurevicius is expected to practice and play this week despite a bruised shoulder.

--DT Marcus Tubbs could miss practice time this week because of a strained calf. He could be questionable for the game Sunday.

--WR Peter Warrick is not expected to figure into the offense in the short term. Coach Mike Holmgren said he thinks Warrick's surgically repaired knee will need some more time to recover. Warrick might not be back to 100 percent until next season, Holmgren theorized.

--SS Michael Boulware could be limited in practice this week as he rests a sore hamstring. The team expects him to play Sunday.

--SS Marquand Manuel collected 12 tackles against the Cardinals, a strong showing in place of injured FS Ken Hamlin, who is out for the season.

--WR Jerheme Urban was released on Tuesday per an injury waiver he signed with the team. Urban re-injured the bone in his left foot against the Cardinals - he suffered a stress fracture in the same foot last season. Urban has made played well since he was re-signed by the Seahawks on October 4, after injuries to Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram decimated the receiver corps. His 46-yard first half reception against Arizona was a key play. The Seahawks initially released Urban, a third-year undrafted free agent from Trinity University in Texas, on September 13th. With Peter Warrick still experiencing recovery issues from knee surgery last season when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals, look for young speedster D.J. Hackett to get more playing time. Hackett is a deep threat and a willing blocker.

REPORT CARD VS. CARDINALS

PASSING OFFENSE: B --
QB Matt Hasselbeck spent a lot of extra time studying the Cardinals' multiple-front defense. He then went out and played efficiently but not spectacularly. The ground game was effective enough for Hasselbeck to attempt only 20 passes. His rating of 105.8 reflected a 4-yard touchdown pass to Joe Jurevicius and Hasselbeck's fifth game of the season without an interception.

RUSHING OFFENSE: A --
RB Shaun Alexander had a good day even without his back-breaking 88-yard touchdown run to open the second half. Alexander was deadly cutting back against the overpursuing Cardinals. He overcame a stomach ailment to rush for 173 yards and two touchdowns. His second score, on a 14-yard run up the middle, capped a 93-yard touchdown drive that used nearly seven minutes of the fourth quarter.

PASS DEFENSE: B -- Four sacks and three interceptions helped Seattle keep the Cardinals in check. Arizona managed to pile up some meaningless yardage through the air, and WR Larry Fitzgerald did get free for a short touchdown catch. The worst breakdown allowed little-used Cardinals TE Eric Edwards to get deep for a 63-yard gain.

RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus -- The Cardinals remained without a rushing touchdown on the season. They managed only 71 yards on the ground. Their longest run was a 15-yarder on the type of misdirection play that has hurt the Seahawks occasionally this season. Seattle has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season, this after allowing 21 in 48 games from 2002-2004.

SPECIAL TEAMS: F -- This is a problem area for Seattle. There were three more penalties on kick returns, plus a muffed punt that was negated only by an Arizona penalty. P Tom Rouen sent two of his four punts into the end zone for touchbacks, not helpful. There was even a blocked extra point, something that had never happened to K Josh Brown in 113 previous tries.

COACHING: B -- The Seahawks were definitely ready to play. The effort was sustained. Hasselbeck seemed well prepared and coach Mike Holmgren wisely stuck with the running game even when Alexander went to the locker room with a stomach ailment. The defense was well coordinated. Seattle rushed the passer effectively enough to play tighter coverage in the secondary, resulting in three interceptions. Only another shoddy performance on special teams could detract from the overall coaching grade. Special-teams coach Bob Casullo has eight games to show he deserves to remain on the staff.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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The defensive line, already reeling from injuries, suffered the most serious loss of the season Sunday when end Bertrand Berry went down with a torn left pectoral muscle. The injury won't require surgery, and the Cardinals are hopeful that Berry will be back in five to six weeks. It's possible, however, he could be done for the season.

Berry is the team's best defensive player. Since signing a five-year, $25 million free agent contract in the spring of 2004, Berry has 21.5 sacks, including 14.5 last year when he made the Pro Bowl for the first time. Berry was the best free agent signing in team history, and he's irreplaceable on a defense that already was struggling. In training camp, the defensive line was expected to be a strength. Then backup tackle Kenny King went down with a wrist injury in camp. Nose tackle Russell Davis was lost in the third game of the season when he suffered a torn biceps. Backup defensive end Calvin Pace suffered a severe cut in a household incident in the bye week and is also gone for the year.

Nose tackle Langston Moore suffered a shoulder injury Sunday and he's out for the season. He'll have to undergo surgery. Berry's loss is especially devastating, because the team has such little depth. The starter, for now, is Antonio Smith, a fifth-round pick in 2004. He has spent most of the past two seasons on the practice squad, and was simply tossed around at times by Seattle left tackle Walter Jones on Sunday.

The team also has Antonio Cochran, a veteran who was signed two weeks ago, and it will scour the countryside looking for a free agent who might be able to help. It probably won't have much luck, because those type of players likely are already employed.

NOTES, QUOTES

Coach Dennis Green remains non-committal about his starting quarterback for Sunday's game in Detroit, but it would be surprising if he didn't stay with Kurt Warner. He did leave open the option of making a change and even using John Navarre, the third quarterback. Navarre started in Detroit last season, and completed just 18 of 40 passes and was intercepted four times.

The Cardinals have scored just three touchdowns in 21 trips to the red zone. The biggest problem is they can't run the ball, which allows opponents to drop seven or eight defenders into zone coverage in a very confined space. In his Monday press conference, Green reminded everyone that, "Scoring is not that difficult. Now, I would have to say to you that Brian Billick, who is struggling right now and who was the offensive coordinator of that phenomenal team (in Minnesota), finds it hard to score right now too. That's part of the game and part of the change and part of yesteryear and part of today. And I'm dealing with right now, today, but it is nice to realize you do know how to coach and you do know how to score and scoring points is not that difficult. But when you are not doing well, it's tough to deal with."

--K Neil Rackers has made 26 consecutive field goals this season. He had four last Sunday, including a 50-yarder.
Rackers also leads the league in touchbacks with 20. Not all of Rackers' skills have been explored, however. He's excellent at onside kicks and pooch kicks, which the team hasn't tried yet this season.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES


--OT Oliver Ross returned after a four-week absence due to a broken hand. He played fairly well, although he did give up a sack to Bryce Fisher.

--CB Eric Green returned from a shoulder sprain that caused him to miss two games. He was burned twice, however, against Seattle. He gave up one touchdown throw and another long pass that set up a score.

--WR Bryant Johnson, a first-round pick in 2003, has just three touchdown receptions in his career. Johnson caught a 6-yard scoring pass Sunday, his first in more than a year.

REPORT CARD VS. SEAHAWKS

PASSING OFFENSE: C- --
Kurt Warner was intercepted three times and sacked four times. On at least two sacks, he had time to throw but had no one open.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C- -- The offensive line did a better job, but the club fell behind and couldn't stick with the run.

PASS DEFENSE: C -- Seattle passed for just 158 yards, but the Seahawks didn't have to throw because they were running so well.

RUSH DEFENSE: F -- The Seahawks rushed for 208 yards on 33 carries, and Shaun Alexander had 173 yards and two touchdowns, including an 88-yard run.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- Kicker Neil Rackers made all four field-goal attempts, but the coverage teams did a poor job. And the return teams are giving the Cardinals nothing.

COACHING: C -- The offensive line changes helped, and the offensive game plan was decent. Defensively, the tackling needs to improve.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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If the Rams are to make a move in the second half of the season, starting with Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks, they will be doing it with most of their injured players back on the field. It could be argued the Rams saved their season with consecutive victories over New Orleans and Jacksonville, wins that were fashioned without quarterback Marc Bulger, wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, defensive end Leonard Little and cornerback Travis Fisher.

Not to mention coach Mike Martz.

So it was that interim coach Joe Vitt welcomed back virtually all of the injured players Monday for a brisk 90-minute workout. "It was a good first day back," Vitt said. "The players came back with a good attitude. This is as healthy as we've been all year long." Most important, Bulger threw well in his first practice since suffering an injury to his right shoulder Oct. 17 against Indianapolis. And he was throwing to Holt, who has missed two games because of a knee injury.

"He's excited," Vitt said of Bulger. "He's ready to go for a full slate on Wednesday."

Defensive end Leonard Little, who struggled tremendously after the murder of his brother on Oct. 17, was back on the practice field and "had a heckuva day," according to Vitt. "Mentally, he's great," Vitt said.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Interim coach Joe Vitt said the month of November is the time when teams begin to separate themselves from the pack in the NFL. The Rams have November games against Seattle, Arizona and Houston. Asked about the rest of the NFC, Vitt said, "I think it's anybody's guess. In the month of November, you separate the pretenders from the contenders. This is going to be a big month for us coming up. This is when you have to establish yourself and what your intent is. Are you going to be for real, or are you just waiting for the season to be over and run for the bus? I know what we'll do. We'll prepare hard, and we'll have great intent."

--Free safety Mike Furrey continues to learn the position after being switched from wide receiver in the offseason. While he is getting experience in the running game, Furrey has made big plays. In Week 7 against New Orleans, he had a 67-yard interception return for a touchdown. Against Jacksonville the next week, while he took a bad angle on running back Fred Taylor's 71-yard touchdown run, he later recovered a fumble, and had another interception and return that set up the Rams' go-ahead touchdown.

Said Vitt, "Mike has made two great, big plays for us the last two games. It could be said game-winning plays, because we take the lead on his interception. He knows he still has to tackle better and take better angles to the ball. On the long run, he's the last line of defense. He knows he has to make that play. He's going to come in (during the bye week) and work on his tackling, and he's going to get better.

"He's one of those players that our players and our coaches trust him, because he's going to give you everything he has, he's going to prepare well. When the game is on the line, that's when he seems to play his best. Somehow, some way, he comes up with a play."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES


--QB Marc Bulger returned to practice Monday and looked good, preparing for Sunday's game against Seattle after missing two games because of an injured shoulder.

--WR Torry Holt, who has missed the last two games because of a knee injury, practiced Monday and took virtually all of the snaps with the first team.

--WR Isaac Bruce, who injured his toe on Sept. 25 and hasn't played since, practiced on a limited basis Monday. Most of his reps came with the first unit in the running game.

--DE Leonard Little was on the practice field and working with the first unit Monday. Little left the team the morning after the Oct. 17 game against the Colts following the murder of his 24-year-old brother.

--CB Travis Fisher, who missed the game before the bye because of a groin injury, practiced Monday.

--RT Alex Barron arrived at practice 75 minutes late Monday, and interim coach Joe Vitt said he didn't know the explanation. Vitt said it would "be dealt with."

--RB Marshall Faulk missed practice Monday because of a personal issue that the team was said to have known about since August.

REPORT CARD AFTER 8 GAMES

PASSING OFFENSE: B --
QB Marc Bulger was on pace for well over 4,000 yards before injuring his shoulder in the team's sixth game against the Colts. Backup Jamie Martin managed the game well enough for the team to get two wins over New Orleans and Jacksonville. WR Torry Holt was also on track for a huge statistical year until missing two games with a knee injury. WR Isaac Bruce has missed five injuries because of a toe injury. WR Kevin Curtis continues to emerge as a big-play threat.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B --
Thanks to a 179-yard outing against Jacksonville, RB Steven Jackson is now on pace to rush for 1,318 yards for the season. He is improving as a receiver and blocker. Marshall Faulk still contributes, and rookie Madison Hedgecock is doing a solid job as the fullback. The team is averaging 4.6 yards per attempt.

PASS DEFENSE: C -- Injuries in the secondary have led to some spotty pass defense, but it did start to play better in the last two games before the bye. Overall, the defense has allowed a 62.0 completion percentage and a passer rating of 96.5. In addition, the defense has just five interceptions.

RUSH DEFENSE: C-plus -- Big plays have been the Achilles heel of the defense, but overall there has been solid play at times. Still, the defense is allowing 127.1 rushing yards per game and 4.7 per attempt. Part of the problem has been poor run play in the nickel defense, which has been helped by keeping linebackers Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley on the field.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-plus -- After a bad beginning, the special teams have shown steady improvement, making big plays and limiting big plays against. In the last four games, the Rams have had a kickoff return for a touchdown, a blocked punt for a touchdown and a blocked field goal. The kick coverage has improved, as has the punting after Bryan Barker was signed to replace rookie Reggie Hodges. PK Jeff Wilkins remains his consistent self, hitting 11 of 13 field goals.

COACHING: B --
Adjustments have been made to improve the special teams and defense, while interim coach Joe Vitt has done an excellent job keeping the team together amid Mike Martz's health issues. Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild is doing well in running the offense following the departure of Martz.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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It looks as if Cody Pickett has earned another start, according to 49ers coach Mike Nolan on Monday afternoon at his weekly press conference. Pickett, who was the team's No. 4 quarterback when the season began, moved up the depth chart when Tim Rattay was traded, and Alex Smith and Ken Dorsey sustained injuries.

"Right now it's Cody Pickett," Nolan said. "I think he did a decent job. He had only one turnover back there, and he keeps things alive pretty well." Pickett did not put up great numbers against the Giants in his NFL starting debut, but he had very little in the way of a supporting cast. Pickett completed 12 of 21 passes 102 with one interception. He also rushed five times for 15 yards.

Tight end Trent Smith dropped a perfect pass early in the game that would've given the 49ers the ball deep in Giants territory. The 49ers consistently found themselves in long-yardage situations on second and third downs. Nolan said Pickett did nothing to get benched after one start. "He certainly did nothing to take it away," Nolan said. "He did a good job overall. With the limited repetitions he's had up to this point, it was encouraging to see what he did do. He's only had two weeks at quarterback since training camp where he takes the whole practice."

Nolan did not rule out the possibility that Pickett could earn his way into the full-time starting role for the rest of the season. Smith is not expected back for at least another week. Pickett is more athletic than Dorsey, enabling him to get away from the inevitable pass rush. "Right now we're uncertain when Alex would be back," Nolan said. "But if we have some consistency out of the quarterback play as we go forward, I won't be looking to switch back right away. The game we're coming off of will determine a lot of that."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Earlier this season, 49ers soft-spoken linebacker Derek Smith referred to former teammate Terrell Owens as a "bad apple." He said it was only a matter of time before Owens' divisive nature spoiled things for the Philadelphia Eagles. Smith's words have come true. Owens trashed the Eagles organization and quarterback Donovan McNabb, in particular, last week during a televised interview. The Eagles have announced that they plan to deactivate him for the rest of the season.
So is Smith surprised with the recent developments? "Not at all," he said. "It's just a matter of time."

--The 49ers shifted out of punt formation to apparently run a fake with Rasheed Marshall under center in the second quarter with the ball at the 49ers' 40-yard line. But the 49ers never snapped the ball, instead electing to draw the Giants offside. The Giants did not jump. Even if they had, it would not have given the 49ers a first down, as it was fourth-and-7. The 49ers called timeout before the play clock expired to prevent a delay-of-game-penalty. Coach Mike Nolan said he tried the ploy just for the 5 yards of field position it would've gained and not with the purpose of going for it on fourth-and-2. "We didn't get anything out that for this game, but the next four opponents for sure are going to see that, and they're going to have to prepare for it," Nolan said.

--Cody Pickett became the fourth different starting quarterback in the last five games for the 49ers. The last time the 49ers started four quarterbacks in one season was 1974 under coach Dick Nolan. Current 49ers coach Mike Nolan was a ballboy on that team. "I remember everybody fighting for a job and nobody good enough to have it," Nolan said. John Brodie retired after the '73 season, and former No. 1 draft pick Steve Spurrier sustained a serious shoulder injury in the exhibition season. The 49ers' starting quarterbacks that season were Joe Reed, Dennis Morrison, Tom Owen and Norm Snead. The club finished with a 6-8 record.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES


--CB Bruce Thornton has played well enough in his four starts at left cornerback that coach Mike Nolan said veteran Ahmed Plummer will likely not get his starting job back immediately after returning from arthroscopic ankle surgery.

--RB Maurice Hicks, who underwent arthroscopic surgery last week to repair a torn meniscus knee cartilage, will not play this week. He could be back as early as the 49ers' Nov. 20 game against the Seahawks.

--CB Ahmed Plummer, the team's original starter at left cornerback, began running last week after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his left ankle five weeks ago. There is a possibility he could return to action this week, but it would likely be as a nickel back.

--C Jeremy Newberry might not play this week against the Bears as he nurses a bad knee and two bum shoulders. Newberry said he needs to take a week of rest at some point in the season if he hopes to make it through the rest of the year.

--WR Rasheed Marshall will likely stick as the team's punt returner even after Otis Amey returns from a high-ankle sprain. Marshall is returning punts for the first time after spending his college years as West Virginia's quarterback. Marshall returned three punts for 30 yards against the Giants.

REPORT CARD VS. GIANTS

PASSING OFFENSE: F --
It certainly was not all of Cody Pickett's fault in his first NFL start at quarterback. Tight end Trent Smith dropped an easy pass about 30 yards downfield early in the game that could have gone for a touchdown. And the 49ers were constantly in long-yardage situations on second and third downs. The 49ers managed just 86 net yards passing, which is actually par for the course since Tim Rattay was benched and then traded last month. The 49ers had only two first downs passing.

RUSHING OFFENSE: D-minus --
The 49ers gained just 52 yards rushing on 22 tries, but at least they did not commit any turnovers. Frank Gore got more carries for the first time than starter Kevan Barlow. Gore had 33 yards on seven tries, while Barlow accounted for just 4 yards on 10 carries. The 49ers had only three first downs rushing.

PASS DEFENSE: B-minus -- Generally, the pass defense was good but the Giants came up with some extraordinary plays to win some plays. A big play came late in the first half when Jeremy Shockey beat the coverage of 49ers safety Tony Parrish on a 32-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-1 play. Parrish had a chance later in the game to make a big play but dropped a sure interception that might have resulted
in a long return.

RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus --
The 49ers' front seven did a fine job of stuffing the run, holding Tiki Barber to just 71 yards on 21 carries. They stopped short-yardage back Brandon Jacobs a couple times, but he also scored two touchdowns on 1-yard runs.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- Joe Nedney again accounted for all the 49ers' points with field goals of 48 and 52 yards. Punter Andy Lee continues to perform well, compiling a net 39.6-yard average on seven punts. Punt returner Rasheed Marshall looked sure-handed with three punt returns for 30 yards.

COACHING: F --
The 49ers had 10 players on the field for their first defensive play of the game, which resulted in a 28-yard completion to Shockey. The 49ers had to call two timeouts on defense because of confusion, and coach Mike Nolan admitted afterward that he didn't see much of the team's offense because he was busy with the defense. Nolan panicked when he called for the 49ers to try to draw the Giants offside when they shifted out of punt formation to an apparent offensive play on a fourth-and-7 play. The 49ers spent a timeout when the clock ran down. But even if the Giants had jumped offside, the 49ers would have punted on a fourth-and-2. That made no sense. Discipline was also a problem, as the 49ers were called for six false-start penalties.


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