NFC West News & Notes - 11/16/05

News, notes and quotes from around the division.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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Seattle finds itself in great position not only in the NFC West but also in the conference as a whole. Home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is an increasingly realistic goal. The team's three-game lead in the division means the Seahawks (7-2) could go 4-3 the rest of the way and still win the NFC West, even if St. Louis won its final seven games. Seattle is 4-0 in the division after sweeping the Rams and Cardinals. The Seahawks' only remaining division games are against 2-7 San Francisco, starting Sunday.

Seattle also leads the overall NFC standings. Carolina also has a 7-2 record, but Seattle has a slightly better conference record (6-1 to 5-1). The teams do not play each other this season. The Seahawks have already defeated the NFC's current fourth (Dallas) and sixth (Atlanta) seeds. The Giants, currently seeded fifth, visit Seattle on Nov. 27.

"The fact that we are 7-2 is a really, really good feeling," RB Shaun Alexander said. "This is exactly where we want to be. We want to do some great things."
Coach Mike Holmgren has told the team to focus on each opponent, not the bigger picture.

"First of all, nothing has been set in the division yet," Holmgren said. "We have to keep going."

The Seahawks have so far avoided overlooking inferior opponents. They have pounded Arizona twice. "Every Sunday you can look at the scores and see a game that surprises the heck out of you," Holmgren said. "One team wasn't ready, the other team was ready, even though they may have been an underdog, and they win the football game.

"That is a concern of mine and it always will be. What I have to do is continue getting the team playing at a certain level, regardless of their opponent. This team so far this season has shown the ability to do that; they play like they play."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Matt Hasselbeck's passer rating is 88.7, which ranks 12th in the league. His fourth-quarter rating of 85.6 also ranks 12th this season, but Hasselbeck's rating drops to 64.9 on third down. The dropoff results largely from the third-and-13 interception Hasselbeck tossed Sunday against the Rams. The Rams appeared to interfere with Seattle TE Jerramy Stevens on the play, leading to the pick.

--QB Seneca Wallace hasn't played in weeks and that won't change unless QB Matt Hasselbeck is injured or the outcome of a game is no longer in question.

--RB Shaun Alexander has topped 100 yards in six games this season. He gained 98 yards in another game. His 100-yard games include performances of 173, 165, 144, 141, 140 and 119 yards. He leads the NFL in rushing yards (1,114), touchdowns (17) and third-and-1 rushing (9-9). This is by far Alexander's best season through nine games.

--RB Maurice Morris doesn't get many chances because starting RB Shaun Alexander is playing so well. Morris does own a 100-yard game this season, however. He rushed for 104 yards against Houston after Alexander left the game with a 100-yard outing of his own.

--WR Darrell Jackson could return for the Nov. 27 game against the Giants, but not sooner. The team will know more after Jackson returns form a visit to his orthopedist. Jackson underwent knee surgery last month. The Seahawks have won all five games since Jackson left the lineup, but they miss his contributions. The passing game hasn't been as potent without Jackson, particularly when Seattle has faced a tough defense (Dallas comes to mind).

--WR Bobby Engram caught six passes Sunday in his second game back from cracked ribs. He now leads the team with 36 receptions despite missing four games to the injury. Having Engram back on the field should help the Seahawks on third down. WR Joe Jurevicius and TE Jerramy Stevens are also inviting third-down targets.

--WR Joe Jurevicius still leads the team with five TD receptions. He should not be expected to put up huge numbers down the stretch, particularly given that WR Darrell Jackson could return from knee surgery in another week or two. Jurevicius does remain a solid red-zone option on those rare occasions when the ball does not go to RB Shaun Alexander. Seattle has drawn up some red-zone plays for Jurevicius because the team thinks his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame presents problems for opposing defensive backs.

--TE Jerramy Stevens can earn another $125,000 to $300,000 in additional salary for 2006 by hitting incentives. He has 28 catches through nine games. He'll get the extra $125,000 for reaching 45 receptions. That figure jumps to $200,000 if he catches 50 passes and $300,000 if he reaches 60. "Jerramy Stevens is having a fine year," coach Mike Holmgren said. "He's really making the tough catches over the middle, gaining extra yards."

--K Josh Brown has four touchbacks this season, one fewer than he had all last season. Brown kicks under tough conditions at home because the Seattle air tends to be cold and heavy.

--DE Bryce Fisher ranks tied for 12th in the league with 6.5 sacks. He would be tied for sixth, but the league took away a half-sack from Fisher after reviewing tape of Seattle's recent game in Arizona. Fisher is part of a defense that ranks second in sacks this season despite lacking a dominant pass rusher. Fisher is on pace to set a career high for sacks in a season; he collected 8 1/2 while with the Rams in 2004.

--DE Grant Wistrom appeared close to collecting his third sack of the season Sunday, but Rams LT Orlando Pace slowed him down at the last moment. Pace appeared to hold Wistrom blatantly on the play, but officials did not throw a flag. It has been that kind of season for Wistrom, who has not been able to make his pass rushes count consistently. Wistrom's young teammates might be beating him to the quarterback in some cases. The team ranks second in the league with 29 sacks, a big surprise given the lack of a dominant pass rusher. Wistrom did bat down a pass Sunday.

--LB Leroy Hill has a chance to put up some impressive numbers during his rookie season. Hill only recently joined the starting lineup after the team lost LB Jamie Sharper to a staph infection in his knee. Despite the limited opportunities so far, Hill has 27 tackles and 4 1/2 sacks. That puts Hill in some elite company for a rookie given that Cowboys sensation Demarcus Ware has 30 tackles and four sacks.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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Left guard Reggie Wells' ankle injury will force changes in the interior of the offensive line. Coach Dennis Green hasn't revealed his plan, but it's likely Alex Stepanovich will move from right guard to left guard. Replacing Stepanovich will be either Adam Haayer, Fred Wakefield or Jeremy Bridges, who was re-signed Tuesday. Wells was placed on injured reserve. Three weeks ago, coaches revamped the line, moving Stepanovich from center to guard, and inserting Nick Leckey into the lineup at center.

Stepanovich has struggled some this season, and his assignment error last week caused Obafemi Ayanbadejo to be tackled for a safety. This is the first time this season the left side of the line will have a new starter. Wells is out for the season after starting every game. Left tackle Leonard Davis also has started every game.

The offense might get a little boost this week with the possible return of receiver Anquan Boldin. Boldin has missed the past two games with a bruised knee and expects to test the injury in Wednesday's practice. Bryant Johnson, the team's third receiver, is likely to miss a second straight game with a shoulder sprain.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Kurt Warner played efficiently last Sunday in Detroit and will start his third straight game this week. It will mark his return to St. Louis, where he helped the Rams win a Super Bowl and won two league MVP trophies.

--QB Josh McCown probably won't start another game this season unless Kurt Warner gets hurt. McCown has been the starter for all eight victories in Dennis Green's two seasons as the Cardinals coach.

--RB Marcel Shipp will start Sunday at St. Louis, despite playing one of the worst games of his career last week. Shipp had a tough week following the death of his father. Services were last Friday, two days before the game at Detroit.

--RB J.J. Arrington appears to be more confident and is playing much better than he did earlier this season. It wouldn't be surprising to see him move into a starting role soon.

--RB James Jackson rarely plays and won't have much of a role unless someone gets hurt.

--WR Larry Fitzgerald has shown great improvement over his rookie season. He could still be more consistent in his route running, but he's one of the team's few scoring threats.

--WR Anquan Boldin is hoping to play this week after missing two games with a bruised knee.

--WR Bryant Johnson will miss a second straight game with a sprained shoulder.

--WR LeRon McCoy, a rookie, played well last week in his first NFL start. McCoy has great speed and displayed good hands, which had previously been considered suspect.

--TE Eric Edwards is a decent receiver but the team rarely throws to its tight ends.

--TE Adam Bergen, a rookie, has nice hands but the team rarely throws to its tight ends.

--K Neil Rackers has made 28 straight field goals and has made at least two in every game this season.

--G Reggie Wells was placed on injured reserve Tuesday because of an ankle injury.

--DE Bertrand Berry is officially out for the season after being placed on injured reserve Tuesday because of a torn pectoral muscle.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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It is a problem that isn't new for the Rams, but it's one that continues to confound them. You'd think with the offensive personnel available, the team's production in the red zone would be better. But when the Rams have lost, it is often because of the offense's failure to score touchdowns after getting inside their opponent's 20-yard line. Sunday against Seattle, the Rams reached the red zone five times and scored just one touchdown. That came with seven minutes left in the game. On four other possessions, they scored three field goals and saw a fake field goal fail. In 13 red-zone plays in those four possessions, the total yards gained was minus-2. Running back Steven Jackson had 4 yards on five attempts.

Jackson sometimes has the tendency to change direction rather than just plow ahead.

Said interim coach Joe Vitt, "I think by design, and we talked about this as a staff this morning (Monday), I think we have to get Steven the ball with his shoulders square. Counter steps and then going and cutting, hey, keep your shoulders square, and let's hit it downhill. Not only can he make people miss, but let him be square when he drops his pads and runs over somebody."

As for the red-zone issues, Vitt said, "I think it is a variety of things. We had some offsides in the red zone. We had some dropped balls in the red zone. We had a fumble in the red zone. We had a sack in the red zone. So you can take your pick. We have to get it completely cleaned up." Asked about quarterback Marc Bulger and wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce coming back after missing time because of injuries, Vitt said, "Torry is dragging that leg with a brace. I thought he got better as the game went on. He made the big fourth-down catch in the red zone on the fade. I think Ike, as the game went on, he caught a digger across the middle and got back in the rhythm. I thought he ran better on that one than on the missed corner route earlier in the game.

"I thought Marc was really sharp throughout. I thought he had good pocket presence, and good zip on the ball, and fairly accurate. I think those things do take time to get back in sync. It's something we'll continue to work on." Vitt said Holt and Bruce, while not totally themselves Sunday, will be better down the stretch after having played. "I think they are both professionals and they felt they could go," Vitt said. "They worked hard in practice and showed in practice that they could go, and they went. And they will be better for it.

"I'm never going to question Ike. He's a consummate professional. He works extremely hard. When he says he's ready to go, I'm not going to question that."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Marc Bulger hardly missed a beat after missing two games because of a shoulder injury. Bulger passed for 304 yards against Seattle, and currently has a passer rating of 90.7.

--QB Jamie Martin returned to the bench with Marc Bulger healthy, and didn't take a snap against the Seahawks.

--WR Torry Holt wasn't 100 percent, but contributed a touchdown and four receptions in his return against Seattle. Holt had missed two games because of a knee injury.

--WR Isaac Bruce returned after missing five games because of a toe injury, and caught just one pass for 16 yards. However, that pushed Bruce past Michael Irvin into 11th place on the all-time NFL yardage list with 12,905.

--WR Kevin Curtis didn't have any big plays, but he still led the team in receptions against Seattle with six for 51 yards.

--TE Brandon Manumaleuna was active in the passing game, catching three passes for 51 yards with a long of 33 against Seattle. However, he fumbled at the Seattle 13-yard line on a play that would have been a first down.

--RB Steven Jackson totaled 115 yards from scrimmage with 70 rushing and 45 receiving against the Seahawks.

--RB Marshall Faulk had a significant role in the passing game against Seattle, catching five passes for 54 yards.

--PK Jeff Wilkins had one extra point against Seattle, and he now has hit 299 straight, the third-longest streak in NFL history. Wilkins is two behind Norm Johnson.

--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa had 10 tackles against Seattle, and continues to be the team's best linebacker. Tinoisamoa missed some plays because of a concussion.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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The 49ers started rookie Adam Snyder at right guard on Sunday, and coach Mike Nolan promises that Snyder and fellow rookie lineman David Baas will continue to see a lot of action down the stretch. The 49ers are a bad football team that is going nowhere this season. So Nolan wants to start getting as many of his younger players ready for the future as possible.

"We're developing a lot of the young guys, and that's critical to us because I would like to think that the young guys we're developing will be our solid players in the future," Nolan said. "Whether they're backups or starters, I believe they'll be solid." The 49ers remain confident that they had a good draft, but it has not been easy to see any results. Quarterback Alex Smith, chosen with the first overall pick, looked unsure of himself and did not show any of the flashes of brilliance before missing three games with a knee sprain.

Snyder and Baas have not played much. The only draft pick who has shown promise is running back Frank Gore, who has gained 326 yards on just 65 carries this season. Tight end Billy Bajema has broken into the starting lineup, but he has not done anything to make people forget about Eric Johnson, who is out for the season with a foot injury. Bajema has just three catches for 29 yards.

Nolan said he remains confident in his group based on what he sees on the practice field.

"It's easy to see in practice, but when you get in the game - I hate to say it - in some cases, it's men among boys," Nolan said. "That's what happens to you when you don't have experience, but they do compete and do play it out."

The 49ers have not gotten a lot of help on defense from the rookie class. Cornerback Derrick Johnson has been playing when the 49ers go with extra defensive backs. Nose tackle Ronald Fields has yet to be active for a game this season.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Alex Smith was able to drop back and throw about 60 passes on Monday, and he believes he is feeling good enough to get back on the field this week after missing three games with a right knee sprain. It all depends on how he feels at practice Wednesday. Coach Mike Nolan said if Smith is 100 percent, he will return to the starting lineup.

--QB Ken Dorsey has a chance to return to the starting lineup after missing the last two games with a left ankle sprain. Dorsey is nearing 100 percent. He is likely to get the start Sunday against the Seahawks if Alex Smith is deemed not ready to play after sustaining a right knee sprain Oct. 23.

--QB Cody Pickett will probably head back to the sideline this week after starting two games. Pickett struggled in those two games, but he did not get much support from the offensive line or his receivers, who dropped at least four passes. For the season, Pickett has completed just 14 of 35 passes for 140 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He is the team's third-leading rusher with 42 yards on 13 carries.

--RB Kevan Barlow is "twice the back" he was last season, 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. Nolan said Barlow has benefited tremendously from the tutelage of RB coach Bishop Harris. But Barlow's statistics aren't all that impressive. Barlow has 487 yards on 139 carries (3.5 average) with two touchdowns. He is tied for the team lead with 23 receptions for 177 yards.

--RB Frank Gore has been the 49ers' top rookie this season. Despite getting 74 fewer carries than starter Kevan Barlow, Gore has gained just 161 yards fewer this season. Gore rushed for 60 yards on 15 tries against a Bears defense that often put nine men in the box to stop the run. Gore has 326 yards on 65 carries for the season.

--FB Fred Beasley left Sunday's game against the Bears in the third quarter with a shoulder stinger. He has been bothered by nagging injuries this season, and his play has fallen off dramatically because of them.

--WR Brandon Lloyd had the only 49ers reception of the game Sunday against the Bears, but he had two very bad plays in the 17-9 loss. Lloyd, who has the best hands on the team, dropped a pass and looked as if his concentration was broken because Bears S Mike Brown was closing in on him for a big hit. Also, Lloyd appeared to shy away from a well-thrown pass at the goal line.

--WR Arnaz Battle has not been much of a factor in the two games since he returned from a right knee sprain. Battle has just two catches for 17 yards in the last two games. He is the only 49ers receiver who is not afraid to go across the middle and also has speed for the deep ball.

--WR Johnnie Morton is the 49ers' No. 3 receiver, and this offense has enough problems getting the top two guys the ball. Morton has caught just 14 passes for 162 yards this season.

--TE Billy Bajema, a seventh-round draft pick, has started four games for the 49ers this season. He is improving as a blocker, but has yet to show much as a receiving threat. Bajema has caught just three passes for 29 yards this season.

--TE Trent Smith has been a major disappointment after the 49ers brought him in to bring some life to the passing attack. Smith has dropped passes in just about every game he has played. Many have wondered why the 49ers brought Smith to the team at the expense of Aaron Walker, who caught 18 passes his first two seasons in the league in limited playing time.

--K Joe Nedney is the strength of the 49ers' offense. That is why coach Mike Nolan decided to send him out for a 52-yard field-goal attempt in the gusting winds Sunday at Soldier Field. Nedney's kick was short, and Bears return man Nathan Vasher returned it 108 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the first half. Nedney has made 14 of 16 field-goal attempts this season, including 10 since the 49ers' last touchdown.

--S Tony Parrish was placed on injured reserve Monday, ending his season, after sustaining two fractures in his left lower leg. Parrish had a streak of 121 consecutive starts to begin his career. He was the team leader with two interceptions when he went down with the injury in the first quarter Sunday against the Bears.

--S Ben Emanuel, a recent free-agent pickup, is likely to see a lot of time as a replacement for injured Tony Parrish. Emanuel has played a lot as a linebacker in the 49ers' nickel and dime defenses.

--WR Rasheed Marshall had a lot of trouble catching punts in training camp after making the switch from QB at West Virginia to WR/PR with the 49ers. He had handled the first 13 punts of his career flawlessly, but muffed a punt in the tricky winds Sunday at Soldier Field.

--CB Shawntae Spencer made a nice play to intercept a Kyle Orton pass in the end zone. However, Spencer was also called for a questionable pass-interference penalty on Muhsin Muhammad that set up a Bears touchdown.

--LS Brian Jennings, who made the NFC Pro Bowl team last season as a "need player," was outstanding Sunday negotiating the gusting winds at Soldier Field. Jennings' seven snaps to punter Andy Lee were all on the mark, as were his four snaps on field-goal attempts. Moreover, Jennings hustled down the field to force and recover one fumble.


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