The top spot in the NFC is at stake when the Seahawks and Giants play Sunday at Qwest Field.
"This game is one of those games that you love to coach and play in," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "I think the stadium will probably be rocking." Seattle is 19-3 in its last 22 regular-season home games. That includes 5-0 this season and 8-0 in 2003.
The Seahawks sit atop the NFC with an 8-2 record. The Giants are one of five teams at 7-3. Seattle is the only NFL team that can clinch a division title and playoff berth Sunday, but the Seahawks would also need Houston to defeat St. Louis. The Rams-Texans game could not be further for the Seahawks' minds as they prepare to face the NFL's third-ranked scoring team. The Giants have the firepower to exploit Seattle's weaknesses on defense.
The Seahawks have struggled at cornerback recently, allowing unheralded 49ers quarterback Ken Dorsey to lead a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives last week. The Seahawks will be looking for left cornerback Kelly Herndon to clean up problems with his technique. Right cornerback Marcus Trufant has the talent to run with Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress, but he has not shown the ability to make plays consistently.
Both teams possess strong offenses. Seattle leads the NFL in yards per game. The Seahawks also benefit from the steadying influence of a veteran quarterback who knows his offensive system well. The problem for Seattle right now is at receiver, where the absence of injured wide receiver Darrell Jackson has started to take a toll. Second-year receiver D.J. Hackett continues to show improvement, but his lack of experience prevents him from making adjustments on the fly. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck also hasn't had enough time to develop much of a rapport with Hackett, who spent most of 2004 on injured reserve.
The Seahawks will continue to lean on running back Shaun Alexander, a legitimate MVP candidate with 1,229 yards and 19 rushing touchdowns. Alexander should be at his best in this game given that he has a chance to perform with all of New York watching. The Giants counter with the NFL's fourth-ranked rusher in running back Tiki Barber, who also has the ability to hurt Seattle as a receiver out of the backfield.
"They use (Barber) in the passing game and use him very well," Holmgren said. "I don't think he's going to carry the ball, as a rule, as much as Shaun does."
The weather forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of rain Sunday. Wet conditions could prevent both teams from flourishing in the passing game. That was the case when rains fell during the Seattle-Dallas game a few weeks ago.
SERIES HISTORY: 11th meeting. The Giants lead 7-3 but the teams haven't played in Seattle since 1995. The Seahawks lost road games to the Giants in 2001 and 2002, when Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck was just starting out.
--RB Shaun Alexander won't be mistaken for Giants RB Tiki Barber on Sunday, but it has happened in the past. "Last year, Tiki made his first Pro Bowl and I was standing in line and I was showing him around and a guy came up to me and said congratulations," Alexander said. "And he said, 'How is it living in New York?' I said, 'I'm not Tiki Barber, he's in the other line' and he said, 'Oh, so you're Ronde? Well, congratulations again.' "
That wasn't the first time.
"It was good," Alexander said. "I've been called Tiki several times."
--Giants coach Tom Coughlin recruited Matt Hasselbeck to Boston College more than a decade ago. They'll be on opposite sidelines when the Giants visit Seattle on Sunday. "I liked his competitive spirit and his love of the game and I liked the way he directed traffic," Coughlin said. "I liked the way he played the game. I liked his intensity and I liked of course the way he threw the ball. He had mobility and all those things."
BY THE NUMBERS: 6 - Consecutive victories by the Seahawks, their longest winning streak since 1984.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Peyton and Cooper (Manning) were more my age. When you're nine it's not really cool to hang out with the five-year-old. I hung out with the 11-year-old and the 10-year-old." - QB Matt Hasselbeck on whether he spent time with Eli Manning when both boys' fathers played for the Vikings in 1984.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
TE Jerramy Stevens is having a solid year for the Seahawks. He's on pace for 46 catches, which would tie the franchise single-season record at the position. The team would probably get more impact plays out of Stevens if there were a big-play receiver to draw double teams. "The guy that usually gets singled up (when a receiver is doubled) is the tight end," coach Mike Holmgren said. "And so if you have a guy that's a threat, and usually he's singled up against the strong safety, but often times against linebackers.
"If you have a guy that's a legitimate pass threat, then they have to rethink some of their doubles and it changes, maybe, some of their thinking."
--DT Marcus Tubbs (calf) did not practice Wednesday. He is questionable for Sunday.
--FS John Howell (hamstring) will not play Sunday. He is out indefinitely.
--LB D.D. Lewis (knee) did not practice Wednesday. He is probable for Sunday.
--LB Jamie Sharper (knee) is out indefinitely.
--DE Bryce Fisher (knee) practiced Wednesday. He is probable.
GAME PLAN: The Seahawks should be able to move the ball effectively as long as their pass protection continues to hold up. Pro Bowl LT Walter Jones will have no trouble with his assignment. Seattle will probably have to help RT Sean Locklear in his matchup with Giants LDE Michael Strahan. The Seahawks' receivers need to get open quickly so Hasselbeck can find them in rhythm, before the pass rush arrives. Seattle's defense must continue to pad its league-leading sack totals, a reasonable expectation given problems on the Giants' line.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Seahawks RT Sean Locklear vs. Giants LDE Michael Strahan. Locklear has held up quite well against some of the better pass rushers in the NFC, notably the Rams' Leonard Little. Strahan has been a bit banged up and he is no longer the sack machine of years gone by. He does remain a formidable pass rusher, however, and Seattle must be aware of him on every play.
Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander vs. Giants MLB Antonio Pierce. The Giants are allowing only 90.4 yards rushing per game, sixth-best in the league. Opponents are averaging only 3.6 yards a carry, tied for the fifth-lowest total in the league. Pierce is a big reason why. He's an active linebacker who stays on the field on passing downs. Alexander will need more strong play from FB Mack Strong to win this matchup.
INJURY IMPACT: The Seahawks will again miss injured WR Darrell Jackson even though the team is 6-0 without him. The passing game just hasn't been as sharp in recent weeks. DT Marcus Tubbs (calf) should play, but he could be limited.
Don't sling shovels of dirt on the Cardinals' season just yet. It is true that a win over the Rams, no longer an elite team, is no cause for giddiness. But for Arizona, any win is a good one, and a look ahead makes the most optimistic of long-suffering Cardinals followers begin to wonder if the team maybe, just maybe, could get past Jacksonville on Sunday and then win out.
That, of course, is no easy task given that the Jaguars have won three straight and four of their past five, and have scored at least 20 points in six straight games. Until the Cardinals mauled the Rams in St. Louis last weekend, it seemed that 20 points would give any foe a reasonable chance of vanquishing the Big Red.
Now, despite continuing injuries along the offensive line, quarterback Kurt Warner is playing like the Warner of old instead of an old Warner. Running back J.J. Arrington no longer is a wide-eyed rookie. Warner is moving the ball around. Tight ends, for example, caught five balls last weekend, including 9-yard touchdown by Adam Bergen. Prior to that, they'd caught only 14 in nine games.
And there has emerged just enough threat of the run that foes must take it seriously.
It is a more diversified attack than simply heaving it to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin - though Warner still is not above doing that. "I think we played our best overall game, and that's what you build on," Warner said. "You can't take one step forward and two steps back. We have to build off of this win and make sure we continue to do what we're doing right."
Perhaps even more stunning is that the Cardinals' defense - with five of its top seven linemen out for the year and with its best playmaking linebacker and best cover corner out with injuries - held a Rams ground game that includes Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk to 6 rushing yards, the fewest the Big Red had surrendered in 35 years. Strong safety Adrian Wilson made like Larry Wilson, a Hall of Famer of Cardinals lore, with three sacks on safety blitzes.
"We're showing people we've got a very good offense, and our defense is capable of getting the job done, too," Fitzgerald said.
After the 7-3 Jaguars, the Cardinals visit San Francisco, which they drubbed in October in Mexico City; host reeling Washington; visit woeful Houston; host Philadelphia without Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens; and finish at Indianapolis, which could have 14 or 15 wins by then and be resting starters for the playoffs.
It would take nothing short of running the table to get the team to 9-7 for a shot at moving on to the playoffs. And since offensive lineman Alex Stepanovich (shoulder) and linebacker Karlos Dansby (groin) did not practice Wednesday and are not likely to play against the Jaguars, the degree of difficulty becomes even greater.
So those dreams could end Sunday against a surging Jacksonville team. But the Cardinals showed last week that it might be too early to shovel dirt on their grave.
SERIES HISTORY: Second meeting. In their only meeting, on Dec. 10, 2000, in Florida, Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell threw two touchdown passes and running back Fred Taylor rushed for 137 yards and two TDs as the Jaguars rolled to a 44-10 rout. This will be the first meeting in Arizona in this very brief series.
--Quarterback Kurt Warner once was no stranger to accolades, but this week he received his first NFC Offensive Player of the Week honor as a member of the Cardinals - for his work against his old team, the St. Louis Rams. The Cardinals' 38 points were a season high, as Warner passed for 285 yards and three touchdowns. He was not intercepted and was sacked only once. "I wanted to come back and show people I could still play," Warner said. "It's not that I wanted to shove it in anyone's face, but it was nice to come back and be able to perform."
--Wide receiver Anquan Boldin is quick, no surprise to anyone who has attempted to cover him. But Boldin became quickest of the quick when he reached the 200-catch milestone earlier than anyone who has ever played the game. Among his eight grabs at St. Louis was the 200th of his three year career - in his 34th game. That is two games ahead of previous record-holders Lionel Taylor of Denver (1960-62) and Tom Fears of the Los Angeles Rams (1948-50).
Boldin had missed the two previous games with a knee injury.
--It's still early with six games to go, but kicker Neil Rackers hasn't missed yet in 31 field-goal tries. The last NFL kicker to have a perfect season was Mike Vanderjagt of the Colts in 2003 (37-for-37). Jeff Wilkins of St. Louis did it in 2002, but he attempted only 17 on a record-breaking offense that scored touchdowns instead of field goals. Gary Anderson of Minnesota made all 35 in 1998. He was coached by Dennis Green, now coach of the Cardinals. And Tony Zendejas of the Los Angeles Rams was perfect in 17 tries in 1991.
Rackers is more worried this week about helping the homeless and hungry for Thanksgiving. He was among players distributing turkeys on Tuesday. "Everyone should have a good Thanksgiving," Rackers told The Arizona Republic. "We've been very blessed this season, especially after being unemployed not too long ago. Once you've been unemployed, when only one team has ever wanted you, you always wonder whether you're going to get another job.
Anyone who plays in the NFL and doesn't realize how lucky they are, I just can't fathom that. We've all been lucky. The right people at the right time have given us the break we've needed. It's only right to give back to people who never got the same kind of opportunity."
--There has been plenty of talk about the Cardinals' receiving tandem of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, and for good reason. But running back Marcel Shipp (26 catches) and fullback Obafemi Ayanbadejo (25) are among only two sets of backfield teammates in the league with at least 25 catches each. The other is Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk and the Rams.
--Fitzgerald and Boldin are coming off yet another game in which they each had at least 100 receiving yards. Fitzgerald, in his second season, leads the league with 18 catches of 20 yards or longer. Boldin has 47 catches in eight games.
--By walloping St. Louis last weekend, the Cardinals won on the road for the first time this season and for only the eighth time in the last 5 1/2 seasons (8-37). Although the Cardinals drubbed San Francisco in Mexico City in October, it technically was a home game. The Cardinals have three road games remaining, including a visit to the 49ers. Also to come on the road, a visit to a weak Houston team and a season-ending clash at Indianapolis, where the Colts could be sitting on 14 or 15 wins and attempting to avoid injuries for the playoffs.
--Former Cardinals CB Roger Wehrli, a seven-time Pro Bowler with 40 career interceptions, is among 25 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2006. He started from his rookie season in 1969 until his retirement in 1982.
--Not only were there signs of the current Cardinals coming together during their stunning romp over the Rams in St. Louis last Sunday, there was an equally surprising coming together of former Cardinals - surprising because this sort of touchy-feely gesture normally is not associated with this franchise. Cardinals alumni from their St. Louis era were present to see their old team wallop the Rams 38-28, including Wehrli, Hall of Famer Larry Wilson, Jim Otis, Jackie Smith, Keith Wortman and Mel Gray.
The Bidwill family, which owns the Cardinals, hosted a suite for the alumni players and their guests. "These guys played for less money, stardom and helped make the NFL as great as it is today," said Michael Bidwill, Cardinals vice president and general counsel.
BY THE NUMBERS: 6 - Rushing yards allowed by the Cardinals against the Rams, the fewest surrendered by the Big Red defense since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's pretty cool. Right now, I don't really think about accolades. I just want to win football games. But someday, whenever I'm done playing, I'll be able to sit back and maybe think about the personal stuff." - Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin, on making his 200th career catch in 34 games, two games faster than anyone ever reached the milestone.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Cardinals may be forced into yet another lineup shuffle on the offensive line caused by Alex Stepanovich's shoulder injury and Jeremy Bridges' ankle sprain. Neither practiced Wednesday. Stepanovich, the center who moved to right guard when Elton Brown was injured, and then to left guard last week to cover for injured Reggie Wells, suffered his shoulder injury at St. Louis. It appears that Adam Haayer will be the left guard, Nick Leckey the center and converted defensive end Fred Wakefield the right guard.
--QB Kurt Warner is coming off three TD passes in a win at St. Louis, his most since the 2001 finale against Atlanta when he played for the Rams. In his past two starts since returning from a groin injury, Warner has a passer rating of just over 95 and a 64 percent completion rate.
--SS Adrian Wilson is coming off a career-high three sacks at St. Louis, one of which knocked out Rams QB Marc Bulger for at least three weeks. Wilson's five sacks this season are the most in the league among defensive backs.
--K Neil Rackers continues his assault on records. With 31 field goals without a miss, he needs one more to pass Fuad Reveiz for the third-longest streak in NFL history. He became the first ever to make at least two field goals in 11 consecutive games, a salute not only to his accuracy and consistency but also to a sputtering red-zone offense.
--RB J.J. Arrington continues to shake a slow start that cost him the starting position. His strong work in relief of Marcel Shipp has produced 109 yards on 24 carries in his past three appearances (4.5-yard average).
--RG Elton Brown, the starter, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and will miss at least two games.
--C Shawn Lynch, who started the season opener when Alex Stepanovich was injured, was promoted to the 53-man roster from the practice squad.
--TE Teyo Johnson was released following the emergence of Eric Edwards and Adam Bergen among an inexperienced group of tight ends.
--SS Ernest Shazor, regarded in many circles to have been the steal among undrafted rookies, was promoted to the 53-man roster from the practice squad.
--WR/PR J.J. Moses was released with the return from a toe injury by primary return man Reggie Swinton.
GAME PLAN: The Cardinals began to run the ball effectively for the first time last week, restoring balance to the offense and improving their red-zone performance for a season-high 38 points. Of course, it is one thing to do that against the St. Louis Rams defense, but another to do it against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have made a U-turn and find themselves among league leaders in defense. Recently, the Big Red offensive line starters have been shaken up, and the team has gone away from the three-wide formations in favor of using a fullback and tight end - at the same time - in an attempt to get more blocking and make the running game go. It is paying off.
Five of the top seven defensive linemen are lost for the season, including Pro Bowl DE Bertrand Berry, their best playmaker, yet they held St. Louis to 6 rushing yards. They're getting good mileage out of the safety blitz, where Adrian Wilson had three sacks last weekend. Still, with Berry out, and their next-best playmaker, OLB Karlos Dansby, hurting, and their best cover corner, rookie first-round pick Antrel Rolle, still sidelined, it will take not only a Herculean effort by the second team but also some creative scheming by coordinator Clancy Pendergast to find a way to cool Byron Leftwich and the Jaguars offense that has scored at least 20 points in six straight games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Cardinals SS Adrian Wilson, doing a reasonable impersonation of Larry Wilson, vs. Jaguars QB Byron Leftwich, one of the hottest in the league. Wilson had a career-high three sacks on blitzes last week at St. Louis, where he knocked Marc Bulger out for at least three weeks, and he leads NFL defensive backs with five sacks for the season. Turning him loose, a la another former Cardinals safety named Wilson - Hall of Famer Larry, who made the safety blitz famous - seemed to be the key that unlocked a lame unit. But in his past six games against NFC foes, Leftwich has 10 touchdown passes. He leads the league with 857 third-down passing yards, one reason why the Jaguars have won three in a row and four of their past five games, and have scored at least 20 points in their past six. Twenty generally is more than enough points to beat the Cardinals.
--Cardinals RB J.J. Arrington, a rookie second-round pick who finally is seeing the light, vs. Jaguars MLB Mike Peterson, a tackling machine. Arrington was perilously close to being labeled a bust through the first half of the season when he was averaging fewer than 3 yards a rush and was prone to fumbling. He averaged 4.1 yards a tote in a win last weekend at St. Louis, and has shown the moves that made him a 2,000-yard rusher in college last year. According to coach Dennis Green, Arrington is on the verge of a breakout game. But Peterson anchors one of the league's most improved defenses, having led the team in tackles in all 10 games. He also is tied for the league lead in interceptions among linebackers (three) on a unit that leads the league against the pass.
Once again, the Cardinals got bad news regarding offensive line injuries - and just when the offense finally put it together last Sunday and resembled the high-scoring unit it was anticipated to be. This time, it is the shoulder of Alex Stepanovich, who was moved to left guard last Sunday to cover for the season-ending ankle injury to Reggie Wells, and the ankle of RG Jeremy Bridges, who would have stepped in for injured Elton Brown. Now Adam Haayer is expected to start at left guard, and converted DE Fred Wakefield at right guard. Stepanovich, the starting center last year, missed the opener this season while recovering from preseason surgery on a fractured hand. The team also missed starting RT Oliver Ross for four games, and last week saw Brown undergo surgery on a knee. Only LT Leonard Davis has been on the field every game among the offensive linemen. The result has been predictably inconsistent play, until last weekend's breakout at St. Louis. The likely offensive line lineup against Jacksonville this Sunday, from left to right, will be Davis, Haayer, Nick Leckey, Wakefield and Ross.
The defense, already a fine imitation of a sieve, lost its best player, Pro Bowl DE Bertrand Berry (torn pectoral), for the season. He had surgery and has been placed on injured reserve. Berry joins fellow defensive linemen DT Kenny King, wrist; DT Russell Davis, biceps; DE Calvin Pace, cut arm; and NT Langston Moore, shoulder, with season-ending injuries. The Cardinals, who can't stop the run and rely heavily on quarterback pressure to cover for an ailing secondary, have now lost five of their top seven defensive linemen and find themselves struggling for depth in the area where they went to training camp best supplied. LE Chike Okeafor moved into Berry's right-side spot for several snaps last week to cover the pass-rushing void, with neophyte Antonio Smith then stepping in at Okeafor's left end spot.
OLB Karlos Dansby (groin), the next-best playmaker to Berry, is unlikely to return against Jacksonville. He did not practice Wednesday.
In addition to their defensive woes up front, the Cardinals still are without rookie CB Antrel Rolle, their first-round pick, who is recovering from knee surgery but is not on injured reserve. His return this season remains iffy, however he is expected to return to Arizona from Florida next week to be assessed. The team did not put him on IR because of the chance that he could come back for the final few games.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
A little more than three weeks ago, Joe Vitt was the toast of the town. The Rams' interim coach had guided his team to home wins over New Orleans and Jacksonville and brought their record to 4-4. Vitt was hailed for his no-nonsense approach and credited for motivating his team with movie clips or speeches. The day before the win over the Saints, there was a clip of Jim Valvano's famous "Never Give Up" speech. The following week, there was a scene from "The Gladiator," played the day before the win over the Jaguars.
However, there has been little talk of motivational tactics the last two games, as the Rams have virtually taken themselves out of playoff contention with a road loss to Seattle and a stunning home loss to Arizona. It was bad enough to lose to the Cardinals, a division rival, but even worse to have it happen at the hands of former Rams quarterback Kurt Warner.
Wide receiver Torry Holt refuses to concede. While acknowledging that "we have to run the table," Holt added, "and hope that some teams lose to give us a shot to get in. And we have a very tough table to run. We have some good football teams coming in. Right now everyone is scratching and clawing to get in. We definitely have to get some sense of urgency in order to run the table and hope for some other teams to give us an opportunity."
For Vitt, he has to keep his team on the same page, and ensure that it doesn't totally collapse. Asked how he can motivate the team for the rest of the season, Vitt said, "Again, nobody has to come to work on Wednesday. They really don't. Anybody that doesn't want to play, they can stay home. We get to come to work. This is the National Football League. This is a great game. I still get excited about playing on Sunday. I still get excited about going to work on Wednesday.
"I told the players, 'This is Thanksgiving week. We have a lot to be thankful for.' Things aren't the way we'd like them to be right now, but they are the way they are, and it's up to us to get it changed. I think the true test of a man's character comes out when times are tough, and times are tough. Make no doubt about that, they're tough. We'll take roll call, see who's here, put a smile on our face and go prepare to play. That's the bottom line. We're going to go prepare to play. We're all disappointed, but the last time I looked, none of us always get what we want. We usually get what we deserve. It's up to us to fix it."
Running back Steven Jackson said, "We (have to) go back to work. There is no need to keep your head down. We have to finish out strong and we have a lot of games to play. We can't just give up because we lost. We're all professionals here and we just have to go out and get ready for practice later on this week."
When it was noted to Vitt that some players have voiced the feeling that they have lost confidence and asked how he can help that, Vitt said, "I tell you what, we're all men. What I'm not going to do is take an air hose and stick it in their ear and start pumping them up. I'm not going to do that. This is a great game, and we're blessed to be a part of it. I'm excited after 27 years to go coach this game. If they're not excited to play the game, then just let us know. We'll bring the next guy on, but I don't feel that.
"I think a lot of emotions talk after a game. None of us slept last night. We all feel terrible. With 10 minutes left to go in the game, we're winning the game. It's ugly, but it's a winnable game. Well, we lost the game, and now it is what it is. I've said it before; I don't think anybody out there, or here, is going to feel sorry about our sad story. It's up to us. I told the players this morning they're either going to be part of the solution, or part of the problem. They're going to have to define that themselves."
We'll learn how it's defined after the Rams play the 1-9 Texans Sunday in Houston.
SERIES HISTORY: First meeting.
--The team's defense continues to shoot itself in the collective foot with penalties, many coming in critical situations. CB Chris Johnson was called for hands to the face on a third-and-12 play the Rams had stopped. The Cardinals continued the drive to a touchdown. LB Pisa Tinoisamoa was called for holding on second-and-16. Arizona had four first downs by penalty and three were on third down. "You cannot win with the number of penalties we have, especially being untimely penalties," interim head coach Joe Vitt said. "We're going to continue to address it; we're going to continue to coach against it."
Particularly vexing to Vitt is that he has had officials at practice the last three weeks, and the infractions in workouts have decreased. But Vitt said he won't change his approach. "You know, the one thing I'm not going do right now is I'm not going to change my approach," Vitt said. "We're going to stress it every single day. We're going to coach against it every single day. But all of a sudden if I start going up and down with my emotions and the assistant coaches start doing that, then panic sets in. So no, we're just going to continue to coach hard against it."
Said wide receiver Torry Holt, "I think on both sides of the ball the mistakes we're having and the penalties that we're having is, I would say, a lack of focus, on both sides of the ball. We as players have to take onus to that and get better on that. Coach Vitt has brought refs in to try to help us with that, and we still come out here on Sundays and make the same mistakes. So, we as players have to take onus to that and continue to get better at that and move forward."
--Defensive end Brandon Green is expected to start again instead of Anthony Hargrove, who has rarely made plays, while continuing to be undisciplined in run defense. Said Vitt of Green, "All he does is make plays, and all he does is work hard every day. He's a quick twitch, undersized athlete, has great knowledge of the game, has an outstanding work ethic. He's assignment conscious and a big part of our football team, a great acquisition." Asked if Green had earned another start, Vitt said, "We'll talk about that as the week goes on, but in my mind he has. He really played well."
--Amid every possible problem this team has had this season, one more was added Sunday against Arizona during a halftime show that featured bands from different armed forces in honor of Veteran's Day. Near the end of halftime, Rams punter Bryan Barker came on the field and began warming up by kicking balls over the heads of the performers. After the team received numerous complaints Monday, Barker apologized in a statement.
"I apologize to anyone who was offended by my actions Sunday," the statement said. "It was not my intention to be disrespectful to our military personnel. We have a short time to prepare for the second half, and I was only following my regular routine in getting warmed up. It was unfortunate it happened as we were saluting our armed forces, and for that I deeply apologize."
BY THE NUMBERS: 4-11 - The Rams' road record since the start of the 2004 season, including 1-1 in the postseason. In the 11 losses, the Rams have been out-scored 393-189. They have allowed 30 or more points nine times and 40 or more four times.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think this, and this is something we talked about as a staff. We're going to have to try to demand more prefect practices. If we have a mistake in practice, we're going to have to do the play over again. And if we have to stay out there until 7 o'clock at night until we get it right that is going to have to be the approach." - Interim coach Joe Vitt on how to eliminate mistakes by his team.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--QB Jamie Martin practiced Wednesday and proclaimed himself fine after suffering bruised ribs in relief of Marc Bulger last Sunday. Martin is expected to start Sunday against Houston with Bulger out because of a shoulder injury.
--QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Rams' rookie seventh-round pick, took a number of snaps with the first unit in practice Wednesday. Fitzpatrick is expected to open the game Sunday against Houston as the backup to Jamie Martin.
--SS Adam Archuleta did not practice and will not play Sunday against Houston because of a concussion suffered against the Cardinals.
--SS Jerome Carter, a rookie, will make his first start this week with Adam Archuleta out because of a concussion.
--CB Travis Fisher, who did not play against Arizona last week, is expected to miss another game this week against Houston because of a lingering groin injury.
--CB DeJuan Groce is listed as questionable, but isn't expected to play Sunday against Arizona because of a concussion.
--G Rex Tucker will be the main backup at guard Sunday against Houston because of a concussion suffered last week by Blaine Saipaia.
GAME PLAN: Offensively, the Rams must find a way to open holes for RB Steven Jackson, in combination with the passing game. The Rams ran more than usual in QB Jamie Martin's previous two starts, but WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce did not play in those games. Both are now back.
On defense, the Rams will try to get pressure on QB David Carr, but they must stop RB Domanick Davis and WR Andre Johnson.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Rams secondary vs. Texans WR Andre Johnson - With CBs Travis Fisher and DeJuan Groce likely out for this game, it will be up to someone from the group that includes rookie Ron Bartell, Chris Johnson or Corey Ivy to keep Johnson from making big plays. The starting secondary will be Bartell, Johnson, SS Jerome Carter and FS Mike Furrey.
INJURY IMPACT: Concussions were in abundance after last Sunday's game against Arizona. Getting knocked out were SS Adam Archuleta, CB DeJuan Groce and G Blaine Saipaia. Archuleta and Saipaia definitely won't play this week, while Groce probably won't. ... Injuries also hit the quarterbacks again as Marc Bulger (shoulder) and Jamie Martin (ribs) were hurt against the Cardinals. Bulger is expected to be out at least three weeks, while Martin should start Sunday. ... The secondary also is affected by injuries to CB Travis Fisher (groin) and S O.J. Atogwe (toe).
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers' top overall pick will be on the sideline again this week when the club faces the Titans. Coach Mike Nolan decided to give third-year quarterback Ken Dorsey a second consecutive start over Alex Smith, the player the 49ers are still banking on as the team's long-term answer at the position. Dorsey put himself in position to be rewarded with the start after having his best day as a pro on Sunday in a 27-25 loss to the Seahawks. Dorsey threw for 249 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
"I felt Ken did a good job in the game the other day," Nolan said. "I also know that both quarterbacks are still a little bit nicked. And last week in practice I thought Alex was a little bit rusty." Nolan said making Dorsey the starting quarterback is nothing permanent: "It's a week-to-week thing," he said. Smith has not played since Oct. 23 when he sustained a right knee sprain against the Redskins. Prior to the injury, Smith had struggled mightily, completing just 23 of 50 passing attempts for 200 yards with no touchdowns and five interceptions.
Despite missing the next four games (and counting), Smith has been able to continue his learning at a decreased speed, Nolan said. "If you're getting ready at 60 mph when you're playing, when you're not, you're probably getting ready at 15 (mph)," Nolan said. "You're still going through the system all the time and you're around it and watching it, but it slows down considerably because you're not out there in the fast-paced tempo."
Dorsey has an opportunity to take advantage of his third chance to start this season. Dorsey can make the most of the situation because of his contract status. He is scheduled to be a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Because he was seventh-round draft pick, if another team wanted him, the price of compensation probably would not be a deterrent.
"The way I look at it right now is that my future is here as a 49er - be it in any capacity," Dorsey said. "Naturally, Alex was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and I'll support him anyway I can, whether I'm starting or whatever."
Smith said he believes he is ready to return to the playing field but understands why Nolan made the call to go with Dorsey for this week's game. "I was ready for anything," Smith said. "I knew it was going to be close. But I had two weeks of practice ... after four weeks off. If I was a veteran, that's one thing. But being a 21-year-old rookie, it's a little different."
Smith said he feels his knee is no longer an issue when it comes to determining his playing status. Smith was back at practice this week running the 49ers' scout team. He is expected to be the backup to Dorsey for Sunday's game. When the 49ers drafted Smith with the No. 1 selection, the club spoke of his playmaking abilities. But during the exhibition season and his starts during the regular season, Smith has shown few of the flashes that the 49ers expected from a player who is guaranteed $24 million on his first contract.
On Sunday, Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, who attended the 49ers' game at Monster Park, called Smith a "system quarterback" who does not have the ability to create plays on his own. Nolan said he did not disagree with Young's assessment, but added that he expects Smith to emerge into a playmaker once he gets a good grasp of the offensive system. Urban Meyer, Smith's coach at Utah, made a similar observation after the 49ers drafted Smith.
Meyer said Smith was "non-functional" until he learned everything in the offense. Nolan echoed Meyer's remarks this week. "I think Alex is an intellectual guy, and until he gets it all and it is meaningful to him, some of it might be mechanical early," Nolan said. "As he goes forward, he loses all of that. Once he's got it, he can use his legs and the whole Alex Smith to make plays. He's not like Cody (Pickett) and can go out and use everything he's got from the beginning and let it fly."
SERIES HISTORY: 11th meeting. The 49ers lead 7-3, including victories in six of the last seven meetings. The 49ers have never played a road game against the organization since it moved from Houston.
--Rookie lineman Adam Snyder was impressive in his starting debut at left tackle against the Seahawks. Snyder did a good job against veteran defensive end Grant Wistrom. Coach Mike Nolan said Snyder has earned the right to start at left tackle for the rest of the season. Left tackle has been a trouble spot for the 49ers this season, so why didn't the 49ers make the move sooner?
"Part of it was that we didn't think he was ready to play quite yet," Nolan said. Snyder played the guard positions from the first day of training camp after second-round pick David Baas missed a month with a torn hamstring.
--Nolan said he was particularly impressed with the way Snyder carried himself while playing the highest pressure spot on the offensive line. "He wasn't fazed by too much," Nolan said. "There's a mind-set that goes with left tackle that's a little bit like playing cornerback in the NFL. You can't let things bother you if something goes awry. He played with a lot of confidence and he's a big, strong man that has very good feet."
--Third-string running back Maurice Hicks got his first playing time on offense last week and responded with 83 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries against the Seahawks. He figures to have another increased role this week with backup Frank Gore down with a strained hip flexor. That is not good news for Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who said he was impressed with what he saw from Hicks in the exhibition season. Hicks had 92 yards on 13 carries against the Titans in August.
"I personally stood by the printer and waited for the waiver wire for 10 days to see what was going to happen out there," Fisher said. "I thought (the 49ers) were loaded and didn't think they could keep him. I would have loved to have had an opportunity to claim him because I was just very, very impressed with what he does."
--Return man Rasheed Marshall has committed turnovers in back-to-back games after the club went all of 2004 without a turnover on special teams.
"We've already had two the last two weeks, and we need to do a better job of that," Nolan said.
--Finally, the 49ers face an opponent their own size. The 49ers take their 2-8 mark to face the Titans, who also have just two victories in their 10 games. This is an opportunity for the 49ers to perhaps pick up a victory on the road. "Well, it's important to get on the winning track, no matter who we're playing," Nolan said. "We need to make that step that does allow us to win that football game by learning from this week."
--In his first two seasons in the league, it was not uncommon to hear club employees refer to wide receiver Brandon Lloyd as "Mini T.O." Lloyd may not be in the same class of receiver as Terrell Owens, but he can certain supply some amazing one-handed catches. And he has the potential to cause some other T.O.-type problems. Nolan said he spoke with Lloyd twice last week to deliver the message that no individual is going to be bigger than the team. Lloyd appeared to hear footsteps on two passes that he shied away from against the Bears, including one at the goal line. Afterward, Lloyd blamed it on Cody Pickett throwing the ball too soon.
Lloyd bounced back with seven catches for 119 yards and a touchdown in the 49ers' 27-25 loss to the Seahawks. "It was good to see," Nolan said. "Brandon always practices well and practices hard. He puts in his time. But there is not going to be any individual bigger than the team. And so what you say, when you say it, where you say it affects the football team. And those were some of the things we talked about last week. And so we put that behind us." Lloyd, who has been contentious in his dealings with the media, declined to address his meetings with Nolan.
"What me and coach Nolan talk about is between us, but I'll be happy to talk to you about (the game against the Seahawks) or the (upcoming) Tennessee game," Lloyd said.
--Defensive end Bryant Young, who is expected to miss three to six weeks with a knee injury, received quite a lift from the home fans after he went down with the injury. Young said he became quite emotional when he heard the outpouring of emotion from the crowd on Sunday. "It was really humbling to experience that," Young said. "I'm really grateful for the fans we have and the years I've been here. I couldn't believe that. It's like, 'Wow, that's for me?' It was good to hear that when you have the crowd behind you."
--Kicker Joe Nedney has rebounded with a fantastic year, making 18 of 20 field-goal attempts after missing two consecutive seasons with leg injuries. The 49ers signed him to a one-year, $665,000 contract in March, and now they'd like to sign him to a long-term deal. "I don't need Thanksgiving to be thankful," Nedney said. "I feel thankful every day. You realize how much you love the game and miss it when you're away for two years."
--Nolan was with the Ravens last year when it looked as if Terrell Owens would be joining the team after a trade with the 49ers. But Owens filed a grievance to force a trade to the Eagles. Nolan said he was shocked that Owens got his way a year ago. "I felt like, 'Who's calling the shots on this?'" Nolan said. "So when this thing started again with T.O. a second time, I was thinking, 'I'm not going to be surprised either way because last time I was surprised that he got anything his way.'" Nolan said he was pleased that Owens lost his grievance this time, allowing the Eagles to suspend him for four games, then deactivate him for the remainder of the season. "I kind of like that news," Nolan said. "I know T.O. doesn't, but I kind of like the news."
BY THE NUMBERS: 23 of 27 - Losses for the 49ers in recent road games. They have not won a road game in regulation since a 17-14 victory over the Cardinals on Dec. 21, 2002.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Each week is a new week, but these next six games are games that we should continue to show that progress. Hopefully, it's with a win. It's one thing to learn and have positives coming out of the game, but if you lose that game, how much positive can you get? A loss is a loss, so we need to come away with victories so we can go forward" - 49ers coach Mike Nolan.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The potential season-ending injury to defensive end Bryant Young leaves the 49ers with a couple of gaping holes. One of those holes is in the way of leadership, as Young is considered the most respected person in the entire 49ers organization. The other void is on the field, where Young was experiencing a rebirth of sorts in his 12th NFL season. Young was among the league leaders with eight sacks when he sustained a knee injury that is expected to keep him out of action for three to six weeks. To compensate for the loss of Young, the 49ers plan to move nose tackle Anthony Adams to left defensive end. Second-year player Isaac Sopoaga will get his first NFL start at nose tackle.
Rookie nose tackle Ronald Fields, who was inactive for the first nine games of the season, will see his most extensive playing time of the season. He played 13 snaps on Sunday against the Seahawks in his debut.
--CB B.J. Tucker, whom the 49ers signed to the practice squad on Sept. 15, was promoted to the active roster for the second time this season.
--CB Willie Middlebrooks, originally acquired in a trade from the Broncos for DE John Engelberger, was released for the third time this season.
--TE Terry Jones might get significantly more playing time this season in just his second week with the squad. Jones started for the 49ers just five days after the Ravens released him. Jones caught one pass for 19 yards, the longest reception by a 49ers tight end this season.
--LB Derek Smith is just 12 tackles shy of reaching the 100-tackle mark for the ninth consecutive season. Smith has 88 stops. He has also earned a lot of respect from assistant head coach/linebackers Mike Singletary, who recently complimented Smith on how much he has improved in the team's new 3-4 system.
--P Andy Lee is having a solid season, as his net average is a full yard over the team's goal. Lee is averaging 42.5 yards a punt with a net average of an impressive 38.0.
--RB Maurice Hicks likely will serve as Kevan Barlow's backup on Sunday because of Frank Gore's hip injury. Hicks has carried just 11 times, all of which came last week after Gore and Barlow were injured. He accounted for 83 rushing yards and a touchdown.
GAME PLAN: The 49ers head back to the road, where they've struggled this season. Now that QB Ken Dorsey has earned some confidence, look for offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy to take the leash off. Dorsey played very well in the 49ers' two-point loss to the Seahawks last week. A big factor was the play of LT Adam Snyder, who helped give Dorsey plenty of time to set his feet and throw the ball down the field. The 49ers had a successful offensive blend against the Seahawks, as they used the pass to set up the run. It was the first time this season in which they have used that formula. If Dorsey and the passing game can earn a little respect from the Titans, it should help RBs Kevan Barlow and Maurice Hicks. Teams have generally put eight defenders in the box against the 49ers because their pass game has been so ineffective.
Defensively, the 49ers began preparations not knowing which quarterback they would be facing. Regardless, the principles remain the same. The 49ers must generate more of a pass rush. That will not be easy with leading sack artist Bryant Young out of action for perhaps the remainder of the season. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis has to show some more creativity in the team's blitz package to help take the heat off a secondary that has played much better than expected with all of the injuries.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--49ers coverage teams, which rank among the best in the league, vs. Titans return man Pacman Jones, who is a threat on punt and kickoff returns.
--RT Kwame Harris, who has been good in the run game and inconsistent as a pass blocker, vs. LE Kyle Vanden Bosch, who leads the Titans with 8.5 sacks in his first year with the club.
--OLB Julian Peterson, whom the 49ers hope can supply some pass rush down the stretch, vs. TEs Erron Kinney and Ben Troupe, who will find Peterson lined up over them on occasion.
--LG Justin Smiley, who is emerging in his second season as a solid player on the line, vs. RT Albert Haynesworth, a 320-pounder who has seven tackles for loss this season.
INJURY IMPACT: QB Alex Smith (right knee) is no longer on the injury report, though coach Mike Nolan said he saw some rust from him in practice last week. ... DE Bryant Young (right knee) is expected to miss three to six weeks with tears to the MCL and meniscus. ... RB Frank Gore (left hip flexor) is expected to miss another game. ... C Jeremy Newberry (right knee/left shoulder) will not practice this week but is expected to play. ... FB Fred Beasley (neck) sustained a stinger two weeks ago and probably will not play this week. He sat out the 49ers' game against the Seahawks. ... LB Saleem Rasheed (right knee) is expected to miss one more game after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus cartilage. ... CB Ahmed Plummer (left ankle) aggravated his condition and is not expected to play this week. ... TE Steve Bush (left knee) and WR Jason McAddley (right ankle) are questionable but appear likely to play. ... WR Derrick Hamilton is still on PUP after sustaining a torn ACL in the off-season. He is not expected to play this season. ... FS Tony Parrish (left leg), LT Jonas Jennings (right shoulder), LB Jeff Ulbrich (left biceps), CB Mike Rumph (foot), TE Eric Johnson (foot) and WR Rashaun Woods (thumb) are on injured reserve.