NFC West News & Notes - 12/7/05

News and notes from around the division.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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A year ago, running back Shaun Alexander might have complained about his coach removing him from a game with a rushing title at stake. Not this season. While Alexander lobbied to keep playing during a 42-0 blowout at Philadelphia, he understood coach Mike Holmgren's decision to go with backup Maurice Morris in the second half. "It's a long season and we've got big goals and so I knew it was going to happen," Alexander said after finishing with a season-low 49 yards. "I was just trying to beg for a little bit more. Of course it didn't work."

Alexander leads the NFL in rushing, but Colts running back Edgerrin James has made up a considerable amount of ground. Last season, Alexander accused Holmgren of stabbing him in the back for calling a quarterback sneak when Alexander needed only one yard to tie for the NFL rushing title. Alexander later apologized, but the incident left a bad taste in the mouths of fans and Holmgren as well.

There were apparently no hard feelings this time.

"He was great," Holmgren said. "He was really great. He really wanted one more series, but goodness me, it was 42-0 even though we had (nearly) a whole half of football to play."

Alexander added two more touchdowns to his league-leading total, giving him 22 through 12 games. His streak of four consecutive 100-yard games ended, but another more important streak continued: Seattle has now won eight in a row for the first time since 1984. "My number one goal is getting a Super Bowl now," Alexander said. "All them other goals that we have, they're all fun and we want to achieve them and if we get a chance to grab them we're going to grab them.
"But there's nothing bigger than us getting to Detroit and playing the best game of our lives, and that is what we're shooting for."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Winning the NFC West wasn't enough for the Seahawks. They want home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. The team sits atop the NFC at 10-2 thanks to an eight-game winning streak. RB Shaun Alexander brushed off the suggestion that playing in the snow against Philadelphia showed that Seattle could prevail in those conditions if the need arose in the playoffs. "Our goal is to have every game played at our house, where it's going to be wet," he said with a laugh. "We don't really care about all the conditions."

--QB Matt Hasselbeck acknowledged the importance of Seattle's 42-0 victory Monday night, but he wasn't dwelling on it by any stretch.
"It's just another football game," Hasselbeck said. "We just had to come out and get a win. I don't think we expected to win by such a large margin because we've got a lot of respect for this team, for this organization, for these fans -- all that stuff. I think we expected the game to be a lot tougher than it ended up being."

--MLB Lofa Tatupu has firmly established himself as a candidate for NFL defensive rookie of the year. The second-round pick from USC had a 38-yard interception return to go with nine tackles and four passes defensed Monday night. He leads the Seahawks in tackles while running the defense on the field.
For all his early NFL success, Tatupu hasn't forgotten his roots. He celebrated his touchdown against the Eagles by punching away at the goal-post padding, a nod to former 49ers LB Ken Norton, who served as Tatupu's position coach at USC.

"I had to show him I didn't forget about him and all my boys at SC," Tatupu said. "I called him before the game and said I was going to get one to the house. I said, 'Coach, watch my dance. I've got one ready for you.' That was for you, Kenny."

--The Seahawks have outscored the Eagles 80-0 in their last two games at Philadelphia. They posted a 38-0 victory in the 1998 season opener.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

--CB Andre Dyson scored two touchdowns Monday before leaving the game with a sprained ankle. Dyson scored on a 72-yard interception return and a 25-yard fumble return. The team was not yet sure how long Dyson might miss with the injury. He did not return to the game. Coach Mike Holmgren indicated that X-rays showed no significant damage.

--DT Rocky Bernard sat out the first quarter Monday as punishment for missing the team flight to Philadelphia. Bernard paid more than $1,500 for a first-class ticket on a commercial flight that arrived Sunday night.

--RT Sean Locklear shut down Eagles DE Jevon Kearse without getting help from teammates. Locklear is enjoying a fine season despite some struggles against premiere pass rushers this season.

REPORT CARD VS. EAGLES

PASSING OFFENSE: B --
The numbers were hardly impressive because Seattle jumped to a huge lead early, allowing QB Matt Hasselbeck to sit out the second half. The passing game worked well when it had to early in the game. Hasselbeck converted multiple third-down plays during a 16-play, eight-minute touchdown drive to open the game. He showed trust in WR Bobby Engram by throwing back across the field for a touchdown pass on third-and-goal from the 11. Hasselbeck also hooked up with WR D.J. Hackett for another long completion. A week after finding Hackett for a key 38-yard gain in overtime, Hasselbeck found him for a 42-yarder to set up a touchdown right before halftime. The play helped Seattle take a 35-0 lead into halftime.

RUSHING OFFENSE: D --
FB Mack Strong played his worst game in memory, missing blocks and getting away with a blatant hold on RB Shaun Alexander's second touchdown run. The ground game never really got going, but neither was it needed.

PASS DEFENSE: A -- Seattle finished the game with four sacks, 15 passes defensed and two interception returns for touchdowns. The Eagles ran a simplified offense because they were without starting QB Donovan McNabb. That allowed CB Andre Dyson (72-yard return) and MLB Lofa Tatupu (38-yard return) to jump on routes. DE Joe Tafoya started on the left side in place of a banged-up Bryce Fisher. Tafoya had a fumble-forcing sack, showing again that Seattle can get solid contributions from unexpected places. Seattle finished with four interceptions on the night.

RUSH DEFENSE: A -- The Seahawks were all over Eagles RB Brian Westbrook, and they forced backup RB Ryan Moats to fumble on the first play of the third quarter. Dyson picked up the fumble and ran 25 yards for a touchdown that gave Seattle its 42-0 lead. DT Marcus Tubbs effectively clogged the middle in his first game back from a calf injury.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C --
The punt-return game continued to struggle and K Josh Brown missed a meaningless field-goal try that would have stretched the lead to 45-0. RB Josh Scobey remained fearless on kick returns and on the kick-cover team. P Tom Rouen was effective in pinning the Eagles deep, resulting in favorable field position.

COACHING: A -- Coach Mike Holmgren challenged his defense after Seattle allowed 490 yards to the Giants last week. He was hard on them in practice and implored them to start getting some turnovers. The results suggest the message got through. Holmgren has succeeded in using the no-respect angle to keep a chip on his players' shoulders throughout this eight-game winning streak. Holmgren showed class in the second half by removing his starters from the game when he could have added another three or four touchdowns without much trouble.


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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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The Cardinals continue to find creative ways to get the ball into the hands of receiver Anquan Boldin. On Sunday, that meant putting him in the backfield in a one-back set. The team did that a handful of times earlier this season, but used Boldin there about 80 percent of the time in the first quarter against San Francisco. The idea is to get Boldin matched against a linebacker or safety. Boldin runs a short route, then tries to make people miss on the run.

The Cardinals didn't use the formation much in the second and third quarters, but returned to it in the fourth. That's the formation they were in when Boldin took a short pass and turned it into a 54-yard touchdown. It's a departure from the way Boldin was used last year, and it shows the influence of new offensive coordinator Keith Rowen.

Last year, Boldin was moved to the outside receiver's spot when the team drafted Larry Fitzgerald. That offense didn't include much pre-snap motion, so teams had no trouble figuring out where Boldin would be. This year, he has moved all around the formation and has even taken a few pitches as a running back.
It's made him more effective, too.

Boldin and Fitzgerald have become the dynamic tandem the team was hoping for when it drafted Fitzgerald with the third overall pick in 2004. Fitzgerald, 22, has 82 receptions for 1,128 yards, becoming the youngest player in franchise history to hit the 1,000-yard mark. Boldin, who has missed two games, has 68 catches for 992 yards.

"He reminds me of Marshall Faulk," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "I used to say I never carried out my fakes with Marshall because I was afraid I might miss something. You throw it to (Boldin) and you want to watch and see what's going to happen because you might miss something special."

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Cardinals have been penalized 32 times in the past three games, including 11 last week against San Francisco. Ten of those were called against the offense, including seven against the offensive line. Part of the problem, coach Dennis Green said, is that injuries have forced some offensive linemen to play out of position. They aren't moving their feet enough and are being caught grabbing defenders. False starts also are hurting the team.

--The Cardinals intercepted three passes against San Francisco, their first interceptions since Oct. 23. They went five games without one. Safety Robert Griffith got his first interception of the year. "A couple of guys got off the schneid," he said. "This is the longest I've ever been without a pick."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES


--CB Antrel Rolle is expected to practice this week and, if all goes well, play Sunday against Washington. Rolle hasn't played since the third game of the season because of a knee injury. He underwent surgery, and the team didn't place him on injured reserve, hoping he could come back.

--K Neil Rackers might be able to return sooner than expected from a calf injury if he can limit his duties to placekicking. Rackers suffered a torn calf muscle in practice last week and was expected to miss three weeks. Coach Dennis Green thinks Rackers can return in a week or two if he isn't needed to kick off. That will mean carrying two kickers on the roster. Nick Novak took over for Rackers against San Francisco and made all three of his field-goal attempts.

REPORT CARD VS. 49ERS

PASSING OFFENSE: C --
Kurt Warner passed for 300 yards for the fifth time this year, but for the first time in a winning effort. The club should have scored more than one touchdown, however.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- The run game still is not very productive, but the Cardinals prefer to throw the ball anyway.

PASS DEFENSE: A -- The Cardinals let 49ers quarterback Alex Smith get off to a fast start, but they intercepted him three times in the second half.

RUSH DEFENSE: A -- The Cardinals did a nice job of staying in their gaps and not missing tackles. The 49ers gained just 51 yards on 20 carries.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- New kicker Nick Novak made all three field-goal attempts, although his kickoffs were short. A blocked punt led to three points by San Francisco.

COACHING: A --
The team is still playing hard, which is a credit to coach Dennis Green. The offensive game plan was creative, and the defense blitzed enough to rattle San Francisco's rookie quarterback.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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The basics of football are rather simple: run the ball and stop the run. While the Rams have been a pass-first team over the last several years, they were successful because they could run. But too many times this season, as happened Sunday against Washington, they haven't been able to run. Teams put eight in the box, daring the Rams to pass, and often that results in sacks or hurried throws.

The offense has broken down too often, failing to block blitzers, and when runs were tried, Steven Jackson faced a stone wall. "We wanted to run the ball more, but every time we wanted to run the ball, they were in the backfield," interim coach Joe Vitt said of the Redskins. "That is just the truth. Pretty soon you are just wasting plays, and it is minus one, and minus one, plus one, then it is third-and-9. We have to take a hard look at what we do schematically, because we did not run the ball well at all today."

The game opened with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick trying a safe quick pass in the flat to tight end Cam Cleeland. He had no blockers, and he was dumped for a 7-yard loss. Jackson went for minus-2 on the next play, and Fitzpatrick was sacked for a 10-yard loss on third down. That's minus-19 yards on their first three plays of the game for those who are counting. Still, the Rams trailed only 10-7 entering the fourth quarter, and they had a long completion to the Redskins 16-yard line called back by holding on guard Adam Timmerman in the third quarter.

Despite being gashed for big plays in the running game, they were still in the game after a safety gave the ball to the Rams at their 37-yard line. On second-and-3, Fitzpatrick lost control of a handoff to Jackson, who couldn't control the ball after diving for it. Redskins defensive end Renaldo Wynn did recover, and nine plays later (eight runs and one pass), the one pass resulted in a 4-yard touchdown to H-back Chris Cooley.

"I was going back to give Steven the ball," Fitzpatrick said. "I knocked against the fullback's side. Completely my fault."

Defensively, the Rams allowed 257 yards rushing on 40 attempts, with 140 coming on four plays. Said Vitt, "We will go four, five, or six plays and stop the run. When the run does break at the second level, we either miss a tackle out there or we can't make it. If you look at teams in the National Football League with good run defense, they have good tacklers on the defense, and we have to get better tacklers. We were in position five times today to make a play, and we missed tackles and gave the opponent yards. That is not the structure of the defense, that is not the call. The player that is playing that position has to make that play and make that tackle or he has to be replaced."

NOTES, QUOTES

--After allowing 407 yards to the Redskins on Sunday, the Rams defense has now allowed 400 or more yards in four of the last five games. The run defense has been gashed for 164 or more yards in five games. The Rams scored less than 10 points at home for only the third time since moving to St. Louis. The last was against Seattle in 1997 in a 17-9 loss. In 1996, the Rams lost at home to the Packers, 24-9.

--Rookie quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick made his first start after passing for 310 yards the week before. This time out, he totaled just 163 and had a passer rating of 58.0. He was also wild high on numerous sideline passes. Although Fitzpatrick said he wasn't nervous, he did admit, "I felt like a rookie out there. There were some things out there that confused me a little bit. I missed some throws, missed a few of those hot reads with the blitz. We need to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers, and today I just didn't do a good enough job of that."

He did scramble for 22 yards on five carries, ending up with 2 yards less than Jackson, and he scored the Rams' only touchdown of the game on a 7-yard run.
Said Washington linebacker LaVar Arrington, "The guy can run, man. I couldn't catch him. He peeled out on me on that score. I was kind of upset when he did that. He doesn't have very much fear out there. That was pretty cool. I jumped over him on the one play thinking that he was going to slide. He went head-first. If given that opportunity again, he might not be able to play next week. No really, he is a pretty good player."

Asked to assess Fitzpatrick, interim coach Joe Vitt said, "I thought he did some good things, I think that we didn't help him a lot in the beginning. I think that he is the type of player that we are going to have to do some things like moving him around the perimeter a little bit more than we did and let him get out in space. I think he did a great job handling the offense.

"I have said this all week long; this is different for him because the opponent has had the chance to get ready for him all week long. They did some good things on defense, they didn't do anything we weren't prepared for, but I think he was OK."

--Linebacker Dexter Coakley is done for the season after suffering a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle in the first quarter of the loss to the Redskins. He was replaced by Brandon Chillar. Said interim coach Joe Vitt, "He's a warrior. He's a heck of a leader. And a heck of a player. And we're going to miss him. It's a shame."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES


--QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was named the starter for Sunday's game at Minnesota. It will be Fitzpatrick's second start after losing his debut against Washington.

--CB Travis Fisher, out with a groin injury, was to be re-evaluated to see when he can return. Coaches had hoped he already would have been available.

--SS Adam Archuleta is expected to be able to play Sunday against Minnesota after missing two games because of a concussion.

--P Bryan Barker had three punts downed inside the 20 against the Redskins to give him 320 in his career. He passed Lee Johnson to move into third place on the all-time list for such punts.

--LB Dexter Coakley will undergo surgery in the next day or two to repair a fractured fibula and dislocated ankle suffered Sunday against Washington. Coakley was placed on injured reserve Monday.

REPORT CARD VS. REDSKINS

PASSING OFFENSE: D --
Rookie QB Ryan Fitzpatrick passed for just 163 yards, with the longest play of the game 19 yards to Torry Holt. Fitzpatrick struggled with passes to the sideline, and he was sacked three times. He did produce the only touchdown of the game for the Rams on a scramble.

RUSHING OFFENSE: F -- Holes were scarce for RB Steven Jackson, and when there were holes, they closed quickly. Jackson's long run was 9 yards, and four of his 11 carries were for losses (minus-9).

PASS DEFENSE: C -- QB Mark Brunell passed for only 156 yards, but he hit some big plays, thanks to poor coverage and bad tackling. TE Robert Royal gained 29 yards when S Jerome Carter whiffed on an attempted tackle. Brunell hit Santana Moss for a key 30-yard play when Carter failed to find the ball in double coverage. Nine of Brunell's completions for 98 yards went to Royal and H-back Chris Cooley.

RUSH DEFENSE: D --
The Rams made Rock Cartwright look like an All Pro, allowing him 118 yards on just nine carries. Clinton Portis gained 136 yards on 27 attempts. Enough said.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B --
Coverage was solid; the return game was typically pedestrian. P Bryan Barker had an excellent day, averaging 46.6 yards per punt, with a 41.9-yard net.

COACHING: C -- The coaches seem powerless to get the defense to stop the bleeding by tackling better and taking better angles to the ball. The safety play is poor, but it's more ability than coaching. Offensively, the running game is abandoned quickly, but the blocking is inconsistent and creates problems establishing any rhythm.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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Quarterback Alex Smith returned to the lineup after missing five games with a right knee sprain. He got off to a hot start, completing eight consecutive passes. Veteran receiver Johnnie Morton said he believed Smith benefited from being on the sideline for those weeks when he was injured.

"He had a different look in his eye," Morton said. "This time he looked like he was more in charge." Smith completed 11 of 12 passes for 138 yards for a passer rating of 114.6 in the first half. But the second half was not good, as Smith threw three interceptions in the 49ers' 17-10 loss to the Cardinals. Still, Smith showed some flashes during the first half -- something he had not done in his previous two starts. Even Smith said he felt a lot different Sunday, as the 49ers' system and reading NFL defenses are starting to fit together.

"Things have slowed down for me," Smith said. "It's given me a chance to make some throws I know I'm able to make." Smith has thrown eight interceptions without a touchdown pass to begin his rookie season. Things don't figure to get much easier for him when the 49ers play three consecutive road games, beginning this week against Seattle.

Smith looked exceptional during a sequence in the second quarter that included his three nicest passes of the game. Smith found Morton on back-to-back 24-yard receptions. Then, he rolled right and fired a strike along the sideline to running back Frank Gore for 31 yards to the 2-yard line. Two plays later, the 49ers scored on Maurice Hicks' 1-yard run. "There's no doubt he has talent," 49ers vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said. "I'm definitely happy with some of the things I saw, but we wanted to win the game. The whole key is learning from this game. There's going to be a lot of things for him to learn from this."

NOTES, QUOTES

--Coach Mike Nolan blamed a bad fourth-quarter coaching maneuver on the officials. After running back Frank Gore fumbled, Nolan did not like the defense called on the first play against the Cardinals' passing attack, so he called a timeout. After watching a replay of Gore's fumble, Nolan said he asked the officials if he would risk losing another timeout if he asked for a replay challenge. He said he was led to believe he could challenge the call without the risk of losing the team's last timeout. After the original fumble ruling was upheld, referee Walt Coleman took away the 49ers' final timeout.

"I will know the rules in the future, but the information I got back from them at the time should not have happened," Nolan said. "I made the mistake and have to live with it, but they are there to help with the rules. I wish I got better information."

--Rookie right guard David Baas appeared to play pretty well Sunday in his starting debut despite being called for two false-start penalties. But he did not see it that way. "I'm not pleased," Baas said. "I played like a deer in the headlights. I need to play a lot more physical. I have to be accountable when I'm on the field. In my eyes, I think I could've done a lot better."

--Special teams ace Keith Lewis made his mark in college with an Oregon-record seven blocked kicks during his career. He has already gotten his hands on three punts in his two seasons with the 49ers. Lewis had a blocked punt late in the third quarter Sunday after narrowly missing a block in the first quarter. "I should've had two in the game," Lewis said. "I ran by the ball on the first one. I know you're only going to get so many opportunities. I thought that was going to be it after I missed that one."

--Safety Mike Adams made a remarkable catch for an interception late in the first half. The only problem was that it happened on a fourth-down pass. Instead of getting the ball at their own 42-yard line with 36 seconds remaining in the first half, the 49ers took over at the 15 and had no other choice but to run the clock out. "When he caught the ball, I was pretty upset," Nolan said. "Everyone said, 'No, no, he picked it, he picked it.' I said, 'Guys, fourth down.'"
Said Adams, "Do you still ask me that question if I returned it 75 yards for a touchdown?"

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES


--RB Kevan Barlow is expected to return to practice Wednesday and should be able to play Sunday against the Seahawks. Barlow, the team's leading rusher, missed Sunday's game with a left knee injury.

--FB Fred Beasley missed his third game with a neck stinger. His availability for this week's game against the Seahawks is in question.

--CB Ahmed Plummer was scheduled to get a second opinion on his left ankle. Plummer has missed nine games after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips on Sept. 29.

--S Keith Lewis because the first NFL player to have a blocked punt and an interception in the same game since Baltimore's Ed Reed at Arizona on Oct. 12, 2003.

--WR Arnaz Battle is expected to be available for practice this week after missing Sunday's game with a bruise of his right knee. Battle has been nursing problems with his knee since the third game of the season.

REPORT CARD VS. CARDINALS

PASSING OFFENSE: D-plus -- QB Alex Smith showed some of the flashes of why the 49ers chose him with the top overall pick with an exceptional first-half performance. He completed 11 of 12 passes for 138 yards in the first half for a passer rating of 114.6. But the second half was a different story, as he threw three interceptions and had a 13.5 passer rating. After having a lot of time to throw in the first half, Smith was pressured quite a bit in the second half. His interceptions were a matter of holding onto the ball too long or making poor decisions under pressure.

RUSHING OFFENSE: D-minus --
Not only did the 49ers fail to generate any kind of ground game, but backup Frank Gore also committed a costly fumble that led to the Cardinals' winning points. Starter Maurice Hicks, playing in place of injured Kevan Barlow, gained just 17 yards on 10 carries. He had a 1-yard TD run in the second quarter. Gore had only slightly better success with 22 yards on six carries.

PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- The 49ers surrendered 354 yards passing, but they generally did a good job of keeping the Cardinals out of the end zone. However, their game fell apart in the fourth quarter when they could not tackle WR Anquan Boldin after a short pass, a play that resulted in a 54-yard touchdown. The 49ers did not get a consistent pass rush on Cardinals QB Kurt Warner, who was sacked twice. The 49ers also recorded two interceptions, neither of which they were able to turn into points.

RUSH DEFENSE: B -- The 49ers had to gear up to contain the Cardinals' passing attack, but they still managed to do a fine job in the run game. They held J.J. Arrington to just 59 yards on 18 carries. The 49ers' defensive front allowed just three rushing first downs. LB Derek Smith recorded a game-high 11 tackles despite spending most of the game's passing downs on the sideline.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus -- Keith Lewis blocked a punt, a play that could have been a game-turning sequence. Teammate Marcus Maxwell had a chance to scoop it up and score, but he couldn't get the handle on it. The 49ers ended up settling for Joe Nedney's 48-yard field goal. P Andy Lee had another solid game with a 43.4 average. Rasheed Marshall averaged just 15.2 yards on five kickoff returns, but the 49ers' average starting point was their 30-yard line.

COACHING: D -- Coach Mike Nolan admitted to not knowing the rules. He called a timeout in the fourth quarter to get his defense to regroup after a fumble. Then, he decided to challenge Gore's fumble. When the play was upheld, the 49ers had lost their last two timeouts. The game plan in the first half was solid, but the 49ers did not do as well scheming to account for the Cardinals' blitzes. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis had a good call on the play in which Boldin scored the Cardinals' only touchdown, but poor tackling didn't finish the job.


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