NFC West News & Notes - 9/21/06

In today's News and Notes...the Seahawks get ready to bring the noise, the 49ers reflect on a resurgent offense, the Rams seem a team at odds between new and old philosophies, and Edgerrin James sets a the wrong direction.


Seattle has built its reputation on offense during seven-plus seasons under coach Mike Holmgren. The team's current offensive starters have a combined 14 Pro Bowl appearances, and Seattle led the league in scoring last season. That's not what matters when the Giants visit Qwest Field on Sunday. What Seattle needs more than anything is another top-flight effort from its dramatically improved defense.

The Seahawks allowed 490 yards during a 24-21 overtime victory against the Giants last season. The Giants would have won the game had they not missed three field goals, including two in overtime.
Allowing nearly 500 yards won't cut it this week. Giants quarterback Eli Manning has another year of experience and his team is riding high after an inspiring comeback victory in Philadelphia last week.

The Seattle defense has improved a great deal since the teams met last season. The addition of linebacker Julian Peterson armed coordinator John Marshall with another sleek, fast playmaker with pass-rush ability. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu and outside linebacker Leroy Hill are also better than they were during their rookie seasons. Rookie pass-rush specialist Darryl Tapp has been another valued contributor this season.

Another big difference for Seattle is in the secondary. Left corner Kelly Herndon has outplayed all expectations through two games. He has always been a hard-nosed player with the ability to line up against slot receivers, but injuries hurt his game last season. Right corner Marcus Trufant is also improved now that he's had a full offseason without undergoing surgery.
The secondary has played well in part because the front seven is getting pressure consistently. Seattle sacked Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner five times last week. Warner fumbled four times. Seattle picked him off once. A second interception was negated by penalty.

Qwest Field was rocking for the Arizona game, forcing Warner to burn timeouts. The noise level should be considerably higher this week for several reasons. It all started when the Giants committed 11 false-start penalties at Qwest Field last season. Subsequent reports suggest the Giants might have privately questioned whether Seattle piped in noise for the game. Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren responded by essentially challenging fans to be even louder this time around.

"If I'm a fan, I take that kind of personally," Holmgren said. "Like, 'If you think last game was loud, or you think the NFC Championship was loud, wait until Sunday.'" The Seahawks are 22-3 in their last 25 regular-season home games. That is the best home record in the league since the 16th week of the 2004 season.

"You should have a home-field advantage," Holmgren said. "Every team should. Your fans get into it, and our fans are great right now. But we do not use anything extra to make it noisier. We don't."

SERIES HISTORY: 12th meeting. The Giants lead, 7-4. They won two of the three games played since 2001, but the Seahawks prevailed in overtime last season.


--QB Matt Hasselbeck has it on good authority that newly acquired WR Deion Branch is a first-rate player and teammate. "I talked to his former quarterback (Tom Brady) who gave me a scouting report which is pretty good," Hasselbeck said. "He's explosive, he has some football smarts about him, he catches the ball well and he's going to be a very, very good addition to our offense." Brady valued Branch so much that he was the one who called Hasselbeck, not vice versa.

"(Brady) was clearly upset about losing him as a teammate," Hasselbeck said. "I just conveyed to him that I know what it's like to lose a great teammate. It's not always fair sometimes, but it happens."
Hasselbeck knows what it's like after Seattle lost three-time Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson to Minnesota.

--The Giants' improbable comeback victory over Philadelphia stirred the memory of Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren. Holmgren recalled the Seahawks' crushing loss to St. Louis in 2004, when the Seahawks blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead. The Rams won the game with a long touchdown pass in overtime, while the Giants beat the Eagles with a long pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress. "By (Manning's) own admission, it was kind of like, 'Go out for a long one,'" Holmgren said. "He got in the huddle and said, 'OK, I'm going to throw it up to you.'

"Now, the guy is 6-6. It's not like we were throwing it up to Seneca Wallace or somebody. I grew up in San Francisco as a kid with R.C. Owens. It was a marvelous thing. 1957. Four ballgames. They sent him down there and he jumped up and caught the ball right at the end."

BY THE NUMBERS: 0 -- Number of sacks RT Sean Locklear allowed working against Giants DE Michael Strahan last season. Strahan has zero sacks this season and none in his last five regular-season games.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was a heck of a game between two real good teams. We were a little lucky and they were a little unlucky, the way the field goals went. But, you know, maybe we were due one. It was a battle. It was two good teams. And I anticipate another battle on Sunday." -- Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren on his team's 24-21 victory over the Giants last season.

The Seahawks are sticking with their current personnel on the field-goal team. They had a third field-goal try blocked against Arizona when rookie holder Ryan Plackemeier mishandled the snap from new snapper Derek Rackley. The snap was a bit inside and Plackemeier tried to spin the ball so the laces were away. He should have put down the ball right away because the snap left insufficient time. "He put it here and then in an attempt to spin it he lost the ball," coach Mike Holmgren said. "Well, he didn't have time because the ball was here. Once the ball is here, you just get it down."


--LG Floyd Womack's prognosis did not change Wednesday. Coach Mike Holmgren said Monday that Womack might miss six weeks with a knee injury. "Maybe six weeks? Yeah, that's good," Holmgren said Wednesday.

--WR Nate Burleson will start again Sunday even though WR Deion Branch will be active for the first time, coach Mike Holmgren said. It's conceivable Seattle will start the game Sunday with three or more receivers on the field. That would allow Burleson, Branch, WR Darrell Jackson and even WR Bobby Engram to start the game.

--P Ryan Plackemeier will remain the holder on field goals and extra points. Plackemeier is a rookie and he performed like one when he mishandled a field-goal snap against Arizona last week. The miscue led to the third blocked field goal of the season for Seattle. The snap was a bit inside and Plackemeier should have put it down quickly instead of trying to turn the laces away.

--QB Matt Hasselbeck said his sore ribs are "much, much better" this week. The soreness appeared to affect him against Arizona last week. Hasselbeck practiced Wednesday and was not on the injury report. The Cardinals sacked him three times but Hasselbeck avoided the kind of crunching blows he absorbed in the opener.

--WR Darrell Jackson is practicing this week, a good sign for the offense. He has missed a fair number of practices in recent seasons, usually because of injuries. Jackson is healthy now after missing seven months of the offseason to let his surgically repaired knee heal. He caught five passes for 127 yards and a touchdown last week.

GAME PLAN: Seattle's improving defense needs to capitalize on a raucous Qwest Field crowd. That combination is enough to disrupt just about any offense. The Giants allowed eight sacks last week. Their line is better than that, but hardly airtight. Seattle has speed at just about every position on defense. Seattle's offense should have success throwing over the middle. The Giants' pass rush has not yet come to life. Now is the time for Seattle to find some offensive rhythm and make use of its expanded fleet of receivers, including Deion Branch.

Seahawks RT Sean Locklear vs. Giants LDE Michael Strahan. This is a tough matchup for Locklear and he'll need some help. Strahan played every snap of the Seahawks-Giants game last season. He did not record a sack, but he was disruptive nonetheless. Locklear has had some problems in pass protection this season. He'll need his best Sunday.
--Seahawks MLB Lofa Tatupu vs. Giants RB Tiki Barber. Barber had a big game in Seattle last season thanks largely to a 49-yard run in overtime. Tatupu has the ability to cover good running backs in the red zone. Last season, Tatupu led Seattle to a No. 2 ranking in red-zone TD percentage.

TE Will Heller is taking all the reps in practice while starter Itula Mili rests an injured knee. Mili is questionable on the injury report, but he probably won't play. That leaves Seattle shorthanded at the position because regular starter Jerramy Stevens (knee) is out until next month. RB Shaun Alexander is probable with a foot injury and his role could be scaled back just a bit.


Two familiar faces are expected to be back in significant roles for the Cardinals when St. Louis visits on Sunday. Right tackle Oliver Ross, who missed the first two games while recovering from preseason knee surgery, has been back at practice for a week and is expected to move back into the lineup. That would put the preseason projected starting unit on the field together for the first time in nearly seven weeks and, while it might not immediately boost the running game, would be a step in that direction.

Edgerrin James has yet to rush for 100 yards in a game, marking the first time in his career he has gone to Week 3 without one. But down the line, if the team can keep the line on the field together, it would pay dividends for James and the Cardinals. "Obviously, any team would like to have a set lineup," Coach Dennis Green said. "We just haven't had that luxury yet."

The team has had 10 combinations of offensive line starters in the past 18 games, including two in the two games James has played for the Cardinals. "It is a totally different beast, football shape versus running," Ross said upon his return. "I'm just trying to get back in the flow of things and get it going.

"You try to stay positive."

James has gained 137 yards on 44 carries, a 3.1-yard average. Most seasons, those would be good numbers for him in one game, not two. "I'm not a quitter," James said. "When I took this job, I knew that it wasn't going to be a cakewalk, but I'm not a front-runner. We're going to keep fighting. I know I'm not going to let up, and I'm not going to let anyone else let up. You don't have to worry about us talking down about each other, because that is not going to happen."

Yet despite their inconsistency running the ball, the Cardinals can claim one eye-opening statistic: They have converted 66.7 percent of their red zone chances into touchdowns (4-6), tying for the highest percentage in the NFL. That is a tribute to their passing game, with Kurt Warner tossing to wideouts Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Bryant Johnson. If Ross, as expected, starts vs. the Rams, Reggie

Wells would go back to his left guard spot. He moved to right tackle last week. The Cardinals are getting a key player back on defense, as well, but they haven't yet decided what to do with him. Linebacker Karlos Dansby came off the bench at Seattle to make two tackles and a pass defense. He missed the opener and all of preseason (toe) after a breakout season as the strong-side starter in which he intercepted three passes and had four sacks.

He may not yet be back in a starting role but will play. Coaches have yet to decide whether to restore him to his strong-side spot, where Calvin Pace has played well, or move Dansby to the weak side, where Orlando Huff has been inconsistent. Dansby's return will be especially welcome because veteran linebacker James Darling, who can play all three spots, suffered a groin injury last week that is expected to sideline him for a game or two.

55th meeting. The St. Louis Rams hold a 29-23-2 lead in the series over the Arizona Cardinals. The NFC West foes split the season series last year, each winning on the road. But the Cardinals have dropped six of eight games since being punted to the West in 2002 realignment. This marks the first time the Cardinals have hosted the Rams in Glendale, Ariz., in their new stadium. One of the most significant games in the series from the Cardinals' perspective was a cliffhanging 20-17 victory in 1998 at St. Louis that helped the Big Red reverse a slow start to finish 9-7 and earn their first, and only, playoff berth since moving to Arizona.

--It certainly doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why the Cardinals can't get it going on the ground, despite now having RB Edgerrin James toting the ball. In their past 18 games, the Cardinals have had 10 combinations of starters on the offensive line. That covers all of 2005 when their rushing total was the worst in the league and one of the worst since the merger with the AFL. There have been two combinations in the two games James has been with the team. The projected starting unit -- LT Leonard Davis, LG Reggie Wells, C Alex Stepanovich, RG Milford Brown, RT Oliver Ross -- finally is expected to be on the field this week with Ross' return from knee surgery.

--QB Matt Leinart has yet to take a snap as a pro but that hasn't prevented him from being a star. He now hosts "The Matt Leinart Show" from a Tempe, Ariz., sports bar at 5 o'clock Friday evenings.

--SS Hanik Milligan, whose forte is special teams -- he was a special teams Pro Bowler last year with San Diego -- already is making his mark on the teams since the Cardinals picked him up. Milligan was among the Chargers' final cuts. Like so many before him who have a special regard for special teams, Milligan willingly accepts the role. "It is really a blessing to be in the NFL and to play this game," he said. "There are a lot of people that would love to be in our situation or our position. I am just sitting back waiting for the opportunity to play safety, but for right now my job is to play special teams and help out wherever I can." The nickname he acquired with the Chargers for his special tams play seems more fitting for a player with the Cardinals: "Birdman." "Because I like to fly around out there on the field," he said.

--DT Darnell Dockett, fined $7,500 by the league after the opener for unnecessary roughness on his late hit on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, didn't back off in Week 2 -- although he had no late-hit penalties. Dockett did, however, have a career-high 12 tackles vs. the Seahawks.

--If the Cardinals were to win Sunday and improve to 2-0 in games in their new Glendale, Ariz., stadium, it would mark their first 2-0 home start since their final year in St. Louis, 1987.

Opponents that have scored touchdowns on their opening drive through two games.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "When you've watched enough football like me, one little bump isn't going to keep me out. On top of that, I've got Karlos (Dansby, toe) coming back and I know he's trying to get in there, so I can't just give it up. I've had a sprained ankle before so this is just one of those things you have to fight through." -- OLB Calvin Pace, on playing through his ankle injury this week.

Some fans are perplexed why the team is sitting on a $10 million salary-cap cushion, second-largest in the league to the Saints' $11 million. It moved to sign Edgerrin James in free agency and can expect increased revenue from a sold-out home season, its first in Arizona, to make it even flusher. There have been other players available in free agency that could have filled positions of need, especially free-agent linemen like LeCharles Bentley and Steve Hutchinson, who could have helped goose the running game for James, who has struggled through two games behind an inconsistent line.

The Cardinals acknowledge that they are a bit gun-shy after having 14 players land on injured reserve last season, most in the league, and wanted to keep a cushion to guard against injuries this year. They also plan to use some of that surplus to extend contracts on some of their core players. They say they also were burned when the league salary cap went up $7.5 million more than expected. Some of the players they expected to be cut and make a run at were then re-signed by their teams.


--RB Edgerrin James for the first time in his career does not have a 100-yard rushing game after two weeks. James has 49 career 100-yard rushing games in 98 career appearances. With another, he'd become the second player ever to reach 50 in fewer than 100 games. Instability on the offensive line -- 10 starting combinations in the past 18 games -- coupled with sacks and penalties that have put the team in long-yardage situations and forced it to pass, have conspired to create a slow start for James with his new team.

--QB Kurt Warner needs 254 passing yards in his 76th career game to become the second-fastest player to 20,000. It took the fastest, Dan Marino, 75 games.

--SS Adrian Wilson posted two sacks at Seattle. Last season his eight were the most ever by a defensive back. But Wilson's old weakness of playing without discipline also resurfaced and hurt the team. The Cardinals seemingly stopped Seattle on third-and-long in the red zone on its first drive. A Wilson holding penalty gave Seattle first-and-goal and it scored a TD. Later, Wilson appeared to bust an assignment in zone coverage and Seattle scored its second TD of the opening quarter on a long pass play through his responsibility area.

--WR Larry Fitzgerald has 77 receptions for 1,124 yards and 8 touchdowns in 16 career NFC West games.

--WR Anquan Boldin has 114 catches for 1,517 yards and 9 TDs in three seasons vs. NFC West foes.

--WR Bryant Johnson, the quiet third receiver, is averaging 30.3 yards a catch.

--OLB Karlos Dansby (toe), came off the bench at Seattle for his first action of the year, and made 2 tackles and a pass breakup. Coaches still are attempting to determine his role -- whether to move him back into the lineup on the strong side in place of Calvin Pace, where Dansby starred in a breakout 2005, or put him on the weak side to compete with Orlando Huff. Dansby may back both positions this weekend vs. the Rams.

--CB David Macklin, who lasted one series in the opener as the starter, so irked the coaches with his poor play that he was inactive for Game 2 last weekend. But with his replacement, Eric Green, now injured (groin), Macklin might get another chance vs. the Rams by default.

--CB Eric Green, who moved into the lineup in Game 2, suffered a groin strain and may miss Sunday's game vs. the Rams.

--K Neil Rackers, who made an NFL-record 40 of 42 field-goal tries in 2005, missed two beyond 50 yards (51, 53) in Game 2 at Seattle. In 2005 Rackers' second miss didn't come until the 15th game. He has made 25 in a row from inside 40 yards.

--OL Chris Liwienski, an eight-year veteran formerly with Minnesota who started the opener at right tackle, started Game 2 at left guard, where he played last season with the Vikings. But after starting the first two games shortly after joining his new team, he may be relegated to backup duty this week. Starting RT Oliver Ross is expected to return from knee surgery, allowing Reggie Wells to return as the starter at LG. Liwienski was signed as insurance because he is a versatile veteran, a valued commodity.

--RT Brandon Gorin, acquired in a late preseason trade, rapidly is falling off the charts. He was inactive at Seattle for Game 2 last weekend and is now listed third at RT. He had started for New England.

GAME PLAN: The Cardinals know the Rams have scored 1 touchdown in their first two games with an offense reminiscent of the Cardinals' of 2005 -- scoring in 3s. Playing at home with a sellout crowd to back it gives the Cardinals a chance to be creative up front and pressure Rams QB Marc Bulger, who is 6-1 as a starter vs. the Cardinals.
Likewise, the Cardinals are accustomed to making big plays with their passing game and must be salivating as they watch Rams film of the big passing plays they surrendered in a loss last weekend at San Francisco, a team the Cardinals defeated at home in the season opener. The team may finally have all the projected starters on the offensive line back on the field, which shouldn't hurt its bid to get RB Edgerrin James going to complement the passing game.

Cardinals offense, which scored a league-high 34 points in the opener and is tied for the league lead with 66.7 percent touchdown conversions in the red zone, vs. Rams defense, which surrendered killer pass plays of 72, 56 and 34 yards in a loss at San Francisco. The Cardinals, despite their attempt to establish a rushing game, live by the pass, and they've had good fortune vs. the Rams. Last year, QB Kurt Warner passed for 327 and 285 yards vs. his former team. Third receiver Bryant Johnson, the quiet man while Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin receive most of the attention, is averaging 30.3-yards a catch, including a 40-yard TD reception vs. the Seahawks.
--Cardinals K Neil Rackers, who made an NFL-record 40 field goals in 2005, vs. Rams K Jeff Wilkins, who already is bidding to break that mark. Wilkins made six field goals in the opener and is 8-10 in two games. Rackers missed two long ones beyond 50 yards at Seattle but has made his last 25 inside 40 yards.

INJURY IMPACT: CB Eric Green, who'd just deposed Game 1 starter David Macklin in the lineup, suffered a groin strain at Seattle and is questionable for the St. Louis game. That puts the coaches in a tough spot. Macklin's stock had dropped so sharply after a horrid performance in the opener that he was inactive at Seattle. If coaches don't put Macklin back in the lineup, the only alternative among the team's slim pickings of backup corners would be Matt Ware, who was signed the week of the opener. The problems at corner could be just the antidote to kick the sluggish St. Louis offense back into gear.

--LB James Darling (groin), a valuable backup at all three positions, is out for at least two weeks, but helping to offset his loss is the return of Karlos Dansby from a toe injury that sidelined him throughout preseason.


Last week, the Rams were confident their offense would be able to break out against the 49ers after not scoring a touchdown in the opening week. At halftime, rhythm seemed to be developing as they took a 10-3 lead into halftime after scoring in the red zone late in the second quarter. New center Richie Incognito and left guard Todd Steussie seemed to be working well together as the half ended. But then, left tackle Orlando Pace was lost for the remainder of the game, and more changes occurred on the line. The offense sputtered in the second half, scoring just three points and gaining 117 yards on 29 plays.

That brought up continuing questions about the time it's taking for quarterback Marc Bulger to become comfortable with a new way of doing things. New coach Scott Linehan, though, says he's pleased with Bulger, while believing that production will progressively get better.

"Marc has done everything I've asked," Linehan said. "I've asked him to be a guy that manages the game and protects the ball, that understands what we want to get out of the running game and those kinds of things. Certainly, by our ability to protect the ball right now and the fact that our running back is averaging over five yards a carry is a great start.

"I think we've certainly got to work on our efficiency in the passing game, which will come. I believe that and that's what Marc believes. He's accepted everything we've asked, so to answer your question, yes. We're all perfectionists and we all want to be better, and we need to be, and we'll continue to work on being better every day." Bulger has consistently been well over 60 percent in accuracy, and after two games he is at 54.4. But he is not dwelling on statistics.

Said Bulger, "It's tough, especially when you know what you've been able to do. You can't live in the past. We have to move on and know that this is new. We're going to have to push to learn this and be patient all at once. It's not easy, but we're going to have to deal with it and there's no sense in pushing or giving up now. We have to fight through it. "I really don't worry about numbers. I definitely want to get my completion percentage up. That's the one I'm disappointed in. Something I can control is the completion percentage and I do want to get that up. If we could have come out with a win, I would feel a lot better right now, but I'm not worried about stats."

While the perception is that the issue is about learning a new system, it's deeper than that. It's about a new coach and players feeling comfortable with each other. It's about a quarterback going from a high risk/high reward philosophy to one that stresses ball security. It's about figuring it all out in regular-season games, which is a different world from off-season workouts in shorts and preseason games when defenses don't disguise things. In every game, there are instances where Bulger and his receivers learn how to react to things the defense does within the confines of the new philosophy.

"I have some catching up to do. I think it's going to take repetitions and time to figure out where he wants you to go with the ball every time, just like it did with the old offense," Bulger said. "I knew it was going to be different. You can't make a conscious effort to say you're going to run the ball and then throw the ball 50 times like we used to. You can't have it both ways.

"I knew in that respect it was going to be that way. At the same time, teams are playing Cover 2 and Cover 8, and when they do that, it's tough to throw the ball way down the field. You have to take shorter routes and check downs. That's been their plan and I think as time goes on we'll get more film. His systems work. He wouldn't be a head coach if he didn't know what he was doing. In Minnesota he proved that and I think he proved that in Miami. When he knows his personnel better and we all get more familiar with him, that will come because he's proven himself."

SERIES HISTORY: 55th regular-season meeting. Rams lead, 29-23-2. The teams have split the season series the last two years, with each team winning on the road in 2005.


--They got along as good as possible in QB Kurt Warner's final days in St. Louis, when he served as a backup to current Rams starter Marc Bulger. And even Bulger figured he wouldn't have much contact with Warner after he left for the Giants in 2004 and then moved to Arizona last year. But that hasn't been the case. As Bulger revealed Wednesday, after being asked about his relationship with Warner, "I talked to him last week prior to the last game. We speak every three or four weeks, or so. I asked how things are going there and I think he's having a good time. Ever since he left here he stayed in contact. I thought after the first month or two, he might go distant. In New York as well as Arizona, he is always calling and I get to see him throughout the country at different events, too."

--The Rams aren't built to be a stout team against the run, defending instead with speed and tackling ability. If a team wants to grind it out on the Rams with running, they could have trouble stopping it.
But coach Scott Linehan still likes the makeup of the defense, and the job being done by the guys inside. "The first game, I thought our interior guys really played well," Linehan said. "Jimmy (Kennedy) had an injury that he was able to play with but affected him some in the first game and this week. He played pretty well considering he was having to make an adjustment not being able to play with his hands, and I think he'll be that much better this week. La'Roi (Glover) is doing a nice job in there. I think we've got a really good backup in Jason Fisk.

"La'Roi and Jason aren't the 300-pound size as Jimmy, so we've got to do some things in there to help cover up for their lack of beef by putting more people in the box when we know people are going to run. It's still a team game. We've got to do a good job for them in that area but we certainly have some guys that play hard and penetrate and play in the other team's backfield."

--Coach Scott Linehan is pleased with the progress of second-year right tackle Alex Barron. "I think he's playing pretty good," Linehan said. "I think he's doing the things you want to improve on from your first year to your second. His run blocking is better. I think he's a very good pass protector. When we have both him and Orlando (Pace) healthy I think that's going to be very positive for us. He's progressing very well. He's made a lot of improvement from his rookie year." Barron was a left tackle in college, so Linehan was asked if any consideration was being given to move him to left tackle if Pace is unable to play this week because of a concussion.

Not a chance, Linehan said. He added, "That's because he's been on the right side here. We've had to move enough and we want to try to keep things as stable as we can with (Todd) Steussie at left (tackle). Adam (Goldberg) has played a lot of guard. He started quite a few games at Minnesota last year at guard. That would be our contingency plan right now." With the possibility that Pace won't be able to play Sunday against Arizona, the Rams expect the Cardinals to throw everything but the kitchen sink at the offensive line.

"I'm sure they will," Linehan said. "I'm sure that we'll get a little bit of all those things and something new that we haven't seen. We have to prepare, like we do each week, for all the twists that we could get. I think they're certainly going to test us there."

Asked if the game plan is scaled back because of the changes, he said, "We put together a game plan and we'll work situations as the week goes on. I think you have to be aware of things that make more sense for the guys at this point. Try to avoid experimenting or doing anything new; try to work things that there is a certain level of comfort with the guys up front, so they can go out and play fast on Sunday."

BY THE NUMBERS: 1 - Number of times in his career before this season that QB Marc Bulger had two consecutive games without an interception. Bulger hasn't had an interception in the first two games of the season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I would say, outside of that play, I was pretty consistent. It's hard to really focus on the rest of your game when you gave up a big play like that that really costs your team. You've really got to look down deep and continue to work. That definitely affects your grade in the game." - FS Oshiomogho Atogwe on his play against San Francisco, when he failed to get over in time on a play that ended up being a 72-yard touchdown pass.

Because of injury issues on the line, the Rams conducted tryouts this week for guard David Loverne and center-guard Ross Tucker.

--LT Orlando Pace did not practice Wednesday and will be evaluated again Thursday and have more tests after suffering a concussion against the 49ers. Pace is listed as doubtful for the game, and the only way he will play is if he is cleared Thursday to do some work in practice the following day.

--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa practiced with a red jersey Wednesday so contact would be avoided on his dislocated left elbow. Tinoisamoa wore a brace on his arm, and told reporters there's no way he will miss this week's game.

GAME PLAN: The Rams would like to take advantage of matchup advantages they have against Arizona's secondary, but to do that they will have to handle the Cardinals' pass rush and blitzes. Communication will be vital within the offense, but there have been breakdowns at times in the first two games of the season. Defensively, the Rams will look to limit RB Edgerrin James on first down and get pressure on QB Kurt Warner, who has fumbled seven times in two games and was sacked five times last week against Seattle.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams LT Todd Steussie, who has been known to struggle with speed rushers, vs. Cardinals DRE Bertrand Berry, who has emerged as one of the league's best pass rushers.

--Rams WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, who believe they are on the verge of breaking out in the passing game, vs. Cardinals CBs David Macklin and Antrel Rolle. Macklin lost his starting job to Eric Green, but he has a groin injury and is questionable.

--Rams blitz pickup, which is suspect at times, vs. Cardinals S Adrian Wilson, who had a field day in Arizona's victory over the Rams last season in St. Louis. Someone will have to figure out a way to block Wilson.

INJURY IMPACT: The offensive line has taken several hits early in the season after a summer of virtually injury-free football. The loss of C Andy McCollum for the season resulted in two position changes, and now there is the possibility that LT Orlando Pace won't play this week. If Pace doesn't play, a line that featured Pace at left tackle, Richie Incognito at left guard and McCollum at center will now have Todd Steussie at left tackle, Adam Goldberg at left guard and Incognito at center.


Upon coming to the 49ers last season, head coach Mike Nolan told his team and the media that the team's goal was to win the NFC West. The media snickered. Everyone who watched the 49ers during their 2-14 season of 2004 knew the 49ers did not have the talent to show such a dramatic improvement in one season, even with a new coaching staff coming in. But after the 49ers' 20-13 victory over the Rams, Nolan was asked if winning the NFC West was possible.

"It's our outstanding goal," Nolan said. "Our reasonable goal is to make the playoffs." This time, nobody is laughing.

The 49ers enter their game Sunday against the Eagles at Monster Park with a lot of confidence. If they continue to improve on their first two games of the season, the 49ers believe that, yes, making the playoffs is a reasonable goal. Facing the Eagles is a big test for the 49ers, who were crushed 42-3 early last season at Lincoln Financial Field.

"This is an interesting game for us," Nolan said. "It can be a statement game." The 49ers made some mistakes in their seven-point victory over the Rams. They made too many errors in their opening-game loss to the Cardinals. The margin of error figures to be tighter this week against the Eagles.

Last season, the 49ers could not have dreamed of playing anything but a perfect game and winning against a good team. With an improved roster, the 49ers have already shown that they can overcome their own mistakes to remain competitive. "We nearly did it in Week 1, and we did it in Week 2," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "But we all know those are two games against Arizona and St. Louis. We have Philadelphia this week and we know they are a good football team.

"You can overcome things against some, and against others, you can't. I believe this week going into the game, that is one of the things I'll stress. We got Philadelphia. Let's make sure we understand that with the better team we face, turnovers can be more costly than against teams you can get back into the game on. That's not to discredit the team we beat, but I think everyone realizes the Eagles are a pretty good football team."

And, by all appearances, the 49ers are getting there, too. Quarterback Alex Smith said the team is getting to the point where they are not going to be having any good losses -- or a game that they feel good about even though it resulted in a loss.

"No, but we're getting there," Smith answered when asked if the 49ers have arrived. "It's a process. Obviously, we expect to win every game, but there is a different sense the next day looking back on things. You hope to get to that situation where unless you win you don't feel good about things. We're raising expectations and expect to compete and win games." The rising expectations have come because of improved play on both sides of the ball. The 49ers' offense, which ranked last in the league last season, averaging just 224.2 yards a game, have rolled up 376.5 yards through two games.

And Smith said when he watches the game film, he sees areas in which the 49ers can improve on what they've already accomplished through two games. "It's a different feeling," Smith said of watching film of the offense this season. "Obviously, from my perspective, this is only just the beginning. We sit there and watch and see how much better we can play. And if we do little things here and there, all of a sudden we could've been that much better. Last year, maybe there were more things or bigger deals."

Improvements have also come on defense, where the 49ers have recorded nine sacks after producing just 28 through the 16-game regular season a year ago. The 49ers ranked last in the league, surrendering 391.2 total yards per game. In the first two games, that number is down to 316.0. The 49ers' secondary had many more blown coverages early last season than they had in the first two games, which came against a couple of the league's best receiving tandems. In the second year using the same defensive system, there is more of a familiarity with the scheme for the players.

"And we're still working through some of those things, to be honest," Nolan said. "It's not clean right now. I don't want to sound like we've got things corrected. Certainly, we've made our share of mistakes." But at least now, the 49ers appear as if they have a better chance to compensate for their mistakes.

SERIES HISTORY: 27th meeting. The 49ers lead the series 17-8-1, with the 49es winning four of the past six meetings. The Eagles won last season 42-3.

--There is no doubting that 49ers running back Frank Gore has a passion for playing football. Every night, Gore said he watches a highlight film of himself from his senior year at Coral Gables (Fla.) High, where he rushed for 2,953 yards and 34 touchdowns. Gore said it reminds himself of what kind of running back he was in high school before he sustained torn ACLs in both knees in college. He believes he can become a dominant NFL back, too. It also helps him feel as if he's not too far from home. His mother, Liz, remains a coast away in Florida as she awaits a kidney transplant. She's been on dialysis since Gore was in the 11th grade.

Gore has gotten off to a strong start this season, with 214 yards and three touchdowns rushing. He also has eight receptions for 93 yards. But the thing that has disheartened Gore are his two fumbles. Gore called coach Mike Nolan after each of the first two games for some counsel advice. "I wanted to know what he saw," Gore said. "He told me he understands that the type of runner I am, I'm always trying for the extra yard. But he told me, like I've told you, I've just got to be smarter and always remember that there is another down."

--Cornerback Walt Harris, a free-agent acquisition, has been a good addition to the team because of his veteran savvy. The 49ers had all kinds of problems fielding a defense with two legitimate NFL corners last season. Even Nolan admits Harris has surprised him with his play. "I hate to say I am, but I am a little (surprised)," Nolan said of Harris' high level of play since joining the team. "He has been a pleasant surprise. He's been a real good addition."

Said Harris, "I felt coming in I would surprise some people because I have a lot left." Harris, an 11th-year player, signed with the 49ers five days after the Redskins released him in March. Harris has 14 tackles and has broken up five passes in the first two games of the season.

--Left tackle Jonas Jennings watched last week's game against the Rams from the sideline with an ankle sprain. But Jennings kept a close eye on his replacement, Adam Snyder. "I felt like I was coaching," Jennings said. "Snyder did a good job. There were no sacks. His worst set might have been on the touchdown." Snyder was blocking Rams defensive end Anthony Hargrove on quarterback Alex Smith's blind side. Smith delivered a 72-yard TD pass to Antonio Bryant a split-second before Hargrove could get a hand on Smith.

--Quarterback Alex Smith is ranked fifth in the NFC with a 93.5 quarterback rating. Smith's 521 yards passing rank sixth in the NFC. Last season, Smith threw for 875 yards in seven starts with a passer rating of 40.8.

--Receiver Antonio Bryant has shown some flashes of his anger in the first two games. He has been held to just one catch for 34 yards in the first halves of the 49ers' first two games. He was clearly agitated on the field and was seen venting to receivers coach Jerry Sullivan as he left the field Sunday against the Rams. "He seems to do better when he's ticked off by halftime," Nolan quipped. Despite his slow starts, Bryant ranks third in the NFL with 245 receiving yards on eight catches. He had a 72-yard TD reception early in the second half against the Rams. Said Nolan, "He understands that sometimes you have to wait a little longer for good things to happen."

BY THE NUMBERS: 2.0 -- The average yards per play the 49ers are outgaining the opposition through two games. The offense is averaging 6.6 yards per play, while the defense is allowing 4.6 yards.

"If you just look at the roster overall, we're vastly improved. Just look at the surrounding cast around quarterback Alex Smith right now. It's not only the new guys, but the young guys having another year of experience" -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan.

Linebacker Manny Lawson played almost every snap in the season opener against the Cardinals, but coach Mike Nolan made a conscious effort to get the rookie some extended breaks in the second game. Lawson, who was on the sideline for about 20 plays against the Rams, came through with a strong performance. He recorded two sacks, had two quarterback pressures and had another tackle behind the line of scrimmage. "He got some breathers from Brandon Moore, and Brandon helped us defensively by being able to rest Manny," Nolan said. "He was fresher on some plays."

The 49ers added defensive lineman Damane Duckett (6-foot-6, 300 pounds) to the active roster from the practice squad. To make room for Duckett, the 49ers released pass-rush specialist Roderick Green, whom the club claimed off waivers from the Ravens after the final cuts. Green was active for one game but did not record any tackles. Fullback Zak Keasey was re-signed to the practice squad.

--TE Vernon Davis was the intended target on just one pass last week, failing to come down with a catchable ball in the end zone. "I thought he did a nice job of clearing out some other routes for other receivers," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said.

--OL Adam Snyder started at left tackle in place of Jonas Jennings last week, and he might be switched to left guard this week with Larry Allen expected to miss another couple weeks. Snyder is considered the team's best backup offensive lineman, and he might replace Tony Wragge, who played well in his first NFL start since 2002.

--FS Mike Adams has developed into a solid defensive back in his first full season of playing one position. Adams ranks second on the team with 16 tackles and he has broken up one pass. The 49ers plan to begin talking about a contract extension for Adams, who is scheduled to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season.

--SS Tony Parrish has started both games but splits time with Mark Roman. Parrish has seven tackles in two games, and is also seeing time on special teams. Parrish has made two tackles on the kickoff coverage team.

--NT Anthony Adams saw four snaps at fullback in the 49ers' short-yardage situations. Three of the plays did not get into the end zone or gain first downs.

--WR Brandon Williams, a third-round draft pick, has not suited up for the first two games. Williams is considered the team's top punt returner, but the 49ers have gone with Arnaz Battle in that role because they did not want to suit up five receivers. Now, with WR Taylor Jacobs out with a hamstring injury, Williams is likely to suit up and return punts.

GAME PLAN: In Norv Turner's offense, the 49ers are devoted to the power running game. Although that remains a big part of the team's focus this week, they also might allow quarterback Alex Smith to take a few more shots down the field. The Eagles are banged-up in the defensive secondary, and 49ers castoff Joselio Hanson might be in the starting lineup at one of the corner spots. Smith has not been timid about trying to get the ball down the field. He tried a lot of plays down the field last week against the Rams, and his completion percentage suffered because of it. Smith completed just 11 of 22 passing attempts, but hit on a couple big plays against the Rams, including a 72-yard TD pass to Antonio Bryant. "When you do take shots you aren't going to hit them all," Smith said. "When I see the film, I see the potential to be better."

Bryant, Arnaz Battle and Bryan Gilmore each have shown ability to get down the field. The 49ers also like to use trick plays to take some of the aggressiveness out of the opposing defense. Defensively, the 49ers have to continue to scheme their pass rush to create opportunities to get some hits on McNabb. The 49ers have nine sacks in the first two games, and most have come on some form of blitz. The 49ers have done a good job defending the deep ball, so coach Mike Nolan and defensive coordinator Billy Davis feel a little better about taking some chance by sending extra rushers.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: 49ers CB Walt Harris, who has held up well on deep patterns against good sets of receivers, vs. Eagles WR Donte Stallworth, who has quickly emerged as a favorite of QB Donovan McNabb's with 222 yards receiving in two games.

--OLB Manny Lawson, who recorded the first two sacks of his NFL career last week, vs. LT William Thomas, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who outweighs Lawson by nearly 100 pounds.

--FS Mike Adams, who is developing as a solid young center fielder, vs. QB Donovan McNabb, whose TD-interception ratio of 139 to 67 ranks No. 2 in league history.

--LT Jonas Jennings, expected to return after missing a game with a right ankle sprain, vs. DE Trent Cole, a situational pass rusher who has recorded two sacks in each of the first two games.

--WR Antonio Bryant, who was teamed with QB Alex Smith to form a dynamic pass combination, vs. CB Sheldon Brown, who has started 35 consecutive games.

INJURY IMPACT: LG Larry Allen (left knee) sustained a sprain of his medial collateral ligament on the opening drive of the 49ers' first game of the season and is expected to miss another couple weeks.

--LT Jonas Jennings (right ankle) is expected back in the lineup Sunday against the Eagles after missing one game with a high ankle sprain.

--RG Justin Smiley (left shoulder) is expected to play Sunday.

--DL Ronald Fields (right shoulder) left last week's game in the first half, but he is expected to be ready if needed against the Eagles.

--NT Anthony Adams (left ankle) sustained a sprain Sunday and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game.

--WR Taylor Jacobs (left hamstring) is not expected to play this week against the Eagles and is listed as doubtful.

--TE Delanie Walker (separated right shoulder) is expected to miss at least another week. He sustained his injury in the 49ers' final exhibition game, Sept. 1. Top Stories