St. Louis Rams (4-4) at Seattle Seahawks (5-3)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Matt Vasgersian, JC Pearson
SERIES: 17th meeting. Rams lead 9-7, but the Seahawks have won three straight in the series, including a 30-28 victory in St. Louis on Oct. 15. Prior to this stretch, the Rams had won four in a row over the Seahawks, including a 2004 playoff win in Seattle.
2006 rankings: Rams: offense 4th (23rd rush, 4th pass); defense 27th (28th rush, 15th pass). Seahawks: offense 20th (17th rush, 20th pass); defense 16th (13th rush, 25th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said RB Maurice Morris can't continually handle the 30 carries he received Monday night, but Seattle does need to attack a Rams defense allowing 141.2 rushing yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry. That would also help QB Seneca Wallace, whose two big pass plays in his two starts have come off pump-fakes. Wallace is also more mobile than injured Matt Hasselbeck, so the Rams need to be wary of over-pursuing. St. Louis WR Torry Holt has averaged 6.5 catches for 108 yards the past four regular-season meetings and routinely abuses CB Marcus Trufant, who must have good communication with FS Ken Hamlin to avoid back-breaking big plays. To that end, Seattle's front seven needs to be able to handle the running game so the safeties can focus on helping over the top.
FAST FACTS: Rams: QB Marc Bulger has just one interception this season in 290 attempts, and has not thrown on in the first half. ... Have allowed a combined 402 rushing yards the past two games. Seahawks: Have dropped 22 passes, equaling the team's total for all of last season. ... Are 25-4 in their past 29 home games.
--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa practiced again Friday, and it appears he will be able to play Sunday against Seattle with his injured hand and elbow. Said coach Scott Linehan, "He had another good day. Didn't miss a beat. It's looking more and more positive for this week."
--DE Tony Bryant might be active for the first time since being signed Oct. 18. Said coach Scott Linehan, "I think he's in much better shape now. He had a little problem with soreness in his knee. He's had a knee that's bothering him the last year or two. He looks much better this week. He's definitely a candidate for being up this week."
--RB Kay-Jay Harris, signed earlier this week as a roster replacement for RB Tony Fisher, likely will be active Sunday. He figures to participate on special teams and serve as the No. 3 running back.
--RB Tony Fisher, out for the season after suffering a torn ACL Sunday against Kansas City, is expected to undergo surgery in about two weeks.
--RB Steven Jackson has four runs of 20 yards or more with a long of 37 this season. Opponent running backs have eight rushes of 20 yards or more with a long of 51.
--RT Tom Ashworth continues working with the starters this week because RT Sean Locklear is missing time with an ankle injury. Locklear has gone from probable to questionable to doubtful in recent weeks. He was listed as doubtful on Friday. Ashworth has played decently at right tackle, except for three false-start penalties against the Raiders on Monday night. St. Louis DE Leonard Little will be as stern a test as Oakland DE Derrick Burgess was last week for the former New England Patriot..
--C Robbie Tobeck returned to practice Thursday. The veteran suffered knee and elbow injuries against the Raiders on Monday night. He's probable on the injury report.
--SS Jordan Babineaux practiced Friday after missing Wednesday's and Thursday's practices. He has a shoulder injury. Seattle might go back to SS Michael Boulware this week. Babineaux had replaced Boulware in the lineup after Seattle allowed too many deep passes. Mike Holmgren has said that Babineaux will be a game-time decision.
--WR Nate Burleson (foot) practiced Friday after missing Wednesday's and Thursday's practices. The team is listing Burleson as questionable. Burleson is the Seahawks' new punt returner. If he can't play, CB Jimmy Williams would take back punt-return duties.
--WR Bobby Engram, still battling a thyroid condition, returned to practice Friday after missing Wednesday's and Thursday's practices. It's unlikely he'll play against the Rams.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
-- The importance of Sunday's game in Seattle is obvious. Little has to be said. The Rams trail the Seahawks by one game for the division lead. A win for the Rams would create a tie for first place with both teams having 5-4 records. A win for Seattle would provide the Seahawks with a two-game lead, which is actually three because Seattle's two victories over the Rams would give them the tiebreaker if the teams finished the season with identical records.
Even in his first season as head coach, it didn't take long for Scott Linehan to understand how the rivalry between the team has increased.
"I guess it's new in recent years, but I think this rivalry game, you appreciate it more now that I've coached in one," Linehan said. "I think whoever wins that football game, or wins that series, if you can split the series, this gives both a chance to finish out the season based on how they play the rest of the teams. Usually it's a pretty good indicator of who's going to win this division. Has been historically, especially since it's been restructured."
The Rams lost at home to Seattle on a last-second, 54-yard field goal on Oct. 15 in a game in which running back Shaun Alexander did not play, but quarterback Matt Hasselbeck did. This week, both are expected to be out, but Linehan said Seneca Wallace has fit in as the starting QB.
"I think that's a testament to their system," he said. "Plugs right in. I don't think they've changed much. Certainly Seneca's using his legs a little more than Matt, although Matt had the longest run from scrimmage against us the last time we played. Matt's a good scrambler.
"One thing they do a great job of is ... Seneca's looking to throw first. He's not dropping back and looking around. He's going through his progressions and going to the right guys, and he's really only running when people don't contain him or do those things. He brings another dimension that makes it a little more difficult to defend."
-- Linehan also realizes the Rams offense will have to be mistake-free going against the Seattle defense and a rabid crowd. Against Kansas City last Sunday, the offense had to use a silent count at one point because of the noise Chiefs fans were making. Right tackle Alex Barron had false starts on two consecutive plays at a critical part of the game in the fourth quarter.
"We've used it on the road every game, and it's a tool that you have to use because otherwise guys are basically having to watch the ball and they're going to be too late to set on the guys coming off the edge," Linehan said. "We've addressed that weekly, and we can't accept it (false starts). If we continue to do that, we're going to have a hard time winning football games."
As for Seattle's defense, Linehan concluded, "I think they've really stepped their game up big by creating some key lost yardage plays against us. They went on a pretty good tear as far as sacking the quarterback. I think they've really improved from where they started, and they're playing their best football right now."
-- Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and running back Shaun Alexander were both listed as doubtful in Friday’s injury report, but neither player will play on Sunday. Alexander, who hasn’t played since the September 24 game against the New York Giants, is recovering from a crack in the fourth metatarsal bone in his left foot. Mike Holmgren said that Alexander ran basic drills in Thursday’s practice, but was rested on Friday. “He went through some stuff … ran cones, cut, did some of those things, and came out of it ok, so we have our fingers crossed maybe we will get (him) back next week,” the coach said.
Hasselbeck ran 7-on-7 drills on Friday, and Holmgren was asked about his starting quarterback’s progress after practice. “I think he did ok,” Holmgren said. “To be honest, I wasn’t watching him all that much; I knew what he was going to do. He was just going to throw 7-on-7 and I think for the first time out of the chute he did fine. We’re thinking he could play next week, so this is a good start. The test will be how he feels tomorrow, I suppose.”
This was the first time Hasselbeck had practiced since his knee injury, suffered in a 31-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on October 22, when linebacker E.J. Henderson rolled into his knee. Hasselbeck participated in eight plays and wore a knee brace.
“Yeah, I would love that,: Hasselbeck said, when asked about his prospects in playing next Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. “I don’t know if that will happen, that would be great though. The next real practice for me would be potentially on Wednesday and so I am going to do everything I can between now and then to show that I am healthy enough and if I am healthy enough, I’m sure they will let me go. If I am not, I know they won’t. I have to do my part over the weekend.
-- Seattle strong safety Michael Boulware couldn't be sure how long he'd have to wait before getting another shot at the starting job. His wait might be over after only two games. Boulware, benched following an Oct. 22 loss to Minnesota, has been working with the starters this week. His replacement, Jordan Babineaux, has a shoulder injury and might not play when the Rams visit Qwest Field on Sunday.
"I didn't feel out of step, but I was a little anxious," Boulware said after getting back on the field with the No. 1 defense. "I definitely wanted to put on a good show, so to speak, and make sure that I was in the right place at the right time. It was definitely great to get back out there."
Boulware played linebacker at Florida State. He has outstanding ball skills and made big plays as a rookie in Seattle's nickel defense. The transition to strong safety has had its ups and downs. Boulware isn't very natural in coverage. His instincts sometimes resemble those of a linebacker, leading to blown assignments.
Seattle coaches hoped time away from the lineup might help Boulware regroup. They also hoped Babineaux's superior coverage skills would help prevent big plays. Seattle gave up big plays in Babineaux's first start, at Kansas City, but that had a lot to do with the Seahawks' inability to stop the run. The defense dominated against Oakland's weak offense more recently.
Boulware, a second-round pick in 2004, had started 26 consecutive games before his benching. The transition to the bench has been tough. "It's something I've had to battle through, fight through, and I'm still fighting through it," Boulware said. "My role has been limited, and I'm not really sure what my role is going to be this week, but I'm going to be prepared for whatever comes my way."
Rams receiver Torry Holt could be coming his way, for starters. Holt beat Bouwlare for a 67-yard touchdown last month. Boulware was in position to make the play. He even got his hands on the ball, but Holt tipped the ball to himself and made a spectacular grab.
"I told Torry Holt after the game that he made me a better player on that play because it was something I will never forget," Boulware said. "It was a spectacular play on his part."
Said Holt: "He did a good job of staying over the top and competing for that ball. It was just two athletes competing for the football ... and I was fortunate to come down on the winning side of that one."