San Francisco 49ers (5-8) at Seattle Seahawks (8-5)
KICKOFF: Thursday, 8:00 ET
TV: NFL Network, Bryant Gumbel, Cris Collinsworth
2006 RANKINGS: 49ers: offense 27th (9th rush, 26th pass); defense 25th (20th rush, 24th pass). Seahawks: offense 21st (15th rush, 20th pass); defense 15th (16th rush, 18th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Seahawks will use eight- and nine-man fronts in an effort to slow 49ers RB Frank Gore, but the real key is filling the right gaps and improved tackling. Seattle threw plenty of defenders at Gore in the first meeting, but he still racked up a franchise-record 212 yards by consistently running through arm tackles. The 49ers are still looking for improved play from QB Alex Smith, who isn't taking enough advantage of opponents over-playing the run. Seattle's offense typically starts quickly at home, but won't have injured WR Darrell Jackson and LG Floyd Womack, although WR Bobby Engram might return after missing nine games. A bigger concern is the season-ending injury to DT Craig Terrill, the latest loss on an injury-depleted and already undersized defensive line.
FAST FACTS: 49ers: Gore needs to average 74.4 rushing yards over the final three games to break Garrison Hearst's franchise single-season record of 1,570 set in 1998. ... Smith has five touchdowns and 10 interceptions the past seven games. Seahawks: Clinch their third consecutive NFC West title with a victory. ... Are 5-1 in their past six primetime games and 1-1 all-time on Thursday nights.
--TE Vernon Davis is unlike any tight end in the league, with his combination of size (6-feet-3, 253 pounds) and wide-receiver speed. Because he runs so well, the temptation might be to use him on deep routes that showcase his speed. But offensive coordinator Norv Turner said Davis' speed should make him even more effective on shallow patterns, as well.
"His ability to run should help him run all the underneath routes because people aren't going to crowd him," Turner said. "It should help him get more high-percentage things underneath. But those underneath routes and timed routes are precision routes. And that's where repetition and experience really come into play."
Quarterback Alex Smith and Davis finally teamed up on some plays in last week's game against the Packers. Davis caught three passes for 74 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown.
"The more you play with people and build rapport with receivers you get an understanding for each other and where they want the balls to get thrown," Smith said. "The longer you play with them, the better feel you have."
Davis said he believes his route-running prowess is coming along. Although Davis did not come into the league with the reputation as a dominant blocker, that part of his game has proved to be his best attribute thus far in the NFL. He said it is just a matter of time before he becomes a factor in the passing game.
"If you look at the film, nobody can run with me, whether it's a defensive back or linebackers," Davis said. "But in this league in order to run a route, you have to run it right. You can't just go out there and run it.
"Every route I run I try to take advantage of my speed, whether it's a short route or a post-corner route, whatever it is. I run as fast as I can to try to get open."
--LB Brandon Moore is within 11 tackles of overtaking Derek Smith for the team lead. Moore has 78 tackles on the season. Smith has led the 49ers in tackles each of his five seasons with the club. Moore leads the 49ers with 6.5 sacks.
--TE Delanie Walker might become more of a factor in the 49ers' offense. The rookie had the first two receptions of his pro career on Sunday, including a 29-yard gain. Walker is seeing a little more playing time due to Eric Johnson's injury.
--RS Brandon Williams is coming off his best day, as he returned a punt 25 yards and had a 40-yard kickoff return against the Packers. For the season, Williams is averaging 7.2 yards on punt returns and 23.8 on kickoffs.
--CB B.J. Tucker, who played one game earlier this season as an extra defensive back, has been recalled to the active roster after injuries to Donald Strickland and Sammy Davis. Tucker has one tackle this season.
--LB Renauld Williams has been promoted to the active roster for the game, and there's a chance he might be in uniform for Thursday's game to help out on special teams.
--CBs Donald Strickland (left knee) and Sammy Davis (left quadriceps) were placed on injured reserve.
--CB Shawntae Spencer has missed three games with a right ankle sprain but is likely to be upgraded to probable this week. The club expects him to return to the starting lineup.
--LB Derek Smith (left hamstring) missed last week's game and is questionable for Thursday's game.
--TE Eric Johnson (left knee) has missed two games with his injury and is likely to be out of action again Thursday.
--LB Jeff Ulbrich (right foot) is listed as questionable, though the club expects him to be ready for Thursday's game.
--LT Jonas Jennings (left ankle) has seen limited practice in the past month but has not missed any action due to his latest injury.
--OT Adam Snyder (right ankle/knee) is out for the game against the Saints, and might not be available to play the remainder of the season.
--DT Anthony Adams (knee) is listed as probable after missing last week's game against the Packers.
--Bobby Engram's return from a thyroid condition is welcome news to the Seahawks. It's also a relief to Engram, whose 10-week absence raised questions about the rest of his career. "I'm feeling good," Engram said. "Just walking around, normal life, I'm great. It's a bit of a challenge in terms of getting my stamina back on the field and being able to go intensely play after play after play.
"But that's coming and I think we've turned the corner."
Engram was initially surprised when doctors determined he had a thyroid condition. "My health is my main concern," Engram said. "I love this game. I love this organization. But I also love my life and my family a lot more. So I just had to take care of myself."
--C Robbie Tobeck will miss the game Thursday night with a hip injury.
--WR Darrell Jackson will miss the game Thursday night with a toe injury.
--TE Itula Mili will miss the game Thursday night with a concussion.
--WR Bobby Engram declared himself ready to play Thursday night after missing more than two months with a thyroid condition. The Seahawks are listing Engram as questionable, but Engram says he's ready to go.
--DT Rocky Bernard is questionable with a foot injury. Bernard has been able to play without practicing in recent weeks, but the short week could make it harder for him. Seattle is thin at defensive tackle.
--LG Floyd Womack is questionable with a groin injury. He probably will not play Thursday night.
--DE Joe Tafoya is probable with a calf injury. He did not practice Wednesday, but he was able to move around.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Coach Mike Nolan has repeatedly stated that he does not believe in quick fixes. Thus, the 49ers struggled to a 4-12 record last season as he declined to enact short-term improvements to the team that might have helped build a better record. And the same goes for this season.
That might also go for the quarterback position. Last year, Nolan traded away Tim Rattay, the team's most experienced quarterback, to open the door for rookie Alex Smith to begin taking his lumps.
Even though the 49ers signed Trent Dilfer to a backup role in the offseason, Nolan said he has not even considered benching Smith this season. He said the goal remains to get Smith on-the-job training to make him as good as he can be -- as quickly as possible.
While building the roster in the past two off-seasons, Nolan has taken a largely conservative strategy that was designed to enable the 49ers to make a significant roster upgrade in 2007.
After letting defensive players Julian Peterson and Andre Carter leave the 49ers via free agency, Nolan said he resisted the urge sign free agents who could make an immediate contribution because of the impact it would have on the 49ers' draft next year.
The 49ers expect to get a third-round compensatory pick for Peterson and a fourth-rounder for Carter, Nolan said. If the club has signed more free agents, those compensatory picks would have been minimized or negated entirely, he said.
"There are things that aren't where you'd want them, but in order for us to get it right and be the very best, we have to bite the bullet on some things," he said. "Once this year is over, we'll be as good as we've ever been and might be the best in the league as far as (the salary cap)."
The 49ers expect to head into next year approximately $40 million under the league's $109 million salary cap for next year. They expect to have at least seven draft picks in the first four rounds of the draft. "The next part is we have to be very good with the money and don't spend it foolishly," Nolan said.
Nolan allows himself on occasion to think about the future, especially after such a disappointing loss as the 30-19 defeat to the lowly Packers on Sunday in San Francisco. The 49ers have a quick turnaround this week, as they face the NFC West-leading Seahawks on Thursday night at Qwest Field.
"Thinking about that keeps your mind positive, because yesterday (was rough)," Nolan said. "I mean, just watching that -- watching the last few weeks -- I can put understanding to it. But that patience is only for so long, even for me."
There have been times when Nolan has made decisions that might hurt the team's chance to win in the short term while making the club stronger for the future, he said. That is why he decided to keep receiver Antonio Bryant out of the starting lineup for the first series of Sunday's game. Bryant was about five minutes late for a special-teams meeting at the team hotel Saturday night.
Without Bryant on the field, the 49ers' offense stalled at the Packers' 6-yard line after a first-and-goal situation on their opening drive of the game. The 49ers settled for a field goal. Also, Nolan confirmed return specialist Brandon Williams, a rookie from St. Louis, was deactivated for the Nov. 26 game against the Rams in his hometown for violating a team rule at the hotel.
"That's part of the structure," Nolan said. "That's all part of it, because if I don't teach them the rules and discipline them, then you start to look like certain teams in this league that have good players but they all do what they want to do."
Because Williams did not suit up for the game against the Rams, Arnaz Battle was forced to handle punt-return duties with a broken left hand. Battle's fumble late in the second quarter set up a Rams touchdown in the 49ers' 20-17 loss. "There are certain things you can do and certain things you can't do," Williams said. "Everybody has to follow certain rules. It was very tough for me, seeing as how we lost the game, and seeing as how I could've made an impact. It put it into perspective that every little thing counts."
Said Nolan, "It's on a business trip and ... the structure is set up to protect them. When somebody doesn't follow it, they jeopardize everybody around them, whether it's showing up on time or (having) family in the building.
"Everyone knows the rules and what needs to be done."
Matt Hasselbeck was injured and unavailable when the Seahawks suffered a 20-14 defeat at San Francisco last month. His replacement, Seneca Wallace, tossed two early interceptions that led to 10 points for the 49ers. The rematch comes Thursday night at Qwest Field. Hasselbeck will get the start four days after posting a 133.5 passer rating at Arizona. The Seahawks need another strong performance from their quarterback to help mask a growing list of deficiencies that are dragging down the team.
The short week of practice hurts the Seahawks because they have so many injured players, but the venue should more than offset the hardship. "The nice thing is that it's the same exact challenge for them," Hasselbeck said of the 49ers. "If anything, it's probably tougher on them because they have to come here, they have to travel."
The Seahawks are 5-1 at home this season. That includes 3-0 in games Hasselbeck started and finished. The three-time Pro Bowl passer also has a history of success against the 49ers. That includes 13 touchdown passes with four interceptions in his last six starts against San Francisco, all victories. His passer rating in those games was 102.4.
Hasselbeck has been less consistent this season. He has 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions after throwing 24 and nine, respectively, last season. The Seahawks are also less consistent this season. They are minus-five in turnover differential. They are banged up, too.
Seattle will be without leading receiver Darrell Jackson for the first time this season. The Seahawks will probably start their seventh offensive line combination in 14 games. And the defense remains vulnerable against the run.
"We have to become a more consistent football team," coach Mike Holmgren. "That is the bottom line."
The defense took much of the blame publicly when 49ers running back Frank Gore gashed Seattle for 212 yards rushing last month. Holmgren thought his team came out flat after possibly underestimating the 49ers. As much as anything, however, that game showed how important it is for Seattle's offense to protect the football early in games, particularly on the road. That's where Hasselbeck comes in. If he plays as well as he did against an improving Cardinals team on the road last week, the Seahawks should be able to handle a slumping 49ers team at home this week.
Gore's performance against Seattle last time got the Seahawks' attention.
"While you saw him on film, no one really knew too much about him (last time)," Holmgren said. "If nothing else, you know how damaging he can be. We know that first-hand. You are going into a game with your eyes wide open."