Almost as if scripted, the Seattle Seahawks followed a disastrous second preseason game (a 48-13 loss to Green Bay) with a solid win over Minnesota (30-13). While the outcomes of preseason games are rarely significant, the trend seems important for coach Mike Holmgren. In his nine seasons with the Seahawks, Holmgren has never won a second preseason game and never lost a third one. After the mistake-filled debacle in Green Bay, Holmgren had his team's attention. He barked all week about precision and execution, and the team responded with a much more crisp and intense performance against the Vikings.
"Well, that was better," Holmgren said dryly afterward. He had harped about pass protection. It was much improved, as neither Matt Hasselbeck nor Seneca Wallace was sacked. He complained of special teams penalties and mistakes. Those were gone, as Nate Burleson, Ben Obomanu and Josh Wilson had a number of good returns.
Because he'll rest many of his starters in the preseason finale against Oakland, Holmgren most needed to see that his starting offensive unit could move the ball. In a nine play, 74-yard scoring drive in the second period, the Seahawks looked ready for September. Even with tackle Walter Jones resting a sore shoulder, the Seahawks' No. 1 offense moved easily against a tough Minnesota defensive front.
Running back Shaun Alexander had gained only seven rushing yards in two previous preseason games, but on this drive, he carried four times for 21 yards, twice showing enough speed to get to the corner and turn upfield. Hasselbeck had attempted a mere five passes in the preseason before this game, but he went five-for-five on this drive for 59 yards. The questions about the development of his rapport with receiver Deion Branch were answered by two connections with him.
And those who wondered how well 35-year-old Marcus Pollard would fill in at tight end for the inconsistent Jerramy Stevens had the answer as Pollard came up with three consecutive catches of 24, three and 11 yards, showing his ability to find openings in all levels of the defense.
The patchwork offensive line gave Hasselbeck enough protection and also created enough good lanes for Alexander.
Holmgren will put most of the offensive package back on the shelf for the final week of the preseason and focus on collecting evidence for personnel decisions at the lower ranges of the depth chart. At least as far as the offensive side is concerned, he's seen just about all he needed to in the third preseason game.
--LT Walter Jones continues to be held out with a tender shoulder. Jones proved during his "franchise" years, when he sat out until the regular season, that he doesn't need the preseason to be ready to dominate.
--QB Matt Hasselbeck had played only a series before the third preseason game, but had a very strong week of practice and was precise and in good tempo against the Vikings.
--RT Ray Willis had been challenging for the starting job at RG but had a strong showing at tackle as regular starter Sean Locklear moved to LT in Jones' absence.
--WR/PR Nate Burleson continued his exceptional preseason with a 53-yard punt return.
--CB/KR Josh Wilson, a rookie, had his best game thus far, especially on special teams, making a nice tackle on one punt coverage and averaging 31 yards on three kickoff returns.
--DE Baraka Atkins, a rookie who had looked a little confused earlier in camp, continues to improve and had a sack against the Vikings.
--CB Kevin Hobbs came up with five tackles and an interception to strengthen his chances at the competitive cornerback spot.
The Cardinals have all but set their opening-day lineup and despite the 0-3 mark they take into the preseason finale Thursday at Denver, this preseason has been a valuable experience for first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt and the players.
"What I really like is in the pressure situations, we have responded," Whisenhunt said.
The first offense sparkled in the second and third games but red lights continue to flash on defense, where most positions are now settled and the first-unit players will get more reps alone at their positions. Whisenhunt was especially heartened by the defense in an exchange in the first half of a 33-31 loss to San Diego in Preseason Game 3 on Saturday.
Cardinals rookie kickoff returner Steve Breaston fumbled the ball -- Whisenhunt said afterward that he'd been on Breaston about how he was carrying the ball -- and the Chargers pounced on it. But on their first snap, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby forced a fumble that teammate Gerald Hayes recovered. It was the sort of playmaking expected of Dansby with his move inside in the 3-4 alignment, where coaches say Dansby has greater opportunity to run and hit.
"Instead of going into the tank, we created a turnover, took the ball, went down the field and scored," Whisenhunt said. "That shows we are growing as a team."
The lineup is all but set going into the final preseason game and it appears a number of highly paid free agents have won jobs. Veteran cornerback Rod Hood, who initially was signed to battle Eric Green on the right side, in the past week has dislodged 2005 first-round pick Antrel Rolle on the left. Green, the best corner in camp to date, has won the right-side job. Rolle may find a niche as the top backup and in nickel packages. Rolle repeatedly was called for pass interference penalties or beaten on big pass plays in his opportunities to retain the job. Rolle does play the run well.
"I respect Coach Whisenhunt when he says you have to earn it," Hood said. "That makes you a better player. Once you get the money, you might have a tendency to kind of relax because you feel you've got it made. But these other guys are hungry and they are pushing, too."
In one of the closest battles, veteran free safety Terrence Holt, signed during free agency, edged Aaron Francisco, a big hitter who a year ago was a special teams Pro Bowl alternate. It appears that three players signed during free agency have cracked the first offense. Center Al Johnson beat Nick Leckey, the starter late last season. Left tackle Mike Gandy had little competition as he moved in where
Leonard Davis, now with Dallas, once played. Fullback Terrelle Smith, the best blocker the Cardinals have recently had at the position, will lead Edgerrin James.
Whisenhunt liked the way the free agents came to their new team and competed to win spots. The benching of Rolle also showed that he was serious about players having to compete and win their spots.
"If you are consistent in what you say and show proof, then they will believe it," Whisenhunt said. "Free agents coming in just want a chance to compete for a starting position. I can't speak for other coaches, but I know the coaches I have been around -- Bill Cowher, Joe Gibbs, Dan Henning -- that's the way they did things. Maybe that's why I believe in it so strongly."
--RB Edgerrin James (hamstring) was held out of the San Diego game on Saturday as a precautionary measure. The injury is not serious and James has a lengthy history of playing very little during preseason.
--QB Matt Leinart showed anyone who questions his mobility what he has vs. San Diego. Leinart twice scrambled to make big plays, first hitting Anquan Boldin in stride behind the secondary for an 80-yard touchdown pass and later dancing before finding Bryant Johnson for a 41-yarder.
--RB Marcel Shipp is cementing his role as the Cardinals' short-yardage/goal-line back. He rushed for a four-yard touchdown on third and goal vs. San Diego, a confidence builder for an offense with a rebuilt line and a history of failure rushing in such situations.
--RB/KR J.J. Arrington, after two tough years following his second-round selection in the 2005 draft, is finding a niche and performing well. It appears that Arrington has held off rookie Steve Breaston for kickoff-return duty (Breaston will run back punts) after Arrington took one back 70 yards to open the San Diego game. Coach Ken Whisenhunt also likes Arrington's performance as the third-down back and plans to use him there.
--RT Oliver Ross will undergo surgery to repair his torn triceps muscle and very likely and on Injured Reserve. The injury opened the door for rookie first-round pick Levi Brown to step into the lineup.
--RT Levi Brown, the fifth player chosen in the April draft, likely will be in the opening-day starting lineup after Oliver Ross suffered a triceps tear that will require surgery and likely sideline Ross for the season.
--PR Steve Breaston has punt return duty nailed down but appears to have lost an intense battle with J.J. Arrington for kickoff returns. Breaston lost a fumble on a kickoff return vs. San Diego -- after Arrington had returned the opening kickoff 70 yards.
--K Neil Rackers continued his impressive preseason. He had a 50-yard field goal in the first half vs. San Diego and his three first-half kickoffs went into the end zone. He'd opened preseason with a 59-yard field goal off the dirt at Oakland and has resembled his 2005 Pro Bowl form throughout preseason.
--CB Eric Green, whose shaky 2006 play caused the team to sign free agent Rod Hood, has not only won the right-side job but has been the team's best corner during preseason. Green credits the signing of Hood, however, for pushing him in their competition.
--CB Rod Hood was moved to the left side, where he has beaten 2005 first-round pick Antrel Rolle.
--CB Antrel Rolle, a 2005 first-round pick, has been beaten out of a job by veteran Rod Hood, signed as a free agent during the off-season. Hood initially was signed to battle Eric Green on the right side, but after Green was strong early in camp, Hood went to the left side to battle Rolle, who repeatedly suffered pass interference penalties and was beaten on big pass plays.
--OLB Chike Okeafor, the team sacks leader in 2006, still has not been placed on Injured Reserve as the team and medical personnel attempt to determine if there is a reasonable chance for his return after Okeafor had surgery to repair a biceps tear.
--OLB Calvin Pace remains slightly ahead of Darryl Blackstock on the strong side in place of injured Chike Okeafor.
--NT Gabe Watson, who dropped about 40 pounds since last season, has held off second-round pick Alan Branch for the starting job.
--FS Terrence Holt, signed during the off-season, edged Aaron Francisco, a Pro Bowl special-team alternate last season, for the starting job.
--QB Lang Campbell was signed to a one-year contract. He will be the fourth arm on the roster, behind Matt Leinart, Kurt Warner and Shane Boyd. Campbell was in Cleveland's training camp two years ago as an undrafted rookie. He played in the Arena Football League this past spring, passing for 2,279 yards and 41 touchdowns with the Austin Wranglers. He was in Atlanta's training camp until his Aug. 12 release.
--QB Toby Korrodi was released. He clearly was behind the three top QBs and was not going to make the roster.
--FB A.J. Schable reached an injury settlement with the team and was released. He had surgery to repair a fractured right foot.
--WR Ahmad Merritt, who dislocated and fractured his ankle in the second preseason game, is likely out for the season and a candidate for an injury settlement.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Running back Steven Jackson was on the field for one play. Wide receiver Torry Holt and right guard Richie Incognito did not play. The result in a 20-10 loss to Oakland was another practice game played without a touchdown from the first-team offense. Is it time for concern?
"If we had put up some points as a first unit, I don't think there'd be a discussion," Holt said. "But since we haven't put up any points, there may be a little bit of concern for the fans. I would say, we're working well in practice. Hopefully, we're saving up all the scoring stuff for the first week."
Quarterback Marc Bulger said now is not a time for panic, but acknowledged, "We wanted to get touchdowns; we didn't do it. We did some good things, a lot of bad things."
Rams coach Scott Linehan has wanted to get a long look at rookie running back Brian Leonard in these games, and has also not informed Leonard when he would enter games. That's why Linehan had Jackson in for one snap in the last two games, so Leonard would understand he has to be ready at any time to play.
"If something happens to Steven the second play of the game, Brian has to go and I want to see how he responds," Linehan said after the Rams' second game against San Diego. "Brian Leonard had no idea he was going in that fast. In a game, when we play Carolina, you never know what's going to happen. You have to be ready to step in when you're called."
As for some of the struggles with the first-team offense thus far, Linehan also won't push the panic button. Asked about not scoring more points, Linehan said, "The reason we haven't is more basic. We have to execute better. We haven't taken things back or changed anything. We just haven't played as well as we'd like to play at this point. There are still a lot of good things there. We're looking at a lot of different personnel. When we start the regular season we'll be in pretty good shape.
"As far as people questioning, that's the nature of the game. I'm used to that. That's a daily thing in this profession. Right now that will be the topic and I'd rather have it be the topic now then three weeks into the regular season."
--WR Torry Holt did not play against Oakland because of some soreness and swelling he experienced in his surgically-repaired knee during practice. "Last week (in practice), I didn't see the fresh legs that I like to see," coach Scott Linehan said. "It's going to be one of those things where he's not going to be able to take as many snaps during the week. He took a lot that day (in practice). I just want to get him as fresh as I can for the opener."
--RG Richie Incognito missed Friday's game against Oakland and likely will be held out of the preseason finale against Kansas City because of an injured ankle. For the game against the Raiders, coach Scott Linehan said, "I think he would have been questionable for the game (if it was the regular season), so we kept him out of the game. He will be closer to play this week if we needed him to, but we're hoping he can recover from that and be close to 100 percent or 100 percent by the opener."
--DT Claude Wroten suffered a slight ankle sprain against the Raiders and will be considered day-to-day this week in practice.
--RB Rich Alexis, in competition for the team's No. 4 running back job, sprained his left foot against Oakland and has significant swelling.
--C Brett Romberg started against Oakland, his second start of the preseason. Romberg is battling with Andy McCollum for the starting job, and the coaches are expected to make their decision for this week's preseason finale against Kansas City.
--WR Marques Hagans had a touchdown reception for the second consecutive game, and appears to have won a roster spot as the team's sixth receiver.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers have not looked a whole lot different in the exhibition season than they did a year ago in the regular season. The club struggled with consistency on both sides of the ball. The third exhibition game is generally regarded as the closest approximation to the regular season, as the starters play into the third quarter. But the 49ers' starters fell flat against the Bears, falling behind 17-0 and getting thoroughly dominated.
"In a few weeks we won't even remember this," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "But at the same time, this is a little bit of a reality check for us. We played last year's NFC champions. It's a place we aspired to be. We still have a long way to go, and I think we're going to get here but the key is that we have to get there."
The 49ers' first-team offense managed just three first downs in nine drives against the Bears' first unit. The defense wasn't much better, allowing Rex Grossman to pass for 211 yards and two touchdowns.
The big question mark with the 49ers' defense is finding a way to generate a pass rush. The 49ers are pinning a lot of their hopes on outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, who recorded a career-high 5.5 sacks last season with the Patriots.
The team's offense looked good in the first two exhibition games, as Smith played better and looked more poised than at any point in his previous two seasons. The 49ers feel good about the young talent they've assembled on offense, but there is little question that the defense has some work to do.
"I don't think the defense is as far along as the offense, as far as having young, talented playmakers on defense," 49ers vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said. "But we're going in that direction."
One of those playmakers on defense was promoted into the starting lineup last week. Rookie linebacker Patrick Willis was officially moved into the starting lineup at the "Mike" linebacker spot. Willis was the team's leading tackler in each of the first three exhibition games.
The 49ers have played the exhibition season without three starters. Running back Frank Gore sustained a broken right hand while going through an individual period prior to the 49ers' second practice of training camp. And defensive linemen Bryant Young (back) and Aubrayo Franklin (knee) missed the entire exhibition season, as well.
Gore, Young and Franklin are all expected to be back for the 49ers' regular-season opener, Monday, Sept. 10, against the Cardinals.
--LB Brandon Moore, the team's leading tackler last season, was demoted from the starting lineup when the club decided rookie Patrick Willis had earned a starting job. Moore will still line up at left defensive end in nickel situations.
--RT Joe Staley, the No. 28 overall selection, had an outstanding training camp in his competition with Kwame Harris for the starting job. Coach Mike Nolan was expected to name Staley as the starter.
--WR C.J. Brewer, a first-year player who spent all of last season on the 49ers' practice squad, sustained a torn right ACL and was placed on injured reserve.
--S Dashon Goldson, a rookie who had an impressive training camp, sustained a right elbow injury and is expected to miss several weeks. He sustained the injury in the 49ers' second exhibition game, against the Raiders.
--RB Frank Gore has started taking part in individual and some team work after sustaining a broken right hand on July 30. He should be ready for the regular-season opener after missing the entire exhibition season.
--DL Bryant Young has returned to limited practices after nursing a bulging disc in his back for most of the summer. He is expected to be ready to start the regular season.
--NT Aubrayo Franklin has not experienced any setbacks after sustaining a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Although he did not play in the exhibition season, he is expected to be ready to play in the regular-season opener.