Those attached to Seattle's fortunes can mitigate concern about the Seahawks' league-worst record (10-21) in season-opening games with a reminder that the 2005 season opened with a loss at Jacksonville but finished in Super Bowl XL against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Coach Mike Holmgren has tinkered with his offense, introducing more pre-snap motion than was his custom, but it's on the defensive side that the 2007 Seahawks have a new look.
This edition will have six new starters on defense, with an entirely rebuilt secondary.
"It's probably been a little bit more than normal, I would say," Holmgren said of the turnover. "Two things have happened: One we were not particularly happy with our defensive play. The year we went to the Super Bowl, our defense had young guys that were drafted that came in and played, but we knew we were going to make some changes."
The Seahawks will send out two new starting defensive ends in Patrick Kerney and Darryl Tapp, who -- at least temporarily -- beat out Bryce Fisher for the start on the right side. Holmgren and the staff had hoped to have defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs back from knee surgery, but he suffered a season-ending injury to his "other" knee, leaving them to once again go with Chuck Darby and Rocky Bernard.
"Up front, we're just trying to find the right combination of guys," Holmgren said.
Marcus Trufant moves from right cornerback back over to the left side, where he started, and second-year pro Kelly Jennings will fill the vacancy on the right. Michael Boulware and Ken Hamlin, last season's starting safeties, are both gone now, having been replaced by Brian Russell and Deon Grant.
"We have had turnover at safety," Holmgren said. "It's been an on-going thing because we haven't really played the way we all would like to play over there."
The overall impact? "I think we have a shot," Holmgren said. "I really do; if we can keep this group together for a while, I think we have a shot to be pretty good."
The Hawks open with the same offensive line that finished last season, with the biggest change coming at the receiver positions. Deion Branch moves from split end to flanker, with D.J. Hackett and Nate Burleson considered so close in talent that they may alternate starts. The staff contends that Marcus Pollard is a better blocker and more reliable performer at tight end than departed tight end Jerramy Stevens.
"I'm very excited about this group," Holmgren said. "The vibes I'm getting are all good from an emotional readiness standpoint. Physically, we still have to play the games and tackle and block and all those things, but there's really a good feeling on the football team."
SERIES HISTORY: 8th meeting. Seahawks lead series, 6-1. It's actually the second part of a home-and-home duel as the Seahawks beat Tampa Bay, 23-7, in last season's final regular-season game. Coach Mike Holmgren is 13-4 all-time against the Buccaneers (2-1 with Seattle, 11-3 with Green Bay).
--When Matt Hasselbeck approaches the line in the season opener, the familiar faces of Darrell Jackson and Jerramy Stevens will be absent. Those two, now with other teams, caught 14 touchdown passes last season. Hasselbeck isn't concerned. "We have a bunch of guys at that position that are fighting for opportunities and I think we've had a great camp that way," Hasselbeck said. "You think of guys like Nate (Burleson), Hack (D.J. Hackett), Deion (Branch) and Bobby (Engram), none of those guys missed a single practice. Guys are playing hard and competing. I'm not worried. If people are worried, don't be, we're okay."
--The Seahawks added three players to their roster on the final weekend before Week 1. It's a signal to the team that nobody can get too comfortable. "This is just the beginning and the roster itself is a flexible thing during the course of the year, so you always have to be earning your way, so to speak," coach Mike Holmgren said. "We'll do what we have to do as an organization to try and keep making it better if possible, so it's important for the younger players to hear me and understand that, and not think that they've arrived. This is just the beginning, and they have to keep going hard."
--Bringing in new players can be dicey, considering how difficult it is to build team chemistry. "I think we have a real solid locker room right now, so any new players are coming into a good healthy situation," Holmgren said. "Before we bring anybody in here, sign them, we talk about that, what type of a young man he is. They'll come in and blend right in and make themselves a part of the football team and the guys we have here."
--This is a homecoming game for Tampa tight end Jerramy Stevens, who grew up in nearby Olympia and attended the University of Washington before playing his first five years in the NFL in Seattle.
Stevens was not re-signed by the Hawks after a string of off-field legal problems. "I wish him well," Holmgren said. "I don't want him to do well on Sunday, but in his career and how he does things ... I root for him."
BY THE NUMBERS: 10-21 -- The Seahawks' record in season openers, worst in the NFL.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not gonna take the heat for those other guys." -- Coach Mike Holmgren, whose 4-4 record in openers is much better than the 6-17 mark of other former Seahawk coaches.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Dealing even after final cuts, the Seahawks added three veterans to their roster for the first week of the season. They traded safety Michael Boulware to Houston for defensive end Jason Babin, picked up defensive end Ellis Wyms as a free agent after he was cut from Tampa Bay, and traded a conditional draft pick to Jacksonville for back Alvin Pearman. Meanwhile, the Hawks named their practice squad: WR Jordan Kent, G/C Steve Vallos, FB David Kirtman, CB Kevin Hobbs, WR Logan Payne, LB Cameron Jensen, TE Joe Newton, DE Nu'u Tafisi.
--LT Walter Jones. After missing most of the preseason to rest a sore right shoulder, Jones is back in practice and expected to see full duty in the opener.
--G Steve Vallos, a rookie on the practice squad, is getting some work at the center position because of a lack of depth at the position.
--DT Ellis Wyms, a recent pickup, is likely to see more work on the inside rather than at defensive end.
--CB/S Jordan Babineaux missed all the preseason games with a bruised knee, but is back at practice and expected to play in the opener.
--DE Darryl Tapp, formerly a pass-rush specialist, is expected to get the start over Bryce Fisher on the right side.
GAME PLAN: The Seahawks games against Tampa Bay historically have been close and low scoring. Holmgren has coached against the Monte Kiffin defense a number of times and said that field position and ball security are always keys to staying in the game. He has admitted in the past that he sometimes gets conservative in games that could be low scoring.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren vs. Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden. Gruden was an assistant for Holmgren early in his career. Although both downplay it as ancient history, the pupil always is especially eager to "school" his teacher.
Buccaneers LB Derrick Brooks vs. Seahawks blocking backs. Brooks has had several big games against the Seahawks and could do so again if he blitzes frequently. Except for the generally reliable Mack Strong, the blitz pick-up by Seahawk backs has been particularly weak.
INJURY IMPACT: WR Ben Obomanu (hamstring) is the biggest concern for the Hawks. His return looked unlikely early in the week. As he's the fifth receiver, his absence should not have a significant effect on the scheme.
--CB/S Jordan Babineaux missed all of the preseason games with a bruised knee, but is back in action and if in good enough condition, could contribute to the nickel defense and special teams.
There appears to be little doubt the Cardinals will be able to score points this year. They have gifted receivers in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Running back Edgerrin James still has plenty left. Quarterback Matt Leinart should show continued growth in his second year. The offensive line appears at least competent. And new coach Ken Whisenhunt proved as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator that he knows how to call plays.
But can the Cardinals stop anybody? That's the biggest question the team has entering Monday night's game in San Francisco. In the second and third preseason games, the Cardinals starting defense yielded more than 400 yards in its two halves of action. It didn't pressure the quarterback and had just fair success against the run. The players blamed the bad statistics on vanilla game plans and said fans will see a different defense once the season starts.
But Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast used a basic scheme for a reason. They wanted to evaluate players in one-on-one matchups, and the Cardinals seemed to lose more than their share, especially up front. Defensive end/outside linebacker Bertrand Berry didn't get to the quarterback much, a troubling development since the team's second-best pass rusher, outside linebacker Chike Okeafor, is out for the year with a torn biceps tendon. If Berry doesn't return to his 2004 form -- when he had 14 1/2 sacks and made the Pro Bowl -- the Cardinals will be in some trouble.
Berry dropped 15 pounds in the offseason -- down to about 255 -- after watching himself on tape for the past two years. He didn't like what he saw: a player who didn't appear as quick and explosive as in years past, a player who tended to wear down as the games progressed.
In training camp, he looked quick and fast and beat the team's offensive tackles consistently in one-on-one drills, so maybe Berry is back in form.
He had better be. Defensive ends Antonio Smith and Darnell Dockett haven't proven they can get to the quarterback consistently. Maybe in the regular season the team will unleash inside linebacker Karlos Dansby as a rusher. He didn't blitz much in the preseason, but that should change once the games count. Coaches are hoping that nose tackle Gabe Watson, or his backup, Alan Branch, can occupy a couple of interior offensive linemen, allowing Dansby to slip through creases and get to the quarterback.
It had better work. The Cardinals cornerbacks, Eric Green and Rod Hood, are questionable. If they don't have the benefit of a pass rush, the Cardinals will be hard pressed to improve their pass defense, which was ranked 30th in the league last year.
SERIES HISTORY: 32nd meeting. 49ers lead the series, 17-14. The Cardinals have won four straight, sweeping the 49ers the past two seasons. The last three games, however, have been decided by a touchdown or less. The 49ers had trouble dealing with receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who caught 13 passes for 226 yards in last year's games. The Cardinals were able to run the ball in the second meeting, gaining more than 100 yards on the ground. Defensively, the Cardinals kept 49ers running back Frank Gore from gaining big yardage (138 yards in two games) but he did score four touchdowns and hurt them as a receiver, catching 12 passes.
--Just three of the team's five draft picks are on the 53-man roster. Linebacker Buster Davis, the third-round pick, was released, as was tight end Ben Patrick, the seventh-rounder. Patrick was signed to the practice squad, while Davis moved on to the Lions practice squad.
--Davis was the highest pick cut in his first year by the team since Darwin Walker, a third-rounder, was let go in 2000.
--QB Matt Leinart has played only part of one game against the 49ers. He wasn't the starter when the teams met for the first time last year. And he suffered a sprained shoulder midway through the second game. He completed nine of 13 passes for 162 yards.
--In 2003 and 2004, these two teams went to overtime in three of their four games. The 49ers won the last two.
--Kurt Warner was the starter when the teams met to open the 2006 season. He was named NFC Player of the Week after completing 23 of 37 for 301 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn't intercepted. Five weeks later, Warner had lost his job.
--49ers TE Vernon Davis played only one game against the Cardinals last year, but he caught five passes, including a 31-yarder for a touchdown.
BY THE NUMBERS: 4 -- Number of offensive linemen who are either new, or playing different positions than last year. Left guard Deuce Lutui is the only starter returning in the same spot.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Can I say after Monday night?" -- Coach Ken Whisenhunt, when asked if he's comfortable with his team's pass rush.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--LT Mike Gandy was one of the most pleasant surprises of camp for the coaches. They were confident they were getting a good player when they signed Gandy in free agency, but he's been better at pass protecting on the edge than they expected.
--The Cardinals think moving to the 3-4 as their base defense will help them adjust to offensive sets without wholesale substitutions. It should help them disguise blitzes and alignment. ... Last year, the team felt opponents could predict blitzes just by the team's personnel groupings.
--The offensive line has been a trouble spot for years, but coach Ken Whisenhunt seems extraordinarily comfortable with his starters. That's because he has Russ Grimm coaching them, and he's seen Grimm work wonders with players everyone else thought were average at best.
--Defensive lineman Ross Kolodziej (sprained knee) is the only Cardinal expected to miss the game. It's questionable if Kolodziej would have been active, even if healthy.
--J.J. Arrington and Marcel Shipp will be the team's third-down backs and will occasionally be in the lineup together.
--RB Marcel Shipp is likely to be the team's short-yardage and goal-line back, although Edgerrin James will get some time in that role, too.
--TE Troy Bienemann will be making his NFL debut. Bienemann's career was delayed by two knee injuries, one as a senior at Washington State in 2005 and another last summer while with the Saints. He's from Santa Clara and grew up a 49ers fan.
--DT Gabe Watson is holding on to the starting nose tackle's job but he's being pushed by another Michigan product, Alan Branch. Both should get plenty of playing time this year.
GAME PLAN: Much has been made this offseason of Whisenhunt's desire to build a strong running game. But he's not stupid. He knows the strength of this offense is at receiver, with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Whisenhunt won't be afraid to throw, especially early. If the Cardinals have a lead in the second half, that's when they'll emphasize the run.
On defense, the Cardinals must control Frank Gore, of course, with tight end Vernon Davis as the wild card. He missed most of last year with injury and can be a dynamic player. The 49ers receivers are questionable, but then so are the Cardinals cornerbacks.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: 49ers TE Vernon Davis vs. Cardinals OLB Calvin Pace. Pace will line up on the strong side most of the time, which puts him head up on Davis. It's a challenge for Pace, a backup forced into the lineup because of the injury to Chike Okeafor.
Cardinals SS Adrian Wilson vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore. The Cardinals like to bring Wilson up near scrimmage as a run stopper. He has great speed and anticipation. But if and the Cardinals don't tackle well, Gore will have a huge day.
INJURY IMPACT: Other than Kolodziej, the Cardinals are healthy. C Nick Leckey (knee) practiced this week and is expected to be available to play.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
It was a November day last season in Carolina when the Rams' performance that day led to a major change in the coaching staff. The Rams lost that day, 15-0. More notable was the way they lost. With coach Scott Linehan as the offensive play-caller, the Rams gained a total of 111 yards and essentially ignored the running game. Running backs Steven Jackson and Stephen Davis combined for 31 yards on eight attempts, while quarterback Marc Bulger passed for 142 yards and was sacked seven times.
Following the game, Linehan decided to hand off the play-calling to offensive coordinator Greg Olson, and the Rams won four of their last six games. This season, Olson remains the man calling plays. When the subject of the change was broached this week, Linehan laughed and said, "You always keep reminding me of that." But he also reflected, while explaining the decision.
"We needed to change our whole complexion as far as our team and our approach," Linehan said. "That was part of it. I felt like I needed to change. I think I needed to be much more aware of some things that when you're consumed with play-calling or being the head coach and the offensive coordinator sometimes you miss. When you get in a tight game, you might miss the fact that if I was standing there not as the play-caller I could certainly urge them to keep running it. I got into the feeling that we couldn't run the ball, so we threw it and just created a one-dimensional game and played right into their hands.
"I think it's much easier to be sitting in that other chair and get a feel for the game that way. As hard as it was, it was necessary. Sometimes those things don't necessarily work, but I think at that time of the year we needed to shake things up a bit and I thought the easiest thing was to look in the mirror because there weren't many positives other than we had a safe trip home from that game as far as I was concerned."
Linehan knows he doesn't need the media to remind him of what happened that day.
He said, "It was very humbling. It's tough. It was hard to stomach. You look back on it, watch it -- we've seen this tape so many times, that's another reminder and humbling experience as well. It just goes to show you that if you're not ready to play, no matter how talented or good you think you may be, and if the other team is more ready to play as far as their intensity and you don't match it, you can be shut out and they proved that to us last year. You have to be emotionally ready and physically and mentally ready.
"In the NFL, it doesn't matter who or when you play, if you're not ready to go the other team is going to get you. I think that was a big wakeup for us. I felt we prepared well, I thought we worked hard that week, but for some reason we didn't come out with the intensity you need to play in an NFL game against a team as good as Carolina and expect to do well. We proved that last game and hopefully we learned a lesson."
Linehan also noted how things might have been different had the offense made some plays early.
"The lack of execution; you always have to credit them with breaking up passes, pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run. What I noticed was our inability to execute against a great defense. If you don't stay on the field on third down -- we had two third downs early in the game -- had we converted those it could have been a much different game. We would have driven the ball, gained confidence from gaining first downs, which we weren't able to do. They knocked the ball out on the first third down. The next drive we had they broke up a pass.
"The one thing that was unusual about the last time we played them was we had a fair amount of dropped passes which is not characteristic of our offense. Our guys are really sure-handed receivers and we weren't as good with that. That throws you out of rhythm. You can't get into any kind of rhythm when you do that. You have to credit them with having tight coverage, creating pressure on the quarterback and stopping the run early which was one of the reasons we went for the pass, but I take the fault for that, for abandoning the run. Our game was still in check. We could have gotten back to running the football and got some rhythm back doing that. Hopefully it will be a different story this time."
Bulger believes it will be, but he also knows talk is cheap. He also carries the memory of that day with him. "We weren't very good," he stated matter-of-factly. "I don't think we made it past the 50, maybe once. They completely dominated us on defense. We just couldn't get anything going. I don't think we got to the red zone. I don't think we could be as bad as last year, I think we could only tie that."
This time, the game is in St. Louis, and it's the home opener. Linehan knows the players will be focused.
"We've got a big challenge ahead," he said. "It won't be hard to get the attention of our offensive players. We'll be watching a lot more of last year's film, unfortunately. But it'll also be good for us."
SERIES HISTORY: 17th meeting. Panthers lead, 9-7 (10-7 including the postseason) and have won three straight games, one of which was a 2003 playoff win in St. Louis. Counting that playoff game, the Panthers are 5-3 against the Rams in St. Louis and were the first opponent the Rams played in the Edward Jones Dome. The 15-0 Panthers win last season in Carolina was the first time the Rams had been shut out since 1998. In the last two games in the series, the Rams have scored a total of seven points.
--This season, five team captains will wear a "C" on their jersey, as is done in the National Hockey League. It is a move implemented by commissioner Roger Goodell. The Rams voted nine players captains, prompting coach Scott Linehan to say, "The league has said there are going to be five designated captains. I'm not sure what that means because we have nine. We'll figure that out. If we can't put 'Cs' on all of them, then we'll put 'Cs' on the five oldest guys. Based on the vote of the team, there was about six that had almost an identical amount of votes. That's how the team voted and that's how we're going to do it."
Elected captains were QB Marc Bulger, wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, running back Steven Jackson, defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, linebackers Will Witherspoon and Pisa Tinoisamoa, safety Corey Chavous and kicker Jeff Wilkins.
Asked if he considered breaking any ties, Linehan said, "The tie was too close. Sometimes it's pretty cut and dried, but we decided to go that way because we have a really good group of veterans."
--In the flurry of moves at the cutdown to 53 players, the Rams traded quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to the Bengals for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. Fitzpatrick was the third quarterback behind Bulger and Gus Frerotte. The departure of Fitzpatrick left the Rams with just two quarterbacks on the active roster. Brock Berlin was placed on waivers and then added to the practice squad. Linehan noted the growing trend of teams keeping just two quarterbacks, at least at the beginning of the season when the first two on the depth chart are healthy. "What you give up, you hope to gain with an extra man on the 53," Linehan said. "It doesn't give you an extra player on the 45. You still carry 45 on game day and you have to have somebody in an emergency, but it gives you another option for the 45. Special teams being an example, or an injury, or losing Fakhir (Brown), or having an extra defensive back to be able to make practice work. There are a lot of reasons why it's nice to have another position on the roster other than quarterback. On the flip side, if you lose two quarterbacks then you have issues. It's something that we looked at and we decided to do because of our quarterback situation with Marc and Gus."
Fitzpatrick was headed for restricted free agency after this season, and he will have the chance to be the backup to Carson Palmer in Cincinnati.
Said Linehan, "I was glad that the way it worked out ended up being that Ryan was able to go somewhere where he has a much better chance to further himself and move up. I think it's a win-win thing for both parties."
The team's emergency quarterback on game days will either be wide receivers Drew Bennett or Marques Hagans, both quarterbacks in college. Bennett had that role last season in Tennessee. "They run our plays. They know our plays," Linehan said. "Most quarterback can translate to that. We'll try to keep it somewhat simple, but play to their strengths."
--At the time of the draft, the Rams had interest in running back Antonio Pittman, but instead selected Brian Leonard in the second round. Pittman went to the Saints in the fourth round, but was waived Sept. 1. The Rams then acquired Pittman on waivers. "We had very good grades on him coming out of college," Linehan said. "And he played well enough as a rookie (in the preseason) to confirm what we thought of him."
Asked if he hopes to get playing time behind Steven Jackson, Leonard and Travis Minor, Pittman said, "I hope so. I want to go out there, learn this offense first, and then get out there and compete, make the most of every opportunity I get. I would say the chances are better here than they were in New Orleans." Continued Linehan, "We just really liked the evaluation of the player when we were getting ready for the draft. None of that changed because he was available or waived by his previous team, so we just felt like being able to add him to the roster at the spot that he's at -- the fourth tailback right now -- hopefully he'll be able to pick up the system quick and work hard on show team and show that he's worthy of being here. We thought he was a heck of a back out of college."
--CB Fakhir Brown, whose four-game suspension for violating the league policy on drugs of abuse and alcohol, will be allowed to attended team meetings and work out at the team facility during the suspension, but can't participate in practice.
BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- Number of home openers the Rams have won in their previous 12 seasons in St. Louis.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He looks 100 percent to me today." -- Coach Scott Linehan, asked Tuesday whether WR Torry Holt is 100 percent. Recovering from offseason knee surgery, Holt said last week he was only functioning at about 70-80 percent.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Tackle Todd Steussie underwent surgery Aug. 31 to repair a broken bone in his foot and was placed on injured reserve. The estimated time he would miss is 10-12 weeks. Said coach Scott Linehan, "It's really tough to carry on your 53 a player who's not going to be available for half a season. So we're going to have to move forward and get some other guys ready. It's a tough break, but it's a decision we had to make." The club subsequently reached an injury settlement with Steussie, making it possible he could come back and play for the Rams this season.
--RG Richie Incognito hasn't practiced this week because of a high ankle sprain. The Rams hope he will be able to practice Thursday and Friday and be available for Sunday's game against Carolina.
--WR Drew Bennett aggravated a bruised quad muscle in practice Sept. 1 and has done limited work this week. Bennett has said he will be fine to play Sunday against Carolina.
--RB Antonio Pittman was acquired on waivers from the Saints. Pittman is the fourth tailback on the team behind Steven Jackson, Brian Leonard and Travis Minor.
--CB Fakhir Brown began his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Brown will be eligible to return for the team's Oct. 8 game against Arizona.
--CB Ron Bartell will start against Carolina as the replacement for Fakhir Brown, who will miss the first four games of the season under league suspension.
GAME PLAN: On offense, the Rams' young offensive line will have to handle the large Panthers interior and enable Steven Jackson to be successful running. Center Brett Romberg, left guard Mark Setterstrom and right guard Richie Incognito (if he's healthy) will have their hands full with DTs Kris Jenkins and Maake Kemoeatu. The running game will have to work to lessen the pass-rush pressure from ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker. Defensively, rookie DT Adam Carriker will be facing veteran left guard Mike Wahle in his first regular-season action. Carriker and second-year man Claude Wroten will try and disrupt the Panthers offense, while the secondary will have to keep WR Steve Smith from hitting them for big plays.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams CB Tye Hill vs. Panthers WR Steve Smith. It's known that the Rams will move Hill to wherever Smith is, preferring that matchup to having Ron Bartell lined up against Smith. If there are times Bartell is matched up against Smith, safety help will be even more necessary than normal.
Rams RT Alex Barron vs. Panthers DLE Julius Peppers. Barron struggled with false starts last season, and now goes against one of the best pass rushers in the game. Barron will have to hold his own against Peppers for QB Marc Bulger to remain upright.
INJURY IMPACT: RG Richie Incognito did not practice Tuesday or Wednesday because of a high ankle sprain. If Incognito can't play Sunday, either Milford Brown or Claude Terrell will start. Asked if the injury could worsen if Incognito played on it, coach Scott Linehan said, "High-ankle sprains -- everybody handles them differently. In an offensive lineman's case, because they need to use the power of their lower body and be able to push off their feet. Right now it's just pain tolerance, which Richie has a very high pain tolerance and being able to have the power to push off that foot. If he can get out there, he'll do it. Another concern is whether or not he's 100 percent. We don't want to put a guy out there who can't do his best. I don't know if it gets a lot worse. It could be aggravated, I suppose and that would factor in as well."
--WR Drew Bennett is expected to play despite a strained quad that has limited him in practice this week.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
If not for the Cardinals, the 49ers could have won the NFC West last season. The Cardinals recorded two of their five victories against the 49ers, and the 49ers finished two games behind the Seahawks in the standings. The 49ers have not forgotten what it was like to get thumped. "We're going to bring everything we've got," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. "They beat us twice (last year) and I want to go out there, me and my team, and just abuse these guys."
The 49ers have high hopes for the season, and it all begins Monday night when they open the campaign with the Cardinals. Obviously, it's much too early to call any game a must-win, but it seems logical that this game would set the tone for the season. After all, so much of the 49ers' offseason was spent trying to upgrade an area that should help them match up better against a team such as the Cardinals.
The 49ers have finished in the bottom half of teams in pass defense over the past nine seasons. Their lack of production in that area has been particularly glaring against the Cardinals, who boast perhaps the best group of receivers in the league with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. The unknown for the 49ers is that the Cardinals have a new head coach, Ken Whisenhunt. The offensive philosophy is expected to be much like what Whisenhunt established with the Steelers. He has some strong offensive players, with second-year quarterback Matt Leinart and running back Edgerrin James. The Cardinals have said they expect to run the ball 55 percent of the time, but the 49ers know they also have to be wary of gadget plays.
"One of the things about Ken is he is pretty wide open," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "If you envision Pittsburgh's offense, even in the Super Bowl, there are always gadgets plays involved in their game plan. And they have got some good gadget players. I know their receivers can pass.
"They will utilize reverses as well as gadgets, but he also has a good sound fundamental running and passing attack that puts it on the players to make plays."
The 49ers made some upgrades on defense in the offseason with the idea of being able to cope with teams such as the Cardinals, who can put more two or more quality receivers on the field. The 49ers signed cornerback Nate Clements and safety Michael Lewis on the first day of free agency. Clements is a good cover man, while Lewis is a physical player who can be an intimidating force in the secondary.
"It's going to be good to see how everything is paying off," 49ers safety Mark Roman said. "It's going to be exciting. Everybody is going to be flying around. It's huge, especially for us in the secondary. If we can do our jobs and stop their receivers, that's a big part of their offensive game plan taken out of it. It'll make it easy on everybody."
One of the questions for the 49ers is whether they will be able to generate much of a pass rush this season. Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain is a key figure in the 49ers' conversion to a 3-4 defense. The 49ers signed him after he recorded a career-high 5.5 sacks last season with the Patriots. The 49ers offense should make an improvement on its No. 26 ranking from last season. Quarterback Alex Smith appears more comfortable in the system, and he has better offensive players surrounding him.
Davis could be the team's top threat in the passing game. The 49ers also have four wideouts who could be significant targets in the passing game: Darrell Jackson, Arnaz Battle, Ashley Lelie and Taylor Jacobs.
But the go-to man in the 49ers offense will be running back Frank Gore, who missed the entire exhibition season with a broken hand. Gore rushed for a team-record 1,695 yards in his first season as the starter.
Gore will also be the team's short-yardage back. He began last season with fumbles in each of his first four games, and was removed from short-yardage situations. But Gore is back in that role, and should have the ability to improve on his eight touchdowns from last season.
SERIES HISTORY: 32nd meeting. Niners lead series, 17-14. The Cardinals have won past four meetings, including gaining two of the team's five victories last year over the 49ers.
--Rookie cornerback Tarell Brown has done nothing to make the 49ers regret their decision to take a chance on him with a fifth-round draft pick. Other teams shied away from Brown, whose stock plummeted after he was arrested twice on marijuana charges that were later dropped in a nine-month span before the draft. This week, Brown was named the winner of the Thomas Herrion Award, which goes to the rookie or first-year player who has taken advantage of every opportunity, turned it into a positive and made his dream a reality.
"I feel like your past is your past," Brown said. "If you're a man, you stand up for what happened to you and don't put blame on anyone else. You handle your business like a man. You take a step at a time and a day at a time, and that's what I try to do. I try to get better and better the people around you every day."
Herrion, a popular first-year player, was battling for a spot with the 49ers, when he collapsed after an exhibition game in 2005 and died. "I want to represent Thomas in a positive way," Brown said.
--The NFL wants teams to identify captains this season with a "C" on the jerseys of up to five players selected for every team. But the 49ers will not be acknowledging their captains. That's because the team has 10 captains this season. Coach Mike Nolan said nobody on the 49ers will wear the "C" because there are 10 captains -- a veteran council -- on his team and he does not want to decide which players wear it and which will not. The 10 captains for the season are Trent Dilfer, Moran Norris, Arnaz Battle, Jonas Jennings, Eric Heitmann, Marques Douglas, Derek Smith, Nate Clements, Walt Harris and Joe Nedney.
--It was a surprise that the 49ers could have 10 captains and one of them was not Bryant Young, the 14-year veteran and one of the most respected players in team history. Douglas, a respected and well-liked veteran in his own right, got the honor among the team's defensive linemen. "Everybody knows B.Y. is a captain," Douglas said. "Everybody knows who he is, and that doesn't change because he wasn't voted as a captain. I've played with a couple of these guys, and they were just giving me credit as a guy who's going to stand up and speak for people who might not have a voice."
Young was the first to jump up and congratulate Douglas after he received the recognition. "Absolutely. I voted for him," Young said.
--Last season, the 49ers' No. 3 receiver, Bryan Gilmore, had just eight catches for 150 yards despite playing more than half of the team's offensive snaps. Gilmore was cut on Saturday. This season, there continues to be a battle for the No. 3 wideout between Taylor Jacobs and Ashley Lelie. Nolan said Jacobs has a "half-step" lead over Lelie, as the 49ers enter the regular-season opener. When asked if the team's third guy will post better numbers this season, Lelie answered, "Yeah, definitely. ... We have so much more talent now. Teams are going to have to prepare for that third receiver."
BY THE NUMBERS: 326.8 -- Passing yards three Cardinals quarterbacks (Kurt Warner, Josh McCown and Matt Leinart) have averaged in four consecutive victories over 49ers.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "As a division, it's actually stable. It's strong. I still think St. Louis is as good as they've been the last few years. Seattle is as good as they've been in the last two years. Arizona might be a little bit better, although the record didn't indicate it last year. I think they're a good football team." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan, on the NFC West.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The 49ers were disappointed to have to place two fourth-round picks on injured reserve after injuries they sustained in the final exhibition game. Outside linebacker Jay Moore would have made the 53-man roster, but he sustained a severe high ankle sprain that would have kept him out of action for at least eight weeks. The 49ers decided to place him on injured reserve, thus losing him for the season. Moore will remain at the 49ers' practice facility to rehab the injury. Nose tackle Joe Cohen might not have made the final roster, but the 49ers were looking forward to keeping him on the practice squad to develop him for the future. However, he sustained a torn ACL and was also placed on injured reserve.
In the days leading up to the 49ers' first game, they made only one roster addition. The club announced the signing of defensive lineman Atiyyah Ellison, a 6-3, 318-pounder, who was on the Ravens' practice squad.
--RB Frank Gore has fresh legs after sitting out the entire exhibition season. Gore sustained a broken right hand in the team's second practice of the summer. Gore is expected to wear a pad on his right hand, and there is no telling whether it will affect his ability to hang onto the ball and catch passes.
--LB Brandon Moore was demoted from his starting job at the "Ted" linebacker, but he will continue to have a big role in the nickel defense. Moore, who recorded a 49ers-best 6.5 sacks last season, will line up at left defensive end in pass-rush situation.
--LT Joe Staley will make his first NFL start after beating out incumbent Kwame Harris for the job during training camp.
--DL Atiyyah Ellison was picked off the Ravens' practice squad. He is considered a developmental player and does not figure to have much of a role on the 49ers defense any time soon.
--NT Isaac Sopoaga had a strong training camp and figures to get a lot of action early in the season as he splits time with presumptive starter Aubrayo Franklin, who missed the exhibition season with a knee injury.
--WR Taylor Jacobs heads into the week of preparations for the 49ers' season opener with a "half-step lead" over Ashley Lelie for the team's No. 3 wideout job. Jacobs had an impressive training camp but caught just two passes for 22 yards in four games.
--WR Ashley Lelie was second on the 49ers with 12 catches for 142 yards. Despite signing a two-year, $4.3 million contract in the offseason, he began camp way down on the depth chart. He has closed the gap on Taylor Jacobs for the No. 3 job heading into the season opener.
GAME PLAN: The focus for the 49ers will be on controlling the Cardinals' passing attack. The 49ers spent a lot of money in the offseason to sign cornerback Nate Clements. The coverage should be better than it's been in a long time for the 49ers, but they still must find a way to put pressure on Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart. With improved coverage, the 49ers might be inclined to put together a wide variety of blitzes designed at getting a few hits on Leinart. The 49ers did not get much pressure on the quarterback during the exhibition season. The club is hoping that outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain will win enough battles, and that defensive coordinator Greg Manusky can scheme well enough for the regular season in order to keep the pass rush from being a glaring weakness. Offensively, the 49ers expect to get Gore back. Gore is likely to be the focal point of opposing defenses, which should enable an improved Alex Smith to make some plays with a better receiving corps. Tight end Vernon Davis appears to be the 49ers' biggest offensive threat, but it bears watching to see how new receiver Darrell Jackson, the most accomplished offensive player on the team, fits into the system.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: 49ers OLB Tully Banta-Cain, who recorded a career-high 5.5 sacks with the Patriots last season but is expected to be the team's top sack artist, vs. Cardinals LT Mike Gandy, who started every game the past two seasons with the Bills but was moved to left guard for the final nine games last season.
RB Frank Gore, who led the 49ers with 1,695 yards, vs. the Cardinals run defense, which is making the transition to a 3-4 defense this season.
49ers TE Vernon Davis, who has a chance for a breakout season, vs. the Cardinals defense, most likely some combination of safeties Terrence Holt and Adrian Wilson trying to cover him.
49ers CBs Nate Clements and Walt Harris, who team up to give the 49ers their best cover men in years, vs. WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, who combined for 2,149 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
INJURY IMPACT: The 49ers expect to have all of their major contributors ready for action Monday night against the Cardinals.
--RB Frank Gore missed the exhibition season with a broken right hand, but he is expected to be 100 percent for the game. He is likely to wear a pad on his right hand.
--NT Aubrayo Franklin missed the exhibition season with a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He is expected to split action with backup Isaac Sopoaga.
--WR Darrell Jackson missed the final exhibition game with a hamstring strain. He is expected to practice this week and be ready for the game.
--S Dashon Goldson is expected to miss the first few weeks of the regular season with an injury to his right elbow.
--CB Donald Strickland sustained a lung contusion in the 49ers' next-to-last exhibition game. His availability for Monday's game is up in the air.