NFC West News & Notes - 9/13/07

During a week in which the four NFC West teams will prepare solely for division opponents, continuity becomes even more important. However, the Rams and Cardinals are experiencing severe transition along their offensive lines, the Seahawks are working with the aftereffects of two trades, and the 49ers continue to adapt with several new players in a new full-time defensive scheme.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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The Seattle Seahawks head to Arizona for a Week 2 divisional game with some new players as their shifting roster continues to be reshaped. Veteran defensive end Bryce Fisher was shipped to Tennessee for an undisclosed draft choice and quarterback Charlie Frye was obtained from Cleveland for a sixth-round pick. Fisher was rendered expendable by several developments: Second-year end Darryl Tapp improved as a run stopper -- to go with his superior pass-rush skills -- and the position was bolstered by the trade with Houston for Jason Babin and the quick advancement of rookie Baraka Atkins.

Since the Hawks cut No. 3 quarterback David Greene in the preseason, the Hawks have been without a third quarterback. Coach Mike Holmgren was uncomfortable with that situation, and the Hawks looked at Ken Dorsey and then made an effort to deal for Mark Brunell of Washington. When Frye was lifted early in Cleveland's opener, the Hawks began talks with the Browns.

Team general manager Tim Ruskell said he's not out to make a name for himself as a wheeler-dealer, but the late trades and acquisitions were the result of circumstances that needed to be addressed. "I always say that if we have a chance to get ourselves a little better then we're going to do that," Ruskell said. "Our philosophy is if we don't disrupt the team too much, and better ourselves -- either by a wide margin or a little bit -- and everybody's on board and guys feel good about what we're doing as an organization, then we'll look at that."

Frye is expected to learn the system without immediate pressure to challenge backup Seneca Wallace for the second spot on the depth chart. Holmgren said that Frye may prove talented enough to eventually allow him to use the versatile Wallace in some other capacities, as a receiver or "slash" back, but that would be "somewhere down the road."

Holmgren said that the heavy turnover at this point of the season is unusual for the Seahawks but is "an indicator that if there are players available, or there are situations that come up that, in the opinion of the organization, better the football team, they will pull the trigger."

The goal is to upgrade the personnel, but the by-product is that the moves keep players from getting too comfortable. If they see Bryce Fisher packing his bags, for instance, it's a reminder that anybody could be next.

"They should be on their toes anyway," Holmgren said. "I've talked to the players a lot about it; once the 53-man roster is set, it's not a time to exhale and know that I've made this. It's a living, on-going, flexible group of people. If we can make the team better, in our opinion, we will. You have to perform every Sunday."

SERIES HISTORY: 17th meeting. Series is tied, 8-8. The Hawks have won seven of the last nine games but split with the Cardinals last season as each team won its home game.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is wary of the Arizona defense, which opened the season with a tough loss at San Francisco. The Cardinal defense has given the Hawks troubles in the past. "Your guess is as good as mine," Hasselbeck said when asked what to expect. "They seem to change every week and they are very tough to prepare for because they show so many different things. "What they did to San Francisco is very different than what they had shown all preseason, and what they'll do to us, I'm sure. We're just going to worry more about our stuff and try to adjust as we go."

Under new coach Ken Whisenhunt, the Cardinals are moving to a 3-4 defense from their previous 4-3 (and occasional 3-3-5) sets this season.

--Linebacker Julian Peterson was sorry to see teammate Bryce Fisher get traded to Tennessee, but he understood the business involved. "He did a lot of good things for us," Peterson said. "I had a great time playing with him and he's a great man. At the same time, our ultimate goal is going to the final show and actually winning it. Whatever steps the organization feels need to be made, we support them and we just have to keep going out there and doing the best we can."

--Holding Tampa Bay to only a pair of field goals in the opener gave Mike Holmgren confidence about his defense, but he's not ready to make huge assessments at this point. "Our defense is built to play fast, with good blitz capabilities," Holmgren said. "But we have a long way to go. We haven't established ourselves, but we played a pretty good ball game. Historically, we've been a little up and down, and we need to be more consistent."

BY THE NUMBERS: 34:39 -- The time of possession for the Cardinals in the game in which they beat Seattle 27-21 last season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's tough love, as they say; there's only one way I do it. But they know I care about them." -- Coach Mike Holmgren, when asked about having high expectations for his quarterbacks.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Some of the Seahawks' new additions might see action this week against Arizona. Jason Babin and Ellis Wyms had good weeks of practice and could get activated on the defensive line. Running back Alvin Pearman also could see action on special teams and perhaps be a situational substitution on offense. With the trade of Bryce Fisher, rookie Baraka Atkins also can be expected to step into a larger role at defensive end. With Arizona apparently focusing on their rushing attack, the depth at defensive line will be a crucial factor.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--RB Mo Morris was kept out of practice at midweek because of a sore hip suffered in the opener against Tampa Bay. If he's unavailable, it's possible newly acquired Alvin Pearman will see his first action.
--RB Shaun Alexander practiced with a brace on his wrist but it was not expected to affect his play.
--WR D.J. Hackett will miss the Arizona game with a high ankle sprain. The staff is still uncertain how long Hackett will be out of action.
--WR Nate Burleson will continue to get more reps at split end with Hackett out. He still will handle return duties in addition.
--QB Charlie Frye, newly arrived from Cleveland, will be the No. 3 emergency quarterback.

GAME PLAN: The Cardinals showed their intent on running the ball in their season opener against San Francisco. Although Holmgren said the Seahawks still have to be concerned with the talents of receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, clogging the middle against RB Edgerrin James stands as the top priority.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Cardinal WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin vs. Seahawks CB Kelly Jennings -- Jennings, the new starter at right cornerback, had problems in the opener against Tampa's Joey Galloway. The larger Cardinal receivers could be even more of a challenge for the slender Jennings.

Cardinals RB Edgerrin James vs. Seahawks defensive front -- James had 92 yards on 26 carries versus the 49ers and should present another challenge for the undersized Seahawk defensive line.

INJURY IMPACT: Without D.J. Hackett, Nate Burleson will be a primary receiver. To accommodate the four-receiver sets, the Seahawks will activate either Ben Obomanu, recently recovered from a hamstring injury, or rookie Courtney Taylor.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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With three new starters and a fourth player in a different position, the Cardinals offensive line figured to be a work in progress much of the season. It played surprisingly well in the season opener, but there is a huge challenge ahead this week. Starting center Al Johnson, who played well throughout the preseason, suffered a sprained left knee against the 49ers and will be out at least a week and probably more. His backup, Nick Leckey, is also coming off a sprained knee and isn't ready to play. The starter this week is rookie Lyle Sendlein, a free agent from Texas. But the team picked up some insurance by signing former Steelers center Chukky Okobi this week.

Sendlein was a pleasant surprise in training camp, playing with maturity beyond his years. But he's going to have some struggles. If Johnson is out beyond this week, Okobi is expected to move into the lineup.
Okobi played six years in Pittsburgh, starting only six games. But he knows this offensive system, played under Cardinals line coach Russ Grimm and could step in and play right away. Okobi should be able to help the offensive line, given the youth of some players. Right tackle Levi Brown is a rookie. Right guard Deuce Lutui is in his second year. And they are protecting Matt Leinart's blind side.

Johnson helped those guys with his line calls and advice. In the Cardinals offensive system, the center isn't called upon to make a ton of calls, but there are some. And while Sendlein played well last week when Johnson went out, coaches felt the play of Lutui and Brown suffered due to Johnson's absence.

The Cardinals are hopeful that Johnson's injury is not long-term. But when he and Leckey return to health, the team will have four healthy centers. That's too many, and Leckey could be the odd man out.
He's due to make $1.3 million this year and is likely to lose his backup job to Okobi. Ironically, Okobi was cut by the Steelers partly because he was due to make $2 million.

SERIES HISTORY: 17th meeting. The series is tied at 8-8. The Seahawks had won four straight until the Cardinals won at home last year, 27-21. In the first game last year, Seattle brought pressure from almost everywhere and sacked Kurt Warner five times in the 21-10 victory. Warner was bruised and battered after the game. The Cardinals committed three turnovers in that game, and the Seahawks rushed for 146 yards. The Cardinals were much better in the second game. They did a solid job of picking up the blitz and Leinart passed for 232 yards and a touchdown in the victory.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The club released linebacker Brandon Johnson on Wednesday. A fifth-round pick, Johnson was the third 2006 draft pick to be released this year. The others were defensive lineman Jonathan Lewis (sixth round) and receiver Todd Watkins (seventh round).
-- QB Matt Leinart's 102 passing yards last week were the fewest he's had in 12 NFL starts.
-- The Cardinals will start two home-grown products on the offensive line Sunday against Seattle. Right guard Deuce Lutui is the regular starter, Lyle Sendlein, a rookie free agent, will get his first NFL start. Lutui, who went to Mesa High, and Sendlein, who played at Scottsdale Chaparral, met on a recruiting trip to the University of Arizona, Lutui said.
"He was big guy on campus, I was little guy on campus at the time," Lutui said. "He was the best recruit in the state my year." They never played against each other in high school.
--Talk about weird coincidences, Sendlein played at Texas, which beat Leinart's USC game in the 2006 Rose Bowl. In college, Sendlein snapped to Vince Young, who was taken by Tennessee with the third overall pick, seven slots ahead of Leinart. Sendlein politely dodged the question when asked which quarterback he preferred.
--Coach Ken Whisenhunt has no knowledge of New England allegedly using a camera to steal defensive signals. But he has an opinion on such shenanigans. "I know we wouldn't do that," Whisenhunt said. "This game has a lot of history and to me it's important having integrity in this game. I felt that way as a player and I feel that way as a coach. I'm not judging anyone else. I'm just looking at it from my viewpoint

BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- The number of times the Cardinals have started 0-2 in their previous 19 years in Arizona.

QUOTE TO NOTE: Guys won't see me down. They won't see me complaining about this past week because I've been on good teams, and good teams don't do that. You can't do that. Nobody in my circle will be doing that. We'll be moving forward." -- Cardinals running back Edgerrin James, on handling the opening-game loss.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

--Coaches are likely to narrow the offensive game plan this week. They felt they overloaded quarterback Matt Leinart in Week 1, and didn't have enough time in practice to work on so many plays.
--The Seahawks never quite know what to expect from the Cardinals defense. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast is known for his creative game plans, and Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck said the Cardinals always have a surprise for him.
--Even though Bertrand Berry is the team's best pass rusher, he's not always in the game during passing situations. Berry was on the sidelines in some nickel situations last week.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--NT Alan Branch is still out with a fractured hand. He will be evaluated later this week.
--OLB Calvin Pace played one of his best games in his four-plus seasons in the NFL last week. He played head up on 49ers tight end Vernon Davis for much of the night, and Davis had just two catches for four yards.
--RB Edgerrin James looked quicker than last year in gaining 92 yards in the opening game. James had holes in which to run and gained some yards when it looked like he was trapped.
--RB Marcel Shipp needs to be a bigger part of the offense. He gained 14 yards on one carry in the first quarter and didn't have another carry the rest of the game.
--LB Karlos Dansby looks at home on the inside. Dansby, who played outside in his first three years, had 12 tackles in the opener. He also had 1/2 a sack, forced a fumble and hit the quarterback twice.

GAME PLAN: The Cardinals defense needs to be sound in its technique. Seattle running back Shaun Alexander has hurt them in past years by cutting back. The Cardinals have over-pursued, giving Alexander wide lanes to choose from. The Seahawks also have hurt the Cardinals with screen passes. The offensive line likely will face multiple blitzes from Seattle. Outside linebacker Julian Peterson is a good pass rusher, and the Seahawks have hurt the Cardinals before with the blitz. If the Seahawks come after Matt Leinart, he has to find Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in the one-on-one matchups outside.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

Seahawks DLE Patrick Kerney vs. Cardinals RT Levi Brown -- Kerney is a relentless pass rusher, and Brown is a rookie playing in his second game. Brown will develop into a good player but he struggled in pass protection at training camp.

Cardinals WR Bryant Johnson vs. Seattle CBs -- Seattle will devote resources to stopping Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, which should give Johnson some opportunities. He has had touchdowns in three of his last four games against Seattle.

INJURY IMPACT: The Cardinals have problems at center. Starter Al Johnson (knee) is out, and backup Nick Leckey (knee) isn't fully recovered from a sprain. That leaves rookie Lyle Sendlein as the starter. NT Alan Branch (fractured hand) will be examined this week but isn't expected to play. Gabe Watson will start with Rodney Bailey as the backup. DL Ross Kolodziej (knee) won't play but he is a backup who might not have been active anyway.

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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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When the Rams opened training camp in late July, their offensive line looked to be a strong point. Left tackle Orlando Pace had successfully recovered from a torn triceps that cost him the final seven games of the 2006 season. Right tackle Alex Barron was entering his third season and intent on stopping the false-start penalties that affected his 2006 production. Left guard Mark Setterstrom and right guard Richie Incognito were in place, following a three-game winning streak that ended the 2006 season. The only thing in question was whether Brett Romberg or Andy McCollum would win the starting job at center. Romberg won that job, but a stunning three weeks left the Rams with changes at three positions entering Sunday's game against San Francisco.

The first domino fell Aug. 18 when Incognito suffered a high ankle sprain in a preseason game against San Diego. Thirteen days later, backup tackle Todd Steussie broke a bone in his foot during the final practice game against Kansas City.

Then, the biggest loss occurred when Pace was injured again, suffering a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his right shoulder in the season opener against Carolina. As if that wasn't enough, Incognito injured his same ankle but in a different place while practicing on Sept. 4 and when he will return is unknown.

But, coach Scott Linehan continued to preach patience and talked about overcoming adversity. "It's a mind-set, a mental toughness thing," he said. "You have to be mentally tough as a coach to not let it affect you and as players and the leaders of the team. You can't ride that wave of being extremely high when things are going well and then if you have some things go wrong, you can't get down in the dumps. I think the biggest thing is trying to maintain a consistent level of intensity, and it has to be high.

"Each group has to pick each group up, and that's what we have to preach and that's what we are preaching. We'll get better. We're going to be a football team that sticks together and does not get divided because of a tough opening loss. The focus is now that we have another home game (against the 49ers) and we have an opportunity to go 1-0 in our division -- we did not start out 1-0 last year in our division. That's where our mind has to be. You can't get into a funk."

At practice Wednesday, Barron was at left tackle, the position he played in college, while the right side consisted mostly of right tackle Milford Brown and right guard Claude Terrell. There were also instances where Adam Goldberg, who replaced Pace during the Carolina game at left tackle, practiced at right tackle with Brown at right guard.

Linehan said other combinations could be used Thursday, with the final decision of the line configuration being decided Friday. Said quarterback Marc Bulger, "There is no need to panic. To lose three (starters), Todd, Richie and Orlando, I'm not going to minimize it. But we have guys who can step in. It's not like this is a high school team."

SERIES HISTORY: 115th regular-season meeting. Rams lead series, 59-53-2, and amazingly, the Rams have outscored San Francisco by just 19 points (2,540-2,521) in the previous 114 games. The teams split the season series in 2006, with each team winning at home.

NOTES, QUOTES

--RG Richie Incognito is frustrated by the latest injury he suffered, just when he thought he was close to returning from a high ankle sprain. However, he suffered a sprain lower on the ankle five days before the season opener. "I had been feeling good the last couple of days before that," he said. "I felt great running around and I felt great that whole practice. We were out there for about two hours before I did it and I just got turned into a funky position and sprained it again. It was worse than the first time and it just wasn't right."

No one is sure when he will be able to play. "I won't say the four weeks starts back over but it's definitely a setback," Incognito said. "It's a low ankle sprain. It affects the Achilles and the heel. It's nothing that needs surgery. I got my second opinion on Sunday from one of the best foot specialists in the country so I guess it's just going to take time."
Incognito received a special boot to wear Tuesday and is hopeful that will accelerate the healing process.

"From everything I have read and heard from people and doctors I talked to, it will just get better one day and it will be better and that's the end of it. I'm just waiting for the day to come."

--With DT Claude Wroten beginning a four-game suspension for violating the league substance-abuse policy on drugs and alcohol, the Rams now have two players serving suspensions for either testing positive for drugs or missing a random test. CB Fakhir Brown began his four-game suspension prior to the season opener. The Rams took several players off their draft board in April because of questionable character. Asked whether these suspensions would affect how the team selects players, Linehan said, "Yes and no. People have problems. You can't foresee some of it. ... In Claude's case, there was a certain amount of risk. But I also still believe in Claude, and know that Claude will work very hard at trying to get himself back and not have any more problems."

--OT Alex Barron was primarily a left tackle at Florida State, but has been at right tackle since the Rams selected him in the first round of the 2005 draft. Now, with Orlando Pace out for the season, Barron is expected to be at left tackle starting Sunday against the 49ers. "There's a lot of changes that need to be made as far as technique and stance," Barron said. "Over the next couple days and the next couple weeks, I'm just going to try to tighten up as best I can."

While noting the left side has always been his favorite, Barron said, "But I haven't been over there, so it'll probably take a little while to get adjusted to." After his first practice there Wednesday, when he asked if he felt comfortable, Barron said, "Yeah, I feel comfortable over there. It was a little different, like I said. I haven't been over there in a couple years, so I'm just trying to work on some little stuff -- some little technique stuff and some of the plays."

--OG Claude Terrell was inactive for the season opener, and contributing to the decision was the fact he was late for a team meeting two days before the game. Asked if he was fined, Terrell pointed to an envelope hanging from his locker, and said, "There it is. I won't even look at it. But it will be there as a constant reminder of what happened." When asked why he was late, Terrell simply said, "270," referring to a highway where traffic is often bogged down.

BY THE NUMBERS: 498 - Number of regular-season victories the Rams have in their history. Only four teams in history have reached 500, and the Steelers have 499.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's here, which is a couple thousand miles from where he was last year. He's had a great offseason. He's still a young player that has maturing, but I see growth there. He wouldn't be on the 53 if he hadn't improved. That says a lot about where he's at. Now it's a matter of being consistent every day. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday -- those are the days that have to be great for him so that Sundays are a reality for him." -- Coach Scott Linehan, on OG Claude Terrell, who spent the 2006 season on injured reserve away from the team in Texas.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

--In a strange roster move, the Rams released FB Madison Hedgecock and signed TE Richard Owens. Owens becomes the fifth tight end on the roster, although he will also be used as a combination H-back and fullback. "He's the classic H-back," coach Scott Linehan said. "Excellent special teams player. And a good long snapper. As soon as he's comfortable, he'll probably fill the role of our blocking fullback."

Owens was in training camp with the Vikings and at one point played under Linehan when he was the offensive coordinator. Owens was also at Louisville when Linehan coached there.

--The team made a flurry of moves. Aside from those involving Hedgecock, Owens, Orlando Pace (injured reserve) and the suspension of DT Claude Wroten, the Rams also signed OT Brandon Gorin and DT Louis Leonard from the Chargers practice squad. Gorin started 23 games, including five in the playoffs, for the Patriots in 2004 and 2005. He was traded to Arizona on Aug. 22, 2006, and released by the Cardinals this year in the final cut.

In a practice-squad move, the Rams released CB Josh Lay and signed CB Eric Bassey, who was released by Buffalo in the final cutdown. Jay Zygmunt, the team's president of football operations/general manager, was taken to the hospital Wednesday as a precaution after he felt ill and experienced trouble breathing at the team's offices.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--OT Alex Barron, who has played right tackle since being a first-round pick in 2005, practiced at left tackle Wednesday and will likely be there Sunday when the Rams play the 49ers.
--OG Claude Terrell worked with the first unit on the right side Wednesday with Richie Incognito still bothered by an ankle injury.
--OL Milford Brown, who started at right guard in the season opener, worked at both right guard and right tackle in practice Wednesday. It's expected that Brown will be at tackle for Sunday's game against the 49ers.
--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa did not practice Wednesday because of an ankle injury suffered in the season opener against Carolina.
--WR Drew Bennett, who missed the season opener because of an injured quadriceps muscle, practiced Wednesday and is expected to play Sunday against San Francisco.
--OT Brandon Gorin signed with the team and practiced Wednesday. Gorin was with Arizona in training camp and was released in the final cut.
--DT Louis Leonard was signed off the Chargers practice squad with Claude Wroten out four weeks under a league suspension. The Rams liked what they saw of Leonard when the Rams played San Diego Aug. 18. He had also showed up well on tape during San Diego's game the week before against Seattle.

GAME PLAN: The offensive line will be challenged against the 49ers' 3-4 defense to create lanes for RB Steven Jackson and time for QB Marc Bulger to throw. Defensively, they will have to contain RB Frank Gore.

MATCHUP TO WATCH:

Rams OL vs. 49ers pass rush. With three potential changes in the line, the Rams will have to find a way to figure out when the 49ers will send their pass rushers. Sometimes it will be LB Tully Banta-Cain, other times LB Manny Lawson. Then, don't forget rookie LB Patrick Willis, who is making an immediate impact. This will be a tough matchup for the Rams.

INJURY IMPACT: LB Pisa Tinoisamoa did not practice Wednesday because of a foot injury, and is probably 50-50 to play this week. ... WR Drew Bennett, who missed the season opener because of a quad injury, practiced Wednesday and is expected to play Sunday.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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The 49ers have posted losing records the past four seasons. On Sunday, they have a chance to win their first two games of the season for the first time since 1998. The game Sunday at the Rams is a huge chance for the 49ers to change the losing culture that has existed with the organization since Steve Mariucci took them to the playoffs in 2002, his final season with the club.

"It's huge," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "You're talking about the division. That's been our goal all along, to take over the West. To start out 1-0 and have a chance to go 2-0 is a big deal against a division opponent." The 49ers opened the season with a victory against the Cardinals. It was a game of good and bad for the 49ers. After all, their revamped defense was outstanding, while their offense was pathetic until the final drive of the game.

Smith, his receivers and the team's pass protection struggled for most of the game before kicking it into gear with an 86-yard touchdown drive to score the winning points in the final seconds against the Cardinals.
Meanwhile, the new faces on defense put together an impressive showing against the Cardinals' vaunted passing game. Newcomer Nate Clements combined with veteran Walt Harris, who made the NFC Pro Bowl team in his first season with the 49ers, to give San Francisco the kind of solid play from its cornerbacks it has not experienced in a long time. The 49ers have ranked in the bottom half of the league in pass defense each of the past nine seasons.

After the strong opening-week performance, 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has a lot of options on how to attack the Rams offense on Sunday. A year ago, Harris blanketed the Rams' top wideout, Torry Holt, and limited him to just 30 yards receiving in both games. Now, Harris is considered the 49ers' No. 2 cornerback after the free-agent acquisition of Clements.

Strong safety Michael Lewis, who came to the 49ers after beginning his career with the Eagles, said he has a lot of flexibility to do certain assignments because of Clements and Harris. "Where I came from in Philly, it was more get on top of the corners," Lewis said. "But here, we have guys who you don't have to get over. They can do the job. Not to knock the guys in Philadelphia, but the guys we have here can cover the guys without any over-the-top help, which is a good thing for us as safeties. It allows us to get down in the box against the run and blitz a little bit -- have some fun."

Lewis figures to see plenty of time close to the line of scrimmage against the Rams as an eighth defender in the box. The 49ers will try to slow down running back Steven Jackson, who rushed for 121 yards when the clubs last met in St. Louis. In the first game, the 49ers had a lot more problems on offense, as Smith and the passing game under first-year coordinator Jim Hostler struggled mightily.

Smith, who threw for just 66 yards entering the final drive of the game, pointed to problems with the team's execution as the reasons things were not clicking for the 49ers through most of the game.

"If you look at the situations, there were a couple opportunities we had when I didn't see the guy (an open receiver)," Smith said. "There were a couple times when there were protection break downs or a couple opportunities we had when there were dropped balls."

Coach Mike Nolan said the blame did not rest with Hostler's play-calling as much as with how the offense performed the plays. "The fact that there aren't completions down the field and the numbers and the statistics don't show it, it doesn't mean the attempt wasn't there, because it was there," Nolan said.

Still, Smith managed to pull it together well enough to throw for 60 yards on the final drive. He even had a 25-yard scramble on a critical fourth-and-one play. The 49ers scored the winning TD on Arnaz Battle's one-yard run on an end-around.

"We didn't put anything together until the last drive," Smith said. "From an offensive standpoint, we got to get better against the Rams."

SERIES HISTORY: 116th meeting. Rams lead series, 59-54-2, though the 49ers have won three of the past four meetings.

NOTES, QUOTES

--A week ago, eyebrows were raised around the 49ers when coach Mike Nolan announced 10 "shop captains" and veteran Bryant Young was not among them. The 49ers elected captains from every position group, and Marques Douglas got the nod at defensive line instead of Young. The 10 captains got together and made their first decision: Young should be included as the team's 11th captain. "The first thing the committee brought to my attention was they thought it was incomplete without one player in that committee, and that was B.Y.," Nolan said.

Young, 35, is the team's longest-tenured player and one of the most-respected players in club history. The 14-year pro has won the prestigious Len Eshmont Award seven times in his career. The Eshmont Award goes to the 49ers player who best exemplifies inspirational and courageous qualities. Nobody else in club history has won the award more than twice.

--Nolan has handed over the down-to-down defensive responsibilities to first-year defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, and it had a big impact on the way Nolan was able to manage the game, he said. When asked if it made his job easier, Nolan said, "I didn't think about it, but yes."

Nolan said he was able to plan ahead better than he had in the past when he was essentially running the defense while also in charge of the big picture. "I'm thinking about using my timeouts at three minutes when there's eight or nine minutes left on the clock," Nolan said. "Certain things were coming to me quicker because I was able to think about it. I wasn't distracted by something else."

--Running back Frank Gore sustained a broken right hand on July 30, the second day of training camp, and did not play in the exhibition season. In the 49ers' regular-season opener, Gore returned to the lineup and scored a touchdown. But he also rushed for 55 yards on 18 carries, and dropped two passes. "He looks every bit as quick as he was a year ago," Nolan said. "He does have fresh legs because of training camp he did not go through. He looks every bit as good to me. ... The hand's not an issue."

--Rookie linebacker Patrick Willis was credited with 15 tackles after the review of the game film. He had 10 solo tackles. Willis also showed an ability to get after the quarterback on blitzes. When asked if Willis will be a big part of the team's blitz package, Nolan answered, "He will be part of it, not heavily, but still a part of it. It's kind of like Ray Lewis. Ray makes a lot of plays, but you don't blitz him a lot because that forces him to commit to certain things. If you just let him find the ball, he is going to do things better than the defense you can call. There are certain kinds of players that you do that with. Now, if Willis is that kind of player, I don't know."

--Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain visited the Rams on the first day of free agency, and the Rams did not want him to leave. But Banta-Cain ended up taking a trip to the 49ers and signing a three-year deal worth nearly $9 million a couple days later. "I wanted to see what the 49ers were about and they ended up presenting me with a better opportunity to play and a better financial situation, so that's why I came here," Banta-Cain said.

He said the Rams told him that they envisioned him as a situational player in their 4-3 scheme, and that he would have to earn his job against strong-side linebacker Brandon Chillar.

BY THE NUMBERS: 23 -- The age of starting quarterback Alex Smith, who begins his third NFL season as still the youngest starting quarterback in the league.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You can always imagine playing better. But I was pleased with what they did. I liked the physical nature of the way we played. There were some good hits in the game. We said going into the game that it was going to be a physical week. That was one of the things we stressed." -- Coach Mike Nolan, on building on the 49ers' season-opening defensive performance.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The 49ers awarded veteran receiver Ashley Lelie a two-year contract and gave him $2 million to sign within the first couple days of the free-agent signing period, but Taylor Jacobs beat out Lelie for the No. 3 job for the regular-season opener. Jacobs struggled in the opener against the Cardinals. He did not catch a pass, and even dropped a perfectly thrown ball. Still, Lelie saw just one snap from scrimmage in the game. Coach
Mike Nolan said Lelie has to prove in practice that he deserves a chance to get a significant role during the games. "He's just getting more comfortable with the things he's doing and our guys are getting more comfortable seeing what he can do," Nolan said of Lelie. "Anybody who's a third or fourth receiver is one play away from getting in the game. This time when maybe he's not getting the repetitions is valuable time for him to be working on his skills so when his time comes, he performs well."

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--OT Kwame Harris said he was waiting by the phone on Tuesday, expecting the word that he had been traded. But Harris figures to be with the 49ers for at least another week. Harris, entering the final year of his contract, lost his starting RT job to Joe Staley. He was inactive for the opener Monday night because he is not proficient at more than one position. Harris helped RB Frank Gore rush for 1,695 yards last season. His run blocking is considered better than his pass protection.
--QB Alex Smith struggled for most of the opener, but he put it together when the 49ers needed him in the opener. Smith had just 66 yards passing entering the final drive of the game. But on the game-winning march, Smith completed six of 10 passes for 60 yards and rushed for 25 yards on a critical fourth-and-one.
--DE Ray McDonald, a rookie third-round pick from Florida, was inactive for the season opener. McDonald was fighting for a spot as an interior pass rusher on nickel downs.
--TE Zac Alcorn, recently released by the Packers, was added to the 49ers practice squad.
--TE Zac Herold, an undrafted rookie who spent the entire training camp with the 49ers, was released from the practice squad.
--OT Patrick Estes, a seventh-round pick in 2005, was released to make room for the addition of DL Atiyyah Ellison. The 49ers had been pleased with Estes' development but wanted to give Ellison a look. Estes does not have any practice-squad eligibility.

GAME PLAN: The 49ers' secondary played exceptionally well in the opener against the Cardinals receivers in the season opener. With Nate Clements and Walt Harris playing so well on the outside, it should afford defensive coordinator Greg Manusky the confidence to bring an even wider array of blitzes to the table against the Rams on passing downs. It should also allow the 49ers to creep strong safety Michael Lewis closer to the line of scrimmage to play an eighth defender in the box to slow down Rams running back Steven Jackson, whom the 49ers had a difficult time containing when the clubs met last season in St. Louis. Jackson rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. Offensively, the 49ers must do a much better job of executing than they did against the Cardinals on Monday night. The 49ers put up the second-worst offensive performance of the opening week of the season, gaining just 194 total yards. The Rams have a light front seven and are vulnerable against teams that like to run the ball. Offensive coordinator Jim Hostler has to use Frank Gore's running to set up quarterback Alex Smith and the passing game more effectively than they did Monday night against the Cardinals.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

--49ers CBs Nate Clements and Walt Harris, who combined to help limit the Cardinals to 100 passing yards, vs. Rams WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, who have tormented the 49ers secondary in previous seasons.
--RB Frank Gore, who gained 1,695 yards last season, vs. the Rams run defense, which allowed 186 yards to the Panthers in the season opener.
--RT Joe Staley, making his second NFL start as a rookie, vs. LDE Leonard Little, a 10th-year player who has averaged nearly 11.5 sacks for the past six seasons.
--LB Patrick Willis, who led the 49ers with 15 tackles in his NFL debut, vs. Steven Jackson, whose goal this season was to gain 2,500 yards from scrimmage.
--ROLB Tully Banta-Cain, who is being counted upon to be the 49ers' top pass-rush threat, vs. LT Adam Goldberg, who takes over for Orlando Pace after his season-ending injury.

INJURY IMPACT: The 49ers don't expect to be impacted much by injuries in their game Sunday against the Rams.
--Safety Dashon Goldson has returned to practice after sustaining a strained muscle and sprained ligaments in his right elbow Aug. 18 in an exhibition game. He is not expected to play Sunday.
--Tight end Billy Bajema, a blocking specialist, aggravated a high right ankle sprain. His availability for Sunday's game is in question.
--Cornerback Shawntae Spencer (elbow) is listed as probable, so he is expected to be the team's No. 3 corner on Sunday against the Rams.
--Cornerback Marcus Hudson (quad), the team's fourth corner, is expected to be ready to play Sunday.

 


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