The visit to Qwest Field by the Cincinnati Bengals, although only the third game of the season, looms critical for the Seattle Seahawks as they've already fallen a game behind the leader in a division they once dominated.
As San Francisco moved to 2-0, the Seahawks lost 23-20 to Arizona ... their fourth consecutive NFC West defeat. The Hawks visit the 49ers the following week and don't want to go into an early season duel on a losing streak.
The problems the Seahawks encountered in Arizona were some that plagued them in their 9-7 2006 season. They allowed Edgerrin James to rush for 128 yards; they blitzed Cardinal quarterback Matt Leinart but never sacked him; and big receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin caused considerable matchup issues for the short and slender Seahawk cornerbacks.
The visit by Bengals Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh should be a similar challenge. The Bengals will be the best offense the Hawks have faced thus far, although the Cardinals picked up 431 yards of offense.
After this game, the Seahawks talked of the need to correct their own mistakes rather than worrying about the opponent's schemes. In an extremely ineffective first half against the Cardinals, the Seahawks had a punt blocked, had gone 0-for-8 in third-down conversions and fell behind 17-7.
By exploiting the connection between quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and receiver Deion Branch, the Hawks scored 20 unanswered points. With the game tied at 20s, they drove down the field and needed only to run out the clock and inch closer for a potential Josh Brown field goal.
But on a simple handoff between Hasselbeck and Shaun Alexander, the Hawks fumbled and Arizona recovered. Alexander claimed he had heard Hasselbeck audible to a different play. With possession, the Cardinals moved quickly into position for Neil Rackers to boot the game-winner from 42 yards.
"It was a miscommunication," coach Mike Holmgren said of the fumble. "We weren't getting too exotic. We were moving in to hopefully kick a field goal."
Holmgren said he'd never lost a game in such a fashion.
The lesson he tried to impart to the team as they head into the Cincinnati game? "When I talked to the team, I told them that you can't take anything for granted," Holmgren said. "You can't take the slightest detail for granted. You have to concentrate all the time. Just when you think you can ease off the pedal, you can't. I've never lost a game like this before; I've never seen that before."
A solid second half, though, was something to build on, Holmgren said. Branch's seven catches for 122 yards was a welcomed improvement over his zero receptions in the opener.
"Deion had a good game for us," Holmgren said, adding that part of the game plan for Arizona and in the future is to find more ways to get the ball to Branch.
The Hawks came out of the game without serious injuries. Linebacker Leroy Hill and receiver Ben Obomanu did not play, although they should be expected to be healthy for the Cincinnati game.
--WR Deion Branch became the focus of the Seahawk passing attack with seven receptions for 122 yards. The injury to split end D.J. Hackett allowed Matt Hasselbeck to look for Branch more this week.
--RB Shaun Alexander played with a cast on his left wrist to protect a minor injury. He still gained 70 yards and scored on a 16-yard run.
--LB Lofa Tatupu had another strong effort, leading the team with 12 tackles, an interception and a pass deflection.
--WR Nate Burleson, given the chance to start at split end with Hackett out with an ankle sprain, scored on a 24-yard catch-and-run in the first half against Arizona.
--RB Leonard Weaver got more time than he has been getting and had one carry and one reception.
If the Cardinals proved anything in their victory over Seattle, it's that they are going to run the ball no matter the circumstances. They started two rookies on the offensive line -- center Lyle Sendlein and right tackle Levi Brown -- yet remain committed to the run throughout the day. That's not likely to change this season.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt and assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm come from Pittsburgh, and they have brought the Steelers mentality out west. They will run, even when circumstances seem to dictate doing otherwise.
That's a refreshing philosophical change for the team's returning linemen, who were heavily criticized for the run game's lack of production under former coach Dennis Green. "You just know with the guys we had coming in we were going to have a different mentality as far as that part of the game goes," said left guard Reggie Wells. "I've said it before, I think we've had the talent here for a long, long time. It's just a matter of what our philosophies have been in years past. We haven't approached our running game with that kind of mentality."
Whisenhunt proved to be a bright play caller in his three years as the Steelers offensive coordinator, so he knows the strength of the team still lies in receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. It would be silly to ignore those players. Boldin is great at running after the catch, while Fitzgerald excels at going downfield and using his size and strength to catch balls over smaller cornerbacks.
A strong running game meshes nicely with those weapons on the outside. If opponents move a safety near scrimmage, either Fitzgerald or Boldin could get single coverage. Keep the safety back and running back
Edgerrin James has more room to operate.
"Our coaches are doing a great job of ... keeping everything consistent," James said. "You can't come in on Wednesday and have something new on Friday. And that's what you can see out there, everybody is just getting more comfortable with the scheme of everything and how the coaches are calling the game."
Whisenhunt disagrees with the notion that his mindset is "run first." More likely, he'll try to strike through the air early in games, hoping to build a lead. And like Bill Cowher's teams in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals then hope to put the hammer down and grind out the win.
They showed signs of having that ability against the Seahawks. On the final possession, James ran four times for 22 yards to set up the game-winning field goal. "When they knew we were running, we still ran the ball very well," quarterback Matt Leinart said.
The challenges, however, become greater in the next few weeks. Sendlein, if he stays in the starting lineup, will be tested this week by a Baltimore defense that will throw myriad looks at him. Brown also will be challenged more than he has.
After that, the Cardinals return home to face Pittsburgh and coordinator Dick LeBeau's creative blitzes. If a young offensive line can withstand that, it will be able to hold up against anything.
--QB Matt Leinart bounced back from a horrible opening day performance, throwing for 299 yards and a touchdown against Seattle. Leinart was intercepted once.
--RB Edgerrin James gained more than 100 yards rushing for the fourth time as a Cardinal. Last year, he didn't have his first 100-yard game until the 12th game.
--TE Leonard Pope caught the first touchdown pass of his career, a 30-yarder from Matt Leinart.
--WR Anquan Boldin is going to take some direct snaps this year, just like a single-wing quarterback. Boldin gained 14 yards on such a play in the opener. The Cardinals were going to run it again against Seattle but were called for a false start.
--NT Alan Branch's fractured left hand will be evaluated again this week. The injury has improved and Branch hopes to be cleared to play against Baltimore.
--C Lyle Sendlein, a rookie, played well last Sunday but it wouldn't be a surprise to see veteran Chukky Okobi take over as the starter. Okobi, in his seventh year, played at Pittsburgh and is familiar with Baltimore's defense.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
It doesn't get any easier for the Rams, who now go on the road to play Tampa Bay and Dallas after suffering two excruciating home losses to Carolina and San Francisco. In each game, the Rams led 13-7 in the third quarter and had an opportunity to seize control. But, two turnovers in the third quarter of both games gave the momentum back to their opponents and allowed each to take 14-13 leads.
A Steven Jackson lost fumble at the Carolina 26-yard line led to a 68-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme to Steve Smith. Against the 49ers, wide receiver Torry Holt caught a 20-yard pass from quarterback Marc Bulger, but had the ball punched out of his grasp at the San Francisco eight-yard line. The ball went out of bounds in the end zone for a touchback. Nine plays later, 49ers running back Frank Gore ran 43 yards for a touchdown on 4th-and-1.
Said coach Scott Linehan, "We haven't been able to finish for two weeks in a row and that falls on the head coach. We have to find ways to win. When we lead at halftime, and lead in the third quarter, we have to find a way to sustain it and finish out games. It is my responsibility and it is on my shoulders, period."
Of course, Linehan had a lot of help. Protection issues against a shuffled offensive line led to six sacks of Bulger, and he admitted often throwing to his primary receiver because there wasn't enough time to go through his normal progressions.
"It's an issue," Bulger said of his protection. "There's definitely some things we have to shore up."
In some alignments late in the game, tight end Randy McMichael was set up as a running back to help right tackle Milford Brown with rushers coming off the edge. Fixing the problems will be more difficult on the road, where crowd noise and good defenses can affect the communication on a line, especially one as young and inexperienced as the Rams'.
Against San Francisco, the Rams' offensive line had three players in positions they didn't play the week before. Left tackle Orlando Pace was lost for the season because of a torn labrum and torn rotator cuff. Right guard Richie Incognito remained out with an ankle injury.
Right tackle Alex Barron moved to the left side, Milford Brown switched from right guard to right tackle and Claude Terrell was at right guard. Brown had played tackle only briefly in just one game in his NFL career. Barron was a left tackle in college, but had worked almost exclusively at right tackle since being selected by the Rams in the first round of the 2005 draft.
The five linemen came into the San Francisco game with a combined total of 78 NFL starts, of which left guard Mark Setterstrom had seven, Terrell 10 and center Brett Romberg four.
Still, despite the rough start, safety Corey Chavous scoffed at suggestions the season is lost.
He said, "The bottom line is when you look at football, the one thing you have to be aware of when you are evaluating a season in totality is to not look too far down the road or too far behind. We can't do anything about this week. It is over with. We have to get ready for the next game and the only thing we can control (is) the next game, the next practice and the next meeting. We'll be fine."
--DE Leonard Little had X-rays on a hyperextended toe but they were negative. Little suffered the injury against San Francisco.
--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa was inactive and did not play against the 49ers because of a foot injury. Chris Draft started in his place.
--LB Chris Draft started in place of Pisa Tinoisamoa, and appeared to play well.
--RG Richie Incognito missed his second game of the season because of an ankle injury and his return date is unknown.
--RG Claude Terrell briefly left the game against San Francisco because of a thigh injury. He did return later in the game.
--OT Alex Barron made the move from right tackle to left tackle and appeared to play solid against the 49ers.
--RT Milford Brown struggled at times with protection, a result not unexpected when the decision was made to start him at a position he has rarely played.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers are 2-0 for the first time since 1998. They lead the NFC West after opening the season with division victories over the Cardinals and Rams. But not everything is perfect with the team. The 49ers' offense ranks last in the NFL, and they head to Pittsburgh this week in search of answers.
"I'm going to blame it on growing pains," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said, "because I can't figure it out."
In the first season under offensive coordinator Jim Hostler, the 49ers have struggled in their first two games. With mostly conservative game plans, the 49ers have taken on the appearance of a team that is trying not to lose.
Trailing by two points last week against the Rams, the 49ers were content to set up a 40-yard field goal with more than three minutes to play. They went with a two-tight end formation and ran the ball on three consecutive running plays.
"I did instruct Jim that we are in field-goal position right now, so let's just continue to run the ball," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "If I had it to do again, I probably would have done something (different) on third down because we were already in field-goal position at that time -- maybe take a shot. But I'm glad we did what we did because we won the game."
The 49ers held on for a 17-16 victory. Now, they face the Steelers, who enter the game with a 2-0 record, as well.
Their first two opponents have keyed on the running game. Often placing eight defenders in the box to contend with running back Frank Gore, the 49ers have been unable to make big plays against one-one-one coverage.
Quarterback Alex Smith has thrown for just 252 yards in two games. Tight end Vernon Davis, expected to be a big-play threat this season, has just four catches for 27 yards in the first two games. "I know we can be a lot better. I know it," Smith said. "I think everyone in there knows it. That is the scary thing. We're 2-0 and we have a lot of room for improvement."
Davis said the 49ers have been holding back a lot of the offense. Davis has been the primary receiver on a few plays, but he believes the ball should be coming to him a lot more.
"I should be the primary receiver on most of the plays," he said.
There is little doubt that Gore is the main man on the offense. Although the yards have not come easy in the first two games, Gore has rushed for three touchdowns. Smith has yet to throw a touchdown pass this season.
Gore ripped off a 43-yard touchdown run and scored twice against the Rams, as he played just four days after the death of his mother, Liz. Gore was scheduled to attend the funeral services in Miami before returning to the team on Wednesday to begin his preparations for the Steelers.
"Going 2-0 makes us feel good, but we're frustrated," guard Justin Smiley said. "It's ugly right now. It's sputtering for a lot of different reasons."
--QB Alex Smith has not thrown an interception in 48 attempts this season, but he also has not thrown a touchdown. Smith has been sacked seven times. He has held the ball too long at times and has not seen open receivers down the field.
--DL Bryant Young had a strong game against the Rams. He recorded two sacks, and leads the 49ers with three sacks in the first two games.
--TE Vernon Davis has not been nearly as big a part of the offense as many had envisioned through the first two games. Davis caught two passes in each of the first two games. Davis has just 27 yards receiving.
--RB Frank Gore has three touchdowns in the first two games. He is averaging just 3.6 yards a carry, as teams are loading the box to stop him. He will continue to see that kind of attention as long as the 49ers don't make opposing teams pay for it with a strong passing attack. Gore traveled to Miami after the game in St. Louis for his mother's wake and funeral. He will return to the 49ers on Wednesday, but it's uncertain whether he'll be back in time for the first practice to prepare for the Steelers.
--CB Walt Harris, a Pro Bowl selection last season, had a difficult game against the Rams' Isaac Bruce, who caught eight passes for 145 yards.
--WR Taylor Jacobs, the 49ers' No. 3 receiver, has not caught a pass in the first two games of the season. He took a handoff on an end-around and lost 8 yards.
--WR Darrell Jackson leads the 49ers with seven catches for 97 yards. He had a chance to come up with a deep pass early in the game against the Rams, but failed to make the difficult catch.