NFC West News & Notes - 9/25/07

In today's News & Notes: The Seahawks enjoy a comeback, the Rams' offense suffers another hit, San Francisco is a vulnerable 2-1, and the Cardinals may have a quarterback controversy.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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After watching the films of the Seahawks' 24-21 win over Cincinnati, Seattle coach Mike Holmgren reiterated his belief that quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is off to an exceptional start.

Hasselbeck's current passer rating of 97.1 is a pace that trails only his 2005 Super Bowl and Pro Bowl season. His only two interceptions of the season, which came against the Bengals, were on balls tipped up by receivers.

"He's reached a point in his career where he should be good and we're lucky to have him," Holmgren said. "Is he perfect? No. We're shooting for perfection, both of us are. He's playing very well and we need him to play well. The quarterback is very much the key to how we do offensively."

Both Holmgren and Hasselbeck cited improved communication as an important factor in the operation of the offense. "I think we've reached a point where he can be open and I can be open," Holmgren said.

Hasselbeck's mastery of the Holmgren offense also has been a function of his decision-making ability.

"If you have the physical tools, then it's all about judgment," Holmgren said. "Because he's very bright, he has a tendency to overanalyze a little bit. What we're working on now is just being real confident in the decisions and then living for another day. His judgment is an area where he's really doing a fine job for the most part."

NOTES, QUOTES

--While pleased with a win over the Bengals, which moved the Seahawks to 2-1, coach Mike Holmgren saw enough points of weakness to address this week heading into a game against division foe San Francisco. "There are areas we have to improve on," Holmgren said. "Offensively, I wasn't very happy with the way we ran the ball. We ran it a little bit at the end of the game and got some yards. Early on, we weren't too successful. They moved their defense more than probably anybody we'll play all year and disrupted some of our blocking schemes."

--Holmgren cited special teams as a key to the win. And also congratulated new special teams coach Bruce DeHaven for his efforts. Josh Wilson opened the game with a 72-yard kickoff, which led to an 18-yard touchdown pass from Matt Hasselbeck to Bobby Engram. Linebacker Lance Laury helped secure the win, forcing a fumble on the final Bengals kickoff return.

"If there was a time where you could re-emphasize the fact that everybody on your roster can contribute and can help you win, that was a perfect example of that because the special teams came up big," Holmgren said. "The final play for special teams won the game for us."

--Seahawks safety Brian Russell heard plenty of talking from Bengals receiver Chad Johnson. "We have a friendly rivalry," Russell said. "He does that (talk) to everybody, though. He tries to feel you out, maybe soften you up before he goes over the top for a touchdown. I don't really play that game with him too much."

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--RB Shaun Alexander has a cracked bone in his wrist, new tests revealed. His play will not be limited as he'll continue to wear the small cast on his left wrist as he did against Cincinnati.
--RB Mo Morris is expected to be back in action after having recovered from a hip injury.
--WR Ben Obomanu will likely return to practice and be ready for the San Francisco game. He's been out nursing a hamstring injury.
--LB Leroy Hill, who had been out with a foot injury, played against Cincinnati with no ill effects.
--CB Kelly Jennings had the wind knocked out of him during the Bengals game, the staff reported, but he was not injured beyond that.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

REPORT CARD VS. BENGALS

PASSING OFFENSE: B -- The two interceptions caused Matt Hasselbeck's grade to slip, as did the receivers' five drops.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- After a slow start, Shaun Alexander broke a couple of good runs in the fourth quarter to reach 100 yards for the second time in three games.
PASS DEFENSE: B -- The Seahawks gave up huge yardage (342) as Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh had big days, but they only surrendered one touchdown while picking off two.
RUSH DEFENSE: B-plus -- Rudi Johnson was limited to a scant nine yards on 17 carries.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A -- The Hawks opened the game with a 72-yard kickoff return by Josh Wilson and clinched the game by forcing a fumble on the final kickoff to Cincinnati.
COACHING: B -- The Seahawks were sluggish to start, but the defensive scheme ultimately held the potent Bengals offense to 21 points.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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Quarterback Matt Leinart appears to have regressed from his rookie season. In two of the three games, he's looked overwhelmed by the game and confused about what he should do with the ball. Kurt Warner's performance off the bench prompted questions about Leinart's status as a starter, but coach Ken Whisenhunt quickly diffused a potential controversy just minutes after Sunday's loss to the Ravens. Leinart is still the starter, Whisenhunt said.

Warner was brilliant off the bench, throwing for 258 yards and two touchdowns. But he also had the advantage of using the no-huddle, which kept the Ravens from using much of their intricate blitz package.

Still, Warner was very accurate, hitting receivers in stride, something Leinart didn't do in the first half. He was maddeningly inaccurate, throwing behind his targets.
Warner got the ball out on time and seemed comfortable making his reads, qualities Leinart didn't display.

But while Warner might give the team its best chance to win now, Leinart is the team's future. The Cardinals don't appear to be a playoff contender, so it makes sense to stick with Leinart and let him develop. The Cardinals will be better for it in the long run.

Whisenhunt won't relegate Warner completely to the shelf, however. The 36-year-old former MVP will continue to direct the no-huddle, which the Cardinals will use throughout the season.

With his experience, Warner can run the no-huddle better than Leinart. Warner's more comfortable calling his own plays, and the no-huddle helps him develop a rhythm. And even though Warner has struggled in recent years, he's still dangerous once he gets on a roll.

As a backup last year, he experimented with wearing gloves, and he liked the way he felt. His passes don't wobble nearly as much, and he doesn't have the occasional pass flutter out of his right hand, as was the case the past few years.

NOTES, QUOTES

--LT Levi Brown suffered a sprained ankle in the first half Sunday and didn't return. His status is day-to-day, but the injury is a big concern. His backup is Elton Brown, a guard who has cross-trained at tackle since training camp.
--Nose tackle Alan Branch should be able to play this week after missing all three games with a fractured hand. Branch practiced last week, but coaches didn't think he had worked enough to be ready to play. He'll play with the hand padded and wrapped.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--WR Anquan Boldin's 14 receptions last week were a career high. Boldin caught just eight passes in the first two games, but was successful on routes underneath the defense and down the seams. Boldin is also being used out of the backfield and as a blocker on the edges.
--FB Terrelle Smith dropped one pass and might have made another catch, although the ball was slightly overthrown. Smith is a solid blocking back and the club would like to sneak him out on pass routes, but he has to prove he can catch in critical situations.
--SS Adrian Wilson had 12 tackles against Baltimore. Wilson played well, but the high number of tackles is also a sign Ravens running back Willis McGahee had no trouble getting into the Cardinals secondary.
--RB Edgerrin James gained 57 yards on 10 carries, and a 27-yard gain in the first half was his longest as a Cardinal. The club fell behind early, however, and couldn't stick with the run.
--DE Bertrand Berry left the game for a few series because of a bruised quadriceps. He should be able to play this week.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

REPORT CARD VS. RAVENS


PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus -- QB Matt Leinart struggled against the Ravens' pressure, but backup Kurt Warner operated the no-huddle to near perfection, nearly bringing the Cardinals to a come-from-behind victory.
RUSHING OFFENSE C -- The Cardinals fell behind early and almost abandoned the run. Edgerrin James had 57 yards on 10 carries, including a 27-yarder, his longest as a Cardinal.
PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- Cornerbacks Eric Green and Rod Hood struggled, and Green tried to make too many arm tackles. The Cardinals managed to get some pressure in the second half, but overall they gave up too many big plays.
RUSH DEFENSE: C -- Willis McGahee gouged the Cardinals in the first half, especially when he cut to the backside. The Cardinals had poor discipline at times filling gaps.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D -- The Ravens returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown, and the Cardinals missed a prime opportunity to down a punt inside the Ravens 5. They did recover an onside kick and Neil Rackers made another clutch kick.
COACHING: B -- With his club struggling, Ken Whisenhunt tried everything to give it a spark. He changed quarterbacks, used a no-huddle scheme and called for an onside kick, which was recovered. The Cardinals started slowly, however, which also has to fall upon Whisenhunt.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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Prior to Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, tight end Randy McMichael was asked if he thought this edition of the Rams was snakebit. Responded McMichael, "Snakebit? Then we've got to get some snakebite repellant. Maybe they've got some at Walgreens."

Added wide receiver Torry Holt, "We're going to eventually get some breaks at some point in the season. We can't go 16 weeks and the ball keeps flying out, or we get a bad break. Eventually those things are going to come to our side."

Said wide receiver/kick returner Dante Hall, "It's like the bad luck truck is in the neighborhood right now."

The Rams have to be wondering whether that "eventually" will ever arrive. They fell to 0-3 following a 24-3 loss to Tampa Bay on a day when another offensive lineman was lost to injury. Left guard Mark Setterstrom suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in the fourth quarter and is out for the rest of the season. That will necessitate even more changes in an already reshuffled line.

Then, as if any more piling on was needed, it was disclosed Monday that running back Steven Jackson would miss at least this week's game at Dallas because of a partial tear of his groin suffered in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay. Rookie Brian Leonard will start against the Cowboys.

Coach Scott Linehan also revealed that quarterback Marc Bulger played against the Buccaneers with broken ribs and a bruised knee. Yet, Linehan insisted that Bulger, rather than backup Gus Frerotte, gave the Rams their best chance of winning, even though the offensive game plan was scaled back to reduce the hits on Bulger and Linehan admitted that Bulger was "limited."

This team was expected to open the season with Orlando Pace at left tackle, Setterstrom at left guard, Brett Romberg at center, Richie Incognito at right guard, Alex Barron at right tackle and Todd Steussie as the top backup tackle/guard.

However, the dominos starting falling Aug. 18 when Incognito suffered a high ankle sprain against San Diego. He has yet to play. Steussie suffered a broken bone in his foot in the final preseason game Aug. 30 and Pace was lost for the season with a torn labrum and rotator cuff in the Sept. 9 season opener.

Pace's loss and the unavailability of Steussie resulted in right tackle Alex Barron moving to the left side with opening-day right-guard starter Milford Brown moving to right tackle and Claude Terrell inserted at right guard in Week 2. Sunday against the Buccaneers, Adam Goldberg started at right tackle, while Terrell and Brown alternated at right guard until Setterstrom's injury, when Terrell moved to left guard.

In the first three games, there have already been three different starters at right tackle, two at right guard and two at left tackle. With Setterstrom out, only Romberg has a chance of starting all 16 games at the same position.

Last season, when the Rams were 8-8, they had 13 different offensive line starters and only Barron started all 16 games at the same position. That contrasts to their last winning season in 2004, when the Rams were 12-4 and their five starters on the line started all 16 games.

With critics howling about the team's conservative game plan, Linehan said, "We threw it downfield last week, and our quarterback almost didn't make it into the locker room. We want to continue to do that (throw downfield), but we had to protect somewhat -- had to protect the timing of plays. So we didn't expose some matchup issues. I felt it was the right thing to do, and I still do."

As for the injuries, Linehan said, "We've been hit by the injury bug, but you can't go there. You just have to respond the right way, and that means going out and beating Dallas for the biggest win since I've been here."

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Rams planned on running Steven Jackson against the Bucs and they did. The problem was that it wasn't consistently effective. Jackson totaled 115 yards, but he needed 30 attempts. He had runs of 13 and 14 yards, but also had 12 attempts with two yards or less. "We kind of figured we were going to be able to pound the ball on them, go up and down the field," Jackson said. "And in the red zone, we wanted to be able to execute. That's where we came up short."

Quarterback Marc Bulger said Jackson "ran hard," and added, "The first half he was getting a ton of touches (18-63), and that was good to see, because as the game goes on he gets stronger. It was working. Unfortunately, we still couldn't put it in the end zone."

The Rams entered the game 26th in the NFL with an average of 4.46 yards on first down. Sunday, they had 27 first-down plays for 124 yards, an average of 4.59. They passed eight times for 45 yards and two interceptions, while running 19 times for 79 yards, of which Jackson accounted for 18 carries and 74 yards (4.1 average).
Said Bulger, "The game plan was to run the ball. If they would've brought nine guys to the line, we were going to try to run the ball."

--DE Leonard Little is still without a sack after three games. Of course, the Rams have just five sacks (four of which came against San Francisco) and their three opponents have attempted only 66 passes. "It's been a long time since I had one," Little said. "Well, I had one in the preseason, but that doesn't count. I'm eager to get it."

--PK Jeff Wilkins hit a 53-yard field goal in Week 2 against San Francisco and missed one from 56 yards that was just short late in the game that would have given the Rams the lead. However, against Tampa Bay, Wilkins missed from 42 and 43 yards with one going wide left and the other hitting the right upright.
"That was unbelievable," Wilkins said. "On the first one, I came over the top of it and yanked it (wide left). The second one, there was a little right-to-left wind. I hit it, thought it was going to come in nice. Stayed straight and hit the (right) upright." (That was) ridiculous. It's tough to swallow right now. I've got to get it straightened out real quick."

--LT Orlando Pace underwent surgery Sept. 20 in Houston to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his right shoulder. He is expected to be sidelined 6-8 months.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--LG Mark Setterstrom will miss the rest of the season because of a torn ACL suffered in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against Tampa Bay.
--RB Steven Jackson will miss at least one game because of a partial tear of the groin suffered in the fourth quarter Sunday against Tampa Bay. After this game, Jackson's status is considered week-to-week.
--QB Marc Bulger played against Tampa Bay with broken ribs and a bruised knee, but coach Scott Linehan claims Bulger should be better this week because he wasn't hit much against the Buccaneers. Linehan also noted that Bulger played with injured ribs last season, while acknowledging that this year's injury is worse.
--G Claude Terrell is expected to start at left guard against Dallas with Setterstrom out for the season with a knee injury. Terrell has started the last two games at right guard, although he shared snaps with Milford Brown Sunday until Setterstrom's injury.
--G Milford Brown is expected to start at right guard Sunday against Dallas after sharing time there with Terrell against Tampa Bay. Terrell will move to left guard following the season-ending knee injury suffered by Setterstrom.
--G Richie Incognito is "making strides," according to coach Scott Linehan, although Linehan admitted he doesn't know what that means until he gets on the practice field Wednesday. Incognito has been out since Aug. 18 with a high ankle sprain, and is still experiencing pain when he does certain movements.
--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa (ankle) will be probable this week and is expected to start against Dallas. Tinoisamoa was inactive against Tampa Bay because he wasn't ready to start and having him active would have affected a special teams player.
--S Jerome Carter is expected to be limited in practice Wednesday with a bruised thigh suffered against Tampa Bay. If Carter is able to practice, he will be limited.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

REPORT CARD VS. BUCCANEERS


PASSING OFFENSE: F -- This is a rare grade for the Rams, but it's well deserved. QB Marc Bulger had the second-worst passer rating of his career (35.6), was intercepted three times and his 17 completions totaled just 116 yards (6.8 yards completion and 4.46 per attempt). The longest completion was 18 yards to Torry Holt and one of the interceptions came in the red zone on a poorly executed play to wide receiver Drew Bennett where there apparently was some miscommunication between Bulger and Bennett.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus -- The Rams did control the ball with the running game, but there were few big plays as RB Steven Jackson carried 30 times for 115 yards, just 3.8 yards per attempt. Backup Brian Leonard did add 21 yards on four carries.
PASS DEFENSE: B-plus -- Bucs WR Joey Galloway entered the game averaging over 20 yards per catch, and he was limited to 42 yards on four receptions. QB Jeff Garcia totaled just 151 yards on 14 of 22 passing. However, in the drive that gave Tampa Bay a two-score lead in the fourth quarter, RB Michael Pittman gained 31 yards on two receptions.
RUSH DEFENSE: C -- Until the fourth quarter, the Rams hung tough, limiting Cadillac Williams to 46 yards on 12 carries, and forcing a fumble early in the fourth quarter that led to the Rams' only points. However, after that field goal made it a one-score game (10-3), the defense was gashed by backup Earnest Graham, who gained 32 yards on three carries, including an eight-yard touchdown run. On the next possession, the Bucs salted the game away with 40 yards on three rushes, three by Graham, including a 28-yard scoring dash.
SPECIAL TEAMS: F -- Dante Hall had just 47 yards on three kickoff returns (15.7-yard average) and inexplicably ran a missed 54-yard field goal out of the end zone. Hall was stopped at the 33-yard line, a loss of 11 yards from where the ball would have been if he hadn't returned it. A 35-yard punt return by the Bucs led to their final touchdown and a 36-yard kickoff return to start the second half led to a touchdown that gave Tampa Bay a 10-0 lead.
COACHING: C -- It's hard to fault the coaching for the offensive game plan, which was designed to keep Bulger upright and healthy. However, with Bulger hurt more than was being disclosed, then backup Gus Frerotte probably should have gotten the call.


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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For the first time since his college days at Utah, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith spent a lot of time in the shotgun formation. Smith, who played exclusively in that formation under Urban Meyer at Utah, lined up in the shotgun for 26 of the 49ers' 59 offensive snaps on Sunday in a 37-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Moreover, Smith used his legs a lot more than he has in the past. He threw on the run, and even rushed for 32 yards. Smith thought it was the best way to play against the Steelers defense. But this might also be the template for the rest of the season.

"It was nice to be able to move the pocket and give them something to think about," Smith said. "Let them think about sprint outs. Let them think about moving the pocket. Let them think about keeps.

"I think it's something we can do against a team like this. You have to mix it up and change."

However, Smith will be without one of his offensive weapons this week against the Seahawks. Tight end Vernon Davis is expected to miss at least two games with an MCL sprain in his right knee.

Offensive coordinator Jim Hostler, who came under fire in the Bay Area for his conservative approach in the 49ers' first two games, said he really did not do anything differently.

"What you saw were plays that are in our base offense," Hostler said. "We had those calls in the other games, but it's a matter of finding the best situations to run those plays."
Coach Mike Nolan said he liked what he saw from Hostler and the offense.

"I thought the attack was good," Nolan said. "I thought the plan was good. I thought the play-calling was good. I thought we opened it up."

Although Smith did not post great numbers, it was still the offense's best performance of the season. Ironically, the 49ers failed to gain 200 yards of total offense in their victories over Arizona and St. Louis to start the season.

Against the Steelers, the 49ers gained 289 yards of total offense, with Smith passing for 206 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.

NOTES, QUOTES

--So much for 2,000 yards. The 49ers are searching for answers with their running game. Frank Gore has rushed for just 175 yards on 52 carries (3.4 average) through the first three games. Last season, he gained a 49ers-record 1,695 yards and set his goal for this season at more than 2,000.

But, clearly, defenses are geared up to stop him. Gore gained just 39 yards on 14 carries against the Steelers. "Every week I know they're going to come to stop me," Gore said. "I have to give an extra effort. We got to get better as an offense."

--Punter Andy Lee thought he would be working for the Steelers this season. After the 49ers gave him the low-level tender as a restricted free agent, he was unsure he fit into the team's plans. The Steelers signed Lee to a six-year, $7.1 million offer sheet, which the 49ers quickly matched.

"I'm glad to be back here in San Francisco," Lee said. "I'm happy they matched the offer. It was just another game. That's how I was trying to treat it." Lee was phenomenal against the team that almost got him. He averaged 57.2 yards (46.0 net) on five punts. His long was 66 yards.

--Receiver Taylor Jacobs and quarterback Alex Smith were not on the same page on a play that resulted in Bryant McFadden's interception and 50-yard return for a touchdown. If the defense was playing a Cover 2, Jacobs was supposed to do one thing. If they're in a Cover 3, he was supposed to do another. The play called for Smith to make the throw before Jacobs made his break. Smith and Jacobs discussed the play on the sideline after it happened.

"Something was said that I should have gone outside of him, but I was getting so deep that at the time I didn't see it like that," Jacobs said. "It was just a miscommunication."

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--TE Vernon Davis is likely to miss at least two games with an MCL sprain in his right knee. Davis sustained the injury on a hit from Steelers safety Troy Polamalu in Sunday's game. Davis has eight catches for 83 yards on the season.
--LB Patrick Willis had another strong game, as he recorded seven tackles against the Steelers. Willis has asserted himself as one of the early front-runners for defensive rookie of the year.
--LB Manny Lawson was placed on injured reserve over the weekend with a torn ACL. Lawson sustained the injury during practice on Wednesday. He had gotten off to a good start for the season with 14 tackles in two games.
--WR Ashley Lelie got onto the field for a handful of plays, however he has yet to catch a pass with the 49ers. He had one pass thrown his way, but he pulled up on the route to avoid contact. The pass fell incomplete.
--FB Zak Keasey, promoted to the active roster from the practice squad, played on most of the special teams. Keasey got in on offense for the final two plays, running twice for four yards. Keasey was moved to the 53-man roster to take the place of Manny Lawson, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

REPORT CARD VS. STEELERS


PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus -- Quarterback Alex Smith did not play as poorly as his stats indicate, but the production of the passing game still left a lot to be desired. Smith completed 17 of 35 for 209 yards. He had one touchdown and one interception. He and receiver Taylor Jacobs were not on the same page on one fourth-quarter play. Jacobs broke one way and Smith expected him to go in the other direction. The result was an interception returned for a touchdown. The pass protection was a little better, and the 49ers were better about getting the ball in the hands of tight end Vernon Davis, who caught 56 yards in passes.
RUSHING OFFENSE: F -- Running back Frank Gore is having a difficult time finding any room to run. The run blocking has not been great, and Gore hasn't had the opportunity to wear down defenses like he did so well a year ago. This game was Gore's 20th NFL start, and it was his lowest production during that time. He gained just 39 yards on 14 carries. Only because Smith scrambled for 32 yards on three rushes did the 49ers have a respectable 4.1 average. The 49ers managed five first downs rushing.
PASS DEFENSE: B -- Hannibal Navies sacked Ben Roethlisberger. In the process, he stripped him of the ball and recovered it. The 49ers did a fine job against Hines Ward, allowing just one catch for two yards. Santonio Holmes managed just three catches for 49 yards. But the 49ers had difficulty defending the tight ends. Heath Miller had four catches for 82 yards and Jerame Tuman caught a nine-yard touchdown.
RUSH DEFENSE: D-minus -- The Steelers were able to open gaping holes in the middle of the line, as 49ers nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin seemed to be handled with ease. Willie Parker rushed for 133 yards on 24 carries. Najeh Davenport added 47 yards on five carries. The Steelers were able to control the clock with their running game. They also did not allow the 49ers defense any time to breathe. The Steelers scored on five consecutive drives from the end of the second quarter until they ran out the clock at the end of the game.
SPECIAL TEAMS: D -- The 49ers' coverage units have been pretty good. But they made the inexcusable mistake of allowing Steelers kick returner Allen Rossum to return a first-quarter kickoff for a 98-yard TD. Kicker Joe Nedney made each of his three FG attempts. The star on special teams was Andy Lee, who averaged 57.2 yards (46.0 net) on five punts.
COACHING: C -- The game plans appeared solid, especially on offense, where coordinator Jim Hostler had a more varied approach. The 49ers used a lot more shotgun and movement plays for Smith. Defensively, the 49ers also mixed up their coverages and blitzes. Coach Mike Nolan could have used some timeouts late in the first half to give his offense the opportunity to score some points after the Steelers had taken a 14-6 lead.


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