Judging by the intensity of practices at the team's Kirkland headquarters, it's clear that the meeting with the San Francisco 49ers is more than just another early season matchup. Although Seattle is riding a string of three straight NFC West division titles, the 49ers have beaten the Seahawks in the last two meetings.
"Big week ... it's a big week," coach Mike Holmgren said. "Division opponent, (and) they're a fine football team. Our records are the same (2-1), we're going on the road, a lot of reason to try and play better football. We're going to have a good week of practice and see if we can get it done. They're an impressive team on film in my opinion. Very active on defense, and they have, of course, a great running back in (Frank) Gore, a big offensive line, and a young quarterback (Alex Smith) who is very talented so we have our work cut out for us; it's going to be a heck of a week."
Holmgren quickly conceded that getting swept last year by San Francisco is still a sore topic for the Seahawks.
"Typically, we've been able to have a very good record within the division the last couple years, but that hurt," Holmgren said. "They earned it, they got us twice and it's not lost on the team or me, because of the obvious reasons. You have to try and take care of business in your division, to hope for the playoffs, first of all, and for home-field advantage if that's out there for you. They got us twice last year and no one liked the feeling."
Holmgren likes to proclaim that he's not a "stats guy," but when he was asked to analyze the problems in the two losses to San Francisco, he knew exactly how many yards Gore rushed for in those meetings,.
"Any time you give a runner (Gore) 356 yards in two games, you have given up way too many yards, and that's what he got," Holmgren said. "Hopefully we will tackle better than we did last year. We know it's a challenge, the guy is really good."
Another interesting factor in this one is the appearance of former Seahawk Darrell Jackson in a San Francisco uniform. Jackson was shipped to the Niners in a controversial trade on draft weekend in April.
The Hawks received only a fourth-round pick for Jackson, who had led the team with 10 touchdown grabs in 2006.
"Darrell was here a long time and he caught a lot of passes and he was a good player for us," Holmgren said.
Player, yes. But a series of injuries kept Jackson from practicing with regularity.
"When you don't practice during the week, I don't care who you are, you're not going to be as good, you're not going to be as sharp," Holmgren said. "He had those injuries that were nagging injuries. And with wide receivers, if you have leg injuries, foot injuries, things like that, where speed and running and cutting is your game, you must have that to be successful. That's hard."
SERIES HISTORY: 17th meeting. The series is tied, 8-8, with San Francisco winning the past two after Seattle had taken six straight.
--The Seahawks have come up with seven sacks in three games, and coach Mike Holmgren is not altogether pleased with that performance. "I want to see more," Holmgren said. "We're not quite where I would like us to be, yet. If you dissect it and look at the film, there are reasons: Sometimes teams keep a lot of blockers in; sometimes the quarterback gets the ball out quickly; sometimes we're just six inches away like we were with (Arizona's Matt) Leinart. Having said that, we still have to get more productivity."
--One of Matt Hasselbeck's best friends in the game is former Seahawk and current San Francisco backup quarterback Trent Dilfer. The two talk frequently during most weeks, but not now. "I get nervous about talking to him now," Hasselbeck said. "I feel like he's interviewing me, like he's taking notes while we're on the phone, so I try not to talk to him."
--Holmgren singled out backup linebacker Lance Laury for his strong efforts on special teams. Laury was named the NFC's Special Teams Player of the Week. "He's been very good," Holmgren said. "And I'm not just talking about the one play (forced fumble vs. Cincinnati) that gave us the game last week. He's really a good guy, a hard-working guy. He's off to a good start."
BY THE NUMBERS: 30th -- The Seahawks' ranking in the league in the category of pass defense.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I saw him on television; I don't think his helmet fits him right." -- Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, when asked if he's seen former teammate Darrell Jackson in a 49ers uniform.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Although further tests revealed that Shaun Alexander's injured wrist involved a cracked bone, the Hawks don't plan on altering his involvement in the offense. He played against Cincinnati with a cast on his left wrist. He still picked up 100 rushing yards. "I asked him if the cast bothered him," coach Mike Holmgren said after seeing Alexander fail on attempts to block Bengal linebackers who blitzed. "The trainer said he should be able to do it. Shaun said he was okay. Nobody can block with one arm, it just doesn't work. I think he will be fine."
The return to health of Maurice Morris will take some pressure off Alexander.
--WR Ben Obomanu, who has been out for all three games with a hamstring injury, has returned to practice and is expected to be in action when the Hawks go to their four-wide receiver sets.
--WR D.J. Hackett is still considered a month away from being recovered from his high-ankle sprain.
--RB Maurice Morris (hip) is back at practice and will likely take some plays away from backup swing back Leonard Weaver.
--TE Ben Joppru (sprained ankle) has missed practice.
--LB Kevin Bentley is back to practice after dealing with a back injury.
GAME PLAN: Pretty simple for the Seahawks this week: Stop Frank Gore. Although Gore has been less effective thus far this season, he killed the Hawks in two games last year and the Seahawks are determined to jam the line to stop him.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant vs. 49ers WR Darrell Jackson. These guys used to go against each other in practice every day. Both are familiar with the other's strengths and weaknesses. Trufant is coming off a game in which he effectively shadowed Bengal Chad Johnson. The corners will be challenged more this week because it's likely they'll commit to stopping the rush by bringing up their safeties.
Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck vs. 49ers MLB Patrick Willis. The rookie Willis has had double-digit tackle games every week, but Hasselbeck is adept at getting the Seahawks in and out of bad plays with his audibles. Hasselbeck surely will have his eyes on where Willis is lining up and be quick to direct the offense elsewhere.
INJURY IMPACT: The Seahawks are getting healthier as Morris, Obomanu and Bentley all return to action. The only major concern among the starters is the cracked wrist of Shaun Alexander, although he has practiced during the week and is not expected to be limited in the game by the protective cast.
Matt Leinart remains the starting quarterback, but coach Ken Whisenhunt plans to keep the no-huddle, with Kurt Warner directing, as a part of the offense throughout the season. Whisenhunt diffused any quarterback controversy shortly after last week's loss in Baltimore, saying just minutes after the game that Leinart would remain the starter. This week, he followed that up by saying he still believes in Leinart, and that the Cardinals offensive struggles against Baltimore weren't all the fault of the young quarterback.
Four of his passes were dropped. Warner benefited from running the no-huddle, which prompted the Ravens to back off their blitz packages. And the rest of the Cardinals played better later in the game because they adjusted to what the Ravens' defense was doing.
While there is no controversy now at quarterback, there might be if Leinart continues to struggle. He hasn't played well in two of the three games, and it's impossible to ignore Warner's production last week -- 15 of 20 for 258 yards and two touchdowns. Contrast those numbers with Leinart's -- nine of 20 for 53 yards.
"I think if Matt continues to work on his game and makes some of the plays he did against Seattle, then I don't think there becomes a controversy," Whisenhunt said. "If Matt does not play well, then that's something you have to look at. And I think what we've said -- not just with the quarterback position but with this team -- is that if you're not playing well and someone else is playing better, they're to play.
"But that's not the case here. That's not what happened (last Sunday) with Matt and Kurt."
Warner, meanwhile, is juiced up by the opportunity to run the no-huddle. Whisenhunt thought it was too much for Leinart to handle right now, and the no-huddle is something Warner can concentrate on during the week of practice. Against Baltimore, the package included 30-40 plays, and could expand as the season progresses.
"I'm hoping as we get more comfortable and get more success there'll be some more things we can do to really utilize the whole package -- quick plays, attacking down the field," Warner said. "Right now, it's a pretty base package."
It's still varied enough to give Warner plenty of options. He can call passes, of course, screens to running backs or receivers, as well as runs.
"It wasn't like it was going to be a big package for us last week," said receiver Larry Fitzgerald. We were just like, we're going to give it a shot and see how it goes. And it worked for us."
The Cardinals might not use the no-huddle every week, especially if Leinart and the base offense are operating efficiently. But the no-huddle is a viable option to use against teams that blitz a lot or use numerous personnel packages. The no-huddle limits those opportunities, as was obvious last week in Baltimore.
"It moved the tempo of the game to our speed rather than let them dictate what their defense was going to do to us," said offensive tackle Mike Gandy.
SERIES HISTORY: 58th meeting. Steelers lead the series, 32-22-3. Pittsburgh has won two straight over the Cardinals but the teams have met just twice since 1994. In the last 12 games, the record is 5-5-2. The series dates to 1933. The Steelers visited the Cardinals in the preseason in 2006 in the first game at University of Phoenix Stadium. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was an assistant in Pittsburgh for six years, including the last three as offensive coordinator. Assistant head coach/offensive line Russ Grimm is from Scottsdale, Pa., played at the University of Pittsburgh and coached the Steelers offensive line for the previous six years.
--Since Kurt Warner became the backup to Matt Leinart last year, he has appeared in three regular-season contests and compiled some impressive statistics. He has completed 46 of 65 attempts (70.8 percent), for 719 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Warner has now attempted 70 consecutive passes without an interception.
--The Steelers have allowed just one 100-yard rusher in the past 47 games. That player was Cardinals running back Edgerrin James, who gained 124 yards against them in 2005 while with the Colts. Since then, the Steelers have gone 24 games without an opposing running back gaining 100 yards.
--Anquan Boldin's 181 receiving yards last week are the most since the first game of his career when he caught 10 passes for 217 yards at Detroit in 2003. His 14 receptions were a career high.
--Leinart remains confident in his ability to lead the Cardinals. "I'm not worried about what anyone else is saying," Leinart said. "I know that this is my team. I know I'm the quarterback of this team. I'm competitive. I'm not just going to throw in the towel and give in to what everyone is saying. I'm going to go out there, work harder.
"If you're saying it motivates me, maybe, maybe not. I'm going to go out there and be the player I know I can be and it starts this week."
BY THE NUMBERS: 2 -- That's the number of sacks the Cardinals have given up this year, the fewest in the NFL.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a little bit weird, but at the same time to be in a backup role and have somebody say, 'Here's an opportunity for you to play weekly,' that excites me. In this position, you usually don't play unless something happens to the guy in front of you." -- QB Kurt Warner.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--Rookie Lyle Sendlein will get his third straight start at center this week in place of Al Johnson, who is out for another week or two with a sprained knee. Sendlein, who wasn't drafted or invited to the scouting combine, played well against Seattle.
--OL Elton Brown could start his first game ever at right tackle this week. A guard, Brown moved to tackle when Levi Brown went out with a sprained ankle. Elton Brown played well, despite not having played tackle since high school.
--The no-huddle might work this week against the Steelers, who are using more intricate blitzes, especially on third downs, than they have in the past.
--Nose tackle Alan Branch is still out with a fractured hand. He will be evaluated later this week but he's not expected to play Sunday.
--TE Leonard Pope caught the first touchdown pass of his career last week. If Pope can continue to improve his blocking, he could be the all-around tight end the team has been looking for.
--PR Steve Breaston was impressive during the preseason but he looked a little tentative last week against the Seahawks. Breaston has the speed to make big plays but he has to be more decisive.
GAME PLAN: The last running back to gain 100 yards against the Steelers was Edgerrin James, who did it in the 12th week of the 2005 season. Don't look for him to repeat that feat. The Cardinals won't be dismayed if he doesn't, but they would like to at least retain the option of running the ball. To do that, Matt Leinart has to be efficient when the club throws on first and second downs. Defensively, the Cardinals face another elite runner in Willie Parker. They've done a nice job in shutting down Frank Gore, Shaun Alexander and Willis McGahee. The key will be maintaining gap discipline. That will help them prevent giving up big plays.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Cardinals C Lyle Sendlein vs. Steelers Casey Hampton. Hampton is a physical force who could alter the game if he dominates this matchup. Sendlein, a rookie, has played well and holds up at the point of attack.
Cardinals DE Darnell Dockett vs. Steelers OT Willie Colon. Dockett has been disruptive this season, and his improvement has been a big key in the defense's solid play for most of the season. If Dockett can get some pressure on Ben Roethlisberger and hold up against the run, the Cardinals will benefit greatly.
INJURY IMPACT: Starting right tackle Levi Brown will miss practice time this week after suffering a sprained ankle against Baltimore. An MRI revealed no structural damage. If Brown can't play, he'll likely be replaced by Elton Brown. Elton Brown is a guard, and his appearance at right tackle last week was his first since high school. He played well but he's obviously not accustomed to the position.
WR Anquan Boldin has a hip bruise. He played the whole second half with the injury last week but might not practice much this week. Boldin says he'll play but coaches might not want to take a chance with his health so early in the season.
NT Alan Branch, who hasn't played this season because of a fractured hand, is available to play. He's trying to get accustomed to playing with a large pad and wrap on the hand.
C Al Johnson might attempt to practice this week but he's at least a week away from returning to the starting lineup. Johnson has been out since suffering a sprained knee in the opener.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
The offensive line will have its 11th different starter. A rookie second-round pick will get the start at running back. And the undefeated Cowboys are the opponent after scoring 116 points in three games.
Still, according to Rams defensive end Leonard Little, "There is no panic in this team. We realize the hole we have dug for ourselves. But I can feel it. We will play well this week, a lot better than many expect us to."
In fact, quiet wide receiver Isaac Bruce guaranteed a victory on the weekly radio show he does every Tuesday night.
Asked about the guarantee, quarterback Marc Bulger said, "He's another guy ... he hates losing. I hate losing like all the older guys, our head coach hates losing. It's good to hear. He's one of, if not THE, most fierce competitors on our team. I'd go to battle with him any time. I won't guarantee a win, but I like his thinking."
Said free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, "This is Week 3. We've got 13 more weeks. It'll be an even longer season if we decide to pack it in right now. But the character of the guys we have on this team, that's not going to happen."
With left guard Mark Setterstrom lost for the season because of a knee injury, Claude Terrell will start in his place. Terrell started the last two games at right guard. Milford Brown returns to right guard, where he started in Week 1, unless Richie Incognito is able to play.
For the first time this season, the same right tackle will play for the second straight game when Adam Goldberg starts. They will all be blocking for Brian Leonard, who makes his first NFL start with Steven Jackson sidelined by a groin injury.
Asked about the litany of injuries that has struck his team, coach Scott Linehan said, "We are in general good health as a team when it comes to our every-day health. There are a lot worse things that could happen besides football injuries, but we've had our fair share, I acknowledge that, but you're not going to stand here and create excuses for your football team. We're going to put 11 guys at a time on the field and we're going to suit up and play ball against Dallas.
"It's just one of those things; it's part of life. Again, we've had our fair share I guess you could say, but the side of me that relishes this opportunity is to see if we can put 11 guys out there regardless of what the expectation is and do something nobody expects us to do, which is going to be a great challenge and would be a great victory for us.
"This is one of those things where we've been hit by the injury bug. You can't go there. You have to look at it like -- we have an insurmountable, on paper, challenge for us this week. We're sitting here with no wins in three games and we're playing probably the hottest team in all of, definitely the NFC, maybe all of football right now. If we keep our minds right it will be the greatest win we've had since we've been here. The injuries are the part you don't plan on. You have to respond the right way and that's the only way we're going to respond."
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett recalled the 1997 season when he was an assistant with the Steelers. The team started 1-2 and was outscored 80-42, but then won 10 of their last 13 games to finish 11-5 and went to the AFC Championship Game.
"It's early in the season," Haslett said. "It's not like the season is over. Some how, some way, we have to get a win. Things change fast in this league. It's always been that way.
SERIES HISTORY: 20th regular-season meeting. Rams lead, 10-9, and the teams have each won four playoff meetings. In the last seven regular-season meetings dating back to 1986, the teams have alternated victories: Rams, 1986; Cowboys, 1987; Rams, 1989; Cowboys, 1990; Rams, 1992; Cowboys, 2002; Rams, 2005. Oddly, the last three Rams wins have all come in Dallas and the Rams have won four straight games in Dallas, including a 1983 playoff game. The last Cowboys' win over the Rams in Dallas was a 1980 playoff game and a 1979 regular-season game.
--RB Antonio Pittman, signed after being released by the Saints, will likely be active Sunday against Dallas with Steven Jackson out because of a groin injury. Said coach Scott Linehan, "He's much further ahead than he was when he came here. He's been working at learning the system and the offense. He's been working a lot more on the scout team, but he'll know a lot more about what we're trying to get done and be available this game for sure."
Asked about Pittman being active, Linehan said, "No question at this point. I'm not going to invent another player on the roster that's been here. It's another opportunity for a young player."
--Linehan turned the play-calling over to offensive coordinator Greg Olson last season, and the Rams won four of their last six games. But Olson has come under attack for the overly conservative game plan used against Tampa Bay Sunday.
Asked about Olson, Linehan said, "I think Greg called a great game. I know the score didn't indicate it, but our whole idea is one week we're slinging it around and we have more explosive plays throwing the ball since I've been here. We had 10 plays of 16 yards or more against San Francisco and our quarterback got banged around pretty good, so we knew we wanted that balance between run and pass. That's why we wanted to run it more against a team we felt we could run it against and get the ball more to Steven (Jackson). We were in control of the game, I felt, for the entire first half. I said it last week and I said it the week before. I felt the same way. What we've done is squandered the opportunity to make that work for us and have that pay off for us with a win.
"Greg had a very good mix between run and when they thought we were going to pass. When you do that and you play it close to the vest and you're running the football, the margin for error is very small; you cannot turn the football over. If you're just wide open, slinging it around, throwing it and you feel you have the ability to hold up and protect the quarterback, possibly you can outscore people, but (Marc Bulger) isn't going to make it to halftime if we do that in this game because he almost didn't make it out of the last game. We were executing the game to perfection until we had our first turnover then we had another turnover in the second half that was very critical as well. I stand by Greg. Greg's done absolutely everything I've asked him to do and more since I've been here. It's a tough challenge for him and I have to help him more; to be honest with you I have to help him more."
--When the Rams signed TE Randy McMichael and WR Drew Bennett in the offseason, it was with the intent to produce more in the red zone as well as other places on the field. So far, McMichael has been an after-thought in large part because his blocking has been needed in pass protection. Bennett missed the first game of the season because of a quad injury, but has been thrown to several times in the red zone. Two have resulted in interceptions, including a fade play against Tampa Bay that Bulger threw poorly and didn't realize the play was a fade.
Asked about getting them more involved, Linehan said, "We've just got to get the ball in the end zone. We've taken either three or four shots to Drew. We've got to get him on the practice field No 1 and that will help get the timing down. He hasn't been able to practice full speed yet and that will help and I think he will be much improved. Start catching balls and being productive. Our bottom line is we just have to execute better and protect the football and we will score more points if we do that."
BY THE NUMBERS: 30 -- Total yards the Rams have gained in 21 red-zone plays this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He played OK. He can play better. Right now he's in the thinking mode. He's thinking before he reacts. We talked to him about just going out and playing. Don't worry about every step you're taking. Go make tackles, go run to the ball and do all the things you did in the preseason ... he'll get better and better as he plays that position. Right now he wants to analyze every block, every scheme." -- Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, on the play of rookie DT Adam Carriker.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--OG Richie Incognito has a chance to play this week against Dallas. Incognito is considered questionable, but he did take some snaps with the first unit Wednesday. He has been out since suffering a high ankle sprain Aug. 18 against San Diego.
--G Claude Terrell lined up on the left side in practice Wednesday and is expected to be the replacement for Mark Setterstrom, who is out for the year because of a knee injury.
--G Milford Brown shared snaps with Richie Incognito at right guard in practice Wednesday. Brown will get the start if Incognito is unable to play.
--LB Pisa Tinoisamoa practiced Wednesday and will start Sunday on the weak side. Tinoisamoa missed two games because of an ankle injury.
--LB Tim McGarigle was limited in practice Wednesday because of a strained groin suffered against Tampa Bay Sunday.
--DE James Hall was very sore and limited in practice Wednesday because of an injury to his pectoral muscle suffered against Tampa Bay Sunday.
--S Jerome Carter, who injured his thigh against Tampa Bay, participated fully in practice Wednesday.
GAME PLAN: The Rams were close to the vest last week against Tampa Bay because of shuffling in the offensive line as well as QB Marc Bulger's injured ribs. Coaches felt they could keep the game close because the Bucs don't have an explosive offense. The plan worked, with the score 10-3 early in the fourth quarter. But against Dallas, the plan will have to be to open up the offense. Even if the defense plays well, it's difficult to imagine Dallas not scoring at least 28 points. Thus, the Rams offense will have to step up to have a chance to win.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams CBs Ron Bartell and Lenny Walls vs. Cowboys WR Terrell Owens. This is one of several matchups where the Rams could have problems. Bartell has been solid this season and Walls has been starting with Fakhir Brown suspended, but it's difficult to imagine the Cowboys not trying to exploit this matchup.
Rams WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce vs. Cowboys CBs Terence Newman and Anthony Henry. The Cowboys need Newman, who is bothered by a foot injury. If he is limited, Jacques Reeves is on the field. The Rams will open things up and try to make plays against this team's secondary.
INJURY IMPACT: The Rams haven't been able to have full use of WR Drew Bennett because of a quad injury he suffered just before the start of the season. Bennett missed the first game, and has been somewhat limited since. Timing has been affected because he's not able to go full speed in practice. Said Linehan, "He's getting closer. He's not 100 percent yet. He's running better. He's still very sore and his quad is still very tight. It's progressing slowly, but he is out there practicing and he is out there working. The closer he gets to 100 percent the better we'll get with our timing with him."
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
In the fourth week of the NFL season, the 49ers have a chance to set themselves up nicely for the remainder of the season. The three-time defending NFC West champion Seahawks come calling to Candlestick Point. The 49ers and Seahawks are tied atop the division standings. The 49ers beat the Seahawks twice last season, and they have a chance to win the first meeting with every team in their division.
"This is our third division game, and it's a chance to go 3-0 in our division," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said.
In sweeping the Seahawks last season, the 49ers got huge performances from running back Frank Gore. In the first meeting, Gore rushed for a franchise-record 212 yards on 24 carries. When the club met later in the season at Seattle, Gore gained 144 yards on 29 rushes to help the 49ers pull off the upset victory.
"Start with Frank Gore," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "When you give up 356 yards rushing to one player, you're not going to have a very good outcome."
If the 49ers are going to defeat the Seahawks again Sunday, they're going to need a big game from Gore. But 49ers coach Mike Nolan believes it's going to take a complete team effort.
"You can't just go in and do nothing but run the ball," Nolan said. "Obviously, they'll stop you. In both those games, one thing led to another. It's not like we had 60 minutes of success against Seattle. They were both hard-fought games. The score came out a little more lopsided the second time at their place. I don't believe that was an indication at all of how the game was played. The game was played very close and very tight."
The 49ers offense has struggled through the first three games of the season, ranking 31st in the NFL in total offense. Gore is the 24th-ranked rusher in the league this season with just 175 yards rushing, while Smith's 67.4 passer rating is 29th best in the league.
The Seahawks, who ranked 28th in the league last season in rushing average, are now in the middle of the pack. They added safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell to help shore up their run defense.
"This game has quite a lot of importance," Smith said. "You know they're going to be gunning for us. We got to be ready to go."
The 49ers moved the ball well last week against the Steelers at the beginning of the game, but their offense stalled inside the 20-yard line. The 49ers settled for two short first-quarter field goals.
"It's real frustrating," Gore said. "If you get a touchdown, it's better for the team. Three points is good, but seven points is better."
When the 49ers defeated the Seahawks on Dec. 14, the offense was struggling in the first half. On the final play of the third quarter, Smith nailed receiver Arnaz Battle with a 54-yard pass that seemed to jump-start the entire offense. Smith ended up throwing two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and ran for another in the 49ers' 24-14 victory.
"In the first half we didn't have much going on at all on the offensive side of the ball," coach Mike Nolan said. "The defense kept us in the game. Obviously, the first time they didn't have their quarterback and the second game they did. There were a lot of differences in the two games."
SERIES HISTORY: 17th meeting. The series is tied 8-8, with the 49ers winning both meetings last season. Prior to that, the Seahawks had won six consecutive games against the 49ers.
--The 49ers had one of the top rushing attacks in the league last season. But after three games, they rank 23rd in the league. Running back Frank Gore has just 175 yards rushing. The only difference from a year ago on the offensive line is at right tackle. Kwame Harris, a very strong run blocker, was replaced by rookie Joe Staley. Coincidence? Coach Mike Nolan does not think so. "I wouldn't chase that ghost," Nolan said. "Joe is doing a very good job. Not to take anything away from Kwame. We want Kwame on this football team because if something happens, and you have a quality backup, which is what Kwame is, then it's a real asset. But I wouldn't put our lack of running the ball statistically as well as we did at the end of last year on that."
Recently, the Giants called the 49ers and offered a sixth-round draft pick for Harris, who is signed through this season. The 49ers are asking for a conditional fifth-round pick that would become a fourth-rounder if Harris is active for six or more games.
--Receiver Darrell Jackson will be playing his former team, the Seahawks, for the first time since he was dealt to the 49ers on a draft-day trade for a fourth-round selection. Jackson said he was "pretty cool" with everybody in the Seahawks organization, except general manager Tim Ruskell. "The one dude had to be the head dude," Jackson said.
--Jackson seems to be building a nice rapport with quarterback Alex Smith, who says Jackson is an instinctive route-runner. The pair hooked up on back-to-back completions of passes that Smith threw before Jackson made his breaks. Jackson leads the 49ers with 11 receptions for 166 yards. Jackson and Smith did not work together in the offseason program after the trade because Jackson was rehabilitating a turf-toe injury. In training camp, Jackson did not practice every day as the team tried to give him ample rest.
"It's getting better every day we go on the practice field," Jackson said of his chemistry with Smith. "Every game, every practice, we're inching toward getting better."
--Nolan said he did not blame the officiating for his team's 37-16 loss to the Steelers, though he was clearly rankled at a controversial call that referee Gerald Austin ruled against his team late in the third quarter. Down by 11 points, tight end Vernon Davis appeared to catch a pass at the Steelers 10-yard line. He had both feet on the ground when safety Troy Polamalu upended him. Davis maintained possession of the ball when the elbow hit the ground, but then the ball popped loose. Originally, the play was ruled as a catch and fumble. Austin reversed his call to an incomplete pass.
"The NFL coaches and players are held accountable to a very high standard and level of performance," Nolan said. "When we do not meet those standards, we are criticized by the media, fans, and general public. That criticism makes us better. So I am not criticizing anyone as far as the question goes. But I am suggesting that we hold everyone accountable to the same standards because that's what makes the NFL great. It's not a job for just anyone."
--Michael Lewis got his first shot at the NFL when he was in his late 20s. He was driving a truck for a Louisiana beer distributor before landing with the Saints as a return specialist in 2001. Lewis is ready for another opportunity. The 49ers signed him to handle the punt-return chores, beginning Sunday against the Seahawks.
"When I got my opportunity, I was going to take advantage," Lewis said. "This is another opportunity. I was still working out and waiting for the call. I want to take advantage of every opportunity."
BY THE NUMBERS: 27.5 -- The 49ers' league-worst conversion percentage on third downs.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is a big game for a lot of reasons. These are the games that later in the year you look back at them as being meaningful." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan on the significance of a division game against the Seahawks.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The 49ers added 36-year-old Michael Lewis as a return specialist, giving the team two players named Michael Lewis. The club's starting strong safety is Michael Lewis, who signed this season as a free agent. The new Michael Lewis, like the other Michael Lewis, has been to one Pro Bowl. He holds the NFL single-season record with 2,432 combined return yards while with the Saints, where he was coached by current 49ers special-teams coordinator Al Everest.
The 49ers released return specialist Brandon Williams, whom the club selected in the third round of the 2006 draft. Williams never gave the 49ers much yardage in the return game, and he muffed a punt two weeks ago that led to the Rams' only touchdown in the 49ers' 17-16 victory.
The 49ers promoted fullback Zak Keasey from the practice squad because of his special-teams duties. The roster spot became available with linebacker Manny Lawson was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Core special-teams player Hannibal Navies was inserted into the starting lineup at strong outside linebacker in place of Lawson.
--RT Joe Staley, the rookie who won the starting job over incumbent Kwame Harris, is playing as well as anyone on the 49ers offensive line, coach Mike Nolan said.
--TE Delanie Walker played 11 of the 18 snaps in which starter Vernon Davis was out of the game last week against the Steelers. He will likely get most of the action with Davis expected to miss at least two games. Walker caught three passes for 19 yards last week.
--TE Billy Bajema is a blocking specialist, but he is likely to get more playing time with Davis out with a knee injury. Bajema played nine of the 18 snaps in which Davis did not play after leaving last week's game with his injury. Bajema has five catches in his 33-game pro career. He did not catch a pass last season, nor has he gotten his hands on the ball in two games this year, either.
--RS Michael Lewis will be used solely on punt returns, for now, Nolan said. Lewis, a six-year veteran, was signed on Tuesday to take over for second-year player Brandon Williams.
--RS Brandon Williams was released on Tuesday because the 49ers needed more production on punt returns, Nolan said. Williams' average in two seasons was less than 7.0 yards. Williams did not do all the little things that the 49ers want, such as letting punts go inside the 10-yard line and then looking for someone to block.
GAME PLAN: Offensive coordinator Jim Hostler put together a nice approach against the Steelers, as he dialed up more shotgun and movement plays for quarterback Alex Smith. The strategy was mostly successful. The 49ers need better variety in their offense, mixing in power plays with draws and counters, while spreading the ball around with short, intermediate and long passes. The 49ers will not have Davis, so they'll likely distribute the ball to wideouts Darrell Jackson and Arnaz Battle, and tight end Walker. Running back Frank Gore has to be a threat against the Seahawks after he torched them last season. With the Seahawks undoubtedly geared to stop Gore, the 49ers should be able to successfully use play-action passes. The 49ers have to do a better job of converting touchdowns after getting in the red zone. They have scored just three touchdowns on seven trips inside the red zone. Also, the 49ers rank last in the league with a conversion rate on third downs of just 27.5 percent.
Defensively, the 49ers have to do a better job of clogging the middle against the run. They allowed too many big plays in the run game last week to the Steelers. Cornerbacks Nate Clements and Walt Harris are playing at very high levels. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky can continue to blitz. He likes to blitz on second-and-long situations after the 49ers hold the opposition to few yards on first downs.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: 49ers RB Frank Gore, who rushed for 356 yards in two games against the Seahawks last season, vs. Seahawks SS Deon Grant, who figures to play close to the line of scrimmage as the eighth man in the box.
49ers LT Jonas Jennings, in whom the 49ers have a lot of confidence to protect Smith's blind side, vs. Seahawks OLB Julian Peterson, the former 49ers player who leads the Seahawks with two sacks.
49ers RT Joe Staley, making his fourth NFL start, vs. Seahawks DE Patrick Kerney, a nine-year veteran who has 1.5 sacks this season.
49ers LB Patrick Willis, who leads the 49ers with 35 tackles, vs. Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander, who has 275 yards and two TDs rushing.
49ers OLB Tully Banta-Cain, who has gotten off to a slow start with his new club, vs. Seahawks LT Walter Jones, considered one of the best at his position in the league.
INJURY IMPACT: Davis sustained a partially torn MCL in his right knee and is expected to miss at least two games with the injury. S Mark Roman missed practice time early in the week with an elbow strain but was expected to return to his starting role for Sunday's game against the Seahawks. LT Jonas Jennings left practice Wednesday with a leg strain. The club believes he should be ready to play in Sunday's game. WR Jason Hill, a rookie who was expected to start seeing more practice time, is unlikely to be available with a hamstring strain. Hill has been inactive for the first three games of the season. He was healthy for the first two weeks. CB Tarell Brown was not expected to see much practice time due to a hamstring strain. His availability for Sunday's game is in question.