NFC West News & Notes - 10/11/07

The Seattle Seahawks will find another player or two to fill the fullback vacancy created by the loss of veteran Mack Strong, who retired Monday after a neck injury. Finding somebody to fill Strong's role as team leader is another issue, however.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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"Obviously, losing a guy like Mack Strong on your team is just a huge void, not only as a player, because he's a great player, he's a Pro Bowl player, but also just as a guy with experience in the locker room and just a great guy to have around," quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "He's a good storyteller; he has a great laugh, all those kinds of things."

Coach Mike Holmgren said that he hopes to keep Strong close to the team so that the Seahawks won't lose his valuable leadership. "He has a lot invested in our team right now," Holmgren said of Strong. "He wants to be involved somehow and some way, and that's great news for me. I haven't decided how to do that yet. In terms of his future, he's mentioned broadcasting, but I'm going to try to see if he wants to help us do some things on the field.

"He's a valuable guy. And I know there's something he can do to help this team this year."

For the short term, at least, the Seahawks will use Leonard Weaver to fill in at fullback. They also signed Fred McCrary, a veteran free agent who earned a Super Bowl ring with New England. X-rays showed a herniated disk that was pressing on Strong's spinal cord, causing his legs and arms to go numb.

"I just thank God that nothing catastrophic happened," Holmgren said. "Sometimes players don't get warning signs and bad stuff happens. This was a warning sign, this was very clear. Mack is such a pro, he has no regrets. He played a lot longer than he ever expected to play."

Strong was philosophical, knowing that his 201 games were more than most players can ever count on in the NFL. "I felt like I was pretty lucky, pretty blessed, in my whole career to play a long time and not to have anything that ended my season," Strong said. "But you play this game long enough, especially playing my position, as many games as I've played in, it's bound to happen sooner or later. There's a lot more to life than football. I have my wife and two kids, and there is nothing more important than being able to spend time with them. If I hadn't been able to walk off that field, obviously life goes on, but I'm just grateful that I had the opportunity to make that decision, make that choice. To me it's a no-brainer. I feel like I gave every ounce I had so, I have no regrets."

SERIES HISTORY: 10th meeting. Seattle leads series, 5-4. The Seahawks have won the last three meetings against New Orleans going back to the 2000 season.

NOTES, QUOTES

--FB Leonard Weaver will take over for injured Mack Strong now, but he knows that will be a tough job. "He's helped me everywhere from financial advice, to being a father, to what it takes to be in the NFL, what it means to be able to withstand the pressures of playing this game," Weaver said of Strong. "We definitely have a special bond. I love him to death."

Strong's injury gives Weaver special motivation for the rest of the season. "Mack is a legend," Weaver said. "I am going to play in his honor and devote everything I do to Mack and play as hard as I can for this team."

--With the loss of Deion Branch (foot sprain that will sideline him for two weeks), QB Matt Hasselbeck will have to look elsewhere for a primary receiver. "It's hard, he's our Z receiver and kind of a primary guy on every play," Hasselbeck said. "It's tough, but we've talked about it. We're ready for it; we're prepared. We just have to play better. Actually, I'm talking to myself. ... I have to play better."

--The injury that caused FB Mack Strong's arms and legs to go numb caused him to immediately consider the worst-case scenarios. "In light of what's already happened this year with the young man from Buffalo (Kevin Everett), that's the first thing that came to my mind was I hope this stops," Strong said. "I hope this tingling stops, this numbness stops. I'm just felt very fortunate to be able to get off the field. It was really scary, especially something that you've never felt before. I've felt sprained ankles, sprained knees, stingers, bruises, dislocations. I've felt it all, but this was something that was different. It was foreign to me as a fullback."

BY THE NUMBERS: 0 -- The number of points the Seahawks scored against Pittsburgh, marking the first team Seattle has been shut out since the first game of the 2000 season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The beauty of our game is you get a chance to redeem yourself" -- Coach Mike Holmgren, talking about taking the field again after getting beaten 21-0 last Sunday by Pittsburgh.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The big change for the Seahawks against New Orleans is the insertion of Leonard Weaver into the fullback position vacated by the injured Mack Strong. Strong played 201 games for Seattle, and Weaver has had six carries this season. But the staff sees Weaver as a more versatile back. He is not considered the blocker that Strong was during his Pro Bowl seasons, but he has good hands and can be nifty in the open field. With Deion Branch out with a foot sprain, rookie Courtney Taylor will likely be active and take a larger role. Also, snapper Derek Rackley was cut and replaced by free agent Boone Stutz.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--QB Matt Hasselbeck is coming off his worst game of the season and will be without the team's leading receiver, Deion Branch.
--WR Deion Branch will miss at least two weeks with a foot sprain; he's expected to return after the team's bye week.
--WR Courtney Taylor will be active in WR Deion Branch's absence and will fill in when the Seahawks use their four-wide set.
--FB Leonard Weaver will take over for retiring Mack Strong. Weaver has played both RB and FB, but will now be used almost exclusively as a lead blocker for Shaun Alexander.
--LS Boone Stutz, a free agent, has been signed to replace Derek Rackley, who has been inconsistent with both velocity and placement of his snaps.

GAME PLAN: The Seahawks have to rediscover their offense after putting up a goose egg in Pittsburgh. The key will be whether QB Matt Hasselbeck can bounce back from an unproductive game against the Steelers. Look for the Seahawks to try to hit short passes to loosen things up for the rushing game with new FB Leonard Weaver breaking in as the lead blocker.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Seahawks FB Leonard Weaver vs. Saints linebackers -- Weaver has been reasonably efficient as a lead blocker on running plays, but somewhat inconsistent in picking up blitzing linebackers on passes.

Seahawks secondary vs. Saints QB Drew Brees -- The Seahawks have five interceptions in five games, but they could get fat in that area against Brees, who has thrown nine this season.

INJURY IMPACT: With WRs Deion Branch and D.J. Hackett out, the Seahawks will rely more heavily on Bobby Engram, Ben Obomanu and perhaps even backup QB Seneca Wallace to catch passes. Backup TE Ben Joppru has returned to action, and CB Josh Wilson may be available after missing a week with an ankle sprain.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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The offense has shown dramatic improvement this season. Running back Edgerrin James leads the NFC in rushing yards. Larry Fitzgerald leads in receiving. Overall, the Cardinals are third in the NFC in yards, and coach Ken Whisenhunt has lived up to his reputation as a bold, imaginative play-caller. But the Cardinals face a huge obstacle now. Starting quarterback Matt Leinart is out for the season after suffering a broken collarbone last week against the Rams. While the performance this year of backup Kurt Warner has some dismissing the importance of losing Leinart, don't be fooled.

Leinart is the future of the organization, and chances are he would have shown steady improvement through the year. Warner was successful, at least in part, because Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley used him brilliantly. Warner operated the team's no-huddle package in his three appearances this year. In that scheme, the Cardinals use three and four receivers, spread defenses out, and that suits Warner's strength.

The no-huddle will remain a large part of the Cardinals offense, but Warner now will have to play in the base package. That will expose him to more pressure, and the rap against him in the past few years is that he can't handle it.

Warner supposedly held on to the ball for too long during his year with the Giants and intermittently in his time with the Cardinals. That led to more sacks.

In addition, he's the only quarterback on the roster who has experience in the offense. The Cardinals carried just two quarterbacks on the roster, and signed Tim Rattay this week to be the backup. If Warner goes down, the club will suffer at least until Rattay gets up to speed. Still, Whisenhunt and Haley don't plan to scale back the offense, or go to extraordinary lengths to protect Warner.

"We don't want to restrict ourselves or put ourselves in handcuffs because of that," Whisenhunt said. "You want to win the game. If it puts Kurt (at) a little bit more risk at times, then that's what we have to do."

That's exactly what Warner wants to hear. His strength is throwing on time with multiple options from which to choose. To go to max-protection schemes with only two receivers running routes would be taking away what Warner does best. "Where I feel comfortable is when we spread them out, when we force the defense's hand," Warner said. "I think we've shown in the first five weeks that we can be very successful that way, too. That's one of the strengths of this offense."

Moving away from that, Warner said, would be counter-productive.

"I understand the point of trying to protect guys but at the same time, you got to just play," he said. "You have to play to win, you have to play aggressive, do what you do and you hope those injuries don't hit.
"To me, you can't play this game with those things in the back of your head, you can't prepare that way as a player. You can't worry about that. You can't drop back and just throw the ball away."

SERIES HISTORY: 7th meeting. Carolina leads, 4-2, and has won the last three meetings. Because of scheduling quirks, the clubs met every year from 2002-2005, with the Panthers winning three of four meetings. Most of the games have been close, with the Panthers winning mostly due to a sound running attack and more toughness. The Cardinals are familiar with the Panthers too, because Whisenhunt faced them last year as the Steelers' offensive coordinator.

NOTES, QUOTES

--ILB Karlos Dansby had 17 tackles against the Rams last week, including 13 solos. "It felt like I had 20, man," Dansby said this week. "My body is feeling it."
--Anquan Boldin doesn't think the offense will change with Kurt Warner as the starter instead of Matt Leinart. "I still think we're going to do what we do. "We can't change anything. That's how we play. I don't see us max-protecting and going to two-receiver routes."
--Kicker Neil Rackers had a field goal blocked last week for the first time since his rookie year in 2000.

BY THE NUMBERS: 19 -- That's the number of catches Larry Fitzgerald has made in the past two games, both of which Boldin missed. Fitzgerald also had 256 yards and scored his first touchdown.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The one thing we didn't want to do was have him rush back. To hold a roster spot for that long is something that's difficult. I'm more concerned about him trying to rush back and doing something to jeopardize the future. It was too much of a risk to try to hold a spot and not have him be able to play." - Coach Ken Whisenhunt, on the decision to put QB Matt Leinart on injured reserve.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

With Kurt Warner now the starter, opponents won't be able to predict when the Cardinals will use the no-huddle offense. When Matt Leinart was starting, opponents knew Warner was coming in to run the no-huddle. Ken Whisenhunt thinks there's plenty of room for improvement on offense. The Cardinals convert 42.4 percent of their third downs, and he would like the percentage to be higher.

The Cardinals have been pleasantly surprised by the play of left tackle Mike Gandy. They thought they were getting a solid player when they signed him in free agency, but Gandy has played well and shown the ability to shut down solid pass rushers.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--DE/OLB Bertrand Berry played a smaller role last week, coming out of the game in some nickel situations. Berry did have a sack, however, and appears to be in excellent shape.
--QB Kurt Warner will continue to run the no-huddle, and the package could be expanded in the coming weeks. Warner is adept at calling his own plays and he reads defenses well. If he can deliver the ball on time and not have to hold it, the no-huddle should be a valuable asset.
--NT Alan Branch is having a hard time getting on the field. He suffered a fractured hand before the first game and has yet to be active this year. The Cardinals traded a fourth-round pick to move up to get him with the first pick in the second round, but the fracture has kept Branch from contributing.
--OG Keydrick Vincent could play immediately as a backup. Vincent was signed this week because the Cardinals had a dearth of guards. Vincent played for Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm in Pittsburgh, so he knows the offense.

GAME PLAN: The Cardinals won't go to great lengths to protect Warner but they won't expose him to a severe pass rush without considerable forethought. The best way to avoid that is to establish a decent running game. So far, Edgerrin James has received almost all the carries, and the Cardinals would be smart to get Marcel Shipp involved as a ball carrier. Defensively, the Cardinals will need to stop running back DeShaun Foster and control receiver Steve Smith. Cornerback Eric Green has been susceptible to the big play, and Smith is one of the most dangerous receivers in the league. The Panthers will try to exploit this matchup and Green needs to be at the top of his game.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Cardinals CB Eric Green vs. Panthers WR Steve Smith. Smith is dynamic and Green tends to have mental lapses. If he has them against Smith, the Cardinals will pay dearly.

Panthers DE Julius Peppers vs. Cardinals RT Elton Brown. It's questionable if rookie Levi Brown will be back from an ankle injury. That means Brown will start. He had some knee troubles and came out of last week's game but is expected to play Sunday.

INJURY IMPACT: RT Levi Brown tweaked his sprained ankle in practice on Wednesday and appears doubtful for Sunday's game.

OL Elton Brown, a backup guard and right tackle, has a meniscus problem in a knee but practiced on Sunday. He had been starting in place of Levi Brown. If he can't play, Reggie Wells will move to right tackle.

WR Anquan Boldin sat out practice Wednesday but he's more hopeful of playing Sunday than he has been the past two weeks. Boldin doesn't want to return too soon and aggravate the hip muscle. He is expected to be listed as questionable.

WR Bryant Johnson missed practice on Wednesday with a bruised quadriceps but should be able to play Sunday.

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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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The season is only five games old and the Baltimore Ravens are on the schedule for this week, but already the wolves are baying outside the door of Rams coach Scott Linehan. A succession of injuries, bad breaks and the inability to make plays at critical times has left the Rams winless, so perhaps it wasn't surprising Linehan was asked a question about his job security at a press conference.

"I don't worry about things like that," Linehan said. "I control what I control, which is doing the best I can do. If that's not good enough, then so be it."

When asked whether he was embarrassed by the team's play, Linehan paused and answered, "Embarrassed? I think it's very humbling and humiliating to lose. I don't think I've ever dodged the fact that we've underachieved our goals to this point. I've never used any excuse whatsoever for falling short of winning the games.

"But being embarrassed? I'd be embarrassed if I told you that we weren't doing everything we could possibly do. So, no, embarrassed isn't the word I would use. I'd say humbled and very, very disappointed."

Amid that atmosphere, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sought out club president John Shaw for his thoughts on Linehan's job. "I can say that it's not even a subject of conversation today," Shaw said. "Nor will it be until the season's over. There are still 11 games left in the season. He's our coach. ... We'll look at where everything is after the season."

Looking at what transpired during the first five games of the season, Shaw added, "We've lost some close games that we probably had a chance to win. I think a lot of our problems started with Orlando (Pace) getting hurt in the second quarter of the first game. Then we start shuffling the line. Then Marc (Bulger) got hurt quickly afterwards. ... And then we went into a series of injuries that took away a number of starting players.

"We played this week (Week 5 against Arizona) obviously without Marc, without Steven (Jackson), without Isaac (Bruce). We've played several games without any of the starting corners. The offensive line's been decimated.

"It gets to be fairly easy to explain (the 0-5 start). What's tougher to explain is how we right the situation until we get some of our starters back, and get our good players playing at the level that they're expected to be playing."

That's what Linehan is trying to figure out. At practice Wednesday, the first day of preparation for the game against the Ravens, Drew Bennett and Marques Hagans were the starting receivers. That's because Torry Holt was held out to rest a knee that experienced swelling, and Isaac Bruce (hamstring), Dante Hall (ankle) and Dane Looker (thigh) were on the sideline.

Jackson remains out with a groin injury, and even he has no idea when he will return. Gus Frerotte gets the start again as Bulger tries to get his ribs healed.

Defensively, Todd Johnson could start at safety with Corey Chavous questionable due to a pectoral muscle injury. It's possible that Bhawoh Jue, signed on Tuesday, could be active against the Ravens, especially if it's believed he can contribute on special teams.

Expanding on the injury situation, Shaw said, "We're already short on corners, and next thing you know, we're moving corners to safety," Shaw said, talking about Ron Bartell, who was forced to play safety against the Cardinals when both Johnson and Jerome Carter were injured in the game. "So there's no logical explanation for it. I'm not trying to make excuses for the situation. Injuries are part of the game, but we're in a streak right now where we've had a run of injuries that are pretty overwhelming."

So, Linehan trudges on, hoping that first win can come on the road this week.

"It's hard to win football games in the NFL," he said. "We've proven that this year. We have to focus on this game. It's playing on the road in Baltimore. They have a great defense and a lot of things going for them. We just have to find a way. Nothing is easy. Finding a way to get a win has obviously eluded us so far this year. We have to find that magic."

SERIES HISTORY: 4th meeting. Rams lead series, 2-1. The Rams' two wins have come in 1999 and 2003, with both games played in St. Louis. The Ravens defeated the Rams in Baltimore, 37-31 in overtime, in 1996.

NOTES, QUOTES

--WR Dane Looker suffered a bizarre injury against Dallas in Week 4. Looker slid across the turf, and the skin and muscle separated around the hip and thigh area, leading to massive internal bleeding. There was tremendous swelling, and Looker said it was so deep he could stick his finger an inch and a half deep into the swelling. "They said I probably lost 40 percent of my blood into my leg, which was the scary part," Looker said.

He was hospitalized after the game and didn't return to St. Louis until the Tuesday night after the game. A large area remains a deep purple. Said coach Scott Linehan, "It's the most bizarre, scary, but probably more ugly-looking ... contusion I've ever seen. The good thing for Dane is that it's not a muscle tear or anything like that. The part that has to get taken care of is he's got to get all that excess blood that's kind of formed on top of the leg out of there."

Looker uses crutches to get around and keep balanced. "I get light-headed real easy because I don't have any blood in my system," he said. "So if I fall over, I can stop myself." Looker has had two blood transfusions and will need one more to restore the blood he lost. Without a transfusion, it would take as much as eight weeks for his blood to get back to normal. He hopes to play again this season.

--The emergence of rookie NT Clifton Ryan has resulted in rookie Adam Carriker seeing a lot more time at three-technique defensive tackle spot. Carriker, the 12th overall selection in the draft, started out at nose tackle because the Rams weren't sure how well Ryan, a fifth-round choice, would do. However, Carriker has been somewhat affected by moving around so much and playing inside when he played outside at Nebraska.

"It's definitely a process," he said. "It's going to take awhile to get acclimated to that. But you've just got to be patient, because that's part of what the game's about." Said defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, "Cliff is really a true, true nose tackle in all the sense. Adam, in the long run, will be a better three-technique. Hopefully, someday those two guys will be in there and those will be their jobs at some point, whether it's this year, next year, whenever."

What Haslett likes about Carriker is his relentless pursuit to improve. Said Carriker, "I've played OK. I feel like I've played well in some areas, and I feel like I can get better in some areas. ... Just being a competitive football player, I'll never be happy with how I play. You can always get better."

Concluded Haslett, "He's a load in the middle. He's a guy who hasn't played a lot inside, period. You've got to keep repping him."

--Coach Scott Linehan said Andy McCollum was solid at left guard against Arizona and would likely start again this week. McCollum hadn't played guard since 2003, when he started all 16 games there. He competed for the center spot in training camp with Brett Romberg, but coaches went with Romberg. "I thought he played pretty well," Linehan said. "It's a different position than center, I'm sure that Andy would tell you that, but for the most part he held up."

With McCollum likely at guard for the rest of the season, the Rams signed former Cardinals C Nick Leckey, who started 11 games for Arizona last season but was released in September. Leckey can also play guard. Since the start of training camp, the Rams have signed three offensive linemen who played for Arizona last season: Milford Brown, Brandon Gorin and Leckey. The connection? Former Cardinals line coach Steve Loney coached with Linehan with the Vikings.

--Coach Scott Linehan was asked why TE Dominique Byrd was still on the team after he was declared inactive for the team's Week 4 game against Dallas after missing a special teams meeting during the week. Byrd didn't even travel with the team to Dallas. Byrd also has two charges pending against him, one for a DUI and the other for felony assault and armed criminal action.

Said Linehan, "He's a good kid; honestly, I can tell you that. He's a project, though. There's a lot of maturing that needs to take place, and we're presently going through that. I know he's got it in him; we've just got to find it. It's not going to be given to him."

Asked what progress is being made, Linehan said, "We're taking baby steps. We're moving that way. I haven't put a time limit on the thread. But it needs to turn into a rope or something a little more sturdy real quick."

BY THE NUMBERS: 50.6 yards -- Punting average for Donnie Jones, best in the NFL. The Rams' season record is 45.5 by Danny Villanueva in 1962. The NFL record is 51.4 by Washington's Sammy Baugh in 1940. No other punter has averaged at least 50 yards a punt for an entire season. Jones' 41.9-yard net average ranks third in the league.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Once you start that, you are going to be a target. If we continue to bring those kinds of things on ourselves, then we will create our own bad luck, which is what we don't want. If you don't comply with the rules, then your ability to stay on the field is in jeopardy. If we continue to do that, then someone else, regardless of our injury situation, has got to go in. ... That's the thing that I've always said to Richie: The only thing that can hold him back from being as good as he wants to be is himself." -- Coach Scott Linehan on two unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties committed against Arizona and whether officials might watch RG Richie Incognito closely.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

With injuries affecting the secondary, the Rams signed S Bhawoh Jue to replace Jerome Carter, who was placed on injured reserve with a broken bone in his foot. Jue was in training camp with the Chargers. The Rams also signed wide receiver/punt returner Brandon Williams, who was released recently by the 49ers. A St. Louis native, Williams muffed a punt against the Rams that led to St. Louis' only touchdown in the Week 2 game. The Rams signed Williams rather than promote either Derek Stanley or Dominique Thompson from the practice squad. Wide receivers Isaac Bruce, Dante Hall and Dane looker are unlikely to play this week.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--WR Isaac Bruce (hamstring) did not practice Wednesday but is improving. Coaches were encouraged by Bruce's workouts the last two days, but he won't be rushed back. It is likely he will miss this week's game but be available Oct. 21 against Seattle.
--SS Corey Chavous (pectoral muscle) was limited in practice Wednesday but is improving.
--WR/KR Dante Hall is week-to-week with a severely sprained ankle and is doubtful to play this week.
--CB Tye Hill, who hasn't played since the season opener because of a back injury, participated fully in practice Wednesday and is expected to play Sunday. Even if he doesn't start, Hill would be available in nickel situations.
--WR Torry Holt did not practice Wednesday because of swelling in his knee. Holt is still not 100 percent recovered from offseason knee surgery.
--S Todd Johnson, who suffered a sprained neck against Arizona, had full participation in practice Wednesday and might start Sunday against Baltimore.
--WR Dane Looker has had two blood transfusions and needs one more to replenish the blood he lost after suffering a thigh injury in Week 4 against Dallas.
--WR/PR Brandon Williams, signed on Tuesday, might end up being active this week because of the team's shortage at the position. He would also be the backup kick returner to Marques Hagans.

GAME PLAN: The Rams' only chance against the Ravens is to limit mistakes on offense. They have to be careful with the ball on offense and protect QB Gus Frerotte. If the defense can limit Baltimore's offense and the Rams can keep the score close, they will need someone to make a play.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams defensive line vs. Ravens offensive line -- Baltimore's offensive line is nearly as injured as the Rams', maybe even more so with the possibility three rookies could be starting. With OTs Jonathan Ogden and Adam Terry banged up, the tackles could be rookies Jared Gaither and Marshal Yanda. The other rookie is RG Ben Grubbs. C Mike Flynn also has an injury issue. It will be up to the entire Rams defensive line to take advantage. DLE Leonard Little is without a sack this season, and he will likely be matched up against Yanda. But to get a pass rush, the defense will have to stop RB Willie McGahee.

INJURY IMPACT: The receiving corps is depleted, with Isaac Bruce, Dante Hall and Dane Looker likely out this week. The active receivers will be Torry Holt, Drew Bennett, Marques Hagans and recent addition Brandon Williams ... The offensive line will have the same unit for two straight games for the first time this season ... With S Corey Chavous expected to miss his second game, Bhawoh Jue could be active for the game. He was signed Tuesday ... S Jerome Carter (broken bone, foot) and G Mark Setterstrom (torn ACL, knee) both underwent surgery Tuesday.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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The 49ers defense hasn't been the problem through the first five games. The special teams are playing exceptionally well, especially punter Andy Lee, who ranks among the best in the league with a 50.1-yard average (43.8 net). But the 49ers are 2-3 in the bye week because of their offense, which ranks last in the NFL in most statistical categories. Although coach Mike Nolan had planned to hold meetings during the bye week, the exercise took on significant urgency because of the team's inexplicable offensive ineptness.

Nolan has come under fire in the San Francisco area, especially after the team's boring 9-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

The 49ers might have the same record as a year ago at this time, but that is not good enough. Improvement was expected, especially after the 49ers spent nearly $40 million in guaranteed money to upgrade the defense. "I think that's because the expectations have changed," Nolan said of the criticism. "And they have for me, too. But that's OK. The expectations need to be different than they were.

"I don't want to put it on somebody else. I'm the head coach. But the reason the offense looks like it does is a lot deeper than just play-calling. It's the way we're setting up. It's the personnel we're using. And when we do use the personnel, we have to be successful and make the plays."

The biggest complaint directed at Nolan is that he appears to be trying to turn the 49ers into Ravens West. In fact, the 49ers and Ravens locked up in a game that could be bottled and marketed as a cure for insomnia. Winning with defense and a vanilla offense might be considered an art form in some NFL markets, but Nolan knows in San Francisco "it's not good."

"I'll say what I said to the team," Nolan said. "By no means or any stretch of the imagination have I ever had the intention of making this look like Baltimore."

That is part of the reason Nolan decided to hold meetings for most of the first two days of the 49ers' bye week. He met with all of the team's position coaches, as well as the coordinators. He even spoke privately with several players. In addition, players met their position coaches and with the coordinators.

Running back Frank Gore said the meetings encouraged team-building. "You got to trust that the boys on the field are going to play hard and do the right thing," he said. "You have to trust the offensive coordinator is doing the right thing; you have to trust that your coach is telling you the right thing."

At one point, Nolan handed out cards and asked every player to write one thing the team needs to do to improve. He said the responses ran the gamut, with one player suggesting the team's problems start at the top. "In reading (the comments), the offensive guys were more open with their thoughts because they're feeling more of it," Nolan said. "The defensive guys (wrote) we need to get more turnovers, we need to do this and that. It was all about themselves."

The 49ers rank last in the NFL in total offense, averaging just 203.2 yards a game. The league-leading Dallas Cowboys, by contrast, average 429.6 yards. Nolan said the meetings were productive. Over the course of the two days, he said there were several things identified as being the to blame for the team's last-ranked offense. Nolan did not get into specifics, but he did say the 49ers have examined how they are using their personnel.

"We made headway in talking about the personnel and the use of the personnel," Nolan said. "And a lot of that goes into the designing of plays and stuff like that. ... I think we have the talent and the players to be better than we are. How much better? We'll see."

One thing that could help the 49ers is the return of three offensive starters.

The offense began to show signs of coming around Sept. 23 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, tight end Vernon Davis sustained a knee injury that knocked him out of the next two games. Moreover, quarterback Alex Smith played only three snaps before sustaining a separated right shoulder in the 49ers' next game.

Smith's rehabilitation appears to be going well. He has already started throwing with some zip. He hopes to return for the Oct. 21 game against the New York Giants. Davis might be back for that game, too. Left tackle Jonas Jennings is back with the team after missing one game due to personal reasons.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The 49ers held meetings Monday and Tuesday during their bye week. The team was scheduled to practice Wednesday and Thursday. The players will be given a three-day weekend, while the coaches will report to work on Friday. "The bye week comes at a good time," coach Mike Nolan said. "Naturally, we have things to work on, but it also gives our team an opportunity to heal up and get healthy. We have five weeks underneath our belts at 2-3. We are not where we want to be, but we are only one game out of first. We take the good with the bad."

--LT Jonas Jennings was excused from practice and the game Sunday against the Ravens for personal reasons. He returned to the team Monday but did not shed any light on the reason for his absence.
"When you have to handle other things outside of football, then you know how important football is and how much it means to you," Jennings said. Coach Mike Nolan said Jennings' leave of absence was mutually agreed upon. He said it was not for any disciplinary reasons, and that it had been building for a while. Nolan said Jennings had to get his "head in the right place."

--Offensive line coach George Warhop took exception last week to questions about the play of the 49ers' line. He suggested that the media have been too hard on the line. "What happens with you guys is if it doesn't have success, the line's not blocking," he said. "I suggest you watch it and study it and look at it for what it is and make an educated look at what's going on. There are other teams in the league that run the ball that are also having a hard time because of the same issues." Warhop cited the Chiefs, Chargers and Rams as teams, along with the 49ers, that have struggled to gain consistency in the run game.

--Nolan had some fun with a recent ESPN report that quoted an unnamed source that QB Alex Smith would likely undergo season-ending surgery after sustaining a separated throwing shoulder on Sept. 30 against the Seahawks. Within a few days of the report, Smith was throwing a football. "It's amazing what surgery can do in one day," Nolan quipped.

BY THE NUMBERS: 25:38 -- The league-low average time of possession for the 49ers through five games this season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "The defense has issues that we have to correct, too. We can always get better. It's a time for us to take stock. You're always looking to take the next step, because if you're satisfied with where you're at, you stop progressing and you start regressing." -- CB Walt Harris on the defense not showing any complacency.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Coach Mike Nolan did not have an answer when asked repeatedly why sixth-year WR Ashley Lelie, who signed a two-year, $4.3 million contract in the offseason, has not been given an opportunity to play. Lelie has taken part in just 10 offensive snaps. "Good question," Nolan answered repeatedly.

When individual meetings were held this week, the low-key Lelie said he had an opportunity to ask questions and get some answers. "I got some things off my chest." He said. "When my opportunity comes, I'm going to be ready."

But when asked if he will be moving into a more active role, Lelie opted not to say. He said if he were to have a bigger role, he would not want to give away the plans and give the Giants a reason to game-plan for him when the clubs meet on Oct. 21. The 49ers re-signed Bryan Gilmore prior to last week's game to take the spot of former No. 3 wideout Taylor Jacobs, who was released. Gilmore jumped over Lelie in the pecking order behind starters Darrell Jackson and Arnaz Battle. Also, the 49ers would like to get rookie Jason Hill onto the field, and the team signed free agent LeRon McCoy this week.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--WR LeRon McCoy signed with the 49ers as a free agent after missing all of last season with a thumb injury. The Cardinals cut McCoy at the end of training camp. He worked out for the 49ers last month. As a rookie with the Cardinals in 2005, McCoy caught 18 passes for 191 yards and a TD.
--OL Patrick Estes, whom the 49ers re-signed last week and played as a second tight end, was waived Tuesday to make room for receiver LeRon McCoy. Estes does not have practice-squad eligibility.
--CB Nate Clements has made quite an impression with his tackling ability. Through five games, Clements has 28 tackles, and 27 of them have been solo.
--WR Bryan Gilmore, whom the 49ers re-signed last week, immediately stepped onto the field as the team's No. 3 wideout. Gilmore caught one pass for 42 yards, the 49ers' biggest pass play of the season.
--LB Patrick Willis leads the 49ers with 67 tackles, according to the coaches' film review. Willis, who was chosen with the No. 11 overall draft pick, has 41 solo tackles. Willis has two tackles for loss, three passes defensed and a forced fumble.

INJURY IMPACT: QB Alex Smith started throwing passes a week after sustaining a Grade III separation to his throwing shoulder. Smith likely will be listed as questionable next week for the 49ers' game against the Giants on Oct. 21.
--TE Vernon Davis sustained a partially torn MCL in his right knee Sept. 23. He hopes to be available to return to the lineup when the 49ers play the Giants on Oct. 21.
--WR Jason Hill, a rookie who was expected to start seeing more practice time, is likely to be recovered from his left hamstring strain for the 49ers' next game. He has not been active for a game this season. His absence the first two games was a result of coach's decision. The past three games the hamstring has been the issue.
--TE Billy Bajema, the team's blocking tight end, did not play Sunday against the Ravens due to an ankle sprain. He is expected to be ready to play against the Giants on Oct. 21.
--S Michael Lewis is expected to be OK to play against the Giants after sustaining an Achilles strain on Sunday against the Ravens. He returned to action.
--S Keith Lewis might not be available for the 49ers' next game due to a left hamstring strain that forced him out of Sunday's game against the Ravens.


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