NFC West News & Notes - 10/25/07

Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren tried to be coy about how he was going to handle the team's bye week, waiting until Monday morning to inform his players that he was giving them the week off. Holmgren would not even tell the media after Sunday's victory over St. Louis until he told his players.


But after a team meeting, Holmgren gave the players to entire week to rest.

"Right now, they've been pushing pretty hard for seven weeks, longer than that, and it's okay to get away and kind of refresh, recharge the batteries, for players and coaches," Holmgren said.

Players who are injured, like quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, receivers Deion Branch and D.J. Hackett, and running back Shaun Alexander, are required to stay in Seattle to receive treatment. But Holmgren said everybody else is free to go where they want. Team president Tim Ruskell has stocked the roster with quality people, so Holmgren is not as concerned with his players getting into some type of trouble.

"When I first started and the bye first came into play, the main thing, I was afraid of guys getting away from my controlling nature," Holmgren said. "They would have a tendency to get in trouble or jammed up. Then I found out, over the years, I think that they've handled it pretty well for the most part.

"When they read and see other teams (giving the week off) and then all of a sudden you don't do it, it becomes, in their minds, a little bit of a punitive action on your part. I told them on Saturday night, 'I want to give you some time off. Let's see how this (Rams game) goes tomorrow.' They responded pretty well. I trust this team. I think it has good leadership. I think it has pretty good maturity so I felt comfortable with it."

For his part, Holmgren went to Arizona with his wife, Cathy.


--For the first time since he was acquired in a trade from Houston, DE Jason Babin was active for a game and played. He wasn't in long because the series in which he started playing, CB Marcus Trufant intercepted Marc Bulger, but he at least got on the field.

--When coach Mike Holmgren returns from the bye week, he is going to have to figure out what to do with a running game mired in mediocrity and what to do with the return of Branch and Hackett.
When the season began, Branch was the starting flanker and Hackett the starting split end. But Hackett suffered a high-ankle sprain in the first quarter of the first game and has not played since. Branch was injured against Pittsburgh, and Bobby Engram has become the team's leading receiver lately. However, Holmgren is likely to go back to Hackett and Branch as his starters, with the ever-reliable Engram sliding back to the slot as the third receiver.



--K Josh Brown's four field goals on Sunday tied a career high. He also made four field goals last season against Green Bay (11/27/06). He is now 13 of 14 for the season and has scored 53 points and is well on his way to tying Norm Johnson's club record of five straight 100-point seasons.

--DE Darryl Tapp's four sacks tied the franchise record for most sacks in a game, previously accomplished by Michael McCrary, Michael Sinclair and Jacob Green.

--TE Will Heller, who caught two touchdown passes in Sunday's game, was a walk-on at Georgia Tech and a free-agent signee because he was not drafted. TE Marcus Pollard calls Heller, who is likely to start against Cleveland on Nov. 4, a "grinder."

--Despite not having his two best receivers for much of the season, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is sixth in the NFL with an 88.6 passer rating.


From the day he took the Cardinals coaching job last January, Ken Whisenhunt has preached about the importance of the team playing tough and smart. So far, Whisenhunt's team is doing one and not the other. The Cardinals have been competitive in their four losses, and they made near-miracle comebacks against Baltimore and Washington.

But they haven't been smart. They lead the league in penalties with 59, and of their 16 turnovers, five have come in the first quarter. The Cardinals have scored only two field goals in the first quarter this year, mostly because of penalties and turnovers.

"The hardest thing to do is to eliminate those penalties and play smarter and play better early in the game," Whisenhunt said. "But if we can keep the same physical style we're playing and clean those things up, then I think we're going to be a pretty good football team over the last nine games, which is our focus."

In correcting the penalty problem, the Cardinals talk as if they are in a Catch-22 situation. Since the club has a history of losing, officials are accustomed to the Cardinals making a litany of mistakes. Until they prove to officials that they aren't the same old Cardinals, the calls aren't going to go their way. At least that's what the Cardinals think. "We're not going to get anything handed to us," receiver Anquan Boldin said. "We've just got to have the attitude that we have to play not only against the other team but the refs, also."

Whisenhunt, however, was quick not to blame the officials. But he acknowledged the team is fighting a perception. "Some of it (the penalties) is a function of, until we win more games, we're going to get some of those penalty calls," he said. "That's the natural way that this team is perceived sometimes.

"Sometimes, they're very justified. We've had some situations where we can't make those penalties."


--QB Kurt Warner said his injured left elbow felt better this week than it did right after the game on Sunday. It's going to take four-to-six weeks for the torn ligament to scar over and start to heal, he said. Meanwhile, he's not getting out of any household chores. "The worst thing is," Warner said, "when you play a football game, how do you go to your wife and say, 'Well honey, I can't clean the dishes.'

"It's a good thing out here with the football team, not such a good thing at home when it comes to the 'to-do' list."

--The Chargers are practicing in Arizona this week at the Cardinals facility after they were forced to leave San Diego because of fires. Whisenhunt said the Cardinals were glad to help out. "Obviously, we're trying to do whatever we can to help the Chargers out," Whisenhunt said. "It's a tough situation for them. We have the luxury of having some flexibility. We wish them the best."

The Cardinals had just one practice this week. They have meetings scheduled this morning and then are off until Monday

BY THE NUMBERS: 3-14 -- That's Warner's record as a starter in Arizona.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "That's a typical game for us. If you haven't covered us, there you go." -- Safety Adrian Wilson, about last Sunday's "weird" game against the Redskins.


The Cardinals practiced just once this week, and are off for the rest of the week after Thursday morning's workout. Coaches plan to get some down time during the week too, but not before doing a detailed examination of the first seven games, evaluating what worked and what didn't. They will also get a jump start on planning for the Tampa Bay game Nov. 4.


--QB Kurt Warner will continue to play with a brace on his left arm, if not for the rest of the year. Warner has a torn ligament in his left elbow and has trouble extending his arm to hand off.

--WR Anquan Boldin's hip muscle is likely to bother him for the rest of the year, but he can deal with the pain, as long as things don't get much worse. Boldin missed three games with the injury and scored two touchdowns in his first game back last week.

--NT Alan Branch should receive more playing time in the second half of the season. Branch suffered a fractured hand the week before the first game, which delayed his development. Starter Gabe Watson has been decent but Branch is viewed by coaches as an impact player, so he'll get on the field.

--TE Leonard Pope could emerge as a threat in the passing game. He made a nice catch last week and caught another for a touchdown. He needs to get a better handle on the offense, however.

--LT Mike Gandy has been one of the team's pleasant surprises in the first half of the season. He has better quickness than the Cardinals thought.

INJURY IMPACT: Warner suffered no ill effects from playing last week with a torn ligament in his left elbow. Barring other injuries, he will be the starter for the rest of the year. ILB Karlos Dansby has a sprained MCL in his left knee but coaches are hopeful that he can return after the bye week. S Aaron Francisco, a special teams standout, has a sprained MCL in his right knee but coaches are hopeful he can play after the bye week. Gandy has a right calf injury but was feeling much better on Wednesday and is hopeful of playing after the bye week. If he can't, Levi Brown will start at left tackle.


After losing to Seattle last week, 33-6, coach Scott Linehan was asked what can be done to improve the performance of the offensive line. Linehan said, "You keep coaching them and keep them moving ahead and not focused on a performance that certainly isn't good enough. You have to improve the group you have. We'll have another starting unit again this week and hopefully we can stay that way for a while. That will help if we can maintain some kind of continuity up front as far as the group that's playing."

That group Linehan was expecting to start included Claude Terrell at left guard because Andy McCollum would slide from left guard to center with Brett Romberg sidelined by two ankle injuries. But in this bizarre season, that planned line lasted less than 24 hours. With the Rams releasing Terrell after he was arrested, that meant even more change. McCollum is set at center, but Milford Brown moves from right tackle to left guard and Brandon Gorin will start at right tackle. Gorin was signed on Sept. 12 after left tackle Orlando Pace was lost for the season with a shoulder injury and right tackle Alex Barron was moved to left tackle. Brown has started four games at right tackle and two at right guard.

With Romberg out this week, Nick Leckey will be the backup center and guard. Rob Petitti, signed Wednesday, will suit up as the backup tackle. Leckey was signed Oct. 6, so he and Petitti will have a combined 28 days on the roster at game time Sunday.

The current group is a far cry from the line Linehan expected to see on a regular basis when training camp began.

Here are the projected starters and top backups entering camp:

Left tackle Orlando Pace: Injured in first half of opening game. Out for season.
Left guard Mark Setterstrom: Started three games, injured in third game. Out for season.
Center Brett Romberg: Beat out Andy McCollum in camp. Started first seven games. Injured left ankle in Game 6. Started Game 7 and injured right ankle. Out this week.
Right guard Richie Incognito: Suffered high-ankle sprain Aug. 18. Didn't practice for seven weeks and has started last three games.
Right tackle Alex Barron: Started all seven games, but last six have been at left tackle after Pace was hurt.
Backup tackle/guard Todd Steussie. Started 15 games last season at tackle and guard. He broke a bone in his foot Aug. 30 in the final preseason game and was placed on injured reserve. Reached an injury settlement and was released; eligible to return after the 10th game. Steussie would have played left tackle when Pace was hurt.
Backup tackle/guard Adam Goldberg: Played left tackle in game Pace got hurt. He started two games at right tackle and also spent some time at right guard. He was injured in Week 4 and lost for the season.
Backup center Andy McCollum: Started three games at left guard.
Backup guard Claude Terrell: Started three games total at left and right guard; released Tuesday.

The projected line starters have started a total of 14 of a possible 35 starts. After this week, it will be 15 of 40. There have been two games (including this week) where the line has changed three positions from the week before. There has been one game where the line that started the game finished the game. Including this coming week, in just half a season, there will have been two starters at left tackle, four at left guard, two at center, three at right guard and four at right tackle. That's 15 different position starters, with 10 different players starting games.

SERIES HISTORY: 18th meeting. Rams lead, 9-8, but the teams have played only once in this decade and twice since 1993. The Rams won 26-20 in Cleveland in 2003.


--The Claude Terrell era ended Tuesday when the third-year guard was waived following an arrest in Webster, Texas, for assault-family violence. Terrell started 10 games as a rookie in 2005, but then missed the 2006 season because of a wrist injury. Terrell incurred Scott Linehan's wrath by electing not to have surgery on the wrist when given permission to go home to Texas during the season. But Terrell got back in the coach's good graces by attending the team's offseason program and working hard in training camp.

However, since the season began, he was fined for being late to a team meeting before the season opener and then "mouthed off" to Linehan at an Oct. 17 practice. That resulted in a Linehan tirade after practice. Terrell has also been fined several times for not making weight at weigh-ins that occur every Friday. Terrell allegedly assaulted a woman claiming to be his wife at a hotel. She was treated for a broken nose. Terrell is on two years probation handed down in February for a 2006 incident that was also for assault-causing bodily injury to a family member.

--LB Will Witherspoon had 16 tackles Sunday against Seattle, and appears to be getting more comfortable playing in the middle. Witherspoon had been mostly an outside linebacker before signing with the Rams as a free agent in 2006. Asked about Witherspoon's play, Linehan said, "It's a direct reflection of our front playing better than a year ago and keeping him free to the ball. He's always had the ability to get to the ball carrier. Last year, as the year went on, our inability to keep him clean was a lot of the reason why, towards the end of the year, he wasn't able to have the production and tackles that he's having so far (this year)."

Said defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, "He was all over the field. That's about as good as I've seen him play. He tackled with power. He looked like an inside linebacker. He knocked those guys backward. He covered, he covered the middle of the field. The guy has unbelievable range. I know he's not your prototype 260-pound type inside linebacker. The guy is 237 pounds, but if you can keep him free, he can make a lot of plays for you. I don't have any problem with him playing inside."

--Despite being 0-7, Linehan is trying to put on an optimistic front with nine games remaining. Asked if there's anything to be optimistic about as the team prepares to play the Browns, Linehan said, "We play a home game -- get a win before our bye. Just focus on improving. There's not a lot of things to be too happy about as far as wins and losses are what we play for. Stats mean nothing. None of that has any bearing on what we do and the objective is to win the game. Optimistically speaking, I would say regardless of where we are right now, we put in a good performance at home. Now that we're getting a few players back, and I know we got a few back last week, we can salvage some things this season."

BY THE NUMBERS: 0-7 -- The Rams' current record, and the worst start in franchise history.

58.7 -- Combined passer rating for QBs Marc Bulger and Gus Frerotte, worst in the NFL.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "From blitz pickup to picking up the line movement to our inability to maintain our pre-snap discipline that you need to have, which kept us sitting in there a little too much worrying about jumping offsides -- all the things you have to be able to handle when you're on the road and I don't think we handled it very well up front as an offensive group or up front in the first half. It affected our ability to time our cadence as well as execute our technique. It's a combination of a number of areas. Sometimes it's technique, certainly, and sometimes it's anticipation, but they all add up to a poor performance. It's not just one person or the line. Sometimes you have to throw the ball away. Sometimes you have to do some other things. You can always put it on the line, but it's a team effort in pass protection or run blocking. Sometimes it's the receivers getting a block downfield -- just straining to get a guy on the backside of an eight-man front. That would be a good place to start, too." -- Coach Scott Linehan, on the blocking struggles, most notably last Sunday against Seattle.



--DE Leonard Little did not practice Wednesday because of a toe injury and has been declared out of Sunday's game against Cleveland. Little will see a foot specialist during the team's bye week after the game against the Browns. It's possible he could undergo season-ending toe surgery.

--DE Victor Adeyanju will start Sunday against Cleveland on the left side with Little out of the game with a toe injury.

--RB Steven Jackson participated fully in practice Wednesday and, barring any setbacks, will start Sunday against Cleveland.

--OT Rob Petitti was signed Wednesday and will be the team's backup tackle for Sunday's game against Cleveland. Petitti was released by the Saints in the final cutdown this year.

--SS Corey Chavous had limited practice time Wednesday because of soreness and swelling in his injured pectoral muscle.

--WR Drew Bennett, who missed Sunday's game against Seattle because of a hamstring injury, participated fully in practice Wednesday and is expected to be able to play Sunday against Cleveland.

GAME PLAN: This could be an opportunity for the offense to show life, given Cleveland's penchant for giving up yards and points. The Rams have to score a rushing touchdown this season, but their only five offensive touchdowns have come in their three home games. Defensively, an improving unit will be tested by big-play pass-catchers WR Braylon Edwards and TE Kellen Winslow.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Rams S Oshiomogho Atogwe or LB Brandon Chillar vs. Browns TE Kellen Winslow -- It's unknown how the Rams will try and match up against Winslow, who lines up as much as a receiver as a tight end. It's possible CB Ron Bartell could get the assignment because of his size. Defenses have to decide how to play Winslow, along with WRs Edwards and Joe Jurevicius.

INJURY IMPACT: Except for the offensive line, the team's offense has most of its injured players back for Sunday's game against Cleveland. RB Steven Jackson will play after missing four games because of a groin injury. Bennett, who has missed two games because of a quad injury (season opener) and hamstring (Sunday against Seattle), will play. However, the defense will take a hit with the absence of Little, who has a serious toe injury.


The San Francisco 49ers have a key game Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. At least, it appears as if they will have the services of their best quarterback. Alex Smith, who has been out of action with a separated throwing shoulder since Sept. 30, is expected to return to action, as the 49ers try to halt a four-game losing streak. Smith took part in practice this week for the first time since his injury, and appears to be on target to start. During the 49ers' four-game losing streak, plenty of frustration has built inside the team's locker room.

Some of those feelings bubbled to the surface after the 49ers' 33-15 loss to the New York Giants last week. Running back Frank Gore said the 49ers' problems on offense are a matter of trust. He said the players don't trust each other and that some players don't trust offensive coordinator Jim Hostler.

Gore compared it to last season when the 49ers had complete faith in veteran offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

"I just know that we had Norv Turner," Gore said. "He's been doing it for a while. Whenever he said something we wanted to do it. "And now I feel that a lot of people when coach Hoss or somebody calls something, it gets in the back of their heads: 'Is he calling the right play?' instead of just going out there and busting your behind. That's all it is right now, I feel."

Gore later chalked up his comments to frustration that comes with being part of a team that is not living up to the expectations. After all, the 49ers rank last in the league with just 213.8 yards of total offense per game. "After the game, I was kind of frustrated with losing the game. We just have to play football and execute better and we will be fine," Gore said. "We are all just frustrated losing four in a row. It's tough. We had a lot of high expectations coming into the year, but we haven't showed it."

Gore backtracked on his comments that some of the offensive players lack confidence and trust in Hostler, who is calling plays for the first time since he was offensive coordinator at Indiana (Pa.), an NCAA Division II school in 1999. "I feel we do (trust Hostler)," Gore said. "We just have to go out there and make plays and we will be fine."

While backup quarterback Trent Dilfer said he disagreed wholeheartedly with Gore's original comment about Hostler, he said it is only natural that the players have some lack of trust in each other. "I totally disagree that there's a lack of trust in Hoss," Dilfer said. "(But) I partly agree there's a lack of trust in each other. That happens every single time you go on a bad skid or you're not playing well offensively. You'd be lying to say that teams that are struggling aren't struggling with trust issues. I'd agree with that. But the great thing about this group of guys is we'll try to fix that."

The 49ers' losing streak has placed the team's hopes for the season in danger. Smith said the frustration is understandable, but he emphasized that everyone has to concentrate on what he can control. "A four-game slide is never easy," Smith said. "We just have to shorten our focus. It's easy to worry about other things. But we have to focus on the now."

Smith said he thought Hostler's game plan against the Giants put the offense in good positions to make plays. The 49ers had some opportunities to make big plays against the Giants, though a lack of execution proved to be their misdoings. The 49ers committed four turnovers and had several costly penalties. "In watching the game, it seemed like there were a lot of plays left on the field," Smith said. The 49ers (2-4) began last season with the same record. They eventually fell three games under .500, but rallied to pull even with a 5-5 record before finishing 7-9.

"The other day after the game, I did mention that we've been in this situation before and got back on the winning track," Nolan said. "But as far as saying it more than that, I have not. I don't want a repeat performance of last year, to be honest with you."

After six games, Nolan said he'd hoped to be 3-3 or 4-2. When asked to evaluate his performance this season as coach, Nolan answered, "We're 2-4. I'd like to be better than that."

SERIES HISTORY: 69th meeting. The 49ers lead 45-21-2, including 22-9-2 on their home field.


--Coach Mike Nolan has stated his preference was for both of his coordinators to be situated in the coaches' box because "that's the best place to play chess." But offensive coordinator Jim Hostler insisted that he was more comfortable on the sideline. After five games in which the 49ers offense struggled mightily, Nolan finally insisted that Hostler call the game from upstairs. Nolan believes it worked out well enough to keep Hostler there.

"I don't think that hurt us in any way," Nolan said. "I think it will help us in the long run because I know the job so well about being up and down.

"I think he is a little bit more comfortable down. But I don't think that's better for our football team or him in the long run. The more comfortable he is up, the better it is for our team, and that's really what he is up there for."

--Return specialist Michael Lewis, who played his first six NFL seasons with the Saints, put on No. 25 during practice and mimicked the play of Reggie Bush for the first-team defense. Lewis took on Bush's role for some of the running plays and passes out of the backfield. Bush leads the Saints with 298 yards rushing. He also has a team-high 36 receptions for 185 yards. "It's fun imitating Reggie," Lewis said. "I don't have all his moves, but I tried to do whatever he does to help out as much as possible."

--Last season, in a closely guarded 49ers secret, Nolan thought outside the box. Actually, he thought inside the box. He always spoke with director of football operations Paraag Marathe about rules and game-management situations the day after games. But last year, he decided it might be helpful to have direct radio contact with Marathe during games. Marathe is not part of the coaching staff, yet he wears headsets during games and can communicate directly with Nolan from the coaches' booth. Nolan said Marathe keeps specialized statistics during the game. He also helps Nolan with game management, rules and replays.

"(Marathe does) everything from statistical information in the game, it could be any statistic, but also, more importantly, rules. As soon as there's a penalty and there's something that's a little bit off, he's right on it. He does a great job with all of it; stats, game management, replays. In the course of the last two years, he's somebody that I've come to rely on to do an outstanding job in all three of those areas. He's been the best I've ever been around, to be perfectly honest with you."

--Backup quarterback Trent Dilfer took full responsibility for a play last week on which Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora sacked him, forced a fumble and returned it 75 yards for a game-clinching touchdown. Dilfer said he watched the replay 400 times after he got home from the game. It kept him up until 4 in the morning. The play was designed for him to take a three-step drop and get rid of the ball to Ashley Lelie on a fade route before the Giants' blitz could arrive. After the game, Dilfer said he has never seen a defensive end get to the quarterback on a three-step drop. But upon further inspection, Dilfer did not take three steps. He took five steps. "The play had every answer you could possibly want," Dilfer said. "The offensive line executed the play to perfection. They squeezed down and got the most dangerous players. One guy failed to do his job, and that was me."

--Special teams assistant Jeff Rodgers, who is in his fifth season on the 49ers' staff, played center at Westlake High in Austin, Texas. In his senior season, his quarterback was Drew Brees, whose Saints will face the 49ers on Sunday.

BY THE NUMBERS: 49 -- Consecutive games in which the 49ers have failed to produce a 300-yard passer.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "My job is not motivated by the fear of failure. My job is motivated by trying to get to success. I look at the last two years the same way. The responsibility is on my shoulders to win games, no question." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan, on whether he's comfortable accepting the blame for the team's 2-4 start.


For several weeks, the 49ers have been rotating David Baas into the lineup at right guard to take the spot of starter Justin Smiley. Last week, coach Mike Nolan decided to use the same approach at left tackle. Adam Snyder played the entire fourth quarter in place of Jonas Jennings. Nolan was quick to point out that he still considers Jennings the starter. "I just want to work some of the young guys in a little," Nolan said. "Snyder is the flip-flop guy. I want to have seven guys up for the game and I want to get them a little work. I don't want to take a guy out of his game, but I do want to get the guys some work. We do it everywhere on the field except the quarterback. We do it with running backs, wide receivers, defensive linemen and linebackers. Every position, except quarterback, you see people being substituted. It is not uncommon that offensive linemen do the same thing."

The 49ers waived veteran linebacker Hannibal Navies last season so they could promote special teams player Zak Keasey to the active roster. Navies would not have been able to play last week with a knee sprain. On Monday, the players swapped roster spots again. Navies was signed after he cleared waivers, and Keasey was waived. Keasey was added to the practice squad a day later.


--RS Michael Lewis, who played the first six seasons of his NFL career with the Saints, will face his former team. Lewis has provided an upgrade at punt returner in his three games with the team. Lewis has 13 returns for a 7.4-yard average and one fair catch. He took Brandon Williams' job. Williams had five returns and five fair catches in the first three games.

--LB Derek Smith is playing much better than he did a year ago, when he struggled with a vision problem. Smith is second on the team with 51 tackles through six games. Last week, he recorded the fourth interception of his 11-year career.

--OL Adam Snyder, who split time Sunday with starter Jonas Jennings, is expected to be in the starting lineup against the Saints after Jennings began the week as questionable with an ankle sprain. Although coach Mike Nolan says Jennings has played well this season, the club has gotten frustrated with his inability to remain healthy.

--WR Jason Hill has not been active for a game this season. After missing several weeks with a hamstring injury, Hill is healthy again. The 49ers might get him on the field for Sunday's game against the Saints.

--LB Hannibal Navies was re-signed to the 53-man roster Monday after he was released Saturday to create a roster spot for special-teams player Zak Keasey. Navies would not have been able to play last week anyway because of a knee sprain.

GAME PLAN: It appeared that offensive coordinator Jim Hostler got the green light from head coach Mike Nolan to open up the offense and take some chances. The 49ers have appeared like a team that was playing not to lose for most of the season. Hostler used more personnel groups and formations last week against the New York Giants to try to utilize the team's talent. Receiver Ashley Lelie, who is the 49ers' only vertical threat, was used more in the passing game. His first reception went for 47 yards, the 49ers' longest gain this season. Running back Frank Gore ran more often out of one-back sets. He gained a season-high 88 yards on 14 carries.

The 49ers approach might be contingent on which player starts at quarterback. Trent Dilfer made the kind of mistakes last week that the 49ers don't expect to see out of a veteran quarterback. Alex Smith is expected to return to the starting lineup, which should present Hostler with more options. With Smith, the 49ers are more apt to use shotgun formations and plays in which the quarterback is on the move. The 49ers strive for a 50-50 split in the run and pass games. A healthy Gore will allow the 49ers a chance to establish an effective run game.

Defensively, the 49ers have to find a way to get more pressure on the quarterback. Their outside pass rush has been a major disappointment, as free-agent pickup Tully Banta-Cain has not supplied the 49ers with much of a pass rush. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has to dial up more blitzes because the coverage on the back end has held up pretty well.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: 49ers LB Patrick Willis, who leads the 49ers with 82 tackles in six games and whose best attribute is his speed, vs. Saints RB Reggie Bush, who ran all over the 49ers last season in his breakout NFL game.

49ers ROLB Tully Banta-Cain, who has recorded 1.5 sacks this season and failed to put up consistent pressure, vs. Saints LT Jammal Brown, a solid player who should not have much problems handling the 49ers in one-on-one situations.

49ers SS Michael Lewis, who will handle a lot of the coverage chores on the tight end, vs. Saints TE Eric Johnson, who has 28 receptions for 194 yards and a TD in his first year after leaving the 49ers as a free agent.

RT Joe Staley, who struggled mightily against the Giants' Michael Strahan last week, vs. LDE Charles Grant, a sixth-year player who has two sacks this season.

WR Ashley Lelie, likely to get his first start with the 49ers, vs. LCB Mike McKenzie, who had a strong game against the 49ers last season with some nice plays on deep passes.

INJURY IMPACT: QB Alex Smith returned to full practice on Wednesday and is expected to start for the first time since sustaining a separated right shoulder on Sept. 30 against the Seahawks. Smith has missed the previous two games. He suited up as the No. 3 quarterback last week against the Giants. Gore is expected to play Sunday against the Saints, though he missed practice time early in the week with a right ankle sprain. If he is unable to play, Maurice Hicks and Michael Robinson would split the workload.

WR Darrell Jackson might not play against the Saints with a quadriceps strain he sustained in Sunday's game against the Giants. Jackson did not appear on the injury report after the game. Nolan said he did not know Jackson was injured until Tuesday.

LT Jonas Jennings is not expected to play Sunday with an ankle sprain. Jennings was injured in the second quarter against the Giants, but after the game said the injury was nothing that would keep him out of action. However, the ankle worsened, casting doubt on his availability for Sunday's game.

TE Vernon Davis returned to action last week after missing two games with a right MCL sprain. He has been removed from the injury report, though he still plays with a brace on his knee.

S Keith Lewis (hamstring) is likely to be held out of action again this week after experiencing the strain on Oct. 7. Lewis is one of the 49ers' core special-teams players. Top Stories