NFC West News & Notes - 11/1/07

When the Seattle Seahawks travel to Cleveland for Sunday's game, they come off their bye week attempting to discover exactly who they are as a team this year. Yes, they lead the weak NFC West division with a 4-3 record and could probably win the division and make the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season merely by going .500 for the rest of the year.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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But that would not exactly be in keeping with their stated desire to return to the level that allowed them to advance to Super Bowl XL.

Though there is some thought that halfway through the season, teams are who they are, Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren continues to say that he believes the team's best football is ahead of them. Even though the Seahawks are coming off a 33-6 victory over St. Louis, they still have not put together a thorough victory where they have felt like the offense and the defense have played well together.

The revamped defense has been sensational in three games, absent in two games and middling in two others. The offense has yet to have a big day running and the passing game has been inconsistent as well.
Some of the Seahawks' relative struggles have come about because of injuries, with defensive tackles Marcus Tubbs and Chuck Darby and fullback Mack Strong lost for the season, and starting split end D.J. Hackett lost for the first seven weeks with a high-ankle sprain.

But some of the problems have been bad combinations and missed assignments. Along the offensive front, future Hall of Famer Walter Jones is aging and has given up four sacks already, right guard Chris Gray is officially aged and the three youngsters, Chris Spencer, Rob Sims and Sean Locklear, still are trying to gain experience.

On top of that, Strong's replacement, Leonard Weaver, a former tight end, is learning the position and trying to establish a rapport with Shaun Alexander. At least offensively, Holmgren is wasting precious little time sending a message about his wishes, inserting oft-injured Floyd Womack into the starting lineup in place of Sims at left guard.

Most likely, it is more of a message to the entire line that if things don't change, they are imminently replaceable. Womack is not good enough to be a full-time starter and would probably get hurt before making it through one game.

Holmgren also held the entire offense after practice for a meeting well away from reporters or even members of the defense, presumably chastising them for their lack of focus through the first half of the season.

Against Cleveland, one of the worst defenses in the league, allowing 410 yards a game, the Seahawks would like to be able to string together some semblance of a dominating offense, which they hope is a stepping stone to their Monday night game the following week against the offensively inept San Francisco 49ers, who the Seahawks have already dominated 23-3 this season.

Stringing together several straight victories, gaining some meaningful separation in the division and sustaining consistency on both sides of the ball as they come out of their bye week are all the objects of focus.

SERIES HISTORY: 16th meeting. Seahawks lead series, 11-4, and have won the last two and three of the last four. Their last meeting was in 2003, a 34-7 Seattle victory in Seattle.

NOTES, QUOTES

--QB Matt Hasselbeck was taking his three kids trick-or-treating for Halloween. His middle daughter was going as a football player. "She better be wearing No. 8," Hasselbeck said, "if she wants to get any candy."

--S Brian Russell was asked on several occasions by Browns reporters about his thoughts on the Cleveland secondary's struggles this season; Russell played for Cleveland last year before joining the Seahawks as a free agent. Russell said he has not been following Cleveland's team this year and only assumed they were doing well because of the Browns' 4-3 record.

--The last time Seattle faced Cleveland, the Seahawks, for the first time in franchise history, produced a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard rusher and two 100-yard receivers in a single game.

--The Seahawks wanted to re-sign wide receiver Joe Jurevicius after the 2005 Super Bowl, but he left for Cleveland because his parents live in the area. "I like Joe a lot," coach Mike Holmgren said. "And he's doing very well for them. We know him pretty well, and he's a load to deal with."

--Seattle and Cleveland are both coming off victories over the St. Louis Rams, the Seahawks' win came before their bye week. Seattle's 33-6 victory was a little more decisive than Cleveland's 27-20.

--Browns QB Derek Anderson's mother and stepfather live in Mill Creek, Wash., about 20 miles north of Seattle, though Anderson said he didn't think either was a Seahawks fan.

--RB Shaun Alexander is going to continue wearing a cast on his left hand until the cracked bone in his wrist is completely healed. "I think it's scaled down as far as it's going to get scaled down until he takes it off," Holmgren said. "It's certainly not any larger. They tried to minimize it as best they could, and that's the way it's going to be until it's off."

BY THE NUMBERS: 2 -- Number of touchdowns RB Shaun Alexander needs to reach 100 for his career.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't think anyone realized that rope was going to be that short. But that's the way it went down." -- QB Charlie Frye, who was traded to Seattle in the second week of the season after starting for the Browns during the first week.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Starting split end D.J. Hackett is expected to be back from a high-ankle sprain that has kept him out since the first week of the season. He is practicing with the starting unit, which means that his replacement, Nate Burleson, will slide to the third receiver. Starting flanker Deion Branch, originally expected to be back this week, looks like he is taking a little longer to recover from a sprained foot, which means that Bobby Engram is likely to remain the starter. It remains to be seen if Engram will stay the flanker or slide to the slot when the offense goes into the three-receiver set.

Also, coach Mike Holmgren is tinkering with the offensive line in an attempt to get the running game going, but it seems unlikely that Holmgren will insert Floyd Womack into the starting lineup once Sunday rolls around.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--QB Matt Hasselbeck, who has a strained oblique, practiced and said that while he still feels the injury, he will be able to play.

--TE Marcus Pollard, who had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, did not practice and is not expected to play.

--WR Deion Branch did not practice because of a sprained foot and is questionable for Sunday's game.

--DT Rocky Bernard was limited in practice because of a strained groin but is expected to play on Sunday.

--T Sean Locklear was limited in practice because of a sore ankle but should play.

--DE Darryl Tapp, who had a sizeable cast on his surgically repaired hand, practiced and will play, though his cast should be much smaller during the game.

GAME PLAN: Though the Browns have one of the worst secondaries in the NFL, the Seahawks are intent on getting their running game going, which means they are likely to give the ball often to Shaun Alexander because the Browns allow 140 yards a game on the ground. If that fails, as it has often this year, the Seahawks will go to their passing game and try to take advantage of a Browns defensive backfield that has permitted 270 yards and 18 touchdowns this year.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant, the team's best coverage guy, vs. Browns WR Braylon Edwards, third in the league in receiving yards with 620, as well as nine touchdowns. Seahawks secondary, which has yet to give up a deep ball this season, vs. Browns QB Derek Anderson, who has a passer rating of 126.9 and who is second in the NFL with 17 touchdown passes. Seahawks pass rush, which has produced 23 sacks this season, fourth best in the NFL, vs. Browns offensive line, which has allowed 13 sacks this season, five of which came in the first half of the first game, when Charlie Frye was the quarterback and got benched.

INJURY IMPACT: QB Matt Hasselbeck practiced on Wednesday but is likely to be affected by his oblique injury each time he throws the ball. WR Deion Branch, who has a sprained foot, did not practice and is not likely to play, but if he does, he will be limited in what he can do while running patterns. DE Darryl Tapp will have to wear a cast on his surgically repaired hand and likely will be unable to play in the four-point stance that he usually employs.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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The Cardinals know it's not realistic to expect to eliminate mistakes as they come off their bye week and prepare for the final nine games. But if they can just reduce the number of penalties, turnovers and other mental errors, they think they can make a playoff run. Those mistakes are what have kept them from having a better record than 3-4. They lead the league in penalties and are minus-seven in turnover ratio. Only five teams are worse.

The turnover ratio is a problem on both sides of the ball. The Cardinals have 16 turnovers, eight of which have come in the past two games. It's probably not a coincidence that those are the games quarterback Kurt Warner has started. Against Washington, Warner had two interceptions and a fumble. Against Carolina the week before, he lost a fumble and was injured on a sack.

If the Cardinals are going to make anything of the final nine games, Warner must take better care of the ball. That is a simple fact, but it's complicated by a torn ligament in Warner's left elbow. That's his non-throwing arm, but the injury has weakened his left arm and made it less flexible. It's supposed to gradually improve without surgery, but Warner is wearing a brace on the arm that limits its flexibility.

Warner's passing motion isn't affected but the injury does impact his ability to hand off on runs to the left. In his first game after the injury, Warner used his right hand to hand off, and the whole operation looked awkward.

That's why coach Ken Whisenhunt put backup Tim Rattay in when the team was close to the goal line, to avoid mistakes.

In the first seven games, Whisenhunt has shown a willingness to take chances, and almost all of his gambles have paid off. He's going to have to do more of that in the final nine games to give his team a shot at the postseason. That style fits Whisenhunt's personality anyway, so it's not as if he's uncomfortable going against the norm. And the players like it, believing it shows Whisenhunt's faith in their ability to execute.

"I don't know of an offensive lineman who doesn't want to go for it on fourth down," center Al Johnson said, "or doesn't want to do the things that they (opponents) aren't expecting. As a team, it shows he has a lot of confidence in us."

SERIES HISTORY: 16th meeting. Cardinals lead, 8-7, and won the last meeting, 12-7, in 2004. Only two of the Cardinals victories have been by more than a touchdown. Despite the small number of games they've played, the teams are tied together in some ways. The Cardinals traded running back Thomas Jones to Tampa in 2003. Simeon Rice and Michael Pittman went to Tampa via free agency after their time with the Cardinals. Shaun King played quarterback for both clubs. Tampa had the fourth pick in the last draft, taking defensive end Gaines Adams, while the Cardinals had the fifth, taking offensive tackle Levi Brown.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Quarterback Matt Leinart said his fractured left collarbone is healing, but he must wear a sling for a few more weeks. "I can't wait to get this sling off," Leinart said. "Once I get it off, then I can start rehabilitation." Leinart suffered the fracture on Oct. 7 at St. Louis and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.

--The Falcons tried to sign tight end Ben Patrick off the Cardinals practice squad late last week. The Cardinals promoted Patrick, their seventh-round pick last April, to the 53-man roster, signing him to a two-year contract.

--Edgerrin James needs 12 rushing yards Sunday to reach the 11,000-yard mark for his career. He already is the leading active rusher and is No. 16 on the all-time list, 238 yards behind O.J. Simpson.

BY THE NUMBERS: 10-for-15 -- That is kicker Neil Rackers' field-goal statistics this year. Three of the misses have been from 50 yards and beyond.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's certainly a pressure to win. And there's always that pressure not to be second-guessed. But I'm not out there taking random chances. There's a lot of thought that goes into this stuff." -- Coach Ken Whisenhunt, on his willingness to do the unconventional.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Cardinals would like to get tight end Leonard Pope more involved in the passing game. Pope has shown improvement, but his blocking still needs work and he must improve his understanding of the offense. With Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald on the outside, there should be openings for a tight end as a receiver.
The club is getting solid play from its defensive line, especially the ends, Darnell Dockett and Antonio Smith. They've done a solid job against the run and have proven to be competent pass rushers.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--QB Kurt Warner is 3-14 as a starter with the Cardinals. Not all of that is his fault because he's played on some bad teams. But Warner can't be totally absolved, either. He has to do a better job of avoiding turnovers.

--If left tackle Mike Gandy (calf) can't play this week, right guard Deuce Lutui will be the only offensive lineman to start every game at the same position.

--RB Edgerrin James has rushed for more than 100 yards in just one game this year, but he's averaging about 86 yards a game. At this pace, he'll gain 1,382 yards and finish with 357 carries.

--WR Larry Fitzgerald will receive a $5 million bonus if he makes the Pro Bowl. He's on his way, leading the NFC in receptions (46) and yards (642).

--WR Anquan Boldin needs 80 yards to reach the 5,000-yard mark for his career. If he reaches that mark this Sunday, he will tie Jerry Rice as the fourth fastest to reach that milestone.

GAME PLAN: The Cardinals have a one-armed quarterback and are playing a team, Tampa Bay, that has trouble stopping the run. It would make sense for the Cardinals to try to pound away at the Bucs, and they will. But they won't ignore their offensive strength -- the passing game. If given time, Warner can do some damage by getting the ball to Boldin and Fitzgerald. On defense, the Cardinals need to figure out a way to hit quarterback Jeff Garcia. The Jaguars did that last week and Garcia threw his first interceptions of the year. The Cardinals defense is fast, so it won't be easy for Garcia to avoid the rush.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Cardinals WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin vs. Bucs secondary, including corners Ronde Barber, Phillip Buchanon and Brian Kelly -- The Bucs won't let Fitzgerald get isolated deep very often, so the Cardinals must work underneath. Boldin excels in running after the catch so the Bucs must be good tacklers. Buccaneers QB Jeff Garcia vs. Cardinals front seven -- The Cardinals will mix up their pass-rush looks but they have to stay disciplined to keep Garcia from getting out of the pocket much. Garcia is creative on the run, and the Cardinals must be able to hit him.

INJURY IMPACT: Warner will likely start a second straight game while wearing a brace on his left arm. Warner reports improvement in the arm but it still bothers him to hand off. ILB Karlos Dansby has a sprained MCL in his left knee and didn't practice Wednesday. It seems likely that Dansby will miss another week, and that Monty Beisel will make his second straight start. LT Mike Gandy has a right calf injury but is practicing this week. It's expected he will play. Just how much is in question. Rookie Levi Brown is working at both right and left tackle. If Brown spends a lot of time at left tackle this week, Elton Brown will continue to start on the right side. S Aaron Francisco practiced Wednesday after missing a game because of a sprained right knee. A backup, Francisco plays in some nickel packages and is an excellent special-teams player.


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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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It was almost a dream for Scott Linehan when he was hired as head coach of the Rams in January 2006. But, now, the dream has become close to a nightmare, as Linehan sees the rubble of an 0-8 season and tried to figure out a way to stay positive heading into the second half of the season, which begins after this week's bye. He also knows, without really knowing, what's being said about him and his team.

Asked if he tries to block out what's discussed, Linehan said, "No I don't hear it, I know its there. Common sense, I think you understand it's part of the business. I understand it, too. I really do, and I don't take any offense to it. It's motivation for me because I want to turn this thing around. This season has gotten away from us. The experience has been that I have learned a lot about myself, and you know that you never want to feel like this ever again, so whatever you can do to avoid it is worth the trouble.

"I'm no different than anybody else; everybody has a vested interest in this thing. Players, coaches, everybody in this building, the fans for sure, and I know all the media is in our corner. I know you guys want to win. It's a much more pleasant thing to cover a winning football team and one that's doing the things that make it exciting for you to go to work, and right now it's tough, it's challenging. The only thing you can do is preach the same things. You just have to work on getting better every day. That's our challenge right now, not getting in the tank, and you have to pull yourself out of there every day and move forward and stay positive and work hard.

"I think we made some strides last week, but it wasn't good enough. At least in my opinion and from my standpoint from the offensive side, it was much better than what we had the previous two games."
Asked how he is able to retain his sanity amid the losing and constant injury issues, Linehan said, "I keep my sanity because I have a lot of things going for me. First, I will always say this: I am one of the luckiest people in the world to have one of these 32 jobs and to be in this position. I don't think I am having the luckiest season of my career, but this isn't about me either, it's about the team. Everybody's got, like I said, an equal part of this. I have a great, supporting family.

"I'm not sure how the single coaches live out by themselves. I'm not sure I could do that one. It proves to me that going home every night is well worth the six or seven hours that I get to kind of unload for a little bit. There (will be) one day, hopefully in the near future in about eight games, we can go back and say, 'That was a trying experience and we made it through this thing all right.'"

The question is whether he will come out it all right. Club president John Shaw will assess the situation after the season, and it's unknown how he will evaluate a season where there were so many injuries to key offensive personnel.

Still, Linehan wouldn't play the pity role when asked if he consoles himself by accepting that so much that has happened has been out of his control.

"Console myself? I don't do a whole lot of consoling myself," he said. "To be honest with you, I do a lot more of the other. There is some truth to the fact that there are some things out of your control, but what is in your control is what you have to focus on. And there are things that have been in our control that we are still falling short on, regardless of the bad luck that we have had. As long as you keep your open mind and keep learning and you don't get sensitive and stay the course, I think you will always come out on a better end."

NOTES, QUOTES

--With his team 0-8, coach Scott Linehan will enter the second half of the season stressing that it is a clean slate. "That has to be our message," he said. "There's really no other way to be. We can't live in the past. It certainly would feel much better if we were sitting here with a record opposite of the one we have, but we arrived here. How we got here is not anywhere near as significant as what we do in the second half. We have to look at it as an eight-game season and do our best to win them all.

"There have been big turnarounds in this league in the past. You can go back and see them. It's a tough challenge for us with the way things have gone and all that, but if we can just hold on to playing the next game and getting some momentum from a win on the road, we can do a lot more things in this season than appear right now. I think that has to be the mind-set."

Somehow staying positive is what he constantly preaches. He said, "I've never been in this position, but I think the whole idea is to maintain a positive attitude. Like I said earlier, it's an easy thing to say and a hard thing to do. The whole idea as coaches and players is to maintain a real positive but hard-working environment that gets us where we need to be. I think we've been a lot closer to having a lot different record than you really realize until you really look at it. Five plays might be the difference between 5-3 and 0-8.

"If we can just maintain that and make the adjustments we need to make personnel-wise, maybe settle things on our offensive front, we'll settle on some personnel groups that we think are our best offensively. We're studying everything we've done. We'll get rid of some things that at least for this year aren't as effective as they need to be."

--The Rams have been outscored 131-36 in the second half this season and 74-9 on the road. Even worse have been turnovers. For the season, the Rams are minus-13 in turnover ratio, with 24 turnovers and 11 takeaways. But, they are actually plus-1 in the first halves of games with five takeaways and four turnovers. That makes it just six takeaways in the second half and an astounding 20 turnovers.
In something of an understatement, coach Scott Linehan said, "Second halves have been our downfall."

BY THE NUMBERS: 8 -- Number of consecutive games the Rams have lost this season, matching their losing streak in 1997, Dick Vermeil's first season as head coach.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "No, no. This is a great city. People are supportive, you would be surprised. Lot of supportive comments from people, that's why it's such a great town." -- Coach Scott Linehan, when asked jokingly if he wears a disguise when attending his younger son's games.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--PK Jeff Wilkins has made 10 of 11 field-goal attempts this season at home, with the only miss coming from 56 yards. On the road, he has made just four of nine kicks, with misses from 28 and 35 yards.

--LT Alex Barron has not played up to expectations since being moved from the right side in Week 2. Barron played left tackle in college. Coaches have been disappointed in Barron's play this season.

--RG Richie Incognito will undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in the next few days. After the surgery, it will be known whether he will be able to play again this season.

--C/G Dustin Fry is a candidate to be signed from the practice squad with OG Richie Incognito expected to miss at least a month with a knee injury.

INJURY IMPACT: RG Richie Incognito is scheduled for arthroscopic knee surgery, at which point it will be determined whether he has a chance of playing again this season. Incognito suffered a partial dislocation of his right kneecap against Cleveland, and he will travel to Birmingham, Ala., to have Dr. James Andrews do the surgery. Said Incognito, "Once (Andrews) gets in there and 'scopes it, he'll have a prognosis about how long I'll be out. If it's a three- to four-week deal, I'll be back. If it's going to be longer, six to eight weeks, it looks like I'll probably go on injured reserve."


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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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The 49ers are on a five-game losing streak. Their playoff hopes for the season have taken a big hit, and now they travel to face the Atlanta Falcons in a game that could help them get back on track the week before a big NFC West game against the Seattle Seahawks.

Is it too early to call it a must-win?

"This is the most important game this week," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said.

With fan support beginning to waver, the 49ers unquestionably have a little more urgency against the Falcons (1-6). Quarterback Alex Smith is still banged up from a right shoulder separation he suffered last month. He made his return to action last week against the New Orleans Saints and struggled mightily. The 49ers (2-5) have a lot of work to do to become a factor again. Their offense ranks last in the NFL, averaging just 220.4 yards per game. The 49ers have not scored more than 20 points in a game this season.

"I take full responsibility for this football team and its 2-5 record. When I talk about collective problems and problem-solving, those things start with me and end with me," Nolan said.

The 49ers are clearly frustrated with their performance. It's a team searching for answers, and they have not come up with many solutions. Running back Frank Gore is off to a slow start after gaining a club-record 1,695 yards last season. Although he is averaging a respectable 4.0 yards a carry, he has just 435 yards on the ground. Gore enters this week game with a right ankle sprain that he said affected his play in the 49ers' 31-10 loss to the Saints. Gore said he understands why he has not had a lot of chances this season.

"It's how the games have been going," he said. "We've fallen behind and we've had to try to catch up. I think the running game would've been there, if we could've stuck with it. But it's just how the games are going. The games haven't been right for us to run the ball."

Gore carried just 12 times in last week's game. His NFL-best streak of 25 consecutive games with at least one carry of 10 yards or more came to an end. "I don't care about that," Gore said. "I just want to win."

Nolan pointed out to his team that the 49ers were 2-5 last season before winning three straight games to climb to the .500 mark. The 49ers finished the season with a 7-9 record and with high expectations for this season. The club spent nearly $40 million in guaranteed money to improve the defense, and it added linebacker Patrick Willis in the draft. Nolan said the 49ers have a chance to turn things around because of the quality of individuals he has acquired since taking over as head coach in January 2005.

"I believe we have a lot of character on the football team," Nolan said. "We have a lot of work ethic. We have some talent. We need to maintain our health better than we have had. For those reasons, that's what gives me hope."

SERIES HISTORY: 73rd meeting. 49ers lead series, 44-27-1. The former NFC West opponents last played in 2004, a game the Falcons won 21-19 in San Francisco.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Mike Nolan is 39 games into his tenure as 49ers head coach, and he has a 13-26 record. But it wasn't until a day after the team's miserable showing against the Saints that he was asked the inevitable question about his future. Owner John York has rarely spoken publicly about the state of the football team since he hired Nolan in January 2005. However, York does talk with Nolan regularly. The two men spoke in the locker room after Sunday's game. They had another talk later in the evening. "The state of the football team right now is the responsibility of the head coach," Nolan said. "Our 2-5 record is my responsibility. That's what we talk about. He leaves those decisions and that responsibility to me."

Nolan, who said he is never motivated by job security, was asked if he worries that he is not meeting the owner's expectations. "No," he answered. "I'm worried about meeting my own expectations, and those should be well and good enough for the owner."

--K Joe Nedney was fined $7,500 by the NFL for making an obscene gesture Sunday at a heckler. Nedney was caught during the live TV game broadcast scratching the back of his head with his middle finger. "It was a culmination of a frustrating game," Nedney said. "I'm not getting out there as much as I'd like to, and when I do, I want to do as best as a possibly can. And when I don't I'm a harsh critic of myself.

"I should've counted to 10 and taken a couple deep breaths. A comment was made to me at the wrong time and I lashed out, and now I've financially paid the consequences."

Nedney connected on a 29-yard field goal in the third quarter. But his kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Saints possession at the 40-yard line. He threw the tee to the sideline and took a seat on the bench. Nedney said he heard one voice out of the stands, and the insult included profanity. "Unfortunately, it was seen by more than just one person," Nedney said. "As a 49er fan growing up ... if something happened like that to me as a kid, I probably would've had a negative image of that player. I'm very remorseful because I don't want to portray that kind of image to our fans."

--Backup QB Trent Dilfer says he has sustained 10 separated shoulders in his football career, dating back to his college days at Fresno State. Now, Alex Smith is learning about them, too. "He's told me the last couple years about how many separated shoulders he'd had, and I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, I walked to school through the snow, too,'" Smith said.

--Nolan is being blamed for everything these days, apparently even shifts in tectonic plates. "I got home last night and my kids asked if the earthquake was my fault," Nolan quipped. "I said, 'Damn right it is.'"

The San Francisco Bay Area was hit by an earthquake that registered 5.6 on the Richter scale Tuesday night.

BY THE NUMBERS: 25 -- RB Frank Gore's streak of consecutive games with at least one run of 10 yards or more came to an end Sunday.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have a lot of games left. We've lost a lot of games in a row. It's time to focus on Atlanta. If we thought about how we've done, it's only going to get worse." -- QB Alex Smith, on his thoughts about reflecting on the team's five-game losing streak.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The 49ers knew they suffered a major blow when OLB Manny Lawson went down with a season-ending ACL tear after the second game of the season. Lawson had gotten off to a fantastic start and appeared to be fitting into the 49ers' 3-4 scheme nicely. With him out of the lineup, the club has not had the kind of flexibility with its defense to continue to run the 3-4 against every opponent. Twice in recent games, the 49ers had to resort to using five defensive backs to get more speed on the field. Against the Saints, the 49ers employed a 4-2-5 as their base defense as a way to best handle the speed that the Saints put on the field. The 49ers defense, which has played well this season, is clearly in transition. The Atlanta Falcons have a lot to prepare to face because the 49ers have shown a lot of different looks. However, those looks have been out of necessity.

The 49ers re-signed OLB Hannibal Navies after waiving him each of the two previous Saturdays. Navies started a couple games after Lawson's injury. He missed one game with a knee injury, but when he did not fit into the 49ers' game plan against the Saints, the club opted to release him so it could promote practice-squad FB Zak Keasey to the active 45 for his help on special teams.

PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES

--CB Nate Clements has played well since coming to the team as a high-priced free agent. Clements has one interception but he has also broken up seven passes. He is strong in run support, with 38 of his 40 total tackles being solo stops.

--RB Michael Robinson might see a bump in playing time, as starter Frank Gore is hobbled with an ankle sprain. Robinson eluded four tacklers as part of a 20-yard gain on a short pass in Sunday's game against the Saints. Robinson has six receptions for 56 yards and seven carries for 49 yards in the first seven games.

--QB Trent Dilfer returned to his role as the No. 2 quarterback for last week's game after Alex Smith returned to the lineup after missing three games with a separated shoulder. Dilfer completed 52.2 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and five interceptions. Dilfer also fumbled six times, losing two of them.

--WR Jason Hill saw his first NFL action in last week's game, playing nine snaps, and he caught one pass for 6 yards. Hill suited up for the game because Darrell Jackson was out with a quad strain. It's uncertain whether Hill will continue to suit up once Jackson returns to action.

--LB Patrick Willis, a rookie, leads the 49ers with 94 tackles through seven games. The tackle figures are based on the 49ers' coaches' review of the game film. Willis has also defensed three passes. He has two tackles for loss and one forced fumble. He was named NFL defensive rookie of the month for October.

--DE Bryant Young had four sacks in the first two games of the season but has been shut out during the 49ers' five-game losing streak. Young has 15 quarterback pressures for the season, seven of which came in the first two games.

GAME PLAN: There is little question that the 49ers offense is floundering. Offensive coordinator Jim Hostler has been unable to get the pieces to fit together for the 49ers. They rank last in the league in total offense. Although things have looked better the past two weeks, the offense has not fully clicked, mostly because of the quarterback position. Veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer stepped aside last week when Alex Smith returned to the starting lineup. However, Smith's play was rusty, at best, after coming back from a separated throwing shoulder he sustained four weeks ago. Smith was consistently high with his passes. The 49ers need him to be sharper this week against the Falcons.

The 49ers also need RB Frank Gore and the running game to get going. Although Hostler was criticized earlier in the season for being too conservative, the 49ers have to understand what they do best and continue to get the ball in Gore's hands. In the passing game, Smith and talented TE Vernon Davis have shown signs of getting on the same page. Davis and former Falcons WR Ashley Lelie are the only big-play threats out of the passing game.

Defensively, the 49ers pass rush has been horrible. The lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has put a lot of pressure on the secondary to stick with receivers longer. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has to find the right combinations in the blitz packages to put heat on Falcons QB Joey Harrington.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: 49ers LB Patrick Willis, who has lived up to all the expectations ad he leads the 49ers with 94 tackles in seven games, vs. Falcons RBs Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood, who have combined to rush for 564 yards. 49ers RT Joe Staley, a rookie who has generally played well as the full-time starter, vs. Falcons LDE Jamaal Anderson, whom the Falcons selected with the No. 8 overall draft pick. 49ers LT Adam Snyder, who is likely to make his third start this season in place of Jonas Jennings, vs. Falcons RDE John Abraham, who has recorded five sacks and is being counted upon to supply some pressure and a few hits on Alex Smith. 49ers TE Vernon Davis, who is starting to assert himself as a top weapon in the offense, vs. Falcons SLB Michael Boley, who leads the Falcons with 69 tackles and has two interceptions.

INJURY IMPACT: QB Alex Smith made it through last week's game despite taking some hits on his right shoulder, which was separated Sept. 30. Although the shoulder was extremely painful after the game, Smith said on Wednesday that he was again feeling the way he did before the game.

--RB Frank Gore is expected to play Sunday against the Falcons with a sore right ankle that he admits limited him a little in last week's loss to the Saints. Gore aggravated the ankle sprain, but he plans to continue to treat the injury and play on Sundays.

--WR Darrell Jackson returned to limited practice this week after missing last week's game with a quadriceps strain. Jackson's availability for Sunday's game against the Falcons is uncertain.

--CB Walt Harris is questionable with a left knee sprain he sustained in Sunday's game against the Saints. Although he said his condition has improved a lot since Sunday, Harris' availability for Sunday's game is uncertain.

--LT Jonas Jennings is not expected to play Sunday due to an ankle sprain. He sat out last week's game. Jennings has missed all or parts of 22 of the 39 games since he signed a seven-year, $36 million contract with the 49ers as a free agent in 2005.

--S Keith Lewis is likely to be held out of action for the third consecutive game with a hamstring strain he sustained Oct. 7. Lewis is one of the 49ers' core special teams players.


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