NFC West News & Notes - 11/5/07

Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren needs to decide this week if he wants a pass-first team or if he still wants to try to maintain the balance in his offense that he so desperately seeks.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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For yet another week, against Cleveland, the league's worst defense, the Seahawks were unable to run the ball, leaving Holmgren in a quandary about which direction to take when they play host to the division rival San Francisco 49ers on Monday night.

After all, Holmgren need only look at his former team, the Green Bay Packers, to see that it is possible to win without a running game. But the Seahawks feel they cannot win in the playoffs without a balanced attack and so they continue to try to correct the issues they are having with an aging and oft-injured running back, a poorly constructed offensive line and a fullback and tight end that are raw.

On Sunday against Cleveland, which is relinquishing 410 yards of offense a game, the Seahawks managed just 105 yards rushing, 32 from Shaun Alexander on 14 carries before he left the game with a worsening injury.

But the most disturbing issue came in overtime, when the Seahawks faced fourth-and-inches at Cleveland's 43. All they needed was a half yard to keep alive what could have been the game-winning drive, and instead they were stuffed by the Browns' porous defense.

"We used to be pretty good at that," Holmgren said, "but we aren't good at it now."

Alexander finally admitted, after maintaining all along that things weren't as bad as they seemed, that the running game is broken and needs to be fixed. "It is like sometimes you have to take reality checks and say, 'OK, you know what, what we have been doing is not getting it done so now we have to figure out some way to get it done,'" Alexander said.

Alexander already was suffering from a cracked bone in his left wrist and has been wearing a protective cast since the second week of the season. He suffered an ankle and knee injury on Sunday that tightened up and forced him to sit out, including the critical play in the fourth quarter. And though he says he should be ready to go on Monday, he will not be fully healthy regardless.

Meanwhile, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is having a solid season, passing for 318 yards against Cleveland and maintaining his 88.7 passer rating. He got back starting split end D.J. Hackett against Cleveland and should get back starting flanker Deion Branch against San Francisco. And with Bobby Engram, the receiving corps is the obvious strength of the team.

Also, while the offensive line has been dreadful in run blocking, it has protected Hasselbeck very well, giving up no sacks against the Browns and providing plenty of time.

PLAYER NOTES

-- WR D.J. Hackett returned for the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain in the first week and started at split end. He had six receptions for 58 yards and his first touchdown of the season.

-- RB Shaun Alexander sustained a sprained knee and ankle. He returned to the game but the knee stiffened in the second half, forcing him to sit out. He said he should be able to play Monday night against San Francisco.

-- DE Patrick Kerney strained his oblique muscle, something he said he has done before. He missed the remainder of the game. Ellis Wyms played end while Kerney was out.

-- LB Leroy Hill suffered a pulled hamstring and did not return. He is questionable for Monday's game against the 49ers. Kevin Bentley plays in place of Hill.

-- DE Darryl Tapp, who had hand surgery two weeks ago, wore a protective glove over his hand during Sunday's game. Still, he had an interception, though he recorded no sacks.

-- WR/KR Nate Burleson had a long touchdown return for the second straight game. He returned a punt 94 yards one game after returning a kickoff 91 yards. It tied the longest punt return in franchise history.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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The Cardinals 3-5 record at the midway point doesn't have anyone planning parades, but the season is far from lost. Five of the final eight games are at home, and the three road contests against Cincinnati, Seattle and New Orleans aren't lost causes. While the schedule is favorable, the Cardinals need to show dramatic improvement in some critical areas to finish .500 or better. Through the first half of the season, they've proven they aren't a very smart team.

They've led the league in penalties for the past several weeks, and turnovers have buried them early in some games. It's something coaches have worked hard to correct, but it's hard to improve a team's intelligence at this point in the season.

"The bottom line is concentration and discipline," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "The turnovers, to me, have a direct impact on winning and losing. How do you stop that? It's execution, discipline, concentration.

"When you look at how we've started, that's all tied in. We've been rolling on a drive. Turnover. Get a first down, then we fumble the ball. Get a first down, then we get a penalty."

It was more of the same against Tampa Bay. On the second play of the game, receiver Larry Fitzgerald put a double move on cornerback Ronde Barber. Quarterback Kurt Warner faked the short throw and then lobbed a long pass to Fitzgerald, who was behind all defenders. Inexplicably, he veered too close to the sideline and stepped out of bounds. A potential 80-yard touchdown pass became a 47-yard gain.

The Cardinals settled for a field goal.

The offense was horrible against the Bucs, playing its worst game of the season. "I'm disgusted. I'm embarrassed," Warner said. "I mean, I'm way too good of a football player to be a part of something that we just did out there on the field. I hope we have a bunch of other guys that feel the same way, because that was just ridiculous the way we played offensively. It was embarrassing."

The Cardinals clearly need work on starting the halves faster offensively. They scored just two field goals in the first quarter this year and only 16 points in the third quarter. They have made furious rallies to keep games close, a credit to their resiliency, but a smarter, more disciplined team wouldn't put itself in that situation.

"We've put ourselves in holes that we've dug out of, for the most part, but it cuts down the margin of error," Warner said. "And if we don't make every play we need to down the stretch, we end up losing the game by three points. I think that's what we have to avoid."

One key to success in the second half will be protecting Warner, who is 0-3 since taking over as the starter when Matt Leinart was injured. His backups, Tim Rattay and Tim Hasselbeck, have been with the team only a month and were unemployed until the Cardinals called. Warner's strengths have always been his accuracy, his timing and his intelligence. If he's allowed to throw on time, he can be scary good. If he has to hurry, or move around, he can be scary in an entirely different way.

Playing better early in games would allow the team to fully commit itself to the run. Because they have fallen behind, the Cardinals have had to throw more than they want, about 56 percent of the time.

Ideally, coach Ken Whisenhunt would like those numbers to be reversed. He would prefer to run it about 55 percent to 58 percent of the time. That won't happen until the club plays better early and takes a lead into the fourth quarter, something they've done just once this season.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Anquan Boldin was taken out of the game by the Bucs. Either that, or he's still suffering with a hip injury that kept him out of three games. Boldin had three catches for 40 yards.

--RB Edgerrin James needed 12 yards rushing to hit the 11,000 mark for his career. He got it, but barely. He had 15 yards on nine carries.

--QB Kurt Warner is 0-3 since taking over as the starter for Matt Leinart. Warner completed just 33 percent of his passes Sunday, an all-time low in his career.

--WR Jerheme Urban has the speed and moves to get open. But he struggles to catch the ball in traffic. Urban dropped a critical pass when he was hit in the first quarter last week.

--ILB Monty Beisel has filled in well in Karlos Dansby's absence. Beisel has started the past two games and had double-digit tackles in each.

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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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For the bye week, Rams coach Scott Linehan had planned two days of workouts before giving his beleaguered team four days off with a planned return for a Monday practice, Nov. 5. But during Tuesday's team meeting before that day's practice, Linehan told his squad they would have Wednesday off if that day's workout met his expectations. It did, and the players were excused until coming back to begin preparations for the Nov. 11 game at New Orleans.

"I just decided to give them off," Linehan said. "I thought about it, and I think they just need something -- some kind of a spark or an energy boost. Something."

Said linebacker Chris Draft, "It's good. We need the rest. It's mental and physical rest. (Coach) said, 'Hey, just take some time to get away from the game. Refocus. Take care of your bodies. Use this time to get rested up. And get your minds refreshed and be ready to attack this second half of the season, coming in fairly healthy.'"

While the 0-8 first half of the season has been a disaster, Linehan refuses to give up on his team. His message to them?

"Get away from each other, get away from coaches, get away from the whole schedule, the routine," Linehan said. "Right now, we need to have a renewed spirit and renewed approach."

Wide receiver Torry Holt agrees. Said Holt, "It's just a matter of us going out and being refreshed and being recharged after the bye, and having sole focus on getting our first win. We're desperate. We're desperate for a win. So we have to really grind it out and do what we need to do to get that."

PLAYER NOTES

--OG Milford Brown wonders what position he will play Nov. 11 when the Rams return from their bye. Brown, who didn't sign with the Rams until July 30, has started four games at right tackle, two at right guard and one at left guard.

--FB Richard Owens has been a disappointment. Signed after the first game of the season when FB Madison Hedgecock was released, Owens wasn't on the field for four crucial short-yardage situations in last Sunday's loss to Cleveland.

--P Donnie Jones has been one of the team's bright spots this season. He is averaging 50.3 yards per punt with a net average of 41.3.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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The 49ers take a six-game losing streak, and mounting frustration, onto the national stage. As a sign that big things were expected from the 49ers this season, the club was selected to play two Monday night games. The 49ers won their season opener on a Monday night against the Arizona Cardinals.

And now the nation will get a chance to see a team that is playing horrendous offensive football. The 49ers are 2-6 as they enter a game against the NFC West-leading Seattle Seahawks.

"Next week is a must-win," 49ers running back Michael Robinson said, following the 49ers' 20-16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. "We got to have it. There is no tomorrow."

Prior to the 49ers' trip to Atlanta, outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain promised a victory over the Falcons. He said, "We're not coming back without a win." However, the 49ers did return to growing dissatisfaction from the team's fan base. Coach Mike Nolan has compiled a 13-27 record in his two-plus seasons as head coach. He has started to field questions about his job security, as the team goes through its unexpected struggles. Nolan said he is not motivated by job security.

But after six consecutive defeats, Nolan realizes his message is sounding repetitive.

"It is hard to keep coming in each week and (saying) the same thing," Nolan said. "We do have an incredibly hard-working group that will continue until we pull out of this thing. I don't believe the season is lost, and I don't think it will be a loss until people quit, and that is not going to happen.

"We will continue to fight 'till the end."

The 49ers' problems are most on the offensive side. Quarterback Alex Smith has played poorly in the two games since he returned from a separated throwing shoulder. He completed 17 of 38 passes for 149 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions against the Falcons.

But he refuses to blame his problems on an injured shoulder.

"The shoulder felt healthy," Smith said. "It'll get better and better every week. It's only been five weeks since I tore it. It definitely gets better each day, which is a good thing."

The 49ers lost to the Seahawks, 23-3, earlier this season in a game during which Smith sustained his shoulder injury. On the third play of the game, Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard came through to sack Smith. He landed on top of Smith, causing the shoulder injury.

The 49ers expect to get running back Frank Gore back in the lineup. Gore missed last week's game with a right ankle sprain. Gore is a key to the 49ers' offense. He had particular success against the Seahawks last season, as he rushed for 356 yards in two games.

PLAYER NOTES

--RB Frank Gore was not active for Sunday's game against the Falcons because of a right ankle sprain. Gore tested the ankle during pregame warmups, but coach Mike Nolan said the medical staff decided that Gore was not ready to play.

--QB Alex Smith struggled with his accuracy for the second straight game after returning to the lineup from a right shoulder separation. Five weeks after the injury, Smith completed just 17 of 38 passes for 149 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions.

--RB Michael Robinson played 36 of the 49ers' 64 offensive snaps in place of injured Frank Gore. Robinson carried 17 times for 67 yards. He caught two passes for two yards.

--TE Vernon Davis caught a career-high seven passes for 77 yards for the 49ers, as he continues to build a nice rapport with quarterback Alex Smith.

--LB Patrick Willis played most of Sunday's game with a small fracture in his right hand. He still managed a team-high 10 tackles and one sack.

--RG Justin Smiley sustained a right shoulder dislocation in the first quarter and did not return to action. He said it took approximately 20 minutes for the team's medical staff to pop the shoulder back into its socket. His status will be evaluated Monday after a scheduled MRI examination.


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