SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers play the division-leading Seattle Seahawks on Monday night. At 4-4, the Seahawks are the class of the NFC West, having won the division the past three seasons with a streak of four consecutive playoff appearances.
This is the deal for the 49ers: If they upset the Seahawks at Qwest Field, the 49ers will be just one game out of first place with seven games remaining. If the 49ers lose, their playoff hopes are finished. The 49ers would be four games behind the Seahawks, including the tiebreaker for having lost both head-to-head meetings.
"It has double meaning this week," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "We will never count ourselves out. We will maintain hope until the very end."
But that end could come much sooner than anyone connected with the 49ers could have ever imagined. The 49ers opened the season with two victories. Then, their woes on offense caught up to them. Quarterback Alex Smith, who was playing efficiently through the first three games of the season, sustained a separated shoulder when Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard sacked him on the third play of the Seahawks' 23-3 victory on Sept. 30.
The 49ers lost three games with backup quarterback Trent Dilfer. And Smith has not been the same since returning to the starting lineup. In his first two games back, Smith has not thrown with much accuracy. Since his return, he has completed 39 of 81 passes for 339 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. His passer rating is 48.3 in those games.
Smith's problems were particularly unsettling in the 49ers' 20-16 loss to the Falcons last week, as he misfired on three passes that probably would have resulted in touchdowns. "Those three plays stick out in my mind," Smith said. "Those are missed opportunities, game changers, the ones you'd like to have back. ... I look back and think what could have been. No excuses. You've got to hit those plays if you want to win games."
Smith said he watched the film a lot after getting back to see where he went wrong. Upon reviewing his mistakes, Smith said he rushed his throws against the Falcons' blitz.
"There's a time clock going off in your mind when you're out there," Smith said. "Then you watch the film and there's not a guy two yards from you, that's when you realize you could have taken more time. That's the most frustrating thing."
This has certainly been a season of frustration for the 49ers, who were not bashful about disclosing their playoff expectations to the media. Smith said there is no reason for the team to regret thinking it could be legitimate playoff contenders this season.
"Looking back at it, looking at our division, it was the truth," Smith said. "If you expect to get to those places, that's the attitude you have to have. You have to have those expectations, but whether you talk about them, maybe that's the point."
So, here the 49ers sit with seven games remaining and all they need is a victory against the Seahawks to be in the thick of the race. "No matter what the record is, we're two games out of first place," Smith said.
Nolan describes the 49ers' situation as "unique."
"This is an important game, no question," Nolan said. "We've had a lot of important games, but it's all the more meaningful to go to Seattle, a division opponent."
The 49ers swept the Seahawks last season. Their 24-14 victory last December in Seattle, a game in which the 49ers scored 21 fourth-quarter points, was believed to have given the 49ers a lot of momentum coming into this season.
"We went up there last year and beat them," Nolan said. "I'm sure that's something coach (Mike) Holmgren has talked about in the offseason."
SERIES HISTORY: 18th meeting. The Seahawks lead 9-8, including a 23-3 victory earlier this season in San Francisco.
--It's been a tumultuous time for 49ers left tackle Jonas Jennings. Last week, one of the most respected players in franchise history blasted him on his radio show. Jennings missed a game earlier this season for personal reasons. The team and Jennings mutually decided it was in the best interest of both parties to miss the Oct. 7 game against the Ravens. Neither Jennings nor the team has made the reasons for his absence public.
"I know the Jonas Jennings situation," Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott said on the radio show. "That guy right there, I mean, if I was the coach and he said some of the things I heard that he said I would've cut him. No, we can't have a guy not thinking that his teammates support him. We can't have that in the locker room." Lott intimated that Jennings has said his teammates don't trust him. Jennings has never made public comments along those lines.
Jennings said he had no idea to what Lott was referring. When asked by reporters if he said anything about his teammates, Jennings answered, "You think that would be the first you all heard of that? Let's be serious. I don't where he could possibly get that from, but God bless him. Just let him know I'm fine."
Three days after Lott's comments, the 49ers placed Jennings on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain that will require surgery. Jennings missed two games with the ankle injury.
--File this one under the heading: "Guarantees gone bad." Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, playing his first season with the 49ers after playing four years with the New England Patriots, made a guarantee before the 49ers played the Falcons.
"We're not coming back without a win," Banta-Cain said. "I know we need to win. Talk is cheap. ... You can guarantee a win every week. Whether it's going to happen or not is on you." The 49ers lost to the Falcons, 20-16, and the team still returned to the San Francisco Bay Area.
--After the 49ers' latest rough defeat, coach Mike Nolan had to do some coaching to his youngest son before sending him off to school. Nolan told him to be ready and have a thick skin when dealing with his classmates. "I said, 'I know it'll be a tough day for you, too. Just do the right thing, handle it well,' " Nolan said. "As a matter of fact, when I was in the kitchen getting ready to go, he came back out (and said),
'I just wanted to say thanks Dad, I love you.' It was kind of neat. That's where it helps me."
--In their six-game losing streak, the 49ers have led for a total of 8:08. They have not held the lead in the second half of any game during that stretch.
BY THE NUMBERS: 21 -- Consecutive games the 49ers have compiled fewer than 200 yards net passing. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it's the longest streak since 1978, when the NFL made rules changes to favor the offense.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's tough to be 2-6, but we find ourselves in a unique position and with a unique challenge at only being two games out, playing our division leader. The season is a long way from being over." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The 49ers lost two starting offensive linemen this week, and there's no guarantee either will play again for the 49ers. Left tackle Jonas Jennings was placed on injured reserve with a high-ankle sprain. Also, right guard Justin Smiley is out for the season after sustaining a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Smiley is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March. Although Smiley's agent, Pat Dye Jr., and the 49ers have been talking about a contract extension for more than a year, the sides have never gotten close to a new deal. The 49ers admittedly low-balled Smiley a year before understanding what the market was league-wide for guards.
Jennings, meanwhile, might have worn out his welcome with the 49ers after missing all or parts of 31 games in three seasons since signing a seven-year, $36 million contract with $12.1 million guaranteed.
The 49ers re-signed pass-rush specialist Roderick Green to take Jennings' spot on the roster.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--LT Jonas Jennings was placed on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain that will require surgery. The surgery was expected to keep Jennings out of action for at least six weeks. He is under contract through 2010 with an option year in 2011. But with a scheduled base salary of $3.45 million next season, it remains unclear whether the 49ers will keep him around.
--OLB Roderick Green, whom the 49ers cut in training camp, was brought back to the team. Green, a pass-rush specialist, recorded 4.5 sacks last season for the 49ers while playing half the season. The 49ers have struggled mightily with their pass rush this season.
--FB Zak Keasey, whom the 49ers signed and cut each of the past three weeks, appears to be on the active roster for good. The 49ers are pleased with Keasey's play on special teams, where he has recorded 31 blocks in the return game.
--WR Ashley Lelie went back to a reduced role last week with starter Darrell Jackson healthy enough to play. Lelie had five catches for 72 yards in the two previous games, but he did not have a pass thrown his way in a 20-16 loss to the Falcons.
--P Andy Lee ranks third in the NFL with a 49.9 average, and he is tied for the league best with 43.4 net average.
GAME PLAN: When the 49ers played the Seahawks last December, they unveiled a new defense. The 49ers have very little respect for the Seahawks' run game, so they opened the game with four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. The 49ers did the same thing when the clubs met earlier this season, as they believe the Seahawks are much more efficient in the passing game. The 49ers have been playing defensive back Donald Strickland as a quasi-linebacker because he is sturdy and can come up and make tackles in the run game. The 49ers, looking to increase their pass rush, re-signed Roderick Green this week. Green was the 49ers' best pass rusher from last season, but they cut him in training camp. The 49ers have not gotten any kind of pass rush this season. After a six-sack performance against the Rams in Week 2, the 49ers have recorded just seven sacks in six games. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky does not have pass rushers who can beat the opposition one-on-one, so he has to get more creative in drawing up blitzes. Offensively, the 49ers hope to get running back Frank Gore back for this game. Gore rushed for 356 yards against the Seahawks last season, including a franchise-record 212 yards in one game. Seattle made some offseason acquisitions designed to become a better-tackling team. Gore had 79 yards on 16 carries when the clubs met earlier this season. If he's healthy, the 49ers have to do a better job of sticking with the run. Offensive coordinator Jim Hostler put the 49ers offense in good position to make plays last week, but quarterback Alex Smith had trouble connecting with open receivers.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: 49ers LT Adam Snyder, who struggled last week against the Falcons' John Abraham, vs. Seahawks OLB Julian Peterson, a former 49er who has recorded a team-leading seven sacks.
Falcons TE Vernon Davis, who is beginning to emerge as the No. 1 threat in the 49ers offense, vs. Seahawks LB Julian Peterson, the same guy who is a top pass rusher also will be assigned on occasion to cover Davis.
49ers RB Frank Gore, expected to return to the lineup this week, vs. Seahawks SS Deon Grant, who will often be the unblocked player in the box that has the responsibility of bringing down Gore one-on-one.
49ers RT Joe Staley, who has played well with the exception of a 3.5 sack showing against the Giants, vs. Seahawks DE Patrick Kerney, a former Pro Bowl player who has brought a lot of veteran leadership to the defense.
49ers LB Patrick Willis, who leads the 49ers with 109 tackles in eight games, vs. Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander, who has struggled this season with a 3.4 average yards per carry.
INJURY IMPACT: Gore has been bothered by a right ankle sprain since the Oct. 21 game against the Giants. He aggravated the injury when he played the following game, but he sat out last week against the Falcons. The 49ers are hoping Gore will be able to play Monday against the Seahawks. If he is unable to play, Michael Robinson and Maurice Hicks would split the action.
WR Darrell Jackson returned to action last week after missing one game with a right quadriceps strain. He is not 100 percent, but he is expected to play Monday night against his former team.
CB Walt Harris missed last week's game against the Falcons with a left knee sprain. There is a chance Harris will be available for Monday's game. Shawntae Spencer started in his place last week.
S Keith Lewis has missed three games with a significant hamstring strain. He is one of the team's top special-teams players. His status for Sunday's game is up in the air.
RG Justin Smiley is definitely out for Monday's game against the Seahawks and will require season-ending surgery on his right shoulder.
Willis has a small fracture of his right hand. He played most of last week's game with the injury. Willis is not expected to require surgery. He is expected to continue to play with a cast on his hand.
Jennings has been placed on injured reserve, as the club has decided he needs season-ending surgery on a high-ankle sprain.
One of the things that has plagued the Seattle Seahawks this season, and one of their focuses when they play the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night, has been their ineffectiveness in the red zone. The Seahawks are 23rd in the league inside the 20-yard line, converting only 43.5 percent of their opportunities into touchdowns. They have been inside the red zone 23 times and have gotten only 10 touchdowns from it.
"It hasn't been as good as we would like," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "We have had to kick a lot of field goals."
Kicker Josh Brown is 16 of 17 on field-goal attempts, 10 of which have come when the Seahawks get inside the 20.
Part of Seattle's problems have stemmed from their change in tight end. Jerramy Stevens was a prominent part of the red-zone offense, and because of Stevens' legal problems, the team allowed him to leave via free agency.
He was replaced by Marcus Pollard, but Pollard has been injured for most of the season and has not been a large part of the team's passing offense. "That has changed our thinking a little bit, or at least our productivity," Holmgren said.
But the other problem is that Seattle's running game has been virtually non-existent -- to the point that Holmgren said this week he is focusing more on the team's passing game. Shaun Alexander has only two touchdowns this entire season, and has not scored in six weeks.
When Alexander was the 2005 MVP, he had 27 rushing touchdowns, a league record at the time.
Holmgren said that in 2005, teams would play a soft defense -- a picket fence -- and prevent the Seahawks from passing the ball deep into their seams. They would combat that strategy by handing the ball to Alexander against a looser defense and Alexander would regularly gain big yards, even touchdowns.
But this year, with Alexander unable to gain any meaningful yardage, the teams are playing the softer defense and not having to pay for the strategy.
"We are not getting any of that," Holmgren said. "We have to figure out a way to do that."
SERIES HISTORY: 18th meeting. Seahawks lead series, 9-8. The Seahawks redeemed a series sweep last season by thumping San Francisco, 23-3, on Sept. 30. Prior to the two-game sweep, the Seahawks had won six in a row.
--Linebacker Julian Peterson was especially pumped the last time he played his former team, recording three sacks. He said that has not quenched his thirst to play well against the Niners again. "There's always motivation for me," Peterson said. "But I think it will be motivating overall for our team just because of the situation we are in right now. This is a divisional opponent and we really need to get this win right now."
--Former Seahawks receiver Darrell Jackson returns to Seattle for the first time since he was traded in the offseason for a fourth-round pick. "I really don't know what the reaction will be," Matt Hasselbeck said. "I don't really care, either, to be honest with you. I'll say hi to him and then I've got to go play their defense."
--DT Rocky Bernard knocked QB Alex Smith out of the game on the third play of the game the last time the teams played, sacking him and landing on him hard enough to separate his shoulder. "No hard feelings," Smith said. "It's a physical game."
--KR Nate Burleson became the first player in NFL history to return three punts for 90-plus yards. "I guess that means he caught three balls that he should have let go (into the end zone)," Seahawks special teams coach Bruce DeHaven said.
--CB Marcus Trufant has three interceptions in his last five games, including two against San Francisco the last time the teams met,
--Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren is 11-8 all-time on Monday nights and is 4-3 with Seattle. "In the National Football League, I think Sunday and Monday nights are special nights for the cities of the teams and it's an excitement there," Holmgren said.
--Holmgren said he has a meeting every Thursday night with his offensive coaches and rewards them if they come up with a play-call that is successful during the game. "I try and make it a little fun for them so we have a little bit of a competition in there. I see the little kids in all of them at that particular point," Holmgren said.
BY THE NUMBERS: 14 -- Number of 300-yard games Hasselbeck has had in his career.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When you get two or three 325-pound guys, it makes it a lot harder to run between those little cracks." -- Linebacker Julian Peterson, on running backs struggling this season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With Shaun Alexander suffering from a sprained left knee, and with the passing game becoming more pronounced, Maurice Morris will see more time this week in the Seahawks backfield. Fullback Leonard Weaver is likely to get more carries, and will probably see some swing passes into the flats, but it is Morris who must build on the 55 yards on nine carries he achieved last week in Cleveland if the Seahawks are to have any semblance of a running game.
Starting flanker Deion Branch did not practice on Wednesday, but there is a good chance Branch is back, which would mean leading receiver Bobby Engram would have a reduced role in the slot.
If linebacker Leroy Hill is not able to play because of a sore hamstring, Kevin Bentley will start in his place, and Ellis Wyms will get an increased role if Patrick Kerney is restricted by his oblique injury.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--LB Will Herring did not practice on Wednesday with a strained hamstring suffered against Cleveland. He is doubtful for Monday.
--DE Patrick Kerney, who suffered an oblique injury, did not practice Wednesday and is questionable against San Francisco.
--LB Niko Koutouvides, the special teams captain, suffered a hamstring injury Sunday in Cleveland. He did not practice on Wednesday and is questionable for Monday.
--TE Marcus Pollard, who had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, did not practice Wednesday and is questionable for Monday.
--RB Shaun Alexander, who has a sprained knee and an injured wrist, did not practice Wednesday and is questionable for Monday.
--WR Deion Branch, who has a sprained foot, worked on individual drills on Wednesday but is likely to play against the Niners.
--DT Rocky Bernard did not practice because of a chronically sore groin but should play on Monday night.
GAME PLAN: With San Francisco having one of the worst all-around teams in the NFL, the Seahawks need to exert their dominance early at home and never let up. They will throw the ball regularly to their receivers, and against San Francisco's beat-up offensive line, which lost two starters this week to injury, the front seven must blitz and pressure inexperienced quarterback Alex Smith. Seattle's defensive backs should be good enough to cover the Niners' mediocre receivers, which should allow the linemen and linebackers to apply decent pressure.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Seahawks OLB Julian Peterson, who had three sacks the last time the teams met, vs. 49ers LT Adam Snyder, who is standing in for recently injured starter Jonas Jennings, out for the rest of the season. Peterson is among the league leaders in sacks with seven, and if he can get to QB Alex Smith it could be a long night for the gun-shy thrower.
Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck, who has an 88.7 passer rating, vs. 49ers secondary, which is 14th in the league in yards permitted. The Seahawks are going to place more of an emphasis on the pass, and Niners CB Nate Clements, one of the best cover corners in the league, had an interception of a Hasselbeck pass the last time the teams played.
Seahawks kickoff and punt returner Nate Burleson, who has had two long returns each of the last two games, vs. 49ers kick coverage units. Burleson had a 91-yard kickoff return two games ago and a 94-yard punt return last game.
INJURY IMPACT: Alexander is not expected to practice all week because of a sprained left knee, which means even if he can play, he likely will not be a part of the full game plan, especially since the Seahawks will focus more exclusively on the pass. Alexander is not a good receiver -- he dropped two passes last week -- and not a good pass blocker.
If TE Marcus Pollard is unable to return from knee surgery, Will Heller will start. Heller is not as good a receiver as Pollard but is a better run blocker. And if WR Deion Branch cannot play, that means Bobby Engram, who leads the team with 48 receptions, will remain as the starting flanker.