NFC West News and Notes - 11/12/07

The Seahawks' game against Chicago on Sunday in Seattle is a rematch of last season's divisional playoff game, won by the Bears, 27-24, in overtime. Both teams are drastically different this time around, struggling to get close to the level that made them among the best in the conference.

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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
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With their victory over the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, the Bears sit at 4-5, winning their first game after their bye week.

But they once again are embroiled in a quarterback controversy because Rex Grossman came in when Brian Griese injured his shoulder and threw a deep touchdown to Bernard Berrian, his first positive play since getting benched earlier in the season.

This could be something for the Seahawks to watch all week long because Bears coach Lovie Smith said after Sunday's game that he didn't know who would start if Griese's injury turns out not to be serious. It would not be shocking if the Bears say all week that they are not sure about Griese's status, forcing the Seahawks to prepare for both.

Regardless, the Seahawks likely will apply pressure to whomever is taking the snaps because they tend to blitz significantly against less dangerous quarterbacks.

Meanwhile, the game also features two of the game's best return men, and if either of them can break out for a big play it very well may go a long way toward determining which one receives postseason awards.
Chicago's Devin Hester already has nine returns for touchdowns in two seasons, including two punt return touchdowns this season and one kickoff return touchdown.

Seattle's Nate Burleson has two returns for touchdowns this season, one on a kickoff for 91 yards and one off a punt for 94 yards. He is the first player in NFL history to have three punt returns for more than 90 yards. Hester had a 64-yard return in last Sunday's win, but it was called back because of a holding penalty. Seahawks special teams coach Bruce DeHaven will have to decide if he wants to kick to Hester, who was challenged by Oakland last weekend and failed to produce much.

Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck also would like some redemption in this game. He had a chance to win last season's playoff game but missed an open pass that could have led to a score. Instead, the Seahawks were forced to punt and Chicago got the game-winning field goal on the ensuing possession, something that still lingers with Seattle fans.

Of course, Mike Holmgren is going to have to decide if he wants to stay with an up-tempo passing game given that Chicago's once intimidating defense, decimated by injuries and the unceremonious departure of Tank Johnson, is ranked 26th against the rush, giving up 128.9 yards a game. It is ranked 16th against the pass, giving up 211.1 yards a game.

PLAYER NOTES

--T Ray Willis, who has been out since Sept. 30 with a sprained knee, could start practicing this week with an eye toward returning. If he does return, Mike Holmgren may use Willis to shake up an offensive line that has struggled the entire season.

--RB Shaun Alexander has to wear the cast he has been using to protect a cracked bone in his wrist the remainder of the season.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS
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Coach Ken Whisenhunt felt his team answered any questions others might have had about its toughness with the victory over Detroit. The Cardinals had lost three straight and were coming off an embarrassing performance in a loss to Tampa Bay. But they dominated the Lions in every phase, winning 31-21, and remaining in contention for the NFC West title.

"A lot of people thought we weren't tough enough after the Tampa game," Whisenhunt said. "It was nice to see that we could stand up and play. Some people questioned our mind set, and it was nice to go out there and show what kind of football team we were."

Whisenhunt wasn't one of those people with questions. He liked how his team competed in its first seven games, and he felt the loss to the Bucs was an aberration.

Going into the Detroit game, he made a point of not over-reacting to the loss the previous week, even though everyone around the team was comparing it to similar losses suffered in the Dennis Green era. "I just felt that any time you have a team with young players, it is going to be a question about how they respond," he said. "If you want to get to where we want to get to, then you have to respond and our guys did, and that excites me about the next seven."

In an ideal world, the Cardinals would play every game like they did against Detroit. The defense was suffocating, limiting the Lions to minus-18 yards rushing, collecting five turnovers and four sacks. After a slow start, the offense moved efficiently and used all of its weapons. And rookie Steve Breaston provided long punt and kick returns.

Quarterback Kurt Warner was harsh in his criticism of the team after the loss in Tampa. He saw improvement against Detroit, but there are also many areas that need improvement, he said. "I think it is important that we spread the football around and do things to keep teams off balance," he said. "We definitely have the playmakers to do that and that is going to be a key down the stretch."

The Cardinals will stay in games as long as its defense plays anywhere close to what it did in Detroit.

To do that, the club needs inside linebacker Karlos Dansby to stay healthy. He returned to the lineup after missing two games with a sprained knee, and made an immediate impact. His big plays showed his versatility. He intercepted two passes and caused a fumble 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage when the Lions tried to run a reverse.

Dansby's agent is in talks with the Cardinals about an extension, and came away with a little more leverage.

"He had a game that is definitely going to take him over the top, if you know what I mean," safety Adrian Wilson said with a big smile. "That's up to the organization upstairs, but I'm quite sure he helped himself."

Dansby isn't saying much about contract negotiations, but his worth to the team is obvious when he's healthy. "He adds a lot out there from an athletic standpoint, No. 1, and also from his knowledge of the game," said defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "He's a very smart player."

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Larry Fitzgerald had just one touchdown catch in the first eight games but had two on Sunday. Coaches have harped on him about finishing plays. "He is too big, too fast and too strong not to be able to finish those plays," Whisenhunt said. "When he had the opportunity to score that touchdown, it was exciting to see Larry do that. That is the type of player he can be when he is working the way he has been working the last couple weeks in practice."

--QB Kurt Warner is 1-3 as a starter since taking over for the injured Matt Leinart. Warner is playing with a large brace on his left arm because of a torn ligament in his elbow, and he took some hits on the arm against Detroit. "My elbow took a beating," he said. "I took some bad hits. It's one of the things where I don't know when I will be 100 percent."

--WR/RS Steve Breaston is becoming one of the most dangerous returners in the NFC. His 46-yard punt return against Detroit set up a touchdown. His 52-yard kickoff return should have resulted in another score but the Cardinals turned the ball over.

--OLB/DE Calvin Pace had 7 1/2 tackles, including 1 1/2 sacks. Pace has played well considering he was slated to be a backup this year. He's starting because Chike Okeafor suffered a torn bicep in the preseason.

--SS Adrian Wilson has soreness in his right heel and Achilles, and he will be limited in practice this week, if he can practice at all. Wilson sat out most of the second half.

--DE Bertrand Berry suffered an injury to his left triceps and it's feared he might miss a significant amount of time. Berry missed 14 games the past two seasons with injuries. He suffered a torn right triceps in the 10th game last year.

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ST. LOUIS RAMS
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Suddenly there's a light at the end of the tunnel. As the Rams returned from their bye week winless in eight games, coach Scott Linehan emphasized looking forward instead of behind.

"I think guys have hung in there pretty good," Linehan said. "That's the only way we can look at it is an eight-game season now, and focus on this New Orleans game. If we can put together a complete game in all three phases, we might have a chance."

Said quarterback Marc Bulger of Linehan, "He's maintained the same things that are important to us. He reiterates them to us every week. He knows if we stick to those we'll win games. He's positive. He still has trust in us and he knows we can get this turned around."

Perhaps Saints coach Sean Payton had a foreboding of what was to come when he said, "They haven't come away with a win, but if you go back and look at this team in the first half of a number of games, they've had leads, they've been close, they've been tied with teams going into the third quarter. So this will be a battle from the beginning."

Payton was right. After being outscored 114-19 in four road games and failing to score an offensive touchdown, the Rams roared back from an early 7-0 deficit and scored 34 unanswered points. They withstood a frantic finish and beat the Saints, 37-29.

"This is an amazing game," Bulger said afterward. "For some reason it all came together today. I got a lot of time from the line up front and just made the throws. It feels great to finally get a win, regardless of the opponent."

Bulger, who entered the game with a 36.1 passer rating on the road, completed 27 of 33 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns for a rating of 125.0.

Asked about Bulger's play, Linehan said, "I just think it was general improvement. We worked really hard. We had a lot of things that were corrected."

Said defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, "This one builds confidence. We'll take this one; now we have to go out and gotta get two. Personally, for me it (losing streak) was frustrating because we've got a lot of talent in here. Finally, we did what we had to do to get a W."

Prior to Sunday, a look at the upcoming schedule made you wonder who the team could beat. Now, after one victory, the attitude has changed with the feeling they can beat anyone playing like they did against the Saints.

There's another road game Sunday, at San Francisco, and then two home games against Seattle and Atlanta, followed by a trip to Cincinnati.

The Rams had no turnovers Sunday after accumulating 24 in eight games. Concluded Linehan, "It's not about rah-rah or pre-game speeches. It's about going out and playing the way the game is supposed to be played. It's just one win. We're 1-8. Being off the charts about one win is not the point. The point is that we did put it behind us and for one game and for the second half of the season, our goal is to continue that."

PLAYER NOTES

--OL Nick Leckey made his first career start at guard, playing on the right side against the Saints. Having played mostly center in his career, Leckey came in at right guard against Cleveland on Oct. 28 when Richie Incognito suffered a knee injury.

--C Brett Romberg, who would have played right guard had he been active Sunday, was inactive against the Saints. Romberg is bothered by two injured ankles.

--WR Isaac Bruce left the game in the third quarter with what was described as a strained hamstring. Bruce missed two games earlier this season because of an injured hamstring.

--OT Rob Petitti saw some time at right tackle against New Orleans Sunday, as he alternated with starter Brandon Gorin.

--RB Steven Jackson, who was diagnosed with a bulging disk after leaving the Oct. 28 game against Cleveland, had 27 touches Sunday against the Saints. Jackson rushed 22 times for 76 yards and added five receptions for 24 yards.

--RB Antonio Pittman was a Saints fourth-round pick this year, but was cut because of the play of undrafted rookie Pierre Thomas. The Rams picked Pittman up on waivers, and he had a 43-yard run Sunday that set up the Rams' final touchdown in their win over New Orleans.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
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Nothing has gone right this season for the St. Louis Rams. Very few things have gone the way the San Francisco 49ers had planned. When the 49ers play host to the Rams on Sunday, things get a little tricky. Sure, the 49ers have a chance to take a step in the right direction against a team coming off its first win of the year.

But the way the 49ers' season has gone, no opponent can be seen as a get-well remedy.

"The thing is, we haven't played good ball all year," 49ers running back Frank Gore said. "I know we can do it. This team is way better than last year's team."

The 49ers finished with a 7-9 record last season, as they fashioned the league's 26th-ranked offense and the 26th-ranked defense. The club made some key free-agent acquisitions on defense in the offseason, and that side of the ball has shown improvement. Rookie linebacker Patrick Willis, high-priced free-agent cornerback Nate Clements and strong safety Michael Lewis have provided the 49ers with large upgrades.

However, the 49ers have not gotten much from their other free-agent pickups, including pass-rusher Tully Banta-Cain and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Still, the 49ers' defense has generally played well enough to win games. Most of the team's problems are on the offensive side.

The 49ers rank last in the league in total offense under first-year coordinator Jim Hostler, who was promoted from quarterbacks coach after Norv Turner left in February to become the San Diego Chargers' head coach.

"We're all taking turns screwing this thing up," Hostler said. "We have a penalty; we have a turnover; we have a missed execution; we have a mental error; we have a bad call. We're all tied into this together."

The 49ers' problems have been widespread. The offensive line got off to a horrendous start. The receivers struggled to get open and hold onto the ball. Then, quarterback Alex Smith threw the ball poorly upon his return to the starting lineup after missing three games with a separated throwing shoulder. For the first time in the Bay Area, people are wondering loudly whether Smith has what it takes to lead the team after the club chose him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005.

In addition to the 49ers' myriad of problems, they have also been limited due to injuries.

Outside linebacker Manny Lawson, who showed signs the first two games of the season of developing into a top-notch all-around player, sustained a torn knee ligament and is out for the season. The 49ers last week placed two offensive linemen on injured reserve, though the club had already started making room for their replacements.

Left tackle Jonas Jennings, whose lack of durability has caused some in the organization to question his commitment, was placed on injured reserve to undergo arthroscopic ankle surgery. Jennings has played in just

21 games in the three seasons since signing a seven-year, $36 million contract.

Right guard Justin Smiley got off to a slow start, but he was showing signs of returning to his form of last season when he sustained a dislocated right shoulder and torn labrum. He underwent season-ending surgery to repair the damage.

Adam Snyder and David Baas had already started rotating into the action in place of Jennings and Smiley, respectively. Now, they take over as the team's full-time starters.

PLAYER NOTES

--Coach Mike Nolan's father, Dick, died Sunday. Dick Nolan coached the 49ers to three consecutive division titles from 1970-72, falling one-game short of the Super Bowl in 1970 and 1971.

--LB Jeff Ulbrich has done such a good job on special teams and in practice that he has worked his way into the mix in the substitute packages. Ulbrich, who has started 70 games in his career, was benched midway through last season in favor of Brandon Moore.

--WR LeRon McCoy, whom the 49ers signed Oct. 9 during a time when the 49ers had some injuries to their receivers, has yet to suit up for a game this season. McCoy has good speed and the 49ers wanted to give him an extended look to see if he fits into their plans.

--DT Atiyyah Ellison, whom the 49ers signed on Sept. 12, has yet to be active for a game this season. The 49ers signed Ellison off the Ravens' practice squad.

--LB Hannibal Navies started the first two games at outside linebacker after Manny Lawson was injured. But Navies has since been replaced in the starting lineup. On three straight Saturdays, the 49ers waived Navies to promote Zak Keasey to the active roster because of his special-teams play. But the last time the 49ers cut Navies, they did not re-sign him. There are no plans right now to bring Navies back to the active roster.

--RG David Baas, who had seen an increase in playing time as a backup to starter Justin Smiley, will make his first start Monday since late in the 2005 season. Baas, whom the 49ers chose with the No. 33 pick in the 2005 draft, is considered the long-term starter at the position with Smiley scheduled for free agency.


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