Players Working For Early Return

Word after the Chicago game was that many of those players injured would be out two to three weeks, but don't tell those players that. A few of them are acting as if they'll be starting against Houston. Plus, get more notes on Vikings players and others throughout the league.

Minnesota Vikings

LB Chris Claiborne, who strained his left calf on the second play of the Bears game and didn't return, "guaranteed" he would play against Houston on Oct. 10. Of course, he made two similar guarantees last season, but didn't play because of injuries.

DT Chris Hovan continues to live a quiet existence on the line's interior. He had only two assisted tackles against the Bears. He's trying too hard to make big plays. Coach Mike Tice criticized him after the season-opening victory over Dallas, but has since backed off.

RB Onterrio Smith is scheduled to have his appeals hearing this week or early next week. The Vikings are preparing as if his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy will begin next week.

TE Jermaine Wiggins's hand might be ready to play next week. He has been out since breaking his left hand at Philadelphia in Week 2.

C Matt Birk has a high left ankle sprain and is doubtful for the Houston game. However, he has vowed to keep his streak of 67 starts alive.

OT Nat Dorsey left Georgia Tech a year early. He was selected in the fourth round of this year's draft with the intention of spending a year working on his strength and easing into the NFL. Four games later, he's starting at right tackle. He played all but the first two series of the Chicago game in place of Adam Haayer, a stopgap starter who was replacing Mike Rosenthal, who is on injured reserve because of a foot injury. "You know why Nat left Georgia Tech early?" coach Mike Tice asked. "He was mad the Tech coaches didn't nominate him for all-conference. He didn't expect to make it, but he thought he should be nominated. The Tech coaches didn't nominate him because they wanted to motivate him. They wound up motivating him right to us in the fourth round of the draft."

WR Kelly Campbell's calf is among the many injury problems coach Mike Tice has to deal with. Fortunately for Tice, Campbell's injury is minor, which allowed the coach to poke fun at Campbell's smallish calves — they're no bigger than a defensive lineman's forearms. "Kelly's calves aren't but that big," said Tice, creating a small hole with his right thumb and forefinger. "I'd say that's a minor injury when he gets a calf injury."

TE John Paul Foschi was released from the practice squad, a sign the team is happy with its three active tight ends, Richard Owens, Sean Berton and Jeff Dugan. The Vikings decided to release Foschi instead of S Oliver Celestin.

FS Brian Russell probably could have intercepted a pass against Chicago. It was one of three picks the Vikings didn't come down with. The team has no interceptions this season. The only other team without an interception is St. Louis. Russell had three at this point last season.

DE Lance Johnstone is at his best when he plays 10-15 plays a game. Coordinator Ted Cottrell brings him in as a pass rusher, and sometimes allows Johnstone to stand up and pick his rushing lane before the snap.

Tennessee Titans

QB Steve McNair is expected to sit out the San Diego game and he may not even make the trip because of his bruised sternum.QB Billy Volek is expected to start in place of Steve McNair bruised sternum for the Titans in San Diego. He had success against a Wade Phillips defense last year when he played well in relief against Atlanta.

TE Erron Kinney right calf will not play against San Diego. Shad Meier and Ben Troupe will work as the two tight ends, but the Titans could play less two tight-end sets.

FS Lance Schulters is out, probably for the remainder of the regular season with a left foot injury. Lamont Thompson will step in to start, while Scott McGarrahan will replace Thompson as the dime.

DE Juqua Thomas high ankle sprain is out for the San Diego game, opening the door foot the first appearance by rookie Travis LaBoy.

WR Tyrone Calico battling knee woes is expected to return, in a limited role.

Rookie TE Ben Troupe will dress for the second time, but paired with Shad Meier it's likely the Titans will scale back their two-tight end packages without Erron Kinney calf.

QB Doug Johnson will move up to No. 2 if Steve McNair bruised sternum is out as expected.

DE Travis LaBoy will dress for the first time this season. The Titans aren't expecting a whole lot, so he'll have plenty of room to surprise them.

MLB Rocky Boiman status with back and leg woes will probably make his availability a game-day decision.

Pittsburgh Steelers

RB Jerome Bettis has 12 carries after three games for 13 yards. That's the fewest carries and yards he has had after three games in his 13-year NFL career.

LB Kendrell Bell continues to be listed as questionable on the injury list. Bell has not played since the first exhibition game. First, it was a shoulder injury, and he missed the past three games with a groin injury.

LT Marvel Smith did a good job on Dolphins All-Pro end Jason Taylor Sunday night because Taylor never got near rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But Smith had help. "We were not going to let Jason Taylor be a factor in that game," Coach Bill Cowher said. "We either had a tight end over there chipping him, we had a back chipping him, and we even had receivers chipping him. We were determined to not let him get too close. If he wanted to meet Ben, he could have met him after the game but he wasn't going to meet him during the game."

SS Troy Polamalu, who had his first NFL interception last Sunday, leads the team with 27 tackles, including 18 solos.

CB Deshea Townsend not only leads the Steelers with two interceptions, he's tied for the lead with two passes defended and ranks in a tie for second with 14 solo tackles. Townsend, a seven-year vet, did not become a starter until midway through last season.

RB Duce Staley has 62 carries for 249 yards, the most he has had after three games in his eight-year career. That includes the 2000 season when he rushed for 201 yards in the third game.

QB Ben Roethlisberger ranks 3rd in the AFC in TD percent, 7.1, and 4th in the AFC in fourth-down passing with a 113.8 rating.

S Mike Logan questionable, hamstring plans to be ready to play Sunday.

Baltimore Ravens

C Mike Flynn broken clavicle is out for at least another week and will be replaced by Casey Rabach.

TE Todd Heap sprained ankle is out two to three weeks. He will be replaced by Terry Jones.

WR Travis Taylor groin is expected to miss the next two games. He will be replaced by Randy Hymes.

WR Randy Hymes has at least three catches and a reception of 14 or more yards in each of the first three games of the season.

QB Kyle Boller leads AFC quarterbacks in rushing with 74 yards.

SS Ed Reed has 14 interceptions in 32 games. He has returned two picks this season for a total of 90 yards.

PR B.J. Sams is fourth in the AFC with a 10.2-yard average in the punt return game.

NT Kelly Gregg knee is expected to return to the starting lineup after missing two games.

OT Ethan Brooks knee returned to practice and is questionable. He is the top backup at both tackle positions.

CB Deion Sanders hampered with a hamstring pull is expected to return to action this week after missing one game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

WR Michael Clayton will begin returning punts against Denver. "We're going to have Michael Clayton prepared to return punts in the regular field," Coach Jon Gruden said. Clayton also, is second among all NFL rookie receivers with 15 receptions.

WR Frank Murphy is expected to be back on the active list for Sunday's game against the Broncos. Murphy is nursing a hamstring strain.

FB Mike Alstott could see more carries as a result of Charlie Garner's injury and the fact that Michael Pittman has not played in nearly four weeks. Alstott is second on the team in rushing with 76 yards on 18 carries.

TE Ken Dilger will start in place of Rickey Dudley who has been lost for the season due to a broken thumb against the Broncos.

TE Rickey Dudley is out for the season with a broken right thumb.

WR Joey Galloway groin tear is out 2-4 more weeks, forcing Bill Schroeder and Charles Lee to share time at split end.

Arizona Cardinals

RB Emmitt Smith has shown flashes of the player who set the NFL career rushing record, but generally the offensive linemen have not played well in front of him.

"What more pressure could I put on myself?" Smith said. "Hey, I'm 35 years old. You don't expect me to be here anyway, so what kind of pressure do I have?"

OT Rolando Cantu is big in the largely Hispanic suburb of Guadalupe, which is near the team's training facility in Tempe. Big not just because he is 6-feet-5 and 337 pounds. Cantu is from Monterrey, Mexico, and a member of the Cardinals practice squad through the NFL's program to place foreign players who have played in NFL Europe. He was easily recognized on the street during a charity visit.

"He's great in the community, oh my gosh," said Luis Zendejas, director of community relations for the Cardinals.

Children crawl on Cantu to hear him read in Spanish when he makes appearances in the Hispanic community, according to Zendejas.

DT Wendell Bryant still has a game to go on his league-imposed four-game suspension for violation of the NFL Substance-Abuse Policy, but he will be welcomed back next week. Bryant, despite his history of underperformance, would at least give the team another warm body inside, where starting T Ross Kolodziej has an ankle sprain that might put the team in a bind against the Saints on Sunday.

RB Marcel Shipp, the Cardinals' rushing leader the past two seasons who is on Injured Reserve, is to have pins removed from his fractured left leg on Nov. 3. He has been on crutches since he had surgery on the injury suffered in the team's first intra-squad scrimmage during training camp. So far, starter Emmitt Smith has not needed much relief. Josh Scobey has emerged as the backup.

QB Josh McCown, reduced to tears when yanked in the fourth quarter at Atlanta after his third lost fumble despite completing 20 of 26 throws in the 6-3 loss, has yet to throw a touchdown pass in three regular-season and four preseason games. He is remembered for his final throw of last season, a scrambling touchdown pass to Nate Poole that knocked the Minnesota Vikings out of the playoffs - and knocked the Cardinals out of the first pick in the draft.

WR Karl Williams, who has filled in admirably for Anquan Boldin at both WR and PR, made a costly mistake late in the 6-3 loss to Atlanta. Williams, on an end around, had a first down at the Falcons 11 when he was hit and lost a fumble that cost the team a chance to win or tie the game in the closing 3 minutes. He should have run out of bounds. Not only did he produce the costly turnover, he suffered an arm injury on the hit that left him without feeling. He is expected to be ready to face the Saints.

OLB Karlos Dansby, a rookie chosen in the second round, made his first pro start effectively in place of injured LeVar Woods. Dansby is expected to remain in the lineup against the Saints. Coaches love his lively, athletic body.

OL L.J. Shelton, the starting LT for five years, likely will have a role again, at last. The question is where? RT Anthony Clement keeps whiffing. RG Cameron Spikes, who has taken every offensive snap for 19 straight games, was beaten a few times last Sunday. RG Reggie Wells has been better than expected as a newcomer and LT Leonard Davis does not appear to be in danger of losing his job, which he continues to learn after breaking into the league at RG.

MLB Raynoch Thompson knee, who has yet to play this season, isn't expected to play this weekend.

DT Ross Kolodziej has a badly sprained ankle and is out 2-3 weeks. With Wendell Bryant completing a four-game suspension imposed by the NFL, the Cardinals could be very thin there against the Saints. Kolodziej's backup is late pick-up John Nix, who has little experience in this defense.

WR Anquan Boldin knee surgery believes he might be ready to begin practice in Week 6 after the open date. He caught an NFL rookie-record 101 passes last season and his threat is missed by a punch less offense. But then, that's Boldin talking. Medical personnel have said he might be back by mid-October at the earliest. Initially, there was concern whether he'd be back this season at all. Boldin has begun light jogging.

Denver Broncos

DT Monsanto Pope is one of the main reasons the line has been a surprise. He looked like a steal as a seventh-round pick two years ago but regressed last season. Pope started training camp on the third-team defense but has a starting spot now and was very active against the Chargers last week. Pope had four tackles and a sack against San Diego.

RB Tatum Bell rib missed last Sunday's game after separating rib cartilage in practice last week. Bell said the injury prevents him from running at full speed without problems, but he said he expects to play this Sunday.

FB Reuben Droughns leads the NFL in kickoff return average at 30.5 yards per return. Droughns doesn't have a return of longer than 48 yards, but he's consistent. He is good at hitting the seam and breaking tackles to get extra yards on returns.

DE Anton Palepoi, who was signed by the Broncos last week, wasn't active for his first game in Denver. With Patrick Chukwurah filling the role as pass-rush specialist, Palepoi probably won't be a big part of the defensive line rotation but is insurance in case there are injuries at end.

K Jason Elam leads all AFC players in scoring with 27 points. Elam worked on strengthening his abdominal, groin and back muscles this past off-season to help avoid the nagging injuries he has had in the past.

LB D.J. Williams has played as well as Denver could have expected as a rookie. Against the Chargers last week, Mike Shanahan said Williams had the fewest mental errors among Denver's linebackers.

P Micah Knorr ankle was injured on a roughing the punter penalty in last Sunday's game. He said he shouldn't have any problems although the injured leg is his plant leg for kickoffs and punts.

CB Lenny Walls shoulder could return this week for the Broncos after suffering a dislocated shoulder in their first game. Walls has to show he can handle contact before he's deemed ready to go. Walls said he'll have to deal with the injury all season.

New York Giants

LG Rich Seubert is working diligently to make it back before the ninth week of the season, the cutoff for those on PUP/Reserve before they sink into a season-long Injured Reserve status. "I'm running better than a week ago," he said, "and I hope next week I'll be running better than I am now. It's up to the doctors and the trainers but I'm feeling better about my chances every day." Seubert suffered a compound fracture of his right leg last Oct. 19, and almost a year later is still relentlessly rehabbing.

DE Michael Strahan, who had a "magical" game last week vs. Cleveland with six tackles, two fumble recoveries and two sacks, feels a special respect for Green Bay: "That's as tough an opponent as you can find, and Brett Favre is the same. We have got to stop their running game and see what he can do to us. At least that way we'll know where they're coming from."

Rookie SS Gibril Wilson, a fifth round draft pick, seems to have taken his new starting status in stride. Replacing the injured torn knee ligament Shaun Williams, Wilson responded last week vs. Cleveland with eight tackles and the second interception of his young career. "It's football," he said. "It's faster than college football he's a product of the University of Tennessee but when you get right down to it, its football."

WR Amani Toomer has become QB Kurt Warner's "go to" guy, and has responded with 15 catches for 221 yards this season. Last week he caught a pass in his 86th consecutive game, and is now the team's all-time leader in receiving yardage with 6,587 yards, well above the runner-up, Frank Gifford 5,434.

SLB Carlos Emmons recorded his first sack as a Giant last week, and noted that it was his first since Dec. 21, 2002, when he played for the Philadelphia Eagles. All told, he now has 18 career sacks.

QB Kurt Warner scored on a one-yard TD run last week and it was his first rushing TD since Super Bowl XXXVI. "I don't care if I ever run the ball again," he said.

C Shaun O'Hara quietly has become the anchor of the line, although LT Luke Petitgout remains its leader. "I just try to do the best I can each time we snap the ball," says O'Hara, a Rutgers graduate signed as an UFA from Cleveland. "It was kind of interesting to play the Browns last week. I was friendly with most of them, but a few ... well, it felt good to block them."

RB Ron Dayne' swollen calf muscle status remains uncertain, although coach Tom Coughlin says even if he practices and he has been he'll still be listed as questionable until game time. "His calf is still quite sore and progressing slowly," he said. An MRI revealed just a strained calf muscle with some internal bleeding.

DE Keith Washington suffered a mild concussion last week vs. Cleveland but has practiced each day and is expected to play his role in the Giants' new rotating front four scheme, which uses seven players to one extent or another during the game.

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