Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren was not happy when the schedule forced his team to travel across the country for a September opener in hot and muggy Jacksonville, Fla. Temperatures could be in the 90s. Humidity will be unlike anything the Seahawks encountered during their preparations. In the AFC Wildcard game that ended their 1999 season, Seattle was overwhelmed by the heat - and Miami's stifling defense - during a brutal shutout loss to the Dolphins in another Florida opener. The difference this time is that Seattle now possesses the kind of veteran offense that should be able to function adequately under tough conditions on the road.
The big question is whether the Seahawks' defense is strong enough to contain even an average offense such as Jacksonville's. The defense faces additional challenges because coordinator Ray Rhodes will miss the game while doctors figure out why the 54-year-old coach has suffered recurrent spells of dizziness. LB coach John Marshall will handle coordinating duties while Rhodes remains in Seattle. Marshall is a former NFL coordinator who most recently oversaw the Panthers' defense from 1999 through 2001.
"We've already talked and done some pre-work on Jacksonville," Marshall said early in the week. "We had pretty good input from Ray in the game plan and I'm on the phone with him all the time. It's Ray's game plan and we're just executing it here."
The defense has seven new starters: LDE Bryce Fisher, LDT Chuck Darby, RDT Marcus Tubbs, SLB Jamie Sharper, MLB Lofa Tatupu, WLB D.D. Lewis and LCB Andre Dyson (or Kelly Herndon, who remains in the race to start on the left side).
Despite all the changes, the Seahawks still do not possess a stable of formidable pass rushers. They could be in big trouble if DE Grant Wistrom went down to injury, as he did last season. However, with a healthy Wistrom, and with Tubbs causing problems inside, Seattle should be competitive defensively in this game.
The Jaguars are whispering about a more wide-open offense under a new coordinator. But their personnel appears to remain a bit limited and that gives Seattle an opportunity. Jaguars running back Fred Taylor is playing his first regular-season game since undergoing serious knee surgery. He carried only four times during the exhibition season. Under those circumstances, Seattle should be able to prevent him from running wild.
Last year, the Seahawks were vulnerable to the deep pass late in games because their pass rush was spotty at best. Jaguars QB Byron Leftwich, though inconsistent, has shown a flair for the dramatic late-game comeback. That should concern Seattle.
The Seahawks are also thinner than usual along the offensive line heading into the opener. Starting right tackle Floyd Womack is out with injury. He would usually slide to guard if an injury problem wiped out one of the starters. Without him, an injury at either guard spot would probably force undersized C Robbie Tobeck to slide over. Rookie C Chris Spencer, a first-round pick not expected to start until 2006, would then take over for Tobeck.
Such changes could be problematic against the Jaguars' stout interior duo of LDT John Henderson and RDT Marcus Stroud. Henderson already appears to have a physical advantage in his matchup with Seahawks RG Chris Gray. Tobeck will probably have to help Gray, leaving Pro Bowl LG Steve Hutchinson to tangle with Stroud.
SERIES HISTORY: 5th meeting. The Seahawks have won three out of four in the series, but the teams have not played since 2001.
--Rhodes spent part of this week in the hospital as doctors tried to figure out why the veteran defensive coordinator was experiencing repeated bouts of dizziness. When Rhodes returns, he plans to coach from the booth above the field, not on the sideline. Rhodes spent the preseason coaching from the sideline in an attempt to determine whether his presence there might help infuse the defense with some of his intensity. Perhaps there wasn't enough room on the sideline for a second dominant personality. "Ray is going upstairs," coach Mike Holmgren said. "I said I was going to leave it up to him, but I had to pull rank. He is going upstairs."
--Teams generally spend hours and hours poring over film of an opponent. Preparing for an opener is not so easy because teams conceal so much during the preseason. Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck has obviously watched film of the Jaguars from last season, but that's not all. "I have been checking their training camp (show, "Jaguar Summer") on NFL Network," Hasselbeck said. "We have been looking at them all off-season just a little bit. They are good. They are very, very good on defense."
--For one veteran defensive back, the wrath of Hurricane Katrina combined with the cold business of football to deal a knockout blow. SS Terreal Bierria spent the past week trying to earn a roster spot while worrying frantically about the safety and whereabouts of his family back in the New Orleans area. Bierria asked out of the final exhibition game because he was too emotionally spent. A day later, the Seahawks released him as they reduced their roster to 53 players. Bierria had started 12 games in 2004, but he did not fit into the plans of new team president Tim Ruskell.
BY THE NUMBERS: 2-2 -- The Seahawks' record in road openers under coach Mike Holmgren, but they are only 9-20 in openers overall.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's harder than heck without Ray because he's such a great leader with the players, number one, and number two, he's such a fine defensive coach. There is a loss, but at the same time I think the defensive staff collectively is a good defensive staff and they'll pick up the slack for Ray." --LB coach John Marshall, who will be handling duties of coordinator while Ray Rhodes seeks treatment for unexplained bouts of dizziness.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Seahawks surprised people by keeping seven receivers on their 53-man roster coming out of the preseason. The move is almost certainly a temporary one. The team appears to be keeping an extra receiver as insurance while newly acquired WR Peter Warrick gets comfortable and second-year WR D.J. Hackett rehabs an injury. The team is also waiting to see whether WR Alex Bannister can make it through his first game since suffering a broken clavicle during minicamp.
If and when the Seahawks release a receiver, Jerheme Urban would be the leading candidate to go. The team might then be able to sign a defensive lineman for depth.
--WR D.J. Hackett did not practice Wednesday because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee.
--LT Wayne Hunter did not practice Wednesday because of a sprained knee. He is not expected to be ready until Week 2 at the earliest. Hunter is a backup who has yet to develop into starting material.
--RT Floyd Womack's injured triceps is hurting the team's depth up front. In addition to starting at RT, Womack had the ability to back up both guard spots and even LT.
GAME PLAN: The Seahawks will have a hard time lining up and running the ball against the Jaguars' stout defensive interior of DT John Henderson and DT Marcus Stroud. Henderson's matchup against Seahawks RG Chris Gray looks like trouble for Seattle. The Seahawks need to counter with a quick passing game. They need to run toward the edges to exploit the Jaguars' ordinary defensive ends. And they need to take advantage of Kenny Wright, the Jaguars' least formidable starting cornerback.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Seahawks RG Chris Gray, a dependable veteran who sometimes struggles against bigger guys, against massive Jaguars LDT John Henderson, who goes 6-7 and 328 pounds. Seattle is big on the left side of its line with Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson. Gray and C Robbie Tobeck must rely more on technique and savvy. They will probably end up double-teaming Henderson a fair amount of the time, in part because RT Sean Locklear should be OK against Jaguars LDE Paul Spicer. Seattle figures to have a hard time running inside.
Seahawks WR Bobby Engram, who has moved into the starting lineup, against Jaguars CB Kenny Wright. Everyone talks about Engram's lack of top-end speed and Seattle's overall lack of a deep threat. Such concerns are overrated. Engram is a sure-handed receiver who knows how to get open. He is particularly dangerous working out of the slot on third down, but Engram will surprise people with his ability to play on the outside. This is a matchup he should be able to win.
INJURY IMPACT: Starting RT Floyd Womack (triceps) and backup LT Wayne Hunter (knee) will miss the game. Their absence leaves the Seahawks thin along the line, particularly at guard. WR D.J. Hackett (knee) is not expected to play even if he returns to practice late in the week. Hackett is a player the team thinks might emerge as a deep threat, but not this week. WR Peter Warrick (knee) is practicing but could be limited early in the season as he learns the playbook and more fully recovers from knee surgery.
It's going to be eerie in Giants Stadium on Sunday when the Cardinals visit the New York Giants in the season opener. It is the fourth anniversary of a horrible tragedy just across the river, the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center twin towers that had been visible from the stadium.
And it takes place during the cleanup of another of the worst tragedies ever on U.S. soil, Hurricane Katrina, which devastated several states in the Gulf Coast region and caused the New Orleans Saints to schedule a home game in, of all places, Giants Stadium.
The league is putting together a nationally televised observance of the 9/11 anniversary to air before kickoff.
And once the ball is in the air in the Meadowlands, there will be other subplots, most notably the return of QB Kurt Warner, who will start for the Cardinals. A year ago, after essentially being run out of St. Louis, Warner was the Giants' starter. That lasted nine games, when he was replaced amid criticism that he took sacks because he held the ball too long. Warner left as a free agent, believing it had been the Giants' plan all along to move rookie quarterback Eli Manning into the lineup at some point during the season.
Warner now has three excellent young receivers - Anquan Boldin, Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson - who are reminiscent of those with whom he worked in St. Louis, when he was the NFL MVP in the league's most productive offense and won a Super Bowl. He'll be under the gun to live down a reputation early in the season, though, no matter how motivated he might be to prove that he still is in the elite class. Injuries have hit hard in the middle and right side of the Cardinals line and protection will be a challenge, as will establishing a running game to take heat off Warner.
Under the anticipated pressure, Warner will have to unload the ball quickly to avoid the sacks for which he has often been criticized. Manning, meanwhile, is expected to be the Giants starter, although he is just now returning to the practice field after a two-week layoff due to an elbow strain.
The Cardinals have had a number of horrid experiences at the Meadowlands, most of them involving losses.
A lightning storm disrupted the 2000 season opener against the Giants, a 21-16 setback. A year before, they played at Giants Stadium twice. In their game against the New York Jets amid strong swirling winds, Pro Bowl punter Scott Player, one of the best in the business, averaged fewer than 30 yards a kick in a 12-7 loss. In their last visit, in 2002, the Cardinals had the lead going into the closing minute and lost on a touchdown pass by Kerry Collins in the closing 25 seconds.
Cardinals nose tackle Russell Davis is the only Cardinals defensive starter still around from that encounter. He survived the purge when coach Dennis Green came in last season because Davis is a speed player.
Given the conditions that frequent the Meadowlands, and given that the Cardinals are going to need the defense to control games until they overcome injuries and get what is expected to be an effective offense up to speed, that quickness on the defense should serve them well in this opening-day assignment. "Our speed is important because we are not as big as some of the other guys out there," Davis said. "We don't have the big huge guys that you see on other teams, so we have to make things bounce to the outside and then you run it down.
"I don't want other teams to think that we're little and they can just come in and knock us around, because that is definitely not what is going to happen. We hang in there. I think our speed adds another dimension to it because you can't just say that you're going to run a toss and that you only have to worry about linebackers and defensive backs. We have linemen running to the ball, so it just adds more people to possibly make bigger plays."
SERIES HISTORY - 121st meeting in a series that dates to 1926. The Giants hold a 77-41-2 lead over the Cardinals. In their last meeting, Cardinals running back Emmitt Smith rushed for two touchdowns and the Cardinals moved a game out of first place in the NFC West with a 17-14 win at Sun Devil Stadium on Nov. 14, 2004. In their last meeting at Giants Stadium, on Dec. 15, 2001, Giants quarterback Kerry Collins fired a 4-yard scoring pass to Amani Toomer with 25 seconds left for a 17-13 victory. The Big Red has taken two in a row in the series but the Giants, a longtime NFC East rival before realignment, have won 11 of the past 16.
--CB Antrel Rolle, the eighth player chosen in the first round of the April draft, is among the four players featured in "Hey Rookie, Welcome to the NFL," a one-hour special in which NFL Films and ESPN follow the lives of the neophytes from draft day to final cuts. The show gives a behind-the-scenes look at Rolle as he arrived in New York City to prepare for the draft. That's sweet, but Rolle just hopes he doesn't see Giants receiver Plaxico Burress with the ball, 5 yards ahead, turning around Sunday at Giants Stadium and taunting, "Hey Rookie!"
--Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill donated $25,000 to the American Red Cross for the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. That initiated a Cardinals' fund-raising campaign that included donations from fans at the final preseason game against Denver. Bidwill's son, Michael, the team's vice president and general counsel who oversees day-to-day operation of the team, flew his plane with a load of supplies to Baton Rouge, La. His was one of four planes in the Arizona Pilots Association effort. Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa, Ariz., supplied fuel at cost.
Michael Bidwill has organized a fly-in day at Cardinals training camp the past two seasons - to Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2004 and to Prescott, Ariz., this season - which at the time seemed a capricious exercise for the filthy rich. Now, the benefit from relationships developed as a result have critical real-life application.
--It appears the team will not have its tour guide when it travels to Mexico City on Oct. 2 to play its "home" games against NFC West foe San Francisco in the first regular-season NFL game outside the U.S. G Rolando Cantu was among the victims in the final cut to 53. He is a native of Mexico and had taken teammates to his country at least twice during the off-season to conduct clinics in advance of the game.
Cantu, however, was signed to the Cardinals practice squad.
--Former Cardinals RB Emmitt Smith, whose time with the team was an afterthought to a record-breaking career, has been hired by the NFL Network for its daily news show NFL Total Access. Smith played his final two seasons for the Cardinals.
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 - centers who have taken snaps with the first offense since training camp opened because of injuries. They are: Alex Stepanovich, hand; Nick Leckey, ankle; Bill Conaty, arm 9 (injured reserve); converted guard Adam Haayer; and Shawn Lynch. The fifth, Lynch, will start in the opener.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Playing in New York on September 11th is going to be real interesting. It's going to be a very emotional day for many people in New York and an emotional day for many people across the world. It will be especially hard for the people who lost loved ones. It is going to feel good to go up there and play on that day for the memories of the people we lost. It will be a good environment. I'm pumped to just go up there and dedicate the game to the day. It will be great, but we still need to be ready to play." - Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Opening on the road with an offense and defense dotted with players making their first pro start is a challenge. Three drafted rookies are in the lineup. Three others are backups who are expected to play extensively. They're joined by seven free-agent starters making their Cardinals debut, including QB Kurt Warner, who passed for more than 2,000 yards while starting the first nine games for the Giants last season. The coaches' job for this one, then, becomes as much trying to channel what's swirling around in the players' heads as dealing with Xs and Os.
With only two guards on the roster, starting C Alex Stepanovich might see duty at guard. Stepanovich suffered a fractured hand three weeks ago and still can't snap. He played guard and center at Ohio State.
--RG Elton Brown, a fourth-round pick, won the starting position. He was regarded by some as the best guard in the draft.
--RG Jeremy Bridges, the starter at the end of last season, was waived after he failed to retain the position.
--T Ian Allen, who started in preseason while Oliver Ross was injured and then was released in the final cut down, was re-signed. His versatility will be tested. He is listed as the backup at both guards this week.
--WR Carlyle Holiday, on the practice squad only two days, was released.
--KR/PR Reggie Swinton was signed after he was cut by Houston. "We really did like J.J. Moses and we think he is a real good player, but we had a chance to get Reggie Swinton and Reggie is a guy that we almost got two years ago, and we almost got him last year," said Coach Dennis Green. "We think he'll give us that explosive, big-play capability and I think he has what we've been looking for."
--PR/KR J.J. Moses, signed going into the final week of preseason, was cut just three days after he was proclaimed the Cardinals return man. He lost his job when veteran Reggie Swinton became available.
--C Nick Leckey, a backup who is among a multitude of injured centers (ankle), returned to practice but he is not expected to be ready for the opener at the New York Giants on Sunday. He is about 70 percent.
--DT Langston Moore was claimed on waivers from Cincinnati because is a speed player, the type who fit the Cardinals system. He will be a backup.
--DE Antonio Smith, an All-NFL Europe selection last spring, was waived. He had survived the final cut to 53 but was on the third unit.
GAME PLAN: The defense has been rebuilt the past two years with an emphasis on speed rather than size and it will be put to the test. The Cardinals defense must dominate this game because the offense does not appear ready to roll. The Cardinals must stymie the Giants' passing game with as few resources as possible - placing an emphasis on frequent man-to-man coverage and getting to the passer without blitzing -- in turn allowing the unit to force the Giants to run and then teeing off on a one-dimensional running game, getting the safeties actively involved in run support.
Offensively, a shaky Cardinals line, especially at center and on the right side where injuries have hit, does not bode well for a strong start. Coach Dennis Green acknowledges that the team likely will have to set up the run with the pass. "If we can make people defend the pass, if that's what we need to do to run, then that's what it may be," he said. The team averaged only 80 rushing yards in preseason and never has been among the league rushing leaders during its 18 seasons in Arizona.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Cardinals CB Antrel Rolle, a first-round draft pick in his pro debut, vs. Giants WR Plaxico Burress, a proven big-play receiver in his Giants debut. Rolle, selected eighth overall, is big and strong and could shove Burress around at the line. The question is whether he can run with the veteran, whose reputation is solid for making high-yardage plays. Rolle should benefit from an improved pass rush up front, and his work in holding down Burress will be critical to the team defense that needs to devote as many resources as possible to stopping Tiki Barber and the running game.
Cardinals DEs Bertrand Berry, whose 14.5 sacks in 2004 ranked second in the league, and Chike Okeafor, a free-agent signee whose rush from the left side should create more opportunities for Berry, vs. Giants QB Eli Manning, a seven-game starter as a rookie in 2004 who is returning from a preseason elbow sprain that shelved him for two weeks. Okeafor's presence showed signs during preseason of giving the Cardinals a fierce pass rush. Berry's Pro Bowl abilities are well established. If they can get to Manning, who is still relatively inexperienced in the NFL, and who very likely is not back yet to full capacity, it will make the Giants offense one-dimensional. Even though that one dimension would be the rushing of Tiki Barber, that's what the Cardinals want.
Cardinals P Scott Player, a former Pro Bowler, vs. Giants P Jeff Feagles, a former Pro Bowler. These two veterans who know the swirling winds of Giants Stadium are among the best in the business. They're valuable field-position weapons if conditions turn bad or if defenses dominate - a strong possibility.
INJURY IMPACT: The Cardinals will have their fifth center with the first team since camp opened, and he'll start alongside a rookie RG in his first pro game. Shawn Lynch gets the call at center, which won't strike fear in the heart of new Giants MLB Antonio Pierce. The inexperience of Lynch and rookie RG Elton Brown could cause the Cardinals running game to sputter. Compounding the right-side woes are T Oliver Ross coming off a knee injury that sidelined him until two weeks ago and TE Eric Edwards attempting to return from a pectoral tear that sidelined him nearly all of camp and preseason. The defense will miss starting MLB Gerald Hayes (knee) but veteran James Darling is not a sizable drop-off. The biggest impact with Hayes' loss will be depth. The backups are very inexperienced.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Heading toward the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, coach Mike Martz's optimism is starting to come through. He knows the variables that can affect seasons, but the depth of his team, along with it getting through the summer with a minimum of injuries, has the six-year head coach ready to go. Asked whether the preseason was what he expected it to be, Martz said, "I think that the competitiveness of the team is probably a little bit more. I'm very pleased with that aspect of it."
Martz also expounded on camp developments that he believes will have his team competing at an elite level.
Said Martz, "A couple of real big surprises. Rex Tucker as a right tackle. To move him out there and looking at him out there, he is just like a duck in water. That is where he belongs. I think that (rookie guard) Claude Terrell was a real pleasant surprise. Those are two things. We needed to have some luck in the offensive line with this personnel issue, and we really did. Both of these guys have really come on and will help us tremendously.
"A couple of rookies stood out for us in camp, I think Madison (Hedgecock), the quarterback (Ryan) Fitzpatrick, both safeties (Jerome Carter and Oshiomogho Atogwe). I think both of the linebackers that we picked up in the off-season (Chris Claiborne and Dexter Coakley) were very dramatic on their effect on the defense. And the defensive line, I think, by far this is their best preseason. In the last two games, in particular, I think that Damione Lewis and Jimmy Kennedy, in the last two weeks have really stepped it up another notch."
The run defense, which must improve for the Rams to be better than 8-8, is expected to perform at a higher level with the addition of Claiborne in the middle and Coakley.
"I feel really good about it," Martz said of the defense against the run. "A lot of it has to do with the secondary blitz, the safeties getting up in there and making plays on time, where they're supposed to. I'm very impressed with the defensive line against the run in the preseason. They've done an outstanding job with that, which has freed up these linebackers.
"When you watch people penetrate and make tackles in the running game two or three yards behind the line of scrimmage, you have to give credit to the defensive line. They're keeping off the linebackers and, of course, the young safeties, they're learning. They're still late, but the two rookies are learning their drills and when to hit it. I think Adam (Archuleta), now, is comfortable with what we're doing. You saw the lack of indecision (in the final preseason game). He's very aggressive in his drills. I think that a real important aspect for us is run support out of the secondary because the other things up front are coming along.
"A lot of it has to do with speed and attitude, getting to the ball and blowing up the receiver and ripping it out of the ball carrier, which we work on, on a daily basis."
Takeaways and special teams are what the Rams must do to get the ball back in the hands of their offense. Last season, the Rams were last in the NFL with an average drive start at the 26-yard line. The team at the top, Buffalo, was at 36.2. That's an average loss of 10 yards for every possession, and is directly attributed to the Rams having only 15 takeaways and giving up field position on special teams. They were especially poor on the road.
They will begin trying to improve in those areas at San Francisco this Sunday.
SERIES RECORD: 111th meeting: Rams lead the series, 58-50-2, and have won 10 of the past 12 games. Since 1999, the two San Francisco wins have come at home, in 2002 and 2003.
--The Rams have high hopes for CB Chris Johnson, who was acquired from Green Bay in a trade for LB Robert Thomas. Johnson was a seventh-round pick in 2003, but has yet to play a game. He was active for the final eight games of last season after returning from injury. He missed his rookie season because of a knee injury, then suffered a stress fracture of his leg in the 2004 off-season that also slowed his recovery from the knee problem.
Said Martz, "Here is a tall guy with terrific deep speed, and range and the guy has a reach. There is another one of those tall corners with that long speed that you're looking for, for the big receivers that we're going to see in the division." Rams secondary coach Kurt Schottenheimer was with Green Bay last season, and Martz acknowledged his influence in pursuing Johnson. "In this situation I relied solely on Kurt's opinion of him," Martz said. "Obviously he coached him. He had great things to say about him, thought he had great potential. He had some injury issues that we hope and think are cleared up at this point. He's still rough around the edges, but he's a competitive guy with a lot of ability that in short order we think can contribute for us."
Asked how quickly Johnson can learn the defense, Martz said, "He should be able to with what we are doing. On the outside it's not like safety necessarily. Most of the techniques and some of the coverage are relatively the same, and of course, Kurt coaches them the same." Said Johnson, "I feel great right now. My body is holding up like I want it to. I'm doing all my conditioning and strengthening stuff."
--A key for the offensive line this season will be the play of right tackle Rex Tucker, who was originally penciled in to play left guard after being signed in the off-season. Oddly, the Rams' other offensive line starters are the same as they were during the 2001 Super Bowl season: left tackle Orlando Pace, left guard Tom Nutten, center Andy McCollum and right guard Adam Timmerman. Going further, the right tackle that year was Ryan Tucker, Rex's brother.
"It's my guys," McCollum said, when asked why he is so excited about the line this season. "And there's still a Tucker. It's like we still have Ryan."
Martz has been pleased with the progress Rex Tucker has made since being moved to the position early in training camp. "I can't tell you what a significant impact he's made," Martz said. "That position I don't worry about; I really don't. Where he's come, from the pass protection standpoint and the toughness on the run blocking is a foregone conclusion. I'm just amazed at his performance and how it's gone like this throughout the preseason. I'm excited about what he's going to do for our team.
"I was talking to Rex, and as soon as he went out there he felt a lot more comfortable for whatever reason. He's picked up Jackie (Slater), who's done a great job of just mentoring about playing the right tackle position. Who else is better to talk to than Jackie Slater, you know? He's really helped him with his pass sets and just the technical aspect of the footwork and hands and the punch and those things. He's a very strong guy with a big reach and big hands. He has the perfect punch and he's just getting set. He's going to make some mistakes, but all he's going to do is get better and better and better. He's a terrific competitor. He has a real toughness that I can really appreciate."
Rex said he talks with Ryan about adjusting to his new position. "We talked about it pretty often," Rex said. "Playing the same position gives you a chance to talk about those things. This time of the year, if we play the same teams, we'll talk more about opponents than what we are doing."
Meanwhile, Tucker said he's not surprised when even Martz calls him Ryan.
"My parents call us by our opposite names, so I have no problem with it," Rex Tucker said. "I'm used to it."
--Jeff Robinson, a tight end and long snapper, left the Rams after the 2001 season to sign with the Dallas Cowboys. But after being cut by the Cowboys in the roster reduction to 53 players, the Rams moved quickly and added him to the roster. Ironically, when Robinson left, his jersey No. 45 was taken by rookie long snapper Chris Massey, who is still with the team. Robinson is now wearing No. 87. But there are no plans to have him long snap, just play tight end where he caught 22 passes and three touchdowns in three seasons.
"Jeff was a very integral part of the team, obviously, when we had the good runs there in the Super Bowls," coach Mike Martz said. "He's an outstanding tight end, and he just happens to be a good long snapper, too. But he's here to be a tight end for us."
BY THE NUMBERS: 8 - of the Rams' 11 draft picks that are on the opening-day roster. The only ones cut were WR Dante Ridgeway (sixth) and TE Jerome Collins (fifth). Collins is on the practice squad, while Ridgeway is with the Jets after he was claimed on waivers from the Bengals after the Bengals claimed him from the Rams. Third-round pick Richie Incognito, still rehabbing his knee after surgery in early May, has not yet signed.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He is pretty close to where he was when the season ended, to be honest with you. He is really playing at a high level. Marc always starts off a little slow because he just goes so quickly. He's just very anxious about things, but as he gets into the rhythm of the game, then he is fine. You need to let him throw the ball early in the preseason, quite a bit, just to get him going, and then he's fine." - Coach Mike Martz on QB Marc Bulger.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Martz has been glad to have left tackle Orlando Pace with the team throughout the off-season and training camp. Pace missed the previous two off-seasons as the team's unsigned franchise player. This year, Pace signed a long-term deal in March. Asked to compare Pace to where he is this year, Martz said, "There's just a remarkable difference. The fact that he's been here, where he is in the offense, allows us to insert things that this time last year we couldn't do the last two years because we had to wait for him to get in and get him up to speed. One guy can keep the entire offense under wraps until the season starts, and that's what happened the last two years. With him here now we have been able to move on."
--RB Marshall Faulk returned to practice Wednesday after missing work Monday because of the flu.
--DT Damione Lewis has been taking limited snaps in team drills because of a toe injury. Lewis is expected to play Sunday against the 49ers.
--CB Terry Fair remains questionable for Sunday's game against the 49ers because of continued neck pain resulting from the injury he suffered during the Aug. 29 Monday night game against Detroit.
--TE Brandon Manumaleuna is also playing a lot of snaps at fullback in the team's offense. That's one reason the Rams released fullback Joey Goodspeed in the cut to 53 players.
--CB Corey Ivy, a long shot to make the roster at the start of training camp with special teams his best chance, is now the team's nickel back. Ivy is listed at 5-10 on the roster, but he's really no taller than 5-8. He will have to show he can handle some of the matchups other teams will try to throw at him.
GAME PLAN: Very little has changed for the Rams, although they could have more balance in their offense because of the presence of running back Steven Jackson. Still, look for the Rams to try to get the lead with the passing game against the 49ers' 3-4 defense and a secondary that isn't very deep. Defensively, the Rams will likely put eight men in the box to stop running back Kevan Barlow and challenge quarterback Tim Rattay to beat them with the passing game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Rams RT Rex Tucker vs. 49ers LOLB Julian Peterson. Tucker has been playing tackle for just over a month, and in this first regular-season outing will have to contend with the speedy Peterson coming off the edge in the 49ers' 3-4 defense. It will be interesting to see if the Rams have to provide help for Tucker in order to protect QB Marc Bulger.
Rams WRs vs. 49ers DBs. The Rams go four-deep at receiver, five if you include the pass-catching ability of RB Marshall Faulk. Ahmed Plummer is solid at one corner, but the other starter, Shawntae Spencer, along with nickel backs Derrick Johnson and Mike Adams, will have their hands full going against Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald.
INJURY IMPACT: CB Terry Fair remains sidelined by a neck injury. ... DT Ryan Pickett is back practicing after missing time since Aug. 6 because of a back injury.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The 49ers will be searching for their identity when they take the field Sunday against the Rams. In a division that features teams with strong passing attacks, the 49ers hope to forge a plan based on a power running game. "That's what we'll pride ourselves in doing," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "The type of linemen we have are a little different than in years past but that's because what we've been able to get and so we'll play to that strength.
"We do want to create an attitude that we will run the ball and we can run the ball."
The 49ers owned the 30th-ranked running offense in the league last season, as featured back Kevan Barlow struggled behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league. But early indications are that the offensive line will be improved this season.
The team hopes center Jeremy Newberry will be available for most of the season. He played in just one game last year due to knee and back problems. He is essentially playing without any cartilage in his right knee but will be on the field as long as he can withstand the pain. The 49ers dumped right tackle Scott Gragg in the off-season and signed left tackle Jonas Jennings from the Bills. The other three positions are manned by players in different spots. Kwame Harris shifts from left tackle to right tackle, Eric Heitmann moves from left guard to right guard, and Justin Smiley switches from right guard to left guard.
"It seems like we're light-years better than we were last year," Smiley said. "I was wondering, 'What is the difference between this year and last year?' Well, maybe everybody is back at the position they belong." The 49ers even seem to have some depth with rookies Adam Snyder and David Baas ready to enter the lineup when injuries occur.
Barlow is the big key to the 49ers' running attack. He averaged just 3.4 yards a carry, gaining 822 yards and seven touchdowns on 244 carries. Barlow averaged 5.1 yards a rush while rolling up 1,024 yards in just four starts in 2003. He said it is apparent that the 49ers will be much more stubborn when it comes to running the football this season. "That's our mentality, everybody's mentality, run the ball and pass second," Barlow said. "We're going to establish. We'll run right and run left. We're not going to have 52 sacks this year. I'd rather run the ball every down before we have as many sacks as we did last year." Barlow said he is confident that the changes made on the offensive line will produce a stronger offense - and overall team - this season.
"It's a makeover, and I'm excited about them," Barlow said. "When I go in the huddle and see those faces, I know I have guys in there that have each other's back and I know those guys are going to block."
SERIES HISTORY - 111th meeting. The Rams lead the series 58-50-2, including wins in four of the last five meetings. Since 1999, the Rams have won 10 of the past 12 meetings.
--The last time Mike Nolan faced the Rams, his defense held Mike Martz's high-powered offense to just 121 total yards in the Baltimore Ravens' 33-22 victory. Obviously, Nolan had a lot better talent when he was defensive coordinator of the Ravens. But is there something about the 3-4 defense that gives the Rams problems?
--If the 49ers want to make it official and place receiver Jerry Rice on their reserve/retired list, they would have to sign him to their active roster before placing him on the list the next day, an NFL spokesman said. That is not going to happen, Nolan said. Rice announced his retirement Monday as a member of the Denver Broncos, but said the next step is retiring as a member of the 49ers. That ceremonial gesture might not happen for a while.
"It's not like the NFL to make any exceptions for anyone, so I don't know that they would," Nolan said. "We haven't talk about petitioning anything at this point. We had this conversation (in the past) with Jerry's agent, as far as the timing of it and all of those things. We want to respect Jerry Rice and anything that might be his wishes, but at the same time we're in the process of putting a football team together and we don't want to do anything that compromises the team."
--Rookie receiver Fred Amey earned his roster spot with a solid training camp and exhibition season. He opens the season as the No. 4 receiver. Amey's brother, Vince, also played for the Raiders in 1998. However, he was a defensive tackle. "He's 6-3, 300 pounds," Fred Amey said. "I'm 5-10, 200 pounds. People always ask 'How's your brother so big and you're so small?' He ate a lot more than me, but that won't make you taller."
--Offensive lineman Thomas Herrion died of heart disease last month after an exhibition game in Denver but likely sustained some heart damage in the days leading up to his Aug. 20 death, a Denver medical examiner said Tuesday. Dr. Amy Martin, the deputy coroner and forensic pathologist who performed Herrion's autopsy and toxicology tests, said the 23-year-old player probably traveled to Denver to play football "days or maybe a week or so" after he sustained "organizing heart necrosis."
"It was not to the point where he would have had symptoms," Martin said. "He may not have had chest pain with any of this. Or he might have had chest pain but not recognized it for what it was. He might have experienced a twinge in his chest but as a football player, it might not have been viewed as much."
The official cause of death is ischemic heart disease, with significant blockage in his right coronary artery, Martin said. "Usually people with ischemic heart disease die because of massive heart attack or a lack of oxygen caused the heart muscle to go into arrhythmia," Martin said. "More than likely, he had an arrhythmia." Herrion collapsed in the locker room just minutes after the 49ers' 26-21 loss to the Denver Broncos in an exhibition game. Herrion had just taken part in a grueling 91-yard touchdown drive that took 14 plays - with two additional plays being wiped out by penalty. He was listed at 6-foot-3, and his weight at death was just less than 335 pounds, Martin said.
--The 49ers are playing one of the top offenses in the league in their first game with their new 3-4 scheme. But 49ers defensive coordinator Billy Davis said that's OK. He figures they might as well open the season with one of their stiffest challenges. "We're ready for them," Davis said. "Right now, let's see what we can do against one of the top offenses in the league since Coach Martz has been doing it."
--Mike Rumph knows all about the difficulties a cornerback faces against the Rams' passing attack. He was a cornerback his first three seasons in the league before making the switch this off-season to free safety. "It's going to be a tough challenge for the corners because I've been out there," Rumph said. "I've already seen it as a corner, and I want to help them as much as possible. I think our corners will go out there and challenge them and I want to be there for them."
--The 49ers have two Yale alums on their team. "The odds of that must be a million to one," 49ers tight end Eric Johnson said. Fullback Chris Hetherington and Johnson are two of the four former Yale players who have started in the NFL since 1990. Johnson and Hetherington were never teammates at Yale, but Johnson worked one summer in Connecticut at Sleeping Giant Golf Course, which is owned by Hetherington's father.
"He's a lot younger than me but I definitely watched him and followed him," Hetherington said.
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 - points difference between the Rams and 49ers in the 111 games they have played, including playoffs. The Rams have outscored the 49ers 2,465 to 2,462.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They're not afraid to do what they're doing. I believe they're a touchdown-checkdown team. Most all of their routes have a touchdown pass with a checkdown. If the touchdown is there, he's going to throw it vertical. If it's not, they'll throw the checkdown. Most teams have that same philosophy in the red zone, but it's unique that somebody has that philosophy on all 100 yards of the field." - 49ers coach Mike Nolan on the Rams' offensive philosophy.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The 49ers signed free-agent fullback Chris Hetherington, a nine-year veteran, to a contract to be Fred Beasley's backup. Hetherington was recently released by the Raiders. The 49ers waived offensive lineman Tony Wragge to make room for Hetherington on the 53-man roster.
With tight end Eric Johnson looking doubtful for Sunday's game with a foot injury, the club will start either veteran Steve Bush or rookie Billy Bajema. Bush missed most of the exhibition season due to a left shoulder injury. The 49ers waived tight end Aaron Walker, who started six games in his two seasons with the club, as they claimed tight end Trent Smith from the Ravens. Smith's first two seasons in the NFL have been wiped out due to injuries.
Rookie receiver Fred Amey has beaten out Rashaun Woods for the No. 4 job behind Arnaz Battle, Brandon Lloyd and Johnnie Morton. Amey will also return punts, if the 49ers decide not to use Battle in that role, Nolan said.
The 49ers completed their practice squad with the signing of rookie cornerback Ahmad Treaudo, a 5-10, 181-pounder from Southern University. Also on the practice squad are receiver Marcus Maxwell, cornerback Michael Harden, tight end Erik Jensen, defensive end Scott Scharff and offensive linemen Norm Katnik, Harvey Dahl and Sam Wilder.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
--WR Arnaz Battle might be the team's top target in the passing game as the starting flanker. He also is the 49ers' top punt returner. Coach Mike Nolan said he has yet to decide whether Battle or rookie Fred Amey will return punts in the season opener.
--DB Mike Adams will probably be on the field a lot this Sunday, as his task is to cover the slot receiver in three-WR formation. Adams beat out veteran Willie Middlebrooks for that role. Adams is the team's fourth cornerback and a backup safety, as well.
--RG Eric Heitmann, who played center during training camp as insurance against the possibility Jeremy Newberry would not be available, will start at a new position this year. He moved to RG after playing every snap last season at LG.
--QB Cody Pickett is listed No. 4 on the depth chart but he has a chance to suit up and play. That's because Pickett started playing special teams midway through the exhibition season. He was used on almost all of the team's units. He does not know whether he will be asked to take part in special-teams plays in the season opener.
--RB Frank Gore, the 49ers' third-round draft pick, will open the season as Kevan Barlow's backup. Gore battled a right shoulder injury for most of camp but is expected to see some action at times when Barlow needs a break.
GAME PLAN: The Mike Nolan era begins on Sunday with a home game against the Rams. The 49ers have new coaches and new philosophies on both sides of the ball. The new 3-4 defense has to be aggressive and cause protection problems for the Rams' line. As one of only two teams in the NFC to employ a 3-4 defense, the 49ers have to find creative ways to put pressure on Rams QB Marc Bulger in hopes of taking the heat off the 49ers' beleaguered secondary. OLB Julian Peterson, returning from an Achilles' tendon injury that ended his season last year, will have to be the focus of the defense. Peterson should set a career-high in sacks this season, topping the seven he recorded in 2003. Offensively, the 49ers did not show much in the preseason. They have to do a good job of protecting QB Tim Rattay, who does not have a lot of mobility. The 49ers need a strong rushing attack, and then might be able to open it up down the field. The 49ers figure to see a lot of eight-man fronts, so the opportunities might be there to hit Brandon Lloyd or Arnaz Battle deep.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
49ers RT Kwame Harris, who appears to be much more comfortable in his switch to a new position, vs. Rams LDE Leonard Little, who is the team's returning sack leader from a year ago when he recorded seven.
49ers CBs Ahmed Plummer and Shawntae Spencer, who struggle against deep routes, vs. Rams WRs Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, who have a history of big catches against the 49ers.
49ers ROLB Jamie Winborn and Andre Carter, who will rotate into the game in the team's new 3-4 scheme, vs. Rams LT Orlando Pace, who participated in training camp this year and could be ready for another big year.
INJURY IMPACT: Center Jeremy Newberry will be relegated to one practice a week because of a right knee problem. Newberry has little cartilage in his right knee, a condition that threatens his availability for the season. Newberry is expected to start the season opener against the Rams on Sunday but it is uncertain how much he will be able to play this season. When his season is over, Newberry will undergo extensive microfracture surgery. ... TE Eric Johnson has not practiced since Aug. 9 because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot. He is not likely to play Sunday against the Rams. Without Johnson, the 49ers do not figure to feature the TE much in the passing game. ... Derrick Hamilton will begin the season on PUP, which makes him ineligible for the first six weeks of the regular season.