For a veteran team coming off three straight division titles, the Seattle Seahawks find themselves dealing with a surprising number of questions halfway through the preseason. The win at San Diego was filled with the kinds of inconsistencies expected of an exhibition opener. But a 48-13 debacle at Green Bay left the staff stunned.
"There is losing a game in the preseason and then there is playing poorly," head coach Mike Holmgren said. "In the preseason, sometimes if I am getting my answers from the right players, which is a big goal for us, I can handle losing a game here and there. I cannot tolerate how we played (against the Packers)."
Among the greatest concerns coming into camp was the status of a reconfigured offensive line. Walter Jones was unquestioned at left tackle, of course, and young starters Rob Sims and Chris Spencer, at left guard and center, were expected to take over their spots for years. The right side of guard Chris Gray and tackle Sean Locklear was to be challenged by Floyd Womack and Ray Willis. But with Jones and Locklear out nursing injuries, the line has only further unraveled rather than solidifying into a cohesive unit. Sims and Spencer, and Gray, for the most part, were steady against the Packers, but the backup tackles were horrendous. Tom Ashworth was repeatedly beaten at left tackle, and Womack was tossed around with embarrassing ease.
The Seahawk staff was shrewd in one regard, however; sensing imminent protection issues, they kept starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck off the field. That left Seneca Wallace and David Greene to absorb six sacks and countless hurries. Wallace only added to staff insecurity by losing two fumbles, while Greene threw three interceptions.
Special teams, under new coach Bruce DeHaven, performed poorly. On one kickoff return, the Hawks were flagged for three separate holding violations. Some of those, of course, were by players who won't be on the team come September. If there was a bright spot for the Seahawks on special teams, though, it was rookie kickoff returner Josh Wilson. While still learning the ropes as a nickel cornerback, Wilson showed enough speed to get to the sideline and turn it up-field on kickoffs. He fumbled his first return of the season in the San Diego game, but unfailingly held onto the ball on a rainy night in Green Bay.
Another area of solid play continues to be the receivers, especially Nate Burleson and Ben Obomanu. Burleson has had a strong camp and is playing with far greater confidence than last season, when a thumb injury caused him to get off to a slow start. Burleson turned a short route into a 55-yard catch-and-run against the Packers. With those efforts, he's challenging D.J. Hackett for the starting job at split end.
After the loss, Holmgren promised to remind players that nobody has earned roster spots yet, a move geared toward improving the intensity and focus that has been lacking thus far. The Seahawks benefit from having their final two preseason games and their regular-season opener all at home at Qwest Field.
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 24 -- The Seahawks break training camp.
--Finding ways to get 80 players enough action to analyze on film is tricky for a coaching staff. "In fairness to the athlete, if he's competing for the sixth linebacker position or the fifth wide receiver position, you have to get those guys into the games," coach Mike Holmgren said. "You have to let them play and then make your evaluations off that. It's not always fair but that's what we try to do. Those types of things, the battle for the third tight end or the second tight end, the nickelback, the fourth corner; that's why it's important we get those young guys in there to play."
--QB Matt Hasselbeck entirely endorses the notion of not beating up a veteran team during the preseason and training camp. "I think if you have an older team it probably makes a little more sense," Hasselbeck said. "You look at Walter Jones, for three years he didn't even have a minicamp or a training camp and those were probably his three best years. It is probably on a person-to-person basis and that's Coach Holmgren's job to decide. At the same time if you haven't played together with guys, if you're playing with a new person next to you or if you are relying on a new person, I think it is important to get out there and get as much work as you can done."
--Holmgren has developed an appreciation for rookie cornerback and return man Josh Wilson, even though he's going through a steep learning curve. "He's doing fine," Holmgren said. "He's learning. Everyday he sees something a little bit new. I love his attitude. We're counting on him for a lot this year."
--RB Shaun Alexander, always optimistic, sees the 2007 Seahawks as having the same potential as the 2005 Super Bowl Seahawks. "There is no doubt in my mind," he said. "I see the way our chemistry is with this team. I have a better feeling about this team than any other team in Seahawk history. I told everybody, it's always talent, then coaching, then chemistry, then health. That's just how it works with football. It's the greatest team sport in the world and it's because you have a bunch of people all coming together that have different talents that you have to mesh together to have one guy make a great play; whether it's a defensive stop in the hole or a DB picking off a pass. It's all because the D-line pushed and the linebackers were up underneath and they guy could make a jump. Whether it's me scoring a touchdown or a receiver making a great catch in the back of the end zone. It's all 11 guys coming together to make one play. That's all chemistry and that's all talent and that's all coaching. That's what gets you there and that last thing is just health. We have the first three already."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It is just unacceptable. And so we will fix it." -- Coach Mike Holmgren after a 48-13 drubbing at Green Bay.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Trying to build depth in the secondary, the 'Hawks signed CB DeJuan Groce and released backup P Kyle Stringer. Groce was a fourth-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2003 and started 15 games in 2005. He played in 12 games for the New Orleans Saints last season and was released by the Saints on June 15. Groce has 54 NFL games to his credit with 20 starts and three career interceptions. The Hawks also dealt with dwindling depth at tight end by signing TE Andy Stokes.
--OT Walter Jones continues to rest his sore shoulders and is not expected to be forced into much time during games until the regular season.
--OT Sean Locklear had an MRI on a tender knee, but tests revealed no damage. He was given the second preseason game off to rest his knee.
--QB David Greene was put on the spot by Holmgren, who said Greene needed to show some improvement in the game at Green Bay. Greene responded with three interceptions.
--DT Marcus Tubbs, crucial to the team's chances of improving against the run, has come off the PUP list and is being eased back into practice drills.
--OT Tom Ashworth, called into duty at left tackle because of Jones' health situation, gave up several sacks against Green Bay.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Nate Burleson vs. D.J. Hackett for starting split end job -- Hackett had been penciled in as the split end starter at the beginning of the season, but Burleson has bounced back so well from last season's disappointing performance that he's threatening Hackett's hold on the spot.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: The battle between Chris Gray and Ray Willis continues to be an undecided competition at right guard. Gray has performed solidly in the preseason games, while Willis had to move back out to right tackle in the Green Bay game because of Sean Locklear's knee injury.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: DE Darryl Tapp -- Tapp had a pair of sacks in the first game and added several more pressures against Green Bay. He's a backup to Bryce Fisher, but his rushing ability has to be earning him more plays in the DE rotation.
ROOKIE REPORT: After a rough opener, CB Josh Wilson bounced back with a solid game against Green Bay, particularly as a kickoff returner. Although several penalties nullified some returns, Wilson showed the speed to get to the outside and turn it up the sidelines. ... DT Brandon Mebane continues to be one of the bright spots of the preseason.
INJURY REPORT: TE Ben Joppru came back from his hip injury, but Will Heller remains slowed with an ankle sprain. The biggest change, however, is the return of DT Marcus Tubbs (knee) off the PUP list. ... Craig Terrill also came back to action after resting a sore knee. ... OT Sean Locklear had a negative MRI for a sore knee, while fellow OT Walter Jones continues to be rested in the preseason because of shoulder soreness.
Ken Whisenhunt is attempting to reverse the fortunes of a franchise that hasn't won consistently since the waning years of the Nixon presidency. As with each of his predecessors, Whisenhunt began the task brimming with confidence, certain that he was going to be the one to succeed where so many have failed. While preseason games are not necessarily an indicator of how a team will fare when play begins for real in two weeks, the Cardinals cross the midpoint of their inaugural preseason of the Whisenhunt coaching era 0-2 -- not only 0-2 but 0-2 vs. teams that were awful a year ago, Oakland and Houston.
"In two games, we had a chance to swing the momentum and we couldn't finish it off," Whisenhunt said. "That is something we have to get better at as a football team."
The offense, which failed to get a first down until its third series against Oakland, fared only slightly better vs. the Texans, however quarterback Matt Leinart, who'd been downright scary with his inaccuracy in the opener, went 7-for-7.
The sticking point for the Cardinals remains defense. The Texans had scoring drives of 85, 73 and 82 yards in the first half against the Cardinals highest-level defenders. "It is tough, especially when you want to show people you are making progress," Whisenhunt said. "But you have to be smart about it."
So perhaps the only salient point thus far is that the Cardinals still do not know how to win games. And at the heart of it is widespread failure of many recent first-day draft picks to make a mark -- players like Calvin Pace, Antrel Rolle, J.J. Arrington, among others. "A high pick who hasn't started consistently and you're in your third or fourth year?" Whisenhunt said. "It's kind of make-it-or-break-it time. That's kind of the situation a number of guys on our football team are in.
"We said very early in this process that we're going to play the best players. I know it's a new system, a new coaching staff. That's even a further test because they're being evaluated with no strings. It's even more of a sense of urgency for those guys to step up and show consistency.
"If they want the job, they should step up and get it. If they don't, then you're obviously going to be looking to other avenues. A lot of these guys, especially the high draft picks, look good in practice, but when it comes to doing it in the game on a consistent basis, that's where you find it's lacking."
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 23 -- The Cardinals break camp at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., on Thursday after a morning walkthrough. The remainder of preseason preparation will be at the Cardinals' training facility in Tempe, Ariz.
--New Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt has harped on building a sound, smart, physical, disciplined program, but everyone knew he wasn't above reaching into his bag of tricks. And it took Whisenhunt no longer than the opening snap in his home debut vs. Houston to do it, calling as reverse pass by WR Anquan Boldin after taking a handoff from RB Edgerrin James. Boldin's heave traveled 60 yards in the air to Larry Fitzgerald, who was clobbered by a badly beaten C.C. Brown, resulting in a 55-yard pass interference penalty. The sellout crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium loved the play call, rising and cheering as the ball was spotted on the long penalty. "It's a chance to see if Anquan could actually throw the football," Whisenhunt said, and then adding with a smile, "and he came up short." Boldin blamed not his arm but Fitzgerald's acting for the play not resulting in a 79-yard touchdown. Boldin said Fitzgerald went downfield too soon.
"He's supposed to sell it a little more," Boldin said, smiling. "That's something that we'll work out during the season."
--QB Matt Leinart was ridden hard on the practice field by Whisenhunt after Leinart consistently overthrew open receivers and looked awful in the preseason opener. Leinart turned in a slip of paper to the coach during preparation for the Houston game, predicting that he would go 10 for 10. Almost. Leinart went 7 for 7. "He has been on me pretty hard but it's a good thing because he is pushing me to become better," Leinart said. "I was a little upset about how I played against Oakland."
--ORT Levi Brown, the fifth pick overall in the April draft, acknowledged after his first start that "there were guys out there that presented a lot of moves and had speed off the edge. I have to work on staying lower on the run block but for the first start I think it went pretty well." Brown got the start in place of Oliver Ross, who has a torn triceps and could miss the season.
--CB Antrel Rolle is becoming P.I. Rolle -- and it doesn't stand for "Private Investigator." Rolle frequently had pass interference calls go against him last year. In two preseason games, he has picked up where he left off, just as he is attempting to secure his position. Rolle has had a big P.I. call in each game. Coach Ken Whisenhunt isn't amused and has been critical of Rolle's technique.
Rolle also has been burned for big catches in each game, including being duped on a double-move by Houston's Kevin Walter that resulted in a 39-yard completion. "He looked back, so I looked back, and plays like that you can't take a chance on," Rolle said. "It doesn't matter if this is preseason. From the moment you step on the field, you've got to go out there and give it your all no matter what."
--Rolle's penalty and a false-start call on rookie ORT Levi Brown that killed a deep drive were among 10 penalties for 94 yards -- contrary to the smart, disciplined style of play that Whisenhunt is attempting to bring to the club.
--KR-WR Steve Breaston, the Cardinals' fifth-round draft pick, is moving to the top of the depth chart on both kickoff and punt returns, the skill that caused the team to draft him. He averaged more than 30 yards on kick returns vs. the Texans and showed some moves on a punt return to turn an apparent loss into a four-yard gain. "It is pretty obvious that Steve has distanced himself from everybody else," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "He looks natural back there, he looks comfortable back there and the thing I like is he isn't afraid to hit the hole."
--FB Tim Castille, G Brian Johnson, C Lyle Sendlein, ILB Pago Togafau and SS Brandon Keeler are undrafted rookies with a shot at making the 53-man roster. They've been on the second unit. At the very least, they are excellent candidates for the practice squad. "A lot of times with undrafted guys, you can see in the first week or two they are in over their heads," Whisenhunt said. "That is not the case with several guys in this group."
--OG-OT Brad Badger said he knew when the Cardinals hired Russ Grimm as offensive line coach that he might get a chance to make a career comeback.
"I was sitting at home waiting for a call, and for it to come down to playing for Russ again, it's a great opportunity," said Badger, who'd played for Grimm in Washington. "I started to smile right away when they said Arizona, because I knew Russ was there."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Some of the things we are asking him to do are a little different, and he has embraced that. He is back in the field a little more than just up on the line, and learning some coverage things. I think he feels better about himself as a player and I think he looks better. And that is a relative term because he already looked pretty darn good." -- Coach Ken Whisenhunt, on Pro Bowl SS Adrian Wilson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
QB Matt Leinart won't be calling as many audibles as he is used to. He had free rein during his college days at USC and was given broad latitude as a rookie by former coach Dennis Green. This year, coach Ken Whisenhunt is calling the plays. Leinart does retain some freedom to check out of a bad situation, but, as Leinart put it, "it is really line up and play."
--QB Matt Leinart, after a shaky preseason opener, went 7 for 7 for 70 yards and looked sharp in the second preseason game vs. Houston -- a relief around Cardinals camp given concern that Leinart's off-field life was dragging down his football performance.
--SS Adrian Wilson, who had a banner 2006 as a Pro Bowler and showed little need for improvement, is getting some just the same. Wilson is being asked by the new coaching staff to play back in the field more than at the line of scrimmage, where many of his eye-popping statistics were attained when he functioned as a quasi linebacker. Coaches are teaching him more coverage skills.
--OLB Chike Okeafor, the Cardinals sacks leader in 2006, underwent surgery to reattach a torn left bicep and likely is lost for the season.
--G Brad Badger, a 10-year veteran who played in seven games in 2006 at guard and tackle for Oakland, was signed for one year to bolster depth. He was Washington's fifth-round pick in 1997 out of Stanford.
--C Scott Peters, a four-year veteran who was on IR in Carolina last season, was signed for one year to bolster depth. Peters also can play guard. He was Philadelphia's fourth-round pick in 2002 out of Arizona State.
--FB Brandon Snow was released. He was low on the depth chart with very little chance to make the roster.
--WR Ahmad Merritt, fighting for a roster spot after being out of football for three years, suffered a dislocated ankle that could end his season after he'd made four catches for 61 yards in the second quarter vs. Houston.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: CB Antrel Rolle vs. CB Rod Hood -- Hood got the start over Eric Green, who'd had a strong opening game at Oakland, as coaches continue to evaluate the two. But it now appears that one of them could knock former first-round draft pick Antrel Rolle out of a starting job. Rolle has had two lackluster preseason outings. Hood, however, also had a pass-interference penalty in his start opposite Rolle.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: FS Terrence Holt got the start over Aaron Francisco in the second preseason game after Francisco started the opener. Their battle remains too close to call. They've both played well ... Calvin Pace and Darryl Blackstock are competing for a starting job at OLB in the wake of Chike Okeafor's bicep surgery. Okeafor may be lost for the season. Neither Pace nor Blackstock stepped forward vs. Houston.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: RB J.J. Arrington, nearly given up for dead after two disappointing seasons, rushed for 35 yards on seven carries vs. Houston. While it was accomplished vs. the Texans' second defense, Arrington, a 2005 second-round pick, also was working behind the Cardinals' second line.
ROOKIE REPORT: OT Levi Brown, the Cardinals first-round pick, has been thrust into a starting position because of Oliver Ross' triceps injury and he's suffering typical rookie woes. He does look solid as a run blocker, though ... NG Alan Branch made some plays but has some distance to close before he is ready to unseat Gabe Watson from the first unit ... WR-KR Steve Breaston, a fifth-round pick, is on the verge of winning both return jobs.
INJURY REPORT: WR Ahmad Merritt, out of football for three years and impressive in his attempt to win the fifth receiving spot, suffered a dislocated ankle and is out indefinitely. He might have fractured the ankle, as well, and could be lost for the season.
--OLB Chike Okeafor underwent surgery to reattach a torn left bicep and could miss the season. He suffered the tear during the preseason opener at Oakland. Calvin Pace started in his place with backup help from Darryl Blackstock.
--RT Oliver Ross, the starter, continues to get additional opinions on the best course for treating his torn his triceps. If surgery is the answer, he likely would miss the season. Rookie Levi Brown has taken the starting spot.
--T Brandon Gorin, a backup, suffered a sprained right knee vs. Houston as the tackle ranks continue to dwindle.
--C Nick Leckey (knee), a backup, will miss at least another week.
--DT Jonathan Lewis (knee), a backup, has resumed light work but likely will not play during preseason.
--FB A.J. Schable had surgery to repair a fractured right foot and was placed on IR.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
When training camp opened, it appeared veteran Andy McCollum had the inside track to the team's starting job at center. McCollum had made a remarkable comeback at the age of 37 from major knee surgery. And despite solid play from Brett Romberg in the final three games of the 2006 season, McCollum's experience seemed to give him an edge. But after more than three weeks of training camp and two practice games, coaches are no closer to naming a starter now than they were when camp opened July 27.
Romberg, who turns 28 in October, started the first game against Minnesota, while McCollum started the second game against San Diego. Coach Scott Linehan said a decision would probably be made Tuesday regarding who will start Friday against Oakland.
"We haven't come to a conclusion yet," Linehan said, the day after the team's 30-13 loss to San Diego. "We still feel very comfortable with both of them. I thought Andy played well against the first defensive front. With what we have evaluated to this point, we feel it is still too close to call. Brett played a lot of plays; I think he played up near 40 plays, because of how the rotation worked. We wanted to make sure he stayed in there while Gus (Frerotte) was in there. He played well when he went in. It is still a pretty tight battle."
Linehan said many factors play into the decision.
"There is something to be said about the chemistry of the front and how combinations of guys work together," he said. "I think they are both so close in how they are playing right now that sometimes you just have to give them more than one or two or even three opportunities. That's the interesting battle of our training camp on offense, certainly. That is because of how close they are No. 1, but No. 2, we do have four preseason games to evaluate that position and hopefully make the best judgment once we get to the regular season. It is not just how they grade out, but it is a little bit how we do when we play as a team. It is not a lot different from other positions."
Asked about the physical differences between the two players, Linehan said: "Andy is a little bit bigger in stature and maybe a little bit longer. Brett is a little lower to the ground. The difference right now is so subtle. I think both are bringing some real positives to the table. The hardest decision we are going to have to make is what is best for that entire group in there and what is best down the road as well."
--The team was dealing with tragedy when Kathy Garrett, the 38-year-old wife of tight ends coach Judd Garrett, passed away Sunday morning (Aug. 19). Judd Garrett is the brother of Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. An All-America soccer player at Princeton, the school Judd also attended, Kathy Garrett was hospitalized four days before she died when her body apparently stopped functioning.
The Garretts have four children.
--Coach Scott Linehan likes what he sees from LB Will Witherspoon, who is playing his second season in coordinator Jim Haslett's system and as a middle linebacker. "Our offense is doing a lot more with a lot of movement and things where he has to reset the front and do all those things," Linehan said. "He's able to see a lot of things that we're going to see during the year, and it's just like night and day as far as the intangible-type things other than his ability to play and run the ball and make tackles. He is really much improved."
--RB Steven Jackson has yet to carry the ball from scrimmage in two games. Saturday against San Diego, he was on the field for the first play of the game, and that was it for the evening. Coaches wanted to get a long look at rookie Brian Leonard against a first-team defense. "We just decided not to play him," Linehan said of Jackson. "We felt good about Brian's start last week. I thought he ran hard and showed some good signs tonight. But, this is our chance to find out how we feel about our No. 2 back situation. That hasn't really changed. I have a pretty good idea of what we are going to get out of Steven."
Before the game, Linehan had said of using Jackson, "We get every player ready to play and then we decide based on the game plan if we are going to play a player. I don't think our first group, especially the proven-type players, will play a whole lot. That is just the way preseason is. But we will decide which games we play more and which games we play less." Explaining further the decision to get a lot of snaps for Leonard, who had 19 rushing attempts against the Chargers, "Our biggest question is, 'If Steven weren't in the game, who are we going to play?' I don't have any question about what Steven is going to be able to do. My biggest thing with running backs is that they get hit a lot. During the regular season they get hit a lot more than any other position on our football team. You try to be really smart about that in preseason. He takes all of the reps with the ones in practice; you guys know he's out there. We keep him out of some, but he gets a lot of snaps during the week.
"Our biggest question and we are answering it, is 'Can Brian fill that No. 2 spot?' The only way to figure that out is to play him like he is in a starting role. As far as the snaps, the plan all along was to play Brian a lot in the first half of all of the preseason games."
--As for Leonard, Linehan is pleased with how quickly he has picked up the responsibilities of the position.
Asked about handling the job, Linehan said, "I don't have any question that he can handle it. He does things in a different way. I have been really impressed with how comfortable he has been in that role. He has done a great job when it comes to running the ball downhill. He is kind of a slashing runner who gets the most out of what he's got there. What he has been really good at is in the passing game and the protection side of things, which is the part that rookies usually struggle in. He has done a great job in that regard. When we have thrown the ball, he has caught it. He has done a good job with it after the catch. I think he is a well-rounded player and every time I see him play I get more encouraged."
Coaches plan to get Leonard significant practice snaps at fullback over the next two weeks so he can be also up to speed at that position.
--Fired last season as Michigan State head coach, the Rams hired John L. Smith to do advance scouting of the team's opponents. When he was the head coach at Idaho in 1989, Smith hired Scott Linehan as receivers coach, his first coaching job. "John L. is a great evaluator," Linehan said. "He can see strength and weaknesses of the personnel we're going to play." Smith hired Linehan two more times, once again at Idaho after linehan went to UNLV for a year and later as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Louisville.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's so gifted he doesn't know it yet. He has some tools that a lot of defensive linemen don't have nowadays. Once he learns how to use that and use it more consistently, he should be fine." -- DE Leonard Little on second-year DT Claude Wroten.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--TE Dominique Byrd, charged in the spring with a DUI and driving without a license, had his trial continued from last Thursday (Aug. 16) until Oct. 16.
--DE Victor Adeyanju has been getting some work inside at tackle.
"We're just adding some versatility to him," coach Scott Linehan said. "I think it enhances his ability to rush the passer from inside vs. outside."
Said Adeyanju, "I'm up for the challenge. Obviously, it's more work mentally, but it makes yourself a lot more valuable, in case some guys go down or they need an extra guy there."
--WR Dane Looker, also the holder for PK Jeff Wilkins, did not play against San Diego because of a back injury and might not be available Friday against Oakland when Wilkins kicks in a game for the first time this summer.
--PK Jeff Wilkins has not kicked in the first two preseason games, but will kick Friday against Oakland.
--CB Jonathan Wade continues to progress coming in as the third corner in passing situations and could challenge Ron Bartell for the starting job by the time the season opens Sept. 9 against Carolina.
--QB Ryan Fitzpatrick hopes to practice this week after missing time after suffering a cracked rib in the team's Aug. 10 game against Minnesota.
--OT Todd Steussie did not play against San Diego because of a pinched nerve in his neck suffered in practice.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Ron Bartell vs. Jonathan Wade for starting CB job -- With Fakhir Brown expected to miss the first four games of the season because of a league suspension, Ron Bartell has been starting at cornerback with rookie Jonathan Wade entering the game more than Lenny Walls as the nickel back. However, Wade plays on the outside in the nickel with Bartell moving inside to the slot. With Wade showing himself to be a willing and solid tackler and Bartell struggling at times there, Wade could end up starting if he continues progressing since he would be on the outside just as he is in the nickel. Bartell would still be the nickel back and play the same slot position.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: RB Rich Alexis played a lot against San Diego, as he battles Travis Minor and Kay-Jay Harris for the No. 3 job ... LB Tim McGarigle remains out with a hamstring injury, and is losing time in his hopes to be the team's sixth or seventh linebacker.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: RB Brian Leonard -- He doesn't do spectacular things, but rarely loses yards in the running game, and fights for extra yards. He has done well in protections, and will now begin getting some work as a fullback.
ROOKIE REPORT: OT Ken Shackleford returned to practice after missing time because of a knee injury. It appears his only chance this year is on the practice squad.
INJURY REPORT: WR Drew Bennett was proclaimed healthy the day after it was thought he suffered bruised ribs against the Chargers. Bennett only had the wind knocked out of him after being hit following a 34-yard pass play. ... RG Richie Incognito suffered a slightly sprained ankle against San Diego. ... Backup OT Todd Steussie did not play against the Chargers because of a pinched nerve in his neck suffered in practice Aug. 15. ... QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is expected to return to practice this week after injuring his ribs after a hit from Minnesota LB Heath Farwell on Aug. 10. Farwell was fined $7,500 by the league.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Even after just two exhibition games, it is clear how much more comfortable quarterback Alex Smith appears in his third season with the 49ers. Smith is finally in the second year of the same system, although he is working with his third offensive coordinator in three seasons. But Smith has made plays in his first two exhibition games that he probably would not have had the confidence to pull off a year ago.
One of those occurred Saturday night against the Raiders. Smith glared at the right side to draw the safety away from the middle of the field, then came back to hit tight end Delanie Walker for a 19-yard touchdown pass.
"They were in man-to-man," Smith said. "I knew if I looked (toward Jackson), I could get that safety to bite. The safety jumped, and I came back to Delanie. Delanie made a nice play."
Through two games, Smith has completed 12 of 17 passes for 164 yards. His passer rating stands at 120.7. Smith clearly feels more confident in his ability to lead the 49ers this season. The club has high hopes, as it expects to make a run at the NFC playoffs.
In order for the 49ers take the next step, Smith has to be able to give the 49ers a passing game to complement the expected solid ground game and running back Frank Gore. Although Gore is expected to miss the entire exhibition season with a broken hand, he should be ready for the Sept. 10 season opener against the Cardinals. The passing game should be in much better shape this season, as Smith seemingly has a better supporting cast.
The 49ers acquired Darrell Jackson in a draft-day trade from the Seahawks for a fourth-round pick. Jackson and Arnaz Battle, who led 49ers wideouts with 59 receptions last season, are slated to be the starters. But the 49ers expect a huge season from second-year tight end Vernon Davis, who struggled much of his rookie season around a six-week absence from a broken leg.
Smith is also just beginning to work with receiver Ashley Lelie, whom the 49ers signed at the start of free agency. Lelie found himself far down the depth chart after he missed much of the offseason program with a quadriceps strain.
Lelie finally began working a little with Smith in the team's second exhibition game. He caught two second-quarter passes from Smith, of 20 and 14 yards. But Smith misfired on another route that could have gone for big yards.
"We have to get the timing down with Alex," Lelie said. "We were a little off-sync, but it'll come."
Lelie had been running primarily with the third team for the first part of training camp. He is in a battle for the No. 3 job with Taylor Jacobs, Brandon Williams and Bryan Gilmore. Lelie's solid showing against the Raiders (four catches, 57 yards) is probably enough to push him into that role.
CAMP CALENDAR: The 49ers practice at their in-season practice facility in Santa Clara, Calif. Camp breaks Wednesday.
--Jim Hostler is in his first season as offensive coordinator after spending the past two years on the 49ers' sideline as quarterbacks coach. If he had his preference, he would remain on the sideline, but coach Mike Nolan has other ideas. He wants his coordinators in the press box. "It's a chess game, and that's the way to play chess the best," Nolan said.
Nolan wants Hostler to spend two exhibition games on the sideline and two in the box. Things went smoothly in his first game on the sideline, as quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti, a former college coordinator, served as his eyes from above. Things got off a rough start when Hostler moved to the booth for the game Saturday against the Raiders. But Nolan said the communication improved as the game moved forward.
--WR Ashley Lelie appears to be the odds-on favorite to win the No. 3 role. He had a strong showing with four catches for 57 yards against the Raiders. Also, history is on his side.
After all, Lelie's worst season in the NFL is still better than anything his competition has done at the professional level. Lelie caught a career-low 28 passes for 430 yards last season after he landed with the Falcons after an acrimonious split from the Broncos. Taylor Jacobs, Bryan Gilmore and Brandon Williams are Lelie's top competitors for the No. 3 job behind starters Darrell Jackson and Arnaz Battle.
--DE Marques Douglas arrived at the stadium Saturday and was ready to face the Raiders in an exhibition game. Then, he got a phone call. His services were needed elsewhere, as his wife, Sparkle, went into labor.
--Jacobs did not get much sleep the night before the game, and he did not take part in pregame warmups after being up all night. Jacobs' wife, Christine, gave birth to a boy. The birth was particularly poignant for the couple. Last October, their 10-week-old daughter, Taryn, died of sudden infant death syndrome.
--Second-year RB Michael Robinson said he ran hard last year, but he didn't always run smart. He was so intent on hitting the hole that sometimes he failed to make the adjustments to hit a crease that could have yielded more yards. In hopes of improving his running, Robinson spent the summer watching film of teammate Frank Gore. "Frank is so good," Robinson said. "He's quick but he doesn't hurry. He's a great guy to learn from because he is so patient. If you hit the hole so fast you might not see another hole. Frank is so good at finding the hole."
--Rookie LB Patrick Willis made a great impression on coach Mike Nolan, who said he liked even all the little stuff he saw from the player the 49ers chose with the No. 11 overall pick. "His athletic ability shows because he gets out of trouble that sometimes other guys can't get out of," Nolan said. "Patrick did a real nice job of the little things that the naked eye wouldn't see." Willis' best attribute might be his speed. But even he was a big shocked at how much faster the game is at the NFL level."It was faster than I thought it would be," Willis said. "I was nervous at first but was able to settle down. You can practice all day, but when you get out there on the field, everyone is out there is moving a hundred miles an hour. Everyone is fighting for their jobs."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The win I would hope is characteristic of who we are. I thought it was great how we went down the field at the end and scored." -- Coach Mike Nolan on the team's third-stringers scoring in the final minute for a 26-21 victory over the Raiders.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The 49ers' backups on the defensive line are getting plenty of work in the exhibition season. Backups Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Ronald Fields were in the starting lineup in the team's second exhibition game. McDonald started at right defensive end in place of Marques Douglas, who missed the game after his wife went into labor. Sopoaga is starting in place of Aubrayo Franklin, who is expected to return for the regular-season opener after sustaining a partially torn knee ligament. Also, Fields has been filling in for Bryant Young, who is nursing a bulging disc in his back.
--S Mark Roman should be able to benefit from the better corners in front of him. Roman is good at reading the quarterback, but he found himself with too many responsibilities last season because of the shoddy cornerback play. He had an interception and 22-yard return against the Raiders on Saturday.
--FB Steve Dildine, whom the 49ers converted from a linebacker at Washington State, did a solid job as a lead-blocker in the fourth quarter. He paved the way for RB Thomas Clayton's 1-yard scoring run.
--RB Arkee Whitlock played first and second downs in the third quarter, ahead of rookie draft pick Thomas Clayton. Whitlock did not have much room to run, though. He carried five times for 14 yards.
--RB Thomas Clayton, coming off a lackluster showing in the opener, ran much harder in his second exhibition game. Clayton rushed for 42 yards on 10 carries, including the game-winning 1-yard scoring run in the final minute.
--WR Bryan Gilmore, the team's No. 3 receiver last season, caught three passes for 35 yards during a five-play span. He caught eight passes all of last season.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Justin Smiley vs. David Baas for the starting ORG spot -- Smiley is the incumbent. He had a solid season last year, helping Frank Gore rush for an NFC-best 1,695 yards. But the 49ers ultimately want to get bigger on the offensive line. That is why they have not wanted to play Smiley the big money he seeks. (His contract expires at the end of the season). Baas is more in the mold of lineman that the 49ers want. Baas outweighs Smiley by at least 20 pounds. Baas played well Saturday against the Raiders, while Smiley was called for holding penalties on back-to-back plays.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Ashley Lelie vs. Taylor Jacobs at No. 3 wide receiver -- Lelie took a major leap forward with a strong showing against the Raiders. Jacobs has played exceptionally well in camp but he has just one catch in two exhibition games. Derek Smith vs. Patrick Willis for the starting job at MLB. Smith enters his 11th season and the 49ers know what they're getting. Willis has impressive physical tools and has done everything the club has wanted him to do in training camp. Currently, Smith is starting and Willis comes in on third downs. Michael Robinson and Maurice Hicks for the backup RB job. Actually, this might not be much of a competition. Hicks, who is better on first and second down, could wind up giving way to Robinson, who is best-suited as a third-down back when reps become available. If the 49ers were forced to play without Frank Gore, they would probably rely on both Hicks and Robinson. Kwame Harris vs. Joe Staley at right tackle. Harris, the incumbent, started every game the past two seasons. He is strong as a run-blocker and not as consistent in pass protection. Staley, a rookie, has shown good feet and strength. Staley has a legitimate chance to emerge as the starter.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: WR Ashley Lelie -- In the first exhibition game, he was far down the depth chart. But he showed skills that nobody else on the team has when he got more of a chance in the team's second game. He is big (6-foot-3) and has deep speed. He is a legitimate deep threat that teams have to respect. He finally got a chance to work a little with Alex Smith, and the two hooked up on a couple plays. But their lack of work together also showed when Smith threw behind him on an in-route. Lelie said Smith probably underestimated his speed. The pattern calls for the receiver to take six strides. As Lelie pointed out, his six strides take him a lot farther than Brandon Williams' six steps. Williams is 5-foot-11.
ROOKIE REPORT: LB Patrick Willis played well in his first two exhibition games, leading the team in tackles in both games. He is at his best in pursuit. He has gotten tied up in traffic a couple times while covering backs near the line of scrimmage. He should play a key role in the 49ers' defense, probably in the nickel defense at the beginning of the season. ... ORT Joe Staley has put himself in position to win the starting job over Kwame Harris. He has looked good in practice and in the first two games. ... WR Jason Hill has yet to really get in the flow. Although he will certainly be on the team this season, he might not make much of an impact initially as a rookie. ... OLB Jay Moore is learning about the new position after playing defensive end in college. He has good athleticism but needs a lot of technique work when dropping into coverage. ... DE Ray McDonald started at RDE in place of Marques Douglas on Saturday. He shows good quickness off the ball, but he was also called for two offside penalties. ... NT Joe Cohen showed up better in the first two exhibition games than he has during practices. He's done a good job on the nose in two games. ... S Dashon Goldson has shown some flashes in the first two games with his hitting and coverage skills. He is the backup at free safety. ... CB Tarell Brown has solidified his role as the team's fourth corner. With Walt Harris out, Brown has been entering the game in nickel situations to play the slot receiver. ... RB Thomas Clayton is the No. 4 running back. He ran well Saturday, gaining 42 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. It might be difficult for him to earn a roster spot, but he could end up back on the 49ers' practice squad.
INJURY REPORT: RB Frank Gore returned to practice in a limited role with a broken right hand. He might not see any action during the exhibition season, though, as the club wants him to be completely healed and healthy for the regular-season opener. ... DE Bryant Young has participated in just one practice this summer because of a bulging disc in his back. Young said he is confident that he will be able to cope with his condition with proper treatment. ... CB Walt Harris missed the first two exhibition games with a mild left calf strain. ... NT Aubrayo Franklin is likely to miss the entire exhibition season with a partially torn MCL in his knee. The injury did not require surgery. The club expects him to be ready for the start of the regular season. ... Backup DT Patrick Estes sustained a high left ankle sprain and is expected back at practice any day. ... S Dashon Goldon sustained an elbow strain that leaves him questionable for the 49ers' game Saturday at the Bears.