NFC West: Shawntae Spencer

NFC West links: Cards plan to go with Kolb

February, 17, 2012
AM ET has a free-agency primer for the NFC West.

Arizona Cardinals

GM Rod Graves is confident defensive end Calais Campbell will remain with the club. "Calais will be with us, rest assured,” Graves said in an interview with Arizona Sports 620.

Graves also said he expects to go into next season with Kevin Kolb as the team's starting quarterback -- but Graves wouldn't rule out a change at the position. "There's no reason to think at this particular point that we wouldn't proceed with ... seeing the contract through, but things change as we go down the road," Graves said in an interview on KTAR-AM in Phoenix.

St. Louis Rams

ESPN's Todd McShay expects the Rams to get plenty of offers to trade out of the No. 2 overall pick in April's draft. " ... I think that No. 2 pick is up for public auction. I think the Rams are going to get a good deal to move back and can still get a player they want at tackle or wide receiver," McShay said during a conference call.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers are expected to allow veteran cornerback Shawntae Spencer to seek a trade.

Meanwhile, Spencer has switched agents.

Seattle Seahawks

Everyone wants to know what the Seahawks are going to do at the quarterback position. But one thing they won't do, writes's Clare Farnsworth, is panic.
SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints offered no surprises when declaring which players would be inactive for their NFC divisional playoff game Saturday.

Niners tight end Delanie Walker (broken jaw) and Saints receiver Lance Moore (hamstring) will not play. The Saints ruled out Moore on Friday. The 49ers did not officially rule out Walker at that time, but coach Jim Harbaugh had previously said Walker would almost certainly miss the game.

Also inactive for the 49ers: quarterback Scott Tolzien, receiver Joe Hastings, cornerback Shawntae Spencer, guard Daniel Kilgore, guard Mike Person and nose tackle Ian Williams.

For the Saints: cornerback Leigh Torrence, linebacker Nate Bussey, guard Eric Olsen, tight end Tory Humphrey, tight end John Gilmore and defensive end Turk McBride.

The 49ers will have receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams after both missed late-season games with injuries. Their presence upgrades the 49ers on special teams as well. Walker's absence makes the 49ers' less dynamic in their two-tight end personnel packages. Walker was also a solid contributor on special teams.

Rams find way to protect Sam Bradford

December, 4, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO -- Picture-perfect California weather only marginally improved the St. Louis Rams' view from the visitor's sideline at Candlestick Park.

The Rams watched backup quarterbacks A.J. Feeley and Tom Brandstater warm up, but there was no sign of starter Sam Bradford. The more time passed, the clearer it became Bradford would not play Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

Bradford, slowed by an ankle injury, was among the players St. Louis declared inactive 90 minutes before the 4:15 p.m. ET kickoff. Feeley, 1-1 as a starter for the Rams this season, will start against San Francisco. The Rams also declared safety Darian Stewart, running back Cadillac Williams, linebacker Josh Hull, guard Kevin Hughes, tackle Mark LeVoir and defensive end C.J. Ah You inactive.

The 49ers' list featured quarterback Scott Tolzien, receiver Braylon Edwards, cornerback Shawntae Spencer, fullback Moran Norris, guard Daniel Kilgore, guard Mike Person and nose tackle Ian Williams.

Bradford missed practice during the week after aggravating the high-ankle sprain he suffered this season. There was no sense risking his physical well-being behind an offensive line playing without both starting tackles, in my view.

Rapid Reaction: 49ers 23, Cardinals 7

November, 20, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO -- Thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at Candlestick Park in Week 11:

What it means: The 49ers can clinch the NFC West title with a victory at Baltimore and a Seattle loss to Washington. They improved to 9-1 while securing their first winning season since 2002. They have won eight in a row, the fourth-longest streak since 1970 for a team with a rookie head coach. This was an ugly victory, particularly for the 49ers' offense. That's not a bad thing entirely, however. Coach Jim Harbaugh will suffer no shortage of coaching points heading into a much-anticipated game at Baltimore. The Cardinals were worse on offense, making it easier politically for them to transition back to Kevin Kolb at quarterback, provided Kolb's foot and toe injuries heal enough for him to practice this week.

What I liked: The 49ers continued to win with field position and turnovers. Receiver Michael Crabtree played a strong game, breaking tackles and picking up yards after the catch. The 49ers' yards after the catch have plummeted overall this season. Crabtree's average YAC had fallen from 5.4 last season to 3.9 through Week 10 this season. He pumped up those numbers Sunday and won his matchups against the Cardinals' Patrick Peterson.

Another 49ers receiver, Kyle Williams, also enjoyed a strong game. Williams showed sure hands making catches away from his body. He also caught a scoring pass. The 49ers played suffocating defense, allowing their offense and special teams a fat margin for error. Patrick Willis, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson picked off passes. The offense kept plugging away and finally got going. Frank Gore's knee was healthy enough for him to start and play effectively.

For the Cardinals, linebacker Stewart Bradley made a couple jarring tackles on special teams, including a memorable one against 49ers punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. Calais Campbell blocked a field goal for the fifth time in his career. The Cardinals' defense played well enough early to keep Arizona close.

What I didn't like: Skelton played his worst game of the season, serving up turnovers with inexplicable throws. He completed 6 of 19 passes for 99 yards, no touchdowns and a 10.5 NFL passer rating. This might have been the worst performance by an NFC West quarterback this season, worse even than Charlie Whitehurst's game for Seattle at Cleveland. On defense, Peterson had issues in coverage, starting poorly when he slipped on the wet grass, allowing a big gain for Crabtree. For the 49ers, quarterback Alex Smith was off-target and off-speed early in the game. Braylon Edwards dropped a couple of passes early. Then, when Edwards was open in the end zone, Smith threw too high and too hard for him. Smith also missed a wide-open Crabtree in the end zone, again throwing too hard. The 49ers' usually strong special teams faltered repeatedly. David Akers missed two field goal tries and had two more blocked, one by Campbell and one by Peterson. The 49ers incurred multiple penalties during returns.

Costly skirmish: Referee Peter Morelli ejected Goldson in the fourth quarter after Goldson threw punches at Cardinals receiver Early Doucet. Doucet had come over to Goldson while Goldson was down, hitting him in the head. The 49ers will now wait to see whether the NFL suspends Goldson for their Thursday night game at Baltimore. If that happens, the 49ers will presumably keep Madieu Williams active. Williams was named inactive Sunday. The 49ers kept Shawntae Spencer active instead.

Block party: The Cardinals blocked two field goal tries in the same game for the first time since a Sept. 17, 1972, game against the Baltimore Colts. They became the first team since Seattle on Oct. 23 to block more than one in an NFL game.

Empty at fullback: The 49ers lost fullback Bruce Miller to a head injury. Their other fullback, Moran Norris, has been sidelined with a leg injury. It's unclear whether San Francisco will have either player on a short week.

Upon further review: Harbaugh keeps challenging plays whether or not they are reviewable under the rules. After officials denied one request for review, Harbaugh successfully challenged whether Beanie Wells had fumbled. The 49ers took over possession and kicked a field goal for a 6-0 lead in the first quarter. That was Harbaugh's third successful challenge in eight coach-initiated reviews this season. Later, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt lost a challenge when he thought Smith's pass traveled backward. Whisenhunt has challenged seven plays this season, succeeding on four of them.

What's next: The 49ers visit Baltimore for a Thursday night game against the Ravens. The Cardinals visit St. Louis.

Gore active; Kolb, Heap will not play

November, 20, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO -- The San Francisco 49ers kept running back Frank Gore active Sunday after listing him as questionable on their Friday injury report.

That was the most notable pregame roster move for San Francisco in Week 11. The team also declared free safety Madieu Williams inactive, choosing instead to keep cornerback Shawntae Spencer active. Spencer provides additional coverage depth after starter Tarell Brown suffered a knee injury in practice. The team listed Brown as questionable. He is active. Also at corner, rookie Chris Culliver is coming off a rough week against the New York Giants, according to 49ers' coaches.

The Arizona Cardinals' inactive list featured no big surprises. Quarterback Kevin Kolb and tight ends Todd Heap and Rob Housler will miss the game while resting injuries. All have struggled with injuries in recent weeks. Kolb in particular was not expected to play.

Giants will have top wideouts vs. 49ers

November, 13, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO -- The New York Giants' list of inactive players carried quite a bit of interest for the San Francisco 49ers in Week 10.

Receivers Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks are both active despite injuries. How well they hold up will be the next big question. The 49ers' secondary has been a hard-hitting group this season. Their secondary has also been vulnerable, at times, against the best quarterbacks it has faced, notably Tony Romo and Michael Vick.

The Giants will be without running back Ahmad Bradshaw, as expected. Their full list of inactive players Sunday: receiver Jerrell Jernigan, cornerback Prince Amukamara, Bradshaw, fullback Henry Hynoski, guard Mitch Petrus, defensive tackle Dwayne Hendricks and tackle James Brewer.

The 49ers' list carried little suspense. Defensive end Ray McDonald is active, though it's unclear whether he'll start after missing Week 9 with a hamstring injury. Quarterback Scott Tolzien, cornerback Shawntae Spencer, offensive lineman Mike Person, offensive lineman Daniel Kilgore, fullback Moran Norris, receiver Brett Swain and nose tackle Ian Williams are inactive.

NFC West Stock Watch

October, 18, 2011
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


1. Mike Sims-Walker, ex-Rams WR: That did not take long. Sims-Walker went from key free-agent addition to dropping three passes against Washington to being named inactive to being released in a short period of time. Perhaps now we know why the Jacksonville Jaguars decided against bringing back Sims-Walker even though they lacked proven players at the position. Sims-Walker was the logical Rams receiver to go once the team acquired Brandon Lloyd from Denver. The team expects to welcome back veteran Mark Clayton from the physically unable to perform list at some point, too.

2. Lockout grace periods: It's tough for the San Francisco 49ers' division rivals -- and other teams -- to complain too loudly about the lockout setting them back. The 49ers have gotten to 5-1 despite changing over just about all of their coaching staff and installing new schemes. As Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said following his team's 1-4 start, "A lot of guys are making mistakes. Can you say, 'Well, gee, that is lack of offseason?' We're now into October. We now should be able to clean up those things. These are professional athletes and they have to rise to the occasion. And none of the other 31 teams had an offseason, either. We shouldn't be at that much of a disadvantage where we've only won one game."

3. Shawntae Spencer, 49ers CB: Spencer was a starter last season and arguably the best cornerback on the team. He's not getting on the field at this point because Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and rookie Chris Culliver are ahead of him on the depth chart. The 49ers did a good job addressing the position in the offseason. Had they stood pat, Spencer would probably be starting. Injuries have also set back Spencer this season.


[+] EnlargeAldon Smith
AP Photo/Rick Osentoski49ers linebacker Aldon Smith is making a case to become defensive rookie of the year.
1. Aldon Smith, 49ers OLB: The player San Francisco drafted in the first round is quickly becoming a candidate for defensive rookie of the year, along with Ryan Kerrigan of the Washington Redskins. Smith has 5.5 sacks over the 49ers' last three games. He is playing well and benefiting from the talent around him. Opposing offenses must funnel additional resources toward defensive end Justin Smith in particular.

2. Vic Fangio, 49ers defensive coordinator. The 49ers' defensive performance on the road against the Detroit Lions was mostly dominant. The defense provided a safety and held the Lions to two third-down conversions in 15 opportunities. Fangio and the personnel department deserve much credit for putting together the right mix of players on defense. Drafting Smith seventh overall and Culliver in the third round helped the defense right away. Other moves that have worked out well: adding Rogers to replace Nate Clements, moving NaVorro Bowman into the lineup at the expense of Takeo Spikes, signing and moving into the lineup Ray McDonald and remaking the safety position without losing Dashon Goldson. The 49ers took some heat for not signing Nnamdi Asomugha, but no one is complaining now.

3. Delanie Walker, 49ers TE: Walker now has touchdown receptions in consecutive games. He has three for the season after catching none since 2008. Years ago, when Trent Dilfer was still playing for the 49ers, I remember him saying Walker was one of the most talented players on the team. Year after year, Walker seemed on the verge of becoming a bigger factor, but it would never happen to the extent anticipated. It's looking like the new coaching staff is finding ways to get more key plays from Walker. His game-winning touchdown reception in the final minutes Sunday stands as a career highlight, but perhaps not for long.

NFC West corner landscape minus Trufant

October, 17, 2011
The NFC West cornerback landscape was already barely recognizable from last season.

Marcus Trufant's placement on the Seattle Seahawks injured-reserve list, announced by the team Monday, signals another big change.

The Seahawks will have gone from Trufant and Kelly Jennings as their starters last season to Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner for the remaining 11 games.

The Arizona Cardinals have gone from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (traded) and Greg Toler (injured reserve) to Patrick Peterson and A.J. Jefferson. The St. Louis Rams have changed from Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher (both on IR) to Justin King and Al Harris. The San Francisco 49ers have gone from Nate Clements (released) and Shawntae Spencer (backup) to Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, with rookie Chris Culliver surpassing Spencer in the nickel defense.

Trufant, 30, has started at least 15 games in seven of his nine seasons, all with Seattle. He was generally playing well this season before back trouble sidelined him for the team's 36-25 victory against the New York Giants. The team was developing second-year corner Thurmond as a future starter. Thurmond was gaining ground in that pursuit already. Trufant's injury accelerates the process and draws attention to the fact that Trufant's time with the Seahawks could be waning.
DETROIT -- A few thoughts and observations as the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions warm up on the field below for their game Sunday:
  • The Lions' Ndamukong Suh gets most of the attention after his 10-sack rookie season. A few scouting types I've spoken with said they thought Detroit's other defensive tackle, Corey Williams, has played at least as well and even better. Williams will line up over 49ers left guard Mike Iupati for what should be a fierce battle. Williams did suffer an foot injury in practice this week, but he's starting.
  • The 49ers know they need to minimize crowd noise by starting the game well. Otherwise, noise threatens to be a big problem for tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, who face tough enough matchups anyway.
  • There's little question the 49ers will try to emphasize the run. They'll want to make the Lions pay for lining up their defensive ends wider than most teams line them up. They should like their matchups in that regard, but Alex Smith and the passing game will need to function well enough over the course of the game to keep the Lions' defense honest. Smith has appeared decisive and comfortable lately, getting rid of the ball quickly. That must continue.
  • Chris Culliver and Shawntae Spencer are both active at cornerback for the 49ers. I would expect Culliver, the rookie third-round pick, to serve as the first corner off the bench in nickel situations. Veteran Carlos Rogers moves inside in those situations, potentially leaving Culliver outside against Calvin Johnson. The 49ers will obviously need to help out with a safety in those situations.
  • The Lions have been effective at times throwing underneath passes to Jahvid Best in particular. The 49ers' Aldon Smith isn't on the field for all situations, but the rookie outside linebacker does possess arms long enough to contest some of those throws. He had a key tipped pass against Seattle in the fourth quarter of the opener. Something to keep in mind.
  • The Lions rank 20th in punt-return defense and 28th in kick-return defense, defined by average return lengths. That makes the 49ers' Ted Ginn Jr. a player to watch. Few things sap the life from a crowd more than a touchdown return from the visiting team.

Kevin Seifert and I are getting settled in here before kickoff. I'm seeing quite a few fans wearing 49ers jerseys ringing the visitor's sideline and sprinkled throughout the still mostly empty blue seats. The first two fans I saw outside the stadium Sunday morning were wearing Patrick Willis jerseys.

The 49ers and defending Calvin Johnson

October, 14, 2011
Chris Culliver's interception for the San Francisco 49ers against Tampa Bay announced his arrival as more than just a rookie fill-in for injured veteran Shawntae Spencer.

Culliver, a third-round pick from South Carolina, could serve as the third corner against the Detroit Lions in Week 6 strictly on the merits.

In fact, as coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters Friday, the team went with Culliver against the Buccaneers even though Spencer, who has been slowed by a toe injury, could have played.

Which one will play in the nickel defense against Calvin Johnson and the Lions?

"Tune in on Sunday and find out," Harbaugh said.

As Grant Cohn notes, Greg Cosell of NFL Films told KNBR-AM radio in San Francisco that he expected Culliver to play a leading role in defending Johnson, who leads the NFL in touchdown receptions with nine.

"The one player who really stood out to me and I think will be critical this week when they play Detroit, and that’s Chris Culliver," Cosell told KNBR. "He’s now their nickel corner. He plays on the outside. He’s over 6 feet. He’s 200 pounds. He runs well. They play a lot of man coverage concepts with a safety helping so that their corners can really play physically with their receivers coming off the line of scrimmage. So, I think you’ll see Culliver matched up against Megatron this weekend."

The 49ers liked Culliver coming out of college for several reasons:
  • Raw physical talent: Culliver is 6 feet tall and has run the 40-yard dash in the 4.4s.
  • Versatility: Culliver converted from safety to corner for his senior season, giving him a broader perspective than a cornerback might normally possess.
  • Potential: Being relatively new to corner meant, at least in theory, that Culliver still had considerable room to grow at the position.

Culliver made his interception against the Bucs playing left cornerback against three-receiver personnel on a third-and-9 play, with starting corner Carlos Rogers moving inside to defend the slot on the other side of the formation.

The 49ers figure to face quite a few similar personnel groupings Sunday.

Only three teams -- Buffalo, Seattle and Philadelphia -- have run more plays than the Lions with three-plus wide receivers on the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Detroit has also used two tight ends quite a bit, but with more than two receivers on the field so frequently, the 49ers' nickel defense will be key.

So far this season, the 49ers have done a much better job limiting long pass plays.

The chart at right shows how the 49ers' opponents have fared this season versus last on passes traveling longer than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. They are one of two teams yet to allow a touchdown pass on these throws. They've allowed only three completions on such passes after allowing 24 all last season.

Thanks to Hank Gargiulo and Doug Clawson of ESPN Stats & Information for providing the chart info.

NFC West: Injury situations that matter

October, 12, 2011
Arizona: The Cardinals' bye week helps more from a practice standpoint than an injury standpoint. Arizona needs the work without having to focus on the next opponent so much. Free safety Kerry Rhodes is expected to miss several weeks with a broken foot suffered at Minnesota. Left guard Daryn Colledge suffered a concussion against the Vikings. The bye week should help Beanie Wells (hamstring), Brandon Keith (knee), Todd Heap (hamstring) and others get through injuries that have bothered them recently.

St. Louis: The Rams' injuries at cornerback are old news, but worth mentioning given their matchup Sunday against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Starters Ron Bartell (neck) and Bradley Fletcher (knee) are out for the season, as is projected third corner Jerome Murphy (ankle). That means Justin King and Al Harris are the likely starters. Another corner, Josh Gordy, missed practice Wednesday to attend a family funeral. A hamstring injury sidelined guard Jacob Bell. Tony Wragge would start in his place if necessary. Tight end Mike Hoomanawanui (concussion) and defensive end James Hall (back) were limited. With receiver Danny Amendola out for the season, rookie Austin Pettis becomes the primary slot receiver. His development is key.

San Francisco: The 49ers got nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga back from a staph infection, restoring depth to their defensive line. Cornerback Shawntae Spencer's expected return from a toe injury could send rookie Chris Culliver to the sideline. Culliver got good experience against Tampa Bay, picking off a pass. He should be in better position to help the team in the future, if needed. The situation at wide receiver remains dicey with Braylon Edwards still out and Josh Morgan landing on injured reserve. The 49ers already favored personnel groupings with two tight ends. That should continue. Ted Ginn Jr. becomes a starter. Morgan was an excellent blocker and physical player overall. Guard Mike Iupati, affected by a neck injury in recent weeks, missed practice and reportedly had a wrap on his knee.

Seattle: The Seahawks did not make coach Pete Carroll available following practice Wednesday, presumably because the team was not yet prepared to discuss the pending trade involving Aaron Curry. As a result, injury news was scarcer than usual, even for a bye week. Center Max Unger continues to wear a boot on his injured foot, but line coach Tom Cable indicated that Unger should be available next week. We won't know until next week whether quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (pectoral) and tight end Zach Miller (neck) will return quickly. Jackson was at practice Wednesday, but did not formally participate. I did not see Miller in attendance. Receiver Mike Williams was back on the practice field this week after missing one game with a concussion. The team has enough young depth at the position to function without him.

Week 5 rematches: NFC West vengeance?

October, 5, 2011
NFC West teams went 0-3 last season against the teams they face in Week 5.

They lost those games by a combined 99-31 score.

Much has changed since then. Let's take a look:

Cardinals at Vikings

Score last season: Vikings 27, Cardinals 24 (OT)

Key play: Brett Favre's 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the final minute of regulation tied the game, forcing overtime after the Cardinals had built a 24-10 fourth-quarter lead. Favre threw for a career-high 446 yards in the game.

Biggest change: Both teams have new quarterbacks, Kevin Kolb for Derek Anderson in Arizona, and Donovan McNabb for Favre in Minnesota. Also, the Vikings have a new head coach (Leslie Frazier) while the Cardinals have a new defensive coordinator (Ray Horton).

Storyline: McNabb keeps a home in Arizona and was available to the Cardinals when their quarterback situation was in flux, but the team showed no interest in him. He is now trying to hold off a change to rookie Christian Ponder.

Lineup changes for Arizona (12): Beanie Wells for Tim Hightower at running back, Kolb for Anderson at quarterback, Daryn Colledge for Alan Faneca at left guard, Rex Hadnot for Deuce Lutui at right guard, Todd Heap for Ben Patrick at tight end, Andre Roberts for Steve Breaston at receiver, Anthony Sherman for Reagan Maui'a at fullback (although the team opened its 2010 game at Minnesota without a fullback), Dan Williams for Bryan Robinson at nose tackle, Daryl Washington for Gerald Hayes at linebacker, Clark Haggans for Will Davis at linebacker, A.J. Jefferson for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback, Patrick Peterson for Greg Toler at cornerback.

49ers vs. Buccaneers

Score last season: Buccaneers 21, 49ers 0

Key play: Josh Freeman's 1-yard scoring pass to tackle Donald Penn midway through the fourth quarter put an exclamation point on the 49ers' first home shutout since 1977.

Biggest change: Jim Harbaugh has replaced Mike Singletary as the 49ers' head coach.

Storyline: Alex Smith gets a shot at Tampa Bay after watching Troy Smith struggle against the Bucs as the 49ers' starting quarterback last season. Troy Smith's approach centered around striking for big plays. The Bucs took away the big plays. Alex Smith gives the 49ers a chance to be more efficient.

Lineup changes for San Francisco (12): Alex Smith for Troy Smith at quarterback, Joe Staley for Barry Sims at left tackle, Adam Snyder for Chilo Rachal at right guard, Bruce Miller for Moran Norris at fullback, Isaac Sopoaga for Aubrayo Franklin at nose tackle, Ray McDonald for Sopoaga at defensive end, Ahmad Brooks for Manny Lawson at outside linebacker, NaVorro Bowman for Takeo Spikes at inside linebacker, Carlos Rogers for Nate Clements at cornerback, Tarell Brown for Shawntae Spencer at cornerback, Donte Whitner for Reggie Smith at strong safety.

Seahawks at Giants

Score last season: Giants 41, Seahawks 7

Key play: With Seattle already down 14-0 in the first quarter, the Giants returned Leon Washington's fumbled kickoff return to the Seattle 4, setting up Ahmad Bradshaw's touchdown run on the next play.

Biggest change: Tarvaris Jackson is the starting quarterback for Seattle. Charlie Whitehurst was a fill-in starter for Matt Hasselbeck when the teams played last season.

Storyline: The Seahawks' so-far-unproductive ground game faces a Giants run defense that has struggled. Seattle's young line improved in pass protection last week. Can it take a step forward in run blocking this week?

Lineup changes for Seattle (16): Sidney Rice for Deon Butler at receiver, Jackson for Whitehurst at quarterback, Russell Okung for Chester Pitts at left tackle, Paul McQuistan for Mike Gibson at left guard, Max Unger for Chris Spencer at center, John Moffitt for Stacy Andrews at right guard, James Carpenter for Sean Locklear at right tackle, Zach Miller for John Carlson at tight end, Brandon Mebane for Junior Siavii at defensive tackle, Alan Branch for Craig Terrill at defensive tackle, Red Bryant for Kentwan Balmer at defensive end, K.J. Wright for Aaron Curry at linebacker, David Hawthorne for Lofa Tatupu at linebacker, Leroy Hill for Hawthorne at linebacker, Brandon Browner for Kelly Jennings at right cornerback, Kam Chancellor or Atari Bigby for Lawyer Milloy, depending on Chancellor's availability.
Arizona: Beanie Wells' emphatic return from a hamstring injury last week signals he's ready to carry the offense if necessary. That affects every aspect of the offense for Arizona. LaRod Stephens-Howling's has not yet returned kickoffs since returning from a hand injury. His replacement, A.J. Jefferson, has averaged 29.0 yards per return. The team re-signed veteran punter Ben Graham as insurance in case Dave Zastudil's sore knee prevents him from playing. Graham's familiarity with the Cardinals and experience as Jay Feely's holder on field goals made him a natural choice in a pinch. Right tackle Brandon Keith's knee injury could press Jeremy Bridges into the lineup. Bridges has played pretty well when needed, including last week, but his shall-we-say exuberance puts him at risk for penalties.

St. Louis: The Rams have no game this week, but they do have new injury concerns. Top cornerback Bradley Fletcher is undergoing an MRI after injuring his knee during a practice collision with Mike Sims-Walker. Top receiver Danny Amendola had hoped to return from a dislocated elbow after the bye, but reports suggest he could be finished for the season. Mark Clayton is eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list following the sixth game, but the Rams would seemingly have to consider tapping the trade market if Amendola does miss the season. The bye should provide needed relief for James Hall (back), Sam Bradford (hip) and Steven Jackson (quadriceps), among others. Even defensive coordinator Ken Flajole needs the rest after pulling a groin muscle while administering practice drills Wednesday. Update: Fletcher is out for the season with a torn ACL, a devastating setback for the Rams. They have little quality and no depth at corner heading into games against Green Bay, Dallas and New Orleans.

San Francisco: Frank Gore, like the Cardinals' Wells, put to rest injury concerns with his performance in Week 4. Gore told reporters his ankle feels much better this week. The 49ers are getting healthier for the most part. They've welcomed back free safety Dashon Goldson and receiver Michael Crabtree in recent weeks, and both are contributing. Safety Donte Whitner's hip injury is not keeping him from practicing. Receiver Braylon Edwards isn't expected back from knee surgery until closer to midseason, but with Crabtree producing against Philadelphia, the 49ers should be OK at the position. Defensive linemen Ian Williams and Demarcus Dobbs are candidates to fill the roster spot created when backup defensive end Will Tukuafu went on injured reserve this week. Dobbs in particular impressed during preseason. The 49ers will be fine up front as long as their starters are healthy. Update: The 49ers subsequently listed nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga (infection) and cornerback Shawntae Spencer (toe) on their injury report. Losing Sopoaga would be significant.

Seattle: The Seahawks' injury list contains little drama this week. Linebacker Matt McCoy's season-ending knee injury affects the nickel defense and special teams. Seattle brought back former Rams linebacker David Vobora for depth. Injury concerns at linebacker make it tough, in my view, for the team to part with Aaron Curry even though it's obvious Curry no longer fits prominently into the team's long-term plans. Strong safety Kam Chancellor remains sidelined by a quadriceps injury. He did not practice Wednesday and his status for Week 5 is unclear. The team's run defense suffers without him, but not terribly so. Receiver Mike Williams left the Atlanta game with a concussion and is not yet practicing. Sidney Rice's return, Doug Baldwin's emergence and Golden Tate's behind-the-scenes improvement puts the team in better position to play without Williams if necessary.

2011 49ers Week 2: Five observations

September, 23, 2011
Five things I noticed while watching the San Francisco 49ers during their 27-24 overtime defeat to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2:
  • Andy Lee bails out this offense. Lee boomed long punts when field position was critical. His 45.7-yard net average on six punts was impressive. After Alex Smith took a sack on third-and-6 from the 49ers' 22-yard line, Lee forced the Cowboys to begin their next possession at their own 26. He pinned Dallas at its own 9 later in the quarter. A 58-yarder in overtime gave Dallas a longer field after Smith took another sack.
  • Sometimes, Smith had no chance. The sack he took on the first play of the second quarter stood out. This was a jailbreak situation, beginning right up the middle with center Jonathan Goodwin barely even delaying Josh Brent's rush. The play design put Smith in an even worse position under the circumstances. He faked the screen to Gore on the left side, then spun around to find Anthony Dixon on the other. Instead of seeing Dixon, Smith saw Brent, Anthony Spencer and Alan Ball. They were on top of him before he could react. Smith could do nothing but take the sack.
  • Sometimes, Smith looked instinctive. That was the case on the play Smith made after dropping a high snap from Goodwin and then gathering it on the run. Smith rolled hard to his right and was still running fast when he fired a pass 45 yards on a line to the end zone, drawing an interference penalty. I kept thinking back to the disastrous play Smith made against Philadelphia on a broken play last season. That one required rolling left, preventing Smith from making this type of play. He might not have been playing freely enough to make this throw, anyway
  • Sometimes, Smith looked shaky. We now know Smith suffered a mild concussion at some point during the game, mitigating criticisms. But a two-play stretch midway through the third quarter was a bad one for him. Tony Romo had been knocked out of the game. The 49ers led, 14-7, and had second-and-8 from their own 22. Smith rolled left and badly overthrew Walker for what should have been a first down. On the next play, Smith had time, but something wasn't right between him and tight end Vernon Davis. Smith threw inside the yard-line numbers to the right. Davis broke across the numbers to the outside. Ball picked off the pass. In general, quarterbacks need time to find tight ends open down the field. Smith did not have time consistently.
  • Yes, the 49ers play defense, too. The first four notes here all dealt with the special teams or offense. The defense was generally good, but the spectacular breakdowns in pass coverage swung the game against San Francisco. It was tough finding too much fault with cornerback Carlos Rogers. He tipped the pass that Tramaine Brock picked off, setting up the 49ers' go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter. The 49ers have been playing without the injured corner Shawntae Spencer. Getting him back will presumably help. San Francisco went into the season feeling very good about its veteran additions at safety. I think they'll feel a lot better about those additions against opponents other than the Cowboys.

No mention of running back Frank Gore's struggles here. Two things to consider: The 49ers lost blocking tight end Nate Byham before the season. They have subsequently lost fullback Moran Norris.

Around the NFC West: Towering CB

September, 5, 2011
Greg Toler, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings were among the starting cornerbacks for NFC West teams in Week 17 last season.

Only Toler remains with his team from that group, and he's on injured reserve. Another Week 17 starter at corner, Shawntae Spencer, has missed extensive time to injury.

Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times checks in with one of the NFC West cornerback replacements, and an improbable one at that: 6-foot-4 CFL alum Brandon Browner, the favorite to start opposite Marcus Trufant when the Seattle Seahawks visit the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1. Kelley: "Watch him in practice or preseason this summer and you had to wonder how so many teams could have been so wrong about him. In a league where wide receivers are getting taller, Browner, at 6 feet 4, 225 pounds, seems like a natural. But in the past five years he had auditioned for Miami, Philadelphia, Minnesota and the Seahawks and never gotten a call back."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune provides an interview transcript from his meeting with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Carroll on why he named Tarvaris Jackson the starting quarterback outright: "Our commitment to Tarvaris is really a commitment to the execution of a really good plan, and to put a team together in very short order. And because of the coaching shifts there are things that made that come to the surface. … I think it’s the best competitive thing we can do for our club to make him the quarterback right now, and not worry about an open competition and dividing reps and stuff. There’s just no time. … It wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the team or our fans -- everybody that’s following us. … And I love what Tarvaris can do. I think he’s a fantastic player. I’m just hoping that we can support him properly and play good around him so he can get rolling for us, and that hasn’t quite happened yet."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic profiles new Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb. Guard Rex Hadnot played with Kolb in college and had this to say: "I couldn't tell you what it is about him. His parents have instilled something in him for him to be able to come into a situation, adapt and achieve great success. When I heard about the acquisition, I was excited."

Also from Somers: The Cardinals are expected to announce Chester Taylor's addition Monday.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says veteran guard Hank Fraley is out after the Rams reached a contract agreement with Tony Wragge. Thomas: "Fraley, 33, was due to make $1 million in base salary this season. He appeared in seven games last season, mainly on special teams."

Also from Thomas: NFL teams made waiver claims on Rams castoffs, an indication the talent level is improving in St. Louis. The team hoped to sign quarterback Thaddeus Lewis to its practice squad, but former Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur knew about Lewis and claimed him for the Browns. Rams general manager Billy Devaney: "We were hoping he wasn't claimed, but we fully understood that he played good enough in the preseason where I know he opened some people's eyes. And Pat's certainly familiar with him in Cleveland."

Matt Maiocco of says the NFL has not decided whether to suspend 49ers receiver Braylon Edwards, who pleaded guilty to DUI.

Also from Maiocco: It's looking like the 49ers will sign inside linebacker Tavares Gooden, released by the Ravens. Gooden was a third-round choice in 2008. Would his coach with the Ravens, John Harbaugh, provide a scouting report to his brother, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh?

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee highlights stark differences between current 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and former coach Mike Singletary. Singletary was all about the big picture. Harbaugh is all about the little things. The team hasn't even used the giant hill Singletary had built for conditioning drills. Noted: Head coaches set the tone, obviously, but details surely mattered to Singletary as well. He just didn't want to be the one in charge of them. There's a different feel and standard when the head coach is involved at the most detailed level.

Also from Barrows: updates the 49ers' practice squad signings.