- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:
Alex Smith's play must speak for him. San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary expects his quarterback to take a significant step forward this season, not only in his play but in how he commands the offense. Naming Smith a team captain affirmed those expectations. Smith passed for 310 yards, two touchdowns and a 95.6 rating in his previous game against Seattle at Qwest Field, but he was not an effective quarterback. How can that be? The 49ers converted only once in 13 third-down chances (they needed at least 10 yards for a first down on six of those plays). They lost the game, 20-17. The 49ers need more from Smith on third down. They'll need to run the ball better, of course, but they also must make better use of a reconfigured third-down personnel grouping. The 49ers used three-receiver personnel 10 times on those 13 third-down plays last season, and they failed to gain a first down all 10 times. Ted Ginn Jr. is the third wide receiver in those groupings this season, replacing the since-released Brandon Jones.
Derek Anderson has big shoes to fill. And not just Kurt Warner's shoes, either. Anderson, only recently named to start at quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, is one of the few less-than-elite passers to start a regular-season game against the Rams in the Edward Jones Dome. Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Warner and Matt Schaub beat the Rams in St. Louis last season. The other visiting starters, Matt Hasselbeck and Alex Smith, combined to pass for 213 yards on 51 attempts with no touchdowns until Smith connected on passes covering 73 and 38 yards in final eight minutes of the final regular-season game. The Cardinals' Matt Leinart led zero scoring drives at St. Louis after Warner handed him a 21-3 lead late in the second quarter. Arizona held on to win, 21-13.
The Rams are making a statement. They could have gone into this season knowing their place and fearful of inviting harm upon rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. They could have shielded Bradford from Darnell Dockett, Joey Porter, Adrian Wilson, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and the rest of the Cardinals' defense. That would have been the conservative play. Instead, the Rams are charging into the Bradford era. They're declaring Bradford as their best quarterback right now, not just for the future, and why not? Bradford might be the best quarterback in this game Sunday, depending on how Anderson fares. Bradford also might get clobbered and struggle, but that's a risk the Rams are willing to take. They think they have the right quarterback and they're confident Bradford can weather what awaits. It's an aggressive play and one that adds excitement to this matchup.
Matt Hasselbeck's blind side on alert, again. The Seahawks' quarterback told reporters he can't worry about potential protection issues even though the team is starting another stopgap left tackle, same as last season, this time after first-round choice Russell Okung suffered an ankle sprain. Tyler Polumbus, inadvertently called "Troy" four times by roster-shuffling head coach Pete Carroll, is the latest left tackle plugged into the starting lineup on an emergency basis. Polumbus, acquired from Detroit 13 days before the opener, started eight games for the Broncos last season. The Seahawks see him as a good fit for their scheme (Polumbus and Seattle offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates were with the Broncos in 2008). But there's a reason the Seahawks used the sixth overall choice for Okung. Left tackle has been a huge problem since Walter Jones' demise. The 49ers had five sacks at Qwest Field last season, forcing fumbles on three of them. Ball security has been an even greater point of emphasis for Seattle. The first-team offense suffered no turnovers during four exhibition games. Can Hasselbeck keep the streak alive?
Carroll's debut is only one game. The slogans ("win forever") and catch phrases ("do things better than they've ever been done before") will make the Seahawks' first-year coach an easy target if the team struggles. Smart criticism should take a long view. The regular-season opener against the 49ers is not, in other words, a definitive referendum on moves made to this point. It's a start. Rebuilding teams can't talk about rebuilding very openly because they need to motivate players in the short term. Seattle players have, by all accounts, bought into Carroll's approach and philosophy. As long as that continues and the team shows improvement, Carroll does deserve a grace period. Carroll will get a significant boost if Seattle knocks off the favored 49ers, but it's still just one game and no time for definitive judgments.