NFL Nation: Brock Berlin
Sure, it’s aligning with modern pro football in some ways:
- Three of the four teams have picked a quarterback in the top 10 of the draft in the past two years, intent on building around him.
- Yes, we see Andre Johnson in place for the Texans and the influx of promising, young wide receivers in Justin Blackmon and Kendall Wright.
- Of course everyone’s got an emphasis on rushing the passer: The Texans in the second incarnation of Wade Phillips’ swarming front, the Colts as they shift Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis around, the Titans with the addition of Kamerion Wimbley, the Jaguars with the draft selection of Andre Branch.
But it’s a division with some outdated philosophies, expenditures and roster construction.
We’ve got teams talking too much about the run and not enough about the pass. We’ve got costly running backs. We’ve got offenses determined to use fullbacks, most of whom are unlikely to be threatening as receiving targets.
While the Texans can have a nice offensive-defensive balance and a nice run-pass balance on offense, the teams chasing them can’t yet claim the same.
So here’s my look at some of the issues that put the division at risk of being dodo birds who lose out in the NFL’s survival of the fittest.
Mindset: Coach Chuck Pagano arrived in Indianapolis touting an old staple of how to play. His Colts, he said, will run and stop the run -- even if that’s not a great template for success anymore as teams that don’t run well and don’t play great run defense are winning.
He cited the Steelers, who were 14th in rushing last year and eighth in run defense. Hardly dominant.
A team with a great running game and ground defense can probably win big in today's league. But it would be breaking with current convention, where our most recent Super Bowl winners have been built around quarterbacks and people who rush the quarterback.
Last year’s Super Bowl teams were hardly in line with a run-and-stop-the-run philosophy. The Giants were the league’s worst run team in the regular season and ranked 19th in rush defense, while the Patriots were 20th in rushing and 17th in rush defense.
Paying running backs and roster construct: Three of the four teams in the division have big, second-contract investments in running backs: Houston’s Arian Foster, Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson.
Spending big money at the position is not the way the league is moving and those three teams are no longer in position to try to play keep away from Peyton Manning. In today's NFL, veteran running backs get used up and discarded in favor of younger, cheaper options with more tread who are less prone to a sudden drop-off.
The Jaguars are built around Jones-Drew, who now wants a new, bigger contract, despite the high odds that his team can win five games without him in 2012 just as easily as it did with him in 2011.
In fact, it’s reasonable to wonder about Jacksonville's overall financial allocations.
Jones-Drew makes good money, and if the Jaguars are healthy at linebacker, it’s probably their best position on defense. They paid big bucks to recruit Paul Posluszny and Clint Session to town last year to play with Daryl Smith.
Unfortunately, teams that play 4-3 defenses don’t require three top-flight linebackers. One of them is typically a situational player who’s not part of the nickel package.
And the difference between a great 4-3 linebacker and an average 4-3 linebacker seems much smaller to me than the difference between a great end and an average end in the same system. It's easier to find guys who can run, hit and tackle than it is to find guys with pass-rush skills. That's where a 4-3 focus should be.
It's an issue in Tennessee, too, where the Titans have spent their past two second-round picks on linebackers Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown. Even if they are starters for years, isn't it easier to find good linebackers later in the draft (see Colin McCarthy from the fourth round in 2011) than it is to find good pass-rushers?
Plenty of fullback snaps: Houston can continue to call James Casey a fullback. He’s an H-back to me. He can block, sure, but the Texans sacrifice nothing having him on the field at one of the five spots eligible to catch passes. Teammates rate his as the best hands on the team.
The other three teams in the division don’t have such a guy.
Greg Jones is a good blocker for the Jaguars. I want him in the game on third-and-short or a goal-line package. But beyond that, his presence does at least one of two things if not both: signals run and sacrifices one of those five eligible positions as a weapon for Blaine Gabbert. (I know Montell Owens is viewed as a special-teamer, but with Jones, Owens and Brock Bolen, the Jaguars have three fullbacks. Three!)
The role for a fullback on offense is small. And although small roles can have big value, I'm not so sure about fullbacks these days. With two fantastic tight ends on its team, New England used a fullback on 10 snaps last season. The Giants used a fullback on 24.93 percent of their offensive snaps, less than the Texans, Jaguars and Titans.
Isn’t a tight end who is capable of lining up a bit in the backfield more valuable, presuming he’s got better hands?
I’d rather the Jaguars line up with Marcedes Lewis and Zach Miller than with Lewis and Jones, because Miller can be a threat in the pass game. I’d rather the Titans line up with Jared Cook and Craig Stevens than with Cook and Quinn Johnson or Collin Mooney. I’d rather the Colts use Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen than take one off the field for a fullback whose name I do not yet know. (The Colts have said they intend to use a fullback, though they don’t have one now and didn't use one in the Manning/Bill Polian era.)
Heck, feel free to go all the way from a two-back set right past a two-tight set all the way to a three-wide set. Spread out the field for your passing game, while also creating space for your running back to work. Jones-Drew led the league against stacked boxes. Imagine what he might do if the Jaguars can spread out a defense.
Sure, you’re going to mix up personnel and use all those sets, and your people and philosophy will dictate some of it. But look to the league’s best teams, centered on quarterbacks and pass-rushers, as a guide for what to try to use more and what to de-emphasize.
It's a copycat league. Is the AFC South keeping up with the Joneses?
That will change when Kerry Collins replaces an injured Manning in the Colts' lineup for Week 1.
The first preseason game I covered as an NFL beat reporter featured Manning making his first start against the Seattle Seahawks in the Kingdome. His very first pass found Marvin Harrison for a 49-yard touchdown. Preseason games are generally without much meaning, but could there have been a more fitting beginning for Manning?
For a fuller appreciation of Manning's durability and consistency in starting 227 consecutive games, I went through Pro Football Reference counting how many quarterbacks had started for current NFC West teams since Manning made his regular-season debut. There have been 48. That figure includes 14 for the St. Louis Rams, 13 for the 49ers, 11 for the Arizona Cardinals and 10 for the Seahawks.
A few notes on the 48 players to start for current NFC West teams since 1998:
- There have been two Brocks (Berlin, Huard), two Charlies (Frye, Whitehurst), two named Chris (Chandler, Weinke), two Jeffs (Plummer, Martin), three Johns (Friesz, Navarre, Skelton), one Jon (Kitna), two Matts (Hasselbeck, Leinart), two Shauns (Hill, King), three Steves (Young, Bono, Stenstrom) and two Trents (Dilfer, Green).
- Two, Young and Warren Moon, have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame since Manning's streak began.
- Dilfer and Warner started for more than one current NFC West team since Manning's streak began. Warner started 57 games for Arizona and 50 for St. Louis. Dilfer started 12 for Seattle and six for San Francisco.
- Hasselbeck has the most total starts for current NFC West teams with 131, followed by Marc Bulger (95 for St. Louis), Jake Plummer (73 for the Cardinals) and Jeff Garcia (71 for the 49ers).
- Smith -- Alex, not Troy -- owns the most starts among current NFC West players with 50, all for San Francisco.
- Eight of the 48 were one-and-done as starters: Berlin, Scott Covington, Ty Detmer, Glenn Foley, Friesz, Frye, Navarre and Weinke. Nineteen have made at least 10 starts.
The NFC West will have two starters new to the division in Week 1: Tarvaris Jackson and Kevin Kolb.
The chart shows start totals by team for the 48. The NFC West changed membership with realignment in 2002. I'm going back to 1998 for the four teams currently in the division.
They were too busy beating themselves.
"I had not seen or felt that this was an undisciplined football team, but how can you not think that way after a game like that?" coach Steve Spagnuolo said.
The Rams' 16-14 road defeat to the Bruce Gradkowski-led Oakland Raiders had to be especially troubling for Spagnuolo and the Rams' leadership. New owner Stan Kroenke is watching closely for signs of real progress. Not progress imagined through the shrinking margin of defeat. Real progress measured through wins and losses.
Performances like the one St. Louis put forward Sunday -- five personal fouls, 210 total yards and only 19 offensive plays in the second half -- will not be good enough in the final evaluation. These are the sorts of self-inflicted defeats against bad teams that get people fired if they persist over the course of a season.
Fortunately for the Rams, the team still has a run of winnable games ahead: home for Washington and Seattle, then road games against Detroit and Tampa Bay sandwiched around a home game against San Diego.
But if the Rams cannot beat a team as flawed as the Raiders after controlling much of the first half, who are they going to beat? If they cannot beat Gradkowski, a player the former Rams regime released in favor of Brock Berlin, are they going to beat Donovan McNabb? Matt Hasselbeck? Shaun Hill?
Not playing the way they did at Oakland.
It's just tougher to take these Rams on faith after the first two weeks of this season. They're 0-2 against Derek Anderson and Gradkowski.
They led Anderson and the Arizona Cardinals 13-10 in the fourth quarter a week ago, but lost. They led the Raiders 7-3 at halftime Sunday, but lost. It's tough going from your own 6-yard-line to the other team's 5 without getting points, but the Rams pulled it off.
"This is just where we don't know yet how to put a game away," running back Steven Jackson said.
Jackson said he's seeing good things in practice during the week, but the Rams aren't carrying it over to the games.
Bradford knew he should have gotten rid of the football to avoid the sack. The Rams had scored a touchdown in a similar situation during preseason, tempting Bradford to wait for a receiver to break open across the back of the end zone. Live and learn.
"That's on me," Bradford said.
There's no sense of panic in the Rams' locker room. The players I spoke with sounded accountable. Years ago, Jackson probably would have made headlines with his mouth following a defeat as maddening as this one. He has matured and embraced more of a leadership role.
The Raiders began loading the box to stop the run after the Rams enjoyed early success, Jackson explained. OK, a reporter acknowledged, but isn't that where a team simply needs to find another way? The question tempted Jackson.
"I think -- how do I answer this?" he began. "I think if they take one thing away, that you have to find another way to make what was working work again. I don't know if that makes any sense."
It does. I'm not sure what else the Rams could have done to get the run game going. I charted their offensive personnel use during the game and noticed that Bradford completed all four pass attempts from the Rams' base offense -- all in the first half. The Rams also ran effectively from this personnel, especially early, but they ran only two snaps of it after halftime, in part because they fell behind. Injuries to tight ends Daniel Fells and Billy Bajema could have affected the Rams' options as well.
"If I knew exactly what happened, then hopefully it would not have happened," center Jason Brown offered.
Bradford showed remarkable poise despite taking some hard shots, including once when the Raiders high-lowed him on a third-and-8 play in the third quarter. Bradford did lead the offense on a three-play, 59-yard scoring drive after rookie cornerback Jerome Murphy picked off Gradkowski with 4:15 remaining in the game.
"We went into our 2-minute mode, hurry-up," Bradford said. "To go down there and score like that and give ourselves a chance to win the football game was nice, but it was just too little, too late."
Bradford began the drive with a 16-yard strike to Danny Amendola. Jackson then dropped a pass that would have gone for a loss, most likely. It was second-and-10 when Bradford threw accurately for Clayton near the right pylon. Officials ruled Clayton out of bounds initially, but guard Adam Goldberg protested vehemently, even touching the dirt where Clayton's feet had come down. Spagnuolo challenged the play and prevailed. The score was 16-14 with more than 3 minutes remaining.
If only the Rams had made that 36-yard field-goal try. If only officials hadn't flagged Ron Bartell and Oshiomogho Atogwe for personal fouls earlier in the second half (both penalties sustained Oakland scoring drives). If only veteran defensive tackle Fred Robbins hadn't unnecessarily shoved Gradkowski after a second-and-9 incomplete pass with 3:03 remaining, preventing the Rams from getting the ball back one last time.
If only, if only, if only.
"It's very frustrating and very upsetting," Jason Brown said of the 0-2 start. "We know we are right on the cusp. We know we are a good football team. There are just a couple more things that need to come together."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Biggest surprise: The Rams cut former special-teams captain Todd Johnson, a safety, and they also flushed out two veteran receivers they hoped would contribute, Ronald Curry and Tim Carter. Keeping rookie quarterback Keith Null over the more experienced Brock Berlin made sense because the Rams' top two quarterbacks, Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller, have lots of seasoning. The biggest roster surprise came when the team traded 2006 first-round cornerback Tye Hill to the Falcons. Free-agent addition Quincy Butler stuck on the 53-man roster after a strong training camp and preseason. He looked better than Hill, frankly, and the Rams' new leadership wasn't afraid to part with symbols of past failures. Placing defensive tackle Adam Carriker on injured reserve cleared another spot.
No-brainers: The Rams also released linebacker K.C. Asiodu, defensive tackle Antwon Burton, tight end Eric Butler, defensive end Ian Campbell, linebacker Dominic Douglas, tackle Renardo Foster, fullback Jerome Johnson, center Tim Mattran, running back Chris Ogbonnaya, cornerback Cord Parks, running back Antonio Pittman, safety Mark Rubin, guard Roy Schuening, tackle Phil Trautwein and receiver Sean Walker.
What's next: The Rams still need to make one move by the 6 p.m. ET deadline for complying with the 53-man limit. With only four running backs on the roster, counting fullback Mike Karney, the team probably needs to seek help at the position. Backup Samkon Gado suffered injured ribs in the final exhibition game. The Rams lack quality depth and they are starting over. As a result, the team could pursue players released from other teams.
Update: The Rams placed defensive lineman Eric Moore on injured reserve to comply with the 53-man limit.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Rams' roster requires additional study after a thorough house-cleaning this offseason. With so many new faces, I feel less familiar with the Rams than with the other teams in the division. This initial look at the roster will hopefully help bring some focus.
Donnie Avery's injury and overall health concerns at receiver could influence how many players the Rams carry into the season at the position.
Marc Bulger's broken pinky shouldn't affect the roster as long as he recovers on schedule. Teams must reduce to 75 players by Sept. 1 and 53 players by Sept. 5. Those initial 53-man rosters sometimes change by Week 1 kickoffs. For that reason, I've been focusing on Week 1 rosters when setting baseline expectations for each position.
The chart provides a framework for how many players the Rams might keep at each position heading into the regular-season opener against the Seahawks.
Here's a quick look at which Rams players I might keep on the cutdown to 53 players:
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
"I experienced kind of a high-low in 2001. I got traded and talked to the coaching staff and they said, 'Hey, we want you to come be our starting quarterback.' And then during training camp, they go and sign Trent Dilfer, who had just won a Super Bowl. I think I learned a lot through that experience and through other experiences like that."
Quarterback commitments can indeed be fickle. Matt Leinart and Alex Smith have learned that the hard way. The Cardinals' decision to bench Leinart didn't need much explaining, in my view, because Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner was the alternative.
The quarterback question I would have in St. Louis is how quickly the Rams might turn away from Marc Bulger if he were to struggle.
General manager Billy Devaney and the new coaching staff have not hesitated to push out established players, from Torry Holt to Orlando Pace to Drew Bennett to Corey Chavous to Pisa Tinoisamoa and others. Bulger probably wasn't going anywhere this offseason for a few reasons:
- Bulger remained the Rams' most viable option.
- The team invested heavily in Bulger before the 2007 season.
- The team had too many other needs to draft a quarterback second overall.
- Releasing Bulger would have carried negative salary-cap ramifications.
Kyle Boller, Brock Berlin and Keith Null are the alternatives to Bulger. If all goes to plan, the Rams will run the ball effectively, putting Bulger in better position to avoid punishment. Bulger will become comfortable again while re-establishing his career.
All bets are off if the season does not go to plan. The people who identified Bulger as the Rams' franchise quarterback no longer remain in positions of authority within the organization. That could make him more vulnerable than the typical franchise quarterback.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Frerotte's signing has been expected. He'll give the Rams an experienced backup for Marc Bulger, presumably at a reasonable price.
A quick look at quarterback depth charts in the NFC West, assuming Frerotte signs:
San Francisco: Shaun Hill's name is penciled into the No. 1 role for the first minicamp, but the team has not named a starter for the regular season. Alex Smith will compete for the job. Damon Huard is the third quarterback.
St. Louis: Bulger is the starter. Frerotte becomes the backup. Brock Berlin is the third quarterback.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat sums up the Rams' futility in one mind-bending notebook. Coach Jim Haslett rips one of his players for making a "dumb" decision on a fake punt. Safety Eric Bassey blames the referee for not calling holding on the play. And fan-ripping guard Richie Incognito denies cupping his hand to his ear as he ran off the field to boos.
Also from Korte: Haslett blames the Rams' latest defeat on factors beyond the control of coaches. It's every man for himself at Rams Park.
More Korte: A Rams report card featuring five "F" grades.
Norm Sanders of the Belleville News-Democrat says Haslett couldn't resist taking a shot at Marc Bulger's critics after backup Trent Green tossed four interceptions. Haslett: "Anybody else want another quarterback?"
Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch points to the Rams' talent as the problem and suggests Haslett and de facto general manager Billy Devaney can turn around the team if given time.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams have become so bad that Haslett has stopped trying to defend them.
Also from Thomas: Referee Terry McAulay explains why officials picked up a flag against the Bears on the fake punt.
Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Haslett is losing credibility by failing to acknowledge that his team has quit.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says fans pushing for a quarterback change in St. Louis got their wish -- twice. But Edwards and Brock Berlin weren't the answer, either.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Leonard was active for all 16 games last season. He started seven of them. The Rams had listed Leonard as probable with a shoulder injury. Avery, a rookie receiver, had been questionable, but his inclusion on the list of inactive players had been expected.
Other inactive players for the Rams: safety Brannon Condren, linebacker David Vobora, offensive lineman Roy Schuening, offensive lineman John Greco and defensive lineman Eric Moore. Brock Berlin is the third quarterback.
The Rams are listing Dan Kreider as the starting fullback, but offensive coordinator Al Saunders uses the position situationally. He also leans hard on tight ends for blocking.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
The Rams' released 10 players in anticipation of the 53-man roster limit, which goes into effect Saturday.
I've singled out eight of them on our chart of Rams players with practice-squad eligibility. The eighth and ninth players released, veteran safety Jerome Carter, and cornerback Tanard Davis, have no such eligibility.
Expect the Rams to make their remaining cuts before the 6 p.m. ET deadline Saturday.
The Rams are carrying 66 players once they move Steven Jackson to the active roster from the exempt list.
Die-hard alert: Updated roided-out NFC West rosters here.Earlier: The chart shows each of the Rams' players with practice-squad eligibility, according to the team.
Practice-squad rules can be confusing, and exceptions sometimes apply to relatively experienced players.
I've categorized each player based on his perceived likelihood of earning a spot on the 53-man roster. Those are rough characterizations. Teams still have not made decisions. It's conceivable that a player listed as a "keeper" could face his release.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says Mike Holmgren wasn't happy with a pass-interference call levied against Seattle cornerback Kevin Hobbs. I watched the play repeatedly and thought Hobbs played the ball well, except for when he reached his right hand around the right shoulder pad of the receiver. That was the only appearance of interference, but Holmgren wasn't buying: "Can I get fined in the preseason? Holy Toledo. I thought Kevin Hobbs made a great play on that long ball. I couldn't ask him to do it any better. I didn't agree with the call, and it's too bad because we needed that."
Also from Farnsworth: Lofa Tatupu says he'll be OK after suffering a knee injury. The three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker is arguably the Seahawks' most important player on defense. Counting today, Tatupu has 13 days to get ready for the regular-season opener at Buffalo.
Michael Steffes of Seahawks Addicts found the play on which Tatupu suffered the knee injury against the Chargers. It happened at the 3:15 mark of the second quarter. Steffes: "My first thought was that it might be a bad high ankle sprain. However, Lofa actually plays the next play, but he struggles pushing off the knee and then walks off."
Frank Hughes of Seahawks Insider wonders how the Seahawks will proceed at quarterback for their final exhibition game. Starter Matt Hasselbeck (back), backup Seneca Wallace (groin) and third-stringer Charlie Frye (knee) all have injury concerns.
Also from Hughes: Patrick Kerney felt good in his first extended action of the exhibition season, while Leonard Weaver said he likes his new backfield pairing with Owen Schmitt.
Jose Romero of the Seattle Times says Holmgren was pleased with Frye's efforts against the Chargers. The better Frye plays, the more comfortable Holmgren feels using Wallace as a receiver or return specialist (although that probably changes if Hasselbeck's sore back remains an issue).
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee describes 49ers coach Mike Nolan as "on the fence" as to keeping five or six receivers. Ashley Lelie probably doesn't make the team unless the 49ers keep six.
Matt Maiocco of Instant 49ers says the 49ers are getting players back from injuries, but receiver Bryant Johnson isn't one of them. It's fair to wonder if Johnson can recover from his hamstring injury in time to enter the regular season as a starter.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com describes Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart as upbeat for a guy who tossed three interceptions Saturday night, then heard about Chris Mortensen's report about Kurt Warner's expected ascension to the starting job.
Also from Urban: "Kurt Warner named Week 1 starter" flashed on the screen in the Cardinals' locker room as ESPN covered the quarterback situation. Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "Contrary to everything [reported], nothing has changed. We have not made a decision. We have not named Kurt the starting quarterback."
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic quotes Leinart on news of Warner's expected ascendancy to the starting job. Leinart: "You can't afford to listen to that stuff because everybody's going to have their own opinion and that's basically what it is, an opinion."
Romando Dixson of the Asheville Citizen-Times says the locals are grateful after Rams defensive end Leonard Little paid for 116 youth football helmets. Said Little, who is from the area: "When I retire, I will do a lot more in the city. I have a busy schedule right now. Once I leave the game, I can make an impact in the community."
Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle checks in with 49ers right tackle Jonas Jennings, who disputes his reputation as an injury-prone outcast lacking toughness.
Also from FitzGerald: The 49ers aren't sure on a starter at split end, and they continue to juggle starters on the offensive line. Tony Wragge worked at left guard, with rookie Chilo Rachal at right guard.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams' offensive line drew praise for its performance against the Ravens on Saturday night.
Also from Coats: Brock Berlin is looking good as the likely No. 3 quarterback for the Rams.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch assesses injuries in the Rams' secondary. Safety Oshimogho Atogwe is back at practice after suffering a hamstring injury. Cornerback Fakhir Brown hasn't participated fully in a practice since suffering a shoulder injury July 25.
Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat checks in with Rams rookies Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton, talented receivers who made an impact against the Ravens. Nerves got the better of Avery early in the game, but he settled down and finished with five receptions for 65 yards. The Rams put together a 91-yard touchdown drive with both rookies in the game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
See also: Saturday night edition.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times checks in with the Seahawks' defense. Stopping the pass was supposed to be a strength for Seattle, but the Vikings had success through the air. A couple things come to mind. One, defense is about emotion, and it's tough to fabricate those emotions when the stakes are so low. Two, Patrick Kerney makes a big difference for Seattle's pass rush. Kerney did not play against the Vikings.
Dave Boling of the Tacoma News Tribune describes the Seahawks' exhibition opener as surprisingly successful given injuries to key players. Boling lists several players who caught his attention: Matt Hasselbeck, Seneca Wallace, Leonard Weaver, Steve Vallos, Brandon Mebane, Howard Green, Jordan Kent, Lawrence Jackson, Owen Schmitt, David Hawthorne and Jamar Adams.
Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks might enlist former Sonics announcer Kevin Calabro to work all exhibition games in the future. Calabro made his Seahawks debut Friday night in place of Verne Lundquist.
Scott Johnson of the Everett Herald caught up with Bobby Engram for a story about the receiver's professionalism in the face of contractual unhappiness.
Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle was thinking the 49ers might finish 9-7 this season. The team's performance in the exhibition opener convinced her that won't happen. I've had a tough time envisioning a .500 or better record for this team given the quarterback situation. Questions about the offensive line also seem warranted.
Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle sees big things for Josh Morgan, the 49ers' impressive rookie receiver. A revelation: Frank Gore, the team's standout running back, recently told a reporter Morgan "is going to be a beast."
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes Orlando Pace as "rusty" in pass protection during the left tackle's first game back from shoulder surgery. Pace: "It's a lot of rust to knock off. I had no real problems as far as pain or anything like that. My thing is more mental and just using (the shoulder) without thinking about it. And getting comfortable and doing the things I'm used to doing."
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams haven't had contract talks with holdout running back Steven Jackson. Antonio Pittman was most impressive among Jackson's backups during a 34-13 defeat at Tennessee in the exhibition opener. Coach Scott Linehan: "We have a pretty good idea of what Steven is capable of doing, and there is quite a bit unknown about our younger backs. I think it's a great opportunity for ... the other guys to move up the ladder and get reps with the other groups."
Also from Coats: Chris Long, the Rams' first-round draft choice, made no obvious contributions during his first live action. Brock Berlin took the early lead over Bruce Gradkowski in the race to become the third quarterback. And receiver Dane Looker made a strong case for sticking around at least one more season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
NASHVILLE -- Maybe some of St. Louis' short throws would have turned into big gains in a game situation.
But in a joint-practice situation, those completions that are such a big part of what the Rams do were hardly the highlight.
I thought Tennessee's defense manhandled the Rams for the most part, and the Titans set the tone in that side of practice Wednesday morning. They got the better of most of the fights, too.
A run down out of my notebook:
- I watched a lot of Albert Haynesworth versus former Titan Jacob Bell. Bell did pretty well in the big one-on-one matchup. In nine-on-seven and team drills he got a lot of help from tackle Adam Goldberg as the Rams sometime neutralized Haynesworth at the expense of leaving Kyle Vanden Bosch with matchups he could win. (Check out this George Walker picture of Haynesworth and Bell going at it).
- Torry Holt caught a pass over the middle and got leveled by Calvin Lowry, who popped his helmet off. The official nearby told Holt: "If you buckled your chin strap, that wouldn't happen."
- Reserve defensive back Chris Carr had a good morning running as the second-team left corner, getting his hands on multiple balls and delivering a few nice hits, including one in run support on back Travis Minor.
- Corner Cortland Finnegan went for a sideline kill shot on Holt on a short ball and missed, flying by.
- Linebacker Stephen Tulloch continues to make flashy plays. He leveled Keenan Burton. And after a big stick on Randy McMichael, the tight end popped up and threw the ball in to Tulloch's back as he walked away.
- DB Vincent Fuller pulled in two interceptions, both of Brock Berlin. On the first, Fuller timed it up beautifully, jumping a short pass for Shaine Smith on the sideline in the red zone. It would have a touchdown return for sure.
- During a field goal period, Titans special teams coach Alan Lowry pointed out to an official that Rams long snapper Chris Massey was flinching and tensing his arms before the snap to try to prompt someone to jump.
- Vanden Bosch was frustrated after he worked part of a two-man rush in the one-on-one period, as guard Roy Schuening pushed him back and forced him to take a lengthy looping route to the quarterback.
On to the fights:
- Finnegan wrapped receiver Reche Caldwell in his arms and wrestled him to the ground for a scrap. Finnegan has scratches above and below his right eye.
- After Michael Griffin crushed Dane Looker, Bulluck and Caldwell went at it. Bulluck's one-two swipe took off Caldwell's helmet. "It's his third team in two years, that's what I told him," Bulluck said.
- After Joe Klopfenstein ran under a deep ball down the middle and into the end zone on a play where the Titans busted coverage, a big bout broke out near the sideline at the line of scrimmage -- Vanden Bosch and Goldberg's fight spilled into a full-team melee. Both teams were huddled up as their coaches tried to calm things down.
- Rams tackle Mark LeVoir and Titans end Sean Conover weren't finished, however, and went at it with LeVoir getting the upper hand. Vanden Bosch, who wasn't in the play and didn't have his helmet on, came flying in as support staff.
Holt's take on all the extracurriculars:
"As excessive as that got, it does take away from the work," he said. "Now you're totally getting away from your technique and what you're trying to do as a football team. But as far as the mixing it up and the physicality, I think it's great for both football teams. Your macho comes out and you see where you are. There is some give and take there, but we were able to settle those differences and finish up on a good note."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News shows how 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz's background in kinesiology played a role in his development as a stickler for mechanics. Martz: "It really helps you to teach your quarterbacks to understand the physics of it. The balance, the lines of force, the kinetic energy and all that kind of stuff. It really does help you streamline their techniques and make them most efficient."
Nicholas Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press says Lions quarterback Drew Stanton is working hard to unlearn what Martz taught him about mechanics. Stanton: "I have no idea looking back why all that happened, all the changes that he made." Conflicting storylines tend to be common in sports. The Lions think they'll be better after firing Martz. The 49ers think they'll be better after adding Martz. Both could be right.
Doug Drinen of Pro Football Reference shows which running backs have benefited most from playing with Pro Bowl offensive linemen. NFC West alumni Eric Dickerson, Shaun Alexander, Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler rank relatively high on the lists, but no one ranks higher than Jim Brown.
Clark Judge of CBSSports.com assesses what it means for Mike Holmgren to enter his final season as Seahawks coach with successor Jim Mora on the staff. It's an arrangement that hasn't always worked, but Judge thinks Seattle can pull it off.
Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says the Seahawks might consider keeping nine defensive backs, one more than usual, if former Michigan safety Jamar Adams keeps up his impressive play. Injuries have a way of helping to sort out these dilemmas.
Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams plan to keep three quarterbacks heading into the season, up from two in 2007. Bruce Gradkowski or Brock Berlin will get the call behind Marc Bulger and Trent Green. Each NFC West team has four quarterbacks in camp. The Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks carried only two quarterbacks on their opening-day rosters last season. Seattle acquired Charlie Frye from the Browns after the first game.
Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reveals which Rams players are making the most of injury-induced opportunities. Strong-side linebacker Quinton Culberson heads the list. I got the feeling at Rams camp that Culberson would likely start this season. Veteran Chris Draft can back up all three positions.
Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers are looking forward to practicing against the Raiders. Cornerback Walt Harris: "You practice against yourself all the time. Practicing against other guys forces you to focus a lot more."
Jose Romero of the Seattle Times checks in with Seahawks offensive line coaches Mike Solari and Mike DeBord. Something I did not know: Solari and DeBord did not know each other before Seattle hired them this offseason. They work together very well from what I've seen at practices. If they can get Seattle's line to work together that well and that quickly, the Seahawks should improve quite a bit in their running game. Also from Romero: Receiver Courtney Taylor is thrilled to be back on the practice field after resting a hamstring injury. The Seahawks think Taylor can become a contributor.
Matt Maiocco of Instant 49ers puts the team's quarterback competition in perspective. The race between Alex Smith, Shaun Hill and J.T. O'Sullivan cannot touch what the Packers are going through. Green Bay visits the 49ers on Aug. 16.
Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News Tribune sizes up the Seahawks' growing injury list. Space constraints presumably prevented him from listing Floyd Womack's injury history. In May 2007, I noted Womack had missed time with injuries to his quadriceps, triceps, calf, heel, toe, knees, ankle, hip, hand, head and hamstring. A knee injury is keeping him out now.
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