NFL Nation: Shawntae Spencer

NAPA, Calif. -- One of the biggest curiosities in the NFL this summer is what is occurring in Wine Country. Graced with the prettiest training camp setting in the league, the Oakland Raiders are changing in front of our very eyes.

On the same practice field where the late Al Davis used to famously stalk practice from a nearby golf cart, the Raiders are a drastically different franchise as they enter their first full season since Davis died last October at the age of 82.

The team is now run by first-time general manager Reggie McKenzie, a respected former Green Bay executive and former Raiders linebacker. He was handpicked by several of Davis’ closest confidantes. McKenzie chose Dennis Allen, who at 39 is the NFL’s youngest coach, to take over the team.

For a franchise that was closely ruled by Davis until his death, the Raiders are hoping a dose of NFL modern structure will pay dividends. Even though it has been 8-8 in the past two seasons, Oakland hasn’t had a winning record in 10 years and it is tied for the second-longest playoff drought in the league.

Perhaps McKenzie and Allen are the winning combination for Oakland.

“I think everybody is interested to see what happens,” said Oakland safety Michael Huff, who has been with the Raiders since 2006. “I’ve only known one way. To have this new structure is new to me.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Keep McFadden healthy: The Raiders’ best player is running back Darren McFadden. He has to stay healthy, but that hasn’t been easy for the fifth-year player. He has missed at last three games in each of his four NFL seasons. He missed the final nine games of last season with a serious foot injury. If McFadden can stay healthy, the Oakland offense will be dangerous and it will help quarterback Carson Palmer make a difference in his first full season in Oakland. If McFadden can’t stay healthy, the Raiders could be in trouble. They are not deep behind him and lose a major dimension with McFadden sidelined. McFadden has looked good so far, but the key is that he looks healthy.

2. Improve on defense: Allen is the first defensive-minded head coach of the Raiders since John Madden, who was hired in 1969. There is a reason McKenzie went with a defensive coach: the Raiders need the most help on that side of the ball. Oakland has been sloppy and has allowed too many big plays on defense. Allen helped change the defensive culture in Denver last year during his one season as the defensive coordinator there. His quest to improve Oakland’s defense begins now.

[+] EnlargeDarren McFadden
AP Photo/Derek GeeA healthy Darren McFadden is crucial for Oakland's success.
3. Cut down on penalties: The Raiders set NFL records for penalties and penalty yardage last season. It has long been a problem in Oakland. Now, it is up to Allen to get it figured out. Playing disciplined, correct ball is a focus of every camp. It has to be drilled into this team on a daily basis. To his credit, former coach Hue Jackson tried to fix penalties on a weekly basis last year and it didn’t work. It's now one of Allen’s greatest challenges. Allen stresses the importance of discipline every day and he will need to change this self-destructive trend.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

This roster has a lot of talent on it. The Raiders were on the edge of the playoffs last year, and there are lot players who think they are capable of taking the next step. Palmer has talked playoffs, and McKenzie says he thinks his team is headed in that direction.

The offense has the capability to score a lot of points, and the defense is loaded up front. It’s not like this team is going to be horribly overmatched on a weekly basis. You can watch training camp and you see good players on the field.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

This team is pretty thin at a lot of places because of the loss of several players through free agency, salary dumps and small draft classes the past two years. Again, there is talent assembled in this camp, but there are holes on this team. Positions such as running back, tight end, offensive line, linebacker and the secondary cannot afford too many injuries.

This camp is about keeping the top players healthy and hoping it all comes together. If injuries occur, Oakland will have to get creative to stay competitive.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • The offense looks crisp. The pace of practice has been fast as the team adjusts to playing in the West Coast offense under coordinator Greg Knapp. The unit does not look behind.
  • Carson Palmer
    Harry How/Getty ImagesCarson Palmer threw for 2,753 yards in 10 games with the Raiders last season.
    Palmer throws a pretty deep ball. With the Raiders’ speed at receiver, they should parlay that combination into a lot of fast scores this season.
  • There is a lot of talent at receiver. I can see this team using five receivers in a game. There will be a lot of options.
  • Defensive lineman Tommy Kelly looks to be in good shape. He is one of the more underrated defensive linemen in the league.
  • Defensive linemen Matt Shaughnessy is looking good after missing much of last season with a shoulder injury. He is known as a stronger pass-rusher, but he can also stop the run. He is aiming for a big year.
  • I don’t anticipate a big adjustment period for second-year player Stefen Wisniewski as he moves from guard to center. He has played center before and he originally projected as an NFL center. He is a smart player who seems comfortable at the position.
  • Don’t expect too much from quarterback Terrelle Pryor right away. He is a work in progress and he will be up and down in camp. I think Matt Leinart has a pretty strong hold on the No. 2 job as of now.
  • Second-year cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke has a chance to make a push for a starting job. He opened camp as a starter with Ronald Bartell out with a hamstring injury. I could see Van Dyke pushing Bartell or Shawntae Spencer at some point.
  • The team is impressed with rookie linebackers Miles Burris and Nathan Stupar. Both players are instinctive and professional. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burris earns major playing time.
  • The team is high on third-round guard Tony Bergstrom. The game doesn’t look too big for him, and he is a mature player.
  • New defensive coordinator Jason Tarver has a lot of energy. Watching him operate with his lively personality and blond hair invokes memories of a young Jon Gruden wearing the Silver and Black. Like Gruden, the intelligent Tarver is a young coach to watch.
  • I think we will see tight ends Brandon Myers, David Ausberry and Richard Gordon all get ample playing time in the preseason. I think that can continue into the regular season if each player carves their own niche.
  • Safety Mike Mitchell is the early leader in the clubhouse to replace Rock Cartwright, now in San Francisco, as the punt protector.
  • Receivers Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford will get most of the camp looks at punt returner for now.
  • Undrafted rookie receiver Rod Streater has taken off where he left off in the OTAs. He has been an early camp star.
  • I could see a scenario in which the Raiders keep fullback Owen Schmitt in addition to Marcel Reece. The tough Schmitt and the versatile Reece offer different things to the offense.
NAPA, Calif. -- A player who has a great chance to ascend in the Oakland Raiders’ training camp is cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke.

He has a chance to show he belongs in the starting mix.

Van Dyke, a third-round pick in 2011, took an important step in establishing himself Monday when he was working with the first-team defense with projected starter Ronald Bartell out with a hamstring injury. Bartell should be back at some point, but this will give Van Dyke time to impress the new coaching staff.

So far, so good.

New Oakland coach Dennis Allen lauded Van Dyke for his effort Monday. If he continues to make strides, I think Van Dyke could push Bartell or, more likely, Shawntae Spencer, in the coming weeks.

By the numbers: Draft needs

April, 3, 2012
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The tremendous folks at ESPN Stats & Information have passed along some key statistics for each NFL team as we prepare for the draft. Let’s review some of the findings:

Denver:

Here is one of the reasons why the Broncos’ greatest need is at defensive tackle. Denver had just four sacks from its interior defensive line, all from Ryan McBean, a free agent who is fighting a six-game NFL suspension. Of the 4-3 defenses in the NFL, only Seattle had fewer sacks from the defensive tackle position. It is a good thing the Broncos have a dynamic pass-rushing presence from Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil.

Kansas City:

Here is a reason why the Chiefs should consider drafting Stanford’s David DeCastro and playing him at right guard. The Chiefs ran well to the left last season, but struggled running on the right side. They addressed the issue by signing right tackle Eric Winston, considered one of the best at his position. Adding DeCastro, considered one of the premier guard prospects in the past several years, would further help. Kansas City ranked seventh in the NFL running to the left in 2011, but was ranked 32nd up the middle and 31st to the right side.

Oakland:

Oakland cornerbacks had 27 pass disruptions or interceptions last season, which was tied for 21st in the NFL. Fifteen of those big plays came from Stanford Routt, who is now in Kansas City after being a salary-cap dump in Oakland. More cornerback talent may be necessary even though the Raiders signed projected starters Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer to one-year deals.

San Diego:

The Chargers rushed four or fewer defenders on 77.5 percent of opposing quarterback drop backs last season. It was the fifth highest in the NFL. However, only Antwan Barnes had success, with nine sacks. The Chargers desperately need another impact pass-rusher.

Have the Raiders fallen behind?

March, 30, 2012
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Reggie McKenzie, Dennis AllenAP Photo/Paul SakumaOakland's salary-cap woes have Reggie McKenzie, left, and Dennis Allen in a tough spot.

The Oakland Raiders are one of the most intriguing franchises in the NFL these days. How will the post-Al Davis Raiders evolve?

After Al Davis' death in October, the much-less-involved Mark Davis turned his father’s beloved franchise over to Reggie McKenzie, a respected personnel man from Green Bay, who is embarking on his first journey as a general manager. McKenzie has entrusted former Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who at 39 is the youngest coach in the league, to be the next coach of a team that finished 8-8 last season and barely out of the playoffs.

The first focus for McKenzie has been clearing the Raiders’ roster of bloated contracts given to players as the Raiders desperately, and unsuccessfully, chased championships in Davis’ final years.

It has been a necessary exercise as Oakland begins the process of getting out of salary-cap jail. But Oakland has lost more talent than it has brought in the past month.

The question begs to be asked: Has Oakland fallen behind the rest of the AFC West for the 2012 season? It depends on whom you ask, of course. Asked this week if his team will be stronger or weaker in 2012, McKenzie, without explanation, said this: “Honestly, I envision it being stronger.”

However, many folks around the league wonder how.

“I think they have fallen behind,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said. “They are in a tough salary-cap position and they are paying for it now. I just don’t see the improvement.”

Added Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.: “I do think they have slipped.” Williamson, in an Insider piece, gave the Raiders one of the worst free-agent grades in the AFC.

It’s difficult to look at the list of players Oakland has added and lost and not come to the same conclusion. Even given the need for salary-cap repair, a loss of talent mustn’t be brushed aside.

Some of the key players who were either cut or departed Oakland as free agents: linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, running back Michael Bush, quarterback Jason Campbell, cornerback Stanford Routt, tight end Kevin Boss, defensive tackle John Henderson, running back Rock Cartwright, receiver Chaz Schilens, defensive end Trevor Scott and cornerback Chris Johnson.

The projected starters who have been brought in: guard Mike Brisiel and cornerbacks Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer.

“You look who has come and who has gone, and it’s scary,” Horton said. “I like Mike Brisiel. He will help. But the two cornerbacks are just guys. They are not starters for a good team. The defense needs improvement and I don’t see it. All I see is the loss of talent. Where is the coverage coming from? Where is the pass-rush coming from?”

In addition to not having much cap room, the Raiders have a small draft class. They have five picks and their first pick is No. 95, at the end of the third round. McKenzie has said the Raiders need a starting outside linebacker. He might not know who that player is for some time.

Compounding the concern in Oakland is the fact that the rest of the AFC West has been aggressive this offseason.

[+] EnlargeDarren McFadden
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesDarren McFadden is an elite running back when healthy -- but the Raiders are an injury or two away, at many positions, from serious trouble.
Denver added the big prize of the NFL offseason --quarterback Peyton Manning. Kansas City added several players, including Routt and Boss after they were jettisoned in Oakland. The Chargers lost star receiver Vincent Jackson and key backup running back Mike Tolbert, but added several pieces and have been lauded by scouts around the league for using their resources properly and adding to their overall talent level. Speaking this week solely about his own team, Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli said he felt the need to improve his roster because of the improvement around him in the division.

Meanwhile, McKenzie and Allen are seemingly beginning their tenure in Oakland by taking a step back. Asked about the loss of talent while at the NFL owners meetings this week, Allen took a realistic approach.

“You know what, we knew what the situation was when we were going into it,” Allen said. “We knew it was going to be a tough situation. I think Reggie’s done a great job of managing everything as we’ve gone through this. You go through it every year. Every year, you have good players that you lose. And you’ve got to find a way to regroup and replace those guys and that’s what we’re trying to get done.”

The problem is that Oakland has more holes than it did at the end of last season. In the past couple of seasons, the Raiders were intriguing because they were both young and didn’t have many glaring needs. All they needed was their young talent to continue to improve. Now, though, Oakland has holes at tight end and at linebacker and depth issues at all layers of the defense, running back, the offensive line and at quarterback.

“What if this team gets hurt a lot?” Horton asked. “There is no depth in this team.”

Still, not all is lost in Oakland. Running back Darren McFadden is an elite runner when healthy, the defensive line is an upper-echelon unit, the interior offensive line is strong, the special teams are top-notch, the receiver crew is potentially dynamic and the team believes quarterback Carson Palmer will benefit from a full offseason in the program.

The Raiders are hopeful that their talent can withstand this necessary offseason of cap repair. In a couple of years, if McKenzie continues to be financially prudent, the Raiders should be out of cap jail.

“This team wasn’t far away when I got here,” Allen said at the owners meetings. “We’re excited about trying to build on that and develop this team into a playoff-caliber team. Obviously, we took a couple hits because of the cap situation, but we’re looking forward to trying to develop the team, and the players.”

The only question: Has the rest of the AFC West left the Raiders behind in the immediate future?

AFC West free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Denver Broncos

Key additions: QB Peyton Manning, CB Tracy Porter, TE Joel Dreessen, TE Jacob Tamme, S Mike Adams, QB Caleb Hanie, WR Andre Caldwell.

Key losses: DT Brodrick Bunkley, WR, Eddie Royal, TE Daniel Fells, QB Tim Tebow, QB Brady Quinn, TE Dante Rosario.

Did they get better? The Broncos added Manning and that move changes the course of the entire division. Denver is instantly the favorite to win the AFC West again because of this addition. Yes, there are risks as the 36-year-old Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury that required several surgeries. Denver is convinced Manning is fully recovered and has been cleared to play.

If the 2012 Manning is anything like the Manning we last saw, Denver will be in good shape and the offense will be dangerous. The key is on defense. It has improved greatly and the Porter and Adams additions should help, even while losing Bunkley will hurt. Overall, this team made huge strides in the offseason.

What’s next: Denver’s biggest need areas are at defensive tackle (the Broncos may need two), running back, safety, receiver and linebacker. However, much of that need is for depth purposes.

Denver’s only true glaring hole is at defensive tackle. Expect the Broncos to use their No. 25 pick on the position. I wouldn’t be surprised if the team’s second-round pick is used on a running back unless the Broncos like one of the remaining veterans on the market.

Kansas City Chiefs

Key additions: CB Stanford Routt, RT Eric Winston, RB Peyton Hillis, TE Kevin Boss, QB Brady Quinn.

Key losses: CB Brandon Carr, QB Kyle Orton, FB Le'Ron McClain, LB Demorrio Williams.

Did they get better? Had it not been for the Manning blockbuster, everybody would be taking about what the Chiefs did. I think the Chiefs’ work in free agency was among the best five in the NFL.

Instead of giving quarterback Matt Cassel serious competition, the Chiefs further committed to him by giving him some strong pieces on offense. Hillis will team with Jamaal Charles to make a dangerous running tandem. Winston is one of the league’s better right tackles and Boss and Tony Moeaki will give opposing defenses fits in double tight end sets. This will be a varied offense that will have many weapons. The Chiefs are solid on defense and Routt is a veteran who is comparable to Carr, but more experienced and is less expensive.

What’s next: The Chiefs could use a nose tackle, help at inside linebacker, secondary depth and offensive line depth. They will get a good player with the 11th pick and I think they will try to solidify the middle of the defensive line with someone like Memphis’ Dontari Poe. If the Chiefs can add an impact defender with that pick, it will complete an outstanding offseason.

Oakland Raiders

Key additions: G Mike Brisiel, CB Ron Bartell, CB Shawntae Spencer, CB Pat Lee.

Key losses: LB Kamerion Wimbley, RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, CB Stanford Routt, TE Kevin Boss, DT John Henderson, RB Rock Cartwright, WR Chaz Schilens, DE Trevor Scott, CB Chris Johnson.

Did they get better? It’s difficult to argue this team improved. Just look at all the losses. It’s a pure fact of numbers, Oakland lost much more than it brought in. This team has more questions than it did at the end of last season and it has more holes. With limited cap space and the fact Oakland doesn’t pick in the draft until No. 95, the Raiders will have a difficult time adding any more impact players. Depth can be an issue.

I understand why this has happened. The new Oakland regime had to get things in order, and sometimes, before a team can make major steps forward as an organization, it may have to take a step back. There is still a lot of talent in Oakland, but it is clear the other three teams made more impactful additions.

What’s next: Oakland will be challenged to find impact players, but it will need to add depth at several places after finding a starting outside linebacker. Oakland needs depth at linebacker, the secondary, offensive line, running back and at quarterback. I think we will see Oakland be patient and add at spots all the way up into the season.

San Diego Chargers

Key additions: WR Robert Meachem, LB Jarret Johnson, WR Eddie Royal, FB Le’Ron McClain, QB Charlie Whitehurst, S Atari Bigby, TE Dante Rosario, LB Demorrio Williams

Key losses: WR Vincent Jackson, RB Mike Tolbert, G Kris Dielman, S Steve Gregory, QB Billy Volek.

Did they get better? I’ve talked to a lot of scouts who believe the Chargers improved. The truth is they lost two good players in Jackson and Tolbert and so did not improve as much as Denver and Kansas City did. But the Chargers did get creative and added a lot of pieces for the price it would have cost to keep Jackson. They also retained key offensive linemen Nick Hardwick and Jared Gaither. Meachem and Royal give quarterback Philip Rivers some interesting weapons.

Johnson will help the defense and he will make it tougher. The Chargers may have gotten a little deeper while losing some star power.

What’s next: The Chargers still haven’t addressed their greatest need outside of keeping its offensive line intact. San Diego will no doubt use its No. 18 pick on the best available pass-rusher to help Johnson is not a great pass-rusher.

Other needs include a big backup running back, offensive line depth and some more depth in all layers of the defense.

A Manning and Porter union?

March, 20, 2012
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While there has been talk the Denver Broncos may bring in some former Indianapolis Colts teammates to make Peyton Manning comfortable, they also may bring in the man who delivered Manning his greatest professional blow.

The Broncos are set to visit with New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter on Wednesday, according to an NFL source. He is visiting with the Titans on Tuesday.

Porter is best known for returning an interception for a touchdown against Manning in the Super Bowl in 201o. It sealed an upset win for the Saints over the Colts.

In Denver, Porter would likely replace Andre Goodman at right cornerback and play opposite Champ Bailey. Putting Porter on his side would likely be fine with Manning.

Oakland also had interest in Porter -- Oakland coach Dennis Allen coached Porter in New Orleans -- but those talks have stalled after the Raiders signed Ronald Bartell and Shawntae Spencer.
Richard Seymour joked about sleepless nights and Shaun Phillips tweeted about needing to more work out.

Yes, the defenses of the AFC West have been put on notice. Peyton Manning, one of the best players in the NFL if his neck woes are behind him, is joining the division as the new quarterback of the Denver Broncos.

The Manning signing will likely have an effect on the thinking of the three other teams in the AFC West when it comes to making additions this offseason. It’s got to be defense, defense, defense.

That was probably where the three teams were probably leaning toward concentrating on in the draft, anyway.

Kansas City -- coached by Romeo Crennel, whose defenses played well against Manning while he was the defensive coordinator in New England –- will likely look to upgrade on the defensive front and at linebacker early in the draft. The Chiefs loaded up on offense in free agency.

The Raiders have signed veteran cornerbacks Ronald Bartell and Shawntae Spencer. The Raiders will need the experience with Manning gunning for them.

San Diego will look for a pass-rusher in the draft's first round and may add some defensives pieces in free agency. It has also signed Baltimore linebacker Jarret Johnson.

The landscape of the division was rocked by this move and now Denver’s opponents have to adjust accordingly.
The Oakland Raiders have another veteran cornerback.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports the Raiders have signed former San Francisco starter Shawntae Spencer. He was cut last week.

He lost his starting job last season, but the nine-year veteran has 77 NFL starts.

He will likely team with Ronald Bartell to be Oakland’s starting cornerbacks. Both players are 30.

The Raiders have discussed adding several cornerbacks, including New Orleans’ Tracy Porter. But with Bartell and Spencer signed, the Raiders may be set with veterans cornerbacks. DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa, who were both taken in the 2011 draft, will both be given a chance to develop.
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
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Picture-perfect California weather only marginally improved the St. Louis Rams' view from the visitor's sideline at Candlestick Park.

Bradford
Bradford
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
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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 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 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 or not. 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 now 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
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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
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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
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

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.

RISING

[+] 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.
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.

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