SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
In signing Brian Westbrook to a one-year deal, the 49ers added a veteran runner capable of becoming the team's No. 1 tailback should Frank Gore go down with an injury this season. What's more intriguing is how offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye will use the two when they are both healthy.
Westbrook distinguishes himself from nearly every other running back in the league by the way he catches the football. Once the ball is in his hands, Westbrook turns up field in a flash and he gets around the corner on swing passes and screens with extreme quickness.
In his first week as a 49er, however, Westbrook has been asked to run like the rest of the team's tailbacks. That is, the bulk of his carries have been between the tackles in San Francisco's power running game. In many ways, it's the opposite of how Westbrook was used in Philadelphia. The eight-year veteran isn't complaining.
"I was just talking to Frank (Gore) -- I like their power game," Westbrook said after his first practice. "I like it a lot -- down, down kick-out with the offensive lineman. I saw a lot of good in their game with the offensive linemen ... I've screamed at coach (Andy) Reid to run the ball, run the ball, run the ball. This team seems like that's what they're gonna do."
A natural assumption is that the 49ers will use Gore on first and second downs and bring Westbrook in as the third-down back. Safety Michael Lewis, a former teammate of Westbrook's in Philadelphia, noted that Westbrook presents all sorts of matchup problems for defenses.
"He's got receiver skills," Lewis said of Westbrook. "He's a mismatch on defensive backs as well as linebackers."
The problem is that Gore is a good receiver out of the backfield as well. He led the team in catches in 2007, and in 2006 he set a franchise record with 2,180 yards from scrimmage. Moreover, Gore traditionally has grown stronger the more he touches the ball.
"You know Frank is a guy that wants the ball," coach Mike Singletary said. "Any great player, whether it's a receiver, a running back, he wants the ball and I understand that ... But, it's something that I want him to understand that we want him as long as we can possibly have him, and I want to take care of him in the process. So I just think it makes sense."
The 49ers are keeping their future plans at tailback under wraps. Singletary and Raye hinted that Gore and Westbrook could be used in the backfield at the same time, and the duo appeared together for two plays during seven-on-seven drills. Neither running back, however, will see much action in the preseason.
There hasn't been any clash of egos early on. In his first press conference, Westbrook noted that "Frank's the man" in San Francisco and that he's content to take over backup role. Gore, meanwhile, said he welcomed the opportunity to pick another great running back's brain.
"He's a special back," Gore said. "He's very quick, very smart player. He watched me in practice and I asked him to help me with the things he sees that I can carry over on the field."
The Seahawks received sobering news after Saturday's 27-24 loss to Green Bay in the team's second preseason game -- rookie offensive tackle Russell Okung has a sprained ankle that likely will force him to miss a few weeks and could linger into the regular season.
Okung, drafted No. 6 overall and paid a maximum $58 million contract to be the team's left tackle of the future after Walter Jones retired, reported to camp eight days late and was dinged up in Seattle's first exhibition game against Tennessee.
The Oklahoma State product injured his right ankle on the first series against Green Bay and went to the locker room to be evaluated by team trainers, never returning to the field.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said X-rays on Okung's ankle came back negative, and an MRI led to the timetable of 2-4 weeks, meaning he's done for the preseason.
Carroll would not rule out the possibility of a high-ankle sprain, which can take up to two months to heal.
The Seahawks dealt with a rash of injuries along the offensive line last season, cycling through four offensive tackles and starting six different offensive line combinations as they attempted to replace Jones. Carroll understands the importance of getting Okung back in a timely manner.
"It's pretty significant," Carroll said about the Okung injury. "We made it as big of a priority as we can make it in getting him. We'll have to see how it goes. (Mansfield) Wrotto played the whole game just about. We'll see how we did and all. That's a big loss if he can't come back. We put a lot of time and effort in getting this guy right. He's done everything we can ask of him, and we'll see how it is and how long it's going to take."
Asked if it could be a couple weeks for Okung, Carroll had this to say: "It could be. We don't know that yet. We'll figure it out. We don't know how he is about coming back, so we have to wait and see what happens here."
Okung sprained the same ankle in Oklahoma State's season opener against Georgia last year, but missed only a few plays. The 6-foot-5, 310-pounder started all 13 games in his final college season, though the ankle continued to bother him late into the year.
Mansfield Wrotto, normally a guard, replaced Okung. The Seahawks already are without backup tackle Ray Willis for an indefinite time because he is facing knee surgery.
Having Okung out will affect Seattle's ability to generate a consistent running game. Offensive line guru Alex Gibbs was brought in to install his zone blocking scheme in order to help improve the Seahawks' offense, but so far it has been tough sledding for Seattle, as they have averaged just 3.5 yards a carry in two preseason games.
"We have to get it right and be consistent with it," Carroll said about the running game. "We're emphasizing it and doing everything we can at this point. We're going to have to get better and get more consistent. ... That's a big concern to me. I came in here thinking that this would be a key for us; to be able to run the football so that we could play off of that with play actions and keep Matt (Hasselbeck) clean and all of that. We're trying to build it together in that manner."
ST. LOUIS RAMS
As if it wasn't obvious before Saturday night, but it became even more glaring during the Rams' 19-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
The Rams are a different team with running back Steven Jackson on the field. In the preseason opener, Jackson didn't play and the Rams totaled just 150 yards.
Saturday, in a 19-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns, the Rams had a mere 172 yards, but 65 came on their first possession of the game when a 10-play drive resulted in a touchdown. Jackson rushed for 20 yards on four carries and then left the game.
The decline was substantial, with 107 additional yards on 57 plays. Quarterback A.J. Feeley completed 4 of 5 passes for 45 yards in the drive and the Rams had five first downs.
Feeley didn't return because of a hand and elbow injury, and what followed with Sam Bradford at quarterback were eight consecutive possessions without a first down. Bradford was in for 24 plays and the Rams gained 30 yards.
Backup running backs Chris Ogbonnaya (seven carries for six yards) and Keith Toston (13-23) combined for 29 yards on 20 attempts.
Bradford might start Thursday night in New England if Feeley can't play, and it's possible Jackson could get more work, meaning it would be the first time in the preseason Bradford would have Jackson's presence.
Asked about having Jackson on the field, coach Steve Spagnuolo said, "It was a big help. That's the kind of boost our team will need. That's what he is. He's one of the best players on our football team. And to have him out there, I think the offensive line feels better and the quarterback does too; everybody does."
Jackson had back surgery on April 15 and hasn't been limited in practice. Asked before the game whether he was hoping to play, he said, "I would say I would need it if I wasn't getting banged around, but we've had a pretty physical camp around here. The more time I can buy getting ready for Arizona (Sept. 12) without having to play a full-out game puts us in a more safe comfort. But at the same time, I've told you guys repeatedly I'm not worried about the back. I think it's something that probably ... just get it on and over so we can stop answering the questions about it, but I feel great, though."
After the game Saturday, he said, "It really felt good to be out there once again on that first drive and I think the guys felt really comfortable with me in there."
The big question is whether the Rams will be watching the league transaction wire to augment the depth behind Jackson. There had been interest in Brian Westbrook, but he signed with San Francisco.
Jackson said not to worry.
"Having a veteran at this point of the game now, I don't know if it's as big a concern as everyone is making it to be," he said. "I feel great physically. The younger guys are coming along just fine. And if we continue to stay healthy, I don't think it'll be a concern."
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