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Seattle’s Shaun Alexander will try to overcome a broken wrist while San Francisco’s Frank Gore looks to break out of an early season slump when the NFC’s top rushers from each of the past two seasons meet in San Francisco on Sunday.
Alexander has bounced back from a disappointing 2006 season, during which he was hampered by a broken foot, to help the Seahawks (2-1) get off to a strong start. But the 2005 league MVP will continue to wear a protective cast on his left wrist after X-rays revealed a small crack in the bone earlier this week.
Alexander had been playing with the cast for the past two weeks because of what the team thought was a sprain, but the new diagnosis means he’ll need to keep it on for longer than expected.
“They don’t think it’s anything any more serious than it was. It’s small,” Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said Monday. “He will wear the cast for a while. He’s not going to take the cast off.”
The cast didn’t get in Alexander’s way last week, when he ran for 100 yards in Seattle’s 24-21 win over Cincinnati, including 44 in the fourth quarter to help set up the winning touchdown pass with one minute left. It was his second 100-yard game of the season - matching his total from last year.
Holmgren thinks there’s still room for improvement.
“I would not have guessed he had 100 yards today,” Holmgren told the Seahawks’ official Web site. “As I said earlier, we did not run the ball as well as I would have liked. But we’re going to build on that. Our running game and our rushing attack is going to be very important to us before our season is over, and it will continue to get better.”
The 49ers (2-1) are also hoping for improvement on the ground. Gore set a franchise record with an NFC-best 1,695 rushing yards last year, but has only 175 through three games this season, including 39 last Sunday in a 37-16 loss at Pittsburgh - his lowest total ever as a starter.
“I’m frustrated,” Gore said. “Every week I know they will come out to stop me, but I just have to give that extra effort. I tried, but they played good defense. We just got to get better as an offense right now. We’re struggling.”
Gore has also had to deal with the death of his mother, Liz, who died of kidney disease Sept. 12. He missed practice the day after her death and on Sept. 19 to attend her funeral in Miami.
San Francisco’s passing game hasn’t been any more dependable than its rushing attack, as the 49ers rank last in the NFC with 132.3 passing yards per game. Alex Smith has completed only 43 of his 83 attempts and has one touchdown and one interception - both last week.
“There’s definitely some positives,” Smith said. “Decision making, playmaking, I felt better this week than I did the last couple.”
He’ll be without one of his favorite targets Sunday with tight end Vernon Davis expected to miss the next two games with a sprained ligament in his right knee. The sixth overall pick of the 2006 draft had four catches for 56 yards before he was hurt in the third quarter last week.
The Niners’ struggling offense, which ranks last in the NFC with 223.0 yards per game, could have a hard time rebounding against Seattle, which has given up only 17 second-half points this year.
That defense could improve if Seattle newcomers Deon Grant and Brian Russell continue to contribute like they did last Sunday. The safeties signed with the Seahawks in the offseason, but didn’t do much before combining for two interceptions and a fumble recovery that sealed the win in the final minute.
“We haven’t been doing anything,” Grant said of he and Russell. “They gave us this money … but we haven’t done nothing. So I said, ‘Let’s turn it on.’ From here on out, that’s what you’re going to be seeing from B-Russ and myself.”
The Seahawks had won six straight against the Niners before last season, when San Francisco took both meetings. The Niners held Alexander to 110 total rushing yards in those games, including a season-low 37 on 17 carries in San Francisco on Nov. 19.
Gore had a career-high 212 yards in that 20-14 win, and compiled 356 total rushing yards against Seattle last season - nearly 100 more than he had against any other opponent.