BEREA, Ohio -- Mike Pettine is known as an honest assessor, which is why we know he’s honestly curious what Johnny Manziel can do for him on Sundays.

Seems innocent enough. But he’s not talking about the starter. That’s Brian Hoyer. He’s 4-3. He’s also a free agent in a couple of months.

So Pettine, even though he’s made clear he won’t force Manziel into the lineup unnecessarily, still keeps the door slightly cracked at a critical time.

Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer
AP Photo/David RichardJohnny Manziel, right, is in the first season of a four-year deal, while Brian Hoyer is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season.
“That’s a question that we need to have answered,” said Pettine about his anxiousness to get a full evaluation on Manziel, which only comes with significant snaps on Sundays.

Perhaps it’s not Pettine cracking the door as much as the Browns swinging it open in May with the drafting of a headline-generating first-rounder.

Pettine’s question also seems difficult to answer now. It could be four years or four weeks and neither would shock. The Browns will always play those who maximize chances to win, Pettine says, and that goes for every position.

What’s clear is no NFL team has a quarterback situation quite like the Browns, with a first-round rookie waiting behind a free-agent starter. Hoyer and Arizona’s Carson Palmer are the only upcoming free-agent quarterbacks who have started more than four games this year.

If the Browns want Hoyer around beyond this year, is there a way to keep both quarterbacks happy? Only two options seem feasible for that outcome: (A) transition tag Hoyer at around $16 million for one year, or (B) sign Hoyer to a two- or three-year bridge deal. That gives Hoyer more reps and Manziel more time to develop. But my guess is Hoyer wouldn’t be thrilled with either option. Hoyer’s agent is Joe Linta, who bet big with Joe Flacco by waiting until after the 2012 season to cut a deal. Flacco’s Super Bowl season helped him earn a reported $52 million guaranteed.

Hoyer and Linta could table talks until the offseason. Hoyer’s a confident guy. Why not bet on himself?

Hoyer’s free agency will force the Browns into a long-term quarterback decision in the next four months. But if you take free agency out of it, Pettine seems comfortable evaluating the quarterback position week-to-week instead of year-to-year.

I asked him Wednesday if an NFL team can let good quarterbacks sit for three or four years in today’s NFL culture with the patience of a Wendy’s drive-thru.

“To me, it’s look at your roster and who gives you the best chance to win,” Pettine said. “If you have a guy on your roster that’s doing that for you and somebody is sitting and waiting, I think the mistakes are made when teams get impatient. That they have to know or that guy has to play. I think it’s easy in the coaching world, because it’s who gives us the best chance to win today. We’ll worry about tomorrow down the road.”

For all the questions about Manziel, Hoyer’s outlook is simple: Win games and do so with command of the offense and he’ll remain the starter. As long as that door is cracked, this is a quarterback picture with many layers to it.
CINCINNATI -- As a former first-round pick, the wait to enter the Cincinnati Bengals' starting cornerback rotation has been long and, at times, frustrating for Dre Kirkpatrick.

 He certainly didn't believe when he was drafted that by the middle of his third season that he still would be fighting to climb the defensive depth chart. By this point, he thought he would be fending off challengers who were competing to take playing time from him.

"Coach [Marvin Lewis] knows I'm ready. I work hard every day," Kirkpatrick said. "It's a mental thing when it comes to that. Sitting back, just preparing. Trying to be ready for the game. Coach knows I'm ready. I'm ready. I just have to continue to be patient. Hopefully when my time comes I go out there and do what I have to do."

But the fact is, he probably wasn't going to see much action the first few years of his career. Veterans Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Adam Jones played well the past two seasons, despite occasional injuries. Hamstring and knee problems briefly sidelined Newman and Jones last year, while Hall only played the first half of the season because of a torn Achilles.

Those injuries caused Kirkpatrick's playing time to increase last season, but this year he hasn't had much reason to play. The vets are all healthy and playing some of their best ball. At 36, Newman appears in a career renaissance. Jones' pesky play has prevented most receivers from burning him deep. Only Steve Smith has that honor, getting past on a go route in the season opener.

How can a benched Kirkpatrick keep his wits? By continuing to soak up information from his older peers and to execute when he does play.

"I just continue to learn from those guys," Kirkpatrick said. "It's always going to be frustrating when you want to play. I've never really had to just sit. But it's a respect thing, also. Those guys are very good at what they do. Hopefully, I can be here 10 years, 12 years and a younger guy may be saying that about me."

Kirkpatrick has appeared on defense in all but two games. He received his most action in the Week 3 blowout over the Titans when he was on the field for 12 plays. Last week against Baltimore, he relieved Newman for three plays, even helping on a third-quarter pass defense. In all, he has five tackles on defense.

Where Kirkpatrick has made his biggest impact is on special teams. As one of two first-round picks at gunner -- fellow cornerback Darqueze Dennard plays opposite Kirkpatrick -- he's been a key part of punter Kevin Huber's strong season. Kirkpatrick has four special teams tackles this season and routinely has been the first Bengal downfield at the end of Huber's punts. As a result of getting down so quickly, Kirkpatrick has both corralled returners almost immediately and downed several punts deep in opposing territory.

Across two games, Huber had consecutive punts downed at the opposing 4-, 1- and 2-yard lines. Against Tennessee alone, he had three stop inside the 10. Kirkpatrick downed one and Dennard had a tackle on another.

"Coming up in college, it's all about a role," Kirkpatrick said. "Here, you're learning that you can make game-changing plays with little adjustments. That's one of the things that [the veteran corners] are very good at, and one of the things I'm learning and Darqueze is going to learn.

"I'm in a room full of smart guys and you can learn a lot from them."

For now, that's all Kirkpatrick can do: keep learning and keep waiting.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens know the routine when they play in Pittsburgh, from Steelers fans throwing stuff at the team bus to the awkward dinners the night before the game.

"Folks [are] just looking at us like, 'Man, I hope you just bomb it tomorrow,'" wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "It’s a serious environment. That’s why you’re here, to play a team like Pittsburgh up there, a crowd that hates you, really a city that truly hates you."

In what has become one of the top rivalries in the NFL, Ravens players thrive on being hated in Pittsburgh, and the results back that up. Since 2010, the Ravens are 3-1 at Heinz Field (.750), and 14-18 (.435) everywhere else on the road.

The Ravens won three straight regular-season games at Heinz (2010, '11 and '12), and they nearly won their fourth in a row there last season. Joe Flacco's 1-yard touchdown throw to Dallas Clark tied the game at 16 with 1:58 remaining. But Shaun Suisham's 42-yard field goal -- which was set up by Michael Huff failing to contain Emmanuel Sanders on a 44-yard kickoff return -- won the game as time expired.

"I love it because they put so much energy into hating you," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who is known to yell back at fans. "You obviously are doing something [right], so it’s kind of flattering. I take it as a sign of respect.”

There are 17 players on the Ravens' 53-man roster who have never been a part of this rivalry for a game in Pittsburgh. Smith's advice, especially to the younger players, is that you can't let the emotions surrounding this game affect you.

"At the end of the day when you get on the field, it’s football," Smith said. "It’s a great, disciplined, physical football team. And we know we have to play physical ball to go out there and beat them. It’s going to be tough. And they’re hot right now, too.”
So begins the Jacksonville Jaguars' gauntlet.

One week after a two-touchdown defeat to their in-state rival Miami Dolphins, the Jaguars on Sunday begin a treacherous three-game stretch of their schedule against a trio of teams with winning records -- and that all look like prime postseason candidates.

Up first, the Cincinnati Bengals, an organization that found itself at a unique crossroads late in last Sunday's game against Baltimore. Down four with less than four minutes remaining in a division game, the Bengals needed quarterback Andy Dalton to take them on a miracle comeback drive. He did. If he hadn't, the Bengals likely would have lost and fallen to last in the AFC North.

Instead, they're back in first.

ESPN's Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to preview this matchup:

Coley Harvey: Mike, Jags QB Blake Bortles has four pick-sixes this year to go along with his 12 overall interceptions. How much of his growth hinges on how well he can take pressure? Many of his struggles have come against blitzes, and you have to think Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to expose that.

Michael DiRocco: Bortles has struggled against the blitz. Though he is completing nearly 60 percent of his throws against five or more rushers, he has thrown five interceptions, has thrown no touchdown passes and has been sacked nine times. His Total QBR is a paltry 2.8 against five or more rushers. This isn't confined to just Bortles, though, because nearly every rookie QB will struggle against pressure. However, the Jaguars need to see improvement over the final eight games. His decision-making has to be better, and the one thing offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch wants to see is Bortles not continue to make the same mistakes. There are going to be interceptions because it's part of the learning process, and it's also because Bortles has a bit of gunslinger in him and likes to take chances. That's partly why he leads the NFL with 12 interceptions. Fisch would like to see that number drop to six over the season's second half. It's a rough process, but the only way Bortles can grow is to go through it. It would be a problem if he wasn't better in the second half of the season than he was in the first half.

Coley, A.J. Green says he expects to play against the Jaguars. More than quarterback Andy Dalton, is Green the key to the Bengals' offensive success, not only this week but going forward?

Harvey: To be honest, Mike, he isn't. Yes, Green is a Pro Bowler and he is a talented player and having him will bring added life to this offense, but we can't overlook the fact this unit has played well without him this season. Green has missed parts of four games this season because of a nagging big-toe injury, and in his place the Bengals have just rolled out a strong group of receivers, running backs and tight ends. Mohamed Sanu has been the most direct replacement for Green, catching 21 passes for 383 yards and a touchdown in Green's absence. Since Sanu has served as a runner on reverses, and passed balls in addition to catching them, he has racked up 460 yards of total offense in relief of Green. That's good enough for 31.3 percent of the Bengals' entire offensive production in the games Green has missed. Even if Green returns, expect Sanu to factor in similar ways this week and on down the line. Still, it can't be disputed that Green's potential addition this weekend will help any offensive success Cincinnati has.

Mike, Jacksonville's defense currently ranks as the best in the league in red zone territory. What happens when the Jags get pinned deep that allows them to prevent giving up touchdowns?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' defensive line, notably tackles Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller, has played well all season, but especially in the red zone. Teams are averaging just 2.08 yards per rush against the Jaguars in the red zone. In addition, the Jaguars have allowed teams to convert just 27.3 percent of third-down plays in the red zone, which is fifth in the league. They've also intercepted two passes in the end zone. What's funny is the Jaguars have given up six touchdown passes of 20 or more yards, which shows the secondary has been more susceptible to getting beat deep than having trouble in the red zone. The pass rush has helped in the red zone, too. The Jaguars' 25 sacks are tied with Minnesota for second in the NFL behind Buffalo (28).

Which is the real Bengals' defense: the one that held opponents to 11 points per game in the first three games or the unit that gave up 35.7 points over the next three games?

Harvey: If I had a good answer for that one, Mike, head coach Marvin Lewis, Guenther and the rest of the defensive staff might try to find a job for me. Seriously, it's been one of the most perplexing issues of this season for the Bengals. They came out strong the first three weeks, stopping the run and just outmuscling each of the teams they played. Not only did it look like the Bengals were as good under Guenther as they were under the venerable Mike Zimmer, but they looked better. And then came the bye week. A Week 4, early-season interruption derailed the Bengals, and it appeared to hit the defense the hardest. In the first three games after the bye, they were outscored 107-54. Two of the teams, the Patriots and Colts, picked up more than 500 total yards. All three rushed for more than 100.

I'd say the real Bengals' defense is somewhere in the middle of the fast start and the atrocious post-bye follows. Now that players are starting to get healthy again, I'm thinking it might be closer to the unit we saw at the start of the season.

What has Denard Robinson's past two games meant to the balance of Jacksonville's offense, Mike?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' passing offense is dependent on play-action for it to be effective, and until the past two weeks, the play-action fake really meant nothing to opposing defenses. Through the first six games, the Jaguars averaged 69.5 yards per game rushing. In the past two, they've averaged 180.5 yards per game. Most of that has come from Robinson, who has run for 235 yards and one touchdown. He's doing a much better job of running tough: breaking tackles, running through arm tackles, moving the pile forward and falling ahead for an extra yard. It's no coincidence that the Jaguars' first victory came in a game in which Robinson rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown. Had Bortles not thrown two pick-sixes last week against Miami, the Jaguars probably would have won that game, too -- and Robinson had 108 yards rushing. If Robinson can continue to be effective running the ball, that will allow Fisch to take some pressure off Bortles.

Geno Atkins looked very good against Baltimore. Is he all the way back from the ACL tear, and what kind of impact does he have on the defense?

Harvey: I'd say Atkins is back from the season-ending ACL injury he suffered exactly one year ago Friday, Mike. As you mentioned, he played quite well against the Ravens. Guenther called it Atkins' best performance of the season, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed. Atkins played faster, with more explosion and a bit of his old fire in that game. He had two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble that came when he was one step into the backfield before the ball carrier had time to decide which way he was going to run. It's safe to say after six virtually unproductive games that he's finally all the way back.


Buccaneers vs. Browns Preview

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
The Cleveland Browns play the third game in a trio of games that are, generously stated, against struggling teams. The Browns lost to winless Jacksonville and beat winless Oakland. Now the 1-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to Cleveland.

The Bucs are like the Browns in that they are adjusting to a new coach. They are like the Browns used to be in that they are searching for a quarterback.

Cleveland is at home, where the temperature is expected to be a decidedly non-Tampa Bay like 40-some degrees.

Bucs reporter Pat Yasinskas and Browns reporter Pat McManamon join to discuss the game.

McManamon: Tampa Bay comes to Cleveland 1-6. Where exactly have the Bucs improved under Lovie Smith?

Yaskinskas: That’s a great question, and the honest answer is nowhere. Smith seemed like a great hire and has good pedigree with the Tampa 2 defense. The Bucs were active in free agency and they said that’s because they didn’t want to have to ask their fans to be patient. But none of the free-agent moves really have panned out and it’s taking a lot longer for Smith’s defensive and offensive schemes to take hold. I never thought I’d say this, but former coach Greg Schiano’s bunch from last year might be better than the current Bucs.

The Browns jumped into the national spotlight when they drafted Johnny Manziel. But Brian Hoyer has been able to hold him off for the starting quarterback job. How is Hoyer playing, and how firm is his grip on the job?

McManamon: As coach Mike Pettine said last week, good enough to win and be 4-3. Hoyer has hit a bit of a lull, with two off days in Jacksonville and at home against Oakland. But take the entire season together and he’s doing well. His rating is more than 90, he doesn’t throw interceptions, and he’s doing it without Josh Gordon and -- for the past two games -- without a running game. Hoyer’s only issue is that the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel. Because of that there will always be a vocal minority (or majority?) that will cry for Manziel at every error by Hoyer. He needs to win this game, but in the overall picture his play has been a bright spot for a team few thought would be 4-3 at this point of the season.

Is the Bucs' long-term quarterback on the roster, or will he be drafted in the offseason?

Yaskinskas: Josh McCown is 35, so he’s out as a long-term answer. But the jury still is out on second-year pro Mike Glennon. He has a big arm and some nice intangibles, but he hasn’t been met with a lot of success. I think Glennon could be fine if the Bucs improved his supporting cast. But, if this team keeps losing and gets an early draft pick, I think it’s going to be tough to not draft a guy that might be able to be a franchise quarterback.

The Browns haven’t been able to run the ball effectively the past few games. What’s gone wrong?

McManamon: The easy answer is to say the Browns lost their Pro Bowl center. Without Alex Mack the Browns aren’t even averaging 2 yards a carry the past two games. Clearly that’s a factor. But the other factor is that Jacksonville and Oakland dared the Browns to throw by loading the box with a safety to protect against the run. It’s no secret that Kyle Shanahan’s offense is built around the ability to run and play-action, so teams are trying to take the run away and negate play-action. Tampa is a Cover 2 team, though. It will be interesting to see if Smith goes against his bread-and-butter and plays eight in the box.

We live in a (Cleve)land where the coach got one season to prove himself last season with the Browns. Is it at all conceivable that would happen with Smith?

Yasinskas: That’s something I’ve started asking myself recently because it’s becoming a legitimate question. Smith signed a five-year contract and ownership still seems high on him. But let’s say the Bucs end up 1-15 or 2-14 and have some more embarrassing losses like they did against Atlanta and Baltimore. If the bottom really falls out of this thing, I think it’s possible that Smith could get only one year. He needs to get a few wins and show improvement down the stretch.

With Josh Gordon suspended, where do the Browns turn for a receiving threat if banged-up tight end Jordan Cameron isn’t ready to go?

McManamon: That’s a significant issue, Pat. If Cameron’s concussion keeps him on the sidelines the Browns will absolutely have to run the ball. That will help the passing game more than anything. To replace Gordon, the Browns have basically shared the wealth. Andrew Hawkins has played more than any receiver and has been a pleasant surprise. Miles Austin has come up with big catches and touchdowns. And undrafted rookie Taylor Gabriel ranks second in the league in yards per catch (19.8 yards). Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge would share time in place of Cameron. Both have good hands, but neither can get down the field the way Cameron can. One of Hoyer’s strengths is that he can read the field and make a decision quickly, which allows him to spread the ball around. I’d expect that approach to continue.

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are No. 16 in the NFL in total defense (357.9 yards allowed per game) and No. 21 in scoring defense (24.5 points allowed per game).

And the reality is the Steelers have been a middling defense for the last couple of seasons after playing it at an absurdly high level for the better part of a decade

There are numerous reasons why the unit has fallen off. One James Harrison won't entertain is that age has caught up with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who turned 77 in early September.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's James Harrison
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesJames Harrison was credited with a second sack of Andrew Luck on Wednesday.
"It's nothing about Dick LeBeau is getting too old," the veteran outside linebacker said. "You've got a bunch of idiots that don't know what they're talking about when they say that so I do take it a little personal."

Harrison is doing his part to defend LeBeau's reputation as well as restore the intimidation factor to a defense that has too often lacked it recently.

Harrison recorded his 15th multi-sack game while with the Steelers in a 51-34 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, though it didn't become official until Wednesday -- three days after Pittsburgh's victory.

Harrison had been credited with a sack of Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and Elias Sports gave the 36-year-old Harrison a second sack on Wednesday, taking one that had been credited to strong safety Troy Polamalu.

"That's messed up," Polamalu said.

Then he laughed and conceded that Elias had been correct in crediting Harrison with both of the sacks that the Steelers managed against the Colts.

It seemed like old times in the Steelers' locker room on Wednesday with Polamalu and Harrison joking around. Moments like the one the two longtime teammates shared after practice almost didn't happen.

Harrison was content to walk away from the game when he officially retired in early September. When Jarvis Jones went down with a dislocated wrist a couple of weeks later and the Steelers needed immediate help at outside linebacker, Polamalu was among those who helped coax Harrison out of retirement.

Harrison said he would not have returned for any other team -- and that he would not have done so had his two sons been against it.

Even more than a month after coming out of retirement, Harrison still seems a little conflicted about having to put on hold his promise to spend more time with his sons.

"The big thing is not having that time with my kids like now. If I'm lucky I may get a few hours a week," Harrison said. "Being back right now it's still kind of hard because you're missing that time with them, you're missing those moments that you can't get back."

What Harrison has been getting back is his legs after not doing any football-related drills for more than nine months and it is showing.

Harrison, who is sharing snaps with Arthur Moats at right outside linebacker, helped the Steelers put consistent pressure on Luck last Sunday. That and the number of times that the Steelers hit Luck could bode well for the defense in the second half of the season.

"I like the direction we're going in," Harrison said. "We still have a lot of things we need to get better at."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith feels like he got off lucky in his confrontation with Vontaze Burfict, especially with the reputation of the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker.

In Sunday's 27-23 loss to the Bengals, Smith sustained a head injury when he was hit by cornerback Leon Hall's helmet while trying to run a slant route. While the attention soon turned to Adam Jones returning Joe Flacco's interception, Burfict went over to lay a block on Smith even though the wide receiver was visibly injured and holding his head.

Smith, though, was complimentary of Burfict on Wednesday.

"It could've been a lot worse watching the video," Smith said. "He's a heck of a player, but he's a dirty one, too. That's the one time -- as dirty of a player that I think he is -- he definitely held up. He has some good to him."

Burfict was reportedly fined $25,000 for twisting the ankles of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and tight end Greg Olsen earlier this month. He has been warned that he's considered a repeat offender subject to escalating discipline and that any future incidents will result in his being summoned to the league office.

When a reporter told Smith that Burfict just had knee surgery, Smith asked, "Dang, serious?"

Reporters told Smith that Burfict is expected to miss a couple of games.

"I hope he gets well soon," Smith said, which drew some laughs because no one knew if Smith was joking.

"I'm serious," Smith said.
BEREA, Ohio -- Wednesday began with Cleveland Browns guard Joel Bitonio making fun of the media mania over Johnny Manziel.

It continued with Tampa Bay receiver and former Manziel teammate Mike Evans saying Manziel has future superstar written all over him.

And it wound down with coach Mike Pettine basically saying that Manziel won’t be playing for the Browns unless there is an injury or the team is out of the playoff hunt.

Meanwhile, the Browns got ready to play a game.

Monty Python had its “Life of Brian”; this is the “Life of Johnny,” with Brian relegated to supporting actor.

It’s a situation created by the team’s trade up in the first round to draft Manziel and molded by its decision to start Brian Hoyer and stick with him through good half and bad. Pettine said that has led to some frustration for Manziel as he watches.

“I can sense it,” Pettine said.

The coach didn’t mention specific conversations but intimated it’s a “feel thing,” the words Pettine used before the opener to keep the opposition guessing about whether Manziel would play.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Tony DejakAside from a couple of plays, Johnny Manziel has watched from the sideline this season.
“Maybe I’m imposing it, putting it on him,” Pettine said. “But you feel it because that’s the kind of competitor he is.”

Manziel’s role with the Browns at this point basically is to watch, learn and be ready. Hoyer is the starter, but as Jake Locker showed, Manziel is one helmet to the thumb away from being on the field.

Until then, fans can live with the fact that Pettine said there have been “glimpses” that Manziel can be a full-time starter.

Diving too deep into anything said about Manziel is dangerous. That’s what Bitonio was getting across in his first-person story for when he wrote that “the media loves Johnny Manziel -- and Johnny just wants to be a normal guy.”

That may be impossible given that Manziel fuels website hits simply with his name. He garners mega-mouse clicks while not doing much of anything.

Like every player, Manziel should want to play. But Pettine gave no inkling it would happen anytime soon -- or that Manziel is completely ready.

“He’s certainly shown flashes of it,” Pettine said, “but we won’t truly know until he gets out there in an actual game and a meaningful time.”

Bitonio’s first-person narrative detailed the challenge for a guard going from one- and two-word play calls to Kyle Shanahan’s plays that are mini-lectures. Imagine how much more challenging it is for a quarterback.

Pettine said teams make mistakes forcing the issue because they feel they have to “find out” about a guy.

“Brian’s our starting quarterback,” Pettine said. “That’s a difficult thing to say, let’s just go ahead. All the games are meaningful.”

Evans provided the words of praise in a conference call with the Cleveland media.

“The game hasn't really seen a quarterback like him, I don't think,” Evans told a gaggle huddled around a speaker phone. “They say Doug Flutie and guys like that. But he can throw just as good as the 6-5 prototypical quarterbacks, and he can run like Michael Vick.”

Evans may be right. But it seems fair to assume the coaching staff has yet to see the guy Evans described, because if they had, he would be playing and not watching.

If Evans is right, the Browns have the best of both worlds. They are starting someone they believe can win while grooming the guy behind him. With Hoyer headed to free agency and whatever happens there, the Browns have covered their bases.

“I hate talking about contract stuff,” Pettine said. “But that’s the reality of the NFL, and we’ll see how it plays out down the road.”

Manziel admitted Friday that he’s the backup “and that’s that.” He added that there’s been enough drama about him the past two years and that he needs no more.

Clearly he’s searching for a new normalcy. But two days later he posted a tweet at 4:31 a.m. that prompted Pettine to make a crack about the post.

“I don’t know whether he was still up or whether he was waking up early and getting ready to come into work,” Pettine said.

It still marked the first time in-season that Manziel posted anything that might indicate his social life was picking up. Since the season began, and since the Browns spoke with Manziel, he has been laying pretty low -- aside from his every-Friday gaggle with the media.

On Thursday night, Manziel will be at Quicken Loans Arena welcoming LeBron James back to town. There will be several Browns there, but the rookie quarterback will probably be the one caught on TNT cameras.

Even the life of LeBron may pause momentarily for the life of Johnny.
CINCINNATI -- A.J. Green participated in the Cincinnati Bengals' practice Wednesday afternoon, fulfilling comments he made to ESPN's Bob Holtzman after Sunday's game.

It was the first time the Pro Bowler practiced in nearly a month.

"I feel good," Green said after practice. "We're going to do a little bit [Thursday] and see how it goes."

It appears more promising he will play Sunday. If he does, don't expect Green to cut short any snap opportunities this week against Jacksonville in favor of getting more healthy for next Thursday's quick turnaround against Cleveland.

"I'm not going to take any kind of approach," Green said. "I'm just going to play as hard as I can and see what happens."

During the open portion of Wednesday's workouts, Green went through position-specific drills with other receivers and went through a series of routes. He didn't seem to favor the right big toe injury that has bugged him since the season opener.

His last Wednesday workout didn't go well. Minutes after the Bengals stopped stretching in their first practice the week Carolina visited in Week 6, he threw down his helmet and slammed his right shoe to the turf before getting on a cart and riding back into the stadium. He had aggravated the toe injury.

A day later, Green saw a foot specialist in Cincinnati who prescribed him to avoid playing for two weeks. Seven days after that evaluation, he traveled to North Carolina to another foot specialist who told him the same thing.

As a result, Green has missed the last three games. In his place, third-year wideout Mohamed Sanu has emerged. The player who was slated to be Cincinnati's third receiver entering the season has caught 21 passes for 383 yards and a touchdown in the three-plus games Green has missed. In addition to the three recent contests he didn't play, Green also was sidelined for all but six plays of the Bengals' Week 2 win over Atlanta.

Green has been told to expect playing with a measure of pain the rest of the season. At this point, it's about managing that pain and figuring out ways to protect his foot to give him adequate relief while playing through the ailment.

With respect to stabilizing the toe when he plays, Green said he wasn't changing anything. He said trainers may tape his foot up a little different, but otherwise he wasn't going to wear different shoes or place inserts in his shoes for additional cushioning. A report last week indicated he might be getting new specially made cleats from Nike.

It's been a difficult few weeks waiting for the effects of the injury to subside. Green has been wanting to get back on the field from the moment he left practice four Wednesdays ago.

"In the back of my mind it's like that, but I've got to take care of my body," he said. "I've got a long career ahead of me and I don't want anything lingering on and be something serious when I could have just rested and made it feel better."

In addition to Green, injured right offensive guard Kevin Zeitler (calf) and linebacker Rey Maualuga didn't practice but were part of rehab and conditioning drills on the side of the Bengals' practice fields. It's the first time Maualuga has been able to work out during practice since suffering a nasty left hamstring injury in the fourth quarter of the tie with the Panthers three weeks ago.

Tight end Tyler Eifert also didn't practice, although he is eligible after ending his stint on the short-term injured reserve last week. He dislocated his right elbow diving for extra yards in the season opener. Running back Giovani Bernard wasn't even at practice after suffering a right hip injury Sunday.
CINCINNATI -- At this still relatively early stage in the season, it appears Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has been coming through on one of his top offseason objectives.

[+] EnlargeGiovani Bernard
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThrough seven games, Giovani Bernard leads the Bengals in rushing yards with 446 and TDs with 5.
The Bengals, statistics show, are indeed putting more of an emphasis on the running game than what they may have placed upon it in recent seasons.

Given the current perception of the Bengals' rushing offense, it might be difficult to believe that's the case. It might also be difficult to believe, but the Bengals are running the ball slightly more effectively through seven games than they did at the same stage the past two seasons.

Cincinnati's most significant rushing improvement has come with the volume of rushing touchdowns it has had. Already this season, the Bengals have 10 rushing scores. They had five through seven games last year, and four at this same point two seasons ago. This season, Giovani Bernard has five, rookie Jeremy Hill has three, and quarterback Andy Dalton added two more Sunday when he dove into the end zone on a pair of 1-yard quarterback sneaks.

If you look at the 10 scoring plays, you'll see that all but one of them came in goal-to-go situations. Bernard's 89-yard touchdown run against Carolina three weeks ago was the lone outlier.

Aside from the touchdowns, the Bengals have run for more yards, slightly better than average, and with cleaner play than they had in 2012 and 2013. After seven games, they lost two fumbles in each season. This season, the Bengals haven't been credited with a fumble in the rushing game, although Dalton did lose a fumble Sunday when he was chased down while trying to get out of the pocket on a passing play that went negatively.

It may not seem like the Bengals have been running the ball better than in the past because it always seems like ball carriers aren't getting much of an opportunity to get going. Defensive players have been all over the backfield this season, none more than the Indianapolis Colts who were mainstays back there two weeks ago. On six of the Bengals' eight first-half rushes in that game, their running backs were first hit either at or behind the line of scrimmage.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals this season are averaging just 1.95 yards before contact. That's the worst average they've had through eight weeks since 2006, the year the statistic was first tracked. As a result, the Bengals' 2.01 yards after contact this year is the highest figure they have had in that category since the same season.

With respect to the 3.96 rushing average the Bengals currently have, that's their highest per-carry mark after eight weeks since 2009, when they averaged 4.34 yards a carry. Only two other Marvin Lewis-coached Bengals teams (2005, 2009) have had higher rushing averages through eight weeks.

It's actually quite amazing the 2014 Bengals rushers have accomplished what they have on the ground considering how comparatively bad the blocking has been for them. Part of the reason so many defenders have lived in the backfield this season is because the Bengals have, for the most part, been porous up front in run-blocking. Pro Football Focus has given this season's Bengals their worst run-blocking grade since 2007, the year it started tracking the advanced stat.

They are currently at a minus-4.3 run-blocking grade from PFF. For a frame of reference, they were at plus-32.6 at the end of last season. That was the 10th-best in the league.

This is all to suggest that the Bengals' running game really isn't performing as badly as it is perceived to. Still, this also all shows just how far that phase of the offense still has yet to go.
PITTSBURGH -- There is no timetable for veteran cornerback Ike Taylor's return from a broken forearm.

But Taylor will play a key role in the coming weeks as the Pittsburgh Steelers try to fix cornerback Cortez Allen, who has already been demoted twice since signing a five-year, $25 million contract right before the start of the regular season.

“I talk often with Ike Taylor about Cortez’s situation because he’s lived it,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “He’s been that guy who’s been pulled out of games or maybe demoted in portions of games and has had bad tape out there and responded positively. Ike’s presence and experience in that regard is going to be helpful, but obviously Cortez has got to do it.”

Taylor will do his part to help shepherd Allen through the roughest stretch of his career.

He has obvious affection for and belief in the fourth-year cornerback, and no one at Steelers’ headquarters can better relate to what Allen is going through right now than Taylor.

Taylor, after all, experienced the sting of losing his starting job in 2006.

Then-Steelers coach Bill Cowher benched Taylor in late November, and he didn’t start for five consecutive games.

Taylor re-entered the starting lineup for the regular-season finale and then thrived after Tomlin succeeded Cowher in 2007.

If nothing else Taylor can point to himself as an example at football's loneliest position as someone who pulled himself out of a funk by working hard and not getting too down on himself.

Tomlin will also try to keep Allen’s confidence from bottoming out.

When he replaced Allen with Antwon Blake at nickel back last Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, Tomlin told Allen that he still had great belief in him and that he was simply doing what he needed to do to win the game.

Tomlin said the same thing to Allen after the Steelers’ 51-34 win over the Colts.

“It has no bearing on what I think he’s capable of, largely or in the long term,” Tomlin said of the in-game demotion.

Allen’s inconsistency led to his losing starting job to Brice McCain before the Steelers’ game against the Houston Texans. The 6-1, 196-pounder allowed two touchdown receptions before getting yanked for Blake, who helped preserve the Steelers’ win with a late interception.

Tomlin said Allen and Blake will compete for the job of nickel back this week as the Steelers prepare for a critical game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Reading between the lines, however, it looks like Allen will open the Ravens game as the Steelers’ nickel back -- if he is willing to fight for it in practice.

It also sounds like Allen has to do a better job of fighting for the ball when it gets thrown his way in games.

“Often times he is in position because he does a great job of getting in position but position is just an element of (playing cornerback),” Tomlin said. “You’ve got to finish.”
The Baltimore Ravens sent in the tape of Steve Smith's offensive pass interference penalty to the NFL for review. The league, though, says its officials made the right call.

Dean Blandino, the NFL's vice president of officiating, told The NFL Network on Tuesday that Smith did commit a penalty and the officials were correct to overturn the go-ahead 80-yard touchdown with 32 seconds remaining.

"Pass interference is any act that significantly hinders an eligible player's ability to catch a pass," Blandino said. "When we look at this replay, you can see Smith put his left hand in the chest of the defender and pushed him down. We do feel that this is the correct call."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was furious after the play and could be seen telling an official that the call was "embarrassing." Smith explained he was just going for the ball because that's his right as a receiver.

"And when you look at it, reverse the roles: If that was a defender pushing a receiver down, I don't think anybody would be questioning the call," Blandino said. "The rules are the same to both sides of the ball: That is offensive pass interference."

Blandino was asked whether the fall from Bengals safety George Iloka, who was covering Smith on that play, had any effect on the call.

"You can make a case that he may have been off balance," Blandino said. "But the receiver does push to gain that separation and it does create an advantage for the receiver. That's why it's a foul."

The Ravens have been penalized twice this season for offensive pass interference, and Steve Smith drew the flag both times. But the pass interference penalty in Week 3 in Cleveland was declined by the Browns because it came on an incomplete third-down pass.

In the previous three seasons, the Ravens have been penalized for offensive pass interference a total of six times.
CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns have been decimated by injuries on the defensive front but should get a lineman back for the second consecutive week.

Billy Winn, who's missed the last three weeks with a quad injury, has been cleared for a healthier workload in this week's practices and is expected to play Sunday against Tampa Bay barring any unforseen setbacks, according to a source. Winn, a sixth-round pick in 2012, has 57 career tackles, three sacks and an interception. He was limited in practices late last week and wasn't healthy enough to play against Oakland.

Last week, starting tackle Ahtyba Rubin returned from an ankle injury.

On Monday, John Hughes was the latest to leave the lineup. Hughes suffered a knee injury against the Raiders and was placed on reserve injured/designated to return list, marking the fifth defensive lineman on the 53-man roster to suffer an injury this month.

Phil Taylor underwent arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this month but should return at some point in November. Winn's return is timely -- Desmond Bryant is the only healthy defensive end in the rotation.

Marcus Gilbert set to return, start

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert is scheduled to practice on Wednesday after passing a series of concussion tests.

Barring a setback Gilbert will start Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens, coach Mike Tomlin said.

Gilbert did not play in the Steelers’ 51-34 win against the Indianapolis Colts. Mike Adams started at right tackle in his absence. The offensive line did not allow a sack against the Colts, and Tomlin singled out the play of Adams at the beginning of his weekly news conference.

But Tomlin did not waver later in saying Gilbert will start against the Ravens if he is healthy.

Tomlin said starting nose tackle Steve McLendon has a good chance of playing Sunday night after missing the last two games because of a shoulder injury. Safety Shamarko Thomas is expected to return after missing the last three games because of a hamstring injury.

Ross Ventrone, who replaced Thomas on special teams, is the only Steelers player who has been ruled out for the 8:30 p.m. ET game against the Ravens on Sunday.

Ventrone went down in the Colts game with a hamstring injury, and Tomlin said Thomas will take his place on special teams.

As far as the bruised psyche of cornerback Cortez Allen, Tomlin said he still has confidence in the fourth-year veteran.

Allen lost his starting job last week and against the Colts he was replaced at nickel back by Antwon Blake after giving up a pair of touchdown receptions.

Tomlin said Allen will compete with Blake for the nickel back spot this week in practice.

“He’s got to lick his wounds and roll his sleeves up and come back to work this week,” Tomlin said of Allen. “We’ll watch him closely and expect him to do it and answer the bell that comes with putting bad stuff on tape. I would imagine that Baltimore’s going to work to attack him and he better work to defend himself.”