Walker's weekend mailbag

Let's see what's in the weekend mailbag.

Ben from Alexandria, Va., writes: With this new rule about suspensions for "devastating hits," can we can say goodbye to Ray Lewis and James Harrison and basically everything we love about the AFC North?

James Walker: As ESPN's AFC North blogger, I don't like this softening of the NFL one bit, Ben. I was really disgruntled this week. I briefly took time off Wednesday to contemplate retirement so I could cover the UFC or NHL, where physical play is still acceptable. But I returned to the AFC North blog, because nothing is going to stop me from covering the sport I enjoy most. OK, enough joking around. I'm not against fines, but I am against ridiculous fines just to make a point. Football is a physical sport and the AFC North plays the most physical brand. With the direction things are going, I think it will eventually hurt this division more than most.

Shawn Davis from Manassas, Va., writes: With the NFL's reaction to helmet-to-helmet hits, I wanted to get your thoughts to how this will impact the Steelers' defense. Do you think this will change its aggressive still of play?

Walker: In the short term, I don't see it having any type of impact. The NFL's aggressive culture is not something that can be changed overnight. The Steelers have one of the more aggressive defenses in the league, and I agree with ESPN's Adam Schefter that this can be a rallying point to get behind Harrison and put on a great performance Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.

Leigh Anne from Lexington, Ky., writes: Is it just me, or is it hypocritical of the NFL to preach about player safety while looking to expand the season to 18 games?

Walker: Yes, Leigh Anne. I agree that the NFL wants it both ways. Players such as Lewis and Tom Brady have complained about the toll 18 games would have on their bodies, and the NFL seems to look the other way. Yet the league is all over players right now with excessive fines, because the game is getting too hazardous. I think this week's actions by the NFL actually hurts its stance on wanting 18 games. But that won't stop the owners for pushing for it anyway.

Patrick Charles from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Rashard Mendenhall is on pace to get 390 touches. Will he wear out?

Walker: Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin recently said this is a point of concern and something the coaching staff will work on in the next several weeks. Mendenhall is playing well and carried the offense in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's absence. Now that Roethlisberger is back, you're going to see more passing, which will preserve Mendenhall for the long haul.

Kenny from Ankeny, Ia., writes: I was reading your Bengals crossroads article. I know it's a little early to speculate, but don't you think Marvin Lewis would be a great choice to replace Wade Phillips in Dallas?

Walker: It's way too early for that, Kenny. I'm not hearing anything new on the Lewis front, but I wouldn't rule out a return to Cincinnati. If he does become a coaching free agent, Lewis will be a viable candidate in 2011. He's earned a lot of respect around the league for making Cincinnati respectable.

John from Ireland writes: I picked Chad Ochocinco in the middle rounds of my fantasy draft and T.O. with the last pick. Who do I start this week?

Walker: Thanks for checking in from Ireland, Josh. The AFC North blog has a surprising number of international readers. Terrell Owens has the hot hand and Ochocinco is seeing a lot of double teams. Although I have a sneaky feeling Ochocinco is going to have a big game soon, I would stick with T.O., who is getting more passes thrown his way.

John from Enid, Okla., writes: Judging by your early evaluation of this year's rookies, it looks like the Browns had the best draft, with three rookies making your top five. With that in mind, would you consider the Browns the most-improved team in the AFC North this year regardless of record?

Walker: John, it's hard to say the Browns are the most-improved team in the division when they're 1-5. Cleveland has made strides over last year, but certainly not enough to where it's showing in its record. The point of the rookie rankings was to rate where first-year players stand right now. I will revisit them at some point in the next several weeks and the order of the list could change.

Levi H. from Ellicott City, Md., writes: What are the chances that Shawne Merriman actually joins the Ravens? Is there any reason to believe it could happen?

Walker: Levi, I checked on this earlier in the week and was told it's a possibility. To what degree I don't know, because it's hard to gauge while Merriman is still under contract with the San Diego Chargers. It's worth keeping an eye on in the next few weeks.

Comment and complaint department

Here is another batch of comments and complaints from our AFC North community.

Coreen from Davis, Calif., writes: The only think that I can imagine that would make me sadder then loosing an amazing player like James Harrison, is watching a someone like Harrison play half speed. This new rule is a travesty. I am proud of Harrison for trying to make his point.

Duane Gray from Des Moines, Ia., writes: I played football from little league up until I graduated high school and one thing that was checked was if your helmet was on properly and enough air or padding was in it to keep you safe. Over the years new helmets have been created and redesigned for better projection. If this is the case why are so many helmets being knocked off and more concussions occurring? Something is not adding up.

Walker: Coreen, Harrison would have a really hard time changing the way he plays. He worked for everything he has -- from being an undrafted player to multiple Pro Bowls and the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year -- by playing all out and aggressive. That is why Harrison was so distraught this week, because he doesn't know any other way to play the game. Duane, this is a very good point, because concussions are up and so are helmets getting knocked off. I can't say football equipment is something I've followed closely this season. But I may have to pay more attention.

Shawn Davis from Manassas, Va., writes: Obviously the Steelers' D is playing great this year. However, I still have concerns with their pass defense. Their pass D is ranked No. 11, giving up 233 yards per game. I attribute some of that to teams not being able to run so they have to pass and some of that to late game stuff. But it still feels like there is room for improvement here and that they will need to get better.

RJ from Altoona, Pa., writes: The only thing that worries me about Pittsburgh right now is the pass defense. It looks a little bit too much like last year.

Walker: I'm not too worried about Pittsburgh's pass defense for several reasons, Shawn and RJ. First, the Steelers are winning games. Second, they are so hard to run against that teams eventually stop beating its head into the wall and become pass-heavy. So Pittsburgh has to give up some numbers. Third, when the Steelers needed a big stop or a turnover this year, they got it, and that's a big difference from last season.

Aaron from Walkerville, AFCN, writes: Psst... Hey Walker... Yeah, you...Where did all those Bengals fans go? Don't be too loud now. We don't want to stir them up from their hiding places.

Scott Bailey from Memphis, Tenn., writes: James, you have to consider that jumping on and off the bandwagon is considered to be a form of exercise in Cincinnati. I should know having lived there for twelve years.

Walker: Aaron and Scott, I wrote recently that Bengals fans disappear and reappear in the blog more than any other fan base in the division. They were out in droves last year and the offseason after they swept the division. But now you can hear a pin drop after a slow start. That may change if Cincinnati beats the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, but that is still poor fandom. The AFC North blog is a place to find out what's right and what's wrong with your favorite team. But Bengals fans can never seem to handle the latter. Even Browns fans, who have significantly less to cheer about, have stuck with their team throughout the three seasons I've ran this blog.

AFC North Homer of the Week

Because we didn't do a complaint department last week, we missed this gem.

Herman from Baltimore writes: Wow! You are so wrong picking the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Ravens. But that's ok, because after Sunday's game with the New England Patriots, even you will begin to see the light. The Ravens are the most dominant team to come along since... never! They won't be losing another game this season.

Walker: Homer of the Week predictions never go well, do they?

If you have any other questions, comments or complaints, please send them to our AFC North inbox.