Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
It's that time again.
Coming off a landmark first year for the AFC North blog, it's time for the "Seven-step drop" to return and make its 2009 debut.
Here are seven notes and observations from Week 1 of the preseason:
In a 23-0 victory over the Washington Redskins, Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens completed nine passes to six different players. That shows he is taking the next step in his maturation process as a quarterback. Last year as a rookie, nearly half (47 percent) of Flacco's completions were to receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton. He had the tendency to lock onto those two outside targets at the expense of other receivers, tight ends or running backs. If Flacco continues this trend of spreading the wealth, it would make Baltimore's passing game more difficult to defend this year.
Speaking of Baltimore receivers, Marcus Smith's torn ACL all but means Justin Harper needs to step up and keep his momentum going. The former seventh-round pick in 2008 has been arguably the biggest surprise in camp for Baltimore and will see playing time this year as the No. 3 or No. 4 receiver. Smith was expected to compete with Harper and Demetrius Williams for those two slots.
Pittsburgh Steelers rookie receiver Mike Wallace made a good first impression in the team's 20-10 exhibition win over the Arizona Cardinals. He caught two receptions for 35 yards and returned a kickoff for another 35 yards. But Wallace was most happy with his routes, which is something he's been working hard on since the NFL draft. Scouts were aware of Wallace's straight-line speed, but he lasted until the third round because his route running wasn't crisp in college. If Wallace gets that part down to go with his natural athleticism, he could make an immediate contribution to Pittsburgh this season.
It was not a great start for Pittsburgh's starting offensive line. Although the unit didn't give up any sacks, left tackle Max Starks was among the first to admit there were some blown assignments, particularly in the running game. Second-year tailback Rashard Mendenhall was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage and wasn't given a chance on several runs. Improvement up front will be something to monitor in the second preseason game.
Although it's just an exhibition game, reserve receiver Chris Henry recording seven catches for 100 yards against the New Orleans Saints is relatively significant. According to the team, Henry had the best offseason of his career in terms of working out and staying out of trouble. He also hasn't played consistently in the preseason for a very long time, and all of these factors should help him get off to a good start in the regular season. The AFC North blog has Henry rated as the No. 2 under-the-radar sleeper to watch in the division this season.
It could be a long year for the offense of the Cleveland Browns. The unit has looked conservative and hasn't done much of anything in training camp. And Saturday in Eric Mangini's debut with the Browns, the offense mirrored that performance by combining for four turnovers and allowing three sacks in a 17-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Both quarterbacks, Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, threw interceptions as Cleveland combined for 191 yards of offense. But after that kind of preseason opener, the Browns' offense now is in a nowhere-to-go-but-up scenario.
In the midst of Cleveland's offensive futility, a new candidate for the No. 2 receiver job may have emerged in Josh Cribbs. The return specialist got the start Saturday over more natural candidates such as Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie and Mike Furrey, and Cribbs led the team with two catches for 30 yards. He also ran a reverse for a 29-yard gain. But an interesting wrinkle is that Cribbs is in the middle of a contract dispute and it is still questionable if he will play in the regular season. Would Cribbs hold out if he ends up winning the starting job at receiver?