<
>

Seven-step drop: Is Ravens' offense back?

1/11/2011

Here are seven notes and observations from wild-card weekend in the AFC North:

  • I noticed something very interesting during my interview last week with Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Despite his offense sputtering the previous two games, Cameron was quietly confident things would be different in the playoffs. As a result, Cameron called one of his best games of the season in Baltimore's convincing 30-7 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs. He told me if his group scored at least 24 points, the Ravens would be very tough to beat. Baltimore scored 30 points, gained 390 total yards, and Cameron was right as this game wasn't close. Can the Ravens put together a repeat performance against the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers defense? Baltimore's offense enters the game with confidence and momentum.

  • Although it wasn't by design, the Ravens might have discovered a new weapon: Quarterback Joe Flacco's ability to scramble. Flacco is more athletic than people give him credit for, but Baltimore rarely uses that mobility because he's a very good pocket passer. But pass protection broke down several times against Kansas City and Flacco rushed for a season-high 26 yards on seven carries. That included a nice 13-yard scramble for a first down. Flacco joked Sunday that no one should expect him to run for extra yards like Michael Vick. But Flacco proved he is a capable scrambler when necessary.

  • Will Pittsburgh's young receivers step up? The Steelers have seen rookie receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown make great strides in the second half of the season in the passing game and returning kicks. Now with bigger roles, they must continue their solid play this week on the biggest stage of their careers. Pittsburgh veteran receiver Hines Ward recently said you never know how rookies will respond in their first playoff game. Sanders and Brown are both competitive first-year players and haven't looked fazed thus far. But it's certainly something to monitor.

  • Expect most AFC North fans to be rooting for the New York Jets this week. For starters, the New England Patriots are the favorites to win a Super Bowl after being the most dominant team in the regular season. They also beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore this year. But most importantly, a win by the sixth-seeded Jets would give Pittsburgh (No. 2) or Baltimore (No. 5) a home game in the AFC Championship Game. That would greatly increase the chances of Baltimore or Pittsburgh representing the division in Super Bowl XLV.

  • We're getting a lot of questions about the availability of star Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who can become a free agent. Baltimore is the only AFC North team I can see possibly showing interest in Asomugha. But even then, I don't think the chances are good. The contract for Asomugha will be enormous, and he likely will be the highest paid at his position. The Ravens are expected to make another player -- Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata -- one of the highest paid at his position. The Steelers could have a need at cornerback. But Pittsburgh won't pay that kind of money for Asomugha, and would be more likely to retain pending free agent Ike Taylor. The Cleveland Browns are still rebuilding, and Asomugha wouldn't opt out of Oakland to play for another rebuilding team.

  • With the Philadelphia Eagles losing Sunday to the Green Bay Packers, expect Cleveland to show interest soon in Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. He won just five games in two years as head coach with the Detroit Lions but has solid ties to Browns president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert. Mornhinweg also believes in the West Coast offense and runs a great version of it in Philadelphia. Holmgren wants to run a West Coast offense in Cleveland. "The Big Show" admitted hiring a coach who runs that system would certainly be a plus because it fits rookie quarterback Colt McCoy's strengths. So far, most of the candidates Cleveland has showed strong interest in (Pat Shurmur, Mike Mularkey) favor offense, which fits right in with Holmgren's personality.

  • Everyone in Cincinnati is still waiting on what, if any, major changes will be made within the Bengals' organization. Last week's news conference to announce a reported two-year contract extension for head coach Marvin Lewis was ... ahem ... interesting. Owner Mike Brown spent a lot of time defending the team's scant front office, inconsistent draft history and lack of an indoor practice facility. "I would make the comment that some of this is perception. We worked in the cold weather. We played in the cold weather. It didn't seem to hurt us any to practice in the cold weather," Brown said. That comment couldn't have sat well with Lewis, because an indoor facility is something he's been lobbying for behind the scenes for quite some time. There might be a few changes upcoming on the coaching staff. So keep an eye out for that.