AFC North: 2011 training camp

Notes from Ravens practice

August, 16, 2011
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens continue their final week of training camp in preparation for Friday's preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Here are some notes and observations from Tuesday's practice:
  • It was "Veterans Day" for the Ravens. Many tenured vets and star players such as Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin were given the day off. All of these vets should be fresh for the last full practice of the week Wednesday leading up to Friday's game.
  • There were several standout plays Tuesday. Baltimore rookie receiver Tandon Doss made a great leaping catch over fellow rookie safety Josh Victorian. Ravens safety Haruki Nakamura also picked off quarterback Joe Flacco in team drills and had a long return. Nakamura might have scored if not for a late fumble, which forced Nakamura to fall on the ball.
  • Baltimore rookie right tackle Jah Reid continues to get a look with the first team. Reid has good size and strength but looks raw with his footwork. More game experience against Kansas City should help with Reid's development.
  • I thought Baltimore rookie receiver Torrey Smith had his best practice of the week. Smith practiced fast and made several nice catches. Teammate David Reed, on the other hand, struggled some with a pair of drops.
  • Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth was limited in practice Monday but did more work in team drills Tuesday. Foxworth is working his way back from season-ending ACL surgery in 2010. Eventually, he will figure into the cornerback mix.

Thoughts from Bengals OC Jay Gruden

August, 11, 2011
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GEOREGTOWN, Ky. -- The Cincinnati Bengals will begin their 2011 preseason Friday against the Detroit Lions. One of Cincinnati's big storylines will be the new-look, West Coast offense led by first-year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.

The AFC North blog and several media members recently spoke with Gruden to get his thoughts on a variety of topics leading into the preseason:

[+] EnlargeOffensive coordinator Jay Gruden
Frank Victores/US PRESSWIREOffensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants the Bengals "to be a physical football team."
(On what Gruden wants to see from his offense Friday)

Jay Gruden: We just want to set a standard for ourselves and what kind of team we want to be. It starts in the preseason. How are we going to come off the ball? How are we going to break the huddle? The little things that we're going to do. Are we detailed in our assignments and what's our physicality going to be? Are going to be soft, or are we physical? We want to be a physical football team.

(On how much of the new offense is installed)

Gruden: I think enough right now. I think these guys have enough in where we can keep people off balance. We will add as we go on. Depending on who we play and what defenses we're playing, we might change some things up. But right now I think we're in good shape.

(On the speed of the installation process)

Gruden: I can always install plays. People have to slow me down. I can install 50 plays a night, but that's not what's good for this team. What's good for this team is giving them a chance to win and giving them a chance to succeed. It's enough things in for them to be successful on the field and knowing what to do.

(On right tackle Andre Smith)

Gruden: He looks very good. I don't know what he looked like before. I heard it was not very good (laughs). But he looks good to me right now. We're excited that he's a candidate to start at right tackle. He needs to play. He needs to practice. He's got to get the reps if he's going to play. We need to see if that foot will hold up. Right now it's holding up, so we're excited about it.

(On receivers A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson)

Gruden: Well, those two guys on the outside are very athletic. You almost have to take a different approach as a quarterback when those two guys are running down the field. If a defensive back has his back turned, you have to give [the receiver] a chance. A lot of times you want to tell a quarterback, "It's either us or nobody." But with these two guys you can throw it up high and let them go get it. A.J. has made about four of those already in this camp and Jerome had three in the last two days. So that's a [great] option for the quarterback. It sure makes him look good.
Earlier the AFC North blog hyped rookie tailback Baron Batch as one of the sleepers in Pittsburgh Steelers training camp. Unfortunately, Batch later suffered a potentially serious knee injury towards the end of Wednesday's practice.

Batch
Batch
There is no official word from the team on Batch's injury, but the early reports aren't good. Scott Brown of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote that a "popping sound" could be heard at the end of Batch's run. Batch immediately waved over the trainers and could not put weight on his left leg. The injury sounds like ligament damage in the knee.

The potential ramifications of Batch's injury are not huge for the Steelers, even if Batch is lost for several months or the entire season. The rookie seventh-round pick was Pittsburgh's biggest surprise in camp. But the Steelers were not counting on Batch.

Pittsburgh has plenty of depth at tailback with Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore. Batch was a candidate for the third or fourth tailback spot or the practice squad.

The worst-case scenario is this injury ends a feel-good story. Batch started as a longshot and was pushing hard for a roster spot with the reigning AFC champs. That doesn't happen often. But Batch will get another chance to prove himself once he returns to health.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin announced four key players will be out for Friday's preseason opener. Steelers guard Chris Kemoeatu, cornerback Bryant McFadden, receiver Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Cortez Allen will not play against the Washington Redskins.

Veteran receiver Hines Ward was not ruled out by Tomlin. Ward practiced in training camp for the first time on Monday following thumb surgery.

Tomlin added that it's possible Ward and other players could be ruled out closer to game time if needed.
GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- Eight years ago, the Cincinnati Bengals had a rookie No. 1 overall pick in quarterback Carson Palmer. He sat on the bench his entire first season.

This year, the Bengals are about to give rookie second-round pick Andy Dalton his first career start Friday against the Detroit Lions. It's expected to be the first of many starts for Dalton, who was drafted to replace Palmer.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis explained the difference between the two teams. Lewis believes this year's club has a better chance of success with a rookie quarterback than his 2003 team, which finished 8-8 under veteran Jon Kitna.

"The football team that I took over in 2003 couldn't afford to lose games because of the quarterback," Lewis said. "They had a guy who been in the seat and a lot of people were very, very comfortable with. Jon had done some good things, so it was a different situation.

"This football team is put together differently. They're tough, they're physical, they know how to go out there and compete. I didn't know those things coming in 2003. I know what this team is made of now. I know where the leaders are. I didn't know those guys then."

Lewis wouldn't go as far to say Dalton was more NFL ready than Palmer was in 2003. That will be decided by Dalton's play on the field.

The Bengals are expected to give Dalton and the first-team offense more reps than usual Friday because of their new West Coast offense, rookie quarterback and NFL lockout.
GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- I'm watching the Cincinnati Bengals practice Monday night and a couple thoughts come to mind.

First, the Bengals have surrounded rookie quarterback Andy Dalton with a first-round receiver (A.J. Green), a first-round tight end (Jermaine Gresham) and a former first-round pick at running back (Cedric Benson). My second thought was, "Are the Cleveland Browns giving their quarterback a fair and equal chance?"

Dalton has weapons -- and plenty of them. Cincinnati's third (Jordan Shipley) and fourth receivers (Andre Caldwell) caught more passes combined (77) last season than Cleveland starters Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie (65).

The Bengals are giving Dalton every chance to succeed. Whether that happens is up to him.

But Cleveland isn't doing the same with Colt McCoy.

Both Ohio teams will run West Coast offenses for the first time. But I believe Cincinnati's offense has the potential to be more explosive. Cleveland's group of receivers is among the weakest in the league.

It's too early to say if Dalton and McCoy are the long-term solutions for their respective teams. But Dalton having more talent around him certainly helps. The Browns and Bengals will meet in the Week 1 "Battle of Ohio."
GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The Cincinnati Bengals are wasting no time getting the Andy Dalton era underway.

Dalton
Dalton
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said Dalton will be the starter in Cincinnati's preseason opener Friday night against the Detroit Lions. It could be the first of many starts for Dalton in a Bengals uniform. He was drafted in the second round last April to replace veteran Carson Palmer, who demanded to be traded and subsequently retired.

"It's a good opportunity for me," Dalton said after Monday night's practice. "I knew once I got drafted here there was going to be an opportunity. I feel I've come out and worked hard and tried to get better each day. That's all I can do right now."

The Bengals may keep Dalton and the first team on the field longer than usual, according to Lewis. Cincinnati is in the process of learning a new West Coast offense.

"We haven't had all the offseason work that you normally would have," Lewis said. "So I think we need to play together as a football team on both sides of the ball."

Notes from Bengals practice

August, 8, 2011
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GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The Cincinnati Bengals began their second week of training camp with a full-padded practice Monday night.

Here are several notes and observations:
  • Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson was the star of this practice. Simpson caught a pair of impressive deep balls from backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski in team drills. One was a jump ball over a defender for 20-plus yards and the other was a streak down the right side of the field for a touchdown. Simpson is out to prove that last season's strong finish was not a fluke.
  • Similar to Cleveland, the Bengals' new West Coast offense still has some kinks to work out. There were three false starts in team drills by Simpson, rookie receiver A.J. Green and right tackle Andre Smith. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton's timing also looked off with several receivers. Dalton threw an interception right to middle linebacker Rey Maualuga in what likely was a miscommunication between the quarterback and receiver.
  • Keep an eye out for undrafted rookie tight end Colin Cochart. I don't know much about him -- Cochart is from South Dakota State. But Cochart made several really nice blocks against the first-team defense on Monday. The rookie could be an early sleeper in training camp.
  • On the injury front, Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap had a wrap around his knee and did not practice. Backup running back Bernard Scott (hamstring) and corner Adam Jones (neck) also sat out. Cincinnati safety Gibril Wilson (knee) is returning from an ACL tear and practiced for the first time. He got into a brief scuffle with running back Jonathan Williams in team drills.

Live from Bengals camp

August, 8, 2011
8/08/11
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GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The AFC North blog continues its 2011 training camp tour with the Cincinnati Bengals.

There are plenty of interesting storylines to keep an eye on. For starters, the team is beginning a new era led by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and No. 4 overall pick A.J. Green. Both will be important cogs in Cincinnati's new West Coast offense.

I also will be watching the new linebacker corps. Rey Maualuga moves to the middle, which is where he played in college. The Bengals also signed Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard to play the outside linebacker spots.

The Bengals also released their first depth chart Monday. But there will be plenty of competition over the next several weeks that could alter this list.

Be sure to follow the AFC North blog and AFC North Twitter page this week for all the latest observations from Bengals camp.
    The Baltimore Ravens have found a backup for starting running back Ray Rice. Baltimore has agreed to terms with veteran running back Ricky Williams.

    Here are several thoughts on the signing:
  • This is a good role for Williams. Rice will get a bulk of the carries, and Williams is a bigger threat off the bench than former Ravens backup Willis McGahee. Williams has been productive. He rushed for 1,794 yards the past two seasons with the Miami Dolphins.
  • Williams still has fresh legs. He's averaged 4.7 and 4.2 yards per carry in 2009 and 2010, respectively. On top of that, Williams shared the workload with Ronnie Brown in Miami. Williams also missed virtually two years of football. He sat out all of 2006 and played just one game in 2007.
  • Overall, the Ravens got better at running back in free agency. Baltimore started with Rice, McGahee and fullback Le'Ron McClain and finished with Rice, Williams and Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach. The Ravens want to run the ball more consistently this season. They should be able to accomplish that with this trio.

AFC North Stock Watch

August, 8, 2011
8/08/11
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Let's see who's rising and who's falling in the AFC North now that training camps have started.

Falling

Mason
Mason
1. Baltimore Ravens receivers: Rookie second-round pick Torrey Smith would likely be the starter if Baltimore's season started today. That was not the plan when the offseason began. Baltimore made a calculated error by releasing veteran starter Derrick Mason. The Ravens believed they could get a better, more dynamic replacement. Instead, Baltimore struck out with Malcom Floyd, who would have been a great addition. The Ravens tried to get Mason back but it was too late. Mason joined Rex Ryan and the New York Jets. That leaves the Ravens with few options.

2. Cleveland Browns offense: Cleveland's offense has a lot of work to do. The unit did not look game-ready during my week-long visit to Browns camp. There were alignment errors on offense, plenty of drops and an overall lack of talent. Second-year quarterback Colt McCoy had his ups and downs, as well. Fortunately, the Browns have a month to get their new West Coast offense on track.

3. Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver: Sanders came to training camp with high hopes. His goal was to become Pittsburgh's next 1,000-yard receiver. But Sanders has missed most of camp because of a foot injury. Pittsburgh hasn't expressed concern publicly. But it's telling that the Steelers have shown significant interest in veteran receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Plaxico Burress the past two weeks.

Rising

Woodley
Woodley
1. LaMarr Woodley, Steelers linebacker: A player's stock always goes up following a $61.5 million extension. Woodley received a huge raise after playing out the final year of his rookie contract. Woodley was arguably the NFL's best bargain in 2010. He made just $550,000 and registered 10 sacks for the reigning AFC champs. Pittsburgh did its part by rewarding Woodley for his patience.

2. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals receiver: Scouts told me before the draft that Green was the real deal. Early reports out of training camp back those claims. Green, the No. 4 overall pick, will replace six-time Pro Bowler Chad Ochocinco as Cincinnati's No. 1 receiver. Green is having a good camp so far. I'm looking forward to getting my first up-close look at Green this week.

3. Phil Taylor, Browns defensive tackle: Cleveland's first-round pick made his presence known during the first week of training camp. Taylor arrived four days late because of a contract dispute. But he was in shape and ready to play on the first-team defense. Taylor was hard to move at the point of attack and also showed the ability to get up the field. Taylor and fellow defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin could be a tough tandem in the middle of Cleveland's defense.
BEREA, Ohio -- Few teams have more ground to make up after the NFL lockout than the Cleveland Browns.

With a new offense, a new defense and fresh faces on the roster and coaching staff, the Browns are a team in transition. Rookie head coach Pat Shurmur has a difficult task ahead of him. He is trying to overhaul the Browns after back-to-back 5-11 seasons under former coach Eric Mangini.

This is the second year for Browns president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert. But in many ways, 2011 feels like the year they officially hit the reset button.

Most of Cleveland's first week of training camp focused on instruction and installation.

"We're working with the players, we're getting used to their mannerisms and how we have to communicate with them," Shurmur said. "They're getting used to us, especially if we're getting a little anxious, a little uptight. It's been good. I think the key part to coaching is that there is a solid interaction. I feel like that's going on, and I'm seeing guys improving."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
AP Photo/Tony DejakColt McCoy has solid intangibles, but it's questionable whether he has the size and arm strength to succeed.
1. Is QB Colt McCoy the long-term solution?

It's unfair to judge a player on one week of practice. But I paid a lot of attention to McCoy this week, and I have some concerns.

The second-year quarterback was inconsistent. On Tuesday, McCoy had a poor practice. On Friday, he was better. There is a good chance that this is what you'll see from McCoy during the regular season.

McCoy has only eight starts under his belt. He is essentially halfway into his rookie year. He's also learning his second offense in two years.

Although McCoy isn't making excuses, expect some growing pains.

"You come out here and you have to be ready to play," McCoy said. "I feel like I'm in good shape. I felt like the guys around me -- offensive line, receivers, running backs -- I feel like overall everybody was in good shape and ready to work. For me, that's good. I need all the work I can get."

McCoy has intangibles and natural leadership ability. But no NFL quarterback wins on intangibles alone. McCoy's size and arm strength are two question marks he must overcome.

The Browns are "all-in" with McCoy this year. If he has a solid season, the Browns could exceed expectations. But if McCoy falls apart, it could be another long season in Cleveland.

2. Can rookies make an immediate impact?

The Browns have the potential to start as many as four rookies in Week 1.

Rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor, defensive end Jabaal Sheard, receiver Greg Little and fullback Owen Marecic are all vying for starting jobs. Barring injury, Taylor, Sheard and Marecic are virtual locks for the starting lineup. They already are working with the first team. Little is working with the first- and second-team offense behind starters Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie.

This could be a blessing and a curse for the Browns. Holmgren and Heckert believe they drafted solid, NFL-ready players for the second consecutive year. But the fact that this many rookies can start right away also is an indictment of Cleveland's thin roster.

Taylor has been the most impressive of the group. He arrived in camp four days late because of a contract dispute. But Taylor made his presence felt later in the week with his size, strength and ability to get up field. He could be a force next to fellow defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin.

"I am still learning and taking it all in," Taylor said. "I am learning every bit I can from the guys like Rubin. The guys that were behind me were helping me out as well."

3. Is running back Peyton Hillis a one-year wonder?

Hillis doesn't look like a one-year wonder. He was the steadiest player in Cleveland's camp this week. He's still running hard and catching the ball well out of the backfield. He's also not making mental mistakes in Cleveland's new offense.

Last year, Hillis exploded on the scene with 1,177 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He instantly became Cleveland's most popular player. A heavy push by Browns fans put Hillis on the cover of "Madden NFL 12."

Production has never been an issue for Hillis. Injuries are the only concern.

"He's a pro, and pros -- especially at running back -- it's very important for them to hear it, see it and feel it," Shurmur said. "He's done a good job of getting in there and getting his reps. Make sure he's getting his work, try to eliminate any kind of little injury in there and then give him the ball. I think that's the important thing."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Because veteran free agents were unable to practice until Thursday, rookie fifth-round pick Buster Skrine received a lot of reps as the nickel corner this week. Skrine displayed good speed and playmaking ability. He jumped a route in team drills Tuesday and got a pick-six off McCoy, his best play of the week.

Skrine is competitive and looks like a mini-Joe Haden. He probably will make the team as a late-round pick.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Massaquoi missed the entire first week of camp because of an ankle injury. The injury happened before the lockout was lifted. Therefore, the team and Massaquoi have been quiet about it.

Massaquoi is missing valuable practice time in Cleveland's West Coast offense. He has a lot of pressure as McCoy's No. 1 receiver. Timing between Massaquoi and McCoy will be vital this season.

Massaquoi caught 36 passes for 483 yards and two touchdowns last season. He needs much better production for Cleveland to be successful.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeD'Qwell Jackson
    AP Photo/Mark DuncanD'Qwell Jackson, who has battled injuries the past few seasons, has been making plays in camp.
    The Browns are a slow football team. Cleveland has decent size but definitely not enough blazers and game-changing athletes. I thought the Browns would be more aggressive in free agency to close the talent gap with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. But that wasn't the case. Keep an eye on team speed during the regular season. I think it will be an issue.
  • Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas is dominating Sheard in practice. Cleveland's coaching staff is putting Sheard, a rookie second-round pick, against Thomas to get him ready for the regular season. But Thomas is stonewalling Sheard at nearly every turn and had a pancake block in Friday's practice. Cleveland hopes Sheard will gradually improve by facing arguably the NFL's best left tackle.
  • Second-year running back Montario Hardesty isn't all the way back from knee surgery. The former second-round pick tore his ACL last year and missed the entire season. The Browns are counting on Hardesty to spell Hillis this year. But the team has been very cautious with Hardesty in practice. Hardesty has a lengthy track record of injuries in college and the pros.
  • A player who does look to be back from injury is linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. He's missed the past two seasons with back-to-back pectoral injuries but is active and making plays again in camp. When healthy, Jackson was one of Cleveland's top defensive players. He also has experience in a 4-3 defense and is seeing the field well. Jackson intercepted passes from McCoy by reading the quarterback's eyes in back-to-back practices.
  • Little's drops are a concern. He has good physical tools. But by my count, Little dropped at least five passes in practice this week. He had a reputation in college for drops. It's too early to say if it's lack of concentration or bad hands. Perhaps rust also is a factor. Little was suspended at the University of North Carolina all of last season.
  • Haden looks really good. He breaks up a lot of passes in team drills. Haden moves well and stays in good position. Last year, Haden had a slow start at training camp as a rookie. That wasn't the case this year.
  • If Tony Pashos is anything, he's huge. The projected starting right tackle is expected to protect McCoy's front side this season. Pashos missed most of 2010 with an ankle injury. But the Browns are still high on him and hope he can patch up the right side of the offensive line, which is Cleveland's weakest area up front.

Notes from Browns camp

August, 5, 2011
8/05/11
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BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns continued their 2011 training camp with a full-padded practice on Friday.

Here are several observations:
  • This was the best practice Cleveland had this week. It was crisp with a lot of contact. The pace is gradually picking up with the Browns about a week into training camp. Head coach Pat Shurmur focused on a lot on instructing at the start but is now beginning to push the pace of practices.
  • Friday marked the first full-contact activity for rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor. He had a great practice and usually got the better of Browns guard Shawn Lauvao in team drills. Taylor is hard to move and also showed the ability to get up field. It's early, but Taylor looks the part.
  • The Browns are working several receivers in the slot this week, including Josh Cribbs, Jordan Norwood and rookie Greg Little. All three bring something different to the position. But the Browns are trying to get a feel for what type of slot receiver they want in their new West Coast offense.
  • Backup offensive tackle Brandon Braxton is showing flashes. He has good size and gets good leverage and position in pass protection. Braxton is pushing veteran Tony Pashos, the projected starter, through the first week of camp.
  • On the injury front, No. 1 corner Joe Haden had stiffness in his hamstring and sat out Friday. Rookie defensive lineman Jabari Fletcher also suffered a sprained knee and was carted off the field. Running back Montario Hardesty (knee) dressed but didn't participate in contact drills. Shurmur said the team believes Hardesty will be ready when needed following last year's ACL tear.
BEREA, Ohio -- On the first day of practice, Cleveland Browns rookie defensive tackle Phil Taylor is already on the first team.

Although Taylor missed four days of training camp in a contract dispute, Cleveland wasted no time getting its first-round pick acclimated to the starting lineup. Taylor was lined up opposite fellow defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin with Cleveland's No. 1 defense Thursday during the team’s morning walk-through.

[+] EnlargePhil Taylor
Jason Miller/US PresswirePhil Taylor, Cleveland's first-round pick in April's draft, is practicing with the first-team defense.
If the Browns have it their way, that won't change any time soon. Taylor is expected to be a vital cog in Cleveland's new 4-3 defense this season.

"I feel great just to be out there with the guys practicing and learning a new defense," Taylor said. "I've played in the 4-3 my whole college career. So it's not that hard."

Taylor was the last rookie to sign in the AFC North. The Browns and Taylor’s representation bickered over the fourth year being guaranteed. Cleveland eventually relented.

Taylor had weight issues in college but looks lean and in shape. He says he weighs 338 pounds, which is around his ideal playing weight. Rubin weighs 315 pounds, which makes for 653 pounds of beef in the front of Cleveland's defense.

"I'm happy he's here," Browns middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said of Taylor. "I told him, 'You take care of me, and I will take care of you.'"

Rubin, 25, is already one of the young, up-and-coming defensive tackles in the NFL. If Taylor, the No. 21 overall pick, also pans out, Cleveland could have two young anchors on defense for years to come.

"We're focused on stopping the run and at the same time trying to get to the passer," Rubin said. "I think Phil is a good pass-rusher. So we will wait and see what happens. I'm excited."

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