AFC North: 2012 NFL preseason Week 2

Observation deck: Steelers-Colts

August, 19, 2012
It was another conservative showing by the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense in their 26-24 preseason victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

Emphasizing the run and a controlled passing attack, the Steelers' starting offense managed one score on four drives. It came off a wide receiver screen, which resulted in a 57-yard touchdown by Antonio Brown.

The Steelers clearly wanted to get their ground game going, running the ball on the first five plays of the game. And it's clear that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger feels most comfortable throwing to Brown. Five of his attempts (and his only ones to wide receivers) went to Brown, who took a short pass and weaved his way to the end zone like it was punt return.

Take away that touchdown throw and Roethlisberger was 4-of-8 for 24 yards and one interception.

Here are some other observations from the game:
  • Ike Taylor put a lot of work into improving his hands this offseason and it paid off Sunday night. He jumped a route on the sideline and ran 49 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. But he did have some forgettable moments, from two missed tackles to a miscommunication with Troy Polamalu that should have resulted in a touchdown (Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton got behind the defense and then bobbled the pass, which was intercepted by Cortez Allen).
  • The Steelers should feel more comfortable going with Jonathan Dwyer as their backup running back after Sunday night. He showed good vision and cutting ability in gaining 43 yards on eight carries. Dwyer broke two tackles on his first run of the game and then threw a good block on Chris Rainey's eight-yard gain on the first drive.
  • On the one-yard touchdown allowed by the Steelers in the second quarter, linebackers Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley have to get off blocks to make that tackle. Defensive end Ziggy Hood, who was active against the run, got double-teamed on that play.
  • Chris Carter isn't James Harrison but he's much better than a typical third-string linebacker. He exploded to the ball and put himself in position to make plays. Carter just has to learn that he can't blatantly hold receivers like Reggie Wayne because it will draw a flag every time.
  • And speaking of Harrison, this is what head coach Mike Tomlin said about his Pro Bowl linebacker's chances of playing in the season opener after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery: "I'm always optimistic. That doesn't necessarily mean he's going to be ready. We're just taking it day to day and we're going to let his recuperation dictate how we proceed. He's always been a fast healer and we'll keep that attitude."
  • When the Steelers went with their second-team offense, it was Charlie Batch and not Byron Leftwich who came in at quarterback. Batch completed 7 of 10 passes for 84 yards. Leftwich didn't get into the game.
  • Rainey looks like he can break free for a touchdown every time he touches the ball. His size is a concern, and that had to cross your mind when Rainey coughed up the ball on that rough hit. He has to hold onto the ball better.

Observation deck: Ravens-Lions

August, 17, 2012

If the Ravens secondary wants to reach an elite level, the defensive backs have to hold their own against the top receivers. Baltimore's 27-12 preseason loss to the Lions on Friday night showed once again that the secondary has a lot of room to improve.

The Ravens allowed Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson to catch five passes for 111 yards and one touchdown. And that was in less than one full half of work. That comes one week after Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones had six catches for 109 yards and one touchdown in a little over one quarter.

Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith, who are battling for a starting job, both took turns getting beat by Johnson. The Ravens' first defensive series of the second quarter began with Johnson running past Williams for a 57-yard catch and ended with Johnson leaping over Jimmy Smith for an 18-yard touchdown. Smith later held Johnson when the receiver went past him on the next drive.

Here are some other thoughts on the Ravens' second preseason game of the year:
  • The Ravens continue to show a new look on offense. Baltimore is opening up the playbook with a no-huddle attack that spreads out defenses with three wide receivers. This is the second straight game for the Ravens' no-huddle offense.
  • Joe Flacco played much better than his statistics indicate. He finished 7-of-12 for 79 yards, but his receivers dropped three passes. With Torrey Smith out with a sprained ankle, Flacco went to LaQuan Williams three times in the red zone and didn't connect one time.
  • Undrafted rookie Justin Tucker continues to outshine Billy Cundiff in the kicker competition. Cundiff converted from 33 and 44 yards, but Tucker drew bigger cheers from the home crowd when he boomed a 50-yarder. Tucker later added a 45-yard field goal. Cundiff, though, had more distance on his kickoffs.
  • The best battle of the night was Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda going against Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. There were many instances when they kept pushing and shoving after the whistle.
  • The Ravens are still telling Bryant McKinnie that he has to earn back his starting job, keeping him on the second team. Baltimore started Michael Oher at left tackle and rookie Kelechi Osemele on the right side. Oher hurt one drive when he was called for holding on second-and-goal from the 7-yard line.
  • One of the worst plays in Ravens history has been the end-around to a wide receiver. It never worked with Mark Clayton or Donte Stallworth. But Baltimore finally had success when Jacoby Jones broke free for a 35-yard gain. That's 35 more yards than the Ravens ever gained on that play before.
  • Courtney Upshaw, the team's top pick of the 2012 draft, remained on the second team while Albert McClellan started at outside linebacker. Upshaw didn't help his case with a rookie mistake. The Lions' first drive of the second quarter should have ended with a field goal, but Upshaw was called for offside on third-and-2 from the Baltimore 28-yard line. That led to the Johnson touchdown.
  • It was another frustrating night for Sergio Kindle. His holding penalty negated a 55-yard kickoff return by Deonte Thompson late in the second quarter, and then Kindle left in the third quarter with a left shoulder stinger.
  • It's hard to overlook undrafted rookie safety Omar Brown because he keeps making plays. His fumble recovery in the second half was his fourth turnover (three fumble recoveries and one interception) in two games.
As I noted in the AFC North Wake-up call, Andy Dalton delivered the play of the game in the Bengals' 24-19 preseason win at Atlanta, throwing a 50-yard touchdown to A.J. Green in the second quarter. While the focus will be on Dalton's arm strength -- which has been a sore spot for him this offseason -- it overshadowed another strong facet in Thursday night's game.

The Bengals, who ranked 18th on third-down efficiency last season, converted six of seven third downs with Dalton. He completed a 25-yard pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham on third-and-6 and connected with Donald Lee on a 22-yard pass on third-and-7. Then, on third-and-15, he hit Green for the long touchdown pass along the right sideline.

Here are some other thoughts on the Bengals' second preseason game:
  • It's safe to say Green shook off the rust in the preseason opener, when he dropped a pass in the end zone. He caught two passes for 59 yards in Atlanta, where he made the touchdown pass happen by losing cornerback Asante Samuel on a double move. That had to cause cornerbacks throughout the division to sweat a little.
  • The Bengals have to make sure their top two running backs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (foot) and Bernard Scott (hand), are healthy for the regular season because both backups couldn't hold onto the ball. Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman each fumbled while trying to make moves in the open field. Green-Ellis, who has never fumbled in his NFL career, had to be shaking his head.
  • Did you see the Bengals' running game in Atlanta? Neither did the Bengals. Cincinnati's offensive line struggled to open holes, as the Bengals managed 11 rushing yards on 10 first-half carries.
  • Left tackle Andrew Whitworth might want to skip the film review because it wasn't pretty. He continually got beat by Falcons defensive end John Abraham, who spent most of his night in the Bengals' backfield.
  • It was a rough game for the Bengals' trio of cornerbacks: Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Nate Clements. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 18 of 21 passes for 174 yards in less than two quarters of work, took turns picking on all three former first-round picks. The Bengals can commiserate with the Ravens, who couldn't stop Ryan last week.
  • Mohamed Sanu appears to be a long shot to win the Bengals' No. 2 wide receiver job now, but the rookie third-round pick made an impression with his 12-yard touchdown catch. Marvin Jones, another rookie receiver, continues to show flashes as well.
  • Jeromy Miles is making a strong push for the strong safety spot. He finished with six tackles, one interception and one forced fumble. Miles, who is competing against Taylor Mays for the starting job, picked off Chris Redman in the end zone.
  • Unlike the preseason opener, the Bengals caught a break in terms of injuries. Gresham, who left in the first quarter with a right knee injury, "should be fine," according to coach Marvin Lewis. Backup middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict sustained a concussion but he could return for the next preseason game.

Observation deck: Browns-Packers

August, 17, 2012
There were some encouraging signs from rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden in the Browns' 35-10 preseason victory at Green Bay.

A week after three completions and two turnovers in the preseason opener, Weeden got rid of the ball quicker and was more decisive on reads. He finished 12-of-18 for 118 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks. Two of his six incompletions were drops by Josh Gordon and Greg Little.

Weeden led the Browns to scores on four of his six series (three long field goals by Phil Dawson and a one-yard touchdown run by Montario Hardesty), although three of the possessions began in Packers territory. And while he didn't turn the ball over, Weeden got lucky when Green Bay defenders dropped two of his throws.

Here are some of my other thoughts on the Browns' second preseason game:
  • Hardesty, who started his second game in place of the injured Trent Richardson (knee), got off to a bad start when he fumbled on the Browns' first play. He redeemed himself by gaining tough yards up the middle, rushing for 45 yards on 12 carries (3.8-yard average).
  • Like Weeden, the Browns' defense bounced back from the preseason opener. Without six starters, Cleveland gave up one completion over 11 yards to quarterback Aaron Rodgers (it was the touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson). The safety blitz by T.J. Ward was a well-timed wrinkle. The run defense clogged up the middle much better than last week. The Browns gave up 49 yards on the ground in the first half (compared to 115 last week), and 24 of those yards came on two Rodgers scrambles.
  • Colt McCoy put together his second strong performance in what may have been an audition for the Packers. McCoy was 4-of-6 for 58 yards, leading Cleveland on a 14-play scoring drive in his one series of work. If the Packers weren't interested in McCoy before this game, Thursday night should have changed their minds. Green Bay backup Graham Harrell struggled mightily with two interceptions (one was returned for a touchdown) and a safety.
  • Sheldon Brown, who was expected to get unseated as a starting cornerback this year, forced his second turnover of the preseason. He ripped the ball way from Green Bay's Randall Cobb after a catch.
  • The Browns' top cornerback, Joe Haden, had an interesting night. He was beaten early by Nelson, but Rodgers overthrew him in the end zone. When Haden blanketed Nelson moments later, Nelson leapt over him for a touchdown.
  • Dawson looked like he was in midseason form with field goals from 53, 46 and 52 yards. His night was made tougher by lineman Oniel Cousins, who committed two penalties to push back Dawson's kicks. A facemask penalty on an extra point? Really?
  • You didn't really notice rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, which is a compliment after a shaky game last week. The Browns' starting offensive line was solid. Left guard Jason Pinkston gave up a quarterback pressure on one third down, which forced Weeden to hurry a throw.