AFC North: Aaron Hernandez

Video: Pouncey's 'Free Hernandez' hats

July, 15, 2013

Tim Hasselbeck weighs in on Maurkice and Mike Pouncey wearing "Free Hernandez" hats.
For those who thought the AFC North blog was an Aaron Hernandez-free zone, I apologize. Blame the Bengals in today's wake-up call:

RAVENS: James Ihedigbo is looking forward to a competition for a starting safety job even though first-round pick Matt Elam is the favorite to win it. "I'm excited about the opportunity, and competition brings out the best in you," Ihedigbo told The Baltimore Sun. "Matt's a great player and a great guy. I played with his brother, Abe, with the Jets. He comes from a great pedigree. I'm excited. At the end of the day, the best 11 players will be on the field. It's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens."

BENGALS: Owner Mike Brown told Fox Sports that the team decided to pass on tight end Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 draft because of the potential for more off-field problems. The Bengals instead selected Jermaine Gresham in the first round. “That one is no secret. We just stayed away from it,” Brown told the website. “We didn’t question the playing ability. But we went for Gresham.” While the Bengals have had their share of players arrested over the years, only one draft pick (safety Robert Sands) has come from their past four draft classes, which shows they have been more discerning. In three seasons, Hernandez caught 175 passes for 1,956 yards and 18 touchdowns. Gresham has 172 receptions for 1,804 yards and 15 touchdowns.

STEELERS: Nose tackle Steve McLendon believes baseball will help make him a better football player. Even though he calls baseball "the scariest sport ever," he has spent time in the batting cage focused on picking up the ball. “That is how I learned the eye coordination," McLendon told the team's official website. "If I can learn to watch the ball, it will slow the game down for me. You can see when the pitcher is going to grip the ball and his throw and windup. It’s the same with a center. You see him grip the ball, his windup is the snap. If I can catch his hand and am able to attack him, it will make me that much quicker and better applying pressure to the quarterback, running back and the offensive line.”

BROWNS: Dallas Cowboys tight end Gavin Escobar, a former college teammate of Leon McFadden, said he doesn't see the rookie third-round pick's height (5 feet 9) as an obstacle to him starting for the Browns. “I was going against him, and I wouldn’t say he’d lock me down, but he’s strong," Escobar told the Browns' official website. “He’s strong for his size, and he can jump too. I think he’ll be fine going up against those strong receivers. I didn’t go up against him a lot, being a tight end, but when I did go up against him, I always told the quarterback I was open. In reality, it was good competition and a friendly competition."
The Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens were looking for tight ends in the 2010 draft, and they passed on Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. A few months ago, you could criticize the Bengals and Ravens for doing so. Now, these AFC North teams could make out in the long run.

Gronkowski has undergone four surgeries on his left forearm and had back surgery this month. His back problems in college caused many teams, including the Ravens, to take him off their draft board. Hernandez, meanwhile, has been in the middle of a homicide investigation since the body of a friend was found shot in the back of the head last Monday in an industrial park near Hernandez's home. Both of their situations make them question marks heading into this season and beyond.

Three years ago, the Bengals went with Jermaine Gresham with the No. 21 overall pick, making him the first tight end taken that year. Gresham's career statistics compare favorably with Hernandez and he has 15 fewer receptions than Gronkowski. His 2.3 average yards after the catch ranks only behind Gronkowski (2.54) among tight ends over the past three seasons.

Like the Patriots, the Ravens selected two tight ends in the 2010 draft, taking Ed Dickson in the third round and Dennis Pitta in the fourth. While Dickson's numbers fell last season, Pitta had a breakthrough season. Pitta figures to be the Ravens' No. 1 or No. 2 pass-catcher this season after Baltimore traded Anquan Boldin to San Francisco. He also scored eight touchdowns in his final 12 games, including the playoffs.

In terms of tight ends, the biggest steal of that draft was New Orleans' Jimmy Graham. He was selected in the third round, 11 spots after the Bengals chose wide receiver Jordan Shipley and 25 spots after the Ravens drafted Dickson.

Over the past three seasons, the Bengals and Ravens would have been more productive in the passing game with Gronkowski and Hernandez. But, when projecting the next three seasons, Cincinnati and Baltimore may fare better with its current tight ends if they choose to keep them. Gresham is a free agent after the 2014 season for the Bengals, who drafted Tyler Eifert in the first round this year. Pitta and Dickson are entering the final year of their contracts.
The Patriots have reportedly signed Emmanuel Sanders, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet. I love this move -- for New England.

New England is short on wide receivers, and getting Sanders for a late third-round pick (Sanders’ draft slot in 2010) would make this contending team better right away. Sanders has battled injuries, but there is no shame being stuck behind Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown during his time in Pittsburgh.

Like Brown, Sanders isn’t the biggest receiver around, but he is extremely quick and very good after the catch -- which is a must in the Patriots’ timing-based offense that Tom Brady runs so very well with great precision and accurate throws.

Sanders also has some deep-ball ability, and can line up outside the numbers or in the slot, although New England is pretty set with slot options Danny Amendola and Aaron Hernandez. But we all know that Bill Belichick craves players -- at any position -- with a wide skill set and capable of contributing in many ways. Sanders fits that, and is a great potential pickup for the price.

Not only would Sanders be a strong addition to the Patriots, but the move would also weaken a fellow AFC contender. With Wallace now in Miami, wide receiver is as great of a need for Pittsburgh as any other position. Sanders appeared to be set up to show what he could do as a starter opposite Brown. New England has far more salary-cap space and overall flexibility than the Steelers.

But worst of all for Pittsburgh, Sanders’ signing of this offer sheet forces the Steelers to make a decision they did not want to make. This is not the type of organization that wants other franchises to negotiate contracts for it -- which is essentially what New England did if Pittsburgh chooses to match, and matching could force the Steelers to further shuffle their roster and salary cap.

Also, I don’t think that the Steelers are excited about dealing a young, promising starting wide receiver for a very late third-round pick. Although they are not the clear contender the Patriots are, the Steelers are not in rebuilding mode, and who knows how much longer Ben Roethlisberger can continue playing at a high level with all the punishment he has withstood.

How will Pittsburgh respond? None of us know, but my hunch is the Steelers are not especially happy about either option presented to them.

Take a guess who's the favorite target for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco after two games. Torrey Smith? Anquan Boldin? Ed Dickson?

Wrong on all three. The Ravens' leading receiver is tight end Dennis Pitta. He has four more catches than anyone else on the team, has just as many 20-yard catches as Smith and has more than double the amount of first downs as Boldin.

In 2010, Pitta was the 114th player selected overall and seventh tight end taken in the draft, behind the likes of Jermaine Gresham (21st overall), Rob Gronkowski (42), Dickson (70), Tony Moeaki (93), Jimmy Graham (95) and Aaron Hernandez (113).

Pitta's 138 yards receiving this year ranks fourth among tight ends, three more than Gronkowski.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Baltimore Ravens made a risky move when they decided to cut Todd Heap last season and went with two inexperienced tight ends. The result: Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta more than held their own. Dickson exceeded Heap's 2010 receptions total by 14, and Pitta matched it.

The problem is, no one outside of the division really noticed what Dickson and Pitta did. That's what happens when New England is putting up big numbers with its tight end combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who were both taken in the same draft as Dickson and Pitta. While no one is saying Dickson and Pitta will become as prolific as the Patriots' tight ends, there's a sense that the Ravens only scratched the surface with their duo.

Dickson and Pitta both finished strong, combining for seven touchdowns in the second half of the season. Dickson has great athleticism and can stretch the field, and Pitta has a chance to be a weapon in the red zone. Quarterback Joe Flacco looked to them in pressure situations last season. Dickson and Pitta both ranked in the AFC's top 15 in third-down catches. Now, Baltimore has to get them more consistently involved the rest of the time.
Mike WallaceGeorge Gojkovich/Getty ImagesWide receiver Mike Wallace would add another dimension to New England's offense if the Patriots managed to sign him.
Here's one way the New England Patriots can get back to the Super Bowl: Sign receiver Mike Wallace, one of the best players in free agency.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' Pro Bowler is a restricted free agent who is ripe for the taking. Pittsburgh has salary-cap issues this offseason and cut many of its veteran players. The team also could not afford to put a franchise tag on Wallace.

A first-round pick and a good contract offer are the only things standing in the way of Wallace joining the reigning AFC champions. New England should be the first team in line to throw caution to the wind and pry Wallace from Pittsburgh next week when free agency begins.

Here are several reasons why this is a smart move for New England:

Reason No. 1: Patriots have plenty of draft picks, cap space

This is the perfect year for the Patriots to pounce. Unlike the Steelers, New England has plenty of cap room and more than enough draft picks to make a solid pitch for Wallace.

The cost for Wallace would be a first-round pick and a contract extension. New England has two first-rounders (No. 27 and No. 31) and two second-rounders. Losing one of those early picks would not hurt the Patriots. New England likely would not get an immediate, Pro Bowl-caliber player at the end of the first round anyway. Wallace would count as part of the Patriots' draft class. New England could add a top-10 receiver in his prime.

New England's best chance is to offer Wallace a front-loaded contract. The key is to provide a high amount of guaranteed money and salary in the first season, which would count against this year's cap. The Patriots have that luxury over Pittsburgh and can use it to their advantage.

The Patriots entered the offseason with more cap space than any team in the AFC East. Receiver Wes Welker's franchise tag would take up some of that, but the Patriots still can offer Wallace more than Pittsburgh. New England may have to eventually work out an extension with Welker, as a result, but the Patriots are considering that option anyway.

Reason No. 2: Patriots need a deep threat

Imagine the possibilities: Tom Brady throwing to Welker and Rob Gronkowski underneath, and Wallace and Aaron Hernandez vertically. That would be a passing attack that is tough to stop.

New England's best deep threat last year was Hernandez, its backup tight end. He was the only player who could consistently get vertical and was a threat for making huge plays.

Wallace's speed would bring a unique element to New England's offense. He is arguably the best deep threat in the NFL and has 23 receptions of 40 yards or more the past three seasons. The Patriots' offense hasn't had that type of big-play capability since Randy Moss.

There are criticisms that Wallace is a "one-trick pony." That’s debatable. But getting deep is really all the Patriots would need from Wallace. New England's other receivers and tight ends will take care of the underneath routes and allow Wallace to focus on what he does best.

Reason No. 3: It hurts a big AFC rival

The Steelers are one of the most well-run and respected franchises in the NFL. The ownership, front office and coaching are all top notch.

Therefore, Pittsburgh consistently poses one of the biggest threats to New England in the AFC. The Steelers and Patriots combined for eight Super Bowl appearances the past 11 years. If Pittsburgh didn't get "Tebowed" by the Denver Broncos in January, the Patriots would've had another tough playoff matchup against Pittsburgh. The Steelers beat New England in the regular season.

Signing Wallace away from Pittsburgh would simultaneously strengthen New England and hurt the Steelers' depth at receiver. The Steelers already released team captain and all-time leading receiver Hines Ward. In terms of leadership, Ward leaves a huge void that is tough to replace. Losing Wallace, Pittsburgh's best receiver, would be another big blow.

Pittsburgh also cut starting linebacker James Farrior, starting guard Chris Kemoeatu and veteran defensive end Aaron Smith. Years of manipulating the cap is finally catching up to the Steelers, and it could cost the team Wallace if New England or another team goes after him.

Reason No. 4: No harm, no foul

Let's say the Steelers find a way to match New England's offer. That could still work in New England's favor.

The Patriots would retain their first-round pick and cap room, while forcing Pittsburgh overpay on a front-loaded contract to keep Wallace. The Steelers, as a result, would have more issues with the cap. For the Patriots, there's no harm in trying.

New England also has options. The Patriots could quickly turn its attention to veteran receiver Brandon Lloyd, who is a viable Plan B. Lloyd wants to reunite with new Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and would be happy to join the reigning AFC champs. Instead of the home run (Wallace), New England could settle for a triple (Lloyd).

Going after Wallace in free agency is a win-win for the Patriots, regardless of the result.

Final Word: Ravens at Patriots

January, 20, 2012
Conference Championship Final Word: Ravens-Patriots | Giants-49ers

Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Ravens-Patriots AFC championship game:

Tight coverage on Patriots tight ends: This a case of strength versus strength. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have been the NFL's most dangerous tag team at tight end this season, combining for 2,237 receiving yards (an average of 139.8 per game) and 24 touchdown grabs. The Ravens have been one of the league's best defenses at containing tight ends. Baltimore has allowed 667 receiving yards to tight ends this season, third-fewest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Some defenses have difficulty matching up with athletic tight ends when they split out wide, but that hasn't been the case with the Ravens. They’ve been particularly stingy to tight ends lining up as wide receivers -- only 199 of the 677 yards allowed were to tight ends splitting to the outside.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Frank Victores/US PresswireThe Ravens are 21-1 in the past two seasons when Ray Rice gets at least 20 touches.
Throwing to Rice: Over the last two seasons (including playoffs), the Ravens are 21-1 (.954) when running back Ray Rice gets at least 20 touches. They are 5-8 (.385) when he doesn't. The key is touches and not necessarily carries. After Rice gained 159 yards rushing in a 2009 playoff game, the Patriots limited him to 88 yards rushing on 28 carries (a less-than-mediocre 3.1 yards per carry) in the last meeting. Look for the Ravens to get Rice into space by throwing him the ball. In New England's final three regular-season games, running backs averaged 13.4 yards per catch against the Patriots. Since 2008, Rice has led running backs in catches (250) and yards receiving (2,235).

Playoff road warriors: Baltimore hasn't been the best road team this season, going 4-4 and losing to two teams with losing records (Jacksonville and Seattle). But the Ravens are perhaps the best postseason road team ever. The Ravens are 7-4 on the road in the playoffs, the second-best road record for any franchise behind the Panthers (4-2), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Since the Ravens began playing in 1996, their seven road playoff victories are two more than any other team. Only three teams in NFL history (Packers, Cowboys and Titans/Oilers) have more playoff road wins than the Ravens.
Ed ReedMitch Stringer/US Presswire"I don't think there is a weakness that he has," Tom Brady says of Ed Reed.

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- All the talk surrounding the Ravens this week has been about Ed Reed's critical comments regarding quarterback Joe Flacco and how they will affect the team heading into Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

In reality, Reed is a bigger problem for the Patriots than he'll ever be for the Ravens. No one draws more respect from the Patriots than Reed and no one gives them more reasons to worry than the eight-time Pro Bowl safety.

The Patriots know they can slow down Terrell Suggs by putting a couple of blockers on him. They know Ray Lewis is always going to be in the middle of the defense before they line up.

There's no certainty when it comes to Reed. He can be anywhere on the field. Reed can even make it look like he'll be on one side and end up on the other before the ball gets there.

When it comes to stopping the Patriots' passing game, the Ravens have to keep an eye on Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Deion Branch. When it comes to having success against the Ravens' pass defense, all eyes are on Reed.

Having Reed playing center field in the secondary is the biggest reason that the Ravens allowed an NFL-low 11 passing touchdowns this season (four fewer than any other team). He's also the biggest reason that no quarterback has thrown more than one touchdown pass against the Ravens in any game this season.

The biggest compliment that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can give Reed is that the free safety is always at the forefront of his mind.

"When you break the huddle, you find where he's at and you make sure you're not lobbing the ball up in his zones, because as you saw in the Houston game, he's going to go up there and make the plays," Brady said. "He's just an exceptional player. I don't think there is a weakness that he has."

Reed is coming off one of the worst regular seasons of his career, at least statistically. His three interceptions and eight passes defended are his lowest in a full 16-game season.

But the postseason has always been Reed's best season. His eight interceptions are one shy of tying Ronnie Lott, Bill Simpson and Charlie Waters for the most in NFL playoff history.

Reed's latest came last Sunday with 1:51 left in the game and the Ravens ahead by a touchdown. Knowing the Texans would look deep to wide receiver Andre Johnson, Reed held his ground in the middle of the field, even though quarterback T.J. Yates was trying to make the safety move left by staring in that direction.

When Yates cocked his arm back, Reed jumped to the right side toward Johnson before Yates even released the ball. Reed was there in time to intercept the pass in front of Johnson at the Baltimore 4-yard line.

Reed's instincts and awareness have led to 57 interceptions, the most among active players.

"I've just been playing football for a long time," Reed said of having a nose for the ball. "I've been playing football since I was a little kid, so it's just some natural blessings that God has blessed me with to get to the ball and understand what I've been doing over the years."

With 11 seconds left in last Sunday's playoff game, Reed made the play that allowed the Ravens to advance to the AFC Championship Game. On that play, Reed was playing over the top against Johnson on the left side, which forced the Texans to throw the Hail Mary to the right. Reed raced all the way across the field to knock down the pass, preserving a 20-13 victory.

"I’m not sure that if he hadn’t made it, I don’t know what would have happened there," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Those are the kinds of plays he makes. He probably covers more field back there as a single safety than most teams can cover with two. He’s got great instincts; he’s a tremendous player.”

Belichick's affection for Reed is well-known. He called Reed one of the greatest players ever to play the game. Last year, Brady joked that Belichick wanted to adopt Ed Reed and change his name to "Ed Belichick."

"He has said that to us before, and then constantly threw the ball back there at him," linebacker Suggs said. "I don't know how much that holds weight."

Suggs is right that the Patriots' adoration doesn't mean they fear Reed, who has broken up five passes in four career games against New England and intercepted Brady in the 2009 wild-card playoff game.

While the Patriots were praising Reed all week, the Ravens had to answer questions about his comments every day. Reed went on national radio this week to say Flacco was "rattled" in last Sunday's playoff game and "just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense." He doesn't believe those comments will distract the team leading up to Sunday's AFC Championship Game.

"It's about the Ravens and New England playing football," Reed said. "All that other stuff is to the side. That was about the last game. It's irrelevant to what we're doing right now, getting ready for the Patriots. What was said was something I said about the whole team, and it wasn't just about Joe. We were critical about ourselves in that game. That's every teammate of mine talking about the game we watched on film. We weren't satisfied with our effort."

Reed won't be satisfied until he wins a Super Bowl, and the years to capture one are starting to dwindle for him. He'll turn 34 less than a week into next season, and he's contemplated retirement before because of a nerve impingement between his neck and shoulder.

Does Reed sense the window of opportunity closing?

"We'll cross that bridge when that happens," Reed said. "Right now, we're focused on playing football and winning this game. That's what it's about at the end of the day. It's about us going out and trying to win this game to the best of our ability, and that's what we're going out there to do."
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The Pittsburgh Steelers are about $25 million over the salary cap and need to cut about 20 percent of their payroll by the March 13 deadline, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

But the Steelers aren't panicking, at least not publicly.

"It's not a situation where we're looking to tear things apart and start over," team president Art Rooney II told Pittsburgh reporters yesterday.

Rooney, though, acknowledged there will be "some tough decisions."

"I would say it's probably as big an issue as we've had to face," Rooney said. "There will probably have to be some contracts that get restructured and things like that. No question, there's a lot of work to be done."

In the half-hour state-of-the-team interview, Rooney said wide receiver Mike Wallace will be among the priorities this offseason. He becomes a restricted free agent March 13.

The Steelers will also add 3,000 seats to Heinz Field after the 2012 season.

Hensley's slant: Those "tough decisions" will likely come down to players such as nose tackle Casey Hampton ($4.8 million salary in 2012), wide receiver Hines Ward ($4 million), guard Chris Kemoeatu ($3.5 million), inside linebackers Larry Foote ($3 million) and James Farrior ($2.8 million) and cornerback Bryant McFadden ($2.5 million). If these players don't take a pay cut, they probably will be released. The good news for the Steelers is that they bring back their core with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, three young receivers (unless Wallace goes elsewhere as a restricted free agent), two top-notch pass rushers and Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.

BENGALS: Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was considered one of the front-runners for the Dolphins head coaching job earlier this week. Now he is out of the running for it, according to the Miami Herald. The search has been narrowed down to Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and Dolphins interim coach Todd Bowles, the paper reported. Hensley's slant: Based on the candidates remaining, it appears that the Dolphins want an offensive-minded coach, which eliminated Zimmer from consideration. This is bad news for Zimmer but a good development for the Bengals. While Zimmer still has a chance to get the head-coaching position with the Buccaneers, the Dolphins job was considered his best shot.

BROWNS: The Akron Beacon-Journal's Marla Ridenour was envious of the playoff teams' tight end play over the weekend. This is what Ridenour wrote: "Against Denver, the Patriots got 261 yards (200 receiving) and four touchdowns out of [Rob] Gronkowski and [Aaron] Hernandez. The Browns’ four tight ends — Ben Watson, Evan Moore, Alex Smith and rookie Jordan Cameron — totaled seven touchdowns all season. Hernandez also had a 43-yard run against the Broncos, longer than any Browns’ rush in 2011." Hensley's slant: The Browns are also trailing the rest of the division when it comes to tight ends. Cleveland was the only AFC North team not to have a tight end catch more than 50 passes. The Bengals' Jermaine Gresham (56 catches, six touchdowns), the Ravens' Ed Dickson (54 catches, five touchdowns) and the Steelers' Heath Miller (51 catches, two touchdowns) are all important pieces in the passing game.

RAVENS: I will be at the Ravens' facility where I will post blogs this afternoon. There will be a Joe Flacco column posted at some point today, and the featured blog yesterday was the Double Coverage segment.

Unlike the NFC, the AFC playoff bracket went according to form and has the top two seeds meeting in the conference title game Sunday. The New England Patriots (14-3) and Baltimore Ravens (13-4) have been the best two teams in the conference from start to finish.

But only one team can advance to Indianapolis to play in Super Bowl XLVI. That is where AFC East blogger James Walker and AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley come in to examine the matchups and pressing issues with the Patriots and Ravens.

James Walker: Let’s start with the quarterbacks, Jamison, because I think this is where the Patriots have the biggest advantage. Tom Brady is playing at an unbelievable level. He tied an NFL postseason record with six touchdown passes against a pretty good Denver Broncos defense. I’m not sure Baltimore -- or any defense -- has an answer for the Patriots’ passing game right now. Behind Brady, the Patriots are averaging 40.5 points in their past four games. New England’s offense is peaking at the right time. If New England scores early, that puts an enormous amount of pressure on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to respond. I doubt a Brady vs. Flacco shootout is a game Baltimore wants to play.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Michael Ivins/US PresswireTom Brady was masterful in the Patriots' playoff rout of Denver.
Jamison Hensley: You’re definitely right about that James. Flacco has thrown for fewer than 175 yards in his past three games. That’s like one half for Brady. Flacco gets a lot of criticism because he isn’t consistent -- and that’s true. He has flashes where he looks like he’s a top-10 quarterback, guiding a last-minute touchdown drive at Pittsburgh and leading the Ravens back from a 21-point deficit against Arizona. Then, there are times when he looks like he is among the league’s worst, like when he doesn’t complete a pass in two quarters against the Jets. But the Ravens have never had to rely on Flacco in the playoffs. That’s the time of the season when the Baltimore defense thrives. There’s a huge disparity between Brady and Flacco. But there is an even bigger one between the defenses of the Patriots and Ravens, who are ranked No. 3 in the NFL in fewest yards and points allowed.

James Walker: We’ve both watched Baltimore’s defense up close for years, and I’ve always marveled at its consistency. The biggest thing is you know what you’re going to get from Baltimore’s defense on Sunday. I really have no idea what to expect from the Patriots’ defense. I did see with my own eyes last week a group that is capable of playing well. The Patriots actually have the top-rated defense in the playoffs, although it’s just for one game. I won’t go overboard with the Patriots stopping Tim Tebow. Any playoff team not named the Pittsburgh Steelers could do that. (I had to jab your AFC North brethren.) But I’ve seen too many weeks where New England looked awful defensively and gave up tons of yards. The Ravens’ offense should have the advantage as long as they stick with tailback Ray Rice, who has killed New England in the past. Speaking of the past, Jamison, how much stock do you put in Baltimore’s previous playoff victory against the Patriots in Jan. 2010?

Jamison Hensley: Just like you can’t go overboard on one game for the New England defense, you can’t do the same with that playoff game. Both teams are different from that game two years ago. The Patriots didn’t even have Wes Welker for that one. The biggest lingering effect is that the Ravens have confidence that they can win in New England. Few teams have ever beaten Brady on his home turf in the playoffs, and Ray Lewis and the gang know they can do it, because they did it before. Of course, that game turned on the first offensive play from scrimmage when Rice ran 83 yards for a touchdown. And that’s something that hasn’t changed for the Ravens. Rice is key to the Ravens winning. Baltimore is 9-0 when Rice carries the ball at least 20 times. He has to be on the mind of every New England defender.

James Walker: There’s no denying Rice is to Baltimore what Brady is to New England. The performance of both players will probably determine the outcome of this game. You astutely pointed out Welker’s absence from the January 2010 playoff game. Two additional players not in that game were tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who were drafted the following April. Two seasons later, the pair completely change the dynamics of New England’s offense. The Ravens’ defense is great. But I’m looking down their roster and I’m having a lot of trouble finding linebackers who are fast enough and defensive backs who are strong enough to stop New England’s star tight ends. The Ravens might opt to double one -- usually Gronkowski -- but I don’t think they have an answer for both. After watching the Ravens' defense all season, Jamison, what strategy do you think they will employ?

Jamison Hensley: The Ravens played mostly zone against Texans rookie quarterback T.J. Yates, but they can’t do that against Brady. He would pick them apart. Baltimore has to go man coverage to be successful. The defender to watch is linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. He’s known as the team’s special teams ace, but he plays an important role in the nickel defense. The Ravens have contained some of the top tight ends they’ve gone against in San Diego’s Antonio Gates (two catches for 31 yards) and San Francisco’s Vernon Davis (four for 38 yards). The problem is, the Ravens haven’t faced a team with two quality tight ends like Gronkowski and Hernandez. Baltimore’s best bet is to get pressure on Brady. That starts with Terrell Suggs, who will test both of the Patriots’ offensive tackles.

James Walker: Suggs has been a monster this season. I also think Brady might be Suggs’ least-favorite quarterback. So there won’t be any lack of motivation there. But I noticed something important in both AFC divisional games that should be mentioned. Baltimore didn’t get a single sack against Yates and Houston, and New England held Denver without a sack, despite facing a defense with two of the league’s top pass-rushers in Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. Maybe that was more scheme last week on Baltimore’s part, because defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano usually gets after it. But New England legitimately stuffed Denver’s pass rush for four quarters with an up-tempo offense that used a lot of half-huddle/no-huddle and quick throws to Gronkowski, Hernandez and Welker. I think you’re going to see the Patriots speed up the tempo again against Baltimore, especially at home where the crowd is quiet and communication on offense is easier.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Suggs
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireKeeping Terrell Suggs away from QB Tom Brady will be a priority for New England on Sunday.
Jamison Hensley: As we’ve seen so far in the playoffs, home field has really been an advantage. Only one home team (Green Bay) has lost so far this postseason. The Ravens have had their trouble on the road this season, losing at Seattle and Jacksonville -- teams they should’ve beaten. But Baltimore has a great track record of winning on the road in the playoffs. The Ravens have won at Miami, Tennessee, Kansas City, and, of course, New England under coach John Harbaugh in the postseason. How the Ravens handle the atmosphere on the road will be one of many keys in this matchup.

James Walker: The Patriots and Ravens played all season for this gigantic opportunity. New England just won one more game to force the road to Indianapolis to go through Gillette Stadium. But I think either club would represent the conference well and has a great chance to win the Super Bowl. Either way, Jamison, just make sure one of us brings that Lombardi Trophy back to the AFC side, where it belongs. I was kind of tired of that "Discount Double-check" thing NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert kept doing in front of us for the past year.

Jamison Hensley: I hear you. We’ll just have to wait until Sunday to see whether Belichick’s hoodie or Flacco’s Fu Manchu mustache will be advancing. History says this will be a close game. Three of the past four meetings between the Ravens and Patriots have been decided by six points or less. For coverage leading up to the AFC championship game, everyone can check back to the AFC East and AFC North blogs all week. And, James, it will be just a little colder in New England than Miami, so remember to pack a jacket.

Bengals searching for veteran TE?

April, 16, 2010
Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis held his pre-draft news conference Friday. Usually, not much comes from these gatherings, but Lewis offered at least one interesting nugget.

Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer quotes Lewis saying the Bengals may add a veteran tight end before next week's NFL draft. Although Lewis didn't mention anyone by name, the first players that come to mind are Greg Olsen of the Chicago Bears and Tony Scheffler of the Denver Broncos. (Reedy agrees with Scheffler.)

There's been plenty of speculation involving both tight ends. Olsen has a new offensive coordinator in Mike Martz, who traditionally doesn't throw to the tight end, while Scheffler appears on the outs in Denver and signed his tender this week.

"I think some of it could be addressed prior to the draft, but I do feel we are where we are and we don't need to panic in any way," Lewis said of his tight ends Friday.

The Bengals also are looking at various tight ends in the NFL draft, including top prospects Jermaine Gresham and Aaron Hernandez. But the possibility of signing a proven commodity is certainly intriguing and could potentially erase one need from their draft board.

Draft Watch: AFC North

March, 17, 2010
NFC Needs Revisited: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Biggest needs revisited.

Baltimore Ravens

Going into the offseason, Baltimore's biggest need was clearly at wide receiver. But following the recent acquisitions of Anquan Boldin, Donte' Stallworth and re-signing Derrick Mason, that is no longer the case. The Ravens could still use a blazer, but no one could blame them at this point if they decide to address another need such as cornerback. Baltimore has health issues with Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington. Both players are rehabbing knee injuries and may not be 100 percent by the start of training camp. Look for the Ravens to address this position at some point in the draft.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cincinnati had the same issue as Baltimore, which was a need at receiver. Signing Antonio Bryant to a four-year contract filled a huge void to get help for Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco. Now the Bengals' biggest focus should be getting a pass-catching tight end. It's been a long time since the Bengals had a quality player at the position who can stretch the field. A case can be made that quarterback Carson Palmer has never had that luxury during his career. Oklahoma's Jermaine Gresham and Florida's Aaron Hernandez are two good tight end prospects who could fill that void in the draft.

Cleveland Browns

As we pointed out Tuesday, the Browns patched some holes in free agency but still have work to do to climb out of the basement of the AFC North. It's hard to pinpoint one need on this team. But with the shift at quarterback to established veteran Jake Delhomme, let's go with secondary help just edging the receiver position. The Browns need a big-time corner and/or a play-making safety. They may be able to get a difference-maker like safety Eric Berry or Earl Thomas in the draft. Both players are highly coveted on a lot of teams' draft boards. There also are good cornerbacks available after the first round.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh's primary need still hasn't changed since the beginning of free agency. It's no secret by now that I believe the cornerback position is the biggest void on Pittsburgh's roster. But there might not be a prospect worth taking at No. 18. So if a stud offensive tackle or guard (Mike Iupati?) is available to Pittsburgh, that wouldn't be a bad choice either. The Steelers could use a mauler in the running game to get the tough yards when needed.
Scouting can be harsh.

Instead of looking at what prospects do well, the process often puts a heavy emphasis on where players struggle.

I spent some time this week going through my 2010 draft guide from Pro Football Weekly, which is a highly respected publication with in-depth scouting reports. (The AFC North blog recommends it for draftniks.)

With that said, here are the negatives of 10 quality prospects being considered in the draft for the AFC North:

Jermaine Gresham, TE, Oklahoma

Interested teams: Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens

PFW negatives: "Makes some concentration drops. Is not explosive or sudden out of his breaks and tends to drift at the top of his stems. Shows some lower-body tightness and has difficulty adjusting to the low ball."

Aaron Hernandez, TE, Florida

Interested teams: Bengals, Ravens

PFW negatives: "Not physical and brings little value as a blocker. Has not run a full route tree. Struggles to sink his hips and separate against tight man coverage. Not strong or powerful after the catch."

Joe Haden, CB, Florida

Interested team: Cleveland Browns

PFW negatives: "Shows hesitation deciphering combination routes and too easily can be sucked up by underneath action. Jumps routes prematurely and leaves voids in coverage behind him. Inconsistent. Tackling is a work in progress."

Eric Berry, S, Tennessee

Interested team: Browns

PFW negatives: "Has some tightness in his hips and could stand to bulk up in order to better handle the constant pounding of the pro game. Leads with his shoulders seeking blow-up shots instead of wrapping up, and can do a better job of breaking down."

Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State

Interested team: Browns

PFW negatives: "Will drop some easily catchable balls. Not a crafty route runner. Mistimes some jumps. Could require some time to absorb a NFL playbook."

Arrelious Benn, WR, Illinois

Interested teams: Ravens, Bengals

PFW negatives: "Is not a blazer and was not asked to run a lot of vertical routes in college. Lacks elite agility and shows some rigidity in his movement. Does not have great leaping ability."

Golden Tate, WR, Notre Dame

Interested teams: Ravens, Bengals

PFW negatives: "Still developing as a route runner, rounds out some breaks. Will let balls into his body and drop some catchable passes. Can be tracked down from behind, lacks elite vertical speed."

Mike Iupati, OG, Idaho

Interested team: Pittsburgh Steelers

PFW negatives: "Too often reaches and grabs when trying to block on the second level. Footwork can use refinement, crosses his feet and cannot always recover from missteps. Can show better timing."

Dan Williams, DT, Tennessee

Interested team: Steelers

PFW negatives: "Lacks upper-body strength and needs to do a better job using his hands to play off blocks -- too often stays tied up. Not an inside rusher and cannot win with quickness.'

Sean Weatherspoon, LB, Missouri

Interested team: Steelers

PFW negatives: "Stays hung up on blocks and can be engulfed. Will dip his head and miss some tackles. Struggles to navigate through traffic. Can be bounced around between the tackles."


I'm not sure I'd want any of these projected first-round picks after this beatdown.

Can we just skip to the second round (wink, wink)?