AFC North: Al Everest

Here's what is happening around the AFC North:

BENGALS: The Bengals announced some roster moves, none of which were surprising, and only need to make one more by Monday to get down to the NFL-mandated 75-player limit. The team placed five players on injured reserve: guard Travelle Wharton (knee), safety Robert Sands (chest), cornerbacks Brandon Ghee (wrist) and Shaun Prater (knee) and receiver-cornerback Taveon Rogers (shoulder). Cincinnati also waived running back Aaron Brown, guard Matt Murphy, quarterback Tyler Hansen and defensive end Luke Black.

BROWNS: Rookie wide receiver Josh Gordon had his best showing of the preseason, catching three passes for 50 yards. He had two catches for 38 yards in his first two preseason games. “I feel like I’ve come along in learning the offense,” Gordon said, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I feel like I know what I’m doing and it’s like second nature. Now, I’m looking for the other things that applies to the wide receivers -- recognizing the coverages, down-and-distance and little details. That’s where my focus is right now."

RAVENS: One factor that could weigh into the Ravens' decision at kicker is money. Baltimore would create $1.8 million in salary-cap room by cutting Billy Cundiff and keeping undrafted rookie Justin Tucker, according to the Baltimore Sun. Cundiff is scheduled to make $2.2 million this season, and Tucker would earn the rookie minimum of $390,000.

STEELERS: Al Everest said getting fired as the team's special teams coach "was a shocker" but declined to reveal why the move was made a couple of weeks before the regular season began. “It was professional differences, and let’s leave it at that,” Everest told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Last season, all of the Steelers' special teams units (coverage and return teams) ranked in the top half of the NFL. Everest said the firing had nothing to do with the decision to take Pro Bowl returner Antonio Brown off special teams.
The Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals couldn't have put together two more completely different performances in Thursday night's preseason games. Behind an impressive throwing display by Joe Flacco, the Ravens dominated the out-classed Jaguars in a 48-17 win. The Bengals, meanwhile, spent the night watching Aaron Rodgers run for touchdowns and their offense go nowhere in a 27-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

The Cleveland Browns are the only AFC North team playing Friday night. Cleveland is facing the Eagles, the same team that the Browns will open the season against on Sept. 9.

BENGALS: For the third straight game, a starter left with an injury. This time it was outside linebacker Manny Lawson, who injured his hamstring. "He had a muscle pull," coach Marvin Lewis said after the game. "I don’t know how severe it is.” The Bengals' official team website predicts tight end Jermaine Gresham and linebacker Rey Maualuga, both of whom have sprained knees, won't play in the preseason finale but will be available for the regular-season opener. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (foot) is expected to start in the opener and defensive end Carlos Dunlap (knee) to be questionable, according to the website.

BROWNS: Most starting quarterbacks go into the third quarter in the third preseason game, and rookie Brandon Weeden needs the reps to develop. How much time the backups receive will be an interesting story line because that's where the real competition is. Colt McCoy (quarterback rating of 105.1) and Seneca Wallace (102.6) have put up some good numbers in the preseason. "They're both guys here who are fighting," coach Pat Shurmur said, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "They're trying to develop themselves to be the starter and when it all settles out, we'll see where they line up ... they're similar in a lot of ways."

RAVENS: Lost in the Ravens' preseason rout of the Jaguars was the return of defensive end Pernell McPhee. Excused all week after the death of his father, McPhee came back to block Josh Scobee's 30-yard field goal. "That's one thing about this team is everybody loves everybody," McPhee told the Baltimore Sun. "As soon as I got back, everybody surrounded me like I was home and put a smile on my face and said they were happy to see me back. They're proud of me that I took it like a man."

STEELERS: When Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted that Indianapolis was involved in "serious" trade talks, some speculated it could involve disgruntled Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. But that apparently isn't the case. The Indianapolis Star is reporting the Colts are targeting a cornerback. Getting rid of Wallace makes no sense for the Steelers because he's an important piece to what should be a Super Bowl-contending team. And why would the Steelers want to help former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who is now with the Colts, anyway?

In other news, the Steelers fired special teams coach Al Everest and replaced him with assistant Amos Jones. The timing is peculiar because teams don't typically remove coaches midway through the preseason. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the decision was not based on the performance of the special teams.
Will the Pittsburgh Steelers clean up their special-teams gaffes from their regular-season meeting with the New York Jets?

Your resident AFC North blogger asked Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday what the Steelers need to do better on special teams in their rematch against the Jets.

[+] EnlargeBrad Smith
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicBrad Smith's 97-yard kick return for a touchdown was key in the Jets' Week 15 win over Pittsburgh.
"We need to stop Brad Smith from going 97 yards," Tomlin said. "That's a good start."

Contrary to popular belief, the Steelers didn't lose to the Jets in Week 15 because of poor offense or poor defense. The Steelers outgained the Jets by 101 yards, and Pittsburgh's offense outscored New York's 17-13.

But hidden yards on special teams and Smith's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown proved to be the difference in New York's 22-17 victory. New York gained 177 total yards on kickoff and punt returns, which had an impact on field position and consistently gave the Jets a short field. This will be an area to watch for Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game.

Pittsburgh's coverage teams have been an issue in previous seasons, so much so that the Steelers fired former special-teams coach Bob Ligashesky and hired Al Everest this season. Pittsburgh's special teams have made strides in the first year under Everest. But his unit probably had its worst game of the season against the Jets.

Smith missed the Jets' divisional-round victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday with a groin injury. His status for this Sunday's game is still to be determined, but the Steelers know the Jets are still dangerous in the third phase of the game.

"They're a very good group," Tomlin said. "It doesn't matter whether Brad Smith is back there or [Antonio] Cromartie is back there. You saw what [Cromartie] did against Indianapolis at a critical time. He's a very capable and dangerous return man, but they have a team of potentially capable return men."

Around the AFC North: Robiskie shining

May, 28, 2010
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Baltimore Ravens

Two new high-definition video screens -- dubbed "RavensVision" -- were unveiled at M&T Bank Stadium.

Quarterback John Beck is settling in in his bid to unseat Troy Smith as Joe Flacco's backup.

Cincinnati Bengals

Chase Coffman is on the comeback trail.

Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com shares things he thinks he believes.

Cleveland Browns

Second-year wide receiver Brian Robiskie is turning heads during offseason workouts.

Despite not having a contract, Jerome Harrison is practicing with the team.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Al Everest embraces the challenge that is coaching special teams in the NFL.

Ben Roethlisberger has been cleared by commissioner Roger Goodell to return to practice.

What's gotten into Pittsburgh?

March, 9, 2010
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There are years when the Pittsburgh Steelers may go an entire offseason without signing four free agents.

This week they decided to sign four players in one day.

So what happened?

In addition to retaining veteran safety Ryan Clark, the Steelers also added safety Will Allen and receivers Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle. Pittsburgh reportedly dished out at least $25 million worth of contracts Monday, although the amount for Randle El’s three-year deal isn’t known.

Retaining Clark was a goal for the Steelers, despite some rough patches in negotiations. He was visiting with the Miami Dolphins Monday, but a four-year deal was reached with Pittsburgh. Clark will return to his natural spot as the starting safety opposite Troy Polamalu.

The other three signings all have a significant theme: Improving special teams.

Pittsburgh's return and coverage teams were an underlying weakness that contributed to last season's 9-7 finish. Allen can be a backup safety and a core player on coverage teams, while both Battle and Randle El have experience returning kicks. Battle can play in kick coverage, as well.

The Steelers recently hired Al Everest to coach special teams this upcoming season. Everest now has some new toys to play with thanks to Pittsburgh's rare, but busy, day in free agency.

Morning take: Progress with Cribbs

January, 22, 2010
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Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC North:

  • Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes there is now good dialogue between the Browns and Pro Bowl kick returner Josh Cribbs.
Morning take: This is solid news for both parties. Several weeks ago when Cribbs cleaned out his locker, things were not looking good.

  • Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times reports Baltimore Ravens quarterback coach Hue Jackson also interviewed to be head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
Morning take: Oakland, as usual, is shrouded in mystery. Jackson is certainly an up-and-coming name in coaching circles, and if he can get something (anything?) out of quarterback JaMarcus Russell, I can see why Raiders owner Al Davis is interested.

  • Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com looks at Cincinnati’s situation at tight end.
Morning take: Second-year player Chase Coffman could be a wild card. He has some potential but didn’t show much before getting injured last season.

  • Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says Al Everest will have more responsibilities as special-teams coach of the Steelers.
Morning take: Special teams has quietly been one of Pittsburgh's most inconsistent units. Everest is one of several new coaches hoping to improve areas of the team.

AFC North evening links

January, 21, 2010
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Here are the latest developments Thursday in the AFC North:

  • Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco is delivering a helping hand during an offseason bus tour.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers officially announced the hire of new special-teams coach Al Everest, who last coached with the San Francisco 49ers.
  • Baltimore Ravens defensive lineman Justin Bannan will be an unrestricted free agent to watch in March.
  • Former Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is interviewing for the same post with the Chicago Bears. Chudzinski currently coaches tight ends for the San Diego Chargers.

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