AFC North: Andre Caldwell

CINCINNATI -- Everyone believes the biggest weakness on the Bengals offense is at the No. 2 wide receiver position. That is, everyone except those working at mandatory minicamp at Paul Brown Stadium.

"We’ve got talented guys who understand the game of football," Bengals quaterback Andy Dalton said Tuesday of the receivers auditioning for the starting spot next to A.J. Green. "Maybe they haven’t played very much. But they’re going to surprise a lot of people."

The Bengals didn't sign a receiver in free agency and didn't draft one in the first two rounds despite parting ways with Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, who ranked in the top three in catches by Cincinnati wide receivers last season.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis expressed confidence in the receivers competing for the starting job, singling out Brandon Tate, Mohamed Sanu, Armon Binns and Ryan Whalen. Lewis doesn't understand the concern over the lack of experience at wide receiver this year after what the team went through at the position last year.

"I still can't figure that question out," Lewis said. "Those are one of those things that make you go hmmm."

Once I got the C+C Music Factory reference out of my head, I came away impressed by the speed and explosiveness by this group at Tuesday's two-hour practice. At this point, I would say Tate has the slight edge over Sanu and Binns for the spot.

Still, Tate, Sanu, Binns combined for no catches for the Bengals last season.

"We’ve got a lot of guys who haven’t proven anything but we have a lot of talent. That’s the thing that’s exciting," Dalton said. "It doesn’t matter who is in there, you know they’re going to be doing the right thing. We’ve got a really good group. I’m excited for this year because they’re going to go out and show everybody what we’re able to do."
Outside linebacker Keith Rivers, who was traded today to the New York Giants for a fifth-round pick, wasn't the only disappointment in the Bengals' 2008 draft class.

Cincinnati failed to find a long-term impact player out of its 10 picks that year. Rivers, the ninth overall pick in the 2008 draft, finished with the most starts in this class with 33, and the only players that remain with the team are two backups: defensive tackle Pat Sims (third round), and offensive tackle Anthony Collins (fourth round).

Wide receiver Jerome Simpson (second round) produced a career-high 50 catches last season as the team's No. 2 wide receiver, but he now faces 15 days in a Kentucky jail after pleading guilty to a drug charge. The Bengals haven't ruled out bringing him back.

Wide receiver Andre Caldwell (third round) showed promise in 2009 when he made a career-best 51 catches. But he followed that up with a combined 61 receptions the past two seasons. Caldwell signed this offseason with the Denver Broncos.

There were two players -- defensive tackle Jason Shirley (fifth round) and safety Corey Lynch (sixth round) -- who played a handful of games for Cincinnati before going elsewhere for reserve roles. Shirley played last season for Carolina, and Lynch was with Tampa Bay.

The last three players taken in the Bengals' 2008 draft -- tight end Matt Sherry (sixth), defensive end Angelo Craig (seventh) and wide receiver Mario Urritia (seventh) -- never played a regular-season game for Cincinnati and are out of the league.

In comparison, the Ravens drafted quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice that season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers selected running back Rashard Mendenhall. Even the Browns, who had limited picks after trading for Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams, got underrated defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin in the sixth round.

AFC North free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Cincinnati Bengals

Key additions: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, S Reggie Nelson, G Travelle Wharton, CB Jason Allen, CB Adam Jones, DE Jamaal Anderson, DE Derrick Harvey

Key losses: DE Frostee Rucker (Browns), G Nate Livings (Cowboys), G Mike McGlynn (Colts), DE Jonathan Fanene (Patriots), WR Andre Caldwell (Broncos)

Grade after first wave of free agency: B. The Bengals were the most active team in the division and they should have been. Cincinnati entered free agency with more than $50 million in salary-cap space, which was more than the rest of the AFC North combined. The Bengals upgraded at running back and left guard while bringing back their top free-agent priority in safety Reggie Nelson. The biggest knock against the Bengals is they didn't make a splash by signing a high-profile free agent like guard Ben Grubbs or wide receiver Robert Meachem.

The prize of the Bengals' signings is running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is an improvement over Cedric Benson. Green-Ellis isn't known for breaking long gains, but he is a force in the red zone and has never fumbled in the NFL. Wharton is a step up from Nate Livings at left guard because he is a strong run-blocker who will open holes inside. The biggest losses came on the defensive line, where Cincinnati will miss Frostee Rucker on run defense and Jonathan Fanene in the pass rush.

What’s next: The Bengals can still close the gap between the Ravens and Steelers because they have two first-round picks in the draft (No. 17 overall, which came from Oakland in the Carson Palmer trade, and No. 21). Even with the signing of Wharton, Cincinnati needs a right guard and could have a shot at the top interior offensive lineman coming out of college. Stanford's David DeCastro is one of the safest picks in the draft and would start immediately for the Bengals.

The second first-round pick could be used on a wide receiver or a cornerback. The Bengals surprisingly didn't add a free-agent wide receiver to pair with A.J. Green. Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill or Baylor's Kendall Wright should be available in the bottom third of the draft. Another need is cornerback because Cincinnati could use an eventual replacement for Nate Clements, who is entering his 12th season. Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick, the second best corner in the draft, has a chance of sliding to the Bengals.

Cleveland Browns

Key additions: DE Frostee Rucker, LB D'Qwell Jackson, CB Dimitri Patterson, DE Juqua Parker

Key losses: RB Peyton Hillis (Chiefs), S Mike Adams (Broncos), G Eric Steinbach, OT Tony Pashos

Grade after first wave of free agency: C. Browns president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert said they were building this team through the draft and they weren't joking. The Browns desperately needed to improve at quarterback, wide receiver and right tackle. But Cleveland's offense came out of the initial wave of free agency empty-handed. Blame the Washington Redskins. The Browns attempted to move up in the draft to take Robert Griffin III, and the Rams instead traded the second overall pick to the Redskins. Cleveland reportedly pursued wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and both took high-priced deals from Washington.

The Browns provided more help to the defense in free agency. Frostee Rucker will make an impact in stopping the run, which was the biggest weakness on the NFL's 10th-ranked defense. Juqua Parker, who has 31.5 sacks over the past six seasons, will team with Jabaal Sheard to give Cleveland a strong rush coming off both edges. The Browns didn't try to keep Peyton Hillis and Mike Adams from going elsewhere.

What’s next: Offense, offense and offense. Did I mention offense? The Browns need a quarterback but there's no one worthy of the fourth overall pick. Cleveland could trade down to select Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill or wait until the second round for Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden. The big decision comes if the Browns stay put at No. 4. Cleveland's choices are Alabama running back Trent Richardson or Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. The Browns could use either one because they don't have a starting running back or a No. 1 wide receiver.

Cleveland has a second first-round pick as a result of last year's trade with the Atlanta Falcons. The Browns need to target a wide receiver (if they don't take one earlier in the first round), right tackle or outside linebacker with the 22nd overall pick. Baylor receiver Wright, Mississippi offensive tackle Bobby Massie and Nebraska outside linebacker Lavonte David have been linked to Cleveland.

Baltimore Ravens

Key additions: C Matt Birk, ILB Jameel McClain, OLB Brendon Ayanbadejo, CB Corey Graham, S Sean Considine

Key losses: G Ben Grubbs (Saints), OLB Jarret Johnson (Chargers), DE Cory Redding (Colts) and CB Domonique Foxworth

Grade after first wave of free agency: D. The Ravens lost three starters (Ben Grubbs, Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding) from last season's AFC North champion team and have yet to add anyone to replace them. It was a rough start to free agency for Baltimore, which didn't sign any of its first three visits (guard Evan Mathis, defensive end Mark Anderson and receiver-returner Ted Ginn Jr.). The toughest part of free agency was when the Ravens failed to sign Mathis, who re-signed with the Eagles, after Baltimore had just lost Grubbs.

Baltimore was able to keep two free-agent starters, Matt Birk and Jameel McClain, and boost a struggling special-teams group that allowed three touchdowns last season. The Ravens signed Cory Graham, a Pro Bowl special-teams player from the Bears; Brendon Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowl special-teams standout; and Sean Considine, who played special teams for three seasons under John Harbaugh in Philadelphia.

What’s next: The Ravens' biggest need is at left guard, but there might not be one that warrants being taken at No. 29. Wisconsin center-guard Peter Konz's stock has slipped recently even though he can play guard right away before switching to center in future seasons. It's hard to pin down a player for Baltimore, which can go in a lot of different directions in the first round.

The Ravens could take the best wide receiver available (especially if he's a returner) because they need a third target who can eventually take Anquan Boldin's starting spot. They could take a safety because Ed Reed turns 34 at the start of the season and Bernard Pollard is a free agent next year. And they could take an offensive tackle because they don't have a reliable backup and Bryant McKinnie is a free agent in 2013.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key additions: None

Key losses: CB William Gay (Cardinals), LB James Farrior, NT Chris Hoke, G Chris Kemoeatu, DE Aaron Smith, WR Hines Ward

Grade after first wave of free agency: D. It's been a quiet free-agency period so far for the Steelers. Then again, it's usually quiet for the Steelers at this point in the offseason. The only team that consistently does less than the Steelers in free agency is the Green Bay Packers.

The Steelers avoided a failing grade because they've lost only two starters from last season's playoff team. James Farrior was cut in the team's salary-cap purge, and William Gay left as an unrestricted free agent. What Pittsburgh really lost in trimming $25 million to get under the cap was veteran depth and leadership. Injuries would force young players to step up into starting roles.

What’s next: There are question marks at running back, guard, inside linebacker, nose tackle and cornerback. Despite all of those needs, the consensus has been Pittsburgh will draft Alabama inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower if he's available at No. 24. He has a great combination of size and speed and excelled in a 3-4 defense in college. It seems like Hightower would be the perfect fit for Pittsburgh.

There's no chance that Memphis' Dontari Poe falls to the Steelers, but there some quality nose tackles in the draft. Those who should be available after the first round are: BYU's Loni Fangupo (second round), Washington's Alameda Ta'amu (third round) and Alabama's Josh Chapman (fourth round). The Steelers likely will become active later in free agency, especially in retaining their own players. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, running back Mewelde Moore and quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch could potentially return to the team.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

The Pittsburgh Steelers have proposed two rule changes that will be voted upon at next week's NFL owners meetings.

The Steelers are asking that the new overtime rules for the playoffs get extended into the regular season. In the regular season, the first team that scores wins. In the playoffs, each team is guaranteed at least one possession unless the team receiving the ball first scores a touchdown. Of course, that's exactly what happened in the Steelers' overtime playoff loss at Denver where Tim Tebow's 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage ended the game.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, this probably came at the request of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and has a good chance of passing. At least 24 of the 32 owners have to vote in favor of a proposal for it to pass.

The other Steelers' proposal would increase protection for the quarterback. The Steelers are asking that horse-collar tackles on quarterbacks within the pocket become a penalty. For some reason, it's not currently illegal for a defender to bring down a quarterback when he's in between the tackles.

Also, Steelers free-agent cornerback William Gay, who started 15 games last season, posted on Twitter that all of his free-agent visits are complete and will decide between Pittsburgh, Denver, Arizona and Tennessee.

Hensley's slant: I'm old school and like the regular-season overtime rules where the first team that scores wins. Call it sudden death or sudden victory, but that's football to me. I don't, however, like different overtime rules for the regular season and playoffs. Pick one and make it the rule for every game.

BENGALS: Andre Caldwell, who played four seasons for the Bengals, became the first free-agent wide receiver added to Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos. The No. 3 receiver for the Bengals last season, Caldwell agreed to a two-year deal with Denver, according to his Twitter account. He caught 37 passes last season and scored three touchdowns. Hensley's slant: Caldwell wasn't expected to return to the Bengals, who have depth in the slot with Jordan Shipley, Andrew Hawkins and Ryan Whalen. Cincinnati still needs to find a No. 2 wide receiver, but Caldwell wasn't going to fill that role after making a total of 62 catches the past two seasons.

BROWNS: Giants free-agent middle linebacker Jonathan Goff visited the Browns on Wednesday, according to Sirius NFL Radio. Goff, 26, tore his ACL the week before the 2011 season opener, when he reportedly knocked knees with a teammate during practice. He missed the entire season. In 2010, Goff started for the Giants and recorded 80 tackles. Hensley's slant: The Browns don't have a backup to D'Qwell Jackson after the team declined to tender a contract to exclusive rights free agent Titus Brown. But it's surprising that Goff visited Cleveland because it appeared like he would have a chance to regain his starting job if he re-signed with the Giants. Goff won't start there for the Browns unless they have plans for him elsewhere.

RAVENS: Free-agent defensive end Mark Anderson signed a four-year, $27.5 million deal (included $8 million guaranteed) with the Buffalo Bills a day after his visit to Baltimore. Meanwhile, free-agent inside linebacker Jameel McClain said he's hopeful that he can re-sign with the Ravens. "That's up to the powers that be and my agent to figure out that happy medium," McClain told the Carroll County (Md.) Times. "I'm staying patient. I'm waiting for the perfect move at the perfect time. Patience is a virtue." Hensley's slant: It's been an unproductive free-agent period so far for Baltimore. The Ravens have had three reported free-agents visits (Anderson, guard Evan Mathis and receiver-returner Ted Ginn Jr.) and they have yet to sign any of them. There is still a shot at Ginn, who remains unsigned.

AFC North mailbag

January, 14, 2012
1/14/12
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If you have a question about the AFC North, send it to my mailbag. It's Saturday morning, so let's open up some mail ...

Jac, from Ohio, writes: Lately you have been saying that the Bengals need a No. 2 receiver, if and when Jerome Simpson leaves. I would think that Jordan Shipley would fill the No. 2 role in the slot behind A.J. Green. Or would Shipley be more of a No. 3 working the slot? And if Andrew Hawkins improves in the offseason, that would be a plus, right?

Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: Shipley and Hawkins are more on the level of being No. 3 receivers. That was the Bengals' biggest problem in the passing game. They had top targets in Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. But the rest (Simpson and Andre Caldwell) are No. 3 receivers on many teams. Both are very athletic but both struggle with route-running, which can be a big problem, especially for a developing young quarterback like Andy Dalton. Cincinnati needs to look in free agency for an upgrade.

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Chris, from Milford, Conn., writes: Just wondering what your thoughts are on the Steelers rebounding next season after that awful loss to Denver. Also, how can the Steelers be $20 million over the salary cap when they never sign any big free agents and don't have that many mega-deals with current players?

Hensley responds: The Steelers will always be competing for the division title if Ben Roethlisberger and his young receivers are healthy and the core of the NFL's top-ranked defense remains intact. And the reason why the Steelers are projected to be over the cap is because many veterans are entering the point of their contracts where the salaries escalate. Players with high salaries for 2012 are: outside linebacker James Harrison ($5.3 million), guard Chris Kemoeatu ($3.5 million), inside linebackers Larry Foote ($3 million) and James Farrior ($2.8 million), defensive end Brett Keisel ($2.8 million) and cornerback Bryant McFadden ($2.5 million). Those players represent $19.9 million. Some could be facing the decision of restructuring to stay with the team or getting released.

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Bryan, from Wickliffe Ohio, writes: I was just wondering what you think the Browns' chances are of drafting Robert Griffin III. To me it just seems like he is too much of a talent to pass up. No disrespect to Colt McCoy, but let's face it -- he's not going to win us any games based primarily on his skill level and I see RG3 as somone who can do that.

Hensley responds: It's really to early for teams to lock into one player. There are still all-star games, combine workouts and interviews as well as private workouts. Players will rise and fall up and down teams' draft board from now until April. There's no doubt that the Browns need a playmaker. But don't forget that the Bengals drafted wide receiver A.J. Green in the No. 4 spot last year — so you can see the level of impact player that Cleveland can get if it hits on the right prospect. At this point, Griffin has to be on the Browns' radar. But it's too early to say that he's their man with the fourth overall pick.

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Dave, from Burke, Va., writes: With the Bucs and Dolphins in the mix for Mike Zimmer's services, what are the chances that he returns as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator?

Hensley responds: It's a very real possibility that Zimmer could be hired elsewhere, particularly since Jeff Fisher spurned Miami and went to St. Louis. Both the Buccaneers and the Dolphins needed big-name splashes to generate some interest with apathetic fan bases. But there are really no buzz-worthy candidates left. That's why Zimmer has a legitimate shot at both places. If Zimmer goes, the Bengals can promote defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle, who has been on the staff since 2001. There's also been some talk that former Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio could take over as defensive coordinator. But Del Rio is still owed $5 million next season, so he doesn't need to find a job.

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Lucas from Severn, Md., writes: I've been watching the Ravens closely all season and there have been some real flashes of greatness by Joe Flacco. There have also been some of his worst passing games as a quarterback (the Jets and Jags games specifically). Other than the playoff game against Kansas City last year, he hasn't proven to be solid in the playoffs. What are the chances that he will have a breakout game against Houston if the Texans choose to focus on stopping the run?

Hensley responds: Flacco has been extremely ragged when it comes to the playoffs. He's averaged 150 yards passing in seven games, throwing four touchdowns and seven interceptions. But remember that all of those games were on the road and three of them came when he was a rookie. This is the time for Flacco to shine. He's at home where he has thrown 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his past 19 games (97.6 rating). And he threw for 305 yards against the Texans three months ago in Baltimore. So to answer the question, all indications point to a strong effort by Flacco on Sunday.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Dick LeBeau will return as the Steelers' defensive coordinator in 2012, sources told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

LeBeau, 74, has been the team's defensive coordinator since 2004, his second stint with the Steelers. Considered the father of "zone blitz," LeBeau has long been regarded as one of the NFL's top defensive minds.

Coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that he wanted both of his coordinators back and LeBeau had told him he wanted to return. The Pittsburgh defense finished first in fewest yards and points allowed.

Hensley's slant: The Steelers have decided not to get younger at defensive coordinator, but it will be interesting to see if they choose to get younger with personnel. The return of LeBeau ensures continuity. Plus, it would have been a shame to see LeBeau go out on a defensive performance like the one in Denver.

BENGALS: Now that the Bengals have a long-term go-to wide receiver in A.J. Green, the next step is to find the No. 2 option. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, it looked like the team would bring back either Jerome Simpson or Andre Caldwell (both of whom are free agents) but there is a chance both could be gone. “Of course, Jerome had moments of greatness and moments of what is going on?” offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. Hensley's slant: Simpson and Caldwell are too undependable as route-runners, which is not what you want for a young quarterback like Andy Dalton. Look for the Bengals to find a more consistent presence in free agency. Cincinnati's passing attack already has a strong start with Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham.

BROWNS: Browns defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson will join the Dallas Cowboys as their secondary coach, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports. The deal is expected to be finalized by Monday. Henderson, 42, will reunite with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan with the Cowboys. Hensley's slant: This might seem like a minor move, but the Browns' defensive backs improved in Henderson's three seasons. Cleveland's pass defense went form 29th to 18th to second this season. The new defensive backs coach has the luxury of coming into a situation with rising young talent at cornerback (Joe Haden) and safety (T.J. Ward).

RAVENS: Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda revealed that he had emergency surgery on his lower right leg on Christmas Eve and still played in the regular-season finale seven days later. Yanda’s leg swelled up and surgeons had to split the muscle to relieve the pressure. “It was a nasty scar and a [crappy] way to spend Christmas Eve, but that’s what it was,” Yanda said, via The Baltimore Sun. Hensley's slant: Head coach John Harbaugh called Yanda the toughest player he's ever coached, and everyone is finding out why. He's the Ravens' best offensive lineman and made the Pro Bowl this season. And, if there was any doubt, he will be starting Sunday's playoff game.

AFC North's best hands

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
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Hines Ward doesn’t have the speed like fellow Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace. He isn’t as elusive in the open field as Antonio Brown.

But Ward knows how to find holes in zone coverages and he knows how to catch the ball. In fact, Ward has the best hands in the division this year (according to ESPN Stats & Information), even though he has dropped out of the starting lineup.

When looking at the fewest drops by AFC North receivers, it’s clear to see the Steelers and Bengals have the more reliable receivers and the Ravens and Browns don’t. The top five receivers with the fewest drops all play for either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.



Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

His Browns team has lost five out its last six to clinch another non-winning season. His offense ranks in the bottom third in total yards and his defense ranks last in stopping the run. His team is also the only one in the AFC North not contending for a playoff spot.

Head coach Pat Shurmur, though, said he's "not discouraged. Not one bit."

“I don’t lose faith on things," he said, via The Canton Repository. "I would hope and I would think [fans] wouldn’t lose faith. We’re busting our fannies to get this thing right. And it will get right.”

Hensley's slant: If you could draw up the most brutal first season for a head coach, Shurmur would be close to living it this year. Injuries have piled up all season. Players are showing a lack of patience, whether it's over a contract (Peyton Hillis) or role on the team (Josh Cribbs). The problem is it's not going to get much better this year. The Browns finish the season by playing the Steelers twice and going to Baltimore.

BENGALS: Head coach Marvin Lewis decided to focus on corrections instead of ripping into his team after the worst performance of the season. "We all feel bad about what happened. He knows when to get on you and when not to get on you," wide receiver Andre Caldwell told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "We control our own destiny to a point. We just have to win all four games and see what happens." Hensley's slant: The key to reaching the playoffs is getting to 10 wins. For the seven-win Bengals, their next three games (home against Houston, at St. Louis and home against Arizona) are winnable and critical to their postseason hopes.

RAVENS: Head coach John Harbaugh hinted that backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor could see more playing time. The rookie sixth-round draft pick played his first snap of the season last Sunday, when he picked up 2 yards in the red zone on a Wildcat-style play. "We may see more of that going forward," Harbaugh said, via Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. That’s something we’d like to do.” Hensley's slant: Gimmick plays always come across as signs of desperation, and the Ravens really aren't to that point. In fact, that play with Taylor was a head-scratcher because the Ravens had been running it in the red zone with success lately. Ray Rice and Ricky Williams have combined for four red zone touchdowns in the past three games. That's where Baltimore's focus should be inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

STEELERS: Jason Worilds could continue to have a big role on defense if he splits snaps at outside linebacker with LaMarr Woodley, who is dealing with a hamstring injury. Asked if the second-round pick has made the expected jump from his first to second season, head coach Mike Tomlin said via The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "It's in progress. Check back with me." Hensley's slant: Worilds has been solid this year but not as spectacular as others from the Steelers' 2010 draft class. With Woodley not at full strength, Worilds will have his chance to make up some ground on the likes of center Maurkice Pouncey and wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.

AFC North mailbag (Part two)

December, 3, 2011
12/03/11
2:00
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If you have a question about the AFC North, send it to my mailbag. This is the second part of our mailbag today, so let's continue to open up some mail ...

Devin from Ontario, Canada, writes: With the success of A.J. Green (in the end zone, with a touchdown), does this cause a re-think in the axiom that you don't use a top 10 pick on a wide receiver? Is this guy just that special or is this a function of the new NFL rules punishing defenses?

Hensley responds: Green is really special. You just have to look at how his rookie numbers stack up against the best wide receivers of this past decade (here's the link). If you can get an elite receiver, you have to get them in the top 10. I'm really not in favor of grabbing a wide receiver later in the first round. For the most part (and I know there are exceptions), it seems like teams reach for wide receivers when they take them in the bottom third of the first round. In this division, where defenses don't allow too many double-digit play drives, you need a playmaker who can stretch the field. It's essential.

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David from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., writes: As of right now who do you honestly think is a front runner to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl?

Hensley responds: I know this makes me sound like an AFC North homer, but the two best teams I've seen in person this year are the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. Wait, make that the Ravens when they're playing at home or playing the Steelers. I know the Patriots are looking good right now, but at this point in the season, the Steelers or the Ravens look like the teams who will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. I would be shocked if it didn't work out that way.

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Jeff S. from Toledo, Ohio, writes: It looks like Michael Oher will be going to the Pro Bowl. Do you believe that he is the best tackle in the division? If not, who do you think is the best tackle in the AFC North?

Hensley responds: Oher is leading the voting because of the popularity of the movie "The Blind Side." It's kind of funny that he doesn't even protect the blind side anymore. But don't expect Oher to make the Pro Bowl. The voting from the players and coaches will get Cleveland's Joe Thomas in there. He is the best left tackle in the AFC. Cincinnati's Andrew Whitworth gets overshadowed by Thomas because they play in the same division, but he's better than Oher as well.

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Jonnyplesko from Pittsburgh writes: As you may have noticed on the blog following the first Steelers-Bengals matchup, a lot of Cincy fans seemed to think injuries cost them the game against Pittsburgh. In response, a lot of Pittsburgh fans reminded them that Pittsburgh came into the game without LaMarr Woodley and Emmanuel Sanders (both pretty important players for Pittsburgh). So, my question is, who has a bigger impact on this game, A.J. Green, or LaMarr Woodley? My money is on Woodley. I think [Andy] Dalton played admirably in the first game, but with James Harrison and Woodley coming off the edges, he will have even less time and be forced into some mistakes. Your thoughts?

Hensley responds: I agree with you on this and this isn't a knock on Green. I expect the Steelers to do everything in their power to shut down Green. Pittsburgh doesn't fear Jerome Simpson or Andre Caldwell. Both those receivers didn't make an impact when Green left the previous Pittsburgh game with a hyperextended knee. Woodley, though, could show some rust having missed three games. He'll also have the challenge of going against Andre Smith. But if Woodley plays Sunday like he did before the injury, he is unstoppable at times.

AFC North matchups to watch

December, 3, 2011
12/03/11
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Here are some other matchups to watch in Sunday's AFC North games:

BENGALS AT STEELERS
  • Bengals WR Andre Caldwell vs. Steelers CB William Gay: In the last meeting, Gay was the defensive star, with a hand in Andy Dalton's two interceptions — including picking off the rookie late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. Caldwell didn't step up when A.J. Green went down with a knee injury, producing 25 yards on three catches against Pittsburgh.
  • Bengals DT Geno Atkins vs. Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey: Atkins has 6.5 sacks, which leads the Bengals and ranks second in the NFL among defensive tackles. Pouncey lost 12 pounds from a violent stomach virus last week and is listed as probable.
RAVENS AT BROWNS
  • Browns LB Titus Brown vs. Ravens RB Ray Rice: Brown could have to start at weakside linebacker after Scott Fujita went on injured reserve. Rice, who leads the Ravens with 772 yards rushing, could challenge Brown, who has one tackle in seven games played.
  • Ravens WR Anquan Boldin vs. Browns CB Joe Haden: Boldin was a problem for the Browns last season, scoring three touchdowns in two meetings against Cleveland. He also had 10 catches for 157 yards. Haden has broken up 16 passes this season, which ranks second in the NFL.

Upon further review: Bengals

September, 26, 2011
9/26/11
4:05
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Revisiting the Cincinnati Bengals' 13-8 loss to the San Francisco 49ers:

The biggest obstacle for the Bengals' young offense is third downs. Over the past two games, Cincinnati and its rookie quarterback Andy Dalton have converted two of 22 third-down opportunities (9 percent).

Failing to extend drives is the main reason why the Bengals didn't crack the goal line against the 49ers. Cincinnati didn't covert on its first seven third downs before getting a first down on one in the fourth quarter.

Of the Bengals' 10 third-down opportunities, half of them were third-and-long (situations where they had to go at least 10 yards). It didn't help matters that rookie wide receiver A.J. Green was flagged for a false start twice on third downs.

“We don’t want it to happen, but it’s going to happen anyway," Green said. "We’re all [learning] a new offense, [we have] a rookie quarterback, rookie receivers and first-year receivers playing, so we’re going to have some growing pains. We just have to fight through them and not shoot ourselves in the foot.”

STAT THAT STICKS: 12 -- Number of passes thrown in the direction of wide receiver Andre Caldwell, who replaced Jerome Simpson in the starting lineup.

OVERHEARD: “The play calling was terrible. We tried to get the running game going, then tried to keep them off balance by throwing on first down. When we threw on first down, it backfired considerably." Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden after his offense failed to score a touchdown and managed 228 yards.

LOOKING AHEAD: The Bengals (1-2) host the undefeated Buffalo Bills (3-0), who are coming off an upset victory of the New England Patriots.

Bengals drop game and opportunity

September, 25, 2011
9/25/11
8:30
PM ET
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
CINCINNATI -- Who Dey? No, the Bengals' rallying cry today was: Where Dey?

The Bengals played before 43,363 at Paul Brown Stadium, their smallest crowd for a home opener in 30 years. And the Bengals failed to convince football fans in Cincinnati to change their minds in a 13-8 -- wait, a yawn -- loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

It's hard to generate a buzz in the community when the home team fails to score a touchdown. It's difficult to build excitement when the team produces more punts (seven) than offensive points (six).

This was the Bengals' chance to make a strong first impression in front of the home crowd with their young quarterback and wide receiver. Instead, they threw away the opportunity more times than Andy Dalton threw a fourth-quarter pass to the 49ers (which was twice).

A solid on-field performance was required after such an embarrassing week off of it. Starting wide receiver Jerome Simpson had a drug bust at his home, and running back Cedric Benson received a three-game suspension from the NFL, which he plans to appeal.

But the Bengals' mistake-filled loss in front of more than 20,000 empty seats only added to their miserable week.

[+] EnlargeCincinnati fan
AP Photo/Tom UhlmanA Bengals fan takes a photo just before Sunday's game against the 49ers. The Cincinnati crowd was sparse in the upper deck.
"We can’t control fans coming to watch our game," Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga said.

Actually, Rey, you can. It's about winning. It's about finishing games. It's about responding to adversity like the rest of the AFC North.

The Steelers rebounded from a rout in Baltimore by shutting out Seattle. The Ravens shook off a deflating loss at Tennessee by stomping St. Louis. And the Browns moved past a fourth-quarter breakdown against Cincinnati to reel off two wins.

The Bengals, though, looked like a young team that had gone through a week filled with distractions -- something coach Marvin Lewis wouldn't agree with.

"It had nothing to do with it," he said. "I don't think any of that can keep us from converting a third down."

Third downs have become a nagging problem. The Bengals converted once on 10 chances a week after going 1-for-11 on third downs.

The real trouble spot is finishing games. A week after Cincinnati couldn't complete the comeback in Denver, it was like a repeat alongside the Ohio River.

There were three plays in the fourth quarter that caused the Bengals to drop to 1-2 on the season:

  • The biggest error by the defense came with about five minutes left when they didn't cover tight end Vernon Davis -- the only player on the 49ers offense that consistently hurt Cincinnati -- which resulted in a 20-yard pass into the red zone and led to a 7-yard touchdown run by Kendall Hunter to put the 49ers ahead 10-6.
  • One play after the touchdown, Dalton threw a bad pass right to Carlos Rogers even though the San Francisco cornerback had better position on the sidelines than intended receiver Andre Caldwell. The 49ers turned Dalton's first career interception into a field goal, extending the lead to 13-6.
  • On the Bengals' final drive, Dalton connected with tight end Jermaine Gresham for 22 and 17 yards to move into San Francisco territory with under two minutes left. But Gresham didn't look for the throw to his back shoulder on the third pass of that series, and it was intercepted by San Francisco's Reggie Smith.

"We’re almost there," Maualuga said. "We don’t happen to have that finish that we’re looking for. We have all the qualities of having a good team. We’re just not finishing."

Dalton was nearly perfect on the opening drive of the game, completing 5 of 6 passes for 61 yards. After that, he was 12-for-26 for 96 yards and two interceptions.

"We started fast, which is what you come out to do," Dalton said. "We were flat after that. We couldn't do the things we wanted to do."

Dalton didn't resemble the rookie quarterback who threw for 332 yards at Denver last Sunday.

"In the fourth quarter, Andy did some things we [knew we] might go through at some point," Lewis said. "But he will come back out of it and be fine."

Other issues can't be as easily dismissed. The Bengals allowed Simpson to play, and he managed one pass for 6 yards.

Still, his status for future games is uncertain because the investigation involving 2.5 pounds of marijuana shipped to his house is ongoing. Simpson was not made available to reporters in the locker room.

"Whatever course of action is taken when the time comes will be dealt with accordingly," Lewis said.

Meanwhile, Benson is appealing his three-game suspension from the NFL on Tuesday and has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against the NFLPA, saying he shouldn't be subject to discipline for conduct that occurred during the lockout. He had been arrested in July for allegedly punching a former roommate in downtown Austin and later served five days in a Texas jail.

"There were some things in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that we were not made aware of, which is really no surprise," Benson said. "That falls on the PA [Players Association]. You would think that they are here to support you and have your back. That's what a union does. I guess in my case that it's different."

These aren't exactly the headlines that the Bengals want to see when they're trying to win back fans. It's been an ongoing problem when you lead the NFL in arrests since 2000 and your starting quarterback takes an early retirement in the offseason.

Players acknowledged noticing the empty seats. It would be hard not to. Only about one-quarter of the upper deck had fans in it.

"We’re going to keep playing hard if it’s one person out there or 70,000," cornerback Leon Hall said. "There’s a lot of things to get excited about with this team. I have a good feeling about this team."

The challenge for the Bengals now is to make their fan base believe that.

Halftime: Bengals 3, 49ers 0

September, 25, 2011
9/25/11
2:20
PM ET
CINCINNATI -- Thoughts at halftime of the Bengals-49ers game:
  • Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was 5-for-6 for 61 yards on the opening drive, which resulted in the only points of the first half. After that, he was 5-for-10 for 29 yards for the rest of the half.
  • Wide receiver Andre Caldwell is taking advantage of increased playing time, catching five passes for 45 yards. He got the start over Jerome Simpson, who had a drug bust at his house last week.
  • Bengals running back Cedric Benson is having a tough time cracking the 49ers' defense, which hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 24 straight games (longest current streak in NFL). Benson has 26 yards on nine carries.
  • The biggest mismatch for Cincinnati has been 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who had three catches for 30 yards. Safety Chris Crocker has had trouble staying with the athletic target.
  • Simpson made his first catch in the second quarter and received a mostly warm welcome from the sparse crowd at Paul Brown Stadium. There were only a few boos for Simpson, who has been an active member in local charities.
  • The Bengals took the conservative route at the end of the first half. With the ball at their own 15-yard line and one minute remaining, they chose to run out the clock.
Bengals wide receiver Jerome Simpson is active today despite a drug bust at his home last week, but he isn't expected to start, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Andre Caldwell, the team's No. 4 wide receiver last Sunday, will start against the 49ers.

Simpson has been very active in community charities since joining the Bengals, which likely factored in the team's decision to allow him to play.

The Bengals released this statement before Sunday's game: "Jerome Simpson resumed team activities Friday afternoon, and after evaluating his readiness, the coaching staff has determined he will be active for today's game. Jerome's legal situation with regard to events of the past week remains completely unresolved, and the Bengals believe it is not appropriate to act on any presumption of what may transpire."

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