AFC North: Brandon Johnson

After expressing very little interest in other teams' free agents this year, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a busy day planned, hosting players on Wednesday, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. Kicker Dave Rayner, pass rusher Matt Roth and linebacker Brandon Johnson are all scheduled to meet with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The one that's surprising is Rayner, even though the Steelers should bring in a veteran to compete with Shaun Suisham. Rayner, 29, converted 10 of 15 field goals (67 percent) in seven games with the Buffalo Bills last year. He's a journeyman -- he's played for eight teams -- who has failed to latch onto a team because of his career 72 percent conversion rate. The Steelers should think about upgrading over Suisham, who made 13 of 21 (62 percent) from beyond 30 yards last season.

Roth and Johnson would be vying for backup jobs. The Steelers didn't address outside linebacker in the draft, which could explain the interest in Roth. He had 3.5 sacks in nine games for the Jaguars last season, which was shortened because of a concussion. Johnson was voted the Bengals' special teams captain last year and can play inside or outside linebacker.

Tight end Leonard Pope (Chiefs) is the only unrestricted free agent signed by the Steelers this year who played for another team in 2011.

AFC North Week 2 decisive moment

September, 21, 2010
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NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

In a defensive struggle in which yards and points were hard to come by, a relative unknown made a huge special-teams play late in the fourth quarter to set up the Cincinnati Bengals' go-ahead field goal in Sunday's 15-10 victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

Trailing 10-9, Bengals second-year running back Bernard Scott returned a kickoff 60 yards to get the ball into Ravens' territory. A 6-yard run by teammate Cedric Benson and a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty two plays later set up Mike Nugent's 38-yard field goal to give Cincinnati a lead it never relinquished.

Most of the talk after the game focused on Terrell Suggs' costly penalty. But none of it would have been possible without the exciting kick return from Scott, a former sixth-round pick.

"I'm just trying to go out there and make plays when my number is called," Scott said after the game. "I feel like the more times I get the ball in my hands, the more times I can make plays."

As Benson's backup, Scott didn't receive many touches last week. He rushed for 17 yards on five carries against Baltimore. Scott's 60-yard dash was his only kick return of the game, but he stayed prepared despite limited opportunities.

The Bengals received a lot of key contributions from backups Sunday, such as linebacker Brandon Johnson, who filled in for injured starter Keith Rivers (foot), and cornerback Morgan Trent, who played well in the second half when Adam Jones hurt his shoulder.

"We're deep all around the board; we've got a lot of players," Scott said. "That's a good thing in case anybody goes down. The next man's got to be ready."

Seven-step drop: Flacco mechanics, more

September, 20, 2010
9/20/10
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 2 in the AFC North:

  • Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's mechanics look off. Flacco usually has one of the smoothest throwing motions in the NFL. But his footwork and follow-through were unusually shaky in Sunday's 15-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. It's part of what led to Flacco's career-high four interceptions. With the exception of one touchdown drive in the third quarter, Flacco never looked comfortable in the pocket and often threw off his back foot. That impacts accuracy and velocity, and Flacco, who has a very strong arm, lacked both on many throws. This week, Baltimore's coaching staff should get back to the basics with Flacco and remind the young quarterback of what made him successful.
  • [+] EnlargeRice
    Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Rice has just 130 rushing yards in two games this season.
  • With Baltimore's offense struggling to score, what's with the disappearing act of Ray Rice? The Pro Bowl running back only has 130 rushing yards in two games. Rice also hasn't been involved much in the passing game, recording just six receptions. Sometimes teams get so enamored with their new weapons on offense that they forget about the dependable mainstays. Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are great additions. But Rice needs more touches for this offense to click and reach its potential.
  • Credit the Bengals' defense for leaving no big plays on the field. How many games have we seen defenders get their hands on the ball only to drop interception opportunities? The Ravens' secondary did it twice Sunday, but Cincinnati was sure-handed and finished. Linebacker Brandon Johnson, safety Chinedum Ndukwe and cornerbacks Adam Jones and Leon Hall all had interceptions against Baltimore.
  • This may sound like a broken record, but Cincinnati really needs to clean up its penalties. The Bengals were penalized nine times Sunday, and this has been an issue that dates to last season. The coaching staff probably doesn't mind "effort" penalties such as holding or pass interference. But it's the mental errors like not knowing the snap count that drive coaches crazy. The Bengals also blew a couple timeouts because everyone wasn't on the same page.
  • Who will be the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 3 quarterback? Injuries and Ben Roethlisberger's suspension have made this situation very unpredictable. Dennis Dixon's knee injury doesn't look good and Byron Leftwich (knee) will likely be re-signed this week but is still working his way back. Charlie Batch did enough to preserve Sunday's win over the Tennessee Titans. But with the way the Steelers are playing defense, it may not matter who's under center in Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
  • Pittsburgh's coaching staff is doing a tremendous job of playing to its strengths. The offense didn't score a touchdown against Tennessee, but a tricky kick return jump-started the Steelers and great defense finished the job. On the opening kickoff, Pittsburgh rookie receiver Antonio Brown took a reverse handoff from Mewelde Moore and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown. The Titans didn't see that on any game film. Great coaching by the Steelers.
  • Speaking of coaches, Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini's job security suffered another blow after Sunday's 16-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Based on new Browns president Mike Holmgren's decision to keep Mangini this year, I don't believe Holmgren has a quick hook. Holmgren should give Mangini a chance to turn things around. But wins will be very hard to come by, with Baltimore, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, New England the New York Jets next on the schedule. The Browns started 1-11 last year under Mangini, and Holmgren probably won't accept a similar record.

Bengals' defense responds in a big way

September, 19, 2010
9/19/10
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Bengals DefenseMatthew Stockman/Getty ImagesThe Cincinnati defense forced Ravens QB Joe Flacco into the worst game of his career.
CINCINNATI -- Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer -- who is as intense as any coach in the NFL -- was eerily subdued in preparation for the Baltimore Ravens.

Zimmer didn't call out his defense after the Week 1 debacle against the New England Patriots. He took the blame in the media for everything that went wrong and kept the pressure and attention off his players. Even behind closed doors, players said Zimmer's demeanor was encouraging and complimentary, which isn't his usual style after a bad performance.

But Zimmer's rarely used strategy worked this week. His unit played loose and responded by forcing four turnovers during Sunday's 15-10 division victory against the Baltimore Ravens (1-1).

"Usually, Coach Zimmer is [a] brute," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. "But he took the bullet and as a defense, we were like 'wow.' That let us know that he has our back regardless of what happens."

What happened Sunday was Cincinnati's defense looked more like the unit that finished No. 4 in the NFL last season. In a close game that included six field goals, the Bengals (1-1) dictated the pace with their defense, which continually stuffed drives. Linebacker Brandon Johnson, safety Chinedum Ndukwe and cornerbacks Leon Hall and Adam Jones had interceptions for the Bengals.

Cincinnati's offense sputtered against Baltimore's defense, which still hasn't allowed a touchdown this season. But the Bengals' defense remained undeterred. The Ravens, who have plenty of talent on offense, could never gather any momentum, converting only 4 of 15 third-down conversions and gaining only 259 yards. In Week 1, Cincinnati’s defense gave up 376 yards against the Patriots and a near-flawless Tom Brady and fell behind 31-3 early in the second half.

"I wasn't surprised; I was just happy to see them play that way," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said of Cincinnati's defense. "You know, there’s a lot of talk about Baltimore’s defense and everybody talks them up -- and they’re great. But I think our defense takes that as a personal challenge, and they outplayed them today."

The Bengals focused on confusing and pressuring Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who had the worst game of his career. Flacco finished with 154 yards, one touchdown, a career-high four interceptions and a 23.8 quarterback rating.

Flacco did not look comfortable and his mechanics gradually got worse as the game wore on. The Bengals only had one sack but kept the pressure on Flacco, who completed 17 of 39 attempts and threw off his back foot way too often. Three of Flacco's interceptions came in the second half.

"I felt like he was frustrated; his picks were more out of frustration," Crocker said. "We tried to show him different coverages also, and I think that helped. But I think he was definitely pressing."

[+] EnlargeBrandon Johnson
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeBrandon Johnson and Cincinnati's defense held the Ravens to 259 total yards.
The Bengals still have plenty of concerns, particularly with sloppiness and penalties on offense. Cincinnati once again was heavily penalized (nine for 56 yards). Many of the mistakes were mental errors that could have easily been prevented. But as long as Cincinnati continues to win in the division, the team will be in good shape. The Bengals, the defending division champion, have won eighth straight division games dating to 2008.

Even more important is that Cincinnati was able avoid an 0-2 start, which would have reduced its chances of making the postseason. According to ESPN’s Stats and Information, only 13 percent of teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-2 since 1990. I believe Sunday's performance was closer to what we will see from Cincinnati’s defense in 2010. Week 1 now feels more like an aberration.

"Zim had no problem taking one on the forehead, but deep down as a player you know he’s not the one making tackles," Johnson said. "He's not the one letting guys get open, and he’s not the one getting blocked. So even though he took the blame, we had to look at the man in the mirror, and that’s what we did. Everybody in the locker room had to come out and play better and play harder."

With this type of dominant performance, perhaps the Zen version of Coach Zim is here to stay.
GEORGETOWN, KY. -- The Cincinnati Bengals continued their 2010 training camp Tuesday, and the AFC North blog stopped by to check out the reigning division champs.

Here are some notes and observations:

  • [+] EnlargeBengals Camp
    AP Photo/Al BehrmanThe competition between Chad Ochocinco, left, and Johnathan Joseph has been fierce.
    My favorite part of practice Tuesday was watching the great receiver-cornerback battles between Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens against Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. Neither side is backing down and there is some high-quality football being played, especially for early in training camp. In the end, expect all four players to be better off for providing each other stout competition.
"He's all about his business," Joseph said, complimenting Owens. "He comes in, he works hard in practice, and I think it's a great pickup for this team. I think it will pay off big for us."

  • Overall, the defense won Tuesday's practice. The unit was very physical, and I saw at least three noticeable hits by safety Gibril Wilson and linebackers Keith Rivers and Brandon Johnson. In addition, safety Roy Williams got an interception in the middle of the field off quarterback Carson Palmer in team drills. The defense also stopped the offense from scoring in two-minute drills.
  • Cincinnati first-round pick Jermaine Gresham made his training camp debut after signing a five-year deal. The Bengals aren't wasting time with the rookie tight end. He is projected to start in Week 1 and will play in Sunday's Hall of Fame Game against the Dallas Cowboys. Due to a knee injury, Sunday will mark his first game action in more than a year.
"If you have something you really love taken from you, you appreciate everything about it," Gresham said. "It's not just one specific thing, it's everything. Just being out there with your guys. Being able to play football with each other, laugh, joke, be tired with each other. You even miss that. It's everything in itself that you miss about football."

  • Another note on Gresham: He spent the past couple of weeks working out with No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams while both were waiting on contracts. Bradford and Gresham were former college teammates and a dangerous quarterback-tight end duo at Oklahoma.
  • Among the players who didn't practice Tuesday were linebacker Rey Maualuga (hamstring), rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap (concussion) and receiver Matt Jones, who was seen wearing a boot. Receiver Antonio Bryant (knee) also worked independently on the side.
  • There is a lot of competition at receiver, and for one day at least, Andre Caldwell didn't help himself. He had two drops Tuesday. Jordan Shipley and Jerome Simpson did make a few nice grabs. Expect all to have their ups and downs as they compete for roles on the team.

Bengals free-agency notes

March, 4, 2010
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The Cincinnati Bengals are making moves before the start of free agency.

First, the team offered six restricted free agents tenders Thursday afternoon. Those players are cornerback David Jones, defensive end Frostee Rucker, guard Evan Mathis and linebackers Brandon Johnson, Rashad Jeanty and Abdul Hodge.

Second, the team terminated the contract of veteran receiver Laveranues Coles, who spent just one season in Cincinnati. The Bengals signed Coles to a $28 million contract in an effort to replace T.J. Houshmandzadeh. But Coles never was a good fit and will become an unrestricted free agent.

Cincinnati already was in the market for receivers, but look for that to be even more magnified following Coles' departure.

AFC North: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
3/04/10
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Baltimore Ravens

Potential unrestricted free agents: DL Justin Bannan, DL Dwan Edwards, CB Corey Ivy, WR Derrick Mason, TE L.J. Smith, WR David Tyree, CB Frank Walker, WR Kelley Washington

Potential restricted free agents: OT Jared Gaither, K Billy Cundiff, S Dawan Landry, CB Fabian Washington, P Sam Koch, OG Chris Chester, QB John Beck, QB Troy Smith, OT Tony Moll, FB Le'Ron McClain, LB Prescott Burgess, WR Mark Clayton, WR Demetrius Williams

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Ravens have a ton of quality free agents. It will be interesting because Baltimore is the only division team which has to abide by the "Final Eight Plan" for making the divisional playoffs. This will restrict Baltimore from making a lot of moves. Therefore, expect the team to keep most of its key restricted free agents while trying to explore the trade market. On the unrestricted side, the Ravens are negotiating with receiver Derrick Mason and are expected to keep him. But two players who could get some interest in the open market are defensive linemen Dwan Edwards and Justin Bannan. Baltimore likes both players but could lose at least one.

Cincinnati Bengals

Potential unrestricted free agents: K Shayne Graham, FB Jeremi Johnson, RB Larry Johnson, DT Tank Johnson, TE Reggie Kelly, OG Bobbie Williams, S Roy Williams, TE J.P. Foschi

Potential restricted free agents: LB Brandon Johnson, LB Rashad Jeanty, OL Evan Mathis, C Kyle Cook, DE Frostee Rucker, CB David Jones, LB Abdul Hodge, QB Jordan Palmer, TE Daniel Coats, DT Shaun Smith

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Bengals have yet to announce their tenders, so this list could change by Thursday evening. But traditionally they are not big spenders in free agency and will stay true to that even with an uncapped year. Cincinnati could make one or two decent outside signings that may help the team. Finding a receiver would be the most likely target. The most interesting in-house name is offensive guard Bobbie Williams, who likely will test the market. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer also would like to keep veteran Roy Williams and Tank Johnson. But the team hasn't made a major push for either player before they're let loose Friday.

Cleveland Browns

Potential unrestricted free agents: WR Mike Furrey, TE Michael Gaines, OG Rex Hadnot, CB Hank Poteat, OL Ryan Tucker, OG Billy Yates

Potential restricted free agents: RB Jerome Harrison, LB D'Qwell Jackson, FB Lawrence Vickers, S Brodney Pool, S Abram Elam, DE Matt Roth

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: Cleveland has the money to spend and the biggest talent deficit. So look for the Browns to attempt to make up ground in free agency. Major names like defensive end Julius Peppers and tailback Thomas Jones have been mentioned as possibilities for Cleveland, but that remains to be seen. Internally, the Browns should be interested in keeping Harrison and Vickers in their backfield. Jackson also has value. None of their unrestricted players are priorities for the team and will be allowed to hit free agency.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Potential unrestricted free agents: QB Charlie Batch, LB Rocky Boiman, S Tyrone Carter, S Ryan Clark, DE Nick Eason, WR Joey Galloway, DE Travis Kirschke, RB Willie Parker, CB Deshea Townsend , FB Carey Davis, OG Darnell Stapleton

Potential restricted free agents: OT Willie Colon, CB William Gay, P Daniel Sepulveda, TE Matt Spaeth

Franchise tag: K Jeff Reed

What to expect: The Steelers are pretty predictable. Pittsburgh intends to keep all of its restricted free agents, get a long-term deal complete with Reed, who has the franchise tag, and let nearly all of their unrestricted free agents test the market. The exception is Clark, who the Steelers targeted as a priority but has yet to reach a long-term extension before Friday's deadline. Negotiations have been ongoing and should go to the final hour to decide whether both sides can come to an agreement or allow Clark to test the market.

Morning take: Ravens' tenders

March, 4, 2010
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Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:

Morning take: I'm surprised Fabian Washington received such a high (first-round) tender. With Washington, Domonique Foxworth and Lardarius Webb all under contract, that probably prevents Baltimore from drafting a cornerback in the first round.

Morning take: Linebackers Rashad Jeanty and Brandon Johnson reportedly will get tendered. We will know the rest by the end of the day.

Morning take: Let's play deal or no deal: Will Cribbs announce a new contract with Cleveland Friday or not?

Morning take: Many NFL players are not considered frugal. But it's a good idea to do so for at least one year if there is a work stoppage in 2011.

Seven-step drop

December, 28, 2009
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 16 in the AFC North:

    Icon SMIBengals coach Marvin Lewis has to decide whether or not to rest his team Sunday against the Jets.


  • Cincinnati Bengals (10-5) coach Marvin Lewis has an interesting decision to make. The team already secured a playoff berth before its Week 17 game against the New York Jets (8-7). The Bengals, currently the fourth seed, could earn the third seed with a win and a loss by the New England Patriots (10-5). That could set up a potential rematch against the San Diego Chargers (12-3) -- avoiding the Indianapolis Colts (14-1) -- in the divisional round. But I don't think it's worth risking injuries. I'm always in favor of resting players when the opportunity presents itself. The Bengals have earned it and will host a wild-card game regardless of Sunday's outcome. So that should be the primary focus. Either way, Lewis' decision will impact a lot of wild-card hopefuls, including the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7), Denver Broncos (8-7) and Houston Texans (8-7).
  • Speaking of injuries, the Bengals caught a tough break with rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga. The second-round pick likely is out for the season after suffering an ankle injury during Cincinnati's 17-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs. But Cincinnati has quality depth at the position. Linebacker Rashad Jeanty is experienced and ready to fill in. He had 15 starts for the Bengals last season.
  • I try to avoid officiating as much as possible, but let's address the subject. I'm increasingly amazed by how poorly AFC North games are called and Pittsburgh's 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens was another example. Two bad calls stood out: The first was an illegal-contact penalty that negated a Ravens interception at the end of the game. It appeared Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had left the pocket, which would have made contact with the receiver allowable. The second was Baltimore receiver Derrick Mason's apparent catch and fumble in the fourth quarter. According to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, he considered challenging the call but was told by officials that it would be ruled an incomplete pass. These are calls that can impact an entire season.
  • For those in Steeler Nation on the "fire Bruce Arians" bandwagon, consider the statistics. For the first time in franchise history, Pittsburgh has a 4,000-yard quarterback (Roethlisberger), two 1,000-yard receivers (Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Rashard Mendenhall). Covering the Steelers the past two seasons, I've noticed when things go right it's on Roethlisberger. Yet when things go wrong, it's all on the offensive coordinator. Arians has been by no means perfect, but let's keep things in perspective.
  • The two best throws I saw from Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco Sunday were incomplete passes. Flacco made a pair of beautiful, pinpoint throws to the corner of the end zone to Mason and tight end Todd Heap. The throw to a wide-open Mason bounced off his hands as he relaxed at the last second. Heap had a more difficult opportunity because he was covered, but Flacco placed the ball where only his tight end could make the play while staying inbounds. Both were big-time throws that will show up on game film but not in the box score.
  • If you're into trends, there are two that should concern Ravens fans in Week 17. The first is Baltimore is 2-5 on the road this year. The second is the Oakland Raiders have been successful at home against quality teams. The Raiders upset two division leaders in Oakland this year in the Philadelphia Eagles (11-4) and Cincinnati. Four of Oakland's five wins have come against teams currently with winning records. The "Black Hole" can be challenging, especially for a team like Baltimore, which is traveling across the country. Oftentimes visitors can be sluggish after the long trip, and that's something the Ravens will have to combat.
  • Is Cleveland Browns tailback Jerome Harrison starting material? Earlier this season, I would have said no. But after Harrison gained 434 rushing yards the past two weeks, I'm starting to rethink my assessment. Harrison knows how to accumulate yards. But the two issues that kept him out of the lineup were poor pass protection and toughness between the tackles. Harrison erased some of those concerns with 39 carries for 148 yards in a win over the Raiders. He longest rush was 17 yards, while the rest were hard-earned carries.

Bengals are no joke

November, 8, 2009
11/08/09
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AP Photo/Ed Reinke
Cincinnati running back Cedric Benson ran for 117 yards Sunday against the vaunted Baltimore defense and is a key cog in the resurgence of the Bengals.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

CINCINNATI -- For a majority of the past 18 years, the Bengals were clearly the laughingstock of the NFL.

Whether it was personnel decisions, coaching hires or overall play on the field, Cincinnati football often produced more comedy than athletic prowess.

But you can stop laughing now. The 2009 Bengals are legit.
Week 9 Coverage
• Kuharsky: Caldwell not challenged
• Walker: Bengals are no joke
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• Seifert: Bears at a loss
• Sando: Cardinals hot and cold
• Wojciechowski: Joke's on the Bears
• Mosley: Defense carries Cowboys
• Graham: Patriots pull away
• Reiss: Patriots tame Wildcat
• Clayton: Last Call
• Pasquarelli: Rivers best for a night
• MNF: On the same path | MN HQ
• NFL Nation: Reactions | Wrap-ups | Live

Cincinnati, one of the NFL's biggest surprises, pummeled the Baltimore Ravens in a 17-7 victory at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. Cincinnati improved to 6-2 and 4-0 in the AFC North, which includes a season sweep of Baltimore (4-4).

"We are for real," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. "All the talk, and all the hoopla about teams saying we’re the same old Cincinnati, that just fuels our fire. We don’t talk. We do our talking in practice. We don’t go to the press."

It’s about time people stop overlooking the Bengals. Here are four reasons why they should be taken seriously:

Bengals built to win in the AFC North

For the second time this season, the Bengals beat the Ravens at their own game: Hard running and a stout defense.

Bengals tailback Cedric Benson (117 yards, 34 carries) pulled off an extremely tough feat by rushing for more than 100 yards against the Ravens for the second time this season. Cincinnati’s defense registered four sacks and held the high-scoring Ravens to 215 yards of total offense.

It was a physical clinic as the Bengals took control on both sides in the trenches. Baltimore 's talented defense was caught guessing until it finally caught up to Cincinnati in the second half. On offense, the Ravens, usually the bullies, were 1 of 10 on third downs because they were constantly in third-and-long situations.

Cincinnati’s defense has been better than advertised.

“We can be a pretty darn good defense if we do what we are supposed to do and are consistent,” Bengals defensive end Robert Geathers said.

Palmer once again dominant

After missing 12 games with an elbow injury, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is making a strong claim to becoming a top five quarterback again in the NFL. When that’s the case, the Bengals have a chance to beat anyone.

Palmer has had back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons before and it didn’t get the Bengals anywhere. Now, Cincinnati is making Palmer more efficient by throwing the ball less and emphasizing the running game.

Against Baltimore, Palmer threw for 224 yards and one touchdown and had a 91.0 passer rating. He improved to 8-3 in 11 career starts against the Ravens, who were favored to win Sunday.

"I don’t think there was a guy in the room who didn’t think we were going to win," Palmer said of the Bengals. "But we expect to win by more than one or two touchdowns. Of course we only won by 10 [points], but we expected this."

(Read full post)

AFC North position battles

May, 20, 2009
5/20/09
11:21
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  Joe Robbins/Getty Images
  Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson will compete for the starting quarterback job during Cleveland's training camp.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

As the weather heats up, it's time to start looking ahead to this summer's NFL training camps.

The AFC North should be very interesting as several key position battles could make or break a team's 2009 season. Here is a look at the seven most intriguing competitions from around the division:

  Gay

7. Cornerback: William Gay vs. field

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

Why it's important: With a veteran-laden team that returns 20 of 22 starters, Gay is the only projected starter in any real danger of losing his job in training camp. All indications are that the job is his to lose. The Steelers signed veteran cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and drafted rookies Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett to provide depth and possibly be there in case Gay falters. But the organization has shown a lot of confidence in Gay since last season when he filled in for former Steeler Bryant McFadden, who signed a two-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals. Gay worked exclusively with the first team in Pittsburgh's full-squad minicamp.

Early favorite: Gay

 Hauschka
 Gano

6. Kicker: Steve Hauschka vs. Graham Gano

Team: Baltimore Ravens

Why it's important: According to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, this kicking competition in Baltimore is going to be "very interesting." Perhaps Harbaugh, a former special-teams coach, is overhyping this battle. But what is interesting is Baltimore is looking for just its second full-time kicker in franchise history. The position was held since the Ravens' inception in 1996 by veteran kicker Matt Stover. But Stover's age (41) finally started to show last season and opened the door for Hauschka and Gano to compete this year. Both young kickers have strong legs, but so far this offseason Hauschka and Gano haven't displayed Stover-type accuracy. If neither kicker comes into his own this summer, things might get "very interesting," as Harbaugh promised.

Early favorite: Even

 Mack
 Fraley

5. Center: Alex Mack vs. Hank Fraley

Team: Cleveland Browns

Why it's important: This is a classic battle between a first-round pick and an experienced veteran who's started for winning teams and played in the postseason. Mack comes to Cleveland with lofty credentials and expectations. He's strong, smart and expected to be a starter from Day 1. The only person standing in his way is Fraley, 31, who's done a solid job in his two stops with the Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. That Cleveland's new regime, led by coach Eric Mangini, took a center in the first round is a sign that Mack is the favorite to win the job. But if Fraley finds a way to hold the rookie off in training camp, Mack has the versatility to play guard, most likely on the right side.

Early favorite: Mack

 Maualuga
 Johnson

4. Linebacker: Rey Maualuga vs. Brandon Johnson

Team: Cincinnati Bengals

Why it's important: Cincinnati's defense, which was ranked No. 12 in 2008, is trying to take another step forward. In order to do this, dynamic linebacker play will be crucial. Maualuga fell to the Bengals in the second round because of several off-the-field questions surrounding the former USC linebacker. But no one questions that Maualuga is a first-round talent on the field. The issue with the Bengals is that Maualuga, a natural middle linebacker, cannot supplant leading tackler and defensive leader Dhani Jones this year. So Maualuga needs to supplant Johnson, the outside linebacker, if he wants to play right away as a rookie. Johnson is no slouch, either. He recorded 83 tackles, two interceptions and came on late last season. Rashad Jeanty, who started 15 games last year, also is a possibility at the other outside linebacker spot. Regardless, the trio of Jones, Keith Rivers and Maualuga/Johnson/Jeanty should make for a solid group of linebackers in Cincinnati.

Early favorite: Even

3. No. 2 receiver

Team: Browns

Why it's important: Someone needs to help No. 1 receiver Braylon Edwards. The long list of candidates includes veterans David Patten, Mike Furrey, and rookies Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi. Donte' Stallworth also remains on the roster. But based on Cleveland's roster moves, it appears the Browns expect Stallworth's legal situation to keep him out this season. With the loss of former Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., Edwards is Cleveland's only real receiving threat and he likely will see a lot of double teams. That will provide plenty of opportunities for Patten, Furrey, Robiskie or Massaquoi to make plays. But it remains to be seen if these players have the ability to step up.

Early favorites: Patten and Robiskie

 Gooden
 McClain

2. ILB: Tavares Gooden vs. Jameel McClain

Team: Ravens

Why it's important: The "bodyguard" role in Baltimore's defense is underrated but very important. There is a reason safety Ed Reed and linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs are able to fly around the field and make plays. It's because the inside linebacker opposite Lewis, formerly the ultra-physical Bart Scott, takes on fullbacks and pulling offensive linemen at every chance. Now the Ravens are looking at Gooden or McClain as Scott's replacement. Both young players have good athleticism. But ultimately, the player who is the most physical will win this job. Gooden opened veteran minicamp as the starter, so you have to give him the edge heading into this summer.

Early favorite: Gooden

 Quinn
 Anderson

1. QB: Brady Quinn vs. Derek Anderson

Team: Browns

Why it's important: The Mangini era in Cleveland, in large part, will depend on his decision at quarterback. An antsy fan base in Cleveland is tired of waiting for a winner and will not give Mangini four years to turn it around. Therefore, the best thing Mangini can do is figure out quickly which player is the better quarterback. It's been three seasons and the Browns still haven't settled this debate. Anderson showed flashes with his Pro Bowl campaign in 2007, but his struggles last year left many questions. Quinn, a former first-round pick, looked up and down in limited playing time. Ironically, the two never directly competed against each other -- until now. According to the coaching staff, both players will be given a fair opportunity. But Cleveland's offensive system under Mangini is being built around a power running game and an efficient and conservative passing game, which seems to favor Quinn.

Early favorite: Quinn

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are links to the latest happenings in the AFC North division Thursday.

Steelers, Bengals offer tenders

February, 26, 2009
2/26/09
4:31
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

With free agency set to start on Friday, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals made decisions on tendering a select amount of restricted free agents.

Pittsburgh made qualifying offers to offensive tackle Willie Colon, cornerback Anthony Madison and tight end Sean McHugh. The team also tendered exclusive rights free agents Carey Davis, a fullback, and offensive tackle Jeremy Parquet.

Davis and Parquet cannot negotiate with other teams. Colon, Madison and McHugh can negotiate deals but the Steelers could match any offer or accept draft picks as compensation.

The Bengals tendered a pair of linebackers in Rashad Jeanty and Brandon Johnson. Other teams interested would have to offer a long-term deal and give Cincinnati a second-round pick for either player.

Rivers needs to learn fast

August, 5, 2008
8/05/08
11:50
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Rivers

Cincinnati Bengals rookie linebacker Keith Rivers will finally join the team Wednesday after 10 days and 12 missed practices. He signed a six-year deal with the team late Tuesday night.

Coming from USC and being tutored by position coach and former NFL linebacker Ken Norton Jr., Rivers joined Cincinnati as one of the most NFL-ready players in the draft this year.

Now is his chance to prove it.

Rivers was a lock to start at outside linebacker leading up to his holdout but fell behind significantly. The good news is if Rivers proves to be a quick study -- as advertised -- he still has a chance to be a starter in Week 1.

Rivers was a standout in spring workouts. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer liked what he saw from his prized rookie from the first practice.

For now, Brandon Johnson is the starter and likely will take that mantel into the first preseason game. But eventually Rivers' talent and status as the No. 9 overall pick will be too much to keep him out of the starting lineup.

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