AFC North: Brendon Ayanbadejo

Brendon Ayanbadejo created headlines Thursday night when he told Newsday that he thinks his outspoken advocacy was one of the reasons the Baltimore Ravens cut him.

Did the Ravens like the fact that Ayanbadejo took such a public stance on a hot-button issue like same-sex marriage? Probably not. Was that a reason why Baltimore released him? It definitely wasn't the leading one.

Ayanbadejo attempted to squelch this story by saying on Twitter that he was misquoted in the Newsday article:

What makes more sense is the Ravens cut Ayanbadejo over his age (he turns 37 at the start of the season), declining play (he didn't make a special-teams tackle in four postseason games) and his salary (he was scheduled to make $940,000 this season).

The Ravens never criticized Ayanbadejo for using his stature as an NFL player to weigh in on a controversial issue. Ayanbadejo was actually part of coach John Harbaugh's leadership council which helped make decisions on the team's practice schedule and routine.

"He was a pleasure to have on our team," Harbaugh said in a statement, which was released before Ayanbadejo spoke to Newsday. "We’ll stay in contact, I hope, but I’ll miss our regular conversations.”

The Ravens also haven't ruled out re-signing Ayanbadejo. "The door may not be closed to bring him back to help us again," general manager Ozzie Newsome said Thursday.
The Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals opened free agency with a lot of salary-cap room, and three weeks later, they still rank among the top-five teams with the most cap space.

According to the NFL Players Association, the Browns have the second-highest amount of cap space with $27.2 million (49 players under contract). Only the Jacksonville Jaguars have more with $28.3 million. Cleveland used $17.3 million of its 2013 cap space when it signed linebacker Paul Kruger ($8.1 million), defensive lineman Desmond Bryant ($8 million) and pass-rusher Quentin Groves ($1.2 million) in free agency.

The Bengals are fourth in the league with $25.9 million in cap room (48 players under contract). Cincinnati used over $30 million of cap space in retaining their own free agents, which included four starters.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Pittsburgh Steelers rank fifth in the smallest amount of cap space with $2.06 million (48 players under contract). The Steelers will receive an additional $5.5 million in two months because guard Willie Colon was designated a June 1 cut.

The Baltimore Ravens are in the middle of the pack with $5.3 million in cap room (42 players under contract). The Ravens are one of 14 teams who have less than $6 million in cap space. Baltimore will get $807,000 in cap room when the release of linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo becomes official (if he's not designated a June 1 cut). The Ravens will also free up an additional $2 million on June 1 for the release of safety Bernard Pollard.

The salary cap is $123 million in 2013 and only takes into account the 51 highest-paid players on the roster.
Brendon Ayanbadejo was the leading special-teams tackler for the Baltimore Ravens. He made headlines as an advocate for gay rights and same-sex marriage.

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Ayanbadejo
Ayanbadejo, 36, was also the oldest player currently on the Ravens' roster, which doesn't fit the defending Super Bowl champions' offseason trend of getting younger. The Ravens released Ayanbadejo on Wednesday, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

The six oldest players on Baltimore's Super Bowl roster are gone: linebacker Ray Lewis (37 years old) and center Matt Birk (36) retired; safety Ed Reed (34) signed elsewhere; nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu (34) hasn't been re-signed; and Ayanbadejo and guard Bobbie Williams (36) were released. In addition, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie (33) hasn't been re-signed yet and wide receiver Anquan Boldin (32) was traded.

The only players over 30 currently on the roster are cornerback Chris Johnson (33, two days younger than McKinnie) and fullback Vonta Leach (31).

In the Super Bowl, the Ravens started seven players over the age of 30. There is only one (Leach) in Baltimore's projected starting lineup right now.

"I would like to thank the city of Baltimore and the Ravens organization for an amazing ride. We will forever be united as champions!" Ayanbadejo wrote on Twitter.

If Ayanbadejo isn't designated a June 1 cut, the Ravens saved $807,000 off this year's cap and got thinner at linebacker in the process. With Ayanbadejo gone, Baltimore is left with only five linebackers who have significant starting experience: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Courtney Upshaw, Jameel McClain (when he's medically cleared) and Albert McClellan.

Five years ago, Ayanbadejo was the first free-agent signing of the John Harbaugh era.

Ayanbadejo apologizes for comments

January, 14, 2013
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As you would expect, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo apologized for his disparaging comments about the Patriots on Twitter:

Ayanbadejo is a smart guy, so it was only a matter of time before he took back his out-of-line comments from Sunday night (it should be noted that he has yet to delete those comments from his Twitter feed). Of course, I wouldn't be surprised that a stern meeting with coach John Harbaugh also prompted him to say he was sorry for calling the Patriots a "gimmick" offense and bringing up Spygate.

This apology apparently is a little too late. A Patriots source told CBS Sports that Ayanbadejo's comments have already spread through the locker room and players are "furious and feel it is one of the most disrespectful things ever said about the franchise." But, unlike Ayanbadejo, the Patriots will keep their comments in-house.

Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis isn't expected to play in the final two games of the regular season, but still has a chance of coming back for the postseason, according to a report on NFL.com. The Ravens made it official Saturday that Lewis won't play this weekend when they used their open roster spot on promoting linebacker Adrian Hamilton from the practice squad.

This all leads to a bigger question: Have Ravens fans seen Lewis for the last time in Baltimore?

Sunday's game against the Giants is the final regular-season home game for the Ravens. If the slumping Ravens, who have lost three in a row, continue to lose, they could be a wild-card team in the AFC playoffs and play their first-round game on the road. So, considering the possibility of Lewis retiring at the end of the season or the Ravens releasing him, Lewis might have played his final down in Baltimore in a Ravens uniform when he tore his triceps on Oct. 14.

My take is Lewis hasn't played his final game at M&T Bank Stadium. Lewis isn't the type of player who will want to be remembered for being banged up in his final NFL season, and the Ravens still can use his leadership, especially if safety Ed Reed leaves in free agency.

Working against Lewis is his age and salary. Lewis said last summer that he could see himself playing past the age of 37. He turns 38 in May. There's also the fact that Lewis will make $5.4 million in 2013. The Ravens could create much-needed cap room by cutting Lewis, especially if the plan is to put the franchise tag on quarterback Joe Flacco.

But the immediate concern for the Ravens is Sunday against the Giants. The Ravens will be without both inside linebackers that started the season for them. Jameel McClain was placed on injured reserve this week with a neck injury. If Dannell Ellerbe can't play -- he's a game-time decision with an ankle injury -- the Ravens will start Josh Bynes and Brendon Ayanbadejo at inside linebacker.
Two Ravens players are have differing views when it comes to same-sex marriage.

Last month, after a Maryland legislator condemned Brendon Ayanbadejo's support for gay marriage, the Ravens linebacker responded by saying it's "an equality issue."

"There was a time when women didn't have rights. Black people didn't have rights," he said. "Right now, gay rights is a big issue and it's been for a long time. We're slowly chopping down the barriers to equality."

On Sunday, Ravens center Matt Birk wrote an editorial in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in support of preserving marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Birk, a former Vikings lineman and Minnesota native, wrote: "Same-sex unions may not affect my marriage specifically, but it will affect my children -- the next generation. Ideas have consequences, and laws shape culture. Marriage redefinition will affect the broader well-being of children and the welfare of society. As a Christian and a citizen, I am compelled to care about both."

This blog isn't about whether same-sex marriage is right or wrong. The reason for this piece is to show football players have opinions beyond getting rid of replacement officials. Too often, players are seen as trash-talking bullies who are lauded for their brawn, not brains.

Ayanbadejo and Birk show that players can engage in commentary on such a hot-button political topic. Maryland voters are considering whether to legalize it, and Minnesota voters will decide whether to ban it. Ayanbadejo and Birk aren't the only NFL players voicing their opinion on the matter. After the Maryland legislator incident, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe defended Ayanbadejo.

Whether you're for or against same-sex marriage, you have to appreciate Birk's call for civility when debating the matter.

“People who are simply acknowledging the basic reality of marriage between one man and one woman are being labeled as ‘bigots’ and ‘homophobic,'" Birk wrote. "Aren't we past that as a society? … Attempting to silence those who may disagree with you is always un-American, but especially when it is through name-calling, it has no place in respectful conversation.”

Birk and Ayanbadejo shouldn't just be applauded for expressing their viewpoints, but also the manner in which they decided to do so.
Nearly all the AFC North teams played it safe in Thursday night's preseason finales. Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Brandon Weeden all sat out and watched the backup quarterbacks play.

The only starter who played, the Bengals' Andy Dalton, left in the first quarter with an injury but it's not considered serious. Dalton said his hand went "a little numb" after getting hit in the arm but it's "no problem at all." Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, "Andy’s fine. He’ll be fine for Baltimore. He would have gone right back in this game if it had been the regular season.” So, crisis averted.

If you couldn't watch all four division teams play simultaneously, you're in luck. I had my eye on each one and here are some observations:

BENGALS AT COLTS

In the 20-16 loss at Indianapolis, Dalton was hurt on the opening drive after getting sandwiched. Offensive tackles Andrew Whitworth and Dennis Roland both got beaten for sacks on the play. It hasn't been a great preseason for Whitworth, who is the second-best left tackle in the division.

The Bengals didn't play their top two running backs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott, because both are recovering from injuries and are getting ready for the regular-season opener. For once, Cincinnati's run game didn't suffer. Brian Leonard ran hard and broke tackles for 27 yards on three carries. Cedric Peerman, who makes more of an impact on special teams, looked good on a 13-yard run up the middle.

No one wants to see Dalton hurt. The Bengals, though, have to feel comfortable with backup Bruce Gradkowski. He finished 12 of 19 for 95 yards and led his fourth touchdown drive of the preseason.

Rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones displayed some resiliency in the second quarter. On the same drive in which he dropped a touchdown pass, he came back to catch a back-shoulder throw from Gradkowski and ran into the end zone. Jones is making a push for some playing time this year.

BEARS AT BROWNS

In the 28-20 loss to Chicago, Colt McCoy watched his strong preseason take a nosedive. In his first start this summer, McCoy was 2 of 5 for 16 yards for a 9.1 quarterback rating. That's going to put a dent into McCoy's 119.1 rating from the first three games. McCoy was also intercepted on a high pass that was thrown with no pressure around him. The Browns will let everyone know what they plan to do with McCoy on Friday.

The Browns have a concern at linebacker after rookie James-Michael Johnson left with an oblique injury. With Chris Gocong out for the season with an Achilles injury and Scott Fujita facing a three-game suspension from the NFL, Cleveland planned to depend on Johnson and Kaluka Maiava. The Browns might need Fujita to win his appeal to avoid going deeper on the depth chart. Johnson was having a strong performance before getting injured on an open-field tackle.

Backup running back Montario Hardesty had trouble getting back to the line of scrimmage because he got little help from his blockers. He finished with 24 yards on six carries and he didn't fumble for the first time since the preseason opener. Brandon Jackson fared much better, gaining 48 yards on seven carries.

Cornerback James Dockery was flagged twice for pass interference in the second quarter. The second one eventually led to a touchdown. Rookie cornerback Trevin Wade was physical and had good coverage in allowing the first touchdown of the game.

As if the Browns needed something else to worry about, they have to iron some things out on special teams. Reggie Hodges got his second punt blocked this preseason.

RAVENS AT RAMS

In a 31-17 loss at St. Louis, Sergio Kindle hurt his chances of surviving Friday's cutdown. He hit quarterback Sam Bradford a full second late, drawing a roughing-the-passer penalty to help the Rams convert third-and-22. Kindle, a 2010 second-round pick, was on the bubble entering this game.

Continuing Thursday night's trend of rookies getting hurt, second-round pick Courtney Upshaw will have an MRI for his strained shoulder, according to coach John Harbaugh. Upshaw has been backing up Albert McClellan at outside linebacker.

Veteran linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo had his worst game with the Ravens. Working with the first-team defense because most of the starters sat, Ayanbadejo struggled against the run and got lost in coverage. It was so bad that he apologized for his performance on Twitter.

What I like the most about Tyrod Taylor, who started in place of Flacco, is his ability to make plays with his legs. Even though he focused more on being a pocket passer, Taylor wasn't hesitant to take off for a 22-yard scramble. He did get stripped from behind earlier in the game, but it was the result of a third-string lineman (Cord Howard) getting beat by a former first-round pick (Robert Quinn).

Looking at Curtis Painter's up-and-down performance, I'm not sure he convinced the Ravens to keep three quarterbacks. He threw two touchdowns and was intercepted three times. One interception was returned 76 yards for a touchdown.

Justin Tucker missed his first kick of the preseason, but it's difficult to be critical of him. It was a 57-yard attempt. He later hit a 49-yarder in the third quarter.

PANTHERS AT STEELERS

If this was Charlie Batch's last game with the Steelers, he made it a memorable one, or at least as memorable as the preseason gets. In the 17-16 victory over Carolina, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 102 yards. Batch showed great touch in leading Emmauel Sanders out of double coverage for a 37-yard touchdown. The new rule regarding injured reserve helps Batch's chances of sticking around Pittsburgh for an 11th season, but there's no guarantee that he'll make the cut.

For the second consecutive week, a Steelers draft pick went down with a serious knee injury. With two minutes left in the third quarter, linebacker Sean Spence hyperextended his knee while chasing quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Spence's knee bent awkwardly underneath him, and the third-round pick needed to be carted off the field. Spence was expected to make an impact on special teams this season and could have received playing time if there were injuries at inside linebacker. Unlike David DeCastro's knee injury, this one happened on the natural grass of Heinz Field.

This isn't a newsflash, but rookie running back-receiver-returner Chris Rainey is a game-changer. He twice scored on punt returns in one quarter, only to have both brought back because of penalties. This would've given him the touchdown trifecta. The fifth-round pick had scored on a 41-yard run and a 57-yard catch this summer.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton made his preseason debut after having ACL surgery in January. His presence was felt immediately as he got off a block from guard Mike Pollak and made a tackle. Hampton's return was good to see for the Steelers, even though Steve McLendon has played well enough to start.

Jonathan Dwyer solidfied himself as the primary backup to Isaac Redman, and the Steelers could need him based on Redman's durability. Dwyer was physical (even delivered a stiff-arm) and showed good feet to elude tacklers. He finished with 63 yards on 13 carries, a 4.8-yard average.

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.
After one signing in the first 10 days of free agency, the Ravens seemed like they were signing someone every hour today.

In total, the Ravens added four players: inside linebacker Jameel McClain (re-signed for three years), outside linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo (re-signed for three years), cornerback Corey Graham (signed for two years) and safety Sean Considine (signed for one year).

What does this all mean? The Ravens kept one starter (McClain) and addressed special teams with the three other signings.

“It’s a good day for the Ravens,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement.

It would have been a great day if the Ravens had signed guard Evan Mathis, defensive end Mark Anderson and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., all of whom visited Baltimore and signed elsewhere. But this was a necessary day for the Ravens.

You knew the Ravens would improve their special teams after allowing three touchdowns on returns last season. That obviously didn't sit well with coach John Harbaugh, whose expertise has been special teams.

The Ravens gave up an average of 11.9 yards on punt returns, which was ninth-worst in the NFL. They allowed 29.2 yards on kickoffs, which was second-worst in the league.

This leaves Baltimore extremely vulnerable in a division where you go against Pro Bowl returners Antonio Brown and Josh Cribbs twice a season.

That's why the Ravens went after Graham, a Pro Bowl special teams player last season for the Bears. That's why the Ravens re-signed Ayanbadejo, a three-time Pro Bowl special-teams player. And that's why they brought in Considine, who played special teams for three years with Harbaugh in Philadelphia.

"He’s our leader on special teams, and we needed him back,” Harbaugh said of Ayanbadejo. “He’s valuable to everything we do on [special] teams. And, adding Corey and Sean to those groups will help Brendon, who was double-teamed on most plays last season."

These signings won't make national headlines, but these are signings that the Ravens needed to make.
The Ravens are enjoying their busiest day of free agency, re-signing inside linebacker Jameel McClain on Friday after already adding special-teams players Corey Graham and Brendon Ayanbadejo.

The team announced the return of McClain, who is expected to sign a three-year deal. McClain, 26, has been another one of the Ravens' undrafted success stories, becoming a two-year starter next to Ray Lewis.

Bringing back McClain is a little bit of a surprise because the Ravens have let other starting inside linebackers next to Lewis go elsewhere from Ed Hartwell to Tommy Polley to Bart Scott. The Ravens had a contingency plan in place when they gave a second-round tender to backup linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, a restricted free agent.

McClain, who drew little interest in free agency, is an impact player on run defense, but he is a liability in pass coverage. His stock improved with the Ravens last year when he filled Lewis' role during the time the Pro Bowl linebacker missed four games with a foot injury.

Before reaching an agreement with McClain, the Ravens added Graham and Ayanbadejo to help their struggling special teams. Before Friday, the Ravens' only free-agent addition was re-signing center Matt Birk.
Football Outsiders Insider analyzed the biggest holes facing each AFC North team going into the offseason. While I can't reveal everything because it's an Insider post, I'll provide the most interesting nugget of information for each team.

BENGALS: Running back, guard. This is a no-brainer because the starting running back (Cedric Benson) and the three guards that started the most games (Nate Livings, Mike McGlynn and Bobbie Williams) are unrestricted free agents. Best note from Football Outsiders: Livings and McGlynn combined to blow seven run blocks that directly resulted in negative yardage.

BROWNS: Running back. Honestly, Football Outsiders could have named every position on offense. Running back stands out because of injuries and ineffectiveness. Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty and Chris Ogbonnaya all failed to provide big plays in the running game. Best note from Football Outsiders: The Browns ranked 30th (2010) and 32nd (2011) in second-level yards by running backs. They also ranked 24th (2010) and 31st (2011) in open-field yards.

RAVENS: Interior offensive line, special teams. Everyone knows the Ravens could have major holes with center Matt Birk and left guard Ben Grubbs becoming free agents. The best observation was the struggles of the special teams, especially the coverage teams. It could get worse because four of Baltimore's top five tacklers on special teams are set to become unrestricted free agents: Tom Zbikowski, Haruki Nakamura, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Jameel McClain. Best note from Football Outsiders: According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens' special teams went from a No. 4 ranking in 2010 to 30th this season, which has to bother a former special-teams coach like John Harbaugh.

STEELERS: Defensive line. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is coming off ACL surgery, and defensive end Brett Keisel severely hurt his groin in the playoff loss at Denver. Backup nose tackle Chris Hoke retired and defensive end Aaron Smith could be next. Best note from Football Outsiders: Early indications suggest that Ziggy Hood will slide over to nose tackle in place of Hampton, Cameron Heyward will start in Hood's old spot on the strong side, Keisel will return at right defensive end.

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.

AFC North Pro Bowl voting update

December, 21, 2011
12/21/11
3:28
PM ET


The fan voting for the Pro Bowl ended two days ago. The AFC and NFC All-Star squads are based on the consensus votes of fans, players and coaches. Each group’s vote counts one-third toward determining the 43-man rosters that represent the American Football Conference and National Football Conference in the Pro Bowl. NFL players and coaches will cast their votes on December 21-22.

The Pro Bowl teams will be announced at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

In final fan voting, nine AFC North players led their positions (including seven from the Ravens):

Fullback: Vonta Leach, Ravens (149,801 votes)

Offensive tackle: Michael Oher, Ravens (327,644)

Center: Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers (376,457)

Defensive tackle: Haloti Ngata, Ravens (592,603)

Outside linebacker: Terrell Suggs, Ravens (546,851)

Inside linebacker: Ray Lewis, Ravens (413,222)

Strong safety: Troy Polamalu, Steelers (230,649)

Free safety: Ed Reed, Ravens (198,075)

Special teams: Brendon Ayanbadejo, Ravens (106,515)

AFC North Pro Bowl voting update

December, 14, 2011
12/14/11
4:30
PM ET
With five days of voting remaining, eight AFC North players lead their position for this year's Pro Bowl:

Offensive tackle: Michael Oher, Ravens (257,622 votes)

Center: Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers (301,423)

Defensive tackle: Haloti Ngata, Ravens (482,528)

Outside linebacker: Terrell Suggs, Ravens (425,385)

Inside linebacker: Ray Lewis, Ravens (351,811)

Strong safety: Troy Polamalu, Steelers (191,550)

Free safety: Ed Reed, Ravens (167,342)

Special teams: Brendon Ayanbadejo, Ravens (87,079)

Notes: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is second behind Tom Brady; Ravens RB Ray Rice is third; Steelers WR Mike Wallace is second and Bengals WR A.J. Green is third; Browns OT Joe Thomas is fifth; Ravens FB Vonta Leach is second; Ravens K Billy Cundiff is second; Steelers PR Antonio Brown is second and Browns PR Josh Cribbs is third; and Steelers ST Arnaz Battle is second.

Pro Bowl voting continues through Dec. 19.

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