AFC North: CFL

Final Word: AFC North

December, 4, 2009
12/04/09
4:00
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

Cedric Benson
AP Photo/Tom E. PuskarCedric Benson will rejoin a crowded Bengals backfield.
'Big Ben' is back: Amid controversy and plenty of national headlines, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returns to the starting lineup Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. Team captain Hines Ward questioned the decision to pull Roethlisberger one day before Pittsburgh’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But Ward said this week that the issue has been resolved. The best way for the Steelers to truly move on is to get back on the winning track and for Roethlisberger to have a big game. Their three-game skid has caused a lot of discontent for a proud group that’s not used to losing this time of year. This game against Oakland is virtually a must-win for the Steelers (6-5), who have a small margin of error if they want to get into the postseason.

Benson rejoins crowded field: Another player who is returning to the starting lineup, but with less attention, is Cincinnati Bengals starting tailback Cedric Benson. He missed the past two weeks with a hip injury. Cincinnati’s offense has run the ball well without Benson, which makes you wonder how carries will be distributed between Benson, former Pro Bowler Larry Johnson and rookie Bernard Scott. All three tailbacks have had 100-yard games this season. Benson wasn't too happy with the recent signing of Johnson. It will be interesting to see how Cincinnati's coaching staff handles this sensitive matter the rest of the season.

Protections issues: If the Baltimore Ravens (6-5) want to pull off the upset Monday and beat the Green Bay Packers (7-4) at Lambeau Field, the Ravens must apply constant pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay's offense is red hot, averaging 32 points the past two weeks. But the Packers’ biggest weakness has been protecting Rodgers, who has been sacked an astounding 44 times. Baltimore has been inconsistent in rushing the passer. But this is a golden opportunity for the Ravens to turn up the heat against a team that hasn’t blocked well all season.

The Clayton factor: In the first four games after the bye week, Baltimore Ravens receiver Mark Clayton had only five catches for 58 yards. Then Clayton exploded for seven catches for 129 yards in last week’s huge win over Pittsburgh. The Ravens (6-5) need more of that from their former first-round pick if they expect to make a push to the postseason. Clayton has been one of the great enigmas in the AFC North. He’s had big performances over his five-year career but usually disappears for weeks afterward. Clayton's biggest game before Sunday was in Baltimore's season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, when he had five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown.

New rushers: With the season-ending concussion to Jamal Lewis, the Cleveland Browns will now turn to backups Jerome Harrison and Chris Jennings for the remainder of the season. Both Harrison and Jennings have shown a few flashes this year but are averaging only 3.6 and 3.4 yards per carry respectively. The coaching staff pretty much knows what it has in Harrison, who is a smaller, change-of-pace type of runner who struggles with pass protection. Look for the team to give Jennings a lot of touches down the stretch to find out what the former CFL product is made of.

Stefan Logan likes being a secret

September, 7, 2009
9/07/09
11:00
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Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- Steelers safety Ryan Clark got a good chuckle at the sudden media attention his newest teammate, Stefan Logan, received in the locker room recently, which included a certain reporter in attendance.
Bob Donnan/US Presswire
Pittsburgh’s Stefan Logan won’t be an unknown for long.

“That’s going to be all over ESPN’s AFC North blog,” Clark said smiling.

At the moment Logan, a 5-foot-7 CFL import, is enjoying life as Pittsburgh’s best-kept secret. But as Clark warned, it may not last for long.

Logan has been electric in returning kicks in the preseason for the reigning champs. He will get several opportunities to impact Thursday’s primetime season opener against the Tennessee Titans.

“I want to be a best-kept secret,” Logan said. “That’s fine with me. I know guys are going to be game-planning to try and stop the special teams, but we’re going to game-plan, too.”

Pittsburgh’s special teams were average last season. The coverage units and kicker Jeff Reed did their part, but the punting and both returns were glaring weaknesses.

Although it didn’t impact the Steelers’ Super Bowl run, they still addressed those holes in the offseason with a healthy return of punter Daniel Sepulveda from a knee injury and adding a host of return prospects via the draft and free agency.

In the end, Logan stood out most among the group.

“Every time he catches the ball I hold me breath,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “You don’t know what he’s going to do, and it’s a great feeling.”

After making the team, Logan changed his number from 41 to 11 to fit more with Pittsburgh’s receivers. That’s fine with Logan, who started training camp as a long shot and played his way on the Steelers' 53-man roster.

“It’s a blessing for me to be here with the Super Bowl champs,” a happy Logan said. “When I found out that I made the roster, it was kind of a touching moment.”

Morning take: Browns and their fans

August, 24, 2009
8/24/09
9:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North:

  • According to Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Browns fans want a winner and a team as passionate about football as they are.

Morning take: Browns fans are an interesting bunch. They have been extremely quiet in this blog, especially compared to last season, which leads me to believe they don't have much optimism about this year's team.

  • Return specialist Stefan Logan is making his mark for the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to Scott Brown of the Tribune-Review.

Morning take: I ran into a CFL coach recently and asked about Logan's abilities. On cue the coach predicted Logan will make a strong push in Pittsburgh for a roster spot based on his natural return abilities.

  • Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer (ankle) is questionable for Thursday's preseason game against the St. Louis Rams.

Morning take: When it comes to Palmer's health, it's always best to be cautious. But the lack of reps could impact his early-season performance.

Morning take: I got a very good vibe from my time in Ravens camp last week. Could this be the year the power shifts to Baltimore in the AFC North?

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Half of the AFC North division saw action Saturday night in the preseason.

Here are several observations on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns:

  • The Steelers were wise to take precaution in sitting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (Achilles) in a 17-13 exhibition loss to the Washington Redskins. In fact, I said on ESPN radio Saturday night that I wouldn't be surprised if Pittsburgh sits "Big Ben" the following week as well. In my time with the Steelers this summer, I came away feeling one of their biggest priorities was making it through training camp and the preseason with as few injuries as possible. So the Roethlisberger injury Thursday had to give the team a scare. The Steelers already have well-defined roles, and besides a few backup jobs and bringing along rookies, Pittsburgh doesn't have as much use for the preseason as most teams.
  • The first-team offense minus Roethlisberger did not look sharp in the first quarter. Starting left tackle Max Starks was called for holding on the first offensive play, fullback Carey Davis had a false start and quarterback Charlie Batch also contributed an intentional grounding penalty all within the first two drives. The unit still produced a touchdown with Willie Parker's 3-yard run, but there are some minor procedural things offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will want to clean up after he watches the tape.
  • This week was Stefan Logan's turn to return kicks and he looked impressive. He had the longest kickoff return in the game (60 yards), in addition to averaging a solid 12 yards per punt return. The Steelers are looking to boost their special teams and have turned over every rock this offseason to do so. The team signed Logan from the CFL, and his best chance to make the roster is to become the best returner.
  • Cleveland Browns quarterback Derek Anderson responded in what was a make-or-break game for him in Saturday's 27-10 win over the Detroit Lions. Anderson completed 8 of 13 passes for 130 yards and a interception as he moved the offense well. The performance likely evened the competition with Brady Quinn, who outperformed Anderson in the first preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Expect this competition to go down to the wire.
  • Josh Cribbs is doing all he can to prove that the new regime in Cleveland should give him a new contract. The special-team's ace returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown and had another return to start the game called back. Cribbs, who is also competing for the No. 2 receiver job, has been impressive in both preseason games. But Cribbs says he is undecided if he will play in the regular season without a new deal.
  • Rookie tailback James Davis provided the big play Cleveland is looking for from its backfield this season. Davis, a sixth-round pick who has been a pleasant surprise, broke through for an 81-yard touchdown run against the Lions. The Browns are looking for a change-of-pace tailback to pair with Jamal Lewis, and big plays like that will earn the trust of Browns coach Eric Mangini.

Harrell heading to Canada

July, 16, 2009
7/16/09
10:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

For reasons that cannot be explained, former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell has become a name of interest this offseason in the AFC North blog.

Perhaps it's because Harrell is the NCAA's Division I all-time touchdown leader. Perhaps it was his spring tryout with the Cleveland Browns. But whatever the case, readers sent letters to the AFC North inbox fairly often wanting to know Harrell's whereabouts.

Therefore, here is another update on Harrell before we move on to training camps: According to reports, he has signed a two-year deal with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.

If Harrell finds his way to the NFL, and particularly the AFC North, we will keep you updated.

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