AFC North: Chinedum Ndukwe

AFC North update: Waiting on Colt McCoy

December, 13, 2010
Here are the latest happenings Monday evening in the AFC North:
Speaking of the Ravens, check with the AFC North blog this evening for live analysis during the game as well as postgame reaction.

Steelers-Bengals halftime notes

December, 12, 2010
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers lead the Cincinnati Bengals 10-7 at intermission.

Here are some notes at halftime:
  • Until late in the first half, Pittsburgh looked like a team hungover after its big win against the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers looked listless until safety Troy Polamalu made a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown to tie the game at the 4:37 mark of the second quarter. Polamalu picked off his college roommate at USC, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, and the throw was intended for receiver Terrell Owens. It was Polamalu's second interception return for a touchdown in his career. Pittsburgh also got a late field goal before intermission.
  • Cincinnati left tackle Andrew Whitworth caught a 1-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, which was the first score by a Bengals O-lineman since 1995. The Steelers came on a run blitz and Whitworth was wide open for the easy catch.
  • Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's accuracy has been shaky at times, and you have to wonder if the injuries are having an impact. Roethlisberger is playing with heavy tape on his injured right foot for the second straight week, and he's wearing a visor to protect his broken nose. Most quarterbacks do not wear a visor because it can impact vision. Roethlisberger has completed 9 of 17 passes for 99 yards.
  • Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was booed entering Heinz Field Sunday. There's been a lot of speculation that Lewis could be a candidate for the University of Pittsburgh coaching vacancy. The Panthers also play at this stadium.
  • Cincinnati safety Chinedum Ndukwe was knocked out of the game with a knee injury in the second quarter and won't return.

It's time to blow up the Bengals

November, 7, 2010
Carson Palmer/Marvin Lewis/Chad OchocincoGetty Images/AP PhotoCarson Palmer, Marvin Lewis and Chad Ochocinco have run out of time to deliver a title in Cincinnati.
Seven years ago, a younger, energetic Marvin Lewis arrived in Cincinnati with big dreams. In his first head-coaching gig, Lewis aimed to turn the lowly Bengals into a winning franchise and perennial Super Bowl contender.

Lewis had the No. 1 overall pick, which turned out to be Carson Palmer -- a quarterback with prototypical size and arm strength to be Cincinnati's franchise player.

Lewis also inherited a young receiver named Chad Johnson, who was physically gifted and hungry to develop into one of the best at his position.

This trio was expected to deliver multiple playoff victories -- and perhaps even a championship. Yet, seven years later, the Bengals have neither and are in the midst of an embarrassing 2-5 season.

Lewis looks tired, stressed from all the losing and battles through the years with ownership. He has a career record of 58-60-1, no playoff wins and doesn't wield much power behind the scenes.

Palmer, 30, hasn't had the career many expected. Outside of a few good statistical seasons, Palmer's career has been marred by injuries and inconsistency. He looks far removed from his Pro Bowl form.

Johnson -- now named Ochocinco -- is a 32-year-old receiver having his second bad season in three years. Ochocinco has more television shows (three) than touchdowns (two) and can't get on the same page with his quarterback.

It's officially time to blow up the Bengals. The Lewis/Palmer/Ochocinco era in Cincinnati has run its course, and the team needs to hit the reset button.

But first the Bengals must play out the season, starting with their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) on "Monday Night Football" (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). If it weren't for the higher-profile Dallas Cowboys (1-6) and Minnesota Vikings (2-5), Cincinnati would be the NFL's most disappointing team. With their playoff hopes virtually gone, the best the underachieving Bengals can do is play spoiler the rest of the season.

"I think everyone is more frustrated and emotional right now," said Palmer, describing the mood of the team. "Losing does that to you. Losing is frustrating and can wear on you."

Lewis, Ochocinco and Palmer have contract situations that will be addressed in the offseason.

Lewis is coaching in the final year of his deal, and there's a lot of speculation that both sides are open to parting. Despite winning the Coach of the Year award in 2009, Lewis has not reached a contract agreement with the Bengals. Yet Cincinnati recently signed defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to a three-year extension, which raised some eyebrows. Zimmer is now the top in-house candidate to replace Lewis if the head coach doesn't return.

There are also some changes Lewis pushed for, such as an indoor practice facility, that failed to get by Bengals owner Mike Brown. With the Bengals struggling, Lewis doesn't have as much leverage as he had in the offseason.

Lewis hasn't talked about his contract situation during the season, but he discussed it in-depth at the NFL combine.

"There's a lot of things [in terms of] what we're doing and how we're doing things -- all of those things are important to me," Lewis said in February. "There were things that when I started this job in 2003 that were important, and we can't change those.

"We have to stay on track and I have to make sure that we're continuing to progress that way. Those are the things that are as important to me as anything."

The contract situations for Ochocinco and Palmer aren't as simple.

Ochocinco's deal is up at the end of the season, but the Bengals have a team option for 2011 if they want to keep the receiver for another year. Palmer is in the fifth season of a nine-year, $118.75 million contract. He's one of the NFL's highest-paid players, and his base salary will balloon to $11.5 million next season. Palmer's production is declining, and Cincinnati must decide whether he's worth that kind of money.

Cincinnati also has important offseason decisions to make on other key veterans. Starters such as cornerback Johnathan Joseph, tailback Cedric Benson, middle linebacker Dhani Jones and leading receiver Terrell Owens are pending free agents.

Coming off a division title and playoff appearance last season, this team was built to win this year. It didn't work. So it's time for the Bengals to cut their losses and build for their long-term future.

It's been a decent run for Palmer, Lewis and Ochocinco. They brought much-needed excitement to a franchise that was desolate before their arrival.

But after eight seasons together, these three carried the Bengals as far as they could. The window is now closed, and it's time for some -- or all -- to go their separate ways.

Final Word: AFC North

November, 5, 2010
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9:

Bye-week success: Two AFC North teams are coming off byes, and statistically that bodes well for the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh is 2-0 in his career following the bye week, and Browns coach Eric Mangini is 3-1. Both clubs will have tough home games Sunday: the Ravens play the Miami Dolphins and Cleveland faces the New England Patriots.

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
Chuck Cook/US PresswireColt McCoy could be the starter for the rest of the season with a strong performance against New England.
Real McCoy? Against the Patriots, the Browns will start rookie quarterback Colt McCoy for the third straight game. This is McCoy's opportunity to solidify the starting job for the remainder of the season. McCoy's three opponents (New England, Pittsburgh, New Orleans Saints) have a combined record of 16-6. He has done a solid job splitting his first two starts but wouldn't leave any questions with an upset win over the Patriots (6-1), who have the NFL's best record. Veteran backup Seneca Wallace (ankle) could dress Sunday but isn't expected to play, according to Browns coach Eric Mangini.

Healthy Ravens: Baltimore is as healthy as it has been all season and in prime position to make a run in the second half of the season. Safety Tom Zbikowski (foot) is the only major injury coming off the bye. Star safety Ed Reed (hip) will play his second game since coming off the physically unable to perform list, and receiver Donte' Stallworth (foot) will make his regular-season debut against Miami. Staying healthy is an important component of remaining a Super Bowl contender. Perhaps luck is on Baltimore's side with injuries this year.

Prime-time Steelers: The NFL and national television networks can't get enough of the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Just a few games removed from his four-game suspension, Roethlisberger will lead Pittsburgh into the second of three consecutive prime-time games Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers played the Saints last Sunday in prime time and will play host to the Patriots next week in another night game. With the Patriots looming, the road contest against the 2-5 Bengals could be a trap game for Pittsburgh.

Few sacks in Cincy: There are two primary reasons the Bengals haven't matched last year's consistency on defense, when the team was ranked No. 4 in the NFL. Cincinnati is suffering through injuries in the secondary, and the Bengals can't establish a pass rush. Cincinnati is last in the league with only six sacks in seven games. There are 10 players with higher sack totals than Cincinnati. With opposing quarterbacks having so much time to throw, recent injuries in the secondary to cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Adam Jones and safeties Chinedum Ndukwe and Roy Williams aren't helping matters.

Recap of Bengals' preseason victory

August, 21, 2010
The Cincinnati Bengals had a solid showing Friday with a 22-9 preseason victory against the Philadelphia Eagles. It was the third exhibition for Cincinnati.

Here are some observations:

The Good
  • New Bengals receiver Terrell Owens is fitting in well with the offense. Every exhibition game "T.O." shows you a little more of why the Bengals signed him to a one-year deal right before training camp. On Friday, Owens proved he can still go deep with a 43-yard reception down the sideline from quarterback Carson Palmer. Owens leads Cincinnati with nine preseason receptions for 108 yards.
  • After a series of miscues and poor execution on third down last week against the Denver Broncos, the Bengals made a dramatic improvement in that area against Philadelphia. Cincinnati held the Eagles to 1 of 7 (14 percent) on third-down conversions in the first half, which is when starters and contributors for both teams were still in the game. This was something Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was very complimentary of Friday night.
  • Cincinnati backup cornerback Morgan Trent made a strong case for playing time with three interceptions in the second half.Trent played decent in stretches as the team's nickel cornerback last season, but the Bengals are looking for more consistency from the position. Cincinnati signed Adam Jones and drafted Brandon Ghee this offseason, but Trent's production puts him right in the mix.
The Bad
  • Despite Cincinnati playing its third preseason game, the starters continue to play sloppy at times. The Bengals had six first-half penalties, which needs to be improved before the start of the regular season. Palmer also threw two first-half interceptions against the Eagles.
  • The Bengals' first-team defense didn't get to the quarterback.Despite pressures, Cincinnati didn't get any sacks on Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb, and had just one quarterback hit the entire first half. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has made improving the pass rush a big emphasis this offseason. Cincinnati did record three sacks overall against Philadelphia, but they came from backups in the second half.
  • Cincinnati safety Gibril Wilson suffered a major knee injury and is likely out for the 2010 season. But fortunately for the Bengals, safety is a position where they have a lot of depth, which includes veterans Roy Williams, Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe.

Five questions with Tom Zbikowski

August, 18, 2010
WESTMINSTER, Md. -- Safety Tom Zbikowski is coming into his own in his third year with the Baltimore Ravens. He's in the best shape of his career and getting virtually all the snaps in training camp with the first-team defense.

[+] EnlargeZbikowski
Dale Zanine/US PresswireThe Ravens expect Tom Zbikowski to play a big role in the secondary.
With Ed Reed's (hip) status uncertain, Zbikowski is expected to play a major role early in Baltimore's defense. On Wednesday Zbikowski shared his thoughts with's AFC North blog on this upcoming season.

Tom, this is as lean as I've seen you. Was that by design?

Tom Zbikowski: Yeah, I've been training. I really worked on explosion, getting lean and really not benching or lifting heavy weights. I just feel every time I've done that, I've always bulked up and I'm not as smooth in the hips. So I feel better like this.

How much has the NFL game slowed down for you compared to three years ago as a rookie?

TZ: A lot. The speed is still the same. But now you're seeing things that you've seen before, and things seem to click faster as you're playing. Maybe that first year, you're trying to figure everything out -- you're trying to figure too much out. Now you're back to just playing, and you're reading what you got and reading what you're supposed to see.

I'm told you have an interesting, dry sense of humor in the locker room. Tell me about it.

TZ: (Laughs) I don't know. Honestly, I just find things funny that aren't supposed to be funny. I'm one of the most competitive people you'll ever meet, but I don't take anything too seriously. Life is too short. When it's all said and done, it's football. It's a game, and I think that's the way it should be treated. I try to have fun with everything, and I don't find too many things serious. So I just find things funny that most people don't find funny, I guess.

How has Ed Reed's situation impacted your preparation?

TZ: I think it's helped, because now I have to have the mentality of a starter. You're going in knowing that you're probably going to be playing, so you have to take control of the defense. You got to be sharp and on top of everything. It's big shoes to fill, because Ed knows the game so well that he can control and help out a lot of things in front of him. As a safety, that's why you have to come in everyday learning.

You, Chinedum Ndukwe and Brady Quinn were all stars together at Notre Dame. Are you surprised at this point that all of you are still waiting for opportunities?

TZ: I don't know if it's a surprise. I think it's more that you get a full understanding of how hard it is to make it in the NFL. Those are all guys I've played with and you know they can play. There's a ton of good players -- that's the NFL. There's only so many roster spots and so many positions.

Walker's (early) weekend mailbag

June, 25, 2010
We're going to dig into the weekend mailbag a little early this week.

WadeBrink via Twitter writes: I don't agree with the 1975 Steelers. Still a great team, yes, but 1978 is better.

James Walker: It was a tough call, Wade. But here is the case that I made for the '75 team. First, the '75 team beat their opponents by an average of 15.1 points per game, which is utter dominance. The '78 team won by 10.1 per game, which is good but not as dominant. Second, the core group in '75 was three years younger and all in their prime. For example, I would rather have a 27-year-old Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount than a 30-year-old Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount. Also to that point, Franco Harris had a career-high 1,246 rushing yards in '75. He was never better with the Steelers than he was in that particular season. In '78, Harris was three years older and rushed for 1,082 yards with just a 3.5 yards-per-carry average.

Mike from Ewa Beach, HI, wants to know if Ben Roethlisberger would be a candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year if he plays well this season.

Walker: To my knowledge, the award goes to the player who came back from a tough season the year prior. Roethlisberger was great last year, throwing for more than 4,000 yards. Even with a suspension, I don't see how he could be a strong candidate for the award.

Jason from Avon, Ohio, wants to know if Mike Holmgren playing hardball with five restricted free agents could eventually hurt the Cleveland Browns.

Walker: It will be an individual case for each player. But overall, money usually talks. If, hypothetically, the Browns want to pay D'Qwell Jackson, or Jerome Harrison or Matt Roth a $30 million contract extension next year, I doubt any of those players will pass it up because they were upset about last year's tender. The free agents will take the best deal, whether it's from Cleveland or another team.

Will from Konya, Turkey, writes: What do you think will happen first: the Browns make the Super Bowl or the Super Bowl goes to Cleveland?

Walker: Nice job to flip the "Take your pick" premise back on me. I will take the Browns playing in a Super Bowl first. I just don't see Cleveland hosting the big game anytime soon.

Adam from Provo, Utah, writes: Big BYU fan here. With the Ravens signing Marc Bulger, what happens to John Beck? Is he going to get cut?

Walker: Beck is in an interesting spot because his future could hinge on another player: Troy Smith. There has been Smith trade talk before, and that will only intensify now that he’s the No. 3 quarterback behind Joe Flacco and Bulger. But the offseason proved the Ravens couldn't get much for Smith, who had just a fifth-round tender. A key injury could facilitate a Smith trade elsewhere this summer, and Beck would be safe. But if Smith is still on the roster in September, he likely has the edge as the third quarterback.

Bryan Roberts from Philadelphia wants to know what safety Chinedum Ndukwe's chances of starting are with the Cincinnati Bengals?

Walker: There are four safeties in the mix for two starting positions. But I don't think this race is even close to being decided to provide a firm gauge. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said in minicamp that Ndukwe had a very good offseason. That bodes well for him, but it's too early to project with any certainty.

Complaint department

Here are some comments and complaints you sent to our AFC North inbox this week:

Josh from Owings Mills, MD, writes: I never thought I'd say this as a Ravens fan, but I would rather sweep the Bengals than the Steelers this year. Their fans are way more annoying with their boasting about a team that has NO chance of repeating as division winner. I guess I admire them for being passionate fans, but they're rooting for a loser. You're impartial for now to satiate those fans, but c'mon, there's only one team in this division moving in the right direction.

Mike from Ewa Beach, HI, writes: Please choose against the Steelers! The O-line will be improved due to better coaching/scheming, the defense will dominate if healthy, and the running game will improve due to renewed focus. Lastly it's an even year so the special teams will be good. Remember this and post it!

Sulaiman from New Jersey writes: Don't you think people are putting the Steelers down too much. Their schedule isn't that hard for the first four games and they will go 4-0, because their only tough game is against Ravens, and the Steelers are playing on their own turf. I think you will change your mind when you see the standings in the beginning of October. 1.Pittsburgh 2.Ravens 3.Bengals 4. Browns.

Will from Nashville, TN, writes: Update the Bengals article at the end of the season. Greatest Bengals team ever: 2010.

Greg from Cleveland writes: I love the "Remember last year" articles you do. It's funny how much changes in just one year.

(Editor's note: From the looks of it, some of these comments are prime candidates for next year's blog.)

Mike from Madison, Wisc., writes: In response to the Chad Ochocinco comment about the Bengals going to the playoffs, it may seem remarkable but you have to consider that there's this kind of talk EVERY year from players like him They're bound to be correct some of the time.

Bengals minicamp observations

June, 16, 2010
CINCINNATI -- The reigning AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals had their second day of minicamp Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeJermaine Gresham
Frank Victores/US PresswireRookie Jermaine Gresham has been impressive during offseason workouts.
Here are some notes and observations:

  • I've been really impressed with two rookie draft picks: first-round tight end Jermaine Gresham and third-round receiver Jordan Shipley. Both players are producing as advertised in minicamp with a lot of receptions. They also seem to have a knack for finding openings in the defense. It's early, but both rookies could turn out to be key contributors for the Bengals.
  • Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco admitted that he's not as sharp in his return Tuesday. But he already looks better in his second day of minicamp than he did his first. Ochocinco made a pair of tip-toe sideline catches that were vintage Ochocinco. Both throws came from quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw ropes to Ochocinco through tight coverage.
  • The safety rotation in Cincinnati will be interesting to watch. On Wednesday morning, last year's starters -- Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe -- were getting reps with the first team. But Gibril Wilson and Roy Williams are also getting important reps. Defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle said this is the deepest and most experienced group of safeties he's ever coached in Cincinnati. Their roles probably will not be decided until late in the preseason.
  • There are also a host of kick and punt returners competing for the Bengals. Those getting kick return reps this week were Shipley, receiver Andre Caldwell and cornerback Adam Jones. Those receiving punt return reps were Shipley, Jones and receiver Quan Cosby. Of the group, I thought Jones looked good and surprisingly natural returning kicks, considering he was out of football in 2009.
  • So far there's not much separation between kickers Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent. Both are kicking well in minicamp. Rayner and Nugent combined to make all eight field goals in Wednesday morning's practice. The kicking job opened in Cincinnati when former longtime Bengals kicker Shayne Graham left in free agency and signed a contract with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Cincinnati Bengals will begin their mandatory minicamp Tuesday. Over the next three days, we should have a good indication of where the reigning AFC North champions stand heading into training camp.

Here are five key questions for Cincinnati:

1. How will the passing game look?

Analysis: When the Bengals were at their best offensively, quarterback Carson Palmer led an explosive unit that was able to throw the football all over the field. Cincinnati won 10 games last year. But the team did it with a run-oriented offense and an inconsistent passing game, particularly late in the year. The Bengals added receiver Antonio Bryant and highly-touted draft picks Jermaine Gresham and Jordan Shipley to help. A consistently explosive passing game would help the Bengals take the next step in 2010.

2. Is Ochocinco focused?

Analysis: This offseason, Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco has done everything but work on football with the Bengals. He participated in two television shows: "Dancing With The Stars" and a VH1 dating show that will air later this summer. It will be interesting to see how sharp Ochocinco is in his first practices with the team since last season. Palmer recently called Ochocinco out for not being around. But a great minicamp by No. 85 would put most of those concerns to rest.

3. How will the secondary shake out?

Analysis: The Bengals have a lot of competition in the secondary. There are four veteran safeties competing for two starting spots. Chris Crocker, Chinedum Ndukwe, Roy Williams and Gibril Wilson all have different strengths and weaknesses, and the players who perform the best will start in Mike Zimmer's defense in Week 1. The third cornerback spot also is a position to watch for Cincinnati. We will get to that in the next item.

4. What's the progress of Adam Jones and Matt Jones?

Analysis: Cincinnati made two controversial signings this offseason with Adam Jones and Matt Jones. The pair were out of football last season because of issues off the field. Adam Jones, a former first-round pick, is competing for the third cornerback spot. The Bengals struggled defending the slot last year, and they hope Adam Jones can shake off the rust and be a good complementary piece to starters Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. Matt Jones is battling for a roster spot with a deep group of receivers.

5. Who's the kicker?

Analysis: Longtime Bengals kicker Shayne Graham recently signed a free-agent contract with the Baltimore Ravens. Therefore, Cincinnati no longer has the comfort of knowing its kicker heading into the season. Dave Rayner and Mike Nugent will compete in minicamp and training camp to replace Graham. Both have been journeymen, but only one kicker will find a home in Cincinnati.

Scouts Inc. on Gibril Wilson

May, 10, 2010
The Cincinnati Bengals signed free agent Gibril Wilson last week to add to their mix of veteran safeties.

On paper, Wilson's statistics are solid. He had 93 tackles last season. But Wilson also is playing for his third team in three years.

[+] EnlargeWilson
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireGibril Wilson has had at least 92 tackles in each of the past five seasons.
What gives?'s AFC North blog checked in with Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to get some answers.

Matt, what are Gibril Wilson's strengths and weaknesses?

Williamson: He's definitely more of a strong safety. He's a liability in coverage. A couple of years ago, Wilson was really productive with the New York Giants. Then he really struggled with the Miami Dolphins. Miami played with him and Yeremiah Bell, which basically was two strong safeties, and they were really exposed in coverage. I think Wilson is a step slower than he was in his Giants days. At his best he was an in-the-box safety, and that's why he's been on the market for so long. Those guys aren't hard to find anymore, and there's not much of a market for them.

Many of the traits you describe sound similar to Bengals safety Roy Williams. Why would Cincinnati spend money in free agency to duplicate that?

Williamson: I know what you mean. I'm sure a lot of people are wondering that, unless the Bengals think Williams is on his way out. But I don't know why the Bengals went out and got Wilson. He really isn't anything special. He's been productive and he will give you some depth. But I really don't understand the signing, honestly.

Do you feel Wilson is an upgrade over Bengals' safeties Williams, Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe? Can Wilson win a starting job?

Williamson: He is similar to Roy Williams, but it's more treading water. I'd rather have Crocker and Ndukwe for sure, just because they bring more to the table in coverage. I'm not real big on Wilson. I can't say a lot of really good things about him. But the Bengals didn't spend a lot on him, and they picked him up in May after the draft. I'm sure he can help if someone goes down. But I don't think he brings a lot to the table as a starter.
The Cincinnati Bengals agreed to a one-year contract with safety Gibril Wilson, according to Wilson's agent.

Wilson last played for the Miami Dolphins in 2009 and recorded 93 tackles. This summer Wilson will be added to the current logjam of Bengals' safeties with starting experience, which include Chris Crocker, Chinedum Ndukwe and Roy Williams.

Draft Watch: AFC North

February, 24, 2010
NFC Busts/Gems: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Busts and late-round gems.

Baltimore Ravens

Busts: The Ravens have one of the most consistent front offices in the NFL, so you have to look all the way back to 2005 to really find an underperforming first-round pick in Mark Clayton. The receiver has shown flashes with several big games in Baltimore. But Clayton never developed the consistency to become a No. 1 receiver. In the second round, linebacker Dan Cody was another miss in 2005. His career never got off the ground, because he couldn't shake the injury bug. Also, it's too early to determine the status of 2009 second-round pick Paul Kruger. But the linebacker/defensive end was mostly a non-factor in his rookie season. Gems: Baltimore has several contributing players that were found in the late and middle rounds. Most recently, 2009 third-round cornerback Lardarius Webb looks like a potential starter and has the ability to return kicks. Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain was another great, under-the-radar pick in the fourth round in 2007. Starting left tackle Jared Gaither was found in the supplemental draft in 2007 and started 26 games the past two seasons. Other key contributors include starting safety Dawan Landry and punter Sam Koch, who were fifth- and sixth-round picks in 2006, respectively.

Cincinnati Bengals

Busts: It's well-documented that Cincinnati doesn't put nearly the same resources into scouting as most teams, and it shows in its list of draft busts. Eight players the Bengals selected in the first three rounds since 2004 are no longer with the team. Several -- such as first-rounders Chris Perry and David Pollack and second-rounders Odell Thurman and Kenny Irons -- are out of the NFL. Most recently, the career of 2009 No. 6 overall pick Andre Smith got off to a poor start. But he has time to turn things around. Receiver Jerome Simpson, who was a second-round pick in 2008, is running out of chances and may not make the 53-man roster next fall. It's difficult to maintain a steady level of success when you're missing this often in the first and second rounds. Gems: Seventh-round pick Chinedum Ndukwe was not highly touted out of Notre Dame but continued to make plays for the Bengals until coaches had no choice but to play him. Defensive tackle Domata Peko was a fourth-round pick in 2006 who developed into one of Cincinnati's most important players. Last year's sixth-round pick, tailback Bernard Scott, showed flashes as a rookie.

Cleveland Browns

Busts: The Browns are on their third regime in three years. With that kind of turnover, you can expect a lot of misses in the draft as the team continues to switch philosophies. The Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel era began in 2005 with receiver Braylon Edwards and safety Brodney Pool. Edwards didn't live up to expectations and was traded to the New York Jets last season. Pool likely will be let go to free agency. It has been three years, and we still don't know exactly what to make of 2007 first-round pick Brady Quinn. The new regime led by Mike Holmgren doesn't seem too impressed, as the team continues to explore its options at quarterback. Receiver Brian Robiskie and linebacker David Veikune, both second-round picks in 2009, also need to step up for Cleveland in 2010. Gems: Starting fullback Lawrence Vickers, a sixth-round pick in 2006, was another great find. He paved the way for Jamal Lewis to have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2007 and 2008. Vickers also helped tailback Jerome Harrison (862 rushing yards), another late gem, put up career highs last season. Most recently, 2009 fourth-round pick Kaluka Maiava may turn out to be a decent linebacker from the middle rounds.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Busts: Similar to the Ravens, the Steelers do not make a lot of mistakes at the top of the draft. Six of Pittsburgh's past seven first-round picks are starters. That includes quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu, receiver Santonio Holmes and tailback Rashard Mendenhall. Pittsburgh has had some issues in the second round. In 2008, the Steelers were hoping Limas Sweed could be the big receiver they were looking for, but that hasn't panned out. In 2004, second-round cornerback Ricardo Colclough had zero starts in four years before being released. Gems: Last year's third-round pick Mike Wallace already is a significant addition to Pittsburgh's offense. His deep speed was needed, and he had 39 receptions for 756 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie. Pittsburgh also has been fortunate to find starting offensive linemen late in the draft. Offensive tackle Willie Colon and guard Chris Kemoeatu were taken in the fourth and sixth rounds, respectively. Dennis Dixon, who was taken in the fifth round in 2008, also could develop into a solid backup quarterback.

Bengals' D leads sweep of Steelers

November, 15, 2009

AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Bengals tried to make their case as the best defense in the AFC North by sacking Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger four times.

PITTSBURGH -- The high-powered offense of the Cincinnati Bengals didn't get into the end zone Sunday.

Cedric Benson, one of the NFL’s top tailbacks, sat out the entire second half with a hip injury.

Two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer was average and, at times, shaky.

Yet the Bengals still became the new kings of the AFC North with an 18-12 upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Chalk it up to Cincinnati's dominant yet underrated defense, which carried the Bengals for all four quarters against the defending Super Bowl champions.

For one of the first times at Heinz Field, the best defense on the grass Sunday wasn't wearing black and gold. Cincinnati’s unit in orange and black was all over the field harassing Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked four times, had an interception and often saw his receivers covered well downfield.

"They’re playing like the best defense in the league," said Palmer, who had only 178 passing yards. "They believe that, and they’re also producing numbers like that too."

Just as the rest of league has come to the realization that the first-place Bengals (7-2) are for real, the same has to be said of their defense.

This is not a one-dimensional team. Cincinnati is strong in many areas, and Sunday that included solid kicking from Shayne Graham (four field goals) and a 96-yard kickoff return from Bernard Scott.

Pittsburgh, which had a five-game winning streak ended, had only 226 yards of total offense. The Steelers (6-3) were stopped on 12 of 15 third-down conversions and were held without a touchdown in four trips to the red zone.

The Bengals didn't accomplish much offensively either, but it didn't matter.

"We knew it was going to be that kind of a game and that the best defense would win this game," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. "That's all [Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer] talked about."

At least for this season, it is time to put Cincinnati's defense in the same category as the defenses of the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.

In fact, when the Bengals played head-to-head against the Ravens and Steelers this season, it was Cincinnati's unit that stood out by making a majority of the key plays.

"They’ve been the cornerstones of the league the last few years," Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph said of the Ravens and Steelers. "They’ve been going back and forth No. 1 and No. 2 as the top-ranked defenses in this league ... We want to make our presence felt as well."

Thanks in large part to the performance of the defense, the Bengals swept Baltimore and Pittsburgh in four games this season to become the new bullies of the AFC North.

"It’s an amazing feeling to be able to go into our division and do that to two big-time teams," Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe said. "It’s like we’re playing baseball. You’re not supposed to sweep people in football. It’s hard, but it's been exciting."

In a huge game for both teams, the Bengals remained a couple steps ahead of Pittsburgh.

Cincinnati's defense dictated the pace of the game by controlling the line of scrimmage.

Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall, who entered the game red hot, was held to 36 yards on 13 carries (2.8 yard average). The Bengals sacked Roethlisberger four times, including two by defensive end Jonathan Fanene. Fellow defensive end Frostee Rucker had the only interception of the game on a deflection in the third quarter.

Pittsburgh got a majority of its yards through the air, particularly with receiver Santonio Holmes (seven catches, 88 yards). But every time the Steelers strung together several good plays, Cincinnati’s defense would make a big stop to end the drive or force a field goal to keep the game from getting out of hand.

Just as the front seven stuffed the running game, Cincinnati's secondary did a great job against Holmes, Hines Ward (four catches, 24 yards) and rookie receiver Mike Wallace (one catch, 16 yards). Bengals cornerbacks Joseph and Leon Hall were once again outstanding as they continue to develop into one of the league’s best tandems.

"After dealing with me for such a long time, they’re probably the best two in the league right now," Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco said.

Cincinnati made its biggest statement of the season by sweeping Pittsburgh, but the seasons for both of these teams are far from over. Expect a lot of jockeying for playoff positioning in the final seven games.

As with most quality AFC North teams, the Bengals and Steelers are versatile and both have the potential to make a lot of noise in the postseason if they can keep things together.

"We'll probably see them again in the playoffs," Crocker nodded.

Bengals-Steelers III in January for all the marbles?

Now that would be interesting.

Final Word: AFC North

November, 13, 2009
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 10:

[+] EnlargeRashard Mendenhall
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesRashard Mendenhall has 528 yards and four touchdowns in five starts this season.
Huge stakes: Forget about the Indianapolis Colts against the New England Patriots. The game that involves higher stakes this week is the marquee matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) and Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2). This game has the potential to decide the AFC North division champion for 2009. The division champ also will have a home game in the postseason. The Bengals won the first meeting 23-20, with a furious rally in the fourth quarter. These are very deep teams that no one will want to face in January. But for right now, the rest of the NFL gets to see them beat each other up one more time.

Mendy is trendy: As big a surprise as Cedric Benson is with the Bengals, an equally strong case can be made for Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall. The 2008 first-round pick has fit right into Pittsburgh’s offense since becoming a starter in Week 4. Mendenhall has 528 yards and four touchdowns in five starts and has shown a good combination of quickness and power. Mendenhall had arguably his best performance of his career last week in a win against the Denver Broncos, rushing for 155 yards on 22 carries (7.0 average). He got stronger in the second half and closed any hopes of a Denver comeback. Mendenhall was inactive for the first meeting against Cincinnati because of poor practice habits.

Next man up: The Bengals announced Friday that starting safety Roy Williams is out for the year with a forearm injury. This makes backup safety Chinedum Ndukwe the starter for the remainder of the season. Williams was one of Cincinnati’s biggest free-agent acquisitions in the offseason but only played in four games. He was the second Bengal to go to injured reserve this week, joining receiver Chris Henry. Ndukwe has played in all eight games, including four starts, with 35 tackles and 1.5 sacks this season.

Slow starters: One reason the Baltimore Ravens (4-4) are struggling is because of their notoriously slow starts. In four of Baltimore’s losses, the Ravens have been outscored in the first half by a combined score of 51-17. The Ravens didn’t score more than seven points in the first half of either of those games. Baltimore faces another slow-starting team in the Cleveland Browns this week.

Swan song: Monday will mark the final time Browns tailback Jamal Lewis plays against former teammate Ray Lewis and the Ravens. The two won a Super Bowl together in 2000 and had a lot of success in Baltimore. But Jamal Lewis, 30, said he is retiring after the season. He joined the Browns in 2007 to try to win another championship. But Cleveland (1-7) never made the playoffs in Jamal Lewis’ tenure. The tailback has been very outspoken recently, particularly about Browns head coach Eric Mangini. It will be interesting to see how well Jamal Lewis plays in the final eight games of his stellar career.