AFC North: Chris Johnson

The Browns apparently weren’t among the teams that inquired about running back Chris Johnson before the Titans released the sixth-year veteran.

Johnson
They would be wise to keep their distance now that the three-time Pro Bowler is on the open market.

Sure, Johnson won't be nearly as expensive as he would have been were the Titans able to trade him. And yes, Johnson, who was due to make $8 million in 2014, would be intriguing at the right price for a team that needs to add more skill players.

Unfortunately for the Browns -- and whoever signs Johnson -- they cannot turn back the clock a couple of years. And the reality is Johnson is nowhere near the same player who blazed his way to a 2,000-yard rushing season and averaged an eye-popping 5.6 yards per carry in 2009.

That was five seasons ago, which is an eternity for the NFL and especially running backs, and one statistic in particular clearly shows a player who is in decline.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Johnson’s runs of at least 20 yards dropped from 22 in 2009 to just 11 in 2011. The number slipped to five last season, a strong indication that the hits Johnson has accumulated while racking up six consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons have caught up with him.

Johnson may still belong on a short list of the NFL’s fastest players, and maybe he just needs a fresh start to rejuvenate his career. Even if that is the case, the Browns are still smart to stay away from Johnson unless they want their running backs room to be a potentially unhappy place.

The Browns signed Ben Tate early in free agency, and he is going to want to do anything but share time at running back after patiently biding his time behind Arian Foster in Houston.

Similarly, Johnson might balk at a reduced role.

Consider that he has accounted for 68 percent of the Titans’ rushing yards since 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information. No running back during that span has rushed for a higher percentage of his team’s rushing yards -- not even the otherworldly Adrian Peterson.

Johnson has become so accustomed to the role of No. 1 back that he needs to sign with a team that will at least give him an opportunity to start. The Browns, meanwhile, need to maximize the investment they made in Tate and see what he can do with a steady of diet of carries.

That is why they will watch from afar as Johnson tries to re-establish himself as a premier back.
Troy Polamalu and Jake Locker Getty ImagesJake Locker will have to face a fresh Troy Polamalu and one of the league's top defenses.
Pittsburgh is a tough place to play. The Pittsburgh Steelers don't often stay down long. The Tennessee Titans will bring a lot of unknowns to Heinz Field.

It’s an intriguing opening day matchup for two teams looking to bounce back from seasons that didn’t meet standards and fell short of expectations.

ESPN.com Steelers' blogger Scott Brown joins me for his first edition of Double Coverage, and I know he’ll understand if we skip the pleasantries and dive right in.

The Titans' rebuild is centered around their offensive line. They’ll be way more physical with a new interior of Andy Levitre, Rob Turner and Chance Warmack.

Scott, I know the offensive line has been an issue in Pittsburgh, too. What’s the status of things there, and how much better can we expect the Steelers to be up front?

Scott Brown: Paul, that is one of the biggest questions facing the Steelers. The offensive line is one of the youngest and most inexperienced the Steelers have assembled in decades. But the group is athletic and has plenty of what coach Mike Tomlin likes to call "pedigree."

Two of the starters are first-round draft picks. Two others are second-round selections. The Steelers have clearly made a big investment in the offensive line, and they need a major return on that investment for this team to return to the playoffs.

I think the interior of the line with Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster has a chance to be really good. I'm not as sold on tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, who will protect Ben Roethlisberger's blind side.

The Titans, I'm sure, will test that line with plenty of blitzes, as the first-team offensive line struggled with pass-blocking in the preseason.

Speaking of blitzes, Titans quarterback Jake Locker will see his share with the ageless wonder Dick LeBeau still calling defenses in Pittsburgh.

How is Locker progressing, and is he the long-term answer at quarterback in Tennessee?

Paul Kuharsky: The verdict on whether Locker is the guy for the long haul won’t come until after we see this season.

He steadily improved in camp and the preseason and has reason to feel good about the state of things. I don’t think he’s going to have many games in his career in which he throws for 300 yards, but the Titans aren’t built to ask that of him. They’ll get him on the move to make simple throws and decisions, especially early, when he often needs to settle down and find a rhythm.

That line will give him time and be far better at creating space for Chris Johnson and newcomer Shonn Greene. If the Titans run effectively -- and the preseason suggested that’s one thing they are definitely good at -- they can build play-action off that and Locker will be in a perfect setting to succeed.

The two big questions are about his accuracy and how he will react to new, unforeseen circumstances. You know, the kind of stuff Lebeau has designed for this game especially for him.

Does LeBeau have the pieces to do the sort of things to confuse a young quarterback?

Brown: He has one of the most valuable pieces of all in Troy Polamalu. The dynamic strong safety allows LeBeau to do so much because he plays all over the field and opposing quarterbacks don't know where he is going to be from snap to snap.

Polamalu missed nine games last season because of a recurring calf injury, but he looked like his old self in training camp and the preseason. In that sense, the timing isn't good for the Titans to play the Steelers because Polamalu is at full strength. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley also seems poised to bounce back from an injury-plagued season in which he registered just four sacks.

With those two and other players such as inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, LeBeau won't hold back -- particularly against a relatively inexperienced quarterback who is still finding his way in the NFL.

Paul, the Steelers have never lost at Heinz Field in September under Tomlin. My question for you is what will it take for the Titans to pull off the upset on Sunday?

Kuharsky: I think it’s possible. They’d have to show poise, withstand the bad moments, minimize mistakes. You know the drill.

This is a team that has been run on by lesser running backs in the recent past, so it can’t take Isaac Redman lightly, and we’ll find out fast if Sammie Hill and Ropati Pitoitua are going to help answer the run-defense deficiencies.

The Titans must get Roethlisberger to the ground when they have the chance. After an offseason talking of press coverage, they haven’t changed at all at cornerback, and I imagine Roethlisberger will find things to attack. He knows Titans strong safety Bernard Pollard from his time in Baltimore. I won’t be surprised if the Steelers plot to get Pollard in coverage situations they feel they can exploit.

The other big question here, the elephant in the room: Your first game for ESPN.com? You ready?

Brown: To help myself to some Tomlinisms: This is where the rubber meets the road, but this is not my first rodeo. I believe I have sharpened my pen (does that still apply in the dot.com world?) for battle, but I will have to pay attention to detail. Ultimately, it comes down to making plays (or deadline in this case) inside stadiums with the lights on (yes, I know it is a 1 p.m. start, but gray days in Pittsburgh are as noteworthy as grass on a golf course). Such is life in the National Football League (and ESPN.com), and I embrace the challenge.

Ravens safety Ed Reed -- or is it soon-to-be former Ravens safety? -- had dinner in Houston on Thursday night with Texans officials and wide receiver Andre Johnson, who was Reed's teammate at the University of Miami. According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, signs point to Reed getting a deal done with the Texans on Friday. Let's see if it plays out that way. Reed is the most unpredictable player I've ever covered in my 14 years in the NFL. Now let's go to the wake-up call ...

BALTIMORE RAVENS
  • The Ravens didn't attempt to match the Eagles' three-year, $17 million deal to cornerback Cary Williams. “I completely understand,” Williams told The Baltimore Sun. “I get it. They weren't trying to do anything at this point or bring back the old offer. No, there's no hard feelings. It's not something that you get upset about it. We won a Super Bowl, and now I'm moving on.”
  • The Ravens officially announced the release of safety Bernard Pollard. "There are many difficult decisions we make every offseason," general manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement. "They become even more difficult when they involve players who helped us get another Super Bowl trophy."
  • Baltimore re-signed reserve cornerback Chris Johnson to a one-year deal. Johnson, 33, played four games for the Ravens last season.
CINCINNATI BENGALS
PITTSBURGH STEELERS
CLEVELAND BROWNS
  • Chief executive officer Joe Banner dismissed rumblings that the Browns are interested in trading defensive linemen Phil Taylor or Ahtyba Rubin. There was speculation they could be involved in a deal for Patriots backup Ryan Mallett. “Our purpose has been to put together a really strong unit, have some depth so we can rotate and so if we have any injuries the line will still be one of the primary assets of the team," Banner said, via The Akron Beacon Journal. "That’s what we feel like we’re achieving. We’re not looking to be trading anybody.”
  • Browns new defensive lineman Desmond Bryant is eager to put the past behind him. He was arrested in Miami on Feb. 24 on a misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief. He allegedly entered a neighbor’s house inebriated and caused a commotion, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “I made a mistake,” Bryant said at his introductory press conference, via The Plain Dealer. “I apologize for everything that happened. . .. That's really not the kind of person that I am. I think in time I will show you guys and whoever wants to know that that's not indicative of me. I've moved beyond that and hopefully everybody else will, too."

Rapid Reaction: Ravens 13, Steelers 10

November, 18, 2012
11/18/12
11:36
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PITTSBURGH -- My thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 13-10 win at the Pittsburgh Steelers:

What it means: The Ravens (8-2) took control of the AFC North, moving two games ahead of the Steelers (6-4). This was Baltimore's 12th straight win in the division, which ties the Colts for the longest in the league since the division realignment in 2002. The Steelers had won seven straight games at Heinz Field. But this marked the Ravens' third win in Pittsburgh in their past four trips.

Ravens defense steps up: After giving up a touchdown 43 seconds into the game, the banged-up Ravens defense held the Steelers to a field goal the rest of the way. Baltimore disrupted Byron Leftwich, who was replacing Ben Roethlisberger, into 17-of-38 passing for 201 yards and stopped the Steelers on 8 of 11 third downs. The Ravens forced two turnovers, which led to six points.

Happy returns: Jacoby Jones gave the Ravens their first lead of the game late in the first quarter, when he returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown. It was his third return for a touchdown in the past five weeks. Jones is the first Ravens player to post three combined return touchdowns in a season.

Costly fumble: Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace has had a problem with dropped passes but he didn't show great hands when he was stripped of the ball by Chris Johnson, who had been signed by the Ravens this week. The first-quarter turnover deep in Steelers territory led to a Justin Tucker 26-yard field goal. It was Wallace's first lost fumble in 17 games.

Elusive Leftwich: Not known for his mobility, Leftwich ran for a 31-yard touchdown on the third snap of the game. He outran Terrell Suggs to get to the outside and broke through an arm tackle by Bernard Pollard before reaching the end zone. It was Leftwich's first rushing touchdown since the end of the 2008 season. His previous long run was 18 yards and that came in 2003, Leftwich's rookie season.

Get feet down: Down 13-7 in the third quarter, the Steelers drove to the Ravens' 4-yard line where Leftwich made a nice throw to the right side of the end zone. But Wallace didn't get both feet down inbounds. Instead of taking the lead, the Steelers settled for a field goal to pull to within 13-10.

What's next: The Ravens go on a cross-country trip to play at San Diego (4-6), which has lost two straight. The Steelers stay in the division and play at the Browns (2-8), who are coming off an overtime loss in Dallas.

Another hit to the Ravens' cornerbacks

November, 15, 2012
11/15/12
12:36
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The Ravens lost their best cornerback when Lardarius Webb suffered a season-ending knee injury four games ago. Now, Baltimore will be without the player who replaced him in the starting lineup.

Jimmy Smith had successful groin surgery in Philadelphia on Thursday, the team announced. He is obviously out for Sunday night's game against the Steelers and is expected to be back before the end of the season.

The Ravens didn't have Smith last Sunday and went with Cary Williams and Corey Graham, a special-teams standout, as their starting cornerbacks. Anticipating Smith would be out for an extended period, Baltimore signed former Raiders cornerback Chris Johnson this week. In five seasons in Oakland, Johnson started 29 games and had eight interceptions.

This is another setback for Smith, who hasn't lived up to expectations after being a first-round pick in the 2011 draft. Injuries and inconsistent play have limited Smith to five starts and two interceptions.
The injury talk usually happens after the Ravens and Steelers play. But, as you can see in the wake-up call, there are concerns before the two physical rivals meet Sunday night:

RAVENS: The team signed former Raiders cornerback Chris Johnson and placed reserve running back Bobby Rainey on injured reserve. The Baltimore Sun suggests the move indicates increasing concern over the health of starting cornerback Jimmy Smith, who suited up but didn't play a snap Sunday because of an abdomen injury. Johnson was signed following a tryout of two veteran cornerbacks, Rod Issac (Jaguars) and Terrence Johnson (Falcons). The Ravens started Corey Graham on Sunday and used Chykie Brown as the nickelback.

STEELERS: A sprained sternoclavicular (SC) joint apparently isn't Ben Roethlisberger's only injury. Sources told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback also hurt a rib when he was sacked Monday night and that injury, which was not mentioned by coach Mike Tomlin, could be a serious problem. The paper speculated that it could be a matter of weeks before Roethlisberger returns to play for the Steelers. The injury occurred on the only sack allowed by the Steelers that night. Also, Tomlin referred to the decision to waive rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu as "strictly a personnel move" and hinted that he may be back.
BENGALS: Adam Jones is looking to become the third Bengals player to finish as the NFL's leading punt returner, according to the team's official website. Jones' average of 17 yards per punt trails only the 19.5 of Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin. Jones had a 68-yard punt return in Sunday's win over the Giants, and according to Elias Sports Bureau, he is the second Cincinnati player to have two punt returns of at least 68 yards in the same season. The only Bengal to do that before Jones was Craig Yeast in 1999.

BROWNS: It's Week 11 of the NFL season, and Browns defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor may finally play their first game together this season. According to The Plain Dealer, Rubin participated in the first practice since the team returned from the bye week and is looking to play Sunday at Dallas. He's only played about a quarter over the last four games since injuring his calf on Oct. 7. "We're both dominant," Rubin said of himself and Taylor, who missed the first seven games with a torn pectoral muscle. "If I'm making a play, he's making a play and vice versa. We're just chipping away, trying to get back out there 100 percent. When we do get out there, it's gonna be something nice."

Wake-up: Comparing Romo to Big Ben

October, 11, 2012
10/11/12
8:00
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Greetings from the AFC South stomping grounds. I'm here for Thursday night's game between the Steelers and Titans. Most of the blogs today and tonight will focus on Pittsburgh because it's game day. Consider yourself warned. Time for the wake-up call ...

RAVENS: When watching film of the Cowboys for Sunday's game, the Ravens see some similarities between Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger. Yes, you read that correctly. "(Romo) is actually a really dangerous quarterback," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata told CBS Sports. "He can move around really well in the pocket, and when he escapes, he makes plays. He's kind of like Roethlisberger in that way, where he tries to extend plays and look down the field and throw it and he does a really good job at it." If Romo is able to escape the pass rush like Roethlisberger, the Ravens up-and-down secondary could be in trouble.

BENGALS: Nate Clements made his second straight start at strong safety, which seems to indicate that his move from cornerback is permanent. "Nate wants to do whatever helps the football team be successful,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. “If it’s playing him snaps at safety and that’s what he thinks it is, he’ll do it. I can remember having a conversation with Rod Woodson about that. Rod was saying, ‘If you think it makes us better, then OK.’ With Nate, it was, ‘If you think this helps us, then I’m game.” He had eight tackles and a forced fumble Sunday.

STEELERS: Pittsburgh isn't underestimating Titans running back Chris Johnson even though the former 2,000-yard rusher is averaging 42 yards per game. "He’s still a home run-type runner," linebacker Chris Carter told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "He can still break an 80-yard run, so we’re focused on containing him. You definitely have to give a player like that respect because his résumé has looked good for years. We can’t give him any lanes, and that’s ultimately what it comes down to. He’s not the type that’s going to run over you; it’s about him getting open space.” The Steelers' run defense ranks 11th this season.

BROWNS: Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, who tied for the league lead with nine interceptions, believes he understands the adjustment he needs to make to reduce his critical mistakes. "It's an ego thing and I think I just need to get rid of the ego and take what they give me and move on and not be as stubborn," Weeden said, via The Plain Dealer. "Just throw the football away and move on." As the paper points out, Weeden has struggled the most in pressure situations. He's 31st in the NFL in third-down passing with one touchdown and four interceptions, and he's he's 32nd in fourth-quarter passing with two touchdowns and four interceptions.
Time to open up some mail, which includes a couple of questions concerning the Pittsburgh kicker.

C from Ontario, Canada, writes: Shaun Suisham grew up close to me and I want him to do well. But I'm a Steeler fan first, so why is he on the team still? He bombed hard last year, his field-goal percentage was 31st in the league last season. Please tell me this young guy can beat Shaun out! Or at least the Steelers will do something.

Dennis from Clermont, Fla.: Jamison, when will the Steelers get serious about needing a kicker? With a team that has a defense that can always keep games close, an above average kicker is a necessity, but the team never invests in that position.

Jamison Hensley from AFC North headquarters responds: There has to be some surprise that the Steelers didn't bring in serious competition to take on Suisham. Pittsburgh recently worked out Dave Rayner, another less-than-stellar veteran, but it didn't sign him. While no kicker for the Steelers will ever rank high in field-goal percentage, because half of his games are at challenging Heinz Field, Suisham struggled on the road as well. He made 9 of 13 kicks beyond 30 yards away from home (69 percent).

This lack of consistency in the kicking game can become a problem, especially if the Steelers can't improve on being the 18th-ranked red-zone offense. The only competition for Suisham is Danny Hrapmann, an undrafted rookie out of Southern Mississippi. He connected on 67.6 percent (23 of 34) of his field goals last season. In other words, he's not a real threat to Suisham. The Steelers should have looked at a veteran like Neil Rackers, who since signed with Washington. Pittsburgh should be more concerned about its kicker situation.


Joseph from Los Angeles writes: Everyone is saying that Billy Winn is going to fill in for Phil Taylor. Why would the team invest a third-round pick in John Hughes if he was not intended to be ahead of a sixth rounder on the depth chart? Is Hughes a run-stopper or situational player? Is Winn that much better?

Hensley responds: The Browns picked Hughes three rounds before Winn because they obviously had Hughes higher on their draft board. But you can't ask someone to play a position just because he's the higher draft pick. Hughes primarily played nose tackle at Cincinnati. Winn was a penetrating defensive tackle at Boise State. So, given what they bring to the field, Hughes is better suited to back up Ahtyba Rubin, and Winn looks more like Taylor's replacement.

This isn't to say Winn is definitely going to take over for Taylor. Hughes did play defensive tackle and defensive end in college. But, based on reports from Browns rookie minicamp, Winn was playing Taylor's defensive tackle spot, and Hughes was lining up at nose tackle. To be fair, Cleveland probably doesn't know who will start for Taylor. It's May, and the Browns have seen their rookies on the field for a few days. The Browns coaches are still learning about their new players and have time to decide who will be starting against the Eagles on Sept. 9.


Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: Ray Rice should get a bigger contract than Chris Johnson because, quite simply, he is a much better player than Johnson, and he is the Ravens' offense. CJ2K might have that one fluky 2,000-yard season, but even Adrian Peterson doesn't have one to his name and I doubt anyone would say CJ2K is better than AP. As far as I'm concerned -- and this is coming from a Steelers fan -- Ray Rice is the second-best running back in the league behind Adrian Peterson, and he should get paid like it.

Hensley responds: You sound more like Rice's agent than a Steelers fan. It's easy to take shots at Johnson after his disappointing season last year. To say his 2,000-yard was "fluky" ignores what he did in 2008 and 2010. When the Titans signed him to his big contract (six years with $30 million guaranteed), Johnson produced the most total yards in the NFL in his first three seasons (5,606) and scored 38 touchdowns. Did the Titans overpay him? Absolutely. Will the Ravens pay Rice like Johnson? Not likely.

I think everyone can agree that Rice doesn't deserve the money given to Peterson (seven years with $36 million guaranteed). Rice's numbers over the past three years are clearly better than Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy, and he should receive more than their recent deals (both of which included $20.7 million guaranteed). The question now becomes whether Rice should receive anything close to Johnson's deal. Over the past three seasons, Rice has more total yards, but Johnson has four more rushing touchdowns and 22 more runs longer than 20 yards. What also separates them is Johnson's 2,000-yard season. You can call it a fluke, but he is one of six running backs to accomplish this feat. That puts him in an elite category. And that's why I still feel that $25 million guaranteed is a fair deal for Rice.


Dennis from Sacramento, Calif., writes: How do you justify your "win win win for Cincinnati" on the Carson Palmer trade? When was the last time Cincinnati had any first-round and or second -round pick take them to the playoffs and win a game, let alone take them to the Super Bowl. To expect more than what Palmer was able to do last year after coming in off the couch would have been just plain stupid. Let's see what he does this year and then you can comment. This is why Palmer said "in the years to come" verses you only looking at it from last year's results.

Hensley responds: This is clearly a win for the Bengals at this point. They have their franchise quarterback, two early round draft picks, and even the Raiders coach who initiated the deal (Hue Jackson is now an assistant on Cincinnati's staff). The only way this can be a win for the Raiders long-term is if Palmer takes the Raiders to the Super Bowl or guides them to several playoff wins.

It doesn't matter what the Bengals do with the picks. The Bengals won just by getting those picks. This was a steal. The Bengals couldn't have asked for a better deal. The Raiders gave up picks in the first and second rounds for a 31-year-old quarterback. Palmer has to justify dealing those picks. He might only have one year to do so. The Raiders could go in a different direction at quarterback if Palmer doesn't establish himself in 2012.
The Eagles signed running back LeSean McCoy to a five-year, $45 million extension Thursday evening, $20.76 million of which is guaranteed. This continues to provide a framework of the market value for running backs, but this deal might not accelerate the signing of Ravens running back Ray Rice.

Rice
McCoy
The problem is the disparity between the tiers for running backs. McCoy's deal is in line with the second tier like the Texans' Arian Foster (five years, $43.5 million, with $20.75 million guaranteed). But Rice could be shooting for the top tier that includes the Vikings' Adrian Peterson (seven years with $36 million guaranteed) and the Titans' Chris Johnson (six years with $30 million guaranteed).

What will likely get a deal done is finding a middle ground. Rice doesn't belong at the top of the pay scale because he hasn't averaged 13 rushing touchdowns over five seasons like Peterson and he doesn't have a 2,000-yard rushing season on his resume like Johnson.

But, based on the statistics, Rice deserves to get paid more than Foster and McCoy. In his three seasons as the featured back, Rice has produced 5,885 total yards, an average of 1,962 yards per season. That tops the three-year total yards by Foster (4,411) and McCoy (4,241).

That's why a five-year extension with $25 million guaranteed would be a fair deal for Rice.

Rice is currently scheduled to make $7.7 million this season as the Ravens' franchise player. If the sides can't reach a new deal by July 16, Rice will have to play this season under the tag.

He has yet to sign his tender and could skip training camp. Keeping in shape while working out on his own is not a concern for Rice.

"Training is something that I never worried about," Rice told the Carroll County (Md.) Times last weekend. "It's something that you got to want. I actually have the burning to desire to come back, not only for myself, but to come back ready to play. My training has always been part of my routine."

Rice has been training with former Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook.

"Nobody ever had to beat me in the head to get up and work out," Rice said. "Anybody who knows about my workout regimen, I've probably been through two before noon. Training has never been my issues but obviously, the team camaraderie, the lockout and all that stuff, that's the stuff that you kind of miss with the guys. But as far as being ready, I know I'll be ready."
As many of the loyal readers of the AFC North blog know, I believe the Cleveland Browns made the right move in draft running back Trent Richardson. The Browns need an offensive playmaker, and Richardson was clearly the top one remaining after Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.

Others don't agree. ESPN's Jeffri Chadiha sees Richardson-Browns as the "worst marriage" in this year's draft. Here's how Chadiha sees the situation:
There are plenty of reasons to like Richardson, including his college production, intangibles and overall toughness. What's hard to ignore is the recent history of highly drafted running backs in the NFL. Only two runners taken in the first round since 2007 have turned into stars -- Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Tennessee's Chris Johnson -- and Richardson doesn't possess the explosiveness or speed of those two.

The Browns also have a lousy passing game, which means Richardson will find more defenders focused on him every time he lines up. That doesn't mean he won't be productive at all. It just means he isn't as likely to live up to the status of being the third overall pick in the draft. Keep in mind, Browns Hall of Famer Jim Brown already has called him "ordinary." From this vantage point, it's easy to think other people might have a similar opinion of Richardson this season.

While he makes valid points, I'm going to have to disagree. I see this as a perfect pairing. The Browns' offense got pushed around too much last season, and it gained a tougher attitude with Richardson. He's the type of back that Cleveland needs to compete against the likes of the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals.

What will help this "marriage" in the future is the addition of deep threats. When defenses began to stack the box against Richardson, the Browns need to be able to counter with a strong-armed Brandon Weeden throwing downfield to receivers who can gain separation.

One point that everyone can agree on is Richardson is the type of talent that will cause defenses to adjust and react. You couldn't say that about anyone on the Cleveland offense last season.
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Franchise tag targets: Ravens

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
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A look at potential franchise tag targets for each of the AFC North teams. The window for tagging players opens Monday and closes March 5.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

The Ravens have never been shy about putting the franchise tag on players, using it six times in their 16-year history: offensive lineman Wally Williams (1998), cornerback Chris McAlister (2003 and 2004), linebacker Terrell Suggs (2008 and 2009) and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (2010). The past three players who have been tagged by the Ravens -- McAlister, Suggs and Ngata -- reached long-term deals with Baltimore.

The Ravens are the one team in the division that's considered a lock to use the franchise tag. Here are the options:

Top candidate: Ray Rice, running back. It would be a major surprise if the Ravens didn't put the tag on Rice, who is the top free-agent running back this offseason. There have been reports that the Ravens have yet to begin contract talks with Rice. (But the team is meeting with the agent for quarterback Joe Flacco next week). It will be interesting to see whether Rice, who has been the consummate team player, decides to hold out to protest the tag. The franchise tag is expected to drop to $7.7 million this season for running backs (from $9.6 million in 2011), which makes it an even bigger discount for the Ravens. Rice, who produced an NFL-best 2,068 total yards and set a team record with 15 touchdowns, can make a strong argument for a contract comparable to the one signed by the Titans' Chris Johnson: a reported four-year, $53.5 million deal.

Dark horse: Ben Grubbs, guard. This only comes into play if the Ravens can somehow get a deal done with Rice before March 5. Baltimore's preference is to keep Grubbs, especially after the offensive line struggled in the six games that he missed with a toe injury. It would be difficult for the Ravens to sign Grubbs to a long-term deal after making such a sizable investment at the guard position last year. Baltimore signed Marshal Yanda to a five-year, $32.5 million deal that included a $10 million signing bonus. Plus, the Ravens probably won't be able to outbid teams who need guards and have more cap room than them (like the Cincinnati Bengals).

Halftime: Titans 17, Bengals 7

November, 6, 2011
11/06/11
5:32
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Thoughts at halftime of the Bengals-Titans game in Tennessee:

  • The Bengals, who have the NFL's second-best run defense, have given up 55 yards to the once-struggling Chris Johnson. Cincinnati allows an average of 85.4 yards on the ground per game.
  • Cincinnati scored its only touchdown of the first half on a drive dominated by its tight ends. With starting tight end Jermaine Gresham out, Andy Dalton completed passes of 25 and 22 yards to backup Donald Lee before hitting rookie Colin Cochart for a 1-yard touchdown, which put the Bengals up 7-3.
  • The Titans took the lead into halftime because of a gutsy call and an incredible catch. On fourth-and-3 at the Bengals' 10-yard line, Tennessee decided not to kick the field goal and converted it with a 5-yard pass by Matt Hasselbeck. The drive finished with a 8-yard touchdown pass to Damian Williams, who somehow leapt up for the catch and got both feet in the back of the end zone.
  • Tennessee increased its lead with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Lavelle Hawkins in the final seconds of the first half. Hasselbeck threw for 166 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.

Final Word: AFC North

November, 4, 2011
11/04/11
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9:

Beating Big Ben at Heinz: The Ravens have lost five straight times to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at Heinz Field, where he has thrown 10 touchdowns and two interceptions against Baltimore during that streak. The last time the Ravens beat Roethlisberger on his home turf was 2006, which is also the last time they won the division. But Roethlisberger has some motivation as well. He turned the ball over a career-high five times (three interceptions and two fumbles lost) in the season opener at Baltimore, the most turnovers by a player in a game this season. Since then, he has six turnovers in seven games.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Steven Bisig/US PresswireAndy Dalton has been comfortable on the road this season, completing 64.4 percent of his passes.
Rookies on the road: The Bengals' young players are bucking the trend that they're supposed to struggle away from home. Maybe Cincinnati's rookies just like playing in front of packed crowds, something they don't see at Paul Brown Stadium. First-year quarterback Andy Dalton has completed 64.4 percent of his passes and has averaged 190 yards passing on the road this season. He has thrown seven touchdowns and three interceptions for a 91.8 passer rating on the road, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His prime target has been rookie first-round pick A.J. Green, who is looking for a touchdown catch in his fifth straight road game. Cincinnati takes a 3-1 road record into Tennessee.

Slumping at the start: The Browns' first-quarter woes aren't just a rut. It's becoming the Grand Canyon in terms of dysfunction. Cleveland has been outscored 44-3 in the first quarter this season, and the three points are the fewest in the NFL. It's actually the fewest by a team in the first quarter through the first seven games of a season since the 2000 Cardinals had three points (this comes courtesy of ESPN Sports & Information). Don't look for this trend to change at Houston on Sunday. The Texans have outscored teams 57-13 in the first quarter.

Stopping the big runs: The Bengals shouldn't have much concern over the NFL's No. 2 run defense going against struggling running back Chris Johnson, right? Well, maybe they should have some concern. Cincinnati has been strong against the run overall, allowing only two running backs to go over 66 yards rushing. The Bengals' weakness has been the big runs. They've given up a run of at least 16 yards in all but one game, and there have been three 20-plus yard runs against them in the past four games. Johnson has only broken two runs over 20 yards this season, but he's had 44 in his previous three seasons.

Cooking with Rice: The Steelers have allowed only three 100-yard rushers in their last 58 games (dating back to 2007), and Ravens running back Ray Rice has produced two of those. He gained 141 yards on the ground at Pittsburgh in December 2009 and ran for 107 yards in the season opener against the Steelers. In that last meeting, Rice became the first running back since Jacksonville's Fred Taylor in 2007 to rush for over 100 yards and average over five yards per carry in a game against the Steelers. Pittsburgh ranks No. 8 in the NFL in run defense this season.
The Ravens plan to use the franchise tag on running back Ray Rice, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported today. Rice, 24, is in the last year of his rookie contract that pays him $555,000 this season.

If the Ravens end up franchising Rice after the season, it wouldn't come as a shock for a couple of reasons. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said last March that he expects the team to start negotiations on a contract extension with quarterback Joe Flacco after this season. Baltimore might not want to hand out two large signing bonuses to offensive players in the same offseason (although this plan might have changed with Flacco's struggles this season).

Another factor in the decision is the amount to pay Rice. Since 2009, when he became a full-time starter, Rice has produced 25 games of at least 100 yards of total offense. That tops Adrian Peterson (23) and Chris Johnson (22). So, most likely, Rice will want a contract similar to them particularly Johnson (four years, $53.5 million, including $30 million guaranteed). And the Ravens might want to wait another year before giving Rice that type of a deal.

Rice said in July that he wants to stay with the Ravens, who drafted him in the second round in 2008.

"I don’t see why I wouldn’t want to stay in Baltimore," he said before training camp began. "I’ve done right by them. I’m hoping one day that we're all right for each other and make it a long-term deal."

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