AFC North: Chris Ogbonnaya

On the run game -- or lack thereof

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
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There may have been many good and wise reasons for the Cleveland Browns to trade Trent Richardson.

In Indianapolis, Richardson has provided no reason whatsoever to make the Browns lament the deal. Nor did he do anything for the Browns to make the team think trading him would be foolish, or that a first-round pick in return was (as they now say) good value.

But that doesn’t mean the Browns' running game isn’t shorted without him.

A year ago, Richardson ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie -- while he played with broken ribs. Eight hundred yards and five touchdowns would look joyful for the Browns' run game right now.

The team’s leading rusher is Willis McGahee; he has 287 yards and is averaging 2.6 per carry. Chris Ogbonnaya is second; he has 196 yards (and a 6.3-yard average, which is why he’s playing more than McGahee).

[+] EnlargeWillis McGahee
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesWillis McGahee is the Cleveland Browns' leading rusher with 287 yards.
McGahee ranks 50th in the NFL, Ogbonnaya 66th.

The Browns have had 91 yards or less as a team in six of the last eight games. In one of the two they had more than 91, they had a 45-yard reverse from Travis Benjamin.

The point: The backs aren’t getting much done.

They rank 28th in the league with 81 yards per game. They rank 29th at 21.4 carries, 26th at 3.8 yards per carry and 32nd with one stinking rushing touchdown. That’s one. O-n-e. All season.

The NFL may be morphing into a passing league, as Joe Thomas tells us. But there are times when a team needs to run the ball. Pittsburgh’s run game ranks lower than the Browns, but rookie Le’Veon Bell ran well and hard in the win on Sunday. When the Steelers needed a carry from him, he usually provided positive yards.

The Browns can’t say that. And that, combined with the fact they’ve fallen behind the past two weeks, led to them throwing 57 and 52 passes against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh respectively.

That is simply not a way to win.

The point can be made that the run game might be the exact same with Richardson. It would be hard to argue it the way he’s not running with the Colts.

It’s easy, too, to say that the decision to keep Fozzy Whittaker over Bobby Rainey was a mistake. But Rainey did little to justify staying in Cleveland, and after a big game for the Bucs against Atlanta he carried 18 times for 35 yards against Detroit.

In the offseason, team CEO Joe Banner admitted there would be positions this season where the team simply would not be able to fill its needs; that it was impossible to address everything in one offseason. He also said the team would be well aware of this.

Presumably the team is well aware of its issues at running back.

It’s easy to call the NFL a passing league, but most teams that depend on the pass have guys named Brady or Stafford or Roethlisberger or Manning or Brees or Luck.

A team that’s started three quarterback and is on the verge of its fourth change at the position that doesn’t even have a 300-yard back ... well, that’s trouble.

Big trouble.

And probably why offensive coordinator Norv Turner over and over has called this situation unique and something he’s never dealt with before.

No doubt he hopes to never deal with it again.

On the run game -- or lack thereof

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
10:53
AM ET
There may have been many good and wise reasons for the Cleveland Browns to trade Trent Richardson.

In Indianapolis, Richardson has provided no reason whatsoever to make the Browns lament the deal. Nor did he do anything for the Browns to make the team think trading him would be foolish, or that a first-round pick in return was (as they now say) good value.

But that doesn’t mean the Browns' running game isn’t shorted without him.

A year ago, Richardson ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie -- while he played with broken ribs. Eight hundred yards and five touchdowns would look joyful for the Browns' run game right now.

The team’s leading rusher is Willis McGahee; he has 287 yards and is averaging 2.6 per carry. Chris Ogbonnaya is second; he has 196 yards (and a 6.3-yard average, which is why he’s playing more than McGahee).

[+] EnlargeWillis McGahee
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesWillis McGahee is the Cleveland Browns' leading rusher with 287 yards.
McGahee ranks 50th in the NFL, Ogbonnaya 66th.

The Browns have had 91 yards or less as a team in six of the last eight games. In one of the two they had more than 91, they had a 45-yard reverse from Travis Benjamin.

The point: The backs aren’t getting much done.

They rank 28th in the league with 81 yards per game. They rank 29th at 21.4 carries, 26th at 3.8 yards per carry and 32nd with one stinking rushing touchdown. That’s one. O-n-e. All season.

The NFL may be morphing into a passing league, as Joe Thomas tells us. But there are times when a team needs to run the ball. Pittsburgh’s run game ranks lower than the Browns, but rookie Le’Veon Bell ran well and hard in the win on Sunday. When the Steelers needed a carry from him, he usually provided positive yards.

The Browns can’t say that. And that, combined with the fact they’ve fallen behind the past two weeks, led to them throwing 57 and 52 passes against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh respectively.

That is simply not a way to win.

The point can be made that the run game might be the exact same with Richardson. It would be hard to argue it the way he’s not running with the Colts.

It’s easy, too, to say that the decision to keep Fozzy Whittaker over Bobby Rainey was a mistake. But Rainey did little to justify staying in Cleveland, and after a big game for the Bucs against Atlanta he carried 18 times for 35 yards against Detroit.

In the offseason, team CEO Joe Banner admitted there would be positions this season where the team simply would not be able to fill its needs; that it was impossible to address everything in one offseason. He also said the team would be well aware of this.

Presumably the team is well aware of its issues at running back.

It’s easy to call the NFL a passing league, but most teams that depend on the pass have guys named Brady or Stafford or Roethlisberger or Manning or Brees or Luck.

A team that’s started three quarterback and is on the verge of its fourth change at the position that doesn’t even have a 300-yard back ... well, that’s trouble.

Big trouble.

And probably why offensive coordinator Norv Turner over and over has called this situation unique and something he’s never dealt with before.

No doubt he hopes to never deal with it again.

Upon Further Review: Browns week 11

November, 18, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Cleveland Browns' 41-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals:

Injury report: Inside linebacker Craig Robertson had an MRI on an injured knee today. Robertson hurt the knee in the first half, and though he tried to return he could not stay in the game. He has started aside D'Qwell Jackson all season. Tank Carder replaced Robertson against the Bengals.

Gordon
Ogbonnaya
Play count: It might mean nothing because the Browns fell behind in the second quarter and had to throw a lot (Jason Campbell threw 56 passes). But Chris Ogbonnaya was on the field for 46 plays and Willis McGahee was on the field for just 13. Ogonnaya also was the Browns' leading rusher in yards and attempts. The Browns won’t give up on McGahee, but they might be moving more toward Ogbonnaya.

Boggles the mind: In the second quarter the Bengals had the ball for 3:42. The Browns had it for 11:18. Cincinnati scored 31 points, the Browns 0. That's what happens when a punt is blocked, another tipped, and the offense commits two turnovers. Those four plays were the difference between a close game and a 21-point loss.

To the points: Every point scored in the game went to the North end zone, away from the Ohio River. Why that was the case remains a mystery. Browns coach Rob Chudzinski gestured palms up when asked, as if to say he didn’t know. The wind was from the South, Chudzinski said, but it wasn’t significant enough to affect the game to the point that all the scoring would have been in one direction. To Chudzinski it was just one of those quirks of the game.

Tough to win when you can't punt

November, 17, 2013
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CINCINNATI -- It's not common for a team to have a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown.

It's less common that a team has that happen in the same game when it has another punt tipped, holding said punt to 9 yards.

But that's part of the reason the Cleveland Browns fell apart in the 41-20 loss to the Bengals: They couldn't get off a punt. There were other miscues, of course. Jason Campbell's pass from his 20-yard line with the Browns ahead 13-0 was tipped at the line and intercepted by James Harrison. It would have been a touchdown had a Cincinnati player not blocked in the back for a penalty.

No matter, it merely set up Cincinnati's first touchdown.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Lanning
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY SportsBengals linebacker Jayson DiManche, 51, blocked Spencer Lanning's punt, which Tony Dye returned for a touchdown.
The Bengals forced a punt, which Lanning had tipped and went 9 yards. That set up the Bengals' second touchdown, which put them ahead for good.

Two possessions later, rookie Barkevious Mingo missed a block in protection and Lanning's punt was blocked, except this time the Bengals ran it in for a touchdown and a 21-13 lead.

The barricade was starting to cave.

“It's definitely a game-changer,” Lanning said of the blocks.

Mingo took responsibility for the second blocked punt. Lanning said the snap, step and kick from his point of view were fine.

“I felt the operation was good,” Lanning said. “Credit to them for dialing up good rushes.”

Lanning was amid the scrum for the ball with Tony Dye, but he neglected to touch Dye when he recovered the kick on the ground. That let Dye get up and run.

“I have no idea,” Lanning said when asked if he touched Dye. “I slid and was trying to fight for the ball.”

Lanning said he expected to be rushed kicking into the wind, and he got the pressure he expected. It could be, too, that the Bengals saw something they liked on the first tipped punt and decided to go after the second.

“Unacceptable,” coach Rob Chudzinski said of the poor special-teams protection.

The Browns then compounded their problems. On their ensuing possession, Chris Ogbonnaya fumbled after a short completion and the Bengals returned it for a touchdown and a 28-13 lead.

Then on third-and-13 with 42 seconds left, Jordan Cameron caught a short throw from Campbell and ran out of bounds. That allowed Cincinnati to save a timeout, and when the Browns didn't cover the punt well Cincinnati was able to kick a field goal.

The Browns implosion led the Bengals to score 31 points in the quarter, a franchise record.

“A few plays here and there, it could have been a different outcome to the game,” defensive lineman Desmond Bryant said.

Which, technically, is true.

But when every play goes against the team making the errors, it creates a steamroll effect that is next to impossible to fight.

And when the same team makes mistakes big and less big -- like Armonty Bryant jumping offside on a Cincinnati punt in the third quarter on fourth-and-2 -- it adds up.

Figure that Campbell returned to his pre-last-two-weeks self and threw three interceptions, and it's not hard to grasp why Browns lost a game by 21 when they held the opposing quarterback to 93 yards passing (on 27 attempts) and when they held the opposing star (receiver A.J. Green) to two catches for 7 yards.

“We handed them the game,” said wide receiver Josh Gordon.

“Too many mistakes,” said safety T.J. Ward. “Too many errors. We're not ready … we're not ready.”
Eddie Lacy and Brandon WeedenUSA TODAY SportsThe Packers may have to rely more on their run game, while Browns QB Brandon Weeden seeks to recover from a forgettable outing.
The Green Bay Packers have made it past a difficult stretch in which they played four playoff teams from last season in their first five games.

And they came out of it with a respectable 3-2 record.

The Cleveland Browns, despite going from Brandon Weeden to Brian Hoyer and now back to Weeden at quarterback, also aren't out of anything yet at 3-3.

ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Browns reporter Pat McManamon break down the matchup:

McManamon: Rob, what will Green Bay do at receiver with all those injuries, and how much will it affect the offense?

Demovsky: It's bound to have a significant impact. Randall Cobb more or less became the focal point of the passing game last season and if anything, that intensified this season. Sure, he's only a slot receiver and the Packers still have the deep threat of Jordy Nelson on the outside. But in this offense, a lot of those quick-hit passes -- especially against teams that blitz -- are directed to the inside. No team used more three-receiver sets than the Packers had until Cobb went down last week against the Ravens. They had used a three-receiver set on 90 percent of their snaps. That number likely will go down beginning this week against the Browns. They might have to rely on their new-found running game more than ever. But with fewer threats in the passing game, teams might be able to load up to stop running back Eddie Lacy.

The Browns have offensive issues of their own, Pat. Brandon Weeden's turnovers in the loss to the Lions looked like killers, especially that backhanded, underhand flip. How can they get him to play smarter?

McManamon: That backhanded, underhand flip will live for a long time in the annals of Cleveland Browns misplays since 1999, Rob. A lengthy list just got longer. As for getting him to play smarter, that's the challenge. And the challenge has gone on for 18 starts. Weeden actually started fairly well as a 29-year-old rookie, but he struggled the end of last season and this season he's played in fits and starts. Which of course won't be good enough against Green Bay. With Brian Hoyer injured, the Browns have few other options -- it's not like Tom Brady is on the streets waiting for a job -- so they will stick with Weeden. But you have to wonder whether the Browns aren't coming to the conclusion that what they see is what he'll be when it comes to this 30-year-old quarterback.

Rob, Weeden does not read the rush well and does not move well. The Packers are ninth in the league in sacks. Is that yet another bad recipe for Weeden and the Browns offense?

Demovsky: It remains to be seen whether they can keep up their sack pace. They did it without Clay Matthews last week, getting five sacks at Baltimore, but now they're going to be without another outside rusher, Nick Perry. Matthews and Perry each have three sacks on the season, which ties A.J. Hawk for the team lead. At some point, those injuries have to slow down their pass rush. The one thing that's helping them is they're playing the run very well, probably the best they have since they led the league in rushing defense in 2009. After shutting down Ray Rice last week, they're up to third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (78.2). That's putting teams in a lot of third-and-long situations, which allows defensive coordinator Dom Capers to blitz. That's how Hawk got all three of his sacks against the Ravens.

Perhaps the Browns can help protect Weeden if they run the ball effectively to keep the Packers from rushing like crazy. What are their prospects for doing that?

McManamon: Running the ball would protect Weeden. But it helps to have a ... well ... a running game. At present, the Browns are in make-do mode with the running game, and as the season continues that will more and more become a problem. Since the trade of Trent Richardson the Browns have relied on aging Willis McGahee, young Bobby Rainey and fullback Chris Ogbonnaya. These guys give effort, but there's only so much they can give. McGahee can't run outside, Rainey is inexperienced and Ogbonnaya is what he is. The Browns rank 22nd in the league by running for 86.8 yards per game -- though they are averaging 3.9 yards per carry. If the Browns want to run, they will have to commit to it and pound it out, something I am not sure they can do.

Rob, the Browns have had 19 starting quarterbacks since 1999 -- and it appears next year or soon after that number will hit 20. Do the Packers and their fans realize just how fortunate they have been these many years to have Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers?

Demovsky: They should. There are only a handful of organizations who can say they've had the kind of quarterback transition that the Packers had. The 49ers with Joe Montana to Steve Young come to mind. Maybe the Colts have that now with Andrew Luck following Peyton Manning. Not only was Favre a great quarterback, but he was there week in and week out. Rodgers is pretty much the same way. Those guys rarely get injured and when they do, they still play.

Most Packers fans here are still fond of Mike Holmgren, for leading them to the Super Bowl XXXI title. His tenure with as a Browns executive was much shorter. What impact, if any, did he have on the organization?

McManamon: Let's just say the feelings for Holmgren are a lot warmer in Green Bay -- odd as that sounds -- than in Cleveland. Many fans feel Holmgren's epitaph with the Browns should be "As a president, he was a great coach." A lot of that is frustration at constant losing. Some is frustration at the job title and salary scale Randy Lerner gave Holmgren. More still that Holmgren never took on the coaching duties himself. On balance, Holmgren's tenure was no worse than many, and better than some. He and GM Tom Heckert brought in some good players who are helping the team win now. But with any regime change comes more change, and Joe Banner has gotten rid of some of Holmgren's guys -- notably Richardson. Holmgren's biggest gamble was selecting a quarterback in the first round a year ago who is now 30. But Weeden clearly would have been helped by more continuity in the front office.

.
A lot of Cleveland Browns players said they didn't see Brandon Weeden's backhand, underhand flip that resulted in a fourth-quarter interception.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden
Tony Dejak/AP PhotoCleveland Browns QB Brandon Weeden walks off the field looking dejected following a 31-17 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
They might want to prepare, because the next time they see it outside the team’s film room it will play to the tune of “Yakety Sax.”

Ya-da, da-da-da-da ...

In a game in which Weeden could have made a forward move to reclaim his spot as the Browns quarterback now and in the future, he wound up with a play for the lowlight reel. For years to come.

“It was a boneheaded play,” Weeden said.

Credit him for candor.

Not only did it kill the Browns' fourth-quarter drive when they had a chance to tie the game, it raised the semi-dormant questions about field awareness and smarts in clutch performances that have dogged Weeden this season. It was the kind of play that could cause a team to wonder about its quarterback.

“It’s on me,” Weeden said of the high flip that was intercepted by DeAndre Levy at midfield with 4:36 left and the Browns down seven.

Weeden said he was trying to throw the ball away, but it was about as bad a play as any quarterback can make. He had his back to the line of scrimmage, his feet pointed toward the other end zone, his body twisted just outside the hashmark as he tried to flip the ball over the head of Chris Ogbonnaya, who was 12 yards ahead of Weeden standing at the sideline.

As he threw, C.J. Mosley was at Weeden’s ankles. But the guy who had been schooled so much and so hard to avoid a sack did just that -- and in trying to avoid a sack he made a far more foolish play.

“I have no answer for it,” running back Willis McGahee said. “You have to ask him what he was thinking.”

“I would just have to look at the tape,” coach Rob Chudzinski said. “All I saw was kind of the end of the play so I didn’t really see what was developing out there at the time.”

Several other players said they didn’t see it. Maybe they didn’t want to discuss it.

“It all happened so fast,” Weeden said. “Trying to make a play. You want to be smart and don’t take a sack. I just have to fall on it. Take a sack and move on.”

Especially because it was first down. Weeden even had a chance earlier in the play to make a more traditional throw to Ogbonnaya, or to throw the ball away. He moved left, and made it harder.

The play seemed to go in slow motion live, but it took about five seconds for Weeden to take the snap and do the reverse shovel (with a twist). He originally looked to Josh Gordon, then to Cameron. Mosley chased him as he moved left and flipped.

“He tried to make a play,” said safety Louis Delmas. “Obviously the play didn’t turn out to his favor.”

Obviously.

Weeden played a role in the Browns taking a 17-7 lead at halftime, just like he played a role in the offense stumbling through the third and most of the fourth quarter. The Browns tried to rally around him after the game, but that play will not be a pleasant one to watch in front of the rest of the team.

“We’re still behind him,” linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said. “He’s still the guy.”

“At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.” McGahee said. “You can’t blame it on one person.”

Not the game, but Weeden was clearly singularly responsible for the play that might just go down with Dwayne Rudd’s helmet toss and other infamous Browns boneheaded plays that haunt fans. Instead of one more for the record books, Weeden provided another for the annals.
Here are the morning headlines involving the Cleveland Browns:
  • The Browns are set to start converted tackle Oniel Cousins at right guard for the season opener, according to The Plain Dealer. The Browns lost their top two guards at that spot (Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston) to ankle injuries this month. “I have been pleased with how quickly he has made the transition,” coach Rob Chudzinski said of Cousins. “It’s not been perfect by any means, and he is still working and still needs to continue to work, but it has been relatively smooth.”
  • Chudzinski said some of his starters will make a brief appearance in the preseason finale Thursday night at Chicago, the Akron-Beacon Journal reports. “Generally, the guys who are with the ones would get 10-12 reps,” Chudzinski said.
  • First-rond pick Barkevious Mingo is improving from the bruised lung that has sidelined him since Aug. 15, according to the News-Herald. The rookie pass-rusher ran during a portion of practice Tuesday not open to reporters. There is no timetable for returning, but Chudzinski said Mingo will not have to go on the injured reserve-designated to return list.
BEREA, Ohio -- Here are some news and notes from Monday's practice at Cleveland Browns training camp ...
  • With all eyes on Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson returning to practice, the team watched another starter on offense carted off the field Monday. Right guard Shawn Lauvao went down with an ankle injury on 1-on-1 drills after being bull-rushed by defensive tackle Phil Taylor. Coach Rob Chudzinski didn't immediately know the severity of the injury. If there is any consolation, this is at a position where the Browns have depth. Jason Pinkston, a starter last year before a blood clot in his lung sidelined him, would replace Lauvao.
  • Richardson was limited in his first practice since Thursday. He was in briefly on goal-line drills, where he was dropped for a loss on a pitch to the left side. Richardson was then held out of the two-minute offense before returning briefly for the 7-on-7 part of practice. Asked whether Richardson would play in Thursday's preseason opener, Chudzinski said, "I have not decided on anything in terms of Thursday night in regards to Trent."
  • The Browns have Chris Ogbonnaya listed as the starting fullback on their depth chart, and he certainly has the edge over Owen Marecic. But I thought it was interesting to see the Browns go with Marecic as the lead blocker in the goal-line drills. Chudzinski on Ogbonnaya: "“He’s a very versatile guy. He’s able to play tailback and run the ball. He can play fullback and he can block. He can pass protect and catch passes. He’s a guy that can do a lot of different things. Those types of guys you can find roles for and they can help you win.”
  • If the Browns allowed contact on their quarterbacks, Paul Kruger would have had three sacks in the two-minute drill. He repeatedly beat right tackle Mitchell Schwartz before pulling up when he reached quarterback Brandon Weeden. Kruger stood out more than Jabaal Sheard and Barkevious Mingo on Monday.
  • Neither Weeden nor Jason Campbell looked sharp in the two-minute drill. They were hesitant to push the ball downfield and instead dropped the ball underneath. Campbell drew offensive coordinator Norv Turner's ire when he missed an open tight end down the middle of the field.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC North team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice is only 26, but he has taken a lot of hits. Although he put together a fantastic season, as usual, in 2012, he looked worn down late in the year and during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. He has four straight regular seasons with more than 250 carries and has caught at least 61 passes in each of those seasons. Even though he is still extremely potent, Baltimore might be wise to deflect a few more early-down carries toward Bernard Pierce to extend Rice’s effectiveness. Pierce isn’t close to the receiver Rice is and is still learning pass protection. However, he was very impressive late in the season, and you could argue he was running more effectively than Rice in the postseason. A bigger back than Rice, Pierce averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie and could make a big impact in games in which Baltimore has the lead. Bobby Rainey enters his second season as well. He is a shorter back with a thick build, good balance and good feet. Expect him to take a step forward in his second season, but he helps the Ravens mostly on special teams.

Cincinnati Bengals: BenJarvus Green-Ellis will open training camp as the Bengals’ top running back. But don’t expect him to keep that distinction for long, as Giovani Bernard is sure to pass him. Green-Ellis gets what is blocked, has some power to drag tacklers and is reliable with his ball security. What you see is what you get with Green-Ellis -- and it isn’t good enough. Bernard is an exciting prospect with loads of big-play ability. He can run inside with quick feet and more power than you might suspect, but is also very dangerous on the perimeter with his long speed and elusiveness in the open field. Green-Ellis will surely be superior to Bernard in pass protection to start the season, but Bernard is far more dangerous as a receiving option. Cincinnati also brought back Bernard Scott before the draft, but with the selection of Bernard, Scott’s roster spot is far from certain. The Bengals also drafted Rex Burkhead, who does everything well and is an underrated prospect overall. In time, I expect Burkhead to be a fine complement to Bernard as Cincinnati’s second running back.

Cleveland Browns: Trent Richardson battled numerous injuries during his rookie campaign, and that is the only concern I have about this 21-year-old. New offensive coordinator Norv Turner has an outstanding history of utilizing a true feature back, and Richardson fits that mold with his rare blend of vision, power, lateral agility and speed to go along with excellent receiving skills. There isn’t much on Cleveland’s depth chart behind Richardson, so maybe the Browns will keep their eyes out for a veteran who gets released. For now, Montario Hardesty is No. 2. Injuries have been a big problem for him, but he does have a fair amount of ability. Also in the mix are Dion Lewis, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya. Jackson is bigger and runs with much more power than Lewis, but he isn’t as quick. Both do their best work on third down. Ogbonnaya is a big runner with some power, but he lacks any particular skill to wow you. A scatback with big-play ability would be a welcome addition here.

Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers used this year’s second-round pick on Le'Veon Bell, as they felt their running backs from 2012 were not getting the job done. Bell is very young, has good size and is quite established in the passing game, which is something Pittsburgh wasn’t getting from Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer. Redman and Dwyer are similar players. They both have good size and initiate contact. They get what is blocked, but not much more, and lack dynamic qualities. They are backups in the NFL. Last year, the Steelers drafted Chris Rainey to help as a returner and add a running back/wide receiver hybrid to their offense. Rainey didn’t work out, but Pittsburgh signed LaRod Stephens-Howling this offseason for the same reasons. Baron Batch is also in the equation. His most notable contributions come on special teams, but he is a serviceable runner, receiver and blocker. The Steelers were in talks with Ahmad Bradshaw before the draft. With the selection of Bell, you would think that ship had sailed, but you never know. Bradshaw will end up somewhere this season. It is also likely that either Redman or Dwyer will be gone before the season.
Here's a recap of the first two days of free agency in the AFC North: the Browns signed players, the Ravens lost starters, the Bengals focused on re-signing their own players and the Steelers created more salary-cap space. If you want more details about Day 2 in free agency, take a look at the wake-up call ...

BALTIMORE RAVENS
  • The Baltimore Sun's Kevin Cowherd believes fans shouldn't panic over the Ravens' loss of players. "There has to be a plan in place that's dictating these recent moves," Cowherd wrote.
  • The Ravens envision recently signed Chris Canty to play a role similar to the one defensive end Cory Redding had a couple of years ago. “I’m excited about that," Canty told Baltimore reporters, via the team's website. "I’m very confident that I’d be able to come in and do that job at a very high level and help provide this defense with an opportunity to be aggressive and to be a dominant defense.”
CINCINNATI BENGALS
  • Bengals coach Marvin Lewis thinks the recent signings of two right tackles (Phil Loadholt and Gosder Cherilus) will help the team wrap up a deal with Andre Smith. "We're working hard to get Andre and a couple of deals are done now, and that ought to make things easy," Lewis said, via The Cincinnati Enquirer.
  • According to the team's website, Lewis seemed unfazed that the Bengals lost three backup players who didn't fit into their long-term future: Defensive tackle Pat Sims (Oakland), outside linebacker Manny Lawson (Buffalo), and backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski (Pittsburgh). "Nothing has changed," Lewis said. "I'm happy for Manny and that's a great thing for him. Our plans are set the way they are set."
PITTSBURGH STEELERS
  • Gradkowski, who was signed by the Steelers on Wednesday, has been a backup throughout his career but this time it's a different situation for him. "There's a great franchise quarterback here," Gradkowski said, via The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "To get to play with him and be a part of this is amazing. I haven't had that yet, to be somewhere where that guy is the guy. Ben (Roethlisberger) is the guy."
  • The Steelers re-signed long-snapper Greg Warren, who has spent his entire seven-year career with the Steelers. Also, Beanie Wells visited the Steelers and took a physical, according to The Post-Gazette.
CLEVELAND BROWNS
  • Outside linebacker Paul Kruger wants to be an every-down player and not a pass-rush specialist. "That's the biggest thing I want to change, is just being somebody you can rely on during the whole game," Kruger said at his introductory news conference, via The Plain Dealer. "I think that I was deemed as a pass-rusher only and it's something I think I'll be able to show people, I can be effective on every snap."
  • The deal that will land receiver-returner Josh Cribbs in Arizona should be finalized Thursday morning, according to The Plain Dealer.

Poll: Browns' biggest draft need

April, 12, 2012
4/12/12
10:00
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There's no debate that the Cleveland Browns need to upgrade significantly on offense in this draft.

The Browns ranked 29th in total yards (288.8 per game) and 30th in points (13.6). The St. Louis Rams were the only other team to rank in the bottom four in the NFL in both those categories.

SportsNation

What is the biggest draft need for the Cleveland Browns?

  •  
    14%
  •  
    37%
  •  
    35%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,364)

But what is the Browns' biggest need heading into this year's draft? Here are the top choices:

Quarterback: The Browns failed in their attempt to trade up in the draft to get Robert Griffin III. Now, they are left with Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace. In his first full season as a starter, McCoy ranked 26th in completion percentage (57.2), 25th in passing yards per game (210.2), 32nd in yards per attempt (5.9), 25th in passer rating (74.6) and 25th in QBR (39.8).

Running back: Cleveland didn't re-sign Peyton Hillis, their starting running back for the past two seasons who went to Kansas City. The Browns' remaining backs -- Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya -- totaled 600 rushing yards and one touchdown last season. Hardesty and Jackson missed a combined 22 games last season because of injuries.

Wide receiver: This group produced a lot of drops and few big plays. Greg Little, Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi combined for 20 catches over 20 yards, averaged 12.1 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns.

Offensive tackle: The Browns cut starting right tackle Tony Pashos and didn't re-sign backup Artis Hicks. If the season started today, Cleveland would go with Oniel Cousins, a Ravens castoff who has started five games in four seasons.

Go ahead and register your vote, or let me know what you think in the comments section below. I'll follow up by Monday.

AFC North links: Matt Flynn to the Browns?

March, 9, 2012
3/09/12
10:10
AM ET
CBSSports.com's AFC North free agency preview focuses on what the division contenders must do to catch the Ravens.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens could be facing significant turnover at linebacker this offseason, writes Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun.

Vinny Iyer of the Sporting News has a list of the best available free-agent defensive tackles, and Baltimore's Brandon McKinney is mentioned.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cornerback Leon Hall finally got a chance to meet new secondary coach Mark Carrier, writes Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Cleveland Browns

Ryan Wilson of CBSsports.com explains why free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn makes a lot of sense for the Browns.

General Manager Tom Heckert says the Browns have not talked to Peyton Manning and don't plan to pursue the quarterback. He also said the Browns haven't ruled out trading up with the Rams for the No. 2 pick in the draft for a chance to select Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Pursuing Peyton Manning doesn't make sense for the Browns, writes Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Heckert says the Browns are comfortable with running backs Montario Hardesty, Chris Ogbonnaya and Brandon Jackson.

Pittsburgh Steelers

After recently turning 30, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger says he is excited about the talent around him, and hopes he is just entering his prime.
The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

RUNNING BACKS

1. RAVENS: Baltimore has one of the best backfields in the NFL, not just the AFC North. The Ravens boast Pro Bowl players at tailback (Ray Rice) and fullback (Vonta Leach). Rice produced an NFL-best 2,068 total yards and set a team record with 15 touchdowns. He led the AFC North in rushing (1,364 yards) and receptions by a running back (76). Much of Rice's success on the ground came from running behind the powerful blocks of Leach, who was as good as advertised. Ricky Williams was a relative non-factor as a backup because Rice never got seriously injured. What could change: Rice is a free agent but he isn't going anywhere. The Ravens will franchise him and it should happen Friday. The Ravens have to find a new backup running back because Williams decided to retire. Baltimore will give rookie Anthony Allen the first shot at the job.

2. STEELERS: As a group, the Steelers ran for the second-most yards (1,903) in the division and had the best average (4.4 yards per carry). Rashard Mendenhall didn't run with authority, or in between the tackles, and fell short of his third straight 1,000-yard rushing season (he had 928 yards). He only broke three runs over 20 yards. His season came to an abrupt end with a knee injury in the regular-season finale. Isaac Redman came through in limited opportunities and gained 121 yards in the playoff loss at Denver. Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer both averaged over 7.0 yards per carry before sustaining season-ending injuries. Pittsburgh's running game proved to be efficient but not electric. What could change: Mendenhall underwent surgery in January, so he is expected to start the season on the physically unable to perform list (he would miss at least the first six games of the season). If the Steelers don't add another running back, Redman would take over as the featured back. Moore is a free agent and is not expected to return.

3. BENGALS: Cincinnati's top two running backs, Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott, both averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry. The blame has to be equally shared by the Bengals' ineffective guards and plodding running backs. Benson finished with 1,067 yards, his lowest total since 2008. The Bengals wanted more big plays out of Benson, who had four runs over 20 yards. He complained about splitting carries with Scott, who is a good change-of-pace back but averaged 3.4 yards per carry. If you think that's poor, Scott averaged 2.9 yards per catch. Fullback Chris Pressley was one of the few bright spots of the backfield. As a team, Cincinnati was tied for 26th in the NFL with a 3.9-yard average in the running game. What could change: The Bengals need to find another running back because there will be a mutual parting of the ways with Benson, who is a free agent. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said he is leaning toward a running back-by-committee system. Alabama running back Trent Richardson isn't expected to fall to the Bengals, but Oakland free agent Michael Bush has been strongly linked to them.

4. BROWNS: You know times are tough when Chris Ogbonnaya goes from the Texans practice squad to the Browns' starting lineup in two weeks. The Browns' three top running backs -- Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson -- all missed significant time with injuries. Hillis was the biggest disappointment of the group, watching his rushing yards drop from 1,177 in 2010 to 587 last season. He was sidelined for five games with a hamstring injury and one with strep throat. Hardesty missed all of his rookie year recovering from knee surgery and missed six games in 2011 with a calf injury. The Browns like the promise of rookie fullback Owen Marecic, but they missed the blocking of Lawrence Vickers. The Browns finished 28th in the NFL in rushing. What could change: The big question is whether the Browns will re-sign Hillis. If they bring him back, it'll likely be for one year. If they don't, they will have to find another lead back. It would be huge if Jackson bounces back from a turf toe injury that sidelined him all of last season.

Feb. 20: Special teams; Feb. 21: Defensive line; Feb. 23: Linebackers; Feb. 24: Defensive backs; Feb. 27: Offensive line; Feb. 28: Wide receivers; Feb. 29: Tight ends.

For Friday: Quarterbacks
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.

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