AFC North: Dennis Dixon

Quarterback Landry Jones has only completed a rookie minicamp and he's already being asked whether he's going to replace Ben Roethlisberger.

"I have no idea," Jones said, via the Associated Press. "You might want to talk to the coaches or Mr. Rooney on that one, what they want to do."

The more appropriate question is whether the Steelers are going to be able to develop Jones. He was a highly decorated quarterback at Oklahoma, but the Steelers' track record at grooming young quarterbacks isn't as impressive.

Since Kevin Colbert joined the Steelers in 2000 as director of football operations (assumed title of general manager in 2010), Pittsburgh has drafted six quarterbacks, including Jones last month. Roethlisberger, a first-round pick in 2004, has won two Super Bowls. Four others, all drafted in the fifth round, never established themselves as a long-term backup. This has allowed Charlie Batch to remain with the team for so long.
  • Tee Martin, a 2000 fifth-round pick out of Tennessee, is notable for the fact that he's one of six quarterbacks drafted before Tom Brady that year. He lasted two seasons with the Steelers and never threw a pass in the regular season.
  • Brian St. Pierre, a 2003 fifth-round pick out of Boston College, was cut more times by the Steelers (three total) than games played for them (one).
  • Omar Jacobs, a 2006 fifth-round pick out of Bowling Green, never made the active roster. He currently plays for the Wichita Falls Nighthawks of the Professional American Football League.
  • Dennis Dixon, a 2008 fifth-round pick out of Oregon, had the most staying power of these quarterbacks but he was primarily the No. 3 quarterback during his four seasons in Pittsburgh. Dixon did make three starts, winning two. He has since reunited with college coach Chip Kelly in Philadelphia.

The Steelers are trying again with Jones, who was drafted in the fourth round. Pittsburgh will likely use him as a third quarterback this year behind Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski, who signed a three-year deal this offseason to be the primary backup. Based on their history, the Steelers would be pleased if Jones eventually becomes the No. 2 quarterback.
Happy Labor Day everyone. Feel free to check back with the AFC North blog today in between hot dogs because we'll have new content up throughout the day. By this time next week, the Browns and Steelers will have played their first games and we'll be gearing up for Bengals-Ravens on "Monday Night Football." So, are you ready for some wake-up call?

BENGALS: Former Bengals receiver-turned-television analyst Cris Collinsworth was "stunned" by Cincinnati making the playoffs last season. But his expectations haven't gone down for the Bengals. "They have good young talent. … I certainly think they’re a team that is going to compete," Collinsworth told the Cincinnati Enquirer. I think they’ll be like a lot of other teams that are hanging right around that .500 mark, and win or lose a couple of close games, and that decides it. But the future looks a little brighter than it has in awhile for Cincinnati.”

BROWNS: It sounds as if the Browns are moving on with Colt McCoy as their backup quarterback. "I think we are pretty set there," Heckert said of Cleveland's quarterback situation, via The Plain Dealer. "You never say never, but right now we're pretty happy with that situation." There had been rumblings that the Browns were interested in trading for Rams quarterback A.J. Feeley, who has ties with Heckert, coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Brad Childress. "A.J. is one of my good friends, but I haven't talked to A.J. in months," Heckert said.

RAVENS: Baltimore signed former Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon to round out its practice squad, The Baltimore Sun reported. Dixon, 27, tried out for the Ravens in April, but the team decided to go with Curtis Painter, who was released Friday. With Joe Flacco and Tyrod Taylor on the 53-man roster, Dixon provides insurance as the third quarterback. He hasn't been on an NFL roster since the end of last season with Pittsburgh, which looks like a red flag. Dixon was reportedly considering an offer to join the UFL's Sacramento Mountain Lions last month.

STEELERS: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette feels Jonathan Dwyer is making a push to be the Steelers' starting running back. "He toted the load tonight," coach Mike Tomlin said. "He was the primary ballcarrier, and that's kind of what we wanted to see. It's really a snapshot of his growth and development throughout this training camp and preseason. First things first, he showed up in good physical condition, that's a prerequisite. He kind of took off from there ... it needs to continue. He's capable of it continuing." I still see Isaac Redman getting the start at Denver. But Dwyer's solid performance in the preseason should have earned him more carries going forward.
Ravens fans can relax: there's not going to be a Kyle Boller reunion.

The Ravens signed quarterback Curtis Painter instead of Boller and Dennis Dixon, according to NFL Network. Painter is expected to compete with Tyrod Taylor to be the team's backup to Joe Flacco.

While Boller isn't returning to Baltimore, there is a reunion taking place. Painter rejoins new Ravens quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who was the Indianapolis Colts' head coach last season. Painter made eight starts for the injured Peyton Manning last season but did not win a game before being benched.

I thought Painter was the front-runner for the job because of his connection to Caldwell. Based on potential and experience, he should have been last on the list.

It's understandable that the Ravens passed on Boller. Bringing back Boller would've been a public relations nightmare because he flopped as a first-round quarterback.

What I'm scratching my head over is the Ravens not signing Dixon. He's 27 and athletic. He has much more potential than Painter.

In the end, it probably doesn't matter whether it's Dixon or Painter or Taylor. Flacco has yet to miss a start in his NFL career.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

It appears that I'm not the only one who thinks the Browns should take Alabama running back Trent Richardson. His college coach, Nick Saban, feels Richardson would be a great fit for Cleveland.

"He'd be great in the community, he'd be a great player for them and he's somebody that I think a lot of young people could really relate to for the kind of person he is, the example he sets," Saban told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "If they wouldn't be excited, they really should be."

At Alabama's pro day, Saban talked about Richardson to Browns coach Pat Shurmur, who was an assistant under Saban at Michigan State for three seasons.

"He's one of the lowest-maintenance great players I've ever had the opportunity to coach," Saban said.

Hensley's slant: I'm not among those buying reports that the Browns are deciding between wide receiver Justin Blackmon and quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Richardson has the toughness to play in this division and the elusiveness to spark the Browns' offense.

BENGALS: Wide receiver Jordan Shipley is still recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee that occurred in September. He hopes that he'll be able to practice when minicamps begin on May 22 and is confident he'll be ready for training camp this summer. “I’m planning on doing all the workouts with the guys," Shipley told the Cincinnati Enquirer. "Some days I feel really good and other days I feel close. At this point in the process, it is based on how you feel that day. Some days I am 100 percent.” Hensley's slant: The Bengals didn't add a wide receiver in free agency, which means Shipley has a shot at the No. 2 job if he can get healthy. But the odds of him winning that spot decreases significantly if the Bengals draft a wide receiver in the early rounds.

RAVENS: The team will work out three quarterbacks on Thursday: Kyle Boller, a 2003 first-round pick by the Ravens; Dennis Dixon, the Steelers' third-string quarterback last season; and Curtis Painter, who started eight games for the Colts last season before getting benched. The Ravens are likely to sign one of the three quarterbacks based on the workout results, according to the Baltimore Sun.“Everybody competes for every spot every year, every practice, and [backup quarterback] Tyrod Taylor is no different,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said earlier this month.”But we like him a lot.” Hensley's slant: If the Ravens want the backup with the most upside, they should sign Dixon. If they are looking for the most experienced backup, they should go with Boller. But don't discount Painter, even though his 2011 stats were horrible. He played last season under Jim Caldwell, who is now Baltimore's quarterbacks coach. That might give the edge to the 27-year-old Painter.

STEELERS: Steelers free-agent offensive tackle Max Starks said his recovery from ACL surgery is ahead of schedule and he's getting his strength back. He suffered the injury in the playoff loss at Denver. Starks posted on his Twitter account that he will "be playing for someone this season, but I know it won't be until I'm 100% structurally sound. I'm on pace to be ready by Mid July for play!" Hensley's slant: Starks saved the Steelers last season when he returned, and he would probably be a fallback option for the team again this season. My take is the Steelers are looking to get younger on the offensive line and will take a tackle at some point in the draft. But, if Starks is healthy enough to play, he would be a upgrade over backup Jonathan Scott.
This will probably cause Ravens fans to erupt, but former first-round pick Kyle Boller is working out for Baltimore on Thursday.

That's according to the NFL Network's Jason LaConfora, who is also reporting that Steelers free-agent quarterback Dennis Dixon is meeting with the Ravens as well.

And this will probably cause Ravens fans to erupt more -- I like the idea of bringing back Boller as a backup.

There's no question that Boller was a bust as a starter. The Ravens reached for him in the first round of the 2003 draft, and Boller was overmatched in the No. 1 role. He was 20-22 as a starter during his five seasons in Baltimore (2003 to 2007).

What many forget is how effective Boller was as a backup in 2006 behind Steve McNair. When McNair went down a couple of times that season, Boller played well and actually clinched the division that season with a win over Cleveland. He finished with a 104.0 quarterback rating, which was among the best for backups that season.

Of course, if the Ravens are looking for a backup with a higher upside, they should try to sign Dixon. But Boller wouldn't be a terrible signing.

Based on these workouts, the Ravens are clearly looking to provide more experience behind Joe Flacco. Last year, Baltimore went with Tyrod Taylor, a 2011 sixth-round pick.

UPDATE: NFL Network's Albert Breer is reporting that Colts free-agent quarterback Curtis Painter is also working out for the Ravens.
The Baltimore Ravens are among three teams interested in Steelers free-agent quarterback Dennis Dixon, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos are also in the running for Dixon, who is not expected to return to Pittsburgh.

The Ravens have been inconsistent in how they've addressed the backup quarterback position recently. In 2010, Baltimore spent $3.8 million on Marc Bulger to have veteran insurance behind Joe Flacco. In 2011, the Ravens went with rookie sixth-round pick Tyrod Taylor.

One reason why the Ravens could go with Bulger in 2010 was the uncapped year, but it's definitely a major philosophical switch to go from a playoff-tested quarterback in Bulger to a raw prospect like Taylor. Of course, Baltimore hasn't needed a backup, because Flacco has never missed a start in his four-year career (64 straight, the third-longest current streak in the NFL). But the Ravens' playoff chances would get decimated if Flacco got hurt, and the team had to turn to Taylor for an extended period.

Dixon, 27, the No. 3 quarterback last season for Pittsburgh, has made three career starts in his four seasons with the Steelers. He has a 2-1 record, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Dixon's first start came against the Ravens in 2009, when his interception in overtime set up the winning field goal.

Here are the backup quarterback situations for the rest of the AFC North:

BENGALS: Cincinnati is set with journeyman Bruce Gradkowski. When Andy Dalton was hurt in last year's season opener, Gradkowski rallied the Bengals to a 27-17 win at Cleveland.

BROWNS: At this point, the Browns are going with Seneca Wallace, the team's backup for the past two seasons. But the depth chart could get moved around if Cleveland drafts a quarterback in the early rounds. If the Browns don't take a quarterback, Wallace won't be competing with Colt McCoy for the starting job, the team said.

STEELERS: Besides Ben Roethlisberger, the only quarterbacks on the roster are Troy Smith and Jerrod Johnson. The Steelers likely will bring back Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch. The favorite to return is Leftwich, who reportedly drew interest from the Colts.
The AFC North is running a series where every position will be ranked and what could change at that position.

QUARTERBACKS

1. STEELERS: Ben Roethlisberger remains the best quarterback in the division, and it's still not even close. Despite three injuries (sprained foot, broken right thumb and high ankle sprain), he threw 400 more yards than any other quarterback in the AFC North. Roethlisberger's highlights were throwing five touchdowns against Tennessee, out-dueling Tom Brady and beating Cleveland in the first meeting on one leg. He was the true most valuable player on the Steelers, even though Antonio Brown was named that by his teammates. When Roethlisberger hurt his ankle in early December, the Steelers offense was never the same. With a healthy Roethlisberger, the Steelers don't lose at Denver in the playoffs. In Charlie Batch's only start, the 37-year-old backup completed 15 of 22 passes for 208 yards against the Rams. What could change: The Steelers have to make a decision at backup quarterback. Batch, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are all unrestricted free agents. Leftwich is the favorite to get the No. 2 job.

2. RAVENS: The biggest frustration for the Ravens is that Joe Flacco can look like a championship quarterback one week and a confused one the next. Another uneven season included four games with 300 or more yards passing and seven with less than 200 yards passing. When Flacco was at his best, he threw three touchdowns in the first quarter at St. Louis, delivered a last-minute comeback at Pittsburgh and completed 79 percent of his passes in the regular-season finale at Cincinnati. His biggest moment came in the AFC championship game in New England where he threw the winning touchdown that sent the Ravens to the Super Bowl ... until the ball was stripped from Lee Evans. Rookie backup Tyrod Taylor threw one pass. What could change: The size of Flacco's contract. The Ravens have made it a priority to sign Flacco, who is entering the final year of his contract, to an extension. It should get done before the end of August because both sides don't want this issue to hang over their heads entering the regular season.

3. BENGALS: Andy Dalton was the best rookie quarterback in the AFC and would've been the top one in the NFL if not for that quarterback named Cam. A second-round pick in 2011, Dalton became the only rookie in NFL history to throw for 20 or more touchdowns passes while winning eight or more games as a starting quarterback. The most impressive part of Dalton's game is his anticipation. He gets rid of the ball before the wide receiver gets out of his break, which is quite a feat for a first-year passer. His biggest challenge is overcoming the best defenses in the division. In four games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Dalton had an 0-4 record with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Against the rest of the NFL, he was 9-3 with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Backup Bruce Gradkowski replaced an injured Dalton in the season opener and led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives in rallying the Bengals to a 27-17 victory at Cleveland. What could change: The playbook is set to expand for Dalton in his second season. Dalton will progress as long as the Bengals improve his supporting cast. They need to upgrade the No. 2 wide receiver spot and find a more consistent starting running back.

4. BROWNS: No one questions Colt McCoy's leadership or toughness. It's his arm strength, accuracy, recognition of blitzes and ability to make plays in the pocket that are the question marks. You can argue that he doesn't have playmakers in the passing game and the Browns receivers were tied for the NFL lead in dropped passes. While all of that is correct, it's also true that McCoy is limited as a quarterback no matter who the Browns put around him. In his first full season as a starter, McCoy ranked 27th in completion percentage (57.2), 25th in passing yards per game (210.2), 33rd in yards per attempt (5.9), 27th in passer rating (74.6) and 25th in QBR (39.8). His season ended with a concussion that resulted in a vicious hit by Steelers linebacker James Harrison. Backup Seneca Wallace isn't the answer. He is 1-6 in seven starts for the Browns. Wallace didn't look like an experienced backup with his poor clock management at the end of the first half in Baltimore. What could change: The Browns need to find a franchise quarterback, whether it's signing Matt Flynn in free agency or trading up to draft Robert Griffin III, which is what I endorse. The fallback option is keeping McCoy as the starter for another 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; March 1: Running backs.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Head coach Pat Shurmur said the Browns are "open to anything" when asked about trading up to the Rams' No. 2 spot.

"Yeah, we’re willing [to trade]," Shurmur said Thursday at the NFL combine, via the Akron Beacon Journal. "With two first-round picks, we have flexibility. We can just stand pat and take two really fine players [in the first round], guys that we would hope to be starters for us. Having two first-round picks, you have flexibility if you want to do something.”

The Browns would presumably trade up from fourth overall to select Robert Griffin III. The team is scheduled to meet with the Baylor quarterback tonight.

“We try to find out as much as we can about the player,” Shurmur said. “How smart he is, how well he might learn, how he might react to adversity.”

Browns general manager Tom Heckert will miss the combine with an illness, which is not considered serious, a source told the Plain Dealer of Cleveland. He will participate in some player interviews via Skype.

Hensley's slant: I believe if the Browns want to move up to draft RG3, the Rams would be willing to make that trade because they would only fall back to the fourth overall pick. The top wide receiver (Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon) or offensive tackle (USC's Matt Kalil) will be available at No. 4 for St. Louis, which needs help at both positions. If the Browns are sold on RG3 as their franchise quarterback, this trade would be a win-win for both teams.

BENGALS: The Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy doesn't think it makes sense for the Bengals to sign Mike Wallace to an offer sheet if the Steelers wide receiver is given a first-round tender. Some of his reasons are: Wallace doesn't fit Jay Gruden's offense, the Bengals need a possession receiver instead of a speedy one and the team loves to hang onto draft picks. "Plus Andy Dalton is not the type of quarterback where you want to be consistently taking deep shots downfield," Reedy wrote. Hensley's slant: Maybe it's me but you adjust your offense if you get a chance at Wallace and have a huge amount of salary-cap room to make that move. Yes, the Bengals would get more value with a receiver like Robert Meachem or Mario Manningham. But you really don't have to worry about value when you're $60 million under the cap. You get the best player. Still, the likelihood of the Bengals extending an offer sheet to Wallace and giving up a first-round pick isn't great because the Bengals historically don't go after high-priced players.

RAVENS: The Ravens are scheduled to meet with the agents for quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice at the NFL combine, according to the Carroll County Times. Team officials will sit down with Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, on Saturday afternoon and meet with Rice's agent, Todd France, this week. “With Joe, we’re just going to sit down and start grinding out a contract and terms,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said during the Ravens' season-ending news conference. “I think he’s going to be extremely successful, I think he’s going to have rings. He’s got 10 years of his prime to show it. We believe in him. We believe he is getting stronger mentally and smarter with the ball.” Hensley's slant: These are simply introductory meetings, so there's nothing to get excited about. I see the Ravens making Rice play under the franchise tag for this season and signing Flacco to a contract extension right before the start of training camp. It would be shocking if either long-term deal gets done before the start of free agency.

STEELERS: General manager Kevin Colbert told Pittsburgh reporters at the NFL combine (via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) that the Steelers want to re-sign veteran backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich. Batch was the primary backup to Ben Roethlisberger after Leftwich went down with a season-ending arm injury in the preseason. Colbert, though, said he expects reserve quarterback Dennis Dixon to go elsewhere when he hits free agency on March 13. "I don't think the league has seen the best of Dennis Dixon only because he's behind a great quarterback, and he's been held back by some injuries," Colbert said. Hensley's slant: As long as Leftwich stays healthy, he should get the backup job over Batch. Backup quarterback is an important job for the Steelers because Roethlisberger hasn't played a full season since 2008, missing six games the past three seasons (four due to an NFL suspension).
The Steelers signed former Ravens quarterback Troy Smith on Friday, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This is an interesting addition but not likely a significant one. Even though the Steelers' quarterback group could undergo change, Smith would be fighting for the No. 3 job.

Pittsburgh's top two backups this season, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon, are both free agents. Dixon presumably will go elsewhere and the 37-year-old Batch might not return.

Byron Leftwich, who is also a free agent, is expected to re-sign and become the primary backup to Ben Roethlisberger. Leftwich broke his arm in the preseason and spent the entire regular season on injured reserve.

That's why Smith's best shot at sticking with the Steelers is winning the third-string job. Smith, a Heisman Trophy winner who was with the Ravens from 2007 to 2009, spent last season with the United Football League's Omaha Nighthawks. He failed to establish himself as an NFL starting quarterback because he struggles with accuracy.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers say they don't plan to alter their defensive style when playing the non-traditional offense run by Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Dennis Dixon
Bob Donnan/US PRESSWIREPracticing against quarterback Dennis Dixon will help the Steelers prepare for Tim Tebow.
Pittsburgh believes playing as a team lifted the defense to No. 1 in the NFL and that it will shut down Tebow, who is more of a running back at times than a quarterback.

"We’ve been a solid defense around here for a long time," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "Regardless of who we’re playing, we understand what we’re capable of as a defense. If we all just do our job, we’re pretty good."

Actually, the Steelers' scheme seems to be a bad matchup for the Broncos. Pittsburgh typically plays with eight men in the box with safety Troy Polamalu lurking around the line of scrimmage.

And while some teams have a hard time adjusting to Denver's spread option, the Steelers think they will be fine because of Dennis Dixon. As Pittsburgh's third-string quarterback, Dixon has been running Tebow-like plays for years in Steelers practices after playing in an option-style offense at Oregon.

“We prepare for it during the offseason,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We’ve been looking at it now for the last several years."

But it looks like other teams have figured out Tebow lately. He has turned the ball over six times in the Broncos' three-game losing streak to end the regular season.

Now, he looks to break his slump against a defense that ranks first in fewest yards, points and passing yards.

"They're really good," Tebow told Denver reporters Wednesday. "Sometimes it looks like it is chaos out there, but they know where they're going."
The Steelers made the right call to rest Ben Roethlisberger and start Charlie Batch against the lowly St. Louis Rams.

While Batch will take the field first, there is a chance that you could see Dennis Dixon as well. On Monday night, the Steelers had both Batch and Dixon active, which tells me that they wanted the option to use either one.

So, if Batch struggles early, the Steelers could turn to Dixon. Batch is the more experienced backup but he looked ragged when he replaced Roethlisberger to end the first half against the Browns a couple of weeks ago. Dixon has more upside than Batch and is much more athletic than the 37-year-old Batch.

When Roethlisberger was suspended to start the 2010 season, it was Dixon and not Batch who started the first two games of the season. Batch then started the next two games when Dixon got injured.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 16, 2011
12/16/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

Steelers' backup plan: Ben Roethlisberger's status is uncertain for Monday night's game at San Francisco because of a high ankle sprain, and the Steelers have been preparing Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon to play. If Roethlisberger can't go, here's a word of advice for Batch and Dixon: Be careful with the ball around the 49ers. San Francisco is tied for second in the league in interceptions and has at least one interception in 11 of 13 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 49ers are the only defense in the NFL to have more than one player with at least five interceptions (Dashon Goldson and Carlos Rogers). The Steelers quarterbacks who have started in place of Roethlisberger since 2004 have thrown 13 interceptions in 14 games.

[+] EnlargeRay Lewis
Larry French/Getty ImagesThe Ravens should get team leader Ray Lewis back after the linebacker missed four games with a toe injury.
Return of Ray: The Ravens expect linebacker Ray Lewis to come back after missing four games with a toe injury. This should bolster the middle of a defense that has been its strong area all season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, no team has allowed fewer yards per rush between the tackles than the Ravens this season (3.4) and Baltimore is the only team not to allow a run of 20 yards or longer up the middle. Baltimore will get challenged by San Diego running back Ryan Mathews, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in three straight games. On runs in between the tackles this season, he is the top five in yards per rush (5.2) and 20-yard gains (seven).

Homesick Browns: Cleveland won its first road game of the season, beating the winless Colts. It has been a disaster away from home ever since. The Browns have lost five straight road games, mainly because of their play in the fourth quarter. Cleveland lost at Cincinnati despite entering the fourth quarter with a three-point lead and fell at Pittsburgh after being within four points of the Steelers for almost the entire final quarter. A loss at Arizona would mark the third straight season with at least six road losses for the Browns.

Run down Rams: Cedric Benson needs eight rushing yards to become the fifth Bengals running back to reach 4,000 for his career. Let's just say the odds are in his favor. The Rams have the NFL's worst run defense, allowing 156.8 yards a game on the ground. St. Louis is the only defense to give up 200-yard rushing games to two backs (Dallas' DeMarco Murray and Arizona's Beanie Wells). That works in Cincinnati's favor. The Bengals are 11-1 when Benson carries the ball at least 25 times.

The James Harrison factor: The key to beating the 49ers is getting pressure on quarterback Alex Smith. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Smith has been sacked 20 times in three losses and only 19 times in 10 wins. The Steelers' pass rush took a major hit when James Harrison was suspended one game for his helmet-to-helmet shot on Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. Over the past five games -- all of the ones that LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) has failed to play or finish -- Harrison has accounted for six of the Steelers' 10 sacks.
Dr. Michael Kaplan, ESPN's medical analyst, thinks Ben Roethlisberger's ankle injury will sideline the Steelers quarterback at San Francisco.

"I can't imagine by Monday night that he would be valuable to the team or in his own interests," Kaplan said. "I think we will probably see him sit."

Roethlisberger injured his ankle in the second quarter of the Dec. 8 win over the Cleveland Browns. He returned to play the entire second half.

Since that game, Roethlisberger has been wearing a protective boot and didn't practice Wednesday. Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon would start if Roethlisberger can't play.

"It's actually quite a profound sprain," Kaplan said. "This is a real big deal."

So, how long would he expect Roethlisberger to sit? "Typically, with all the tricks we have to reduce the down time, it's a minimum of two weeks," Kaplan said. "If not, even up to six weeks if not treated aggressively."
The NFL preseason will conclude Thursday night for the AFC North division.

Here are four things to watch in the final preseason games:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers' backup quarterbacks

Analysis: Pittsburgh's backup quarterback position is wide open because Byron Leftwich is out for the season with a broken arm. Veteran Charlie Batch and the younger Dennis Dixon will battle it out tonight against the Carolina Panthers. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin decided to sit starter Ben Roethlisberger so the team can better evaluate Batch and Dixon. The player who performs the best against the Panthers probably will go into the regular season one play away from seeing the field.

2. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton

Analysis: The early reviews haven't been pretty for Dalton. ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton recently ranked the rookie second-round pick dead last among starting NFL quarterbacks. Dalton has been up and down this preseason. The good news is he's coming off a solid outing in Week 3 against the Carolina Panthers. He threw for 130 yards and a touchdown. Dalton needs to carry that momentum into tonight's game against Indianapolis. This is the final tuneup before the regular-season opener against Cleveland.

3. Baltimore Ravens' offensive line

Analysis: Baltimore's offensive line has struggled with a lot of moving parts this preseason. This final preseason game is a chance for the unit to jell one last time before the Ravens' regular-season opener against Pittsburgh. Although nothing is official, there's a chance starting center Matt Birk and new left tackle Bryant McKinnie could make their 2011 debuts against the Atlanta Falcons. Birk is coming off knee surgery and McKinnie is still working his way back into football shape. If at least one of these players gets reps Thursday, that would mark progress.

4. Cleveland Browns' left guard

Analysis: The left side of Cleveland's offensive line was once the biggest strength of the team before Eric Steinbach's season-ending back injury. Now, the Browns have a huge hole at left guard next to perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. Rookie fifth-round pick Jason Pinkston will get the first crack at replacing Steinbach. Oniel Cousins and John Greco are two more possibilities. Keep a close eye on this group Thursday against the Chicago Bears. The Browns hope to have their answer at left guard before Week 1.

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