AFC North: Double coverage

Michael Johnson, Anthony CollinsGetty ImagesFormer Bengals Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins have both landed with the Buccaneers.
Each week during the regular season you saw ESPN's NFL Nation reporters team up for "Double Coverage," a back-and-forth midweek banter about the biggest storylines going on ahead of that weekend's games.

There may not be any games right now, but teams have made all kinds of moves during this opening week of free agency. Few moves have been as big as the one that brought defensive end Michael Johnson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Tuesday, officially putting an end to his five-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. He wasn't the only former Bengal to start calling Tampa Bay home this week. Offensive tackle Anthony Collins also left Cincinnati to sign with the Bucs. Clinton McDonald, a 2009 Bengals draft pick who spent the last three seasons in Seattle, also arrived in Tampa Bay.

Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Bucs reporter Pat Yasinskas decided to check in with each another to put the moves in perspective for you:

Coley Harvey: Of course we still don't know the date yet, Pat, but the Bengals will be scheduled to visit Tampa Bay this fall as part of the AFC North/NFC South scheduling crossover. Did any of the former Bengals address playing their old team in their news conferences? Whether they did or didn't, what did they say about the ways their careers in Cincinnati ended?

Pat Yasinskas: None of them really talked about Cincinnati. They all seemed focused on a new start with Tampa Bay. But I'm sure the Cincinnati game will carry extra meaning for them. Playing against your old team always means a little more.

Michael Johnson was the crown jewel of Tampa Bay's free-agent class. He had only 3.5 sacks last season, but 11.5 the year before. Which season is a better indicator of what Johnson brings to the table?

Harvey: You know, Pat, I'd say the latter. If you look at his stats since the start of his career in 2009, you'll see that the 11.5 number was a bit of an aberration. He had 6.0 in 2011, but 5.5 combined in 2009 and 2010. That said, he can be a good pass-rusher, but I have to imagine Lovie Smith saw something else, too. Johnson has been noted for being a good run-stopper and his insanely long arms are a benefit, too. Why do I bring up his arms? Johnson was a basketball player growing up, and by most accounts a really good one. That skill must have translated to football because he's become known for his ability to swat passes at the line of scrimmage. He tied for the league lead with eight batted balls last year. Two of them tipped into his teammates' hands for momentum-changing interceptions. Another helped negate a potential Packers touchdown pass on their final play of a 34-30 Bengals win.

Part of the reason there wasn't much pressure on Johnson to collect sacks last season was because of left end Carlos Dunlap's success. Dunlap had 7.5 sacks in 2013, tying for the team lead. Now that he's teaming up with another good end in Gerald McCoy, what are the Bucs expecting from Johnson?

Yasinskas: The Bucs envision Johnson as a strong outside pass-rusher. That's something the Bucs sorely lacked last season. McCoy was a force in the middle, but there was almost no outside pass rush. The Bucs are hoping Johnson can be a double-digit sack guy. I think he can do that and I think his presence will only make McCoy better.

On offense, the Bucs invested a lot in Anthony Collins to be their left tackle. Is he capable of keeping the league's best pass-rushers off quarterback Josh McCown?

Harvey: Absolutely. According to Pro Football Focus, we're talking about a guy who hasn't allowed a sack since 2009. Granted, he didn't play much until last season. He was a pure backup from 2008 to 2012. In 2013, injuries forced him into a greater role. He earned seven starts between the playoffs and regular season last year and he didn't disappoint. Called upon to fill in for Pro Bowl veteran Andrew Whitworth at Chicago in the season opener, Collins completely shut down sack king Julius Peppers. He did the same against Elvis Dumervil late in the year and kept outside linebacker Robert Mathis silent when the Colts visited Cincinnati. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has to be pleased with how clean Collins kept him.

Now, it was becoming clear in Cincinnati that Collins was ready to be a starting left tackle, but what was it about his play off the bench that impressed the Bucs so much?

Yasinskas: General manager Jason Licht said he studied the seven games Collins started very closely and he came away very impressed. Licht said Collins' footwork and athleticism stood out. The Bucs obviously believe strongly that Collins can be a solid starter. They're paying him $6 million a season and they released veteran Donald Penn to open up the spot for Collins.

Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald is kind of the wild card of Tampa Bay's class of free agents. He had a big impact for Seattle last year. But McDonald was with Cincinnati in 2010 and did very little. The Bucs are planning on having him as a starter. Is he ready for it?

Harvey: Based off what I saw in Seattle last year, I'd say yes. We talked a lot earlier about sacks. It's not easy for a defensive tackle in constant rotation with others to pick up 5.5 sacks, particularly on a defense like Seattle's that had so many playmakers at every level. That's a dedication to McDonald's blue-collar work ethic and team-focused mentality. He may not have been a great player in Cincinnati, but he was a respected teammate. If he keeps grinding the way he clearly has since he left the Bengals, he should be just fine for the Bucs.
Joe Flacco and Andy DaltonGetty ImagesJoe Flacco and Andy Dalton will need to come up big if they hope to emerge victorious on Sunday.
Thanks to the Baltimore Ravens' loss to the Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals' win over the Vikings on Sunday, much of the drama has been snatched away from this weekend's regular-season finale between the Ravens and Bengals.

Cincinnati has already locked up a playoff spot and the AFC North crown. The winner-take-all scenario for Sunday's season finale no longer exists. If the Ravens are going to join the Bengals in the postseason, and perhaps back at Paul Brown Stadium for the wild-card round, a win this week will be crucial. There still is a lot riding on this must-win game for them.

In the season's first meeting between these teams, it took a last-second Hail Mary touchdown to take the game to overtime. In the extra period, a Justin Tucker field goal allowed the Ravens to walk off with the division victory at home.

As we get you set for this latest AFC North matchup, we turn to ESPN.com Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey for more.

Harvey: Jamison, what do you think the mindset of the Ravens is after their worst loss under coach John Harbaugh?

Hensley: The Ravens are moving on as quickly as possible, and they have to do that in order to have a chance at beating the Bengals in Cincinnati. Baltimore has struggled enough on the road this season (going 2-5) that it can't have lingering memories of getting beaten up by the Patriots. The Ravens understand they lost their shot at winning the AFC North and controlling their playoff fate. But if they can clinch a playoff berth (and it will take some help), the Ravens control their destiny again. The Ravens' history is they don't dwell on getting blown out. The Ravens are 9-0 in games following a loss by double digits.

The Bengals have an impressive trend going as well with at least 40 points in four straight home games. What's been the key to Cincinnati's success at home?

Harvey: That was the most-asked question in the locker room following Sunday's 42-14 win over the Vikings, and the Bengals could only attribute it to one thing: their fans. Initially, part of you doesn't want to believe that's possible. After all, there were a number of empty seats Sunday. But when you actually stop and think about it, the players may be right. When the Bengals' defense is on the field on third down, "The Jungle" as they call it, seems to come to life. Full or not, the stadium gets fairly loud, and it seems like opposing offenses have had all sorts of confusion during the most important parts of the games they've played in Cincinnati. The Bengals have a league-best 22.5 percent third-down conversion rate at home. They also rank second in the league in scoring at home, posting an average 34.4 points per game at Paul Brown Stadium. Only the Broncos are better inside their home venue.

Quarterback Andy Dalton has been key in helping them run up the score that often. So having said that, how do you think the Ravens plan to defend Dalton?

Hensley: In the earlier meeting with the Bengals, Baltimore held Dalton to a 52.2 passer rating, the second worst of his career. The Ravens were relentless with their pressure, recording five sacks and hitting Dalton nine times. But the Baltimore defense has been in a pass-rush rut lately. The Ravens have produced four sacks in their past four games. There has been a lack of pressure off the edges. Terrell Suggs ended a six-game drought by getting to Tom Brady on Sunday. Elvis Dumervil, who has been dealing with an ankle injury, has one sack in his past five games. And the Ravens' best interior rusher, Art Jones, suffered a concussion on Sunday and it's unknown whether he'll play against the Bengals.

Speaking of concussions, what's the latest on linebacker Vontaze Burfict? Has he been the defense's MVP this season?

Harvey: Quickly to your point about pressuring Dalton, that will most certainly have to be the Ravens' game plan against him. He hasn't faced a pass rush quite as challenging as Baltimore's since that game, and that's one reason he's been so successful recently. Pro Football Focus said he was pressured only eight times on his 41 dropbacks against the Vikings.

Back to Burfict. As we're filing this, there isn't much of an update on Burfict other than the fact that he has spent part of the week under concussion protocol. It's not clear when he picked up the possible concussion, but one of his last plays Sunday came when he delivered an accidental helmet-to-helmet blow on Matt Cassel as the quarterback was sliding at the end of a scramble. We'll see how he keeps progressing throughout the week, but I'd bet on Burfict playing. He hasn't missed a game this season, and clearly hates being off the field. Still, with much of the Bengals' postseason desires already wrapped up, I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't play all game even if he is healthy enough to.

Speaking of injuries, how has Joe Flacco's knee injury affected his play recently?

Hensley: Flacco has had his worst season in the NFL, so I'm not saying he struggled solely because of a sprained left knee. But the injury obviously has affected his mobility and ability to step into throws. Flacco didn't complete his second pass Sunday until the second quarter. Now he has to go to Cincinnati, where he has had his problems in the past. Flacco is 2-3 at Paul Brown Stadium with a 66.8 passer rating. He has completed 57.5 percent of his passes there with four touchdowns and six interceptions. The key for Flacco is limiting his mistakes. He's thrown a career-worst 19 interceptions, seven more than in any of his previous five seasons. With the Ravens' current playoff situation, there is little margin of error for Flacco and the Ravens.

This is the Bengals' first AFC North title since 2009, and the first for Dalton and A.J. Green. How is a young team like the Bengals handing this success?

Harvey: Honestly, they're handling it quite well. Aside from their traditional post-win "Who Dey" chant, you didn't hear any other celebrating coming from the locker room following Sunday's win. By the time reporters were allowed in, word began trickling among the team that the Dolphins had just lost, giving them an official berth to the postseason. When players were asked about the meaning of clinching a playoff spot, they were a little excited, but mostly reserved. There was unfinished business, they felt.

For as young as the Bengals are, with their exhaustive list of second-, third- and fourth-year contributing players, it's still a group that has seen enough postseason disappointment to know that the journey isn't yet complete. The past two seasons, the Bengals have made it to the wild-card round and were immediately bounced out. They don't want that to happen again this year.

Jennings/DaltonGetty ImagesCan Greg Jennings and the Vikings help spoil the playoff hopes of Andy Dalton and the Bengals?
The Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals are two teams headed in completely opposite directions.

For the Vikings, the 2013 season has been a difficult one, defined mostly by a quarterbacking carousel and the lack of wins because of it. As for the Bengals, the year has been a mostly good one. With home wins over the Packers and Patriots, and road victories against the Lions and Chargers, the Bengals have looked for much of the year like a team poised for a longer postseason run than the past two years. Cincinnati's 2011 and 2012 seasons ended with first-round playoff losses.

If the 9-5 Bengals are even going to get to this postseason this year, though, they first have to bounce back from a Sunday night loss at Pittsburgh and beat the four-win Vikings. Such a win isn't a guarantee. Minnesota has embraced the role of postseason spoiler, rolling NFC East-leading Philadelphia last weekend.

To break down the contest, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey teamed up for this edition of Double Coverage. As this week's visitor, we'll start with Ben:

Ben Goessling: Andy Dalton was one of the Vikings' options at QB when they drafted Christian Ponder in 2011. The Vikings seem to have given up on Ponder, and while Dalton has been better, it's hard to tell whether he's going to be the answer in Cincinnati long-term. How do the Bengals feel about his progress?

Coley Harvey: It certainly appears that for now the Bengals feel comfortable with Dalton moving forward. Despite calls at times this season from some groups of angry fans, the Bengals have remained firm in their support of him. No matter how poorly Dalton played, they weren't shopping for another quarterback, and they weren't trying to give backup Josh Johnson any shared playing time. In short, they were committed to seeing Dalton through the year. And why not? Although he has had some struggles this season, Dalton has still shown that he can handle the duties of being a starting quarterback. He was the AFC's offensive player of the month for October, and had three consecutive 300-yard passing games during one stretch. If Dalton can't get the Bengals past the first round of the playoffs, it will be interesting to see whether the sides discuss a contract extension, with the 2014 season his last on his current contract.

To your broader point, Ben, that 2011 quarterback class certainly hasn't been all that amazing.

Speaking of progressing quarterbacks, it seems like Matt Cassel has given the Vikings some semblance of offensive success in games he's appeared in this season. Why didn't Minnesota stick with him sooner?

Goessling: That's been the big question all season here, and on Sunday, coach Leslie Frazier finally gave those of us in the media a hint of what we'd expected all along. He said the Vikings always liked Cassel, but had to go through the "process" a little bit, and unfortunately weren't able to win games in the meantime. The "process" I believe he's referring to is the act of evaluating Christian Ponder to a point where the Vikings could be absolutely sure he wasn't the answer at the position. When Josh Freeman got inserted into the mix -- and both Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman said the Vikings planned to play Freeman soon -- that complicated things even more. The biggest thing Cassel had working against him was his age (31), and the Vikings didn't necessarily see him as the long-term guy. The question will be whether the quarterback tryouts wind up costing Frazier his job, but now that Cassel's starting, maybe Frazier will be able to make a case to keep his job by showing he can win when he has a competent quarterback.

The Vikings have struggled all year with small, shifty running backs. How do you expect Giovani Bernard to fare against them Sunday?

Harvey: If the Vikings have struggled with those types of backs, then they could be in serious trouble Sunday, Ben. Bernard has been the five-tool player the Bengals thought they were drafting earlier this year and more. Not only can he hit the edge hard on pitches and outside runs, but he has enough power in his smaller body to hit the middle of a defensive line hard and keep going. His most important trait, though, may be what he's able to do as a receiver. You'll see the Bengals use him fairly regularly in the screen game. If the blocking sets up right on those plays, he won't just go for 5 or 6 additional yards. He typically will break off another 10, 15, 20 or more yards after the catch. Once the rookie gets in space, it's like he hits a fourth and fifth gear.

Having said all of that, I do believe he and the more between-the-tackles running BenJarvus Green-Ellis will be keys to the game. If they get going, the Bengals have a chance to showcase the balanced offense that has been coming on of late.

Minnesota has obviously had one of the NFL's best rushing attacks the past seven seasons because of Adrian Peterson. Matt Asiata did a great job of getting to the end zone last week. What kind of challenge do you think he poses the Bengals if he ends up playing in place of Peterson?

Goessling: Not much of one, based on what we saw last week. Asiata averaged less than 2 yards a carry, and while he runs hard between the tackles, he doesn't offer much else; he doesn't break tackles the way Toby Gerhart can, and Peterson's gifts are obviously on a different level from either of those guys. I think Peterson will play, though; he wanted it known last week that he could have gone, and Frazier said after the game that he expected Peterson would be back. The guy prides himself on his pain tolerance, and as hard as he pushed to play last week, I'd be really surprised if he's not in there Sunday.

Assuming he plays, how tough a matchup is this for Peterson? The Bengals have been one of the NFL's best teams against the run this year. What's made them so effective there?

Harvey: It won't be an easy one for Peterson. This Bengals' defense prides itself on playing physically, emotionally and flowing quickly to the football, particularly when it's on the ground. If this were a normal week, I might contend that as good as Cincinnati's run defense has been that Peterson might still end up surprising them and have a big day. This isn't a normal week, though. The Bengals are coming off a loss that had many questioning their heart and attitude, and they also happen to be playing this game at home. There's something about Paul Brown Stadium this season. Opponents have struggled, and the Bengals have fed off the crowd's energy. Cincinnati is 6-0 at home this season, and the defense is a big reason. If linebacker James Harrison (concussion) doesn't play, that could take away a key piece of the Bengals' run defense.

Cincinnati lost punter Kevin Huber to a season-ending injury last week and is bringing along his replacement, Shawn Powell, this week. He'll be kicking to Minnesota's Marcus Sherels. How dynamic is Sherels, Ben? His numbers seem so-so for most of the season, but he does have a return for touchdown.

Goessling: I think you summed it up nicely there, Coley. Sherels did have the punt return touchdown, but his numbers otherwise have been just OK. The thing the Vikings like about him is that he doesn't make mistakes. He fumbled a punt earlier this year, but he's typically very sure-handed and makes good decisions about when to call for a fair catch. He doesn't get them in trouble by taking unnecessary chances, and special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer is a big fan of his partly because of his decision-making skills. But watch out, though. The Vikings are trying to find ways to get Cordarrelle Patterson the ball now that teams have stopped kicking to him, and Frazier mentioned they could give him a look on punt returns. If that happens, the Vikings will have a completely different kind of threat back there on punts.

Double Coverage: Colts at Bengals

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
10:00
AM ET
Maualuga-BrownAP PhotoRey Maualuga and the Cincinnati Bengals know the Indianapolis Colts will try to establish the running game with Donald Brown.
After holding off the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers last weekend, respectively, the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals come into this Sunday's showdown with one another knowing the stakes have been raised.

Whichever division leader emerges victorious from Paul Brown Stadium will have the No. 3 playoff seeding, and most likely will retain it, barring a complete collapse across the final three weeks of the season. The only other reason they wouldn't retain the No. 3 seed? Because they would have the No. 2 seed. Currently, the New England Patriots have that.

Cincinnati could claim that this weekend with a win and a Patriots loss. The Bengals have a tiebreaker over New England after beating the Patriots in October.

Like Sunday's game, that one was in Cincinnati. The Bengals are 5-0 at home, providing an added layer of difficulty for the Colts. Why have the Bengals been so good there? How can the Colts prevent losing their No. 3 seed? ESPN NFL Nation Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Colts reporter Mike Wells have the answers to those questions and more.

Coley Harvey: Mike, there are so many different places I could go with this first question, but I really want to ask about the Colts’ rushing game. Bengals fans certainly were intrigued when the Trent Richardson trade deal went down earlier this season because they knew their team still had to face him this year, even if he was no longer playing for the division-rival Browns. He’s had a rough go of it in Indy, prompting Donald Brown’s start this past Sunday. Does Indianapolis believe Brown really is the back who will lead it through the postseason?

Mike Wells: The Colts hope the demotion will turn out to be a good thing for Richardson. I know that sounds crazy considering the Colts gave up a first-round pick to acquire Richardson. Not starting should ease some of the pressure on Richardson because he’s had a problem of overthinking since he joined the team. Brown may be the starter now, but coach Chuck Pagano will go with the hot hand during the game. So all it takes is a few big runs by Richardson and he’ll be back in the mix. The trade so far is completely in Cleveland’s favor, but this setback doesn’t mean the Colts are throwing in the towel on Richardson. They really can’t afford to when you think about all they gave up to acquire him. The Bengals have excelled at playing at home. What makes them a dangerous team there?

Harvey: That’s a good question. I’d say the weather has made them dangerous. The crowd has made them pretty dangerous, too. The reason I say the weather has made them dangerous is because twice this season, coach Marvin Lewis has been accurate in his prediction of what the weather would do. Back in early October, he smartly told his players to expect a sudden rain shower late in a game against the Patriots. A fourth-quarter monsoon came right when New England got the football for the last time and attempted a comeback drive. Tom Brady couldn’t complete a pass. The rains were too hard. Eventually, Adam Jones intercepted Brady with 16 seconds remaining, clinching a big early-season Cincinnati win. Against the Browns three weeks ago, Lewis also told his players not to worry about the possibility of a delay that some weathermen had predicted. He was right. The game went along mostly smoothly, and about an hour after play, a line of strong storms moved through the area.

In addition to the advantage “meteorologist” Marvin gives them, the Bengals have had a great lift from their fans. Every game has been a sellout, and has had some moment in it that sent the crowd into a frenzy that’s barely been seen since the team moved from the old Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals are confident they’ll keep getting that energy the rest of the season.

Andrew Luck has played in some meaningful games already in his young career. Most notably this season, he gutted out a win during Peyton Manning’s return to Indianapolis. Because of what’s at stake in Sunday’s game, how much confidence do you think Luck’s big-game play gives the Colts, Mike?

Wells: Luck will have to carry the Colts if they expect to go into Cincy and get the victory. The former No. 1 overall pick doesn’t have much to work with on offense now that veteran receiver Reggie Wayne is out for the season with the torn ACL. Opponents have found a way to slow T.Y. Hilton down lately by sending help over the top. Tight end Coby Fleener is doing what he can to help Luck out. I’m not even going to talk about receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. The running game can’t gain any traction and the offensive line has struggled this season. That leaves Luck having to improvise and do what he can to make things work. That won’t be an easy task since the Bengals have the sixth-best defense in the league. The Bengals probably like their chances at being able to sack Luck. He’s been sacked 29 times this season.

Speaking of quarterbacks, there seemed to be different stories floating around earlier this season that questioned whether Andy Dalton could win big games. Do you think he has the ability to take the Bengals to the next level?

Harvey: In all honesty, it’s tough to say, Mike. Dalton has been so inconsistent this season that it’s tough to actually believe he’ll be able to put this team on his back and be as successful as Luck has proven to be. That said, it looks like the Bengals learned something about Dalton and the rest of their offense in San Diego this past weekend. They discovered that with a little help from a solid running game, their passing game can actually produce big, explosive plays.

For a four-game stretch in October, Dalton looked like he would be able to make the Bengals an unbeatable force come the postseason. But since then, he hasn’t been as efficient and he hasn’t had the same type of prolific passing numbers. After throwing for more than 300 yards in four straight games in October, Dalton has hit the 200-yard mark just once since. Two games ago, against Cleveland, he didn’t even reach 100. If the Bengals are going to make noise in the playoffs, it’s probably not going to be because of Dalton. It most likely will be because of their defense.

Speaking of defenses, tell us about the Colts’ defense. What has contributed to its struggles this year, particularly against the run?

Wells: The Colts have struggled to stop the run all season -- 28th in the league -- and things may get worse for them. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois is out two to four weeks with a partial tear of his plantar fascia. Fili Moala will start in his place. Stopping the run is just one problem for Indianapolis. The secondary has also had a difficult time stopping teams from passing on them. It all started when cornerback Greg Toler went down five games ago with a groin injury. But the defense stepped up by forcing four turnovers, including three interceptions, against Tennessee on Sunday. And there’s a chance Toler will be back in the lineup this weekend. The rest of the secondary feeds off of Toler’s energy. It’s a perfect time for Toler to return because the Colts can use his help to try to slow down receiver A.J. Green, who is averaging 91.9 yards a game receiving.

Like Pagano, Marvin Lewis is a defensive coach. What makes the Bengals' defense so successful?

Harvey: It starts with the combination of Lewis' background and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The pair of defensive gurus have established quite the formidable two-headed monster for the Bengals, coming up with a slew of adjustments and lineup tweaks that has made the unit one of the best in the league, even when it maybe shouldn't be. Injuries have ravaged the Bengals' defense, most notably at defensive tackle (Geno Atkins) and cornerback (Leon Hall). The fact Will linebacker Vontaze Burfict has come on and had an unbelievably strong sophomore season has helped, too. The former undrafted free agent leads the NFL in tackles and played last week on a bad ankle. Because of his near-reckless style of play and the fact Zimmer's scheme has produced results, the Bengals believe in their system and that has made them successful.

Ndamukong Suh and Geno AtkinsAP PhotoNdamukong Suh and Geno Atkins lead two of the league's best front fours.
The Detroit Lions have a chance to solidify themselves for a playoff push. So do the Cincinnati Bengals. They may be in different conferences, but this game should be a good test for both teams as to where they stand in the larger picture of the NFL.

Both teams lead their divisions, and both won on the road last week. And in the wacky world of the NFL, Detroit has beaten both teams Cincinnati has lost to (Chicago and Cleveland) while the Bengals have beaten one of the two teams the Lions lost to (Green Bay).

As for this week’s game, Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein break down what should be an interesting matchup.

Rothstein: Detroit's cornerbacks continue to either be banged up (starters Chris Houston and Rashean Mathis) or really young (rookie Darius Slay). How much of a problem is A.J. Green going to pose in this situation? Does he feast on these matchups?

Harvey: Given the Lions’ lack of experience and consistency at cornerback, that could be a problem for Detroit this weekend. Or maybe it will be a good thing. Here’s what I mean: Green does well when he’s going one-on-one against particular defensive backs, and he seems to relish having opportunities to expose both really good and really poor corners. Against Buffalo’s Leodis McKelvin on Sunday, Green caught six passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. He was targeted 11 times as the Bengals went more to their receivers than they had the week before. As good as McKelvin is, though, he’s no Charles Tillman, whom Green caught nine passes against in Week 1. He also isn’t Joe Haden, who allowed Green to catch seven balls but held him to just 51 yards in Cleveland three weeks ago. So Detroit having a revolving door at corner could be problematic since Green has had his opportunities against some of the league’s best this season.

As far as the inexperience and inconsistency at the position being a good thing for the Lions, I say that because that might prompt Detroit to double-team Green. As we’ve seen this season, Green struggles when safeties are able to come over the top and help out in coverage against him. If double coverage ends up being a cornerstone of the Lions’ game plan, Green could have a tough day.

We’ll stick with receivers, and I'll ask you, Michael, about Calvin Johnson. We know he’s hobbled a bit with that knee injury, but how much do you think he’s looking forward to squaring off with a guy like Green, who also is considered one of the game’s best receivers?

Rothstein: Johnson seems to enjoy seeing other top receivers on the field, but he gets more excited to see topflight opposing cornerbacks like Patrick Peterson. For instance, he and Peterson swapped jerseys after their Week 2 game.

His knee is a concern. He didn't quite look like himself against Cleveland on Sunday, dropping a couple of passes and not being his typical deep threat. But when he is out there, teams still have to pay extra attention to him because he is the top receiver in the game.

Johnson's presence changes a lot, even if he can't go deep. Detroit can still use him on underneath routes, and he's still likely to draw the double-team or added attention, especially in the red zone. As long as he can do some things and run some routes, Johnson will be out there and making a difference.

That leads me to this question -- how will Cincinnati's defense handle both the questionable health of Johnson combined with everything else Detroit's offense has to offer?

Harvey: Cincinnati’s top corner, Leon Hall, likely will draw the bulk of reps against Johnson, even though, at 5-foot-11, he stands some six inches shorter than his 6-5 counterpart. It’ll be interesting to see how Hall and the other defensive backs handle the threat of the deep ball, assuming Johnson can run better and get underneath those passes this week. If he’s forced to go underneath, the Bengals feel confident their cover linebackers -- Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict and Michael Boley -- and cover safety Taylor Mays can disrupt short- to intermediate-range passes.

When it comes to stopping Reggie Bush in the run game, the Bengals have the type of defensive front that will make such a matchup intriguing. Last week, against the No. 3 rushing offense in the NFL, they gave up 130 yards on the ground but limited Fred Jackson to just 35 yards on 10 carries. With fewer big-play threats in the Lions backfield, the Bengals have to be glad they’re keying primarily on one running back this week. That said, it’ll be interesting to see what they do with linebacker James Harrison. He factored heavily in the run defense last week, but with the passing threat Detroit possesses, he likely won’t be on the field as much this week.

Speaking of defensive players, Ndamukong Suh continues to be a disruptive force in the Lions’ interior. Statistically speaking, though, it seems he wasn’t very productive last week. Any idea what happened there, Michael?

Rothstein: That hasn't been unusual. His numbers have not been astronomical, but he picks up double-teams on almost every play, it seems. So just the attention he draws assists everyone. There have been hurries that have led to interceptions as well. He is playing extremely well and very consistent.

Has Andy Dalton said anything about Suh this week? They had a prior run-in, and a hit on Brandon Weeden last week is being looked at by the league.

Harvey: Dalton was asked about the body slam Suh gave him during the 2011 preseason opener. But being the polite politician that he is, the quarterback didn’t show any ill will toward Suh. Quite the contrary, actually. Like several of his offensive linemen, Dalton simply called Suh a good player and credited the way he passionately plays the game. Though few linemen wanted to make the Dalton-Suh incident a storyline this week, they will have that play in the back of their minds, rest assured.

Oh, and is there a week when the league isn’t looking at one of his hits?

Final question for you, Michael. Why does Bush have only one rushing touchdown this year? Is that a function of being part of a good passing offense or something else?

Rothstein: It’s a misleading number, Coley. He would have had two rushing touchdowns in Week 1, but both were reviewed and taken away at the 1-yard line. Joique Bell rushed both of them in instead. And he has two receiving touchdowns, so he is finding the end zone. Detroit is more of a passing team that likes to employ screens with its running backs, so that could be why those numbers look strange. But Bush is having a good season, no doubt.

Double Coverage: Steelers at Jets

October, 11, 2013
10/11/13
12:00
PM ET
Ben Roethlisberger and Geno SmithUSA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger and the 0-4 Steelers take on Geno Smith and the surprising Jets.

Things you didn't expect to see in the standings when the NFL released the schedule last April: The New York Jets at 3-2, the Pittsburgh Steelers at 0-4.

The rebuilding Jets were supposed to struggle under a coach who already was being called a lame duck, and the Steelers ... well, they were supposed to be the Steelers, a model of consistency.

The two teams meet up Sunday at MetLife Stadium. The Steelers are off to their worst start since 1968, the year of the Jets' only Super Bowl season. If the Steelers lose this game, they're pretty much done in terms of playoff aspirations. The Jets played a similarly desperate team Monday night, and that didn't seem to faze them, as they stunned the Atlanta Falcons on the road. The Steelers should be well-rested coming off a bye week.

ESPN.com Jets team reporter Rich Cimini and Steelers reporter Scott Brown break down the matchup:

Cimini: Scott, I look down the Steelers' roster and I still see a lot of those familiar names -- Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, etc. It's hard to imagine how the Steelers could be this bad. I'm sure you could write 5,000 words on why they're 0-4, but how 'bout a few thoughts on what has gone wrong?

Brown: Rich, I think I have written triple that amount on everything that has gone wrong, but yes, who would have thought the winless Steelers would be playing the 3-2 Jets even just a couple of weeks ago? Turnovers have been the biggest problem for the Steelers, and that is on both sides of the ball. The Steelers have committed 11 of them with six coming in the last two games by Roethlisberger alone, and they are still without a takeaway, which is unbelievable when you think about it.

Playing from behind has a lot to do with the Steelers’ turnover problem, especially on defense. The defense is at its best when it puts opposing quarterbacks in obvious passing situations and forces them into the kind of mistakes that lead to turnovers. Would you believe the Steelers have had exactly two leads this season and those were 2-0 and 3-0 in the season opener against the Titans and in the second game at Cincinnati, respectively?

Rich, this defense usually confuses and frustrates rookie quarterbacks, but Geno Smith has hardly played like a first-year signal caller. Has his play surprised you, and is it sustainable?

Cimini: I was surprised by how well he played Monday night in Atlanta because he had been a turnover machine -- 11 in his first four games. All of a sudden, something clicked. I don't know if it was a one-game thing or the start of a trend.

I know the Steelers' defense isn't what it used to be, but Dick LeBeau will have had two weeks to cook up something to confuse the kid. How he responds to new looks from the defense will decide this game. The Jets leaned a bit more on the running game last week, taking some pressure off Smith, and I suspect they'll take a similar approach on Sunday. Blitz pick-up will be a key, as will the receivers' ability to gain separation. I remember the Steelers were very aggressive last season in Week 2 with the Jets' wideouts. While on the subject of quarterback play, how would you assess Big Ben's play to this point?

Brown: It has been fine other than the turnovers, and I think it will get better with tight end Heath Miller back and running back Le'Veon Bell giving the Steelers a legitimate threat in the ground game. Roethlisberger is on pace to throw for almost 5,000 yards this season, which would obliterate his career-high of 4,328 yards (2009). But Roethlisberger is also averaging just over 40 pass attempts per game. That number is way too high, especially given how leaky the Steelers’ offensive line has been through the first quarter of the season.

The emergence of Bell should restore balance to the Steelers’ offense. My question for you is whether or not such balance will have to wait a week? The Jets’ defensive line looks awfully physical, and it is hard to envision that Steelers having much luck running the ball against it.

Cimini: You're right, Scott, the Jets have been very good against the run. They've faced some good backs -- Chris Johnson, C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin -- and they're allowing only 76.2 yards per game and 3.0 per carry. I'd be surprised if the Steelers have much success on the ground.

The Jets' front seven is much improved from last season. They added more athleticism at nose tackle (Damon Harrison), tackle (Sheldon Richardson), weak inside linebacker (DeMario Davis) and rush linebacker (Quinton Coples). They're no longer vulnerable on the perimeter, as they were last season. I think they will make the Steelers one-dimensional, which should allow them to get good pressure on Roethlisberger. Speaking of pressure ... four sacks for the mighty Steelers? What happened to that defense?

Brown: Man, depends on who you ask. The easy answer is to say that age has finally collared a once fearsome defense, but that is not entirely accurate. Defensive end Brett Keisel, strong safety Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor are among the most tenured Steelers, and they have played well this season.

Age has caught up with the Steelers a little bit, and the defense needs to get more out of younger players such as cornerback Cortez Allen and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. Jones, the Steelers’ No. 1 pick last April, is going to be really good, but he has not made much of an impact as a pass-rusher. The Steelers desperately need Jones to emerge opposite Woodley, who has three of the Steelers’ four sacks.

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Randy Moss, Ray LewisUSA TODAY SportsAll-time greats Randy Moss and Ray Lewis have added storylines to the Super Bowl.

NEW ORLEANS -- Ray Lewis and Randy Moss, two all-time greats at their positions, face each other in Super Bowl XLVII. The week hasn't been a smooth one for either.

Lewis finds himself denying a report that he took a banned substance to accelerate his recovery time from triceps surgery. Moss started a weeklong debate after declaring he was the greatest wide receiver of all time.

It's now time for NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley to do the talking in the final installment of this week's Super Bowl Double Coverage.

Sando: I'll have to admit, Jamison, that I was taken aback just a little by Lewis' emotional response to beating New England in the AFC Championship Game. Moss isn't going to match that even if he catches the winning touchdown pass Sunday. But there is a parallel between these two once-great players chasing championships late in their careers. Let's begin with Lewis. How does the pervasive narrative apply to the game itself? Can he be a big factor on the field at this stage of his career?

Hensley: It is remarkable that Lewis is still a factor in games, even at age 37 and after 17 NFL seasons. As everyone knows, Lewis isn't the same player he was in 2000 when he came to the Super Bowl as the most dominant defensive player in the game. At this point of his career, he's not Patrick Willis on the field. But I would take Lewis over Brian Urlacher and more than half of the other starting linebackers in the NFL.

Sando: And there’s no question Lewis means more to the Ravens than any other linebacker could mean to them.

Hensley: After missing 10 weeks following surgery to repair a torn triceps, Lewis leads the NFL with 44 tackles this postseason. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s the most by any player since Dan Morgan had 45 for the Carolina Panthers in the 2003 playoffs. Yes, Lewis has lost a step or two. Yes, he's playing with one healthy arm and one arm in a bulky brace. But he's more than just a figurehead for the Ravens.

Sando: Odd as it sounds, I think both teams are happy to have Lewis on the field. The 49ers have tremendous speed at quarterback (Colin Kaepernick), running back (LaMichael James) and tight end (Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker). They have to like their chances if Lewis winds up chasing any of those players.

I’m most interested in seeing how Kaepernick’s running threat affects the Ravens’ ability to defend against Frank Gore on inside runs. Lewis and Gore are two players who qualify for the sporting version of the warrior label. I have so much respect for how they approach the game.

Hensley: The area where Lewis can be the most exposed is in pass coverage. He is much better moving forward than going backward. The Ravens have to make sure Lewis isn't matched up one-on-one with Davis, which could be trouble.

What hasn't diminished with Lewis is his ability to lead. You can debate whether Lewis is the best linebacker to ever play the game. But there's no argument when it comes to the best leader in NFL history.

Lewis can always find the pulse of his team and elevate the players around him. He's the reason Baltimore's defense has ranked in the top 10 for 12 of the past 14 seasons. Players such as Adalius Thomas and Bart Scott weren't the same when Lewis wasn't beside them. Lewis has given so much to this franchise over the past 17 years. You can't think of the Ravens without him. Now, as he prepares to play his final game, his teammates want to give something back to him -- the Lombardi trophy.

Sando: That is going to be a prevailing narrative if the Ravens win this game. Lewis has earned that, too.

We began this conversation promising to discuss two all-time greats chasing championships late in their careers. Moss is more one-year rental than 49ers legend, of course. He has become a quiet leader and a resource for 49ers players. Moss probably deserves some credit for the strides Michael Crabtree has made in becoming a go-to receiver. Moss is also increasingly relevant as a player now that Mario Manningham is on injured reserve. I’m not sure the Ravens are all that worried about him, though.

Hensley: I wouldn't say the Ravens are worried about Moss. But they aren't going to ignore him. When watching film, Baltimore has seen Moss as a decoy.

If the 49ers are going to take a shot or two deep to Moss, that's going into the neighborhood of another NFL great we haven't talked about, Ravens safety Ed Reed. His primary job is to play center field and make sure that long passes turn into interceptions. The Ravens have given up nine passes of more than 20 yards in three playoff games and none more than 40 yards.

The Ravens have a history with Moss. Back in 2005, Baltimore tried to trade for him but was unsuccessful. Unlike Lewis, who is deemed the ultimate team player, Moss has a reputation for being selfish. Mike, has that side of Moss shown up in San Francisco?

Sando: Not at all. Moss deserves some credit for that, but there are other factors at work. One, the 49ers have been winning. They never had a losing streak all season. Two, the 49ers signed Moss to a non-guaranteed contract. Moss had to earn his roster spot. He was entitled to nothing. Moss needed the 49ers more than the 49ers needed him, particularly early in the season, when Manningham was healthy.

As the 49ers demonstrated in their handling of Brandon Jacobs, they weren’t going to let a player push them around. Moss has become increasingly valuable on the field since the 49ers lost Manningham. He has played at least half the offensive snaps in each of the 49ers’ past six games. He never played more than 43 percent in a game previously. He has three touchdown receptions and has 17 of his 33 receptions over the past seven games.

Hensley: Even though Lewis and Moss aren't the players they once were from a few years ago, both have been instrumental in getting their teams this far. It wasn't too long ago when many didn't expect Lewis or Moss to be playing football, much less the Super Bowl. Lewis surprisingly needed just 10 weeks to recover from surgery on his triceps, and Moss came out of retirement after sitting out the 2011 season. Both players returned because they wanted to get to this game. One will earn a ring, and the other will leave with disappointment.
Tucker/AkersUSA TODAY SportsRavens rookie kicker Justin Tucker, No. 9, has outperformed 49ers veteran David Akers.
NEW ORLEANS -- Field goal tries have decided two of the 11 most recent Super Bowls and four of them overall.

San Francisco 49ers fans could do without such a finish in Super Bowl XLVII after their team's kicker, David Akers, missed 10 of his 19 tries from at least 40 yards this season.

Not that the 49ers' opponent in this Super Bowl has sailed through the playoffs on the strength of its special teams. The Baltimore Ravens have their own issues in that area.

NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley have covered most of the other angles heading into this game. Can they pull off an item dedicated solely to special teams or will this one bounce off the upright? You decide.

Sando: Ravens fans probably don't want to hear about Akers' struggles. They're still recovering from Billy Cundiff's missed field goal in the playoffs last season. But as I've watched the 49ers and Ravens advance through the playoffs, special-teams issues have been impossible to overlook. Here we have the Ravens, led by a former special-teams coach, allowing 104-yard and 90-yard returns for touchdowns in a close game at Denver. And here we have the 49ers, with big bucks invested in special-teams coach Brad Seely, hoping against hope that Akers can make routine field goals. Are we overreacting here, Jamison?

Hensley: Not an overreaction at all, Mike. It's kind of been a curse with Ravens head coaches. Brian Billick could never get the offense on track when he was in Baltimore after coordinating the highest-scoring offense at the time in Minnesota. The same goes for Harbaugh, who has to be irritated by the critical breakdowns on special teams after spending most of his NFL career coordinating that area of the game. It was worse for the Ravens last season, when they allowed three touchdowns on special teams.

Sando: I remember one of them well. Arizona’s Patrick Peterson returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown in Baltimore. Cleveland’s Josh Cribbs and the New York Jets’ Joe McKnight also did the return-game scoring honors against the Ravens last season. It was the Broncos’ Trindon Holliday with that 104-yard kickoff return and 90-yard punt return this postseason.

Hensley: John Harbaugh thought the problem was fixed. The Ravens didn't allow a special-teams touchdown in the regular season and didn't allow even one yard on a return of any kind in the wild-card playoff game against Indianapolis. But lapses on special teams nearly cost the Ravens in the AFC division playoff game, where they gave up those touchdowns to Holliday. The Ravens still express confidence in their coverage teams and they have veteran experience there with Brendon Ayanbadejo, Sean Considine and James Ihedigbo. Still, those errors have to be in the back of the Ravens' minds.

Sando: The 49ers have had their own special-teams adventures, of course. We all remember Kyle Williams’ miscues dooming San Francisco to defeat in the NFC Championship Game one year ago. You might also recall Ted Ginn Jr. struggling to field the ball in the rain against New England this season. Ginn was a consistent threat in 2011, but not so much this season. He did have a 20-yard punt return against Atlanta in the NFC title game this year. Ginn has six career return touchdowns, three apiece on punts and kickoffs. He is a player to watch on special teams in this matchup. Playing the game indoors removes weather as a concern -- big for returners.

Hensley: The Ravens actually had Ginn in for a visit this offseason because they were looking to upgrade at returner. They finally decided he was too much of a risk considering his injury history. Baltimore was lucky in landing Jacoby Jones. A week after the Texans released Jones, the Ravens signed him to a two-year, $7 million deal. He has been an electric returner for the Ravens, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl this season that he didn't make. Jones is the only player in NFL history with two kickoff returns of at least 105 yards in a career. And he did it in one season. The other big pickup made by the Ravens this offseason was kicker Justin Tucker, an undrafted rookie who beat out Cundiff this summer.

Sando: Ah, yes, Cundiff. The 49ers signed him to compete with Akers before the playoffs got going. That is how desperate they had become after Akers made only 11 of his final 18 tries of the regular season. Akers, Cundiff and Green Bay’s Mason Crosby were the only qualifying kickers making less than 70 percent of their field goal tries during the regular season. Counting the playoffs, Akers has made only 9 of 19 tries from 40-plus yards. He bounced one off the upright against Atlanta, making that game the 49ers’ first under Jim Harbaugh without at least one made field goal.

Hensley: While the decision to go with Tucker over Cundiff proved to be the right one, it was still a gutsy call by Harbaugh back in the end of August. The Ravens went from Cundiff, a Pro Bowl kicker in 2010, to Tucker, an undrafted rookie out of Texas. They went from Cundiff, who had converted 89.9 percent of his kicks inside the 50 over the past two years (53-of-59) and led the NFL in touchbacks, to Tucker, who had never kicked in a regular-season game.

Sando: How the mighty have fallen. Akers set an NFL record for made field goals in 2011. He and Cundiff were both Pro Bowlers recently.

Hensley: Tucker has surpassed expectations. He connected on 90.9 percent of his field goals (30-of-33) in the regular season, which was the second-best mark by a rookie kicker in NFL history. Tucker also has been clutch with three game winners, including a 47-yarder to win the AFC divisional playoff game in double overtime. Another strength of the Ravens is at punter, and the 49ers can say the same thing.

Sando: I think Andy Lee is the best punter in the NFL. And while there’s no truth to the adage that special teams comprise one-third of the game, there’s no question field position can matter a great deal in a game between evenly matched opponents. So can last-second field goals. And if this game comes down to one of those, the Ravens have to like their chances.
Colin Kaepernick & Terrell SuggsReutersOne of Terrell Suggs' responsibilities will be to help keep Colin Kaepernick in the pocket.
NEW ORLEANS -- For his next act, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will try to accomplish what Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady could not pull off in these NFL playoffs. Kaepernick will try to lead his team past the Baltimore Ravens.

No bar appears too high for Kaepernick to clear after the second-year pro helped the 49ers overcome a 17-0 deficit at Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game. But as Super Bowl week cranks up, Ravens QB Joe Flacco has been cast as the "hot" quarterback. He has eight touchdown passes without an interception in three playoff games, placing him within statistical striking distance of 49ers greats Joe Montana and Steve Young.

Against that backdrop, NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley pick up the Kaepernick discussion from New Orleans, site of Super Bowl XLVII.

Sando: Kaepernick's NFL career began amid some questions over whether the 49ers should have traded up to draft him in the second round out of Nevada. More recently, there was debate over whether 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was wise to bench Alex Smith in favor of Kaepernick. The debate now is ... what?

Jamison, do you have a sense yet as to how the Ravens are viewing Kaepernick? Are they seeing him as a dynamic quarterback with victories over Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan in his first nine starts? Or do you get the sense Kaepernick still must earn their respect as an inexperienced QB?

Hensley: The Ravens definitely respect Kaepernick, but they know they're dealing with a different quarterback than the other ones they've faced in the past two weeks. This goes beyond his freakish athleticism. Baltimore knew it couldn't intimidate the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. But I get the sense that the Ravens feel that they can rattle Kaepernick if they can hit him early.

You saw what Haloti Ngata did to Robert Griffin III this season. The problem, of course, is trying to run down Kaepernick. This is where the respect comes in. "Assignment" is the buzz word among the Ravens' defense. The players know they have to play disciplined defense. They can't have any breakdowns or missed tackles. That will result in a Kaepernick touchdown. The key is not allowing Kaepernick to get to the outside. The job of containing him will fall on Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger.

Mike, what do you think is the biggest mistake defenses have made against Kaepernick?

Sando: It's a pick-your-poison situation. Blow an assignment and Kaepernick can take it the distance, as Green Bay proved in the divisional round. Commit additional resources to containing Kaepernick on the edge and you're going to get a face full of RBs Frank Gore and LaMichael James, who combined for three touchdowns against the Falcons. Containing Kaepernick's rushes isn't enough.

Kaepernick averaged 11.5 yards per pass attempt from inside the pocket in the NFC Championship Game. He stayed in the pocket on 21 of 23 drop-backs. He had only two rushing attempts all game. But he still posted a 90-plus Total QBR score for the second time in two playoff games. No one else has more in the five-year history of the metric.

The key is making a quarterback uncomfortable. We might not call it "rattled" when it happens to Manning or Brady, but we're talking about something similar. The 49ers would not say they rattled Brady early in their Week 15 victory over the Patriots, but they affected him. They made him jumpy. That was one of the reasons they jumped to a 31-3 lead in the game.

Kaepernick did not appear comfortable on the road against Seattle. But he has led a touchdown drive immediately after each of his four interceptions this season. He plays with attitude and rushed for more than 4,000 yards in college, so he's used to taking some hits. I expect the 49ers to run the ball with Gore. There's no reason to invite trouble with a pass-happy plan early. We should see heavy doses of the 49ers’ ground game -– including some option looks featuring Kaepernick.

Hensley: The Ravens are no strangers to mobile quarterbacks. They played Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III this season. Vick ran for 34 yards on 10 carries and his longest run was 8 yards. RG III managed 34 yards rushing on seven attempts and didn't break a run longer than 13 yards. This is surprising to me because the Ravens don't have the same speed on defense they've had in previous seasons.

Sando: Kaepernick rushed for only 21 yards in the NFC Championship Game. However, the threat of his running made it tougher for the Falcons to defend the entire offense. Kaepernick has attempted 49 of his 52 postseason passes from the pocket. But the 49ers have also run more plays from the pistol formation in two postseason games (62) than they did all season (44). Kaepernick is also a threat on scrambles. Overall, he has three rushes of at least 50 yards this season, counting playoffs. Only Adrian Peterson has more.

Hensley: Ravens players said Kaepernick reminds them more of Vick than RG III. They don't think watching their tape of how they played against Washington will help them because the 49ers' blocking schemes are different. The Ravens want to force Kaepernick to beat them with his arm. Even though the Ravens' cornerbacks are far from household names, Cary Williams and Corey Graham have two interceptions each in the playoffs. Since 2008, when John Harbaugh became head coach, the Ravens have 22 interceptions in the playoffs. That's twice as many picks as any other team in the league over that span.

Sando: Kaepernick threw a pick-six against the Packers in the divisional round, so he’s not immune to making mistakes. Overall, however, he leads the NFL in Total QBR (82.6), yards per pass attempt (8.6) and starting quarterback won-lost percentage (77.8, tied with Matt Ryan) for the regular season and playoffs combined. We all know how hot Flacco has been for Baltimore. That 8-0 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions is impressive. But Kaepernick and Kurt Warner are the only quarterbacks over the past five seasons with two single-game QBR scores in the 90s during the playoffs. Kaepernick has done it in two starts.

Hensley: The Ravens' defense has been as hot as Flacco. Baltimore has allowed four offensive touchdowns in three playoff games and none have come on the ground. In the second half of the AFC Championship Game, the Ravens shut out Tom Brady and the Patriots, the highest-scoring team in the NFL this season.

Baltimore is doing this without getting tremendous pressure on the quarterback. The Ravens have only six sacks in the postseason. That wasn't the case 14 months ago, when the Ravens sacked Alex Smith nine times. But I think we can both agree that the 49ers are a different team and definitely a different offense now.

Sando: Kaepernick is one of the biggest differences for the 49ers. He takes sacks far less frequently than Smith took them. Kaepernick is much more dangerous as a runner. He has a stronger arm. He gives the 49ers their best chance to win.
Joe Flacco, Aldon SmithGetty ImagesRavens quarterback Joe Flacco will face his toughest challenge in Aldon Smith and the 49ers.
NEW ORLEANS -- Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is riding one of the greatest postseason runs an NFL quarterback has ever ridden.

Only six quarterbacks have thrown more touchdown passes in a single postseason than Flacco, who has eight in these playoffs.

But the San Francisco 49ers will provide Flacco's toughest test of the postseason. Since Vic Fangio took over as the 49ers' defensive coordinator in 2011, San Francisco has allowed the fewest points (15.7) and second-fewest yards (301.3) on a per-game basis.

NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley break down the matchup between this strong-armed quarterback and stingy defense.

Hensley: Everyone laughed at Joe Flacco when he said he was the best quarterback in the NFL this offseason. Look who's laughing now. I'm not saying Flacco is the best quarterback in the league, but he's playing at a different level right now.

Sando: I know "playing at a different level" sounds like a cliché, but it’s really true. The smart numbers back this up in a big way.

Consider that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers finished first through fifth, respectively, in Total QBR for the regular season. All posted figures in the 70s or higher, well above the 50-point mark reflecting average contributions to winning.

I think we’d all agree that those guys were very good. Flacco finished 25th with a 46.8 mark. So, unless Flacco somehow defied a system that correctly identified the best and worst quarterbacks in the NFL, there was some reason for skepticism entering these playoffs.

Yes, the Ravens have won playoff games in past seasons with Flacco at quarterback, but he has been much, much better during this postseason -- not just relative to the regular season, but relative to past postseasons as well.

Flacco's eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions tell us as much. So do the advanced stats. Flacco’s Total QBR has spiked to 77.5, third-best in the playoffs. It ranged between 17.6 and 41.9 for him in previous postseasons.

Hensley: The difference with Flacco is his ability to get the ball downfield. He's averaging 16.7 yards per completion by going deep to Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. I expect a similar game plan from the Ravens, especially after watching how Matt Ryan was able to hit some big plays against the 49ers in the first half of the NFC Championship Game. How does San Francisco go about slowing down Flacco?

Sando: The 49ers gave up a 46-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones on a blown coverage in the NFC Championship Game. These longer passes have been a bit of problem for the 49ers during the playoffs. That is a concern in this game.

During the playoffs, the 49ers have allowed 66.7 percent completions with three touchdowns and one interception on passes traveling more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. The 49ers are allowing 17.6 yards per pass attempt on these throws. The numbers were much more impressive during the regular season (36.3 percent completions, two TD passes, six picks, 10.5 yards per attempt).

The 49ers' pass rush, diminished since Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith suffered a triceps injury in Week 15, finished strong in the NFC Championship Game. San Francisco needs to pick up in the Super Bowl where it left off against the Falcons.

Hensley: What has impressed me just as much as Flacco's downfield passing has been his decision-making. He's not chucking the ball downfield any chance he gets. Flacco is waiting for the one-on-one matchups and exploiting them. That's the main reason why he hasn't thrown any interceptions in the playoffs. In fact, Flacco hasn't been picked off since he had an interception returned 98 yards for a touchdown against Denver on Dec. 16. He has gone 19 quarters of play without throwing one, a span of 162 passes. That's an amazing stretch for Flacco, whose previous best streak was 137 passes. A big reason why Flacco hasn't thrown interceptions is he's getting time to throw. If the 49ers can get pressure on Flacco, especially early, he has to continue to take care of the ball.

Sando: The 49ers do not blitz much. They have sent five or more pass-rushers just 6.9 percent of the time in two playoff games, easily the lowest rate this postseason (32.4 percent for everyone else). They really need Aldon Smith and Justin Smith to play well. Neither has dominated for some time. Aldon Smith did get pressure on Matt Ryan as the NFC Championship Game progressed. That was one reason the 49ers put Ryan under duress on six of his final 12 drop backs.

What kind of pass protection should we expect from the Ravens?

Hensley: Based on the playoffs, I would expect a very safe pocket for Flacco. The Ravens made a change on the offensive line and it has totally changed the passing game. Left guard Jah Reid was placed on injured reserve with a toe injury just before the playoffs began. That meant right tackle Kelechi Osemele moved to left guard, left tackle Michael Oher shifted to right tackle and Bryant McKinnie got out of John Harbaugh's doghouse and into the starting lineup at left tackle.

The result: four sacks allowed in three playoff games. The key matchup is McKinnie versus Aldon Smith. McKinnie has given up just one sack in the playoffs, but he has been inconsistent throughout his career. If the 49ers get too much heat on Flacco, look for the Ravens to get the ball to Ray Rice in space whether it's on swing or screen passes. Rice has been quiet in the playoffs as a receiver (four total catches) but he's dangerous in the passing game. Just look at fourth down-and-29 in San Diego.

Sando: If the 49ers could hand-pick two inside linebackers to chase Rice around the field, they would probably pick the ones they’re taking into this game, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They should be OK in that aspect of the matchup. But there are no guarantees Aldon Smith, playing with a shoulder injury, is going to consistently win those pass rush battles against Bryant McKinnie.

Yes, McKinnie’s career has been disappointing in recent seasons, but he was the seventh pick of the 2002 draft because he has talent.

McKinnie was at left tackle last season when the Ravens limited the 49ers to zero sacks. We should note that Justin Smith gave McKinnie problems in the running game. Still, though, that 16-6 defeat for the 49ers stands as one of three zero-sack games for San Francisco’s defense over the past two seasons, counting playoffs. The 49ers’ offense scored only 22 points in those three games, however. It’s not like the Ravens were in any obvious passing situations against San Francisco last season.

Hensley: Some Ravens players have told me that the key to their running game is getting linemen to the second level, especially against Bowman, who is getting a lot of respect here in Baltimore. The Ravens need the running game to work early to avoid those obvious passing situations you pointed out, Mike, and set up the play-action, which Flacco uses quite well.

This game is such a role reversal for Flacco after going through Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the AFC gauntlet. He's now the experienced quarterback compared to Colin Kaepernick. After eight playoff games and three trips to the AFC Championship Game, he understands what it takes to win in the national spotlight. He needs to convert third downs, produce touchdowns in the red zone (he already has five touchdowns inside the 20 this postseason) and not make costly turnovers. If the Ravens are going to win, it's going to be because of Flacco.

Double Coverage: The dueling Harbaughs

January, 27, 2013
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Jim Harbaugh and John HarbaughUSA TODAY SportsGambles have paid off for Harbaugh brothers Jim (left) and John on their way to the Super Bowl.
Perhaps you've heard the news: Super Bowl XLVII features two head coaches from the same family. Brothers, in fact. You could look it up, or you could listen in while NFC West blogger Mike Sando and AFC North counterpart Jamison Hensley take (family) matters into their own hands.

Sando: The Baltimore Ravens seem like such a close-knit group. They seem like family even more than Jim and John Harbaugh do. But a few years ago, I recall hearing how some Ravens players weren't taking to John Harbaugh's abrasive, authoritarian coaching style. I'd be curious to know if there's been an evolution at all, or to what degree the relationship between John Harbaugh and the team has grown. What has changed?

Hensley: Mike, you're right that it's taken the players time to warm up to John. A lot of players thought he came across as too blunt and bent on doing things his way. In June 2010, at least one player complained to the NFL Players Association about voluntary offseason practices being too physical and meetings running too long. The Ravens were forced to cancel one week of their spring camps because of that.

To be fair, John Harbaugh came into a situation in which the locker room was filled with strong personalities, and he had never been a head coach before. But Harbaugh has grown into the role of head coach, especially this year. Players talk about Harbaugh being more open-minded and responsive to them. They feel more comfortable airing out their differences. This team is tighter than any of the previous ones under Harbaugh, and he has played a big role in that. I'm sure Jim faced some equally tough challenges in his first couple of seasons with the 49ers.

Sando: Jim Harbaugh also inherited a team with quite a few established players. But those players embraced him from the very beginning for reasons that say quite a bit about what makes a head coach and his staff credible. Players in San Francisco were starving for a coaching staff with the right answers to their schematic questions. Former coach Mike Singletary’s inspirational approach lost traction eventually because the offensive scheming was so lacking. Players will not respect coaches over the long term if those coaches don’t have schematic answers. Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff have had those answers.

There is still room for growth in other areas for Harbaugh, however. His unrelenting intensity could have a limited shelf life if left unchecked. His approach carries long-term risks as far as sustainability. But with the team advancing to the Super Bowl within a two-season period of his hiring, that isn’t an issue now.

Hensley: The key word that you touched upon is risk. The common theme is John and Jim aren't afraid of it. That was apparent by the bold moves they made during the season.

[+] EnlargeJohn Harbaugh and Joe Flacco
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJoe Flacco has responded well to a late-season coaching move by head coach John Harbaugh (left).
John Harbaugh fired his offensive coordinator with three weeks remaining in the regular season when the Ravens were in first place in the AFC North and on the brink of clinching a playoff berth. Who does that? Harbaugh handed the offense over to Jim Caldwell, who hadn't called plays since his days at Wake Forest more than a decade ago.

The result has been more of a commitment to the run and loosening the reins on Joe Flacco. It could have backfired on Harbaugh, but he repeatedly said it was the right move for the team.

The only move that would trump a coaching change like that is switching your quarterbacks at midseason. Oh, wait. That's treading on your territory, Mike. I know people will get tired of hearing about the brothers and the Har-Bowl, or whatever you want to call it. But John and Jim have made the necessary moves to get their teams to this point.

Sando: No question. Jim Harbaugh easily could have stayed the course with Alex Smith, who had posted a 19-5-1 record as a starter and taken the team to the NFC Championship Game a year ago. That would have been the safe move. That would have insulated Harbaugh from criticism if Colin Kaepernick faltered, which easily could have happened in the short term as the offense adjusted to a quarterback with a different style.

Anything less than reaching the NFC Championship Game this season would have cast the Kaepernick decision as a failure in the public’s eye -- and maybe in some players’ eyes, too. I do suspect the decision wasn’t as tough for Harbaugh as it appeared from the outside. He traded up to draft Kaepernick. He watched Kaepernick light it up against Chicago in that Monday night game before he decided on the starter going forward. Harbaugh was in position to know how good Kaepernick could be. He just had to navigate through the politics of an in-season change.

Hensley: The biggest change John Harbaugh made since he took over in 2008 was with the team culture. The Ravens were seen by many as thugs who talked trash to every opponent. In his introductory news conference, Harbaugh said his focus was going to be on three things: team, team and team.

Harbaugh's greatest strengths as a coach are his attention to detail, ability to motivate and focus. Walk the halls of Ravens headquarters, and you’ll see one of Harbaugh’s favorite slogans throughout the building: W.I.N. (What’s Important Now). Some players think it's too rah-rah for the NFL, and it seems better suited for college. But you can't argue with Harbaugh's results. He's the only head coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons, and also the only coach to advance to three conference title games over that same span. If the Ravens win the Super Bowl, Harbaugh will tie Bill Belichick for the most wins since the start of the 2008 season.

Sando: Not bad company there, Jamison. The slogans you cited made it clear to me that we will not need DNA testing to confirm the relationship between these two Super Bowl coaches and their formerly coaching father, Jack. “The team, the team, the team” is a favorite Jim Harbaugh saying. He also posted a sign outside the 49ers' locker room in Santa Clara stating that a person is getting better or getting worse, never staying the same.

Jim also likes to punctuate victories in the locker room by gathering the team around him and asking, “Who’s got it better than us?” To which the players scream, “Nobody!” That one came from Jack Harbaugh back when the family was moving frequently and living on a tight budget. The Harbaughs are rolling in money now, at least relatively speaking, but they sound like the same guys in so many ways.

Hensley: While we have talked about the similarities of the Harbaugh brothers as coaches, no one should lose sight of the family element here. It must be tough for John and Jim to know that only one is going to be holding the Lombardi Trophy. It must be tougher for their father and mother.

One of the reasons Jim chose the 49ers was because they were in the NFC and that reduced the chances of facing John on a regular basis. That's why I agree with Jim that this is both a blessing and a curse. There will be stories all week leading up to the Super Bowl celebrating the top coaching family in football. Come Sunday night, only one brother will be celebrating.
Joe Flacco/Von MillerGetty ImagesThe Ravens must do a better job of protecting Joe Flacco, left, from Von Miller and the Broncos pass rush than they did during the team's meeting last month.

This feels like Double Coverage déjà vu. It was only four weeks ago when we were talking about these same two teams. If you don't remember, or you're a Ravens fan trying to forget, the Broncos rolled to a 34-17 win in Baltimore.

Since that time, the Ravens regrouped with a 33-14 win over the Giants and delivered an emotionally charged 24-9 playoff win over the Colts in the wild-card round. Baltimore has now won at least one game in each of the past five postseasons.

The Broncos finished out the regular season with 11 straight wins to capture the top seed in the AFC. In the previous 42 seasons, there have been eight teams to enter the playoffs with an active win streak of at least 10 games, and half of them made the Super Bowl.

AFC West blogger Bill Williamson and AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley discuss whether Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game will be a repeat of the regular-season rout.

[+] EnlargeLewis
Kirby Lee/US PresswireTeam leader Ray Lewis was not in uniform for the regular-season meeting between the Ravens and Broncos, a 34-17 Denver win.
Hensley: The Ravens are decided underdogs in this game, and they should be. Baltimore hardly looked like a playoff team in getting beat by 17 points by Denver last month, and Peyton Manning didn't even have a great game. The Ravens believe the outcome will be different because they're healthier. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis and the Ravens' top two tacklers (safety Bernard Pollard and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe) will play this time after missing the last game against the Broncos. The Ravens' best offensive lineman, guard Marshal Yanda, will also be back in the lineup. This, at least, gives the Ravens some hope.

Williamson: There’s no denying this: The Denver Broncos are confident going into this game. They should be. They are 13-3. They have won a league-high 11 straight games. They pounded the Ravens in Baltimore four weeks ago in their best overall game of the season. But be sure of this: Denver respects Baltimore. It is not overlooking this game because of a potential Manning-Tom Brady showdown in the AFC title game. The key to Denver’s winning streak has been its focus on the upcoming game and its ability not to get ahead of itself. As Jamison said, the Ravens are healthier this week than they were in December, and the Broncos know it. They have spoken of that fact all week. This is a good approach for Denver. The Broncos feel good about themselves, but they are focused on the Ravens. Let’s face it, the Broncos should win this game, but an upset is not out of the question. Jamison, what do you think are some keys to this matchup?

Hensley: The biggest matchup is one the Ravens lost badly the first time. It's the Ravens' offensive line against the Broncos' pass rush. Joe Flacco was sacked three times, and he's not the same quarterback when he gets hit early. Pressure on Flacco often results in turnovers. It's kind of a running theme, but the Ravens hope it will be different this time because their line looks different. For the wild-card victory Sunday, the Ravens put Bryant McKinnie at left tackle, moved Michael Oher to right tackle and shifted Kelechi Osemele to left guard. McKinnie allowed one quarterback pressure against the Colts, and the Ravens gave up one sack. As you know, Bill, it's an entirely different challenge with Von Miller and the Broncos. What's the key matchup from the Broncos' standpoint?

Williamson: I think it starts here. I don’t know if the Ravens are going to have an answer for that. Sure, they did some line shuffling last week. But that is a sign of desperation. Denver’s pass rush is top-notch. It was all over Flacco last month. It set the tone for the game. Expect Denver to bring the heat early. The Broncos are well coached, but there isn’t a lot of mystery. They focus on what they do well, so don’t expect any funny business. Denver knows it got to Flacco easily four weeks ago and it will try to do the same thing. Miller is one of the best pass-rushers alive. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Miller had 11.5 of his 18.5 sacks on third downs in 2012. It was the highest total in the NFL in 20 years. But Denver’s pass rush is much more than the menacing Miller. Elvis Dumervil is a standout, and Denver gets great push from the defensive front. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Denver defense has sacked or put the quarterback under duress on 28 percent of opponent dropbacks this season. It was the highest rate in the NFL. Against Baltimore, Denver put Flacco under duress 33 percent of the time. That is extremely taxing for an offensive line and quarterback. It is something Baltimore will have to account for.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMIPeyton Manning has a less-than-stellar playoff record, having gone 9-10 in postseason games.
Hensley: Bill, there's no doubt the Ravens have to keep the pressure off Flacco. Baltimore's pass rush, which had its moments against Andrew Luck last Sunday, has been hampered by Terrell Suggs. Injuries to his Achilles and biceps this season have kept him from looking like the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Suggs has only two sacks this season and made one tackle against Denver. Paul Kruger has been the Ravens' best pass-rusher this season. He had a career-high nine sacks in the regular season and added 2.5 more in the playoff game. But the biggest pressure on Manning might not involve Suggs or Kruger. Since he won the Super Bowl, Manning has been one-and-done in three of his past four postseasons. Manning has had a reputation of faltering in the playoffs. Now, with the Broncos being the top seed and Manning being an MVP candidate, all of the pressure is on No. 18. Bill, do you see that being a factor?

Williamson: The guy has been so spectacular all season, I don’t see a lot of pressure. I mean, this is a 36-year-old man who missed all of the 2011 season because he had four neck surgeries. His recovery was the story of the NFL offseason. He responded with one of his best NFL seasons in a new setting and he is a top MVP candidate. I think the pressure is off. Now, it's true that he has not been great in the postseason. He is 9-10 in his career. If Denver loses Saturday, it will certainly be a major storyline. But I don’t think there is a lot of worry in Denver about Manning’s playoff history. Maybe because everyone is so confident in how he fits with this team and the supporting cast around him. This is arguably the best team he’s played on.

Hensley: Well, Bill, I'm not breaking new ground by saying this isn't the best defense Lewis has played on. No one will be making any comparisons to the 2000 record-setting defense, but the 2012 defense is better than what people think. The Ravens were the second-best red zone defense in the NFL this year and stopped the Colts on all three trips inside the 20-yard line last Sunday. Over the final six games, Baltimore allowed the NFL's fourth-fewest yards per game. But the best defense against Manning might be the weather. Bill, do I need to bring my snow shovel?

Williamson: You might want to pack an ice scraper, but nothing too serious. The forecast calls for a chance of snow. I think the biggest issue will be the cold. That could help the defense. Interesting that you mention the Ravens’ defensive success in the red zone. There have been times when Denver’s offense has stalled in the red zone. For Baltimore to win this game, it needs to hold Denver to three points more often than not and create big plays on defense. I don’t think it is out of the question that Baltimore wins this game, but the truth is that Denver is balanced and rolling. The Broncos will need to make an unusual amount of mistakes and the Ravens will have to cash in every time. I’m not sure if that will happen. I think this game will be closer than the last meeting, but I still give Denver the edge.
Joe Flacco, JJ WattUS Presswire, AP ImagesHow Baltimore's Joe Flacco, left, fares against Houston's explosive J.J. Watt could be key Sunday.


The last time we saw the Texans and Ravens square off, we were watching a divisional-round playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Terrell Suggs had six tackles and a pass defended as the Ravens' rush linebacker. Houston featured third-string rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback, and his three interceptions -- paired with multiple special-teams gaffes by Texans returner Jacoby Jones -- were big factors in a 20-13 Baltimore victory.

The Texans returned home to rave reviews for their first playoff season but also couldn’t help wonder what might have been if they'd had injured starting quarterback Matt Schaub and played a cleaner game. Baltimore advanced to the AFC Championship Game in New England, where it lost to the Patriots, but a near-catch for a touchdown by Lee Evans could have won it with 27 seconds left and a missed 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff could have forced overtime.

This rematch doesn’t carry the same stakes but could have big implications. The winner will have the AFC’s best record at 6-1.

AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky will be watching closely.

HENSLEY: I think it's easy to say this is a battle of the two best teams in the AFC. Not really going out on a limb here because the Ravens and Texans are the only teams with winning records in this mediocre conference. I know there are going to be nine games after this one, but this is shaping up to be the Ravens' most important game of the regular season.

The result of this game could become a tiebreaker for home-field advantage or a first-round bye at the end of the season. The Ravens, who have won a league-best 14 consecutive games at home, don't want to go on the road in the playoffs. The Ravens' mindset is that they won't have to come back to Houston this year if they win there Sunday. What's the mindset of the Texans after what happened in Houston last Sunday night?

KUHARSKY: Because the Texans are so young, they've played a lot of "biggest games in franchise history." This is certainly the newest one to top the list. Their critics look at the 5-1 record and see wins over mostly softies and a pasting by the Packers on Sunday night. A victory over the Ravens validates everything they've done and regains a firm hold on Best in the AFC. A loss would create some serious concerns. They do have the cushion of playing in a terrible division they simply can't lose. But Baltimore has been an obstacle and ended the Texans' last season in the playoffs. If they meet again with such high stakes, they don't want to be traveling.

It might be a good time to draw the Ravens, too, right? I know Ray Lewis wasn't what he has been, but their first game without a leader like that and without an underrated, great corner like Lardarius Webb may make them a bit more susceptible, no?

HENSLEY: This is the most vulnerable I've seen the Ravens' defense in 13 seasons. Lewis wasn't playing like the Lewis from 10 years ago, but he was still an above-average linebacker in this league. The Ravens have given up more than 200 yards rushing in each of the past two games, and losing Lewis only makes that run defense shakier. Dannell Ellerbe, who has made seven starts since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2009, will take Lewis' spot.

Though the Ravens will miss Lewis' leadership, the bigger loss is Webb. He was emerging as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. His nine interceptions since the start of the 2011 season was tied for the league lead. So, the Ravens have taken shots to both their run and pass defenses this week. How do you see the Texans attacking the Ravens' defense Sunday?

KUHARSKY: Although they might not run first chronologically Sunday, the Texans are a run-first team. Everything they do offensively is keyed on the one-cut-and-go running of Arian Foster, who did great work running for 132 yards in that playoff game on Jan. 15. They send him left most often now, because Duane Brown and Wade Smith are steadier blockers than the guys on the right side, where they have two new starters who aren't even full time.

Spinning off that run game, we'll see play-action heavy with bootlegs and rollouts. It's always remarkable to see Owen Daniels out in space awaiting a Matt Schaub pass. Andre Johnson is certainly dangerous too, though they've not been able to feed him the ball as much as usual. He hates the talk that he's getting older and slowing down, but he hasn't looked like the same player so far this season. Two weeks ago, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie really smothered Johnson. I figured Webb would be a guy who could do similar work. If AJ sees someone like Cary Williams instead, it could be a different story.

Speaking of Schaub, let's turn to quarterbacks. He has been quite efficient this year, doing what Houston needs and not getting caught up at all in his numbers. I came into the season not sold on Joe Flacco and thinking the Ravens didn't have the right guy under center to become an offensive team. But he has done some very good work in the games I've seen and started to change my opinion. Even minus Brian Cushing, the Texans' front throws a lot at a quarterback. Green Bay might have exposed some coverage deficiencies. How's Flacco at assessing such things on the fly and taking advantage?

HENSLEY: Flacco's biggest improvement this season has been his ability to audible at the line. The Ravens are using the no-huddle more than any other time in Flacco's five seasons. It's not to the point of being Peyton Manning, but Flacco is constantly changing the play at the line. Flacco, who ran the no-huddle during his college days, is comfortable with this. He has wanted to have more control of the offense and he's now getting it.

A lot of credit goes to quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who is familiar with this style from his days with the Colts. Flacco makes his mistakes when he gets pressured. His pocket awareness has improved and he can scramble for yards. But Flacco will rush and make poor throws when a defender is in his face. Left tackle Michael Oher (four sacks) and rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele (three sacks) have struggled at times keeping rushers away from Flacco. Is there any chance the Ravens slow down J.J. Watt and Houston's pass rush?

KUHARSKY: It sure seems like the key to the game for me. Watt is going to get his at some point, and it's not just sacks. Watch how he'll stop rushing when he knows he's not getting there and time his jump to bat down, or even pick off, a pass.

And although the numbers of the other guys aren't in his stratosphere, Brooks Reed, Antonio Smith and Connor Barwin are very effective rushers who will have a bearing on Flacco's pocket comfort. Force some mistakes with that rush, and I like Houston's chances. Get stonewalled and fall victim to the ball coming out super-fast, and I feel differently.

One note about the quicker Ravens offense: With Cushing out, Brice McCain, the nickelback, will have a bigger role in covering players such as Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta on routes. If the Ravens run hurry-up or no-huddle, they can potentially trap the Texans in base if they want McCain off the field. I am eager to see whether they try that. The Texans are obviously are familiar with Jim Caldwell's no-huddling.

How about special teams? Tell me how Jacoby Jones is now reliably explosive? The Texans have some serious special-teams issues.

HENSLEY: Jacoby Jones has been one of the bigger surprises this season for Baltimore. The Ravens were looking to upgrade the return game this offseason and failed to sign Eddie Royal or Ted Ginn in free agency. That's why they jumped on Jones when he was cut by the Texans. He has been average as a punt returner (9 yards per return), but he really keyed the win over the Cowboys on Sunday. His 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which tied an NFL record, was the big play in that game.

The only reason the Ravens turned to Jones on kickoffs was because rookie Deonte Thompson fumbled a kickoff the week before. If you think about it, it's kind of funny that Jones got his chance to be explosive because another player couldn't hold onto the ball, especially after Jones' problems fielding kicks in the past. But that really hasn't surfaced so far with the Ravens.

Baltimore's coverage teams are both ranked in the top half of the league, which is a big improvement from last year. In 2012, the Ravens allowed three touchdowns on returns. Another improvement is at kicker. Rookie Justin Tucker has made 12 of 13 field goals this season and has hit both attempts beyond 50 yards. If this game is close, the Ravens have a lot of confidence in Tucker to make a pressure kick. So, what are the issues with the Texans' special teams?

KUHARSKY: Well, Trindon Holliday was absolutely electric as their returner in the preseason. But it didn’t carry over and they gave up on him. You saw Holliday playing for the Broncos on Monday night. Keshawn Martin is the man now. The team averages only 9.8 yards a punt return and 18.5 yards a kick return.

Their average start after a kickoff is the league’s worst -- the 17.7-yard line. Their coverage isn’t that bad -- it’s 31st in the league instead of 32nd. Opponents start at the 26.9-yard line.

Donnie Jones is a middle-of-the-pack punter in net average. Shayne Graham has been good on field goals, hitting 11 of 12, but is tied for 24th in touchbacks playing at home in what amounts to a domed stadium.

It’s gambler’s logic that the Texans are due to break through against the Ravens. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. If they don’t and Jacoby Jones has something to do with it, it’ll hurt a little bit extra.

It’s certainly no stretch to predict we’ll see these teams facing off again in the playoffs. In what round and where is the question, and Sunday’s winner will lead the race to be in position to host.

Double Coverage: Jets at Steelers II

January, 19, 2011
1/19/11
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Troy Polamalu, Darrell RevisGetty ImagesThe AFC Championship Game should be a hard-fought grudge match featuring two of the league's best defenses, led by Troy Polamalu and Darrelle Revis.
We have an AFC East versus AFC North showdown at Heinz Field to determine who will represent the conference in Super Bowl XLV. The New York Jets (13-5) will visit the Pittsburgh Steelers (13-4) in a rematch of the Jets' 22-17 victory in Week 15.

But this time we're going to narrow our focus to the heart and soul of both teams: the defense. That is what brought the Jets and Steelers this far. The better defense Sunday likely will make the difference in the AFC Championship Game.

So which defense has the best chance to dominate? ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker and AFC East blogger Tim Graham break it down.

James Walker: I like the fact that both of these defenses attack first and often can dictate to the opposing offenses the tempo of the game. But when you start comparing the two teams by the numbers, New York's defense doesn't stack up to Pittsburgh's. The Steelers have the advantage over the Jets in every major statistical regular-season category, including average total yards allowed (276.8 to 291.5), points allowed (14.5 to 19), total sacks (48 to 40) and forced turnovers (35 to 30). Pittsburgh's run defense also was fifth best all-time since the start of the Super Bowl era in 1966, allowing just 62.8 yards per game. The Jets allowed an average of 90.9 rushing yards per game. New York also gave up 72 more points than Pittsburgh in the regular season. And based on their average, that's about five games' worth of points for the Steelers. If you want to compare current numbers in the playoffs, the Steelers are also No. 1 in postseason defense, allowing just 126 total yards in a divisional win over Baltimore. The Jets played in two playoff games and are not in the top six. New York has allowed an average of 342 total yards in the postseason, which is a very big discrepancy of 216 total yards per game.

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets head coach Rex Ryan
AP Photo/Tom E. PuskarNew York Jets head coach Rex Ryan disrupted Hall of Fame quarterbacks in back-to-back weeks.
Tim Graham: No, I don't want to compare postseason stats because the Steelers have played one game at home against a wild-card team. The Jets have played two road games against future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and snuffed them both -- in two of the most intimidating stadiums for a visitor to escape in any sport. What the Jets have done the past two weeks would be a remarkable feat even for the "Steel Curtain." The Jets held Peyton Manning to 16 points and made inevitable MVP Tom Brady appear lost. The Patriots scored 21 points, but the last touchdown came against the Jets' prevent defense in garbage time. But even more significant? The Jets won in Pittsburgh five weeks ago. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took his shots against the Jets and posted a passer rating almost 20 points lower than his season average. The Jets forced more fumbles than the Steelers that night, had more sacks and even recorded a safety. As for that sterling run defense ranking you quoted, in that contest the Jets' running game surpassed the Steelers' average by 44 yards -- an increase of 59 percent.

JW: If you want to throw away the Jets' postseason statistics, then Pittsburgh's superior regular-season numbers over 16 games still apply. There is no way to ignore both, Tim, because Pittsburgh's defense was better no matter how you cut it. In terms of Week 15, I think you're conveniently leaving out that the game was won on special teams. Brad Smith's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was the difference. The Steelers' defense allowed just one touchdown, while Pittsburgh's offense outscored New York's offense 17-13. The Steelers also racked up 377 yards against the Jets' defense, which is worse than the 342-yard postseason average I mentioned earlier. In terms of which defense can dominate the AFC title game, you have to take into account the offenses these two teams are facing. There is zero debate that Roethlisberger is a superior quarterback to New York's Mark Sanchez. In fact, if I were ranking the four remaining playoff quarterbacks, Sanchez would be dead last behind Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers and even Jay Cutler. Credit Sanchez for having some success against the Colts and Patriots, but those defenses were ranked in the 20s this season. Even Jets linebacker Bart Scott admitted New England's defense "couldn't stop a nosebleed," and he's right. Sanchez has yet to face a defense in the playoffs like Pittsburgh's once it's at full strength with a healthy Troy Polamalu, who missed the first meeting. Sanchez threw for just 170 yards in Week 15, and even then Polamalu’s absence limited what Pittsburgh could do defensively. The Pro Bowl safety makes a huge difference in coverage, stopping the run and freeing up others to pressure the quarterback. The "Polamalu factor" cannot be overlooked with the Steelers' defense, and I think he's going to be a huge headache for Sanchez, especially since Sanchez didn’t get to face Polamalu in the first meeting.

TG: I didn't ignore either the Jets' regular-season or postseason statistics. We simply cannot compare the Jets' postseason numbers to the Steelers'. The sample size is too small, they haven't played the same number of games, and they've played a different caliber of opponent so far in the tournament. The Jets were road underdogs for both of their games, while the Steelers were a home favorite coming off a bye week. You cannot compare them that way. It's apples and grapefruits. You're right when you say Sanchez has yet to face a defense like the Steelers' with Polamalu on the field. But Polamalu didn't exactly look like a superstar against the Ravens -- two tackles, no passes defensed and a whiffed tackle or two. I'll grant that nobody can expect Polamalu to have two straight subpar games, but he just showed there are no guarantees he's going to take over Sunday's game. Maybe the injury is hampering him. But let me ask you: How is Roethlisberger going to solve a mystifying, multilook defense that Manning and Brady couldn't master in the past two weeks? Oh, and one Roethlisberger couldn't defeat five weeks ago? And if you're thinking about replying with "He's had five weeks to figure it out," remember that Brady had no idea what he was looking at last Sunday, and he played the Jets twice this year.

JW: Roethlisberger threw for 264 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with the Jets and the offense notched 25 first downs, compared to New York's 17. Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall led the game in rushing with 99 yards, one touchdown and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. It's safe to say the Steelers were not mystified in the first meeting after gaining 377 total yards of offense. If anything, I think the Jets' defense needs to make more adjustments to stop what Pittsburgh's offense was able to do well in Week 15. Roethlisberger has played against Rex Ryan's defenses plenty of times when Ryan was the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. This will have the familiarity of a division game for Roethlisberger, where Sanchez is seeing Dick LeBeau's defense for only the second time in his entire career and the first time with Polamalu in the lineup, which is a huge difference. Plus, here is the key advantage Roethlisberger has over Manning and Brady: Pittsburgh's elite defense. The Colts and Patriots need their quarterbacks to play lights out and take more risks to beat the Jets because they have shoddy defenses. This game isn't nearly as much on Roethlisberger's shoulders. He can simply play sound, complementary football with the Steel Curtain defense, which will do much better holding down the Jets' offense compared to New York's previous two playoff opponents.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Jason Bridge/US PresswireSteelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger averaged just 6 yards per attempt in Week 15 versus the Jets.
TG: If the roles were reversed on this debate and I were asked to state a case for the Steelers' defense, the first words I would've written would be "Troy" and "Polamalu," and then I would have made the point that the last time the Jets played the Steelers, the Jets' offense scored one touchdown -- a fourth-down Sanchez bootleg that totally fooled the Steelers' defense. The rest was a kickoff return for a touchdown, a safety and some field goals. One touchdown surrendered would seem to support the Steelers, right? Well, it does. I'm guessing you hadn't gotten around to making that point yet. But that fact also goes to show that a dominant defense doesn't mean a team will win. The Jets did surrender more yardage, but you omitted that the Jets ran 15 fewer offensive plays and spent the fourth quarter in a prevent defense, giving the Steelers the entire middle of the field. The Steelers had the better defense in terms of yardage and still lost because the Jets' defense kept them out of the end zone when it counted. Last time I checked, a game never has been decided by yardage or league rankings.

JW: Tim, I really appreciate you repeating my points from earlier about the "Polamalu factor," the Steelers allowing just one touchdown and New York winning the first meeting via special teams on Smith's 97-yard kickoff return. I think you're finally seeing things my way. At this stage of the season the old saying still applies that "Defense wins championships." That is why both teams are here. Since the Steelers have the better defense in the regular season, the better defense in their previous meeting and the better defense in the playoffs, it's safe to say Pittsburgh's defense will be better on Sunday -- and that will be the difference in the Steelers advancing to their third Super Bowl in six seasons.

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