AFC North: Eric Wright

PITTSBURGH – Heath Miller flashed open near the goal line and caught a pass that Ben Roethlisberger floated just enough for Tampa Bay Buccaneers Eric Wright to deliver a crunching blow in the end zone.

Miller
 Wright was penalized 15 yards for the helmet to helmet hit, but Miller’s touchdown was negated by an offsetting penalty.

Three plays after Kelvin Beachum's hold wiped out Miller’s first touchdown of the season, the veteran tight end caught a 5-yard scoring pass, holding onto the ball after getting sandwiched by a pair of Buccaneers defensive players.

And what did Miller do after scoring twice and twice paying the price for one touchdown?

Nothing.

Not even a spike of the football.

The 10th-year veteran simply celebrated with his teammates and then jogged to the sidelines even though Miller was obviously pumped -- or at least as pumped as you will ever see Miller, who makes even keel look like an exaggerated zigzag.

If any of his teammates have an inclination to do the kind of celebrating that has them watched by coach Mike Tomlin, they would do well to remember three words: Be like Heath.

And Roethlisberger said that credo extends well beyond conduct after making a big play.

“He’s an example we all should follow, in life and in football, because he’s a class act and someone we all are better to know,” Roethlisberger said of Miller.

David DeCastro agreed.

“I think Ben hit it right on the head. All he does is come in and work hard,” the Steelers right guard said. “Doesn’t say much, leads by example, good family man as well.”

Doesn’t say much would be an understatement.

When asked if Miller ever talks in the huddle, Roethlisberger smiled.

“Very, very rarely,” Big Ben said. “If I call the wrong play, he’ll tell me.”

“He’ll give you a fist pound or ‘Let’s go’ but it’s usually pretty short and sweet,” DeCastro added.

DeCastro said he has never heard Miller curse or trash talk an opponent.

“He doesn’t need to,” DeCastro said. “He lets his pads do his talking.”

Indeed, Miller caught a career-high 10 passes for 85 yards and the touchdown in the 27-24 loss to the Buccaneers. The sequence in which he got belted twice while making end zone grabs showed why Miller is so trusted by his quarterback.

“He’s mentally tough, he’s physically tough. He gives everything he has every single day, in meetings, in practice and the game,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s what makes him so special and what makes it an honor to play with a guy like that.”
The Browns shouldn't trade down from the fourth overall pick. In fact, they shouldn't even be thinking it.

But unfortunately, the Browns are talking about it.

"We're most likely going to stay at No. 4 and we know we'll get a really good player there," Browns general manager Tom Heckert told the Cleveland Plain Dealer at the NFL owners meetings. "But there's about five guys we really like, so we would consider trading down -- but probably only to five, six, seven or eight."

He stressed "why not pick up some extra picks if you can get a guy you like a few spots back."

Yes, you can gain more picks by trading down. The problem is, you lose your shot at one of the coveted offensive playmakers in the draft.

If the Browns traded back, they can say goodbye to running back Trent Richardson. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take him at No. 5 (especially after signing wide receiver Vincent Jackson and cornerback Eric Wright in free agency).

If the Browns fall back more than two spots, they have no shot at wide receiver Justin Blackmon. He'll go to the St. Louis Rams at No. 6.

Moving back helped the Browns build up their defense last season when they traded with the Atlanta Falcons, who wanted wide receiver Julio Jones. But they can't keep falling back every year.

The Browns desperately need a playmaker, and they most likely will have their choice between Blackmon and Richardson. Cleveland needs to stay at No. 4 and make its selection.

Here are a few other items from Heckert, via the Plain Dealer:
  • Even though most think the Browns will take either Blackmon or Richardson, Heckert didn't rule out taking LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.
  • To file under the "not surprised" category, Heckert said it's likely that two of the first three picks will be offense, "but you never know who will be there at No. 22 and No. 37.''
  • It appears Bengals free-agent running back Cedric Benson is a fall-back option for the Browns. Heckert didn't dismiss the possibility of signing Benson, who has received no interest in free agency. My guess is the Browns would look at Benson if they don't draft a running back.

AFC North free-agency update

July, 29, 2011
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It's been a busy day of transactions in the NFL. Here are the latest happenings in the AFC North:
Baltimore Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski (3-0) is slated for his third professional boxing match this offseason when he faces Blake Warner (1-2) Saturday in Oklahoma.

Since Zbikowski is getting back in the ring this weekend, the AFC North blog has put together another boxing card we'd like to see, along with predictions.

Bout No. 1: Ravens WR Anquan Boldin vs. Browns CB Eric Wright

Boldin
Boldin
Wright
Wright
Analysis: Boldin's footwork is too much for Wright early. The Ravens' receiver runs circles around Wright and spins him around like a top. With Wright getting dizzy, Boldin catches the Cleveland corner and floors him three times in the first round for a quick TKO.

AFC North blog pick: Boldin TKO in Round 1

Bout No. 2: Steelers LB James Harrison vs. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

Harrison
Harrison
Analysis: An angry Harrison enters first and lays down pillows all over the ring before the bout. Goodell comes in looking nervous, because he knows he's made life miserable for the linebacker this past year. As soon as the bell rings Harrison rushes Goodell -- Mike Tyson-style -- and shows his one-punch knockout power with a right uppercut that puts Goodell on his back. The pillows soften the fall but the NFL commissioner is out for the count. The following week Goodell fines Harrison $75,000 for hitting too hard.

AFC North blog pick: Harrison KO in Round 1

Bout No. 3: Browns president Mike Holmgren vs. Eric Mangini

Holmgren
Holmgren
Analysis: Both of these boxers have two very different styles and philosophies. Holmgren trained on the West Coast and his offense is sharp and crisp. Mangini has virtually no offense and relies more on his defense. As a result, these two go the distance. But Holmgren picks Mangini apart in every round with more tools in his arsenal and more experience.

AFC North blog pick: Holmgren by decision in Round 10

Bout No. 4: Bengals QB Carson Palmer vs. Bengals owner Mike Brown

Palmer
Palmer
Analysis: Palmer wanted another opponent for this bout, but Brown refused to let Palmer out of his contract. It turns out this is an awful style matchup between two counter-punchers. Palmer and Brown enter the ring and both are unwilling to throw the next punch. They simply circle each other for 10 rounds waiting for the next move, which results in a draw. After the fight, Palmer retires.

AFC North blog pick: Draw

Main event and bout No. 5: Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger vs. Ravens DE Terrell Suggs

Suggs
Suggs
Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger
Analysis: Thanks to Suggs' trash-talking, this high-profile rematch has been hyped for weeks. Suggs is dominating the first half of the fight, knocking Roethlisberger down three times and peppering him with strong jabs that back the quarterback into the corner and make him wish he could throw his gloves out of bounds to stop the onslaught. But Roethlisberger sticks with it and finds his rhythm in the second half of the bout. In the final two minutes, Roethlisberger finally knocks Suggs out with an unexpected haymaker in the 10th round. Afterwards Suggs' trainer, John Harbaugh, tells the media Suggs should've won, but gave the fight away at the end.

AFC North blog pick: Roethlisberger KO in Round 10

AFC North links: Lewis knocks Ochocinco

March, 23, 2011
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Baltimore Ravens

If the lockout pushes the start of training camp into late summer, the Ravens might move their public practices from McDaniel College to M&T Bank Stadium.

Sergio Kindle would be subject to the NFL’s personal conduct policy if he is found guilty of a driving under the influence charge during the league’s lockout, reports the Baltimore Sun.

Cincinnati Bengals

Marvin Lewis, reacting to wideout Chad Ochocinco's MLS soccer tryout, said, “How does he do at anything? What has he ever done that he’s completed? What circle has he ever connected in any way?”

Owner Mike Brown would like to see fewer instant replay challenges "because I like the game to be uninterrupted."

Cleveland Browns

Cornerback Joe Haden said that despite the lockout, he and his teammates are still working out hard -- and sometimes together. Haden has traveled to California to train with T.J. Ward and Eric Wright and to Florida to work with Abe Elam, according to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer.

GM Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur missed Georgia receiver A.J. Green's pro day workout Tuesday.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Coach Mike Tomlin suggested a prolonged lockout might be an advantage for the Steelers within their division.

Federal agents searched the practice of Dr. Richard Rydze, a former Steelers doctor once linked to a human growth hormone investigation.

Top Browns draft since 2000

March, 10, 2011
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The AFC North blog continues its series on the top draft classes of the past decade. Thursday we take a look at the Cleveland Browns.

No. 3: Class of 2007

Best picks: OT Joe Thomas (first round), CB Eric Wright (second round)

Thomas

Thomas


Analysis: This was not a stellar draft for the Browns, but Cleveland has the slimmest pickings of all division teams. So 2007 made the cut. The Browns hit a home run with Thomas with the No. 3 overall pick. Thomas has been to four straight Pro Bowls and is one of the best at his position. Despite Wright's struggles this past season, he was a starting cornerback for Cleveland and turned out to be a decent second-rounder. The Browns also drafted cornerback Brandon McDonald in the fifth round, and he was a contributor for three seasons. The biggest miss in this draft was first-round quarterback Brady Quinn. He was expected to be the long-term solution, but was shipped to the Denver Broncos after three uneventful seasons for tailback Peyton Hillis.

No. 2: Class of 2006

Best picks: LB Kamerion Wimbley, LB D'Qwell Jackson, FB Lawrence Vickers (sixth round)

Wimbley

Wimbley


Analysis: The second draft of the Phil Savage-Romeo Crennel era in Cleveland turned out to be the best. The Browns landed two starting linebackers in Wimbley and Jackson. Wimbley never quite lived up to expectations, but recorded 26.5 sacks in four seasons with the Browns. He was traded to the Oakland Raiders last year and recorded nine sacks. Jackson led the Browns in tackles in 2008 and had two 100-tackle seasons before suffering a pair of pectoral injuries. Vickers is one of the best fullbacks in the NFL and a great find in the sixth round. The Browns also drafted fifth-round tailback Jerome Harrison, who showed flashes before falling out of favor in Cleveland and being traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. Regime changes resulted in some of these players having to switch teams, but this was a solid class.

No. 1: Class of 2010

Best picks: CB Joe Haden (first round), S T.J. Ward (second round), QB Colt McCoy (third round)

McCoy

McCoy


Analysis: I'm going out on a limb, but I think the 2010 class will be Cleveland's best of the past 10 years. As you can see, this class doesn't have too much to compete with. The first two picks -- Haden and Ward -- have great ability and project to be longtime starters in the secondary. McCoy showed some good things and is vying to be Cleveland's franchise quarterback, although he still has a lot to prove. The Browns also have two rookies in tailback Montario Hardesty and guard Shawn Lauvao who could turn out to be good players. Hardesty is coming off a torn ACL, and Lauvao got mostly backup time in 10 games last season.

On Friday we will conclude our series by ranking the best overall draft classes in the division.

AFC North mailbag: Fab 40 fallout

February, 28, 2011
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Our second annual "Walker's Fab 40" drew a strong reaction from our community. Let's answer some questions about it from our division inbox and AFC North Twitter page.

Brian from Washington, D.C., writes: Did you forget Todd Heap? Heap had five TDs as opposed to Heath Miller's two, as well as more receiving yards.

James Walker: I didn't forget Heap, Brian. He made last year's list, but we listed him among 10 potential snubs for this year. In fact, Miller was the only tight end to make "Walker's Fab 40," with Heap, Ben Watson and Jermaine Gresham all in strong contention. That's just the way it turned out this year. There are 53 players on each team. So when you narrow down 212 AFC North players to 40, some good ones are going to be left off. Heap was definitely one of them. As far as Miller, you can't only look at this year's statistics. Miller remains the most complete tight end in the division, despite suffering injuries and not putting up great numbers. He also played a quarter of the season without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was suspended the first four games.


Potter_Law via Twitter writes: How do you put Ray Rice above Peyton Hillis and Rashard Mendenhall? Rice had a very mediocre year to be in your top 10.

Walker: Again, Potter, not everything is based on this past season's stats. But if you want to go there, Rice had 43 more rushing yards than Hillis and 40 more receptions than Mendenhall. All three tailbacks are very good. That is why they were all ranked in the top 13, which is impressive considering all the great players in the AFC North. But Rice gaining 1,776 total yards from scrimmage in what's considered a "down year" is proof of how dynamic a talent he really is.


Kovacs from Santa Monica, Calif., writes: I hate to criticize such an arbitrary list like the Fab 40, but you are wrong for having Joe Haden as the fourth best CB in the division.

Walker: Haden (No. 33) had a good rookie year, Kovacs, but he still has to prove it over a longer period. Haden was a second stringer for the first half of the season. His production took off once he replaced Eric Wright in the starting lineup. Veterans like Johnathan Joseph (No. 19), Ike Taylor (No. 20) and Leon Hall (No. 31) have been consistently good throughout their careers, and that's what I'm looking for from Haden in upcoming years.


Charlie from Chardon, Ohio, writes: What are the chances the Browns bring back my favorite player and best fullback in the league: Lawrence Vickers?

Walker: Vickers' future in Cleveland is definitely in question, Charlie. I talked with him shortly after the season and he didn't know if he was coming back with the coaching and scheme changes on offense. The Browns will do a lot more passing this year with a West Coast offense. So they have to determine if spending money on a top power fullback is worth it to them. Vickers will land somewhere, because he's a good player.


David from College Park, Md., writes: Do you see any chance the Ravens let Willis McGahee walk and resign Le'Ron McClain?

Walker: McGahee is more likely to return than McClain, David. Baltimore would love to have McGahee back at a reduced rate but don't want to pay $6 million for a backup tailback, which makes sense. It will be up to McGahee to decide if he wants to return for less or explore other opportunities. I don't think the chances of McClain coming back are great. The Ravens are fine keeping McClain in his same role as a blocking back, but that's not what he wants. McClain wants to carry the ball a lot more, which he did when he led the Ravens in rushing in 2008. That won't happen in Baltimore with Rice as the feature back.


WyllysInVA via Twitter wants to know if there's any chance the Steelers go after Joseph.

Walker: Pittsburgh does not go after other team's high-priced free agents. The Steelers are more focused on keeping theirs -- with LaMarr Woodley and Taylor being this year's priority -- while building through the draft. Plus it looks like the going rate for corners is shooting through the roof.


Algiff via Twitter writes: Do you think Joseph will be more expensive than Taylor in the free-agent market?

Walker: Yes, I do. Joseph is four years younger, and that alone could lead to more years and more money on the contract. In my opinion, Joseph also is a more dynamic playmaker in terms of intercepting the ball and creating big turnovers. There's a chance, too, that Taylor will take a hometown discount to stay with the AFC champion Steelers. Joseph likely won't do the same to remain with the downtrodden Bengals.


Mike from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, writes: Is it possible that the Steelers can extend the contracts of LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor, Willie Colon, Lawrence Timmons, and Troy Polamalu?

Walker: I don't believe all five players will be addressed in the offseason, Mike. The Steelers will definitely negotiate with Woodley and Taylor and see where that ends up. Colon's situation with Pittsburgh is more uncertain as he works to get back to 100 percent. Two players you mentioned -- Timmons and Polamalu -- are still under contract until 2012. The Steelers usually let draft picks play out their full contracts (see Woodley), so Timmons would have to wait. I wouldn't rule out a Polamalu extension, but only after the team's immediate needs are taken care of.


Comment and complaint department

Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: Ike Taylor in the top 20 AFC North players? Not buying it. The only reason he's not the worst starter on the Steelers' D is because Bryant McFadden is playing across from him. He's a solid corner overall, but he's also inconsistent and drops a lot of potential INTs. Him being ranked ahead of elite DLs like Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith is laughable.

Michael H from San Antonio writes: I had to read over your Fab 40 a couple times to make sure I wasn't missing it, but I think you skipped over someone. Cleveland's TE Ben Watson. Last season's 68 REC, 763 YDS, and three TDs are a monster stats for a TE. I think his career in New England shows his "culmination of career consistency" and should continue to succeed under a west coast offense.

Walker: Ben, Taylor had another solid season for Pittsburgh and has consistently been the team's No. 1 corner. He's not flashy because he doesn't make a lot of interceptions. But Taylor consistently does a good job against opposing No. 1 receivers, and it's noticeable the amount of times teams throw away from him in favor of testing McFadden and William Gay. Michael, on Saturday we wrote that Watson was our biggest Fab 40 snub. He was No. 41 and the first player out. It came down to Watson and Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, who got the nod after a historic and Pro Bowl season.


Cooper from Baltimore writes: As a die-hard Ravens fan, this is excellent Carson Palmer wants out. Palmer has the ability every Sunday to beat top teams, as proven against the two best defenses in the Ravens and Steelers. Cincy's best option is to take him seriously and get what they can for him while he still has it.

Dzip11 via Twitter writes: As a Bengals fan, if they don't get Johnathan Joseph resigned it gets even harder to defend their moves.

Walker: Cooper, you bring up a good point. The Steelers and Ravens will not shed a tear over Palmer potentially leaving the division. Palmer had some success against both defenses, particularly Baltimore's. Dzip11, were you defending Cincinnati's personnel decisions before?


Kevin from Arlington, Va., writes: You can't label Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi misses yet. They simply were not used properly by Eric Mangini and Brian Daboll! You can’t make plays when there’s very little emphasis on getting the ball to you! Let's see what happens next year, assuming there is a next year, before deciding these guys can't play.

Walker: Fair point, Kevin. I do have a hard rule that I will not label any player a draft bust after their rookie season. The NFL is too difficult for everyone to "get it" right off the bat. Polamalu is a great example. But after two seasons all bets are off. At that point I think you have a good idea about a player in most cases, especially if they received playing time like Massaquoi and Robiskie have. Occasionally a player will surprise and become a late bloomer. But from what I've seen over two seasons, I would be surprised if Robiskie and Massaquoi develop into Pro Bowl-caliber receivers.

If you have any questions, comments or complaints, please send them to our AFC North inbox.

Browns place Fujita, Wright on IR

December, 21, 2010
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The Cleveland Browns placed two key defensive players on injured reserve Tuesday, as starting linebacker Scott Fujita and former starting cornerback Eric Wright were shut down for the year with leg injuries.

Fujita (knee) has missed the past five games, while Wright (leg) was hurt in last week's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Fujita started nine games and recorded 53 tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception. Wright began the year as the starter and was eventually benched in favor of rookie first-round pick Joe Haden. Wright ended the year with 42 tackles and one interception.

Cleveland filled the two open roster spots by signing nose tackle Travis Ivey and linebacker Steve Octavien.

AFC North evening links: Injury edition

December, 20, 2010
12/20/10
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Here are the latest happenings (and injuries) Monday evening in the AFC North:
  • Cincinnati Bengals leading receiver Terrell Owens tweets that he will have knee surgery with Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, AL, to repair a torn meniscus. He is done for the season.
  • Also out for the year is Cleveland Browns cornerback Eric Wright, who suffered a leg injury in Sunday's loss to Cincinnati.
  • A concussion to rookie receiver David Reed could hurt the Baltimore Ravens' return game.
  • The Pittsburgh Steelers are not officially ruling out safety Troy Polamalu for Thursday's game against the Carolina Panthers. But he's still expected to rest his Achilles injury.

Walker's weekend mailbag

December, 11, 2010
12/11/10
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We received a ton of great questions, comments and complaints this week. Sorry we can't run them all.

Now let's dig into the weekend mailbag.

James from Baltimore writes: The Ravens have had a lead at some point in the fourth quarter in each of their losses. What do they need to focus on when it comes to closing out games?

James Walker: Great question, James, and I'm not saying that because we share the same name. In my opinion, Baltimore tends to get conservative at times with a second-half lead, and it puts a lot of pressure on its defense. To Derrick Mason's credit, that was mostly his point when he lashed out after the loss to Pittsburgh. The Ravens don't always attack offensively in the fourth quarter like they do in the first quarter. Other good teams like the New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints keep their foot on the pedal no matter the score. The Ravens don't operate that way, because they have a lot of faith in their defense. Usually it works for them, but sometimes it doesn't.


Kenneth Yamini from Seattle writes: Do you think the Ravens still have a chance to actually get to the AFC Championship if they keep playing the way they are, with the immense talent they have?

Walker: I'm definitely not writing off the Ravens, Kenneth. Barring a Pittsburgh collapse, the Ravens will have to play on the road in the postseason, and that makes it tough. But Baltimore is the type of team built to win road playoff games. As far as how far the Ravens will go, it's hard enough making predictions week to week.


Derek from Pa. writes: James, are you a Ravens fan? Your tweets were mostly about the Ravens, especially leading up to the game Sunday night. Terrell Suggs had a good game but Troy Polamalu was the difference.

Walker: Derek, I'm not a fan of any team with the exception of the Temple Owls and High Point High School, my alma maters. My coverage last week was heavy on the Ravens because I spent the entire week in Baltimore leading up to the game. It's natural. I also felt both Suggs and Polamalu got equal props in the blog this week for their great performances. But it's all good. We can agree to disagree.


Leigh Anne from Lexington, Ky., writes: James, I hate to harp on this, but honestly...what are your real thoughts about the officiating against the Steelers? It seems we're flagged/fined excessively, while we take a lot of punishment (Ben Roethlisberger's nose, Heath Miller's near decapitation). That would be absolutely flagged if it were a Steeler doing that.

Danny from Tampa, Fla., writes: James, what the heck is going on?! Am I just completely insane or does the NFL have it out for the Steelers?

Walker: I'm trying to get away from officiating in the blog, but this year won't allow it. Leigh and Danny, there are a lot of people who agree with you. I'm not big on conspiracy theories, but I have seen a noticeable discrepancy in fines and the Steelers' being on the short end of bad calls or non-calls this year. What does it mean? I don't know. I just point out the facts and let everyone make their own determinations.


Ian from Baltimore writes: Who is better: Heath Miller or Todd Heap?

Walker: Here's a new one: "Heath Heap." I like it! He's teammates with "Troy Reed" but he's really banged up this week. He's dealing with a concussion and a bad hamstring. So he's expected to miss the next game.


Ben from Pensacola, Fla., writes: What do I need to do to make up for having so little faith in my beloved Steelers? I'm ashamed of my 34-3 prediction for the Ravens.

Walker: Last time you were our "Anti-Homer of the Week," Ben. Maybe working on being our next "Homer of the Week" will balance things out.


Andy from Canada writes: Assuming Cleveland Browns cornerback Eric Wright finishes the season without any spectacular games, will there be much interest from other teams as a free agent?

Walker: Yes, Andy, there will always been interest in a cover cornerback. This is a passing league. But Wright hurt himself, at least monetarily, by having a bad season during a contract year. Still, there will be teams interested in his services.


Philip V. Jones from San Antonio, Texas, writes: What happens if the Browns, Ravens and Steelers all finish 9-7? Who's out of the playoffs?

Walker: Don't worry about that, Philip. It's not happening.


Jonathan Weaver from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Do you think it's a good idea to rest Colt McCoy for the rest of the season? Or should we play him to get more experience since the playoffs are a far reach?

Walker: It's smart to wait until McCoy is 100 percent before playing him. I agree with that. Jake Delhomme came back too early and suffered another setback, and I think the Browns learned from that. But once McCoy is healthy, he needs to gain more valuable experience.


Nick Jenkins from Santa Barbara, Calif., writes: Will T.O. stay or go? That is the question I would like to know.

Walker: Owens, 37, is playing well and will seek a multiyear deal this offseason. I'm not sure the Bengals are willing to give it to him. I'd be really surprised if Cincinnati brings back Owens and Ochocinco next year. The Benglas could keep one, but the money to keep both could scare Cincinnati away. Here is what I think the Bengals should do to rebuild the team in 2011.


Will from Nashville, Tenn., writes: With all the talent that each team has on paper and all of the high expectations in the preseason, who is the greater disappointment so far this season: the Bengals or Miami Heat?

Walker: Interesting question, Will. I would say the Bengals, because their results are more definitive. This team will probably finish with just two or three wins after having playoff expectations. Miami is pretty hot right now and have a long way to go to develop into the team everyone expects. Miami will make the playoffs. Cincinnati won't.


Greg Bowman from Eugene, Ore., writes: James, with the talk of an NFL lockout beginning in March, what will that do to April's NFL draft?

Walker: To my understanding, there will be an NFL draft in April. But free agency will be put on hold until a new CBA is put in place. It makes sense, because if an agreement isn't reached going into the summer, it will make it very tough for the NFL to hold a seven-round draft and quickly get 32 rosters together for training camps.

Comment and complaint department

Charlie D from Baltimore writes: Sunday's loss to the Steelers was the one of the biggest downers I've experienced as a Ravens fan. If the guys can miraculously avoid a hangover from such a heartbreaker, that would show amazing character.

Mike Fox from Charlottesville, Virginia, writes: Delaware Blue Hens fans like myself have despised Coach Dave Wannstedt, because when Joe Flacco transferred from Pittsburgh to Delaware, he wouldn't release Joe from his scholarship. So he had to sit out a year and pay his own way. Joe was originally Walt Harris' recruit, but we felt it was a rude move. With Wannstedt now "resigning," the revenge of Joe Flacco is complete!

Walker: I never thought of that, Mike, but very interesting take. I'm sure Flacco, with his personality, has moved on long ago. Charlie, you're right. It will take some work for Baltimore to bounce back Monday against Houston. That's always the challenge of the coaching staff -- to get the players ready for the next game. Houston won't be a pushover at home, either.


Bob from Ellicott City, MD, writes: James, I can see your point with regards to Ben Roethlisberger perhaps getting fewer calls because of his size and playing style. However, it is precisely because he is so difficult to bring down that teams have to give that extra effort to get the sack. Ben is without question one of the hardest, if not the hardest, quarterbacks to get to the ground. When defensive players are facing a QB who consistently escapes their grasp, they are going to do everything they can in order to ensure when they do get to him that he goes down. I do not believe that Ngata intentionally broke Ben's nose. But I do believe that he was not going to allow Ben to get away and perhaps brought a bit more aggression than he normally would. A quarterback cannot fight with every fiber of his being to stay upright and then complain when extra effort is made by the defense to get him down.

Walker: All fair points, Bob, and thanks for sharing. But I don't think it's fair to officiate Tom Brady one way, for example, and Ben Roethlisberger another simply because Roethlisberger is bigger. It's an interesting dilemma for officials, but they need to be more consistent if the goal is to protect the league's quarterbacks. I don't see anyone breaking Brady's nose or twisting Peyton Manning's foot three or four different ways. This is happening to Roethlisberger on a weekly basis and flags aren't being thrown.


Jonathan from Cincinnati writes: I've noticed how you've ripped on the Bengals all year even when they were winning. I was wondering how you could justify that. Also, have you noticed how every game has been close? You say the Bengals are a bad team but bad teams don't lead the Super Bowl champs by three in the fourth quarter. I realize they've been inconsistent but to label them bad? To blow them up? That's pretty foolish, I would say.

Cupp from Hebron, Ohio, writes: Can we stop the Cam Newton talk! If the Bengals choose to draft a quarterback in the draft, please stay away from one year wonders. The lesson should have been learned from drafting Akili Smith. Enough said.

Walker: Cupp, I think Newton is going to turn out better than Smith did in the pros, regardless of the team he plays for. Jonathan, the Bengals are on an NFL-high nine-game losing streak. When exactly were they winning? This blog's coverage is based on how teams perform on the field, and the Bengals haven't done well this season.


Luke from Lansing, Mich., writes: This might make me "Homer of the Week" but I don't care. The Browns are the best 5-7 team of all time. They are two poor turnovers away from being on a six-game win streak and have been in every single game until the end except one.

Walker: You're safe this week, Luke, but that was a homer statement. According to ESPN.com's Power Rankings, the Browns are the second best 5-7 team in the NFL this season, behind Houston.

AFC North Homer of the Week

We have a new "Homer of the Week" in the AFC North blog. Our longtime reader, Mike, was very excited about Roethlisberger's performance against Baltimore.

Mike from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, writes: Ben Roethlisberger is AWESOME and AMAZING! Put aside the broken foot and nose in this last game or playing 17-of-18 games with a separated shoulder and winning a Super Bowl, his second. The plays he makes with his feet and arm are ridonculous and ludicrulous! The play where he back-pedaled and pushed off of Terrell Suggs and threw the ball away might be the greatest incompletion of all time! I've seen almost every snap he's taken and he continues to exceed previous crazy cool stuff he does! And some idiots wanted to trade or cut this guy?!? Behind his O-line, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers would look like Rex Grossman, Charlie Frye, Kyle Boller, and Luke McCown.

Walker: Roethlisberger showed plenty of toughness, Mike. But wow! What was the previous "greatest incompletion of all time" and what exactly do "ridonculous" and "ludicrulous" mean?

If you have any questions, comments or complaints, feel free to send them to our division inbox or AFC North Twitter page.

Can anyone defend the pass?

November, 18, 2010
11/18/10
2:56
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William GayAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarWilliam Gay struggling in the secondary is just one reason Pittsburgh's pass defense has been vulnerable this season.
In one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory, one thing is clear in the AFC North: Pass defense is the division's Achilles' heel.

An 0-4 Week 10 highlighted the AFC North's secondary woes. Whether it was Tom Brady picking apart the Pittsburgh Steelers, Roddy White running circles around the Baltimore Ravens, or Santonio Holmes zipping by the Cleveland Browns in overtime, it was an ugly week for defensive backs in the division.

Can anything be done about the AFC North's flimsy pass defense? We teamed with Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson to diagnose the problem and offer some solutions.

Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3)

Total defense: No. 9

Pass defense: No. 26

Scouts Inc.'s diagnosis: "All their cornerbacks are mid-round picks, and that's what they do. They bring in mid-round corners and spend first-round picks on other positions and groom them for a year or two. Pittsburgh's cornerbacks play a lot of 'off coverage,' and a team like New England can exploit that. The Patriots took what they gave them with short and intermediate passes, and it's a really bad fit for the Steelers. They've been successful giving you a lot of the smaller stuff. But what worries me is the pass rush has fallen off a little bit." --Williamson

AFC North blog's solution: Pittsburgh has by far the NFL's best run defense at 63.2 yards per game. At the beginning of the season, opponents were banging their heads against the wall trying to establish the run in the first half, and that played right into Pittsburgh's hands. Now teams have adjusted and determined it's better to throw for 5-7 yards on first and second down instead of trying to get it on the ground. This is where the Steelers have to adjust. More press coverage would help. Although that's not Pittsburgh's identity, mixing in cornerbacks playing closer to the line of scrimmage could reduce the short and intermediate passes against its defense. Also, taking a look at young cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and/or Crezdon Butler may not be a bad idea in sub packages, where William Gay has really struggled.

Baltimore Ravens (6-3)

Total defense: No. 10

Pass defense: No. 13

Scouts Inc.'s diagnosis: "They have very average corners, and I think they only have one pass-rusher. They need a LaMarr Woodley-James Harrison pairing. The Ravens have Terrell Suggs, but they don't have the other guy. They drafted Sergio Kindle and he got hurt, obviously. Baltimore has one pass-rusher who is very good, but you can take Suggs away by chipping him or keeping your better players on him. So, to me, they need either one better corner or a better pass-rusher. But with the combination Baltimore has now, it's going to be a liability." --Williamson

AFC North blog's solution: Don't be fooled by Baltimore's No. 13 ranking. The Ravens were No. 1 against the pass through the first several games, which is an indication of how much they are struggling. As Williamson mentioned, the Ravens are in a tough spot. Baltimore says it has four or five starting-caliber cornerbacks, but none is playing like a No. 1 corner. I don't like the musical chairs Baltimore is playing with Lardarius Webb, Fabian Washington, Josh Wilson and Chris Carr. The Ravens need to pick who they believe are their two best players and go with them. Being shuffled in and out of the lineup has seemingly thrown everyone off rhythm and perhaps made each cornerback unsure of his role in the defense. Suggs had his first multi-sack game of the season against the Atlanta Falcons, and that could go a long way to helping the pass rush. Getting safety Ed Reed 100 percent healthy as well will be a major boost. There is hope for this pass defense despite a midseason slump.

Cleveland Browns (3-6)

Total defense: No. 24

Pass defense: No. 23

Scouts Inc.'s diagnosis: "I think the Browns are a well-coached defense. They are physical in the front seven and obviously want to stop the run first. But the Joe Hadens of the world, and Eric Wright and T.J. Ward are working to get better. So I tend to think inexperience is the issue as opposed to these guys just can't get it done. In the case with Baltimore and the Steelers, and lately with the Browns, if you're going to game plan against these defenses, you're going to throw." --Williamson

AFC North blog's solution: Indeed, the blitz-heavy Browns are being tested through the air and giving up too many big pass plays. That is a major reason they are 3-6. Wright has been the biggest culprit and admitted as much to the media this week. But Cleveland plays hard on defense. The Browns' secondary simply needs experience and to avoid mistakes at the worst possible times, such as overtime last week against the New York Jets. Haden, Cleveland's first-round pick, is starting to improve, and it's time to insert him into the starting lineup permanently. With Sheldon Brown (shoulder) injured, Haden could start Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Cincinnati Bengals (2-7)

Total defense: No. 15

Pass defense: No. 12

Scouts Inc.'s diagnosis: "I think they're weak at safety, but they're very strong at corner. I also thought Adam Jones looked great when he played. It looked like he was coming back to form [before a season-ending neck injury]. But injuries have taken a toll, and the pass rush is worse than people even realize. I think that deserves a lot of blame. They don't have anybody exceeding expectations as a pass-rusher. I know Carlos Dunlap got a lot more snaps this past week, and it may be time to see what he has. For Michael Johnson and a lot of those young guys, it may be time to put those guys in." --Williamson

AFC North blog's solution: I have the least amount of worries about the Bengals' pass defense. It still has the highest rating in the division despite the worst pass rush. Health has been an issue, too. If cornerback Johnathan Joseph and veteran safety Chris Crocker can remain in the lineup the rest of the season, that's two starters who will provide stability. The pass rush looks pretty hopeless, and I don't see much potential to improve. With the exception of Dunlap, who is very raw, there isn't a natural pass-rusher on the Bengals' defense. That should be a major priority in next year's draft. Cincinnati showed signs of playing good pass defense last week against the Indianapolis Colts, and it needs to build off that. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had some trouble against this secondary, and that's a good sign.

AFC North evening links: Ravens' D

November, 17, 2010
11/17/10
6:00
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Here are the latest happenings Wednesday evening in the AFC North:
  • Safety Ed Reed says the Baltimore Ravens still have a great defense.
  • Cincinnati Bengals receiver Terrell Owens and teammates defended his effort during Carson Palmer's third interception against the Indianapolis Colts.
  • Cleveland Browns cornerback Eric Wright tries to bounce back from another bad game against the New York Jets.
  • It looks like the Pittsburgh Steelers will face quarterback Jason Campbell of the Oakland Raiders.
  • Here is a transcript of this week's AFC North chat.

How I See It: AFC North Stock Watch

November, 17, 2010
11/17/10
1:00
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. William Gay, Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback: When New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady needed a big play, he often looked in the direction of Gay. The nickel cornerback was picked apart in New England's 39-26 victory. Rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski beat Gay three times for touchdown catches of 9, 19 and 25 yards. That's a lot of big plays allowed to a backup. The Steelers gave up a season-high 39 points, and 21 points were on plays against Gay.

2. Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback: Palmer continued his streak of being unable to put together two good games in a row. He threw three interceptions in last week's loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and one was returned for a touchdown. This was Palmer's third multi-interception game this season. He only had three in 16 games last year.

3. Eric Wright, Cleveland Browns cornerback: It was not a good Week 10 for AFC North cornerbacks. Wright was beat by New York Jets receiver Santonio Holmes in overtime on a routine slant play that turned into a 37-yard, game-winning touchdown in overtime. Wright was beat inside, but his lack of effort to make the tackle allowed Holmes to turn a short gain into a huge gain. Wright isn't physical but he's known for being decent in coverage. He was neither on that play.

RISING

Terrell Suggs
AP Photo/Paul AbellTerrell Suggs was a disruptive force against the Falcons, recording two sacks.
1. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens defensive end/linebacker: People in Baltimore have been waiting for Suggs to have a dominant game, and it came in a big spot last week against the first-place Atlanta Falcons. Suggs put on a vintage performance with two sacks, four tackles and four additional hits on the quarterback. He was a disruptive force in Atlanta's backfield. Suggs posted his first multi-sack game of the season. The Ravens need help with their pass rush and hope this is the start of Suggs getting hot down the stretch.

2. Mike Wallace, Steelers receiver: Wallace's stock was never down, because he's on pace for career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns. But Wallace had his most productive game as a Steeler in a loss to New England. With No. 1 receiver Hines Ward knocked out of the game with a concussion, Wallace stepped up and caught eight passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. He is increasingly becoming a favorite target of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

3. Chad Ochocinco, Bengals receiver: Coming off a week where Ochocinco lost his cool and was briefly benched in front of a national audience on "Monday Night Football," Cincinnati's receiver bounced back against Indianapolis. Ochocinco looked energized and involved, catching seven passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. But the stats didn't tell the complete story. Several catches were very acrobatic and a reminder of how good Ochocinco can be when he's focused. Ochocinco also showed toughness by playing through a shoulder injury in the second half.

Morning take: AFC North goes 0-4

November, 15, 2010
11/15/10
9:00
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Here are the most interesting stories after a winless Week 10 in the AFC North:

  • The Cleveland Browns were heartbroken after a busted coverage led to an overtime loss to the New York Jets.
Morning take: Jets receiver Santonio Holmes took a routine slant and made a big play by racing 37 yards for the score. That's on cornerback Eric Wright and rookie safety T.J. Ward to stop the touchdown.

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady out-duels Pittsburgh Steelers counterpart Ben Roethlisberger in a 39-26 victory.
Morning take: Both put up solid numbers but Brady did it when it mattered in the first three quarters. Roethlisberger threw all three of his touchdowns in the fourth quarter while the game was already out of reach.

  • There is plenty of fault to go around for the Cincinnati Bengals (2-7) after they committed five turnovers in a loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Morning take: After six consecutive losses, everyone is at fault in this season-long debacle.
Morning take: The Ravens played well against Atlanta but suffered the same result as the other three division teams. No one in the AFC North should be happy this week.

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