AFC North: Fabian Washington

Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North: Morning take: Eventually, all the facts will come out and prove if Jones is correct. But Jones continues to put himself in bad spots, while the Bengals are counting on him in 2011.
  • Did the image of Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward take a major hit after being charged recently for driving under the influence?
Morning take: Similar to Jones' situation, it's safer to wait until all the facts are presented. Ward's rep also claims Ward is innocent of the charges. So time will tell who is right.
  • It will be up to the Cleveland Browns' coaching staff to earn the trust of the players once the lockout ends.
Morning take: This will be a major challenge for the Browns and rookie head coach Pat Shurmur. Not only is time very limited to learn a new offense and defense. But on the flipside, the Browns have to be very careful not to push players too hard early, which could result in injuries.
Morning take: I think Wilson is a slightly better player than Carr, but Carr could come cheaper. Carr also provides solid leadership in the locker room for the Ravens.
From top to bottom, the AFC North is full of talented players.

Everyone knows household names such as Ray Lewis, Troy Polamalu, Ed Reed and Chad Ochocinco. But the division also has solid, under-the-radar players who have important roles without the spotlight.

In no particular order, here are five underrated players in the division from last season.

1. Sam Koch, P, Baltimore Ravens

2010 stats: 81 punts, 43.6 average, 39 inside 20

Analysis: Koch's stellar year was overshadowed by Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff's record-setting season. But Koch joined Cundiff to become the 12th and 13th men on defense with Cundiff's 40 touchbacks, which tied an NFL record, and Koch's 39 punts downed inside the 20. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who is a former special-teams coach, takes the third phase of the game very seriously, and Koch is a big part of that.

2. Scott Fujita, LB, Cleveland Browns

2010 stats: 51 tackles, 3.5 sacks

Analysis: Fujita was a solid free-agent signing for the Browns and played nine games last season. But as soon as he got injured in Week 10, the defense lost its toughness and went downhill. The Browns are going through a lot of transition under first-year head coach Pat Shurmur, which includes a switch to a 4-3 defense. But Fujita played much of his career in a 4-3 and should be comfortable going back to that scheme. He's expected to start, along with fellow linebackers Chris Gocong and D'Qwell Jackson.

3. Isaac Redman, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

2010 stats: 52 carries, 247 yards, two total touchdowns

Analysis: Two years ago, Redman was a player who would do well in practice and training camp but never got the opportunity in games. Last season the Steelers finally used their best-kept secret, and the undrafted running back was productive in a limited role. Redman averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season while spelling workhorse Rashard Mendenhall. Redman is a very tough runner who moves the chains. He likely will have an increased role in 2011, as Pittsburgh tries to do a better job of keeping Mendenhall (324 carries) fresh.

4. Josh Wilson, CB, Ravens

2010 stats: 40 tackles, three interceptions

Analysis: Last summer's trade to acquire Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks didn't garner many headlines. But the move turned out to be solid for Baltimore. Wilson got better as the season progressed and eventually replaced Fabian Washington to start nine games. There were some highs, such as Wilson's interception for a touchdown in overtime to beat the Houston Texans, and some lows, such as getting beat on the late touchdown to Roddy White in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons. But overall Wilson was Baltimore's steadiest corner in the second half of last season. The Ravens will attempt to re-sign Wilson, who is a free agent.

5. Jordan Shipley, WR, Cincinnati Bengals,

2010 stats: 52 receptions, 600 yards, three touchdowns

Analysis: Shipley was taken one spot ahead of friend and former Texas teammate Colt McCoy last year, and both had productive rookie seasons. Shipley is a smart player who, despite his size, is fearless going across the middle. He quickly became a favorite of Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and caught 52 passes. The Bengals may have a new quarterback next season, but Shipley should remain productive in the slot.
Let's answer some questions this week on the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens.

Ben Doverman writes: What do you think of TCU's Andy Dalton as a second- or third-round pick for the Bengals?

James Walker: Ben, Dalton is a decent option but I like several quarterbacks better, especially in the first two rounds. I'm not sure Dalton is NFL-ready this year, and that's what the Bengals need. They need a player who can potentially step in right away and start at quarterback in case Carson Palmer is not bluffing about retirement.

Harold Mintz from Las Vegas wants to know if Palmer is using the Bengals as a scapegoat for his decline in production.

Walker: That's a good question, Harold. But I don't think it's something that's crossed Palmer's mind when he made his trade demands. Palmer knows he's not playing as well as 2005 or putting up the same numbers. But he's also confident he can help a contender with the right pieces around him, and I agree. At 31, I'm not sure Palmer can carry a team by himself anymore. But he's still better than a lot of starting quarterbacks in the NFL.

David from Fontainebleau, France, doesn't want Cincinnati to draft another quarterback considering its poor history.

Walker: I understand your concerns, David. But I'm not sure they have a choice. Perhaps the Bengals can go the route of trades or free agency. But with the lockout, there is no telling how long that will take. The NFL draft is a certainty in April, and I think the Bengals would be wise to select a possible replacement when they can.

Stevie J. from Charm City wants to know if it's possible the Ravens trade up to draft LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and Alabama receiver Julio Jones.

Walker: Peterson is out unless the Ravens want to trade their entire draft, Stevie J. Peterson is probably going in the top seven. Baltimore is at No. 26. I like Jones but don't think he's on the Ravens' radar, either. He's probably a top-15 pick. In my opinion, receiver is not a big enough need for the Ravens to trade multiple picks.

Dave from Newark, Del., writes: I am curious as to what is going on with Fabian Washington in the offseason?

Walker: Washington is a free agent and probably won't return to Baltimore. He lost his confidence last season and was eventually benched. The emergence of players like Josh Wilson and Lardarius Webb also makes him expendable. Washington is a good athlete, and if he gets his confidence back he may be able to help another team.

Bob K. from Portsmouth, Ohio, writes: Now that the NFL is locked out, how is it that teams can still work out and scout players?

Walker: College players who are yet to be drafted technically are not part of the NFLPA. They soon will be. But for now it's safe for NFL teams to communicate with college players and work them out.

If you have any additional questions on the AFC North, please send them to our division inbox.

AFC North free-agent primer

March, 2, 2011
This is the final week that several big names will be under contract with their respective AFC North teams.

The new league year starts on Friday, March 4, with a lot of labor uncertainty. Free agency cannot begin until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. But at least we will know who the key players are this offseason by the end of the week.

Here is how things are shaping up in the AFC North:

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Le'Ron McClain
Mitch Stringer/US PRESSWIREThe Ravens will allow fullback Le'Ron McClain to test the free-agent market.
Baltimore Ravens: Pro Bowl defensive lineman Haloti Ngata received the franchise tag, and signing him long term is Baltimore's biggest priority this offseason. The Ravens also have several interesting free agents. Offensive lineman Marshal Yanda is one of the most underrated free agents in this division. He has the versatility to play guard and tackle, and the Ravens want him back to help patch up the right side of their offensive line. The secondary also could be taking a hit as safety Dawan Landry and cornerbacks Josh Wilson and Fabian Washington are all set to hit the open market. Of the three, I think Wilson was the most consistent for Baltimore this season. The Ravens will allow fullback Le'Ron McClain to test free agency. He wants the opportunity to carry the football more and won’t get that in Baltimore. With the team expected to release Willis McGahee, the Ravens could be thin at running back behind starter Ray Rice if both McClain and McGahee do not return in 2011.

Cincinnati Bengals: We have addressed the situation numerous times with Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph. He has quietly been one of the top defenders in the AFC North and will likely get a huge payday, considering the going rate for cornerbacks. Unless Cincinnati is willing to pay at least $10 million per year to keep Joseph, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t hit the open market this week. Starting tailback Cedric Benson is another interesting free agent. He’s led Cincinnati in rushing two years in a row after posting a pair of 1,000-yard seasons. But Benson was unhappy with the Bengals last year and his production also tailed. Will he work out a deal to stay in Cincinnati? Stay tuned. The Bengals also have aging free agents like receiver Terrell Owens and linebacker Dhani Jones who are not expected to return because the team is rebuilding and going younger. Cincinnati also has to figure out what to do at quarterback now that starter Carson Palmer wants to be traded and threatened to retire.

Cleveland Browns: The Browns were lacking talent to begin with. So they don't have many big-name free agents. But some players who were productive in 2010 are hitting the open market, including fullback Lawrence Vickers, linebacker Matt Roth and safety Abe Elam. Both Roth and Elam were unhappy about not getting long-term extensions in Cleveland and probably will look elsewhere, while it's unknown how well Vickers, a power fullback, fits in a West Coast offense. With a new coaching staff led by head coach Pat Shurmur, expect a lot of turnover on the roster as the Browns get players who fit their offensive and defensive schemes. The Browns recently used the franchise tag on veteran kicker Phil Dawson to keep him off the market.

Pittsburgh Steelers: No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor has been in preliminary discussions with Pittsburgh but is likely running into the same challenges as Joseph. Similar to Cincinnati, would the Steelers be willing to commit at least $10 million per year to a cornerback? That appears to be the going rate for solid, free-agent corners. The Steelers will probably let Taylor test the market and compete with other teams before they pay that amount. If Taylor can get that elsewhere, he probably will take it. If not, Taylor can return to a Super Bowl contender in Pittsburgh at a reduced rate. Other than Taylor, the team doesn't have many key players hitting the open market next week. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley was given the franchise tag. Role players like tailback Mewelde Moore, backup center Doug Legursky and kicker Shaun Suisham are among other notable free agents for Pittsburgh.

AFC North Week 14 decisive moment

December, 14, 2010
NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

For the past month, the most memorable play in Baltimore Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson's season was a controversial touchdown he allowed to receiver Roddy White in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

But Wilson made up for that play Monday night with a game-winning pick-six to lead the Ravens to a 34-28 overtime win over the Houston Texans. He read Houston quarterback Matt Schaub, caught the interception in stride and returned it 12 yards for a touchdown. The play propelled Baltimore to a 9-4 record and negated an embarrassing second-half collapse where the Ravens blew a 21-point lead.

Wilson was acquired in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks and the move has paid dividends. He began as a backup, then eventually replaced Fabian Washington in the starting lineup. Wilson has 37 tackles and three interceptions for Baltimore this season.

The Ravens have some concerns, particularly with their recent play in the fourth quarter. But Wilson's big interception allows Baltimore to search for answers while coming off a victory.

The Ravens will play host to the pass-heavy New Orleans Saints (10-3) on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

How I See It: AFC North Stock Watch

December, 1, 2010
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


[+] EnlargeCarson Palmer
AP Photo/Bill KostrounIt's mostly been a season to forget for Bengals QB Carson Palmer.
1. Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback: We may be watching the last days of Palmer in a Bengals' uniform. After eight seasons with the team, Palmer has become very inconsistent and put up his fifth multi-interception game of the year in a loss to the New York Jets. Both picks against New York were awful throws into heavy coverage. He also recorded 135 yards and one touchdown. Not everything this year falls on Palmer. But his play has contributed to the team's many issues, which isn't good when you're considered the franchise building block.

2. Jake Delhomme, Cleveland Browns quarterback: Browns coach Eric Mangini made a risky decision to go back to Delhomme last week, despite little proof that he's the right person for the job. The thinking was his familiarity would help against the Carolina Panthers, but it nearly backfired as Delhomme threw two interceptions -- including a pick-six -- in a 24-23 victory. Delhomme has one touchdown and six interceptions this season, while both Seneca Wallace and Colt McCoy have played more efficiently. McCoy is currently nursing an ankle injury.

3. Fabian Washington, Baltimore Ravens cornerback: It's been a pretty dramatic fall this season for Washington. He began as the team's starting cornerback, struggled and was benched, then was inactive for the first time this season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Corners Lardarius Webb, Josh Wilson and Chris Carr have played well the past couple of weeks, making it even tougher for Washington to earn his way back in the rotation.


1. Ravens/Steelers rivalry: This is our favorite time of year when the Ravens and Steelers collide. In our view, this is the way football was meant to be played. It's no secret these two teams don't like one another and, as usual, there is a lot at stake. The winner will have the inside track to capturing the AFC North title and at least one home playoff game. The fact that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't play in the first meeting and Baltimore won in Heinz Field only adds to this matchup.

2. Peyton Hillis, Browns tailback: Hillis is clearly Cleveland's MVP this season. For the first time in his career, he's been the feature back for most of the year and he's proving his worth by leading the Browns in rushing (905 yards) and receptions (46). Hillis rushed for 131 yards and three touchdowns against the Carolina Panthers last week. He is the one constant threat on offense opponents have to account for every week.

3. Shaun Suisham, Steelers kicker: There were a lot of questions surrounding the next kicker to replace Jeff Reed. But Suisham has done well with his opportunity in Pittsburgh. Suisham further endeared himself in the Steelers' locker room by nailing four important field goals, including the game-winner in overtime, against the Buffalo Bills. Pittsburgh will be playing in big games down the stretch and relying on the journeyman kicker.

Notes on the Ravens

November, 29, 2010
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh held his Monday press conference at the team's training facility following their 17-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Here are some notes on the Ravens:

  • There was no definitive information on the playing status of left tackle Michael Oher (knee sprain), fullback Le'Ron McClain (ankle) and safety Dawan Landry (concussion) this week. Of the three, McClain's injury appears to be the most serious. Both Oher and Landry said Sunday night that they will play against Pittsburgh.
"Some of our running backs can play fullback, so we've got some other options," Harbaugh said if McClain can't play. "When you have a week to prepare for that possibility, we will have some more things up our sleeves."
  • Harbaugh explained that making cornerback Fabian Washington inactive was due to the need for an extra defensive lineman against the Buccaneers. Washington has gone from a starter to a backup to being inactive in several weeks.
  • The Ravens were one of the league's most penalized teams last year, but the infractions have gone down dramatically this season. It's an interesting contrast to the Steelers, who have been flagged heavily, including 24 penalties in the past two games. With the way the NFL has been officiated this year, penalties may play a factor this weekend.
"Our guys have done a really good job and our coaches have done a really good job of emphasizing technique," Harbaugh said compared to last season. "When it comes to the major penalties: Holding, defensive pass inference and personal fouls when it comes to player safety, those are the big ones. Right now we need a lot of pre-snap penalties cleaned up on offense -- that's been our biggest issue."
  • The Ravens are preparing to play against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger despite a foot sprain he suffered Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. Baltimore took advantage of Pittsburgh minus Roethlisberger in the previous meeting, and the Ravens feel it's unlikely he would miss this huge game twice in one season.

Can anyone defend the pass?

November, 18, 2010
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.

Ravens' D lets Falcons 'off the hook'

November, 12, 2010
Joe FlaccoAP Photo/John BazemoreJoe Flacco rallied the Ravens to a 21-20 lead with 1:05 left, but the defense couldn't hold.
ATLANTA -- Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed walked out of the locker room with a parting shot late Thursday night. With his luggage in hand, Reed, unprovoked, had a message for the media before exiting the Georgia Dome.

"We let them off the hook," Reed said loudly to make sure everyone could hear.

"We" was the Ravens' defense, which has been one of the most consistently dominant units of the past decade. "Them" was the Atlanta Falcons, who improved to 7-2 after an exciting -- and some would say controversial -- 26-21 victory over Baltimore (6-3). In what was viewed as a possible Super Bowl preview, neither team disappointed as each club held the lead in the final minute.

The difference was the Falcons' last drive, where they marched 80 yards in 45 seconds against a Ravens' defense that had snuffed out those scenarios many times before. A 33-yard touchdown catch by Falcons receiver Roddy White over Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson sealed the game for Atlanta.

Wilson argued vehemently with the referees that he was pushed by White, but no flag was thrown.

"I was playing coverage, man, and I guess it's tough to play good coverage in this league," said Wilson. "I don't know. I can't call it."

The Ravens have felt they were on the short end of calls or no-calls before. But the overriding theme in the locker room this time was that they missed chances to make key stops.

"They made the plays at the end and we didn't," Ravens cornerback Chris Carr said bluntly. "It was a very difficult loss. With our defense, we figured that we would stop them."

Here are some other observations from Baltimore's loss:

Ravens were slow starters: Baltimore made a valiant effort by scoring back-to-back touchdowns to overcome a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter. But a poor first half put the Ravens behind most of the game. Baltimore couldn't get anything going early and fumbled a punt return, which led to Atlanta taking a 10-0 halftime lead. Atlanta is extremely tough to beat at home, especially with the lead. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has an 18-1 record in the Georgia Dome.

"Anytime you give points away early, it's hard to come back and beat a team like that no matter how much you fight," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "They won the turnover battle [2-0]."

[+] EnlargeJosh Wilson
Dale Zanine/US PresswireJosh Wilson and the rest of the Ravens' cornerbacks struggled against Roddy White and the Falcons.
No-huddle trouble: This is a copycat league, and the three teams the Ravens have lost to this season have all used the no-huddle offense. Perhaps stealing a page from the Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots, the Falcons began the game up-tempo with their version of the no-huddle and had success, taking a 10-0 lead early. The Falcons did a good job of using the no-huddle to keep personnel on the field for Baltimore. Atlanta spread out Baltimore with three and four receivers and took advantage of the Ravens' struggling cornerbacks, which we will get to next.

Cornerback is an issue: Cornerback was a weakness many anticipated for Baltimore entering the season. That wasn't the case early, but it's certainly true now. Wilson, Carr, Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington all had their bad moments. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was 32-of-50 for 316 yards, with three touchdowns and a 101.8 passer rating. The Ravens were doing a lot of rotating at cornerback. No one could contain White, who had 12 receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns. A lot of attention will be put on Wilson's final play, but Atlanta had its way with Baltimore's pass defense throughout the game.

Third-down woes: Baltimore struggled on third down in the first two quarters on offense and all game on defense. Baltimore converted 1-of-4 third downs in the first half, but got better in the second, when the team was 5-of-7 and sparked the comeback. But defensively, the Falcons kept picking the Ravens apart on third down, going 12-of-20 (60 percent). Atlanta got 16 first downs via the pass.

"That's the key right there," Reed said. "Instead of us getting off the field, they converted when they had to. Against a good team, you can't do that."

Overall, the Ravens still left the Georgia Dome a confident team. There are some holes that need to be patched. But in defeat, Baltimore proved once again that it can play with any team in any stadium.

The Ravens have 10 days to rest and prepare for the lowly Carolina Panthers (1-7), a team Baltimore aims not to let "off the hook."

Ravens-Falcons halftime notes

November, 11, 2010
ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Falcons lead the Baltimore Ravens, 10-0, at halftime.

Here are some notes at intermission:

  • Perhaps after watching film of Baltimore's loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Falcons went primarily with a no-huddle offense in the first half with good results. Atlanta had most of its success in the second quarter, scoring all 10 points. Atlanta running back Jason Snelling caught a 28-yard touchdown on a defensive mix up by Baltimore. The Bengals handed the Ravens one of their two losses this season by using a no-huddle offense with some success.
  • The Ravens are losing a lopsided battle on third down. Offensively, they converted on just 1 of 4 third downs in the first half and their pass protection didn't give Joe Flacco much time. On defense, Atlanta is 8 of 12 on third down and that's been the difference in controlling the pace of the game.
  • The Ravens are doing a lot of rotating at cornerback. Josh Wilson started in place of Fabian Washington, but Washington eventually replaced starter Lardarius Webb late in the first quarter. Carr and Wilson then started a defensive stand in the second quarter. All four played in the first half. I’m not sure if the rotating cornerbacks are by design or if the Ravens are trying to get a feel for the best combination of players.
  • Overall it wasn't a good first half for Webb. He got beat by Falcons receiver Roddy White on several plays and also fumbled a punt return in the second quarter, which led to a field goal by Atlanta.

Five things to watch: Ravens vs. Falcons

November, 11, 2010
Two of the NFL's best teams will meet Thursday night when the Baltimore Ravens (6-2) face the Atlanta Falcons (6-2).

Here are five things to watch from the Ravens:

1. Who controls the tempo? The Falcons want to force opponents into a track meet at the Georgia Dome. The Ravens prefer to be physical and grind it out. The team that controls the tempo should win. I've watched the Falcons twice in person this year against AFC North teams, and I noticed a significant difference when Atlanta controls the pace. The Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1 frustrated Atlanta's offense by not giving up big plays in a 15-9 overtime win. The Cincinnati Bengals played right into Atlanta's hands in Week 7 and lost a shootout, 39-32.

2. Can Joe Flacco outduel Matt Ryan? This is a great matchup between the top two quarterbacks from the 2008 draft class. Ryan and Flacco were both taken in the first round and have turned around their franchises. Both have put up comparable numbers, with Ryan having a slight edge this season in passing yards (1,949 to 1,917), TD passes (13 to 12) and interceptions (5 to 6) . This is the first head-to-head meeting between them.

3. Will Baltimore's secondary contain Falcons receiver Roddy White? White is questionable with a knee injury, but according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, he is expected to play. White, who has 58 catches for 796 yards and five TDs, is one of the more dynamic receivers in the league. Baltimore's pass coverage has been shaky and there's some turnover at cornerback. Josh Wilson, acquired in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks, has been getting more playing time recently in place of Fabian Washington. Wilson is expected to start .

4. Can the Ravens improve in the red zone? Baltimore beat the Miami Dolphins last week pretty convincingly despite going just 1-for-7 in the red zone. A similar lack of production could hurt the Ravens against Atlanta's high-powered offense. The Ravens gained 402 yards against the Dolphins but struggled to execute inside the 20. It was a busy day for kicker Billy Cundiff, who made four field goals for Baltimore.

5. Will Ed Reed make a big play? Coming off offseason hip surgery, Reed has not lost his ability to make game-changing plays. He has three interceptions in two games. Against Atlanta, there will be plenty of opportunities for Reed to make an impact. The Falcons challenge defenses vertically, and Reed is usually Baltimore's last line of defense. Look out if Reed (49 career interceptions) gets the ball in his hands.

Midseason Stock Watch: Ravens

November, 10, 2010
Power Rankings: Preseason: No. 6. This week: No. 1.

2010 schedule/results

[+] EnlargeNgata
AP Photo/Jim MahoneyHaloti Ngata has been a force for the Baltimore defense during the first half of the season.
Where they stand: The Ravens are tied for the NFL's best record at 6-2 and looked strong coming off the bye in Sunday's 26-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins. A major factor this year is Baltimore has remained relatively healthy. Star safety Ed Reed (hip) and veteran receiver Donte' Stallworth (foot) recently came off the physically unable to perform list to put the Ravens at full strength. Many picked Baltimore to win the Super Bowl this year, and this team didn't disappoint in the first half.

Falling: Cornerback Fabian Washington, who had major knee surgery last year, has been inconsistent. He has allowed too many big plays, including three touchdowns in a Week 7 overtime win over the Buffalo Bills. Josh Wilson, acquired in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks, has played more at cornerback recently. Baltimore's pass rush (14 sacks) also could improve.

Rising: For years, defensive lineman Haloti Ngata was one of the NFL's best-kept secrets. No longer. Ngata, coming off his first Pro Bowl, is having a dominant year, recording 43 tackles and a team-high five sacks. Quarterback Joe Flacco also is having a solid third season, throwing for 1,917 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has a passer rating of 88.9. Reed has three interceptions in two games back from major hip surgery, continuing his knack for creating turnovers and making big plays.

Midseason MVP: Ngata has been impossible to block some weeks. It's not his primary job to rush the passer, but Ngata has been so difficult to contain that he's also getting to the quarterback more than any Ravens defender. Flacco is a close second.

Outlook: The second half looks bright for Baltimore. With big offseason acquisitions such as receiver Anquan Boldin (40 catches, 546 yards, five touchdowns), it's clear Baltimore is aiming for nothing less than a championship. The Ravens have as good a chance as anyone if they remain healthy. They are one of the NFL's most balanced teams offensively and defensively and have a roster full of Pro Bowl-caliber players. Baltimore will make the playoffs, but can the Ravens hold off the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the AFC North and play at home in the postseason? Home-field advantage will be key for Baltimore's title hopes.

AFC North evening links: Ravens' CB

November, 9, 2010
Here are the latest happenings Tuesday evening in the AFC North:
Here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North: Morning take: I'm hearing that surgery went better than expected for Smith, and the fact that it was a partial tear leaves open the possibility of a return. If healthy, Smith could be a huge boost for the playoffs.
  • Baltimore Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington studied his subpar performance against the Buffalo Bills three times during the bye week.
Morning take: That's a good approach to have. Washington is unsure if he will keep his starting job, but at least he's working to correct his errors.
  • Cleveland Browns quarterback Seneca Wallace (ankle) is hopeful he can practice Wednesday and start Sunday against the New England Patriots.
Morning take: Browns coach Eric Mangini could have an interesting call to make. We will have more on this Tuesday in the AFC North blog.
Morning take: With four straight losses, they are actually getting worse. The tough, energized team I saw in Week 2 against the Ravens has completely vanished.