AFC North: Fred Jackson

McLendon on a mission to stop the run

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
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PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have given up almost 200 rushing yards in each of their past two games. They are No. 31 in the NFL in rushing defense, and Steve McLendon takes the Steelers' struggles in a part of the game they have traditionally owned personally.

“If you don't take it personal,” McLendon said, “what are you doing here?”

The disgust McLendon expressed over the way teams have run on the Steelers explains why he doesn't care who plays quarterback for Buffalo on Sunday though all signs point to rookie EJ Manuel returning to the starting lineup.

“I'm not really thinking about throwing,” McLendon said. “We gave up 55 points (at New England). People was running the ball on us. That's what we've got to worry about, stopping the run.”

That will be one of the keys to the Steelers beating the Bills.

Buffalo is averaging 145.8 rushing yards per game, second in the AFC, behind the explosive C.J. Spiller and the underrated Fred Jackson.

Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons described Spiller as a “home-run hitter” and said Jackson will also challenge the Steelers' run defense.

“Jackson has those capabilities too but he's more of an in-between-the-tackles guy,” Timmons, the Steelers' leading tackler, said. “He's a balanced back and has good contact balance, too.”

“One's just a little faster than the other,” McLendon said. “They both can execute the same plays. We have to go out and just execute our game plan.”

The Steelers haven't done that nearly enough when it comes to stopping the run, and Dick LeBeau's defense is predicated on forcing teams into second- and third-and-long.

No player was more responsible for the Steelers' dominance in run defense over the last decade than Casey Hampton.

The mammoth nose tackle proved to be immovable from the middle of the line, and Hampton made five Pro Bowls while clogging running lanes and freeing up linebackers behind him to swallow up opposing running backs.

The Steelers opted to go with McLendon at nose tackle instead of re-signing Hampton, and he is well aware of the expectations that come with replacing the player affectionately known as “Big Snack.”

“You look at Casey, you look at Chris Hoke. Both of those guys did an excellent job of stopping the run, especially Casey,” McLendon said. “They didn't let anybody score 55 points on them. I've got to go out here and play better, play harder, play faster, play smarter.”

McLendon doesn't just take the Steelers' struggles in stopping the run personally. Like his teammates, he shakes his head at criticism of LeBeau.

“The way we can shut that up is to go out here and execute the game plan,” McLendon said. “Show that everything we do here does work.”

Inactives: Spiller in, Weeden No. 2

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
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Brandon Weeden will be the backup quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, and running back C.J. Spiller is active and will play tonight for the Buffalo Bills. That's the fallout from the team's inactives list, which were just released.

Browns inactives include quarterback Jason Campbell, which makes Weeden the backup to Brian Hoyer. Also inactive are injured linebackers Quentin Groves (ankle) and Jabaal Sheard (knee) as well as defensive lineman Billy Winn. Newly-acquired running Fozzy Whittaker will not play, nor will offensive linemen Martin Wallace and Patrick Lewis. Shawn Lauvao is active, and likely will start at right guard. Lauvao has not played since injuring an ankle in training camp, and his replacement, Oniel Cousins, had mixed results, especially in pass protection. Lauvao's return means the Browns have their first-team offensive line in place for the first time this season.

Buffalo will not have safety Jairus Byrd active. He practiced the past two days, but his foot injury will sideline him. Other inactives include cornerback Stephon Gilmore, kicker Dustin Hopkins, cornerback Ron Brooks, offensive lineman Sam Young, receiver Marquise Goodwin and tight end Chris Gragg. Both Spiller and running back Fred Jackson will play through pain, Jackson with a knee and Spiller with an ankle. It's likely the Bills will give Tashard Choice more carries than any back.

Observation deck: Steelers-Bills

August, 25, 2012
8/25/12
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Ben Roethlisberger looked like his old self for the first time this preseason in the Steelers' 38-7 victory over the Buffalo Bills.

It took until the third game of the preseason for it to happen. It also took the Steelers getting backed up to their end zone with under two minutes left in the first half.

Not sure whether he suddenly felt comfortable in Todd Haley's new offense or he just got ticked off after getting penalized for 12 men in the huddle, but Roethlisberger marched Pittsburgh down the field on an 11-play, 98-yard drive that he capped with a six-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown. He completed seven of eight passes for 92 yards on that drive.

For most of the preseason, it's been a conservative passing attack for Roethlisberger. Even his longest pass of the preseason -- a 57-yard touchdown to Brown -- was the result of a long run after a short throw.

In Buffalo, after a sluggish start that featured four dropped passes, the key play was Roethlisberger throwing a deep back-shoulder toss to running back Jonathan Dwyer for 33 yards to convert a third-and-9. He then finished off the marathon drive by hitting Brown with 13 seconds remaining in the first half.

Here are some other thoughts from the Steelers' third preseason game:
  • Head coach Mike Tomlin called the injury to the right knee of right guard David DeCastro "potentially severe" after the game. He is scheduled for an MRI on Sunday. DeCastro was carted off early in the first quarter after right tackle Marcus Gilbert fell on the leg of the Steelers' first-round pick. Ramon Foster is adequate if you need him to fill in, but he is a marginal starter over an entire season. That's why the Steelers used the 24th overall pick on DeCastro.
  • The other injury concern is defensive end Brett Keisel, who has a mild high-ankle sprain, according to Tomlin. He is expected to be ready for the season opener. The Steelers have less of a worry at this spot because they have a solid replacement in Cameron Heyward, a 2011 first-round pick.
  • Other than that long pass to Dwyer, Roethlisberger didn't really try to stretch the field. He went deep one other time, but Emmanuel Sanders dropped the throw down the right sideline. Mike Wallace is reportedly ending his holdout Sunday.
  • Outside of that final drive in the first half, the Steelers offensive line had problems moving a physical Buffalo defensive front. Foster and left guard Willie Colon got pushed back in pass protection, and there were few running lanes for Isaac Redman (24 yards on 12 carries). On one play, center Maurkice Pouncey got called for holding after he grabbed the left leg of Kyle Williams. Even on Redman's touchdown run, he had to push back two Bills defenders who met him in the hole.
  • Forcing turnovers has been a priority for the Steelers, who finished last in the NFL last season with 15 takeaways. Pittsburgh came away with three turnovers against the Bills, forcing a fumble and intercepting Bills backup quarterback Vince Young twice. The Steelers converted touchdowns off all three turnovers.
  • Brown remains the focal point of the Steelers' passing attack, especially with the absence of Wallace. He caught seven passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns, including a 39-yard touchdown from Byron Leftwich. But Brown should've had better numbers than that. He dropped two passes from Roethlisberger early in the game.
  • The Steelers have to figure out a way to set the edge better in the run game. Bills running back Fred Jackson gained most of his yards by breaking to the outside. He made safety Troy Polamalu look bad in the open field on a 15-yard run. Polamalu, though, rebounded to strip the ball away from Shawn Nelson in the end zone and intercepted Young early in the third quarter.
  • With James Harrison still out, it was expected that LaMarr Woodley would be the key to the pass rush. On Saturday night, Woodley was more of a presence in pass coverage. He should've intercepted a deflected pass in the first quarter (he dropped it after Bills receiver collided into him) and he later got his hand on a pass while dropping back.
  • The Steelers backup quarterbacks are making this a tough decision for the coaching staff, although I still see them giving the job to Leftwich. Last week, Charlie Batch was the first to replace Roethlisberger and he completed seven of 10 passes for 84 yards. On Saturday night, Leftwich took over for Roethlisberger and finished 5 of 8 for 105 yards and two touchdowns.

Are the Browns going soft?

December, 21, 2010
12/21/10
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There are a lot of things you can criticize about the inconsistent play of the Cleveland Browns (5-9) this year. Yet, one thing that has been consistent is the team's toughness.

But as the Browns wrap up the final month of the season, is their physicality starting to fade?

[+] EnlargeCedric Benson
AP Photo/David KohlCedric Benson racked up a lot of carries (31) and rushing yards (150) against Cleveland Sunday.
The Browns were manhandled in the trenches of back-to-back losses against the lowly Buffalo Bills (4-10) and Cincinnati Bengals (3-11), and now whispers of the infamous "S" word are starting to permeate in Cleveland.

Is it possible the Browns are going "soft" down the stretch?

Former two-time Pro Bowler and Cleveland radio personality LeCharles Bentley believes that's the case. On ESPN's WKNR 850AM Monday Bentley, a former offensive lineman for Cleveland and the New Orleans Saints, didn't hold back when he described the Browns as "green-sticker nice guys" and not nearly as tough as they thought they were.

Ouch!

A few weeks ago toughness was never a question. Despite their lack of talent, the Browns were willing to bang heads with anyone for four quarters offensively and defensively, which made for competitive games. Only two of Cleveland's nine losses this year have come by more than a touchdown.

But lately the Browns have looked uninterested while getting pummeled by inferior opponents. Buffalo and Cincinnati outgained Cleveland in rushing by an astounding 380-164 margin. Bengals tailback Cedric Benson and Buffalo's Fred Jackson -- not necessarily household names -- combined for 262 rushing yards.

Whether it's a two-week anomaly for Cleveland remains to seen. But the Browns' toughness certainly will be tested down the stretch against two of the NFL's biggest bullies: the Baltimore Ravens (10-4) and Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4).

Will the Browns rediscover their physicality to end the season or continue to get pushed around?

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