AFC North: Green Bay Packers

Eddie Lacy and Jason WorildsGetty ImagesJason Worilds and the Steelers will have to stop Eddie Lacy -- one of the league's best running backs this season.
The last time the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers met, the Lombardi trophy was on the line.

In Green Bay, the memories of Super Bowl XLV are alive and well.

In Pittsburgh, all Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he remembers from that game is one thing: "We lost," he said this week.

The stakes are much different heading into Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. The Steelers (6-8) are in the midst of disappointing season, while the Packers (7-6-1) are fighting for their playoff lives.

Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Steelers reporter Scott Brown discuss the rematch:

Rob Demovsky: Let's start with this question. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that he doesn't regret passing on Eddie Lacy in favor of drafting running back Le'Veon Bell. Right now, Lacy looks like the better pick, but it's still too early in their careers to say anything definitive. How has Bell fit into the Steelers offense and what's the biggest reason he's only averaging 3.3 yards per carry?

Scott Brown: Bell has become a big part of the offense and he has added another dimension to it with his pass-catching abilities. He is fourth on the team in receiving, and the Steelers don't just throw screen passes or checkdowns to Bell but also use him as a receiver. Bell is still finding his way as a runner and I'd say his low rushing average is a combination of playing behind a line that is better at pass blocking as well as the adjustment he is making to the speed of the game at this level. Bell has shown flashes, such as when he hurdles a cornerback or plants a defensive end with a stiff-arm, two things he did Sunday night against the Bengals.

Rob, are you surprised at all at the success Lacy has had so early in his career and what has his emergence meant to the Packers offense?

Demovsky: The only thing that has surprised me about Lacy has been his durability. As everyone around the Steelers knows, there were major questions about his injury history coming out of Alabama. Then, early on his conditioning looked a little off -- although it was not as bad as that unflattering picture of him that was circulating during training camp. Then, he sustained a concussion and missed a game and as half. But ever since he has returned from that, there haven't been any major issues. He's managed to play through a sprained ankle the past two weeks. Whenever they get quarterback Aaron Rodgers back, they'll be tough to stop because defenses will have to respect both the run and the pass. That's something Rodgers hasn't really had since he's been the starter.

I've heard a lot of people say they think the Steelers got old in a hurry, especially on defense. Even Roethlisberger looks like an old 31. What do you see in that regard and how much, if at all, has that impacted what's happened to the Steelers this season?

Brown: Age has certainly been a factor in the decline of the defense this season, but I think it's a bit of a misconception that the Steelers' problems stem from them getting old in a hurry. There is still age on the defense, most notably in the secondary, but the Steelers have quietly gotten younger on that side of the ball -- and will continue to do so after the season. What made the Steelers consistently good before this current stretch is they always seemed to have younger players ready to step in for starters who had passed their prime. Perhaps the best example of this is James Harrison and the kind of player he turned into after the Steelers released Joey Porter following the 2006 season.

The Steelers are actually pretty young on offense and while Roethlisberger is 31, he has played every snap this season. I think the offense will step to the forefront in the coming seasons while the Steelers retool the defense and Bell and the offensive line get better.

Rob, Matt Flynn had trouble sticking with a team before he returned to Green Bay. Is it too strong to say that he saved the season -- or at least prevented the Packers from dropping out of playoff contention after Rodgers went down with the broken collarbone?

Demovsky: I'm not sure if Flynn saved their season as much as the Detroit Lions' ineptitude saved their season. Same with the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. It's not exactly like Flynn lit up a couple of defensive juggernauts. That said, it's obvious Flynn has a comfort level with the Packers offense that he did not have in Seattle or Oakland. How else can you explain why he has performed reasonably well here and so poorly in those places?

This is obviously the first meeting between these two teams since Super Bowl XLV. Roethlisberger said this week on a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field that the only thing he remembers about that game is that his team lost. Given that the Steelers don't have the playoffs to play for this season, does avenging that Super Bowl loss give the Steelers any extra motivation this week?

Brown: They can say that it doesn't, but I'm sure they would love a little payback for that loss even if a win by the Steelers on Sunday would come on a considerably smaller stage. I have been impressed with how the Steelers have remained focused even though they only have a sliver of hope of sneaking into the playoffs -- and that's if they manage to win their final two games. The Steelers, in fact, could already be eliminated from postseason contention before kickoff Sunday depending on what happens in the 1 p.m. ET games.

If their showing against the Bengals is a guide, the Packers will get the Steelers' best effort no matter what transpires in the early games. The Steelers seemingly had nothing to play for last Sunday night and they jumped all over the Bengals and cruised to a 30-20 win. It was their most impressive win of the season as much for the circumstances under which it came as for the opponent.

Rob, the Steelers offense has really been on the rise since offensive coordinator Todd Haley removed the reins from the no-huddle attack. Given some of the difficulties Green Bay has had on defense do you think it will need to score a lot of points to beat the Steelers?

Demovsky: The Packers defense gave up 332 yards in the first half alone last Sunday against the Cowboys. They couldn't stop the run -- they haven't really done so since early in the season -- and they seem to have costly coverage breakdowns. When their defense has been at its best is when it has created turnovers. Those two fourth-quarter interceptions of Tony Romo sure made up for a lot of defensive mistakes. The same thing happened when they pitched a shutout in the second half against the Falcons the previous week. If Roethlisberger & Co. take care of the ball, then I expect the Steelers will force the Packers to match them in a shootout type of game.

Eddie Lacy and Brandon WeedenUSA TODAY SportsThe Packers may have to rely more on their run game, while Browns QB Brandon Weeden seeks to recover from a forgettable outing.
The Green Bay Packers have made it past a difficult stretch in which they played four playoff teams from last season in their first five games.

And they came out of it with a respectable 3-2 record.

The Cleveland Browns, despite going from Brandon Weeden to Brian Hoyer and now back to Weeden at quarterback, also aren't out of anything yet at 3-3.

ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Browns reporter Pat McManamon break down the matchup:

McManamon: Rob, what will Green Bay do at receiver with all those injuries, and how much will it affect the offense?

Demovsky: It's bound to have a significant impact. Randall Cobb more or less became the focal point of the passing game last season and if anything, that intensified this season. Sure, he's only a slot receiver and the Packers still have the deep threat of Jordy Nelson on the outside. But in this offense, a lot of those quick-hit passes -- especially against teams that blitz -- are directed to the inside. No team used more three-receiver sets than the Packers had until Cobb went down last week against the Ravens. They had used a three-receiver set on 90 percent of their snaps. That number likely will go down beginning this week against the Browns. They might have to rely on their new-found running game more than ever. But with fewer threats in the passing game, teams might be able to load up to stop running back Eddie Lacy.

The Browns have offensive issues of their own, Pat. Brandon Weeden's turnovers in the loss to the Lions looked like killers, especially that backhanded, underhand flip. How can they get him to play smarter?

McManamon: That backhanded, underhand flip will live for a long time in the annals of Cleveland Browns misplays since 1999, Rob. A lengthy list just got longer. As for getting him to play smarter, that's the challenge. And the challenge has gone on for 18 starts. Weeden actually started fairly well as a 29-year-old rookie, but he struggled the end of last season and this season he's played in fits and starts. Which of course won't be good enough against Green Bay. With Brian Hoyer injured, the Browns have few other options -- it's not like Tom Brady is on the streets waiting for a job -- so they will stick with Weeden. But you have to wonder whether the Browns aren't coming to the conclusion that what they see is what he'll be when it comes to this 30-year-old quarterback.

Rob, Weeden does not read the rush well and does not move well. The Packers are ninth in the league in sacks. Is that yet another bad recipe for Weeden and the Browns offense?

Demovsky: It remains to be seen whether they can keep up their sack pace. They did it without Clay Matthews last week, getting five sacks at Baltimore, but now they're going to be without another outside rusher, Nick Perry. Matthews and Perry each have three sacks on the season, which ties A.J. Hawk for the team lead. At some point, those injuries have to slow down their pass rush. The one thing that's helping them is they're playing the run very well, probably the best they have since they led the league in rushing defense in 2009. After shutting down Ray Rice last week, they're up to third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (78.2). That's putting teams in a lot of third-and-long situations, which allows defensive coordinator Dom Capers to blitz. That's how Hawk got all three of his sacks against the Ravens.

Perhaps the Browns can help protect Weeden if they run the ball effectively to keep the Packers from rushing like crazy. What are their prospects for doing that?

McManamon: Running the ball would protect Weeden. But it helps to have a ... well ... a running game. At present, the Browns are in make-do mode with the running game, and as the season continues that will more and more become a problem. Since the trade of Trent Richardson the Browns have relied on aging Willis McGahee, young Bobby Rainey and fullback Chris Ogbonnaya. These guys give effort, but there's only so much they can give. McGahee can't run outside, Rainey is inexperienced and Ogbonnaya is what he is. The Browns rank 22nd in the league by running for 86.8 yards per game -- though they are averaging 3.9 yards per carry. If the Browns want to run, they will have to commit to it and pound it out, something I am not sure they can do.

Rob, the Browns have had 19 starting quarterbacks since 1999 -- and it appears next year or soon after that number will hit 20. Do the Packers and their fans realize just how fortunate they have been these many years to have Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers?

Demovsky: They should. There are only a handful of organizations who can say they've had the kind of quarterback transition that the Packers had. The 49ers with Joe Montana to Steve Young come to mind. Maybe the Colts have that now with Andrew Luck following Peyton Manning. Not only was Favre a great quarterback, but he was there week in and week out. Rodgers is pretty much the same way. Those guys rarely get injured and when they do, they still play.

Most Packers fans here are still fond of Mike Holmgren, for leading them to the Super Bowl XXXI title. His tenure with as a Browns executive was much shorter. What impact, if any, did he have on the organization?

McManamon: Let's just say the feelings for Holmgren are a lot warmer in Green Bay -- odd as that sounds -- than in Cleveland. Many fans feel Holmgren's epitaph with the Browns should be "As a president, he was a great coach." A lot of that is frustration at constant losing. Some is frustration at the job title and salary scale Randy Lerner gave Holmgren. More still that Holmgren never took on the coaching duties himself. On balance, Holmgren's tenure was no worse than many, and better than some. He and GM Tom Heckert brought in some good players who are helping the team win now. But with any regime change comes more change, and Joe Banner has gotten rid of some of Holmgren's guys -- notably Richardson. Holmgren's biggest gamble was selecting a quarterback in the first round a year ago who is now 30. But Weeden clearly would have been helped by more continuity in the front office.

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One of the biggest games of the week features two of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL.

The Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract just a few months after being named the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. About seven weeks later, the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers agreed to a seven-year, $130.75 million deal.

Over the previous four seasons, Flacco and Rodgers are the only NFL quarterbacks to pass for at least 3,600 yards and 20 touchdowns each season while throwing 12 interceptions or fewer.
But the big-money contracts have been the only similarities between these two quarterbacks this season. Flacco has yet to break out because of inexperienced targets and a struggling offensive line. Rodgers, meanwhile, is on pace for another 5,000-yard passing season.

Will these trends continue for both quarterbacks this Sunday in Baltimore? Here's how Packers team reporter Rob Demovsky and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley see the game unfolding.

Jamison Hensley: Rob, it wasn't even 20 minutes after the Ravens had beaten the Dolphins and Terrell Suggs was already bringing up Rodgers' name. It's clear that he is already on the minds of the Ravens' defense, which has been riding the strength of its pass rush. Suggs is having a career year with seven sacks in five games and Elvis Dumervil has three sacks. Will the Ravens be able to get to Rodgers on Sunday?

Rob Demovsky: The Lions couldn't get to Rodgers last Sunday, but their pass rush typically comes from the interior. The Ravens, particularly with Suggs rushing from the outside, present an entirely different challenge. You better believe he will have Rodgers' attention. This might be one of those games in which he relies on a lot of short and intermediate routes to get the ball out of his hands quickly and take some pressure off his tackles. He trusts that his receivers will get yards after the catch if he gets them the ball quickly.

Are there signs Flacco and the Ravens' offense will get things rolling, or is this going to be an issue all season?

Hensley: There have been signs of life from the Ravens' running game, but as we saw in the playoffs, the Ravens will only go as far as Flacco takes them. His numbers -- 57.7 percent completion rate, five touchdowns, eight interceptions -- have been extremely disappointing, although it's not all his fault. If the Ravens want to get their offense rolling, they need the players around Flacco to step up. Flacco's wide receivers are inexperienced outside of Torrey Smith, and the Ravens' pass protection has been awful this season. Flacco has been sacked 14 times (only seven quarterbacks have been sacked more) and has been hit 18 times the past two weeks. Baltimore is hoping the addition of left tackle Eugene Monroe, who is expected to make his Ravens debut Sunday, will solidify Flacco's blind side.

It seems like the Ravens have caught a break with Clay Matthews being out. How will the Packers do in his absence?

Demovsky: Losing their $66 million linebacker is a blow, no question about it. He's one of only a couple of difference-makers the Packers have on defense. But they appear better equipped to play without Matthews than they were last season, when he missed four games with a hamstring injury. That's largely because of the emergence of Mike Neal, a former defensive end who converted to outside linebacker in the offseason. Neal had his best career game, with six tackles and a sack, on Sunday against the Lions. He gave Lions left tackle Riley Reiff all kinds of problems, so Monroe will have has hands full. The Packers also have seen some signs of life from last year's first-round pick, outside linebacker Nick Perry. He had his first career two-sack game against the Lions.

However, without Matthews, defensive coordinator Dom Capers might have to send more blitzers in order to pressure Flacco. How have the Ravens handled the blitz?

Hensley: The Ravens are having problems with any type of pressure this season, whether it's blitzes or four-man rushes. The problem has been the lack of productivity on first downs. The inability to consistently run the ball has put the Ravens in second-and-long and third-and-long too often, which makes it very predictable that the Ravens are going to have to throw the ball. Running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are both averaging fewer than 3 yards per carry. Rice looked better last Sunday, but his longest run is 14 yards this season. The Ravens are going to remain committed to the run. Their hope is it starts paying off more in the form of big plays.

Speaking of running games, what's been the key to the Packers's ground game this season?

Demovsky: Coach Mike McCarthy said last week that he believes a running back who makes the right reads and decision is the key to the running game, so that would lead you to believe the improvement has come largely from the running back position. To be sure, rookie Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 99 yards against the Lions, is a big part of that. He's a much more powerful runner than they've had in recent years. However, when you consider that they've had two other running backs go over 100 yards -- James Starks with 132 against the Redskins in Week 2 and rookie Johnathan Franklin with 103 in Week 3 against the Bengals -- I'm not sure how you can't give props to the offensive line, too. That group has made major strides.

What kind of a run defense will the Packers be facing Sunday?

Hensley: It really depends on which run defense shows up for the Ravens. Two weeks ago, the Ravens gave up 203 yards rushing to the Buffalo Bills. Last Sunday, Baltimore held the Dolphins to 22 yards on the ground, which is the fourth-fewest rushing yards allowed in a game in Ravens' history. The Ravens were so dominant that Miami just abandoned the run game. You couldn't have two bigger extremes, but the Buffalo game appears to be a temporary lapse. Baltimore is strong up the middle with Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty and is tough on the edges with Suggs, who is an underrated run-stopper, and Courtney Upshaw. Inside linebacker Daryl Smith has been the biggest surprise of the defense this season with his ability to anticipate where the ball is going.

The Ravens' secondary, though, is the area of the defense that has struggled the most. The Ravens gave up three 40-yard passes to Miami's Ryan Tannehill. Out of all those talented wide receivers, who should the Ravens fear the most?

Demovsky: All three receivers are dangerous in their own way. Randall Cobb works from the slot and is perfect for that role. He runs those short-to-intermediate routes precisely, much the same way Greg Jennings and Donald Driver used to. Rodgers loves to hit Cobb on the run in the middle of the field, and that attracts a lot of attention from the safeties. That often means either Jordy Nelson or James Jones could have single coverage on the outside. Nelson works the sidelines like few I've seen. He's already made two catches this year where it didn't look like there was any way he'd be able to stay in bounds, yet he got both feet in before falling out of bounds. Jones is surprisingly effective going deep. For a guy who supposedly doesn't have top-end speed, he rarely gets caught from behind.

The Packers' run defense has made significant improvements over last season and currently rank fifth in the league in rushing yards allowed. How big of a test will Ray Rice be?

Hensley: Rice hasn't been the same playmaking running back. He hasn't broken a run longer than 14 yards. He's fumbled twice. Some of the blame can go on the offensive line failing to open holes. Rice has also been dealing with a hip injury the past two weeks. But the Ravens need big plays from Rice and it starts with him breaking tackles. There were signs of Rice bouncing back to form last Sunday in Miami. If the Ravens are going to keep up with the Packers on the scoreboard, they're going to need big plays from Rice.

What has been the biggest improvement in the Packers run defense?

Demovsky: The Packers got bigger across the front line with the return of defensive tackle Johnny Jolly from his three-year suspension. When Jolly last played for the Packers in 2009, they led the NFL in rushing defense. With Jolly back, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has used him along with Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji up front in obvious running situations to form a massive front in their 3-4 package. Matthews plays a big part in their run defense, too. He's an underrated run defender, so his absence could be a factor there, too.

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Live blog: Packers at Bengals

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
12:40
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Green Bay Packers' visit to the Cincinnati Bengals. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
James Starks, Giovani BernardAP Photo Running backs James Starks and Giovani Bernard look to continue the success they had in Week 2.
As the Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals enter the third week of the season, both teams are looking to capitalize off Week 2 victories.

The Packers, buoyed by quarterback Aaron Rodgers' record-tying 480-yard passing performance, improved to 1-1 with a 38-20 win over Washington last Sunday. The Bengals also moved to 1-1 after being sparked Monday night by rookie running back Giovani Bernard’s two-touchdown effort in a 20-10 win over the Steelers.

This week, ESPN NFL Nation’s Coley Harvey and Rob Demovsky preview the Packers-Bengals game.

Coley Harvey: Rob, we’ll pose the first question to you. If Rodgers’ impressive outing last week against Washington was foreshadowing, then defenses across the NFL better buckle up for a long season. I mean, 480 yards? That’s special no matter who did it. Still, I have to ask since it seemed like Washington’s defense threw in the towel a little early: Were Rodgers’ yards simply a function of him being that in sync with his receivers, or was some of it a function of the Packers rightfully beating down a team that eventually didn’t want to be there? If it was mostly Rodgers and his receivers, how much do you think they can sustain this high-octane offense?

Rob Demovsky: I don’t know if Washington threw in the towel as much as it's just not a very good pass defense. The Eagles shredded them the week before, too. And then losing safety Brandon Meriweather to a concussion in the second quarter against the Packers didn’t help. One thing about Rodgers is he’s great at taking what the defense gives him. If a defense is going to play tight press coverage, he will work the ball down the field. If the defense is going to play soft and give cushion, he’ll use the underneath routes to get his guys the ball, which is what he did against Washington, and his receivers did the rest. He doesn’t force very many throws. This year, he seems even more in tune with his receivers. Randall Cobb destroyed the 49ers and Redskins from the slot. Also, Rodgers has a lot of trust in tight end Jermichael Finley right now.

However, it looks to like the Bengals might have the best pass defense the Packers have faced so far this season. What makes them so effective?

Harvey: I’d venture to say that it’s a combination of things. For starters, the Bengals have gotten decent push from their defensive line in the first two games. The unit’s two sacks, though, only tell part of the story. Against Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger on Monday, the group was in the backfield often, making it difficult for Big Ben to get comfortable in the pocket. That lack of comfort, combined with the defensive backs’ ability to stay with receivers, made it difficult for Roethlisberger to connect deep. Roethlisberger completed only four of his 15 attempts of 20 yards or more.

Stepping away from the passing game, I’m curious about Green Bay’s rushing attack. What made James Starks go off last week? And how confident are the Packers in him in the event Eddie Lacy doesn’t go this week?

Demovsky: Starks has always been a powerful, decisive runner, so it wasn’t a total shock to see him rush for 132 yards against the Redskins. After all, Starks was good enough to be their starter in Super Bowl XLV. In fact, he was their starter throughout that playoff run following the 2010 season and had a 100-yard game against the Eagles in the wild-card round. Starks’ problem over the years is that he could never stay healthy over long periods of time, but he’s been healthy since the beginning of training camp this year and waited for his turn. Packers coach Mike McCarthy was so satisfied with Starks’ performance against Washington that he’s going to start him against the Bengals regardless of Lacy’s status.

Speaking of running games, Giovani Bernard sure looked effective against the Steelers on Monday. What dynamic does he add to the Bengals’ offense?

Harvey: Good points about Starks. That’s the beauty of the NFL. When hot-shot youngsters come along, it’s so easy to forget how good and dominant older players once were -- and in Starks’ case, still can be.

I guess you could say the Bengals are going through a similar situation themselves right now with the rookie Bernard coming in and stealing attention from 28-year-old BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The elder running back had a rather sneaky-good evening Monday. While most attention was focused on Bernard’s two-score night, Green-Ellis rushed for 75 yards, picking up virtually all of them while running between the tackles.

Whenever the Bengals need an explosive play, though, they turn to Bernard. Two Packers who could be important in slowing him are linebackers A.J. Hawk and Clay Matthews. Football fans in Ohio are probably curious to know how important Hawk, in particular, is to Green Bay’s defense. What say you?

Demovsky: Hawk has been a steady player but has never really lived up to where he was drafted -- fifth overall in 2005 out of Ohio State. He plays in the Packers’ base and nickel packages but he comes off the field when they go to their dime package in obvious passing situations. But I’m sure he’ll be charged up for the rare opportunity to play in his home state.

ESPN.com picks Steelers in AFC North

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
1:30
PM ET
The 2011 predictions are in.

ESPN.com provided its crystal ball by launching its NFL season previews. The Pittsburgh Steelers are the pick to repeat as AFC North champions this year. Out of a five-person panel, three picked Pittsburgh. Adam Schefter and I picked the Baltimore Ravens.

Just one person picked an AFC North team to win the Super Bowl. ESPN.com columnist Ashley Fox likes the Steelers to win it all this year. The consensus pick was the New England Patriots over the Green Bay Packers.

Do you agree or disagree with our picks?

Feel free to vote on our SportsNation poll and share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Bengals Week 2 preseason recap

August, 21, 2011
8/21/11
10:33
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The Cincinnati Bengals completed their second preseason game on Sunday. Cincinnati lost to the New York Jets, 27-7. Here are some observations:

The Good
  • Punter Kevin Huber may be an early candidate for Bengals MVP. He is having a great preseason and booted several more impressive punts Sunday against the Jets. Huber had nine punts for 424 yards, which is a stellar 47.1 average.
  • Cincinnati's first-team defense made some strides this week. The offense struggled early (we will get to that later). But the defense did a decent job of keeping the game close in the first half. Cincinnati's first-team defense gave up 10 points before most of the starters were pulled. The Jets had a lengthy touchdown drive before halftime against a mix of Bengals starters and backups.
The Bad
  • Cincinnati's offense does not look ready for Week 1. This unit is just too sloppy. Cincinnati's first three possessions ended like this: an Andy Dalton interception, a 17-yard loss on a fumble that forced a punt and another interception. The timing just looks off, although Cincinnati's starting offense eventually warmed up at the end and scored its first touchdown of the preseason.
  • Overall, the Bengals need to start better. They have been outscored 41-10 in the first half when starters get a majority of the playing time. Yes, it's only the preseason. But it doesn't look good when Cincinnati's first team routinely fails to set the tone. The Bengals aren't the Pittsburgh Steelers or Green Bay Packers. Cincinnati is a young team that needs to show something in the preseason to gain momentum and confidence for the regular season.
The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns will continue their preseason games Friday night. Baltimore will host the Kansas City Chiefs, while Cleveland hosts the Detroit Lions.

Here are a pair of storylines for each AFC North team:

Ravens
  • Will the Ravens improve the offense line? Baltimore allowed six sacks last week against the Philadelphia Eagles. Three were against starting tackles Michael Oher and Oniel Cousins. The Ravens moved Cousins to right guard and will start rookie Jah Reid at right tackle against Kansas City. Reid is a raw prospect trying to learn on the fly. We will find out where he stands in his first NFL start.
  • This game marks the Ravens debut of wide receiver Lee Evans. The veteran deep threat was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. Evans will be the starter opposite Anquan Boldin. Evans is the speedy receiver Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has lacked the past several years. The pair will look to build chemistry in this game.
Browns
  • Can Cleveland second-year quarterback Colt McCoy continue his momentum? McCoy had a near-perfect preseason debut last week against the Green Bay Packers. He was 9-of-10 for 135 yards and a touchdown. McCoy also led the offense to two touchdown drives. Detroit should offer a stern test. The Lions' defense looked stout in last week’s 34-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
  • Another fun matchup to watch will be Browns corner Joe Haden against Lions Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson. Both are two of the best, young players at their respective positions. Johnson beat Bengals cornerback Leon Hall for a touchdown last week. Haden will try to prevent "Megatron" from having a big first half tonight.

AFC North Stock Watch

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
12:00
PM ET
Week 1 of the preseason is in the books. So let's see who's stock is rising and falling after the first batch of preseason games.

Falling

1. The Cincinnati Bengals: I rarely make too much of the preseason. But I didn't like the way the Bengals came out to start their 2011 season. It's a new era and a fresh start in Cincinnati. But the Bengals didn't play with much energy or effort in a 34-3 loss to the Detroit Lions. It's difficult to lose a preseason game by 31 points. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has a lot of work to do. I want to see how the Bengals rebound this week against the New York Jets.

Oher

Oher


2. Baltimore Ravens' offensive tackles: Baltimore allowed six sacks in its 13-6 preseason defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles. At least three sacks came against starting offensive tackles Michael Oher and Oniel Cousins. Pass protection has been a year-long problem in Baltimore. Oher had a great rookie campaign on the right side but has been average as a left tackle. Cousins hasn't shown much on the right side. The Ravens are now considering moving Cousins to right guard. There don't seem to be any easy answers to this issue.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers' pass defense: In Pittsburgh's first game since Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a field day in Super Bowl XLV, Washington Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman (207 yards, one touchdown) also did well in limited action. Should this be a concern? Bryant McFadden was out and cornerback Ike Taylor broke his thumb. Taylor is expected to miss the rest of the preseason at an already thin position. It's way too early to panic. But Pittsburgh's corners need to start covering better this summer to erase concerns of last season's Super Bowl loss.

Rising

McCoy

McCoy


1. Cleveland Browns quarterback Colt McCoy: There is a lot of pressure on McCoy to show growth this year as the full-time starter. He made a great first step with a near-perfect performance against the Packers. McCoy was 9 of 10 for 135 yards and a touchdown. He led two touchdown drives -- one against Green Bay's starters and the other against the Packers' second unit. This should give McCoy and the first-team offense things to build on in the preseason.

2. Browns coach Pat Shurmur: The Browns looked solid and played with energy in Shurmur's head-coaching debut. Shurmur was solid in his dual role as head coach and offensive coordinator. The Browns looked prepared and the offense moved the ball. His play calling went a long way to giving McCoy and his younger players confidence.

3. Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger: Kruger had his best game as a Raven, albeit in the preseason. He recorded five tackles and a sack against Philadelphia. Kruger was active and looks much better now that he's lost the extra bulk. Baltimore tried converting him to a full-time defensive end in 2010, which didn't work. Now, the Ravens hope Kruger can provide more quickness and speed-rushing on the outside.

Browns Week 1 preseason observations

August, 13, 2011
8/13/11
10:52
PM ET
CLEVELAND -- The Pat Shurmur era began for the Cleveland Browns Saturday night with a 27-17 preseason victory over the Green Bay Packers.

Here are some observations:

The Good
  • Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was sharp. He led two touchdown drives for the first-team offense in the first half. McCoy made several nice throws, including a rope over the middle to tight end Benjamin Watson and a 27-yard touchdown pass to receiver Josh Cribbs. This was a very good start for McCoy's 2011 season. He finished 9 of 10 for 135 yards and a touchdown. "I thought he was pretty sharp," Shurmur said of McCoy. "He executed well. He was pretty efficient with his throws."
  • Cleveland's pass rush looked improved. Defensive ends Jayme Mitchell and Marcus Benard were among the Browns who recorded sacks. Cleveland had five sacks total. Brian Smith's sack and forced fumble in the third quarter also led to a 43-yard fumble return for a touchdown by linebacker Titus Brown.
  • Overall, it was a solid coaching debut for Shurmur. The offensive play-calling made sense and gave that side of the ball confidence. The Browns also came out with energy and effort, which is what you look for this time of year. These are good things the Browns can build on in the preseason.
The Bad
  • Cleveland's first-team defense still needs work. The Browns drew a tough assignment with Green Bay's offense. They held the Packers to a three-and-out on the opening drive. But Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers got hot and led a seven-play, 73-yard drive on his second try. Cleveland's second-team defense also gave up 10 points in the second quarter against Green Bay's second-team offense.
  • Browns backup quarterback Seneca Wallace was inconsistent. He threw for 99 yards, one interception and had a 55.8 passer rating. Wallace is a nine-year veteran and knows this West Coast offense well. He also went against Green Bay's backups Saturday night and didn't have his best game.

Colt McCoy sharp in preseason debut

August, 13, 2011
8/13/11
8:58
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CLEVELAND -- Browns second-year quarterback Colt McCoy got off to a fast start to his 2011 preseason. McCoy led Cleveland's first-team offense to two touchdown drives in the first half Saturday night against the defending champion Green Bay Packers.

Cleveland's first touchdown -- a pretty, 27-yard pass to receiver Josh Cribbs -- was against Green Bay's starting defense in the first quarter. The Browns' second touchdown was against the Packers' backups in the second quarter. McCoy played three offensive drives total and finished 9-of-10 for 135 yards and a touchdown.

Green Bay counterpart Aaron Rodgers also played well in limited action. He had two drives and finished 6-of-8 for 74 yards and a touchdown. Rodgers connected with Packers receiver Greg Jennings for a 21-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.

The Packers lead the Browns, 17-14, at halftime.

Morning take: Browns up next

August, 13, 2011
8/13/11
9:00
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Here are the most interesting stories Saturday in the AFC North: Morning take: The AFC North is 0-3 in the preseason. Although it doesn't count, maybe the Browns can get the division's only victory this week.
Morning take: Pittsburgh's primary goal is to avoid injuries. Fortunately for the Steelers, Taylor likely will be ready for the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens.
Morning take: I spent last night trying to convince Bengals fans on Twitter that it's just the preseason. But "Bengaldom" is looking for hope and didn't get much solace in last night's performance.
Morning take: This has been a major issue for Baltimore since last season. The Ravens didn't do anything in the preseason opener to show the problem is solved.

AFC North Week 1 preseason preview

August, 11, 2011
8/11/11
1:30
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The 2011 NFL preseason will begin Thursday night with several games, including the Baltimore Ravens of the AFC North against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Here are four preseason storylines this weekend:

1. Cleveland Browns unveil new offense, defense against Super Bowl champs

Analysis: Cleveland could not pick a better measuring stick for a preseason opener. The Browns will debut their new West Coast offense and 4-3 defense against the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay is the NFL's top preseason team, according to ESPN.com's Power Rankings. Many eyes will be on Cleveland second-year quarterback Colt McCoy. The 2011 season is huge for McCoy to prove he's the future of the franchise. His season-long journey starts Saturday at Browns Stadium.

2. Andy Dalton era begins for Cincinnati Bengals

Analysis: Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis made Carson Palmer wait a full season to make his first NFL start. But Lewis believes his team is ready to be led by a rookie quarterback in 2011. Second-round pick Andy Dalton will get his first career start for the Bengals Friday against the Detroit Lions. Lewis said the young offense will play longer than expected for a preseason opener.

3. Baltimore Ravens LB Sergio Kindle makes debut

Analysis: Kindle was Baltimore's prized draft pick in 2010. But a fractured skull last summer ended his rookie season. Kindle will make his debut one year later against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Ravens hope Kindle stays healthy and improves their pass rush. Baltimore had just 27 sacks in 16 games last season.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers evaluate young players

Analysis: The reigning AFC champions do not have anything to prove in the preseason. Pittsburgh's opener is more for evaluating young players. The Steelers took advantage of the preseason last year. They gave plenty of reps to inexperienced players Ziggy Hood, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. By midseason, this trio contributed to Pittsburgh's Super Bowl run. This year the Steelers want extended looks at rookies such as defensive end Cameron Heyward, offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert and cornerback Curtis Brown to see if they can eventually earn spots in the rotation.
LATROBE, Pa. -- Distractions and controversy? What distractions and controversy?

The opening of training camp was business as usual for the reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite offseason incidents that ranged from Hines Ward's arrest to Rashard Mendenhall's misuse of Twitter to James Harrison ripping commissioner Roger Goodell and teammates, players quickly deflected any issues and seemed genuinely happy to get back to work.

The Steelers believe their off-the-field problems are a thing of the past, and the team is ready to move forward and attempt to make another title run in 2011.

"Any time we come to training camp, our goal is the Super Bowl," Ward said. "Anything less than the Super Bowl is a down year for us. Having experienced and tasted a loss in the Super Bowl is not a good feeling. So, hopefully we can get back there and come out on the winning side."

The Steelers have a lot of work to do before the start of the regular season. Here are some early questions:

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. How will the Steelers get under the cap?

According to the new collective bargaining agreement, the Steelers have until Thursday to get under the $120 million salary cap. Despite a flurry of roster moves last week, Pittsburgh remains about $7 million to $10 million over, which is where the team started this summer.

The Steelers made several key salary cuts, including veteran receiver Antwaan Randle El and offensive tackles Max Starks and Flozell Adams. But the re-signings of in-house free agents such as cornerback Ike Taylor have basically nullified those moves.

Expect more tough decisions to be made this week.

"We have to find ways to get under [the cap] and in compliance," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "We're going to look at every and all possibilities."

There is some good news for the Steelers.

The new CBA allows teams to use three $1 million exceptions in 2011, and Colbert says he will use them all. Teams have this onetime flexibility to add an extra $3 million to the cap, which essentially brings the Steelers' number up to $123 million. This could allow Pittsburgh to retain some veterans it otherwise would lose.

[+] EnlargeIke Taylor
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesIke Taylor has 11 interceptions in eight NFL seasons.
2. Has Pittsburgh fixed its pass defense?

The last memory Steelers fans have of their defense is Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers carving up the secondary for 304 yards and three touchdowns in Super Bowl XLV. Since then, Pittsburgh hasn't made any significant additions to the secondary, leaving many to wonder whether this problem is fixed.

Because Pittsburgh is fielding the same players in the secondary, it's difficult to imagine the pass defense being better than it was last season. The Steelers re-signed veteran corners Taylor and William Gay and drafted rookies Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.

"You can't worry about what people think outside the locker room, because we've been so successful on the field," Taylor said of the criticism. "So it really doesn’t matter. Everybody has their own opinion. It comes with the territory."

Expect many teams to spread the Steelers out this season by using three- and four-receiver sets. That will force backups such as Gay or some of the young corners to play important roles on the defense.

3. How thin is Pittsburgh's offensive line?

Pittsburgh's offensive line could be the thinnest group in the league.

Outside of second-year center Maurkice Pouncey, who is a stud, the rest of the line is littered with questions. Jonathan Scott plays the important role of left tackle and was inconsistent last year. Guards Ramon Foster and Chris Kemoeatu are decent run-blockers but struggle in pass protection. And right tackle Willie Colon is coming off an Achilles injury that forced him to miss the entire 2010 season.

Cutting Starks and Adams severely hurt the talent and depth of this group. Those were two of the most experienced linemen Pittsburgh had. Cap issues make it unlikely the team will sign another starting offensive lineman in free agency.

"You can't go into it and expect to have veteran depth at every position," Colbert admitted. "It just doesn't work out financially. You have to trust some of your young guys."

[+] EnlargeMaurkice Pouncey
Geoff Burke/Getty ImagesMaurkice Pouncey is the rock of the Pittsburgh offensive line.
BIGGEST SURPRISE

It's only the first weekend of camp, but backup cornerback Keenan Lewis has been a pleasant surprise. Lewis is gaining valuable experience working with the first-team defense. Taylor signed a four-year contract in free agency and isn't allowed to practice with the team until later this week.

Despite a rocky two years in Pittsburgh, Lewis is a good athlete. He has good size and quickness and is making fewer mental mistakes, which is key. The competition for the important nickel role in the secondary will be intense this summer, and Lewis could have the inside track.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

With the lengthy NFL lockout, someone was bound to show up out of shape. Backup running back Jonathan Dwyer was that person for the Steelers.

I expected to see more from Dwyer, a sixth-round pick in 2009. But he struggled mightily during the conditioning evaluations and hasn't done much in the practices. The Steelers' running back corps is deep, and Dwyer is definitely on the roster bubble.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • I like the swagger this year of Pittsburgh's "Young Money" crew of receivers. Last year, Mike Wallace was going into his first year as a starter, and Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown were rookies just trying to fit in. But you can see that last year's success, particularly in the second half of the season and the playoffs, has helped this group and improved confidence. Instead of getting yelled at by Ward, Wallace is on top of everything so far in practice and is even helping Ward tutor other receivers. Sanders and Brown look much more comfortable in their roles and are displaying the same quickness and competitiveness they showed last year.
  • Pouncey already looks scary-good in his second season. In my seven years covering the NFL, I've never seen a center who moves as well and fluidly as Pouncey. Last week, longtime NFL writer Damon Hack of Sports Illustrated and I were sitting next to each other watching Pittsburgh's conditioning evaluation. We were amazed with how easily Pouncey, who is listed at 304 pounds, was running 100-yard sprints, while the rest of the linemen were lagging far behind. Pound for pound, Pouncey is easily one of the top athletes on the Steelers.
  • Linebacker Lawrence Timmons appears to have added considerable muscle in his upper body. Timmons, who is in a contract year, said he trained mostly in Florida this summer. Timmons also is one of the best pure athletes on the team. The key will be for him to maintain his quickness and acceleration while also adding strength.
  • The fact that the Steelers tried hard to recruit big receiver Plaxico Burress says a lot about the status of Limas Sweed. The former second-round pick enters this training camp on thin ice and is down to his last shot. Sweed is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury and had issues with drops before that. Pittsburgh is taking the approach that anything it gets from Sweed is considered a bonus. He is currently the No. 5 receiver.
  • Keep an eye on rookie seventh-round pick Baron Batch. The running back has showed good explosiveness through the hole and the ability to pass-protect, which is very valuable. He has been a pleasant surprise in camp so far.
  • Overall, Pittsburgh's situation at running back is getting crowded. Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Batch were all impressive during the first weekend of training camp. The Steelers also re-signed veteran backup Mewelde Moore. There were rumors about Tiki Barber being interested in the Steelers, but I don't see it. Pittsburgh has considerable depth at that position.
  • Finally, another sleeper who is actually having a good camp is backup tight end and de facto fullback David Johnson. What the third-year veteran lacks in athleticism he makes up in effort. Although not his specialty, he's made several nice receptions in practice and remains one of the best run-blockers on the team. The Steelers are still in the market for a No. 2 tight end after the departure of Matt Spaeth to the Chicago Bears.

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