AFC North: Jeff Fisher
Free-agent outside linebacker Manny Lawson officially reached an agreement to return to the Bengals, owner Mike Brown confirmed to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
No details of the agreement were reported. Lawson, 27, started telling teammates Tuesday night that he was coming back to Cincinnati.
In his first season with the Bengals, he finished fifth in tackles with 78. A first-round draft pick by the 49ers in 2006, Lawson signed with the Bengals in 2011 less than a week into training camp and started 15 games for them.
“We’re glad to have him back and keep going along,” head coach Marvin Lewis said.
Hensley's slant: This is a solid signing for the Bengals because Lawson exceeded expectations last season. He missed just two tackles against the run and did not have a penalty called against him all season, according to Pro Football Focus. What also stands out is his play against the top two teams in the division. Lawson averaged 9.5 tackles in games against the Ravens and Steelers.
BROWNS: Rams coach Jeff Fisher considers the Browns "a potential trade partner" in the first round of the draft even after St. Louis turned down Cleveland's offer to move up to the No. 2 pick and selected quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Rams, who are now at No. 6, are interested in moving up to presumably take Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. "Again, I don't see anything happening until draft day," Fisher said, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Hensley's slant: The Browns, who own an NFL-best 13 draft picks already, could acquire more by moving back two spots. The risk, however, is missing out on two offensive playmakers. If the Rams take Blackmon at No. 4, the Buccaneers are expected to select Alabama running back Trent Richardson at No. 5.
RAVENS: How long will the Ravens' AFC championship loss to New England sting? "It will be there forever," owner Steve Bisciotti told the team's official website. When asked what the Ravens need to do to reach the Super Bowl, Bisciotti suggested praying before adding, "We didn’t have a glaring weakness last year. We should have been in the Super Bowl. We believe we would have beaten the Giants, of course." Hensley's slant: Bisciotti knows how tough it is to win a Super Bowl because he followed Art Modell as the team's majority owner. Modell had to deal with "The Drive" and "The Fumble" while he was in Cleveland. Bisciotti has to live with whatever you want to call the crucial mistakes made by Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff.
STEELERS: The Steelers' overtime proposal -- making playoff rules apply to all games -- passed at the NFL owners meetings. But their attempt to make the horse-collar tackle illegal on a quarterback in the pocket was rejected. The Steelers were the only team to vote against a new rule that allows every turnover to be reviewed by replay, the way scoring plays were added last year. "As far as we're concerned, that's why you have the coaches' challenges," team president Art Rooney II said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Now you're going to have coaches challenging [a spot] -- a gain of 5 yards instead of 4 yards, stuff like that." Hensley's slant: While I'm in favor of using technology to make sure the correct calls are being made, I'm strongly against slowing down the game. Not only will there be more stoppage of play to review turnovers but coaches can use their challenges more liberally (as Rooney explained). This is the unfortunate price of accuracy.
The Browns asked the St. Louis Rams about trading for quarterback Sam Bradford before turning their attention to Robert Griffin III, sources told ESPN 850 AM in Cleveland. The Rams turned down the Browns, according to the report.
The Browns' interest dates back to 2010, when team president Mike Holmgren attempted to trade up to the top spot to draft Bradford. The connection to Bradford is even strong now with head coach Pat Shurmur, who was Bradford's offensive coordinator in 2010.
This report comes a day after the Browns said they were "moving forward" with McCoy as their quarterback. Browns officials continue to say they believe in McCoy, but their actions indicate he is the starter by default.
The Browns were reportedly interested in Bradford before getting turned down. They wanted to move up in the draft to take RG3 before the Rams foiled Cleveland again, trading the second overall pick to the Redskins.
In a strange twist, the Rams could be the ones calling the Browns on draft day. Their expected target is wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who should be available when the Browns are on the clock with the No. 4 pick.
"I don't know if we'd consider going that high," Fisher said. "Those conversations aren't going to take place until draft day because your guy's got to be there. It'll be interesting to see what kind of compensation they want. We're very happy with the compensation we've got right now over the next couple of years."
Fisher also sidestepped Holmgren's account that the Browns were blocked from moving up in the draft because of a close relationship between the Rams and Redskins.
"I didn't pay much attention to his comments," Fisher said. "They were very fruitful discussions. They are a potential trade partner with us."
Browns general manager Mike Holmgren believes Cleveland had no shot at making the trade.
In a conference call with Browns season-ticket holders today, Holmgren said "a very close relationship" between the Rams and Redskins prevented Cleveland from moving two spots up in the draft. Holmgren didn't go into specifics about the relationship, but it's well-known that Rams coach Jeff Fisher and Redskins coach Mike Shanahan are close friends.
This is a very serious accusation from Holmgren, and he wouldn't speak publicly about this if he didn't feel strongly about its validity. If you doubt the closeness of Shanahan and Fisher, there's an article in USA Today from five years ago about the NFL's version of bosom buddies. Fisher and Shanahan bonded in the 1990s in San Francisco, where Fisher was the 49ers' defensive backs coach for two years (1992-93) while Shanahan served as the offensive coordinator for three (1992-94).
Let's be clear about this: If this is true, Shanahan and Fisher didn't violate any NFL rule that I know about. But they are guilty of poor sportsmanship. I could understand a team trying to avoid helping out a division rival. But if the Browns gave the best offer, they deserved the pick.
The Redskins moved into the No. 2 spot by sending the Rams this year's picks in the first round (sixth overall) and second round as well as first-rounders in 2013 and 2014. There were reports that the Browns offered three first-round picks but not this year's second-round one. Holmgren said the reports about the Browns' offer were incorrect, saying Cleveland made "every bit the offer" as the Redskins.
While no one knows whether those future first-round picks would be better from the Redskins or Browns, a similar offer would favor the Browns because they were offering the fourth overall pick while the Redskins could only give the No. 6 pick.
“Honestly, when it didn’t happen -- I think there are reasons that I can’t go into right now -- but there is a very close relationship between the people getting the deal done and the people who offered," Holmgren said in the conference call. "And I’m not sure anything we offered would have been good enough. We were very, very aggressive and it didn’t work."
In other words, Holmgren says don't blame the Browns for failing to get RG3. You can point the finger -- or Dawg bone, if you prefer -- squarely at Shanahan and Fisher.
Jac, from Ohio, writes: Lately you have been saying that the Bengals need a No. 2 receiver, if and when Jerome Simpson leaves. I would think that Jordan Shipley would fill the No. 2 role in the slot behind A.J. Green. Or would Shipley be more of a No. 3 working the slot? And if Andrew Hawkins improves in the offseason, that would be a plus, right?
Jamison Hensley, from AFC North headquarters, responds: Shipley and Hawkins are more on the level of being No. 3 receivers. That was the Bengals' biggest problem in the passing game. They had top targets in Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. But the rest (Simpson and Andre Caldwell) are No. 3 receivers on many teams. Both are very athletic but both struggle with route-running, which can be a big problem, especially for a developing young quarterback like Andy Dalton. Cincinnati needs to look in free agency for an upgrade.
Chris, from Milford, Conn., writes: Just wondering what your thoughts are on the Steelers rebounding next season after that awful loss to Denver. Also, how can the Steelers be $20 million over the salary cap when they never sign any big free agents and don't have that many mega-deals with current players?
Hensley responds: The Steelers will always be competing for the division title if Ben Roethlisberger and his young receivers are healthy and the core of the NFL's top-ranked defense remains intact. And the reason why the Steelers are projected to be over the cap is because many veterans are entering the point of their contracts where the salaries escalate. Players with high salaries for 2012 are: outside linebacker James Harrison ($5.3 million), guard Chris Kemoeatu ($3.5 million), inside linebackers Larry Foote ($3 million) and James Farrior ($2.8 million), defensive end Brett Keisel ($2.8 million) and cornerback Bryant McFadden ($2.5 million). Those players represent $19.9 million. Some could be facing the decision of restructuring to stay with the team or getting released.
Bryan, from Wickliffe Ohio, writes: I was just wondering what you think the Browns' chances are of drafting Robert Griffin III. To me it just seems like he is too much of a talent to pass up. No disrespect to Colt McCoy, but let's face it -- he's not going to win us any games based primarily on his skill level and I see RG3 as somone who can do that.
Hensley responds: It's really to early for teams to lock into one player. There are still all-star games, combine workouts and interviews as well as private workouts. Players will rise and fall up and down teams' draft board from now until April. There's no doubt that the Browns need a playmaker. But don't forget that the Bengals drafted wide receiver A.J. Green in the No. 4 spot last year — so you can see the level of impact player that Cleveland can get if it hits on the right prospect. At this point, Griffin has to be on the Browns' radar. But it's too early to say that he's their man with the fourth overall pick.
Dave, from Burke, Va., writes: With the Bucs and Dolphins in the mix for Mike Zimmer's services, what are the chances that he returns as Cincinnati's defensive coordinator?
Hensley responds: It's a very real possibility that Zimmer could be hired elsewhere, particularly since Jeff Fisher spurned Miami and went to St. Louis. Both the Buccaneers and the Dolphins needed big-name splashes to generate some interest with apathetic fan bases. But there are really no buzz-worthy candidates left. That's why Zimmer has a legitimate shot at both places. If Zimmer goes, the Bengals can promote defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle, who has been on the staff since 2001. There's also been some talk that former Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio could take over as defensive coordinator. But Del Rio is still owed $5 million next season, so he doesn't need to find a job.
Lucas from Severn, Md., writes: I've been watching the Ravens closely all season and there have been some real flashes of greatness by Joe Flacco. There have also been some of his worst passing games as a quarterback (the Jets and Jags games specifically). Other than the playoff game against Kansas City last year, he hasn't proven to be solid in the playoffs. What are the chances that he will have a breakout game against Houston if the Texans choose to focus on stopping the run?
Hensley responds: Flacco has been extremely ragged when it comes to the playoffs. He's averaged 150 yards passing in seven games, throwing four touchdowns and seven interceptions. But remember that all of those games were on the road and three of them came when he was a rookie. This is the time for Flacco to shine. He's at home where he has thrown 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his past 19 games (97.6 rating). And he threw for 305 yards against the Texans three months ago in Baltimore. So to answer the question, all indications point to a strong effort by Flacco on Sunday.
- The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey has a broken bone in his ankle and is "highly doubtful" for the Super Bowl.
- With Jeff Fisher leaving the Tennessee Titans, Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals is the AFC's second-longest tenured head coach. He is entering his ninth season.
- The Baltimore Ravens are checking out pass-rushers at the Senior Bowl.
- Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar is looking for an NFL coaching gig.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
With one game already in the books, let’s dig into the weekend mailbag.
Parth from Baltimore and Matt from Philadelphia want to know -- after Troy Polamalu’s knee injury with the Pittsburgh Steelers -- what I think of the “Madden Curse.”
James Walker: It’s real, Parth and Matt. The facts are there for all to see. If I were Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, I would stay in the house this weekend and ask out of Sunday’s game. Just kidding. I think.
Greg from Maryland (Stand up!) wonders why the Tennessee Titans stopped coming after Ben Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter and overtime.
James Walker: The Titans are not a heavy-blitzing team, Greg. They’re one of the few that do very well bringing just four players. But it also seemed when Tennessee brought five or six it usually worked. Titans coach Jeff Fisher is known as a conservative coach, and I agree that he trusted his four-man pass rush way too much late in the game. Ben Roethlisberger, like most great quarterbacks, will pick defenses apart with a lot of time in the pocket.
Zach from Chillicothe, OH writes: I saw your predictions JW and I wanted to throw out my own: Bengals win 19-3, Titans win 20-17, Ravens win 31-14 and the Vikings win 24-9. I hope you see this and post it when I get all them right!
James Walker: Well, you’re 0-1 already, Zach. Let me do the picks in the AFC North from now on, OK?
War from Mentor, OH wants to know if the Cleveland Browns plan to use both quarterbacks Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson.
James Walker: Only if one is injured or benched. All indications are that Quinn will be the starter, and Browns head coach Eric Mangini already said that he’s not interested in a two-quarterback approach. It’s too confusing and more likely to hurt the team’s continuity than help.
John from Baltimore, Md. writes: James, I have never seen Ed Reed get as many penalties as Troy Polamalu did Thursday. Not to mention when Reed gets the ball he takes it to the house!
James Walker: Our community just couldn’t resist this week.
Jason Myers from Annapolis, Md. is curious to get my take on potential blackouts.
James Walker: My take is the NFL should temporarily lift the blackout rule this year due to historic economic circumstances. It would be a great statement by the league to reward its fans during this tough period. But the NFL is a business first and has every right to take a hard-line stance on a blackout rule that’s been in place for a while.
Steven from Cincinnati wants to know “where’s the love” for his Bengals and their No. 24 rating in the latest power rankings.
Bug Genovese from San Jose, CA also adds: “Cleveland No. 28 -- your knowledge is superficial at best.”
James Walker: Steve and Bud, I’ve been saying for weeks that ESPN.com streamlined the power rankings to four voters this year. Therefore, I am no longer a part of the process. Every week I will let readers know where AFC North teams rank. But your ire towards me is misdirected this year.
Nick from Portsmouth, NH wants to know about the possibility of Lorenzo Neal returning to the Baltimore Ravens.
James Walker: With the rapport between Neal and Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, it’s always a possibility, Nick. Neal is on Baltimore’s short list if needed. But the team is playing Le’Ron McClain more at fullback this year, and if that continues to work, Neal’s services may not be needed at the moment.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
CLEVELAND -- The Browns will host their third and most important preseason game Saturday night against the Tennessee Titans, and the AFC North blog will be reporting live from the Dawg Pound.
Here are some things to look for:
- All eyes will be on Cleveland's quarterbacks, as Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn try to separate themselves in what's been a very close race. The starter won't be known until closer to game time. But whoever shines against Tennessee tonight will definitely have an inside track to starting the Sept. 13 season opener against the Minnesota Vikings.
- Also, do not overlook the current situation with the Titans. Although it's just the preseason, Tennessee was embarrassed last week in a 30-10 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. The Titans were outgained an astounding 466 to 191 in total yards. Jeff Fisher is not the type of coach who will accept two sluggish performances like that in a row, even in the preseason. With the fact that this is the "dress rehearsal," look for the Titans to throw a lot at Cleveland early.
- Can rookie tailback James Davis continue to impress? The sixth-round pick is leading the team in rushing this preseason and has taken a hold of Cleveland's backup tailback job behind starter Jamal Lewis. Davis is earning the trust of the coaching staff and will need to continue carrying that momentum into the regular season.
- Cleveland's first-team defense has gradually improved. In its preseason debut, the unit gave up two first-quarter touchdowns in a 17-0 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Last week against the Detroit Lions, the Browns gave up just three points at halftime. Although the quality of the opponent may have had something to do with it last week, the Browns' defense can make a statement with a good outing against a quality opponent in Tennessee.
The Titans haven't exactly feasted on patsies to stay undefeated and at the top of the AFC South. But for a team that relies so heavily on the ground game, the Ravens' No. 2-ranked rushing defense has to be considered Tennessee's biggest potential hurdle to date.
Moving the ball against coordinator Rex Ryan's high-tempo and versatile defense won't be an easy task, especially for a Titans club that lacks a big-play receiver and has hitched its wagon to journeyman backup quarterback Kerry Collins. But it can be done, and Tennessee probably won't need an inordinate amount of points from the offense to walk away 5-0.
The Titans' two-headed rushing attack is so effective because powerful running back LenDale White and speedy rookie Chris Johnson are polar opposites who provide a fastball/changeup combo that is difficult to prepare for and adjust to. That, and the team has no shortage of able and willing blockers to create space for that duo to maintain and finish drives.
White is a punisher by nature, but he has lighter feet than most running backs his size and maneuvers well in tight quarters. Repeatedly tackling the 235-pounder quickly grows tiresome for defenders, and White can be especially physical on isolation runs burrowing behind underrated fullback Ahmard Hall, a bruiser in his own right.
Meanwhile, Johnson has elite speed and can threaten the edge like few runners in the NFL. He has excellent vision and impressive patience. (Tennessee has begun using a stretch play to better utilize his impressive skills.) He can change a game in one play if he clears the second level of defense, and the additional threat of his pass-catching ability may force Ryan to tone down his blitz (which can benefit Collins and the run game). Johnson can have success stretching the field, possibly from a detached position, against the Ravens' heavier 3-4 linebackers.
The unsung heroes are the blockers. Veteran center Kevin Mawae, the unit's leader, is smart, tough and gets everyone on the same page. Left tackle Michael Roos, an athletic finesse blocker, is one of the league's best at his position. Right tackle David Stewart, a mauler, is a nasty strong-side blocker who excels in the run game. Hall is no household name, but maybe he should be. A prototype downhill isolation blocker, he can blow a linebacker out of the hole in short-yardage situations or find a smaller safety on outside runs. The versatile tight ends are chess pieces who can be moved around to create better run-blocking angles. Even the wide receivers are accomplished blockers, a trait coach Jeff Fisher covets.
Tennessee's run game typically tilts to the right, behind Stewart, and that should hold true against Baltimore -- especially early. Stewart will have his hands full with oversized defensive end Trevor Pryce, but Hall and the tight ends provide extra muscle. The Titans can't quit on this strategy if it doesn't pan out initially. Hammering the right side will encourage aggressive right outside linebacker Terrell Suggs to cheat on his back-side contain responsibilities and flatten out down the line in pursuit. If the Titans notice this tendency, expect Johnson to get his chances to cut back against the grain into the area Suggs vacated. That's a recipe for long runs against a defense that doesn't give up many.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.