AFC North: Kelley Washington

There's something twisted in the fact that the Baltimore Ravens are trying to end their bad run with No. 3 wide receivers with a player who became available, for the most part, because he couldn't hold onto the ball.

Jacoby Jones, who signed a two-year, $7 million contract with Baltimore on Tuesday night, becomes the latest veteran trying to add depth to the Ravens' wide receiver group.

In 2010, T.J. Houshmandzadeh caught 30 passes for the Ravens as the third receiver, which was his lowest catch total since his 2001 rookie year. He ended his disappointing season by dropping a fourth-down pass that sealed Baltimore's 31-24 playoff loss at Pittsburgh.

In 2011, Lee Evans had a career-low four catches as the No. 3 wide receiver in an injury-filled year and finished his painful season by having the winning touchdown pass stripped out of his hands with 22 seconds remaining in the AFC championship game.

Now, the Ravens turn to Jones, whose fumbled punt led to a Baltimore touchdown and caused the Texans to lose in the playoffs. Baltimore can only hope he has better hands in the postseason to avoid its bizarre trend of dropped passes.

Since Joe Flacco entered the NFL in 2008, the Ravens have tried four different receivers for that No. 3 spot (Evans, Houshmandzadeh, Kelley Washington and Demetrius Williams) and none has ever caught more than 34 passes in a season.

Top Bengals drafts since 2000

March, 8, 2011
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Tuesday we continue our week-long series on the top AFC North draft classes of the past decade.

Here is a look at the Cincinnati Bengals:

No. 3: Class of 2006

Best picks: CB Johnathan Joseph (first round), OT Andrew Whitworth (second round), DT Domata Peko (fourth round)

Joseph
Analysis: Following the first playoff appearance under head coach Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati found three starters in the 2006 draft. Joseph, Whitworth and Peko are all solid players who later contributed to Cincinnati's playoff run and division sweep in 2009. The Bengals locked up Peko and Whitworth to long-term extensions and are negotiating Joseph, although it appears he's likely leaving Cincinnati for free agency. The Bengals also drafted third-round defensive end Frostee Rucker, who has been a backup in the rotation the past four seasons. This might not count for the Bengals, but in 2006 they picked up linebacker Ahmad Brooks in the supplemental draft. Brooks didn't do much in Cincinnati, where he started just seven games. But he's recorded 11 sacks the past two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.

No. 2: Class of 2003

Best picks: QB Carson Palmer (first round), G Eric Steinbach (second round), FB Jeremi Johnson (fourth round)

Palmer
Analysis: Coming off a 2-14 record the year prior, the Bengals owned the top pick of every round in the first year under Lewis. Cincinnati naturally hit big, particularly early. The Bengals took Palmer and Steinbach with back-to-back picks, and they were great additions during Cincinnati's first playoff run under Lewis in 2005. The Bengals gave Palmer a long-term extension and made him the franchise building block. They let Steinbach walk, which hurt the offensive line for several seasons. Steinbach signed with the division rival Cleveland Browns in 2007 and is having a good stint there. Johnson also was a quality find in the fourth round. He was a good blocking fullback for six seasons with the Bengals before weight issues caught up with him. A sleeper from the 2003 class was former third-round pick Kelley Washington, who didn't pan out as a top-flight receiver but was a good special-teams contributor during various stops in Cincinnati, New England and Baltimore.

No. 1: Class of 2001

Best picks: DE Justin Smith (first round), WR Chad Johnson/Ochocinco (second round), RB Rudi Johnson (fourth round), WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (seventh round)

Ochocinco
Analysis: Without a doubt this is the Bengals' best draft class of the past 10 years. In fact, Cincinnati's 2001 draft is in strong consideration as one of the top drafts in the division for the past decade, which we will reveal in the AFC North blog on Friday. The Bengals landed four longtime starters, and what's impressive is they did it from the top (Smith and Ochocinco), middle (Johnson) and bottom (Houshmandzadeh) of the draft. Even though Lewis didn't join the team for another two years, this class was the start of Cincinnati turning things around. Lewis was able to hit the ground running in 2003 after adding Steinbach and Palmer to this foundation. At one time Cincinnati was considered the team of the future with this young nucleus that included the 2001 and 2003 draft classes. But after the Bengals' wild-card loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2005, this group fell apart. Palmer and Ochocinco are the only remaining players from Cincinnati's top two drafts of the past decade, and both of their futures are in doubt this offseason. Palmer has demanded a trade and threatened to retire, while Ochocinco, now 33, could be moved in the final year of his contract.

On Wednesday we will take an in-depth look at the top draft classes of the Baltimore Ravens.

AFC North: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
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Baltimore Ravens

Potential unrestricted free agents: DL Justin Bannan, DL Dwan Edwards, CB Corey Ivy, WR Derrick Mason, TE L.J. Smith, WR David Tyree, CB Frank Walker, WR Kelley Washington

Potential restricted free agents: OT Jared Gaither, K Billy Cundiff, S Dawan Landry, CB Fabian Washington, P Sam Koch, OG Chris Chester, QB John Beck, QB Troy Smith, OT Tony Moll, FB Le'Ron McClain, LB Prescott Burgess, WR Mark Clayton, WR Demetrius Williams

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Ravens have a ton of quality free agents. It will be interesting because Baltimore is the only division team which has to abide by the "Final Eight Plan" for making the divisional playoffs. This will restrict Baltimore from making a lot of moves. Therefore, expect the team to keep most of its key restricted free agents while trying to explore the trade market. On the unrestricted side, the Ravens are negotiating with receiver Derrick Mason and are expected to keep him. But two players who could get some interest in the open market are defensive linemen Dwan Edwards and Justin Bannan. Baltimore likes both players but could lose at least one.

Cincinnati Bengals

Potential unrestricted free agents: K Shayne Graham, FB Jeremi Johnson, RB Larry Johnson, DT Tank Johnson, TE Reggie Kelly, OG Bobbie Williams, S Roy Williams, TE J.P. Foschi

Potential restricted free agents: LB Brandon Johnson, LB Rashad Jeanty, OL Evan Mathis, C Kyle Cook, DE Frostee Rucker, CB David Jones, LB Abdul Hodge, QB Jordan Palmer, TE Daniel Coats, DT Shaun Smith

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Bengals have yet to announce their tenders, so this list could change by Thursday evening. But traditionally they are not big spenders in free agency and will stay true to that even with an uncapped year. Cincinnati could make one or two decent outside signings that may help the team. Finding a receiver would be the most likely target. The most interesting in-house name is offensive guard Bobbie Williams, who likely will test the market. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer also would like to keep veteran Roy Williams and Tank Johnson. But the team hasn't made a major push for either player before they're let loose Friday.

Cleveland Browns

Potential unrestricted free agents: WR Mike Furrey, TE Michael Gaines, OG Rex Hadnot, CB Hank Poteat, OL Ryan Tucker, OG Billy Yates

Potential restricted free agents: RB Jerome Harrison, LB D'Qwell Jackson, FB Lawrence Vickers, S Brodney Pool, S Abram Elam, DE Matt Roth

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: Cleveland has the money to spend and the biggest talent deficit. So look for the Browns to attempt to make up ground in free agency. Major names like defensive end Julius Peppers and tailback Thomas Jones have been mentioned as possibilities for Cleveland, but that remains to be seen. Internally, the Browns should be interested in keeping Harrison and Vickers in their backfield. Jackson also has value. None of their unrestricted players are priorities for the team and will be allowed to hit free agency.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Potential unrestricted free agents: QB Charlie Batch, LB Rocky Boiman, S Tyrone Carter, S Ryan Clark, DE Nick Eason, WR Joey Galloway, DE Travis Kirschke, RB Willie Parker, CB Deshea Townsend , FB Carey Davis, OG Darnell Stapleton

Potential restricted free agents: OT Willie Colon, CB William Gay, P Daniel Sepulveda, TE Matt Spaeth

Franchise tag: K Jeff Reed

What to expect: The Steelers are pretty predictable. Pittsburgh intends to keep all of its restricted free agents, get a long-term deal complete with Reed, who has the franchise tag, and let nearly all of their unrestricted free agents test the market. The exception is Clark, who the Steelers targeted as a priority but has yet to reach a long-term extension before Friday's deadline. Negotiations have been ongoing and should go to the final hour to decide whether both sides can come to an agreement or allow Clark to test the market.

Free agency: AFC North

February, 15, 2010
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AFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

An early look at the free-agent situation in the AFC North.

Note: These projected lists reflect notable unrestricted free agents for each team. The NFL will not issue an official list of free agents until the signing period begins March 5.

Baltimore Ravens

Mason
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireThe Ravens' already-thin receiving corps will take a big hit if Derrick Mason retires.
Unrestricted free agents: DL Justin Bannan, K Billy Cundiff, DL Dwan Edwards, CB Corey Ivy, WR Derrick Mason, TE L.J. Smith, WR David Tyree, CB Frank Walker, WR Kelley Washington

Key figures: Derrick Mason is contemplating retirement. But if he wants to play, the Ravens have every intention of keeping their leading receiver. Look for Baltimore also to make a push for another significant addition at receiver to assist the development of budding quarterback Joe Flacco. Sleeper players on this list include the two defensive linemen: Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards. The Ravens like both players and will probably make a push to keep at least one on the roster. Baltimore also lacks cornerback depth and might elect to bring back Frank Walker, despite his penchant for giving up big plays and committing penalties.

Cincinnati Bengals

Unrestricted free agents: K Shayne Graham, FB Jeremi Johnson, RB Larry Johnson, DT Tank Johnson, TE Reggie Kelly, DT Shaun Smith, OG Bobbie Williams, S Roy Williams

Key figures: Bobbie Williams is an interesting name. He’s one of Cincinnati’s most consistent offensive linemen over the last several years, but he turns 34 in September. Kicker Shayne Graham, who was franchised last season, had a solid career in Cincinnati. But he missed kicks in big spots, potentially ending his run with the Bengals. Running back Larry Johnson was third string in Cincinnati and should get more playing time elsewhere in 2010.

Cleveland Browns

Unrestricted free agents: WR Mike Furrey, TE Michael Gaines, OG Rex Hadnot, CB Hank Poteat, OL Ryan Tucker, OG Billy Yates

Key figures: This is not an impressive list as most of Cleveland's key free agents -- such as Jerome Harrison, Lawrence Vickers and D'Qwell Jackson -- are restricted. Mike Furrey is a high-character player that coach Eric Mangini likes on his football team, and he might be retained. The remaining players on this list likely will hit the open market. The Browns have an interesting decision to make with Harrison, who led the team in rushing after a tremendous second half of the 2009 season. Harrison could garner some interest as a restricted free agent if the Browns do not offer a high enough tender.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Unrestricted free agents: QB Charlie Batch, LB Rocky Boiman, S Tyrone Carter, S Ryan Clark, DE Nick Eason, WR Joey Galloway, NT Casey Hampton, DE Travis Kirschke, RB Willie Parker, K Jeff Reed, CB Deshea Townsend

Key figures: The Steelers are aiming to keep most of their key veterans, while infusing some youth through the draft. All indications are the team will offer extensions to safety Ryan Clark and kicker Jeff Reed. Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton is the biggest name on this list. But he's a strong candidate for the franchise tag, because there is no full-time replacement on the roster. This offseason probably will mark the end of tailback Willie Parker's tenure in Pittsburgh. Parker, 29, helped lead the Steelers to two Super Bowl wins during his career. But various ailments since initially breaking his leg in 2007 hampered his production.

AFC North evening links

January, 18, 2010
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Here are the latest happenings Monday in the AFC North:

Tracking Ravens' penalties

December, 30, 2009
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Last week the Baltimore Ravens (8-7) committed 11 penalties for 113 yards in a 23-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers (8-7). The Ravens are now in a must-win situation Sunday against the Oakland Raiders (5-10) to get into the playoffs.

Penalties have been an issue for Baltimore throughout the 2009 season. Let's get to the root of the issue and examine the types of penalties the Ravens committed against the Steelers.


By our count eight of Baltimore's 11 penalties were physical errors, which most coaches would prefer because it shows effort on the part of the players.

The Ravens play a tough, hard-nosed brand of football that will lead to some penalties. But if Baltimore can find a delicate balance down the stretch of physical play without being flagged, the Ravens would be much better off in these crucial games.

Chris Henry links

December, 17, 2009
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Here are some additional links you should check about Thursday's passing of Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry:

  • Joe Reedy from the Cincinnati Enquirer has more reaction from the team.
  • Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com writes Henry's run to daylight was cut short.
  • Scott Priestle of Cnati.com says the Bengals' resolve will be tested once again.
  • Edward Lee of the Baltimore Sun writes former teammate and current Ravens receiver Kelley Washington is shocked by the news.
  • Don Banks of SportsIllustrated.com says Cincinnati suffered another loss during a winning season.
Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:

Morning take: This is a smart move because Cribbs has been down this road before. Soon Cleveland will have its third president/general manager in three years, and the last thing Cribbs wants to hear is he has to prove himself all over again.

  • The offense of the Pittsburgh Steelers is struggling on third down.
Morning take: Every coach will tell you third down is the most important in the NFL, and at 38 percent on conversions, that hasn't been good enough for Pittsburgh.

  • After being challenged to a "fight" this offseason by Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman said he will settle the score on Sunday.
Morning take: Ochocinco is a jokester and Merriman is not. You wonder if Merriman understands Ochocinco's nature or just doesn't care.

  • Baltimore Ravens receivers Mark Clayton (knee) and Kelley Washington (ankle) both missed practice Wednesday.
Morning take: This could be show-and-prove time for reserve Demetrius Williams. He's always looked the part physically, but injuries and inconsistencies have kept him off the field.

Red zone woes cost Ravens

November, 22, 2009
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AP Photo/Nick Wass
Joe Flacco's interception with under three minutes remaining cost the Ravens the game.

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens' final offensive play in Sunday’s 17-15 loss to the Indianapolis Colts was awkward from the start.

Baltimore was threatening to take the lead with third-and-7 on the Colts' 14-yard line with 2:49 left in the game. But the Ravens were hurried at the line of scrimmage.

Baltimore had to decide whether to be conservative and run the football to set up a game-winning field goal, or pass to try for a first down or touchdown. Baltimore chose the aggressive play, but the Colts were prepared. Linebacker Gary Brackett made an interception covering Ravens tailback Ray Rice to seal the win for Indianapolis.

"I didn’t really think the guy that intercepted it was going to drop out the way he did," a surprised Flacco said. "It was a bad job by me. I might have been able to get Kelley [Washington] on the outside. I kind of rushed to get the ball snapped and made a bad decision."

The play was the final example of Baltimore continually being one step behind the Colts in the red zone Sunday. The Colts took the clich of "bend but don’t break" to new levels in holding the Ravens to five field goals, despite Baltimore having no issues driving the football in between the 20s and putting up 354 total yards.

The Ravens were 0 for 4 in trips to the red zone, highlighted by Flacco's pick and three failed attempts to run the football from the Colts' 1 in the fourth quarter. Better execution in any of those four scenarios could have knocked the Colts (10-0) from the undefeated ranks and given the Ravens a marquee win that was sorely needed.

"We have to find a way to score touchdowns," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "You can't attempt six field goals in a game like this, or potentially seven. You can’t do that."

Resorting to field goals against Peyton Manning will almost always result in a loss.

Manning (299 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) had his issues with the Ravens' defense. But he was still able to orchestrate two masterful touchdown drives of 87 and 80 yards that made the difference.

According to ESPN’s Stats & Information, Manning was 5-of-7 with a touchdown and a 117.3 passer rating in the red zone against the Ravens. It was a stark contrast to Baltimore’s offensive production close to the goal line.

"We scored touchdowns, they scored field goals," Manning said. "That was kind of the difference."

Adding to Baltimore’s plight was its inability to break off big runs. The Ravens rushed for 98 yards on 31 carries (3.2 yard average) and their longest run was 16 yards.

Baltimore got most of its yards through the air. Flacco threw for 256 yards and receiver Derrick Mason was the biggest target with nine receptions for 142 yards.

But the Colts tightened up in the red zone as the Ravens became easier to defend. Baltimore couldn't get many yards on the ground and the short field limited the team's options in the passing game.

"They’re not the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL by accident at this stage," Cameron said of Indianapolis. "You have to give them some credit. We can execute better and I can do better."

The loss puts Baltimore’s playoff hopes on thin ice.

With six games to go, the Ravens (5-5) trail the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4), Jacksonville Jaguars (6-4), Denver Broncos (6-4) and Houston Texans (5-4) in a crowded field for the AFC wild-card. It appears 10 wins could be the magic number this season, which means the Ravens would have to win at least five of their last six games.

It starts with a huge AFC North showdown next week against the Steelers. Both teams are coming off tough losses and still have to meet twice this season. Those games probably will determine the playoff fates of each club.

"That’s a tough loss and it will be tough to swallow, but you’ve got to move on," Ravens defensive lineman Dwan Edwards said. "You got Pittsburgh [next], and that’s a division rival and you need to try to get the 'W.' That’s all we can do."

Mason was blunt about Baltimore's prospects moving forward.

"We all understand what needs to happen now, we do," Mason said. "You can’t get in the playoffs unless you win 10 games or more, and 10 games don’t automatically put you in in the AFC.

"So we know the road ahead of us. We have to win every game from here on out, point blank."

Bengals game personal for Washington

October, 8, 2009
10/08/09
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Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


The start to the 2009 season has a different feel for Baltimore Ravens receiver Kelley Washington.

 
 AP Photo/Elise Amendola
 Kelley Washington hopes to show the Cincinnati Bengals what they're missing out on.
First, the seven-year veteran is on pace for career highs in catches and receiving yards in Baltimore’s high-scoring offense. Second, after experiencing three non-winning seasons in four years in Cincinnati, Washington is facing his former team for first place in the AFC North Sunday when the Ravens (3-1) host the Bengals (3-1).

This game is personal for Washington.

From 2003 to 2006, Washington played behind receivers Chad Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and later Chris Henry in Cincinnati and felt he was lost in the mix. Now thriving in Baltimore, Washington wants to show his former team what its missing.

"I definitely want to show them what I’m about," Washington told ESPN.com Thursday. "I know they know it. But I definitely want to put a beating on the defensive backs and show the coaches there, the owners and all the personnel people what I’m about."

Washington has been one of the top success stories in the AFC North this season. He accepted an invitation from Baltimore on a tryout basis in the spring and beat out receivers such as Jerry Porter and Tab Perry.

A strong training camp and preseason helped Washington get early opportunities in the offense and he hasn’t slowed down since. He is second on the Ravens with 16 catches for 198 yards and has quickly developed the trust of second-year quarterback Joe Flacco.

Washington said former teammate Randy Moss taught him a lot while the two were with the New England Patriots. Washington watched how Moss operated when he first arrived in New England and quickly forged a dominant duo with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

"[Moss] just constantly talked to [Brady] on what he likes and what he expects," Washington said. "That’s what I’m doing with Joe."

The results are showing on the field as Washington has become Flacco’s third-down specialist.

Washington also is known for his dancing. His moves have excited crowds in all three stops in Baltimore, Cincinnati and New England. (We recommend checking out "The Squirrel" from Washington on YouTube.)

Ochocinco also is known for his celebrations and says he has something special planned Sunday. So there could be an entertaining competition within the game between two former teammates.

But who’s the better dancer?

"I know he knows deep down who the better dancer is," Washington said of Ochocinco. "He might have a little bit more things up his sleeve. But as far as quality of a dancer, he knows who’s better."

Only one player will be dancing in first place after Sunday's game.

AFC North mailbag

September, 9, 2009
9/09/09
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Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker

Let’s see what’s in the AFC North mailbag this week.

Hung Phan from Fort Worth, TX wants to know why Cleveland Browns rookie James Davis fell to the sixth round of the NFL draft.

James Walker: There were a few reasons Davis got lost in the mix, Hung. Davis was a potential first-day pick after the 2007 season, but C.J. Spiller’s emergence last year (1,770 all-purpose yards) took reps and carries away from Davis to the point where scouts didn’t pay attention to Clemson’s second-string tailback. When the Tigers had a disappointed season it further forced scouts to look in the other direction. Davis’ speed and 40-time also isn’t something that jumps out at combines, and those factors all contributed to him being a sixth-round pick. But Davis is proving to be a “football player,” which is what matters most.


Craig Myers from Columbus, Ohio wants to know why his city doesn’t cover the Pittsburgh Steelers when “there are 100 times more people…following the Steelers than the Bengals.”

James Walker: Craig, I lived in Columbus for several years and always thought it was an interesting city when it comes to NFL fans. To my understanding, the Browns always had the edge, while the Bengals were a solid or not-so-solid No. 2 depending on how the team performed. There are not “100 times more people following the Steelers” in Columbus. There are plenty of Bengals fans in Columbus, but mostly they’re fringe Bengals fans. By that I mean they’re proud to wear their gear and come out in droves when the team is winning. But you wouldn’t know there were any Bengals fans in Columbus when the team is losing, which is currently the case. It’s easy to hide fandom when you don’t live in the actual city. To your credit, Craig, there are a good number of Steelers fans in Columbus, as well, because it’s one of the few transient and growing cities in Ohio. But it’s not enough to overtake the Browns or Bengals in terms of pure numbers.


Gary from Toledo, Ohio writes: I read the article where Paul Kuharsky "raced" some speedsters from the AFC South. How much of a head start would you need to beat "Fast" Willie Parker, Andre Caldwell, and the other fast guys from the AFC North? Do you think you could take down Kuharsky?

James Walker: Gary, rest assured the AFC North has, by far, the speediest blogger at ESPN.com. If Kuharsky, “Iron” Mike Sando, Matt Mosley or any other divisional blogger want to challenge that claim, they can pick a time and a date. I’m also the youngest so that plays into it. But as far as racing against NFL players, I obviously need a head start but may be able to beat some linemen in a race straight up. I wasn’t a blazer, but I had good enough speed to play four years at cornerback in high school.


Eric from Pacifica, Ca. has high hopes for kick returner Stefan Logan this year and wants my thoughts.

James Walker: If the Steelers put together a stellar return game this year that would be scary. The only glaring weakness I see left on this team is depth on the offensive line.


Troy from York, Pa. wants to know if Kelley Washington would be an upgrade over Demetrius Williams for the No. 3 receiver spot with the Baltimore Ravens.

James Walker: Washington has done well this preseason and should contribute. But Washington’s ceiling as a receiver is not as high as Williams’ is. Athletically, Williams is a better fit as the third receiver for Baltimore with his speed and ability to stretch the field. The coaching staff has confidence in Williams. But what he lacks is avoiding injuries and consistency.
 
  James Lang/US Presswire
  Coach John Harbaugh, who took the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game in his first season, is looking to take the next step.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- If the Baltimore Ravens want to take the next step and build off a stellar 2008 season, there is only one place left for this team to go: Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.

The Ravens are coming off a competitive AFC Championship Game loss to the reigning champion Pittsburgh Steelers, so optimism abounds in Baltimore.

Camp Confidential: AFC North
Bengals: Sun., Aug. 2
Steelers: Fri., Aug. 7
Browns: Mon., Aug. 17
Ravens: Sat., Aug. 22
Training camp index

The Ravens feel they finally found their franchise quarterback in Joe Flacco. They have an energetic coach in John Harbaugh who quickly brought the team back to prominence, and the defense was rated second in the NFL last season behind Pittsburgh.

Based on the record-setting turnout in Westminster this summer for training camp, Ravens fans are clearly buying into Baltimore's rosy outlook as a title contender. But for the Ravens to position themselves to make a run, they must first address several key issues.

Key questions

1. Can Baltimore overtake Pittsburgh?

If Baltimore were able to topple Pittsburgh last season, who knows where the Ravens would be right now? Perhaps the Ravens, and not the Steelers, would be entering the season as the defending champs.

But Baltimore was unable to climb "Mount Pittsburgh" in 2008, losing close games in all three attempts. The end result was falling one game shy of the AFC North division title and one touchdown drive short of Baltimore advancing to play the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

Although the Ravens probably wouldn't admit this publicly, much of what they're doing this season is geared toward closing the gap with the Steelers. Baltimore drafted rookie tackle Michael Oher to help nullify Pittsburgh's edge rushers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. The Ravens improved the depth in their secondary, which broke down with injuries during the playoffs, by adding cornerbacks Domonique Foxworth and Chris Carr in free agency.

The difference between Baltimore and Pittsburgh wasn't sizable to start. But the Ravens are hoping this is the year the balance of power shifts in their favor.

 
  James Lang/US Presswire
  Coaches have been working with QB Joe Flacco to attack more areas of the field.

2. Will Joe Flacco avoid the sophomore slump?

Much of Baltimore's success will hinge on Flacco proving to be the real deal. So far there is no reason to believe that won't be the case.

The Ravens by no means will become a pass-happy offense this season, but Flacco is being given more responsibility in his second year working with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. In addition to a strong running game, overall balance will make Baltimore harder to defend if Flacco is up to the task.

Flacco had a good preseason debut, completing 9 of 15 passes for 103 yards in a 23-0 victory last week over the Washington Redskins. What stood out most is Flacco connected with six different receivers in limited playing time, which is an important next step in his maturation process.

As a rookie Flacco had the tendency to lock in on his two receivers -- Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton -- on the outside. The pair accounted for nearly half (47 percent) of Flacco's completions. All spring and summer the coaches have been working with Flacco to attack more areas of the field, particularly over the middle, to make the passing game less predictable.

3. Can the defense stay elite?

Since their inception the Ravens have been built on defense. It is also where they allot most of their salary-cap space.

Baltimore has dealt with defections before but rarely has the unit been hit this much in one offseason. Four of the 11 starters will be new this year and the team is replacing longtime defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

Free-agent pickup Foxworth and linebacker Tavares Gooden will join defensive tackle Kelly Gregg and safety Dawan Landry as starters who weren't contributors for Baltimore's No. 2-rated defense last season. Gregg (knee) and Landry (neck) were starters for the Ravens in the past but are returning from season-ending injuries.

The primary challenge for new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is to add his own wrinkles without changing
too much of Baltimore's identity. When you have players like Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata, the transition certainly becomes a lot easier.

 McGahee
 Rice

Market watch

Many in Baltimore are asking: How much is left in the tank of Willis McGahee?

Once one of the top running backs in the AFC, McGahee has been slowed by injuries the past two years in Baltimore. Now in his seventh season, he is at a crossroads to prove he can get back to his previous form.

McGahee, 27, has opened the door for second-year running back Ray Rice to become the starter this season. But the two have been pushing each other recently in training camp in a scenario that is working out for both players.

Rice appears solid in his quest to keep the starting job, while McGahee also is running harder. McGahee is averaging 6.5 yards per carry in the preseason, after averaging less than four yards per carry in three of the past four seasons.

With last year's leading rusher Le'Ron McClain playing more fullback this season, expect McGahee and Rice to have more opportunities to prove themselves in the running game this year.

 
  AP Photo/Rob Carr
  Tavares Gooden will take over for Bart Scott, who followed former coordinator Rex Ryan to the Jets.

Newcomer to watch

The Ravens have had a penchant for finding talented young linebackers and they hope Gooden is next in line.

Gooden, a 2008 third-round pick, missed 12 games last season with a hip injury. But with the departure of linebacker Bart Scott to free agency, Gooden is expected to start next to Lewis in Baltimore's linebacking corps.

Lewis is taking Gooden under his wing the same way he's tutored others such as Scott and Adalius Thomas before him. Teammates jokingly have nicknamed Gooden "Baby Ray."

Observation deck

The Ravens traded up to get first-round pick Michael Oher, and the rookie right tackle is immediately fitting in. With the retirement of veteran Willie Anderson, Oher took all the first-team reps during the spring and summer, which is helping his learning curve. With Oher and left tackle Jared Gaither, the Ravens have two quality young tackles who could be building blocks for a long time. ... The receiver position remains a concern as Baltimore made no significant additions in free agency or the NFL draft. The Ravens caught a break with the return of Mason from a brief retirement, but questions of depth remain. Clayton has missed most of camp with a hamstring injury and Marcus Smith is out for the season with a torn ACL. That leaves Demetrius Williams, Justin Harper and Kelley Washington to assist Flacco. ... This season marks the first time in franchise history that Baltimore will not have longtime Raven Matt Stover as its kicker. Stover eventually lost his leg strength for kickoffs so the Ravens are having a two-way battle between Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano for the job. Both kickers had their ups and downs early, but Hauschka seems to have the early advantage with three games remaining in the preseason.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the top stories Tuesday in the AFC North:

  • While on a pitch count, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is expected to throw 150-180 times as the team resumes practice Tuesday.

Morning take: Palmer has been so optimistic this offseason that his health has taken somewhat of a backseat as a storyline. But it is something to keep an eye on this summer.

Morning take: The process works for the NFL. But it would be difficult to get it passed at the collegiate level, where each university in many ways is its own entity. It could be particularly trying to get the rule passed in just one state.

Morning take: I'm not sure how this one will end. We will have more on Cribbs and the Browns later today.

  • The Baltimore Ravens finalized a one-year deal with veteran receiver Kelley Washington.

Morning take: Washington, a Virginia native, wanted to stay close to home and narrowed his options to Baltimore and the Washington Redskins. He felt the Ravens gave him the best chance to contribute.

Washington becomes a Raven

May, 13, 2009
5/13/09
5:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

  Washington

The veteran tryout the Baltimore Ravens were most impressed by turned out to be receiver Kelley Washington. The former Cincinnati Bengal and New England Patriot agreed to a one-year deal with Baltimore Wednesday afternoon, according to ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli.

Washington out-dueled receivers Jerry Porter and Tab Perry in Baltimore's search for receiver help. He made numerous plays in minicamp and showed good hands and size.

Washington could play a bigger role than expected in training camp. Top receiver Derrick Mason could be out until September following major shoulder surgery, which should provide Washington more opportunities for playing time in the preseason. Washington also is solid on special teams and could help Baltimore in that area.

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