AFC North: Leon McFadden

It will be a game-time decision whether Browns cornerback Joe Haden faces the New York Jets on Sunday. Haden is trying to recover from a deep hip bruise.

Haden
“We definitely need him to play and want him to play,” defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “But obviously it’s a health and safety concern. We’re doing everything we can, I know he is, to be ready to play. So we’ll just wait and give him as much rest and rehab time as necessary to get him out there.”

In Haden’s absence, rookie Leon McFadden would start, and Horton mixed no words when assessing what McFadden should expect.

“He’s definitely the hot corner, if you will, because as a rookie, they’re going to come after you,” Horton said. “They know who’s playing, just like we know who’s playing on their side. He’s going to get tested until he can prove that, ‘Hey, either I’m not a rookie or if you do throw at me, I’ll take it back on you.’ So I’m sure he’s aware that this week in New York, he’ll probably have a little bit of a target on him because of being a rookie and having two penalties the last two weeks.”

Horton was flagged for key pass interference penalties two weeks in a row, in New England and against Chicago.

The Browns quibbled about the call in New England.

They didn’t about the call against Chicago.

“I think the officials got that one right,” Horton said. “I really do.”

In addition to Haden, tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion) did not practice. He is not expected to play.
CLEVELAND -- Three factors played important roles in the Cleveland Browns 38-31 loss to Chicago on Sunday. And the first came with the flip of the coin before kickoff.

The Browns won the toss, but instead of taking the ball they chose to defer. That gave the Bears the ball first, and the Browns the choice to start the second half. It’s not an uncommon decision these days.

And once the Browns kicked off to start the game, there was no way they were going to give the ball to the Bears to start the second half. Rob Chudzinski chose to receive.

Bears coach Marc Trestman wisely chose to take the wind in the fourth quarter. And that wind was strong -- blowing from east to west right across the field.

Any pass that was thrown into the wind died, like a key third-and-10 throw to Josh Gordon with the Browns down seven in the fourth quarter. Any thrown with the wind sailed, like a couple of Jay Cutler’s early throws.

One Browns defender said the Bears never threw long going into the wind, but did take chances throwing with it.

Trestman wanted his quarterback, Jay Cutler, and his receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery working with the wind in the final quarter.

File that little thought.

With 3:59 left in the third quarter came factor two: The Browns lost cornerback Joe Haden to a hip pointer when he was kneed inadvertently by Bears lineman Jermon Bushrod.

That sent Haden to the locker room, and put rookie Leon McFadden in the game. McFadden was targeted a week ago in crunch time by Tom Brady in New England, and Cutler went after him too, throwing a deep ball to Jeffery from his own five.

McFadden ran into Jeffrey as he tried to come back and was called for pass interference, a call the Browns disputed.

“Not a PI at all,“ safety Tashaun Gipson said. “I watched the whole time. I’m running over there and he snapped his head around at the appropriate time. If I was a ref I wouldn’t have called it. I think he had good coverage. Of course I’m going to say that, but I truly believe it.”

On the next play, with the wind, Cutler again threw deep to Marshall, who had used a double-move to elude Buster Skrine. Skrine did the wise thing and grabbed Marshall, giving up a five-yard holding penalty to save six points.

Six plays later, Cutler threw deep again to Jeffery, this time covered by Julian Posey, who if everyone were healthy would be the fifth corner.

Cutler was hit in the head as he threw -- it would have been roughing the passer regardless -- but still got the ball off. He thought it was a duck, and it was. But the duck flew farther than anyone thought possible.

Gipson settled under the ball at about the three, but the ball suddenly sailed past him where Jeffery made an athletic catch.

Gipson tried to leap and knock it down, but the ball went past him.

“The ball seemed to literally sail over my head,” he said.

Thanks to the wind.

Who knows how things work out, but had the Browns taken the ball to start the game they could have forced the Bears to throw into the wind in the fourth quarter.

The Browns didn’t.

The Bears had the wind.

Haden was injured.

Chicago had the big receivers -- the third factor.

And the Bears were able to take advantage on some key plays en route to a victory.
CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns' defense talks a good game.

The Browns can recite numbers with the best of them to show where they are ranked league-wide, and what they need to do to be ranked high if they’re not.

But there is also is this fact: For the third week in a row, the Browns had a fourth-quarter lead and the defense squandered it.

Sunday the Chicago Bears scored 21 points in the final 15 minutes en route to a 38-31 win.

[+] EnlargeAlshon Jeffery
AP Photo/Mark DuncanThe Cleveland Browns had trouble stopping Alshon Jeffery and the Chicago Bears in the fourth quarter.
Which would project to 84 points a game, which is pretty good.

Early, the Browns were buoyed by two defensive touchdowns -- an interception and a fumble return -- that had the defense off to a great start. But late, the defense did not come through when it mattered most. It collapsed, buried under the weight of its mistakes and the Bears' athletic plays.

That makes three games in a row the defense did not stop the other team when it mattered most.

Jacksonville (!) drove 80 yards in the final minute for a game-winning touchdown.

New England had officiating help on its last drive, but the 82-yarder that made that last drive meaningful was against the Browns' defense.

And Chicago saw Jay Cutler salivate at the loss of cornerback Joe Haden to a hip pointer, then lead the Bears to three scores in the final 10:59.

The first was an athletic catch by Alshon Jeffery behind Tashaun Gipson, with the help of the wind. That play was set up by an interference call on Leon McFadden and a holding call on Buster Skrine, the two corners playing with Haden out. (Julian Posey wound up covering Jeffery on the touchdown.)

On Chicago’s next two possessions, the Bears ran the ball down the vaunted Browns' throats.

Twenty-two of 36 yards came on the ground on the next TD drive, then 74 of 78 on the drive that sealed it.

The Browns played a team that had to go on the road after playing Monday night, a team that had a quarterback starting his first game in a month. The defense gave up 179 yards rushing, 127 to Matt Forte, and 265 and three touchdowns passing.

The fourth quarter was the worst.

While the Browns have been giving up 12, 16 and 21 points in the fourth quarter the past three games, they’ve scored 21 -- seven against the Bears on a late TD when the Browns were already down 14. In fourth quarters all season, the Browns have been outscored 128-66, or just less than 2 to 1.

The last four games the opposition finished with 27, 32, 27 and 38 points, an average of 31 per game. Yes but, some might say. As in, but the offense turned it over, or the defense was tired, or the moon was in the seventh house. Last time anyone checked, the defense was on the field when many of the points were scored.

In 11 of 14 games this season, the other team scored 23 points or more -- 23.5 was the league average heading into the game. In five of them it was 31 or more. Opponents are averaging 26 points per game on a defense that touts itself as quite a bit more special than it is.

Sure, the Bears scored on an interception return, which means they scored 31 on offense. Hoo hoo.

A top defense does not give up this kind of scoring.

A top defense does not finish games this way.

A top defense makes a stand when a stand is needed.

Until that happens, perhaps it’s time to put away the numbers and metrics. Just go out and win a stinking game.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

December, 15, 2013
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CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns38-31 loss to the Chicago Bears:

What it means: The Browns' defense needs work. Players and coaches can point to numbers and stats and justify whatever they want, but against Chicago, the Browns gave up 21 fourth-quarter points. They started the fourth quarter with a lead, then gave up three touchdowns. On one, Alshon Jeffery made a circus catch; on another, a good punt return gave the Bears a short field. A good defense makes big stops when needed. The Browns' defense is not doing that.

Stock watch: Maybe Josh Gordon was simply due an off week. After four otherworldly games in a row, Gordon was average against Chicago. He missed a couple of passes that he had been catching. Jason Campbell missed him at times. And at others he was open, and Campbell didn’t look his way. Gordon’s stock should not drop, but the Browns clearly needed more from him than a late touchdown when the game was already decided.

Walk the walk: Browns free safety Tashaun Gipson had effusive praise for Bears quarterback Jay Cutler during the week leading up to the game, but he also said Cutler would give the Browns' defense a chance to make plays. Gipson proved he wasn’t kidding, with two first-half interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. The big blemish: Gipson misjudged a long pass and allowed Jeffery to make a circus catch in the fourth quarter to tie the game.

Safety awareness day: At one point it appeared the Browns' safeties were headed to a big game against the Bears and Cutler. Too bad games last four quarters. Gipson had the interception for a touchdown, and T.J. Ward returned a second-half fumble for a score. The two helped to produce 17 of the Browns' first 24 points, with Gipson’s first pick leading to a field goal. But in the second half, Gipson let Jeffery make the TD catch behind him, and Ward was nowhere to be found on the second-longest touchdown run of Michael Bush's career.

Haden injured: Browns cornerback Joe Haden left the game in the third quarter with a hip injury. It appeared Haden either hit the ground awkwardly trying to make a tackle on a Bears run, or he was kneed in the hip by Jermon Bushrod as Bushrod was blocking. Haden's leaving, combined with an earlier injury this season to Chris Owens, put rookie Leon McFadden on the field at corner with Buster Skrine.

What's next: The Browns travel to face the New York Jets on Sunday in the penultimate game of the season.

Did Tom Brady outwit Browns' defense?

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
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What did in the Cleveland Browns' defense at New England?

Penalties and Tom Brady.

Brady
That’s what defensive coordinator Ray Horton said.

Horton did his best not to complain about the officiating, but he did say that Brady audibled three times on the last two drives to take advantage of the Browns' coverage.

“He put them in the right play for what we had,” Horton said. “That’s the dilemma -- how do you protect against a guy who changes the play? You hope you stand up.”

Horton said Brady’s hand signals were as simple as a nod and a two-thumbs-up signal.

“You don’t have time after two-thumbs-up to get it across the formation,” he said.

In some instances, Brady would wave a receiver lined up wide to move inside to a stack formation. That was when Brady saw man coverage. In that formation, teams run “rub” routes, where they cross and effectively rub out the defender. The Pats scored the game-winning touchdown to Danny Amendola on a rub route.

These pass routes are effective against man, not as effective against zone. Horton went into no detail about the coverages, but the pass interference penalty on Leon McFadden and the touchdown to Amendola both looked to come against man coverage.

The Browns could combat the offense with a change of their own, but as Horton said, changing the entire coverage would be tough given the time limitations after the audible. About the only things the defense can do is have the ability to change quickly from man to a predetermined zone, or cover better.

Horton tried not to criticize the officials, saying the game is fast and he’s sure they do their best. But pressed on the Jordan Poyer hit he said the Browns teach their players never to launch (leave their feet) or hit a receiver in the head. He admitted neither happened with Poyer.

As for the pass interference and the team’s anger at the call after the game, he talked more generally. But in doing so he said a lot.

“There were 45, 44 yards of penalties on two plays, I think, within 30 seconds,” Horton said. “That’s a lot of yardage in penalties for a team that has a pretty good quarterback.”

Observation deck: Browns-Colts

August, 24, 2013
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The Cleveland Browns offense delivered its worst output of the preseason just four days after Brandon Weeden was officially named the starting quarterback.

In a 27-6 preseason loss at Indianapolis, the Browns failed to score on their six drives against the Colts' starting defense and the first-team offense produced its only points -- a 50-yard field goal by Shayne Graham -- against the Colts' backups.

Weeden, who entered this game with the second-best passer rating of the preseason, finished 12-of-25 for 105 yards. He nearly saw two passes picked off, including a third-down one during a two-minute drill, and missed a wide-open Kellen Davis in Indianapolis territory. Weeden threw six consecutive incompletions during one stretch.

There are others to share the blame in the woeful performance. Wide receiver Greg Little fumbled after picking up a first down, and wide receiver Josh Gordon and running back Brandon Jackson both dropped passes. Little and Gordon combined for five catches on 11 targets.

This was a Browns offense that had scored points on five of six possessions in its first two preseason games. Cleveland had trouble extending drives Saturday night, going 1-of-6 on third downs against the Colts' starting defense.

Here are some other thoughts on the Browns' third preseason game:

  • [+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
    AP Photo/Jeff RobersonThe Browns made a stunning move Wednesday, trading running back Trent Richardson to the Colts.
    Running back Trent Richardson had a solid outing and looked to be at full strength. He touched the ball on the first four plays of the game and totaled 32 yards. On his 10-yard catch, he had a nice move in the flat to fake out a defender and pick up extra yards. There were times when Richardson didn't have any running lane and powered his way for a couple of yards. Richardson had 31 yards on seven carries.

  • The Browns defense came with a lot of blitzes against Andrew Luck, with not much success. Cleveland got pressure with Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves, but Luck either found the open receiver or scrambled for yards (which isn't a smart decision by Luck in the preseason). After not allowing a touchdown in the first two games, the Browns' first-team defense gave up two touchdowns, both of which came on pass plays in the flat.

  • Rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden was picked on repeatedly, with the cornerback giving up six completions in the first half (at least by my count). With Chris Owens out with a foot injury, McFadden played in nickel defense in his preseason debut. He made one nice breakup.

  • In the same week he was named the starting free safety, Tashaun Gipson made a big interception deep in Browns territory. He pulled in a deflected pass from Luck, who was hurried on the play by Kruger.

  • A couple of mistakes by the Browns' offensive tackles: Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was flagged for unnecessary roughness following Little's fumble, and left tackle Joe Thomas had an uncharacteristic holding penalty.

  • Spencer Lanning, the only punter on the team after the Browns cut T.J. Conley, had punts of 31 and 29 yards on his first two attempts. He then booted punts of 65 and 50 yards to finish the first half.

AFC North depth chart musings

August, 5, 2013
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Three of the four AFC North teams released their "unofficial" depth charts because the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns kick off their preseason Thursday. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who open their preseason Saturday, haven't put out a depth chart.

Here are some thoughts on how the teams have their players stacked up ...

BALTIMORE RAVENS
CINCINNATI BENGALS
  • The biggest surprise on the Bengals' depth chart was George Iloka being listed as the starting strong safety. Taylor Mays and Shawn Williams are behind him, in that order. The Bengals have been rotating Iloka, Mays and Williams throughout training camp. Most expect Williams, a rookie third-round pick, to eventually come out on top at some point this season.
  • At cornerback, just like last season, Leon Hall and Terence Newman are the top cornerbacks. Dre Kirkpatrick, last year's top pick, is behind Newman and Brandon Ghee. Kirkpatrick, who's had a strong camp, should figure into the team's nickel defense.
  • The name that stuck out on offense was Orson Charles. The converted tight end is already ahead of John Conner on the fullback depth chart. Charles, who is more of an H-back, has been among the most pleasant surprises this camp. Chris Pressley, last year's starter, is on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list with a knee injury.
  • On special teams, Adam Jones is ahead of Brandon Tate on punt returns. Jones and Tate split time at this spot last season, but I always thought Jones was the more explosive and dangerous returner.
CLEVELAND BROWNS
  • Brandon Weeden listed as the starting quarterback. He is followed by Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer. This is how I foresee the depth chart looking heading into the regular season.
  • Not a good sign for 2011 fourth-round pick Owen Marecic. Chris Ogbonnaya, a third-down back for his career, is currently the starting fullback. He offers more versatility in Norv Turner's offense than Marecic, who was benched last year by the former coaching staff.
  • On the offensive line, the Browns have co-starters listed at left guard (John Greco and Jason Pinkston) and right guard (Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao). Given that the Browns signed Greco to a new contract, he is considered the favorite at left guard. Pinkston and Lauvao will compete for the right guard spot.
  • On defense, Jabaal Sheard is ahead of rookie first-round pick Barkevious Mingo at outside linebacker and Buster Skrine and Chris Owens are listed as co-starters at right cornerback. Rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden is behind Joe Haden at left cornerback. I project Owens and McFadden will continue to split time at right cornerback, and Skrine will get snaps at the slot corner.
For a full transcript of this week's AFC North chat, you can click right here. For some highlights, just read on ...

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Sebastian (Baltimore): Do you think the Ravens will make the playoffs?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): While some will accuse me of drinking the purple Kool-Aid, I still believe the Ravens are a playoff team. There's no question that the loss of Dennis Pitta (hip) for the season hurts the Ravens. But this isn't like 2001, when the Ravens lost running back Jamal Lewis. The defense will be better than last year, especially against the run, and the Ravens will still be able to run the ball with [Ray] Rice, [Bernard] Pierce and [Vonta] Leach.

Brad (Baltimore): In your guess how do you see the Ravens WR depth chart unfolding?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): My projection is this: Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss, Jacoby Jones, Deonte Thompson and either David Reed or LaQuan Williams for that last spot (which is really a special-teams spot). I feel Doss complements Smith more than Jones. Plus, Jones can be the full-time returner if he's the No. 3 receiver like last year.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Ricky (Cincinnati): What are the odds that George Iloka actually starts opposite Reggie Nelson this year for the Bengals?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): My pecking order for the Bengals' strong safety spot is Shawn Williams, Taylor Mays and George Iloka. I like Iloka and the Bengals do as well. His style of play is better suited for free safety. Williams is smart and has good instincts. He could start as a rookie.

Michael (Canton, OH): Living in Canton and all the festivities that have been happening, I've been wondering if any player from the Bengals will join Anthony Munoz in the Hall of Fame?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): As long as the Bengals can figure out a way to keep him there long term, A.J. Green will be a Hall of Fame receiver if he continues on this path. He is clearly the best player on the Bengals' team. But he's only in his third season. There's a lot of football to be played by Green.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Browns Fan (Living in Cincy): I am very curious who you think will be lining up at CB across from Joe Haden and who will lining up at the other saftey position next to Ward? Thanks.

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I'm pretty confident in saying Tashaun Gipson will be the free safety lining up next to T.J. Ward. The cornerback position is more up in the air. The Browns want rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden to win the job. But, if the season began today, the Browns would start Chris Owens.

Charles (Columbus, OH): Look into your crystal ball for me. Is Barkevious Mingo be a boom or bust in Cleveland?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): I believe Mingo will be a very effective pass-rusher. I still have questions on whether he will hold up against the run.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Luke (Carlisle, Pa.): Any news or updates on the Sean Spence front?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Spence is on the PUP [physically unable to perform] list and can't practice in training camp. It's going to be a long road back from that devastating knee injury. But Spence has tested it out cutting and has gained some of his speed back.

Greg (Williamsport, PA): Any updates on Heath Miller? When do you expect him back this year?

Jamison Hensley (ESPN): Miller told the team's website that he can run and make cuts, but he gave no timetable on his return from ACL surgery. If the Steelers believe he can play in October, they will take him off PUP. If they see him out for a longer period, the Steelers will keep him on PUP, which sidelines him for at least the first six weeks.
My AFC North training camp tour will take me to Cleveland next week, but ESPN's John Clayton took a trip there this past weekend. He provided a thorough report of his visit, and here are some observations that stood out:


  • Rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden has fallen off early in the battle for the starting cornerback job opposite Joe Haden. According to Clayton, McFadden "looked pretty raw in the early practice." As a result, free-agent pickup Chris Owens and even Buster Skrine have moved past McFadden on the depth chart.
  • No one knows if quarterback Brandon Weeden will succeed, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner gives him his best shot at it for a couple of reasons, Clayton wrote. Turner will use more five- and seven-step drops that fit Weeden's background and should reduce the number of tipped passes at the line. He will also commit to the running game, which will set up the play-action passes.
  • Clayton believes the Browns have improved, but it might only result in one or two more wins. As Clayton pointed out, the Browns' strength of schedule on the road is .539. Of the Browns' eight road games, six are against teams who didn't have losing records last season: Baltimore, Minnesota, Green Bay, Cincinnati, New England and Pittsburgh.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC North team as training camps get underway.

Baltimore Ravens: No. 2 wide receiver. The Ravens are hoping Jacoby Jones steps up and wins this job. Baltimore named him the No. 2 receiver going into training camp, but there's no guarantee he will remain there. Jones is the most experienced option in a battle that includes Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, David Reed, LaQuan Williams and Tommy Streeter. But Jones has never produced more than 562 receiving yards in any of his six NFL seasons. The Ravens believe Thompson has the talent to develop into a productive receiver at this level, and Doss looks much improved from last season. Thompson is a speed receiver like Jones, but Doss is a better route-runner. David Reed is also in the mix, too.

Cincinnati Bengals: Strong safety. While there will be competition at the cornerback spot opposite Leon Hall, the strong safety position is the most unsettled area on what could be one of the top defenses in the NFL. It's been a trouble spot for years, and the Bengals didn't address it in free agency or in the first two rounds of the draft. Shawn Williams, a third-round pick, is considered the early favorite. The Bengals have been impressed with his ability to pick up the defense and feel he has the physical presence needed to excel at this position. George Iloka is the dark horse in the competition after having a strong offseason. But he might be a better fit at free safety, where the Bengals already have Reggie Nelson. Taylor Mays failed to win the job last season, so it's difficult to project him winning it this year.

Cleveland Browns: Cornerback. The Browns have one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL in Joe Haden on one side and a major question mark on the other. It will come down to rookie Leon McFadden, Chris Owens and Buster Skrine. McFadden, a third-round pick, has been running primarily with the second team during offseason workouts, but he is the most talented defender in this battle. Even though he lacks size, he is extremely confident and competitive. Owens has been getting time with the starters despite struggling with consistency for most of his career. He was benched at times last season, when he was the nickel back for the Atlanta Falcons. Skrine has the speed you want at this position. He just doesn't have the technique down. Skrine continually put himself in bad situations last season, committing nine penalties.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Running back. While the Steelers have yet to name a starter, there's a feeling that this is rookie Le'Veon Bell's job to lose. The Steelers used a second-round pick on Bell because they felt Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman failed to get the job done last season. Bell was a workhorse in college and brings more big-play ability than Dwyer and Redman. His strength is generating yards after contact. This could end up being more of a competition for the backup job. Dwyer and Redman are both similar running backs, and the Steelers likely will only keep one. LaRod Stephens-Howling, a free-agent pickup from the Arizona Cardinals, will factor in as a third-down back and a returner. He essentially replaces Chris Rainey, who was released in January after getting arrested for a second time on a domestic violence incident.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC North team?

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Offense: Wide receiver
After trading Anquan Boldin due to salary-cap constraints, the Ravens opted not to invest in a veteran replacement. That leaves Torrey Smith as the top wideout for Joe Flacco, but the Ravens have substantial questions behind him. Jacoby Jones had a standout postseason but has never recorded more than 562 receiving yards in a single season. He must prove himself capable of replicating his postseason success in order for Baltimore to transition beyond Boldin’s absence.

Defense: Replacing leadership
GM Ozzie Newsome did a formidable job of replacing departed veterans Ray Lewis and Ed Reed with younger talent this offseason, but finding new leadership on defense will be no easy task. Terrell Suggs is a veteran voice who can absorb an even larger leadership role, but it will be more than a one-man job to account for what Lewis and Reed brought to the table. Offensively, the Ravens have Flacco and Ray Rice to steer the ship.

Wild card: Potential inside linebacker depth
The Ravens have three players who seem likely to compete for starting inside linebacker jobs, but two of them, Arthur Brown and Jameel McClain, are dealing with medical issues. McClain (back) is waiting for clearance from medical staffers to return to contact work, while Brown underwent sports hernia surgery after the team drafted him. A delayed return from either, or both, would put stress on the defense to find a replacement for Lewis. Daryl Smith, limited to just two games in 2012, is another candidate to start.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Offense: Dalton’s ascension
Give QB Andy Dalton this: He’s led his team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, an impressive accomplishment early in his career. The question is, does he have what it takes to move the Bengals past their recent destinations and win a playoff game? Dalton has no touchdowns and four interceptions in a pair of playoff contests, and 2013 is a critical year to decide his long-term future with the franchise. The Bengals have a playoff-caliber defense and some excellent offensive pieces, but the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Dalton must make strides.

Defense: Middle linebacker play
Many surmised the Bengals would replace Rey Maualuga this offseason, but the team instead inked him to a new two-year deal. That’s a sign of confidence in the 26-year-old, but there are still questions about whether he has the range to be a consistent playmaker in the middle of the defense. He didn’t force a single turnover in 2012, though his 122 tackles were second best on the defense. Despite the new contract, 2013 is still another year for the USC product to prove he’s the man for the long haul in the middle.

Wild card: Finding space for two tight ends
This is a good issue to have. The Bengals have an incumbent starter at tight end -- who was named to the Pro Bowl last year -- in Jermaine Gresham, and he will be pushed by rookie Tyler Eifert. Simply put, the Bengals need to find ways to use the rangy Eifert, whose ball skills and length make him a superior red zone target. It may not be long before he’s recognized as the best tight end on the roster.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Offense: T-Rich’s health
The Browns need Trent Richardson to be a workhorse, much as he was during his rookie season in 2012. Richardson admirably fought through injuries last year and has spent much of the offseason banged up with a shin issue. The Browns are hopeful he’ll arrive to training camp at 100 percent, but if he doesn’t, it’s a concern that will linger. With question marks surrounding the quarterback position, the Browns need a security blanket in the backfield to tote the heavy load. A healthy Richardson is the answer and more.

Defense: McFadden ready?
Alabama (and now Jets) cornerback Dee Milliner seemed like a sound candidate for the sixth pick in the draft, but the Browns stockpiled another pass-rusher in Barkevious Mingo instead. The team eventually filled its need for a cornerback to play opposite Joe Haden by taking Leon McFadden in the third round, a candidate to start as a rookie. Should McFadden win the job, it’ll be a test for the San Diego State product. Nonetheless, the second cornerback position is one worth monitoring in training camp.

Wild card: Accounting for Gordon’s absence
For two games, the Browns will be without top wide receiver Josh Gordon, who has been suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy. An already unproven wide receiving corps took a hit, and the Browns will be counting on a hot early start from players like Greg Little and veteran addition Davone Bess. Bess, acquired for draft picks in April, is a talented slot presence who will slide in nicely when Gordon returns but may be called upon for a bigger role early in the season.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Offense: Left side protection
It appears Marcus Gilbert will take over blindside duties for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a tall order for the 25-year-old. From a skill-set perspective, Gilbert has the frame, but he’ll be tested coming off an ankle injury and making a position switch from last year. Roethlisberger has long been able to extend plays with his in-pocket mobility, but he too is coming off a knee issue and will need proficient support from his line this season.

Defense: Pass rush
Just two seasons ago, the Steelers paced the NFL with 48 sacks in the regular season. That number dipped to 35 the year after and 37 in 2012, due in part to a lack of a consistent edge threat. No Steeler had more than six sacks in 2012, and although first-round rookie Jarvis Jones looks ready to take on a starting role, he’ll need to show he can be an immediate impact player as a disrupter in opposing backfields.

Wild card: Secondary depth
The projected starting quartet for the Steelers in the secondary is capable of taming opposing offenses, but it also features three players who are at least 32 years old (Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor). If any of those players is forced to miss time (Polamalu was limited to seven games last year), the depth chart is less certain, with rookies and unproven youngsters to be counted on to replace them.
A look at the one move each team in the AFC North needed to make but didn't:

Baltimore Ravens: Sign a veteran wide receiver in free agency. The Ravens addressed all the losses from their Super Bowl team except one. Baltimore traded Anquan Boldin, its leader in receiving yards the past three seasons, to the San Francisco 49ers and didn't sign a receiver in free agency or draft one until the seventh round. Even though Boldin was never a 1,000-yard receiver for the Ravens, Joe Flacco depended on him in clutch situations. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Boldin led the Ravens with 43 targets on third down this season (including the playoffs) and ranked seventh among wide receivers with 29 catches on third down. The Ravens are banking on Jacoby Jones to replace Boldin, but that could reduce Jones' role as a returner. Tight end Dennis Pitta will likely absorb Boldin's production in the passing game.

Cincinnati Bengals: Add a proven starter at strong safety. This is a move the Bengals have needed to make for a couple of seasons. Cincinnati has talent and depth throughout a defense that should end up being one of the top five in the NFL this season. The soft spot on defense is at safety, where the Bengals will start Taylor Mays, Shawn Williams or George Iloka. This was a trouble spot last season when the Bengals shuffled Mays, Jeromy Miles and Nate Clements at strong safety for the first four games before re-signing Chris Crocker. The Bengals passed on a free-agent safety in his prime, Dashon Goldson, even though they were among the teams with the most salary-cap room entering free agency. At this point, the Bengals have a top-notch free safety in Reggie Nelson and a big question mark at strong safety.

Cleveland Browns: Bring in a starting cornerback. There was no criticism over the Browns not bringing back Sheldon Brown, who started the past three seasons for Cleveland. The second-guessing comes from the fact that the Browns did the minimum to replace him. They drafted Leon McFadden in the third round and didn't sign an established starter in free agency. The most high-profile cornerback signed by the Browns was Chris Owens, who was benched last season when he was the Atlanta Falcons' nickelback. Like the Bengals, Cleveland had the salary-cap room to make a significant upgrade. The Browns had free agent Brent Grimes in for a visit before he signed with the Miami Dolphins, and they didn't actively pursue the likes of free agents Sean Smith, Keenan Lewis, Antoine Cason, Chris Houston and Aqib Talib. There is a big drop-off from Joe Haden to the rest of the cornerbacks.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Add a tight end as insurance for Heath Miller. Some have speculated that the Steelers' ignoring of the tight end position this offseason is a sign the team expects Miller to be ready for the start of the season. Miller, who had a resurgence in Todd Haley's first season as offensive coordinator, tore knee ligaments late in the season and had surgery Jan. 2. The last word on Miller came in late May, when there was a report he was running 100-yard sprints. Still, it's unknown whether Miller will be suiting up for the Sept. 8 opener against the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers have put themselves in a predicament if Miller is sidelined for an extended period. The Steelers signed Matt Spaeth in free agency, but he's a run-blocking tight end. He has averaged eight catches per season. The only other tight end with any experience is David Paulson, who had seven catches last season as a rookie. This combination isn't going to replace Miller's 71 catches and eight touchdowns from a season ago.
For those who thought the AFC North blog was an Aaron Hernandez-free zone, I apologize. Blame the Bengals in today's wake-up call:

RAVENS: James Ihedigbo is looking forward to a competition for a starting safety job even though first-round pick Matt Elam is the favorite to win it. "I'm excited about the opportunity, and competition brings out the best in you," Ihedigbo told The Baltimore Sun. "Matt's a great player and a great guy. I played with his brother, Abe, with the Jets. He comes from a great pedigree. I'm excited. At the end of the day, the best 11 players will be on the field. It's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens."

BENGALS: Owner Mike Brown told Fox Sports that the team decided to pass on tight end Aaron Hernandez in the 2010 draft because of the potential for more off-field problems. The Bengals instead selected Jermaine Gresham in the first round. “That one is no secret. We just stayed away from it,” Brown told the website. “We didn’t question the playing ability. But we went for Gresham.” While the Bengals have had their share of players arrested over the years, only one draft pick (safety Robert Sands) has come from their past four draft classes, which shows they have been more discerning. In three seasons, Hernandez caught 175 passes for 1,956 yards and 18 touchdowns. Gresham has 172 receptions for 1,804 yards and 15 touchdowns.

STEELERS: Nose tackle Steve McLendon believes baseball will help make him a better football player. Even though he calls baseball "the scariest sport ever," he has spent time in the batting cage focused on picking up the ball. “That is how I learned the eye coordination," McLendon told the team's official website. "If I can learn to watch the ball, it will slow the game down for me. You can see when the pitcher is going to grip the ball and his throw and windup. It’s the same with a center. You see him grip the ball, his windup is the snap. If I can catch his hand and am able to attack him, it will make me that much quicker and better applying pressure to the quarterback, running back and the offensive line.”

BROWNS: Dallas Cowboys tight end Gavin Escobar, a former college teammate of Leon McFadden, said he doesn't see the rookie third-round pick's height (5 feet 9) as an obstacle to him starting for the Browns. “I was going against him, and I wouldn’t say he’d lock me down, but he’s strong," Escobar told the Browns' official website. “He’s strong for his size, and he can jump too. I think he’ll be fine going up against those strong receivers. I didn’t go up against him a lot, being a tight end, but when I did go up against him, I always told the quarterback I was open. In reality, it was good competition and a friendly competition."
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC North team look in the secondary, and what still needs to be done?

Baltimore Ravens: I expect the Ravens’ secondary, like the rest of their defense, to be vastly improved from a year ago. Of course I realize that nine-time Pro Bowler Ed Reed is gone, along with fellow starting safety Bernard Pollard and starting cornerback Cary Williams. I felt Williams’ value was overblown during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, and, while he is an enforcer, Pollard is a liability in coverage. As for Reed, well, he isn’t what he once was, but of course his ability to quarterback the secondary and make plays on the ball is still very valuable. Reed and Pollard were replaced by veteran Michael Huff and Matt Elam, the 32nd overall pick of the draft. Expect Huff to more often than not play the Reed role, as a deep middle player, but Huff also has cornerback skills and can play man coverage against wide receivers. Elam is a great hitter like Pollard, but is much younger and has tons more upside. Baltimore’s safeties are better in 2013. But the key here is the return of Lardarius Webb, one of the best corners in football who no one seems to know. Corey Graham was very solid for the Ravens last year, but it is Jimmy Smith who needs to step up. If that happens, this secondary should be among the league’s best, but depth here overall isn’t great.

Cincinnati Bengals: Overall, this looks like a fine group, with a lot of able bodies and depth. The safety spot next to Reggie Nelson, who has played at a Pro Bowl level since arriving in Cincinnati, might have been the Bengals’ worst starter in 2012, but the drafting of Shawn Williams in the third round should improve that situation. Expect Williams to unseat Taylor Mays before long. At corner, Leon Hall is the top guy, but the Bengals also get 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick back from injury, so this will more or less be his rookie season. Terence Newman should start if Kirkpatrick isn’t ready; Newman proved to have quite a bit left in the tank during the 2012 season. Adam Jones obviously entered the NFL with a ton of physical ability. At this stage of his tumultuous career, Jones has established himself as one of the top No. 3 cornerbacks in the league. There might not be a true star on the back end of Cincinnati’s defense, but overall it is a quality, well-coached unit with a good blend of veterans and youth. If Kirkpatrick hits big, this secondary could be exceptional.

Cleveland Browns: Joe Haden is the star here. He is a top-five-type corner and is capable of shutting down the opponent’s No. 1 wideout -- and could get better. The only other top-flight member of Cleveland’s secondary is T.J. Ward, a very capable two-way safety who could be on the verge of a true breakout in 2013. Beyond Haden and Ward, the Browns’ secondary has a lot of question marks. Third-round cornerback Leon McFadden is a good-looking prospect, and Cleveland picked up Chris Owens on the cheap for cornerback depth. Is McFadden ready for a starting role that will be sure to attract attention from every quarterback the Browns face? Also in the mix is Buster Skrine, who is best suited as a third corner. Several players will be fighting for playing time at safety alongside Ward, with sixth-round pick Jamoris Slaughter possessing the most long-term upside of that group of relative unknowns. Overall, the Browns’ secondary might be a major priority for upgrade after the 2013 season, but at least Cleveland looks to have significantly improved its pass rush, which could mask some coverage problems.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Keenan Lewis emerged at cornerback for the Steelers last season, but he is now playing for the Saints. Pittsburgh also allowed its depth safeties, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen, to depart via free agency. The only prominent secondary signing was former Steeler William Gay, who is obviously familiar with the system. Gay isn’t starting caliber, but he can play outside or in the slot as a third or fourth cornerback. Ike Taylor often shadows the opponent’s top wideout and overall has done a very good job. He rarely secures the interception, but Taylor is a high-end coverage player. The Steelers are counting on Cortez Allen to replace Lewis opposite Taylor. From what we saw from Allen in 2012, he should be ready for full-time action. Lewis, Gay, Taylor and Allen were all Pittsburgh mid-round picks that the Steelers developed. This past draft they again used a mid-round pick on the position with Terry Hawthorne. They did the same in 2011 with Curtis Brown. As most of these mid-rounders do, Hawthorne will likely "redshirt" during his rookie season, but Brown’s role could increase. At safety, the Steelers have one of the best starting pairs in the league -- when Troy Polamalu is healthy. Still a superb player, Polamalu just has to stay on the field. The Steelers’ defense with and without Polamalu is remarkably different. Ryan Clark has been Polamalu’s partner in crime for some time and has somewhat quietly put together a very impressive career, including an excellent 2012 season. Wisely, the Steelers drafted Shamarko Thomas, who could be Polamalu’s successor -- or his injury replacement. In the meantime, expect this young heat-seeking missile to be a dominant special-teams player.

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