AFC North: Maurice Jones-Drew

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers raised eyebrows when they hosted Maurice Jones-Drew for an extended visit last week.

Jones-Drew, after all, seemed about as good a fit in Pittsburgh as palm trees.

But Mike Tomlin made it clear Tuesday morning that while the Steelers are committed to Le'Veon Bell they will also cover themselves at running back.

"We're looking to add depth at that position and a guy of that caliber, a 'been there, done that' type of veteran will be an asset for us," Tomlin said at the NFL owners meetings, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Having legitimate interest in Jones-Drew, who has over 8,000 career rushing yards, and landing the former Jaguars running back are two different things.

Jones-Drew is probably looking to sign with a team that will at least give him an opportunity to start as well as provide the eight-year veteran with a significant pay day.

The Steelers aren't in a position to do either.

Bell is entrenched as the starter after an impressive rookie season, and the Steelers are just $1.52 million under the salary cap, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

That doesn't mean the Steelers aren't well-positioned to sign a proven veteran to back up Bell.

The market is not a good one for running backs, even accomplished ones such as Jones-Drew and Knowshon Moreno, who had over 1,500 combined rushing and receiving yards and 13 touchdowns last season but remains unsigned.

Unlike other positions, running backs haven't cashed in while teams are throwing around money as if it were confetti.

A buyer's market bodes well for the Steelers adding a quality veteran to their backfield even if it isn't Jones Drew, whose base salary was $4.95 million last season.

The Steelers are scheduled to meet with LeGarrette Blount on Friday, and he is another running back looking for work despite emerging as the Patriots' best back in the second half of last season.

The Steelers are serious enough about Blount that they pushed his visit back -- he was initially slated to be in Pittsburgh on Monday -- so Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert could meet with the four-year veteran.

It is possible that the Steelers make enough of a push -- and free up the necessary cash -- that they sign Blount before he leaves Pittsburgh.

Or they will continue to be patient, knowing the market is such that a proven veteran will eventually fall into the range of what they can offer -- both in dollars and in playing time.
The NFL owners meetings take center stage this week but the Steelers are keeping their eye on free agency even though the general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin are among those from the organization in Orlando, Fla.

Colbert and Tomlin met with a small group of Pittsburgh reporters on Sunday, and each said they are confident the Steelers will be able to holes on the roster via free agency.

Colbert, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said former Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount will visit the Steelers on Friday so he can meet with Tomlin.

Blount had initially been scheduled to visit the Steeelers on Monday.

Tomlin, meanwhile, said the Steelers are “open” to signing former Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who visited Pittsburgh last week.

“We need to add quality depth to that position,” Tomlin said, according to the Post-Gazette. “Le’Veon Bell is a talented player but also a young player.”

Running back is among the positions in which the Steelers are thin. They also have openings at linebacker and they will host former Bills linebacker Arthur Moats on Monday, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

They are also keeping their options open when it comes to bringing back outside linebacker James Harrison, per both Pittsburgh newspapers.

But it doesn’t sound like the Steelers are in any hurry to get something done with Harrison, who was recently released by the Bengals after one season in Cincinnati.

“We’re right on schedule,” Colbert said in regard to free agency, according to the Tribune-Review.
They are two veterans at two positions of need.

One seemed like almost a sure thing to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers just a couple of weeks ago. The other became a surprising target of a team that has a starting running back, but needs depth at the position.

Here is my take on Jerricho Cotchery and Maurice Jones-Drew:

Cotchery: I still like the chances of the veteran wide receiver returning to the Steelers even though he visited the Panthers this week. If the money offered by the teams is anywhere close, it wouldn’t make much sense for Cotchery to sign with the Panthers.

He wouldn’t get a chance to work with a new quarterback until training camp because of the ankle surgery that will sideline Carolina's Cam Newton for the next four months. Cotchery would also be joining a group of wide receivers that has been stripped of almost all of its parts. Toney Clemons, a former seventh-round pick by the Steelers, has the most catches of any wide receiver on Carolina’s roster, and he has a grand total of three receptions.

Cotchery is more of a complementary receiver at this stage of his career, and he excelled as a No. 3 wideout last season when he caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes. Why not reprise that role given his comfort with it, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense?

The wild-card here is money -- and whether the Panthers are so desperate for wide receivers they are willing to overpay for a player who has logged 10 NFL seasons and turns 32 in June.

The Steelers want to bring back Cotchery, but it has to be at the right price.

Jones-Drew: The Steelers created a buzz by hosting a player who has rushed for more than 8,000 yards for an extended visit. If Jones-Drew is looking for significant money or a starting job following eight seasons with the Jaguars, he won’t find it in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are committed to Le'Veon Bell, and they don’t have enough salary-cap room to offer anywhere close to the $4.95 million Jones-Drew made in his final season in Jacksonville.

Also, they simply have too many other holes to fill to spend a sizable chunk of money on a player who won’t start for them.

One thing, however, intrigues me about the possibility of adding Jones-Drew to the Steelers’ offense. He and Bell and have good hands, and the latter is adept at running actual pass patterns and not just catching dump-off or screen passes.

Given their skill sets, the Steelers could try to create mismatches by designing packages in which both are on the field at the same time. Such creativity could help offset the inexperience the Steelers have at wide receiver, especially if Cotchery signs with the elsewhere.

Jones-Drew’s presence would also allow the Steelers to limit the amount of pounding Bell absorbs as their No. 1 back and provide injury insurance.

While the Steelers aren’t in a position to offer Jones-Drew the kind of money he will likely command elsewhere, the market isn’t a good one for running backs, and there are ways for them to create more cap room.

It’s probably a long shot that Jones-Drew is wearing black and gold in the fall, but there is a scenario in which the Steelers could make it work.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers’ search for running back depth has them meeting with a seemingly unlikely candidate for help in that area.

Three-time Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew is visiting the Steelers today, per ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, and Pittsburgh is among the teams that are interested in the eight-year veteran.

Le'Veon Bell is entrenched as Pittsburgh’s featured back but the Steelers have no proven backups behind him. They were scheduled to meet with James Starks on Tuesday but Starks re-signed with Green Bay before visiting the Steelers.

That a player the caliber of Jones-Drew is willing to visit a team that doesn’t need a starter at his position may be a sign of how depressed the market is for running backs.

Jones-Drew has more than 8,000 career rushing yards and is just two seasons removed from a 1,600-yard campaign. Squat and powerfully built, the player who is aptly nicknamed “Pinball” has been a workhorse in Jacksonville, which makes it curious that he would return the Steelers’ interest in him.

Jones-Drew's base salary last season was $4.95 million, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Steelers are only $2.31 million under the salary cap, and they don’t have the flexibility to pay what Jones-Drew is likely seeking unless they restructure contracts or sign players to new long-term deals to lower their cap hit for 2014.

Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is an obvious candidate for a contract restructure.

His base salary is $6.75 million this year and the Steelers could turn a significant chunk of that into signing bonus and spread the money over the final three years of his contract to reduce his 2014 cap hit.
The expectations for the Cincinnati Bengals' Giovani Bernard are higher than most of this year's second-round picks.

For one, Bernard was the first running back selected in the draft. Another reason is Bernard has one of the starring roles in HBO's "Hard Knocks." I actually don't even remember seeing BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is the Bengals' starting running back, in the first episode.

But, judging by Bernard's recent comments, no critic is tougher than himself. Bernard wasn't happy about his performance in the preseason opener last week, when he managed 44 total yards on 13 touches (10 carries and three catches).

“For me, if I were to give myself a grade, I wouldn’t even want to put the grade out there,” Bernard told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “I am really hard on myself. That’s just how I am. That’s how I’ve always been.”

Most have compared the 5-foot-9, 208-pound to the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice (5-8, 212) and the Jacksonville Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew (5-7, 210), both of whom were second-round picks as well. But you have to remember Rice and Jones-Drew weren't Pro Bowl runners as rookies. In fact, they were backups as rookies just like Bernard.

In 2008, Rice was in a running back-by-committee with Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain. He had 454 yards rushing on 107 carries and 33 catches for 273 yards receiving. That's an average of 10.7 touches per game.

In 2006, Jones-Drew backed up an established back in Fred Taylor. Jones-Drew ran for 941 yards on 166 carries, and added 46 receptions for 436 yards. That's an average of 13.2 touches per game.

If Bernard reached these types of numbers as a rookie, the Bengals would be pleased with this immediate production as well as what lies ahead with this explosive runner.

Wrap-up: Bengals 27, Jaguars 10

September, 30, 2012

Thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-10 victory at the Jacksonville Jaguars:

What it means: The Bengals won their third straight game to improve to 3-1 and remain tied atop the AFC North (they lose the tiebreaker to the Ravens based on their season-opening loss). This is quite an accomplishment because the Bengals had to play three of their first four games on the road. Of course, all of the Bengals' wins have been against teams that don't have winning records. Cincinnati's run defense, the third worst in the NFL, held Maurice Jones-Drew (who was averaging 104.7 rushing yards per game) to 38 yards on 13 carries. The Bengals' defense also held the Jaguars to 24 points below its season average.

Green dominates again: Wide receiver A.J. Green put on an impressive show for a second straight week, catching six passes for 117 yards and one touchdown. What's remarkable is he didn't make his first catch until the 1:53 mark in the second quarter. Green had 75 yards receiving in the second half.

Should have been worse: The margin should have been bigger for the Bengals. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who hadn't fumbled in his first 590 touches in the NFL, coughed up the ball for the second time in two games. He fumbled at the goal line, a turnover that the Jaguars converted into a field goal to close the gap to 17-10 in the third quarter.

More trickery by Bengals: Cincinnati, which used the Wildcat to produce its first touchdown last week, used some trickery to jump-start the team again. In the second quarter, the Bengals converted a fourth-and-1 with a fake punt as Cedric Peerman took a direct snap and ran 48 yards into the Jaguars' red zone to set up their first touchdown.

No corners, no problem: The Bengals had only three healthy cornerbacks (Terence Newman, Adam Jones and Chris Lewis-Harris), but they didn't have any problems handling Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who was 23-of-34 for 186 yards. Cincinnati's secondary was helped by its pass rush, which recorded six sacks for a second straight game. Chris Crocker, who was re-signed a few days before the game, came up with the Bengals' first interception of the season. Cincinnati went the first 15 quarters without one.

Lucky break for Dalton: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton should have had his third interception returned for a touchdown. But Jaguars linebacker Kyle Bosworth, who caught the deflected pass, fumbled the ball without being touched at the Bengals' 13-yard line. The Bengals recovered and went on to score a field goal to take a 3-0 first-quarter lead. Dalton was 20-of-31 for 244 yards with two touchdowns.

What's next: The Bengals play the Dolphins at home after playing three road games in September.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin described the team's meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week as "very productive," according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Tomlin and team president Art Rooney II went to league headquarters in New York to talk to Goodell about player safety and fines given to Steelers players. While Tomlin declined to reveal any specifics about the conversation, he likely brought up Ryan Clark's $40,000 fine for hitting Baltimore's Ed Dickson (which Tomlin called "excessive" at the time).

"We exchanged some ideas, and I think the meeting was born out of a conversation with Art and the commissioner," Tomlin said Tuesday. "They thought it would be productive for all of us to sit down and talk. It (was) good bye-week stuff."

Hensley's slant: While I don't think the NFL is targeting the Steelers -- they rank 24th in the NFL in penalties -- Pittsburgh is obviously doing something wrong in the league's eyes. The Steelers have been fined a reported 13 times this year totaling $182,500 (according to the Tribune-Review). It reflects well on the Steelers organization to be proactive on such a touchy -- and expensive -- subject.
  • BENGALS: After watching film, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden came away more impressed with Andy Dalton despite the rookie quarterback's three interceptions and a second consecutive loss to an AFC North team, according to “He had a [heck] of a game. Three mistakes and all three of them I can live with,” Gruden told the website. “He did a great job. For the most part having to come from behind and throw that many times ... he kept us in it. They tried to rattle him and blitz him and he stood in there like a champ.” Hensley's slant: Gruden isn't the only one who was impressed. Once Dalton eliminates his second-half mistakes, he's going to give these defenses fits for years to come. What I've been most impressed with Dalton is his anticipation when making throws. He doesn't look like a rookie with that awareness. As Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after the game: "He's a guy we're going to have to learn to deal with."
  • BROWNS: As the team's website put it, it was another typical day at the office for the Browns defense last Sunday. Of the Browns' four victories this season, only one has been decided by more than 7 points. The defense held the Jaguars out of the end zone in the final minute last Sunday despite being backed up at the Browns' 1-yard line. “When games are put in our hands to win, we’ve shown up," cornerback Dimitri Patterson said. Hensley's slant: Yes, the Browns rank first against the pass. But the statistic that jumps out to me is the Browns are eighth in red-zone defense. Cleveland has given up 12 touchdowns on 28 drives inside its own 20-yard line. In the Browns' four wins, they've allowed 12 points in those situations. Pretty impressive.
  • RAVENS: Baltimore is gearing up for a physical matchup with 49ers running back Frank Gore. "This one, he is very special," outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said, via the Carroll County Times. "He runs angry. He runs very aggressive. We like that. We like the rough stuff." Hensley's slant: Lapses in run defense have cost the Ravens this season. In its past two losses, Baltimore has given up 100 yards to Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew and Seattle's Marshawn Lynch. So stopping Gore is a priority for the Ravens.

Final Word: AFC North

November, 18, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Struggles against Bengals: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has yet to figure out the Bengals' Cover 2 defense. In his past four games against Cincinnati, he's thrown two touchdowns and nine interceptions. His quarterback rating against the Bengals during that stretch is 52.8. The worst regular-season game of his career came at Cincinnati a year ago when he was picked off four times. What works in Flacco's favor this time is the Bengals' cornerbacks are different. Johnathan Joseph went to Houston as a free agent, and Leon Hall went down with a season-ending injury last Sunday. He'll be throwing against Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeMaurice-Jones Drew
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesThe Browns' 30th-ranked run defense will face a stiff test against Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew.
Struggles against the run: If you're the Cleveland Browns, one of the last running backs you want to face is Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, who has gained 100 yards rushing in two of his past three games. Comparatively, the Browns have allowed an NFL-worst six running backs to crack 100 yards in eight games this season. No other defense has allowed more than four running backs to do this, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The struggles on run defense are surprising because the Browns have been so strong up the middle with defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phillip Taylor along with middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. Cleveland ranks 30th in run defense.

Protecting the rookie: A major reason why Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has succeeded this season has been his offensive line. The Bengals have allowed 13 sacks for the season, which is tied for third fewest in the NFL, and have given up just two over the past four games. The Bengals' protection will get tested by the Ravens, one of the most aggressive defenses this year. Baltimore has recorded the third most sacks in the league with 27. At Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, where teams are often forced to use the silent count, the Ravens have had 16 sacks in four games.

Not cooking at home: The Browns have gone back-to-back home games without scoring a touchdown, and the last time they've gone three straight without reaching the end zone at home was the end of the 2008 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The last Browns touchdown at Cleveland was seven weeks ago against Tennessee. The touchdown drought at Cleveland Browns Stadium has lasted 25 consecutive drives. That's only four short of the winless Colts, who have the NFL's longest current one at home (according to STATS LLC). Cleveland plays Sunday against the Jaguars, who have allowed the sixth-fewest points in the league (18.4 points).

Grounded by the 4-3: The Ravens are 1-3 against teams that play the 4-3 defense (the only win coming at St. Louis). The biggest problem has been running against the four-man front. In losses to Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle -- all of which run the 4-3 -- Baltimore's running backs have averaged 38 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. The Ravens have yet to score a rushing touchdown against a 4-3 defense this season. Now comes the showdown with the Bengals, who just happen to line up in the 4-3 defense. Cincinnati has the NFL's second best run defense, holding teams to 86.8 yards on the ground.

Rapid Reaction: Jaguars 12, Ravens 7

October, 25, 2011

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 12-7 loss at the Jacksonville Jaguars:

What it means: The Ravens lost to a team with a losing record for just the third time in 22 meetings in the John Harbaugh era. It was costly because the Ravens (4-2) fall a half-game behind the Steelers (5-2) in the AFC North standings.

Thumbs up: The Ravens' defense. Baltimore showed why it's the stingiest defense in the NFL. The Ravens came up big when Ed Reed forced a fumble from Maurice Jones-Drew two yards from the end zone. It would have been a winning effort if the Ravens' offense showed any sort of life.

Thumbs down: Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and the Ravens' entire offense. Flacco (21-for-38 for 137 yards) was inaccurate when he had time and couldn't extend plays when the pocket collapsed. Rice had one of the worst games of his career with a fumble, dropped pass and poor block that led to a critical sack in the second half. The Ravens avoided a shutout with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin with 2:02 left in the game. Down by five points with less than two minutes remaining, Flacco's last pass was late over the middle and was intercepted to seal the loss.

Flag day: The Jaguars were helped on their third scoring drive by a questionable helmet-to-helmet penalty on Ravens safety Bernard Pollard. It results in the Jaguars converting a third-and-7 in the third quarter. That led to a 22-yard field goal that pushed the lead to 9-0 and made it a two-score game.

What's next: The Ravens get another shot at a one-win team when they host the Arizona Cardinals on a short week.

Halftime: Jaguars 6, Ravens 0

October, 24, 2011
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Thoughts of the Ravens-Jaguars game at halftime:
  • The difference has been two 54-yard field goals by Josh Scobee. The second one was made possible when Paul Kruger ran into the punter, moving the Jaguars into field-goal range.
  • Ravens running back Ray Rice is having one of the worst games of his career. He fumbled for the first time in the regular season since 2009 and he had another bad drop in the first half.
  • The Ravens defense came up big in the first quarter when Ed Reed forced Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew to fumble two yards from the end zone. Baltimore leads the NFL with nine fumble recoveries this season.
  • Reed then nearly made the mistake of the game when he nearly ran into the ball on a punt return after calling for a fair catch. It would have given the Jaguars the ball in Ravens territory with fewer than three minutes left in the first half.
  • Joe Flacco once again can't extend plays when pressured. He finished 6-for-16 for eight yards in the first half. Flacco caught a batted pass, which means he had more receptions (one) than the Ravens had first downs (zero) in the first half.
  • The Ravens had 16 yards of total offense in first half. Team record for fewest yards in the first half is 104 (at Pittsburgh on November 2007).
Ray RiceMitch Stringer/US PresswireRay Rice gets a chance Monday to outshine Maurice Jones-Drew, a fellow "undersized guy."
Success for Ray Rice on Monday night depends on breaking through the tackles of the Jaguars and sidestepping defenders in the open field.

But the Ravens running back has a different head-to-head battle on his mind: Rice versus Maurice Jones-Drew.

"Let’s see who comes out as the better running back that day," Rice said, as the Ravens (4-1) prepare to play at Jacksonville (1-5).

When it comes to these types of fights, Rice has become the undisputed champion among running backs. Already this season, he's outplayed Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson and Arian Foster when running on the same field.

Versatility separates Rice from the pack. He has the speed to bounce runs to the outside and the lower-body strength to power his way in between the tackles. Load up the box and Rice will line up as a receiver, where he is a mismatch for a safety.

Since 2009, when Rice became a full-time starter, he has averaged a league-leading 122.1 yards from scrimmage. During that time, he's produced an NFL-best 25 games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage -- which is three more than anyone else in the league (Johnson and Adrian Peterson have 22).

Few running backs are as valuable to their team as Rice, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. He leads the Ravens in rushing (398 yards) and is second in receiving (302 yards). His 700 total yards accounts for nearly 40 percent of Baltimore's offense.

“He’s an elite back, as good as there is in the league," Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "What scares defenses the most is his quickness, his lateral movement. We see it every practice and get to enjoy it in games. Ray gets any amount of small grass, and I mean a yard, and he can make you miss. The more he touches the ball, the better of a team we are.”

When Rice came into the league, he emulated the already-established Jones-Drew, and there are plenty of reasons why.

Rice is 5-foot-8, 212 pounds. Jones-Drew is 5-7, 208 pounds. Rice was drafted in the second round in 2008, the 55th overall selection. Jones-Drew was taken in the second round in 2006, the 60th overall selection.

Their paths crossed at the 2009 Pro Bowl, where Rice said the two bonded.

"We are just two ‘undersized guys’ that have proven ourselves over and over that, not only are we great running backs, but we are here to stay and we are going to continue to try to be consistent backs in this league," Rice said.

Rice said there weren't any plans to talk to Jones-Drew on the phone in the week leading up to the game. "But I am sure what’s going on his mind is that he wants to be the better back on that night," he said.

Jones-Drew changed the perception that NFL running backs had to be a certain size when he had breakout seasons in 2008 and 2009. He scored 30 touchdowns in those two seasons, a time when Rice was starting to get his footing in the NFL.

Asked if the backs are similar, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said, "Absolutely. Their build is definitely the same. I think Drew might be a little heavier than Ray and things like that. But I think out of the backfield Ray is a little more dynamic when it comes to spreading them out and getting in one-on-one matches. But Jones-Drew is the exact same type of back."

Rice has escaped Jones-Drew's shadow since the beginning of last season, generating 2,476 total yards and 10 touchdowns. Jones-Drew has 2,288 total yards and nine touchdowns during that span.

How does Rice think he measures up to Jones-Drew?

"Standing next to him, he will tell you that I do have him by an inch or so," Rice said with a smile. "So, I won that battle."

The results are in from our SportsNation poll and the AFC North team that draws the toughest playmaker Sunday is ... the Cleveland Browns.

In trying to go over .500 for the season, the Browns must stop Raiders running back Darren McFadden, the NFL's rushing leader. That's why the Browns received 53 percent in a poll that totaled over 7,500 votes.

McFadden is so hard to defend because he runs with speed and power. Among running backs, he ranks first in rushing yards per game (103.8), second in yards per carry (5.7) and tied for first in 20-yard runs (seven).

In the other AFC North games, the Ravens have to go against Houston's Arian Foster, the Steelers face Jacksonvillie's Maurice Jones-Drew and the Bengals line up against Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne.

The AFC North's tough defenses will be facing some top playmakers this week. The division is going head-to-head with three of the NFL's top nine rushers on Sunday in addition to one of the best wide receivers over the past decade.

Here's a look at the match ups:
  • BENGALS: Cincinnati has been strong against the pass, allowing the third-fewest yards through the air per game. The Bengals will line up against Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who is the sixth-most targeted receiver in the league. The five-time Pro Bowl receiver has had at least one catch of 20 or more yards in four of five games this season.
  • BROWNS: Cleveland has the worst run defense in the AFC North, ranking 25th. The Browns will go to Oakland, where they must bring down the league's top rusher in Darren McFadden. He is averaging 103.8 yards rushing per game and has scored three touchdowns.
  • RAVENS: Baltimore ranks second in the NFL in stopping the run, allowing 72.5 yards on the ground per game. The Ravens look to slow down the NFL's reigning rushing champion in Arian Foster. In his past two games, he's had 166 total yards against Pittsburgh and 184 total yards against Oakland.
  • STEELERS: Pittsburgh is coming off its most impressive effort against the run, shutting down Titans running back Chris Johnson. The challenge this Sunday will be Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew. He is sixth in the NFL with 95.2 yards rushing per game.

So, which AFC North team is facing the most dangerous playmaker this week? Go ahead and register your vote and/or let me know what you think in the comments section below. I'll follow up by the end of the week.

AFC North Week 11 decisive moment

November, 23, 2010
NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Despite lacking Pro Bowl-caliber talent, the Cleveland Browns' defense has played tough, fundamentally sound football most of this season. That is why it was surprising to see everything break down during the worst possible time in Sunday's 24-20 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Cleveland held a three-point lead in the fourth quarter. Jacksonville (six turnovers) was sloppy all game but outplayed the Browns in the final two minutes. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew ignited the Jaguars late with a 75-yard screen pass, which is this week's decisive moment in the AFC North.

Jones-Drew caught the ball on the right side, dodged several would-be tacklers and reversed field to the left for an impressive 75-yard reception. It is, by far, the longest reception of Jones-Drew's career. The only thing that prevented a 76-yard touchdown was Cleveland rookie cornerback Joe Haden's hustle to catch Jones-Drew from behind. The running back would later score on a 1-yard touchdown run that put Jacksonville (6-4) ahead for good.

It would be unfair to say Cleveland (3-7) lost this game on one play, particularly when the defense forced turnover after turnover but the offense failed to capitalize. In a league in which so many games come down to the fourth quarter, Cleveland's defense had a late lapse in execution and Jacksonville took advantage.



Sunday, 12/21
Monday, 12/22