AFC North: Nick Eason

Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North: Morning take: I'm not getting too excited about one good game. Robiskie needs to finish these final five weeks with the same level of production. That would be impressive.
Morning take: Keisel's presence will be huge. Although not as dominant as teammate Aaron Smith, Keisel is an underrated cog in Pittsburgh's defense.
Morning take: I'm not a fan of stealing a rival's idea and simply changing the colors. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.
Morning take: ESPN.com had Cincinnati No. 30. But arguing about the Detroit Lions and Bengals is useless. They're both bad.

Is Steelers' Ziggy Hood ready?

October, 29, 2010
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Ziggy HoodAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarDE Ziggy Hood has been thrust into the starting lineup after an injury sidelined Aaron Smith.
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin noticed Ziggy Hood at the training facility early Tuesday -- the team's off day -- getting extra work. Without anyone saying a word, Hood knows the increased responsibility and big shoes he must fill this weekend against the reigning champion New Orleans Saints in his first career start.

Starting left defensive end Aaron Smith had triceps surgery on Monday and will be out for an extended period. Not only is Hood expected to replace him Sunday, but the former first-round pick likely will be the starter in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.

With just three tackles in six games this season, is Hood ready?

"He's not had the kind of production that he'd like thus far, but the season is still early," Tomlin said. "Boy, he's got a big-time opportunity to work on that this weekend. Knowing him, I know that he will do what’s necessary in the process."

With 22 games under his belt, Hood is not green by any means. Like a lot of young players in Pittsburgh, Hood has been slowly groomed for this moment.

The Steelers and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau run a complicated 3-4 scheme that takes time to learn. Current defensive stars Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and even Smith struggled or were non-factors as rookies. The same can be said for Hood, who played in all 16 games as a backup last year. He was in the rotation, spelling starters Smith and Brett Keisel, and recorded eight tackles and a sack.

Smith is not only Hood's predecessor, but he's also Hood's mentor. Smith often took time out of his schedule after practice and in training camp to work with Hood on technique. Their lockers are close and they talk strategy a lot in Pittsburgh's locker room and in meeting rooms.

Hood said he feels "awful" that Smith suffered another major injury -- his third in four years -- but said Smith remains "in good spirits." Hood wants to perform well Sunday not only for himself and the success of the team, but also for his mentor.

[+] EnlargeAaron Smith
Doug Murray/Icon SMIAaron Smith tore a triceps muscle against the Dolphins and may miss the rest of the season.
"When you lose a guy of high caliber like that it makes you want to work harder, because what he brings to the field, it's tough to replace," Hood told me this week. "I'm going to try to do my best and try to fill his shoes. But it may not be enough. That guy has so much experience that it's mind-boggling thinking about it. But I'm going to do everything I can in my power to make sure that I make him proud."

Many players make their biggest jump in the NFL in Year 2. Although Hood had a solid preseason, it has been difficult to gauge his progress with limited reps in the regular season.

We will know where Hood is in his development after this weekend. His snap count could triple against the Saints as a first-time starter, depending on the depth and availability of fellow starter Brett Keisel, who missed last week's game against Miami with a hamstring injury.

Backup Nick Eason replaced Keisel at right defensive end last week, because Hood has worked mostly as Smith's backup on the left side. Hood said he will be much more comfortable Sunday playing full time at left defensive end.

"If you practice for a long time on your left and try to switch over to your right, it's real fuzzy," Hood explained. "Your whole mechanics and how you view things is a little bit different. Not only are you switching calls and trying to pick up different signals, but your stance and alignment is different. So I'm going to try to learn as much as I can from both sides in case they need me for the long run."

Smith is one of the NFL's most underrated and consistent players. Pittsburgh's defense has suffered every time he has been unavailable because of injuries in recent years. But Hood was drafted last year in the first round to prevent that from happening again. The Steelers have rolled to a 5-1 start and hope Hood will be part of that continued success.

"We haven't seen it yet, but Hood has to be a better player than he was a year ago," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "Hood has ability, and defensive line coach John Mitchell is one of the best in the league. He's had a chance to bring him along, and Hood's been in the organization long enough to where there's no more excuses."

According to Tomlin, Hood doesn't have to be Aaron Smith. The Steelers have enough studs on defense capable of helping make up for the loss. Tomlin just doesn't want to see a noticeable dropoff in the NFL's fourth-ranked defense now that Hood is expected to be the long-term replacement.

"You know the philosophy we buy into in terms of the standard being the standard, and what we mean by that, quite frankly, is those who step in for [Smith] has to play winning football," Tomlin said. "There are no excuses... Do I expect the guys that take his place to play like Aaron, or make the similar kind of plays? Maybe not. But they better be above the line."

Seven-step drop: Losing Aaron Smith

October, 25, 2010
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Here are seven notes and observations from Week 7:
    [+] EnlargeSmith
    AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Steelers could be vulnerable against the run without defensive end Aaron Smith.

  • Lost in the Pittsburgh Steelers' controversial win against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday was the probable season-ending triceps injury to Aaron Smith. This is a huge blow to Pittsburgh (5-1), because Smith is the prototype 3-4 defensive end and one of the biggest leaders in the locker room. This could be the second straight season-ending injury for Smith, who has been one of the NFL's most underrated players. The Steelers are very hard to run against when Smith is healthy, but the defense suffers mightily when he's out. Defensive end Brett Keisel (hamstring) is also banged up, making it possible that Pittsburgh will start backups Ziggy Hood and Nick Eason this week against the reigning champion New Orleans Saints. Hood, a 2009 first-round pick, must grow up fast for the Steelers.
  • Although they narrowly escaped Miami, the Steelers are now tied with the New York Jets, Tennessee Titans and Dolphins for the NFL's best road record at 3-0. All three of these teams are physical and play a consistent style, home and away. Pittsburgh must continue its road success; four of its next six games are away from Heinz Field.
  • Here is a suggestion for the Cincinnati Bengals: It's time to hold a players-only meeting. The Bengals' season is on the brink after a 2-4 start, and there are so many leaks in this sinking ship that players need to talk it out amongst each other without coaches around and demand everyone look in the mirror to figure out how to improve. Cincinnati's issue isn't with one player or one position or one side of the football. It's been a team-wide failing with different culprits, including coaching.
  • It's officially time to wonder if too many offseason activities negatively impacted Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco. I've had this theory for a couple weeks, but wanted to be fair to Ochocinco and allow enough time and games to be played before I brought it up. Ochocinco had two nationally televised shows in the offseason and another just starting with teammate Terrell Owens that airs on Tuesdays. Ochocinco received a lot of press and knew he would get heat if he struggled this season, prompting his "birth control" comment. So far Ochocinco's production has been inconsistent and his attention to detail is waning. Ochocinco had a 100-yard game Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. But quarterback Carson Palmer got on him about running the wrong routes, and the receiver also dropped an easy pass that went through his hands. Many Bengals are suffering mental errors this season, but Ochocinco has been one of the biggest offenders.
  • Kudos to the Cleveland Browns' coaching staff and head coach Eric Mangini for pulling out the bag of tricks before the bye week. Many teams use the extra week of preparation to add wrinkles and practice trick plays. But the Browns (2-5) decided there was no time better than the present to run a tricky fake punt that worked to perfection against New Orleans. Tailback Peyton Hillis also caught the Saints' defense by surprise with a 13-yard pass. Cleveland's staff has struggled this season, particularly with second-half adjustments, and needs to be more creative with things like this to spark the team.
  • The Browns will spend the bye week determining whether it's best to stick with rookie quarterback Colt McCoy or turn back to one of their veteran quarterbacks -- Seneca Wallace or Jake Delhomme. In my opinion, McCoy has played well enough to keep the job. Against the past two Super Bowl champions, McCoy put up Cleveland's season-high passing yards (281) against Pittsburgh and was the winning quarterback against the Saints. In two starts, McCoy has thrown for 355 yards and completed 65.3 percent of his passes. With the Browns coming off a huge win, there's no reason to disrupt things with another shakeup at quarterback.
  • What happened to Baltimore Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington on Sunday? Washington had his worst day as a Raven, allowing three touchdown passes to the winless Buffalo Bills (0-6). His play was so bad that Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh benched Washington in favor of Josh Wilson in the fourth quarter. Washington has had solid games this season, but he was awful against the Bills. He will have a lot of corrections to make during the bye week.

Morning take: Ed Reed's decision

October, 23, 2010
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Here are the most interesting stories Saturday in the AFC North:

  • Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed (hip) is still unsure if he will play Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
Morning take: After putting Jared Gaither on injured reserve, a roster spot is waiting for Reed if he wants to play. But Reed also has the luxury of sitting Sunday and getting two more weeks to heal.

  • The running game of the Cincinnati Bengals could be pivotal against the Atlanta Falcons.
Morning take: The Bengals need to leave Atlanta with a win any way they can. If a ball-control offense is the way to go, Cincinnati tailback Cedric Benson needs a big day.
Morning take: As we mentioned earlier this week, Wright is in a slump and giving up too many big plays. This is a big game for him against the New Orleans Saints, because the Browns will re-evaluate everything during their bye week.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers backup defensive end Nick Eason will start in place of the injured Brett Keisel (hamstring) against the Miami Dolphins.
Morning take: Eason and Evander Hood have been in the rotation all season as backups. Look for both to share plenty of reps at defensive end Sunday.
Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC North: Morning take: The top four receivers of Chad Ochocinco, Antonio Bryant, Jordan Shipley and Andre Caldwell are in. From there, it’s anyone's guess.

  • Pittsburgh Steelers backup defensive lineman Nick Eason is targeting training camp for his return from appendix surgery.
Morning take: The report says Eason lost 28 pounds, which he will certainly need to gain back to play defensive line in a 3-4 scheme.

  • The Baltimore Ravens signed veteran safety Ken Hamlin Thursday but was turned down after offering cornerback Walt Harris a one-year deal.
Morning take: I'm not sure what happened in this case. But usually with players it comes down to money or possibly a better opportunity elsewhere.

  • The Cleveland Browns are expected to take the field for training camp on July 31.
Morning take: This camp will have several key position battles. It will also be interesting to see how much the Browns have improved.
Here are the most interesting stories Thursday in the AFC North:

Morning take: Matt Stover's presence for so many years erased the need for a consistent kicker in Baltimore. But this is a different time.

Morning take: Rivers has just two picks in his first two seasons. More turnovers by the USC alum would go a long way for Cincinnati’s defense.

Morning take: Grantham struggled in Cleveland but was decent as a position coach with the Dallas Cowboys. Now he brings his pro experience to the college game.

  • Defensive end Nick Eason agreed to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Morning take: Eason spent a majority of his career in the division with Cleveland and Pittsburgh and now will provide depth for the Steelers' defensive line.

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.

Aaron Smith out for the season

October, 14, 2009
10/14/09
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Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


  Smith
The Pittsburgh Steelers put starting defensive end Aaron Smith on injured reserve Tuesday, ending his 2009 season. He injured his shoulder in last weekend’s win over the Detroit Lions.

This is a big loss as Smith was one of the team’s most important players on defense. He was great at stuffing the run and was able to pressure the quarterback when given the opportunity. The 11-year veteran also was one of Pittsburgh’s most consistent players.

The Steelers signed rookie defensive end Ra’Shon "Sonny" Harris to take Smith’s roster spot. But it will be up to backups Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason and rookie Ziggy Hood to step up in Smith’s absence for the rest of the season.

Pittsburgh (3-2) hosts the Cleveland Browns (1-4) Sunday at Heinz Field.

Morning take: Quinn trade looming?

October, 14, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North: Morning take: This is one of those things that could mean a lot or mean nothing. Only time will tell if Quinn remains in Cleveland long-term.
  • Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes Steelers starting defensive end Aaron Smith is out indefinitely with a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
Morning take: It appears there is a chance Smith could be lost for the season, which would be the worst-case scenario. Either way it will be up to backups Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason and rookie Ziggy Hood to step up.
Morning take: There was a time in the spring when the AFC North blog was the only national media that thought highly of the Bengals. Ah, those were the good old days.
Morning take: Tyree might be able to help at receiver, but perhaps his most immediate contribution will be on special teams. He has 85 career tackles on special teams with the New York Giants.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories in the AFC North:

  • Cleveland Browns defensive end Kenyon Coleman is looking to make an impact in his first year with the team.

Morning take: Two years ago, the former New York Jet led NFL defensive linemen in tackles, which is very impressive in a 3-4 scheme. Cleveland hopes to get similar production from Coleman.

Morning take: Poor Steve Hauschka (59 rating). If the Ravens are your team, you may want to pick up veteran free-agent kicker Matt Stover instead.

Morning take: The sooner the better, because this one is probably going down to the wire.

Morning take: Check out Eason's explanation of his time with the Cleveland Browns. It's pretty telling the difference between the two organizations.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Eason
Coming off his first Super Bowl victory, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Nick Eason decided to put energy into another sporting arena.

This offseason Eason became a active sponsor of the Cleveland Fusion -- a women's professional football team in northeast Ohio. Eason, a former member of the Cleveland Browns, still has many connections in the area and has been promoting women's pro football in Cleveland.

"After the Super Bowl a lot of doors have been opened for me, so I just wanted to basically give something back to the community," Eason said of his work with the Fusion. "So I heard about the Cleveland Fusion, and I see them as sort of the old-school NFL.

"I think that down the road it's a possibility that this could go big with the right marketing tools and if it's done right and done properly."

Women's professional football has been an underground sport for a while. But with the constant craving for pigskin in American, Eason believes it has the potential to grow.

The Women's Football Alliance (WFA) has 36 teams across the country, four more than the NFL. There are also teams in all four AFC North cities, including the Pittsburgh Force, who will play the Fusion 7 p.m. Saturday at Byers Field in Parma, Ohio.

"We pretty much play by the NFL rules," said Fusion player Tiffany Soggs. "The only difference is a smaller ball. Outside of that, it's full pads and full gear. It's regular football. Anything you'll see in a men's game you will see in our game."

Eason has been out to Fusion practices numerous times during the offseason and said he enjoys the sport. That is why he is backing women's football and trying to promote the sport as much as possible during the Steelers' offseason.

"I'm a sports fan, and obviously I play football," Eason said. "I'm a type of guy that supports a lot of different things, all types of sports, and different types of people from different walks of life. I'm pro for anything for the good, and that's why I wanted to get involved."

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