AFC North: Oniel Cousins

The AFC North built a reputation on physically beating up on other divisions. In Week 1 of the 2013 season, they beat themselves up.

The division teams allowed too many hits on their quarterbacks, made too many costly penalties and turned the ball over too many times. The result: the first winless Week 1 for all of the AFC North teams since 2002, the division's first year of existence. According to ESPN Stats & Information, this is the first time the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers all lost in the same week since Week 10 of the 2010 season.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden
Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsCleveland's Brandon Weeden and the rest of the AFC North quarterbacks took their lumps in Week 1.
This has been regarded as one of the best divisions in football recently. Three teams made the playoffs in 2011, and two returned in 2012. But no one in the AFC North made a championship-caliber first impression in 2013.

The Steelers had the most devastating defeat, losing three players (Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, inside linebacker Larry Foote and backup running back LaRod Stephens-Howling) to season-ending injuries in a 16-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans. The Ravens had the most embarrassing defeat, falling by 22 points on the road against the Denver Broncos on national television -- the worst season-opening loss for a defending Super Bowl champion. The Bengals had the most frustrating loss, failing to hold an 11-point lead in Chicago with 23 minutes left to play. And the Browns had, well, another season-opening loss (their 14th in the past 15 seasons).

Here are the common themes in the losses for the AFC North teams:

Too many hits on the quarterbacks: Ben Roethlisberger, Brandon Weeden and Joe Flacco combined to get sacked a total of 15 times. It's no wonder they also combined to throw six interceptions. Weeden was hit 16 times by Miami. Has he ever been hit that much before? "I don't think so," he said. Defenses could tee off on the quarterbacks because there was no threat of a running game. All four teams averaged less than 3.7 yards per carry. The days of Jerome Bettis, Jamal Lewis and Corey Dillon are long gone.

Too many penalties: The Bengals, Browns and Ravens were flagged 24 times for 194 yards. This is a reflection of a lack of poise. Browns guard Oniel Cousins' holding penalty in the fourth quarter negated a touchdown. The Ravens were called for three personal fouls. The biggest blunder was committed by Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga, who has been on the hot seat with fans for more than a year now. His unnecessary roughness penalty with 1:06 to play gave the Bears an automatic first down when they were looking at having to punt. The Bengals lost by a field goal. “We had a lot of guys lose their composure today," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.

Too many turnovers: The AFC North teams collectively turned the ball over 10 times. Weeden threw three interceptions in the first half. Flacco was picked off twice, including one that should have been returned for a touchdown. Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu fumbled at the Bears' 19 in the fourth quarter with Cincinnati ahead by four points. And Steelers running back Isaac Redman fumbled into the end zone on the opening series. "It was kind of slow coming from center -- we were working with a new center," Redman said after the game. "It's a quick-hitting play, a bang-bang, and we messed up the quarterback-running back exchange. I never felt like I had it."

It will be a better week for half of the teams in Week 2, and I can guarantee it. The Ravens play host to the Browns on Sunday, and the Steelers play at the Bengals next Monday night.

Upon Further Review: Browns Week 1

September, 9, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Cleveland Browns' 23-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins:

Right is wrong: I'm not sure if I've ever seen one side of a line play so poorly as right guard Oniel Cousins and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz did Sunday. Cousins has an excuse because he's a third-stringer making his second career start at guard. Schwartz, a second-round pick from a year ago, does not. Sure, Schwartz had a tough assignment in Pro Bowl end Cameron Wake, but he looked like an overmatched rookie in what was the worst effort of his 17-game career. Schwartz allowed three sacks and countless quarterback hits. Cousins was flagged four times, including a fourth-quarter holding penalty that brought back a touchdown. Shawn Lauvao needs to get healthy quickly.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Trent Richardson
AP Photo/David RichardTrent Richardson carried the ball just 13 times for 47 yards against the Dolphins.
Questionable play calling: Did offensive coordinator Norv Turner forget about Trent Richardson being a 300-carry running back? Richardson ran the ball on four of the game's first six plays. He then had nine carries in the last 66 plays. Instead of putting the ball in the hands of their best offensive player, the Browns chose to throw the ball 53 times in a game that the Browns were trailing by a field goal heading into the fourth quarter. In order for Richardson to be a 300-carry back, he needs to average 19 carries per game. He had a grand total of 13 in the season opener. Richardson had only four games with fewer carries last season.

Tale of third downs: Some will point to turnovers as the reason the Browns lost, but Miami got only one field goal out of Brandon Weeden's three interceptions. This game was decided on third downs. While the Browns' defense did a commendable job in stopping the run and getting pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland couldn't get the Dolphins off the field. Miami converted eight of 16 third downs, which is quite an improvement for a Dolphins offense that ranked 16th on third-down conversions last season (38 percent). Tannehill was 9-of-13 for 82 yards on third downs, an average of 9.1 yards per completion. The Browns, meanwhile, couldn't stay on the field. Cleveland was a woeful 1-for-14 on third downs.

Stumbling in season openers: The Browns are 1-14 in season openers since returning to the NFL in 1999. Eight of the losses, including Sunday, have been by double digits. The only season-opening victory was in 2004 against the Baltimore Ravens, and the Browns finished 4-12 that season. No coach in the expansion era Browns has won his first game. The six coaches -- Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Rob Chudzinski -- have lost their first game by an average of 16.1 points. Surprisingly, Davis, Crennel and Shurmur all won their second game as Browns coach. Chudzinski draws the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens in Week 2.
Here are the morning headlines involving the Cleveland Browns:
  • The Browns are set to start converted tackle Oniel Cousins at right guard for the season opener, according to The Plain Dealer. The Browns lost their top two guards at that spot (Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston) to ankle injuries this month. “I have been pleased with how quickly he has made the transition,” coach Rob Chudzinski said of Cousins. “It’s not been perfect by any means, and he is still working and still needs to continue to work, but it has been relatively smooth.”
  • Chudzinski said some of his starters will make a brief appearance in the preseason finale Thursday night at Chicago, the Akron-Beacon Journal reports. “Generally, the guys who are with the ones would get 10-12 reps,” Chudzinski said.
  • First-rond pick Barkevious Mingo is improving from the bruised lung that has sidelined him since Aug. 15, according to the News-Herald. The rookie pass-rusher ran during a portion of practice Tuesday not open to reporters. There is no timetable for returning, but Chudzinski said Mingo will not have to go on the injured reserve-designated to return list.

Observation deck: Browns-Packers

August, 17, 2012
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There were some encouraging signs from rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden in the Browns' 35-10 preseason victory at Green Bay.

A week after three completions and two turnovers in the preseason opener, Weeden got rid of the ball quicker and was more decisive on reads. He finished 12-of-18 for 118 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks. Two of his six incompletions were drops by Josh Gordon and Greg Little.

Weeden led the Browns to scores on four of his six series (three long field goals by Phil Dawson and a one-yard touchdown run by Montario Hardesty), although three of the possessions began in Packers territory. And while he didn't turn the ball over, Weeden got lucky when Green Bay defenders dropped two of his throws.

Here are some of my other thoughts on the Browns' second preseason game:
  • Hardesty, who started his second game in place of the injured Trent Richardson (knee), got off to a bad start when he fumbled on the Browns' first play. He redeemed himself by gaining tough yards up the middle, rushing for 45 yards on 12 carries (3.8-yard average).
  • Like Weeden, the Browns' defense bounced back from the preseason opener. Without six starters, Cleveland gave up one completion over 11 yards to quarterback Aaron Rodgers (it was the touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson). The safety blitz by T.J. Ward was a well-timed wrinkle. The run defense clogged up the middle much better than last week. The Browns gave up 49 yards on the ground in the first half (compared to 115 last week), and 24 of those yards came on two Rodgers scrambles.
  • Colt McCoy put together his second strong performance in what may have been an audition for the Packers. McCoy was 4-of-6 for 58 yards, leading Cleveland on a 14-play scoring drive in his one series of work. If the Packers weren't interested in McCoy before this game, Thursday night should have changed their minds. Green Bay backup Graham Harrell struggled mightily with two interceptions (one was returned for a touchdown) and a safety.
  • Sheldon Brown, who was expected to get unseated as a starting cornerback this year, forced his second turnover of the preseason. He ripped the ball way from Green Bay's Randall Cobb after a catch.
  • The Browns' top cornerback, Joe Haden, had an interesting night. He was beaten early by Nelson, but Rodgers overthrew him in the end zone. When Haden blanketed Nelson moments later, Nelson leapt over him for a touchdown.
  • Dawson looked like he was in midseason form with field goals from 53, 46 and 52 yards. His night was made tougher by lineman Oniel Cousins, who committed two penalties to push back Dawson's kicks. A facemask penalty on an extra point? Really?
  • You didn't really notice rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, which is a compliment after a shaky game last week. The Browns' starting offensive line was solid. Left guard Jason Pinkston gave up a quarterback pressure on one third down, which forced Weeden to hurry a throw.
BEREA, Ohio -- The reason why the Browns don't have a coveted wide receiver is because they failed to be aggressive.

Cleveland got the running back it wanted by trading up to No. 3 to draft Trent Richardson. The Browns should've done the same later in the first round for their targeted wide receiver, Baylor's Kendall Wright.

By staying put at No. 22 on Thursday, the Browns have a 28-year-old rookie quarterback in Brandon Weeden and no difference-maker at wide receiver after three rounds. Cleveland reportedly had Wright rated higher than Weeden and would've taken Wright if he was available.

According to general manager Tom Heckert, there were three wide receivers the team considered "legitimate guys." This list presumably includes Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd and Wright. Blackmon and Floyd were taken in the top 13.

If the Browns thought Wright was the last of the best receivers, they should've moved ahead of Tennessee, which drafted Wright at No. 20. The Browns had to know the Titans were interested because Tennessee had four of the top receiver prospects, including Wright, in for pre-draft visits. Moving three or four spots up would've cost the Browns a third-round pick.

Heckert said there was no frustration over failing to add a receiver in the first three rounds.

"We could have taken a receiver. We don’t want to take a receiver just to take a receiver," he said Friday night. "If we didn’t get a receiver and we didn’t get a good player, we might be [frustrated]. But we are happy with the guys we took, we really are.”

You can't fault the Browns for passing on a wide receiver early in the second round. The Browns had to address right tackle at that point because they couldn't go into a season with Oniel Cousins as the starter there.

By the time the Browns were on the clock in the third round, there were no other deep threats remaining. Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill (New York Jets) and LSU's Rueben Randle (New York Giants) both were drafted in the second round.

Heckert said there is a chance the Browns might take a wide receiver in the final four rounds Saturday. The draft resumes at noon.

“We still have some picks left. There are some guys that we do like," Heckert said. "We’ll see what happens after tomorrow and then we can discuss if we don’t have any.”
According to the SportsNation poll, the running back position is the Cleveland Browns' biggest need heading into the NFL draft. But it didn't win by much.

In one of the closest AFC North polls, 37 percent of voters say running back is the biggest hole on the roster. It edged out the wide receiver position by two percent. Quarterback and offensive tackle both received 14 percent.

I guess I'm in the minority on this one. I would've voted for offensive tackle, namely the right one. The Browns cut starting right tackle Tony Pashos and didn't re-sign backup Artis Hicks. If the season started today, Cleveland would go with Oniel Cousins, a Ravens castoff who has started five games in four seasons.

This isn't to say the Browns should take a right tackle in the first round. Cleveland still needs to draft the best player available. But, in the worst-case scenario, the Browns could make do with Colt McCoy, Montario Hardesty and Greg Little. They couldn't run an effective offense with Cousins at right tackle.

Offense has to be the focus for the Browns in this draft, which is obvious to everyone who watched Cleveland this season. The Browns ranked 29th in total yards (288.8 per game) and 30th in points (13.6).

Poll: Browns' biggest draft need

April, 12, 2012
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There's no debate that the Cleveland Browns need to upgrade significantly on offense in this draft.

The Browns ranked 29th in total yards (288.8 per game) and 30th in points (13.6). The St. Louis Rams were the only other team to rank in the bottom four in the NFL in both those categories.

SportsNation

What is the biggest draft need for the Cleveland Browns?

  •  
    14%
  •  
    37%
  •  
    35%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,364)

But what is the Browns' biggest need heading into this year's draft? Here are the top choices:

Quarterback: The Browns failed in their attempt to trade up in the draft to get Robert Griffin III. Now, they are left with Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace. In his first full season as a starter, McCoy ranked 26th in completion percentage (57.2), 25th in passing yards per game (210.2), 32nd in yards per attempt (5.9), 25th in passer rating (74.6) and 25th in QBR (39.8).

Running back: Cleveland didn't re-sign Peyton Hillis, their starting running back for the past two seasons who went to Kansas City. The Browns' remaining backs -- Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya -- totaled 600 rushing yards and one touchdown last season. Hardesty and Jackson missed a combined 22 games last season because of injuries.

Wide receiver: This group produced a lot of drops and few big plays. Greg Little, Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi combined for 20 catches over 20 yards, averaged 12.1 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns.

Offensive tackle: The Browns cut starting right tackle Tony Pashos and didn't re-sign backup Artis Hicks. If the season started today, Cleveland would go with Oniel Cousins, a Ravens castoff who has started five games in four seasons.

Go ahead and register your vote, or let me know what you think in the comments section below. I'll follow up by Monday.
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. broke down the top six needs remaining Insider for each of the AFC North teams. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the entire post, but here's a glimpse of the top three needs:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Horton's top three needs: Cornerback, guard and safety.

Horton on cornerback: The starters in 2011 were Leon Hall, who will be coming off an Achilles injury, and 32-year-old Nate Clements. When Hall went down, Adam Jones filled in, but none of these three make you comfortable in man coverage. Newly acquired free agent Jason Allen will help, but there is a lot of work to be done here.

Hensley's comment: I wouldn't put cornerback as the top need because the Bengals added Allen and re-signed Jones. Allen is an upgrade over Kelly Jennings. Guard is the bigger concern. If the season started today, the Bengals' starting right guard would either be Otis Hudson, Clint Boling or Anthony Collins (who would shift over from tackle).

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Horton's top three needs: Quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

Horton on quarterback: Right now, their options at QB are starter Colt McCoy and veteran backup Seneca Wallace, but nobody expects it to stay that way. With two first-round draft picks, they will almost surely pick a QB with one of them.

Hensley's comment: You could make a strong argument that quarterback, wide receiver or running back should rank as the No. 1 need. My top need for Cleveland is right tackle. The Browns can at least start McCoy, Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Montario Hardesty at those other positions. Right tackle was a weak spot for the Browns last season with Tony Pashos and Artis Hicks, both of whom are now gone. The Browns' starting right tackle at this point is Oniel Cousins, a third-round bust from Baltimore.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Horton's three needs: Inside linebacker, left guard and safety.

Horton on inside linebacker: The Ray Lewis era will be ending soon, and the Ravens need to find his replacement. Jameel McClain was re-signed, and he can play inside or outside, but a three-down linebacker who can play solid pass defense is sorely needed.

Hensley's comment: Left guard is the biggest need on the team, and it's not even close. The Ravens couldn't keep Ben Grubbs and failed to sign Evan Mathis. The fallback option is Jah Reid, a backup offensive tackle last season. Going from a Pro Bowl guard (Grubbs) to a converted tackle (Reid) is a major step down.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Horton's top three needs: Offensive tackle/guard, nose tackle and running back.

Horton on offensive tackle/guard: Center Maurkice Pouncey is the only stable starter on this unit. Veteran tackle Max Starks is coming off an ACL injury and T Willie Colon can't stay healthy, though the coaches hope he can get through a full season at RT with young Marcus Gilbert moving from RT to LT. There is also a big hole at left guard. The Steelers need to get at least one, and maybe two, starters up front.

Hensley's comment: You can't really disagree with this assessment. Left guard Doug Legursky is a backup who performed admirably when Chris Kemoeatu was benched. Gilbert has a good chance of succeeding on the left side, but it's hard to depend on Colon at right tackle with his injury history. The Steelers' options are limited because there is no depth. Jonathan Scott, who has struggled mightily, is the top backup at tackle, and there's no reserves at guard with Trai Essex (free agent) and Jamon Meredith (not tendered as a restricted free agent) off on the roster.
Here are some AFC North evening notes:

Eagles free-agent guard Evan Mathis left the Ravens facility without a contract but he did have dinner plans. He will sit down with general manager Ozzie Newsome tonight and remain in Baltimore tomorrow.

That looks like a positive sign for the Ravens, who are looking for an immediate replacement for Ben Grubbs (who signed today with the New Orleans Saints).


"I think it's a good fit," Mathis told the Carroll County (Md.) Times. "We had a good meeting."

Asked if a deal is imminent, Mathis said: "We're not at that point yet."

BENGALS: Starting safety Reggie Nelson, the top Bengals' free agent, is scheduled to visit the New York Jets tomorrow. ... The Bengals have three players in for visits: New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter, Miami defensive lineman Kendall Langford and New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross. Porter likely has the edge over Ross because he's only 25, four years younger than Ross. Langford is scheduled to leave for a visit with the Rams tomorrow if he doesn't have a contract.

BROWNS: Free-agent safety Mike Adams, 30, agreed on a two-year deal with the Denver Broncos. Usama Young and Eric Hagg could battle for the job, or the Browns could move cornerback Sheldon Brown to safety after the team re-signed Dimitri Patterson. ... Cleveland reached a one-year, $3 million deal with 12-year defensive lineman Juqua Parker, the NFL Network first reported. Parker will serve as the top backup, which likely will lead to the release of former starter Jayme Mitchell. ... The Browns announced they re-signed backup offensive lineman Oniel Cousins.

Final Word: AFC North

September, 16, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireAll eyes will be on Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to see how they respond to their Week 1 loss against Baltimore.
Early gut check for Steelers: Everyone wants to see how Pittsburgh responds after taking its worst beating ever from Baltimore. The Steelers said all week that there is no panic in the locker room, and you tend to believe them because they return 21 of 22 starters from a team that played in the Super Bowl. But the heat will be turned up if the Steelers fail to put away the rebuilding Seahawks and go through the motions in their home opener. The critics say Pittsburgh looked slow and old against the Ravens. This is Pittsburgh's chance to respond.

Ravens' biggest concern: An emotional hangover from last Sunday would spell trouble for the Ravens against Chris Johnson, who is a threat to score on any play. After getting nine carries last game, the Titans running back thinks he could get as many as 25 touches Sunday, which would present a challenge for the Ravens. Three years ago against the Ravens, Johnson had 100 yards from scrimmage before leaving with an ankle injury. Baltimore's linebackers are tough and physical but lack great speed. Tracking Johnson sideline to sideline is a huge task.

Avoid slow start: Every team wants to start fast. But it's essential for the Browns and Colt McCoy. Playing catchup with the Colts means defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis begin to tee off. The big worry is Mathis, even though he's been limited in practice this week with a neck injury. With Tony Pashos out with an ankle injury, Cleveland will rotate Artis Hicks and Oniel Cousins at right tackle, where they'll line up against Mathis. That's the biggest mismatch of the game.

Give the ball to Benson: Bengals running back Cedric Benson is looking for 100-yard rushing games in consecutive weeks for the first time since the end of the 2008 season. That should be a primary goal for Cincinnati against a banged-up Broncos defense. Denver could be without two starters (defensive end Elvis Dumervil and weakside linebacker D.J. Williams) along with a couple of backups (defensive tackle Marcus Thomas and nose tackle Ty Warren). It seems like a no-brainer to commit to a ground-and-pound game against the Broncos, who allowed 190 yards rushing against Oakland on Monday.

Steelers' target: The bull's-eye is squarely on Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. The Steelers should be revved up after managing one sack in the season opener and now facing a ragged Seattle offensive line. The Seahawks' blocking is so shaky that even a mobile quarterback like Jackson got sacked five times Sunday. It should be big days for James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton was limited in practice Wednesday, which caused speculation on the status of the second-round draft pick. Dalton is officially listed with a right wrist injury, which explains why he didn't throw and handed off using his left hand during the media-viewing portion of practice.

Joe Reedy, of the Cincinnati Enquirer, reports there is "cautious optimism" that Dalton will start Sunday at Denver. But Geoff Hobson, of Bengals.com, described Dalton as "questionable at best."

Ross Tucker, former NFL player turned analyst for ESPN.com, posted on Twitter this morning that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is "optimistic" about Dalton practicing today and playing on Sunday.

Hensley's slant: The Bengals shouldn't rush Dalton back. His backup, Bruce Gradkowski, has led six fourth-quarter comebacks in 20 starts, including Sunday's 27-17 win over the Browns. He should also have a familiarity with the Broncos' defensive personnel after playing the past two seasons in Oakland.
  • RAVENS: Wide receiver Lee Evans is back in a protective boot for a left ankle injury. He wore the same boot leading up to the preseason finale, but he practiced all last week. Hensley's slant: Even though Evans didn't make a catch in the season opener, his absence would be huge Sunday at Tennessee. The Ravens would have to start either David Reed, who is coming off suspension, or Torrey Smith, a rookie who is coming off a rocky preseason.
  • STEELERS: Ben Roethlisberger vowed to use the no-huddle offense Sunday against the Seahawks after struggling to score one touchdown in the season opener. Hensley's slant: The Steelers should be vowing to commit more to the running game. Pittsburgh ran the ball only 10 times in the first half of the season opener despite averaging 6 yards per carry.
  • BROWNS: With right tackle Tony Pashos out again with an ankle injury, the Browns will try to block Colts pass-rusher Robert Mathis with the rotation of Artis Hicks and Oniel Cousins. Hensley's slant: The Browns have to make sure their banged-up offensive line doesn't lead to a banged-up Colt McCoy. Neither Hicks nor Cousins will be able to handle Mathis one-on-one, so Cleveland has to double him by putting a tight end on the right side or chipping a running back there.
The NFL preseason will conclude Thursday night for the AFC North division.

Here are four things to watch in the final preseason games:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers' backup quarterbacks

Analysis: Pittsburgh's backup quarterback position is wide open because Byron Leftwich is out for the season with a broken arm. Veteran Charlie Batch and the younger Dennis Dixon will battle it out tonight against the Carolina Panthers. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin decided to sit starter Ben Roethlisberger so the team can better evaluate Batch and Dixon. The player who performs the best against the Panthers probably will go into the regular season one play away from seeing the field.

2. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton

Analysis: The early reviews haven't been pretty for Dalton. ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton recently ranked the rookie second-round pick dead last among starting NFL quarterbacks. Dalton has been up and down this preseason. The good news is he's coming off a solid outing in Week 3 against the Carolina Panthers. He threw for 130 yards and a touchdown. Dalton needs to carry that momentum into tonight's game against Indianapolis. This is the final tuneup before the regular-season opener against Cleveland.

3. Baltimore Ravens' offensive line

Analysis: Baltimore's offensive line has struggled with a lot of moving parts this preseason. This final preseason game is a chance for the unit to jell one last time before the Ravens' regular-season opener against Pittsburgh. Although nothing is official, there's a chance starting center Matt Birk and new left tackle Bryant McKinnie could make their 2011 debuts against the Atlanta Falcons. Birk is coming off knee surgery and McKinnie is still working his way back into football shape. If at least one of these players gets reps Thursday, that would mark progress.

4. Cleveland Browns' left guard

Analysis: The left side of Cleveland's offensive line was once the biggest strength of the team before Eric Steinbach's season-ending back injury. Now, the Browns have a huge hole at left guard next to perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas. Rookie fifth-round pick Jason Pinkston will get the first crack at replacing Steinbach. Oniel Cousins and John Greco are two more possibilities. Keep a close eye on this group Thursday against the Chicago Bears. The Browns hope to have their answer at left guard before Week 1.
Here are the latest happenings Wednesday evening in the AFC North:
  • The Cincinnati Bengals extended left tackle Andrew Whitworth's contract through 2015.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, who had offseason back surgery, is not 100 percent.
  • Who is in and who is out for the Baltimore Ravens Thursday night against the Atlanta Falcons?
  • Former Ravens offensive lineman Oniel Cousins is not expected to start for the Cleveland Browns.
  • Here is a recap of this week's chat on the AFC North.
The Cleveland Browns took a significant loss on the offensive line Tuesday. Starting guard Eric Steinbach will be out for the season with a disc injury in his back. He will be placed on injured reserve.

Steinbach
Here are some thoughts on the loss:
  • More than anything, this hurt Cleveland's running game. Steinbach was the team's best pulling offensive lineman. He also was agile enough to get in open space for screens and sweeps. Running back Peyton Hillis also had a lot of success running off the left guard in between tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.
  • Finding Steinbach's replacement won't be easy. The Browns claimed Oniel Cousins off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens. Despite struggling mightily in Baltimore, he is a candidate to start in Cleveland. The Browns also have free-agent John Greco and rookie Jason Pinkston on the roster. Either way, Cleveland is taking a significant downgrade with Steinbach out.
  • The Browns hope they can hide the left guard between Thomas and Mack. Cleveland will be strong at left tackle and center but pretty weak in between. Expect a lot of teams to attack the Browns with blitzes and stunts on that side early to see if Cleveland can handle it.

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