AFC North: Pat Williams
» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|Pittsburgh expects to have a healthy Troy Polamalu for the first time since Week 1.|
Browns out: Is this the final game for key members of the Browns? Cleveland has been at the center of trade rumors with the deadline to move players approaching on Oct. 20. Trade talk involving return specialist Joshua Cribbs, tailback Jamal Lewis and quarterback Brady Quinn, who recently put his house on the market, have all made the rounds, but any major trade appears unlikely.
Containing Johnson: One reason the Cincinnati Bengals have won four in a row is because of the team’s ability to shut down top receivers. In back-to-back wins, Baltimore Ravens No. 1 receiver Derrick Mason and Cleveland's Edwards were both held to zero receptions. The Bengals have arguably the NFL’s most underrated secondary, and they will get another test in Houston Texans star receiver Andre Johnson, who had eight catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns last week against the Arizona Cardinals.
It’s a snap: Keep an eye on special teams this week as long-snapper Clark Harris makes his debut for the Bengals. The past 10 seasons, Brad St. Louis handled those duties but got into a major funk this season that included bad snaps in four of the team’s five games. Cincinnati tried to remain patient but finally moved on after St. Louis had two bad snaps (one called back via penalty) in last week’s win over the Ravens.
Balance in Baltimore: Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron says he has no regrets for the team’s astounding pass-to-run ratio of 84-to-35 in consecutive losses to the New England Patriots and Cincinnati. Starting tailback Ray Rice is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and deserves more opportunities. Backup Willis McGahee also got just one carry against the Bengals. Running this week will be a tall task against the front seven of the undefeated Minnesota Vikings (5-0), who have three Pro Bowl caliber defensive linemen in Jared Allen and Pat and Kevin Williams.
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:
- Baltimore Ravens rookie right tackle Michael Oher expects to have some nerves before Sunday’s season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs.
- Receiver Chad Ochocinco says the Cincinnati Bengals will go 12-4 this year.
- Tennessee Titans receiver Nate Washington (hamstring) may be fine to play in Thursday’s season opener against his former team in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
- The “Williams Wall” for the Minnesota Vikings was cleared to play in Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
Only three teams averaged less than the Bengals' 95 rushing yards per game in 2008. The inability to run the ball allowed opposing defenses to take away the deep pass with a deep safety rolled over Chad Ochocinco.
Cedric Benson is going to carry the load for Cincinnati this year. He far exceeded my expectations last year and surely I was not alone in thinking he would not make a major impact in Cincinnati after being signed off the street. But he certainly can do some good things. He is a workhorse runner with excellent size and above-average power. His vision is good and he runs behind his pads. Benson is not a heavy-footed runner and does have some ability to turn the corner. He also is an adequate outlet receiving option out of the backfield.
|Andy Lyons/Getty Images|
| Bengals running back Cedric Benson averaged just 3.5 yards per attempt last season. |
That can be looked at two ways. In a glass-half-full scenario, maybe Benson finally hit his stride with his new team and it is a sign of great things to come. In a glass-half-empty scenario -- which is where I am leaning -- Benson accumulated that yardage against the hapless Browns and Chiefs in the final week of the season. In Benson's three appearances against the Steelers and Ravens, he carried the ball 30 times and mustered only 104 yards. The Bengals lost those three games by a combined score of 99-23.
Other than Benson, the Bengals have a few options, but no one to get overly excited about. They recently traded defensive tackle Orien Harris for Brian Leonard, a fullback/running back tweener who plays hard but is far from a dynamic option. The other most prominent candidates for carries include DeDe Dorsey, Kenny Watson and Bernard Scott.
Dorsey flashed a little with the Colts, but his five carries for eight yards last year isn't particularly enthralling. Although he is a good guy to have on the roster and can contribute in a variety of ways, Watson was handed the ball only 13 times last year. At best, he is a below-average No. 2 runner, but is really a third running back with special-teams abilities. Scott, on the other hand, does have some intriguing abilities. He is a rookie who has a very lengthy list of off-the-field indiscretions, but as the season rolls along, Scott might be getting significant carries.
Although the drafting of offensive tackle Andre Smith should greatly help pave the way up front, Cincinnati is extremely weak at center. That is a massive problem, especially with Benson being far better suited to run inside than on the edges. Why is it such a massive problem? Well, the Bengals play six of their 16 games every year against the likes of Casey Hampton, Haloti Ngata and Shaun Rogers. Enough said.
Cincinnati also plays five other teams that use the 3-4, along with the Vikings, who feature dominating defensive tackle Pat Williams. That is 75 percent of Cincinnati's schedule against a powerful nose tackle-type opponent. Like I said, this is a massive problem.
Having Palmer back and a vastly improved passing game will open up some running room. However, there is no way around it -- this running game is a weakness right now.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are several notes and observations from within the division:
- The AFC North blog has great news for Baltimore Ravens fans: Quarterback Joe Flacco's arm doesn't get fatigued. Since January's AFC Championship Game, we've asked numerous people about this because Flacco played 16 games as a rookie in 2008, plus three playoff games and offseason workouts. Every quarterback is different in how his arm responds to the yearlong grind, but those around Flacco say he's the type of player who can "throw all day." His effortless motion is one reason Flacco hasn't suffered any stress on the arm. Flacco's age (24) also helps.
|AP Photo/Gail Burton|
|Joe Flacco's arm appears to be holding up well to the rigors of being an NFL quarterback.|
- We recently had a good chat with Cleveland Browns great Doug Dieken during the team's organized team activities (OTAs). The topic was Cincinnati Bengals No. 6 overall pick Andre Smith and the decision to play the rookie at right tackle. According to Dieken, who made the Pro Bowl as a left tackle in 1980, the major difference in the two positions is the ability to move in space, which is vital when protecting the blindside of a quarterback. Dieken surmised that the Bengals probably are more confident in Smith's physical strength as a run-blocker than his feet and pure athleticism to pass protect for Carson Palmer. Dieken also said it's much easier to make the transition from left tackle to right tackle than vice versa. That begs the question if Smith can successfully switch to the left side, if needed, later in his career.
- Speaking of the Browns, they would get a big boost if the suspension of the "Williams Wall" is upheld in court. Minnesota Vikings defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams are both facing four-game suspensions at the start of the 2009 season following the use of StarCaps, which in it contained a banned supplement. Cleveland hosts Minnesota in the season opener. The NFLPA is currently appealing the suspensions.
- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was at a recent Cleveland Cavaliers playoff game cheering for LeBron James & Co. While it may seem odd at first, it's sometimes easy to forget that Roethlisberger is an Ohio native who happens to star for the Browns' biggest rival. Pittsburgh is by no means a basketball town, but a decent number of NBA fans in Steelers country actually root for the Cavs and occasionally make the easy trip to attend games. It turns out Pittsburgh's starting quarterback is one of them. The Cavs were eliminated from the playoffs Saturday by the Orlando Magic.