AFC North: Rashard Medenhall

Ravens-Steelers halftime notes

October, 3, 2010
10/03/10
2:19
PM ET
PITTSBURGH--The Baltimore Ravens lead the Pittsburgh Steelers, 10-7, at intermission.

Here are some notes an observations:
  • Baltimore tailback Ray Rice (knee) is active but didn't start with a knee injury. Backup Willis McGahee is getting most of the playing time, with Rice being used sparingly. The Ravens do not appear confident enough in Rice's health to make him the feature back. McGahee has rushed for 34 yards on 11 attempts while Rice has just two attempts for three yards.
  • Pittsburgh's pass protection is not nearly as good as it was last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Quarterback Charlie Batch doesn't have a lot of time in the pocket against Baltimore. He's been sacked once but already had to scramble several times for short gains to get out of trouble.
  • You can tell the difference in tempo each team is trying to set in this game. Baltimore's offense is very quick-hitting and trying to utilize the short and intermediate passing game to open things up. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, often is running down the play clock to the final seconds before running the play to shorten the game.
  • The Steelers are having a hard time blocking Ravens Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. He already has six tackles and a sack on Batch in the first half. Ngata also had an impressive hit on Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall in the second quarter.

Rapid Reaction: Steelers 15, Falcons 9

September, 12, 2010
9/12/10
4:21
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- Let's take a quick look at the Steelers' 15-9 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

What it means: The Steelers can win without suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will be out for three more games. Pittsburgh made the Falcons play its tempo, which was an ugly field-position battle for four quarters and overtime. Finally, Rashard Mendenhall's 50-yard run in the extra period sealed the win.

What I liked: Pittsburgh's defense stepped up against a pretty good Atlanta offense. The defense looked more like the 2008 version with a healthy Troy Polamalu in the lineup. The front seven won most of the battles in the trenches and the pass rush bothered Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan enough to stall drives.

What I didn't like: Quarterback Dennis Dixon showed several flashes but still needs to work on reading coverages. Atlanta fooled Dixon several times. In addition to his one interception, he threw three other passes that could have been picked. Those drops could have changed the outcome of the game. To Dixon's credit, he did make several nice throws to receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace. He finished with a career-high 236 passing yards and an interception.

Injuries of note: There were two significant injuries to Pittsburgh starters. Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton suffered a hamstring injury and didn’t return after halftime. The severity is unknown, but if Hampton must miss time, Pittsburgh does have better depth on the defensive line this season. The ankle injury to left tackle Max Starks must be monitored. The Steelers lack quality depth on the offensive line, and Starks' injury looked painful.

What's next: The Steelers have a tough road game coming up against the Tennessee Titans, who pounded the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. This was considered the swing game by many on Pittsburgh's schedule during Roethlisberger's four-game suspension, but it won't be easy. Still, the Steelers have a great opportunity to start 2-0 without their best offensive player.

AFC North top-heavy in '09

October, 15, 2009
10/15/09
1:12
PM ET
US Presswire
Cincinnati's Cedric Benson, Baltimore's Willis McGahee and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger have all played important roles in their respective teams' strong starts.

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


It didn’t take long to figure out the best teams in the AFC North last season.

The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers established their dominance early along the way to 23 combined wins, a run through the playoffs and an eventual meeting in the AFC Championship Game.

But as we look five games into the 2009 season, a new contender has muddled things, making it unclear what's ahead for the division. Baltimore (3-2) and Pittsburgh (3-2) remain solid, but the Cincinnati Bengals (4-1) have also emerged after sweeping through the division the past three weeks to earn sole possession of first.

Let’s examine what the rest of the season holds for the division.

Cincinnati Bengals (4-1)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Carson Palmer hasn't shown any rust from last season's elbow injury.

There was a feeling in training camp that the Bengals were tired of being ridiculed in the media and picked on by their rivals. Head coach Marvin Lewis established a motto of "Fight Back," and often this summer in camp that led to a lot of physical play and scuffles.

Cincinnati wants to have the type of mental and physical toughness it takes to compete in the AFC North. Those traits were on display as the Bengals pulled off come-from-behind wins in the final seconds against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. In fact, the outcome of all five games this season have come down to the final minutes.

"We keep the faith," Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers said of Cincinnati's mentality. "When it comes down to it, in the end we look at each other and have no doubt that somebody is going to make a play."

Cincinnati is making most of the clutch plays, but is this team built to last? There are several important signs that point to the Bengals holding firm in the division race to the very end.

First, quarterback Carson Palmer is showing no ill effects from last year's elbow injury. As long as he's healthy, the Bengals have a chance to take the AFC North. Second, Cincinnati upped its physicality on offense and defense. Cincinnati gives up 18 points a game, and tailback Cedric Benson leads the NFL in rushing with 487 yards. In Week 5, Benson broke Baltimore’s 39-game streak of keeping rushers under 100 yards, a major reason the Bengals ended a two-game skid against the Ravens.

"I think this is finally Marvin Lewis' formula," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "He was a defensive coordinator and a hit-them-in-mouth type of coach. Now he has his guys. They used a lot of high picks and resources on defense, and it’s really paying off. And they have a big, heavy offensive line and a big, heavy back."

Cincinnati proved once that it could beat all three teams in the division. So it doesn’t appear the Bengals are ready to fade anytime soon.

Baltimore Ravens (3-2)
AP Photo/Gail Burton
Fabian Washington and fellow cornerback Domonique Foxworth haven't been productive so far this season.

Two weeks ago, the Ravens were the talk of the NFL after winning their first three games. Two weeks later, the team is on a losing streak and could be in trouble with a brutal upcoming schedule.

Baltimore’s next three opponents are Minnesota (5-0), Denver (5-0) and Cincinnati (4-1). The Ravens are one of the few teams with the talent and toughness to survive this brutal stretch, but the results haven’t shown on the field the past two weeks.

"The bottom line is this: We make a couple of plays we didn’t make, we’re 5-0. We don’t make a couple of plays in one other game, we’re 2-3," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said this week. "That’s the nature of the NFL ... But no matter what happened in the last couple of weeks, we’re still the same team we would have been and everybody would be singing our praises. We’re no different."

The Ravens are fifth in the NFL in total offense and can run and pass with equal effectiveness, although many in Baltimore would like to see the run game more often. And with the exception of last week, the defense remains stout against the run.

But Baltimore isn’t getting much production from its shaky pass defense, which is ranked No. 26 in the NFL. The pass rush also has been inconsistent at times, complicating matters.

"I don’t really like their corners, and I think everybody knows those corners can be exploited," Williamson said of Domonique Foxworth and Fabian Washington. "Ed Reed back there is still great and people are afraid of him, no question about that. But because of the corners and because of the new coordinator [Greg Mattison], they’re not as aggressive. Rex Ryan used to really light it up and bring the heat, and his corners weren’t great either."

Until the Ravens fix one of their few weaknesses on defense, opponents will continue to test it by passing. How quickly Baltimore can solve this issue could be the difference in where it finishes in this tight division race.

Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Rashard Mendenhall has 242 rushing yards and three touchdowns in his past two games.

After a slow start, the Steelers have a chance to win their third in a row Sunday at home against the Cleveland Browns (1-4).

Pittsburgh is in a decent spot considering the circumstances. The Steelers lost Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, their best defensive player, in the first half of Week 1 to a knee injury. The Steelers' defense is ranked No. 4 in the NFL but has struggled to hold leads late in games. Expect that to change with Polamalu back this week.

"It’s obvious. He’s one of the best in the world at what he does," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said . "You can’t quantify his impact on football games when he plays."

Pittsburgh this week lost starting defensive end Aaron Smith (shoulder) for the season, which could be a challenge. But during the course of the season, the offense has picked it up and quietly emerged as one of the hottest units in the NFL.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is on pace for a career mark for completion percentage (73.8 percent), and Pittsburgh has found a balanced running game with Rashard Mendenhall. The second-year tailback has 242 rushing yards and three touchdowns in two starts.

"He’s big, fast, explosive and he gets to top speed very quickly," Williamson said. "If that can keep up, their offense is going to be top five, top 10."

Despite the different challenges, all three AFC North teams appear built for success. But there’s a very good chance only two teams from the division will make it to the playoffs.

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