AFC North: Ricky Williams

Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner has coached the NFL's leading rusher five times. Could running back Trent Richardson be the next one?

Turner got every fantasy football owner's attention Tuesday when he indicated Richardson could carry the ball 300 times this season. All five players who cracked 300 carries last season ranked in the top six in the NFL in rushing.

"If that player is your best player, then I think it’s probably a good thing to have him in the game and give him the ball," Turner said, via The Plain Dealer. "So I would hope Trent would have that many carries. That means he’s playing healthy and playing at a pretty high level."

Under Turner, Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams and LaDainian Tomlinson all won rushing crowns and handled a major workload in doing so. Smith carried the ball 365 times in 1991 and 373 times in 1992. Williams had a whopping 383 carries in 2002. And Tomlinson ran the ball 315 times in 2007.

Few running backs have to take such a pounding these days. In the previous two seasons, only seven players have carried the ball more than 300 times. The past 10 rushing champions, however, have averaged 353 carries during their respective league-leading seasons.

Richardson did some heavy lifting as a rookie last year under coach Pat Shurmur even though the No. 3 overall pick battled injuries. He played 702 offensive snaps in 2012, which was ninth-most among NFL running backs. Richardson established himself as a workhorse despite undergoing a knee scope early in training camp, breaking his ribs in Week 6 and missing the season finale due to an ankle sprain. He finished 18th in the NFL in rushing with 950 yards but tied for fifth in the league with 11 rushing touchdowns.

Turner was asked how Richardson measured up against the likes of Smith and Tomlinson.

"Just watching him and seeing him against us when I came here in October and then watching the tape, yeah, he’s that type of runner," Turner said. "Obviously he’s the third pick in the draft. I think he has a lot of great days ahead of him. I always have a problem comparing players because each guy has his own unique style, but I think he’s capable of doing great things."
Backup running back Bernard Pierce has been the biggest surprise of this year's Ravens draft class. Pierce has led the Ravens in rushing in two of Baltimore's three playoff games, averaging 6.3 yards per carry this postseason.

The Ravens can thank Ricky Williams for having Pierce on the team this season. If Williams hadn't announced his retirement last Feb. 7, which caught Baltimore off guard, the Ravens probably wouldn't have drafted Pierce in the third round because there would've been no need for a No. 2 running back.

"He’s a tackle-breaker and he’s explosive," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said of Pierce. "He’s a good match to what Ray [Rice] is, and he was there for us to pick in the third round. And you know what? For him to sit there and be in the meetings with Wilbert (Montgomery, running backs coach) and Ray (Rice), and to be able to learn the importance of protection and all those other things, it’s just very beneficial.”

No one has benefited more from the change in offensive coordinators than Pierce. In his first 13 games this season, all under Cam Cameron, Pierce was on the field 17 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In Jim Caldwell's six games, Pierce has been on the field for almost one-third of Baltimore's snaps.

Pierce, who finished as the second-leading rusher in Temple's history, has taken advantage of the extra playing time. In his six games with Caldwell, Pierce has gained 401 yards rushing (66.8 per game). He totaled 300 yards rushing in the 13 games that Cameron called plays.

Pierce was the seventh running back taken in the 2012 draft. One of the backs selected before him was LaMichael James, a second-round pick who is playing for the 49ers in the Super Bowl.

"We’ve seen in this league now, you need two backs," Newsome said. "When we’re back [at the NFL scouting combine], Wilbert always takes the opportunity to go down on the field when the running backs are working, because he played the game. He came back and he said, ‘I’m impressed with this guy Pierce.’ He brings a different dimension."

AFC North links: Joe Flacco's agent talks

July, 18, 2012
Baltimore Ravens

After spending the 2011 season on the practice squad, Bryan Hall hopes to crack the 53-man roster and earn a role in the defensive line rotation starting next week, when training camp opens.

Joe Flacco's agent, Joe Linta, tells the Carroll County Times that: “He’s really adamant about getting the Ravens to the next step. The contract at this point is secondary to that goal. Joe has the attitude that he’ll earn it.”

Former Raven Ricky Williams says he doesn't miss football just yet. "My first thought each day is, 'What'll be fun for me to do today?'" Williams said, according to Dave Hyde of the Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Cincinnati Bengals

A.J. Green was the first rookie since Marques Colston to make the Pro Bowl, and the expectations are just as high in Year 2. Joe Reedy examines the Bengals' receivers heading into the season.

Despite finishing third in the AFC North last season, the Bengals are projected to be a top-15 team overall by Pro Football Talk. editor Geoff Hobson takes a look at what players do during the "dead period" before training camp begins.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns are one of several teams opting to not take advantage of the NFL's new blackout policy.

Tight end Benjamin Watson enlists the help of teammates, including Greg Little and Reggie Hodges, for a Cleveland-area football camp for 255 kids.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers re-signed veteran tackle Max Starks to a one-year contract Monday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. Starks, who had ACL surgery in January, posted on Twitter: "It's a great day, doc gave me a great report! On my way to being game ready."

Saint Vincent College, home of the Steelers' training camp, will present an on-campus play featuring Steelers owner, Art Rooney, Sr.

Warning: Trying to understand retired Ravens running back Ricky Williams' train of thought can lead to headaches; or at the very least, a great deal of confusion.

Just listen to Williams' reasoning on why he believes there is a link between concussions and brain damage.

"I don't buy it," Williams told ESPN's Dan Le Batard on Tuesday. “I'm only speaking from my personal experience, because I've never allowed myself to buy it, and I haven't been affected by it. Yes, I'm aware that football is a rough sport, but instead of saying, 'Oh, I'm doomed to like brain trauma,' I said, 'What can I do about it?' And I just started taking care of my body. I found people, places and things that really helped me. Again, I don't know what's going to happen to me in 10 years, but for me I look at the other things I've learned about and the way I see the world.”

This makes you wonder if Williams is thinking clearly after 2,431 carries in the NFL. If I'm following him correctly, and I'm not totally certain that I am, the key for football players to avoid head trauma later in life is to keep in good physical shape and refuse to believe science.

"So is science like the new deity of our culture? It is, but should it be?," Williams said. "If you look at science 100 years ago, the things that they thought based on their science, we now show they had no idea of what they're talking about. I think as time goes on, the things that I've been saying are just going to be proven to be correct. The way that football is looking at it now, if you follow the trajectory, it creates the end of football. So, do we want football to die? I don't."

Williams is the one who is sounding behind the times. It's amazing that Williams can have this way of thinking, especially after spending a season in the same locker room with center Matt Birk. Three years ago, Birk pledged to donate his brain and spinal cord tissues after death to a Boston University medical school program that is looking to better understand the long-term effects of repeated concussions.

Williams certainly has the right to speak his mind and he's dealt with more blows to the head than I ever will. He said he doesn't know how many concussions he's had but he doesn't feel any effects right now. You have to wonder whether his stance on concussions and head trauma will change 10 years from now.
According to a tweet by Joe Madani, program director of Austin, Texas, radio station 103.1 FM, Ricky Williams said on the radio this week that he has filed his retirement papers, but he’d consider playing for his hometown Chargers.

There is only one problem here: the Ravens placed Williams on the reserve/retired list earlier this month, meaning the organization owns his rights if Williams elects to come out of retirement. Williams has one year left remaining on his contract with the team.

So, Williams' choices are either to stay retired or play for the Ravens. The Chargers are not an option unless they are willing to trade for the 34-year-old backup. Baltimore probably wouldn't be interested in moving Williams because it still could use him to back up Ray Rice.

Thanks to AFC West blogger Bill Williamson for passing along the tweet.

AFC North news and notes

February, 25, 2012
A quick look at what's happening around the AFC North as the NFL combine continues in Indianapolis. I will provide my take on many of these issues and topics in the days to come, but I wanted to pass along the information.

  • Coach Marvin Lewis did seem troubled over the latest off-the-field incident involving middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, who has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge at a Cincinnati bar. Maualuga is the fourth Bengals player since July to have a legal issue, joining wide receiver Jerome Simpson, cornerback Adam Jones and running back Cedric Benson. “There’s a concern," Lewis told reporters at the NFL combine, via the Cincinnati Enquirer. "What [Maualuga] does away from football is important. He has to make good choices and decisions.”
  • Benson is not expected to be re-signed by the Bengals, and Lewis' comments about the running back didn't change that perception. As the team website points out, it sounded like Lewis was giving Benson a lifetime achievement award instead of a new contract. “I think we want to improve our running game and if it includes Ced, it includes Ced," Lewis said. "We need to have more explosive running plays. Ced has had a fine career. He’s a physical player and been a big part of our success.”
  • Lewis provided encouraging news on two players who are coming off season-ending injuries. Cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles) is ahead of schedule, and wide receiver Jordan Shipley (knee) continues to make “significant progress," Lewis said.
  • Coach Pat Shurmur reiterated the Browns want to re-sign starting middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next month. Shurmur said the team hasn't made a decision whether it will place a franchise tag on Jackson, although the Plain Dealer of Cleveland reported last week that the Browns plan to do so. "We're going to be willing to use [the franchise tag]," Shurmur said. "As you go through signing our free agents, then we'll see what's the best place to use that tag."
  • In injury updates, Shurmur said left guard Eric Steinbach is progressing from a season-ending back injury but he didn't commit to the left guard as a starter, according to the Akron Beacon Journal. Jason Pinkston, who replaced Steinbach at left guard, will not move to tackle and will continue to develop at the guard position, according to Shurmur.
  • Former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar attended the combine, but not in an official capacity, a team spokesman told the Akron Beacon Journal.
  • Coach John Harbaugh once again expressed confidence about holding onto Ben Grubbs, saying he's "pretty optimistic" about re-signing the Pro Bowl left guard. “I hope that’s not misplaced," Harbaugh said, via the Baltimore Sun. "We’re in the process of negotiating. We’re committed, [owner Steve Bisciotti’s] committed to offering him a really great number. Hey, the market dictates [it], and Ben has to make those kinds of decisions, and you’re really happy for guys. He’s had a great career. He’s had a great number of years here. He’s earned the right to take a look for his family. One thing we’re not doing, we’re not giving him a low number. We’re doing everything we can to try to keep him in Baltimore.”
  • In injury news, wide receiver Torrey Smith had surgery to repair a double sports hernia, and cornerback Cary Williams had hip surgery. Both are expected to be ready for training camp.
  • Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said the team isn't looking to add a free-agent running back to replace the retired Ricky Williams. He indicated that Anthony Allen, a seventh-round pick from a year ago, will be given the first shot at the backup running back job. The team would add a free agent during training camp if Allen struggles to secure that spot, Newsome said.
  • Newsome is happy the team was able to keep director of player personnel Eric DeCosta, who turned down the chance to interview for the general manager positions with the Chicago Bears, St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts. "I think it was very important because of the continuity that allows the organization to maintain people and have the process remain the same," Newsome said, via ESPN Chicago. "It was kind of like Scott Pioli remaining in New England for all those years with Bill [Belichick]. All it does is make you stronger. I'm very thankful that Eric decided to stay."
  • Major changes are unlikely to occur to the Steelers' offense under new coordinator Todd Haley, according to general manager Kevin Colbert. The biggest reason is it's tough to do so when the team has been successful and is bringing most of the same personnel back. "So, it's hard to come in and drastically change your philosophy because of the group of players that you have," Colbert said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "You can't overhaul a whole roster. Nor are we looking to because this group of players has been very successful."
  • The hope is that the high-ankle sprains that have hampered Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey the past two years are in the past. "The reports we got and the last time we saw him, he was progressing just fine," Colbert said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "High-ankle sprains, they're a different injury and then when you re-injure it sometimes you've got to do some procedures to shore that joint up."
  • A Cleveland-based reporter asked Colbert if the team had reached a "breaking point" with linebacker James Harrison, who was suspended last season after he knocked out Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. "No. Absolutely not," Colbert said. "James Harrison is a great player. He tries to play within the rules. Sometimes, the penalty is unavoidable, and he ends up getting a suspension out of it. He served his time. We've all moved on. We know James Harrison plays the game very hard. He plays it within the rules the best he can. Sometimes, circumstances happen in the course of a game, and you have to live with the consequences. But in no way are we ever going to be disappointed with that player."
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Steelers president Art Rooney II shot down speculation that he hired offensive coordinator Todd Haley, saying it was head coach Mike Tomlin's decision.

"I think the bottom line is, Mike was comfortable that's who he wanted to come in," Rooney told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It may be fair to say that when he started the discussions and Todd's name was on his original list, I don't think he expected that Todd was the guy he was going to wind up hiring. But as he had more conversations with him, he became more comfortable that he was the right guy for the job."

According to Rooney, Tomlin had all of the initial talks with the offensive coordinator candidates on the phone before bringing in Haley and Jim Caldwell for interviews. Rooney said he spoke with Haley and Caldwell, describing it more as conversations than actual interviews.

"I wouldn't want my role in it to be overestimated because Mike has to decide who he wants on the staff," Rooney told the paper. "Even though there's always a discussion between me and Mike about who he's hiring and how much we're paying him and those kinds of things, it's normally a discussion of the business side of the arrangement than, 'Are we going to hire a guy who's going to run the ball so many times a game.' It was a fairly normal process as far as I'm concerned in terms of how we've done those kinds of hirings in the past."

Hensley's slant: No one is going to compare Rooney to Jerry Jones anytime soon. But I still have a question on who actually decided to part ways with former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. The Steelers have never disputed a Post-Gazette report that Tomlin told Arians right after the season that he wanted him back and told staff members that Arians would be back. And no one has shot down a report that Rooney forced out Arians against Tomlin's wishes.

BENGALS: The free-agent wide receiver that best fits the Bengals is Buffalo's Steve Johnson, according to's Pete Prisco. "Jerome Simpson is a free agent and has some legal issues, and they need a weapon opposite A.J. Green," Prisco wrote. "Johnson would be the perfect complement to the taller Green." Hensley's slant: The Bengals need to add a veteran to take over the No. 2 wide receiver role, but I don't think Johnson's personality would mesh in the Cincinnati locker room. Johnson's antics are too reminiscent of Chad Ochocinco. The Bengals waited too long to get rid of one distraction just to add another too soon.

BROWNS: Aston Villa soccer manager Alex McLeish is visiting Browns coach Pat Shumur to pick up coaching tips amid fan protests, according to the Associated Press. Randy Lerner, who owns the Browns and the English professional soccer team, suggested that McLeish should go to Cleveland and spend two days shadowing Shurmur. Hensley's slant: Shurmur has only one year of head coaching experience, but he certainly can share some of the lessons learned from a tumultuous first season. If the Browns end up with another double-digit loss season, Lerner might want Shurmur to make a similar trip and go over to England. But this time, a return flight won't be included.

RAVENS: The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston suggests that the Ravens should replace recently retired Ricky Williams with Le'Ron McClain, who played last season for the Kansas City Chiefs after spending four years in Baltimore. McClain went to the Chiefs last year after the Ravens signed fullback Vonta Leach. "He worked as hard as [Ray] Rice during the offseason in his last two years here, and he always had swagger," Preston wrote. "He intimidated people. He was -- and still deserves to be -- a Raven." Hensley's slant: The Ravens have previously gone with more experienced ball carriers as backups with Williams and Willis McGahee. But adding McClain would be a very sound move. McClain is the right player (he can back up at running back and fullback as well as play special teams) for the right price (he only made $1.5 million with the Chiefs last season). It would be a mistake if the Ravens went with Anthony Allen and Damien Berry as their backups because both young players need another year before stepping into that role.

ESPN's Chris Mortensen discussed the legacy of Ricky Williams on NFL32OT.

Here are some career highlights for Williams, who retired on Tuesday:
  • 26th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards
  • Only player drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1999
  • 1998 Heisman Trophy winner out of Texas
  • NCAA all-time leading rusher in 1998 (since surpassed by Ron Dayne)

How do you think Williams' career will be remembered?
This is the official retirement announcement from Ravens running back Ricky Williams:

"The NFL has been an amazing page in this chapter of my life. I pray that all successive adventures offer me the same potential for growth, success and most importantly, fun. I want to thank all my fans, teammates, coaches and supporters for the strength they've given me to overcome so much. I want to especially thank my family, coach Mack Brown, Coach [Mike] Ditka, Coach [Bill] Parcells, Ronnie Brown, Wilbert Montgomery and the Jamail family for believing in me. As for what's next, I am excited about all the opportunities ahead -- continuing my education, running The Ricky Williams Foundation and whatever other opportunities present themselves.

"My football career has been filled with many great memories going back to pee wee football with coach Tom Miller, [San Diego's] Patrick Henry High School and coach Jerry Varner and on to the University of Texas. It has been a big part of my life and blessed me with so many wonderful opportunities and the chance to connect with many people who have helped me grow and mature. I will miss the game, the camaraderie, my teammates and especially the emotions of a big victory. I love the game and leave it feeling fulfilled, proud, in great health and excited about the future.

"I have to thank Coach [John] Harbaugh and the Ravens organization for the opportunity they gave me this year. I had so much fun and really appreciated the chance to finish on such a great note."

My take on the announcement is whether Williams will stay retired. Here are other reactions from the Ravens:

Ravens running back Ray Rice: "I was a big fan of Ricky before we were teammates, but being around him this year is the best thing that happened to me in my NFL career. As a young player, you need to be around a guy who knows what he is doing, and Ricky was tremendous to learn from. The way he took care of his body and the way he prepared, he always showed that he is a true professional. This past season with him is a year I will never forget. I had the best year with him beside me, and that was no accident. I believe that Ricky Williams is a Hall of Famer. All that he has done in his career, he deserves that. I was honored to share the field with him when he went over 10,000 yards. What an amazing accomplishment, as he is one of the best. I will miss him, but I wish him and his family well."

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome: "Ricky is one of the most productive rushers in league history, and he was a tremendous asset to our team this past season. We enjoyed having him as a member of the Ravens, as his leadership, work ethic and commitment contributed to our success. We are grateful for his contributions, and we wish him nothing but the best going forward."

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh: "Ricky, in his time here, made a valuable and lasting contribution. I especially enjoyed getting to know him as a person, and I have the utmost respect for him. He was great to be around and to work with every single day. We wish him all the best in his future endeavors."

Baltimore running back Ricky Williams plans to retire, according to ESPN's NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

When I first heard this, my initial reaction was: Will he stay retired?

Williams stunned the NFL with an early retirement in 2004. But he was back in July 2005.

He talked retirement before the 2009 season, saying he wanted to play two more seasons before calling it quits. But he played with Baltimore in 2011.

Williams, 34, even spoke about his intentions about playing next season for the Ravens after the AFC championship game loss at New England.

“My body feels good and I know I’m going to train hard and so I’m excited about next year,” Williams said last month, via the team's website. “I’ve grown a lot, kind of falling into a new role and a new city and a new organization, and I’ve gotten better. And like everyone else, I feel like I have something to build on for next year.”

So, what changed?

After the news broke about his retirement today, Williams addressed it in a cryptic Twitter message: "Thank you all, but this ain't it. I'm gonna do something really special. 'Be you and change the world.'"

If Williams does follow through with his retirement, it will be a big loss for the Ravens even though Williams isn't the same powerful running back from a few years ago.

What the Ravens lose isn't the stats that Williams produced last year. He rushed for a career-low 444 yards and scored two touchdowns.

What the Ravens lose is a reliable insurance policy for running back Ray Rice. If Rice went down for any significant amount of time, Baltimore didn't have to worry about handing the ball to Williams, one of 26 players in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards.

To be honest, Williams was underused in his first season with the Ravens. He averaged less than seven carries per game and caught 13 passes, but it was hard to get him onto the field because it meant taking Rice off of it.

The Ravens signed Williams last year to a two-year contract to replace Willis McGahee, so it appears that their preference is to have an experienced backup. Baltimore's third-string running back Anthony Allen, a seventh-round pick last year, looked like he would need another year before becoming the team's primary backup.

This means the Ravens will be searching for a second-tier running back in free agency.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

In a surprising twist, Pittsburgh linebackers coach Keith Butler decided not to interview for the Indianapolis Colts' defensive coordinator position and remain with the Steelers, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Butler was the clear frontrunner to take over the defense under new Colts coach Chuck Pagano and had a meeting planned for Tuesday in Indianapolis. But the interview was canceled after Butler met Monday with team president Art Rooney II and head coach Mike Tomlin, the Post-Gazette reported.

According to the paper, Butler was told two years ago that he will be the team's defensive coordinator when Dick LeBeau retired and received a handshake agreement when he turned down the Miami Dolphins' defensive coordinator job.

Hensley's slant: Butler's loyalty was likely rewarded with a substantial raise and a more definitive timetable on when he's replacing the 74-year-old LeBeau. Continuity is a valuable commodity to the stable and winningest franchises. The Steelers know there will be a seamless transition with Butler. Now, if Pittsburgh could only fill their vacancy at offensive coordinator as quickly. It's assumed that the Steelers will hire from within for this position as well, but there's increasing questions the longer it takes to Pittsburgh to fill this opening.

BENGALS: While Cam Newton is the frontrunner to be the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, the Bengals' Andy Dalton outplayed the Carolina quarterback in Sunday's Pro Bowl. The difference was turnovers and accuracy. Newton got picked off three times while Dalton had no interceptions and misfired on two of his nine passes. “I’ve been able to do a lot given some great opportunities, but I feel like it’s just the beginning, though,” Dalton told the team's website. “We’ve got a lot of young talent. We just have to get it all together.” Hensley's slant: Newton had the superior stats (35 total touchdowns). Dalton had more wins and played against tougher defenses. The only thing anyone can agree on is it's nearly impossible to compare the two quarterbacks. They have different styles but those styles work for them. It'll be interesting to see how they compare five years down the road.

BROWNS: The Browns are interested in re-signing running back Peyton Hillis, a league source told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Hillis, who is an unrestricted free agent on March 13, impressed the Browns enough over the final six games on and off the field to change the team's mind about keeping him at the right price, the paper reported. Hensley's slant: This just reeks of desperation on the Browns' part. When a player reportedly needs an intervention-style meeting from teammates, it's a strong sign that he has become a distraction. Sure, the Browns need playmakers on offense in the worst way. But building the right chemistry in the locker room has to become a priority, too.

RAVENS: Backup running back Ricky Williams intends on playing next season, which will be his 12th in the NFL. Williams, who turns 35 before next season, had career lows in carries (108) and total rushing yards (444) in 2011. “My body feels good and I know I’m going to train hard and so I’m excited about next year,” Williams said, via the team's website. “I’ve grown a lot, kind of falling into a new role and a new city and a new organization, and I’ve gotten better. And like everyone else, I feel like I have something to build on for next year.” Hensley's slant: The Ravens eventually have to look for a long-term backup to Ray Rice, whether that's Anthony Allen or someone else. The key is finding a compliment to Rice, a big-back like Williams or Le'Ron McClain. But Williams, who is under contract for one more season, can hold down the job for 2012.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 2, 2011
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

Rattling rookie quarterbacks: No defense has a better record against rookie quarterbacks the past eight years than the Steelers. Under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh is 13-1 against starting first-year quarterbacks, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That record includes a 24-17 victory against Bengals rookie Andy Dalton three weeks ago when Pittsburgh intercepted him twice in the fourth quarter. Since 2003, the Steelers have limited starting rookie quarterbacks to 167.9 yards passing, allowing 10 touchdowns while notching 15 interceptions. The only rookie to beat Pittsburgh during this stretch was the Ravens' Troy Smith in the 2007 regular-season finale, when the Steelers rested many of their starters.

Running game heats up: During the John Harbaugh era (since 2008), Baltimore has rushed for 152.6 yards per game in December and January, third-best in the NFL. Only the Panthers and Jets have averaged more in that time. Run defense has been a major weakness for the Browns, who have allowed a league-worst seven running backs to gain more than 100 yards against them. Cleveland ranks 29th in the NFL in run defense and has given up 11 runs of 20 yards or more, which is tied for sixth-most in the league. This could be a game in which Ravens running backs Ray Rice and Ricky Williams combine for more than 30 carries.

Colt McCoy
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesNo NFL quarterback has thrown a higher percentage of his passes 10 yards downfield or less than Cleveland's Colt McCoy, at 76.1.
Fourth-quarter finishes: Cincinnati has recorded five fourth-quarter comebacks this season, which has been uncharacteristic for this franchise. Before this season, in their first 130 games under coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals rallied back in the fourth quarter only 14 times. But they can't wait until the fourth quarter against the Steelers. While Pittsburgh has struggled in the past to close out games defensively, the Steelers have been shutting down teams in the end since allowing that 92-yard winning drive to the Ravens. Pittsburgh has won its past two games by making three interceptions in the fourth quarter.

Stopping short passes: Whether this is an indication of Colt McCoy's arm strength or the lack of deep threats on the Browns, McCoy has thrown a league-high 76.1 percent of his passes 10 yards or fewer downfield this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He averaged a career-low 4.4 yards gained on his 34 pass attempts at the Bengals last Sunday. McCoy’s average yards per attempt is 5.9, the lowest of any qualifying quarterback. The Browns' short passing attack plays right into the strength of the Ravens. Only the Texans have allowed a lower percentage of those short passes to be completed in 2011, and no team has allowed fewer touchdown passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Needing to win more than respect: The Bengals proved they could compete against the AFC North first-place teams, but they need more than moral victories against teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the final five weeks of the season. Cincinnati is 6-0 against teams that currently have losing records and is 1-4 against those with winning records, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The only team the Bengals have beaten that has an above-.500 record now is the Titans (6-5). One reason Cincinnati has failed to defeat the better teams is its ability to take care of the ball. The Bengals' turnover ratio against losing teams is plus-6, but it's minus-2 against winning teams.
If the report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is correct, the NFL's $15,000 fine of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu for a horse-collar tackle seems excessive.

Yes, a horse-collar tackle can potentially end a player's career. But many times, it's the result of a defender desperately trying to grab onto anything to bring down the ball-carrier.

"It definitely wasn't on purpose," Polamalu said of his third-quarter takedown of Ravens running back Ricky Williams. "I've never intentionally tried to horse collar anybody."

Polamalu isn't Roy Williams and doesn't have a history of making horse-collar tackles. The fine appears more excessive when you consider Packers cornerback Charles Woodson was just fined $10,000 for throwing a punch. That's $5,000 less than Polamalu, and Woodson's action was far from accidental.

In the past, the NFL has given out $7,500 fines for horse-collar tackles. Last year, quarterback Kevin Kolb received a $5,000 fine for a horse-collar tackle.

Perhaps Polamalu's fine is for a combination of actions and not solely for the horse-collar tackle. Polamalu got into a scuffle during the game with Ravens running back Ray Rice, and both players ended up on the ground.

The NFL announces its fines on Friday, so this matter should be cleared up in the afternoon.

Podcast: Ravens RB Ricky Williams

August, 29, 2011
Ravens running back Ricky Williams talks about his relationship with fans, the transition to the pros, what he thinks of his GM and coach, taking care of his body, playing in cold weather against Pittsburgh and Joe Flacco's strengths.