AFC North: Shaun Phillips


It was 236 days ago when Joe Flacco threw that fateful, 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a double-overtime playoff win at the Denver Broncos. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and the Broncos were left to think of what might have been. Flacco and the Ravens return to Denver's Sports Authority Stadium on Thursday night to kick off the 2013 season in a rematch of two of the top teams in the AFC.

The stakes are different, and so are the teams. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin from the Ravens. Baltimore is expected to have 10 different starters from the team that hoisted up the Lombardi trophy, and that doesn't include former Broncos defensive standout Elvis Dumervil, who is expected to play in passing situations.

The Broncos won't have Dumervil or Von Miller, who has been suspended for six games, rushing after Flacco this time. But Peyton Manning is back, along with the addition of Wes Welker to an already dangerous wide receiver group.

Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss whether the opener will be a repeat of that memorable AFC divisional playoff game.

Hensley: Much has been made of the 50-foot Flacco banner hanging at the Broncos' stadium. Flacco has embraced the hate, saying it's not a bad thing for opposing fans to dislike you. The Ravens' focus, as it has been all offseason, has been to move forward. It's the start of a different era in many ways for the Ravens in their first game without Lewis and Reed. But it's easier to move forward when you're the ones sitting on top of the football world. How much will the "revenge factor" play into this game for the Broncos?

Legwold: Broncos coach John Fox, much like John Harbaugh with his "What's Important Now" mantra to leave the championship season behind, has tried to leave the past in the past. But questions about the kneel-down in the waning seconds despite Manning at quarterback and two timeouts in hand, as well as a third-and-7 running play late in the game, have trailed him all through the offseason. A lot of the Broncos players are willing to say memories of the playoff loss pushed them through the tedium of May and June. But over the past two weeks, they've stuck to the script -- that it's a new year, a new team -- but deep down they all know they let a potential Super Bowl trip, home-field advantage and a seven-point lead with less than a minute to play get away. And Dumervil's departure does add a little spice as well. How has Dumervil fit in and what kind of year do you think he'll have?

Hensley: Terrell Suggs has talked about Dumervil having the right mentality to play for the Ravens, and Harbaugh commented how Dumervil is already taking a leadership role. He really is a perfect fit for the Ravens on the field, too, where they have never had an elite pass-rusher to pair with Suggs. Over the past six seasons, Suggs has had only one teammate record more than seven sacks in a season. And being a pass-rusher is Dumervil's primary role. The Ravens will use Courtney Upshaw on early downs to set the edge against the run, which should keep Dumervil's legs fresh in pass-rushing situations. The Ravens have a familiarity with Dumervil because inside linebackers coach Don Martindale was Denver's defensive coordinator in 2010 and was Dumervil's position coach in 2009, when the linebacker-end led the NFL with 17 sacks. Baltimore is catching a break Thursday night with Dumervil now wearing purple and Miller serving his suspension. How are the Broncos going to generate a pass rush on Flacco?

[+] EnlargeElvis Dumervil
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyPass-rusher Elvis Dumervil was one of the Ravens' high-profile offseason acquisitions, and has become a leader on the field and off for Baltimore.
Legwold: That is the $380,687.50 question, which is how much of Miller's base salary he'll surrender during the six-game suspension. But without Miller (18.5 sacks in '12) and Dumervil (11.0 last season), the Broncos will mix and match on a variety of down-and-distances. Derek Wolfe is a key player, because of his ability to play inside and outside along the defensive line and still create matchup problems. Jack Del Rio believes Wolfe is ready to take an enormous step in his development, and among the defensive linemen only Dumervil played more snaps up front than Wolfe did as a rookie last year. The Broncos will ask Shaun Phillips, who they think has plenty left to give after 9.5 sacks for the struggling Chargers last season, to be a spot rusher. And Robert Ayers, who was a first-round pick in 2009, has always said he could put up the sack numbers if given the chance. He's played through four different coordinators -- Del Rio is his first to be on the job for two consecutive seasons -- but has just 6.5 career sacks. Now is his time. On Flacco, how has he dealt with all that comes with a Lombardi trophy and a nine-digit contract?

Hensley: The money and increased notoriety haven't really affected Flacco. If anything, he's become more vocal. There was a playful trash-talking exchange during training camp between Flacco and Suggs, who told his quarterback that the defense's "swag is on a thousand million." Flacco responded: "Then what's my swag at? I get paid more than you. A lot more!" What has really changed is the wide receiver group around Flacco. This unfamiliarity led to four interceptions in six quarters of work this preseason. His top two receivers from a year ago won't be there Thursday. Boldin was traded to San Francisco, and tight end Dennis Pitta is out indefinitely with a dislocated hip. They accounted for 36 receptions in the postseason, which was nearly half of Flacco's completions. That being said, it was Torrey Smith and Jones who did the most damage in the playoff game in Denver. The Ravens are hoping wide receiver Brandon Stokley can move the chains on third downs and tight end Ed Dickson (hamstring) can contribute in the season opener. There has to be more confidence in the Broncos' passing attack with Manning and his bunch of talented receivers.

Legwold: There is plenty of confidence in what the potential can be with Welker in the mix. The Broncos loved Stokley as a slot receiver, but Welker is younger and offers a bigger upside in terms of production. Welker will also have the best receivers to his outside shoulders in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the best combo he's had since the Patriots decided they didn't want Randy Moss around any longer. The 229-pound Thomas and the 214-pound Decker make the Broncos a tough matchup for any secondary. In the preseason, teams simply backed off into coverage and took their chances they could allow the catch and make the tackle before too much damage was done. The pace, especially at altitude, is a little something new as well. The Broncos ran 49 plays, excluding penalties, in the first half alone against the Rams in the preseason. They won't always go that fast, but if they get the look they want from a defense, they'll put the pedal to the floor and not allow a substitution. The key issue will be protection: Left tackle Ryan Clady missed plenty of the preseason after offseason surgery, and Denver has surrendered pressure in the middle of the field at times. The three-wide look is what the Broncos want their base formation to be on offense, but they can't do it if they can't protect Manning. It has to be a strange thing for a Baltimore defense that has been the franchise's signature for so long to have so many changes.

Hensley: There were a lot of changes to the Ravens' defense, but there were necessary changes. The Ravens weren't a top-10 defense for the first time since 2002. This defense had slumped to No. 17 in the NFL. It's never easy to part ways with the likes of Lewis and Reed. But the Ravens aren't replacing two Hall of Fame players in their prime. Baltimore had to replace two aging players who weren't the same playmakers from a few years ago. The additions of Dumervil, defensive lineman Chris Canty, linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Michael Huff have made this a stronger and more athletic defense. The Ravens' defense is going to be significantly better in two areas: stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. The biggest concern, especially when you're starting two new safeties, is the communication in the secondary. One mistake there and Manning will burn you for a touchdown. How is the Broncos' secondary holding up this summer?

Legwold: The Broncos would feel better if Bailey felt better. Bailey did not practice Sunday or Monday because of a left foot injury he suffered in the preseason loss in Seattle and is still a major question mark for Thursday's game. Bailey has been on the field for practice, but has not participated in any of the drills. The end result means Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would likely line up much of the time in Bailey's left cornerback spot. Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the more athletic sidekicks the Broncos have had for Bailey since Bailey arrived in 2004. Chris Harris and Tony Carter, the player who gave Jones a free release off the line of scrimmage on the game-tying bomb last January, will play in the nickel and dime as well. But overall the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs -- six corners, five safeties -- and can mix and match for almost every situation. They have flexibility and use it, so every defensive back in uniform Thursday night could see some action in the defense.


James Harrison's agent told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter that the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker hasn't closed the door on returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The feeling is apparently not mutual.

The Steelers have informed Harrison that they are no longer interested in bringing him back, a source told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This news should surprise no one. The Steelers gave Harrison a chance to remain with the team, and he refused to take a pay cut. For the Steelers, this is a good example to future players who balk at taking a salary reduction.

Even though the Steelers could use Harrison, which is why the team was negotiating a way for him to stay, Harrison still counts $4.93 million against the Steelers' salary cap this season. So you can understand why the Steelers don't want to use up more valuable cap space on a player who didn't want to compromise in the first place.

At this point, the Steelers are moving ahead with Jason Worilds, an underachieving 2009 second-round draft pick, in Harrison's spot. The team really doesn't have another option right now because of its current cap situation. Pittsburgh is $2.57 million under the cap, and barring an unexpected restructured contract, that leaves little space to sign a free agent or for its upcoming eight draft picks.

The Steelers will have to remain patient until after June 1. That's when the Steelers get the $5.5 million for releasing offensive lineman Willie Colon, who was designated as a June 1 cut.

By that time, free-agent pass-rushers such as Dwight Freeney (linked to Denver), Osi Umenyiora (expected to sign with Atlanta) and John Abraham (possibly to New England) will be gone. There will be others, perhaps Shaun Phillips, who will be sitting on the market in June. Phillips, 31, has had at least seven sacks in seven of his past eight seasons. The Steelers also had Cowboys free agent Victor Butler in for a visit, but he may not be available in 10 weeks.

Even though Harrison's return was always considered a long shot, many of the Steelers players had hoped something would get worked out.

"Obviously I want him back," Ryan Clark told the NFL Network on Monday. "Troy [Polamalu] and I, we debate every day on how to get him back. The intimidation factor, I don't know if you can get a guy to come in and initially bring it."

But based on the report, this reunion won't happen.

Fitzgerald, T.O. following Ocho

November, 6, 2009
11/06/09
2:15
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Very soon, Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco won’t be the only NFL player with his own iPhone application.

 Fitzgerald
 Owens
 Ochocinco
Fellow NFL stars Larry Fitzgerald and Terrell Owens are in the developmental stages of creating phone applications, according to Rock Software president John Shahidi. Fitzgerald agreed to terms to do a personalized "app" this week, while Owens' has been in the works for about a month.

"Wide receivers are very interesting," Shahidi said. "Larry is not as wild as Chad and Terrell. But at the same time, a lot of people look up to Larry. He’s just a really stand-up guy, and his is going to be based more on that, more inspirational. We like that personality part with Larry."

Ochocinco was the first athlete to put a phone application on the market this year. It includes features such as a question-and-answer session with Ochocinco, and a GPS device where you can track the receiver's whereabouts.

Shahidi is partners with Bengals backup quarterback Jordan Palmer. The idea began in training camp when Ochocinco learn Palmer was working on various phone applications and thought it would be interesting to create one for himself.

Consider Ochocinco a trailblazer in this department. Other NFL athletes who recently signed deals include San Diego Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips and Dallas Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett. NBA All-Star and Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard also is in negotiations and expects to have a deal in place soon.

"Everyone is recognizing that technology is moving towards the cell phone," Shahidi said. "People are now associating computers with work, and now phones are the fun part."

When asked what an ESPN.com AFC North blog phone application would look like, Shahidi had some interesting ideas.

"I would make it a trash-talking app," Shahidi said. "It’s between four teams with four crazy groups of fans. That’s the first thing I would do. And then you have some interesting characters with Ray Lewis and Troy Polamalu and Chad, so it would be some stuff built around them as well."

Sounds good to me. Where do I sign up?

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