AFC North: Shawne Merriman
- Former college teammates Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals and Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers will meet again on "Monday Night Football."
- With the New England Patriots looming, could this be a trap game for the Steelers?
- Did the Baltimore Ravens' brief interest in linebacker Shawne Merriman show they want more from their pass rush?
- It's likely Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy will get his third consecutive start against the Patriots.
- The Buffalo Bills claimed linebacker Shawne Merriman off waivers. The Baltimore Ravens would have shown interest if Merriman wasn't picked up.
- The Cleveland Browns didn't put a waiver claim on embattled receiver Randy Moss, who landed with the Tennessee Titans.
- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over his big hits.
- Cincinnati Bengals receiver Jerome Simpson is still trying to learn the pro game.
- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said the team would be interested in former San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman if he clears waivers.
- Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu admitted he played poorly against the New Orleans Saints.
- Speaking of the Bengals, Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco vented his frustration on the T.Ocho Show.
- Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren isn't closing the door on a possible return to coaching.
Ben from Alexandria, Va., writes: With this new rule about suspensions for "devastating hits," can we can say goodbye to Ray Lewis and James Harrison and basically everything we love about the AFC North?
James Walker: As ESPN's AFC North blogger, I don't like this softening of the NFL one bit, Ben. I was really disgruntled this week. I briefly took time off Wednesday to contemplate retirement so I could cover the UFC or NHL, where physical play is still acceptable. But I returned to the AFC North blog, because nothing is going to stop me from covering the sport I enjoy most. OK, enough joking around. I'm not against fines, but I am against ridiculous fines just to make a point. Football is a physical sport and the AFC North plays the most physical brand. With the direction things are going, I think it will eventually hurt this division more than most.
Shawn Davis from Manassas, Va., writes: With the NFL's reaction to helmet-to-helmet hits, I wanted to get your thoughts to how this will impact the Steelers' defense. Do you think this will change its aggressive still of play?
Walker: In the short term, I don't see it having any type of impact. The NFL's aggressive culture is not something that can be changed overnight. The Steelers have one of the more aggressive defenses in the league, and I agree with ESPN's Adam Schefter that this can be a rallying point to get behind Harrison and put on a great performance Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
Leigh Anne from Lexington, Ky., writes: Is it just me, or is it hypocritical of the NFL to preach about player safety while looking to expand the season to 18 games?
Walker: Yes, Leigh Anne. I agree that the NFL wants it both ways. Players such as Lewis and Tom Brady have complained about the toll 18 games would have on their bodies, and the NFL seems to look the other way. Yet the league is all over players right now with excessive fines, because the game is getting too hazardous. I think this week's actions by the NFL actually hurts its stance on wanting 18 games. But that won't stop the owners for pushing for it anyway.
Patrick Charles from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Rashard Mendenhall is on pace to get 390 touches. Will he wear out?
Walker: Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin recently said this is a point of concern and something the coaching staff will work on in the next several weeks. Mendenhall is playing well and carried the offense in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's absence. Now that Roethlisberger is back, you're going to see more passing, which will preserve Mendenhall for the long haul.
Kenny from Ankeny, Ia., writes: I was reading your Bengals crossroads article. I know it's a little early to speculate, but don't you think Marvin Lewis would be a great choice to replace Wade Phillips in Dallas?
Walker: It's way too early for that, Kenny. I'm not hearing anything new on the Lewis front, but I wouldn't rule out a return to Cincinnati. If he does become a coaching free agent, Lewis will be a viable candidate in 2011. He's earned a lot of respect around the league for making Cincinnati respectable.
John from Ireland writes: I picked Chad Ochocinco in the middle rounds of my fantasy draft and T.O. with the last pick. Who do I start this week?
Walker: Thanks for checking in from Ireland, Josh. The AFC North blog has a surprising number of international readers. Terrell Owens has the hot hand and Ochocinco is seeing a lot of double teams. Although I have a sneaky feeling Ochocinco is going to have a big game soon, I would stick with T.O., who is getting more passes thrown his way.
John from Enid, Okla., writes: Judging by your early evaluation of this year's rookies, it looks like the Browns had the best draft, with three rookies making your top five. With that in mind, would you consider the Browns the most-improved team in the AFC North this year regardless of record?
Walker: John, it's hard to say the Browns are the most-improved team in the division when they're 1-5. Cleveland has made strides over last year, but certainly not enough to where it's showing in its record. The point of the rookie rankings was to rate where first-year players stand right now. I will revisit them at some point in the next several weeks and the order of the list could change.
Levi H. from Ellicott City, Md., writes: What are the chances that Shawne Merriman actually joins the Ravens? Is there any reason to believe it could happen?
Walker: Levi, I checked on this earlier in the week and was told it's a possibility. To what degree I don't know, because it's hard to gauge while Merriman is still under contract with the San Diego Chargers. It's worth keeping an eye on in the next few weeks.
Comment and complaint department
Here is another batch of comments and complaints from our AFC North community.
Coreen from Davis, Calif., writes: The only think that I can imagine that would make me sadder then loosing an amazing player like James Harrison, is watching a someone like Harrison play half speed. This new rule is a travesty. I am proud of Harrison for trying to make his point.
Duane Gray from Des Moines, Ia., writes: I played football from little league up until I graduated high school and one thing that was checked was if your helmet was on properly and enough air or padding was in it to keep you safe. Over the years new helmets have been created and redesigned for better projection. If this is the case why are so many helmets being knocked off and more concussions occurring? Something is not adding up.
Walker: Coreen, Harrison would have a really hard time changing the way he plays. He worked for everything he has -- from being an undrafted player to multiple Pro Bowls and the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year -- by playing all out and aggressive. That is why Harrison was so distraught this week, because he doesn't know any other way to play the game. Duane, this is a very good point, because concussions are up and so are helmets getting knocked off. I can't say football equipment is something I've followed closely this season. But I may have to pay more attention.
Shawn Davis from Manassas, Va., writes: Obviously the Steelers' D is playing great this year. However, I still have concerns with their pass defense. Their pass D is ranked No. 11, giving up 233 yards per game. I attribute some of that to teams not being able to run so they have to pass and some of that to late game stuff. But it still feels like there is room for improvement here and that they will need to get better.
RJ from Altoona, Pa., writes: The only thing that worries me about Pittsburgh right now is the pass defense. It looks a little bit too much like last year.
Walker: I'm not too worried about Pittsburgh's pass defense for several reasons, Shawn and RJ. First, the Steelers are winning games. Second, they are so hard to run against that teams eventually stop beating its head into the wall and become pass-heavy. So Pittsburgh has to give up some numbers. Third, when the Steelers needed a big stop or a turnover this year, they got it, and that's a big difference from last season.
Aaron from Walkerville, AFCN, writes: Psst... Hey Walker... Yeah, you...Where did all those Bengals fans go? Don't be too loud now. We don't want to stir them up from their hiding places.
Scott Bailey from Memphis, Tenn., writes: James, you have to consider that jumping on and off the bandwagon is considered to be a form of exercise in Cincinnati. I should know having lived there for twelve years.
Walker: Aaron and Scott, I wrote recently that Bengals fans disappear and reappear in the blog more than any other fan base in the division. They were out in droves last year and the offseason after they swept the division. But now you can hear a pin drop after a slow start. That may change if Cincinnati beats the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, but that is still poor fandom. The AFC North blog is a place to find out what's right and what's wrong with your favorite team. But Bengals fans can never seem to handle the latter. Even Browns fans, who have significantly less to cheer about, have stuck with their team throughout the three seasons I've ran this blog.
AFC North Homer of the Week
Because we didn't do a complaint department last week, we missed this gem.
Herman from Baltimore writes: Wow! You are so wrong picking the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Ravens. But that's ok, because after Sunday's game with the New England Patriots, even you will begin to see the light. The Ravens are the most dominant team to come along since... never! They won't be losing another game this season.
Walker: Homer of the Week predictions never go well, do they?
If you have any other questions, comments or complaints, please send them to our AFC North inbox.
- The Baltimore Ravens might have interest in San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman if he clears waivers.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't abandon the run Sunday, despite the return of franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
- Browns defensive lineman Robaire Smith (back) could be out for a significant period of time.
- Cincinnati Bengals rookie receiver Jordan Shipley is ready to return from a concussion.
Marcus Wyche from Baltimore wants to know if Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer should have had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
James Walker: Palmer decided not to have that surgery on his elbow in 2008. Tommy John surgery is not typically done on NFL players, and it would have been a risk to go with that procedure. When Palmer is asked about his health now, he says he's 100 percent. I take Palmer at his word and evaluate his performance mostly as though health is not an issue.
Matt from Syracuse writes: JW, isn't it a little too early to look back on the Bengals?
Walker: The point wasn't to say Cincinnati (2-3) is done, Matt, because it's a long season. The point was to highlight how quiet Bengals fans have been on the blog recently. Cincinnati fans were quite vocal here just a few weeks ago. In running this blog for three seasons, "Bengaldom" disappears and reappears on the blog more than any other fan base. That is not good fandom, in my opinion. This week's silence is another example of that.
Ryan from Dayton, Ohio, writes: How long can the Bengals keep playing like this before someone takes a fall?
Walker: Slow down, Ryan. It's too early for Bengals fans to go overboard. The team is 2-3 and still in it. There is still plenty of time to get back into the race and it starts for the Bengals next week against the Atlanta Falcons (4-1). If Cincinnati wins that game, people will feel good again.
Derek Davison from Chicago writes: As a Steelers fan, should I be worried that Rashard Mendenhall is on pace for 356 carries this season?
Walker: Impressive math, Derek. Mendenhall is on pace to shatter his career high for carries, but using him a ton was the only way Pittsburgh could win games without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. With Roethlisberger's return, the Steelers' offense will be more balanced and Mendenhall won't have to carry the offense on his back. Pittsburgh must be careful, though, not to stray too far away from their hot hand.
Eddie from Beaufort, S.C., writes: If the Ravens beat Steelers and Jets on the road, how are the Ravens still behind the Steelers in the Power Rankings?
Walker: I got this question a lot in the AFC North mailbag, Eddie, and it's a legitimate debate. But the consensus of the Power Rankings, which I am a part of, is Pittsburgh is a stronger team with Roethlisberger back. I also outlined why the Steelers are the NFL's most dominant team entering Week 6.
RJ from Altoona, Pa., writes: It seems to me that you media folks are digging deeper and deeper to find reasons to praise the Ravens. So they beat a mediocre team (Denver) after playing the Steelers, that makes them mature? Come on, man.
Walker: RJ, the Ravens are playing great football and look to be finally playing to their talent level. It's a long season, but there is no debating that the Ravens are one of the NFL's top teams.
Ron from Qalat, Afghanistan, wants to know if San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman could fit the with Baltimore.
Walker: Ron, first thank you for your service. There's a chance that Merriman, a Washington D.C. native, could land with the Washington Redskins or Ravens once he is released. But it's way too early to speculate, because Merriman is weeks away from being healthy.
Dave from Cleveland writes: The Browns need to go ahead and take the leash off Colt McCoy for this week's game against the Steelers. With Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace injured, it just makes sense.
Walker: The Browns don't have a choice, Dave. If the team felt Brett Ratliff were a better option, it would have cut McCoy in training camp and kept Ratliff. McCoy will get his chance against the stiffest test imaginable.
Don Dietz from Ashtabula, Ohio, writes: Is it a fair assessment to say that the Browns' defense has controlled the run game of their opponents?
Walker: Well, Don, the Browns have been decent. Last week, they allowed Atlanta's Michael Turner to rush for 140 yards, which isn't good. But overall, the defense has held its own. The Browns have much bigger issues than run defense. More problems reside on the offensive side of the ball.
(There will be no complaint department this week. The AFC North community whined waaaay too much.)
- Cleveland Browns receiver and return specialist Joshua Cribbs wants a new deal by the end of the season.
- The offense of the Pittsburgh Steelers is struggling on third down.
- After being challenged to a "fight" this offseason by Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco, San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman said he will settle the score on Sunday.
- Baltimore Ravens receivers Mark Clayton (knee) and Kelley Washington (ankle) both missed practice Wednesday.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
After the Cincinnati Bengals failed to repeat their success following the 2005 season, one of the most hurtful things Chad Ochocinco admitted was that he was made the scapegoat for the team's various failures.
The former Pro Bowl receiver put up great numbers in 2006 and 2007, yet he simply could not fathom why and how such a productive player was blamed for the team's shortcomings.
The media and fans pointed to his various distractions. Once seen as entertaining, he kept making guarantees that went awry. There was a perception that he appeared more enamored with his next touchdown celebration than getting the Bengals out of their funk. The antics began to wear on a team already struggling to get to .500.
At least in the early going, Ochocinco could be heading down that same road in 2009.
Training camp hasn't even started and here is a sample of his recent statements:
- Ochocinco said he will use Twitter before, during and after games, leading to questions about his focus.
- The receiver also guaranteed the Bengals will make the playoffs, which everyone surely will remember down the road.
- Ochocinco also challenged San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman and ESPN analyst Mike Golic to fights, which, at best, is meaningless banter.
This is likely just the beginning of the "Chad Ochocinco Show."
Wait until HBO's "Hard Knocks" follows his every move in training camp. Wait until the games begin. Who knows what Ochocinco will do or say next?
Perhaps Ochocinco is at his best when he's having fun and "being Chad." By all accounts, Ochocinco worked hard in the offseason and looks poised to put up solid numbers.
But if the Bengals as a team do not win, and Ochocinco continues to make a huge spectacle, right or wrong, he could find himself once again wondering how he became such an easy target and scapegoat this season.
Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:
- Why are 2005 first-round picks like Cleveland Browns receiver Braylon Edwards slow to get contract extensions?
Morning take: Frankly, the top of this draft class was probably the worst of this decade. The best players turned out to be linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Shawne Merriman and neither went in the top 10.
- Is disgruntled Denver Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall the answer for the Baltimore Ravens?
Morning take: The Broncos don't want to trade Marshall, and he comes with a lot of baggage and the desire for a huge contract. The trio of issues makes it unlikely that he lands in Baltimore.
- Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco says he plans to use Twitter before, during and after football games this season.
Morning take: If Ochocinco is serious -- and with him you never know -- I'd really question if his primary focus is winning or entertainment and self-promotion.
- Here are the "Madden 10" rankings for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Morning take: Where I'm from, we have a rule that you cannot use the defending Super Bowl champions in "Madden" because the ratings are always so high. Sure enough, I will be invoking this rule again this season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson and John Clayton
This is a debate on Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game between San Diego and Pittsburgh. We will tackle topics on the game. AFC West blogger Bill Williamson will debate the side of the Chargers and senior writer John Clayton will debate the side of the Steelers.
Here we go:
Which quarterback will have a bigger impact?
|Harry How/Getty Images|
|Philip Rivers and the Chargers ride a five-game winning streak into Pittsburgh Sunday.|
Bill Williamson: John, it's going to be San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. The Chargers are the hottest team in the NFL and Rivers is one of the hottest players in the league. He's playing out of his mind. Why shouldn't he? It's the playoffs and Rivers is a late-season player.
Rivers, taken seven picks higher than Roethlisberger, has developed into one of the great late-season players. He is 14-0 in December games and he is 3-2 in the postseason. While Indianapolis' Peyton Manning got his numbers Saturday night, it was Rivers who led the Chargers to 10 points in the final minute of regulation and in overtime.
Rivers is a big-game player. Yes, Big Ben has his Super Bowl ring and he knows how to get it done in the clutch as well. But Rivers is red hot. His statistics far surpass Roethlisberger's numbers in 2008. Rivers is playing with a purpose. He is a fantastic leader. He will not be intimidated by the vaunted Pittsburgh defense or the miserable weather. Rivers has willed the Chargers to victory during this five-game win streak, and there's no reason not to think Rivers won't do it again, Mr. Clayton.
John Clayton: Billy, you can throw me all the stats you want, but Ben Roethlisberger was the first of the top three quarterbacks taken in the 2004 draft to go to the Super Bowl and win, beating Eli Manning and Philip Rivers to the punch. The 14-0 December stat is nice, but Roethlisberger did get the field goal drive to beat Rivers in Pittsburgh this year. He's a big-time player in big-time games. Rivers is a quarterback who is learning the playoffs. Last year, he learned how to win a playoff game, beating the Titans. Roethlisberger is one of the best in football in the final two possessions of the fourth quarter. He has a presence in those situations that is one of the best in football. He has a strong arm that doesn't have problems in windy conditions. I'm not going to make a pick in this game, but Roethlisberger has the edge during his career in one key stat -- wins. He's 51-20 during the regular season and he's done it against tough schedules. Drew Brees has better stats than both those guys, but don't bet against Roethlisberger in the final four minutes of any game.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
- According to Mark Curnutte of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Bengals are talking to former receiver Chris Henry about a possible return.
- Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writes the Steelers, which boasted the NFL's top defense last season, gave up two early touchdowns in Thursday night's 24-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Morning take: The defensive veterans shrugged off last week's porous performance against the Philadelphia Eagles. And although it's not a good practice to overreact to preseason games, two straight sub-par weeks are starting to raise eyebrows in Steel Town.
- With all the talk about Baltimore Ravens quarterbacks Troy Smith and Kyle Boller this week, Joe Starkey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review takes an in-depth look at rookie Joe Flacco.
Morning take: It looks like a tough run at this point for Flacco to become the starting quarterback early in Baltimore. But the fact that he has the most physical tools continue to keep him in the hunt with neither Smith nor Boller taking over.
- Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer says Browns third-year outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley has new moves.
Morning take: Wimbley studied some of the NFL's best pass rushers this offseason in Pro Bowl linebackers DeMarcus Ware, Shawne Merriman and James Harrison. Will Wimbley join those elite in 2008?