AFC North: Sheldon Richardson

Double Coverage: Steelers at Jets

October, 11, 2013
10/11/13
12:00
PM ET
Ben Roethlisberger and Geno SmithUSA TODAY SportsBen Roethlisberger and the 0-4 Steelers take on Geno Smith and the surprising Jets.

Things you didn't expect to see in the standings when the NFL released the schedule last April: The New York Jets at 3-2, the Pittsburgh Steelers at 0-4.

The rebuilding Jets were supposed to struggle under a coach who already was being called a lame duck, and the Steelers ... well, they were supposed to be the Steelers, a model of consistency.

The two teams meet up Sunday at MetLife Stadium. The Steelers are off to their worst start since 1968, the year of the Jets' only Super Bowl season. If the Steelers lose this game, they're pretty much done in terms of playoff aspirations. The Jets played a similarly desperate team Monday night, and that didn't seem to faze them, as they stunned the Atlanta Falcons on the road. The Steelers should be well-rested coming off a bye week.

ESPN.com Jets team reporter Rich Cimini and Steelers reporter Scott Brown break down the matchup:

Cimini: Scott, I look down the Steelers' roster and I still see a lot of those familiar names -- Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, etc. It's hard to imagine how the Steelers could be this bad. I'm sure you could write 5,000 words on why they're 0-4, but how 'bout a few thoughts on what has gone wrong?

Brown: Rich, I think I have written triple that amount on everything that has gone wrong, but yes, who would have thought the winless Steelers would be playing the 3-2 Jets even just a couple of weeks ago? Turnovers have been the biggest problem for the Steelers, and that is on both sides of the ball. The Steelers have committed 11 of them with six coming in the last two games by Roethlisberger alone, and they are still without a takeaway, which is unbelievable when you think about it.

Playing from behind has a lot to do with the Steelers’ turnover problem, especially on defense. The defense is at its best when it puts opposing quarterbacks in obvious passing situations and forces them into the kind of mistakes that lead to turnovers. Would you believe the Steelers have had exactly two leads this season and those were 2-0 and 3-0 in the season opener against the Titans and in the second game at Cincinnati, respectively?

Rich, this defense usually confuses and frustrates rookie quarterbacks, but Geno Smith has hardly played like a first-year signal caller. Has his play surprised you, and is it sustainable?

Cimini: I was surprised by how well he played Monday night in Atlanta because he had been a turnover machine -- 11 in his first four games. All of a sudden, something clicked. I don't know if it was a one-game thing or the start of a trend.

I know the Steelers' defense isn't what it used to be, but Dick LeBeau will have had two weeks to cook up something to confuse the kid. How he responds to new looks from the defense will decide this game. The Jets leaned a bit more on the running game last week, taking some pressure off Smith, and I suspect they'll take a similar approach on Sunday. Blitz pick-up will be a key, as will the receivers' ability to gain separation. I remember the Steelers were very aggressive last season in Week 2 with the Jets' wideouts. While on the subject of quarterback play, how would you assess Big Ben's play to this point?

Brown: It has been fine other than the turnovers, and I think it will get better with tight end Heath Miller back and running back Le'Veon Bell giving the Steelers a legitimate threat in the ground game. Roethlisberger is on pace to throw for almost 5,000 yards this season, which would obliterate his career-high of 4,328 yards (2009). But Roethlisberger is also averaging just over 40 pass attempts per game. That number is way too high, especially given how leaky the Steelers’ offensive line has been through the first quarter of the season.

The emergence of Bell should restore balance to the Steelers’ offense. My question for you is whether or not such balance will have to wait a week? The Jets’ defensive line looks awfully physical, and it is hard to envision that Steelers having much luck running the ball against it.

Cimini: You're right, Scott, the Jets have been very good against the run. They've faced some good backs -- Chris Johnson, C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin -- and they're allowing only 76.2 yards per game and 3.0 per carry. I'd be surprised if the Steelers have much success on the ground.

The Jets' front seven is much improved from last season. They added more athleticism at nose tackle (Damon Harrison), tackle (Sheldon Richardson), weak inside linebacker (DeMario Davis) and rush linebacker (Quinton Coples). They're no longer vulnerable on the perimeter, as they were last season. I think they will make the Steelers one-dimensional, which should allow them to get good pressure on Roethlisberger. Speaking of pressure ... four sacks for the mighty Steelers? What happened to that defense?

Brown: Man, depends on who you ask. The easy answer is to say that age has finally collared a once fearsome defense, but that is not entirely accurate. Defensive end Brett Keisel, strong safety Polamalu and cornerback Ike Taylor are among the most tenured Steelers, and they have played well this season.

Age has caught up with the Steelers a little bit, and the defense needs to get more out of younger players such as cornerback Cortez Allen and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones. Jones, the Steelers’ No. 1 pick last April, is going to be really good, but he has not made much of an impact as a pass-rusher. The Steelers desperately need Jones to emerge opposite Woodley, who has three of the Steelers’ four sacks.

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The AFC North blog continues to look at the different positions and rank each team in terms of draft need. For Saturday, the blog is addressing the defensive line.

Mel Kiper Jr.'s top five defensive ends are: BYU's Ezekiel Ansah (who can also be a 3-4 outside linebacker), UCLA's Datone Jones, Auburn's Corey Lemonier, Florida State's Bjoern Werner and Tank Carradine.

His top five defensive tackles are: Utah's Star Lotulelei, Florida's Sharrif Floyd, Missouri's Sheldon Richardson, North Carolina's Sylvester Williams and Georgia's Jonathan Jenkins.

Here are the rankings:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers: Two starting linemen, Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood, are free agents next year. The only starter currently under contract beyond this season is nose tackle Steve McLendon, who signed a three-year deal this week. There is the potential that Cameron Heyward will take over for Keisel in 2014 and the Steelers can re-sign Hood, who hasn't lived up to expectations of being a first-round pick. Outside of Heyward, the only backups are Alameda Ta'amu, who made more headlines off the field, and journeyman Al Woods. Richardson, Williams and Jones, all potential first-round picks, project to be 3-4 defensive ends. SMU's Margus Hunt is another intriguing 3-4 end prospect.

2. Baltimore Ravens: General manager Ozzie Newsome said the Ravens had to improve up the middle on defense, and that starts with the defensive line. The Ravens added Chris Canty and Marcus Spears in free agency, although Spears could be a one-year stopgap. There's also a chance that the Ravens pick up a nose tackle because Terrence Cody has been a disappointment and Ma'ake Kemoeatu remains unsigned. Defensive end Arthur Jones is a free agent next season, so Baltimore could look at taking someone to develop this year. Also, defensive end Pernell McPhee is moving to back up Terrell Suggs at rush linebacker, which opens up a backup spot at defensive end.

3. Cleveland Browns: The Browns are stocked up as far as their two-deep depth chart on the defensive line. The starters are: free-agent addition Desmond Bryant, Phil Taylor and Ahytba Rubin. The backups are: Billy Winn, John Hughes and Ishmaa'ily Kitchen. There is a question of whether Winn is big enough to play an end in a 3-4 defense. Other than that, there are no immediate needs on the defensive front.

4. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals return all four starters from the best defensive line in the AFC North in Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Domata Peko. Cincinnati has great depth in Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry at the ends and has young talent inside in Brandon Thompson and Devon Still, both of whom were drafted a year ago. The Bengals don't have to use any picks on the defensive line this year.

AFC North links: McClain to be a Raven?

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
10:10
AM ET
Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens and linebacker Rolando McClain are working toward a contract, sources told NFL.com's Albert Breer on Wednesday. McClain was the No. 8 overall pick in 2010, but was recently cut by the Oakland Raiders. He had 99 tackles and five sacks in 2011. McClain's strength always has been stopping the run, but off-the-field issues played a role in his release. He is still just 23, and the Ravens don't have a replacement for Ray Lewis. McClain would join fellow Alabama products Courtney Upshaw and Terrence Cody on the Ravens' roster.

The next investment for the Ravens should be on the offensive line, writes Mike Preston of the Baltimore Sun.

Matt Vensel of the Sun unveils his latest mock draft.

Third-year defensive lineman Pernell McPhee, who battled through several injuries last year, has high expectations of himself for the coming season, writes Garrett Downing of the team's website.

Cincinnati Bengals

With offseason conditioning to begin on Monday, the Bengals are exploring signing another veteran or two. The team hosted linebacker Akeem Jordan on Tuesday, and according to reports, will have tight end/fullback Alex Smith in for a visit later this week, writes Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Cleveland Browns

Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, LSU outside linebacker/defensive end Barkevious Mingo and Arizona quarterback Matt Scott have pre-draft visits scheduled with the Browns on Wednesday, league sources confirmed for Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner and USC quarterback Matt Barkley had visits with the Browns on Tuesday, sources said.

Former Browns safety Usama Young signed with Oakland. Young, 27, spent the past two seasons with the Browns before being cut April 2. The Browns signed Young as an unrestricted free agent in 2011, but he never secured the starting free safety job on a full-time basis like the organization had hoped.

Inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson says he's excited about the new coaching staff. "They’re definitely creating a different vibe around here, and it’s a winning vibe that I haven’t been a part of since I’ve been here," said the eight-year veteran.

Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Tuesday named coach Mike Tomlin to the powerful NFL competition committee, a group of coaches and administrators who recommend playing rules and policy changes to the NFL owners for a vote. Tomlin replaces former Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt.

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