AFC North: Steven Jackson

All you have to do is start looking at the alternatives to figure out why running back Justin Forsett has become a priority for the Baltimore Ravens.

The growing list of running backs who've been cut -- Steven Jackson joined Reggie Bush, DeAngelo Williams, Chris Johnson and Peyton Hillis on Thursday -- contains great options for a fantasy football draft -- in 2011. In 2015, these backs are worn down and represent a Plan B for only the desperate. Last season, none of those backs gained more than 707 yards rushing last season, and Johnson and Hillis were the only two to average more than four yards per carry.

Forsett
Even though the Ravens are expected to draft a running back early in this year's draft, they need a reliable veteran running back for what should be a young backfield. The top option is re-signing Forsett because he is proven in this system and lacks wear and tear.

"We would like to retain Justin," general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "I’ve learned something since the end of the season about Justin that I didn’t really know. He has mentored some very good, young backs, starting with Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch, Maurice Jones-Drew when he was in Jacksonville. Having Justin here -- and with the opportunity [of] also brining in hopefully another young running back -- to have Justin be around that guy would be an asset also. So, we will work to try to retain Justin.”

It's not a given that the Ravens are going to be able to re-sign Forsett. The Atlanta Falcons are expected to show interest, according to ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure.

But it should be easier (and more cost efficient) for the Ravens to keep Forsett, a 29-year-old back whose had one year as a featured back, than the likes of wide receiver Torrey Smith and pass rusher Pernell McPhee, both of whom might get market value.

If Forsett would sign elsewhere, the Ravens could look at the unrestricted running back free-agent class that includes Frank Gore, C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews and Mark Ingram, which would go against the team's typical operating procedure. Over the last 13 years, the only unrestricted free agent running back signed by the Ravens was Ricky Williams.

The Ravens usually go after players who've been released that offseason because they don't count against the team's compensatory picks. Of the current cap casualties at running back, the only one who might have anything left is Bush.

This is why the cap-strapped Ravens are placing so much importance in keeping Forsett. The Ravens' backfield for 2015 would be more than solid if it includes Forsett, a rookie running back and Lorenzo Taliaferro.
If there is an AFC North-wide trend heading into free agency, it's the need for a running back. Everyone in the division has to address this position whether it's re-signing someone, finding a new starter or adding a backup.

BENGALS: Cincinnati should be in the market for a new starter. Cedric Benson is a free agent, and this looks like a mutual parting of the ways. The Bengals need to find a running back that can generate big runs. Bernard Scott will return, but the Bengals have never trusted him with a starter's workload.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Frank Victores/US PresswireRay Rice is the only AFC North starter guaranteed to return to his team for the 2012 season.
BROWNS: Count the Browns among those looking for a starter. That's assuming Cleveland isn't going to pursue Peyton Hillis, who produced more drama than touchdowns last year. The Browns still have Montario Hardesty, but he can't stay healthy. Brandon Jackson, who missed all of last season with a toe injury, is expected to be the team's third-down back.

RAVENS: This is the only AFC North team that knows its Week 1 starter at running back. Ray Rice is an unrestricted free agent, but the Ravens will put the franchise tag on him before he can reach the open market. The Ravens' need is at backup running back after Ricky Williams announced his retirement. Baltimore is looking for an experienced power back to compliment Rice.

STEELERS: Pittsburgh will need a new starting running back to open the season after Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the regular-season finale. He likely will start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. While Isaac Redman has shown promise, it wouldn't be smart for the Steelers to put the weight of the running game on his shoulders. Pittsburgh needs a more reliable alternate plan.

While there will be others released for salary-cap reasons, here are the top-10 running backs who are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March (listed in alphabetical order):

Cedric Benson, Bengals (1,067 yards rushing, six TDs in 2011)

Michael Bush, Raiders (977 yards rushing, seven TDs)

Matt Forte, Bears (997 yards rushing, three TDs)

Ryan Grant, Packers (559 yards rushing, two TDs)

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots (667 yards rushing, 11 TDs)

Peyton Hillis, Browns (587 yards rushing, three TDs)

Steven Jackson, Rams* (1,145 yards rushing, five TDs)

Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks* (1,204 yards rushing, 12 TDs)

Ray Rice, Ravens (1,364 yards rushing, 12 TDs)

Kevin Smith, Lions (356 yards rushing, four TDs)

* -- Could void contract at the end of the 2011 league year

Final Word: AFC North

November, 11, 2011
11/11/11
1:30
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 10:

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesAndy Dalton and the 6-2 Bengals host the 6-3 Steelers on Sunday.
Rough on rookies: The Pittsburgh Steelers look to continue their domination of rookie quarterbacks when they face the Bengals' Andy Dalton. Since Dick LeBeau returned as defense coordinator in 2004, rookie quarterbacks are 1-11 against the Steelers, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The only rookie who has beaten Pittsburgh was Baltimore's Troy Smith in the 2007 regular-season finale, when the Steelers rested many of their starters. Pittsburgh has held rookies to a 62.8 passer rating with seven touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. The Ravens' Joe Flacco has lost three times to the Steelers in his 2008 rookie season, and the Browns' Colt McCoy lost twice to Pittsburgh last year in his first NFL season.

Looking to avoid another trap: In John Harbaugh's first three seasons, the Ravens lost only once to a team with a losing record at the time. They've done it twice this season. After a season-opening rout of Pittsburgh, the Ravens fell flat in a loss at Tennessee. After a convincing Week 5 win over AFC South-leading Houston, Baltimore didn't show up in an upset loss at Jacksonville. Now, after another win over Pittsburgh, the Ravens insist they're not overlooking the 2-6 Seattle Seahawks. Harbaugh has referred to this disturbing trend as the Ravens' "Achilles' heel so far this season."

Getting run down: Over the past two weeks, running backs have gained 421 yards against the Browns, averaging 5.9 yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns. In comparison, Cleveland's entire offense has produced just 41 more yards during that time. Three running backs have reached 115 yards against the Browns in the past two losses, which is a concern in facing 1-7 St. Louis. Rams running back Steven Jackson is going for his third straight 100-yard game, which would tie the second-longest streak of his career (according to ESPN Stats & Information). Jackson, 6-foot-2 and 236 pounds, is "bigger and stronger" than anyone the Browns have faced this season, Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron said.

Soaring from the start: Baltimore, which ranks second in scoring defense, is the only NFL team that has shut out every opponent this year on the opening drive. Baltimore has allowed only 13 points in the first quarter, which also leads the NFL. It would be a surprise to see the Ravens' shutout streak end in Seattle. The Seahawks have yet to score in the first quarter against three AFC North teams this season. The division has held Seattle to five points per game (one touchdown, three field goals).

Air attack: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for at least 300 yards in a franchise-record three straight games. He has 1,068 passing yards since Week 7, the most in the NFL during that span (according to ESPN Stats & Information). The Bengals' pass defense has been stingy, giving up eight touchdowns through the air, which is the third-fewest in the league. The Bengals can take pride in the fact that they've allowed only one 300-yard passer this season. But that achievement is tarnished a bit when you learn that the quarterback who threw for 323 yards against Cincinnati was Seattle's Tarvaris Jackson.

Friday Forecast: Week 10

November, 11, 2011
11/11/11
11:11
AM ET
This is Friday Forecast, where we'll see how my predictions hold up against our readers'. This week, I will go against zcryer (who matched my 44 total points this week) and Force-10 (who matched the total points for last week's game).

Here are our predictions for the AFC North games in Week 10:

Jamison Hensley

Steelers 27, Bengals 17

Rams 17, Browns 13

Ravens 34, Seahawks 10

zcryer

Bengals 24, Steelers 20

Browns 33, Rams 30

Ravens 35, Seahawks 13

Force-10

Steelers 24, Bengals 13

Browns 20, Rams 12

Ravens 27, Seahawks 10

PREDICTION BREAKDOWN

Steelers 27, Bengals 17: A lot of the focus has been on how Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton will handle the pressure of the Steelers' defense. But this game will come down to Ben Roethlisberger beating the Cincinnati pass defense. Maybe it would different if this game was earlier this year. At this point in the season, Roethlisberger has thrown for at least 320 yards in three straight games. The Bengals' defense is on a different streak the past two weeks, giving up 323 yards passing to Tarvaris Jackson and 272 yards to Matt Hasselbeck. It's tough to pick against this matchup.

Rams 17, Browns 13: It wasn't so long ago when Colt McCoy was winning more games than any other quarterback in college football history and Sam Bradford was hoisting up the Heisman Trophy. Both are now struggling in the NFL, which is why this game will come down to the running games. The Browns are so banged-up and desperate that Josh Cribbs might get time in the backfield. The Rams are riding Steven Jackson, who has back-to-back 100-yard games. Couple that with the fact that Cleveland has allowed six running backs to gain 100 yards in eight games this season. The Browns' track record says they'll get run over again.

Ravens 34, Seahawks 10: Trying to predict the Ravens is a losing proposition. Baltimore beats Pittsburgh twice along with Houston and the New York Jets, but the Ravens struggle against Jacksonville and Arizona. Their trend of playing down to the competition ends in Seattle, which has been outscored 64-15 by the AFC North this season. Joe Flacco is 10-4 against the NFC West, throwing 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The bigger concern is how the Ravens will play next Sunday against Cincinnati after making this cross-country trip.
Here's your game-day warm-up:

For the second straight week, the Steelers and Ravens are among the unanimous selections in the Week 3 picks by ESPN's experts.

Of course, the Steelers dominated as expected last Sunday while the Ravens surprisingly lost.

This marks the Steelers' first game at Lucas Oil Field, the home of this season's Super Bowl. The Colts are trying to avoid their first 0-3 start since 1998, which was Peyton Manning's rookie season.

The Ravens, who play at St. Louis, have a history of bouncing back after losses. Baltimore hasn't fallen in consecutive games since October 2009.

Here are some pregame notes for the AFC North teams ...
  • BROWNS: Running back Peyton Hillis will not play because of a strep throat, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Browns backup Montario Hardesty could play a bigger role against the visiting Dolphins.
  • BENGALS: Wide receiver Jerome Simpson will play against the visiting 49ers despite at a drug bust last week at his Kentucky home, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen. He was excused from practice Thursday and Friday.
  • RAVENS: Baltimore will be monitoring the status of Rams running back Steven Jackson, who is considered a game-time decision with a quadriceps injury. His backup, Cadillac Williams, is questionable with a hamstring injury.
  • STEELERS: Of all the Colts' injuries, the one player that the Steelers don't want to see is defensive end Dwight Freeney, who is questionable with an abdomen injury. He missed two practices before being limited Friday.
Even though Steven Jackson didn't practice Wednesday, the banged-up Baltimore Ravens may have to face the injured St. Louis Rams running back on Sunday.

Jackson sat out Monday's night game with a quadriceps injury, but he told ESPN radio 101 in St. Louis this week that he's "hopeful" of playing against the Ravens. There's a chance he could be returning to practice soon.

"Hopefully, we'll get Steven at the end of the week," Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said on a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "It's a day-to-day thing. But if I know anything about Steven, it's that he's a warrior and he wants to play. So, we'll see where we're at when we get to Friday and Saturday."

Along with Jackson, backup running back Cadillac Williams missed practice with a hamstring injury.

The Ravens have the fourth-best run defense in the league after two games.

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