AFC North: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

QB snapshot: Andy Dalton

December, 2, 2014
12/02/14
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A quick observation of quarterback Andy Dalton and how he played in the Cincinnati Bengals' 14-13 win in Week 13:

Dalton
Dalton
As horrendous as the sick Dalton looked in the first half of Sunday's win at Tampa Bay, he played significantly better in the final two quarters.

For starters, he didn't have any interceptions in the second half after throwing three before halftime. Each of the pickoffs came on ugly, inaccurate throws, and at least one of them was the product of miscommunication between him and the receiver. It was the second time in Dalton's career that he threw three interceptions in a half and the seventh time he threw that many in a game.

Although it's easy to blame Dalton's poor early play on a stomach bug he picked up the night before, neither he nor his coaches did that after the game. Head coach Marvin Lewis and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson did relay Monday how proud they were of the way Dalton battled back in the third and fourth quarters. Several of Dalton's throws in those periods were dramatically sharper, including three straight in the third quarter that were perfectly placed between two defenders. Jermaine Gresham and Mohamed Sanu caught two of those throws for first downs. They came just ahead of another well-placed throw on A.J. Green's 13-yard touchdown reception that was the game's difference-making score.
CINCINNATI -- If the Cincinnati Bengals end up narrowly claiming their second straight AFC North title, they may have a little red flag and the hoarse voices of several assistant coaches to thank.

That's because, for now, their division championship hopes live on thanks in large part to a 12-man penalty that came with 12 seconds remaining in Sunday afternoon's 14-13 road win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If it hadn't been for a challenge flag -- one that NFL rules don't allow coaches to throw at that late stage of a game -- and the constant pleas of assistants to count the number of Buccaneers on the field, the division run would have taken a minor hit.

With seconds ticking by and the Bucs a field goal away from a walk-off stunner, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown had just completed a 20-yard pass to receiver Louis Murphy when, according to one Bengals player, the chatter on head coach Marvin Lewis' headset intensified.

Assistant coaches looking down from the press box were going ballistic. As Murphy started getting up at the end of the first-down completion that took him to the Bengals' 21-yard line and well within field goal range, coaches started screaming, telling Lewis to challenge the play, or to call timeout, or to just do anything that would get the referees' attention and cause them to look back at the play.

What did the eyes in the sky see?

Tampa Bay had too many men on the field.

"All of our coaches up there, they have a better eye for that stuff and they saw it right away," Bengals running back Jeremy Hill said. "That's kind of how Marvin threw the challenge flag. If they had gotten that next play off, no telling how the outcome would have been. They probably would have gotten a chance to kick a field goal for the game."

Hill said running backs coach Kyle Caskey told him he was among those who alerted Lewis about the Buccaneers' 12th man.

Rules state a team can't use a challenge within the final two minutes of a game. Any review-worthy plays that occur within that time frame automatically go to the replay booth, which will take a look at it. The penalty for challenging when there are no available challenges is a lost timeout. The good thing for the Bengals was that they had two timeouts left before the challenge flag was thrown, leaving them with a timeout to spare.

But that wasn't the most important part about the sequence. It was that the play was worthy of review.

"The refs were telling us they would take care of it," said defensive end Wallace Gilberry, who added that he and his teammates noticed an extra player on the field. "We could shout until we turn purple. If they don't call it in and review it, it's just one of those things that they miss."

After several minutes of the officials conferring with the replay booth, and after viewers at home witnessed CBS analyst and former Bengals player Solomon Wilcots count the 12 players on a replay of the play, the review came back favorable for the Bengals. Tampa Bay offensive lineman Oniel Cousins was on the field when he shouldn't have been. A regular substitution to give the Bengals an additional blocker in power situations, Cousins had been on the field often Sunday. But he shouldn't have been allowed to check in on this particular play, which featured two extra linemen who served as tight ends.

"We were trying to match up the personnel, and there was one too many," Lewis said.

Gilberry said it was the right call.

Once the penalty was applied, the Bengals forced two straight incomplete passes and held firm on Tampa Bay's desperate fourth-down try for the end zone. Without allowing the score, the Bengals were able to win, keeping them very much in the driver's seat in the most contentious division in the NFL. At 8-3-1, they lead the other three AFC North teams by a game and a half and currently hold the AFC's No. 3 seed. With help, they could even contend for the conference's top seed by the last of these next four games.

But none of that would have been possible if it hadn't been for the heady, alert eyes of Bengals assistant coaches.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Yes, there were smarter decisions the Cincinnati Bengals could have made near the end of the third quarter Sunday, but Marvin Lewis' choice to go for an onside kick was respectable, nonetheless.

You read that correctly.

Respectable.

Just because it was a "respectable" decision doesn't mean it was the absolute right play for the Bengals to employ at that time. There were other quite viable and quite intelligent options, too, like kicking the ball as deep as possible like normal and forcing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to start around their own 20.

Still, the tactic made more sense than some of you reading this might give it credit for. (I can already hear the keyboards cranking up to craft rebuttals.)

Many of you who follow me on Twitter, for instance, took exception to the following tweet I tapped out just after the onside kick. Overwhelmingly, most who responded to it thought the move was illogical and one that smacked of desperation.

I get it. I seriously do. At a time when the Bengals just snatched a bit of momentum in a horrendously ugly game, why in the world would they be greedy and run the risk of giving the football right back up and putting it in the hands of an offense that had remarkably poor field position?

Because football is a game about risks.

Given the way the Bengals' defense had been playing, it wasn't far fetched to assume the unit would hold for a field goal if the Bengals didn't recover the onside kick. In the last three weeks, the Bengals' defense has given up just 29 points for an average of 9.7 per game. In the previous six games, overall the Bengals had allowed an average 29.7 points.

Clearly, they had reason to be confident in their defense.

They also were hopeful about establishing confidence in their desperate-for-a-pulse offense. With their quarterback fighting through an illness, the Bengals were looking for anything that might disrupt the Buccaneers' defensive rhythm, and give themselves life as they tried to ease through the game. Like all the gadget plays the Bengals employed, an onside kick had the potential to do that.

Sure, they had a little momentum and heightened offensive confidence after A.J. Green's 13-yard touchdown catch with 2:10 remaining in the third quarter, but they could have used even more. After all, they were playing a team (that's now 2-10) they should have rolled. At that moment, the rolling very easily could have commenced.

Had the onside kick been recovered, perhaps it would have.

In addition to the schematic risks associated with going for the sneak special teams play, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis also said after the game he went for the onside kick because he and other coaches had been seeing something in Tampa Bay's kick return setup that led them to believe they could exploit a return.

"It's not that we're just going to do it," Lewis said. "We're going to do it because of the look. Good credit to No. 45 [Bucs linebacker Orie Lemon] because he did a great job. He came from the backside and recovered the football."

After Tampa Bay's onside recovery, the Buccaneers pushed downfield a few more yards before settling for a 42-yard field goal. Those were the only second-half points Cincinnati's defense allowed.

It may not have been the smartest decision, but there are reasons why the onside kick call was still a respectable one.
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Cincinnati Bengals may be dancing with danger Sunday afternoon after naming two backup offensive tackles among their inactives against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

With Tanner Hawkinson and Jamon Meredith among the seven not playing, the Bengals are only going with two true tackles. They have to hope starters Andrew Whitworth and Marshall Newhouse remain healthy.

Newhouse will be making his second start for the Bengals when he fills in for Andre Smith, the right tackle who was lost for the season last week at Houston after suffering a left triceps injury blocking Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. While Newhouse didn't allow Watt to record a sack or pass deflection on quarterback Andy Dalton, he had a lot of help. The Bengals probably will revert back to using additional blockers in the form of guards, tight ends and fullbacks to help Newhouse chip Tampa Bay's defensive ends and linebackers.

In the event Newhouse goes down, the Bengals likely will move left guard Clint Boling to the right tackle position, much like they did for two plays last week when Newhouse got poked in the eye. If Boling moves over, Mike Pollak will come off the bench and play his old left guard spot.

It wasn't too surprising that Meredith was declared inactive. The NFL journeyman was added to the roster last Tuesday help address the position's depth following Smith's injury. Hawkinson has been a regular scratch this season, appearing in only three games.

Along with the two linemen, the Bengals also made receiver Greg Little inactive for a third straight game.

Here's the complete rundown of inactives for both teams on Sunday:

Bengals inactives
RB Rex Burkhead
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
LB Vontaze Burfict
OT Tanner Hawkinson
OT Jamon Meredith
WR Greg Little
DE Margus Hunt

Buccaneers inactives
CB Crezdon Butler
LB Lavonte David
C Evan Dietrich-Smith
TE Brandon Myers
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
TE Luke Stocker
DT Clinton McDonald
CINCINNATI -- There will be a slice of Cincinnati Bengals history on the line Sunday when they take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.

With a victory, the Bengals would win three consecutive, uninterrupted road games for the first time in franchise history.

The franchise record for consecutive road games won is five, set across the 2008 and 2009 seasons. But never before has the franchise, in three straight weeks, had three straight games outside the Queen City that it has won.

"History? I didn't know that," Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap said when asked about the possible feat earlier this week. "I guess that's an opportunity for us to capitalize on that. But our main focus is on winning our next game and beating Mike Johnson and Anthony Collins down there with the Tampa Bay Bucs."

Johnson and Collins are former Bengals who rejected bids by the Bengals and signed instead with Tampa Bay in free agency. The pair have endured a difficult season, going 2-9 after being part of three straight playoff runs with the Bengals.

"Yeah, it's difficult," Johnson admitted. "Any time you come into a new situation you want to believe everything's going to be a fair deal and go smooth and go in and dominate. But there's been a learning curve and we know we've taken some bumps and bruises, but nobody has let up. We're still grinding down here and still working and trying to get better. That's all you can do."

Despite their 2-9 mark, the Buccaneers are still in the NFC South race, and thus well within the playoff chase. So they still have something to play for, adding to the difficulty of winning this third straight road game for the Bengals.

That fact, combined with the strain three straight weeks of travel can put on a player, makes this the Bengals' "greatest challenge to this point," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

"I really think this is going to have to be our best week of football the whole season so far," Whitworth said. "You put on the tape and you really wouldn't understand their record. They look good and they play good. They dominate teams."

Just last week the Bucs were up 10 on the Bears at halftime before Chicago scored 21 unanswered in the third quarter to win the game 21-13. They've had even closer losses, too. Five of the nine defeats have come by six points or less.

If the Bengals are able to follow up road wins at New Orleans and Houston with a third straight, count Whitworth among those who will be most appreciative of the team record. After having to endure the physical and mental demands the last three weeks have put him through, he knows how rare it is for teams to win so many games away from home in quick succession.

"We've been almost a two-hour flight away three weeks in a row now, going back and forth. It's hard on you," Whitworth said. "After a game, you sit on a plane for two hours and it messes up your recovery time. And Saturdays when you're leaving, that's another time to recover. When you play at home, you've a little more time to recover, do more cold tubs, more things in therapy.

"It's definitely different. It's a challenge, and we knew that a long time ago."

Buccaneers vs. Steelers preview

September, 26, 2014
9/26/14
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have history, among other things, working against them when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday for a 1 p.m. ET game.

The Buccaneers have lost eight of nine games against the Steelers, with their only victory coming in 1998, when Pittsburgh still played at Three Rivers Stadium.

The Buccaneers are off to an 0-3 start and will be decided underdogs after getting clobbered 56-14 last Thursday night at Atlanta. The Steelers, meanwhile, are coming off an impressive 37-19 victory at Carolina, which beat Tampa Bay in the first week of the season.

ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the game.

Brown: Pat, the Buccaneers aren’t making me look too smart. Not hard, I know, but I predicted them to be that team that goes from worst to first in its division. It’s early, but the Buccaneers look like they could have a long season ahead of them. Did new coach Lovie Smith inherit a rebuilding project or are the Buccaneers a better team than their record indicates?

Yasinskas: Scott, you're not the only one who expected more from the Bucs. I predicted a .500 season and thought they might even be able to do a little better than that. I really thought new coach Lovie Smith would turn things around quickly. So much for that. I'd like to say the Bucs are better than their record indicates, but I can't. What happened in Atlanta was the ugliest defeat I've ever seen a team have. The Bucs simply looked like they weren't even in the same league as the Falcons. And I don't see Tampa Bay suddenly having some sort of revival against the Steelers. The Bucs are a bad team and they will be without starting quarterback Josh McCown. I'd like to say it can't get worse than it did in Atlanta, but it might get worse against the Steelers.

I was very impressed with Pittsburgh's win over Carolina. The Steelers looked like a complete football team to me. Do they have any weaknesses that Tampa Bay might be able to exploit?

Brown: The defense has injury issues, as the Steelers will be without three starters this week: outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Ike Taylor. The Buccaneers’ size at wide receiver could be a problem for the Steelers, as Panthers wideout Kelvin Benjamin caught eight passes for 113 yards and a touchdown against them last Sunday. And I need to see more than one good game against the Panthers to say that the Steelers can consistently stop the run. Carolina abandoned the run early and did not employ the zone-blocking or stretch plays that have given the Steelers problems. A healthy Doug Martin will test the Steelers, and Bobby Rainey looks like he can play when he isn’t fumbling.

Pat, I was a little perplexed when the Buccaneers signed McCown and didn’t give Mike Glennon a chance to battle him for the starting job. Glennon seemed to show promise last season as a rookie, and McCown has been a journeyman. What is your take on the Buccaneers’ quarterback situation, and with Glennon starting against the Steelers, what are his strengths and weaknesses?

Yasinskas: Glennon did some very good things, despite some very difficult circumstances, as a rookie last year. I also was surprised he didn't at least get a chance to compete for the starting job. But Lovie Smith had history with McCown in Chicago, and the coach wanted a veteran to run his offense efficiently. Smith has said that Glennon is the team's quarterback of the future and I think the future could be now. Glennon's main positive point is a very strong arm and the Bucs need to let him use that. Glennon has a huge receiving corps, and the Bucs need to take advantage of their size. Glennon's other strength is his intelligence. He's not going to make a lot of mental mistakes. I think Glennon can be just as -- if not more -- efficient than McCown.

So how much are all those injuries going to hurt the Steelers?

Brown: Cornerback could be an issue for the Steelers, especially if the Buccaneers can get them into their nickel defense. I don’t like the matchup between the Steelers' cornerbacks and the big, physical Buccaneers wide receivers. When the Steelers go to the nickel, Antwon Blake, Brice McCain or B.W. Webb will play right cornerback if William Gay doesn't play there. If Gay, who is starting for Taylor, stays at right cornerback in the nickel package, McCain will likely play in the slot. What should also be worrisome to the Steelers is if they sustain more injuries on defense against the Buccaneers. They are stretched thin at a couple of positions and their top reserve at outside linebacker is James Harrison, who officially retired three weeks ago today.

Pat, I can’t figure out the NFL, so anyone who thinks the Steelers are a lock in this game is nuts. What has to happen for the Buccaneers to pull off an upset at Heinz Field?

Yasinskas: Something pretty close to a miracle. The Bucs are a bad team that likely will be playing with a backup quarterback. I've seen nothing out of the Bucs that leads me to believe they have any chance against the Steelers. But, getting back to your question, I'll give you an answer. It's hypothetical, but the Bucs have to play the perfect game to have any chance at a victory. They need to play the way Lovie Smith has designed this team: a great defense and an efficient offense. We haven't seen the Bucs play that way yet, but maybe they'll shock us.

The thing that jumped out at me Sunday night was Pittsburgh's running game. The Steelers ran the ball exceptionally well against a Carolina front seven that I think is one of the best in the league. Did Pittsburgh just get lucky and take advantage of the lead, or is this the second coming of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier?

Brown: It’s too early to put Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount in the class of Harris and Bleier, but they are on their way to giving the Steelers the best running tandem they have had in years -- and certainly the top one since Mike Tomlin took over as head coach in 2007. Bell does everything and he has emerged as a dynamic runner. I actually thought Blount might be the Steelers’ most talented runner going into the season, and he is more than just a big back. He has excellent feet, which make him anything but a plodder. Blount ripped off a 51-yard run last Sunday against the Panthers, adding to the 81-yard gain Bell had earlier in the game.

The Steelers rushed for 160 of their 264 yards when the Panthers were within 10 points or fewer. They pretty much ran the ball whenever they wanted to against a really good front seven that was dominated by the Steelers’ offensive line. The line and the backs should take a lot of confidence into Sunday.


Michael Johnson, Anthony CollinsGetty ImagesFormer Bengals Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins have both landed with the Buccaneers.
Each week during the regular season you saw ESPN's NFL Nation reporters team up for "Double Coverage," a back-and-forth midweek banter about the biggest storylines going on ahead of that weekend's games.

There may not be any games right now, but teams have made all kinds of moves during this opening week of free agency. Few moves have been as big as the one that brought defensive end Michael Johnson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Tuesday, officially putting an end to his five-year stint with the Cincinnati Bengals. He wasn't the only former Bengal to start calling Tampa Bay home this week. Offensive tackle Anthony Collins also left Cincinnati to sign with the Bucs. Clinton McDonald, a 2009 Bengals draft pick who spent the last three seasons in Seattle, also arrived in Tampa Bay.

Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and Bucs reporter Pat Yasinskas decided to check in with each another to put the moves in perspective for you:

Coley Harvey: Of course we still don't know the date yet, Pat, but the Bengals will be scheduled to visit Tampa Bay this fall as part of the AFC North/NFC South scheduling crossover. Did any of the former Bengals address playing their old team in their news conferences? Whether they did or didn't, what did they say about the ways their careers in Cincinnati ended?

Pat Yasinskas: None of them really talked about Cincinnati. They all seemed focused on a new start with Tampa Bay. But I'm sure the Cincinnati game will carry extra meaning for them. Playing against your old team always means a little more.

Michael Johnson was the crown jewel of Tampa Bay's free-agent class. He had only 3.5 sacks last season, but 11.5 the year before. Which season is a better indicator of what Johnson brings to the table?

Harvey: You know, Pat, I'd say the latter. If you look at his stats since the start of his career in 2009, you'll see that the 11.5 number was a bit of an aberration. He had 6.0 in 2011, but 5.5 combined in 2009 and 2010. That said, he can be a good pass-rusher, but I have to imagine Lovie Smith saw something else, too. Johnson has been noted for being a good run-stopper and his insanely long arms are a benefit, too. Why do I bring up his arms? Johnson was a basketball player growing up, and by most accounts a really good one. That skill must have translated to football because he's become known for his ability to swat passes at the line of scrimmage. He tied for the league lead with eight batted balls last year. Two of them tipped into his teammates' hands for momentum-changing interceptions. Another helped negate a potential Packers touchdown pass on their final play of a 34-30 Bengals win.

Part of the reason there wasn't much pressure on Johnson to collect sacks last season was because of left end Carlos Dunlap's success. Dunlap had 7.5 sacks in 2013, tying for the team lead. Now that he's teaming up with another good end in Gerald McCoy, what are the Bucs expecting from Johnson?

Yasinskas: The Bucs envision Johnson as a strong outside pass-rusher. That's something the Bucs sorely lacked last season. McCoy was a force in the middle, but there was almost no outside pass rush. The Bucs are hoping Johnson can be a double-digit sack guy. I think he can do that and I think his presence will only make McCoy better.

On offense, the Bucs invested a lot in Anthony Collins to be their left tackle. Is he capable of keeping the league's best pass-rushers off quarterback Josh McCown?

Harvey: Absolutely. According to Pro Football Focus, we're talking about a guy who hasn't allowed a sack since 2009. Granted, he didn't play much until last season. He was a pure backup from 2008 to 2012. In 2013, injuries forced him into a greater role. He earned seven starts between the playoffs and regular season last year and he didn't disappoint. Called upon to fill in for Pro Bowl veteran Andrew Whitworth at Chicago in the season opener, Collins completely shut down sack king Julius Peppers. He did the same against Elvis Dumervil late in the year and kept outside linebacker Robert Mathis silent when the Colts visited Cincinnati. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has to be pleased with how clean Collins kept him.

Now, it was becoming clear in Cincinnati that Collins was ready to be a starting left tackle, but what was it about his play off the bench that impressed the Bucs so much?

Yasinskas: General manager Jason Licht said he studied the seven games Collins started very closely and he came away very impressed. Licht said Collins' footwork and athleticism stood out. The Bucs obviously believe strongly that Collins can be a solid starter. They're paying him $6 million a season and they released veteran Donald Penn to open up the spot for Collins.

Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald is kind of the wild card of Tampa Bay's class of free agents. He had a big impact for Seattle last year. But McDonald was with Cincinnati in 2010 and did very little. The Bucs are planning on having him as a starter. Is he ready for it?

Harvey: Based off what I saw in Seattle last year, I'd say yes. We talked a lot earlier about sacks. It's not easy for a defensive tackle in constant rotation with others to pick up 5.5 sacks, particularly on a defense like Seattle's that had so many playmakers at every level. That's a dedication to McDonald's blue-collar work ethic and team-focused mentality. He may not have been a great player in Cincinnati, but he was a respected teammate. If he keeps grinding the way he clearly has since he left the Bengals, he should be just fine for the Bucs.
At least four teams have called the Cleveland Browns about the fourth overall pick in the upcoming draft, sources told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

One of the teams believed to be in the mix is the St. Louis Rams. That would mean dropping to No. 6. Just say no. Why? The Browns can say goodbye to an elite offensive playmaker in running back Trent Richardson if they trade down. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would immediately grab Richardson at No. 5.

Another potential trade partner is the Philadelphia Eagles. This would require the Browns to fall to No. 15. Cleveland really has to say no to this one. Why? It's a pipe dream to think wide receiver Michael Floyd is going to be available at this spot. He's going to get drafted by Buffalo (No. 10) or Arizona (No. 13).

The top offensive prospects who should be on the board in the middle of the first round are guard David DeCastro and wide receiver Kendall Wright. Two additional second-round picks are not worth this dropoff. Plus, general manager Tom Heckert indicated 17 days ago that the Browns would consider falling back as far as No. 8. The Eagles' spot is out of that range.

As I mentioned earlier this week, the Browns shouldn't trade back. They need playmakers, not picks. Their draft should be based on quality, not quantity.

Still, there's a good chance that the Browns will trade back. Heckert's track record shows he likes to acquire extra picks. And, as ESPN Insider Bill Polian pointed out, Mike Holmgren's teams often find their running backs later in the draft or through free agency.

But Richardson is one of those special types of backs. He has the toughness to excel in a division like the AFC North and he has the potential to immediately affect an offense like Adrian Peterson did.

If Holmgren doesn't believe me, he should consult with his good friend and ESPN analyst Jon Gruden before thinking of trading back.

“The easiest thing to do is turn around and hand the ball to somebody 300 times a year,” Gruden said in a conference call. “Everybody says, ‘Don’t take a running back. You can get those guys in the fifth, sixth or seventh round.' You go try to find Trent Richardson in the fifth, sixth or seventh round."

Gruden added, “He’s a beast. He broke all of Emmitt Smith’s high school rushing records in Florida. I’ve seen him run over people, run around people, he protects the ball, he can catch it, can pick up blitzes. He might be the strongest human being on the planet."

Just because teams are interested in the No. 4 pick doesn't mean the Browns should be interested in giving it up. Just say no.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

A shocked Ben Roethlisberger wants answers from team president Art Rooney II following the "retirement" of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

"When I get back, I'm going to go up to Mr. Rooney's office and ask him what he wants from me, what he wants from this offense, because I think that's a viable question for him," Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review at the Pro Bowl in Honolulu. "He's our owner and our boss, so I really would like to know kind of what he wants and where he sees our offense going because I'd like to tell him where I see us going."

The Steelers announced Arians had retired, but he later said his contract wasn't renewed by the team. Arians had been the only offensive coordinator in coach Mike Tomlin's five seasons as Steelers head coach.

Roethlisberger, who is close with Arians, invited him to Hawaii as his guest for the Pro Bowl, but Arians decided not to go after he was no longer with the team.

Roethlisberger was described as being "miffed" by the timing of the Steelers' move with Arians.

"We feel like we are really close to being an elite offense," Roethlisberger told the Tribune-Review. "For your leader to be gone is kind of a shocker for us, but you've got to be ready for it, and whatever the Rooneys and coach Tomlin decide is our next step. I think the [Steelers'] mind was made up, and B.A. was kind of ready to move on as well."

Hensley's slant: Roethlisberger has to be worried about the direction of the offense. Team sources told ESPN's Chris Mortensen that Rooney wants the offense to go back to its blue-collar identity of the past. The trouble is, the Steelers are built to throw the ball with one of the best young and fast receiving groups in the league. You can criticize Arians' play calling. But it's hard to argue that the Steelers should go back to a run-first offense.

BENGALS: Mike Zimmer is returning for his fifth season as the Bengals defensive coordinator, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported, after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Rutgers' Greg Schiano as their head coach. Zimmer also had been in the running for the Miami Dolphins job before Joe Philbin was hired. While Zimmer is coming back, defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle is expected to be named the Dolphins' defensive coordinator. Hensley's slant: If the Bengals had their way, this is how it would have played out. Cincinnati didn't want to lose Coyle, but it was more important to keep Zimmer. The Bengals defense will remain a top-10 one under his direction.

BROWNS: Brad Childress is close to becoming the Browns' offensive coordinator, sources told The Plain Dealer. For more, click on the AFC North blog posted last night. Hensley's slant: My take on the probable hiring will be posted shortly.

RAVENS: In his introductory news conference as the new Colts head coach, former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said he went from an all-time low -- the loss in the AFC championship game was his most devastating one ever -- to an all-time high. “As fate would have it, I’ve got to be honest with you, I thought for sure that I was going to be coming to Indy to play for a world championship," Pagano said, via The Indianapolis Star. "That’s what I thought I was going to be coming here for, and certainly not standing before you today as the next head football coach of the Indianapolis Colts." Hensley's slant: Don't be surprised if Pagano takes some Ravens with him. Pagano's first target should be outside linebacker Jarret Johnson, who will be a free agent, because he'll need a leader who can explain the defensive system to the other players. It would be like when Rex Ryan brought Bart Scott along to the New York Jets. Defensive line coach Clarence Brooks could also follow Pagano to Indianapolis.
Now I'm back from my brief vacation, here are the most interesting stories Tuesday in the AFC North:
  • Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice was ranked No. 56 in the NFL.com's top 100.
Morning take: This feels low, but it’s difficult to say for sure until the other 55 players above Rice are revealed. Rice is one of the most dynamic and versatile running backs in the NFL.
Morning take: It's an interesting approach for an older team that has it together. Pittsburgh (along with Green Bay) had the longest season in 2010 and hopes the extra off period helps.
  • Cincinnati Bengals kicker and former Ohio State Buckeye Mike Nugent shares his thoughts on Jim Tressel's resignation.
Morning take: Nugent arrived at Ohio State the same year as Tressel in 2001. Nugent turned out to be the most reliable kicker during Tressel's tenure.
Morning take: The Browns aren't thinking that way. In their minds, they acquired more picks with the intention of getting good players in lower draft slots. It comes down to the confidence of the front office to get the job done.
Looking at his impressive game tape, there is no question on the field that former Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith plays like a Raven.

But can Baltimore's newest addition keep his act together off the field? That is the biggest -- and perhaps only -- question surrounding Smith.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Smith
John Rieger/US PresswireThe Ravens say they are comfortable with their selection of cornerback Jimmy Smith.
Coming off a successful 12-4 season, the Ravens were able to land one of the top pure talents in this year's draft by taking Smith with the No. 27 pick on Thursday. But the reason they were able to draft Smith so high was because many teams wouldn't touch him after a series of red flags.

Smith is often compared to both Nnamdi Asomugha for his physical abilities and troubled Tampa Bay corner Aqib Talib for his actions off the field. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently reported a laundry list of character concerns involving Smith, which included three failed drug tests, two alcohol-related violations and an arrest for third-degree assault.

The Ravens said they did a lot of homework on Smith's background and are comfortable with their decision.

"What I like about Jimmy [is he] came right out from the beginning and has been forthright with everything that’s happened to him," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh told reporters Thursday night. "He's had a lot of situations. He didn't try to hide anything. He put it all out there for the whole world to see. He's going to have to deal with that, and we're going to have to deal with that."

The Ravens took a character risk last year with second-round pick Sergio Kindle, who also is talented but fell down draft boards after some poor choices in college. Kindle came to Baltimore and got arrested for DUI in December. Although unrelated to character questions, Kindle also fractured his skull while falling down a flight of stairs last summer and it's unknown when he can return to football.

Smith joins the Ravens with an even longer list of concerns. Baltimore is a classy organization which will do all it can to help Smith, but the Ravens can only do so much. Most of the responsibility is on Smith to take ownership for his actions and mature as a person.

Whether Smith turns out to be the next Asomugha or Talib in Baltimore remains to be seen. But the talented rookie has a golden opportunity in front of him to contribute right away for a potential Super Bowl contender.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 17, 2010
12/17/10
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 15:

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesThe Ravens have struggled to protect quarterback Joe Flacco the past three games.
Failing to protect Flacco: Something has gone terribly wrong with the Baltimore Ravens' pass protection. Once pretty solid, Baltimore's offensive line has allowed quarterback Joe Flacco to be sacked 13 times in the past three games. Baltimore allowed four or more sacks only once in the first 10 games. But Flacco has been sacked at least four times in three consecutive weeks against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans. Lack of communication and poor recognition of blitzes are the primary reasons the Ravens are struggling up front. The New Orleans Saints have a blitz-happy defense and could cause a lot of problems for Baltimore's passing game.

Finishing strong: Despite a lot of criticism for blowing a 21-point lead in the second half against Houston, the Ravens have made no apologies for winning ugly. But one thing that is a concern is Baltimore's inability to finish teams late. The Ravens (9-4) have held fourth-quarter leads in all four losses this season. Also, in the past two weeks, Baltimore has been outscored 25-0 in the fourth quarter. An interception return for a touchdown by Josh Wilson saved the Ravens against the Texans last week in overtime. But they could make a big statement by playing four complete quarters Sunday against the defending Super Bowl champs.

The replacements: The Pittsburgh Steelers are banged up heading into their game against the New York Jets. Therefore, backups need to play well. Reserve tight end Matt Spaeth could start for Heath Miller (concussion) for the second straight game, and safeties Will Allen and Ryan Mundy are expected to fill in for the injured Troy Polamalu (lower leg). Spaeth struggled last week with one catch for four yards against the Cincinnati Bengals. He also had a dropped pass. Allen and Mundy have primarily played on special teams, but might have to fill in for Polamalu the next two games, because Pittsburgh has a short week and will play Dec. 23 against the Carolina Panthers.

Full circle: The Bengals will have an interesting revenge game this week against the Cleveland Browns. At 2-11, Cincinnati's NFL-high 10-game losing streak started Oct. 3 against Cleveland, and the Bengals have a chance to end it against the same opponent. It has been more than two months since Cincinnati last experienced a win, and frustration is at an all-time high. Bengals receiver Terrell Owens recently criticized ownership and the coaching staff for the team's losing ways, and injuries continue to mount. A win against an in-state and division rival would be a good remedy for Cincinnati's various issues for at least a week.

Bigger plays: If the Browns are to beat the Bengals, a key area Cleveland must improve is getting more big plays from its offense. The Browns are averaging 9.5 points in their past two games, and have only two offensive plays of 30 yards or more in that span. Both were receptions by receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, for 37 and 34 yards, respectively. Defenses do not fear Cleveland's passing game and have stacked the box to try to stop tailback Peyton Hillis, who has 1,070 yards rushing. With a quarterback change to rookie Colt McCoy, the Browns hope to have better success throwing downfield.
Ben RoethlisbergerGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesSteelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 7-2 in his career against the Ravens.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has never beaten Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Neither has quarterback Joe Flacco, or the other Ravens who joined the team within the past four seasons.

Similar to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, Roethlisberger has been one of the biggest thorns in the side of the Ravens (8-3). Roethlisberger is 5-0 against Baltimore since 2007 and 7-2 in his career against his biggest rival. The only two losses came in 2006, which was the year of Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident.

"That's a horrible stat," Ravens linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs admitted this week.

Can Baltimore break its five-game losing streak against Roethlisberger in Sunday's matchup against Pittsburgh (8-3) at M&T Bank Stadium? With first place in the AFC North hanging in the balance, this would be a perfect time for the Ravens to end their drought.

The AFC North blog teamed up with its resident scout -- Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. -- to map out four ways the Ravens can beat the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

1. Bring pressure, collect sacks

Analysis: Roethlisberger was sacked eight times in his two losses as starting quarterback this season against the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots. The Buffalo Bills also sacked Roethlisberger five times during last week's 19-16 overtime win for the Steelers. That was a common theme in the three games Pittsburgh's offense struggled under Roethlisberger. Rushing the passer hasn't been Baltimore's strongest area, but it seems to be improving and getting more disruptive as of late. Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman was flushed out the pocket several times and looked uncomfortable last week in Baltimore's win.

"I would come after them," Williamson said. "I think Pittsburgh's blitz recognition, as a whole, is a weakness. Their blockers don't pass off blitzers very well, and a lot of Pittsburgh's linemen don’t have a lot of experience, including Maurkice Pouncey, who is their best guy."

2. Win the pre-snap battle

Analysis: Something I believe the Steelers do very well is mask their blitzes. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is very good at showing different fronts to confuse the quarterback with who's coming and who's dropping into coverage. By the time Pittsburgh shows its coverage, it’s too late because there’s pressure on the quarterback. I think the Ravens and defensive coordinator Greg Mattison can better implement disguises in their defense to confuse Roethlisberger. If so, Roethlisberger's penchant for holding the ball too long could result in sacks and perhaps a big turnover or two.

"I don't think Roethlisberger is a very good pre-snap quarterback," Williamson explained. "A guy like Peyton Manning is tremendous pre-snap, recognizing the defense well before the ball is even snapped. Ben is more reactionary, more sandlot: The ball is snapped, this is what I see, now make something happen and get it there."

3. Take advantage of offensive line woes

Analysis: Pittsburgh's offense line is banged up and has a lot of moving parts. The Steelers lost starting left tackle Max Starks (neck) for the season and have rotated players at both guard positions. Baltimore's defensive line, led by Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata, should be able to win most battles at the line of scrimmage. That would stuff Pittsburgh's running game and put Roethlisberger in a lot of 3rd-and-long situations.

"If you look at the Steelers' guards, they are really bad, and [tackle] Jonathan Scott on the edge is a real problem," Williamson said. "There's a lot of one-on-one matchups there that favor Baltimore's defensive front. We saw a huge one last week with [Buffalo] defensive tackle Kyle Williams."

[+] EnlargeEd Reed
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesIf Ed Reed can keep Mike Wallace in check, Pittsburgh's offense should be much less explosive.
4. Use Ed Reed to take away the deep ball

Analysis: In his first press conference after returning from his four-game suspension, Roethlisberger noticed something while watching the games on television. "It looks like Mike Wallace got faster," Roethlisberger said. The quarterback was very excited about the prospect of connecting with Wallace on big plays this year, and the pair hasn't disappointed. Wallace is having a breakout season, already setting new career highs in yards (792) and touchdowns (eight). Wallace is averaging 22.0 yards per reception, as he has been able to consistently get behind the defense. This is where Reed comes in. The dynamic safety was absent from the first meeting due to offseason hip surgery. But Reed is back and making big plays again. He already has four picks in five games. If Reed can help keep Wallace under wraps, a big part of Pittsburgh's offense will be taken away from Roethlisberger.

"I think they will take shots downfield every game if they can," Williamson said of the Steelers. "Ben is a very good deep thrower and it ties in very well with Wallace, who is obviously an elite deep threat with crazy speed. Pittsburgh is aggressive in that way. They don't have any reservations about throwing deep, and I think they want to go deep no matter what defense they're playing."

If Baltimore can accomplish these four things, it has a great chance of ending its five-game losing streak against Roethlisberger. This is one of the many great chess matches in this rivalry, where the winner will have the inside track to capture the AFC North division title.

Morning take: Lucky Steelers?

November, 29, 2010
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Here are the most interesting stories Monday in the AFC North: Morning take: Bills receiver Steve Johnson dropped a wide-open touchdown in overtime to allow the Steelers to pull it out. But a win is a win.
Morning take: The pass-interference call before halftime was questionable. But the Ravens have been on the short end of plenty of calls. Ask Roddy White.
Morning take: Expect a lot more questions at quarterback this week, as Delhomme's performance didn't silence many critics.
Morning take: The Bengals aren't very interesting now. But Cincinnati will be interesting in the offseason, when it likely makes major changes after a disappointing year.

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