AFC North: Troy Smith

Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Troy Smith is not giving up on his dream of playing quarterback in the NFL after getting cut by the Steelers nearly two weeks ago.

Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner in 2006, said a few teams contacted him the day he was cut, but he doesn't know where he'll play again.

"We'll just keep plugging and plugging," Smith told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Plain Dealer reported that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told Smith he thought he could start in this league and wanted to let him go early enough to catch on with another team. Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who drafted Smith in the fifth round in 2007, said Smith can "definitely" play in the NFL.

Hensley's slant: Time appears to be running out for Smith. He wasn't going to be the No. 2 quarterback for the Steelers, who have Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch. But it could be tough for him to catch on to another team. The Dolphins passed on him last August, and despite Newsome's positive comments, the Ravens didn't re-sign him.

BENGALS: The Cincinnati Enquirer posted some historical statistics that "might make you cringe." Perhaps the most cringe-worthy is this one: Of the 28 teams that were in the NFL in 1983, every franchise has made back-to-back playoff appearances except the Bengals. The expansion Texans and Panthers have never made consecutive trips to the postseason. Even the Browns, who weren't in the league for three seasons, went to the postseason in five straight seasons (1985-89). Hensley's slant: The Bengals have actually enjoyed a good amount of success recently. They've been to the playoffs three times since 2005, the same amount as the Cowboys over that span. The problem has been maintaining consistent success.

BROWNS: The NFL Players Association filed a lawsuit against the NFL on behalf of three players suspended in connection with the bounty investigation, including Browns linebacker Scott Fujita. The suit calls commissioner Roger Goodell "incurably and evidently biased." This comes after the players' appeals were shot down by Goodell. "The investigation and arbitration process that the Commissioner's public relations machinery touted as 'thorough and fair' has, in reality, been a sham," the lawsuit stated. Hensley's slant: Fujita only has himself to blame when it comes to the process. He was on the NFLPA executive committee that signed off on Goodell's powerful role in the new collective bargaining agreement. I'm guessing many players are going to regret giving Goodell so much authority.

RAVENS: In trying to land the backup quarterback job, Curtis Painter is adjusting to a new playbook and new teammates. But he isn't dealing with new faces everywhere. Quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell was Painter's head coach last season when both were with the Indianapolis Colts. “Anytime you come into a new situation and have a little bit of familiarity, to have a player or a coach you know, it definitely helps out,” Painter told the Carroll County (Md.) Times. “Having him as the quarterbacks coach and being in that room, we’ve obviously had a relationship. So, that makes it an easier transition." Hensley's slant: Painter's ties to Caldwell might have helped him in beating out Dennis Dixon and Kyle Boller in an offseason tryout, but Painter hasn't received any guarantees, especially when you look at his contract. He signed a one-year, $615,000 deal that doesn't include a signing bonus. Still, the battle between Painter and Tyrod Taylor will be one of the interesting ones to watch in Ravens training camp.

AFC North links: Adam Jones' message

June, 26, 2012
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Baltimore Ravens

Is this the year the Ravens get over the hump?

Pro Football Weekly examines what it would mean for Baltimore's defense if Terrell Suggs is lost for the entire season.

Cincinnati Bengals

Cornerback Adam Jones offered a strong message during his rookie symposium speech. "If I could tell them anything, I just want them to realize this is a business. When you sign your contract, you are the head CEO of your company. The Adam Jones Company -- whatever it is. We can't go running down a field for the rest of our life. Every decision you make is critical. It might not get you now. But it will get you later."

Cleveland Browns

Although he's already one of the better corners in the league, NFL.com lists Joe Haden as a candidate to have a breakout season in 2012.

The Browns hope wide receiver Greg Little can fulfill the lofty expectations they have for him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers released former Heisman Trophy winner and former Baltimore quarterback Troy Smith.

Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert talks about the state of the Steelers' offense at this stage of the offseason.
The Baltimore Ravens are among three teams interested in Steelers free-agent quarterback Dennis Dixon, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos are also in the running for Dixon, who is not expected to return to Pittsburgh.

The Ravens have been inconsistent in how they've addressed the backup quarterback position recently. In 2010, Baltimore spent $3.8 million on Marc Bulger to have veteran insurance behind Joe Flacco. In 2011, the Ravens went with rookie sixth-round pick Tyrod Taylor.

One reason why the Ravens could go with Bulger in 2010 was the uncapped year, but it's definitely a major philosophical switch to go from a playoff-tested quarterback in Bulger to a raw prospect like Taylor. Of course, Baltimore hasn't needed a backup, because Flacco has never missed a start in his four-year career (64 straight, the third-longest current streak in the NFL). But the Ravens' playoff chances would get decimated if Flacco got hurt, and the team had to turn to Taylor for an extended period.

Dixon, 27, the No. 3 quarterback last season for Pittsburgh, has made three career starts in his four seasons with the Steelers. He has a 2-1 record, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Dixon's first start came against the Ravens in 2009, when his interception in overtime set up the winning field goal.

Here are the backup quarterback situations for the rest of the AFC North:

BENGALS: Cincinnati is set with journeyman Bruce Gradkowski. When Andy Dalton was hurt in last year's season opener, Gradkowski rallied the Bengals to a 27-17 win at Cleveland.

BROWNS: At this point, the Browns are going with Seneca Wallace, the team's backup for the past two seasons. But the depth chart could get moved around if Cleveland drafts a quarterback in the early rounds. If the Browns don't take a quarterback, Wallace won't be competing with Colt McCoy for the starting job, the team said.

STEELERS: Besides Ben Roethlisberger, the only quarterbacks on the roster are Troy Smith and Jerrod Johnson. The Steelers likely will bring back Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch. The favorite to return is Leftwich, who reportedly drew interest from the Colts.
The Steelers signed former Ravens quarterback Troy Smith on Friday, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

This is an interesting addition but not likely a significant one. Even though the Steelers' quarterback group could undergo change, Smith would be fighting for the No. 3 job.

Pittsburgh's top two backups this season, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon, are both free agents. Dixon presumably will go elsewhere and the 37-year-old Batch might not return.

Byron Leftwich, who is also a free agent, is expected to re-sign and become the primary backup to Ben Roethlisberger. Leftwich broke his arm in the preseason and spent the entire regular season on injured reserve.

That's why Smith's best shot at sticking with the Steelers is winning the third-string job. Smith, a Heisman Trophy winner who was with the Ravens from 2007 to 2009, spent last season with the United Football League's Omaha Nighthawks. He failed to establish himself as an NFL starting quarterback because he struggles with accuracy.

Final Word: AFC North

December, 2, 2011
12/02/11
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

Rattling rookie quarterbacks: No defense has a better record against rookie quarterbacks the past eight years than the Steelers. Under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh is 13-1 against starting first-year quarterbacks, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That record includes a 24-17 victory against Bengals rookie Andy Dalton three weeks ago when Pittsburgh intercepted him twice in the fourth quarter. Since 2003, the Steelers have limited starting rookie quarterbacks to 167.9 yards passing, allowing 10 touchdowns while notching 15 interceptions. The only rookie to beat Pittsburgh during this stretch was the Ravens' Troy Smith in the 2007 regular-season finale, when the Steelers rested many of their starters.

Running game heats up: During the John Harbaugh era (since 2008), Baltimore has rushed for 152.6 yards per game in December and January, third-best in the NFL. Only the Panthers and Jets have averaged more in that time. Run defense has been a major weakness for the Browns, who have allowed a league-worst seven running backs to gain more than 100 yards against them. Cleveland ranks 29th in the NFL in run defense and has given up 11 runs of 20 yards or more, which is tied for sixth-most in the league. This could be a game in which Ravens running backs Ray Rice and Ricky Williams combine for more than 30 carries.

Colt McCoy
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesNo NFL quarterback has thrown a higher percentage of his passes 10 yards downfield or less than Cleveland's Colt McCoy, at 76.1.
Fourth-quarter finishes: Cincinnati has recorded five fourth-quarter comebacks this season, which has been uncharacteristic for this franchise. Before this season, in their first 130 games under coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals rallied back in the fourth quarter only 14 times. But they can't wait until the fourth quarter against the Steelers. While Pittsburgh has struggled in the past to close out games defensively, the Steelers have been shutting down teams in the end since allowing that 92-yard winning drive to the Ravens. Pittsburgh has won its past two games by making three interceptions in the fourth quarter.

Stopping short passes: Whether this is an indication of Colt McCoy's arm strength or the lack of deep threats on the Browns, McCoy has thrown a league-high 76.1 percent of his passes 10 yards or fewer downfield this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He averaged a career-low 4.4 yards gained on his 34 pass attempts at the Bengals last Sunday. McCoy’s average yards per attempt is 5.9, the lowest of any qualifying quarterback. The Browns' short passing attack plays right into the strength of the Ravens. Only the Texans have allowed a lower percentage of those short passes to be completed in 2011, and no team has allowed fewer touchdown passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Needing to win more than respect: The Bengals proved they could compete against the AFC North first-place teams, but they need more than moral victories against teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the final five weeks of the season. Cincinnati is 6-0 against teams that currently have losing records and is 1-4 against those with winning records, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The only team the Bengals have beaten that has an above-.500 record now is the Titans (6-5). One reason Cincinnati has failed to defeat the better teams is its ability to take care of the ball. The Bengals' turnover ratio against losing teams is plus-6, but it's minus-2 against winning teams.

Baltimore Ravens cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
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Check here for a full list of Baltimore’s roster moves.

Biggest surprise: The biggest name on this list, and perhaps in the AFC North, is backup quarterback Troy Smith. He nearly had Baltimore's starting job two years ago but an illness knocked him out of the running and opened the door for starter Joe Flacco. The Ravens were open to trading Smith but couldn’t find a suitor. Shayne Graham was the preseason favorite to win Baltimore’s kicking job after signing as a free agent. But after a stiff competition in training camp and the preseason, incumbent Billy Cundiff edged Graham, who statistically is one of the NFL's most accurate active kickers. Receiver Demetrius Williams was another surprise.

No-brainers: Tight end Davon Drew's fate was sealed early when the Ravens drafted two rookies at his position high in the draft. Todd Heap, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta all looked solid this preseason, making Drew expendable. Cornerback Travis Fisher was another player who had an opportunity to show what he can do. Because of injuries, Fisher spent a brief time with the starters this summer but played poorly and didn’t take advantage. Baltimore also pulled off a trade for backup linebacker Antwan Barnes with the Philadelphia Eagles for a conditional draft pick. The Ravens were deep at linebacker and gained back a pick for next year that they lost to the Seattle Seahawks recently in the Josh Wilson trade.

What’s next: Baltimore may scan the waiver wires to see if there’s any hidden gems available in the secondary. Cornerback depth is always welcomed on the Ravens and safety Ed Reed going on the physically unable to perform list makes adding another safety an option. Otherwise, Baltimore’s roster is stacked and ready to go. It’s time for the Ravens to prepare for their Week 1 showdown with the New York Jets on "Monday Night Football."

AFC North preseason recap

September, 3, 2010
9/03/10
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The preseason is finally over. All four AFC North teams were in action Thursday night for their exhibition finales.

Here are some notes from each game:

Pittsburgh Steelers 19, Carolina Panthers 3

The Good
  • Rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Jonathan Dwyer both made strong cases in their final chance to impress before Saturday's cuts. Dwyer, a sixth-round pick, led the Steelers in rushing for the second straight week with 86 yards on 20 carries. Sanders, a third-round pick, led Pittsburgh in receiving with 66 yards and a touchdown. Both players were up and down in training camp but came on strong late in the preseason to likely earn roster spots.
The Bad
  • The huge negative was the left knee sprain to quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was expected to be Pittsburgh's Week 1 starter. Leftwich was hit low in the first half and didn’t return. Now his status is in question for the regular-season opener, where quarterbacks Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch may have to step in against the Atlanta Falcons.
Cleveland Browns 13, Chicago Bears 10

The Good
  • We mentioned quarterback Colt McCoy's perfect 13-for-13 passing earlier in the AFC North blog. So let's shift the focus to Cleveland running back James Davis, who likely claimed a roster spot. The backup was on the bubble but led the Browns in rushing with 66 yards against Chicago. Davis also caught five passes for 53 yards and showed good elusiveness to break tackles. Davis was the talk of the preseason last year when he led the Browns in rushing. But he's been quiet this exhibition season until Thursday.
The Bad
  • Browns rookie running back Montario Hardesty's much-anticipated debut ended poorly as he suffered another knee injury. Hardesty missed all of training camp and three preseason games with a right knee injury. After seven carries, he hurt his left knee and was on crutches after the game. Hardesty came to Cleveland with a reputation of being injury-prone in college.
Baltimore Ravens 21, St. Louis Rams 27

The Good
  • Baltimore rookie WR David Reed showed flashes. Reed recorded 138 yards on four kickoff returns. The fifth-round pick also caught three receptions for 65 yards. Reed is on the bubble but helped his case to be one of the final receivers to make the team.
The Bad
  • We also mentioned Ravens quarterback Troy Smith earlier. But let's discuss the most unnecessary move we've seen in the AFC North this preseason, which was Dannell Ellerbe stopping at the goal line to taunt the Rams before scoring a defensive touchdown. Where to start with this one? First, the Ravens were losing. Second, it was the preseason. Third, Ellerbe is fighting for playing time and made a good defensive play look unprofessional. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh cleary wasn't happy with Ellerbe's antics.
Cincinnati Bengals 30, Indianapolis Colts 28

The Good
  • The Bengals finally got great quarterback play from backups Jordan Palmer and J.T. O'Sullivan. Both players have been inconsistent this preseason but had their best efforts against Indianapolis. O'Sullivan was 9-for-12 for 102 yards, and Palmer was 10-for-14 for 114 and two touchdowns. This should bring a little bit of calm in relation to Carson Palmer's replacements heading into the regular season.
The Bad
  • Cincinnati had another double-digit penalty game with 11 infractions. Sure, a lot of backups played Thursday, but there were some on the field who will contribute in the regular season. Cincinnati doesn't seem concerned about its penchant for penalties. But we will see if it disappears or carries over when the games count.

Morning take: Time for Dixon or Batch?

September, 3, 2010
9/03/10
8:00
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Here are the most interesting stories Friday in the AFC North:

  • It appears a sprained knee could keep Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich out for the Sept. 12 opener against the Atlanta Falcons.
Morning take: That would leave Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch. Based on reps this summer, Dixon would be next in line. But this quarterback derby has been unpredictable from the start.

  • Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy was a perfect 13-for-13 in the preseason finale against the Chicago Bears.
Morning take: This was a much-needed performance from McCoy, who struggled most of the preseason. It was a good ending considering McCoy likely will sit the entire 2010 season.
Morning take: This was a showcase game for Smith. But he didn't help himself, throwing for 237 yards and two interceptions. Smith remains on the Ravens' bubble.
Morning take: Nugent has been hurt most of camp, but when healthy he's produced. The Bengals have a tough decision to make between Nugent and Dave Rayner.

AFC North update

September, 2, 2010
9/02/10
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Here are the latest happenings Thursday in the AFC North:
Here are the latest happenings Wednesday in the AFC North:
  • Peter King of Sports Illustrated predicts the Pittsburgh Steelers will win the Super Bowl this year.
  • Jamison Hensley of the Baltimore Sun reports Ravens quarterback Troy Smith will play the entire preseason finale Thursday against the St. Louis Rams.
  • Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes about Browns rookie Colt McCoy's chance to impress.
  • Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com looks at Cincinnati's kicking competition between Mike Nugent and Dave Rayner.

Take your pick recap: Steelers QBs

August, 31, 2010
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This week's "Take your pick" in the AFC North involves the hottest topic in Pittsburgh. The question is, who should be the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback in Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons: Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon?

Here are responses from our division inbox and AFC North Twitter:

I choose Leftwich!

Joe from Atlantic Beach, Fla., writes: Byron Leftwich should be the starter for the Steelers on Sept 12. He has the experience of being a winning starter in the league as well as success in filling in for Ben Roethlisberger in the past.

Nick from Pittsburgh writes: Leftwich, no question. He's got the experience and he's much better at dropping back and firing a quick, hard throw. Dixon holds the ball too long and seems too indecisive--just look at the pick he threw in the end zone against Denver. The QB just needs to manage the game and not make too many mistakes until Ben is back, because the defense will give the Steelers a chance to win.

Matt from Richmond, Va., writes: I'm guessing Leftwich gets the nod. Aside from experience, his ability to utilize the deep ball with Wallace and the other speed receivers probably interests [offensive coordinator Bruce] Arians. However, it would be a shame if Dixon isn't utilized in a few series each game. His athleticism is what makes him an asset in the first four games.

Big Snack from Indy writes: As much as I like Dixon and wanted him to win the job as he gives the offense another dimension, we have to go with Leftwich to start the season. He minimizes the risk during the first four games. We can't have those interceptions that Dixon threw against Denver. I still think Dixon has great potential and can provide a spark, but he may not be quite ready for the starting gig. Either way, we have to rely on superb defense and a solid running game to weather the early storm until Ben gets back.

Mike from Pittsburgh writes: It has to be Leftwich. He is more experienced, he makes better decisions and makes them faster. Charlie Batch should have been given a chance. But since that won't happen, it has to be Leftwich.

I choose Dixon!

Boris from Mangilao, Guam, writes: I believe Dixon should start against the Falcons. He did make some mistakes in Denver. But if he is allowed to run more, then those costly interceptions should diminish. Also, the O-Line is still porous. Leftwich is like a statue back there and he can't escape the rush like Dixon or Big Ben.

Kevin from Pittsburgh writes: Even after Sunday's game, I still think they should go with Dixon. Sure, he made some mistakes. But he's young and learning fast. He can only get better. Leftwich on the other hand is a veteran and struggling against both starters and backups.

Anthony from Princeton, N.J., writes: Neither one is great but at least Dixon has mobility. Leftwich looked like a stone in the pocket. Dixon has the talent, he just needs to make better decisions. If Dennis turns his potential interceptions into nice little scampers then maybe we can get through the Ben-less games over .500.

Dave from Chicago writes: I'd go with Dixon. I know he struggled a bit with Denver, but I just think overall he brings more to the table with his mobility. He also seems a bit more Big Ben like in that he has a way to escape if the pocket breaks down, which might be an issue this year. Ben will shed tacklers and still throw deep and Dixon can use his mobility and run, whereas Byron might just get sacked since he doesn't have Bens strength or Dixon's feet.

Bill Graham from Houston writes: Dixon is inexperienced and uncomfortable in Arian's offense, while Byron has a slow release and lacks mobility. I think Dixon's issues can be addressed to a certain degree before the season starts, and with his mobility he gives the Steelers a better chance of winning.

What about Charlie?

Patrick Charles from Columbus, Ohio, writes: I think if Mike Tomlin wants to win any of these four games without Big Ben, he should start Charlie Batch. He's better in the pocket than Leftwich and he processes information faster and makes the right decisions on where to go with the football.

Roamer from Odenton, Md., writes: They all looked horrible. I'd go with Chuck Batch. At least Batch has proven in the past that he can fill in on a short term basis. Leftwich looked good in his few opportunities two years ago. But realistically, Charlie Batch is the most familiar with the offense and is the best candidate to nurse the team through the first four weeks. Gonna be a rough start either way. I've never gone into a season hoping the Steelers would be 2-2 after a quarter of the season.

Ray Gorman from Anaheim, Calif., writes: I say go with Charlie Batch. Neither Dixon or Leftwich has shown me enough to feel confident, and Charlie can step onto the field after flipping hamburgers for a year and win three out of four games for you.

Ben from Groton, Conn., writes: Forget Leftwich and Dixon. Charlie Batch should be the Steelers' QB the first four weeks. He made some nice throws and the pick-six was a miscommunication as opposed to a flat-out awful decision. He's easily the most accurate of the three, reads defenses the best and is mobile in the pocket. The only real problem he's had in his limited playing time since being in Pittsburgh has been injuries, because he's been very solid while healthy.

Steve from Milltown, NJ, writes: I think Batch should start. Leftwich has been terribly inaccurate. Dixon shows that he needs more reps to be ready. Batch is accurate and the biggest knocks I have heard on him are he lacks arm strength and mobility at this point (so does Leftwich). Batch is the best combination of ability and veteran presence.

Other options?

NadroJH via Twitter writes: I'd take Neil O'Donnell at this point.

EWayne2010 via Twitter writes: Tommy Maddox.

DrTarzain via Twitter writes: Trade for Troy Smith.

Nkeefer7 via Twitter writes: Bring back Slash. My pick is Kordell Stewart.

TheBen120 via Twitter writes: I'm officially throwing Antwaan Randle El's name in the hat since we're just drawing anyway.

AFC North final say

To wrap it up, we check in with Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.

Matt Williamson: The short answer is Dennis Dixon. If you asked me a few days ago that would have been an easy answer, but he looked horrific Sunday. Dixon turned over the football. He didn't throw the ball away and forced it into coverage. I'm under the assumption Pittsburgh's defense is going to be very, very good this year. So you need a game manager, a move-the-stick guy, and I think Dixon can do that at his best. I’m usually not a big believer in runners over throwers at quarterback. But if you only have him for four weeks, Dixon is awfully hard to prepare for. He can scramble for first downs if things break down. And the big picture thinking is if Dixon performs well, there’s going to be people offering draft picks at the end of the year to make him a potential starter. Leftwich is what he is. His flaws and his strengths have never changed. So in a tie, I like Dixon.

Camp Confidential: Baltimore Ravens

August, 19, 2010
8/19/10
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 5

WESTMINSTER, Md. -- Pro Bowl talent? Check.

Plenty of depth? Check.

A budding quarterback and tremendous coaching staff? Check and check.

There are plenty of reasons to buy into the Super Bowl hype surrounding the Baltimore Ravens this year. Most of the key ingredients are in place for Baltimore to make a deep postseason run.

On paper, this is perhaps the best collection of talent in Baltimore since the team's inception in 1996. It's certainly the most balanced, as last season's third-ranked defense joins quarterback Joe Flacco, Pro Bowl tailback Ray Rice and new receiver Anquan Boldin to give Baltimore a potentially high-scoring offense.

But expectations do not always equal results. Can the Ravens live up to the hype? First they must address these key issues.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Joe Flacco
AP Photo/Nick WassRavens quarterback Joe Flacco has plenty of weapons to be successful on offense.
1. Is Flacco ready to take the next step? There are plenty of weapons on offense, but it's up to the quarterback to make sure everything runs efficiently.

Flacco has improved every year in the NFL. He is entering his third season, and the Ravens expect him to take the next step to become a legitimate franchise quarterback.

There is no reason to believe Flacco will not make the jump this year from a good to great quarterback. He has the best receiving corps of his career, a top-notch running game and a quality offensive line. Perhaps the biggest challenge for Flacco is keeping everyone happy, as every starting skill player with the exception of the quarterback has been to the Pro Bowl.

2. Will the cornerbacks hold up? Baltimore's secondary issues are well-documented.

Top corner Domonique Foxworth (knee) is out for the season and starters Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are both coming off major knee surgeries. Washington will make his 2010 debut Saturday against the Washington Redskins, while Webb is waiting to be cleared for practice. There's also no guarantee both players will instantly get back to their old form once they return.

Players like Cary Williams, Travis Fisher and Chris Carr have been filling in for the time being. But starting roles are simply too big for this group, and that won't cut it in the regular season. In this pass-heavy NFL, you need quality depth at cornerback, and it turns out this is Baltimore's one glaring weakness on an otherwise stacked roster.

3. Can Baltimore survive the AFC North? Here is a fact Ravens fans often ignore: At least two division rivals currently have Baltimore's number.

The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have given Baltimore fits in recent years. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is 8-3 against the Ravens in 11 career starts, which includes last year's 2-0 sweep. Pittsburgh also is 4-1 (including playoffs) in its last five meetings against the Ravens. The only Baltimore win in that span came against the Dennis Dixon-led Steelers in overtime last November.

A deep postseason run would be a lot easier for Baltimore if it won the AFC North division. With that comes a home playoff game(s) and possibly a bye in the first round. But the Ravens will have to play more consistently against their division rivals this season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeTom Zbikowski
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesRavens safety Tom Zbikowski is having an outstanding training camp.
The Ravens are not panicking over safety Ed Reed's offseason hip surgery, because Tom Zbikowski is having the best training camp of his career. The third-year safety is leaner and quicker this year, as Zbikowski continues to earn the confidence of the coaching staff.

Zbikowski has some natural instincts that the Ravens want to take advantage of. He's versatile enough to play in the box, and has very good timing and angles on blitzes. It's unknown if Reed will be ready for Week 1 of the regular season. The Ravens probably can't win a Super Bowl without Reed, but they can win in the short term with an improved Zbikowski.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Jared Gaither's offseason has been a disaster. The offensive tackle got off on the wrong foot by making contract demands, and things have gone downhill from there.

Right now Gaither has a back injury that's kept him out of camp. He also surprised the Ravens by reporting to the team much lighter than his usual playing weight.

Baltimore has already moved forward by making Michael Oher its left tackle, which is the most important position on the offensive line. But if Gaither doesn't straighten things out, the Ravens also may have to figure out what to do next at right tackle. We will explain their options below.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Remember the name Oniel Cousins. He will be one of the most important Ravens in the next several weeks. With Gaither working to get back on the field, Cousins could do Baltimore a huge favor by playing well at right tackle. Marshal Yanda also is a possibility, but he's better suited as Baltimore's starting right guard. If Cousins proves to be the answer, the Ravens can maintain continuity with the other four spots on the offensive line.
  • [+] EnlargeHaloti Ngata
    AP Photo/Rob CarrRavens' Haloti Ngata looks like one of the league's top defensive linemen.
    By the end of this season, Haloti Ngata may be mentioned as the top interior defensive lineman in football. It's impressive watching Ngata routinely blow up offensive linemen in practice. He makes it look easy. In one sequence Wednesday, Ngata pushed rookie offensive tackle Ramon Harewood about 5 yards into the backfield. Ngata then yelled to the offensive coaches "get him out," because Harewood's best effort barely offered Ngata any resistance.
  • I would be surprised if Baltimore doesn't improve its pass rush this season. The "pressures" in camp look more crisp and aggressive this year. It also doesn't hurt that linebacker/defensive end hybrid Terrell Suggs is in great shape and motivated to have a bounce-back season. Last year, the Ravens were ranked 18th in the NFL with 32 sacks in 16 games. The Steelers (47), Cleveland Browns (40) and Bengals (34) all had more sacks in the division.
  • From what I saw this week, it's pretty clear Marc Bulger deserves to be the No. 2 quarterback behind Flacco. Bulger has a quicker release and more accurate arm than Troy Smith. Bulger still shows flashes of the Pro Bowl-ability he had in St. Louis and can make throws that Smith simply cannot. Bulger would be a better short-term fill in if Flacco goes down.
  • Webb looked good running and cutting on his surgically repaired knee while doing individual drills this week. He's yet to practice with the team but is very close to being cleared. Baltimore believes Webb could eventually develop into the team's best cornerback. But the team has to be careful and make sure he returns at full strength.
  • Despite the bad press rookie defensive tackle Terrence Cody received after failing his conditioning test, he is a force once he's on the field. Cody is hard to move in the trenches and has surprisingly good feet for someone his size. The Ravens are experimenting with Cody in various ways, including pairing him with Ngata and also giving Cody an occasional look at fullback in goal-line situations.
  • I thought I would see more from rookie receiver David Reed this week. Not to put unnecessary pressure on the fifth-round pick, but Reed generated a significant buzz in Baltimore during minicamp and organized team activities. My first impressions of Reed in training camp is that he's still inconsistent. Reed had some drops, but he also had one of this week's best catches by leaping over a defender in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Baltimore will need to see more of the latter.
  • Switching Paul Kruger to full-time defensive end and adding bulk is already paying dividends. Kruger looks more powerful and explosive this summer. The second-round pick was drafted as a linebacker/defensive end hybrid and couldn't find a role on the team his rookie year. Now he's more productive focusing on one position.

Reports: Ravens trading John Beck

August, 2, 2010
8/02/10
12:29
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Beck

Beck

Things are getting interesting in Baltimore. Various reports here and here are stating the Ravens are close to trading backup quarterback John Beck to the Washington Redskins.

In all likelihood this means Troy Smith's spot on the team is safe. There has been plenty of trade speculation surrounding Smith following the signing of Marc Bulger. But the Ravens found a suitor for Beck first.

If everything goes through, Baltimore would have a strong threesome of quarterbacks this year in starter Joe Flacco, Bulger and Smith.

(Update: The Ravens have announced they received cornerback Doug Dutch from Washington in exchange for Beck.)

AFC North evening links

July, 13, 2010
7/13/10
6:00
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Here are the latest updates Tuesday in the AFC North:

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