AFC North: Wildcat
Now the Browns are forced to find ways to get Cribbs more involved next season. Here are three suggestions:
1. Short passes and screens in the West Coast offense
2. Smart, selective use of the Wildcat
Analysis: The Browns had a nice find in 2009 with using Cribbs in the Wildcat. But Cleveland eventually made it too big a part of its offense and defenses became more accustomed to shutting it down. The formation can still be effective if used more selectively. Injuries hurt Cribbs last season, but he can be very effective moving the chains when healthy. If the play calling also improves, Cleveland likely will get better results with Cribbs in this formation in 2011.
3. More opportunities in the slot
Analysis: Cleveland's receiving corps is not very deep or talented. That is why the Browns should give Cribbs more plays in the slot next season. Quick outs, bubble screens and reverses are just three easy options Cleveland would have with Cribbs from the slot. Each would allow him to make his yards running after the catch, which is his best asset. Cribbs is not a polished receiver. But Shurmur and his staff will have a chance to coach around his weaknesses and utilize his strengths.
- The Baltimore Ravens may not see a lot of Wildcat offense from the Miami Dolphins Sunday.
- Browns offensive coordinator Brian Daboll refutes New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's claim that Cleveland runs a West Coast offense.
- Cincinnati Bengals rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham is off to a solid start with 29 receptions.
- Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Jeff Reed missed five field goals in seven games.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:
"I'm proud to say that Sam and I are close, I know Max a little bit," McCoy said this week. "It's awesome to see a rookie quarterback go out there and do good things because the NFL is tough. It doesn't matter who you are playing, everybody is good. We are playing the best of the best, the best there is, so you have got to understand that. Obviously to see those guys do it, that will give you a little bit of confidence going out there."
Cleveland's Wildcat: The Browns will try to take the pressure off McCoy in his first start by mixing in the Wildcat offense with Josh Cribbs. Cleveland hasn't used the formation much this season, but it was very successful in the Browns' previous meeting against Pittsburgh last December. Cribbs led the Browns with 87 rushing yards on eight carries from the Wildcat formation to lead them to a 13-6 upset victory. The Steelers struggled against the formation and have to prove they can stop it. Whether it's on offense or in the return game, Cribbs has performed well against Pittsburgh.
Protecting Ben Roethlisberger: The last time these two teams played, the Browns also threw the kitchen sink at Pittsburgh and recorded eight sacks. The Steelers were in a late-season funk and the offense was baffled by the Browns. This year offensive line play has been much improved. But blocking for Roethlisberger, who is coming off a four-game suspension, is much different from blocking for Charlie Batch. Roethlisberger holds the ball longer than most quarterbacks and improvises to make big plays. Sometimes that can lead to sacks. Pittsburgh's offensive line will have to hold its blocks a little longer with Roethlisberger under center.
Budding rivalry: Although the two teams are in different divisions, there is a growing rivalry between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. This is the fourth time the two have played since 2007 and a 33-14 playoff romp by the Ravens over the Patriots last January certainly adds intensity and a revenge factor to Sunday's game. The teams are a combined 7-2 and firmly in the AFC playoff picture.
Ball control: Will Baltimore be able to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage against the Patriots again? In last year's playoff win, the Ravens were too physical for New England and ran the football 52 times for 234 yards. The Patriots' defense had to hear all offseason how it was manhandled by Baltimore. Rest assured, the Ravens still believe they're the more physical team and will try to establish that Sunday. Baltimore, led by Pro Bowl tailback Ray Rice, rushed for 233 yards in last week's win over the Denver Broncos.
- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said it will be safety Ed Reed's call when he returns to practice from his hip injury.
- The Cleveland Browns are not expecting a rusty Ben Roethlisberger when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers.
- Pittsburgh's defense will have to defend the Wildcat, led by Browns receiver Josh Cribbs.
- The Cincinnati Bengals have plenty of work to do during the bye week.
- The Cleveland Browns want to get Josh Cribbs more involved in the offense.
- Coming off knee surgery, Baltimore Ravens rookie defensive tackle Terrence Cody likely will make his NFL debut against Cleveland.
- Is Bernard Scott the best running back on the Cincinnati Bengals?
- Pittsburgh Steelers rookie receiver Antonio Brown is showing his potential.
The NFL, perhaps more than any professional sport, is a league filled with replaceable players. By sheer numbers, fielding 22 players on offense and defense makes it difficult for a single cog to be above the team, especially for non-quarterbacks.
But there are several players vital to AFC North teams. Here are four difference-makers in the division:
To define Polamalu's importance, look no further than last season. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in 2009, mostly because its defense was unable to hold leads in the fourth quarter without its star safety in the lineup.
Polamalu missed 11 games with a left knee injury, and it appeared the other 10 defenders were overcompensating for Polamalu's absence by blowing routine assignments. Polamalu provides a calming influence, and his greatness can be measured by his teammates playing at a higher level when he's in the game.
Steelers defensive coordinator and 2010 Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau recently said he cannot find a weakness with Polamalu. He's athletic, smart, instinctive and excels against the pass and the run.
Pittsburgh's defense without Polamalu is good (No. 5 in 2009), but with Polamalu, it might be the best in the NFL.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: JOSH CRIBBS
Where would the Browns be without Cribbs?
For starters, you probably can erase two or three wins from last year's 5-11 record. Cribbs also might have saved Browns head coach Eric Mangini's job.
Cribbs was one of the few bright spots for Cleveland last season. He made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, but his ability to run the Wildcat also added a new wrinkle to the Browns' struggling offense, which finished last in the NFL in 2009.
The Browns plan to expand Cribbs' role, both in the Wildcat and as a receiver. The more the team is able to get the ball in his hands, the better.
Despite Cleveland adding pieces in the draft and free agency, Cribbs remains the Browns' most-feared player. He's also a locker-room leader and, perhaps, the new face of Cleveland sports now that LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: RAY LEWIS
Lewis, 35, is no longer the Ravens' best player. That distinction could be shared by Ray Rice, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata. But Lewis' leadership still makes him Baltimore's most indispensable player.
Lewis remains the heart and soul of a team many feel is a Super Bowl contender this year. Physically, the Ravens are stacked with talent at nearly every position. But there's no one in the locker room who can replace Lewis' role as the motivational leader.
On the field, Lewis made his 11th Pro Bowl last season, recording 134 tackles and three sacks. Backups Dannell Ellerbe or Tavares Gooden would be significant drop-offs if Lewis were injured. On the other hand, the Ravens have plenty of quality replacements ready for Rice, Reed and Ngata. Even Joe Flacco has a capable backup in veteran quarterback Marc Bulger.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: CEDRIC BENSON
Cincinnati is a team better defined by the sum of its parts. But if I had to pick the most important non-quarterback, it would be Benson.
The Bengals have two very good cornerbacks: Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph. They have plenty of receivers, including two who have put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers in Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. But Benson is the workhorse who makes it all work. Benson opens things up for the passing game, which was inconsistent last season, and he moves the chains to help keep the defense off the field.
Second-year tailback Bernard Scott will help Benson carry the load this year. He showed positive flashes as a rookie, but the former sixth-round pick remains unproven. With Cincinnati expected to pass more, Benson might not match his career-best 1,251 rushing yards from last season. But that doesn't make him any less important.
BEREA, Ohio -- With three teams in the division coming off winning seasons, the Cleveland Browns have a long way to go to climb out of the AFC North basement
That’s why Cleveland's ownership put together the high-profile pairing of president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert. The new front office has reshaped the roster through the draft and free agency in hopes of starting to close the gap with its rivals and improving on last year's 5-11 record.
With so many new faces, Cleveland remains a team in transition. The Browns must come together quickly in training camp to be competitive in 2010.
THREE HOT ISSUES
But Mangini must keep that momentum going in what should be a very competitive year in the AFC North. He doesn't have the same level of talent to work with as other coaches in the division. But Mangini is optimistic about 2010.
"I feel really good about the progress we've made, the strides we've made," Mangini said. "The second year is different. Guys understand expectations. There are so many things that you don't have to cover because they get it and they become teachers to people who are new, and that helps a lot."
2. Is quarterback Jake Delhomme the answer? Despite his pedigree, the Delhomme signing has not instilled much confidence with Browns fans.
Delhomme is coming off the worst year of his career (eight TD passes, 18 interceptions) and was benched and eventually released by the Carolina Panthers.
But if Delhomme isn't the answer, the team will turn to backup Seneca Wallace, who is a longtime Holmgren protégé. Rookie third-round draft pick Colt McCoy is regarded as the quarterback of the future but isn't expected to start this season.
Players such as second-year receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi and rookies Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, a free safety, and Montario Hardesty, a running back, are expected to fill major roles. These players will learn on the job as Cleveland's coaching staff tries to minimize their mistakes.
Haden, a cornerback, will have the biggest spotlight because he was taken No. 7 overall this year and is the first draft pick of the Holmgren and Heckert era. Haden struggled some in minicamp but is starting to look more comfortable. He still must get to the point where he's thinking less and relying more on his football instincts. So far, Haden has been a step late on too many plays.
"It's getting better and better every day," Haden said. "[Tuesday's] practice was better than [Monday's] practice. … now I feel like I'm about at 90 percent of knowing of exactly what's going on, so when I get that next 10, it's going to be full go."
With so much attention put on Delhomme this season, I thought the best quarterback in camp this week was Wallace. He made some very nice throws, particularly on the run, while leading the second-team offense.
But unless Wallace lights it up in the preseason, do not expect another quarterback controversy in Cleveland. The Browns are paying Delhomme $7 million this season to be the starter.
Despite being a backup, Wallace will play in another capacity as the team's Wildcat quarterback, which we will get to later.
This was supposed to be a breakthrough camp for Hardesty. Instead, his first training camp never got off the ground because of a knee injury.
Hardesty was competing with incumbent Jerome Harrison for the starting tailback job, and after a solid spring, many considered him the early favorite. But the second-round pick has missed every full-squad practice of training camp thus far and has fallen behind.
According to Mangini, Hardesty may not return until sometime next week at the earliest.
- Something that jumps out right away is Cleveland's lack of team speed. The Browns look slow and not as athletic as the other two teams I watched in training camp (Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals). That could be a problem. Cleveland has plenty of thumpers, so size isn't an issue. But the Browns appear more built to win a 13-7 game in inclement weather in December than a 35-30 shootout in September.
- The "Flash and Cyclone" package has been successful in training camp. Josh Cribbs and Wallace are arguably the most versatile players on the team and appear to be developing solid chemistry in Cleveland's version of the Wildcat. Both players are elusive and dangerous with the football.
- I'm still not sold on Cleveland's receiving corps. Massaquoi has made some plays, but certainly not enough to be a dominant No. 1 receiver. The same goes for Robiskie, who is a projected starter. The Browns are throwing to the tight ends and running backs a lot in this camp, and a reason may be the lack of depth at receiver.
- Ward is having a solid training camp. He continues to show up around the football, which is what you want from a starting safety. The rookie second-round pick still makes mistakes in pass coverage, but Ward usually shows good effort and practices hard. He is known as a big hitter.
- Keep an eye on running back Peyton Hillis. He was the forgotten player in the Brady Quinn trade this offseason with the Denver Broncos. But Hillis is showing good toughness running between the tackles. He runs solid routes and has soft hands as a receiver out of the backfield. Hillis could be an underrated acquisition who works out well for Cleveland.
- Another sleeper on this team could be second-year tight end Evan Moore. Although his run blocking needs work, Moore is probably the best receiving tight end on the roster. With starting tight end Ben Watson and Robert Royal able to do the dirty work, Moore could be a nice change of pace to give the tight-end position some big-play ability.
- A weakness in Cleveland's defense could be its outside linebackers dropping in pass coverage. Matt Roth and Marcus Benard, in particular, do not look comfortable shadowing running backs. Hillis and Harrison beat Cleveland's outside linebackers repeatedly on passing routes in camp this week.
- It's been difficult to get a firm read on McCoy. He has played a majority of camp with the third-team offense, which consists of many players who will not make the team. Inconsistent in camp, McCoy looks like a typical rookie quarterback. Preseason games probably will be a better gauge of where the third-round pick stands.
Jones was drafted in the first round by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005 as a converted college quarterback from the University of Arkansas. He's a good athlete, although rust could be an issue after missing all of last season.
Can Jones still handle the football like a quarterback? Can he still throw downfield?
These are all questions Cincinnati's coaching staff will have to find out in the coming months.
But this much we know: The Bengals could use some added wrinkles offensively.
Cincinnati ran the football very well last season but became predictable and stale down the stretch, as the team lost four of its final five games. A potential Wildcat package involving Jones -- even if used in moderation -- could provide the Bengals' offense an interesting change of pace.
- Despite having speedy backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians still has no interest in running the Wildcat offense.
- With one more victory, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis (54) can tie Hall of Famer Paul Brown (55) for second on the team's all-time win list.
Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 12:
Covering kickoffs: The Steelers finally made moves to boost their fledgling kickoff coverage by signing cornerback Corey Ivy and linebacker Rocky Boiman. Both players could make an impact Sunday on a unit that’s allowed four returns for a touchdown this season and two in the past two weeks. Both players are veterans and have a wealth of special teams' experience. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin also added he will not be afraid to use more starters on his kickoff team as well.
Where is the Suggs package? In the midst of Baltimore's recent struggles in the red zone, perhaps the biggest offensive mystery is the disappearance of the "Suggs package." Baltimore's variation of the Wildcat offense, led by backup Troy Smith, worked very well last year as a changeup to its power running game. It was also used as a form of protection for then-rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. But since Flacco's development in Year 2, the Ravens have virtually moved away from the innovative package and stuck to their conventional offense. Now that Baltimore is struggling to score touchdowns, it may be time for the team to dig back into its bag of tricks.
Quinn tries to do it again: Was last week's performance for Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn the start of something special or merely a farce? We will find out this week when Quinn and the Browns take on the first-place Cincinnati Bengals. Quinn had a career-best performance in a loss to the Detroit Lions, throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns. He did a lot of nice things, but it came against a Lions defense that has allowed more than 29 points per game. Cincinnati's defense is a much stiffer test.
Bengals need to make statement: With their long history of losing, it was evident after last week's 20-17 loss to the lowly Oakland Raiders that the Bengals (7-3) are still learning how to be winners. This is the best team Cincinnati has had in a while. Yet, the Bengals are not good enough to completely sleepwalk against an inferior opponent and still pull out a win on the road. Cincinnati needs to make a statement against Cleveland, another inferior opponent, that it will no longer play down to its competition in order to be taken seriously as a title contender. The Browns, who lost in overtime, almost upset the Bengals earlier this season in Cleveland.
» AFC: R. Brown (MIA) | D. Sproles (SD) | J. Cribbs (CLE) | C. Johnson (TEN)
Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
A look at the players opposing teams hate to see with the ball in their hands in the open field.
Despite a 1-7 start, the most dangerous open-field player in the AFC North remains Cleveland Browns return specialist Joshua Cribbs.
|Tom Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images|
|Joshua Cribbs’ stiff-arm has become one of his signature moves.|
Cribbs is tied with Percy Harvin of the Minnesota Vikings for the NFL lead in kickoff return yards with 860, which includes a 98-yard return for a touchdown. Cribbs also has 295 yards and a touchdown on punt returns this year, in addition to his many duties on coverage teams, receiver and part-time quarterback in Cleveland's Wildcat package.
The Browns cannot get the ball in Cribbs' hands enough, because he is the most dynamic and versatile player the team has. As an undrafted player out of Kent State, Cribbs has a mixture of fearlessness and old-school toughness that is hard to find.
There are several qualities that make Cribbs very dangerous in the open field. He has great vision for a kick returner, and he's big enough to break through arm tackles and fast enough to pull away from defenders. Cribbs also has a unique ability to remain at top speed while stiff-arming would-be tacklers. Many of his biggest returns have come as a result of this move.
Other players who just missed the cut in the AFC North include Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes, who was last season's Super Bowl MVP after catching the game-winning touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals. Holmes led the NFL in yards per catch two years ago among players with 25 receptions or more. He continues to make big plays but needs to work on his consistency.
Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice also was in consideration. The second-year tailback is among the league leaders in all-purpose yards and is a star in the making.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
The Miami Dolphins' new offensive formation was all the rage in the NFL.
That is, until the Wildcat was stopped by the Baltimore Ravens.
Baltimore is one of the few teams that shut down Miami's innovative Wildcat offense this season. According to ESPN stat analyst Doug Kern, the Dolphins were 11-3 in games they used the formation.
One of those three losses was in Week 7 during a 27-13 defeat to Baltimore. Miami tried the Wildcat five times for a total of four yards, or 0.8 yards per attempt. The Dolphins continued to add more wrinkles to the formation during the season, so the Ravens will have more options to defend in this weekend's wild-card game.
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Apparently, a Raven can tame a Wildcat.
Opponents had struggled this season stopping Miami's dual-threat "Wildcat" rushing attack of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. But the Ravens (3-3) held both tailbacks to 43 combined yards on the ground and extended their streak to 25 straight games without a 100-yard rusher.
Baltimore broke a three-game losing streak to claim its spot for second place in the AFC North. The Ravens have three of the next four games on the road, but they begin that stretch with a home date against the Oakland Raiders Oct. 26.