NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Andy Dalton gets rid of the ball in a hurry.

The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback has dropped back 63 times in two wins this season and hasn’t been hit or sacked.

Wimbley
The Tennessee Titans have recorded eight sacks and an additional 18 pressures, per the team’s count.

The Titans' ability to maintain the pressure at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday could be a big factor in their chances to pull what would be regarded as an upset.

“I think we’re doing good, to be ranked among the top teams in the NFL,” Titans outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley said.

Jurrell Casey spoke of the need to get Dalton off his first read, which will force him to hold the ball a beat longer.

If Dalton is in that quick rhythm, the Titans need to bat down some balls at the line. End Ropati Pitoitua has two batted balls this season, outside linebacker Derrick Morgan has two (one of which was in coverage) and Wimbley has one.

Nose tackle Sammie Hill said getting a hand on a pass at the line qualifies as a big play.

“You’ve just got to come off the ball real tough and get your hands up,” Hill said. “We know he throws the ball real quick. So our biggest thing is when we know that’s a part of their game, we’ve got to work to get the push and then get our hands up so we can get batted balls.

“For us, batted balls are just as good as hit and sacks, too.”
Zygi WilfAP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltThe indictment of Adrian Peterson was another lesson in management for the Wilf family (Mark, second from left, and Zygi, right) as Vikings owners.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It was about 2 1/2 years ago when Zygi Wilf and I were having an informal conversation in his office at the Minnesota Vikings' practice facility. It was the same room where, in previous years, Wilf had addressed his embarrassment over the team's "Love Boat" scandal, and later his concerns about a coach who kept releasing players without telling him, and later a stadium fight that threatened the future of his franchise.

"I'll tell you this," Wilf said, rubbing his forehead, "you have to really love football to do this. I mean, you have to love football. The headaches that come with it ...."

We laughed, because he and I both understood that the money is pretty decent, too. But to me, it was Wilf's way of saying that owning an NFL team comes with all sorts of unintended consequences and moments far beyond the comfort zone and interest level of even the most successful businessmen in the country.

The indictment of running back Adrian Peterson, and the Vikings' confusing and contradictory response, should be viewed as the latest in a long line of lessons in the education of an accidental owner. The Wilfs made their billions with a family-run real estate company that by definition bears little resemblance to the structure of NFL franchises, distinctions that have been made clear one incident at a time.

Few people remember that Zygi Wilf, his brother Mark and cousin Lenny never intended to be in a spot where their management style was subject to public scrutiny. They grew up as New York Giants fans whose father, Joseph Wilf, once made a run at purchasing the New York Jets.

In 2005, mutual acquaintances helped recruit Zygi Wilf into an investment group led by Arizona entrepreneur Reggie Fowler, who signed the initial 2005 purchase agreement with former Vikings owner Red McCombs. When questions about Fowler's financial backing threatened to scuttle the deal, Wilf and his family swapped places with him -- in part to salvage the group's $20 million deposit.

From the start, the Wilfs were on their managerial heels. Their initial hopes to be invested fans scuttled by Fowler's financial questions, the Wilfs tried to structure a franchise to operate independently with their occasional involvement.

The model was Garden Homes, the Wilfs' real estate company where family members talk through issues and make group decisions. In Minnesota, it led to a three-man committee system for football operations that included the head coach, the personnel director and the contract negotiator. Zygi Wilf envisioned himself as the tiebreaker on football decisions, while Mark Wilf was considered the glue between vice presidents of finance, marketing, stadium development and legal.

That structure was appealing in theory because it removed owners from making decisions out of their expertise. But it proved clunky and inefficient while leaving the team vulnerable to issues that fall between the cracks of their internal fiefdoms.

Rick Spielman finally convinced Wilf in 2013 to verticalize football operations under one general manager role, but the rest of the organization remains structurally splintered and contributed to the team's chaotic response to Peterson's arrest.

The Wilfs are among a handful of NFL owners who don't live in their home market, but in most of the other cases, a unifying team president is on site every day. The Vikings' team president technically is Mark Wilf, who like his brother lives and works in New Jersey.

The arrest of a superstar, at a time of intense social scrutiny of the NFL, is not a matter for a general manager, a vice president of legal affairs or anyone else. It requires leadership from a unifying figure that the Vikings don't possess. Someone with the appropriate authority must take charge in that situation. The decision to reinstate Peterson on Monday was overbalanced toward football goals and was punctuated by an obvious failure to work through the problem from a moral and business standpoint.

Zygi Wilf acknowledged Wednesday that the Vikings made a mistake, and Mark Wilf expressed hope that team supporters will recognize "we are doing our best as ownership and a franchise to do the right thing."

How will the Wilfs react? It was worth noting that they were joined at their news conference by not only Spielman but also Kevin Warren, the longtime vice president of legal affairs. Is Warren in line for a business-side promotion on par with Spielman? That's a question worth asking as the Wilfs deal with the headache that is NFL ownership.
CINCINNATI -- They might be the most overused nicknames in the NFL, but for the first three seasons of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's career, they were were apropos.

"Good Andy" and "Bad Andy."

If you were a Bengals fan, you rued the day "Bad Andy" showed up to steal "Good Andy's" thunder.

Dalton
Dalton
Before too long, though, Bengals fans might soon have no need for either nickname. They will only need to know one name -- Dalton's.

That is because so far this season, there hasn't been anything bad about Dalton's play. But there has been a lot of good. So much so that the flashes of success Dalton once showed earlier in his career are appearing commonplace this season.

He has yet to commit a turnover or be sacked through 133 over two games.

Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and head coach Marvin Lewis are quick to credit Dalton for simply playing well early this season, and they acknowledge how well the players around him have been performing. Dalton's offensive line has had mostly sturdy pockets. His running backs have run aggressively and with purpose, and have also blocked well and been in good spots in the passing game. His receivers have been precise on the majority of their routes and have made him look good by beating blitzes for big gains and long scores.

But there appears to be something else that has helped get Dalton off to this strong early start. It's the fact that we're seeing a lot less of his arm. The Bengals have been more patient with his passing than before. Gone, it appears, are the days when the game plan was to place an entire offensive scheme on Dalton's shoulders, and have him go out for 60 minutes and execute it all himself.

An examination of Dalton's numbers through two games shows that Jackson's offseason push for more balance is coming to fruition. The Bengals have lowered Dalton's passing attempts and drop backs, and in turn, he has rewarded them with drives that have moved and timely touchdowns. He could have more. But that patience has still led to efficient passing numbers and a clean uniform.

"He's more comfortable," Jackson said. "He's playing at a high level. He's playing as well as anybody, and I take pride in that. Our coaching staff takes pride in that."

For the purposes of this post, we're looking specifically as how Dalton's drop back figures have fallen. Compared to those numbers from his first three seasons, they are dramatically lower. Drop backs include passing attempts, scrambles, sacks and spikes.

During his rookie season, Dalton averaged 35.3 drop backs per game. His second season, 36.8. Last season, he averaged a career-high 39.9.

So far this season, he has dropped back on average 31.5 times.

Sure, he had 39 drop backs in the Bengals' Week 1 win at Baltimore, but as Jackson said, there will be times when the Bengals might have to use the pass a little more often in order to win. In that particular game, the Bengals had difficulty running the ball early and had no choice but to launch the passing attack. It doesn't seem that will be the case as running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill continue to emerge. Against the Falcons last Sunday, the tandem combined for 164 yards rushing.

Since the ground game worked so effectively, Dalton only dropped back 24 times last week. It was the third-lowest number of his career, and marked just the seventh time he has had fewer than 30 drop backs in a game.

Dalton is 5-2 when he has fewer than 30 drop backs in a game. His two losses came to the Steelers; once his rookie year and once more the next. On the other end of the spectrum, he had back-to-back losses last season when he had a career-high 60 drop backs against the Dolphins, and 57 at Baltimore a week later.

These aren't the only clues into his early success, but they play a part in it.

METAIRIE, La. –- The New Orleans Saints remain confident after their 0-2 start. But they aren’t ignoring the very real problems that need to be corrected.

Coach Sean Payton highlighted on Wednesday the Saints' last 15 games (including playoffs), in which they are 7-8 (and 2-8 on the road). And the biggest problem has been their inability to finish.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Karlos Dansby
AP Photo/David RichardDrew Brees and the Saints look for their first win of the season on Sunday against Minnesota.
 During that stretch, the Saints have surrendered late leads to the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers in 2012, as well as the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns in the first two weeks this year. They also had late rallies fall short last season at the New York Jets and at the Seattle Seahawks in the playoffs.

“Sean put up a statistic today, going back to last year, we started 5-0. And looking at the rest of the games since then, we haven’t been finishing in the fourth quarter, whether it’s on offense or defense,” safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “He kind of came at us in the team meeting like, ‘Look at this guys, this is our last 15 games.’”

Payton also mentioned Wednesday that turnovers were a “major topic” in Wednesday’s morning meeting.

After making that a huge emphasis this offseason, the Saints’ defense has only forced one takeaway during the first two games, giving them a turnover ratio of minus-3 on the season.

The Saints have now forced only five turnovers over their past 13 games.

Although Payton preached that the Saints need to keep an even keel and not fall into the “crisis” that will be created from the outside, he also stressed that they can’t overlook the specific reasons for their losses.

“I think you have to pay attention. There’s a way we lost those two games,” Payton said. “It’s in the details and the preparation. It’s on us as coaches, everyone collectively, the players. I thought our practice [Wednesday] was outstanding.

“I think you can’t bury them under the rug and pretend it never happened. You have to look at it. I think we’re trying to make sure we uncover every stone and look closely at how we can find ways to make the corrections, and hopefully we can get that done this weekend.”

As Payton and players pointed out after last Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Browns, the areas that most need to be corrected are “situational” errors -- like the missed assignments that plagued them on both sides of the ball late in the game and some costly penalties.

In some ways, the defensive performance was encouraging in Week 2 because the Saints’ defense proved they were able to clean up the issues that cost them in Week 1 (namely missed tackles and a few big plays over the top).

But as Vaccaro said, “That’s encouraging. But when you fix one problem, you can’t let other problems [replace them]. You can’t let communication become the next problem.”

“I don’t know, man, we’ve just gotta put a game together,” Vaccaro said – though when asked what his message would be to Saints fans, he said, “We’re working, and just ride with us.”

Quarterback Drew Brees was among several others who expressed that combination of frustration and confidence.

“For us right now, despite the fact that we have a lot of veteran guys, a lot of guys who have been here for a long time and won a lot of games, this is a new team. So it’s kind of reestablishing and recreating your identity and it’s like ‘Ok, who are we, who are we trying to be?’” Brees said. “We’re certainly a lot better than what we’ve shown. But you are what your record says you are. So we have to go out and get a win so we can start feeling better about ourselves so that we can start gaining some momentum.”

Cousins must adjust to Jackson's speed

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
11:00
AM ET
ASHBURN, Va. -- The transition to the backup took a little while; the big plays went down and the short catches increased. And then it returned to normal and DeSean Jackson once more became a downfield weapon.

Some of that could be the result of the way defenses played Jackson and the Eagles last year. Some of it, though, was a case of Nick Foles getting used to throwing to Jackson downfield. It’s an adjustment Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins must start to make as well. In his one downfield throw to Jackson last week, the ball was underthrown.

Cousins
Jackson
During the summer, quarterback Robert Griffin III talked about adjusting to Jackson’s speed and that it was different than most. He’s not only fast; he also accelerates at the top of routes. And if a quarterback doesn’t account for that, it results in an underthrow.

That doesn’t mean it won’t be a completed pass, but the chance for turning a 25-yard gain into a longer one could be lost.

“What’s friendly about DeSean for the quarterback is that he has the ability, if you feel you put too much air underneath the ball, to go track it,” Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay said. “DeSean does a really good job stacking a defender and holding his ground so he gives the quarterback a chance to throw him open – or save some room for the quarterback to throw away from the middle safety.”

Foles, based on the stats, took some time to adjust to Jackson’s deep speed when he took over for Michael Vick last season. Of Jackson’s first 16 catches from Foles, nine were for 10 yards or less and only two were for 25 yards or more. But of his next 16 receptions, six were for 25 yards or more and only three were for less than 10.

It’s not like they can’t click without the deep ball. But it is a strength of Jackson’s game. Cousins did not get much work with Jackson this summer and the receiver could not practice Wednesday because of a sprained shoulder. There’s a chance he’ll do more Thursday and Friday. This summer, when it was Griffin throwing to Jackson, McVay said there was one thing that duo needed: repetitions. That’s one thing Cousins and Jackson haven’t had.

“That will be an emphasis in practice this week to make sure I get a good feel for ‘How fast is this guy really?’ But, in watching and seeing all the reps and the work I have done with him in individual, it is hard to overthrow him,” Cousins said. “And as a result, you want to make sure you get the ball up and down and let him go get it. Guys like that, you just want to give them a chance to make plays and go do what they’re paid to do. You don’t want to be a deterrent or slow them down from being able to make our offenses as explosive as I think it’s capable of being.”

Jackson also said it takes practice. But he’s not about to worry if they don’t have their timing down just yet.

“[The quarterback] has to see it,” Jackson said. “I feel comfortable Kirk Cousins will come in and do a great job. As long as the quarterback is in control and making good reads and getting the ball out of his hands, it makes it that much harder on the defense. We all feel Kirk can get the job done.”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jerricho Cotchery covered his mouth in a somewhat embarrassed attempt to cover his laughter at the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that he is much calmer than former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith.

"Steve was one of my favorite players and still is," Cotchery finally said of Smith, a member of the Baltimore Ravens after being released by Carolina in March. "Just the way he plays, it's relentless. I saw him the other night against Pittsburgh, slapping his head, spit coming everywhere."

[+] EnlargeJerricho Cotchery
AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackReceiver Jerricho Cotchery has been an ideal fit for the Panthers.
Cotchery doesn't spit when he gets excited -- on or off the field. He is so quiet in the locker room and on the field that you hardly notice he's there. When he wants to make a point he doesn't shout it across the room as Smith sometimes did.

These are all things the Panthers (2-0) liked when they signed Cotchery to a two-year, $5 million deal during the offseason. These are things the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) miss about Cotchery as they prepare to face him on Sunday night at Bank of America Stadium.

"I miss everything, from on the field, his football play, his leadership, his awareness, his tenacity, his toughness, off the field having a leader, having a friend around," Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said during a Wednesday conference call.

"He was just such a great teammate and a player, one of the best I’ve ever played with."

Cotchery didn't draw big headlines when Carolina made him the first piece of the puzzle to replace Smith and the team's top four wide receivers from last season. Then 31, he hadn't put up gaudy receiving numbers since he had 71 catches with the New York Jets in 2008.

But the Panthers weren't looking for gaudy. They were looking for a consistent role player that would help develop young receivers such as first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin.

Cotchery has been that, and Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin isn't surprised.

"Cotchery is an easy guy to like," he said. "He’s a great teammate. He’ll do anything to help the team win, and he’s extremely low-maintenance. I just can’t say enough good, positive things about Jerricho and what he did for us when he was here."

Cotchery won't ever make the spectacular catches like the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Benjamin has in his first two games. But he has been consistent, catching four passes in each game for a combined 76 yards.

He has been a nice complement to Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, who leads the team with 14 catches for 155 yards.

And a complement was all the Panthers were looking for.

Cotchery was just looking for a team to wrap up his career. He insists the only team he would have left Pittsburgh for was Carolina, about three hours from where he played college football and met his wife at N.C. State in Raleigh.

There really wasn't much of a choice based on Carolina's offer compared to Pittsburgh's. But Cotchery doesn't feel extra incentive to beat the Steelers because they weren't willing to pay more.

"My incentive is winning the Super Bowl," he said. "They know that over there."

Cotchery has fit in at Carolina from Day 1. Running back De'Angelo Williams nicknamed him "Unc" right away because he "looked like somebody's uncle."

Benjamin accepted Cotchery's guidance immediately.

"He listens," Cotchery said. "It's humbling to have a talented guy like that who can catch the ball and do really good things on the field, and he really listens to your advice. I credit him for that."

Credit the Panthers for signing Cotchery.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan typically is brutally honest. Such was the case on Wednesday when he was asked to single out a defense player who has performed at a high level through two games.

"We don't have anybody on defense, to this point, that's playing at a high level," Nolan said. "I think they all would say that they want to play better than they've played. Some have played better than others, don't get me wrong. But I think, to a man, I think they would think, `Hey, I want to play a little bit better than that, at least.'"

The Falcons enter Thursday night's NFC South game against Tampa Bay ranked last in the league in four defensive categories: yards per game (472), yards per play (6.79), passing yards per play (9.62), and sacks per pass attempt (0.0). They ranked 29th out of 32 teams in third-down percentage defense, allowing opponents to convert 51.85 percent of the time. And the Falcons rank 26th against the run, allowing 154.5 rushing yards per game.

Trufant
 Although Nolan didn't mention him specifically, cornerback Desmond Trufant certainly appears to be performing at a high level. One opposing coach said this about Trufant: "He knows how to play and he knows how to irritate receivers. He really stands out to me. The other guy [Robert Alford] is a pretty good player, too. But No. 21 is the guy I look at because he has pretty good technique."

Two players who haven't played up to standard have been outside linebackers Jonathan Massaquoi and Kroy Biermann. Massaquoi hasn't taken that next step as a pass-rusher just yet, while neither Massaquoi nor Biermann have been effective against the run. Most of the big runs surrendered have come from opposing running backs bouncing outside rather than up the middle against big nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.

"Well their job -- some of the time but not all of the time -- is to set the edges," Nolan said of Massaquoi and Biermann. ``We gave up the edge in the game the other day far too many times. It's not just their jobs. Sometimes, it's the safety's and the corner's job as well. But, that would be one of their jobs as far as the run goes.

"Outside of that, sometimes they have an interior responsibility; maybe not all the way inside, but the next gap inside to the exterior. That's where the outside 'backer would be. For example, if there's a safety outside of them or a corner, they would be inside of them there."

The defense, as a whole, has to put together a strong run-stopping effort Thursday night against Tampa Bay's Bobby Rainey, who rushed for 163 yards and had three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) against the Falcons last season. Rainey had 144 rushing yards against St. Louis last week.

As far as the pass rush goes, no sacks and one quarterback hit through two games tells the story for the Falcons. Nolan expected his outside linebackers to contribute more with the rush by now. Osi Umenyiora hasn't fared well as the designated pass-rusher, either.

"Obviously the pass rush is an area where those players, whether it's (Massaquoi) or [Stansly] Maponga or anyone that plays the end pass-rusher, we need to get more production out of that," Nolan said.

"As was obvious our first two games, we've had low production. We've got to get our production up. We've got to come up with plays. We can't have people on the screen jumping over the top of us, or a guy catching the ball right over the middle and us not making the tackle."

Tony Romo 'all for' complementary role

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
9:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Bill Parcells, the first head coach of Tony Romo's NFL career, famously referred to the game-managing style of quarterbacking as a "bus driver" role.

Romo
Call it what you want, but Romo insists that he would be ecstatic to continue playing a complementary role, as he did while handing the ball off 10 more times than he dropped back to pass.

"That's what a really good team is; everyone is complementary of each other," Romo said. "I'm all for going out and having games like we just had and playing the way Seattle has the last few years and just having those style of games. It makes everyone's job easier. If we continue to do that I think we'll have a great chance to be where we want to be at the end of the year."

The Dallas Cowboys have the league's second-ranked rushing offense and are tied for the fourth-most rushing attempts in the NFL. That's a stark contrast to the last couple of seasons. The Cowboys had the second-fewest rushing attempts in each of the last two years, ranking 31st in rushing offense in 2012 and 24th in 2013.

But there's no doubt that Dallas has the personnel for a ground-and-pound game. DeMarco Murray's biggest problem last season, when he made his first Pro Bowl appearance, was that he didn't get enough opportunities. He's running behind an offensive line that features recent first-round picks Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin and leads the NFL with 285 rushing yards, the most in franchise history two weeks into a season.

And the Cowboys have a quarterback coming off his second back surgery who can use all the help he can get. In case they needed a reminder, Romo sat out Wednesday's practice due to tightness in his back, something that will likely happen several times throughout the season.

Can Romo embrace a complementary role if Dallas has a dominant running game? Absolutely.

Can Romo put the Cowboys on his surgically repaired back if they need to win a shootout? Does he believe he can throw it 50 times if that's what the Cowboys need on any given Sunday?

"Yes, I do," Romo said. "I think I'll be OK."

The running game is a much more sure thing for the Cowboys at this point, which is why the bus-driver role suits Romo just fine.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It was a year ago today -- at 5:22 p.m. ET, to be precise -- that Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, in Jim Irsay fashion, went to Twitter and started teasing everybody about a big move the franchise was potentially going to make.

You figured the Colts were acquiring a running back after Vick Ballard was recently lost for the season with a torn ACL. But it was anybody’s guess who that player would be.

Then at 6:19 p.m. -- 57 minutes and three tweets after his initial one -- the Colts announced that they had acquired Trent Richardson from the Cleveland Browns for a first-round pick.



Colts general manager Ryan Grigson had pulled off the biggest trade of the 2013 season.

You immediately thought that the Colts had just acquired their running back of the future to go with franchise quarterback Andrew Luck.

The No. 1 overall pick and the No. 3 overall pick of the 2012 draft teamed together for years to come. They'd go hand-in-hand. They were the perfect match.

That’s what you thought, at least.

The trade has been anything but perfect for the Colts. You can argue that the Browns are winning the trade so far. The Colts gave up a first-round pick that they could have used to try and fix a hole on their roster. The Browns used Indianapolis’ No. 26 pick and moved up to No. 22, where they selected quarterback Johnny Manziel. Manziel and LeBron James’ return to Cleveland have made that city a focal point in the NFL and NBA again, even if Johnny Football is on the sideline waiting his turn to be the team’s starting quarterback.

The Colts?

They got a running back who was uncomfortable his entire first season in Indianapolis. He was indecisive with his running and he eventually lost his starting job to Donald Brown. Richardson averaged only 2.9 yards a carry last season.

Grigson did not respond to a message seeking comment for the story, but he said several times during the offseason that he would do the trade again if the opportunity presented itself. He referred to Richardson as their 2014 first-round draft pick, while also not shying away from the expectations he has for Richardson this season.

"Trent, he needs to answer the bell and do his job to the best of his ability," Grigson said in training camp. "We’re all accountable here. ... He’s such a hard runner, we know how tough he is, but he’s got to produce just like all these guys do on this final 53."

Richardson has been a different player after having an offseason to learn the playbook. He’s running with more force and he has gotten better at picking which holes to run through. If not for a fumble that later cost the Colts seven points, Richardson would have been one of the positive storylines against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday -- he rushed for 79 yards, his highest total since joining the team, and he’s averaging 3.7 yards a carry through the first two games.

Richardson may never live up to the expectations of being the No. 3 overall pick. The Colts would simply be happy if he at least played like he was worth the No. 26 pick they gave up in this year’s draft.

The clock is ticking as they wait for that to happen.

Ravens vs. Browns preview

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
8:00
AM ET
video
The Cleveland Browns ended an 11-game losing streak to the Baltimore Ravens in November. That was the first time Joe Flacco had lost to the Browns.

The Browns are coming off an emotional and exciting last-second 26-24 win against New Orleans in Week 2. Baltimore is coming off a dominant 26-6 win against the Steelers on Thursday night, giving them three extra days off for this game.

The Browns have a chance to make a statement that they belong in the AFC North, and the Ravens have a chance to show that this division belongs to them or the Bengals.

ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and Browns reporter Pat McManamon discuss a few key elements of Sunday's 1 p.m. ET game.

McManamon: It's an obvious but important question: What is the state of Baltimore's running game at this point of the season?

Hensley: It's not as bad as you would think for a team that just cut the second-leading rusher in franchise history. The combination of Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett is more than serviceable.

These running backs also complement each other. Pierce's strength is power running and getting yards between the tackles. Forsett is more explosive and is at his best when he reaches the edge. They have combined for 239 yards against the Bengals and Steelers. No one is suggesting the Ravens have a top-10 rushing attack. It was only a season ago that Pierce averaged 2.9 yards per carry and Forsett ran the ball six times. But the Ravens are going to rely on them against the Browns because they have historically grinded out yards in Cleveland. In six games there, the Ravens have averaged 160 yards rushing.

Pat, the Browns' track record with handling success is not very strong. Is this team more equipped -- from the head coach to the locker room -- to deal with a big win against the Saints and put together another strong performance against the Ravens?

McManamon: On paper, the Browns should have the elements to prove they are more equipped to handle a big win, but it remains an unknown until they actually do it. The message Monday morning during the team meeting from coach Mike Pettine was blunt: Don't screw this up. Pettine said a mature team does not get caught up in one win; it turns quickly to the next game. Pettine reminded the team that though they could be 2-0, they also could easily be 0-2. Players seem to like Pettine's straightforward approach. He doesn't dance around topics, merely says it like it is. That should help.

What also should help is the Browns have leadership from guys such as Karlos Dansby and Donte Whitner. Joe Thomas can help, as can Brian Hoyer, but both are a little softer spoken. The Browns have had leaders before, but never people like Whitner -- a guy who will challenge teammates and get in their face a la Ray Lewis if need be.

The bottom line is the Browns almost beat Pittsburgh on the road and did beat New Orleans at home. They are good enough to win right now because they are getting good quarterback play the last six quarters. But they have to play. The last thing they need to do is get caught up in the success of one win -- not when wins have been so few and far between.

Do the Ravens expect any kind of hostile reaction this weekend? Not only is it Cleveland -- and we both learned this offseason that the anger remains from the Art Modell era -- but it's the first road game since the team (mis)handled the Ray Rice situation.

Hensley: Like you said, Pat, it wouldn't be a trip to Cleveland without some hostility. To a large portion of the Browns fan base, the Ravens still represent the team that was stolen away. The Rice saga provides the Dawg Pound with another reason to vent anger at the Ravens. But if last week's game against the Steelers is any indication, this will be a nonfactor. The Ravens had every excuse to lose to Pittsburgh, from the players' emotional fatigue in losing Rice to the distraction from the national media onslaught. This situation has forced the Ravens to take a bunker mentality.

Playing on the road will be a different test, but it was going to be a difficult challenge anyway. The Ravens lost six of eight games on the road in 2013, including their first loss in Cleveland since 2007.

Many in Baltimore know about running back Terrance West. He played high school football in the city and went to college at nearby Towson. What has stood out the most about West in the season's first two weeks?

McManamon: His lack of fear. The Browns threw him in the fray as a rookie behind Ben Tate, and when Tate hurt his knee, they made West the starter with no hesitation. West responded with 168 yards in two games, a 4.8-yard average, one touchdown and a nifty end zone shimmy shake on top of it. West is finding that the opposition is not like he saw at Towson, but he has played well. Most important, he has done a more than adequate job in blitz protection, an area of the offense many rookies find tough to learn. West and Isaiah Crowell are two rookie backs who are not playing like rookies.

Baltimore stuffed Pittsburgh pretty well last Thursday and always seems to be stronger and more physical than the Browns. Is this Ravens defense as physical and effective as they all have been?

Hensley: The talk throughout training camp was about how this Ravens defense was going to be the fastest in memory. Instead, the Ravens have pounded offenses in the first two games with physical play. Defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams have stuffed the run inside. Elvis Dumervil has bulled his way past blockers. Cornerback Jimmy Smith has turned into a shutdown corner with his ability to jam receivers. And safety Matt Elam has made an impact by hitting running backs and receivers alike.

These are the reasons why the Ravens have allowed one touchdown in the first two games. And that one touchdown was the result of backup cornerback Chykie Brown getting beat on a 77-yard pass to A.J. Green. The Ravens' defense will get better if cornerback Lardarius Webb can return Sunday after missing the first two games with a back injury. Everyone expected this Ravens defense to be younger and more athletic than recent ones. What has really stood out has been the defense's intensity, especially when backed inside its own red zone.

The Browns have certainly invested in their defense in recent years, and it's showing early this season. What changed from the dismal first half in Pittsburgh to the strong past six quarters?

McManamon: The easy answer is attitude. At halftime in Pittsburgh, the Browns got sick and tired of being sick and tired. They have given up 27 points in the last six quarters after giving up 27 the first two.

A combination of factors come into play. The defense has talent. But in the first half in Pittsburgh, instead of trusting the talent, they were flying out of position and trying too hard. Since then, they have followed the mantra of doing your job and trusting your teammate. It's helped.

Second, Pettine sold the players on the chance of success with this Rex Ryan system. It's worked in Baltimore, New York and Buffalo, and the players see it can work in Cleveland.

Finally, the addition of Dansby and Whitner has played out well. Dansby is active all over the field, and Whitner is a steadying but challenging force. The combination of factors has combined for positive results through two games.

video
RENTON, Wash. -- Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll had a three-word answer Wednesday when asked about the mood of his players heading into Sunday’s Super Bowl rematch with the Denver Broncos.

"Serious, really serious," Carroll said.

Obviously, playing the 2-0 Broncos would get any team’s attention, but the serious attitude of the Seahawks this week is more about their disappointing 30-21 loss at San Diego.

[+] EnlargeSeattle coach Pete Carroll
Harry How/Getty Images"They are anxious to bounce back and play a really good game," Pete Carroll said. "It just happens to be Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, so it's going to be pretty hard."
"These guys are clued in," Carroll said. "I don’t think we feel like we played like we can. They are anxious to bounce back and play a really good game. It just happens to be Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, so it’s going to be pretty hard."

If you include the preseason, the Seahawks and Broncos are facing each other for the third time in the last seven games. Seattle dominated the Broncos 43-8 in Super Bowl XLVIII. Denver won the opening preseason game 21-16 in Denver.

"We're very familiar with each other and that makes it an exciting opportunity for the coaches," Carroll said. "We’re trying to figure out the chess match here."

But you won’t get the Seahawks to buy in to the Super Bowl rematch talk.

"It’s a big game because we have to make up for what we did last week," Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith said. "It just happens to be a Super Bowl rematch."

"It’s not a Super Bowl rematch,’’ strong safety Kam Chancellor said. "They have a lot of new guys and so do we."

Chancellor is still seething over the Legion of Boom getting burned for 284 yards passing in the loss at San Diego. He was asked if the Chargers have shown everyone else the recipe for how to beat the Seahawks.

"If that’s what they think the recipe is, just keep doing what you’re doing, man," Chancellor said. "We’ll see how it goes."

The Seahawks have taken some heat nationally this week about being sore losers in how they handled the defeat at San Diego.

Cornerback Richard Sherman didn’t talk to reporters after the game, which he explained on Wednesday and said wasn’t intentional. Running back Marshawn Lynch walked off the field before time expired, prompting comments of poor sportsmanship on Twitter before it was explained later that he had a back injury.

Safety Earl Thomas said any team that beats the Seahawks is ‘‘lucky." And defensive end Michael Bennett said, "Everyone is happy we lost, but everyone wants to be us."

All those things were magnified out of proportion, but losing has become such an unusual occurrence for the Seahawks that they have strong reactions when it happens. Last weekend was only the fourth time the team has lost since the start of the 2013 season, a span of 21 games.

"We haven’t taken any of those losses very well," Carroll said. "We put a lot of work into this with high expectations and standards we want to play to. When we don’t meet up to them, it causes you to take a different look at things. You want to get it done and get it right.

"You can just feel it. They want to demonstrate who they are and what we are every time they go out, and we didn’t get that done."

And now they have to get it done against the team that wants to prove the Super Bowl shellacking was an illusion.

"I know a lot of people want to see what happens in this one," Carroll said. "So do I."
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Catching up on the non-Greg Hardy happenings around the Carolina Panthers:
  • Alexander
    Defensive end Frank Alexander, suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse penalty, made a rare appearance in the locker room on Wednesday.
    But Alexander isn't one of the players that had his penalty reduced or revoked by the NFL's new performance-enhancing drug policy. He is still out through the Sept. 28 game at Baltimore.

    When he returns, Alexander likely will play a big role in replacing Hardy (sorry, not all of this is non-Hardy), who was placed on the NFL commissioner's exempt list on Wednesday until his domestic violence case is resolved.

    At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, Alexander is closer to the all-around player Hardy was. Wes Horton, who started in Sunday's 24-7 victory against Detroit when Hardy was deactivated, played mostly on first and second down as a run-stopper. Mario Addison, who had 2.5 sacks against the Lions, came in on third down and passing situations.

    Coach Ron Rivera calls Addison a "situational player."

    Alexander, Rivera's most valuable player during training camp, is an every-down player. Though he is not able to practice, he is able to remain around the team during his suspension to keep up with what the defense is doing.

    "I don't want to really talk about this right now," Alexander said. "I'll get to it [when I'm back]."
  • According to ESPN Stats and Information, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had one of his better games against the blitz in Sunday's victory. In his first start of 2014 after missing the opener with fractured ribs, Newton completed 9 of 11 pass attempts for 101 yards when Detroit blitzed. That was the second-highest completion percentage of Newton's career in that situation.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers fans traditionally have purchased large numbers of tickets for games against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. There have been some games in which there appeared to be more fans with "Terrible Towels" than those wearing Carolina blue. So backup quarterback Derek Anderson made a plea to the home crowd on Twitter heading into Sunday night's primetime game against the Steelers.

    .

    Said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin: "Derek must be calling on his Cleveland experience. It’s something that we appreciate. It’s not something we take for granted. We realize that there’s responsibility that comes with that, and the responsibility is to entertain our fans and we take that very seriously."
    Stay tuned.
  • Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell, a big part of Carolina's No. 2-ranked defense a year ago, told "The Charlotte Observer" there is a big drop-off in the Panthers' pass-rush without Hardy.

    "Absolutely," Mitchell said. "He’s one of the better pass-rushers in the National Football League. I don’t think they’re going to get better not having him play. That would be ludicrous."

Titans vs. Bengals preview

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
8:00
AM ET
video
The Tennessee Titans had trouble stopping the run last week when Dallas running back DeMarco Murray rushed for 167 yards in the Cowboys' 26-10 win over the Titans at LP Field.

The Cincinnati Bengals, paced by the tandem of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, improved to 2-0 last week in part because of the ground game. The running back duo sparked the win over the Falcons when it picked up all but six of the Bengals' 170 rushing yards and contributed in the receiving game.

All that suggests the Bengals have a slight advantage entering Sunday's Week 3 showdown in Cincinnati. Will Bernard and Hill continue feeding off each other and have another strong rushing performance against a poor rushing defense? Or will the Titans buckle up this week and make the necessary changes to prevent the Bengals from pulling a Murray on them?

ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to discuss that and more:

Kuharsky: We'll start with you, Coley. Andy Dalton has gotten spectacular protection. The Titans have eight sacks and have rushed well, with a lot of blitzes from the secondary last week. What has keyed the Bengals in this department, and are they perhaps susceptible to anything they haven’t seen yet?

Harvey: It starts with solid offensive line play. The players on the Bengals' front have done a great job holding their blocks in the first two games. Then you have to credit the Bengals' play calling. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has called plays that get Dalton to throw quickly, delivering the ball to receivers in the type of short and intermediate routes that he mostly excelled with last year. You also have to credit the receivers for running precise routes and getting quicker separation than they did at times last year. That was their key focus during the preseason. Plus, you have to acknowledge the running backs. Bernard leads the team in targets this season, and on at least three occasions he has bailed Dalton out of possible sacks by remaining close to the line of scrimmage after blocks. On each of those broken plays, Dalton yelled out Bernard's name -- "Gio!" -- before dumping off a quick screen that gained big yards.

Along those lines, Dalton deserves an enormous amount of credit for being savvy to do that and for throwing the ball away when he hasn't had adequate passing lanes this year. He is susceptible to getting sacked this week, but playing all 3-4 defenses in the preseason helped prepare the Bengals for this week's challenge.

Paul, Jake Locker and Dalton hail from the famed 2011 quarterback draft class. Locker was picked eighth overall by Tennessee, Dalton 35th by Cincinnati. And the rest has been history. It certainly appears the Dalton experiment has fared better. So what is it about Locker that continues to convince Titans brass that he’s the man for the job?

Kuharsky: Well, GM Ruston Webster wasn’t the primary decision-maker then, but he was on board with the Locker selection and obviously remains so. As he sold Ken Whisenhunt on the job, Webster also sold him on Locker having a chance to be an answer at quarterback under the tutelage of the new coach. Locker works his butt off, says all the right things and has the respect of his coaches and peers. He is capable of a game like he played in Kansas City, where he was poised even under pressure, threw a couple TD passes, distributed the ball well and led a strong effort. He’s capable, too, of a dud of a first half like he posted against the Cowboys, when he couldn’t do a thing right.

The Titans have invested a ton in the offensive line over the past two seasons, and Locker has perhaps the best stable of targets the franchise has assembled since it relocated.

They back him, but he’s not under contract beyond this year. Locker has to stay healthy and win over Whisenhunt with a good body of work or the Titans can turn toward sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger and someone else next year.

Count me among those who figured the Bengals would drop off at least a bit defensively with Mike Zimmer moving on to Minnesota. How have they dealt with his loss? And mandatory Pacman Jones question: What’s his role, how is he playing, and is he staying out of trouble?

Harvey: Let's get to the Jones question first. When he arrived in 2010 after his time in Tennessee and Dallas, part of the way he tried to reinvent himself was to drop his nickname in favor of his given name, Adam. Teammates still refer to him as Pacman at times, but people around the team have respected his desire to mostly go by Adam. In turn, he has respected them by mostly staying on the right side of the law. He had one verbal run-in last fall with a police officer that resulted in a citation. Also last fall, a judge found Jones not guilty of assaulting a woman at a Cincinnati nightclub in June 2013. The judge didn't think either party acted appropriately but noted that surveillance video showed where Jones had first been assaulted by the stranger with a beer bottle. Since then, Jones has gotten married and doubled his efforts to put his past behind him and not receive the type of notoriety that defined his days in Nashville.

As far as his role, that relates to the reason there hasn't been much drop-off following Zimmer's departure. The Bengals may have lost the beloved coordinator, but they lost only one regular starter from last year's defense in the offseason -- defensive end Michael Johnson. They remain chock-full of veteran talent with players, such as the 30-year-old Jones, who are playing the best in their careers. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Leon Hall are playing at high levels in a defense that has the same scheme and foundation as before. It also helps that new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther was already on the staff and was in charge of calling many of the blitzes that made Zimmer's scheme hum.

Although last week’s loss to Dallas was certainly deflating to a Titans defense that stopped the run well in Week 1, what was it that made Tennessee’s pass defense so effective last week against Tony Romo? How will Tennessee try to make Dalton's life as tough as Romo’s was last week?

Kuharsky: Don’t let the numbers fool you. They were "good" in pass defense against Dallas only because they were so busy getting run on that the Cowboys didn’t need to throw the ball. Dez Bryant had his way with them on the crucial drive that re-established who the better team was after the Titans closed to 16-10 in the third quarter. With top cornerback Jason McCourty out in the second half with a groin injury, Romo made the throws he needed to against Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Coty Sensabaugh and the rest of the secondary.

The Titans have rushed well, so Alex Smith and Romo didn’t have a lot of time to pick them apart. But Smith lacked weapons, and Romo lacked necessity. The Titans have limited big plays, which is a huge theme under defensive coordinator Ray Horton. If they can keep that up, the Bengals might have to earn their yards in smaller chunks.

What are the biggest differences between Jay Gruden’s offense and the one Jackson is using in his first year as coordinator with Gruden at the helm in Washington? If the Bengals are without A.J. Green, how dangerous can they still be?

Harvey: All you need to know is this: Dalton averaged 39.9 dropbacks in 2013. Through two games, he has averaged just 31.5 dropbacks. In short, the Bengals are passing less and running more. That was Jackson's charge this offseason when he said he wanted to instill a more physical, aggressive brand of offense from what the team had before. When the Bengals rushed 45 times last week with all but 10 of their carries coming inside the tackles, you could see exactly what Jackson was referring to. He wants to bruise defenses up front to open up the pass downfield.

Being without Green, as it appears they will be, will be a big loss. But considering the fact that Green was lost just six plays into Sunday's game and the Bengals still held up offensively, they should be fine passing to Mohamed Sanu, tight end Jermaine Gresham and the running backs. If it plays like it did last week, the Bengals offense can still be dangerous sans Green.

How fast is Delanie Walker, Paul? Outside of the AFC South we just see a physical, stodgy bowling ball of a tight end. But can he really be as dangerous in space as he seems to think?

Kuharsky: He was a terror last week. On his 61-yard touchdown catch, he bounced off a corner and galloped a long way, outrunning four Cowboys. Walker is a tough, smart player who was a good find. And Whisenhunt, a former NFL tight end, is finding ways to use him just as Mike Munchak and his staff did in 2013. Walker can be a big matchup problem, depending on how a defense chooses to defend receivers Kendall Wright, Nate Washington, Justin Hunter and backs Dexter McCluster and Bishop Sankey. Tennessee has another tight end who can do some damage as a receiver. Taylor Thompson was a defensive end in college, but he finally has caught on to what it takes to be effective on offense in the NFL at the position he started at.

video

Cowboys vs. Rams preview

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
8:00
AM ET
video
The St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys put together two of the league's most dubious Week 1 performances, but both teams rebounded with road victories last week.

This week, the teams meet for the second consecutive season in search of their second win. The Cowboys thrashed the Rams 31-7 in Dallas in 2013.

ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer and Rams reporter Nick Wagoner preview Sunday's matchup.

Wagoner: Todd, if DeMarco Murray ever goes into the Hall of Fame, he should probably say thank you to the Rams in his speech. He has shredded them in the past and it looks like he's off to a good start in 2014.

Does he look better now than he has in the past? And what is it that has made Dallas' running game so effective so far?

Archer: He really turned a corner late last season well after he ran for 175 yards on 26 carries against the Rams. He ran with more conviction and had a better feel for the scheme and what the linemen were doing in front of him. But it's more than that. It's understanding where the defensive fronts can give him some trouble before the snap. He has run with power but he's shown the ability to bounce plays and get more positive yards so far. The offensive line helps. The Cowboys have three first-rounders up front in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. After years of talking about wanting to be a physical team but not actually doing it, the Cowboys are actually doing it and it's because they believe more in the line than they have since making the playoffs in 2009.

Not to get too carried away here, but did Austin Davis work at a grocery store after toiling in the Arena Football League? I thought the Rams were in trouble when they had to go to Shaun Hill after Sam Bradford's injury, but how is Davis getting it done?

Wagoner: Does serving a few weeks as a quarterbacks coach at the Westminster Christian Academy here come close enough to stocking shelves at the grocery store? A year ago at this time, that's exactly what Davis was doing. Seriously, though, Davis took most of us by surprise with his performance last week against Tampa Bay. He didn't put up any jaw-dropping numbers, and a rash of injuries limited Tampa's defense, but the most impressive thing about his performance was how cool he was under pressure. Time and again he faced pressure, stood tall in the pocket and delivered the ball.

For Davis, that has been the biggest change. When the Rams released him in 2013, it was in no small part because he struggled to recognize coverage and was too quick to take off running without keeping his eyes downfield. He was much improved in that area against the Bucs. Whether he starts remains to be seen because coach Jeff Fisher says Hill is the starter so long as he's healthy. But Hill hasn't proved he's back to 100 percent and the Rams have a bye next week, which would allow Davis another go.

The Cowboys' defense took a lot of heat before the season started but seemed like it found some answers against the Titans last week. What do you make of that group so far? And what are some areas of weakness we should be watching for?

Archer: I still have my doubts. It has been better than I or many thought. But I need more visual evidence. Maybe it's just not wanting to be fooled so much. In Week 1, I believe San Francisco really shut it down in the second half and just wanted to avoid the big mistakes with a 28-3 lead. Last week at Tennessee, Jake Locker was terrible. Now some of that was the Cowboys' making. They got a good rush on him at times and the coverage was solid, but he also missed some throws. If they have another good game this week against Davis (or Hill), I'm still not sure I would get carried away. But it would give the Cowboys confidence and that's more important than anything I would say.

One of the matchups I want to see this weekend is Robert Quinn vs. Tyron Smith. Both guys received giant contracts recently. What kind of start is Quinn off to, and how is Chris Long's absence affecting him?

Wagoner: Quinn doesn't have any sacks yet but that single stat is really a disservice to the work he has done. Tampa Bay and Minnesota made it a point to get rid of the ball quick and both teams used screens, slants and other short routes as a way to help negate Quinn and the Rams' pass rush as a whole. Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel had the fewest air yards per attempt of any quarterback in the league in Week 1 and the Rams had no sacks.

But Quinn is still wrecking offensive lines and creating pressure despite the lack of sacks. Teams are throwing multiple blockers at him on every play and linemen are desperately clutching and grabbing him to keep him from getting to quarterbacks. He's not always getting the calls but the attention going to him should open things up for others. Of course, he also hasn't seen a tackle as good as Smith in the first two weeks, either.

Tony Romo has also had some big games against the Rams in the past. What have you seen from him, coming off his injury? And do you expect him to return to his usual levels of production?

Archer: Romo has not looked the same, despite what he, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett say. I think he's working his way back into game speed after being limited so much in the offseason and in four preseason games because of back surgery last December. He has not had the same zip on passes. He has not moved around as well as he has in the past. It's all intermittent right now. The back can be a tricky thing and it takes some time to heal. Romo has been sacked seven times and had only 73 pass attempts, so clearly the line isn't protecting him as well. He needs to play better. I think he will get there eventually this season -- maybe even this week -- but it's a good thing the Cowboys look to have a ground game they can rely on.

Michael Sam spent the summer with the Rams and had a productive preseason. Cowboys fans have asked me about how Sam has done since joining the practice squad, but it's hard to judge development there. You saw him in the preseason. What kind of player can he be?

Wagoner: Sam really just kind of is what he is -- a high-energy, all-out effort player who has a motor that constantly runs. He's never going to wow anyone with an array of pass-rush moves or overwhelming power to win with a bull rush. He has to win by getting to the edge with his speed and/or by chasing down quarterbacks or ball carriers, because he simply never quits on a play. Because of that, his upside is limited but it's also a quality that should eventually earn him a chance to play in the league.

Dallas once added a former highly touted college performer who was a seventh-round pick of the Rams in George Selvie, and he turned into a pretty decent NFL player. I see no reason Sam couldn't eventually follow a similar but slightly lessened trajectory.

video
video

The Atlanta Falcons (1-1) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-2) had to quickly move past their Week 2 losses. Working on a short week, they'll meet in an NFC South matchup Thursday night at the Georgia Dome.

"Any time you play in the division, we talk about it counts one-plus," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "We've got some work to do before Thursday night. We've got to get ready to play the way that we're capable of."

Ryan has a 35-2 record when his passer rating is 100 or better. Last weekend, it dipped to 48.6. He'll try to get back on track against a banged-up Buccaneers team. Last year, he posted a career-high 148.6 passer rating at the Georgia Dome versus Tampa Bay.

ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and ESPN Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas break down the matchup:

McClure: I know there was a lot of optimism about Tampa Bay being the surprise team in the NFC South, but things haven't started off so well. How has the health of the team contributed to the 0-2 start, and how healthy will the Bucs be going into Thursday night?

Yasinskas: Coach Lovie Smith doesn't like to make excuses, but injuries have been a factor, and they could become an even bigger deal against Atlanta. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn and cornerback Mike Jenkins are on injured reserve. Defensive end Michael Johnson and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed the St. Louis game. Johnson appears to be on track to play against the Falcons, but the news isn't so good elsewhere. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Mason Foster got banged up against the Rams. McCoy has a hand injury but might try to play through it. Foster is expected to sit out with a dislocated shoulder. McCoy and Foster are two of the leaders of this defense. If they can't play, there will be a sharp drop-off.

I know the Falcons also have had their share of injuries, including those suffered by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and offensive tackle Sam Baker. Jake Matthews, Baker's replacement, couldn't play on Sunday. Has his condition improved, and what would his return mean to the offensive line?

McClure: Matthews' sprained left ankle has improved, and he actually returned to full participation in practice on Tuesday. I thought the Falcons might be a little extra cautious with him, considering how receiver Roddy White struggled through an ankle injury last season. But each player is different, of course. Matthews expects to play, and the Falcons no doubt want him in there in an important division game. If he returns, they'll likely stick with Lamar Holmes at right tackle despite Holmes' struggles against the Bengals in the last game. Gabe Carimi would be in the bullpen if Matthews has a setback or if Holmes falters again. Whatever happens, the Falcons are much better off with Matthews in the lineup.

Defensively, the Falcons have struggled miserably with their pass rush and are the only team yet to record a sack. They also have issues stopping the run. Can quarterback Josh McCown and running back Bobby Rainey take advantage of the situation?

Yasinskas: Let's not forget running back Doug Martin, who could return from a knee injury for this game. Whether it's Martin or Rainey as the main ball carrier, I think the Bucs can make good things happen on the ground. Both are small-but-tough runners and can gain yards after contact. The other encouraging thing for the Bucs is their offensive line looks like it's coming around. Desperate for help at guard, the Bucs traded for Logan Mankins in the preseason, and he has helped solidify the offensive line. But I'm not sure McCown is ready to carve up any defense, even if it's one that can't pressure him. McCown has been ordinary in the first two games and has made some throws that a veteran shouldn't.

I know the Falcons weren't able to run the ball as well as they would have liked last season. What are they doing differently this year and how is it working out?

McClure: The Falcons are going with a committee at running back with veteran Steven Jackson as the starter with Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and rookie Devonta Freeman all in the mix. The foursome worked like a charm in the opener against the Saints, producing 181 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. It didn't have as much production against the Bengals, but the Falcons still averaged 5.1 yards per rush in that game.

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is sure to keep plugging away with his backs with the hope of giving the offense just a little more balance. Smith is a big play waiting to happen and had an explosive, 50-yard touchdown run versus the Bucs last season, so we'll see whether Koetter gives him more touches.

I'm very familiar with McCown from covering him while he was with the Chicago Bears. People don't realize how athletic he is. How is he adjusting in a starting role?

Yasinskas: You're right. He's a very good athlete and moves well. He ran for two touchdowns in last week's loss to St. Louis. I've been surprised by his speed. That said, McCown has struggled so far. Part of the reason he was brought in was the staff believed he would be a reliable game manager who wouldn't make a lot of mistakes. But McCown has made mistakes you wouldn't expect from a veteran. He has already thrown three costly interceptions.

McCown still has a firm grip on the starting job, but the coaching staff has said Mike Glennon is the quarterback of the future. If the losing continues and McCown keeps making mistakes, a change could happen.

We all knew retired tight end Tony Gonzalez was a huge part of Atlanta's offense. How have the Falcons replaced him, and has his departure put more pressure on Julio Jones and Roddy White?

McClure: As the coaches and players have stated since he retired, there is no replacing Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons didn't pursue a pass-catching tight end in free agency or via the draft. They have faith in Levine Toilolo as a role player and red zone threat. But the real way they plan to compensate is by going with more four-wide-receiver sets, utilizing the talents of Jones, White, Devin Hester and Harry Douglas. They were extremely effective against the Saints.

Ryan talked about Douglas being a real key in the Falcons' desire to be more multidimensional on offense. The mismatches created with so many playmakers on the field more than compensate for the loss of Gonzalez. But the Falcons just need to keep an up-tempo flow going. They slowed themselves down against the Bengals by huddling, even though Ryan can do wonders with the no-huddle.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider