NFL Nation: AFC title game

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- What was the biggest lesson New England Patriots tailback Stevan Ridley learned in his rookie year?

"The ball can't be on the ground," Ridley said bluntly Wednesday. "That's no secret. Fumbles will have you on the bench."

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
AP Photo/Michael DwyerBall security is something running back Stevan Ridley is working on during training camp.
Ridley admits last season's playoff run still stings. A solid rookie year was otherwise overshadowed by fumbling twice in his last two games, including a fumble in a crucial playoff win against the Denver Broncos. That was enough for New England coach Bill Belichick to put Ridley on ice for the remainder of the team's Super Bowl run. Ridley was inactive in both the AFC title game and the Super Bowl.

Ridley is using that cruel ending to his rookie season as motivation to come back a better player in Year 2. As a result, Ridley is running well in training camp and has taken the lead as New England's projected No. 1 tailback. The Patriots have not released a firm depth chart, but Ridley is expected to start in Thursday's preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints. It will be Ridley's first game action since his postseason fumble against Denver.

"I'm a little bit more comfortable out there," Ridley said of his second season. "Am I perfect? Not by any means. I still have a lot of work to do. Over time, my carries and my reps on the field have increased, but it’s still a long way to go and there’s still a lot of work to be done."

Ridley is outshining his training camp roommate, Shane Vereen, so far in camp. Both were high draft picks in 2011. Their potential is the reason New England was comfortable not re-signing BenJarvus Green-Ellis and cut fellow veteran Joseph Addai in the summer.

Ridley's game experience last year is showing through in his running. He’s hitting the holes well and showing good vision in New England’s pass-first system. Ridley rushed for 441 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season. That kind of average will make New England’s offense extremely dangerous. Ridley just needs to continue to gain the trust of the coaching staff by holding onto the football.

"This year I'm going to go and do the best that I can to keep the ball high and tight," Ridley said. "I know that if I can keep the ball in my hands, I'm going to be on the field. So my work is cut out for me."

Ridley knows he must grow up fast in his second season. The Patriots, favorites in the AFC, will be relying on a young running back this year, whether it's Ridley or Vereen. So far Ridley's performance in camp gives him the inside track.

Rex Ryan, Jets relish fresh start

April, 16, 2012
4/16/12
3:10
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With the stench of last year's late-season implosion still fresh, the New York Jets got together as a team for the first time in 2012 for the start of the offseason workout program.

The workouts Monday were voluntary and not open to the media. But three members of the Jets were available for a conference call. The key theme was last year, and this is the start of something new.

"We made some mistakes in 2011, but we are focused on 2012," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said of the team's fresh start. "We are excited. ... When you don't meet expectations it kills you."

Ryan went on to address the chemistry issues and eventual implosion that took place during the final month of last season. The Jets were 8-5 and on the cusp of another playoff bid before losing three straight games.

At the center of the internal issues were Jets No. 1 receiver Santonio Holmes and quarterback Mark Sanchez. The pair were not on the same page on or off the field, and things blew up in the season finale. The pair have since talked things over and recently worked out together in Florida to make amends.

Holmes also praised Sanchez on Monday for coming out to Florida and helping get key members of the offense together.

"[Sanchez] is portraying those leadership qualities," Holmes said on the conference call. "We are both looking forward to bigger and better days."

Holmes, in his first public comments since the end of last season, didn't care to address all that went wrong down the stretch.

"That was too long ago," Holmes said, while also repeating the team-wide sentiment that last season was last season.

With a talented and veteran team, it's hard to know which way the arrow is pointing for the Jets. Was last season simply a one-year misstep or the beginning of a downward spiral? The Jets are not far removed from back-to-back AFC title games in 2009 and 2010. But last year New York looked like an aging team that lost its edge.

Jets Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold says the "future is bright" for New York. The Jets will have a lot of detractors this season that think otherwise, especially if this group cannot stay together in the locker room. The important team-building process for New York starts now.

Leading Questions: AFC North

February, 23, 2011
2/23/11
7:50
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With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each AFC North team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Should the Cincinnati Bengals give into Carson Palmer’s trade demands?

After eight underachieving seasons in Cincinnati, Palmer wants out and everyone from his agent to teammates to his realtor believe Palmer is absolutely serious. So how should the Bengals handle this situation?

Cincinnati is consistently one of the NFL's more downtrodden franchises and has been through this before. In the past, players such as Takeo Spikes, Corey Dillon and Chad Ochocinco have expressed the desire to get out of Cincinnati and couldn't leave on their terms.

But Palmer's situation is different for two reasons. First, he's the franchise quarterback, the most important player on the team. Second, he's threatened to retire if he's not traded, which is something Spikes, Dillon and Ochocinco never did. These two factors up the ante tremendously in terms of putting pressure on the Bengals.

If Palmer, 31, holds firm on his demands, that leaves Dan LeFevour and Jordan Palmer as the other quarterbacks on Cincinnati's roster. The Bengals cannot start the 2011 season with either of those players under center. As more time goes by with uncertainty, it becomes more likely the Bengals must do something to get quarterback help in the draft or free agency.

In my opinion, the Bengals should trade Palmer while they can still get decent value for him. Cincinnati will be rebuilding for the next two years anyway -- with or without Palmer -- and there are plenty of teams in need of a good quarterback.

But the Bengals are standing their ground, hoping Palmer will have a change of heart. That's a dangerous assumption with free agency potentially starting next month and the NFL draft coming in April.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Are concerns about Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco legit?

As we continue the subject of quarterbacks, we move over to Baltimore. Flacco is getting drilled this offseason by media and fans for not leading the Ravens past the divisional round. Baltimore entered last season as a Super Bowl favorite and by those standards the team -- and particularly the offense -- underachieved.

Now people are starting to doubt Flacco. He has struggled in the playoffs, recording just one passer rating above 90.0 in seven career postseason games. It's no secret an organization is tied into the success and development of its quarterback. But are the expectations of Flacco, in his third season, too high too soon? The answer is, yes.

Flacco has become a victim of his own early success. He advanced to the AFC title game as a rookie and has had expectations of getting to the Super Bowl thrust upon him since.

Last season, Flacco set career-highs in passing yards (3,622), touchdowns (25) and passer rating (93.6) for the Ravens (12-4). But it's the second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that stands out in most people's mind.

Flacco likely must get past rival quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh for the Ravens to take that next step. But there is no shame in losing to the eventual AFC champions in the postseason.

Young quarterbacks such as Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman are viewed in a much more favorable light in their cities. Flacco has had as much career success and put up equal or better numbers than all of them. He deserves a break.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

What will the Steelers do at cornerback?

As their Super Bowl XLV loss to the Green Bay Packers proved, the Steelers must add quality depth in the secondary. The Packers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints provide the blueprint of how to beat Pittsburgh's vaunted defense: spread the Steelers out with multiple receivers.

The Steelers simply don't have enough good cornerbacks to defend three- and four-receiver sets. This also takes Pittsburgh's strongest players-- its linebackers -- off the field in favor of players such as William Gay and Anthony Madison.

Now that linebacker LaMarr Woodley received the franchise tag, veteran cornerback and pending free agent Ike Taylor is Pittsburgh's No. 1 priority. Taylor is Pittsburgh's best corner, but he's also 31 and the Steelers must gauge how much money and how many years to give to him.

The draft will also be important. Previous draft picks at corner such as Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett and Crezdon Butler have not panned out for the Steelers, who typically address this position in the middle rounds. It's time Pittsburgh invests a high draft pick at this position to increase the probability of finding a future starter.

Do not be surprised if Pittsburgh retains Taylor in free agency and spends its first- or second-round pick on a cornerback in April to fix this issue.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Are the Cleveland Browns fine without an offensive coordinator?

Pat Shurmur of the Browns has a lot on his plate this year. Not only is he a first-time head coach, but Shurmur is also taking over the role as offensive coordinator in his first season with Cleveland.

Is this a good idea?

After a brief search, the Browns decided to leave the position vacant. Shurmur is a former offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams and didn't want to give up those responsibilities after becoming a head coach.

A head coach's first responsibility is to manage all 53 players. But Shurmur clearly will give more special attention to his players on offense. That's a major reason the Browns hired experienced defensive coaches such as Dick Jauron and Ray Rhodes to manage the other side of the football.

President Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert have both done a good job so far in Cleveland. But I have reservations about creating this type of setup with a rookie head coach on a rebuilding team.

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