NFL Nation: Courtney Upshaw


The Baltimore Ravens scored touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams in a sloppy 37-30 preseason win at the Dallas Cowboys Saturday night.

The Ravens held a 14-7 lead in the first quarter before quarterback Joe Flacco even touched the ball. Touchdowns by outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw (26-yard fumble return) and kickoff returner Deonte Thompson (108-yard return) staked the Ravens to an early advantage.

After shaking off a slow start (1 of 5 for four yards), Flacco finished strong by completing eight of his final 10 passes for 109 yards and a touchdown as the Ravens improved their record to 2-0. His 19-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith put the Ravens ahead 24-10.

Here are some other thoughts on the Ravens' second preseason game.
  • Injuries continue to give the Ravens reason to worry. Cornerback Jimmy Smith (chest)) and running back Ray Rice (shoulder) both left in the first half and didn't return. X-rays to both players were negative. Without Smith, Lardarius Webb (back) and Asa Jackson (ankle) at cornerback, the Ravens went with Chykie Brown and Dominque Franks (who was beaten by Dez Bryant on a touchdown) on their first-team defense. That's not reason to worry. That's reason to panic.
  • This was the worst tackling effort from the Ravens in recent memory, especially in the defensive backfield. The first-team defense once again struggled to contain the outside runs and failed to get consistent pressure on the quarterback beyond Pernell McPhee. The Ravens believe they can be a top-five defense. In two preseason games, they don't look like a top-20 one. The defense did get two turnovers: a fumble recovery by Upshaw (on a gift from Tony Romo) and an interception by Brynden Trawick.
  • Deonte Thompson made his strongest statement of the summer to make the team. He's been awful in training camp, and he's the unofficial leader in dropped passes. But he showed off his speed in Dallas, returning kickoffs for 108 and 50 yards. If Thompson doesn't make the Ravens' final roster, another team will look at him for his return ability.
  • The Ravens once again put together a powerful and explosive running game. Bernard Pierce, who started in place of Rice (who is suspended for the first two games), averaged 7.8 yards per carry. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro gained 58 yards on tough running in between the tackles and scored a 3-yard touchdown. The biggest concern is holding onto the ball. The Ravens' running backs fumbled twice for a second straight game. In total, three backs (Pierce, Taliaferro and Justin Forsett twice) have coughed up the ball this preseason.
  • Tyrod Taylor is a great athlete but continues to be a below-average backup quarterback. He finished 6 of 8 for 59 yards, but he missed two big plays. Taylor threw a laser pass high to a wide-open Kamar Aiken in the end zone instead of making an easy lob to him. He also ran out of the pocket when he had tight end Nathan Overbay open downfield. Third-string quarterback Keith Wenning had a rough start, fumbling and getting sacked on his first two drop backs. He completed 2 of 4 passes for 23 yards.
The Baltimore Ravens have traded back in the first round in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Could they do it again in 2014?

The Ravens will likely have the opportunity to do so. In the past, teams have wanted to trade up in the draft because of quarterbacks. This year, teams will be looking to move up to the Ravens' No. 17 spot for a wide receiver, especially if LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. is sitting there.

The Philadelphia Eagles (No. 22), New Orleans Saints (No. 27) and San Francisco 49ers (No. 30) are potential trade partners with the Ravens. What could the Ravens expect to get in return? The Eagles would need to give up a third-round pick to move up five spots, and the Saints and 49ers may need to hand over second-rounders.

Still, is trading back worth it for the Ravens? Let's look at the three previous times they moved back in the first round:

2008 DRAFT

The Ravens dropped from No. 8 to No. 26 and received two third-round picks (Nos. 71 and 89) and a fourth-round one (No. 125) from the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Ravens needed to trade one of those third-round picks (No. 89) to move back up to No. 18 to make sure they got quarterback Joe Flacco.

The net result of moving back was linebacker Tavares Gooden (No. 71 pick overall) and cornerback Fabian Washington (acquired for the No. 125 pick from the Oakland Raiders). Gooden started 12 games in three injury-filled seasons with the Ravens, and Washington started three seasons before being benched.

2010 DRAFT

The Ravens moved out of the first round, going from No. 25 overall to No. 43. In return, the Ravens got a third-round pick (No. 70) and a fourth-round one (No. 114) from the Denver Broncos.

Those extra picks became tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, both of whom were fixtures in the offense for the past three seasons. While Dickson is considered a disappointment, Pitta has become one of Flacco's go-to receivers.

But the top picks didn't work out for the Ravens or the Broncos. Denver traded up to get quarterback Tim Tebow, and the Ravens selected linebacker Sergio Kindle in the second round. Kindle was the worst top pick in Ravens' history.

Still, the Ravens likely wouldn't have fared much better if they stayed in the first round. The Ravens were eyeing pass rusher Jerry Hughes, who struggled his first three seasons before recording 10 sacks last season.

2012 DRAFT

Like the Ravens did in 2010, they moved out of the first round. This time, the Ravens fell just six spots from No. 29 to No. 35 and received a fourth-round pick (No. 98) in return.

The Ravens were still able to get linebacker Courtney Upshaw, their possible selection in the first round, even though they dropped into the second round. That fourth-round pick became center Gino Gradkowski, who started last season but is expected to be a backup this year.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Three Baltimore Ravens linebackers are on the injury report for Sunday's game at the Pittsburgh Steelers, including two at inside linebacker.

Bynes
The Ravens officially ruled out starting inside linebacker Josh Bynes after he had surgery on his infected finger. Rookie second-round pick Arthur Brown is expected to make his first career start.

Outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw (foot) and inside linebacker Albert McClellan (shoulder) are both listed as questionable. Upshaw has been limited all week, and McClellan played last Sunday with the same injury.

Without Bynes, the Ravens may consider activating Jameel McClain from the physically unable to perform list. McClain, who suffered a spinal cord contusion 10 months ago, is listed as probable after practicing all week.

Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is listed as questionable, but he returned to the game last Sunday after straining his elbow.

Here is the Ravens' official injury report:

OUT: ILB Josh Bynes (finger, thigh).

DOUBTFUL: WR Brandon Stokley (groin), C Ryan Jensen (foot).

QUESTIONABLE: CB Chykie Brown (thigh), DT Terrence Cody (knee), LB Albert McClellan (shoulder), DT Haloti Ngata (elbow), LB Courtney Upshaw (foot), CB Lardarius Webb (hamstring).

PROBABLE: DE Chris Canty (groin), LB Jameel McClain (neck), DT Marcus Spears (knee).
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings will play the Cleveland Browns at Mall of America Field on Sunday, and they spent the first two days of the week preparing for a team that likely would start Jason Campbell at quarterback and Trent Richardson at running back.

The team they face in actuality will use neither player.

The Browns announced Wednesday morning they would start third-stringer Brian Hoyer, not Campbell, in place of the injured Brandon Weeden, a move that had a grateful Leslie Frazier chuckling about how he'd rather find out now than at game time on Sunday. Then, on Wednesday evening, Cleveland traded Richardson to Indianapolis for a first-round pick, as ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported.

Not only does the latter move take the Browns' top playmaker off the field on Sunday, it adds another interesting wrinkle to one of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman's biggest trades.

It was Cleveland, you'll recall, that sent three additional picks to the Vikings last year to swap first-rounders with Minnesota, moving up one spot from No. 4 to No. 3 overall. The Browns drafted Richardson, and the Vikings got the player they were targeting anyway (USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil). The trade gave the Vikings an extra fourth-rounder, making it easier for them to part with their own fourth-round selection to move back into the first round and take Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith. Kalil reached the Pro Bowl last year, and Smith looks like he could be headed in that direction.

The Browns, meanwhile, gave up three picks for a running back they decided to deal 17 games into his career. Richardson scored 11 touchdowns as a rookie, and it's not the Vikings' business what the Browns did with him after they took him, but the Browns-Colts trade does speak again to Spielman's ability to create a market for his assets. The Browns likely believed they had to move up to No. 3 to take Richardson, and in return the Vikings got the flexibility to deal back into the first round and pick up a starting safety in addition to the tackle they wanted. It's similar to what Spielman did in March, landing three picks for Percy Harvin (a receiver it seemed obvious the Vikings would trade at some point) and moving back into the first round to draft Cordarrelle Patterson after taking Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes with Minnesota's other two first-rounders.

With Harvin out for at least the first six weeks of the season, and Richardson gone to Indianapolis, the ledger looks like this: From the Cleveland trade, the Vikings got picks to take receiver Jarius Wright and safety Robert Blanton (who are still on the team), and had an extra fourth-rounder to help them move up and get Smith. From the Seattle trade, they got Rhodes and offensive guard Travis Bond (who is currently on their practice squad). In exchange for all that, the Vikings gave up Harvin and the rights to two picks that became Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw and offensive guard Gino Gradkowski.

Again, Spielman couldn't control anything that happened to the pieces he parted with in trades, but the fragility of the NFL so often rewards teams that are more willing to assemble pieces than pay dearly for one player. The Richardson trade was a reminder of that, and the fact the Browns won't have him on Sunday probably shouldn't be the only reason for Spielman to smile today.

It was 236 days ago when Joe Flacco threw that fateful, 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, leading the Baltimore Ravens to a double-overtime playoff win at the Denver Broncos. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and the Broncos were left to think of what might have been. Flacco and the Ravens return to Denver's Sports Authority Stadium on Thursday night to kick off the 2013 season in a rematch of two of the top teams in the AFC.

The stakes are different, and so are the teams. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Anquan Boldin from the Ravens. Baltimore is expected to have 10 different starters from the team that hoisted up the Lombardi trophy, and that doesn't include former Broncos defensive standout Elvis Dumervil, who is expected to play in passing situations.

The Broncos won't have Dumervil or Von Miller, who has been suspended for six games, rushing after Flacco this time. But Peyton Manning is back, along with the addition of Wes Welker to an already dangerous wide receiver group.

Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold and Ravens team reporter Jamison Hensley discuss whether the opener will be a repeat of that memorable AFC divisional playoff game.

Hensley: Much has been made of the 50-foot Flacco banner hanging at the Broncos' stadium. Flacco has embraced the hate, saying it's not a bad thing for opposing fans to dislike you. The Ravens' focus, as it has been all offseason, has been to move forward. It's the start of a different era in many ways for the Ravens in their first game without Lewis and Reed. But it's easier to move forward when you're the ones sitting on top of the football world. How much will the "revenge factor" play into this game for the Broncos?

Legwold: Broncos coach John Fox, much like John Harbaugh with his "What's Important Now" mantra to leave the championship season behind, has tried to leave the past in the past. But questions about the kneel-down in the waning seconds despite Manning at quarterback and two timeouts in hand, as well as a third-and-7 running play late in the game, have trailed him all through the offseason. A lot of the Broncos players are willing to say memories of the playoff loss pushed them through the tedium of May and June. But over the past two weeks, they've stuck to the script -- that it's a new year, a new team -- but deep down they all know they let a potential Super Bowl trip, home-field advantage and a seven-point lead with less than a minute to play get away. And Dumervil's departure does add a little spice as well. How has Dumervil fit in and what kind of year do you think he'll have?

Hensley: Terrell Suggs has talked about Dumervil having the right mentality to play for the Ravens, and Harbaugh commented how Dumervil is already taking a leadership role. He really is a perfect fit for the Ravens on the field, too, where they have never had an elite pass-rusher to pair with Suggs. Over the past six seasons, Suggs has had only one teammate record more than seven sacks in a season. And being a pass-rusher is Dumervil's primary role. The Ravens will use Courtney Upshaw on early downs to set the edge against the run, which should keep Dumervil's legs fresh in pass-rushing situations. The Ravens have a familiarity with Dumervil because inside linebackers coach Don Martindale was Denver's defensive coordinator in 2010 and was Dumervil's position coach in 2009, when the linebacker-end led the NFL with 17 sacks. Baltimore is catching a break Thursday night with Dumervil now wearing purple and Miller serving his suspension. How are the Broncos going to generate a pass rush on Flacco?

[+] EnlargeElvis Dumervil
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyPass-rusher Elvis Dumervil was one of the Ravens' high-profile offseason acquisitions, and has become a leader on the field and off for Baltimore.
Legwold: That is the $380,687.50 question, which is how much of Miller's base salary he'll surrender during the six-game suspension. But without Miller (18.5 sacks in '12) and Dumervil (11.0 last season), the Broncos will mix and match on a variety of down-and-distances. Derek Wolfe is a key player, because of his ability to play inside and outside along the defensive line and still create matchup problems. Jack Del Rio believes Wolfe is ready to take an enormous step in his development, and among the defensive linemen only Dumervil played more snaps up front than Wolfe did as a rookie last year. The Broncos will ask Shaun Phillips, who they think has plenty left to give after 9.5 sacks for the struggling Chargers last season, to be a spot rusher. And Robert Ayers, who was a first-round pick in 2009, has always said he could put up the sack numbers if given the chance. He's played through four different coordinators -- Del Rio is his first to be on the job for two consecutive seasons -- but has just 6.5 career sacks. Now is his time. On Flacco, how has he dealt with all that comes with a Lombardi trophy and a nine-digit contract?

Hensley: The money and increased notoriety haven't really affected Flacco. If anything, he's become more vocal. There was a playful trash-talking exchange during training camp between Flacco and Suggs, who told his quarterback that the defense's "swag is on a thousand million." Flacco responded: "Then what's my swag at? I get paid more than you. A lot more!" What has really changed is the wide receiver group around Flacco. This unfamiliarity led to four interceptions in six quarters of work this preseason. His top two receivers from a year ago won't be there Thursday. Boldin was traded to San Francisco, and tight end Dennis Pitta is out indefinitely with a dislocated hip. They accounted for 36 receptions in the postseason, which was nearly half of Flacco's completions. That being said, it was Torrey Smith and Jones who did the most damage in the playoff game in Denver. The Ravens are hoping wide receiver Brandon Stokley can move the chains on third downs and tight end Ed Dickson (hamstring) can contribute in the season opener. There has to be more confidence in the Broncos' passing attack with Manning and his bunch of talented receivers.

Legwold: There is plenty of confidence in what the potential can be with Welker in the mix. The Broncos loved Stokley as a slot receiver, but Welker is younger and offers a bigger upside in terms of production. Welker will also have the best receivers to his outside shoulders in Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, the best combo he's had since the Patriots decided they didn't want Randy Moss around any longer. The 229-pound Thomas and the 214-pound Decker make the Broncos a tough matchup for any secondary. In the preseason, teams simply backed off into coverage and took their chances they could allow the catch and make the tackle before too much damage was done. The pace, especially at altitude, is a little something new as well. The Broncos ran 49 plays, excluding penalties, in the first half alone against the Rams in the preseason. They won't always go that fast, but if they get the look they want from a defense, they'll put the pedal to the floor and not allow a substitution. The key issue will be protection: Left tackle Ryan Clady missed plenty of the preseason after offseason surgery, and Denver has surrendered pressure in the middle of the field at times. The three-wide look is what the Broncos want their base formation to be on offense, but they can't do it if they can't protect Manning. It has to be a strange thing for a Baltimore defense that has been the franchise's signature for so long to have so many changes.

Hensley: There were a lot of changes to the Ravens' defense, but there were necessary changes. The Ravens weren't a top-10 defense for the first time since 2002. This defense had slumped to No. 17 in the NFL. It's never easy to part ways with the likes of Lewis and Reed. But the Ravens aren't replacing two Hall of Fame players in their prime. Baltimore had to replace two aging players who weren't the same playmakers from a few years ago. The additions of Dumervil, defensive lineman Chris Canty, linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Michael Huff have made this a stronger and more athletic defense. The Ravens' defense is going to be significantly better in two areas: stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. The biggest concern, especially when you're starting two new safeties, is the communication in the secondary. One mistake there and Manning will burn you for a touchdown. How is the Broncos' secondary holding up this summer?

Legwold: The Broncos would feel better if Bailey felt better. Bailey did not practice Sunday or Monday because of a left foot injury he suffered in the preseason loss in Seattle and is still a major question mark for Thursday's game. Bailey has been on the field for practice, but has not participated in any of the drills. The end result means Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would likely line up much of the time in Bailey's left cornerback spot. Rodgers-Cromartie is one of the more athletic sidekicks the Broncos have had for Bailey since Bailey arrived in 2004. Chris Harris and Tony Carter, the player who gave Jones a free release off the line of scrimmage on the game-tying bomb last January, will play in the nickel and dime as well. But overall the Broncos kept 11 defensive backs -- six corners, five safeties -- and can mix and match for almost every situation. They have flexibility and use it, so every defensive back in uniform Thursday night could see some action in the defense.

There's no question that linebacker James Harrison is interested in playing for the Baltimore Ravens. He'd get to stay in the familiar surroundings of the AFC North and get to face the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team that released him after he refused to take a pay cut, two times this season.

Harrison
Harrison
But are the Ravens interested in the soon-to-be 35-year-old pass-rusher? Harrison's agent and Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome talked this week and plan to do so again Saturday.

"Their timeline is a little slower at this point, but Ozzie's going to have to sign at least a couple of linebackers," Bill Parise, Harrison's agent, told The Baltimore Sun. "I know where we stand. He's made it clear that there's interest from the Ravens, and we have an interest. We would like that very much for James to wind up a with great organization like the Ravens. So, we'll wait and see where it goes."

Going against Harrison's signing is the fact that the Ravens have bigger priorities on defense. Baltimore needs a safety and inside linebacker more than an outside linebacker. The Ravens did lose Paul Kruger to Cleveland in free agency, but they probably want to expand Courtney Upshaw's role in the 2013 season.

What helps Harrison's case is the fact that Newsome believes getting to the quarterback is the key to defense, and he'll consider any opportunity to improve the pass rush. Newsome, though, would only sign Harrison at the right price -- and that's probably nowhere near the $6.57 million salary Harrison was scheduled to make this season in Pittsburgh.

Parise said he has spoken to six other teams regarding Harrison. At this point, no deal is imminent with any of them. Teams are becoming more wary of spending on free agents older than age 30. Harrison will likely have to wait a little while longer to see whether the Ravens, or any other team, are interested enough to offer him a contract.
Here are the inactives for the Bengals (who play the Cowboys), the Browns (who face the Chiefs) and the Ravens (who play the Redskins):

BENGALS: K Mike Nugent, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, RB Cedric Peerman, TE Richard Quinn, DE Devon Still, S George Iloka and DT Brandon Thompson. Note: Josh Brown will kick for the Bengals.

BROWNS: DT Ronnie Cameron, S Eric Hagg, RB Brandon Jackson, FB Owen Marecic, G Jarrod Shaw, CB Trevin Wade and WR Josh Cooper. Note: CB Dimitri Patterson is active after missing seven games.

RAVENS: LB Terrell Suggs, LB Dannell Ellerbe, TE Ed Dickson, CB Jimmy Smith, OL Ramon Harewood, DT Bryan Hall and WR Deonte Thompson. Note: Courtney Upshaw is expected to replace Suggs, and Brendon Ayanbadejo and Albert McClellan will fill in for Ellerbe.

On Spurrier's comments on Alabama, NFL

November, 2, 2012
11/02/12
3:00
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Steve Spurrier has suggested Alabama might be good enough to defeat an NFL team.

I'm not sure whether Spurrier was serious, but as Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll pointed out, the notion is ridiculous (unless, perhaps, Spurrier had the 2002-03 Washington Redskins in mind).

"Alabama's got a great team and Nick [Saban] is a fantastic coach," Carroll said, "but when you match up the interior lines against regular NFL teams on either side of the ball, it wouldn't even be close."

Athletic prodigies occasionally flourish in the professional ranks. LeBron James was 18 years old when he had 25 points, six rebounds, nine assists and four steals in his NBA debut.

In the NFL, rules prohibit players from participating until they're at least three years removed from high school. It's generally thought athletes aren't ready for the physical pounding until they're older. Rookies face adjustment periods. Even the best ones can appear lost during the first days of training camp.

The majority of players on Alabama's roster will likely never play in the NFL. It is absurd, then, to think those players would defeat a roster filled with players who are, by definition, good enough to play in the league.

For fun, I've put together a chart showing 2012 NFL draft choices from Alabama. There were eight, including four first-rounders. Injuries have sidelined three of them. Four others have played quite a bit. Another pick, fullback/tight end Brad Smelley, is on the Cleveland Browns' practice squad.

We'll have to wait and see if Alabama produces 22 rookie starters, three full-time specialists and some core special-teams players for NFL teams in 2013. Kind of thinking not.

Maclin, Jackson will start for Eagles

September, 16, 2012
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11:55
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PHILADELPHIA -- Good morning and hello from the press box at Lincoln Financial Field. They have just announced the inactive players for today's game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Baltimore Ravens, and neither of Philadelphia's starting wide receivers is on the list. That means that DeSean Jackson, who missed practice time last week with a hamstring injury, and Jeremy Maclin, who injured his hip in last week's game and missed practice time as well, will start the game as they said they would Friday.

Good news for the Eagles, of course, who need all the help they can get against a tough Baltimore defense, and quarterback Michael Vick, who's looking to get his season on track after throwing four interceptions in last week's victory in Cleveland.

Among the Eagles' inactives is backup running back Dion Lewis, who also missed last week's game due to injury. That means Bryce Brown and Chris Polk are the backup running backs for LeSean McCoy. The Eagles ran 56 pass plays and 30 run plays in last week's games, and while they're not likely to get 86 offensive snaps in this game, if they're looking for better balance they're going to have to find plays for at least one of the backup running backs.

Tackle Demetress Bell, inactive for last week's game, is active for this week's game, though King Dunlap remains the starter at left tackle.

For the Ravens, starting strongside linebacker Paul Kruger is inactive due to a back injury. That's a tough blow to that aforementioned Ravens defense, and it could offer the Eagles more of a look at Baltimore rookie Courtney Upshaw.

I'll be here all day with updates on this game while also keeping an eye on the other three games in the division today. The full list of inactives for Eagles-Ravens:

EAGLES
RAVENS
The Ravens' Paul Kruger is inactive for today's game at Philadelphia with a back injury.

That means the Ravens will be without Kruger and Terrell Suggs, the two projected starting outside linebackers for this season. Suggs tore his Achilles this spring and is out indefinitely.

Courtney Upshaw, the team's top pick in the 2012 draft, is expected to replace Kruger. Upshaw was considered the front-runner to replace Suggs after he was taken in the second round, but he was beaten out by Albert McClellan for that spot. Sergio Kindle, who is active, could also be a factor as a pass-rusher.
Joe Flacco and A.J. Green Getty ImagesBaltimore's Joe Flacco, left, and Cincinnati's A.J. Green could hold the keys to victory Monday.
Thanks to Marvin Lewis, the Cincinnati Bengals match up pretty well against the Baltimore Ravens.

Even though the Ravens have been a perennial playoff team, Lewis, the Ravens’ defensive coordinator from 1996-2001, builds his Bengals roster to counter his division rival. Because he helped hand-pick several of the top defensive players who have helped make the Ravens one of the best defenses in the league, the Bengals usually know they can give the Ravens a game.

Since 2006, this competitive series has had only two games in which the margin of difference was bigger than 10 points. In fact, Lewis has a 10-8 lifetime record against the Ravens. Since John Harbaugh arrived in Baltimore in 2008, he’s won five out of eight against the Bengals.

Here’s what to watch for in this competitive Monday night game:

Baltimore Ravens

1. Will the Ravens have a pass-rush? The loss of linebacker Terrell Suggs was huge for the Ravens. His Achilles tendon injury has created an Achilles’ heel for their defense. They need a pass-rush. This goes beyond replacing Suggs’ 14 sacks. During the preseason, the Ravens didn’t show they were consistently getting to the quarterback. Second-round linebacker Courtney Upshaw is still getting his feel for the NFL and might offer some hope. The pressure will fall on Paul Kruger, who takes over Suggs’ spot. The Ravens are blessed with good coverage cornerbacks, which might allow them to try some blitzes.

2. More will fall on the arm of Joe Flacco: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron plans to let Flacco take more leadership on the field and let him use more no-huddle. Though the Ravens don’t plan to abandon the run, they will be running an offense with a quicker tempo. Normally, the Bengals play the Ravens to low-scoring games in which both teams often end up scoring in the teens. Last season, offense became more of a factor. The Ravens won, 31-24, and 24-16. Flacco would love to get three or four touchdown drives against the Bengals.

3. More speed at wide receiver: One of the reasons the Bengals and Lewis keep the scores low against the Ravens is because the Bengals use plenty of man-to-man schemes. In the past, the Ravens didn’t have a lot of speed at wide receiver. This year they have speed. Torrey Smith, in his second season, is now a complete receiver with speed instead of only being a deep threat in his rookie year. Jacoby Jones adds a sub-4.4 threat. LaQuan Williams is fast. Watch to see if the Ravens receivers can win the battle against the Bengals cornerbacks.

4. Are the Ravens solid up front? The Ravens are fielding one of the oldest offensive lines in football. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie is 32. Guard Bobbie Williams is 35. Center Matt Birk is 36. One of the keys to the running game is how Williams and Birk do against defensive tackle Geno Atkins. If Atkins’ quickness beats the aging legs of Birk and Williams, the Ravens might have trouble running the football up the middle. They might also be vulnerable to inside blitzes.

5. Will Ray Rice’s role change? Rice has carried the Ravens offense for years, but the subtle changes in this year’s offense could adjust his role. First, will the no-huddle limit some of the runs Rice could make? Second, if the Ravens have problems in the middle of the line, will he have to bounce more plays to the outside? Rice is a threat running and receiving, but the new emphasis on throwing the ball could make him more of a threat through the air.

Cincinnati Bengals:

1. Problems in the middle of the Bengals offensive line: The Bengals lost guard Travelle Wharton and center Kyle Cook for the season, and they have to make do with Clint Boling at left guard and Jeff Faine at center. Faine is an established NFL veteran, but he sometimes has trouble against big 3-4 defensive tackles. How he handles Terrence Cody, Haloti Ngata and Ma'ake Kemoeatu could be the key to the game for the Bengals. If the pocket collapses in the middle of the field, it could be a tough day for quarterback Andy Dalton.

2. Establishing the man-to-man matchups: Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is a master of matching up his cornerbacks against receivers. He has plenty of options. Nate Clements and Leon Hall are the starters, but at his disposal is longtime Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman, Adam “PacMan” Jones, and Jason Allen.

3. Making sure Taylor Mays has a good game: Taylor Mays won the strong safety job, so this will be his most extensive playing time as he enters his third year in the league. Mays has cornerback speed and is a big hitter, but he is still raw at the position. The Ravens will try to challenge him by sending tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta in his direction. Flacco will also try to get him out of position with play-action fakes that could free up Torrey Smith for some deep completions.

4. Establishing a running game: The Bengals had a solid running back with Cedric Benson. Now, the BenJarvus Green-Ellis era begins. Green-Ellis is a smart player who doesn’t fumble, but he has yet to prove he can be an every-down back week in, week out. The Bengals still have a young quarterback in Dalton, so it would be nice if he could count on Green-Ellis getting 16 to 18 carries a week.

5. Sorting out the receiving corps: Everyone knows A.J. Green has established himself as one of the best young receivers in football. Tight end Jermaine Gresham is a big-play tight end. But the Bengals have revamped everything behind him. Andrew Hawkins takes over as the slot receiver. Brandon Tate is the starter at wide receiver for now, but third-round pick Mohamed Sanu is an intriguing prospect. With defenses figuring to double Green, Dalton has to see who can establish themselves as dependable pass-catching options.
Nearly all the AFC North teams played it safe in Thursday night's preseason finales. Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Brandon Weeden all sat out and watched the backup quarterbacks play.

The only starter who played, the Bengals' Andy Dalton, left in the first quarter with an injury but it's not considered serious. Dalton said his hand went "a little numb" after getting hit in the arm but it's "no problem at all." Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said, "Andy’s fine. He’ll be fine for Baltimore. He would have gone right back in this game if it had been the regular season.” So, crisis averted.

If you couldn't watch all four division teams play simultaneously, you're in luck. I had my eye on each one and here are some observations:

BENGALS AT COLTS

In the 20-16 loss at Indianapolis, Dalton was hurt on the opening drive after getting sandwiched. Offensive tackles Andrew Whitworth and Dennis Roland both got beaten for sacks on the play. It hasn't been a great preseason for Whitworth, who is the second-best left tackle in the division.

The Bengals didn't play their top two running backs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott, because both are recovering from injuries and are getting ready for the regular-season opener. For once, Cincinnati's run game didn't suffer. Brian Leonard ran hard and broke tackles for 27 yards on three carries. Cedric Peerman, who makes more of an impact on special teams, looked good on a 13-yard run up the middle.

No one wants to see Dalton hurt. The Bengals, though, have to feel comfortable with backup Bruce Gradkowski. He finished 12 of 19 for 95 yards and led his fourth touchdown drive of the preseason.

Rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones displayed some resiliency in the second quarter. On the same drive in which he dropped a touchdown pass, he came back to catch a back-shoulder throw from Gradkowski and ran into the end zone. Jones is making a push for some playing time this year.

BEARS AT BROWNS

In the 28-20 loss to Chicago, Colt McCoy watched his strong preseason take a nosedive. In his first start this summer, McCoy was 2 of 5 for 16 yards for a 9.1 quarterback rating. That's going to put a dent into McCoy's 119.1 rating from the first three games. McCoy was also intercepted on a high pass that was thrown with no pressure around him. The Browns will let everyone know what they plan to do with McCoy on Friday.

The Browns have a concern at linebacker after rookie James-Michael Johnson left with an oblique injury. With Chris Gocong out for the season with an Achilles injury and Scott Fujita facing a three-game suspension from the NFL, Cleveland planned to depend on Johnson and Kaluka Maiava. The Browns might need Fujita to win his appeal to avoid going deeper on the depth chart. Johnson was having a strong performance before getting injured on an open-field tackle.

Backup running back Montario Hardesty had trouble getting back to the line of scrimmage because he got little help from his blockers. He finished with 24 yards on six carries and he didn't fumble for the first time since the preseason opener. Brandon Jackson fared much better, gaining 48 yards on seven carries.

Cornerback James Dockery was flagged twice for pass interference in the second quarter. The second one eventually led to a touchdown. Rookie cornerback Trevin Wade was physical and had good coverage in allowing the first touchdown of the game.

As if the Browns needed something else to worry about, they have to iron some things out on special teams. Reggie Hodges got his second punt blocked this preseason.

RAVENS AT RAMS

In a 31-17 loss at St. Louis, Sergio Kindle hurt his chances of surviving Friday's cutdown. He hit quarterback Sam Bradford a full second late, drawing a roughing-the-passer penalty to help the Rams convert third-and-22. Kindle, a 2010 second-round pick, was on the bubble entering this game.

Continuing Thursday night's trend of rookies getting hurt, second-round pick Courtney Upshaw will have an MRI for his strained shoulder, according to coach John Harbaugh. Upshaw has been backing up Albert McClellan at outside linebacker.

Veteran linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo had his worst game with the Ravens. Working with the first-team defense because most of the starters sat, Ayanbadejo struggled against the run and got lost in coverage. It was so bad that he apologized for his performance on Twitter.

What I like the most about Tyrod Taylor, who started in place of Flacco, is his ability to make plays with his legs. Even though he focused more on being a pocket passer, Taylor wasn't hesitant to take off for a 22-yard scramble. He did get stripped from behind earlier in the game, but it was the result of a third-string lineman (Cord Howard) getting beat by a former first-round pick (Robert Quinn).

Looking at Curtis Painter's up-and-down performance, I'm not sure he convinced the Ravens to keep three quarterbacks. He threw two touchdowns and was intercepted three times. One interception was returned 76 yards for a touchdown.

Justin Tucker missed his first kick of the preseason, but it's difficult to be critical of him. It was a 57-yard attempt. He later hit a 49-yarder in the third quarter.

PANTHERS AT STEELERS

If this was Charlie Batch's last game with the Steelers, he made it a memorable one, or at least as memorable as the preseason gets. In the 17-16 victory over Carolina, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 102 yards. Batch showed great touch in leading Emmauel Sanders out of double coverage for a 37-yard touchdown. The new rule regarding injured reserve helps Batch's chances of sticking around Pittsburgh for an 11th season, but there's no guarantee that he'll make the cut.

For the second consecutive week, a Steelers draft pick went down with a serious knee injury. With two minutes left in the third quarter, linebacker Sean Spence hyperextended his knee while chasing quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Spence's knee bent awkwardly underneath him, and the third-round pick needed to be carted off the field. Spence was expected to make an impact on special teams this season and could have received playing time if there were injuries at inside linebacker. Unlike David DeCastro's knee injury, this one happened on the natural grass of Heinz Field.

This isn't a newsflash, but rookie running back-receiver-returner Chris Rainey is a game-changer. He twice scored on punt returns in one quarter, only to have both brought back because of penalties. This would've given him the touchdown trifecta. The fifth-round pick had scored on a 41-yard run and a 57-yard catch this summer.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton made his preseason debut after having ACL surgery in January. His presence was felt immediately as he got off a block from guard Mike Pollak and made a tackle. Hampton's return was good to see for the Steelers, even though Steve McLendon has played well enough to start.

Jonathan Dwyer solidfied himself as the primary backup to Isaac Redman, and the Steelers could need him based on Redman's durability. Dwyer was physical (even delivered a stiff-arm) and showed good feet to elude tacklers. He finished with 63 yards on 13 carries, a 4.8-yard average.
There's a chance that Steelers first-round pick David DeCastro is done for the season after suffering a right knee injury in Saturday night's 38-7 preseason win at Buffalo. "It's potentially severe," coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. "We'll see what the MRI says."

The rest of the division says: Welcome to the club, Steelers.

With DeCastro getting hurt, the top pick for each AFC North team has now been injured for an extended period. Browns running back Trent Richardson (knee), Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) and Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw (shoulder) all missed a large chunk of training camp and have yet to start a game in the preseason.

Richardson, the third overall pick who had his knee scoped Aug. 9, is expected to play in the regular-season opener, albeit in a limited role. Kirkpatrick, the 17th pick of the 2012 draft, hurt himself before reporting to camp and just began practicing a week ago. Upshaw, a second-round pick, was out for seven days in camp and has yet to unseat Albert McClellan for the rush linebacker job since his return.

The difference with DeCastro is that his injury might leave him sidelined for his entire rookie season. After having a rough start to camp, DeCastro has looked more than solid in the preseason. Now, after watching his right knee bent awkwardly, the Steelers will have to wait for the MRI to see if they'll get him back this season.

While this continues the bad luck for the top picks in the division, it also could extend the Steelers' rough streak with knee injuries. Since the regular-season finale on Jan. 1, Pittsburgh has seen four starters (running back Rashard Mendenhall, offensive tackle Max Starks, nose tackle Casey Hampton and fullback David Johnson) suffer torn anterior cruciate ligaments.

Observation deck: Ravens-Lions

August, 17, 2012
8/17/12
11:34
PM ET

If the Ravens secondary wants to reach an elite level, the defensive backs have to hold their own against the top receivers. Baltimore's 27-12 preseason loss to the Lions on Friday night showed once again that the secondary has a lot of room to improve.

The Ravens allowed Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson to catch five passes for 111 yards and one touchdown. And that was in less than one full half of work. That comes one week after Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones had six catches for 109 yards and one touchdown in a little over one quarter.

Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith, who are battling for a starting job, both took turns getting beat by Johnson. The Ravens' first defensive series of the second quarter began with Johnson running past Williams for a 57-yard catch and ended with Johnson leaping over Jimmy Smith for an 18-yard touchdown. Smith later held Johnson when the receiver went past him on the next drive.

Here are some other thoughts on the Ravens' second preseason game of the year:
  • The Ravens continue to show a new look on offense. Baltimore is opening up the playbook with a no-huddle attack that spreads out defenses with three wide receivers. This is the second straight game for the Ravens' no-huddle offense.
  • Joe Flacco played much better than his statistics indicate. He finished 7-of-12 for 79 yards, but his receivers dropped three passes. With Torrey Smith out with a sprained ankle, Flacco went to LaQuan Williams three times in the red zone and didn't connect one time.
  • Undrafted rookie Justin Tucker continues to outshine Billy Cundiff in the kicker competition. Cundiff converted from 33 and 44 yards, but Tucker drew bigger cheers from the home crowd when he boomed a 50-yarder. Tucker later added a 45-yard field goal. Cundiff, though, had more distance on his kickoffs.
  • The best battle of the night was Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda going against Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. There were many instances when they kept pushing and shoving after the whistle.
  • The Ravens are still telling Bryant McKinnie that he has to earn back his starting job, keeping him on the second team. Baltimore started Michael Oher at left tackle and rookie Kelechi Osemele on the right side. Oher hurt one drive when he was called for holding on second-and-goal from the 7-yard line.
  • One of the worst plays in Ravens history has been the end-around to a wide receiver. It never worked with Mark Clayton or Donte Stallworth. But Baltimore finally had success when Jacoby Jones broke free for a 35-yard gain. That's 35 more yards than the Ravens ever gained on that play before.
  • Courtney Upshaw, the team's top pick of the 2012 draft, remained on the second team while Albert McClellan started at outside linebacker. Upshaw didn't help his case with a rookie mistake. The Lions' first drive of the second quarter should have ended with a field goal, but Upshaw was called for offside on third-and-2 from the Baltimore 28-yard line. That led to the Johnson touchdown.
  • It was another frustrating night for Sergio Kindle. His holding penalty negated a 55-yard kickoff return by Deonte Thompson late in the second quarter, and then Kindle left in the third quarter with a left shoulder stinger.
  • It's hard to overlook undrafted rookie safety Omar Brown because he keeps making plays. His fumble recovery in the second half was his fourth turnover (three fumble recoveries and one interception) in two games.
Trent Richardson's sore knee could keep the Browns running back out of Friday's preseason opener. This has unfortunately become the status quo for the top rookies in the AFC North this summer.

Of the top picks for each team in the division, there's a good chance that only one will make his preseason debut this week. That would be Steelers guard David DeCastro, and he's only starting Thursday because of an injury to Willie Colon. The good news for DeCastro is that he's only experiencing growing pains. Others haven't been so lucky.

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, the Bengals' top pick in the 2012 draft, is on the non-football injury list after hurting his leg before camp began. He's expected to miss the preseason, but coach Marvin Lewis said the No. 17 pick could return for the regular-season opener next month.

Outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, the Ravens' top pick, was sidelined for seven straight practices with a shoulder injury before practicing Tuesday on a limited basis. Head coach John Harbaugh said it's unlikely that Upshaw will play Thursday at Atlanta, but he has yet to make a final decision on the second-round choice.

While these picks are going through a rough start, this year's rookie class could make an immediate impact. It's possible that 11 rookies will start the regular-season opener. The Browns could go with six rookies: Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden, offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, wide receiver Josh Gordon, defensive tackle John Hughes and linebacker James-Michael Johnson. There could be two rookie starters for the Steelers (DeCastro and offensive tackle Mike Adams) and the Bengals (guard Kevin Zeitler and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu). Upshaw is expected to be the only first-year starter for the Ravens.

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