NFL Nation: NFC East

When: 8:25 p.m. ET, Thursday Where: Soldier Field, Chicago TV: NFL Network

The Chicago Bears relegated themselves to the spoiler role by virtue of their 5-7 mark, while the Dallas Cowboys enter Thursday's game trying to exorcise their December demons in an attempt to advance to the postseason for the first time since 2009.

Bears reporter Michael C. Wright breaks down the matchup with Cowboys reporter Todd Archer:

Wright: You always hear about Dallas' struggles in December, and I remember how the Cowboys struggled in the cold last season around this time at Soldier Field. Is there really anything to that, and, if so, what's gone into those struggles?

Archer: The Cowboys swear there is nothing to it. I'm kind of with them, but I do think the recent past does affect this team to the point at which they expect something bad to happen. Ultimately, however, I think it has come down to them just not having been good enough. That's the real issue. They have been bad in late-season games because they're just good enough to be good enough and have not been able to raise their level of play when the games matter most. I don't think it has anything to do with choking or the other team wanting it more. It comes down to they haven't had enough good players and coaches to get the job done. Will that change this season? I can't call it. Even when they were 6-1, I had doubts about this team, especially defensively. They don't have enough playmakers and they can't scheme their way to enough stops. The offense will have to carry the day if the Cowboys are to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. I do believe the offense is good enough, but is it good enough to carry the defense?

Jason Garrett entered the season coaching for his future, and I think it's still up in the air even with an 8-4 record. I didn't think Marc Trestman would be coaching for his future in his second season, but do you think he will return in 2015?

Wright: I believe he'll be back. Bears general manager Phil Emery wanted to provide security for Jay Cutler with the hiring of Trestman because the quarterback, prior to 2013, had played in three different systems for three offensive coordinators over a four-year period. Once Emery put Cutler with a coach and a system he believed in, the general manager opted to lock up the quarterback for the long haul with a seven-year deal worth $126.7 million. I just don't see Emery blowing up everything after all he's done to build around Cutler with the staff, free-agent additions, draft picks and the quarterback's long-term contract. Now, obviously, there's no guarantee the decision on Trestman won't be taken out of Emery's hands. But that would be the only way I could see Trestman not making it to his third season, and I do believe that decision could be taken out of Emery's hands depending on how Chicago finishes out the season. Three of this team's last four games are at Soldier Field, and if the Bears lose every one of those outings, I could see ownership forcing Emery to part ways with Trestman.

Dallas' offensive line from this vantage point has been one of the strengths of the team. What happened against the Philadelphia Eagles, because it appeared the Cowboys really struggled to protect Tony Romo?

Archer: It was their worst game of the season, with the overtime loss to the Washington Redskins a close second. They all had issues. Travis Frederick snapped the ball too early on a third down, leading to a sack. Ronald Leary gave up two sacks. The run game was slowed for the first time. This is the first time they have really been punched in the nose. It's been all ice cream and candy for these guys for the bulk of the season. Three of them lead Pro Bowl voting at their positions -- Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Frederick. It will be interesting to see what happens this week. The Bears have 29 sacks, and 23 of them come from four players, so it's not about tricking anybody. The Cowboys were beaten physically by the Eagles' front. Each one of them had a breakdown that led to multiple poor plays. For the Cowboys to win, they have to follow a specific formula: run the ball, control the tempo of the game and convert on third down. That puts a lot of pressure on the line to perform, but there's a reason three of its members were first-round picks. I think they will be a lot better this week, and not just because they can't be worse.

A few short years ago when you thought of the Bears, you thought of defense. Now, they are near the bottom in yards allowed and giving up 28.1 points per game. What in the name of Brian Urlacher has happened?

Wright: Todd, a combination of factors have led to what you're seeing, and I could probably go way over our word limits trying to explain. So let me give you the condensed version. First off, it starts with the draft, through which Emery has selected 11 defensive players since 2012. Of those players, three -- Shea McClellin, Jonathan Bostic (due to injury) and Kyle Fuller -- are starters. Four of the defensive picks came in 2014, while three more are no longer with the team. You've also got to factor in those players were drafted to eventually replace aging stars such as Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Urlacher. Sure, the Bears freshened up the front last offseason by bringing aboard Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen, in addition to drafting players such as Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, but the team didn't do much to address issues on the back end, where poor safety play has long been a problem, dating all the way back to Lovie Smith's tenure (the Bears don't value safeties and refuse to spend on the position). Basically, I say all of that to say this: The Bears are seriously lacking in the talent department on defense, which is partially a result of all the resources allocated to the offensive side of the ball.

The Cowboys have missed the playoffs each of the past four seasons, but it seems this team is a little different than the squads from years past in the way it seems to handle the roller-coaster ride of the season. Why is this team different, and do you believe the Cowboys absolutely have to make the playoffs for Garrett to receive a new contract?

Archer: I'm not sure it is different just yet. They got on a really good run after losing the season opener, winning six games in a row. Since then, they have gone 2-3. As a whole, this is not a hugely talented team, but I say that mostly because of the defense. Maybe some of those defensive players were playing over their heads earlier in the season and now don't have gas in the tank. Rolando McClain has been their best defender, but I do wonder how much he has in the tank. They haven't been able to affect the quarterback enough, and that matters even more in big games late in the season. This is the pivotal game of the season. Win this one and they know they can contend. Lose this one and they'll need help to make the playoffs, most likely. And that brings us to Garrett. I do think he needs credit for what this team has done considering the low expectations entering the season, but if they don't make the playoffs it will be a failed season. And it would be the third time in his four seasons they entered December with a winning mark and didn't make the playoffs. I know Jerry Jones wants Garrett to be his version of Tom Landry, but I don't know for sure he will get a new contract if he misses the playoffs for the fourth straight season. There's a lot on the line for everybody: the players, the coaches and the front office.

I look at the Bears on offense and I see nothing but talent. Cutler can throw it as well as anybody. He has Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. He has Matt Forte. He has Martellus Bennett. What's missing with these guys?

Wright: Obviously quite a bit considering this team went six consecutive games without scoring a first-quarter touchdown until last week's loss to the Detroit Lions. But for me, it all starts with the quarterback, and Cutler received "elite" money in his new deal but certainly isn't performing at that level. Cutler leads the NFL in turnovers (20), and opponents have scored a total of 85 points off the club's 23 giveaways. So Cutler is the biggest issue.

But Trestman certainly hasn't helped out the quarterback with his play calling. Forte is averaging 4.1 yards per attempt, yet the club handed off to the running back just five times in last week's loss to the Lions. I think last season the Bears caught teams by surprise because nobody knew what to expect from Trestman's offense. Then, after the team put an entire 2013 season on tape, opponents figured out how to shut down the Bears.

Chemistry plays into it, too. When there are players in the locker room who believe Cutler looks only to Marshall and Bennett in the passing game, what's the incentive for the club's other pass-catchers to go all-out running routes? There are several issues plaguing the Bears on offense, but Cutler is the most significant. Nobody wants to admit it, but the Bears made a huge mistake in signing him to the new deal.

So far the Philadelphia Eagles have re-signed key their own players, such as Jason Kelce, Riley Cooper, Jeremy Maclin and Nate Allen, and added pieces like Malcolm Jenkins and Nolan Carroll.

They have not, however, added any pieces to help the pass rush.

[+] EnlargeTrent Cole
AP Photo/Michael PerezTrent Cole led the Eagles in sacks last season, but the team's pass rush could use reinforcements.
The Eagles recorded 37 sacks in 2013, which ranked 20th in the NFL. Trent Cole led the team with eight sacks. Connor Barwin had five and three players -- DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks and Vinny Curry -- had four apiece.


"It's hard to find pass rushers, especially on the open market," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said in this Philadelphia Daily News story. "There aren't a lot of teams letting them go. And then you look at the draft and where those guys go, they go high.

"Certainly, you want to continue to add pass rushers. But we feel we have some guys we think can rush the passer and fit what we're doing at the outside linebacker position."

Philadelphia had interest in DeMarcus Ware, and the Cowboys were not keen on possibly seeing their all-time leader in sacks twice a year, but the Denver Broncos swooped in with an offer Ware could not refuse ($20 million guaranteed).

In free agency, Shaun Phillips has 3-4 experience from his time with the San Diego Chargers, but the pickings are thin.

As the Eagles move into their second year in the 3-4 scheme, they will have a better feel for what they want in an outside linebacker. Projecting a college defensive end to outside linebacker in a 3-4 is never easy, but it is something the Pittsburgh Steelers have excelled at for years.

The two best in this year's draft, Buffalo's Khalil Mack and UCLA's Anthony Barr, figure to be gone by the time the Eagles pick in the first round.

In a division with quarterbacks such as Eli Manning, Tony Romo and Robert Griffin III, finding pass rushers is more important than pass defenders.

Redskins season prediction: 10-6

August, 28, 2013
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The Redskins should enter the season as the NFC East favorites, having won the division with a seven-game winning streak last season. They have one of the NFL’s most dynamic young players and a second-year running back who gained 1,613 yards as a rookie, and their best pass-rusher returns.

But a leap of faith is necessary. Will Robert Griffin III's knee hold up? Kirk Cousins can be a nice quarterback; Griffin is a difference-maker. With receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Fred Davis both healthy, unlike last season, the passing game could flourish. Dismiss running back Alfred Morris as a zone-read creation only at your peril.

Linebacker Brian Orakpo's absence after Week 2 was noticeable for its impact on others. With him in the lineup, and with Ryan Kerrigan's versatility in this area, the rush is better all over. Nose tackle Barry Cofield appears headed for a big season. But ... the secondary. It was an issue last year and has been one this summer. The defensive backs don’t need to be great, they just can’t be bad.

There are enough underlying issues that could spoil the season. But we’ll stick with 10-6 and, as long as Griffin is healthy, a trip to the NFC Championship Game.

Predicted finish in NFC East: first

Photoblog: All about some Prime Time

January, 31, 2012
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CruzMichael Heiman/Getty ImagesDeion Sanders and Giants receiver Victor Cruz have at least one thing in common: They both know all about the Super Bowl spotlight.

Photoblog: Fancy fashion statement

January, 31, 2012
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Aaron HernandezMatthew Emmons/US PresswireSporting earrings and a red patriot hat, New England tight end Aaron Hernandez talks with reporters during media day at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Wrap-up: Dolphins 20, Redskins 9

November, 13, 2011
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Here are some thoughts on the Miami Dolphins' 20-9 victory against the Washington Redskins:

What it means: After an awful 0-7 start, the Dolphins have won two straight. The victory against the Redskins also was Miami's first home win at Sun Life Stadium this season. The Dolphins are playing hard in the second half of the season under embattled head coach Tony Sparano, who continues to audition for his job beyond this season.

What I liked: Miami running back Reggie Bush continues to have his best stretch of the season. Bush didn't register a lot of yards. But he scored both of Miami's touchdowns on the ground, including a fourth-quarter score with 6:17 remaining to seal the game. The Dolphins' defense also took advantage of Washington's rotating door at quarterback. Former Dolphins quarterback John Beck didn't play in his return to Miami. He was benched Sunday in favor of Rex Grossman, who struggled and threw two costly interceptions for Washington.

What I didn't like: There's not much to complain about with Miami's performance. But if I had to nitpick, Miami starting quarterback Matt Moore didn't play as well as last week. He had two key turnovers in the first half (one interception, one fumble) that kept Washington in the game until the fourth quarter. Moore finished with 209 yards and two turnovers. He needs to be more consistent in taking care of the football.

What's next: The Dolphins (2-7) will host the Buffalo Bills (5-4) in their first of two meetings this season. With Buffalo struggling and Miami playing its best football of the season, it could be anyone's game next week at Sun Life Stadium.
Tom HeckertAP Photo/Amy SancettaBrowns GM Tom Heckert has built his reputation on doing solid work in the draft.
BEREA, Ohio -- When you think of the face of the 2011 Cleveland Browns, high-profile president Mike Holmgren is the first person who comes to mind.

After Holmgren, quarterback Colt McCoy, receiver/kick returner Josh Cribbs and tailback Peyton Hillis might be next. They're among the few Browns players known on a national level. McCoy made his name at the University of Texas, Cribbs is a former Pro Bowler, and Hillis has a chance to become the "Madden NFL 12" cover boy next week following a breakout 2010 season in which he rushed for 1,177 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.

But as you continue down the list, eventually you will come across arguably the most important person in the organization: general manager Tom Heckert.

Holmgren has final say in Cleveland. But he is not the person laying the groundwork for the team behind the scenes.

Quietly, Heckert and his staff have worked hard to add talent to what was once a very thin roster. Last year, the Browns signed key veteran free agents such as tight end Benjamin Watson and linebacker Scott Fujita, in addition to completing a cunning trade with the Denver Broncos for Hillis in exchange for former Browns quarterback Brady Quinn.

But the draft is where Heckert has built his reputation.

Heckert joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 2001 as director of player personnel and worked his way up to general manager five years later. During his stint, Philadelphia went to four consecutive NFC championship games and made the playoffs in seven of Heckert's nine seasons in the front office. He had a major hand in the Eagles' acquisition of recent draft picks such as tailback LeSean McCoy, tight end Brent Celek, quarterback Kevin Kolb and receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.

Heckert continued his draft success in Cleveland last season. The Browns acquired three starters in the first three rounds -- first-round corner Joe Haden, second-round safety T.J. Ward and McCoy in the third round.

Now the Browns have a young nucleus to build around as Heckert tries to work his magic in Year 2.

"I think last year we did a pretty good job," Heckert said in his pre-draft news conference Thursday. "Media-wise there were questions whether T.J. was worth the pick, and we said 'this guy is a good football player. He is going to come in here and start for us and he is worth that pick.' You can try to get cute and say maybe he'll be there later in the second round, so you try to trade down and you lose him. How stupid is that? If you like the guy, take him. Don't try to get too cute."

Getting cute is not what Heckert is about, and he definitely hasn't put himself out there to receive all the credit.

This week the Browns notified the local media that Heckert would hold a solo news conference, and people noticed that the charismatic Holmgren wasn't on the schedule. It was one of the few times since joining the Browns that Heckert addressed the media without the shadow of Holmgren looming over him, presumably to help raise Heckert's low profile.

Working in the shadows is nothing new for Heckert. Eagles head coach Andy Reid commanded the spotlight in Philadelphia while Heckert worked diligently behind the scenes to help find great players year after year.

Heckert's current boss has made it a point to express his appreciation.

[+] EnlargeTom Heckert and Joe Haden and Mike Holmgren
AP Photo/Mark DuncanTom Heckert, left, and Mike Holmgren, right, spent their first-round pick last year on corner Joe Haden, center, who had six picks as a rookie.
"Tom Heckert is the real deal," Holmgren said recently. "The people that work with him, our personnel department, they do their jobs and they do them very well. If I put on my coach hat for a moment, that's a real encouragement to Pat [Shurmur] and the coaches."

This year's draft may go down as one of the most important of the Holmgren-Heckert regime. Cleveland holds eight draft selections, including the No. 6 overall pick in the first round.

The Browns are coming off back-to-back 5-11 seasons, but there is optimism that Cleveland is finally heading in the right direction. If things go as planned for the Browns, this may be the highest draft pick for Heckert and Holmgren in the next several years. In what's considered a deep and talented draft, the Browns cannot afford to miss with their top pick.

"If we end up staying at where we're picking, we are going to get a good football player," Heckert said confidently. "There are six guys, and we are going to get a good football player. Obviously you don't want to be picking up there all the time, but that's the nice thing about it."

The mountain the Browns are trying to climb is steep.

The rival Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are unrelenting within the division. They are well-run organizations, perennial contenders in the AFC, and they don't make many mistakes in personnel. That raises the bar for Cleveland to do the same when finding players.

After several front-office failures over the past dozen years, Heckert's track record and experience as general manager give the Browns their best chance. But to make up ground in the AFC North, Cleveland must have another solid draft for the second year in a row, which is not an easy task.

Any big mistakes next week could keep the Browns at the bottom of the pack. So the pressure is on.

"Just try to not force anything," Heckert said of his draft philosophy. "It's easier said than done. ... Once the board is set, I don't think anyone is going to sit there and start jumping guys off their draft board. It happens in the whole process where you may say 'whatever the position is we need this,' so you maybe make the guy better than he is. You just have to be careful of doing that. It happens. I've been guilty of it, just like everyone else. It's a tough thing to do, but you have to be smart about it."
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Receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens are known as much for their boisterous personalities as they are for their immense talent. But this high-profile tandem has never played together on the same team -- until now.

The Cincinnati Bengals signed Owens before training camp, sparking questions and sending shockwaves through the NFL. Can this pair coexist in Cincinnati? Is Owens the missing ingredient in the Bengals' struggling passing game?

ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker and The Football Scientist, KC Joyner, debate whether this duo will work well together in 2010.

James Walker: KC, let me start right away by presenting the facts. This pair has combined for 1,690 receptions, 24,903 yards, 206 touchdowns and 12 Pro Bowls. There cannot be questions about their production on the field, because Ochocinco and Owens are among the most consistently productive receivers of the past decade.

Terrell Owens/Chad Ochocinco
AP Photo/Al BehrmanTerrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco are good friends off the field, but can they maintain that relationship on it?
Owens gets a bum rap for his 2009 totals. Let's not forget who the quarterbacks were for the Buffalo Bills. I don't know if any receiver could make the Pro Bowl with Ryan Fitzpatrick starting a majority of the season. Trent Edwards began the year, and he’s nothing to write home about, either. Still, Owens stayed quiet and played football, recording 55 receptions for 829 yards (15.1 yards per catch average) and five touchdowns. Even if the Bengals get that same production this year from Owens, Cincinnati could be playoff bound, because Ochocinco will do the heavy lifting as the Bengals' No. 1 receiver for quarterback Carson Palmer.

I'm sure we will touch on the personality and locker room concerns later. But I wanted to point out right away that there's no reason to believe this tandem won't be dangerous on the field.

KC Joyner: James, not to be a buzzkill, but using Owens and Ochocinco's historical numbers really isn't relevant here. Marvin Harrison is one of the most productive receivers over the past decade as well and yet no team is counting on him to lead its receiving corps.

The issue with Owens isn't that the Buffalo offense crushed his numbers. His totals have been on a slide for three years now, as his receptions have steadily dropped (81 to 69 to 55) along with his yardage (1,355 to 1,052 to 829) and touchdowns (15 to 10 to five).

The Dallas Cowboys let him go because offensive coordinator Jason Garrett found out the only way to get Owens open on a consistent basis anymore was to use picks, bunch/stack formations and motion tricks. Buffalo didn't use those subterfuges last year and history says Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski won't do that either.

JW: I think you're making two major oversights, KC. First, Owens didn't have another perennial Pro Bowl receiver on the opposite end in Dallas or Buffalo to take the pressure off as Ochocinco will. Those two will help each other. You can't double-team both players and each will win against single coverage. That's the sign of a great tandem.

Second, the Bengals are not making T.O. the focal point of their offense as the Cowboys and Bills did. So I think some of those comparisons don't add up. Owens is now a complementary piece to Cincinnati's passing game that already has a Pro Bowl receiver (Ochocinco) and a strong running game. Owens as a No. 2 receiver is a great role for him at this stage of his career.

But enough talk about Ochocinco and Owens on the field. I'm sure you have questions about these two coexisting in the same locker room, correct?

KC: There is ample statistical evidence that Owens would have a lot of trouble against his cornerback matchups all season even if he had Jerry Rice in his prime opposite him, but you hit the nail on the head with the real reason adding Owens is a bad idea. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sometimes seems to approach his job less like he is coaching a football team and more like he is running the Lewis school for wayward players.

[+] EnlargeMarvin Lewis and Chad Ochocinco
AP Photo/Al BehrmanMarvin Lewis has a history of coaching "high maintenance" players such as Chad Ochocinco.
It is as I wrote in Scientific Football 2007, "Lewis strikes me as a man who has a soft spot for being a father figure to players. I also believe that Lewis subscribes to the philosophy that people are generally good. The combination of these two traits means that he enjoys mentoring younger players and wants to believe that, with help and support, any player can be turned around. Because of this, Lewis tends to gravitate toward players other people would view as risks. If Lewis' heart is in the right place, his approach to these players could be creating something of a vicious cycle. If you are a parent, you can relate to this. You want your kids to behave and do what they are supposed to do. They want to keep you happy but when they behave, you don't pay them as much attention as you do when they aren't behaving. They quickly figure out that the way to get your attention all the time is to act up all of the time. Some of Lewis' players may have a similar mindset. I think they know that the best way to get his attention is to appeal to his mentoring side, so they end up doing things that they shouldn't in order to get his father-figure side to come out."

That would explain why the Bengals would pick up an aging veteran on the downside of his career who has a history of being a divisive locker-room presence. Lewis thinks he can turn around Owens but, in my estimation, Owens has absolutely no interest in whatever personality fixes Lewis is proposing. It's a no-win situation for Cincinnati unless Owens turns around his subpar on-field performance, and that isn't a likely scenario.

JW: I cover the Bengals, KC, and I can tell you Cincinnati taking in character risks and providing multiple chances is much more a creation of owner Mike Brown than it is Lewis. But that's a story for another day.

With Owens you get the player and the persona, and although I wouldn't venture to say he's a fit for all 32 NFL teams, there are plenty of reasons why he will mesh well in Cincinnati.

For starters, Ochocinco and Palmer lobbied to get Owens. That gives T.O. instant credibility in Cincinnati's locker room when its most well-known players are backing Owens from Day 1. Also, Ochocinco and Owens are great friends. They’re happy to be together for the first time in their careers, which means these two will not bicker over who's the top receiver. Don't forget Owens is playing on a one-year deal and will be on his best behavior.

Finally, if any team knows how to handle Owens, it's the Bengals. They've had plenty of practice over the years with Ochocinco, and six Pro Bowls later, I think that has worked out pretty well for Cincinnati. Why can't Owens?

KC: For all of the success that Brown and/or Lewis have had with players, they've had plenty of failures as well. The successes also almost always stem from players who have elite skills. Owens used to possess talents of that level, but some metrics from last year show that is no longer the case.

The marker for top-of-the-line cornerback play is to allow a yards per attempt (YPA) total of less than 7 yards. That will typically place a cornerback in the upper third of the league in that category. When Owens faced corners of that caliber last year, he gained only 3.9 YPA. That ranked tied for 77th among wide receivers last year. To put it another way, there were only eight wideouts who fared worse in that metric. Owens is slated to face seven cornerbacks of that caliber this year, so there is a good chance he will do next to nothing in nearly half of the Bengals' contests.

As to the idea that being paired with Ochocinco will help Owens here, think again. Ochocinco was one of the players who tied Owens at 77th in that red-rated CB YPA total. Because he has six red cornerbacks on his schedule, he will be hard-pressed to do anything to assist Owens.

Maybe the best way to close this out is to imagine what would happen if the matchups cause both of these guys to have subpar seasons. If one prima donna can fracture a locker room, imagine the damage two could do. It's the kind of thing that could take a great turnaround story like the 2009 Bengals and turn it into a cautionary tale about taking on too many personnel personality risks.

Seven-step drop

August, 30, 2010
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With the preseason coming to a close this week, here are seven notes and observations on the AFC North:

  • Are the Pittsburgh Steelers lacking discipline? Their first-team defense uncharacteristically had four personal fouls Sunday in a 34-17 loss to the Denver Broncos. Two were by second-year cornerback Keenan Lewis, who was subsequently benched and earned a spot in coach Mike Tomlin's doghouse. Lewis also made a bad situation worse by reportedly punching through a glass sign after the game. If you add cornerback Ike Taylor's fight last week against the New York Giants that cost him $10,000, Pittsburgh is having problems keeping its cool lately.
  • [+] EnlargeFarrior
    Ron Chenoy/US PresswireJames Farrior lost his helmet during a play in Sunday night's game.

  • I'm noticing an unusual amount of players losing their helmets this preseason. The two most high-profile occurrences were with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Sunday with Steelers linebacker James Farrior. Both players suffered cuts to the head and were knocked out of the game. These are not isolated incidents. I've seen several preseason games this summer where helmets are dangerously flying off at an alarming rate.
  • Baltimore's pass protection is not as sharp as expected. The Giants recorded five total sacks against the Ravens Saturday and the pocket overall wasn't consistently solid. At times, it was miscommunications. Other times New York simply outplayed Baltimore up front. We're not convinced Tony Moll is the answer at right tackle. Giants defensive end Justin Tuck had his way with Moll on several occasions. Baltimore tackles Oniel Cousins and/or Jared Gaither need to get healthy quickly.
  • We liked what we saw from Haruki Nakamura covering receivers in the slot. For a safety, he has pretty quick feet to keep up with receivers and make plays on the ball. Nakamura is considered an experiment in the slot until Baltimore's secondary gets healthy. But based on his performance, it's looking pretty good so far.
  • The Cleveland Browns have an update on safety Nick Sorensen. The bad news is he suffered a concussion Saturday against the Detroit Lions. But the good news is he is improving. Sorensen was not at practice Monday, and according to Browns coach Eric Mangini he will be resting for "a while."
  • Speaking of Mangini, this will be his first year putting together a 53-man roster with new president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert. Cleveland currently has a mix of players leftover from the previous Mangini-George Kokinis regime and the new Holmgren-Heckert regime, setting up an interesting dynamic this week. Mangini will have his input and opinion on who stays and who goes, but Heckert and Holmgren will have the final say.
  • Cincinnati's receiver position is somewhat clearer now with Antonio Bryant's release. Cincinnati has a lot of depth at receiver, where six (maybe seven) could make the team. Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, Jordan Shipley and Andre Caldwell are four locks. But at least two roster spots remain open for receivers Quan Cosby, Jerome Simpson, Matt Jones and Dezmon Briscoe. An educated guess is Cosby is in, making it a three-way tossup between Simpson, Jones and Briscoe.

AFC North preseason observations

August, 29, 2010
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Here are observations from Saturday night's preseason action in the AFC North:

Bills 35, Bengals 20

The Good
  • Cincinnati's first-team offense doubled its touchdown output this preseason with two touchdown drives. With new faces like Terrell Owens, Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham, the Bengals' offense has been a work in progress. It showed positive signs against Buffalo as quarterback Carson Palmer connected on touchdown passes to Gresham and receiver Chad Ochocinco. Palmer had his best preseason game to date, completing 9 of 11 passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Bengals starting tailback Cedric Benson also had his best game of the preseason. He rushed for 50 yards on eight carries. Benson is running hard, but hasn't found many holes in limited carries this preseason. He finally broke off a nice run of 20 yards against Buffalo and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.
The Bad
  • The Bengals allowed too many points to a Buffalo offense that's not very good. Rookie tailback C.J. Spiller rushed for two first-half touchdowns, giving the Bills a 21-7 lead at intermission. Bills quarterback Trent Edwards was near-perfect, completing 13 of 17 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown. Cincinnati's defense was often one step behind Buffalo's offense Saturday. Expect Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to get after his unit in practice this week.
  • The Bengals have been sloppy with penalties, an issue that plagued them last season and has continued in the preseason. Cincinnati recorded 12 penalties for 122 yards, which is high even for a preseason game. Cincinnati cannot expect to suddenly "turn it on" and play smarter when games count in the standings.
Ravens 24, Giants 10

The Good
  • Baltimore's first-team offense came alive in the "dress rehearsal" game. Quarterback Joe Flacco recorded a preseason-high 229 passing yards. He drilled two nice touchdown passes to tight end Todd Heap and receiver Anquan Boldin in the red zone, an area Baltimore wants to be more efficient passing the football. The Ravens also want to spread the ball around, and 10 receivers caught passes Saturday.
  • Heap looks great. He led Baltimore Saturday with six catches for 69 yards and a touchdown. Competition has clearly brought out the best in Heap after the Ravens drafted two tight ends in April. This is also the healthiest Heap has been to start the season in years.
The Bad
  • Baltimore suffered a major injury as receiver Donte' Stallworth broke his foot and is expected to miss about two months. Stallworth, who was out of football in 2009, had a solid training camp and was expected to be a good addition to Baltimore’s receiving corps. Backups Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams will have to step up in reserve roles.
  • The Ravens' third-down conversions could still use improvement. Baltimore's offense moved the ball well, but was just 4-of-15 on third downs.
Lions 35, Browns 27

The Good
  • Cleveland's first-team offense was productive. The Browns scored 17 offensive points in the first half. (Cleveland's starting defense also scored a first-half touchdown.) Starting quarterback Jake Delhomme was accurate for the third straight exhibition game. He completed 20 of 25 passes for 152 yards and one touchdown. For the preseason, Delhomme has thrown for 345 yards, two touchdowns and completed 79.2 percent of his passes. He's done a good job of erasing concerns about him heading into the regular season.
  • The Browns have a nice find in running back Peyton Hillis. Acquired in the Brady Quinn trade with the Denver Broncos, Hillis showed his versatility with 40 receiving yards and 26 yards rushing and a touchdown. But what stood out most was Hillis' regular-season intensity. He broke through arm tackles and bullied Detroit defenders. Hillis is Cleveland’s leading rusher through three preseason games.
The Bad
  • For the second week in a row, the Browns were too careless with the football. Cleveland fumbled four times, losing three. Running back Jerome Harrison's fumble in the second quarter was returned 14 yards for a touchdown. Last week Cleveland played in rainy conditions, but this time there were no excuses for putting the ball on the ground in a dome. The Browns have eight turnovers in their past two preseason games. They have to play smarter and more efficient to have a chance to climb out the basement of the AFC North.
  • Cleveland's defense was gashed by the Lions. Detroit rookie Jahvid Best zipped through the Browns’ first-team defense for 51 yards on his first carry, which was a sweep left. Cleveland's tackling and defensive fundamentals were not sharp, particularly against the run. The Lions rushed for 154 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry.

Updating AFC North quarterbacks

August, 26, 2010
8/26/10
12:04
PM ET
We are halfway through the preseason. Therefore, it's a great time to take a look at the NFL's most important position: Quarterback.

Here is an update on how AFC North starting quarterbacks are performing so far:

Carson Palmer

Team: Cincinnati Bengals

Stats: Three starts, 292 yards, two interceptions, 67.4 completion percentage.

Palmer
Palmer
Analysis: With so many new receivers, Cincinnati's passing offense remains a work in progress. Palmer has been decent, but not great, in limited action during the Bengals’ three preseason games. I like the fact that he's making a strong effort to develop a rapport with receiver Terrell Owens, and they are getting more comfortable each week. Palmer's passer rating (67.2) took a hit last weekend after throwing two interceptions against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Joe Flacco

Team: Baltimore Ravens

Stats: Two starts, 192 yards, one touchdown, 60.7 completion percentage.

Flacco
Flacco
Analysis: There are high expectations for the Ravens' offense, which is why this unit has taken some heat recently in the Baltimore media. The Ravens' starters are not playing poorly on offense, but they aren't scoring many points, either. A fake punt led to the first team's only touchdown last week against the Washington Redskins. With a solid 93.2 passer rating, Flacco is playing efficiently and not turning over the football. Flacco also hinted that Baltimore isn't showing everything this preseason.

Jake Delhomme

Team: Cleveland Browns

Stats: Two starts, 193 yards, one touchdown, 78.3 completion percentage.

Delhomme
Delhomme
Analysis: Sporting a 116.1 passer rating, Delhomme is playing as well as the Browns could hope for in the preseason. He's been accurate and decisive in his reads, and Delhomme even played well through rainy field conditions last week against the St. Louis Rams. There are a lot of concerns about Delhomme this season. But based on his preseason performance, Delhomme has done everything in his power to quiet those concerns.

Ben Roethlisberger

Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

Stats: One start, 76 yards, one interception, 75.0 completion percentage.

Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger
Analysis: Despite a poor deep throw to Mike Wallace that was intercepted, Roethlisberger played well overall in his 2010 debut against the New York Giants. He completed 6 of 8 passes in limited playing time, and it appears Roethlisberger might start again Sunday against the Denver Broncos, despite his conditional six-game suspension. Meanwhile, Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon are battling it out to start in Week 1. Dixon has performed better so far against lesser competition. That is why the Steelers intend to get the third-year quarterback some playing time with the first team against Denver to see what he can do.

Ravens CB Lardarius Webb off PUP

August, 23, 2010
8/23/10
11:56
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The Baltimore Ravens' struggling pass defense received a boost Monday.

Webb
Second-year cornerback Lardarius Webb was activated from the physically unable to perform list and passed his conditioning drills this morning. Webb is coming off major knee surgery, but the Ravens feel he has the potential to be the team's best cornerback.

This is good news for Baltimore's shorthanded secondary. Starting corner Domonique Foxworth (knee) is out for the season, but Webb and Fabian Washington both appear on pace to start in Baltimore's opener against the New York Jets.

Baltimore is expected to be a legitimate contender in the AFC, but pass defense is one of the team's few glaring weaknesses. The Ravens allowed 365 passing yards to the Washington Redskins in Saturday's preseason game.

AFC North preseason recap

August, 22, 2010
8/22/10
2:55
PM ET
Three AFC North teams played their second preseason game Saturday night.

Here are some thoughts and observations:

Pittsburgh Steelers 24, New York Giants 17

The Good
  • The quarterback play was solid across the board for Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger made his 2010 debut and completed 6 of 8 passes for 76 yards and one interception with the first-team offense. His interception was thrown short on a deep pass intended for receiver Mike Wallace, which was Roethlisberger’s only poor pass of the night. Byron Leftwich had his best preseason game, throwing for 95 yards and a touchdown. His 68-yard bomb to Wallace in the second quarter was the highlight of the game for Pittsburgh. Dennis Dixon continued his sharp preseason by completing 7-of-8 passes for 82 yards. Dixon also added 27 yards rushing, as he pushes for more opportunities with the first team.
  • Reserve tailback Isaac Redman continues to make a strong impression. "Red-zone" lived up to his nickname with a tough, 12-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He recorded 34 yards on six carries and averaged 5.7 yards per attempt. The AFC North blog predicted this week that Redman will make the 53-man roster, and he continues to help his case.
The Bad
  • Steelers No. 1 cornerback Ike Taylor was ejected in the first quarter following his fight with New York receiver Hakeem Nicks, who also was ejected. Sure, it's the preseason, but Taylor is a veteran who should know better. Pittsburgh cannot afford to lose its top cornerback under these circumstances in the regular season.
  • The defense was pretty good overall, but there was one drive by New York that will get some attention in Pittsburgh's film room. Third-string quarterback Rhett Bomar marched the Giants 75 yards for a touchdown against Pittsburgh's first-team defense. The Giants were short-handed with starter Eli Manning (head) and backup Jim Sorgi (shoulder) sitting out. The defensive standards are always high in Pittsburgh, which is why the Steelers have to be disappointed that New York's third-string quarterback had a successful drive in the first half.
Baltimore Ravens 23, Washington Redskins 3

The Good
  • Baltimore linebacker/defensive end hybrid Terrell Suggs is rounding back into form. Suggs was consistently in Washington's backfield Saturday, recording a sack, a tackle for loss and an additional hit on the quarterback. Baltimore's pass rush looks improved, and Suggs' resurgence from a poor 2009 season is a big reason. Baltimore had four sacks and seven hits on the quarterback.
  • Backup quarterback Marc Bulger had his best preseason game. He completed 13 of 16 passes for 130 yards. Bulger was solid during my time in Baltimore's training camp last week, and it's clear he's solidified the No. 2 quarterback job behind starter Joe Flacco.
The Bad
  • Despite the low point total, the Ravens allowed 206 passing yards to Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb. Backup Rex Grossman threw for 195 yards. Nineteen of Washington's 20 first downs were passing, and the Ravens allowed five pass plays of 23-yards or more. Baltimore doesn't have many weaknesses, but opponents will continue attacking the secondary until the Ravens prove they can cover receivers consistently.
  • Baltimore's offense stalled on third down. The Ravens were 1-for-10 in third-down efficiency. That number should be better with all the weapons Baltimore has on offense. But putting everything together remains a work in progress.
Cleveland Browns 17, St. Louis Rams 19

The Good
  • Starting quarterback Jake Delhomme continues to play well. Despite a slow start, Delhomme put up good numbers for the second straight preseason game, completing 12 of 16 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown. Delhomme handled the rainy weather conditions in Cleveland well, and was decisive. He zipped a 6-yard pass to tight end Ben Watson through good coverage for a second-quarter touchdown.
  • One Browns player who stood out was fullback Lawrence Vickers. He punished Rams linebackers and defensive backs. The Browns like their big package with Vickers blocking for running back Peyton Hillis, who had a team-high 12 carries for 51 yards.
The Bad
  • Cleveland did not take care of the football. The Browns are a bad-weather team, but sure didn't play like it. Cleveland had five turnovers (three fumbles, two interceptions) and didn't force any on defense. Browns head coach Eric Mangini despises sloppy play, and the Browns must play much smarter.
  • Surprisingly, the Browns' pass rush didn't show up. Cleveland had zero sacks against the shaky offensive line of the Rams, who are projected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. St. Louis passed 34 times without allowing a sack.
WESTMINSTER, Md. -- Want to know how to make a meaningless second preseason game interesting?

Have former Washington Redskins head coach Jim Zorn return to FedEx Field as a member of the Baltimore Ravens. Washington will host Baltimore and Zorn -- now the Ravens' quarterbacks coach -- in the second exhibition game for both teams.

[+] EnlargeJim Zorn
AP Photo/Rob CarrJim Zorn will have an unfamiliar view of FedEx Field Saturday.
Saturday will mark the first time Zorn coaches against his former organization since he was fired in January to make room for new Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan.

"Well, I'm familiar with the stadium, that's for sure," Zorn said. "[I'm in] the other locker room, which is OK."

Zorn said he's not sure what type of reaction he will receive from Redskins fans. He was a lightning rod in Washington during his two seasons as head coach, where the Redskins were 12-20 in that span.

Towards the end of last season, it was a forgone conclusion that Washington would move in another direction. Still, Zorn braved through a tough situation and coached the team to the end of the season. He said he hasn't talked with Redskins owner Dan Snyder since he was fired but doesn't hold any grudges against the team.

The Ravens quickly hired Zorn several weeks later to tutor budding, third-year quarterback Joe Flacco.

"We're proud to have him here," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Zorn. "He's meant so much to our quarterbacks and to our team."

Zorn will enter FedEx Field this weekend on the opposing sideline. But Zorn hopes to become a better coach thanks to the rough times he went through in Washington.

"There's a lot of learning experiences," Zorn explained. "I've written a lot of things down. I've thought about a lot of things, and I've had some conversations with different people trying to get a feel for different issues. Some I wouldn't change, and some I wish I could've changed."

Cowboys suddenly thin at TE spot

August, 9, 2010
8/09/10
11:51
AM ET
Cowboys reserve tight end John Phillips, one of the stars of training camp, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and will miss the rest of the season, according to Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com. An MRI on Monday morning confirmed what the Cowboys had feared when Phillips collapsed while attempting to release into a route during last Sunday's Hall of Fame Game against the Bengals.

Phillips had become a very versatile player for offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and he had four catches for 60 yards Sunday night before leaving the game with an injury. The Cowboys are now incredibly thin at an important position. They'll likely have to sign at least one player off the street just to make it through practice. Jason Witten's too valuable to see a lot of preseason reps and Martellus Bennett sat out Sunday's game to rest his ankle.

Other than Witten, Scott Sicko is the only completely healthy tight end on the roster. For Phillips, it's a cruel ending to what appeared to be a promising season. He was on the verge of becoming a devastating blocker, and I believe he may have surpassed Bennett in the rotation.

"It's disappointing because he was having such a great camp and such a great game," tight ends coach John Garrett said Sunday night following the game. "But I know one thing: He's got great resolve. He's got great perseverance. If there's anybody going to come back even stronger than he was before, it'll be John Phillips."

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