NFL Nation: NFC South

Geno Smith and Matt RyanUSA TODAY SportsGeno Smith's Jets and Matt Ryan's Falcons will try to bounce back from a disappointing Week 4.
If the Atlanta Falcons were in desperation mode last week against the Patriots, now they're in an all-out panic as they prepare to face the New York Jets on ESPN's "Monday Night Football."

The Falcons limp into the matchup at 1-3 despite being touted as a Super Bowl favorite. Quarterback Matt Ryan admitted not being as sharp as he wanted to be the last time out. Now, Ryan has to keep the locker room together as the Falcons try to stay afloat against the always-entertaining Rex Ryan and his Jets (2-2).

ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and his Jets counterpart, Rich Cimini, discuss the matchup.

McClure: I was talking to Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux the other day about the mindset when facing a rookie quarterback. He admitted Geno Smith was somewhat similar to Carolina's Cam Newton, a player the Falcons have had trouble containing. Can Smith cause problems for the Falcons or is his confidence shaken?

Cimini: Smith and Newton are different because Smith isn't nearly as dangerous as Newton in terms of making plays outside the pocket. He'll scramble on occasion, and they might call a read-option play here and there, but he's a pure pocket passer. I'd say, yes, his confidence has to be shaken. He's coming off a bad day against the Titans -- four turnovers, bringing his total to 11. He's making bad decisions and being careless with the football. Ryan said he's not considering a change at quarterback -- with Mark Sanchez out, there's no viable option -- but there will come a point where he'll have to do something if the turnovers continue. What's up with Matt Ryan? This hasn't been a vintage Ryan season so far.

McClure: No, not by any means. And fans around here are starting to turn on him, for some reason. I understand their passion, but I wouldn't give up on Ryan. I actually give him credit for owning up to his mistakes against the Patriots. He threw a few bad passes on the Falcons' last desperation drive and missed Roddy White wide open for at least a first down on a fourth-and-2 from the Patriots' 7-yard line. Ryan ranks 23rd in the NFL in fourth-quarter passing with a 75.3 QB rating. Maybe he's rushing his throws as a result of protection issues. It doesn't help when your receivers drop a handful of passes, either. At least Ryan seems to have established a rhythm with tight end Tony Gonzalez. So, how will the Jets approach defending Gonzalez based on his 149-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Patriots?

Cimini: I think Rex Ryan is asking himself that same question, Vaughn. He joked about Gonzalez this week, saying, "Quite honestly, I wish he would've retired." The Jets have done a good job defending tight ends, but they haven't faced anyone close to his caliber. I think a lot of the responsibility will fall to second-year safety Antonio Allen, but that would be trouble waiting to happen. Allen is a "box" safety, not known for his coverage skills. In years past, Ryan put cornerback Antonio Cromartie on athletic tight ends for a few plays here and there, but he needs Cromartie on Julio Jones or Roddy White. In other words, I could see Gonzalez having another monster game. A lot will depend on how they defend the running game. What's the latest on Steven Jackson?

McClure: Although Jackson was on the field Tuesday talking with the trainers, he still hasn't practiced since suffering a hamstring injury in the first quarter of the Rams game (Week 2). It was initially called a three-week injury and with the bye following the Jets game, I see no reason why the Falcons would rush Jackson back out there Monday night. In fact, Jackson recently went on his personal blog to update fans on his status and said he wanted to be 100 percent before returning. Not being on the field with his teammates might be hurting him more than the pain from the injury. I see the Jets are banged up at receiver. How will they compensate?

Cimini: You're right, they're banged up. Santonio Holmes (hamstring) won't play, and I'd be stunned if Stephen Hill (concussion) plays. So we're talking about Jeremy Kerley and Clyde Gates as the starting wideouts, with seldom-used rookie Ryan Spadola as the No. 3 and David Nelson (signed Tuesday) as the No. 4. This is the definition of "patchwork." They can compensate by leaning more on the running game, which has been reasonably effective. Bilal Powell is tied for the AFC lead with 292 rushing yards. I think you'll also see more two-tight end sets with Kellen Winslow and Jeff Cumberland. Ryan said he might install the wishbone. He was joking -- I think. What's wrong with the Falcons' defense? I see they've been giving up some big pass plays.

McClure: Yes, they've given up seven plays of 40-plus yards, including four Sunday. Against the Patriots, the Falcons actually allowed Tom Brady to convert a third-and-19 from his 12 because they failed to get the proper depth on their drops. Such mental errors seem inexcusable, but defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is doing some "patchwork" of his own without Kroy Biermann (Achilles) or Sean Weatherspoon (foot) available and with Asante Samuel (thigh) still ailing. Three rookies -- cornerbacks Marcus Trufant and Robert Alford as well as linebacker Joplo Bartu -- are being asked to come of age rather quickly. And the pass rush has been pretty much non-existent even with the addition of Osi Umenyiora, who leads the way with two sacks. Speaking of the rush, what type of pressure will the Jets bring at Matt Ryan?

Cimini: The Jets aren't the defense we thought they'd be. By that, I mean they're blitzing less than expected, and the reason is because they've been getting good pressure from their front three/four. In fact, they've sent five or more rushers on only 33.1 percent of the opponents' dropbacks, which ranks 17th in the league. With Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and rookie Sheldon Richardson up front, I think they'll be able to pressure Ryan without having to dial up exotic blitzes. Rex Ryan's defense has evolved. When he had Darrelle Revis, the secondary was the strength of the unit, but now the strength is up front with the big boys. The Falcons can counter by running an up-tempo offense with quick throws -- that style causes problems for the Jets. Frankly, it blows my mind the Falcons, with all that skill-position talent, are struggling in the red zone. Most Jets would be happy with one of those weapons, let alone three. What's the deal?

McClure: Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and Matt Ryan are trying to figure that out as we speak. The Falcons managed only one touchdown in six red-zone trips against the Patriots. For the season, they rank 29th in the league in terms of red-zone efficiency. Koetter took the blame for some bad play calls and vowed to cut one or two plays out of game plan. The fact that White has recovered slowly from a high ankle sprain hasn't helped. And the blocking has been abysmal, at times, in goal-line situations. Once everyone gets healthy, I expect more production and high-scoring games for the Falcons. If Monday night becomes a shootout, can the Jets compete?

Cimini: They're a pass-oriented offense under Marty Mornhinweg, but it would be hard for them to win a shootout, especially on the road. I know the Falcons have their own issues on defense, so I think the Jets can score points on them. But Smith is too mistake-prone, and the receiving corps is too banged-up for me to think they can walk into Atlanta and outscore the Falcons. Their best chance is to shorten the game, playing ball control with Powell and the running game. I'd be surprised if the Jets win a game in the 30s.

.
Bounties are a very sensitive subject in the NFL. Pretty much the mention of the word from any pro football player is sure to capture headlines.

That was the case with Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry. He injured his knee in Week 1 and was lost for the season against the Buffalo Bills when receiver Steve Johnson blocked him low. The block was deemed legal and didn't draw a flag.

But following the discovery of the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal, Berry recently tweeted "Sometimes I sit [and] wonder if they had a bounty out on me ... oh well ... who cares. Either way [you] can't hold me down."

Berry this week was asked about the tweet by reporters.

"They got the tape out there, you can make your own opinion," Berry said. "I mean, my opinion is my opinion. People are going to take it how they want to take it anyway."

Regardless of Berry's stance, he needs to be more careful with bounty talk. He shouldn't make public accusations against Johnson or any player unless he's absolutely sure. For example, the NFL did a thorough investigation into the Saints that took years to uncover.

Johnson is not known to be a dirty player and denied the hit was intentional in the past. Hopefully, Berry isn't setting a new and dangerous precedent, where every NFL player who suffers a significant injury will publicly accuse an opponent of trying to collect a bounty.

Browns to interview Mike Mularkey

January, 4, 2011
1/04/11
2:57
PM ET
After firing Eric Mangini on Monday, some coaching names are starting to surface for the Cleveland Browns. Yesterday it was Perry Fewell. Today it's Mike Mularkey.

The Denver Broncos and Browns are among the teams waiting to interview Mularkey, who is the offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons. Here is more from NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas.

Mularkey has done a good job in Atlanta as offensive coordinator. But he flamed out as a head coach, going just 14-18 in two seasons with the Buffalo Bills from 2004 to 2005.

Browns president Mike Holmgren said Monday that he will exhaust every avenue to get the best head coach possible to Cleveland. It's still very early in the process, but the first two names to go public haven't been overwhelming.

Seven-step drop: Losing Aaron Smith

October, 25, 2010
10/25/10
12:00
PM ET
Here are seven notes and observations from Week 7:
    [+] EnlargeSmith
    AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Steelers could be vulnerable against the run without defensive end Aaron Smith.

  • Lost in the Pittsburgh Steelers' controversial win against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday was the probable season-ending triceps injury to Aaron Smith. This is a huge blow to Pittsburgh (5-1), because Smith is the prototype 3-4 defensive end and one of the biggest leaders in the locker room. This could be the second straight season-ending injury for Smith, who has been one of the NFL's most underrated players. The Steelers are very hard to run against when Smith is healthy, but the defense suffers mightily when he's out. Defensive end Brett Keisel (hamstring) is also banged up, making it possible that Pittsburgh will start backups Ziggy Hood and Nick Eason this week against the reigning champion New Orleans Saints. Hood, a 2009 first-round pick, must grow up fast for the Steelers.
  • Although they narrowly escaped Miami, the Steelers are now tied with the New York Jets and Tennessee Titans for the NFL's best road record at 3-0. All three of these teams are physical and play a consistent style, home and away. Pittsburgh must continue its road success; four of its next six games are away from Heinz Field.
  • Here is a suggestion for the Cincinnati Bengals: It's time to hold a players-only meeting. The Bengals' season is on the brink after a 2-4 start, and there are so many leaks in this sinking ship that players need to talk it out amongst each other without coaches around and demand everyone look in the mirror to figure out how to improve. Cincinnati's issue isn't with one player or one position or one side of the football. It's been a team-wide failing with different culprits, including coaching.
  • It's officially time to wonder if too many offseason activities negatively impacted Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco. I've had this theory for a couple weeks, but wanted to be fair to Ochocinco and allow enough time and games to be played before I brought it up. Ochocinco had two nationally televised shows in the offseason and another just starting with teammate Terrell Owens that airs on Tuesdays. Ochocinco received a lot of press and knew he would get heat if he struggled this season, prompting his "birth control" comment. So far Ochocinco's production has been inconsistent and his attention to detail is waning. Ochocinco had a 100-yard game Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. But quarterback Carson Palmer got on him about running the wrong routes, and the receiver also dropped an easy pass that went through his hands. Many Bengals are suffering mental errors this season, but Ochocinco has been one of the biggest offenders.
  • Kudos to the Cleveland Browns' coaching staff and head coach Eric Mangini for pulling out the bag of tricks before the bye week. Many teams use the extra week of preparation to add wrinkles and practice trick plays. But the Browns (2-5) decided there was no time better than the present to run a tricky fake punt that worked to perfection against New Orleans. Tailback Peyton Hillis also caught the Saints' defense by surprise with a 13-yard pass. Cleveland's staff has struggled this season, particularly with second-half adjustments, and needs to be more creative with things like this to spark the team.
  • The Browns will spend the bye week determining whether it's best to stick with rookie quarterback Colt McCoy or turn back to one of their veteran quarterbacks -- Seneca Wallace or Jake Delhomme. In my opinion, McCoy has played well enough to keep the job. Against the past two Super Bowl champions, McCoy put up Cleveland's season-high passing yards (281) against Pittsburgh and was the winning quarterback against the Saints. In two starts, McCoy has thrown for 355 yards and completed 65.3 percent of his passes. With the Browns coming off a huge win, there's no reason to disrupt things with another shakeup at quarterback.
  • What happened to Baltimore Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington on Sunday? Washington had his worst day as a Raven, allowing three touchdown passes to the winless Buffalo Bills (0-6). His play was so bad that Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh benched Washington in favor of Josh Wilson in the fourth quarter. Washington has had solid games this season, but he was awful against the Bills. He will have a lot of corrections to make during the bye week.

Bengals-Falcons halftime notes

October, 24, 2010
10/24/10
2:44
PM ET
ATLANTA--The Atlanta Falcons are blowing out the Cincinnati Bengals, 24-3, at halftime.

Here are some notes at intermission:
  • Falcons receiver Roddy White talked trashed this week, and he is certainly backing it up. White is torching Cincinnati's secondary and already has six catches for 157 yards and a touchdown. The Bengals did not double White, Atlanta's top receiving threat, in the first half and that was the wrong move. Neither Adam Jones nor Leon Hall could contain White in single coverage in the first half.
  • I'm still seeing the same sloppiness Cincinnati had before the bye. Among the mistakes in the first half were the Bengals jumping offsides twice, having 12 men on the field twice, a Chad Ochocinco drop and a holding penalty that negated a big kickoff return by Jones. It's tough enough to beat your opponent. But the Bengals are still making it tougher on themselves with penalties.
  • Bengals tailback Cedric Benson is running well, but he will probably be phased out of the offense in the second half because of Atlanta's big lead. Benson has rushed for 57 yards on 12 carries and is fighting hard for extra yards. But Cincinnati will be passing the ball a lot in the second half.
  • I'm curious to see what type of character Cincinnati has and how this team responds in the second half. The Bengals do not want to fall to 2-4 in a competitive AFC North. Cincinnati will either wither away and go home quietly or fight hard to get back in the game and get momentum for next week.

Did Roddy White one-up Chad Ochocinco?

October, 21, 2010
10/21/10
4:31
PM ET
See what Chad Ochocinco started?

After a slow start to the season, the Cincinnati Bengals' (2-3) Pro Bowl receiver said he's going back to his trash-talking roots against the Atlanta Falcons (4-2). He sent packages to Atlanta's secondary this week, which is vintage Ochocinco.

lastname
White
lastname
Ochocinco
But not to be outdone, Atlanta receiver Roddy White took a page from Ochocinco's playbook and made this video, which was transcribed Thursday by Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Here is a recap of what White had to say about the Bengals:
  • "They do a lot of talking before the season started and now we're gonna shatter their dreams, hearts and desires on Sunday."
  • "This is not really a big game for us. It's just the next game on the schedule. Unfortunately it's against the Bengals and they think they're good. I don't even know their record – I think they're like 2-4."
  • "I'm gonna get working on the DBs that they have. I don't even know these guys' names. But hey, I'm gonna go at them."

Not knowing Cincinnati cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall -- one of the NFL's best tandems -- is a bit disrespectful. But other than that, the Falcons and Bengals shouldn't have issues with their two receivers adding spice to this matchup.

The AFC North blog will be in Atlanta covering the Bengals and Falcons this weekend, which could be a must-win game for Cincinnati.

Bengals at a crossroads

October, 21, 2010
10/21/10
2:20
PM ET
Carson PalmerAndrew Weber/US PresswireThe Bengals need Carson Palmer to cut down on turnovers if the team is going to rebound.
Explosion or implosion.

The Cincinnati Bengals will take one of these two routes in the next few weeks, and it starts Sunday with a huge road game against the Atlanta Falcons (4-2).

So far the reigning AFC North champions are one of the NFL's biggest underachievers. Coming off a playoff appearance, Cincinnati is only 2-3 after back-to-back losses to the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Coming off the bye, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis told his players this week that there are no more excuses. With so much talent, strong personalities and a head coach in the final year of his contract, the Bengals will be a must-watch team in the second half of the season. You're either going to see a talented group come together or a train wreck.

Here are several reasons it could go either way.

Reasons for a Bengals explosion:

The talent is immense. The Bengals are considered major underachievers because their talent is playoff-caliber. This is the deepest and best collection of players of the Lewis era. It's a good mix of youth and experience on both sides of the football. Cincinnati hit on recent draft picks such as Johnathan Joseph, Leon Hall and Keith Rivers to build the defense and went with veteran free agents Cedric Benson and Terrell Owens to improve the offense. Early production from 2010 first-round pick Jermaine Gresham and third-rounder Jordan Shipley is also a positive sign this group will come together.

Quarterback play will improve. Bengals starting quarterback Carson Palmer was drilled in the media during the bye week. In his last game, he threw three interceptions in a loss to Tampa. He is on pace for 19 picks this year, which would be the second-highest total of his career. But Palmer has too much natural ability to play this badly all season. He may not be the quarterback he was in 2005, but Palmer is certainly capable of playing better, and that would be a major plus for Cincinnati's offense. Despite all the criticism, the Bengals are No. 7 in the NFL in passing offense. A few improvements and fewer turnovers by Palmer would get the offense back on track.

Defense hasn't hit its stride. Cincinnati's defense isn't playing poorly, but the unit hasn't reached its form of 2009, either. The Bengals were fourth in the league in total defense a year ago, and it was the primary reason Cincinnati swept the AFC North and made the playoffs. So far Mike Zimmer's group has been little better than average, ranking No. 13. The Bengals have given up at least 23 points in all three losses. And the pass rush has been a major problem -- it was something Zimmer addressed during the bye week. Cincinnati's defense showed flashes of what it's capable of in a 15-10 win over the Baltimore Ravens. The Bengals need more performances like that one to help turn around the season.

Reasons for Bengals implosion:

Brutal schedule. One of the downsides to winning a division title is you get a first-place schedule the following year. Cincinnati needed a fast start but didn't get it. Now the Bengals have to survive a brutal stretch that includes seven of eight upcoming games against teams with winning records. We will find out all we need to know about the Bengals in the next few weeks when they face Atlanta (4-2), the Miami Dolphins (3-2), Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1) and Indianapolis Colts (4-2) in consecutive weeks. They also have games against the New Orleans Saints (4-2) and New York Jets (5-1). Had Cincinnati beaten Cleveland and Tampa Bay, the Bengals could afford a few stumbles. Now there is little room for error. The Bengals have to go 8-3 the rest of the way to finish 10-6 and have a legitimate shot at the wild card in the AFC.

Strong personalities. The AFC North blog predicted in training camp that this team needed to win early or things could snowball. We're already seeing several signs of frustration with the Bengals. Running back Cedric Benson said earlier this season that he wasn't happy about Cincinnati's pass-heavy play calling. Receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco both want the football, but only one can shine in a given week. Ochocinco recently admitted the offense lacks chemistry and he's trying old gimmicks to get back to form. Overall the Bengals have done a fairly good job of keeping their frustrations in house. But more losing will only bring things to the surface.

Lewis' contract status a lingering issue. Lewis entering the final year of his contract was one of several key topics during the offseason, but it has mostly gone away since the beginning of the regular season. As we approach the second half, expect this topic to resurface regardless of whether the Bengals are winning or losing. Lewis was the 2009 NFL Coach of the Year after leading the surprising Bengals to the postseason. But he and the team were unable to reach an agreement on a new deal. It is no secret in NFL circles that coaching the Bengals isn't easy, and Lewis has earned a lot of respect for the job he has done in Cincinnati. Lewis doesn't seem opposed to the idea of becoming a free agent. But will it have an impact on the way the team responds?

Wrap-up: Buccaneers 24, Bengals 21

October, 10, 2010
10/10/10
5:13
PM ET
Here are some thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 24-21 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals:

What it means: The reigning AFC North champions look more like pretenders than contenders. The Bengals are in a funk, losing two in a row and falling to 2-3 on the season. Cincinnati entered the year with high expectations. But with the Baltimore Ravens (4-1) and Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1) both playing well, Cincinnati is quickly falling behind in the division race.

What I liked: Bengals running back Cedric Benson finally got it going against a Bucs defense which has struggled against the rush. Benson rushed for 144 yards on 23 carries and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. Cincinnati's offensive line is built to run the football and this was the best running performance of the season.

What I didn't like: The Bengals let a fourth-quarter lead slip away at home, as Tampa pulled off 10 straight points with less than two minutes left in the win. Also, in what's becoming a weekly occurrence, the Bengals were too sloppy and inconsistent. Cincinnati had nine penalties and four turnovers, including a pick six thrown by Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer, who had three interceptions total.

What's next: Cincinnati enters the bye week sputtering and with plenty of problems to fix. The Bengals' season now reaches a critical stage. They have a tough upcoming schedule that likely will make or break this year, starting with an Oct. 24 road game against the Atlanta Falcons (4-1).

Wrap-up: Browns 23, Bengals 20

October, 3, 2010
10/03/10
5:20
PM ET
Here are some thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 23-20 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals:


What it means: It was a much-needed first win of the season for the Browns (1-3). Things were getting antsy in Cleveland after playing tough but blowing three straight fourth-quarter leads. A win provides some confidence and optimism that the Browns at least have a chance to turn things around. For the Bengals (2-2), this ends their impressive streak of eight straight AFC North wins. Cincinnati couldn't dominate the division forever. But losing to a winless team is not a good sign for the defending AFC North champs, especially after not looking impressive overall in the first month of the season.

What I liked: The Browns are still playing hard, and it finally produced a winning result. Cleveland might not win a lot of games this season, but the Browns could be a spoiler some weeks, especially at home. Browns running back Peyton Hillis had his second straight 100-yard game and has provided Cleveland a go-to player on offense. For the Bengals, receiver Terrell Owens had a huge day in a losing effort, catching 10 passes for 222 yards. Quarterback Carson Palmer (371 yards) also had his best game of the season.

What I didn't like: Cincinnati doesn't play very smart or efficient, and it caught up with the Bengals against Cleveland. The Bengals fumbled twice and again had too many penalties (eight for 79 yards) to win in the division on the road. Despite some success Sunday, I'm also not exactly sure what Cincinnati's identity is on offense through four games. The Bengals have to decide if they want to be a run-first team or pass-first team, because week to week it appears Cincinnati is still trying to feel its way through without having a certain offensive mindset going in.

What's next: The Browns have another tough home game coming up against the Atlanta Falcons (3-1), who have won three straight games after losing their season opener to the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1) in overtime. The Bengals had their two-game winning streak stopped and will try to get back on track next week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1), who are coming off a bye.

Wrap-up: Bengals 20, Panthers 7

September, 26, 2010
9/26/10
4:59
PM ET
Here are some thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 20-7 win against the Carolina Panthers:

What it means: The Bengals showed maturity and took care of business against a lesser opponent on the road. Cincinnati has dominated the AFC North recently but struggled outside of the division. So every win outside of the AFC North demonstrates growth by the team.

What I liked: Cincinnati's defense showed up for the second straight week, holding Carolina (0-3) to just seven points. Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen made his first NFL start and finished with 188 yards and one interception. After getting throttled by the New England Patriots, the Bengals have allowed just 17 points combined in the past two games.

What I didn't like: Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer continue his slow start by throwing for 195 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Palmer has a lot of new weapons in the passing game this year, so there is no excuse for him not to produce, particularly when he's turning over the football. Palmer's passer ratings in the first three games this season have gone from 92.5 to 60.1 to 53.3 against the Panthers.

What's next: The Bengals will play their second division game of the season when they travel next week to play the Cleveland Browns (0-3). Cincinnati swept the Browns in two games last season. The Bengals improved to 2-1 and remain one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) in a competitive AFC North division.

AFC North Power Rankings analysis

September, 14, 2010
9/14/10
2:01
PM ET
The AFC North broke even in Week 1. The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers picked up huge wins, while the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals suffered defeats.

Week 2 is traditionally one of the toughest times to rate teams, because you never want to overreact positively or negatively to one game. But here are how things shook out for the AFC North in ESPN.com's latest Power Rankings:

Ravens (1-0)

Cumulative ranking: No. 3

Walker's ranking: No. 2

Analysis: Baltimore pulled out a quality win Monday on the road against the New York Jets. The Ravens' defense was lights out the entire game. If the offense catches up this season, there are plenty of reasons to believe Baltimore is a strong contender in the AFC. With the Indianapolis Colts losing, the Ravens are currently the highest-rated team in the AFC, according to ESPN.com's panel.

Steelers (1-0)

Cumulative ranking: No. 10

Walker's ranking: No. 14

Analysis: I am really surprised the Steelers are ranked in the top 10 without Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. I was impressed with Pittsburgh's poise and defense. But, in my opinion, the team's 15-9 overtime win over the Atlanta Falcons wasn’t so overwhelming and dominant that the Steelers are now a top-10 team without "Big Ben." Pittsburgh jumped eight spots, which was one of the largest moves up this week. ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton even rated the Steelers No. 6 overall. I like the makeup of this year's team. But there are certainly more than five clubs better at this juncture with Roethlisberger sidelined.

Bengals (0-1)

Cumulative ranking: No. 17

Walker's ranking: No. 17

Analysis: I wasn't surprised the Bengals lost to New England. In fact, I picked that game correctly last weekend. But I was more surprised with how thoroughly dominated Cincinnati was by the Patriots. The Bengals didn't show up to play and fell behind 31-3. The Bengals dropped five spots to No. 17, with AFC South blogger Kuharsky rating Cincinnati the lowest at No. 20. After last week's showing, there's no doubt the Bengals still have a lot to prove.

Browns (0-1)

Cumulative ranking: No. 32

Walker's ranking: No. 31

Analysis: I called this one. After losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I wrote Monday that the Dawgpound shouldn't be surprised if Cleveland is voted last in our Power Rankings. The Browns will struggle this year, but I don't believe they're the worst team in the NFL. The talent is definitely lacking. Yet if Cleveland plays smarter, the team can be a headache for some opponents. I voted the Browns No. 31 this week, slightly ahead of the St. Louis Rams, who lost at home.

Steelers can win without Roethlisberger

September, 12, 2010
9/12/10
6:44
PM ET
Rashard MendenhallJason Bridge/US PresswireRashard Mendenhall gained 120 yards on 22 carries, including the game-winning 50-yard TD jaunt.
PITTSBURGH -- If you predicted doom and gloom for the Steelers without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger under center, please raise your hand.

OK, I admit, I'm one of the many with my hand raised.

With no Roethlisberger and a good Atlanta Falcons team coming to Pittsburgh, the Steelers appeared to be very beatable in Week 1.

But thanks to a total team effort, Pittsburgh held everything together for four quarters and overtime to pull off a 15-9 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons. The game was capped by a 50-yard TD run in overtime by running back Rashard Mendenhall, one of the many Steelers contributors.

This was not a dominating win and it certainly wasn't pretty. But Pittsburgh extended its winning streak in season openers to an NFL-best eight consecutive games.

Although questions remain about Pittsburgh's quarterback situation -- I'll get to that in a bit -- no one can question the Steelers' toughness and character. Not many teams can win without their $100 million quarterback -- especially against an Atlanta team many think is playoff-caliber.

Think of how good the Indianapolis Colts would be without Peyton Manning, the New England Patriots without Tom Brady or the Cincinnati Bengals without Carson Palmer. Pittsburgh's win defied the odds.

"We stayed together and played team football, and did it to the very end," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We got some things to work on, absolutely, like all 31 other teams do. But we get to do it while we’re 1-0."

In what should be a blueprint for the next three games without Roethlisberger, who is suspended for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, Pittsburgh won by making Atlanta play its tempo. The Falcons had the more explosive offense and the better quarterback in Matt Ryan. But the Steelers' defense, running game and special teams helped turn this game into an ugly battle for field position.

Virtually every player who needed to step up for Pittsburgh in Roethlisberger's absence did.

[+] EnlargePolamalu
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesTroy Polamalu recorded five tackles and had a critical fourth-quarter interception.
In addition to Mendenhall's 120 yards rushing, Hines Ward (six catches, 108 yards) had his franchise-best 26th game with more than 100 yards receiving. Linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley each recorded a sack, and safety Troy Polamalu recorded five tackles and an interception in the fourth quarter.

Atlanta tried beating Pittsburgh at its own game but couldn't. With the score tied 9-9 late in the fourth quarter, things began to unravel for the Falcons when Ryan threw an interception to Polamalu to set up a potential winning field goal. Jeff Reed missed the kick, but Pittsburgh's defense held again in overtime to set up Mendenhall's sprint to victory.

"All day on the run, we were creating seams," Mendenhall said. "In the run game, you just have to be patient. We knew that something was going to open up, and it did in overtime."

The game marked quarterback Dennis Dixon's first career victory in two starts. He was up and down, completing 18 of 26 passes for 236 yards and an interception. Tomlin described Dixon's game as "a winning effort," but there were plenty of instances where Dixon could have lost the game.

Pittsburgh, for the most part, played very conservatively on offense. But when Atlanta brought more defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, the Steelers were forced to open things up a bit. Despite several nice throws by Dixon, there were some head-scratching ones too, typical for an inexperienced quarterback.

Dixon's interception to Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson in the first quarter was a pass terribly underthrown to tight end Heath Miller. Atlanta, by my count, also dropped three more interception opportunities that could have changed the outcome. Most of Dixon's poor throws came when Atlanta fooled him with the coverage and Dixon tried to force the play.

"I would love to get a couple balls back, of course," Dixon said. "But that's why you play football, and that's why it's a total team game."

The Falcons also did a nice job keeping Dixon in pocket. The third-year quarterback only gained four yards on two attempts. Count on the Steelers' next three opponents using Sunday’s game tape to mirror the strategy Atlanta used to keep Dixon bottled up behind the line of scrimmage. Dixon's best throws were a beautiful deep pass to receiver Mike Wallace for 52 yards and a 25-yard strike to Ward.

Next up for the Steelers are the Tennessee Titans, who manhandled the Oakland Raiders in their season opener. But after losses Sunday by the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh will end Week 1 no worse than tied for first in the AFC North.

If anyone predicted that would happen, please raise your hand again.

Can Dennis Dixon lead the Steelers?

September, 9, 2010
9/09/10
2:50
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- With a large group of media surrounding him like NFL defenders, Steelers quarterback Dennis Dixon stood tall in the pocket this week while fielding questions.

[+] EnlargeDennis Dixon
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireSteelers quarterback Dennis Dixon will be making his second career NFL start on Sunday.
The inexperienced Dixon sounded confident and calm, ready for the storm that's about to take place in what will be his second career NFL start. With franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suspended four games for violating the league's personal conduct policy, Pittsburgh is pinning its hopes early in the season on the arm -- and feet -- of Dixon.

The Steelers have won an NFL-best seven straight season openers. But that streak is in jeopardy without Roethlisberger under center and a good Atlanta Falcons team visiting Heinz Field Sunday as a slight favorite.

Dixon is in an odd spot as the 2010 Steelers are not his team. But it's his starting quarterback job for the time being.

"It seems so surreal for me, something I tired to envision as a young kid," Dixon said. "So, to open up the season at Heinz Field, with all these great fans, it's going to be a sight to see. But I still just have to go out there and play football."

What has been a struggle for the Steelers' coaching staff is blending Dixon's skills with how they want a quarterback to run the offense. Pittsburgh would like Dixon to progress more to his second and third reads and let its skill players make plays, while Dixon instinctively uses his feet when the first option isn't avaliable.

Dixon has tremendous athleticism and has always been a running quarterback. It's a major part of what made him a Heisman Trophy candidate at the University of Oregon.

But coordinator Bruce Arians' offense is not designed for a scrambling quarterback. Whether the team adjusts to allow "Dennis to be Dennis," or the Steelers make Dixon adjust to play more like Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch, who rarely run past the line of scrimmage, is one of the major storylines for Pittsburgh entering Sunday's game.

This week team captain and receiver Hines Ward offered his advice to allow Dixon to be comfortable doing what he does best.

"If protection breaks down and he's unsure about coverage, take off, run," Ward said. "I like Dennis with the ball in his hands when he's running. Good things happen when he does that."

The Steelers are worried about the possibility of turnovers. In all likelihood, Pittsburgh will need to win by playing great defense and conservative on offense. That means Dixon has to be careful with the football, which he struggled to do in limited playing time with the starters this preseason.

Dixon threw for 94 yards with two interceptions, including a pick-six, in the third preseason game against the Denver Broncos. It was Dixon's chance to prove he can thrive against a first-team defense. But too many mental errors offered red flags.

Despite his inexperience, Dixon has to play more like a veteran against Atlanta. He has two experienced quarterbacks he can rely on for advice this week in Leftwich and Batch.

"Me and Charlie can help him -- me and Charlie were actually having that conversation," Leftwich said. "We pretty much know everything that he's going to be thinking about the night before the game, the day of the game, the morning of the game, two days before the game, because we've been in those situations. So me and Chuck are going to do our best to help Dennis be successful."

Dixon's NFL debut last year was a 20-17 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens. But Dixon showed positives, recording 145 passing yards, two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) and one interception.

Pittsburgh put Dixon in a bad spot that game because Roethlisberger, despite suffering a concussion, practiced with the team during the week and was expected to play. But health concerns forced Roethlisberger to back out at the last minute, suddenly thrusting Dixon into the starting lineup.

This time Dixon gets an entire week of preparation for his second NFL start.

"For me, it's all a matter of being comfortable and confident in what I do," Dixon said. "Once I receive the call, I have to be able to execute it to the best of my ability. And at the same time, I need to be having fun. That's real big. I cherish that, because you can’t be too serious out there."

The playbook was so limited against Baltimore that, according to Ward, the Steelers ran the same play six or seven consecutive times.

"I've never been around where we've ran the same play six or seven times," Ward said. "We were very limited with what we can call in that Baltimore game. Now we open the playbook. We didn't expand like the other guys, but the things that we have he feels comfortable with doing."

But Ward has seen many quarterbacks come and go in during his 13 seasons in Pittsburgh. Ward compared Dixon's skills to former Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart's, and said Dixon could have similar success with more experience.

But for now, Dixon has to continue to improve and learn on the job. A major step in his maturation process comes Sunday.

"I [won't] ask Dennis to go out there and lead us to score 40 points," Ward said. "If he does that, that's a plus. But [we want] him to just manage the game and not turn the ball over. And the players around him, the supporting cast, we have to make plays."

Jake Delhomme ready for familiar foe

September, 8, 2010
9/08/10
6:48
PM ET
Here is a stat to ponder: Cleveland Browns veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme is 9-2 as a starter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That has to give Browns fans some comfort this week as they begin their 2010 regular season on the road against Tampa Bay.

[+] EnlargeJake Delhomme
Jason Miller/US PresswireJake Delhomme was 38-of-48 passing this preseason with 2 TDs and no interceptions.
"I think we've just played some decent games against them," Delhomme said during Wednesday's press conference. "Every one was hard fought and whatnot. It just is what it is."

The $7 million signing of Delhomme has been a hot topic this offseason. Delhomme is coming off the worst season of his career, where he threw just eight touchdowns and 18 interceptions with the Carolina Panthers, who later benched and released him.

But so far Delhomme has looked nothing like the person who threw interceptions in bunches last year. He's completed 79 percent of his passes in three preseason games with zero interceptions.

Delhomme also has quickly established himself as a leader in Cleveland's locker room, which was needed. He's been such a good influence that Delhomme was elected as one of the team's captains this week.

"I did my background on Jake as well and everything that people said about him was positive," Browns coach Eric Mangini said. "You couldn't find one person, you couldn't find a disparaging word and you're not looking for that. You're just looking to get to the truth."

It's Delhomme's job to keep his preseason momentum going. The Browns are projected to finish last in the division. But good quarterback play would make them competitive and a tough opponent on a weekly basis.

At age 35, Delhomme says he's ready to start another grueling NFL season.

"I feel good, I feel very good," Delhomme said. "I'm very excited to go out and play. Like I keep saying, I think I enjoy it and I appreciate it so much more the older I get.

"To think, I'm going into my third decade of playing football in the National Football League. I literally pinch myself. I'm excited and ready to go."
PITTSBURGH -- Memo to Steeler Nation: This is a big week for center Maurkice Pouncey, too.

Pouncey
Pouncey
The rookie first-round pick is making his NFL debut Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. But he's not getting nearly as much fanfare this week, because most of the attention is on quarterback Dennis Dixon's second career start.

"I'm happy," Pouncey said with a big smile Wednesday. "Don't talk about me; I play center. I don't want all that publicity."

A lot of responsibility will rest on Dixon's shoulders. But Pouncey will be there blocking in front of Dixon every step of the way. With a rookie center snapping to a young quarterback, there are some concerns about Pittsburgh's offense. The Steelers need to take care of the football and win the battle in the trenches this week to help Dixon.

But it's been so far, so good for Pouncey, who already looks like a star in the making. He has a good combination of tenacity and mobility, which is needed on Pittsburgh's offensive line. The Steelers will be inexperienced up the middle, but Pouncey doesn't see it as an issue.

"We're ready," Pouncey said of Dixon and himself. "We're professionals. I don't look at it like that. He was actually the first guy I snapped to [in minicamp]."

Win or lose Sunday, much of the adulation or blame naturally falls on the quarterback. But Pouncey's NFL debut also will be vital to Pittsburgh's offensive success against Atlanta.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider