NFL Nation: Oniel Cousins

TAMPA, Fla. – On a day near the middle of training camp, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith walked into his post-practice news conference and delivered a message.

"There's nothing really I can give you today," Smith said.

Smith wasn't being condescending or rude to the media. He simply was being truthful. Tampa Bay's camp hasn't had any major news or controversies. It has been downright boring at times -- but it beats the alternative.

We saw the other side of things last year, and it wasn't pretty. There was plenty of news and a ton of distractions. Former coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman were in the early stages of a feud that would end in divorce one month into the season. And it wasn't just Freeman who was having issues with Schiano's style. Numerous players had problems with Schiano's rigid ways and never fully bought into the coach.

That quickly caught up to Schiano, who was fired after two lackluster seasons. Enter Smith, who is the anti-Schiano in just about every way. Smith is calm and treats his players like adults, and you already can see the results of that. There have been no controversies.

Amid the tranquility, players are singing the praises of Smith. The coach brings back memories of Tony Dungy, who guided the Bucs to their first era of sustained success. That's no coincidence. Smith was the linebackers coach in Dungy's early years in Tampa Bay and has an approach similar to Dungy's.

People already are comparing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to Warren Sapp and linebacker Lavonte David to Derrick Brooks. Smith's hiring has brought enthusiasm to a fan base that hasn't had much to be excited about in recent years. But that fan base has pleasant memories of what things were like in the Bucs' glory days.

On several occasions, Smith has said that one of his goals is to make the Bucs relevant again. If things go according to Smith's plans, the Bucs might be boring, but they'll be good.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Smith is known for being a defensive coach, and he has some good ingredients to start with. McCoy and David were All-Pros last year, and they play two of the most important positions in the Tampa 2 defense Smith is bringing back to the Bucs. McCoy and David give Tampa Bay a nice start, but some other players are going to have to come through. The coaching staff believes strong safety Mark Barron is ready to be a star. If some role players come through, this could be a very good defense.

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDoug Martin is back from a shoulder injury, but he shouldn't have to shoulder all of the load in a deep backfield.
2. Doug Martin is back from a shoulder injury that kept him out for about half of last season. That should provide a huge lift for the offense. Martin rushed for more than 1,400 yards as a rookie in 2012, and he has looked sharp in training camp. Under Schiano, the Bucs often overused Martin. That’s not going to be the case with Smith. The Bucs have made it clear that Martin will remain as the feature back but that they’ll rotate in some other backs to keep him fresh. Rookie Charles Sims, Bobby Rainey and Mike James could be in the mix for playing time.

3. After using their first two draft picks on wide receiver Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the Bucs have one of the biggest receiving corps in the league. Williams, Seferian-Jenkins and Vincent Jackson each are at least 6-foot-5. They're going to present coverage challenges for defensive backs.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The offensive line hasn't looked very good in the preseason, and that's a huge cause for concern. The Bucs are especially thin at guard. All-Pro Carl Nicks left the team after not being able to recover from a toe injury. That leaves four guys without a lot of experience vying for two starting spots. Oniel Cousins, Jace Daniels, Patrick Omameh and rookie Kadeem Edwards have been rotating at the guard spots, and two of them will emerge as starters, unless the Bucs bring in some help from the outside.

2. Smith went out on a limb when he signed quarterback Josh McCown as a free agent and immediately named him the starter. McCown, 35, has been a backup most of his career, but he did play well in Chicago last year when Jay Cutler went out with an injury. McCown threw 13 touchdowns with just one interception. It's too much to expect him to keep up that kind of pace, especially with an unsteady offensive line. Smith, who coached McCown in Chicago, believes he can be successful over the course of a full season. But that's something McCown has never done.

3. Smith's philosophy is to play great defense and be efficient on offense. That worked well enough to get Smith to a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. But that philosophy might be antiquated. The league has become quarterback-driven. The Bucs are in the same division as New Orleans' Drew Brees, Carolina's Cam Newton and Atlanta's Matt Ryan. McCown and this offense might not have enough firepower to stay competitive in the division.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • McCoy has had an outstanding training camp. He consistently has gotten into the backfield as a pass-rusher and has been stuffing running plays. But it remains to be seen whether McCoy's excellent play is simply the byproduct of the weakness at the guard spots.
    [+] EnlargeVincent Jackson
    AP Photo/Bill KostrounVincent Jackson, in his third season with the Bucs, will have a third starting QB throwing to him.

  • The chemistry between McCown and Jackson has been noticeable. In addition to the offseason program, the two spent a lot of time in the spring and summer working out at a local high school.

  • The Bucs have gotten almost nothing out of defensive end Da'Quan Bowers since taking him in the second round in 2011. But they are trying something new with Bowers this year. They're going to use him inside at defensive tackle in obvious passing situations.

  • The Bucs have high hopes for sixth-round draft pick Robert Herron. But don't look for the receiver/return man to get a lot of playing time early on. Herron has had ball-security issues in camp. He needs to hold on to the ball if he's going to earn playing time.

  • Herron will make the 53-man roster. So will Jackson, Evans and Chris Owusu. Eric Page also probably will stick thanks to his return skills. That probably leaves one spot to be filled from a group of receivers who have shown promise in training camp. Tommy Streeter, Louis Murphy, Lavelle Hawkins and Solomon Patton all have shown flashes, but at least a couple of them won't make the roster.

  • Hamstring injuries have kept cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Mike Jenkins out for a big chunk of training camp. But there's a flip side to that, and it's positive. Second-year pro Johnthan Banks has gotten a ton of work with the first team and has looked good. Banks didn't have a great rookie year. But his performance in camp probably will keep him in the starting lineup.
Lovie SmithKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCoach Lovie Smith and the Bucs expect to compete for championships starting this season.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- There is a very good reason why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the NFL's most active teams in free agency.

"We thought it would be unfair to ask the fans to be patient with us," general manager Jason Licht said at the NFL owners meetings.

Fire those cannons at Raymond James Stadium and start the parade down Dale Mabry Highway. So far, Licht and coach Lovie Smith, both hired in January, are doing and saying all of the right things. They have signed 11 free agents, highlighted by defensive end Michael Johnson, cornerback Alterraun Verner and quarterback Josh McCown.

"We wanted to go out and sign as many good players as we could this year to help our football team and make it competitive this year, and strive to win a championship this year," Licht said. "Not go with, 'Hey, give us a couple years.' We want to do it as soon as we can. The fans deserve it. I found out in a two-month period that these fans are so passionate in Tampa. So we want players that are just as passionate as the fans."

Those fans should be ecstatic to hear Licht's comments. This is a franchise that hasn't been to the playoffs since the 2007 season, and hasn't won a postseason game since its Super Bowl victory more than a decade ago. The franchise had good intentions in the interim, but the results weren't pretty.

Plans were put in place at various times from the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen tried to win with veterans, to the time when Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris decided to build through the draft, to the days when it looked like Greg Schiano didn't have a plan.

[+] EnlargeAlterraun Verner
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsLanding cornerback Alterraun Verner was part of an aggressive free-agent push by the Bucs this month.
But you can look at what Licht and Smith are doing and you see a firm plan that has a chance to work -- and work quickly.

"As you saw last year with Kansas City, sometimes a little change is healthy and successful," Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said.

The Chiefs indeed are a good example of a team that turned around its fortunes rapidly. Kansas City was dreadful in 2012, but made the playoffs last season.

For any doubters who say McCown, a career backup, doesn't have what it takes to lead a team to the playoffs, let me remind you that Alex Smith was Kansas City's quarterback last season. I don't see a big difference between Smith and McCown.

Yeah, people can talk all they want about how this is a quarterback-driven league and you need a star at the position to be any good. There is some truth to that. But was Russell Wilson really the best quarterback in the NFL last season?

Of course not. Wilson did some very nice things, but there were bigger reasons why the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl. The defense and the running game had a lot to do with their success.

It's pretty obvious Licht and Lovie Smith are following a plan similar to Seattle's. Smith comes with a defensive background, and he inherited some good talent on that side of the ball. Linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy already are in place, and you could make an argument that a pass-rusher was the only thing Tampa Bay needed to be a dominant defense. That is why the Bucs signed Johnson, who had 11.5 sacks for Cincinnati in 2012.

On offense, the Bucs have overhauled their line. They parted ways with Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah, and replaced them with Anthony Collins, Oniel Cousins and Evan Dietrich-Smith. The running game should be in good shape, assuming Doug Martin is fully recovered from an injury that cut short last season.

I look at that and I see a team that might be ready to win now. I see a team with a plan that seems to make a lot of sense.

"Jason and Lovie have a plan, and that plan is that they want to win," Glazer said. "That's why we brought them in. We're all in the same boat. We want to win. They have a clear plan to get there, and that's why they were hired. We believe in the plan. We buy into the plan, and we're going to be supportive of the plan."

A few years back, the Glazers were often accused of not spending enough money to bring success. But recently, they have spent big money in free agency. This offseason, the Bucs went on another spending spree.

Licht and Smith frequently are being declared winners in free agency by the national media. They are also winning the news conferences by saying the right things.

Now, if they can go win some games in the fall, their plan could be a masterpiece.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are optimistic that guard Carl Nicks will be ready to take part in the team’s offseason program, which begins in April.

“We certainly hope so,’’ general manager Jason Licht said Monday.

Nicks missed all but two games last season while dealing with a toe injury and a bout with MRSA.

“He’s moving along pretty good,’’ Licht said. “So far, we’ve been pleased with his progression. He’s continuing the rehab and we’ll see where that goes.’’

Nicks’ progress might be part of the reason the Bucs traded away center/guard Jeremy Zuttah to Baltimore on Sunday. A healthy Nicks would fill one guard position.

At the moment, Jamon Meredith and Oniel Cousins would be the top candidates to start at the other guard position. But Licht said it remains possible the Bucs could draft a guard.

“I think that’s going to be an open competition,’’ Licht said. “I think we’re going to go with who the best player is.’’
ORLANDO, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers sent out a strong signal that they expect guard Carl Nicks to be healthy for the upcoming season.

The team traded away center/guard Jeremy Zuttah to Baltimore for a 2015 mid-round draft pick on Sunday, a day before the NFL owners meetings begin.

Nicks missed all but two games of last season after dealing with a toe injury and a MRSA infection. Zuttah spent last year playing center, but also has experience at guard. The Bucs previously addressed their center position by signing free agent Evan Dietrich-Smith. The fact the Bucs were willing to trade Zuttah shows they’re confident Nicks will be back for the 2014 season.

The Bucs are looking at Nicks as one of their starting guards. Jamon Meredith and Oniel Cousins are the candidates for the other starting guard spot. But the Bucs still could make a move for a guard in free agency or the draft.

Inside Slant: Week 1 penalty report

September, 12, 2013
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As promised last week, we're going to take regular looks at officiating data in this year's Inside Slant posts. We won't know immediately what it all means, but I think it will be new and instructive to follow where it takes us.

The chart shows Week 1 penalty totals for each referee crew. The figures include accepted and declined penalties.

There is a pretty dramatic discrepancy between the extremes -- Ron Winter's crew called almost three times as many penalties in their games as did Gene Steratore and Peter Morelli -- but I caution you about making any judgments on these initial figures. The teams involved are heavily involved in a weekly penalty total, and generally speaking you would hope that these numbers will grow closer as officials make their way through the teams.

If they don't -- if some crews go an entire season with outlying numbers -- then we can start trying to figure out the extent to which they are responsible.

Meanwhile, four players were grouped together as the most penalized individuals in Week 1. Cleveland Browns guard Oniel Cousins was called for four penalties, while St. Louis Rams cornerback Courtland Finnegan, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman and Green Bay Packers guard Josh Sitton all had three.

The AFC North built a reputation on physically beating up on other divisions. In Week 1 of the 2013 season, they beat themselves up.

The division teams allowed too many hits on their quarterbacks, made too many costly penalties and turned the ball over too many times. The result: the first winless Week 1 for all of the AFC North teams since 2002, the division's first year of existence. According to ESPN Stats & Information, this is the first time the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers all lost in the same week since Week 10 of the 2010 season.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden
Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsCleveland's Brandon Weeden and the rest of the AFC North quarterbacks took their lumps in Week 1.
This has been regarded as one of the best divisions in football recently. Three teams made the playoffs in 2011, and two returned in 2012. But no one in the AFC North made a championship-caliber first impression in 2013.

The Steelers had the most devastating defeat, losing three players (Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, inside linebacker Larry Foote and backup running back LaRod Stephens-Howling) to season-ending injuries in a 16-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans. The Ravens had the most embarrassing defeat, falling by 22 points on the road against the Denver Broncos on national television -- the worst season-opening loss for a defending Super Bowl champion. The Bengals had the most frustrating loss, failing to hold an 11-point lead in Chicago with 23 minutes left to play. And the Browns had, well, another season-opening loss (their 14th in the past 15 seasons).

Here are the common themes in the losses for the AFC North teams:

Too many hits on the quarterbacks: Ben Roethlisberger, Brandon Weeden and Joe Flacco combined to get sacked a total of 15 times. It's no wonder they also combined to throw six interceptions. Weeden was hit 16 times by Miami. Has he ever been hit that much before? "I don't think so," he said. Defenses could tee off on the quarterbacks because there was no threat of a running game. All four teams averaged less than 3.7 yards per carry. The days of Jerome Bettis, Jamal Lewis and Corey Dillon are long gone.

Too many penalties: The Bengals, Browns and Ravens were flagged 24 times for 194 yards. This is a reflection of a lack of poise. Browns guard Oniel Cousins' holding penalty in the fourth quarter negated a touchdown. The Ravens were called for three personal fouls. The biggest blunder was committed by Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga, who has been on the hot seat with fans for more than a year now. His unnecessary roughness penalty with 1:06 to play gave the Bears an automatic first down when they were looking at having to punt. The Bengals lost by a field goal. “We had a lot of guys lose their composure today," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.

Too many turnovers: The AFC North teams collectively turned the ball over 10 times. Weeden threw three interceptions in the first half. Flacco was picked off twice, including one that should have been returned for a touchdown. Bengals receiver Mohamed Sanu fumbled at the Bears' 19 in the fourth quarter with Cincinnati ahead by four points. And Steelers running back Isaac Redman fumbled into the end zone on the opening series. "It was kind of slow coming from center -- we were working with a new center," Redman said after the game. "It's a quick-hitting play, a bang-bang, and we messed up the quarterback-running back exchange. I never felt like I had it."

It will be a better week for half of the teams in Week 2, and I can guarantee it. The Ravens play host to the Browns on Sunday, and the Steelers play at the Bengals next Monday night.

Upon Further Review: Browns Week 1

September, 9, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Cleveland Browns' 23-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins:

Right is wrong: I'm not sure if I've ever seen one side of a line play so poorly as right guard Oniel Cousins and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz did Sunday. Cousins has an excuse because he's a third-stringer making his second career start at guard. Schwartz, a second-round pick from a year ago, does not. Sure, Schwartz had a tough assignment in Pro Bowl end Cameron Wake, but he looked like an overmatched rookie in what was the worst effort of his 17-game career. Schwartz allowed three sacks and countless quarterback hits. Cousins was flagged four times, including a fourth-quarter holding penalty that brought back a touchdown. Shawn Lauvao needs to get healthy quickly.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Trent Richardson
AP Photo/David RichardTrent Richardson carried the ball just 13 times for 47 yards against the Dolphins.
Questionable play calling: Did offensive coordinator Norv Turner forget about Trent Richardson being a 300-carry running back? Richardson ran the ball on four of the game's first six plays. He then had nine carries in the last 66 plays. Instead of putting the ball in the hands of their best offensive player, the Browns chose to throw the ball 53 times in a game that the Browns were trailing by a field goal heading into the fourth quarter. In order for Richardson to be a 300-carry back, he needs to average 19 carries per game. He had a grand total of 13 in the season opener. Richardson had only four games with fewer carries last season.

Tale of third downs: Some will point to turnovers as the reason the Browns lost, but Miami got only one field goal out of Brandon Weeden's three interceptions. This game was decided on third downs. While the Browns' defense did a commendable job in stopping the run and getting pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland couldn't get the Dolphins off the field. Miami converted eight of 16 third downs, which is quite an improvement for a Dolphins offense that ranked 16th on third-down conversions last season (38 percent). Tannehill was 9-of-13 for 82 yards on third downs, an average of 9.1 yards per completion. The Browns, meanwhile, couldn't stay on the field. Cleveland was a woeful 1-for-14 on third downs.

Stumbling in season openers: The Browns are 1-14 in season openers since returning to the NFL in 1999. Eight of the losses, including Sunday, have been by double digits. The only season-opening victory was in 2004 against the Baltimore Ravens, and the Browns finished 4-12 that season. No coach in the expansion era Browns has won his first game. The six coaches -- Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Rob Chudzinski -- have lost their first game by an average of 16.1 points. Surprisingly, Davis, Crennel and Shurmur all won their second game as Browns coach. Chudzinski draws the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens in Week 2.

Observation deck: Browns-Packers

August, 17, 2012
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There were some encouraging signs from rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden in the Browns' 35-10 preseason victory at Green Bay.

A week after three completions and two turnovers in the preseason opener, Weeden got rid of the ball quicker and was more decisive on reads. He finished 12-of-18 for 118 yards with no touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks. Two of his six incompletions were drops by Josh Gordon and Greg Little.

Weeden led the Browns to scores on four of his six series (three long field goals by Phil Dawson and a one-yard touchdown run by Montario Hardesty), although three of the possessions began in Packers territory. And while he didn't turn the ball over, Weeden got lucky when Green Bay defenders dropped two of his throws.

Here are some of my other thoughts on the Browns' second preseason game:
  • Hardesty, who started his second game in place of the injured Trent Richardson (knee), got off to a bad start when he fumbled on the Browns' first play. He redeemed himself by gaining tough yards up the middle, rushing for 45 yards on 12 carries (3.8-yard average).
  • Like Weeden, the Browns' defense bounced back from the preseason opener. Without six starters, Cleveland gave up one completion over 11 yards to quarterback Aaron Rodgers (it was the touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson). The safety blitz by T.J. Ward was a well-timed wrinkle. The run defense clogged up the middle much better than last week. The Browns gave up 49 yards on the ground in the first half (compared to 115 last week), and 24 of those yards came on two Rodgers scrambles.
  • Colt McCoy put together his second strong performance in what may have been an audition for the Packers. McCoy was 4-of-6 for 58 yards, leading Cleveland on a 14-play scoring drive in his one series of work. If the Packers weren't interested in McCoy before this game, Thursday night should have changed their minds. Green Bay backup Graham Harrell struggled mightily with two interceptions (one was returned for a touchdown) and a safety.
  • Sheldon Brown, who was expected to get unseated as a starting cornerback this year, forced his second turnover of the preseason. He ripped the ball way from Green Bay's Randall Cobb after a catch.
  • The Browns' top cornerback, Joe Haden, had an interesting night. He was beaten early by Nelson, but Rodgers overthrew him in the end zone. When Haden blanketed Nelson moments later, Nelson leapt over him for a touchdown.
  • Dawson looked like he was in midseason form with field goals from 53, 46 and 52 yards. His night was made tougher by lineman Oniel Cousins, who committed two penalties to push back Dawson's kicks. A facemask penalty on an extra point? Really?
  • You didn't really notice rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, which is a compliment after a shaky game last week. The Browns' starting offensive line was solid. Left guard Jason Pinkston gave up a quarterback pressure on one third down, which forced Weeden to hurry a throw.
BEREA, Ohio -- The reason why the Browns don't have a coveted wide receiver is because they failed to be aggressive.

Cleveland got the running back it wanted by trading up to No. 3 to draft Trent Richardson. The Browns should've done the same later in the first round for their targeted wide receiver, Baylor's Kendall Wright.

By staying put at No. 22 on Thursday, the Browns have a 28-year-old rookie quarterback in Brandon Weeden and no difference-maker at wide receiver after three rounds. Cleveland reportedly had Wright rated higher than Weeden and would've taken Wright if he was available.

According to general manager Tom Heckert, there were three wide receivers the team considered "legitimate guys." This list presumably includes Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd and Wright. Blackmon and Floyd were taken in the top 13.

If the Browns thought Wright was the last of the best receivers, they should've moved ahead of Tenneessee, which drafted Wright at No. 20. The Browns had to know the Titans were interested because Tennessee had four of the top receiver prospects, including Wright, in for pre-draft visits. Moving three or four spots up would've cost the Browns a third-round pick.

Heckert said there was no frustration over failing to add a receiver in the first three rounds.

"We could have taken a receiver. We don’t want to take a receiver just to take a receiver," he said Friday night. "If we didn’t get a receiver and we didn’t get a good player, we might be [frustrated]. But we are happy with the guys we took, we really are.”

You can't fault the Browns for passing on a wide receiver early in the second round. The Browns had to address right tackle at that point because they couldn't go into a season with Oniel Cousins as the starter there.

By the time the Browns were on the clock in the third round, there were no other deep threats remaining. Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill (New York Jets) and LSU's Rueben Randle (New York Giants) both were drafted in the second round.

Heckert said there is a chance the Browns might take a wide receiver in the final four rounds Saturday. The draft resumes at noon.

“We still have some picks left. There are some guys that we do like," Heckert said. "We’ll see what happens after tomorrow and then we can discuss if we don’t have any.”

Poll: Browns' biggest draft need

April, 12, 2012
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There's no debate that the Cleveland Browns need to upgrade significantly on offense in this draft.

The Browns ranked 29th in total yards (288.8 per game) and 30th in points (13.6). The St. Louis Rams were the only other team to rank in the bottom four in the NFL in both those categories.

SportsNation

What is the biggest draft need for the Cleveland Browns?

  •  
    14%
  •  
    37%
  •  
    35%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,364)

But what is the Browns' biggest need heading into this year's draft? Here are the top choices:

Quarterback: The Browns failed in their attempt to trade up in the draft to get Robert Griffin III. Now, they are left with Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace. In his first full season as a starter, McCoy ranked 26th in completion percentage (57.2), 25th in passing yards per game (210.2), 32nd in yards per attempt (5.9), 25th in passer rating (74.6) and 25th in QBR (39.8).

Running back: Cleveland didn't re-sign Peyton Hillis, their starting running back for the past two seasons who went to Kansas City. The Browns' remaining backs -- Montario Hardesty, Brandon Jackson and Chris Ogbonnaya -- totaled 600 rushing yards and one touchdown last season. Hardesty and Jackson missed a combined 22 games last season because of injuries.

Wide receiver: This group produced a lot of drops and few big plays. Greg Little, Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi combined for 20 catches over 20 yards, averaged 12.1 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns.

Offensive tackle: The Browns cut starting right tackle Tony Pashos and didn't re-sign backup Artis Hicks. If the season started today, Cleveland would go with Oniel Cousins, a Ravens castoff who has started five games in four seasons.

Go ahead and register your vote, or let me know what you think in the comments section below. I'll follow up by Monday.
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. broke down the top six needs remaining Insider for each of the AFC North teams. You'll need an Insider subscription to view the entire post, but here's a glimpse of the top three needs:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Horton's top three needs: Cornerback, guard and safety.

Horton on cornerback: The starters in 2011 were Leon Hall, who will be coming off an Achilles injury, and 32-year-old Nate Clements. When Hall went down, Adam Jones filled in, but none of these three make you comfortable in man coverage. Newly acquired free agent Jason Allen will help, but there is a lot of work to be done here.

Hensley's comment: I wouldn't put cornerback as the top need because the Bengals added Allen and re-signed Jones. Allen is an upgrade over Kelly Jennings. Guard is the bigger concern. If the season started today, the Bengals' starting right guard would either be Otis Hudson, Clint Boling or Anthony Collins (who would shift over from tackle).

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Horton's top three needs: Quarterback, wide receiver and running back.

Horton on quarterback: Right now, their options at QB are starter Colt McCoy and veteran backup Seneca Wallace, but nobody expects it to stay that way. With two first-round draft picks, they will almost surely pick a QB with one of them.

Hensley's comment: You could make a strong argument that quarterback, wide receiver or running back should rank as the No. 1 need. My top need for Cleveland is right tackle. The Browns can at least start McCoy, Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and Montario Hardesty at those other positions. Right tackle was a weak spot for the Browns last season with Tony Pashos and Artis Hicks, both of whom are now gone. The Browns' starting right tackle at this point is Oniel Cousins, a third-round bust from Baltimore.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Horton's three needs: Inside linebacker, left guard and safety.

Horton on inside linebacker: The Ray Lewis era will be ending soon, and the Ravens need to find his replacement. Jameel McClain was re-signed, and he can play inside or outside, but a three-down linebacker who can play solid pass defense is sorely needed.

Hensley's comment: Left guard is the biggest need on the team, and it's not even close. The Ravens couldn't keep Ben Grubbs and failed to sign Evan Mathis. The fallback option is Jah Reid, a backup offensive tackle last season. Going from a Pro Bowl guard (Grubbs) to a converted tackle (Reid) is a major step down.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Horton's top three needs: Offensive tackle/guard, nose tackle and running back.

Horton on offensive tackle/guard: Center Maurkice Pouncey is the only stable starter on this unit. Veteran tackle Max Starks is coming off an ACL injury and T Willie Colon can't stay healthy, though the coaches hope he can get through a full season at RT with young Marcus Gilbert moving from RT to LT. There is also a big hole at left guard. The Steelers need to get at least one, and maybe two, starters up front.

Hensley's comment: You can't really disagree with this assessment. Left guard Doug Legursky is a backup who performed admirably when Chris Kemoeatu was benched. Gilbert has a good chance of succeeding on the left side, but it's hard to depend on Colon at right tackle with his injury history. The Steelers' options are limited because there is no depth. Jonathan Scott, who has struggled mightily, is the top backup at tackle, and there's no reserves at guard with Trai Essex (free agent) and Jamon Meredith (not tendered as a restricted free agent) off on the roster.

Final Word: AFC North

September, 16, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 2:

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireAll eyes will be on Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers to see how they respond to their Week 1 loss against Baltimore.
Early gut check for Steelers: Everyone wants to see how Pittsburgh responds after taking its worst beating ever from Baltimore. The Steelers said all week that there is no panic in the locker room, and you tend to believe them because they return 21 of 22 starters from a team that played in the Super Bowl. But the heat will be turned up if the Steelers fail to put away the rebuilding Seahawks and go through the motions in their home opener. The critics say Pittsburgh looked slow and old against the Ravens. This is Pittsburgh's chance to respond.

Ravens' biggest concern: An emotional hangover from last Sunday would spell trouble for the Ravens against Chris Johnson, who is a threat to score on any play. After getting nine carries last game, the Titans running back thinks he could get as many as 25 touches Sunday, which would present a challenge for the Ravens. Three years ago against the Ravens, Johnson had 100 yards from scrimmage before leaving with an ankle injury. Baltimore's linebackers are tough and physical but lack great speed. Tracking Johnson sideline-to-sideline is a huge task.

Avoid slow start: Every team wants to start fast. But it's essential for the Browns and Colt McCoy. Playing catchup with the Colts means defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis begin to tee off. The big worry is Mathis, even though he's been limited in practice this week with a neck injury. With Tony Pashos out with an ankle injury, Cleveland will rotate Artis Hicks and Oniel Cousins at right tackle, where they'll line up against Mathis. That's the biggest mismatch of the game.

Give the ball to Benson: Bengals running back Cedric Benson is looking for 100-yard rushing games in consecutive weeks for the first time since the end of the 2008 season. That should be a primary goal for Cincinnati against a banged-up Broncos defense. Denver could be without two starters (defensive end Elvis Dumervil and weakside linebacker D.J. Williams) along with a couple of backups (defensive tackle Marcus Thomas and nose tackle Ty Warren). It seems like a no-brainer to commit to a ground-and-pound game against the Broncos, who allowed 190 yards rushing against Oakland on Monday.

Steelers' target: The bull's-eye is squarely on Seattle quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. The Steelers should be revved up after managing one sack in the season opener and now facing a ragged Seattle offensive line. The Seahawks' blocking is so shaky that even a mobile quarterback like Jackson got sacked five times Sunday. It should be big days for James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
The Cleveland Browns took a significant loss on the offensive line Tuesday. Starting guard Eric Steinbach will be out for the season with a disc injury in his back. He will be placed on injured reserve.

Steinbach
Here are some thoughts on the loss:
  • More than anything, this hurt Cleveland's running game. Steinbach was the team's best pulling offensive lineman. He also was agile enough to get in open space for screens and sweeps. Running back Peyton Hillis also had a lot of success running off the left guard in between tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack.
  • Finding Steinbach's replacement won't be easy. The Browns claimed Oniel Cousins off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens. Despite struggling mightily in Baltimore, he is a candidate to start in Cleveland. The Browns also have free-agent John Greco and rookie Jason Pinkston on the roster. Either way, Cleveland is taking a significant downgrade with Steinbach out.
  • The Browns hope they can hide the left guard between Thomas and Mack. Cleveland will be strong at left tackle and center but pretty weak in between. Expect a lot of teams to attack the Browns with blitzes and stunts on that side early to see if Cleveland can handle it.
The Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns will continue their preseason games Friday night. Baltimore will host the Kansas City Chiefs, while Cleveland hosts the Detroit Lions.

Here are a pair of storylines for each AFC North team:

Ravens
  • Will the Ravens improve the offense line? Baltimore allowed six sacks last week against the Philadelphia Eagles. Three were against starting tackles Michael Oher and Oniel Cousins. The Ravens moved Cousins to right guard and will start rookie Jah Reid at right tackle against Kansas City. Reid is a raw prospect trying to learn on the fly. We will find out where he stands in his first NFL start.
  • This game marks the Ravens debut of wide receiver Lee Evans. The veteran deep threat was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. Evans will be the starter opposite Anquan Boldin. Evans is the speedy receiver Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has lacked the past several years. The pair will look to build chemistry in this game.
Browns
  • Can Cleveland second-year quarterback Colt McCoy continue his momentum? McCoy had a near-perfect preseason debut last week against the Green Bay Packers. He was 9-of-10 for 135 yards and a touchdown. McCoy also led the offense to two touchdown drives. Detroit should offer a stern test. The Lions' defense looked stout in last week’s 34-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
  • Another fun matchup to watch will be Browns corner Joe Haden against Lions Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson. Both are two of the best, young players at their respective positions. Johnson beat Bengals cornerback Leon Hall for a touchdown last week. Haden will try to prevent "Megatron" from having a big first half tonight.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens rookie right tackle Jah Reid is getting reps with the first team, just days after Baltimore allowed six sacks in its preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.

That is a lot of pressure for a third-round pick. But the Ravens are searching for answers on their offensive line. They have less than a month to figure it out before their regular-season opener against the reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who led the NFL in sacks in 2010.

"He's in the mix, whether he wants to be or not -- period," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said of Reid. "In my mind he's either going to be playing or one or two plays from playing. So my mind is anything but he's playing until he's inactive. We're trying to get that point across to a lot of these guys. There is no four-year scholarships [for rookies]."

Starting offensive tackles Oniel Cousins and Michael Oher both had down moments against Philadelphia. Cousins particularly struggled and is now getting a look at right guard. Starting guard Marshal Yanda, who missed practice Monday with a back injury, also is a possibility at right tackle. But taking Yanda from guard would weaken that spot.

Look for a lot of experimenting in Baltimore's second preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

"We're going to try to work out the best five in some combination," Cameron said. "It may not be ideal, but it's probably our best alternative."

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