NFL Nation: T.J. Houshmandzadeh

Camp Confidential: Arizona Cardinals

August, 2, 2013
8/02/13
11:21
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Carson Palmer's relationship with his new head coach, Bruce Arians, is unlike any the Arizona Cardinals quarterback has experienced in 10 NFL seasons or even in college under Pete Carroll at USC -- except for a nine-start period in 2011.

That 2011 season under Hue Jackson in Oakland was the only other time Palmer played for an offensive-minded head coach. In nine starts, Palmer posted a higher Total QBR score (64.8) than four of the seven quarterbacks accorded Pro Bowl honors.

Coincidence? Palmer, a week into his first training camp with Arizona, doesn't think so. He has played under Carroll, Marvin Lewis and Dennis Allen, all defensive coordinators before they became head coaches.

"There are so many defensive head coaches," Palmer said. "I had Hue for nine games. It was great. We lit it up on offense. We just didn't win."

Plenty of successful quarterbacks have played for defensive-minded head coaches, of course, but at this stage of his career, the 33-year-old Palmer wants to clear away all potential impediments to success. He wants his head coach to see the game the way he sees it, as a quarterback. Arians played the position at Virginia Tech.

"[Arians] is not sitting in the film room and saying my five-step drop was too shallow here or too deep there," Palmer said. "He's all about eyes and where the ball is coming out. That is the first time I've had that. To see it through his eyes and see what he expects and see what he thinks is something that takes time to get used to. It's phenomenal for me."

Palmer has much to prove. The metrics say he's been below average in recent seasons. The win-loss record says he's been worse. The Cardinals' quarterbacks over the past three seasons set the bar low enough for Palmer to clear it, but by how much?

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeTodd Bowles
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCan new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles keep the Cardinals defense operating at the same high level as last season?
1. Life without Ray Horton. The Cardinals ranked third in defensive EPA with Horton as coordinator last season. Arians beat out Horton for the head coaching job and cast off Horton in favor of his own coordinator, Todd Bowles. The switch was a clear downgrade on paper, but you'd never know it after a trip inside the Cardinals' locker room.

"Everybody is excited about this defense," nose tackle David Carter said. "Last year, everybody was like, 'I don't like the defense, but I'm going to play it because I have to.' Now, it's like, 'Hey, you want me to do what? OK, sure, I'll do that!' "

According to Carter, Horton was trying to replicate the Pittsburgh Steelers' 3-4 scheme in the absence of the proper personnel. He sees Bowles tailoring the defense to fit the Cardinals' personnel, which is better suited for attacking up the field.

"We don't have the type of personnel to hold up and mirror technique and two-gap," Carter said.

The Cardinals have continued to add players who appear best suited for a 4-3 scheme. It's increasingly clear the 3-4 and 4-3 labels can be a hindrance to understanding how teams play defense. Teams don't necessarily commit 100 percent to the traditional core principles of either scheme.

2. Arians' vertical passing game. Conventional wisdom says Arians' preference for the deep passing game will expose an immobile quarterback to excessive punishment behind a questionable offensive line. That could happen, and no one would need an explanation.

Let's also acknowledge the role quarterbacks play in sack avoidance.

Consider Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He took sacks on 8.8 percent of drop-backs over the three seasons before Arians became his coordinator. The rate was 8.5 percent for Roethlisberger over four seasons with Arians running the offense.

Palmer's career sack rate was 4.7 percent with Cincinnati and 4.6 percent with Oakland. In 2012, he took 26 sacks in 591 drop-backs playing behind a Raiders line that wasn't necessarily more talented than the one Palmer has in Arizona this season.

And if Palmer takes a few extra hits while looking for Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd well down the field?

"That is my game," Palmer said. "My strength isn't making a guy miss and getting out and running for a first down on third-and-12. The strength of my game is, I'm 245 pounds, I absorb hits, I'll stay in the pocket and hold it to the very last second for a guy to come out on a certain concept -- not taking a sack, but holding onto the ball and waiting for the guy to get open to get that completion."

3. Who starts on the offensive line? First-round draft choice Jonathan Cooper will be the left guard. Lyle Sendlein will be the center. For the first time in a while, the Cardinals could have multiple decent options elsewhere on the line. The key word is decent, not great.

Levi Brown and Daryn Colledge must play well to justify their high salaries. That could be tough for Colledge, who is battling a nerve problem in his leg. The Cardinals need both veterans, but their longer-term futures are cloudy at best. It's clear that Arizona wants to keep adding youth to the line, which was badly neglected over the previous five drafts. Right now, neither is assured a starting spot.

The two young tackles from last season, Nate Potter and Bobby Massie, provide experienced young depth at worst. One or both could wind up starting.

Arizona does not list an offensive line coach, but three assistants are coaching the position, including coordinator Harold Goodwin. I think the line is getting more thorough coaching under the current setup than when Russ Grimm had been the line coach. Grimm's a Hall of Famer and he built a reputation as a top line coach, but the results simply weren't there in Arizona.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Palmer represents a three-victory improvement over his immediate predecessors if he plays the way he played for Oakland last season. The rest of the team should respond favorably to an upgrade at the most important position. The offensive line is healthier and deeper than it was a year ago. First-year general manager Steve Keim has brought a more proactive approach to personnel. The Cardinals have made themselves better throughout the roster as a result.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The current NFC West is no place to attempt a rebuilding project. Even if some defensive players didn't like the previous scheme, there's no denying the results. Arizona's defense ranked among the NFL's top five in interception rate, third-down conversion rate, red zone efficiency, Total QBR, passing yards, sack rate and first downs. Bowles' Philadelphia Eagles ranked a respective 32nd, 32nd, 27th, 32nd, 14th, fourth and 22nd in those categories during his run as coordinator from Week 7 through season's end. Also, Bowles won't have inside linebacker Daryl Washington for the first four games because of his suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeMichael Floyd
    AP Photo/Rick ScuteriCoach Bruce Arians wants more "explosive" plays from Michael Floyd and the Cardinals offense.
    The emphasis on big plays is obvious in practice. Palmer frequently pushes the ball deep to Fitzgerald and Floyd. Arians has told players he wants six to eight explosive plays per game. He defines explosive plays as passes covering at least 25 yards and rushes covering at least 15 yards. Arizona tied for the league low with 32 drives featuring at least one play fitting Arians' explosive profile, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The league average was 45 such drives, and San Francisco was two off the league high with 58, while Seattle had 45 and St. Louis had 35. Arians' Indianapolis Colts had 46. His Steelers ranked 11th with 230 such drives from 2007 through 2011, when Arians was coordinator.
  • Floyd opened camp by catching all three of the "50-50" passes Palmer threw his way. Palmer defines those throws loosely as jump balls into coverage, passes in which the receiver and defender should, in theory, have an equal chance at the ball.
  • Arians wants a physical camp when the team is in pads. He had every non-specialist, non-quarterback and uninjured player on the team, including Fitzgerald, engaged in what amounted to close-quarters combat on the team's first day in pads.
  • Rob Housler, who led NFC West tight ends in receptions last season, is the player Fitzgerald points to as among the most impressive in camp to this point. Fitz: "I know you have seen the Jimmy Grahams and Antonio Gateses and Vernon Davises and these tight ends who can do receiver-type angles, routes, things like that. [Housler] is turning into that type of guy. He has 4.4 speed, he can run with the best of them and he's improving in his blocking. He is coming into his own. That is exciting. To have a tight end that can do that is going to open up other things."
  • Rookie Earl Watford, a fourth-round draft choice, struggled getting into position in one-on-one pass-rush drills on the one day early in camp when I charted every rep.
  • Cornerback Patrick Peterson has already been to the Pro Bowl as a returner and as a cornerback. His timing and spacing in coverage has improved, allowing Peterson to better challenge routes. Watching Peterson work at receiver in camp, I don't see how Arians will resist using him on offense to some degree. Peterson appeared more natural in his route-running than some of the young receivers. I was standing with Keim, the GM, when Peterson thrilled the crowd with a reception in practice. Keim: "He is so natural. Watch him running routes, particularly stops and digs. You watch him drop his weight at 219 and accelerate out of the break, that's not what cornerbacks do. He can come out here and just run a route and you're just like, 'He looks like Percy Harvin running a route. How does he do that?' "
  • The newly acquired John Abraham worked with the second team and was trouble for the offense. He was moving through the backfield so quickly on one play that he collided with defensive lineman Matt Shaughnessy, who was rushing from the other side. Abraham signed a two-year deal with a $2.325 million average.
  • Rookie second-round choice Kevin Minter is going to deliver big hits on special teams, it appears. He "decleated" fellow backup linebacker Zack Nash during one punt return.
  • Fifty-one of the 90 players in camp weren't with the Cardinals at any point last season. Arizona focused on signing younger veteran players to one-year deals during what amounts to a transition year. The team signed no unwieldy contracts this offseason. The turnover means watching practice without a roster printout can be a confusing experience. Defensive end Calais Campbell: "I wish I knew everybody's name. I don't."
  • Bowles' defense requires the safeties to be more vocal in making adjustments based on personnel and formations. Bowles was a safety in the NFL for eight seasons. Rashad Johnson: "In the past, we more likely would come out in a call and if we got motion, we would just stay in it. We wouldn't change the coverages or change our look based on that. Now, we do things based off the personnel and based off what guys are giving us."
  • Palmer appears to have a good rapport with Andre Roberts, who figures to factor from the slot. The quarterback compared Roberts to T.J. Houshmandzadeh, his former teammate in Cincinnati, based on body type, route running and football smarts. Palmer: "It's almost like they have played quarterback all the way 'til they got to the NFL. They understand it from your perspective. Andre has that kind of IQ. He just gets it. He sees it, feels it, gets it, he reacts. That is a special trait."
  • The praise in camp for players such as Housler, Floyd and Roberts highlights just how horrible the quarterback play was last season. Even Fitzgerald had an off year. The Cardinals need Palmer to get much more from these players.
After the Ravens won Sunday night in Pittsburgh, Baltimore running back Ray Rice picked up a Terrible Towel from Heinz Field and wore it on his head while heading to the locker room.

The photo of Rice draping the revered gold cloth over his head has made the rounds on the Internet. It didn't go unnoticed by Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who thinks Rice crossed the line.

Woodley posted on Twitter:

Woodley was referring to former Titans running back LenDale White and former Bengals-Ravens wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Houshmandzadeh wiped his cleats with a Terrible Towel after scoring a touchdown in 2005. While the Bengals won that game, the Steelers came back to defeat Cincinnati, 31–17, in the playoffs on their way to the Super Bowl.

White stepped on the Terrible Towel after a Titans' win over Pittsburgh in 2008. The Titans then lost their next eight games (last two in 2008 and first six in 2009), including a playoff loss as the AFC's top seed.

In comparison to those incidents, I don't think Rice really disrespected the Terrible Towel. But considering what happened to the Bengals and Titans, I would've stayed far away from those gold props if I were Rice.
Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green provided some bulletin board material for the Giants today. “I feel like they’ve got a lot of holes in their defense,” Green told WFAN’s Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton on Thursday.

Green
If Green sees some weak spots, that likely means trouble for a Giants pass defense that ranks 26th in the NFL. Few teams have been able to quiet Green and fewer have been able to keep him out of the end zone.

Since failing to score in the season opener at Baltimore, Green has produced a touchdown in seven straight games. If he scores a touchdown against New York, he would tie T.J. Houshmandzadeh (2007) for the league's third-longest streak with a receiving touchdown over the past 10 seasons. The longest streak over the past decade belongs to Randy Moss, who caught a touchdown pass in 10 consecutive games in 2003-04, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Green did show a lot of respect for the Giants' defensive line.

“Their front four, they get so much pressure on the quarterback,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have that much time to get the big plays on them. We just have to be solid up front and then we’ll see what happens."

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Green has become the top threat on the outside this season, leading the NFL in receptions (35) and touchdowns (six) on throws outside the painted numbers. Green already has more touchdowns this season than all of last season (four) on such throws.

ESPNBoston.com is running a poll on where former Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco will land after getting cut by the New England Patriots on Thursday. I don't see a reunion with the Bengals in his future, and it appears others agree with that assessment (the Bengals rank last in the poll at 5 percent while the Miami Dolphins are first at 33 percent).

There's one choice that seems to be missing from this poll -- retirement. I'm not the one calling for it, although you have to wonder about Ochocinco after he managed a career-low 15 catches with New England last season. This suggestion comes from longtime Bengals teammate T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

"If I went with Tom Brady and didn't produce, I'd hang it up," Houshmandzadeh told the Bengals' official website in March. "Are you kidding me? Tom Brady? If you go with a Peyton Manning or a Drew Brees, or an Eli Manning, or Aaron Rodgers, and you don't produce?"

Some say Ochocinco struggled in New England because he had a tough time learning the playbook. But last year wasn't his only down season. From 2002-07, Ochocinco averaged 88.5 catches for 1,339 yards and eight touchdowns. Over the last three seasons (two of which were in Cincinnati), he averaged 64 catches for 806 yards and 5.7 touchdowns.
Wide receivers Vincent Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Laurent Robinson, Josh Morgan, Eric Weems and Harry Douglas have found new homes after hitting the NFL's free-agent market.

Franchise tags essentially removed from consideration Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker and DeSean Jackson.

Others, such as Marques Colston, re-signed before free agency.

Teams still searching for help at the position -- that would be pretty much everyone but Seattle in the NFC West -- are left with a picked-over group of free agents.

Jerome Simpson, Burress, Brandon Lloyd, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aromashodu, Roy Williams, Mario Manningham and Early Doucet are the only ones remaining to have played at least half of their team's offensive snaps during the 2011 season.

As the chart shows, Burress was particularly effective in the red zone for the New York Jets. He converted first downs 38 times in 45 receptions for the third-highest percentage among wide receivers with at least 40 receptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Burress is also up there in age. He's among 12 available wideouts already in their 30s: Hines Ward (36), Burress (34), T.J. Houshmandzadeh (34), Kevin Curtis (33), Patrick Crayton (32), Deion Branch (32), Rashied Davis (32), Donte Stallworth (31), Jerheme Urban (31), Bryant Johnson (31), Lloyd (30) and Williams (30).

Of them, Lloyd has visited the San Francisco 49ers.

Nine more are 29 years old: Greg Camarillo, Keary Colbert, Mark Clayton, Jerricho Cotchery, Roscoe Parrish, Michael Clayton, Courtney Roby, Michael Spurlock and Braylon Edwards.

Still interested?

OK, let's check out 18 others, all younger than 29: David Anderson, Legedu Naanee, Devin Aroshamodu, Donnie Avery, Anthony Gonzalez, Maurice Stovall, Derek Hagan, Mike Sims-Walker, Ted Ginn Jr., Andre Caldwell, Steve Smith, Doucet, Brett Swain, Chaz Schilens, Simpson, Manningham, Devin Thomas and Kevin Ogletree.

Schilens visited Arizona and San Francisco. Manningham visited the 49ers and the St. Louis Rams.

I've also broken down the available wideouts by drafted round:
  • First: Williams, Burress, Ginn, Stallworth, both Claytons, Johnson, Gonzalez and Edwards
  • Second: Avery, Thomas, Simpson, Smith, Parrish, Branch, Colbert
  • Third: Roby, Doucet, Hagan, Stovall, Manningham, Caldwell, Curtis, Sims-Walker, Ward
  • Fourth: Cotchery, Lloyd
  • Fifth: Legedu Naanee
  • Sixth: none
  • Seventh: Houshmandzadeh, Crayton, Schilens, Aromashodu, Anderson, Swain
  • Undrafted: Davis, Urban, Camarillo, Spurlock, Ogletree

Only a handful of the available receivers project as starters. None would qualify as an outright game-breaker.

The Rams in particular need playmakers, but in looking at what is available, how many would qualify as dramatically better than what they already have? Austin Pettis, Brandon Gibson, Danario Alexander, Dominique Curry, Greg Salas and restricted free agent Danny Amendola are their current wideouts.
Torrey SmithAP Photo/Gail BurtonRookie receiver Torrey Smith has given the Ravens the deep threat they've tried for years to find.

BALTIMORE -- The Ravens find themselves leading the AFC North race because of the speed of Torrey Smith.

The second-round pick is the wide receiver Baltimore has been desperately searching for over the past decade. Smith is fast. He's a playmaker.

Smith was the difference in the Ravens winning and losing at Pittsburgh. He was the difference between the Ravens losing to the Bengals last season and beating them 31-24 on Sunday.

"In past years, they've been able to put some pressure on us with their coverage, lock us up pretty tightly, and get some pressure with their front four," Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco said. "But with Torrey out there, he definitely has the speed and can hurt them in man-to-man coverage. That helped us out today."

With the game tied at 7-7 in the second quarter, Smith burst past Cincinnati cornerback Nate Clements down the right sideline for a 49-yard over-the-shoulder catch, which set up the go-ahead touchdown. His 38-yard touchdown grab early in the fourth quarter-- which came with him beating a cornerback and splitting two safeties -- put Baltimore up 31-14.

Smith is fast learning how to handle the ups and downs of a first season in the NFL. He's made some big drops, but he's always responded with bigger catches.

The dangerous part of Smith's game is that his confidence is at an all-time high. It was apparent in the huddle right before his fourth-quarter touchdown.

"We all knew it was time for us to get seven," Smith said. "We knew what type of play it was."

Thanks to Smith's six catches for 165 yards, Ravens (7-3) are in first place and control their playoff fate. They have the same record as the Steelers but hold the tiebreaker advantage by sweeping them.

To elevate themselves past the Steelers, the Ravens made it a priority to find a wide receiver to complement Flacco's big arm, which has been the one blemish on the team's spectacular draft resume. The Ravens have drafted 16 wide receivers -- from Patrick Johnson to Travis Taylor to Mark Clayton -- and none became consistent downfield threats.

Baltimore had to look to free agency to find wide receivers. Defenses respected the likes of Derrick Mason and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but they fear Smith.

His 27.5-yards per catch on Sunday should cause the Bengals defensive backs to pull out their hair -- instead of pulling Smith down by his.

"I think we did envision the type of player he was going to be," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's why we drafted him."

Before the season began, if you saw Smith's statistics for the Bengals-Ravens game, you would have expected A.J. Green or Lee Evans to put up those numbers. But Green was inactive with a knee injury, and Evans has been surpassed by Smith on the depth chart because of an ankle injury.

While Green and Atlanta's Julio Jones have garnered most of the attention when it comes to rookie receivers, Smith is starting to close the gap on them after posting the top two receiving performances by a rookie (as far as receiving yards) this season.

He now has two games of at least 150 yards receiving during his rookie season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the only other rookies in the past 15 years to accomplish this are Randy Moss with the Vikings in 1998 and Marques Colston with the Saints in 2006.

"He's been a guy that we thought could go get the deep ball," Harbaugh said, "He kind of put it in another gear at the end and go chase down a ball."

Smith's speed is different than what Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace shows on the field, according to former NFL wide receiver Qadry Ismail, who is on the Ravens' radio team. Ismail said Wallace accelerates immediately off the line, whereas Smith has that burst at the end to separate from receivers.

Flacco has gotten a feel for Smith's speed and has now thrown four touchdowns over 20 yards to Smith. He hasn't thrown more than three such touchdowns to any receiver in his previous three seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"Like I've always said, when the ball is in the air, he can separate," Flacco said.

That separation has led to some desperation for opponents. At one point, the Bengals saved a touchdown late in the second quarter when Adam Jones pulled Smith down by grabbing his hair. It's not a penalty because that's considered part of Smith's uniform.

Smith said it didn't hurt.

"I was surprised by it," Smith said. "It actually felt like I was getting pulled down by my jersey."

Is a new haircut in order?

"I honestly thought about it, but my grandma likes it a little too much," he said. "I'm a momma and grandmamma's boy, at least for now."

Smith did provide a new look for the Ravens' passing attack against Cincinnati. Flacco has long struggled against the Bengals and their cover-2 defense, averaging 178 yards passing in going 3-3 against them. Smith nearly matched that passing average by himself.

Some could argue that Smith's production earlier this season caught defenses by surprise. But defensive backs know about Smith now and they're still having trouble containing him.

His 165 yards receiving is third-highest for a Ravens receiver and is the most allowed by Cincinnati this season.

"Coming into the game, we knew he was a guy who could stretch the field," Clements said. "We just had to take away his strength and make him go elsewhere. We didn't do that today, and he made us pay for that."

Bengals-Ravens notes

Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed made a bizarre shout-out at a postgame session with reporters when asked about Jimmy Smith fumbling after making his first career interception. "It reminds me of my rookie year, they slapped it out of my hands and it wound up going back to him. But I’m glad we got it back," Reed said. "I’m kind of surprised you haven’t asked me about the President's Cup, though. Congratulations to those guys, Fred Couples and our team. That was huge." Never knew Reed was such a huge golf fan. ... Former kicker Matt Stover became the sixth member of the Ravens organization to be inducted into the team's Ring of Honor. ... George Clooney was spotted at Sunday's game between the Ravens and Bengals. He's dating Baltimore native Stacy Keibler. Yes, this isn't football-related. But this has to be the first time a movie star ever attended a Ravens-Bengals game, right?

AFC West Stock Watch

November, 8, 2011
11/08/11
1:00
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» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. The Chiefs' mojo: The Kansas City Chiefs went from sky high to wondering what went so terribly wrong in a matter of six days. The Chiefs followed up a thrilling overtime win over the San Diego Chargers on Halloween night with a 31-3 home loss to previously winless Miami on Sunday. This was not a matter of the Chiefs being flat coming off a big win; they were just flat-out smoked, ending a four-game win streak.

[+] EnlargePhilip Rivers
Harry How/Getty ImagesWhile Philip Rivers did have four touchdowns and amassed 385 yards, he also threw two costly interceptions.
2. Darrius Heyward-Bey's role with the Oakland Raiders: The third-year receiver has developed into a solid player in the past month and he has been the Raiders' most reliable receiver this season after struggling in his first two. However, Heyward-Bey didn’t play until the second half Sunday and had only one ball sent his way. He had no catches. Yet, newly signed 34-year-old receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh played a bit. The long-term wellness of this offense will benefit more from the further development of Heyward-Bey rather than the stop-gap contribution from Houshmandzadeh.

3. Philip Rivers' ability to play a clean game: It seems the concern over Rivers' play heightened after every game. Sunday, he threw three interceptions against Green Bay in a 45-28 loss. Two of the interceptions were returned for touchdowns and the third ended a potential game-tying drive in the final minute. Rivers has thrown 14 interceptions this season after throwing 22 in the past two seasons combined.

RISING

1. The intrigue in the division race: We don’t know yet if the AFC West is a good division, but it is tight. The second half of the seasons is set up for a serious race as Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego are all tied for first-place at 4-4. All three teams lost at home Sunday. Denver is still very much in the race at 3-5.

2. Tim Tebow’s leash in Denver: Whether he has been impressive as a pure passer or not, Tebow is 2-1 in three starts this season. The Broncos reportedly are not going to have a long leash on Tebow. But if the Broncos win, he will buy more time.

3. Willis McGahee's value in Denver: McGahee was a big reason Denver won by two touchdowns at Oakland. McGahee had 163 yards on 17 carries, including second-half touchdown runs of 60 and 24 yards. It was his first game back after he missed a game with a broken hand. McGahee, 30, is by far outplaying third-year Denver back Knowshon Moreno, the No. 12 pick of the 2009 draft.
Joe FlaccoJared Wickerham/Getty Images
PITTSBURGH -- So, show of hands, how many expected Joe Flacco to do that?

"No one outside this locker room," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "No one."

Flacco, the Ravens quarterback who takes as many hits on the field as from critics off of it, marched the Ravens 92 yards down the field and delivered the 26-yard winning pass to Torrey Smith with 8 seconds left in the game for a 23-20 win over the AFC North rival Steelers.

It was equally improbable and incredible. He had to go the length of the field against the NFL's top-ranked pass defense. He had 2 minutes, 24 seconds to reach the end zone against a defense that held Tom Brady to a season-low 198 yards passing a week ago.

What does this say about Flacco? He's still not an elite quarterback. He's not even a consistent one. But the Ravens -- as well as the football world -- now know Flacco can take over that moment of the game when he's needed the most. With the defense that Baltimore has, that might be enough for the Ravens to get past that Pittsburgh roadblock and return to the Super Bowl.

The Ravens (6-2) are now tied with the Bengals (6-2) for first place in the AFC North and completed their first sweep of the Steelers since 2006. The way Flacco and the Ravens beat the Steelers wasn't just a statement. It was their grand declaration.

"This Steelers-Ravens game is for men, big men," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said defiantly. "You got to shine bright if you want to win this game. Nobody shined brighter than Joe Flacco in this game."

A different story was being written about Flacco before the eighth game-winning drive in the fourth quarter of his career. On his first drive of the fourth quarter, Flacco fumbled after getting hit by James Harrison. Ben Roethlisberger converted that into a 25-yard go-ahead touchdown in his classic style, rolling to his right and firing the ball downfield on the run.

Once again, it was Roethlisberger over Flacco. Well, not exactly.

After a three-and-out (all three incompletions), Flacco got the ball back at his own 8-yard line. Down by four points (20-16), he knew he needed a touchdown to win the game.

During the television timeout, the Heinz Field scoreboard showed Flacco's statistics (208 yards at the time) next to Roethlisberger's stellar numbers (310 yards) while the lyrics of the Lynyrd Skynyrd song "What's your name, little girl" played loudly.

Still, Joe Cool says he didn't feel under fire.

"You don’t have anything to lose," Flacco said. "You either score or you don’t score."

Flacco calmly completed 7 of 13 passes for 92 yards at a time when he didn't receive much help. On that game-winning drive, Smith let a pass go off his fingertips in the end zone and Anquan Boldin dropped a pass at the 10-yard line.

As somebody who knows what it feels like to have people doubt them, Flacco went back to Smith four plays after that drop for the winning score.

The sellout crowd of 64,851 couldn't believe it. In fact, Flacco didn't initially know it happened. As he jogged downfield after the throw, he saw the flag and thought the Ravens had the ball at the 1-yard line because of pass interference.

"I then saw Torrey coming from the back of end zone with the ball in his hands," Flacco recounted. "I was like, wait a second, did he catch that? I saw a couple of people going nuts, celebrating and running on the field. I was like, he must have caught the ball."

That kind of uncertainty is typical with the Ravens quarterback. When it comes to Flacco, it's hard to gauge which quarterback will show up from game to game, from half to half, or even from drive to drive.

Just take a look at the last two times Flacco was on national television. It was a month ago when Flacco failed to compete a pass in two quarters against the New York Jets. It was two weeks ago when Flacco couldn't produce a first down in the first 40 minutes of the game at Jacksonville.

The Ravens, though, have never publicly wavered in their support of the 2008 first-round pick.

"I don’t get all the stuff everybody talks about with Joe," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Just turn on the TV and look around this league, these are good defenses in the NFL. Even the great ones have their issues. I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of really good ones. At Joe’s age, he’s a great one. And he’s going to do nothing but get better and better. But we know expectations are high. As we say around here, Joe’s just the man for the job."

Harbaugh drew upon Theodore Roosevelt in defending Flacco.

"It's not the critic who counts," he said. "It's the man who is in the arena whose face is covered with blood, sweat and dust. he will never be with those poor and timid souls who know no victory or defeat. So that's what I say to all the people. They don't count."

This isn't the first time that Flacco has won in Heinz Field. It's not the first time that he's thrown a game-winning pass in the final minute.

On Oct. 3, 2010, Flacco hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh for an 18-yard winning touchdown with 32 seconds remaining. This inspired Flacco to tell his teammates that they did it before when they reached midfield Sunday night.

But this was different. Flacco only had to drive the Ravens 40 yards last year and Roethlisberger wasn't on the field.

What Flacco did Sunday night was what all quarterbacks dream about, right?

"I don’t know. I think you live for the 50-0 blowouts," Flacco said with a grin. "If you got to make it tough on yourself, this is probably the most exciting, and in the end, the most fun way to do it."

Flacco has thrived when the pressure has been the highest. Last Sunday, he rallied the Ravens from 21 points down to beat Arizona, something his teammates pointed out Sunday night.

"Take the second half of the Arizona game and take this game," Rice said, "and Joe Flacco is playing better than any quarterback in the NFL."

So, everyone on the Ravens sideline believed Flacco was going to lead a comeback win over the Steelers, right?

"I’m like, either one of two things was going to happen: Either we’re the same team from last year or we’re going to show the world how we’ve grown up in a year -- and he did just that," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "This is the toughest place in the world to win. It says something about our team. It definitely says something about our quarterback."

Observation deck: Ravens-Redskins

August, 25, 2011
8/25/11
11:50
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Observations from the Ravens' 34-31 preseason win over the Washington Redskins on "Monday Night Football":

Baltimore Ravens fans were treated to a rare sight in the second quarter of Thursday's preseason game.

Ravens fourth-year quarterback Joe Flacco threw a beautiful deep ball that sailed high in M&T Bank and into the hands of speedy receiver Lee Evans. Baltimore's newest receiver blew by Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall for the 35-yard touchdown.

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Lee Evans
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesLee Evans hauled in a 35-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Flacco with DeAngelo Hall defending.
The Ravens hope to see many more big plays from Flacco and their offense in 2011. Baltimore's inability to get deep was a major reason the Ravens were ranked No. 22 in total offense last season.

As a result, Baltimore released receivers Derrick Mason, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and tight end Todd Heap. Evans, rookie Torrey Smith and Ed Dickson are some of the new, more athletic pieces the Ravens are counting on.

Time will tell if the Ravens are better on offense this season. But they are certainly faster.

Here are some additional observations:

1. Baltimore's receivers look ready. The offense still has work to do in some areas. But starting receivers Evans and Anquan Boldin look ready. Both veterans caught touchdown passes from Flacco Thursday night. Evans' score was a deep ball, while Boldin beat the zone over the middle for a 12-yards score. Both bring different strengths and are playing well off each other. Boldin and Evans combined for eight receptions and 133 yards in limited playing time.

2. Running back Ray Rice is getting to the next level. Baltimore is making a concerted effort to improve the running game this season. That starts with getting Rice to the second level. Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach is blocking well at the line of scrimmage, and Rice is exploding through the holes. He rushed for 72 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries against Washington. Rice averaged 5.5 yards per run.

3. Baltimore needs offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie. Baltimore's offensive line remains in flux, particularly with pass protection. The Ravens hope free-agent signing McKinnie is the answer. Rookie tackle Jah Reid still has a long way to go. He gave up another sack against fellow Redskins rookie Ryan Kerrigan. McKinnie didn't play Thursday but likely will play left tackle for Baltimore. That would push Michael Oher to right tackle and give Reid more time to develop.

4. The Ravens' pass defense remains a work in progress. Washington quarterback Rex Grossman had a lot of success against Baltimore's first-team defense. Grossman threw for 112 yards and connected with Redskins receiver Santana Moss for a 24-yard touchdown before halftime. The play featured a blown coverage by Ravens rookie corner Jimmy Smith.

5. Ravens rookie quarterback Tyrod Taylor took another step towards becoming Flacco's backup. The sixth-round pick continues to be a pleasant surprise. He was 11-of-18 for 125 yards and a touchdown. There is a lot of discussion in Baltimore about whether or not the Ravens can go into the season with a rookie backup. Next week Taylor likely will get a majority of the reps to put his final stamp on a solid preseason.

6. Dickson may have a slight lead at tight end. The Ravens have a young tight end combo in Dickson and Dennis Pitta. Both are in a close competition for the starting job. Pitta jumped out the gate fast this preseason but Dickson is finishing strong. He recorded three catches for 57 yards against Washington.

7. Baltimore rookie defensive end Pernell McPhee continues to impress. The fifth-round pick recorded his first sack of the preseason in the second half. The Ravens were not counting on McPhee to come on this quickly. But he's been very good in training camp and is earning a spot in the rotation at defensive end.

Camp Confidential: Seattle Seahawks

August, 3, 2011
8/03/11
12:51
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RENTON, Wash. -- NFL training camps aren't what they used to be now that players have secured day-spa treatment from coaches under the new labor agreement.

Still, teams aren't practicing in slippers and robes ... yet.

Earl Thomas, the Seattle Seahawks' second-year safety, did go through a recent practice -- make that a walk-through, just to be safe -- wearing a visor that also would have served him well standing over a Titleist. Several teammates wore ball caps.

None of this shocks the system for Seattle.

Coach Pete Carroll ran a player-friendly camp last year as well, giving the team full days off from practice. But the veterans who lauded Carroll's approach in 2010 aren't around to celebrate it this year. And therein lies the biggest difference for the Seahawks this summer.

For the first time since 2000, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck isn't around to offer the insights and asides that made him mandatory viewing at Seahawks camp. Middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, leader of the defense since 2005, also is gone. Other veterans I polled during the inaugural Camp Carroll are also elsewhere -- Lawyer Milloy, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Olindo Mare among them.

This day has been coming for a while. The Seahawks are getting on with their lives, untethered from what came before.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeTarvaris Jackson
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonTarvaris Jackson should be familiar with the Seahawks' offense since he spent five seasons with new coordinator Darrell Bevell.
1. Why Tarvaris Jackson? The Seahawks decided it was time to move on from Hasselbeck before they had a long-term replacement lined up. Once that decision was made, the team targeted Jackson because he and the Seahawks' new offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, had spent five years together. Once Jackson was signed, Carroll wasted little time endorsing him as the starter. Three possible explanations come to mind. One, Jackson knew the offense. Two, Charlie Whitehurst hadn't asserted himself as a leader during offseason workouts when Hasselbeck was without a contract for 2011. Three, a quick endorsement gave Jackson a confidence boost following a rough run in Minnesota. There's a feeling that maybe, just maybe, Brad Childress did not give Jackson the best chance to succeed with the Vikings.

2. Who will lead the defense? Tatupu's release following six seasons with the team leaves the defense in transition. Tatupu was instinctive and adept at getting teammates lined up properly. His play had deteriorated through injuries, but Tatupu had three Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl on his résumé. He was the defensive leader. Carroll pointed to linebacker David Hawthorne, pass-rusher Chris Clemons and defensive end Red Bryant as heirs. He named Thomas and strong safety Kam Chancellor as well. "I'm not worried about it," Carroll said. "There’s a lot of very strong character kids on that side of the ball, particularly."

3. Does Whitehurst have a future? It's tough to see him emerging in Seattle. The decision to go with Jackson even though rules prevented him from practicing right away said plenty about Whitehurst's status on the team. Whitehurst has been running the first-team offense while Jackson waits to become eligible under rules for players with new contracts. Everyone knows he's the backup even though there was never any competition. It's a tough situation for Whitehurst. Still, getting to work with the starters provided an opportunity to impress. It has not happened. Whitehurst's contract runs through the 2011 season. If Whitehurst doesn't show more as camp progresses, it's fair to wonder whether the team would consider bringing in a cheaper veteran.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Signing Zach Miller in free agency. Miller was on the Seahawks' radar when free agency opened. Assistant head coach/offensive line Tom Cable had high praise for Miller from their days together in Oakland. But the Seahawks never expected Miller to remain available so deep into the signing period. After a while, the Seahawks began to view Miller the way they would view a talented prospect falling to them in the draft. They felt compelled to pursue Miller with a strong offer. The Raiders made a push to keep Miller, but Seattle came through with a five-year, $34 million contract featuring $17 million in guarantees. Having Cable and former Raiders guard Robert Gallery in Seattle helped the Seahawks get this deal done. The team emerged from free agency with a 25-year-old Pro Bowl player.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Extending the lockout (sort of). Carroll has bristled every day over the rules preventing newly signed players from practicing before Aug. 4, only one week before Seattle's exhibition opener at San Diego. Jackson, Sidney Rice and Gallery are among the key additions who were forbidden from participating in practices or even workouts with the team. The situation was tough for teams throughout the league, but Seattle felt challenged more than most because the team has undergone so much roster turnover. Seattle also has quite a few new coaches on the offensive side of the ball, including Bevell, Cable and quarterbacks coach Carl Smith. Going a week without getting key starters onto the field didn't make any sense from a football standpoint.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeRussell Okung
    AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonRussell Okung has shown no signs of the injuries that nagged him last season.
    The ankle injuries that slowed left tackle Russell Okung as a rookie last season haven't been a problem so far. Okung appears exceedingly smooth. He rides out defenders effectively during pass-rush drills, sometimes even driving them to the ground. He's a threat to flatten defenders in the running game. Another recent first-round pick on the line, James Carpenter, has made a positive first impression at right tackle early in camp. He's thick and massive. He plays with an edge. He's going to start in Week 1.
  • Rookie right guard John Moffitt projects as a starter, but he could need time to develop. That was my impression watching Moffitt in drills. Of course, it's not fair comparing Moffitt to Okung or Carpenter. Those guys were first-round picks. Moffitt was a third-rounder. Having youth on the line is a good thing overall. Getting the 31-year-old Gallery into the lineup is critical, however. Gallery has been serving as a coach on the field during practices. He knows Cable's blocking schemes and is already proving valuable as a resource. Durability is a concern for him.
  • Seattle is finished with the big-ticket purchases in free agency. The team could still add veterans at linebacker and kicker. The team lacks experience in the secondary as well. Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings are the only cornerbacks on the team with more than one start. Going young sounds great during the offseason, but throwing untested corners onto the field against veteran quarterbacks isn't very appealing when the games start counting. The Seahawks face Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning in the first five weeks of the regular season.
  • Strong safety Jeron Johnson and three linebackers -- Mike Morgan, K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith -- are among the rookies impressing Seattle early in camp. Another rookie, safety Mark LeGree, is getting a chance to play safety when Thomas, the starter at free, shifts to cornerback against slot receivers. Carroll alluded to such an arrangement during the draft. One more rookie, Pep Levingston, has impressed in early one-on-one pass-rush drills. A defensive tackle at LSU, Levingston projects as an end with Seattle. He's leaner than I had anticipated, an advantage in pass-rush drills.
  • Seven of the 11 cornerbacks on the roster are at least 6 feet tall. Three are 5-foot-11 and one is 5-10. The biggest, Brandon Browner, goes 6-4 and 221 pounds. Impressive? Perhaps, but only three of the 11 have started an NFL game, and none of the three with starting experience stands taller than 5-11.
  • Size is a theme throughout the roster. Mike Williams, Rice and fellow receiver Kris Durham are at least 6-4.
  • The Seahawks might need to find more touches for Leon Washington if they hope to get sufficient return on their investment in him. New rules governing kickoffs figure to diminish the value of Washington and other top returners.
  • Seattle's front office trusted its coaches during free agency. Just about every free-agent addition has ties to a Seahawks staff member. Miller and Gallery played for Cable in Oakland. Jackson and Rice played for Bevell in Minnesota. Defensive tackle Alan Branch was an exception. Seattle added him after failing to land a defensive tackle in the draft. Ideally, Branch would be a backup. He could start for Seattle at three-technique, with Brandon Mebane moving to nose tackle. Branch will also back up Bryant at five-technique.
  • For the second year in a row under Carroll, the Seahawks are piping hip-hop beats and mixes into practices. A disc jockey stands behind two turntables near the front corner of the practices fields. "Halfway home and my pager still blowin' up, today I didn't even have to use my A.K. I got to say it was a good day ..." Hearing those lyrics from Ice Cube during a recent practice, I couldn't help but wonder what Chuck Knox would think of the arrangement. Did I mention times have changed in the NFL? Just a little.
CBS Sportsline reports that the Philadelphia Eagles might not be big players for Oakland free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. The report cites Asomugha’s expected enormous price tag and that fact that he is not a perfect fit for the Eagles’ scheme.

Asomugha
Asomugha
The Eagles have been reported, along with NFC East rivals Dallas and Washington, as likely pursuers of Asomugha. If the Eagles aren’t overly interested in getting into the Asomugha sweepstakes, I don’t necessarily think it affects Oakland’s chances of keeping Asomugha. If Asomugha and the Raiders want each other, they’ll figure it out regardless of interest from other teams.

And don’t think this report will start a trend of other teams deciding not to actively pursue Asomugha. There will be plenty of teams willing to accommodate him.

Meanwhile, ESPN.com’s Jeffri Chadida connects receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Oakland coach Hue Jackson. The two worked together in the past and Oakland was connected to the receiver last summer. However, the Raiders have depth at the position, and Houshmandzadeh’s skills have been declining.
Ike Taylor, Chad Ochocinco and Lawrence VickersAP PhotoDraft-day moves by their teams could mean Ike Taylor (Steelers), left, Chad Ochocinco (Bengals), middle, and Lawrence Vickers (Browns) will be wearing different uniforms next season.
While one dream was being made last week, another was coming to an end.

Saturday in California, former Stanford fullback Owen Marecic happily took a call from the Cleveland Browns in the fourth round. Marecic was excited to be entering the NFL and knowing his destination in 2011.

Soon after, current Browns fullback and pending free agent Lawrence Vickers' phone began buzzing constantly to let the veteran know Cleveland likely drafted his replacement.

"Honestly, my first reaction was 'Wow,'" Vickers told the AFC North blog this week. "I'm amazed. I was amazed I was still a free agent and wasn't signed [by the Browns] before the deadline. I didn't understand it. But at the same time I do understand, because nothing has ever come easy to me. So I was prepared for it.

"If they want me, they want me. If they don't, they don't. As a man, you have to be prepared for anything. But in the back of my mind I thought I would be in Cleveland."

Welcome to the harsh world of the NFL.

As teams were making draft picks last week, each move to replace players and plug holes could impact what AFC North teams do in free agency. Let's take a look at where each division team stands.

Cleveland Browns

Top draft picks: DT Phil Taylor, DE Jabaal Sheard, WR Greg Little, FB Owen Marecic

Potential impact: The Browns were in need of talented players and could have as many as four Week 1 starters in this year's draft class. Health permitting, Taylor and Sheard are heavy, heavy favorites to start at defensive tackle and defensive end, respectively. Cleveland doesn't have many bodies at those positions. Little will be thrown into a receiving corps that includes Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi. Both have struggled and Little, who missed last season at North Carolina because of a suspension, will have every chance to compete for a starting role. But Marecic was the pick that turned some heads. The Browns were eerily quiet about Vickers' pending free agency this offseason, and speculation began to grow that the new coaching staff didn't feel he was a good fit for the West Coast offense. Those thoughts were confirmed Saturday, when Cleveland made a surprise pick for a fullback in the fourth round. Vickers, one of the top blocking fullbacks in the NFL, is expected to test the market, where he will surely get interest. The Browns did a good job of filling holes but still need to address certain areas. Safety and the right side of the offensive line remain glaring needs.

Cincinnati Bengals

Top draft picks: WR A.J. Green, QB Andy Dalton, OLB Dontay Moch, G Clint Boling

Potential impact: Cincinnati's first two picks were not a surprise, but both were telling. It likely signaled the end of the Chad Ochocinco-Carson Palmer era with the Bengals. Both veterans, who have been the faces of the franchise for years, are under contract. But Ochocinco is in the final year of his deal and is expected to be traded or released following the acquisition of Green. Palmer wants to be traded or he plans to retire, which is why the Bengals drafted Dalton. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is already projecting Dalton to be the Week 1 starter. Cincinnati should get all the value it can for Ochocinco and Palmer. It's questionable whether any team is willing to trade and pay the approximate $6 million for one year with Ochocinco. But it takes only one team. With Palmer, there will be several teams lined up and ready to pounce if the Bengals put him on the market. Cincinnati's coaching staff appears ready to move on without Palmer, so it will come down to ownership. Bengals owner Mike Brown said recently that the team has no intention of trading Palmer. The Bengals did not draft a cornerback until the seventh round (Korey Lindsey), but that probably has no bearing on pending free agent Johnathan Joseph. Cincinnati isn't expected to retain Joseph, who will be one of the league's top free agents. But the team has Adam Jones for insurance to pair with starter Leon Hall. The Bengals also want starting tailback and pending free agent Cedric Benson back, as evidenced by the team not drafting a replacement.

Baltimore Ravens

Top draft picks: CB Jimmy Smith, WR Torrey Smith, OT Jah Reid, WR Tandon Doss

Potential impact: The Ravens took one of the biggest risks in the draft by selecting Smith of Colorado. He has a long list of off-the-field issues at Colorado, but the Ravens feel confident Smith will stay out of trouble. In terms of talent, Baltimore landed a player with the potential to be the team's first shutdown corner since Chris McAlister. Smith is expected to start right away, and this impacts two pending free agents in Josh Wilson and Chris Carr. Wilson played well for Baltimore once he earned the starting job in the second half of the 2010 season. Carr was a backup, but a solid presence in the locker room. With the pickup of Smith, Wilson and Carr are no longer huge priorities in free agency. The Ravens are getting Domonique Foxworth back from a knee injury and Lardarius Webb is still on the roster. The pick of Torrey Smith in the second round fills a need for a speedy receiver to pair with Derrick Mason and Anquan Boldin. He is expected to fill the No. 3 receiver role T.J. Houshmandzadeh will leave behind. Ravens coach John Harbaugh also spoke highly of Reid, the team's third-rounder. Former starting offensive tackle Jared Gaither was injured last season and has been in the doghouse for quite some time and isn't expected to return. In terms of holes, the Ravens still need an impact pass-rushing threat to pair with Pro Bowl defensive end/linebacker Terrell Suggs.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Top draft picks: DE Cameron Heyward, OT Marcus Gilbert, CB Curtis Brown, CB Cortez Allen

Potential impact: The Steelers stayed true to form by drafting for depth in the first two rounds with Heyward and Gilbert. Barring injury, both players will be put in the rotation but are not expected to start. But the third and fourth rounds are where things got interesting for Pittsburgh. The Steelers went with cornerbacks in back-to-back rounds with Brown and Allen. They hope one or both rookies can make an immediate impact. That might be asking a lot for the reigning AFC champions. Brown was the second-best corner on his team at the University Texas to Aaron Williams, on whom the Steelers passed in the first round. Allen played at a small school (Citadel) and will make a significant jump to the NFL. All of these factors increase the value of Ike Taylor, who is Pittsburgh's biggest free agent. The Steelers' No. 1 corner would fill an important starting role and take a lot of pressure off the team's young corners. That way Brown, Allen, Keenan Lewis and Crezdon Butler can all compete for reserve roles and develop at a more gradual pace. The price tag will be the biggest question. The going rate for solid cornerbacks this offseason has been about $10 million per season. It's doubtful the Steelers are willing to pay that much to retain Taylor. Also look for the Steelers to fill their kicker positions in free agency and perhaps add another backup tailback to replace Mewelde Moore.
Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen once had enough personal wealth, on paper, to own every team in the NFL and NBA.

Franchise valuations have gone up and Allen's estimated personal wealth has dropped from $30 billion to $13 billion, according to Forbes.

When reading the report saying NFL owners have enough wealth to last them through a 2011 season without games, I'm thinking Allen will be OK no matter how long this lockout drags. Last season, he paid more than $6 million to T.J. Houshmandzadeh after Seattle cut the receiver.

It's only logical, then, that the Seahawks showed up on the New York Daily News' list of teams planning no salary reductions for coaches while the NFL and its players fight over $9 billion in annual revenue.

Other teams on that list: the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys.

Leading Questions: NFC West

February, 14, 2011
2/14/11
1:00
PM ET
With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC West team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

What happens to the offensive line?

We've been asking, answering and asking some more questions about the Cardinals' quarterback situation for months. Let's tap a few brain cells to discuss the guys up front.

Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui are without contracts for 2011. Left guard Alan Faneca might retire. Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off hamstring and knee injuries that shortened his first season as a starter. The Cardinals do not have fresh talent in reserve. They have drafted only one offensive lineman in the first four rounds since Ken Whisenhunt became head coach in 2007. Twenty-seven teams have drafted more. As much as the team trusts assistant head coach Russ Grimm to get the most from its offensive line, Arizona could use fresh young talent for him to groom.

The Cardinals went through the 2010 season with the NFL's oldest offensive linemen, counting backups. That wouldn't matter so much if left tackle Levi Brown were meeting the Pro Bowl expectations that came with his status as a top-five overall selection in the 2007 draft. Brown was underwhelming at right tackle to begin his career and a liability at left tackle last season. His salary balloons in 2012, so this could be his last season in Arizona.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Can the defense take the next step?

The Rams allowed 328 points last season, tied for the third-lowest total since the team moved from Los Angeles for the 1995 season. They allowed seven rushing touchdowns, their lowest total since 1999 and down from 50 combined over the previous two seasons. But with starting defensive linemen James Hall and Fred Robbins turning 34 this offseason, and with questions at linebacker, the Rams' defense will not automatically go from competitive toward dominant.

Hall will be looking to become the 14th player since 1982 (when the NFL began tracking sacks as an official stat) to collect 10 sacks in a season at age 34 or older. The others: Trace Armstrong, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Tony McGee, Steve McMichael, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan and Reggie White.

Robbins is coming off one of his finest seasons. He joined Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993).

Getting similar production and continued good health from two older players is no given. The Rams also need to find help at outside linebacker after losing 32-year-old Na'il Diggs to a torn pectoral muscle 12 games into the 2010 season. The Rams are set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, but they could stand to upgrade around him.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

How well can Jim Harbaugh coach up a quarterback?

When the 49ers' new coach needed a quarterback at Stanford, he recruited one. Andrew Luck set records and led the Cardinal to national prominence. Recruiting isn't a significant part of the equation in the NFL, so Harbaugh will have to settle for the best quarterback he can draft or otherwise acquire. He might even have to give Alex Smith a shot.

The 49ers will need Harbaugh to do what his recent predecessors could not: get good production from limited or flawed talent at the most important position.

Rich Gannon was well-established as an NFL quarterback when Harbaugh arrived as his position coach in Oakland for the 2002 season. The pairing reflected well on all parties. Gannon set career highs for completed passes, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards and passer rating. Gannon was already a good quarterback and the Raiders were already a good team, so it's tough to measure Harbaugh's impact.

Gannon is long since retired. Harbaugh is back in the NFL for the first time since the two were together on the Raiders in 2003. The 49ers don't have a legitimate starting quarterback under contract. Harbaugh has been meeting with Smith and keeping open his options. The stakes are high in the short term because the 49ers have enough talent elsewhere on their roster to compete for a playoff spot.

Outside expectations for Smith are so low that Harbaugh could appear heroic if he could get even a 9-7 record out of the 49ers with Smith in the lineup.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

How much more roster turnover lies ahead?

The Seahawks were fearless in overhauling their roster during their first year under general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

The team added Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington, Chris Clemons, Stacy Andrews, Tyler Polumbus, Kentwan Balmer, Kevin Vickerson, Robert Henderson and LenDale White, though Seattle parted with Vickerson, Henderson, White and 2009 regulars Deion Branch, Julius Jones, Owen Schmitt, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Josh Wilson, Lawrence Jackson, Rob Sims, Darryl Tapp, Deon Grant and Seneca Wallace. The Seahawks watched a couple other starters, Nate Burleson and Cory Redding, leave in free agency.

If those were the moves the Seahawks felt comfortable making right away, I figured there would be quite a few to come after the team's new leadership watched players for a full season. And there still could be, but similar wheeling and dealing could be impractical or even impossible if the current labor standoff continues deep into the offseason.

Teams cannot make trades without a new labor agreement. They cannot know for sure whether or not a salary cap will come into play as part of any new deal. It's just tough to act as decisively as Seattle acted last offseason without knowing the rules. That's a disadvantage for Seattle and other teams with much work to do this offseason.

Ravens-Chiefs halftime notes

January, 9, 2011
1/09/11
2:31
PM ET
KANSAS CITY -- The Baltimore Ravens lead the Kansas City Chiefs, 10-7, at intermission.

Here are some notes at halftime.
  • There was a lot of jawing between these teams. The Ravens are known to talk trash, and tailback Ray Rice and receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh got into it several times with Chiefs defenders. Kansas City defensive linemen Shaun Smith, who played against Baltimore most of his career in Cincinnati and Cleveland, also has been getting into it.
  • One of the big storylines entering the game was whether Baltimore's fifth-rated run defense could slow down Chiefs Pro Bowl tailback Jamaal Charles. So far, Kansas City is getting the best of that battle as Charles has rushed for 87 yards on seven carries, including a 41-yard touchdown run in the first half.
  • The crossing routes have been open for Baltimore and might be something the team wants to continue exploit in the second half. Ravens tight end Todd Heap has been very successful getting open on those routes, which have moved the chains. Heap has seven catches for 81 yards in the first half.
  • Baltimore's pass protection in the past month has been shoddy and the Ravens struggled in this area in the first half. Kansas City registered three sacks of quarterback Joe Flacco. But Flacco has also done a good job of scrambling out of trouble for additional yards.

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