NFL Nation: Wildcat

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The New England Patriots are set to take a step back offensively in 2013. They lost both starting receivers – Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd -- from last year’s group that led the NFL in scoring and replaced them with mostly unproven players and rookies.

New England also has huge question marks at tight end. Rob Gronkowski has had five surgeries on his arm and back since last November and may not be fully recovered for Week 1, and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez also had major shoulder surgery and missed six games last season.

The Patriots signing quarterback Tim Tebow off the scrap heap isn't the answer to New England’s offensive woes. If anything, it shows an unexpected sign of desperation for a New England offense searching for answers.

This is yet another sign that New England’s run of Super Bowl appearances and NFL dominance is coming to an end. Future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and Belichick have made it to five Super Bowls -- winning three. But it looks more and more like last year may have been the Belichick/Brady era Patriots’ final shot to win a fourth championship when they lost at home to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC title game.

To put it bluntly, New England simply is not good enough to win a Super Bowl this year. Last year’s team was better, especially on offense. Brady, who will be 36 in August, is a year older and has less firepower. Adding Tebow to the mix doesn’t fix anything. It simply brings more media and a huge distraction, which is something Belichick usually tries to avoid.

And what exactly is Tebow’s role in New England?

Tebow is certainly not playing quarterback. Brady is clearly the franchise starter in New England, and I would take my chances with the strong arm of Ryan Mallett over the inaccurate and poor mechanics of Tebow any day. Tebow is the No. 3 quarterback at best.

Would the Patriots really take Brady off the field to insert Tebow in a Wildcat package? Taking an elite quarterback like Brady off the field for any amount of plays is a huge mistake. Opposing defenses would love to see less Brady and more Tebow on a weekly basis. Would the Patriots be silly enough to oblige?

Maybe Tebow can play H-back or on special teams in New England. But that is nothing more than what he did with the New York Jets last year when things went awry. Is all of that worth the extra attention that Tebow brings? The Jets got their answer last year. Now, it's New England's turn to make the same mistake.

I do not see how adding Tebow makes the Patriots a better team. This is a franchise which prides itself on competing for championships. But New England took yet another step backward on Monday.

Does Tim Tebow's story add up?

December, 26, 2012
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Popular New York Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow lashed out at critics who put him through the wringer last week for reportedly asking not to play in the team's Wildcat package. That brought many critics out of the woodworks, including NFL analyst Merril Hoge, who made headlines by calling Tebow a "phony."

Tebow has long been praised for his character and work ethic and didn't appreciate facing criticism in that regard for the first time in his career.

"For people to not know the situation and to bash your character and say you're a phony, you're a fake and you're a hypocrite, I think that's what's disappointing and that's what's frustrating," Tebow told reporters Wednesday. "It's a football game. That's one thing, if you're good or bad at football, but your character and integrity, that's who you are as a man. That's a lot more important. That's what's disappointing for me and frustrating because I take that way more serious than I'll ever take a football game."

Tebow
Tebow denied ESPNNewYork.com's report that he asked out of the Wildcat package.

"I never said, 'Hey, I don't want to do anything or I won't do anything,' " Tebow said. "That wasn't the talk at all. He knows that and everybody on this team knows I would never not do something if I was asked.”

But this is where things get murky. Does Tebow's story really add up?

If Tebow never asked out of the Wildcat package, why did receiver Jeremy Kerley replace him last Sunday against the San Diego Chargers? Did the Jets, suddenly in Week 16, think Kerley was better at running Tebow's package than Tebow? That's unlikely. Tebow also wasn't injured and practiced all week.

The timing of Tebow not playing in the Wildcat also was conspicuous, as it lined up with the same week Tebow was bypassed for third-string quarterback Greg McElroy. Jets head coach Rex Ryan has dodged questions of about whether or not Tebow asked not to play in the Wildcat.

Tebow also told ESPN's Adam Schefter that he smoothed things over with Ryan Friday and told the Jets' coach he'd perform any role to help the team. But why would Tebow have to say that to Ryan if Tebow claims he never asked out in the first place? Something had to happen prior for Tebow to feel the need to clear the air.

If Tebow didn't tell Jets coaches he didn't want to play in the Wildcat, then Tebow or the Jets need to come forward and explain why Tebow didn't play in the Wildcat last Sunday. Tebow is shooting down reports without explaining why he didn't play in his usual role. That's not something that is hard to do.

Tebow's story appears incomplete and creates more questions than answers.

Bills ready for Tim Tebow, Wildcat?

September, 5, 2012
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The New York Jets have been hiding their Wildcat package with Tim Tebow all summer for the regular season. Now, the wait is over as the Buffalo Bills will be the first opponent to face the Jets and their Wildcat package under new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano.

There is a lot of mystery surrounding how Tebow will be used offensively. How many plays will the Jets run the Wildcat? Will there be new wrinkles compared to what we saw with Sparano in Miami? Can Tebow take pressure off starting quarterback Mark Sanchez by moving the chains?

Since the Jets haven't put it on tape, the Bills are preparing for the unknown. If Buffalo can stop Tebow and the Wildcat, that would go a long way to shutting down the sputtering Jets offense, which failed to score a touchdown in three preseason games.

"You have to pay attention to it. You know they've got it," Bills coach Chan Gailey said on a conference call with New York reporters Wednesday. "They've got a good weapon in Tebow, so you have to expect it. You have to work on it. You're guessing what they’re going to do a little bit, but you have to spend time on it. I’m just glad we have the extra day or two to get ready for it. In a regular week it would've been very tough."

We mentioned earlier this week that Buffalo has several advantages on its side. First, Bills quarterbacks coach David Lee introduced the Wildcat to Miami while working with Sparano. That should make for few surprises. Second, Buffalo played against Tebow last season and successfully pummeled the quarterback while running a similar system in Denver. Finally, the Bills have a Wildcat package of their own that the defense practices against regularly.

The Bills are probably the most prepared team for the Wildcat that Tebow and the Jets will face all season. It's another reason Sunday's AFC East matchup will be very interesting to see who executes the best to start the season.

Can the Jets fix their offense?

August, 21, 2012
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Sanchez & Tebow & Holmes US PresswireMark Sanchez, left, Santonio Holmes, middle, Tim Tebow and the Jets have no TDs this preseason.
The New York Jets' offense can't run, can't pass, can't protect the quarterback and cannot get into the end zone.

Other than that, things are going pretty well.

The Jets are putting on a "Bad News Bears" type of performance offensively this preseason. Granted, these games don't count in the standings. But we haven't seen anything from the Jets to inspire confidence that they will improve on last season's No. 25 ranking in total offense during the regular season.

A full slate of organized team activities, minicamp and training camp have produced only three field goals in eight quarters. The Jets currently hold the embarrassing distinction as the only NFL team yet to score a preseason touchdown.

The much-hyped and much-anticipated quarterback battle between Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow has fizzled. Sanchez is 13-of-17 for 80 yards, with one pick-six and five sacks. Tebow is 9-of-22 for 96 yards, one interception and four sacks. The Jets' offense this preseason is best measured in inches, not yards.

At some point, confidence might become an issue. This is a group that struggled all last season under former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. But with "Schotty" gone, there is no scapegoat left to point the finger at besides the players failing to execute.

"Obviously like anything else, you want touchdowns because you want to see kids smile," Jets first-year offensive coordinator Tony Sparano told reporters this week. "You want to see the smile on their face. You want to see some validation on what it is that we’ve been doing and how hard they’ve been working."

There weren't many smiles from the Jets' offense in last weekend's 26-3 loss to the New York Giants. The Jets looked very frustrated for only a second preseason game.

Jets starting tailback Shonn Greene voiced his frustration after a failed fourth-down conversion in the first half. Tebow also was vocal and upset with his teammates for missed assignments. Tebow was sacked four times by the Giants' backups.

There are so many issues with personnel and execution that you wonder if the Jets can fix their offense in time for their Week 1 showdown in the AFC East against the Buffalo Bills.

Starting with the offensive line, the Jets must figure out what to do with starting right tackle Wayne Hunter. In his first preseason game last weekend, Hunter allowed three sacks and had a fourth called back because of a Giants penalty. Hunter was a major problem last season and has shown no signs of improvement.

"That stuff happens to everybody," Sanchez said of Hunter's bad game. "I don't care who you are."

Sanchez also spoke of building up Hunter's confidence and continuing to have faith in the struggling right tackle. New York's coaches say Hunter's problems are correctable. But the truth is he's just not a good player. If the Jets had a viable replacement, they would have benched Hunter by now. The problem is New York's options are very thin.

The Jets might have to turn to third-year tackle Austin Howard. I don't know if he's any good, but he can't play much worse than Hunter did in the last preseason game. New York should start Howard on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. If Howard doesn't give up four sacks in the first half, consider it progress. Another option would be to move draft bust Vladimir Ducasse from guard back to right tackle.

Whether it's Hunter, Howard or Ducasse, it's clear the Jets must give their right tackle help this season by consistently leaving in an extra tight end or running back. That takes away options in the passing game, but it is better than having Sanchez or Tebow laying on his back.

It's also time for the Jets to use their Wildcat offense. New York has been holding this formation close to the vest, but this wrinkle might be the best thing the Jets' offense has going for it. Tebow has proven he can move the chains with his legs, both with the Denver Broncos and the Jets in the preseason. I understand the Jets not wanting to show too much before they play the Bills on Sept. 9. But they should at least do a few basic, Wildcat plays to jumpstart the offense, get some work in and build the group's confidence.

My final preseason suggestion is for New York to play rookie receiver Stephen Hill as much as possible with the starters. The second-round pick has four receptions in two games. He is a raw talent in need of playing time. Hill has the size and speed to be an asset for the Jets, and this is the perfect time to develop him.

If Hill is more seasoned by the regular season when No. 1 receiver Santonio Holmes returns from his rib injury, the Jets' receivers will be in much better shape than they are now. Hill also is a solid run blocker who will contribute to New York's ground-and-pound offense.

The Jets have a lot of problems offensively. But benching Hunter, using the Wildcat and developing Hill as much as possible this preseason should patch a few holes.

With a strong defense, the Jets don't need their offense to be world-beaters to win games. New York just needs its leaky ship on offense to stay afloat and keep its head above water.
CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The regular-season opener between the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills isn't for another five weeks. But the division rivals have the opener in mind as they progress through training camp and the preseason.

According to Jets head coach Rex Ryan, the Bills need to be wary of Tim Tebow and New York's Wildcat package. The Jets ran it in practice for the first time this week and are beginning the installing process.

The Bills vs. Jets in Week 1 is a huge opener in the AFC East and Tebow will be a factor, according to Ryan.

"The great thing is ... the Buffalo Bills, we're going to use [Tebow] 20 snaps, we’re going to use him two snaps, 50 snaps, they don’t know," Ryan said. "All I know is they have to prepare for him, and I know what that does to your preparation time. When you start running the Wildcat and what that does, you can’t just [blow] it off. There’s a lot of coordinators will be like, ‘Oh, it’s not big deal.’ Yes it is. You really can’t tell that lie, because I’ve been there in your shoes.”

The Bills did well against Tebow last season in their only meeting in 2011. Buffalo beat Tebow and the Denver Broncos, 40-14. Tebow threw for 185 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and one fumble. Tebow also was sacked four times in what was one of his worst games of the season. But the Jets have different personnel and play in a new system.

Ryan also said Friday that he's not worried about the Bills’ interest in free-agent safety Jim Leonhard. The Bills hosted Leonhard for a visit this week. They could use depth at safety behind starters George Wilson and Jairus Bryd. But also Buffalo could use Leonhard’s inside knowledge of New York’s defense. Leonhard spent three seasons with the Jets and also played an additional year under Ryan with the Baltimore Ravens.

“It’s not a concern, because they have a ton of film. They have 1,200 plays from last year they can go watch,” Ryan said. “Jim does have a great grasp of what we do defensively. No question about that. But I’m sure Jim’s there because he’s a good football player.”
The New York Jets have stopped the preseason predictions. But one thing they are not shy about is letting everyone know they plan to be physical on offense.

Does this mean a big year is upcoming for Jets starting running back Shonn Greene? The Jets hope that is the case.

New York head coach Rex Ryan and new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano want to take "ground and pound" to the next level in 2012. Greene, who is coming off his first 1,000-yard season, will be at the center of it.

Greene set career highs last season in carries (253), yards (1,054) and touchdowns (six). The Jets expect even more out of the fourth-year tailback this year.

"We want to be a run-first team," Ryan said this week during organized team activities. "In other words, bring them all in here (by the line of scrimmage) and we'll throw it. ... We want to be a physical football team. You're going to know it. So we're not going to disappoint you. We're going to give the ball to Shonn Greene a bunch."

With future Hall of Fame tailback LaDainian Tomlinson out of the picture, Greene might get 300-plus carries. Backup tailback Joe McKnight is second on the depth chart and unproven. The Jets also will use backup quarterback Tim Tebow as a change-up in New York's Wildcat package.

But it will be mostly Greene as the biggest engine behind New York's "ground and pound." He will be asked to set the tone every week and to take pressure off quarterback Mark Sanchez and the passing game.

More opportunities should be a good thing for Greene. He is a big, physical runner who averages 4.3 yards per carry over his career. Greene also played hurt at times last year and still put together some big games.

"He fits in pretty well. I mean Shonn is a physical back," Sparano said. "I remember watching this guy come out in college, watching his college tape. It was tremendous. He's built the right way. He gets his shoulders squared to the line of scrimmage, he breaks tackles, and he runs with the right pad level. To me, he has all the qualities I look for in those type of A-back players."
Tim Tebow would have easily been the New York Jets' second-leading rusher in 2011. If things go well, Tebow may accomplish that feat with New York in 2012.

Tebow helped the Denver Broncos become the NFL's top running team last season. He rushed for 660 yards, six touchdowns and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Here is how Tebow's rushing numbers compare with New York's running backs last season:


The Jets can certainly use addition production behind Greene. But what are realistic expectations for Tebow?

The former Broncos quarterback ran 122 times last year in 14 games (11 starts). That number of carries is unrealistic for a No. 2 quarterback. Tebow will be used primarily in Wildcat and gimmick packages several times a game.

If Mark Sanchez remains the starter all season -- is that a big if? -- I estimate Tebow gets five to 10 plays a game. The workload could hinge on the game plan, opponent, flow of the game, etc. Assuming most (not all) would be running plays, let's figure that Tebow averages about five carries per game. That would give Tebow 80 carries over a 16-game season. If Tebow averages last season's 5.4 yards per carry, he would rush for 432 yards.

That would be a good amount to add to the pile in New York. The Jets want to ground-and-pound, and Tebow has the toughness and running ability to help.

The key for Tebow will be his efficiency. He won't get nearly as many carries as last season, but making the most of each opportunity is what the Jets need to move the chains.

Well, that was interesting.

The Tim Tebow era in New York lasted approximately three hours. Then it was taken away, only to return in what was a rollercoaster Wednesday for the Jets, Denver Broncos and Tebow himself.

That's how long it took for the Jets to agree to a trade, then back out after not realizing they would owe Denver an additional $5 million. Eventually, both sides met halfway and the Jets will pay half that amount ($2.5 million) to Denver, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports.

Blame this one on the Jets. New York's front office failed to read the fine print and missed the huge clause. But I don't blame the Jets for backtracking and doing everything they could to void the move.

I liked the trade for Tebow and a seventh rounder in exchange for a fourth and sixth rounder. I like it moderately less now that the Jets also had to cough up an additional $2.5 million to make the trade go through. But if Tebow plays his role well next season as the Jets' Wildcat option and backup quarterback behind Mark Sanchez, people will probably forget about the extra cash.

Reportedly, Tebow had a say in where he could go. He chose the Jets over the Jacksonville Jaguars. That is interesting because Jacksonville is Tebow country and he would've had a better chance at winning the starting job for the Jaguars.

For more on Tebow's fit with the Jets, check out the AFC East blog's previous coverage of the initial trade to New York here, here and here.

What can Tim Tebow do for the Jets?

March, 21, 2012
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The New York Jets are one of four teams reportedly interested in Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.

Is this is a good idea or bad idea for the Jets? Here are some thoughts:
  • You naturally link Tebow to Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, who ran the Wildcat in Miami. Tebow would be great at it. This gimmick offense would suit his skills well. The Jets want to run the ball -- a lot. With Tebow, Denver was one of the top running teams in the NFL. The Jets don't have a blue-chip running back on the roster. Tebow can add a few hundred yards to the pile and a good yards-per-carry average to New York's ground-and-pound offense. From an X's and O's standpoint, it makes sense.
  • Here is the rub: Would starting quarterback Mark Sanchez be OK with adding Tebow? I'm sure there would be mixed feelings. On one hand, Sanchez has the security with the Jets after getting a five-year extension. He will be New York's quarterback for at least the next two years. That could be enough for Sanchez to be fine with adding Tebow as his backup. However, the fans don't care about finances, particularly in the win-now culture of New York. If Sanchez has a bad stretch of two or three games, fans will be clamoring for the wildly popular Tebow, especially after Tebow propelled Denver last season and won a playoff game. Sanchez would have to play well and consistent throughout the season or there will be plenty of fan pressure. That is something the Jets have to consider.
  • Finally, keep in mind Tebow beat the Jets last year. I think that game earned Tebow a lot of respect in New York's locker room, coaching staff and front office. Regardless of how you feel about Tebow as a quarterback, he has a lot of good football traits. He's tough, can run, is hard-nosed and works very hard. Tebow's biggest issue is he can't throw the football accurately. But if the Jets can add him as a backup quarterback to run gimmick plays several times a game, it can work. I like the idea of Tebow to New York as long as Sanchez can handle it and the Jets don't give up any high draft picks.

Panthers don't need gimmicks

August, 11, 2011
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I really like the fact the Carolina Panthers are trying to be creative with their offense.

They weren’t even close to being creative when John Fox and Jeff Davidson were running the show. I’d say the last time the Panthers showed any creativity on offense was back when Dan Henning was the coordinator, but I know there are plenty of Carolina fans that wouldn’t go along with that. They’d say the last time the Panthers had an interesting offense was in George Seifert’s first two seasons.

However, there’s one thing I don’t like about what the Panthers are doing. They recently spent 30 minutes of practice letting Armanti Edwards work at quarterback. Yes, Edwards is a former college quarterback, but he was drafted to be a return man and a wide receiver.

The Panthers still think his future is at those two positions, but they’re inserting a Wildcat package in which Edwards will sometimes line up at quarterback. The team talked about shifting quarterback Cam Newton out wide in those situations.

Great, you’ll have an undersized quarterback who hasn’t passed since college throwing to a quarterback, who is not a receiver. Yeah, it might be flashy, but it makes less sense than most of what Fox and Davidson did the last couple of years.

I’m not saying it’s a bad idea for the Panthers to use Edwards in the Wildcat for a couple plays a game, but no more than that, when the regular season rolls around. And I’m also saying it’s a waste of valuable training-camp practice time to give Edwards a lot of work at quarterback.

Newton and Jimmy Clausen need all the work they can get after not having an offseason program to learn a new offense. They need all that work at quarterback, not wide receiver.

And Edwards needs to get his work as a receiver and a return man. Let guys do what they do best.

There’s a theory subscribed to by New Orleans’ Sean Payton and Atlanta’s Mike Smith. It goes something like this: If you have a real quarterback, you don’t resort to gimmicks and take the ball out of his hands.

The Panthers still don’t know for sure what they have in Newton. But they think he can be a franchise quarterback. Let him be the quarterback.
When healthy, Cleveland Browns receiver and former Pro Bowl kick returner Josh Cribbs is one of the most dynamic players in the AFC North division. But the league's recent ruling to move kickoffs to the 35-yard line will increase touchbacks and take away Cribbs' biggest contribution to the team.

Now the Browns are forced to find ways to get Cribbs more involved next season. Here are three suggestions:

1. Short passes and screens in the West Coast offense

[+] EnlargeJosh Cribbs
Matt Sullivan/Getty ImagesThe Browns' new staff needs to find more ways to incorporate Josh Cribbs into the offense.
Analysis: One of the biggest criticisms of former head coach Eric Mangini and former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was their lack of creativity in using Cribbs. Outside of the Wildcat formation, which we will get to later, Cleveland didn't find enough ways to put the ball in Cribbs' hands. Rookie head coach Pat Shurmur will install a West Coast offense in Cleveland this season, which should provide more chances for Cribbs. Shorter timing routes are a staple in the West Coast offense. Slants and screens are two ways to quickly get Cribbs the ball and provide opportunities for him to break tackles in the open field.

2. Smart, selective use of the Wildcat

Analysis: The Browns had a nice find in 2009 with using Cribbs in the Wildcat. But Cleveland eventually made it too big a part of its offense and defenses became more accustomed to shutting it down. The formation can still be effective if used more selectively. Injuries hurt Cribbs last season, but he can be very effective moving the chains when healthy. If the play calling also improves, Cleveland likely will get better results with Cribbs in this formation in 2011.

3. More opportunities in the slot

Analysis: Cleveland's receiving corps is not very deep or talented. That is why the Browns should give Cribbs more plays in the slot next season. Quick outs, bubble screens and reverses are just three easy options Cleveland would have with Cribbs from the slot. Each would allow him to make his yards running after the catch, which is his best asset. Cribbs is not a polished receiver. But Shurmur and his staff will have a chance to coach around his weaknesses and utilize his strengths.

Final Word: AFC North

October, 15, 2010
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:

[+] EnlargeColt McCoy
Jason Miller/US PresswireColt McCoy makes his rookie debut against a Steelers team that's ranked fourth in the league in total defense.
Rookie magic? Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Colt McCoy will face a stiff test in his NFL debut Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are fourth in total defense and very aggressive, forcing three turnovers per game. But rookie quarterbacks in McCoy's class have had success this year. For example, Sam Bradford of the St. Louis Rams already has two wins under his belt, and last week Max Hall of the Arizona Cardinals upset the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints in his NFL debut. McCoy will try to follow in those footsteps and pull off an upset against the Steelers, the No. 1 team in ESPN.com's Power Rankings.

"I'm proud to say that Sam and I are close, I know Max a little bit," McCoy said this week. "It's awesome to see a rookie quarterback go out there and do good things because the NFL is tough. It doesn't matter who you are playing, everybody is good. We are playing the best of the best, the best there is, so you have got to understand that. Obviously to see those guys do it, that will give you a little bit of confidence going out there."

Cleveland's Wildcat: The Browns will try to take the pressure off McCoy in his first start by mixing in the Wildcat offense with Josh Cribbs. Cleveland hasn't used the formation much this season, but it was very successful in the Browns' previous meeting against Pittsburgh last December. Cribbs led the Browns with 87 rushing yards on eight carries from the Wildcat formation to lead them to a 13-6 upset victory. The Steelers struggled against the formation and have to prove they can stop it. Whether it's on offense or in the return game, Cribbs has performed well against Pittsburgh.

Protecting Ben Roethlisberger: The last time these two teams played, the Browns also threw the kitchen sink at Pittsburgh and recorded eight sacks. The Steelers were in a late-season funk and the offense was baffled by the Browns. This year offensive line play has been much improved. But blocking for Roethlisberger, who is coming off a four-game suspension, is much different from blocking for Charlie Batch. Roethlisberger holds the ball longer than most quarterbacks and improvises to make big plays. Sometimes that can lead to sacks. Pittsburgh's offensive line will have to hold its blocks a little longer with Roethlisberger under center.

Budding rivalry: Although the two teams are in different divisions, there is a growing rivalry between the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. This is the fourth time the two have played since 2007 and a 33-14 playoff romp by the Ravens over the Patriots last January certainly adds intensity and a revenge factor to Sunday's game. The teams are a combined 7-2 and firmly in the AFC playoff picture.

Ball control: Will Baltimore be able to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage against the Patriots again? In last year's playoff win, the Ravens were too physical for New England and ran the football 52 times for 234 yards. The Patriots' defense had to hear all offseason how it was manhandled by Baltimore. Rest assured, the Ravens still believe they're the more physical team and will try to establish that Sunday. Baltimore, led by Pro Bowl tailback Ray Rice, rushed for 233 yards in last week's win over the Denver Broncos.
A team-by-team look at the most indispensable players (non-quarterbacks) in the division.

The NFL, perhaps more than any professional sport, is a league filled with replaceable players. By sheer numbers, fielding 22 players on offense and defense makes it difficult for a single cog to be above the team, especially for non-quarterbacks.

But there are several players vital to AFC North teams. Here are four difference-makers in the division:

AFC Indispensable
Chris Morris for ESPN.comTroy Polamalu helps take the Pittsburgh defense to another level when he's on the field.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: TROY POLAMALU

To define Polamalu's importance, look no further than last season. Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in 2009, mostly because its defense was unable to hold leads in the fourth quarter without its star safety in the lineup.

Polamalu missed 11 games with a left knee injury, and it appeared the other 10 defenders were overcompensating for Polamalu's absence by blowing routine assignments. Polamalu provides a calming influence, and his greatness can be measured by his teammates playing at a higher level when he's in the game.

Steelers defensive coordinator and 2010 Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau recently said he cannot find a weakness with Polamalu. He's athletic, smart, instinctive and excels against the pass and the run.

Pittsburgh's defense without Polamalu is good (No. 5 in 2009), but with Polamalu, it might be the best in the NFL.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: JOSH CRIBBS

Where would the Browns be without Cribbs?

For starters, you probably can erase two or three wins from last year's 5-11 record. Cribbs also might have saved Browns head coach Eric Mangini's job.

Cribbs was one of the few bright spots for Cleveland last season. He made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, but his ability to run the Wildcat also added a new wrinkle to the Browns' struggling offense, which finished last in the NFL in 2009.

The Browns plan to expand Cribbs' role, both in the Wildcat and as a receiver. The more the team is able to get the ball in his hands, the better.

Despite Cleveland adding pieces in the draft and free agency, Cribbs remains the Browns' most-feared player. He's also a locker-room leader and, perhaps, the new face of Cleveland sports now that LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat.

BALTIMORE RAVENS: RAY LEWIS

Lewis, 35, is no longer the Ravens' best player. That distinction could be shared by Ray Rice, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata. But Lewis' leadership still makes him Baltimore's most indispensable player.

Lewis remains the heart and soul of a team many feel is a Super Bowl contender this year. Physically, the Ravens are stacked with talent at nearly every position. But there's no one in the locker room who can replace Lewis' role as the motivational leader.

On the field, Lewis made his 11th Pro Bowl last season, recording 134 tackles and three sacks. Backups Dannell Ellerbe or Tavares Gooden would be significant drop-offs if Lewis were injured. On the other hand, the Ravens have plenty of quality replacements ready for Rice, Reed and Ngata. Even Joe Flacco has a capable backup in veteran quarterback Marc Bulger.

CINCINNATI BENGALS: CEDRIC BENSON

Cincinnati is a team better defined by the sum of its parts. But if I had to pick the most important non-quarterback, it would be Benson.

The Bengals have two very good cornerbacks: Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph. They have plenty of receivers, including two who have put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers in Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. But Benson is the workhorse who makes it all work. Benson opens things up for the passing game, which was inconsistent last season, and he moves the chains to help keep the defense off the field.

Second-year tailback Bernard Scott will help Benson carry the load this year. He showed positive flashes as a rookie, but the former sixth-round pick remains unproven. With Cincinnati expected to pass more, Benson might not match his career-best 1,251 rushing yards from last season. But that doesn't make him any less important.

Camp Confidential: Cleveland Browns

August, 11, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 28

BEREA, Ohio -- With three teams in the division coming off winning seasons, the Cleveland Browns have a long way to go to climb out of the AFC North basement

That’s why Cleveland's ownership put together the high-profile pairing of president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert. The new front office has reshaped the roster through the draft and free agency in hopes of starting to close the gap with its rivals and improving on last year's 5-11 record.

With so many new faces, Cleveland remains a team in transition. The Browns must come together quickly in training camp to be competitive in 2010.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeEric Mangini
Jason Miller/US PresswireThe heat is on Eric Mangini heading into his second season in Cleveland.
1. Will Eric Mangini win in Year 2? This is a critical year for Mangini, who begins the season on the hot seat. Holmgren, a longtime head coach, knows that it takes more than one season to implement a program and was fair in giving Mangini a second year. A four-game winning streak to end last season also helped.

But Mangini must keep that momentum going in what should be a very competitive year in the AFC North. He doesn't have the same level of talent to work with as other coaches in the division. But Mangini is optimistic about 2010.

"I feel really good about the progress we've made, the strides we've made," Mangini said. "The second year is different. Guys understand expectations. There are so many things that you don't have to cover because they get it and they become teachers to people who are new, and that helps a lot."

2. Is quarterback Jake Delhomme the answer? Despite his pedigree, the Delhomme signing has not instilled much confidence with Browns fans.

Delhomme is coming off the worst year of his career (eight TD passes, 18 interceptions) and was benched and eventually released by the Carolina Panthers.

But if Delhomme isn't the answer, the team will turn to backup Seneca Wallace, who is a longtime Holmgren protégé. Rookie third-round draft pick Colt McCoy is regarded as the quarterback of the future but isn't expected to start this season.

[+] EnlargeBrian Robiskie
AP Photo/Amy SancettaThe Browns are counting on players like Brian Robiskie to step up and contribute.
3. Will young players step up? When you have a rebuilding team, young players must step forward. Cleveland has a lot of first- and second-year players who are unproven but expected to be major contributors.

Players such as second-year receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi and rookies Joe Haden, T.J. Ward, a free safety, and Montario Hardesty, a running back, are expected to fill major roles. These players will learn on the job as Cleveland's coaching staff tries to minimize their mistakes.

Haden, a cornerback, will have the biggest spotlight because he was taken No. 7 overall this year and is the first draft pick of the Holmgren and Heckert era. Haden struggled some in minicamp but is starting to look more comfortable. He still must get to the point where he's thinking less and relying more on his football instincts. So far, Haden has been a step late on too many plays.

"It's getting better and better every day," Haden said. "[Tuesday's] practice was better than [Monday's] practice. … now I feel like I'm about at 90 percent of knowing of exactly what's going on, so when I get that next 10, it's going to be full go."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

With so much attention put on Delhomme this season, I thought the best quarterback in camp this week was Wallace. He made some very nice throws, particularly on the run, while leading the second-team offense.

But unless Wallace lights it up in the preseason, do not expect another quarterback controversy in Cleveland. The Browns are paying Delhomme $7 million this season to be the starter.

Despite being a backup, Wallace will play in another capacity as the team's Wildcat quarterback, which we will get to later.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

This was supposed to be a breakthrough camp for Hardesty. Instead, his first training camp never got off the ground because of a knee injury.

Hardesty was competing with incumbent Jerome Harrison for the starting tailback job, and after a solid spring, many considered him the early favorite. But the second-round pick has missed every full-squad practice of training camp thus far and has fallen behind.

According to Mangini, Hardesty may not return until sometime next week at the earliest.

OBSERVATION DECK
[+] EnlargeJosh Cribbs
Jason Miller/US PresswireJosh Cribbs should be more involved in the offense as a part of Cleveland's Wildcat package.

  • Something that jumps out right away is Cleveland's lack of team speed. The Browns look slow and not as athletic as the other two teams I watched in training camp (Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals). That could be a problem. Cleveland has plenty of thumpers, so size isn't an issue. But the Browns appear more built to win a 13-7 game in inclement weather in December than a 35-30 shootout in September.
  • The "Flash and Cyclone" package has been successful in training camp. Josh Cribbs and Wallace are arguably the most versatile players on the team and appear to be developing solid chemistry in Cleveland's version of the Wildcat. Both players are elusive and dangerous with the football.
  • I'm still not sold on Cleveland's receiving corps. Massaquoi has made some plays, but certainly not enough to be a dominant No. 1 receiver. The same goes for Robiskie, who is a projected starter. The Browns are throwing to the tight ends and running backs a lot in this camp, and a reason may be the lack of depth at receiver.
  • Ward is having a solid training camp. He continues to show up around the football, which is what you want from a starting safety. The rookie second-round pick still makes mistakes in pass coverage, but Ward usually shows good effort and practices hard. He is known as a big hitter.
  • Keep an eye on running back Peyton Hillis. He was the forgotten player in the Brady Quinn trade this offseason with the Denver Broncos. But Hillis is showing good toughness running between the tackles. He runs solid routes and has soft hands as a receiver out of the backfield. Hillis could be an underrated acquisition who works out well for Cleveland.
  • Another sleeper on this team could be second-year tight end Evan Moore. Although his run blocking needs work, Moore is probably the best receiving tight end on the roster. With starting tight end Ben Watson and Robert Royal able to do the dirty work, Moore could be a nice change of pace to give the tight-end position some big-play ability.
  • A weakness in Cleveland's defense could be its outside linebackers dropping in pass coverage. Matt Roth and Marcus Benard, in particular, do not look comfortable shadowing running backs. Hillis and Harrison beat Cleveland's outside linebackers repeatedly on passing routes in camp this week.
  • It's been difficult to get a firm read on McCoy. He has played a majority of camp with the third-team offense, which consists of many players who will not make the team. Inconsistent in camp, McCoy looks like a typical rookie quarterback. Preseason games probably will be a better gauge of where the third-round pick stands.

Final Word: AFC North

November, 27, 2009
11/27/09
4:03
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» NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 12:

[+] EnlargeDennis Dixon
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesDennis Dixon will be making his first career start for the Steelers.
Replacing Big Ben: Pittsburgh Steelers second-year quarterback Dennis Dixon will make his first career start Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens. Dixon has thrown just one career pass in two years, but was thrown into action after Ben Roethlisberger (concussion) was pulled from the starting lineup Saturday morning. This puts a lot of emphasis on the running game and tailback Rashard Mendenhall. The Ravens have only allowed four touchdowns in the past three games and are playing some of their best defense of the season.

Covering kickoffs: The Steelers finally made moves to boost their fledgling kickoff coverage by signing cornerback Corey Ivy and linebacker Rocky Boiman. Both players could make an impact Sunday on a unit that’s allowed four returns for a touchdown this season and two in the past two weeks. Both players are veterans and have a wealth of special teams' experience. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin also added he will not be afraid to use more starters on his kickoff team as well.

Where is the Suggs package? In the midst of Baltimore's recent struggles in the red zone, perhaps the biggest offensive mystery is the disappearance of the "Suggs package." Baltimore's variation of the Wildcat offense, led by backup Troy Smith, worked very well last year as a changeup to its power running game. It was also used as a form of protection for then-rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. But since Flacco's development in Year 2, the Ravens have virtually moved away from the innovative package and stuck to their conventional offense. Now that Baltimore is struggling to score touchdowns, it may be time for the team to dig back into its bag of tricks.

Quinn tries to do it again: Was last week's performance for Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn the start of something special or merely a farce? We will find out this week when Quinn and the Browns take on the first-place Cincinnati Bengals. Quinn had a career-best performance in a loss to the Detroit Lions, throwing for 304 yards and four touchdowns. He did a lot of nice things, but it came against a Lions defense that has allowed more than 29 points per game. Cincinnati's defense is a much stiffer test.

Bengals need to make statement: With their long history of losing, it was evident after last week's 20-17 loss to the lowly Oakland Raiders that the Bengals (7-3) are still learning how to be winners. This is the best team Cincinnati has had in a while. Yet, the Bengals are not good enough to completely sleepwalk against an inferior opponent and still pull out a win on the road. Cincinnati needs to make a statement against Cleveland, another inferior opponent, that it will no longer play down to its competition in order to be taken seriously as a title contender. The Browns, who lost in overtime, almost upset the Bengals earlier this season in Cleveland.

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