Pittsburgh Steelers: Cleveland Browns

Browns vs. Steelers preview

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
12:00
PM ET
Johnny Manziel and Ryan Shazier USA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesAll eyes will be on these rookies in Week 1: Cleveland's Johnny Manziel and Pittsburgh's Ryan Shazier.
The Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their long-standing rivalry Sunday at Heinz Field.

And something has to give in the game in which Johnny Manziel is expected to make his NFL debut. The Browns have lost 10 consecutive games at Heinz Field, while the Steelers haven't won a season opener since 2010.

ESPN NFL Nation Browns reporter Pat McManamon and ESPN NFL Nation Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.

Brown: Pat, how many times have you written the surname Manziel since the Browns drafted Johnny Football in early May? Well, let's get the obligatory Manziel chatter out of the way. How do you see the Browns using Manziel on Sunday and how much do you expect him to play?

McManamon: As for the first part, Scott, let's say more than five and less than 10,000, but just barely less. I would be surprised if Manziel does not see the field for a play or a series in each half. The Browns and coach Mike Pettine have been coy about how he'll be used, but he does bring a different element than Brian Hoyer, and the Browns could put him on the field the same way the Steelers first used Kordell Stewart. Certain down-and-distance situations might be good for the read-option, or certain spots on the field might be good for a quarterback who can move. I don't think Manziel will play a lot, but I do think he'll play in the right spot, as judged by the coaching staff.

Scott, a slow start doomed the Steelers last season. How determined are they to avoid that slow start again, and how much bad luck is it for the Browns to draw the Steelers in the opener?

Brown: For the record, I am not going to start calling you Pat McFootball no matter how many times you privately lobby me to do so. Take a picture with the Biebs in it and we will talk. With that order of business out of the way, I will say the schedule-makers did not do the Browns any favors by having them open in Pittsburgh. I suspect the Steelers will publicly downplay the notion that this is a must-win game, but in reality it is. The Steelers cannot start slow again this season, and with road games against the Ravens and the Panthers looming, they have to beat the Browns. As hard as it is to win in the NFL, nothing is more served on a platter than an opponent that hasn't won in Pittsburgh in more than a decade and has an offense riddled with question marks. Did I mention Ben Roethlisberger, who has never forgiven the Browns for passing on him in the 2004 NFL draft, has lost just one time to Cleveland?

Getting back to the Browns' offense, who do the Steelers have to worry about beating them with wide receiver Josh Gordon out for the season?

McManamon: Nobody, really. The Browns will try to run the ball and use tight end Jordan Cameron creatively, but there is no real outside threat even close to the threat Gordon provided. And Cameron better get used to consistent double coverage. It's almost unfair to throw a quarterback into a game with these circumstances. Running back Ben Tate probably will be the offensive bell cow. He'll be featured prominently in the game plan. But the Steelers stop the run in their sleep. This game will be a serious challenge for the Browns' offense and offensive coaches.

Speaking of offense, how has and how will the marijuana possession charges against Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount affect the team, if at all, this weekend?

Brown: It is a footnote to this game. Not to minimize the stupidity that the Steelers' top two running backs showed -- and they are worthy of all of the unflattering nicknames that have surfaced on social media, among other places -- but the issue has presumably been dealt with from the Steelers' end. If Bell and Blount had been suspended for the season opener, we would have seen Roethlisberger throwing a ton of passes and a one-dimensional offense. But with both Bell and Blount slated to play against the Browns, the Steelers' offense will be at full strength.

I am real interested in seeing whether the Steelers try to set up the pass through the run or vice versa. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin predictably gushed about Cleveland's defense at his news conference earlier this week, and certainly that unit is the strength of the Browns. Will that defense be as good as advertised?

McManamon: Let's tap the brakes on this "good defense." Nobody knows yet. The defense has new names -- and they are good names to have -- but they might not be improved. Also, a defense that was supposed to be good a season ago made a habit of blowing late leads. The weak spot this season is the same as last -- cornerback opposite Joe Haden. First-round pick Justin Gilbert is going through significant growing pains, and Buster Skrine is coming off a thumb injury. The Browns wanted Isaiah Trufant to be the nickelback, but he's on injured reserve. Smart teams pick at weaknesses; it would be surprising if the Steelers don't pick on the second corner. The other concern, which has been an ongoing issue: Will the defense wear down because it's on the field too much due to the offense struggling?

Staying with defense, Steelers rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier is an Ohio State guy, and there's been a lot of positive press on him throughout preseason. Has he been that good?

Brown: He has, but the caveat, of course, is that Shazier has yet to play in an NFL game that counts. That changes Sunday, and most telling about the progress Shazier has made is the fact he will become the first Steelers defensive rookie to start a season opener since Kendrell Bell in 2001. There will be the inevitable growing pains as the first-round pick adjusts to the speed of the game at this level. Probably the biggest concern with Shazier is whether he will consistently be able to shed blocks since the 6-1, 237-pounder is not the biggest linebacker. The Browns' offensive line is one of their biggest strengths, so it will be a good opening test for Shazier. I think the kid is going to be a star, and I predict he will win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC North

May, 15, 2014
May 15
10:00
AM ET
video
This year’s NFL draft brought drama and defense to the AFC North.

Most of the buzz centered on Cleveland, where the Browns selected Johnny Manziel with No. 22 overall pick. There is no debate that Johnny Football will bring excitement to the long-struggling Browns. Whether he’s their answer at quarterback is another question.

The Cincinnati Bengals created a stir at quarterback as well when they drafted AJ McCarron in the fifth round. McCarron quarterbacked Alabama to two national titles, and it’s widely known that Andy Dalton has yet to win a playoff game for the Bengals. Can McCarron be ready to compete for the starting job in 2015?

The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers continued their old-school ways by going heavy on defense in this draft. By doing so, did the Ravens give enough help to quarterback Joe Flacco? And will speedy first-round pick Ryan Shazier end up being the top rookie defensive player in this division?

These issues are addressed by ESPN’s quartet of AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.

First Down

Johnny Manziel will end the Browns' quarterback drought and become a franchise quarterback.



Scott Brown: Fact. I think it is all or nothing for Johnny Football, as it is hard to imagine him just having an average to above-average NFL career. You worry about his size, the distractions that follow him to Cleveland and the reality that he will have a Texas-sized bull's-eye on his jersey from the moment he steps onto the field. As many questions that come with Manziel, he dominated in the SEC and twice carved up an Alabama defense that was loaded with future NFL players. Cleveland, your long quarterback nightmare is over.

Coley Harvey: Fiction. The optimist inside would love to come out and say that Manziel will be the triumphant hero many in Cleveland are seeking. I would love to say that the now infamous No. 2 Browns jersey -- you know, the one with the seemingly endless stream of crossed out ex-Browns quarterback names that goes all the way down its back -- will have its final nameplate thanks to Manziel. I would love to say that in 20 years they'll be retiring Manziel's jersey and erecting a statue in his honor outside FirstEnergy Stadium. Yes, a part of the dude in Cincinnati feels bad for the city of Cleveland and its decades-long misery. But the fact of the matter is, these are the Browns we're talking about, and not even Johnny Freakin' Football will be able to end the team's exhaustive playoff drought.

Jamison Hensley: Fiction. Let's stop with the comparisons to Russell Wilson. Manziel doesn't have the same maturity, which is ultimately going to be his downfall. He is more like Brett Favre -- without the cannon for an arm. Where Manziel is at his best is running around, which has become a recipe for disaster in the NFL. Michael Vick has played only one full season, and Robert Griffin III couldn't make it one season without getting hurt. It's a given that Manziel brings much-needed electricity to Cleveland. He just won't be bringing stability to the quarterback position.

Pat McManamon: Fact. The question, though, is when this happens. Manziel's learning curve is large, and he will do it amidst hoopla worthy of the Palace of Versailles. Manziel seems to be up to the challenge of the hype, but the Browns took a good first step with him by telling him Cleveland isn't Hollywood. A couple of his teammates said they were glad to have him, but it was "time to go to work." How soon Manziel simply concentrates on work and professionalism will tell how soon he turns the corner with the Browns.


Second Down


AJ McCarron will be the Bengals' starting quarterback in 2015.



Brown: Fiction. He fell to the fifth round of the draft for a reason, and McCarron's drop reinforced the notion that his success at Alabama had a lot to do with the elite talent that surrounded him in Tuscaloosa. That doesn't diminish what he accomplished at Alabama, as McCarron ranks as one of the best quarterbacks in college football history. But plenty of quarterbacks who excelled in college did not translate into successful NFL quarterbacks, and I don't see McCarron as more than a backup at the next level. If Andy Dalton falls out of favor in Cincinnati, the Bengals will look elsewhere for his replacement.

Harvey: Fiction. He won't be the starting quarterback next season because Andy Dalton will. The Bengals and Dalton's representatives have been working on a contract extension that could give the fourth-year quarterback a long-term deal that could help him earn a salary that would compete with the game's highest earners. He's hoping for an extension that could pay him nearly $20 million per year. The Bengals would like that number to be closer to $15 million. The two sides could soon find some common ground. Still, the fact McCarron is on the roster is telling. It's a sign the Bengals want Dalton to realize that they are serious about backing him up with a quarterback who they feel they could groom in future seasons. It's a fact that some years down the line McCarron could be Cincinnati's starter. But he won't be in 2015.

Hensley: Fiction. This is a tough one. The Bengals need to put more pressure on Andy Dalton, but McCarron isn't the one to do it. The best move would've been for the Bengals to take Teddy Bridgewater in the first round. If that had been the case, the answer would've been fact. Instead, the Bengals are left with the anti-Flacco. Dalton plays well in the regular season and chokes in the postseason. He hasn't just struggled. It's been meltdowns. McCarron has the championship pedigree, but his ceiling is backup quarterback. Dalton is going to be the starter in 2015, by default.

McManamon: Fiction. The Bengals were wise to draft McCarron. Andy Dalton needs competition and needs to be pressed. But the anti-Dalton hysteria is overblown and overdone. Dalton has taken the Bengals to the playoffs every year he's been in the league. He has 80 touchdowns compared to 49 interceptions. In his first three seasons. Only in this day and age of impatience and instant expectations is that not considered a very good start to a career. He needs to win a playoff game, yes, but so do the Bengals as a team. He is one of 53. Guys arrive at different times. Dalton will take care of things in his time, and the Bengals have handled him well. McCarron will push Dalton, which is good, but the job will be Dalton's.


Third Down

The Ravens didn't do enough to help Joe Flacco after drafting defensive players with their first three picks.



Brown: Fiction: The Ravens did enough before the draft to help their franchise quarterback by re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe and signing free-agent wide receiver Steve Smith, as well as tight end Owen Daniels. The Ravens essentially add a huge piece to their offense with the return of tight end Dennis Pitta, who missed most of last season with a hip injury, and Daniels will provide a nice complement to him. Smith is no longer an elite wide receiver but he can still play. He should help Torrey Smith and restore some of the swagger to the Ravens' offense. I also expect a bounce-back season from Ray Rice, who will be plenty motivated to prove he is still a featured back.

Harvey: Fact. But this comes with a caveat. I don't think the Ravens should be admonished because they didn't make any offensive picks in those first three rounds. Why? Because their defense, which ranked 12th last season, still needed help as a result of having so many aging veterans. Good defense is, after all, what the Ravens are known most for having. Before joining the Bengals' beat, I covered two of the Ravens' picks, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and safety Terrence Brooks, while on the Florida State beat. Jernigan had some real questions during the pre-draft process, just like he did early his first season at FSU. Once he gets over the fact he's one of the young guys in Baltimore's locker room and takes on the persona of a leader, he should be just fine. Brooks was one of the best defensive backs in the draft and could be quite the option for the Ravens up top. C.J. Mosley also addresses a critical need at linebacker, and brings with him experience playing for championship-caliber teams. So these picks shouldn't be blasted because the Ravens got three good players. That said, by not taking a running back early or an offensive lineman to help address their protection issues, the Ravens put their quarterback in a real bind going into the season. Ray Rice's future both on- and off-field is still rather cloudy. Even if his legal matters clear up, will we see the Rice of old or the Rice of 2013 next season? (Rice of old was much better.) Baltimore ranked 29th in offense last season. The Ravens should have done more to address that early in the draft.

Hensley: Fact. The Ravens finished with the NFL's fourth-worst offense last season, and they came out of the draft with a blocking tight end, a small-school running back, a developmental guard and a seventh-round slot receiver. Ideally, the Ravens would've drafted a starting right tackle, a highly rated running back and a big target from the deepest wide receiver class in years. It's just difficult to bash the Ravens' front office. If they had gone offense with any of their first three picks, they would've been reaching. That's never a formula for success. In one way, you can say the Ravens did help out Flacco. By upgrading a defense that allowed the most fourth-quarter points in history, Flacco won't have to play catch-up as much late in games.

McManamon: Fact. The curious thing is the Ravens are relying on aged veteran Steve Smith and Ray Rice, whose off-field troubles are well documented. Ozzie Newsome is a very wise and sage team-builder, so it's borderline silly to question him. But Flacco is not Tom Brady. He needs talent around him to win. Because while he's paid like he's a superstar, he's not at the level of a Peyton Manning, a Drew Brees and a Brady. In a year or two, he won't even be on the level of an Andrew Luck. He's a very, very good quarterback, but he can't carry a team on his own. He needs a few more weapons around him.


Fourth Down


Ryan Shazier will be the top defensive rookie in the AFC North.



Brown: Fact: Shazier has an opportunity to start right away, and he should at least play extensively in the Steelers' sub packages if he is able to learn Dick LeBeau's complex defense. LeBeau himself said the Steelers don't have the luxury of bringing along highly touted rookies such as Shazier slowly, so he should log plenty of snaps and crack the starting lineup sooner rather than later. Shazier has excellent speed, and he was highly productive at Ohio State, where he became just the 10th player in school history to lead the team in tackles in consecutive seasons. He provides the Steelers with a much-needed defensive playmaker and his skill set translates well to an NFL game that is becoming more wide open. This kid has future Pro Bowler written all over him.

Harvey: Fiction. I only say "fiction" because I believe it's tough to say he'll truly be better than any other rookie in the division. After all, we're talking about a division that just gained the likes of Mosley, Jernigan and Brooks in Baltimore, Darqueze Dennard in Cincinnati and Justin Gilbert in Cleveland. There was a lot of elite defensive talent in the draft and Shazier was certainly a part of it. Perhaps because he has one of the best chances of playing regularly of all the rookies just drafted, an argument could be made that he will indeed be the top defensive first-year player in the AFC North. But for the sake of this exercise, I'm going fiction.

Hensley: Fiction. It was only a year ago when Jarvis Jones arrived with all of the hype. He ended up getting benched. This isn't unusual. Over the past nine years, only one Steelers rookie has started a full season -- center Maurkice Pouncey. So, this isn't a knock on Shazier. He has a lot of speed and a lot of potential. He should be a Pro Bowl player down the road. It just takes time to learn the nuances of a Dick LeBeau defense. History says Shazier won't make an immediate impact. The pick here for best rookie in the division is Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley.

McManamon: Fiction. Ah, that Steelers optimism. There's nothing not to like about Shazier, or the Steelers, who draft well and play hard. But to automatically assume Shazier is the best defensive rookie in the AFC North ignores the fact that the other division teams took immediate defensive starters: Cleveland with cornerback Justin Gilbert, Cincinnati with cornerback Darqueze Denard and Baltimore with linebacker C.J. Mosely. All are expected to be immediate starters. All are extremely good players. What in the world makes it more likely that Shazier will be the best rookie other than he wears black and gold?

ESPN's AFC North team reporters -- Jamison Hensley (Ravens), Coley Harvey (Bengals), Pat McManamon (Browns) and Scott Brown (Steelers) -- take a look at the remaining free agents in the division:

BALTIMORE RAVENS

TE Dallas Clark: He looked like a tight end playing in his final season, catching 31 passes for the Ravens (his fewest in a season since 2006). It wouldn't be a surprise if Clark retired. He turns 35 in June.

TE Ed Dickson: The signing of Owen Daniels rules out a return for Dickson. He'll be playing in the NFL in 2014, and it will likely be for about the league minimum. Dickson needs a fresh start elsewhere, and he's visiting the Carolina Panthers.

RB Bernard Scott: The Ravens opted to sign Justin Forsett instead of Scott to be their third running back. Scott could have trouble catching on with another team. This offseason, Scott turned 30, which is not a kind number for running backs.

WR Brandon Stokley: He said after the season that he plans to retire after suffering another concussion. Stokley was the last active player from the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl championship team.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

LB Michael Boley: Signed to a one-year deal early last season, Boley has been seen as little more than a stop-gap for last season's team. His return is unlikely.

DB Chris Crocker: Danieal Manning's signing last week might have been enough to prevent the Bengals from re-signing Crocker. The two play similar positions and serve similar purposes as older players. Crocker still hasn’t announced -- for a third time -- if he’s retiring.

P Zoltan Mesko: Much like Boley, Mesko was a stop-gap solution while punter Kevin Huber was out injured. When OTAs and minicamps resume, Huber is expected to be near full health from a broken jaw.

OT Dennis Roland: Though the Bengals signed former Packers tackle Marshall Newhouse this offseason, they still could re-sign Roland for depth, and to give them a tackle who can be a good short-yardage edge blocker.

TE Alex Smith: There is still a chance the Bengals could bring Smith back, considering H-back Orson Charles was arrested and charged with wanton endangerment March 31 in Richmond, Ky., the result of what police believe was a road rage incident involving a handgun.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

C Alex Mack: His only visit has been to Jacksonville, where the Jaguars are expected to sign him to an offer sheet. The Browns then will have five days to decide if they want to match the offer.

RB Willis McGahee: Not surprising there has been so little interest. His age and the poor running back market make him a tough sign.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

OT Levi Brown: Suffered a season-ending triceps injury before playing a down for the Steelers last season; would have to accept a non-guaranteed contract to return and try to make the team in 2014.

WR Plaxico Burress: Wants to play in 2014, but is 36 and coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him all of last season; does not appear to be in Steelers' plans.

RB Felix Jones: Didn't show enough last season as a change-of-pace back or a kickoff returner to warrant serious consideration for the Steelers to bring him back.

DE Brett Keisel: Re-signing the 12th-year veteran is still an option for the Steelers, who are thin along the defensive line, though nothing will happen until after the draft.

P Mat McBriar: McBriar did OK after the Steelers signed him in October, but it looks like they will go with a younger leg at the position in 2014.

C/G David Snow: Didn't dress in final four games after signing with Pittsburgh last December, and the Steelers have added depth to their offensive line.

RB LaRod Stephens-Howling: Another player coming off an injury (torn ACL) the Steelers might consider re-signing once he is healthy or close to full strength.

LB Stevenson Sylvester: Is a core special teams player and a depth guy the Steelers would probably have interest in bringing back at the right price.

C Fernando Velasco: The Steelers are likely to re-sign one of their most unsung players in 2013 once he has fully recovered from the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in November.

LB Jamaal Westerman: Played in the regular-season finale after signing with the Steelers last December, but is not not in the team's plans.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC North

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
10:00
AM ET
video 
The AFC North has seen some changes this offseason with a new coaching staff and GM in Cleveland, where free agency and multiple first-round draft picks are conspiring to inspire some hope in Browns fans. Is it warranted?

And will there be change in Pittsburgh if the Steelers go three straight years without a playoff berth?

What about in Baltimore, where running back Ray Rice followed up a disastrous 2013 season with a highly publicized offseason arrest? Will his slide continue next season?

And the one and only question in Cincinnati remains: Can the Bengals win a playoff game with Andy Dalton at the helm?

These issues are addressed by ESPN’s quartet of AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.

First Down

This will be Mike Tomlin's last season if the Steelers don't make the playoffs.



Scott Brown: Fiction. The Steelers have had just three head coaches since 1969, and patience with their field bosses has been one of the organization's hallmarks. The Steelers missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons from 1998 to 2000, and Bill Cowher rewarded the Steelers' patience with him by going 55-24-1 over the next five seasons and winning a Super Bowl. The Steelers have yet to experience a losing season under Tomlin, and he still commands his players' respect and attention. It is way too early to start speculating about his future in Pittsburgh.

Coley Harvey: Fact. If NFL history has taught us one thing about the Steelers, it's this: Mediocrity doesn't last long in Pittsburgh. After two consecutive postseason-less winters, the city that boasts the NFL's most Super Bowl victories won't bear going through a third. Tomlin might be lucky just to make it to the Monday after the regular season if the Steelers post another 8-8 record or worse this fall. Pittsburgh's ground game was an issue last season, and the club's success this season could hinge on it, too. As long as Tomlin's team can showcase some of its old multidimensional play this season, the Steelers ought to make the playoffs, sparing him a firing.

Jamison Hensley: Fact. History is obviously against me on this one. The Steelers have been the picture of stability when it comes to head coaches, and they stuck with Bill Cowher when he went three seasons without making it to the playoffs. But the landscape of the division has changed. The Cincinnati Bengals are going to be the favorite to win a second straight AFC North title. The Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers' biggest rivals, won a Super Bowl 13 months ago. Tomlin hasn't guided the Steelers to the playoffs since 2011, and he hasn't won a postseason game since beating the New York Jets in the 2010 AFC Championship Game. If Tomlin can't get the Steelers back in the playoffs, the Rooneys need to find someone who can make this team relevant again.

Pat McManamon: Fiction. Tomlin's consecutive 8-8 seasons are disappointing in Pittsburgh, but the Rooneys will not knee-jerk a guy who has yet to have a losing season. Tomlin is wading through a major roster transition, but he's never lost his team the way some coaches do. That matters to the Rooneys, who value continuity more than anyone. Bill Cowher went 7-9 and 6-10 in 1998 and '99 and stayed seven more seasons. Belief in a system is what makes Pittsburgh successful.


Second Down

The Browns will be much improved with their front-office moves, free-agent acquisitions and position in the draft.



Brown: Fiction. The Browns will be better in 2014, but there is too much uncertainty at quarterback to say improvement will come in leaps and bounds rather than in increments. Brian Hoyer is an upgrade over what the Browns have had at quarterback, but is he the long-term answer there? The top-rated quarterbacks in the draft, meanwhile, all come with different question marks and risks. There is not an Andrew Luck among the group, and until the Browns find the answer at quarterback, they will not challenge for the AFC North title.

Harvey: Fiction. While I'm inclined to say "fact," it's the "much improved" portion of the question that has me a little troubled. Do I think the various personnel changes the Browns made this offseason will help them improve and make them a better organization overall? Absolutely. Do I believe their improvements will be so immediately noticed that they go from 4-12 last year to 12-4 and win the division this year? I don't think so. In time, though, I'm willing to bet on the Browns. The new front office seems to have provided some measure of stability. Some of the free-agency decisions the group has already made have been smart ones. And with two first-round draft picks, it's hard to believe the Browns will end up missing on them both. Maybe the Browns' recent history has me balking on them a bit here, but I think it might be a year or two before we start really seeing how much this offseason's changes have improved them.

Hensley: Fiction. I agree the Browns are going to be improved, but not much improved. The moves made on defense were lateral ones. The addition of running back Ben Tate will help, if he can stay healthy. Let's be honest, it always comes down to quarterback for the Browns. Cleveland is either going with Brian Hoyer, a journeyman who generated unrealistic expectations after two good games last season, or a promising yet inexperienced rookie. This is too bad, because the Browns have the other pieces in place to be an exciting passing attack. At this point, because of the annual question mark at quarterback, the Browns are a six- or seven-win team at best.

McManamon: Fiction: It has to happen on the field, and until it does, the Browns have everyone in Missouri, where it's a matter of showing me. With six double-digit-loss seasons in a row and some uncertainty at quarterback, the Browns have to prove to their fans they can do it. However, it must be said that a lot of logical moves have been made, and the Browns are better now than they were when free agency began. With so many high draft picks, the Browns have the chance to bring in more good players. The potential for improvement is real, but labeling it a sure thing is premature with this team.


Third Down

The Bengals will never get further than the first round of the playoffs with Andy Dalton at quarterback.



Brown: Fact. You could give Dalton the benefit of the doubt after he and the Bengals fell short in his first two playoffs games. But there can be no excuses after Dalton's subpar play in January doomed the Bengals to a home loss against a Chargers team that sneaked into the playoffs. Credit Dalton for making the Bengals a perennial playoff team, but nothing in his postseason play suggests that he is the quarterback who can turn Cincinnati into a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Harvey: Fiction. Dalton's first-round struggles have been exhaustively noted. The Bengals' first-round struggles have been, too. (They haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season.) If there is ever a year that Cincinnati could finally get out of the first round and onto a deeper postseason run, this could be it. OK, we said that last year, too. Here's the thing, though. The 2014 Bengals have something the 2013 team didn't: Hue Jackson in charge of the offense. Cincinnati has seen two trends develop in its three first-round playoff losses with Dalton as the quarterback. It has committed too many turnovers -- Dalton has one lost fumble and six interceptions in the three games -- and it has avoided running the ball. Jackson will ensure better balance comes to this offense, easing the pressure on Dalton. Eventually, that first playoff win is going to come for him.

Hensley: Fiction, although I'm not going to go as far as to say Dalton will be the reason why the Bengals win a playoff game. Marvin Lewis' young team is just too talented to be one-and-done every season. There will be a time when the Bengals win because either the defense dominates a playoff game or running back Giovani Bernard breaks loose. If you're asking me whether the Bengals will make a Super Bowl with Dalton, I would bet against it. He has been awful in his three playoff games. Dalton is the anti-Flacco. He produces great numbers in the regular season but falls apart in the playoffs.

McManamon: Fiction. Many teams would like to have Dalton. Many. Last season's first-round loss to San Diego was a large disappointment, but Dalton is going through the traditional growing pains of a quarterback. For a quarterback to be asked to throw 51 times in a playoff game is ludicrous. That was asking way too much. The switch in offensive coordinator to Hue Jackson will help because he will run the ball more, and run the ball more consistently. Dalton has averaged almost 3,800 yards and just short of 27 touchdowns his first three seasons, and people want to question his future? Absurd.


Fourth Down

Ray Rice's decline in production will continue next season while his reputation also slides after his arrest.



Brown: Fiction. This guy has too good of a résumé to think he just fell off a cliff during his sixth NFL season (and took many a fantasy football team with him). Yes, NFL running backs have a short shelf life, and Rice has a lot of wear on his tread. But the Ravens should be better up front next season, and if anything, Rice's arrest should make him as motivated as ever to show that last season was an aberration.

Harvey: Fact. But it's not Rice's reputation that will contribute to his statistical slide. The running back has simply started moving beyond the prime of his career. His legs have been beaten up so far in his six-year career, and it doesn't appear they will be coming back anytime soon. When he was at his best, Rice was averaging well over 250 carries a season. He had 254 during his breakout second year in 2009, when he rushed for 1,339 yards. He had 307 carries for 1,220 yards the next year, then 291 for 1,364 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in 2011. After having 257 carries in 2012, he had only 214 in one fewer game in 2013. Overuse has led to Rice's decline, not a changing reputation.

Hensley: Fiction, but let me explain. I honestly don't know how Rice's play could be worse than it was last season. He averaged 3.1 yards per carry, and he was held below 60 yards rushing in 12 of 15 games. Injuries were a factor, but you have to wonder whether the wear and tear has caught up to him. In what is likely a make-or-break year for him, Rice has reportedly lost weight this offseason to regain some explosion. That would be a good sign if he were the sole problem. The Ravens haven't done anything yet to improve their offensive line from last season. If the line can't open any running lanes, it doesn't matter what kind of condition Rice is in.

Pat McManamon: Fact. When a running back loses it, it goes fast. Rice showed all the signs of losing it last season, when his per-carry average dropped to a woeful 3.1. Rice is 27, the age at which a running back's production is at its peak. ESPN Stats and Information shows a steady and severe decline starting after a back is 27, a decline that continues every season. Add in Rice's troubling offseason behavior with his fiancée and that disturbing security video and it seems his career -- and perhaps personal -- path is headed in the wrong direction.

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Alex MackAP Photo/David RichardCleveland Browns center Alex Mack is the top free agent in the AFC North.

It's not a particularly strong free-agent class in the AFC North, although the top ones rank among the best in the NFL.

The free-agent group in the division took a hit when tight end Dennis Pitta, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson all signed before the official start of free agency.

So who's left? ESPN's four team reporters in the division -- Scott Brown, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon -- compiled a list of the top 15 free agents in the AFC North.

The Baltimore Ravens have the most free agents on this list with eight players. The Cleveland Browns have two of the top three free agents in the division, and the Cincinnati Bengals have two of the top five. The Pittsburgh Steelers placed one free agent in the top 10.

Here are the top 15 free agents in the AFC North:

1. Alex Mack, Browns center: At 28, the two-time Pro Bowler is in the prime of his career. Mack was so coveted by the Browns that they placed a $10 million transition tag on him. It will be interesting whether another team can pry him away from Cleveland.

2. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end: He was better in 2012 (11.5 sacks) than he was in 2013 (3.5 sacks). Still, his size, athleticism and age (27) will make him one of the most coveted pass-rushers this offseason.

3. T.J. Ward, Browns safety: Considered one of the top 10 safeties in the NFL, Ward will draw interest from teams looking to get more physical in the secondary. He makes an impact on run defense and has improved in coverage.

4. Eugene Monroe, Ravens offensive tackle: Some believe Monroe is the top offensive tackle in free agency, but ESPN's Bill Polian has five tackles ranked ahead of him. His athleticism and upside will command a big-money contract even though he's never been to a Pro Bowl.

5. Anthony Collins, Bengals offensive tackle: He is an underrated left tackle who didn't allow a sack last season. The question mark with Collins is how he'll play as a full-time starter. He made seven starts last season and has 25 starts in six seasons in Cincinnati.

6. Jacoby Jones, Ravens receiver-returner: He was one of the top playmakers in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run, and he ranked among the top five returners in the league last season. Jones is inconsistent and one-dimensional as a wide receiver, but he made a lot of clutch plays for the Ravens in two seasons.

7. Art Jones, Ravens defensive end: His impact as a run defender and interior pass-rusher makes him one of the top defensive tackles available. Teams, though, have to wonder whether he'll be the same type of player without Haloti Ngata drawing double-teams next to him.

8. Daryl Smith, Ravens linebacker: He was quietly one of the NFL's top comeback stories. In his first season with the Ravens, Smith led the team with 123 tackles and finished with five sacks, three interceptions, 19 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. His age (32 this month) could be a drawback.

9. Michael Oher, Ravens offensive tackle: His play never reached the expectations placed on a first-round pick. Oher is a throwback type of player whose strengths are durability and toughness. The biggest knocks against him are mental mistakes and pass protection.

10. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers wide receiver: He is almost 27, brings a lot of quickness and is coming off a season where he dropped just two passes (according to ESPN Stats & Information). What works against Sanders is the fact that he's never had more than 740 yards receiving in a season and averaged a career-low 11 yards per catch last season.

11. Jameel McClain, Ravens inside linebacker: He isn't among the most talented linebackers, but he prides himself on outworking others. Even though he came back from a spinal cord contusion last season, some teams will be wary of a player who had such a serious injury.

12. James Ihedigbo, Ravens safety: Known more for his special-teams play, Ihedigbo finished as the team's second-leading tackler. He'll try to find a team that will give him an opportunity to play defense now that the Ravens moved Matt Elam to his strong safety spot.

13. Ziggy Hood, Steelers defensive lineman: He never became the difference-maker the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round, but it would be unfair to call him a bust. One of the strongest players on the team, Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season.

14. Corey Graham, Ravens cornerback: He was a starter on the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl team and led Baltimore with four interceptions last season. Graham has proved to be a dependable nickelback, but he doesn't have the size or speed to be a full-time starter.

15. Brett Keisel, Steelers defensive lineman: He had four sacks last season and 26 quarterback pressures, third most on the Steelers, despite missing four games and playing sparingly in another because of a nagging foot injury. His age (35) will scare away a lot of teams.

Live blog: Browns at Steelers

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
10:00
AM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Cleveland Browns' visit to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1:00 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
 

Steelers-Browns: By The Numbers

November, 23, 2013
11/23/13
10:00
AM ET
A quick hit look at the Pittsburgh Steelers-Cleveland Browns game Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium:

1: Steelers WR Jerricho Cotchery’s NFL rank in first-down percentage among those who average at least two catches a game

2: Games this season in which Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has thrown four touchdown passes

2.6: Browns starting RB Willis McGahee’s average yards per carry

3.1: Steelers starting RB Le'Veon Bell’s average yards per carry

3.6: Average yards allowed on first down by the Browns, the fewest in the NFL

5: Browns' NFL rank in total defense

6.4: Average yards allowed on first down by the Steelers

7: Career games in which Roethlisberger has thrown at least four touchdown passes

12: Wins by the Steelers the 15 times they have played the Browns in Cleveland since an NFL franchise returned there in 1999

15.1: Average margin of victory for the Steelers in their past 12 wins in Cleveland

18.9: Yards per catch for Browns WR Josh Gordon

19: Roethlisberger’s NFL rank in fourth-quarter passer rating

48: First downs by Steelers WR Antonio Brown

80.3: Roethlisberger’s fourth-quarter passer rating

85.3: Percentage of Cotchery’s catches that have gone for first downs

92.1: Roethlisberger’s passer rating in eight games in Cleveland

93.9: Receiving yards per game by Gordon

95.2: Receiving yards per game by Brown

111: Receiving yards Heath Miller needs to become the Steelers' all-time leader among TEs

306.5: Total yards allowed per game by the Browns

Haley impressed with Browns defense

November, 21, 2013
11/21/13
5:48
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The Cleveland Browns defense is apparently as impressive on film as it is on paper.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said he thinks Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin are even better than the Detroit Lions' defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

The Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t run on Suh and Fairley last Sunday as they mustered just 40 rushing yards in a 37-27 win over the Lions.

Next up for the Steelers are the Browns, who are yielding just 98.5 rushing yards per game and are fifth in the NFL in total offense. The Browns are one of three teams this season that have not allowed a 300-yard passer or 100-yard rusher in a game.

“I thought Detroit was real good but I think this team’s better,” Haley said on Thursday. “The front seven in general, I think, is probably the best front seven we’ve seen. We’ve got our work cut out for us because as we move into late November and December you’ve got to be able to run the ball effectively when they know you’re running it.”

Weather could be an issue in Cleveland as snow has been forecast for late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. Snow and that wind that always seems to swirl off nearby Lake Erie could limit how much the Steelers throw the ball -- and run the no-huddle offense that worked so well against the Lions.

The Lions held Le'Veon Bell to 36 yards last Sunday, and the rookie running back is averaging just 3.1 yards per carry. Haley said he is pleased with the progress Bell has made, citing his contributions in the passing game as well as some timely runs the former Michigan State star has made.

Haley said the Steelers need more big plays to improve a rushing attack that averages 76.5 yards per game.

“I want to see one of those breakout runs here pretty quick,” Haley said. “We’ve had to work for every yard but I do feel like we’re making progress even with some of the moving parts and different people we’ve had to plug in. What we need is a few of breakout runs. We’re going to keep working, keep working technique and I think it will happen and hopefully it’s happening at the right time.”
ESPN.com is continuing to reveal its list of the top 100 NFL players. Here are the players from the division that landed in spots 31-40 for offense and defense:

OFFENSE

40. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens quarterback: He's never thrown for over 4,000 yards or 25 touchdowns. But, since 2008, Flacco has won 63 games (including playoffs), which is six more than anyone else in the league.

DEFENSE

33. Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers safety: Injuries have forced him to miss 22 games over the past four seasons. He does, however, look like his old self this preseason.

34. Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns cornerback: He's the highest-ranked cornerback in the AFC North, and he deserves to be. He has broken up 37 passes in his first two seasons and has held his own against some of the best receivers in the NFL, from Larry Fitzgerald to Brandon Marshall. His biggest challenge has been A.J. Green.

35. LaMarr Woodley, Steelers linebacker: He looked like the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the first half of the 2011 season. But a hamstring injury derailed him. Woodley has four sacks in the past 13 games that he's played.

Here's a review of the AFC North players who have already made the ESPN.com list:

OFFENSE

53. Marshal Yanda, Ravens guard

54. Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers center

63. Torrey Smith, Ravens wide receiver

84. Trent Richardson, Browns running back

90. Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle

91. Heath Miller, Steelers tight end

95. Antonio Brown, Steelers wide receiver

DEFENSE

50. Lardarius Webb, Ravens cornerback

54. Ryan Clark, Steelers safety

62. Lawrence Timmons, Steelers linebacker

66. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end

69. Paul Kruger, Browns linebacker

83. Ike Taylor, Steelers cornerback

84. Leon Hall, Bengals cornerback

89. Carlos Dunlap, Bengals defensive end

99. James Harrison, Bengals linebacker

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