AFC North Roundup: Bengals, Steelers & Ravens

Keeping you up to date on all the important items for the Cleveland Browns' division rivals. What have the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens been up to this week?

AFC NORTH ROUNDUP: Geno Atkins Back To Form For Cincinnati Bengals, More (Andrea Hangst)

Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins suffered a torn ACL nine games into the 2013 season. Though he was back and active as a starter for all 16 games for the Bengals in 2014, he failed to regain his old form. An ACL tear is a tricky thing—there’s not only the physical component of the recovery but also the mental component(http://grantland.com/features/derrick-rose-rob-gronkowski-rise-acl-tears/) that makes a quick and full recovery a difficult process. Because of this, Atkins struggled in 2014, totaling just three sacks. He had six before tearing the ligament and 12.5 sacks in 2012. And the Bengals’ defense as a whole had only 20 sacks during the 2014 season, a number likely influenced by Atkins’ slow physical and mental recovery.

But this year, Atkins seems to have gotten his health and his confidence back. Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes said that Atkins looks “scary” in OTAs, according to Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson. “It’s scary how fast and explosive he is right now. I think he has the confidence that he has his legs under him. He feels like he did [before the injury],” said Hayes. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who called out Atkins following the 2014 season, saying he was “just a guy out there” and not a defensive force, agrees. “He looks as good as any guy we’ve got on our team. On the defensive side at least. He’s real explosive. He looks strong. He looks as good as he’s ever had. I’m proud of the way he’s come back. He gives us a huge boost. Huge. You’re talking about one of the elite players in the league,” said Guenther.

The Bengals are hoping to regain footing as one of the elite pass-rushing groups in the NFL. With Atkins healthy, defensive end Michael Johnson returning to the team after a one-year stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and backup end Will Clarke also turning heads at OTAs they are off to a good start. But it all rests on Atkins; he’s the team’s point man when it comes to attacking opposing quarterbacks. And now that his body and his mind have both healed from such a significant injury, the Bengals defense can get back into the business of wreaking havoc with their best player ready to go.

Baltimore Ravens: Franchise Tag Likely for Kicker Justin Tucker in 2016?

ESPN’s Jamison Hensley predicted in his weekly mailbag column that the Baltimore Ravens are more likely to use the franchise tag next year on kicker Justin Tucker rather than using it on guards Kelechi Osemele or Marshal Yanda. Though Yanda is one of the best guards in the game and Osemele is not far behind, the Ravens are not out of their salary-cap crunch, with at least $137 million wrapped up for 2016 already. It cost over $12 million on average to give a franchise tag to an offensive lineman this year; that number could balloon to nearly $14 million next year. In contrast, kickers come much more cheaply with the franchise tag, at around $4.5 million estimated for 2016.

Tucker, who came to Baltimore in 2012 and became a Pro Bowler and First-Team All-Pro in 2013, has made 110 extra points—or 100 percent of his attempts—on his career and 97 field goals, which have earned the Ravens a total of 401 points. He has made 89.8 percent of his field goal attempts, with a career high of 92.7 percent in 2013. Though his field goal percentage dipped to just 85.3 percent, that was only due to his five misses on attempts of 50 yards or more. He’s been one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL and one of the Ravens’ secret weapons. Using an affordable franchise tag on him in 2016 makes football and business sense.

But, should the Ravens tag Tucker, that means they will have important decisions to make on the offensive line next year. There’s no way that the Ravens can afford to give long-term deals to both Osmele and Yanda. But they do have John Urschel, a promising backup, who could take over either men’s starting jobs should one be forced to move on. They cannot say the same at the kicker position, and finding another younger kicker with Tucker’s chops is not guaranteed. For the Ravens, keeping their kicker and saving $10 million seems to be the no-brainer choice for 2016.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Backup QB Bruce Gradkowski Breaking Records

For two seasons now, no one has seen a hint of Pittsburgh Steelers’ backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski save for him holding the clipboard on the sidelines. And he’s managed to make franchise history while doing so. As the _Pittsburgh Post-Gazette_’s Ed Bouchette points out, Gradkowski’s two-year stint of playing zero regular-season snaps is a Steelers’ record—in Bouchette’s words, “there never has been a two-year stretch by the Steelers in which no backup quarterback has thrown a pass in a regular season game,” until now.

Gradkowski has been on the field—he did play six snaps in the Steelers’ Week 3 defeat of the Carolina Panthers last year, but he didn’t throw a pass. And he did throw three passes on three snaps against the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card round of last season’s playoffs. But in the regular season, he’s been a fixture on the sidelines and little else.

That’s good news for the Steelers, whose starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggled to complete 16-game seasons for most of his career. But the last two years, he’s stayed healthy. In fact, in 2013—if you’ll believe this—Roethlisberger became the first Steelers quarterback to play every offensive snap for the team since Jim Finks in 1952.

But Gradkowski still has a role to play. Head coach Mike Tomlin said of him, “He’s an up-tempo, energy-bringer guy. He’s a smart guy. He helps us week-in and week-out whether or not he gets to play. He’s always a good idea guy. He brings that savvy veteran experience, and that’s something we’ve enjoyed around here for quite some time in terms of our backups,” referencing long-time backup Charlie Batch, who has not officially retired but ended his tenure with Pittsburgh in 2013.

With Roethlisberger coming off of a career year and being given a four-year, $87.4 million contract extension this offseason, the Steelers are clearly banking on their starter not seeing any time off any time soon. But the Steelers are happy with Gradkowski, even if he never plays another snap again.


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