Around the AFC North

Updates from Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh as off-season training continues...

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: BACK FROM BREAK

Coach Mike Tomlin resumes his spring practices Tuesday after giving his team two weeks off from OTAs, although they continued to voluntarily lift and work out in Pittsburgh.

Rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall will return to Pittsburgh, where they'll get another look at the hamstring he injured on the first day of minicamp six days after he was drafted.

He said his leg feels "pretty good." So, too, has been his relationship with veteran halfback Willie Parker, the NFL's leading rusher through 14 games last season before he broke his fibula. The plan by Tomlin is to have Parker, who has topped 1,200 yards rushing in each of the past three seasons, and Mendenhall share time. How that's done is anyone's guess at the moment.

Parker, though, has taken Mendenhall under his wing and sees him more as a help than competition for his job.

"I've been in the league a little bit, so I definitely can teach him," said Parker, who has four NFL seasons behind him. "I embraced him as soon as he came in, trying to teach him the ropes and stuff."

Parker and other Steelers running backs helped put the first-round pick at ease.

"I was kind of nervous coming in," Mendenhall said. "But the running back room and Willie have been nothing but professional since I've been here, just trying to help me as much as they can.  The better I do, the better they are going to do; we are going to be as a team."

What was Parker able to show Mendenhall in his first weekend as a pro?

"How to be a professional," he said. "He has been here for a few years.  He is showing me how to work, what to do, how to carry yourself as a professional and as a man."

Said Parker, "I'm a team player. He's here to push me, I'm here to make him better. We're going to compete and have fun doing it."

 

CINCINNATI BENGALS: A THROWBACK TO BETTER TIMES?

The Bengals hit the field Tuesday for their first organized team activity (OTA) practice of the 2008 offseason.

And it featured a throwback, of sorts, to their division-winning 2005 season -- a full-sized Rudi Johnson and fleet-footed Chris Perry on the field at the same time.

Both tailbacks, key performers for the 2005 AFC North champions, are making comebacks -- Perry's more dramatic. The Bengals' first-round draft pick in 2004, Perry had not stepped foot as an active player on a football field since fracturing and dislocating his right ankle in a November 2006 game at Cleveland.

Johnson, the team's featured back who smashed his way to more than 2,900 rushing yards and 24 rushing touchdowns in 2004 and '05, missed five games last season and finished with just 497 yards because of a hamstring injury. He had changed his diet and played, he said, at 212 pounds last season, and his running style changed, too. Johnson, a between-the-tackles bruiser, tried to dance. Now he's put on 12 to 13 pounds of muscle mass in his chest and shoulders and said he weighs now in the neighborhood of 225 pounds -- his desired playing weight.

"Last year when I got hurt, it was definitely frustrating for me," said Johnson, who has worked with strength and conditioning coaches since the end of the 2007 season. "I wanted to come back stronger, more powerful than I've ever been."

In 2005, Johnson and third-down back Perry teamed for 1,737 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns -- all of the scores from Johnson. They also had 74 receptions and two touchdowns - both from Perry. The Bengals were 11th in the league in rushing that season. Last year they dropped to 24th.

"You go through things for a reason," Perry said after practice. "It makes me more appreciative of a sport I am blessed to play as long as I can. Playing football -- that's what I do. It's what I love, being out there with the guys."

Perry made two one-handed catches out of the backfield in a seven-on-seven drill. It's a gift, he said, not something he has to practice.

Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski took note of Perry's return and even slid over to him during practice to welcome him back.

"To me, with him, it's going to tell over time how he handles the wear and tear of going every day," Bratkowski said of Perry, limited to 22 games of a possible 64 in four seasons. "He's off to a real good start today. He was a nice change of pace to Rudi. He was a very important part. He had some big plays for us. If we can get that back it's certainly going to make us a better offense."

Quarterback Carson Palmer recalled Perry's performance in the 2005 Indianapolis game -- when he had eight carries for 82 yards and 123 yards from scrimmage.

"He's another dimension, another target. He's such a threat out of the backfield," Palmer said.

The Bengals considered drafting a running back; they liked Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Stewart, who went to Pittsburgh and Carolina, respectively. And they entertained free agent Shaun Alexander on a visit last week. But if Johnson and Perry are healthy, they form a dynamic duo and could help head coach Marvin Lewis fulfill his wish of re-establishing the Bengals' power run game.

The Bengals are deep at tailback. In addition to Johnson and Perry, they have Kenny Watson (whose 763 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last season led the team) and DeDe Dorsey (who had an 8.7-yard average on 21 attempts). They were on the field, too, Tuesday.

 

BALTIMORE RAVENS: TEAM AVOIDS CONFLICT WITH SUGGS

The Ravens and Terrell Suggs avoided a grievance by reaching a creative compromise.

The sides reached an agreement on a one-year franchise tag tender worth close to $8.5 million, which will pay him under a new position -- hybrid defensive end/linebacker.

It is believed that the NFL Players Association and the NFL Management Council are finalizing details to sign off on the settlement.

"His job is to rush the quarterback, and I thought it was unfair that he had to live under the linebacker franchise tag," said Gary Wichard, Suggs' agent. "So, Ozzie (Newsome, Ravens general manager) and I said, 'Let us resolve this as opposed to the attorneys.' I tip my hat off to Ozzie for creating a new franchise tag."

The Ravens used the franchise tag on Suggs on Feb. 19, keeping him off the free-agent market with a one-year tender worth $8.065 million (the average of the five highest-paid linebackers in the NFL).

But Suggs filed a grievance on March 5, saying he should receive the one-year tag of $8.879 million for defensive ends because more than half of the snaps he played came as a pass-rushing end. But the Ravens argue that Suggs plays linebacker in the team's base defense and has always been listed as a linebacker on the Pro Bowl ballot.

Keeping Suggs is considered the biggest move by the Ravens this offseason.

Suggs, 25, would have become one of the youngest players in NFL history to reach free agency, but the Ravens weren't going to let him hit the open market. With linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Chris McAlister getting older, the Ravens see Suggs as one of their future cornerstones on defense.

A first-round pick by the Ravens in 2003, Suggs has become one of the NFL's top pass rushers.

He is third on the Ravens' all-time list with 45 sacks, trailing Peter Boulware (70) and Michael McCrary (51). And since 2003, Suggs has recorded the sixth-most sacks in the league.

Last season, Suggs finished with a career-low five sacks but had a career-high 95 tackles.

Plus, Suggs fits the team's defensive profile. He's loud and bold. He has the swagger that has long defined the Ravens defense.

"You look at Suggs, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed, those are the three pieces that the defense will be built around as we move forward," Newsome said.

This is the first time the Ravens have used the tag since 2004, when they franchised McAlister.

The next step is to see if the Ravens can sign Suggs to an extension, keeping him with the team beyond this season.

"He is one of our best players, and our success with re-signing our best players is very good," Newsome said earlier this year. "We've done this with players like Jonathan Ogden, Ray Lewis, Todd Heap, Ed Reed and Chris McAlister -- and that was after we franchised Chris."

Asked if Suggs is open to an extension with the Ravens, Wichard said, "Absolutely."


 


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