Behind Enemy Lines

It's time for our regularly scheduled tour of the AFC North, where Joe Flacco could still mount a challenge to be the Ravens QB, the Bengals wheels start wobbling, and the Steelers offensive line is looking, well, better. That's not a good thing for Browns fans.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

HOT TOPIC

The Ravens' quarterback battle appeared to be between Kyle Boller and Troy Smith.

When both of those quarterbacks were sidelined with medical issues, rookie first-round pick Joe Flacco played the entire game of the Ravens' 24-10 loss to the St. Louis Rams.

Although Flacco struggled early in his first career NFL start, he impressed the coaching staff with his ability to grow from the first to fourth quarter.

Could Flacco have pushed himself back into the race to start Sept. 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals?

"We'll see," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's a fair question. I just don't know the answer."

This was supposed to be the game where the Ravens would learn if Smith would take control of the quarterback race. But Smith couldn't suit up for the game after battling flu-like symptoms for two days.

The Ravens would have wanted to go with Boller, but he couldn't throw in warm-ups because of a shoulder injury. Boller didn't practice all week because of the injury, which occurred on a hard hit in the second preseason game.

That meant the Ravens had to hand the ball to Flacco, who had played two quarters in the preseason and didn't practice at all with the starting offense last week.

In the first half, Flacco was 4-for-13 for 33 yards. In the second half, he was 18-for-37 for 152 yards and a touchdown.

Flacco's best drive was the first of the second half. He connected on all four of his passes for 61 yards, throwing each time to Derrick Mason. Two plays after a 30-yard throw to Mason, Flacco found him for a 15-yard touchdown on the right side of the end zone.

"I think he's moving pretty quickly up the (learning) curve," Harbaugh said. "You saw it from the first quarter to the fourth quarter. So, he's making a lot of progress."

Flacco, the 18th overall pick in this year's draft, had a rough initiation as a starting quarterback.

He was overthrowing open receivers and getting passes batted back at him. He was penalized for intentional grounding on a poorly run screen play. And he tried to force the ball twice to covered receivers on his first trip in the red zone.

"It felt good," Flacco said. "It was a really good chance for me to get in there and get my feet wet. There are things that I would like to do better. But it's a great learning experience."

The Ravens are unsure how their quarterback battle will unfold.

There is a chance that the Ravens will start Smith in the preseason finale and give him a second chance to prove he can win the job.

Or they could split time between the quarterbacks if Boller is healthy enough to play.

The other option is to give Flacco his second straight start and see if he is ready to start the regular-season opener.

"(Smith's illness) pushes us back," Harbaugh said. "We knew it was a process and you had a hope that it could get answered tonight with Troy. But he didn't have an opportunity to prove that, so we're still looking to make that decision as we go."

PLAYER NOTES

--Edgar Jones, a second-year player, has been switched from linebacker to tight end, reviving an offseason experiment that seemed to end before training camp.

"During the offseason, I took it as a joke," said Jones, who has also switched from No. 91 to No. 46. "They were working me in, so I didn't take it too seriously until coach (John) Harbaugh called me (three days ago) and told me they were moving me. Then I saw No. 46, so I took it real serious after that."

Jones, who led the nation in sacks in 2006 while playing defensive end-linebacker at Southeast Missouri State, said he played tight end and wide receiver at Rayville (La.) High.

--RB Willis McGahee hinted that he will miss the preseason but will be ready for the regular season. He recently had arthroscopic knee surgery. Even though he should be physically ready, it's still unsure whether he'll know the offense. He missed most of the offseason camps as well as training camp.

--TE Todd Heap is expected to miss the preseason but he will be ready for the regular season. Heap has been sidelined the entire preseason with a calf injury. His absence won't affect his standing in the offense. He is still the top playmaker in the passing game.

--NT Kelly Gregg is expected to miss the preseason but he will be ready for the regular season. He could play now but the Ravens don't want to risk him to injury. Gregg is a major reason why the Ravens stop the run so effectively.

--FS Ed Reed might not be ready to play in the regular-season opener. Coach John Harbaugh seemed less sure that the four-time Pro Bowl player will come back from a shoulder injury to play Sept. 7 against the Bengals. He would be replaced by Jim Leonhard.

--FS Jim Leonhard could start the regular-season opener for the Ravens if Ed Reed is sidelined with a shoulder injury. It's seeming more unlikely that Reed is going to be available. Leonhard has started every game for the Ravens this preseason.

--RB Le'Ron McClain is getting more looks at tailback, although he will still start at fullback. He led the Ravens in rushing in the third preseason game, gaining 41 yards on eight carries.

--DT Haloti Ngata (knee sprain) missed his third preseason game but it's considered precautionary. He will start the regular-season opener.


CINCINNATI BENGALS

HOT TOPIC

Three preseason games down, with the fourth and final scheduled for Aug. 28, and the Bengals are among many in the league that look a mess.

They're 1-2 and have been steamrolled in the past two home losses to the Lions and Saints. The first-team defense, an admitted work in progress under first-year coordinator Mike Zimmer, has been the better half of the team.

It's the high-priced offense, missing starting wide receivers Chad Johnson (shoulder) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (hamstring) and starting tailback Rudi Johnson (hamstring), that has struggled more than expected.

In 10 series the past two games with Carson Palmer at quarterback, the offense has punted eight times, been intercepted once and had its best drive end in a blocked field goal. In 49 plays, they've gained eight first downs.

Palmer was sacked three times against the Saints -- the third breaking his nose -- and once against the Lions, whose defense also hit him four other times. Palmer was listed Sunday as questionable for the Indianapolis game but is expected to start in the regular-season opener Sept. 7 at Baltimore.

That's just what the Bengals needed: More bad news, another vital cog out of an offense that seems disjointed and out of sync, at best.

They've just been bad. The offensive line -- 100 percent healthy and deep, with Willie Anderson working as the sixth man -- has been inconsistent in pass protection and run blocking. Tailback Chris Perry, playing for Rudi Johnson, has worked hard for 101 yards on 30 carries.

"We have our work cut out for ourselves," a grim Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said afterward.

If Palmer can't play at Indianapolis, Ryan Fitzpatrick will start, but his appearance will do nothing to help smooth out the problems the first-team offense is having. Rudi Johnson said he'll be back, but he was supposed to play against the Lions. Houshmandzadeh's playing status is a mystery, and Chad Johnson's is even murkier. Johnson landed hard on his left shoulder against the Lions. He sustained a sprained shoulder, which Lewis said had popped out and back into place before Johnson was off the field. Lewis had said Johnson is making good progress toward returning, but speculation is Johnson will be out for a longer period of time; surgery is a possibility and he might not play at Baltimore.

Injuries also have taken the projected third and fourth receivers out of the mix. Marcus Maxwell, who had the inside track on the No. 3 job, is lost for the season after injuring his thigh seriously while doing extra routes after practice Aug. 19. No. 4 projected wideout Andre Caldwell, a rookie, is in a walking boot after hurting his foot. His return is unknown.

Fellow rookie Jerome Simpson, drafted in the second round, has flashed some of the play-making ability that promises great things in the future, but he remains raw and inconsistent. He has nine receptions for 144 yards -- most in second-half garbage time. The Bengals started veterans Antonio Chatman and Glenn Holt in the third preseason game.

Some positive notes: Perry's health and clear improvement. Lewis has said if the season started now that Perry would start at tailback. And tight end Ben Utecht has been consistent with 10 catches for 108 yards and a touchdown. He and Palmer have a solid chemistry already, and the Bengals might have to rely on Utecht heavily in the first month.

Speaking of the first month, the Bengals will be without their latest addition, wide receiver Chris Henry, for the first four games when he has to serve another league suspension. The club signed him to a two-year deal Aug. 19 after all charges against him stemming from a March 31 assault arrest were dropped for various reasons. The choice was team president Mike Brown's, not Lewis'.

The offensive line has been healthy but playing poorly. Bengals quarterbacks have been sacked 10 times in three games -- albeit just the preseason -- compared to a single-season franchise record 17 in all of 2007.

PLAYER NOTES

--DE Antwan Odom, the club's major offseason free-agent acquisition, walked out of Paul Brown Stadium Tuesday afternoon without the protective boot on his left foot. Odom had sprained the foot July 28 during the Bengals' first training camp practice at Georgetown College.

He had been fitted with the boot and walked with crutches for almost a week. Word is he is expected to return to practice the week of Aug. 25 and could be ready to play in the regular-season opener Sept. 7 at Baltimore. He had eight sacks last season for the Titans and was signed to team with fellow end Robert Geathers to bolster what was the NFL's weakest pass rush in 2007. The Bengals had just 22 sacks.

--DE Jonathan Fanene has been starting in place of Antwan Odom at right end ahead of Frostee Rucker.

--RT Willie Anderson worked into the rotation with the starting offensive line in the first half of the loss to the Saints, replacing projected starter Stacy Andrews, who went back in with starters at the opening of the second half.

--WR Marcus Maxwell was waived injured and reverted back to the Bengals' injured reserve list following a serious thigh injury sustained while doing extra work after practice Tuesday.

--DB Ethan Kilmer, a difference-making special teams player as a rookie in 2006, missed all of 2007 and is out again for 2008 after clearing waivers and going on the Bengals injured reserve list with a thigh injury.

--QB Carson Palmer sustained a broken nose while being sacked against the Saints on Aug. 23. He had a broken bone aligned Sunday morning and was listed as questionable for Thursday's preseason finale at Indianapolis. He is expected to be fine to start the opener Sept. 7 at Baltimore.

--LB Keith Rivers made his second preseason start against the Saints and had a team-high eight tackles (four solo, four assists), including one sack, one tackle for loss and two quarterback hits.

--CB Deltha O'Neal, given the job as top punt returner since his defensive role has been reduced, has failed to win the job and might end up losing it to WR Antonio Chatman.


PITTSBURGH STEELERS

HOT TOPIC

Coach Mike Tomlin's second team seems stronger all the way around as the preseason draws to a close.

The offensive line, which seemed unsettled with the loss of seven-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, has looked better and more cohesive. The defense has been rejuvenated with the addition of two young linebackers. And special teams surely can't be worse. And the offense is packed with firepower.

Now all they have to do is tackle the toughest schedule in the NFL.

"Having 'the toughest schedule' is based on last year's performance," Tomlin said. "One thing you know about this game is that things never stay the same. Some of these so-called tough teams that we play may not be, and that includes us.

"We don't take this process for granted. We're preparing to be the best we can be. We anticipate the best from everyone we play. But we don't worry about what we can't control."

Tomlin has done a nice job at what he can control. He installed second-year linebacker LaMarr Woodley as his starter on the left outside. Lawrence Timmons, his first draft pick in 2007, has been the hit of training camp and made big plays in practice and games. Troy Polamalu should open the season healthy, which he wasn't much of last season.

The offense with Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has good wide receivers, with third-year pro Santonio Holmes ready to take on a bigger role (he led the NFL with an average of 18.1 yards per catch last season).

Not only do they have a healthy Willie Parker back at running back, but added first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall to the mix. Heath Miller can catch with the better tight ends in the league and block to boot.

Even their third-down back situation has improved. Last year, they tried to go with Najeh Davenport. They signed Mewelde Moore as an unrestricted free agent from the Vikings to handle that job and will also use Parker on occasion there.

Faneca is gone from the line, but left tackle Marvel Smith is healthy after back surgery to relieve the pain he suffered through most of 2007. They have a new, bigger, experienced center in Justin Hartwig and right tackle Willie Colon shows improvement in his second season as a starter.

They've worked hard to improve a kicking game that was a joke last season, both in coverage and in returns. It did take a blow, however, when punter Daniel Sepulveda tore his ACL. Veteran Mitch Berger likely will replace him.

Their only real injury from the preseason was backup quarterback Charlie Batch's broken right collarbone. They signed veteran Byron Leftwich to take his place but they face a decision there soon because Batch may be ready to go within the first two weeks of the regular season. They won't cut Batch and they will keep rookie Dennis Dixon as their third quarterback. They could still place Batch on injured reserve.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Santonio Holmes is getting a chance to return punts after coach Mike Tomlin would not let him do it last season. Holmes averaged 10.2 a return as a rookie in 2006.

--QB Charlie Batch is ahead of schedule in his healing process after surgery to repair a broken right collarbone. The Steelers will either keep him or veteran Byron Leftwich but not both.

--WR Limas Sweed will open the season as the No. 4 receiver, backing up Santonio Holmes. His expected push to become No. 3 never happened.

--CBs Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend have switched sides. Taylor moves to the right and Townsend to the left. The move was made because Townsend is better at reading combination routes.

--LB Larry Foote continues to start at inside linebacker, where he's held sway the past four seasons. This, despite the excellent play by second-year linebacker Lawrence Timmons.

--C Justin Hartwig started the third preseason game and played the entire first half. He appears to have won the job from Sean Mahan, who started there last season.



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