AFC North Update: Week One

They're evil, they're lurking, and they refuse to leave. Those other teams in the AFC North continue to demand to be allowed to play in the NFL, which means we have to keep up with them. Here's the latest that's happening in Pittsburgh, Cincy, and that place in Maryland.



The Ravens' new-look offense started to take shape in the season-opening 17-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Rookie first-round pick Joe Flacco has begun to solidify himself as the starting quarterback, and the Ravens have begun to establish a running game without Willis McGahee.

In his first NFL start, Flacco wasn't impressive throwing the ball, finishing 15 of 29 passing for 129 yards. But the key was he didn't turn the ball over and turned up the intensity when needed.

Flacco provided the key block downfield for the Ravens' first touchdown, a 42-yard double reverse by receiver Mark Clayton. He then called an audible that led to a 38-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.

"This was the beginning for Joe," first-year coach John Harbaugh said. "Now, we've got an idea of where he's at and what he needs to do is get better. He played well but he needs to take this week to next week and make the most improvement maybe he will ever make in his career. That should be his goal."

So, will Flacco be the starting quarterback for now?

Harbaugh quickly replied, "We'll see."

Flacco was thrust into the starting role because medical issues had sidelined the team's top two quarterbacks, Troy Smith (tonsil infection) and Kyle Boller (a season-ending shoulder injury).

But teammates have immediately responded to his composure.

"Joe was unbelievably poised," Clayton said. "For me, I don't consider him a rookie quarterback. He prepared well, and he came out here and he was ready to put us in a position to win the game."

Said receiver Derrick Mason: "He is starting to really come into his own right now."

Flacco will continue to be successful if he receives help from his running game.

McGahee was active but he remained on the sideline for the entire game. He didn't receive a carry because the Ravens are still concerned about his knee injury, which made him miss the entire preseason.

"We were hopeful to get him into the game at some point. But the way the game shook out, we were unable to do it," Harbaugh said. "He'll practice in a more physical manner this week, and then we should have him ready to go next week."

The Ravens turned early to rookie Ray Rice (64 yards on 22 carries) before going late in the game to Le'Ron McClain (86 yards on 19 carries).

McClain, who is the team's starting fullback, has split time at tailback since the middle of preseason. The 6-foot, 260-pound back is a force with the ball.

"He was running north and south and the ball was high and tight," Harbaugh said. "He did a great job with it. He's a load, he's tough to tackle."

The Ravens' 229 yards rushing was the sixth most in team history. It ranked as the most since the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl season.

It could be a similar game plan Sunday against the Houston Texans, who gave up 183 yards on the ground and three rushing touchdowns in the opener at Pittsburgh.

"It's an old saying and you've heard it since you were a little kid, but it does start in the trenches," Harbaugh said. "That's where football games are won and lost."


--RB Willis McGahee dressed for the game but did not play because of a coaching decision. He hadn't taken many hits in practice, and the coaches didn't want to risk McGahee hurting his injured knee. Coach John Harbaugh said McGahee could get some carries next game.

--RB Ray Rice started over the injured Willis McGahee, rushing for 64 yards on 22 carries (2.9-yard average). The rookie fumbled in the fourth quarter -- which led to a Bengals touchdown and limited his playing time the rest of the game.

--RB Le'Ron McClain was the Ravens' leading rusher, gaining 86 yards on 19 carries. The converted fullback didn't start but he received 15 carries in the second half. This performance could earn him more playing time at tailback.

--CB Corey Ivy injured ligaments in his ankle and was on crutches after the game. He will be replaced at nickel back by Fabian Washington.

--FS Ed Reed was a surprise starter after not playing the preseason with a neck and shoulder injury. He was a nonfactor in the game and made only three tackles.



The words spoken in a hushed Bengals locker room Sunday, following a miserably played 17-10 loss to a not-very-good Ravens team, were that Cincinnati had a lot of work to do.

Players and coaches took some solace that the game, in which the Bengals did not score an offensive touchdown and were limited to 154 total yards, was just the first of 16.

But there's plenty on film for future opponents to see. And the rebuilding Ravens might be the weakest team on Cincinnati's schedule.

The Bengals offensive line was pushed around all day. It allowed two sacks. Carson Palmer was hit five more times. The Bengals ran for just 65 yards on 23 attempts.

"We've got to stay on and keep chiseling," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "We're half a guy away."

The Bengals defense displayed some negative traits from last year. They had the league's worst pass rush with 22 sacks. They didn't sack and hardly touched Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, forced into starting by Kyle Boller's season-ending injury and Troy Smith's illness.

The Bengals let Flacco loose for a 38-yard touchdown run. And a double reverse from 42 yards by Mark Clayton netted the Ravens' other touchdown.

"Explosive plays," lamented Lewis, repeating a refrain from last season.

The Ravens rushed for 229 yards. The Bengals ran for 65. The goal this past offseason was run the ball above all else. The Bengals had just eight first downs and seven punts.

On Sunday, Tennessee -- a team that runs the ball and plays good defense, much like the Ravens -- will visit for the Bengals' home opener. Then it's the Giants and the Browns before the month is over. Besides giving up the big plays defensively, the Bengals couldn't match the Ravens' power run game, which ate up the final 7:15 on a 63-yard drive. The Bengals had no answer for 260-pound fullback Le'Ron McClain, who ran seven times for 42 yards.

"It's just one game; there's 16 games," rookie linebacker Keith Rivers said. "There's 15 more games; we have a long way to go. This is just the beginning. We have to keep working."

Until they prove they can stop it, the Bengals will face the run. But while the defensive struggles were somewhat expected, the offense's ineptitude was not. The problems start up front.

"We suck on offense right now," Bengals wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "We have a lot of things to fix on offense. We can't move the ball. We can't get a first down. We can't run. We can't throw."

Baltimore took away the pass game, keeping a safety back and playing just seven defenders against the run. It worked. Chris Perry ran 18 times for just 37 yards. He also lost a fumble in his first start as the featured back since the release of five-year starter Rudi Johnson.

Chad Johnson had just one catch for 22 yards. Houshmandzadeh had three for 44. A blueprint for opposing defenses.

"Based on what Baltimore did, they weren't going to allow me to catch anything," Johnson said. "If we were going to win or compete in this game, it was going to be through the running game. ... They didn't let up on me, and they didn't let up on T.J."


--CB David Jones, the Bengals' third cornerback, left the game in the first half after getting hit in the head while covering a punt. He did not return.

--DE Frostee Rucker was on crutches in the locker room after the game. No further information was available.

--CB Johnathan Joseph scored the Bengals' only touchdown of the day on a 65-yard return of a Ray Rice fumble. Joseph also had five tackles and three passes defensed.

--LB Keith Rivers, the rookie, tied fellow linebacker Dhani Jones for the team lead with 10 tackles. But Rivers appeared to be out of position after biting on a fake on a 38-yard touchdown run by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.

--LB Dhani Jones left the field to receive IV fluids in the third quarter but returned to the game.

--QB Carson Palmer's 35.2 passer rating was the worst of his 62-game NFL career.



It won't take long for the Pittsburgh Steelers to discover if the Cleveland Browns are real threats to their supremacy in the AFC North Division.

The Steelers (1-0) play at Cleveland (0-1) Sunday night. While it's rather early to label anything in the NFL as must-win, if the Browns don't beat the Steelers Sunday, they'll already be two games behind them with a game in Pittsburgh late in the year.

And the Browns haven't beaten the Steelers at home since 2000. Pittsburgh has won nine straight in the series. The Steelers say none of that will make them overconfident heading to Cleveland, even after they thumped Houston in their first game while the Browns went down to Dallas at home.

"We're not going to overreact," said receiver Hines Ward. "It's one game. We have a big game in Cleveland, prime time. We'll enjoy this, look at it and get ready for Cleveland."

Pittsburgh believes it has a stronger team than it did a year ago when it won the division with a 10-6 record. That's the same record posted by the Browns but the Steelers beat them twice.

The Steelers looked stronger in their opener too, with Willie Parker running like the Fast Willie of old, before he broke his fibula in the 15th game of last season. Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes to Ward and completed 13 of 14. The defense smothered the Texans and the offensive line, a preseason question, played well.

The Steelers believe they have a team capable of winning another Super Bowl, and they can stake more of that claim with another victory in Cleveland.

"I set my goals so high," Roethlisberger said. "The Super Bowl is what we are going for."

The Steelers have the most difficult schedule in the NFL, which also did them no favors by making them play four of their next five games on the road. They believe they have the talent to overcome such obstacles.

"I think we do," Roethlisberger insisted. "We are young enough and experienced enough. I think we know deep down how good we can be and are just making sure we stay focused on what we have to do."

The Steelers are stronger in many ways than they were last season, when they lost four of their final five games as they wore down and injuries caught up to them.

"I feel this team is good enough to get to the playoffs," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "No question. We have to stay healthy, we need to be playing our best ball in the latter part of the year, but absolutely I feel like we have the potential to (win a Super Bowl)."

They came through their first game without injury and showed they have the kind of offense that can run or throw well.

"I think we showed a lot but we still have a lot of weapons we didn't utilize," Roethlisberger said of the 38-17 opening victory. "We have some guys who can make big plays and we kind of kept them under wraps."


--RB Willie Parker is off to a fast start. After scoring just two touchdowns all last season, he ran for a career-high three in the opening game to go with his 138 yards rushing.

--LB James Harrison replaced Joey Porter last year and was team MVP in his first season as a starter after leading them with 8.5 sacks. He had three in the opener and forced a fumble on one of them.

--LB LaMarr Woodley made his first start a good one. He replaced departed veteran Clark Haggans on the outside and had a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery.

--SS Troy Polamalu was shut out last season, failing to register a sack or interception for the first time. After missing all of training camp with a hamstring problem, he intercepted a pass in the opener.

--RB Rashard Mendenhall will spot Willie Parker on occasion but Parker remains the horse in the Steelers backfield. Parker ran 25 times in three quarters of work in the opener. Mendenhall mopped up and had 10 carries.

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