Carson Palmer has a hot hand.
He has completed 77 percent of his passes over the past four games, in which the Bengals are 3-1.
"There's always room for improvement. Percentages aren't always the best measuring stick for how you're playing," Palmer said. "I made a number of mistakes in the game. Whether I complete 100 percent, once you get complacent and think there's no room for improvement, that's when your game starts going down. You can play a phenomenal game and complete 60 percent of your passes. The measuring stick is how you feel after watching the game film."
Improving on his past four games would be difficult, expect in reducing the number of turnovers.
Palmer is on the fast track toward becoming one of the league's elite quarterbacks. The average passer rating in the league in 2004 was 82.8. Palmer's development is rapid. The victory Sunday evened his record at 7, 6-3 in his last nine starts.
On Sunday at Cleveland, in the Bengals' 27-13 victory, Palmer did his best Peyton Manning impersonation. The Bengals' third-year quarterback changed plays at the line and did so decisively. He had time to move up and down the line to make sure his teammates knew the audible. He also was 26-for-34 passing for 280 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Palmer is poised. He is a student of the game. He desires to be great. And, as backup quarterback and Palmer mentor Jon Kitna said, "In this league, there's no substitute for getting experience."
In those four games, Palmer has completed 77 percent of his passes and thrown almost twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, 11-6.
Palmer is the type of quarterback who can make the difference between winning and losing in a game against a team like Minnesota, which is a playoff contender. The Vikings play at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday in the Bengals' home opener.
Kitna has heard Palmer challenge receivers to make sure they're in the right spot on pass routes. He didn't do that last season, his first as a starter.
Palmer is not satisfied with his current hot streak. Neither is Bratkowski. When asked how Palmer could improve on his 75-plus percent completion rate in the last four games, Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said, "Complete 80-85. Don't set limits for yourself. The ones we really want to eliminate are the ones he completes to the other team. Then show the consistency to stay at a high level throughout the course of a year without the dips."
The Pro Bowl could be in Palmer's immediate future.
"We have to win football games," Lewis said when asked how Palmer can get to the league all-star game. "I don't think Carson has to do anything different. The rest of us have to keep playing and coaching better. He's so, so talented. As I keep saying from the day he walked in here, the guy, no matter what he touches, he can turn it to gold."
SERIES HISTORY: 10th meeting. 5-4, the Vikings lead. The teams have not played in Cincinnati since 1995. On Christmas Eve, the Bengals won 27-24 on Doug Pelfrey's 51-yard field goal as time expired. The Bengals have a 4-1 lead on the Vikings in games played in Cincinnati. Minnesota owns a 4-0 edge at home.
--Wide receiver Chad Johnson made his first check mark on a chart titled, "Who covered 85 (his uniform number) in 2005?" Cleveland's Gary Baxter, even though he didn't play in the game, had a check mark in the "no" box. Next on Johnson's list is Minnesota's Fred Smoot. "He's a solid corner," Johnson said. "He's a real good talker."
Then, looking right into TV cameras Monday near his locker, Johnson said, "Smoot, let's go; Smoot, who talks better trash?"
Smoot had an interception in his first game with the Vikings against Tampa Bay. Johnson had nine catches for 91 yards at Cleveland.
--The Bengals on Sunday at Cleveland, as the New England Patriots made popular a few years ago in Super Bowl XXXVI, were introduced as a team before the game. The Bengals' defense was scheduled to be introduced individually before the game, but the 11 defensive starters came out of the tunnel as a single unit.
--The Bengals have 11 players each who weigh more than 300 pounds and less than 200 pounds, according to an analysis of opening rosters released Wednesday by the NFL. The Bengals average 4.06 years of NFL experience, less than the league average of 4.43 years. The Bengals have eight rookie or first-year players and nine players aged 30 or more on their roster.
--The Bengals are third in the league in yards per game (420) after Week 1. They are tied for 14th against the run at 98 yards a game. In the previous three openers, they yielded an average of 214.7 yards a game (the Jets, Denver and San Diego).
--Coach Marvin Lewis has a 6-2 record against the NFC, including his last four in a row against the NFC East in 2004. Overall, the Bengals have a five-game home win streak against NFC teams and are 16-7 (.696) against NFC teams in Cincinnati since 1993.
--Vikings coach Mike Tice is a fan of Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson. Asked what the loss of starting center Matt Birk has done to the Vikings, Tice said, "It'd be like (the Bengals) losing your right tackle. I love him. I really do. He's an excellent player. He has been over time. Anytime a player can play consistently over time that's when he needs to be recognized as a premier player."
Anderson made his 81st consecutive start and appearance Sunday at Cleveland.
--Cornerbacks Tory James and Greg Brooks are New Orleans residents. Sixteen of James' relatives are with him and his wife and daughter or at a nearby hotel in Greater Cincinnati. So are eight of Brooks' family members. Brooks and James attended the same high school. Some of Brooks' relatives are staying in the same hotel as James' family.
--The Bengals had a 3-2 edge in turnover differential against the Browns and are now 10-1 in games under Lewis in which they have that advantage. Lewis is 17-16 as Bengals coach.
--The Minnesota game is sold out, bringing to 12 the number of consecutive sellouts for the Bengals at home.
BY THE NUMBERS: 8-4 -- Bengals record in the past 12 games, extending back to 2004, after they started 1-4.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "A lot of pictures around. They have a lot of pictures up now they didn't have. The view is still the same, but it seemed like the guys are having more fun. Losing keeps you apart, winning keeps you together. Winning was a thing we did in Green Bay." -- FB Nick Luchey, who spent his first four seasons with the Bengals before playing two with the Packers, on his return this week to Cincinnati.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Special teams remain a top priority in Cincinnati. Nick Luchey, signed to a one-year contract to take tailback Kenny Watson's roster spot, will have to play special teams like Watson to earn a long-term place on the roster.
--FB Nick Luchey is an answer to a trivia question. He is the first player to leave under the Marvin Lewis coaching regime to return to the Bengals' 53-man roster. Luchey played the first four years of his NFL career with the Bengals (1999-2002) before signing as an unrestricted free agent with Green Bay in early 2003 - just weeks after the Bengals hired Lewis.
Luchey, signed to a one-year contract Tuesday, fills the roster spot vacated by tailback Kenny Watson. He had surgery Monday on a torn biceps and was placed on the season-ending injured reserve list.
"His task is to prove to me that he'll be able to assume the role that Kenny Watson had, and that's being a front-row, core special teams player that way, then move forward from there," Lewis said of Luchey. "From that point, we can establish his role on offense. But until he can unseat somebody in the special teams area, that's his No. 1 task at hand."
--WR Tab Perry, a rookie, fielded four kickoffs and returned those 21, 18, 20 and 50 yards for a 27-yard average in the opener at Cleveland. The loss of tailback Kenny Watson to season-ending biceps surgery leaves Perry as the main kickoff return man. "It was a little bit different just because this (game) was for real," said Perry, the sixth-round draft pick out of UCLA. "A lot of guys are counting on you a lot more. It's more like you don't want to let people down. It's a new team (and) new guys, and you've got to earn their respect."
--WR Chad Johnson needs nine receptions to reach 300 for his career. He had nine last week in the opener. He has a streak of 45 consecutive games in which he has played with at least one reception.
--LB Odell Thurman had eight tackles in statistics adjusted by Bengals coaches upon reviewing game film. Thurman also added one interception and plays with speed and the short memory that Lewis likes.
--RB Rudi Johnson became the sixth Bengals back to run for 100 yards in an opener, and the team is now 5-1 in openers in which a running back rushes for 100 yards. Johnson's 126 yards make him second in the AFC and third in the NFL in rushing after one week. Pittsburgh's Willie Parker leads with 161.
GAME PLAN: The Bengals will want to run the ball and go on long scoring drives in which they mix the pass and run. It worked for them in Cleveland. The Bengals will need to keep the Minnesota offense off the field as much as possible. The Vikings are considerably more accomplished as an offense than the Browns. The Bengals had a 3-2 edge in turnover differential at Cleveland, making them 10-1 in games under Marvin Lewis in which they have that advantage. The Bengals and quarterback Carson Palmer, who committed the team's only two turnovers in the opener, will have to protect the ball.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
The middle of the Bengals offensive line vs. the middle of the Vikings defensive line. The Bengals like to run a balanced offense. They like to run to set up the pass. The Vikings present big problems for the Bengals in the middle of the front four, where tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams eat a lot of space and hold their ground. The middle of the Bengals line, center Rich Braham and guards Eric Steinbach and Bobbie Williams, will have to move the Williams duo to create some space for Rudi Johnson and other Bengals running backs.
--Bengals QB Carson Palmer vs. the Minnesota secondary. Palmer is on a roll with four consecutive games with a passer rating greater than 100 and 11 touchdowns. He will face a secondary made-over with new additions Fred Smoot at cornerback and Darren Sharper at free safety. Both had interceptions in Week 1. The Vikings added cornerback Antoine Winfield as their major free agent acquisition in 2004.
--Bengals LB-DE David Pollack vs. Minnesota QB Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper can run, and he has rushed for more than 400 yards in each of his five seasons as a starter. He is the type of quarterback that the Bengals need Pollack to contain. Pollack, a fast linebacker-end from Georgia, needs to keep Culpepper from getting outside and breaking off big gainers. Pollack also must rush in a disciplined manner and not let Culpepper get around him.
--Bengals WR Chad Johnson vs. Vikings CB Fred Smoot. The two talkers are good players, though they've been yapping all week. NFL Films should mike this one.
--CB Tory James is probable with a toe injury. He did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. He played last week at Cleveland.
--T Willie Anderson, who had microfracture surgery in January, played every snap of the opener and, as expected, has been spelled this week during practice. He did not practice Thursday but was listed as probable for the Vikings.
--T Levi Jones, who is struggling with the lingering effects of knee surgery, missed practice Thursday and was listed as probable for Minnesota.
--WR Chris Henry, a promising rookie, was the surprise decisions Sunday on the Bengals inactive list. The rookie wide receiver, after a productive preseason and solid training camp, was not in uniform for the Browns game. Henry vows to fight to get back into the lineup.
"I was upset when I heard the news, but you can't be mad because I have a bunch of great guys in front of me on the receiving corps," Henry said Thursday. "I'm sitting back and observing to see how things are out there in the regular season. I did notice that (the pace) picked up a little bit from the preseason."
--WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (shoulder) did practice and remained probable.
--S/CB Reggie Myles (groin) did not practice and remained probable. He is a key special teams player as the gunner on the punt cover unit.
After allowing the Bengals 420 total yards and Rudi Johnson 126 yards rushing, the Browns are preparing to face the Packers and their best running back, Ahman Green, with a depleted linebacking corps.
Matt Stewart, versatile enough to play either outside linebacking spot or inside with Andra Davis, will miss the game Sunday in Lambeau Field and most likely a few more games because of sprained right MCL suffered in the first quarter of the season opener.
"Matt is very smart and he plays fundamentally sound," said rookie Nick Speegle, who is getting more reps because of Stewart's injury. "He's not as big as the other linebackers but he can take on a block and force it back in the hole or he can drop back in pass coverage.
"I think he's a great linebacker. He's one guy I look up to because he can play both sides. It's going to be hard to replace him, but we have to move on."
This is an obstacle Coach Romeo Crennel did not expect to be in his way as he tries to reshape the Browns. He said in preseason, when he called his relationship with players "a honeymoon," that the test would come when the losses started adding up. The Browns are 0-1 and facing a Packers team that lost 17-3 in Detroit last week. Never in Brett Favre's previous 225 consecutive starts did the Packers score as few as three points.
Crennel has no plans to alter the course he set out on when he was named Browns head coach Feb. 8. He is convinced the 3-4 defense will work, even though the Stewart injury is a critical loss; he was the most experienced Browns player in the 3-4 because he played it in Atlanta before signing with the Browns as a free agent.
"After one game, if I go in there and say, 'OK, guys, this 3-4 sucks, so I'm throwing it out,' and after another game, 'Hey, this new defense I put in last week sucks, so I'm throwing that out,' then they don't have a system, they don't have a defense and they don't know what to hang their hat on," Crennel said. "We're going to try to hang our hat on the things that we know work and we're going to work to get it done. I think these players will work with us to do that.
"Staying the course, to a degree, can solidify the locker room. You don't want to be helter-skelter."
Crennel said it is up to him as head coach to deliver the message about staying the course, but it helps that guard Joe Andruzzi and cornerback Ray Mickens have been on teams on which Crennel was an assistant coach. And even though Andruzzi plays offense, he is championing Crennel's cause.
From the beginning, Andra Davis has followed Crennel. None of this is to imply there is grumbling in the locker room, but Davis and his teammates are happy to know Crennel is not panicking after one bad game. This is a team with 28 players on the roster that were not on the team at the end of the 2004 season.
Davis is convinced the defense is good enough to win, as long as the players do what they're coached to do.
"We have to go back to the drawing board," Davis said. "We know the system works. They've used it in Pittsburgh for years and Romeo made it work in New England. When you look at that team you don't see a lot of superstars.
"We gave up too many easy plays against Cincinnati. We can't do that this week or the same thing will happen."
SERIES HISTORY: 16th meeting. The Green Bay Packers lead the series 9-6 and have a 4-2 advantage in Green Bay. The Browns have not won in Green Bay since a 24-7 victory Nov. 4, 1956. The have been to Green Bay four times since and lost each time.
--Browns center Jeff Faine ingests between 55 and 60 vitamin and dietary supplements a day. That extrapolates to nearly 22,000 pills a year. He clears everything through the team trainers to avoid inadvertently using steroids.
--Rookie quarterback Charlie Frye was nine years old when Packers quarterback Brett Favre was a rookie with the Falcons in 1991.
--Jim Brown's final NFL game was against the Packers in the NFL championship game played Jan. 2, 1966. The Packers held him to 50 yards on 12 carries.
--Packers defensive coordinator Jim Bates got his NFL coaching start with the Browns under Bill Belichick.
--The Browns have played the Packers once since returning to the NFL in 1999, a 30-7 in Green Bay. The lasting memory from that game was Jamel White rushing for 131 yards on 26 carries, by far his best game with the Browns.
--Fifteen Browns are in the Hall of Fame. The Packers with 20 are one of four teams with more H.O.F. representatives. The others are the Bears with 26, the Steelers with 17 and the Giants with 16.
BY THE NUMBERS: 2-7 - Trent Dilfer has that record as a starting quarterback against the Packers. He has not faced them in a starting role since his final year with the Buccaneers in 1999.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've seen that offense too many times. Those guys are capable of lighting it up if you don't play a good game against them." -- Browns safety Brian Russell, formerly of the Vikings, when asked if the Packer offense has lost some punch.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Reuben Droughns was named the Browns' starting running back, ending any debate about William Green and Droughns sharing the ball. Green will get a few chances, but only to give Droughns a breather if the Browns are able to string long drives together.
"Reuben has a foot up on William," Coach Romeo Crennel said, inferring that Droughns has to have more games like he did against the Bengals - 12 carries for 78 yards plus three catches for 22 yards - to get a 'leg up' on Green.
Green ran strong in the first three preseason games, but he did a poor job avoiding tacklers in the final preseason game and in the four carries he had against the Bengals.
--TE Aaron Shea is listed as questionable with a pectoral strain and did not practice. He still does not have full use of his right arm.
--KR Joshua Cribbs is listed as week to week with a sprained left MCL. Rookie Antonio Perkins is replacing him on kick returns.
GAME PLAN: The Lions put pressure on Brett Favre and the Browns would love to do the same. It would mean pressuring from the inside where Favre is trying to cope with the loss of guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera in free agency.
The Browns were reluctant to blitz last week against Carson Palmer and might be even more gun-shy against a 15-year veteran, but blitzing might be their only chance to get to Favre.
Last week Trent Dilfer threw 43 passes. Coach Romeo Crennel does not want that to happen again if it can be helped. If Reuben Droughns can get 20 to 25 carries it means the Browns are playing ball-control offense, which they want to do.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Browns RB Reuben Droughns, who describes himself as a downhill runner, vs. LB Nick Barnett, the Packers' leading tackler the last two seasons: By his own admission, Droughns does not wiggle to make tacklers miss. He needs a good initial block and if he gets it he is difficult to bring down because he is a powerful runner.
Browns LT L.J. Shelton, a bulldozing run blocker, vs. Packers DE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who has 49 sacks in four season: The Browns did not allow a sack last week. That mark will be tested in Green Bay. Shelton has to avoid holding penalties that can kill drives. Trent Dilfer could use three-step drops to frustrate the pass rush.
--RB Lee Suggs returned to practice and moved pretty well, according to coach Romeo Crennel. Suggs has been sidelined since Aug. 18 with a high ankle sprain. Crennel probably will decide on Sunday if Suggs will play.
--CB Gary Baxter returned to practice and there's a good chance he will start Sunday in Green Bay. Baxter has been sidelined since Aug. 20 with a concussion. If he plays, it will be the first time all season that starters Baxter and Daylon McCutcheon will be on the field together. It might not matter a lot, though, as neither are pure cover corners.
--DE Orpheus Roye has been listed as questionable on the injury report with a hyperextended knee, but Roye vowed to play in Green Bay. Roye is always there on Sunday.
--LB Matt Stewart could miss up to a month with a sprained MCL in his knee. Stewart is not a superstar, but his loss does not help the Browns run defense. He is replaced by Chaun Thompson, who is a fast linebacker best suited to rushing the passer. Kenard Lang, a converted defensive end, starts at the other outside spot.
--TE Aaron Shea is listed as questionable for the second straight week, but once again he cannot lift his right arm. Joshua Cribbs is out with a sprained left MCL. He is the Browns' best kick returner and also one of the gunners on punt coverage. Rookie Antonio Perkins will return kicks. The gunner replacement has not been announced.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was downgraded to questionable on Thursday and backup Tommy Maddox prepared as if he might start against the Texans in Houston on Sunday.
Roethlisberger has a bruised bone in his left knee and went through a limited practice Thursday.
"He worked a little bit today, not as much as I'd hoped he would," coach Bill Cowher said after practice. "It was not really any kind of setback. He does have a bone bruise and it just has not responded as quickly as I'd hoped and his status is day to day."
Roethlisberger, who has a 14-0 record as a starter in regular-season games, had a perfect 158.3 passer rating in Pittsburgh's 34-7 victory Sunday at Heinz Field. He threw only 11 passes and completed nine with two touchdowns before the Steelers ran the ball 22 straight times to finish out the quarter.
Maddox replaced Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter but did not throw a pass. The team's starting quarterback in 2002 and 2003, Maddox opened last season as the starter but his right elbow was injured in the second game. Roethlisberger replaced him and did not lose another game until the AFC championship.
Maddox completed 11 of 18 passes in the preseason for 128 yards and one interception, and Cowher said he had an outstanding training camp.
"I would think so," Maddox said. "Like a fine wine, you get better with age. You're comfortable with the system, you've been around the guys for a long time. I worked real hard this off-season. I was really kind of getting back to working on my release and my feet. I felt good early in camp and I continued throughout."
Maddox was interested in possibly getting traded earlier this year, although he did not ask for a trade. But he knew he'd remain a backup in Pittsburgh barring an injury to Roethlisberger.
"You don't want your teammate to be hurt, first and foremost," Maddox said. "It's a balance, because you want to play, you want to be the guy in there but you want all the guys to be healthy, and you want what's best for the team. We'll see how that goes as the week goes on and see what happens."
Maddox was the NFL Comeback Player of the Year after he replaced Kordell Stewart as the starter for the fourth game of the 2002 season and helped the Steelers to a 10-5-1 record and a playoff victory. They slumped to 6-10 in 2003, however, and Maddox suffered with them as he threw 18 touchdowns passes and 17 interceptions. He was 2-1 as a starter last season, playing in the final regular season game, which was meaningless for the Steelers.
"The good thing is I don't think there's anything this league can dish out I hadn't seen sometime," said Maddox, 34. "I'll be well prepared, I've prepared all week, I prepared all last week. I prepare every game like I'm going to start. If they need me to go in there, I'll be ready to go in there and hopefully help the team win."
The Steelers have played one game against Houston, and that came at Heinz Field in 2002, the Texans' first year of existence. Maddox completed 30 of 57 passes for 325 yards but he had two interceptions and a lost fumble, all returned for touchdowns as Houston won 24-6.
--Having re-established themselves on offense and defense, the Steelers now must work for the kind of consistency that was their trademark in 2004 when they play at Houston Sunday.
Bill Cowher was not happy with his team's play on defense in the first half and, even though Ben Roethlisberger had a perfect passer rating, Cowher is not ready to proclaim his quarterback has overcome all of his preseason problems.
"We only threw it 11 times," Cowher said. "It's not like we've suddenly arrived, I don't think. Too much comparison has been made to (the preseason). I'm not concerned with that. I'm not ready to sit there and say everything is set with one game ... For the first time this year we looked like a professional team throwing the football."
You can believe one thing is set in stone, however, and that's the Steelers' offensive philosophy for 2005. It's the same game plan as 2004, and fantasy players again should take note. They will run until the wheels fall off.
"People can look at our run-to-pass ratio," Cowher said, "but I will say this: Watch us in the first half (this season) because we're still a balanced football team. But when we get a lead, that element is taken out of the hands of the quarterback and we will run the ball. So, we just shut it down. It distorts the numbers a little bit, so talk about the numbers in the first half."
The Steelers threw only two passes in the second half of their 34-7 victory against Tennessee and ran it 25 times. They ran 41 total, and threw only 11. That already puts them way ahead of last year's pace when they ran 61 percent of the time, the highest percentage of any team in the past two decades.
And that was with Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis not dressed because of injuries. Staley could return this week to beef up a ground game that, essentially, was in the hands of Willie Parker in the opener.
Parker's sensational first start, in which he gained 161 yards on 22 carries and took a screen pass 48 yards, will embolden them to run even more. With his speed and quickness, they feel they can get big-gainers on first and second downs now, which could further cut back on their passing. If Parker can get four yards or more on first down, as he did so often in the opener, they will do that more often.
Once Staley and Bettis are healthy, Parker likely will keep his starting job. That would set up a daunting scenario for any defense. Parker plays in the first half and the Steelers jump out to a lead, then they bring in Staley/Bettis to pound the defense into submission in the second half.
In the meantime, the Steelers' moved a notch closer not only to the New England Patriots' record of 18 consecutive wins, but to the Patriots themselves. Pittsburgh has won 15 straight and can tie the Miami Dolphins as the only franchises with 16 consecutive victories. After that, the Pats are alone. And the double defending Super Bowl champs are next up for them in Heinz Field Sept. 25.
Could, perhaps, his team be looking ahead to that game and beyond the poor Texans on Sunday?
"No!" Cowher insisted. "We know better than that. Ahead is going to be there; you just worry about Houston. That's the only team we are worrying about. I'm not worrying about anything more than Sunday afternoon at one o'clock."
SERIES HISTORY: 2nd meeting. The expansion Houston Texans upset the Steelers 24-6 on Dec. 8, 2002 in Heinz Field even though the Steelers roughed them up all afternoon. Pittsburgh racked up 422 yards, including 325 passing and the Texans managed only 47 total yards. Yet the Texans returned three Tommy Maddox turnovers, two interceptions and a fumble, for their three touchdowns and stunned the Steelers. "It was a really bizarre game," Cowher said.
--OT Max Starks on what it's like to block for Willie Parker: "Any of our backs, you give them a little space, they'll make something happen. Just with Willie, once you get that little bit of space, he's going to take off 30 yards down field and we're not going to catch him to throw any blocks down field. He definitely has that deceptive speed. If he gets to that corner, it's hard for anybody to take a really good angle on him unless its 30, 35 yards downfield before you get to him."
--Playing wide receiver can be no fun when your team throws only 11 times and that number is spread around to six different players.
"It's difficult but we were able to establish the run," said Cedrick Wilson, who joined the Steelers as a UFA from the 49ers this year. "Our offensive line and Willie Parker did a fantastic job of managing the game and Ben did a great job of spreading the ball around. And the defense did a great job of getting us the ball back. We won 34-7 so there's really nothing to complain about."
--Houston's Reliant Stadium's retractable roof will be open on Sunday.
"I would like to have it closed with the air conditioner on," Cowher said. "Somehow, I don't think they will do that."
--The Steelers have won seven straight road games.
--Both teams run a 3-4 defense, Houston coach Dom Capers having been part of Bill Cowher's first staff in Pittsburgh that installed that defense with the Steelers.
"Their defense is a lot like ours, from the standpoint of scheme-wise," Cowher said. "They have good players down there that run it."
BY THE NUMBERS: 31 - Number of receptions Hines Ward needs to break John Stallworth's Steelers career record of 537.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's always good when you have a little lead and you're trying to pound away a little bit. That's something that we like to do." - offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt on the two passes the Steelers threw in the second half of their 34-7 opening win against Tennessee.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Receiver Nate Washington was released to make room for No. 3 quarterback Charlie Batch, who was released on Saturday so they could add LB Andre Frazier from the practice squad. Frazier was needed because Clark Haggans came down with a groin injury last Friday. Haggans and Joey Porter each played but both are listed as probable this week, so Frazier, an undrafted rookie, was kept. Frazier had a sack and two solo tackles, one on defense and one on special teams.
--RB Duce Staley (knee) practiced for the second straight day and looks as though he will at least be available for Sunday's game. " Duce probably had his best day of work, but he'll still be questionable," coach Bill Cowher said.
--RB Jerome Bettis (calf) did not practice for the second straight day and he won't play this week, although Bill Cowher did say, "Jerome's coming along quite well."
--QB Ben Roethlisberger missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a bruised bone in his left knee, and was downgraded to questionable.
--RB Jerome Bettis did not practice on Wednesday. He's listed as doubtful with his calf injury.
--RB Willie Parker, who ran for 161 yards in his first NFL start and caught a screen pass for 48 yards, was named AFC offensive player of the week. Parker will make his second start Sunday in Houston.
--CB Willie Williams may have lost his starting job because of a groin injury. Ike Taylor replaced him last Sunday and even though Williams has returned to practice, it appears he won't start Sunday.
GAME PLAN: The Steelers, who sacked Steve McNair three times in the opener, believe they can get more against David Carr and will relentlessly come after him. Carr's not known as a guy who can avoid a rush or make something happen under pressure. They will stick with their plan on offense until someone consistently can prove to them to try otherwise - run, run, run. Get a lead and then it's all downhill in the second half.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Texans NT Seth Payne vs. C Jeff Hartings - Two excellent veterans, but the Steelers believe their Pro Bowler center gives them a big advantage and can handle Payne one-on-one, allowing their guards to shoot out on the two inside linebackers.
Texans WR Andre Johnson vs. Steelers CB Ike Taylor - The Titans were able to catch a few deep balls last week and Houston's Pro Bowl receiver certainly will get the chance to try it as well.
Steelers NT Casey Hampton vs. Texans C Steve McKinney - Hampton, a Pro Bowler in 2003, missed half of last season with a torn ACL. If he can dominate in the middle, it will allow the Steelers inside linebackers more freedom to make plays and stop Houston's ground game with Domanick Davis.
INJURY IMPACT: The big injuries are to Roethlisberger, Bettis and Staley. CB Willie Williams, who missed the opener with a groin injury, is probable this week but Ike Taylor may make his second start in his place.
When the Ravens play the Tennessee Titans, it will be two teams trying to erase the embarrassment of their season openers.
The Ravens are coming off a 24-7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, while the Titans were routed 34-7 by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Neither team wants to find themselves in an 0-2 hole.
How critical is it for the Ravens to avoid such a start? The Ravens have lost their first two games twice in their history and both times they failed to make the playoffs.
"We both want that nasty, foul taste out of our mouths from last Sunday," coach Brian Billick said. "All but early in the season, there's a lot riding on it right now."
The Ravens won't be overlooking the Titans, who are considered to be among the worst teams in the AFC. Tennessee is in a rebuilding phase after an off-season salary-cap purge that led to the releases of receiver Derrick Mason and cornerback Samari Rolle (both of whom signed with the Ravens).
But Billick is quick to point out that the Ravens upset the Titans in 2002, the year that the Ravens underwent the same salary-cap dismantling.
Plus, Billick said the blowing up of the Titans' roster is somewhat exaggerated.
"I see Steve McNair. I still see Keith Bulluck. I see those safeties and that big offensive line," Billick said. "They just kind of fire-cracked it. I don't know if they blew it up."
The one player who concerns the Ravens is McNair, who is two years removed from being the co-NFL Most Valuable Player.
"I think Mac is one of the few guys who can carry a team on his shoulders and lead them to victory," Rolle said. "The thing is we have to contain them as much as possible."
The Ravens, though, are aware of how young the Titans have become.
"We feel what they've gone through having gone through it in 2002," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "Knowing that, we're not going to let up. It should feel for us that we can go out there and do some things against a young team."
The Ravens are expected to exploit the Titans run defense.
In the season opener, the Steelers ran for 206 yards, including 161 by former third-string running back Willie Parker. Pittsburgh averaged five yards a carry and scored two rushing touchdowns.
"Hopefully, we can run the ball equally as well," Billick said. "I'm sure Tennessee is focused on not letting that happen again."
Billick has said they want to ease running back Jamal Lewis into the season.
He missed most of the preseason because of a bone spur in his ankle. The Ravens have said they don't want Lewis to carry more than 25 times in a game.
But Lewis said there should be no limitations, especially when running the ball is so critical against the Titans.
"Billick does a good job of taking care of his players," Lewis said. "I appreciate it, but at the same time, just let the horse run. Let me go."
SERIES HISTORY: 14th meeting. The Ravens lead the regular-season series, 7-6. They have won the last two games at the Coliseum. But the Titans won the last meeting, a 20-17 playoff loss in 2003. Gary Anderson's 46-yard field goal with 29 seconds won it for Tennessee after the Ravens had tied the game on a 35-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap.
--Kyle Boller will regain his starting quarterback job from Anthony Wright if he recovers from a toe injury over the next few weeks, according to coach Brian Billick.
Billick opened his media session by repeatedly stressing that the organization has not lost any faith in the embattled three-year starter. The previous day, Billick had deflected questions about whether Boller would return as the starter,
"If Kyle is able to return in the 2-3 week prognosis that we currently have, he will be our starting quarterback," Billick said. "If the way I responded (Wednesday) led to speculation that we did not have the faith in Kyle, that our faith is wavering, that was not my intent."
Billick acknowledged there is a possibility that Boller's prognosis could turn into "five, six, seven or eight" weeks.
If it takes that long for Boller to come back, Billick refused to speculate whether Boller would regain his job when healthy or whether Wright can earn the job by playing well.
"It's one of those questions I can't answer specifically because I don't have the facts," Billick said.
--After his crucial dropped pass late in the first half against the Colts - a play that could have set up a game-tying field-goal attempt - receiver Clarence Moore did not speculate on whether his starting job was in jeopardy. Moore also dropped several passes in the preseason.
"I have no idea," Moore said. "It's a business. Whatever comes next, you just have to go along with it. You've just got to accept your role in what the offense wants you to do.
"If anything were to happen, I still know that they want me to be part of this offense in a big way."
Moore also was penalized for a false start after the drop.
--RB Jamal Lewis said he should not be limited in the number of carries against the Titans. The Ravens wanted to hold him to 25 or fewer carries because Lewis has been bothered by a bone spur.
--Matt Stover missed three field-goal attempts for the first time in seven years. Watching the tape showed him why.
"Technique-wise, I was in too fast on the ball," Stover said. "The snaps and holds were so good, I thought that I needed to jump on it a little bit. They were set up really nice, and I was just too fast.
"My time is usually five-, six-, seven-one-hundredths of a second slower, and, believe it or not, that makes a difference on a field-goal kick."
--There have been no negotiations between the Ravens and Lewis, the running back's agent said.
Mitch Frankel said he gave the Ravens a contract extension proposal when Lewis reported to training camp Aug. 8. Lewis is in the final year of his deal.
"We have had discussions but I have not received any proposals back from them," Frankel said.
BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- Total margin of victory (in points) for the past three meetings between the Ravens and the Titans.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We definitely need to have this game. It's very pivotal to our season. This is a must-win situation." Nickel back Deion Sanders on the importance of not falling to 0-2 on the season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Ravens signed Kordell Stewart as their backup quarterback and cut receiver Patrick Johnson. But Stewart might not be the No. 2 quarterback this week. If he doesn't show he can pick up the offense again (he was a backup for the Ravens last year), the Ravens would name rookie sixth-round pick Derek Anderson as their No. 2 quarterback.
Another injury concern is Terrell Suggs, who did not practice Wednesday because of an injured back. If he can't go, the Ravens will start Jarret Johnson.
--QB Kyle Boller will miss his first start since 2003. He has not been guaranteed the starting job once he recovers from a hyperextended toe.
--QB Anthony Wright could remain the starting quarterback beyond this Sunday if he plays well. He is replacing Kyle Boller, who could return as early as the third game (Oct. 2 against the New York Jets).
--RB Jamal Lewis has averaged 66.8 yards in five meetings with the Titans.
--TE Todd Heap had six catches for 80 yards in his last game against the Titans (2003 playoff loss).
GAME PLAN: The key for the Ravens is to jump out to a big lead, which will take the Coliseum crowd out of the game and take away any hopes of the Titans pulling off an upset. The Ravens know they can run the ball against the Titans after watching the Steelers pound the ball on Tennessee last week. Expect the Ravens to run close to 40 times with running backs Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor. That will take the pressure off Anthony Wright, who is making his first start in 20 months. Defensively, the Ravens are focusing on not giving up the big play. The Ravens feel that the Titans can't put together eight- or 10-play drives against them.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
RB Jamal Lewis vs. Titans run defense: Lewis still remembers being held to 35 yards in the 2003 playoff loss to Tennessee. The Titans were horrid against the run in the season opener, giving up 206 yards rushing against the Steelers.
LG Edwin Mulitalo vs. DT Albert Haynesworth: Mulitalo struggled in getting a push off the ball against the Colts. Haynesworth is the key to clogging up the middle against the run.
WR Derrick Mason vs. Andrew Woolfolk: Mason is the Ravens' No. 1 receiver in his first game against his former team. Woolfolk, a first-round pick from 2003, is starting his fifth game.
DE Peter Boulware vs. LT Brad Hopkins: Boulware is the key to the Ravens' pass rush if Terrell Suggs (back) can't go. Hopkins is playing his first game after being suspended in the season opener.
--QB Kyle Boller is expected to return as the Ravens starting quarterback in two to three weeks after hyperextending his toe. He also hurt his ankle in the season opener.
--DE Terrell Suggs said he will start Sunday despite being listed as questionable. He practiced a day after missing workouts with back spasms.
--CB Deion Sanders is expected to play nickel back despite a minor thigh injury. He practiced Thursday and showed no effects from the injury.
--TE Daniel Wilcox has practiced all week with a hip injury and should not be limited in Sunday's game. He took the most snaps of any Ravens tight end in the season opener.