Around the AFC North

Baltimore heads into its bye atop the AFC North, a half-game ahead of Cincinnati. Each team suffered its second-consecutive loss this week and have fallen hard from the ranks of the league's unbeaten. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh got a much-needed win and will sit just a game out of first with another this weekend.


BALTIMORE RAVENS

HOT TOPIC

Jim Fassel was fired as the Ravens offensive coordinator, coach Brian Billick announced Tuesday.

Billick will assume control of the offense, taking over play-calling duties for the first time since 1999, his first season as Ravens head coach.

"Clearly, in order for us to expand on our 4-2 start, we have to have more offensive productivity," Billick said in an 11-minute news conference. "It was my opinion going forward to bring about the level of production we needed offensively to go where need to go that I need to step back in on a day-to-day basis."

The Ravens (4-2) enter the bye week ranked 28th in the NFL.

There has been increasing frustration about the offense over the past couple weeks as some prominent players voiced their displeasure about the lack of productivity.

Receiver Derrick Mason had been the team's most vocal critic, refusing to give the offense a passing grade in recent weeks. Then, after Sunday's 23-21 loss to the Carolina Panthers, running Jamal Lewis criticized the team's play-calling.

"This is clearly one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make not only from a professional level but for the obvious personal reasons because of the relationship that Jim and I have," Billick said. "I have an obligation to this organization to do what I think is in the best interest of this team regardless of how it affects you personally."

Billick declined to talk specifically if the move was in response to the players' frustrations.

"There was no single incident or episode that brought about this change," he said. "It was a collective evaluation on my part that something dramatic needed to be done."

The Ravens had high expectations for turning around the offense after trading a fourth-round pick to the Tennessee Titans for quarterback Steve McNair.

But the Ravens continue to struggle as much as previous seasons. They have only averaged 13.7 points over the past four games, as the offense failed to develop an identity.

The running game has floundered. The passing game has lacked efficiency.

Billick decided to take over the offense instead of giving control to quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel, who had been deemed as the next in line for the offensive coordinator job.

"On game day, the offense has to have that singular voice," Billick said. "And right now offensively where we're at, I believe that I'm in the best position to do that going forward."

It marked the first time in Billick's eight-year tenure that he has removed a coach during the season.

"Right now, given our circumstances and the makeup of our offensive staff (and) where the players are, quite frankly, yeah, there needs to be a certain accountability -- in the players? minds, in the organization's mind and certainly in the fans'," Billick said. "If there was any ambiguity before about who's responsible for the productivity of any aspect that we do, particularly now offensively, that should be removed."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Steve McNair is expected to be ready for the Ravens' next game after suffering a concussion but it's still unknown how effective he will be. His yards per attempt (5.4) rank only above two quarterbacks (Tennessee's Vince Young and Tampa Bay's Bruce Gradkowski).

--RB Jamal Lewis averaged a season-best 4.6 yards on a season-low nine carries. He ranks 29th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (58.7).

--RB Mike Anderson has become the Ravens' primary No. 2 back but he will only receive about five to seven carries a game.

--RB Musa Smith remains the No. 3 back for the Ravens and will get more touches with catches than carries.

--TE Todd Heap remains the Ravens' top option in the red zone, scoring a touchdown in four of his past five games.

--WR Derrick Mason was held without a reception for the first time since the 2002 season finale. He remains the top target when Steve McNair is the quarterback.

--WR Mark Clayton is the third option on the Ravens but he is a valuable one. He has moved to second on the team with 25 catches and two touchdowns.

--CB Chris McAlister has been more aggressive this season, which is why he leads the team with three interceptions. He had a total of two interceptions the past two seasons.

--CB Samari Rolle has allowed three touchdowns this season. He said he has to make more of a commitment in practice.

--P Sam Koch is tied for third in the NFL with 11 punts inside the 20-yard line.

--K Matt Stover has connected on a career-best 30 straight field goals, dating back to last season. He has not made a field goal in two of the past three games.



CINCINNATI BENGALS

HOT TOPIC

The struggles of the Bengals defense in the past three games are not really a surprise, though the team's troubles on offense are.

Defensively, opposing teams opposing teams are eight of 10 against the Bengals converting fourth-down plays. Four of the conversions, including the game-winning, eight-yard scoring pass Sunday by Tampa Bay, have gone for touchdowns.

"Those things pierce you," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.

Third down, a more frequent play in the NFL, hasn't been much better on either side of the ball for Cincinnati.

Offensively, the Bengals have been successful on 21 of 65 (32.3 percent of third-down plays this season but have given up first downs 26 times in 70 plays (37.1 percent).

Against Tampa Bay, the Bengals were just 3 of 14 on third down offensively but allowed 6 of 16.

"We allowed them to convert 5 of 9 third downs in the second half, and there is the difference in the football game," Lewis said.

The Bengals, after five games, are ranked 26th offensively in third-down conversions and 17th defensively in third-down conversions allowed.

PLAYER NOTES

-- QB Carson Palmer, though he has a 90.1 passer rating, has not been as sharp this season as last. He still has signs of rust. But the fact he is healthy after five games is a plus. After losing Sunday at Tampa Bay, Palmer is 6-1 as a career starter in games against the the NFC with 15 touchdown passes. He'll get another chance the next two weeks in games against NFC South teams Carolina and Atlanta.

-- RB Rudi Johnson is a barometer of Bengals' success. In the first half at Tampa Bay, he rushed for three yards on seven carries. The problems with the offensive line have affected Johnson. He had to break tackles in the backfield to get back to the line of scrimmage.

-- TE Tony Stewart, though limited as a receiver, continues to make a major contribution to the offense as a blocker and as a productive special teams player. Stewart threw an excellent block on the Bengals first punt return Sunday. Antonio Chatman gained 19 yards on the return, longest of the season for the Bengals.

-- WR Chad Johnson finally broke deep and had his longest reception of the season Sunday, 51 yards, at Tampa Bay. Wide receivers are getting frustrated with the play calling, hinting that the team needs to take more shots downfield. Of course, leaky pass protection hasn't given Carson Palmer much time to set his feet.

-- WR Kelley Washington, a valuable role player on special teams who also has experience in the pass game, is out for the game Sunday against Carolina. He suffered a hamstring injury late, leaving the Bengals with just three healthy, veteran wide receivers for the Panthers game.

-- WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh has 90-plus receiving yards in three consecutive games, going for 102 Sunday at Tampa Bay. He has 23 receptions for 291 yards and three touchdowns in three games this season. He missed the first two games with a heel injury.

-- RB Chris Perry, currently on the PUP list, is expected to be back from his ankle injury for the Oct. 22 game against Carolina. The Bengals need his big-play ability, especially on third down and as a changeup in the run game for bruiser Rudi Johnson. Perry also could help to alleviate the shortage of wide receivers with his ability to line up wide. He had 51 receptions in 2005.

-- LB Rashad Jeanty remained questionable for the Carolina game. He would help against the run. He has not played since the Week 3 game at Pittsburgh.

-- SS Dexter Jackson has now missed three consecutive games with an ankle injury. He is questionable for Carolina. The Bengals sorely need his tackling ability and attitude.

-- G Eric Steinbach, in just five games, has starts at left tackle and center and three at left guard, his normal position. He appears headed back to left guard for the long term and will start there against Carolina.

-- G-T Andrew Whitworth will start Sunday at left tackle in place of injured Levi Jones, whose left knee injury could require arthroscopic surgery. Whitworth played left tackle at LSU against more than 20 SEC players now in the NFL, he said.

-- C Eric Ghiaciuc will return to center to start against Carolina. He did not start at Tampa Bay but came in after injuries causes another shift. Ghiaciuc said he continues to learn weekly and is part of what the team hopes will be a stabilized lineup on the O-line.

-- S Madieu Williams, one of the top defensive players on the Bengals roster, rebounded from a poor game against New England to record 11 tackles at Tampa Bay. Still, Williams whiffed on a couple of plays in the backfield. He is tied with fellow safety Kevin Kaesviharn for the team lead with two interceptions.

-- P Kyle Larson has punted 27 times, compared to 22 times for the Bengals' opposition. He has a 45.7 net and 38.2 average.



CLEVELAND BROWNS

HOT TOPIC

Romeo Crennel may take a more active role in the play-calling and the offensive game-planning following the bye week. Crennel said he may overrule a play-call or call a play during the game if he feels it's warranted.

Crennel said he has done this in the past but "maybe not to the degree that it might be (happening) going forward."

The change comes after the Browns studied why their offense is ranked 31st in the league even though it appears to have the pieces in place to succeed.

Crennel said he had put some bad plays on the back burner and identified plays that had worked. The team will focus on those plays.

"I want us to be a consistent football team," he said.

To accomplish that, he will focus on the basics for his team. Crennel knows that one option at his disposal is to make the offense more gimmicky, more "exotic" (to use his word) with reverses and trick plays.

But he's not ready to do that.

"If I add pizzazz and that doesn't work, I'm going to have to go back and try to be consistent again," he said.

The main focus will be on cutting back turnovers: The Browns minus-nine turnover ratio ties them for last in the league, and will not win many games.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Charlie Frye said his goal following the bye is for the Browns to win more than they lose, and to cut back on turnovers. His nine interceptions are too high, he said.

--RB Reuben Droughns should have plenty of motivation Sunday when he faces his old team, the Denver Broncos. The last time Droughns was motivated for a big game was against Oakland, and he topped 100 yards.

--WR Braylon Edwards talked badly about the Carolina Panthers cornerbacks, then had a poor game. Edwards was advised by Keyshawn Johnson to be quiet until he does more on the field.

--WR Joe Jurevicius should finally get into the starting lineup against Denver. A rib injury hampered Jurevicius, but there appears to be no logical reason Dennis Northcutt started ahead of him in Carolina.

--TE Kellen Winslow continues to be the team's go-to receiver. Winslow has fought through a painful knee situation to catch a team-high 30 passes.

--CB Gary Baxter may finally be back on the field against Denver. Baxter has been sidelined since game two due to a pectoral muscle injury, but he said it feels significantly better and he hopes to play against Denver.

--CB Leigh Bodden appears to be over the ankle injury that sidelined him against Carolina. If Bodden plays, it's possible the Browns could have both their starting corners on the field for the first time this season.

--S Sean Jones has been probably the Browns most improved player, but his one negative is he has dropped a couple possible interceptions - one that could have been a touchdown that might have won a game.

--KR Joshua Cribbs has proven he can bring a return back at any time. He has three longer than 50 yards this season and makes the Browns special teams a threat to score.

--WR Dennis Northcutt may see his offensive touches reduced, but that should not hamper him on punt returns. Northcutt is one of the league's best at bringing back punts.



PITTSBURGH STEELERS

HOT TOPIC

The Steelers will have to try to contain Falcons quarterback Michael Vick with their top two right outside linebackers sidelined again.

Linebacker Joey Porter is doubtful for Sunday's game in Atlanta with a hamstring pull that kept him out of last Sunday's game. His backup, James Harrison, will miss his second straight game with a high ankle sprain.

That means Arnold Harrison, who spent his entire rookie season on the practice squad in 2005, will make his second straight start at right outside linebacker. That's a key spot in the Steelers' plans to contain the elusive Vick.

"Arnold did fine," coach Bill Cowher said of his play against Kansas City. "He played well. Then again, that was a little different offense than we're going to face this week. This is a unique offense from a standpoint of having a player like Michael Vick. He presents so many challenges to your defense. Some of the things they're doing with him now, it's going to be a big challenge."

The Steelers could use someone such as Troy Polamalu to shadow Vick but they don't like to do that and it's rare when they have. What defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau does like to do is send his two outside linebackers after the quarterback. He may adjust that thinking, or at least how he sends them, in Atlanta.

"They do a good job of presenting some different challenges to a defense in terms of testing the perimeter and reading some things with Michael," Cowher said. "We'll have to be very disciplined to say the least."

The Steelers played the Falcons in Heinz Field in 2002, when they got their first look at Vick. Vick and the Falcons trailed the Steelers in that game, 34-17,but they scored 17 points in the final eight minutes to tie the game. It ended in a 34-34 tie. It's one of only two blemishes on Cowher's record when his teams lead by more than 10 points in a game; he's 101-1-1 under those conditions.

"I think you can refer to it with the players who were here in understanding the speed with which this guy can play the game," Cowher said.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Ben Roethlisberger's 153.8 passer rating was the third best of his career. He had a perfect 158.3 against Tennessee in last season's opener, and a 158.0 against Jacksonville in his rookie season of 2004.

--RB Willie Parker is on pace for 16 TDs rushing, which would set the Steelers' record. He also is on pace for 1,389 yards in his second season as their starter.

--TE Heath Miller caught the only pass thrown to him on Sunday and, after a strong start, ranks fifth on the team with just 10 receptions. He was second last season with 39 catches.

--WR Santonio Holmes, already getting more playing time the past two games, could cut further into Cedrick Wilson's playing time at flanker. Holmes caught two passes for 58 yards against the Chiefs Sunday.

--WR Nate Washington, after dropping at least three passes in the previous three games, dropped none against the Chiefs and caught three for 68 yards, including his second TD of the season, of 47 yards.

--LB Chad Brown not rushed the quarterback in the Steelers' dime defenses, he played some outside LB late in the game. He could get more time Sunday in Atlanta.

--CB Deshea Townsend was listed as probable Tuesday by coach Bill Cowher and he could return to the starting lineup Sunday. He played only in their dime defense against the Chiefs because of a hamstring injury.

--DE Brett Keisel has been the Steelers best pass rusher on a defense that normally features linebackers in that role. Keisel has two sacks, one off the team lead, but his nine quarterback pressures are seven more than any linebacker.

--FB Dan Kreider was listed as probable by coach Bill Cowher. He left the game in the second half Sunday with a sprained ankle.

--G Kendall Simmons is listed as questionable with the heel that was accidentally burned while he underwent ice treatment. Simmons, who has diabetes, likely will be replaced by Chris Kemoeatu in the starting lineup again Sunday.

--PR Willie Reid is listed as questionable with a foot sprain that was injured in San Diego, the only game in which he's played.

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