Around the AFC North

With a second consecutive loss, the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in the AFC North basement at 2-5, right along with the Cleveland Browns. The Baltimore Ravens (5-2) once again hold a one-game lead over the second-place Cincinnati Bengals (4-3). More from around the division ...


BALTIMORE RAVENS

HOT TOPIC

Receiver Mark Clayton is expected to start Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals after tweaking his left hamstring again.

Clayton injured the same hamstring that had bothered him on three occasions since the Ravens drafted him in the first round in 2005. It flared up again during the second half of Sunday's 35-22 victory over the New Orleans Saints.

"The hamstring was tightening up a little on him, and the game was a situation where we removed Mark prudently to make sure that he didn't extend himself," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "The game was pretty much in hand."

Clayton ranks third on the Ravens in receiving (26) and second in receiving touchdowns (two).

Heading into the Saints game, he was coming off his best performance of the season. He had five catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns against the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 15.

"Coming into the year, my mind-set was to do whatever it took to help this team win," said Clayton. "If that's making a play on third down, then I'll make the play on third down."

This season, Clayton has emerged as a clutch receiver for the Ravens. He has 10 catches in the fourth quarter and 10 catches on third down.

"He's making the play when the play needs to be made," receiver Derrick Mason said. "That's all you ask for, and Mark realizes that you might catch eight balls and in another week, you might only catch three or four. But those three that you catch may change the complexion of the game."

Clayton is considered the Ravens' best breakaway threat. They have been trying to get him the ball in space, where he can break a tackle and gain yards after the catch.

"When you can get the ball in Mark's hands, he's going to make something happen," Billick said.

Billick later said that there were no major injuries to report as the Ravens prepare to meet Cincinnati.

Clayton's injury opened opportunities for more playing time for Clarence Moore and rookie Demetrius Williams. Moore had just two catches for 1 yard, but caught a 4-yard touchdown lob from quarterback Steve McNair that gave the Ravens a 14-0 lead in the second quarter in New Orleans.

Williams caught one pass for 12 yards, but Billick singled out the fourth-round selection for making a block that enabled running back Jamal Lewis to rush for 3 yards and help the offense convert on third-and-three midway through the fourth quarter.

"Clarence adds a dimension," Billick said, referring to Moore's 6-foot-6 height. "That size is a dimension, and Demetrius has got some pretty good ups. So between those two and tight end Todd Heap, particularly in the red zone, we can present some things hopefully that make you account for them just because of their ability to go up and get the ball. But I wouldn't define it just to that. We'll continue to find roles for Clarence and Demetrius."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Steve McNair showed no effects of a concussion he sustained on Oct. 15. He recorded his best quarterback rating (121.5) since 2003.

--RB Jamal Lewis should see an increase workload with Brian Billick as the play-caller. Still, Lewis hasn't proven to be a breakaway threat or a scoring one this season.

--RB Mike Anderson has once again become a non-factor. In Brian Billick's game as play-caller, he didn't receive a carry (the second time that has happened this season).

--RB Musa Smith remains the No. 3 back for the Ravens and will get more touches with catches than carries. He is fourth on the Ravens with 15 receptions.

--TE Todd Heap remains the Ravens' top option in the red zone, scoring a touchdown in five of his past six games. He accounts for half of the Ravens' receiving touchdowns.

--WR Derrick Mason is the target that Steve McNair looks for downfield. Mason has the best yards per catch (13.0) among the Ravens' starters.

--WR Mark Clayton is expected to start Sunday despite tweaking his hamstring. Despite being limited Sunday, he has caught 15 passes for 182 yards in his past four games.

--LB Adalius Thomas leads the Ravens with eight sacks. He has 25 sacks in his past 39 games.

--CB Samari Rolle continues to be the weak link of the Ravens' defense. He is not only struggling in covering receivers deep but he has had trouble tackling them on short passes.

--K Matt Stover has seen his production decrease because of the Ravens' success in the red zone. He only has one field goal in his past four games.

--CB B.J. Sams is fourth in kickoff return average (26.0) but 17th in punt return average (9.4).

--P Sam Koch is fifth in the NFL with 13 punts inside the 20-yard line.



CINCINNATI BENGALS

HOT TOPIC

The Bengals lost their second home game in a row Sunday, 29-27, to Atlanta. They fell to 2-2 at Paul Brown Stadium and are 2-1 on the road.

The Bengals were 5-3 at home last season and 6-2 on the road.

Coach Marvin Lewis said he is disappointed at the failure of his team to protect its home field.

"I don't know what else to do differently except go out and buy a shotgun," Lewis said. "You want to win the games at home and our fans have been outstanding, loud and great. I like when I can keep people off that escalator; that's the key to my job."

If the Bengals are losing decisively late in the third or early in the fourth quarter, fans crown the down escalator in the southeast corner of the stadium -- right in full view of Lewis.

The Bengals started 3-0 and are 1-3 in the last four.

"We won the first three, and I was just the same," he said. "We're not going to change. Unfortunately, there is only one team that has gone undefeated in the NFL. You are going to lose games when you are playing good teams. You are going to come up short once in a while.

"But if we keep doing things the right way then we are going to be right where we want to be at the end of the year. We've got to keep doing things right, do it better, more efficiently, and more often. And make sure we're doing with the right people, and keep getting after it."

Linebacker Brian Simmons is in his ninth season.

"About 15 or 16 teams would love to have the chance we have," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "To be in first place in our division at the halfway point."

The Bengals had several tryouts on Monday: wide receivers Kevin Johnson, Kevin Kasper and Darius Watts and tight ends Matt Kranchick and Tim Day.

There were still no indications the Bengals are going to sign wide receiver Peter Warrick after his workout last week.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Carson Palmer has five touchdowns and no interceptions in the past four games. Still, the Bengals had won just one of the four.

--RB Rudi Johnson has a 74.6-yard average on rush yards in seven games. He is on pace for 1,194 yards in 16 games, fan below his 1,450-plus yards in each of his past two seasons.

--TE Reggie Kelly, getting more work as a receiver in the offense, as defenses leave the middle of the field open, has eight receptions and a 14-yard average.

--WR Chad Johnson is on pace to finish 10-15 receptions before his totals of the last few seasons. He has just 36 catches for 451 yards and two touchdowns in seven games.

--WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh continues to benefit from being the No. 2 receiver alongside Chad Johnson, who attracts heavy coverage. Houshmandzadeh, who missed the first two games with a heel injury, has 36 catches for 422 yards and four touchdowns.

--WR Chris Henry showed no signs of rust after missing three games. He had a 55-yard touchdown catch against Atlanta and remains a key player in the offense.

--RB Chris Perry has received some work as a kickoff return man, as the Bengals look for more explosiveness on special teams with top kickoff returner Tab Perry out for the season. Chris Perry has four returns for a 22-yard average and a long of 26.

--LB Landon Johnson leads the team with 45 total tackles. He has played and started at both outside linebacker positions.

--DE Justin Smith is having an excellent contract year. He will be a free agent in March unless he re-signs with the Bengals. He has 6.5 sacks, two away from matching his career high as a rookie, with 41 total tackles.

--DE Robert Geathers, though he has made big plays with six sacks and several memorable hits this season, missed picking up a Michael Vick fumble in the second quarter Sunday.

--G/T Andrew Whitworth will start Sunday at left tackle for the third week in a row. With Levi Jones still out, Whitworth will get his first taste of Baltimore's aggressive front seven.

--C Eric Ghiaciuc, who did not start at Tampa Bay but came in after injuries causes another shift, played well against Carolina and Atlanta, supporting coaches' decision to stick with a regular lineup instead of shuffling players at center, left guard and left tackle.

--S Kevin Kaesviharn is questionable Sunday at Baltimore with a knee contusion. Herana-Daze Jones could get some additional work on defense if Kaesviharn is limited. Jones is a vital special teams player.

--P Kyle Larson has played a big part in helping the Bengals' field position battle against the opposition. He has 14 punts inside the 20-yard line with just four touchbacks.



CLEVELAND BROWNS

HOT TOPIC

Are the Browns' elder statesmen starting to break down?

Four veterans either missed or were injured in the team's win over the Jets -- all of them over 30.

Tackle Ryan Tucker, 31, missed the game with an unspecified malady, and his status is week to week.

Linebacker Willie McGinest, who will be 35 in December, limped off with an ankle injury. McGinest previously struggled with a calf problem.

Guard Joe Andruzzi, 31, needed an MRI exam on an injured left knee. He seems very doubtful for this weekend's game in San Diego.

And defensive end Orpheus Roye, 33, left the Jets game early with a hamstring injury and did not return. After starting 16 games in 2005 -- after which he was given a new contract -- Roye has had shoulder and hamstring problems.

Age may be a coincidence in the injuries. Gary Baxter and LeCharles Bentley are done for the season, and they're both in their 20s.

But some coaches believe that older players are more prone to breaking down, and it's entirely possible the Browns are starting to see that happen to some of their vets.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Charlie Frye had a season-low 15 attempts in the win over the Jets. That number was more a result of the Browns finally committing the run, but it also was a smart move by new coordinator Jeff Davidson because it kept Frye from being hit often. Look for Frye's pass total to be in the low 20s the rest of the season.

--RB Reuben Droughns should be the main beneficiary in the change in offensive coordinators. Droughns will get 25-30 carries per game going forward, which should increase his chances for 100-yard games and touchdowns.

--WR Braylon Edwards has been nearly invisible since he popped off about Carolina's quarterbacks. Edwards had 15 catches and two 100-yard games against Cincinnati, Baltimore and Oakland, but has seven catches for 58 yards since.

--WR Joe Jurevicius is finally in the starting lineup, but will probably be used as a possession receiver on shorter routes. With the Browns committing to running the ball, Jurevicius' role will be to move the chains on third down.

--TE Kellen Winslow remains one of the team's dominant forces. Winslow had seven more catches against the Jets and continues to lead the NFL's tight ends in receptions with 40.

--CB Daven Holly figures to start the rest of the year with Gary Baxter done with two severe knee injuries. Holly has been protected well in Romeo Crennel's system, as the Browns defense has relied heavily on cover-two with the emphasis on corners keeping the play in front of them.

--LB Kamerion Wimbley has progressed steadily throughout his rookie season. Wimbley rushes the passer well and often seems to be around the ball. Comparisons to Peter Boulware seem to be right on the mark.

--S Brian Russell is having his best season. Russell is the quarterback of the secondary, and has been a rock in keeping things together on the back end. Russell won't get Pro Bowl votes because he's not flashy, but he is dependable.

--FB Lawrence Vickers figures to return to special teams play following the departure of offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon. Vickers had been involved in some key offensive plays under Carthon, but will not be as involved under Jeff Davidson.

--RB Jerome Harrison impressed in preseason but has been strangely inactive the past two games. Harrison seemed to be a nice change of pace to Reuben Droughns, but he's barely played.



PITTSBURGH STEELERS

HOT TOPIC

Coach Bill Cowher made a surprising revelation Tuesday when he admitted his 2-5 Pittsburgh Steelers lacked confidence.

"Confidence is a fragile thing," Cowher said. "We have no reason to be a confident team at this point."

The defending Super Bowl champions have lost five of their past six and are playing themselves right out of playoff contention by the halfway point of the season. They already trail Baltimore by three games in the AFC North Division.

Cowher pointed out that his team has committed 18 turnovers in seven games compared to 23 all of last season and that his special teams are pathetic -- they rank 30th in the NFL on kick coverage, 32nd on punt coverage.

"We haven't done the things it takes to win football games," Cowher said. "We have to go out there and establish that. You have to be careful about being a realist and not trying to sugarcoat things. I think it's important that we deal with where we're are and what the facts are."

The Steelers' coach was adamant that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was healthy and clear-headed Sunday, one week after he was knocked out of a game in Atlanta in the third quarter with a concussion. He also stressed he did not think of pulling him during a 20-13 loss to the Raiders in which Oakland scored both of its touchdowns by returning two of four Roethlisberger interceptions all the way.

"Based on last week and talking to him and the week of practice that he had, there was no question about him playing," Cowher said. "What happens when you lose, a lot of things come under the microscope, as they should. But all the speculation about him, about me, that becomes a part of it. You've got to be able to deal with it."

Sunday, they have to deal with a 5-2 Denver team in Heinz Field, one place at least where they have a winning record this season. The Steelers are 2-1 at home. Cowher said he will stick with Roethlisberger, who played well in the two previous games before the debacle in Oakland.

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Ben Roethlisberger is running much less this season, even though coach Bill Cowher told him to run if he has an opening. He's run just seven times in six games. Last season, he ran 31 times and he ran 56 times as a rookie.

--RB Willie Parker could play a little more on third downs now that RB Verron Haynes has gone on injured reserve with a torn ACL. Haynes was the team's third-down back.

--TE Heath Miller dropped a pass in the end zone in Oakland, something he rarely does. He did catch two others and now has 14 receptions for 198 yards, still off his rookie pace of 39 catches.

--WR Santonio Holmes is taking over the big-play duties at split end. He caught a 38-yard pass Sunday, following a 36-yard catch the previous game. He replaces starter Cedrick Wilson at split end every third series.

--WR Hines Ward had his second straight eight-reception game Sunday, giving him 34 after seven games following a slow start. He had only nine receptions after three games.

--LB Joey Porter returned to start his first game after missing three and was credited with two sacks, giving him four this season.

--NT Casey Hampton, who missed last week's game with a hamstring injury, is questionable for this one. Chris Hoke would replace him again if he does not play.

--LB Clark Haggans, whose two sacks Sunday gives him the Steelers lead with 5.0, is questionable again this week with an ankle injury. He was questionable last week as well but started in Oakland.

--C Jeff Hartings is out with an MCL sprain in his knee. Chukky Okobi will replace him in the lineup, as he did in the second half of the game in Oakland.

--LB Arnold Harrison was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL. The Steelers claimed three-year vet Marquis Cooper off waivers from the Vikings to serve as a backup outside linebacker.

--LB James Harrison, the team's top backup on the outside, remains out this week with a high ankle sprain that was injured in San Diego. This will be the fourth missed game for him.

--RB John Kuhn was signed from the practice squad to fill Verron Haynes' roster spot. Kuhn may compete to play on third downs.

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