CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After a maligned defense helped steady the Pittsburgh Steelers following a shaky start Sunday night, veteran defensive end Brett Keisel delivered a simple message to his teammates.

"Let's go have some fun and close this thing out," Keisel recalled saying during halftime, when the Steelers led by six points.

The Steelers did both in a 37-19 romp over the previously unbeaten Carolina Panthers. In the process, they restored some luster to an image that had taken as much of a beating as they delivered to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on a toasty night at Bank of America Stadium.

But even Keisel couldn't have envisioned what took place after he exhorted his teammates to have fun, something they had gotten away from doing in the six quarters of ghastly football that preceded their arrival in Charlotte.

Cameron Heyward, one of the stars on a defense that held the Steelers together early Sunday when their offense tripped all over itself, put Panthers right guard Fernando Velasco on his back and forced a hurried throw that fell harmlessly incomplete.

After nearly sacking Newton and forcing a punt, Heyward dropped one of the greatest pass-rushers in Steelers history when he he bumped chests with first-year defensive assistant Joey Porter early in the fourth quarter in an exchange that left Porter lying on his back.

It also left Keisel laughing.

"You have to be careful celebrating with Cam," Keisel said, "because Cam will head butt you and give you a concussion or he'll jump on you and knock you on your butt."

The Steelers did enough of the latter to Newton to minimize his impact on a game they had to win.

And as impressive as the Steelers were running the ball -- Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount each had more than 100 yards rushing -- it was the players who didn't stuff the stat sheet who carried the night.

The Steelers' four-man rotation along the defensive line officially combined for three tackles and a sack, with nose tackle Steve McLendon notching one of the three Steelers quarterback takedowns in the game.

But the defensive line made more of an impact than any unit in the game, regardless of how many holes the offensive line opened and how many Panthers defenders Bell and Blount ran past, over and around.

The Steelers' front helped shut down Carolina's running game and make its offense one dimensional. And it took the lead in administering a consistent battering to Newton.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera mercifully lifted Newton with more than five minutes left in the game. By the end of a game in which Pittsburgh ran its record to 2-1, the Steelers had shown a national TV audience that, when players do fundamental things like tackle, a Dick LeBeau defense actually still works in the age of Chip Kelly offenses.

The most impressive play turned in by the Steelers' defensive linemen, as it turns out, didn't even count. It came on the first play of the second quarter when a relentless Heyward fought his way to Newton and dragged down the fourth-year quarterback.

A holding call on cornerback Ike Taylor nullified what would have been Heyward's second sack of the season. But that play put Newton on notice not to get too comfortable in the pocket.

It also showed just how much Heyward and his teammates had taken to heart the criticism that came after the Steelers gave up 348 rushing yards and did not force a turnover in their first two games.

"I get tired of hearing how any defense is better than us," Heyward said. "I really think this defense has all the makings of a great defense. We just took the right step this week, [but] we're not satisfied. We've got to get better."
CLEVELAND -- The Baltimore Ravens' players said they couldn't dwell on Dennis Pitta's apparent hip injury during the game. But soon after the Ravens' 23-21 win, the Ravens made it clear that the tight end was in their thoughts.

Left guard Kelechi Osemele tweeted: "This one's for you brother. We prayin for ya."

According to multiple media reports, Pitta has suffered a dislocated hip. He is scheduled to undergo tests Monday to determine if it's fractured.

This is the same right hip that Pitta had surgery on last year.

“It’s not easy. Dennis, he’s a good friend, he’s a good teammate. And he’s a hell of a player," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "No matter who it is, it’s tough to see that happen, especially when it looks like it might be what it is or it might be serious."

Pitta was carted off the field late in the second quarter, when he lost his balance and collapsed to the ground without being hit. He has been one of Flacco's favorite targets in the red zone and on third downs.

"It’s going to be rough over the next day or two, just thinking about it and talking to him and seeing how he feels about it," Flacco said. "I know last time he got hurt, he was pretty optimistic about everything. It will be interesting to talk to him. It’s tough.”

With the expected loss of Pitta, the Ravens will rely more on tight end Owen Daniels, wide receiver Marlon Brown and fullback Kyle Juszczyk as intermediate targets in the passing game.
CINCINNATI -- Are the Cincinnati Bengals a legitimate Super Bowl contender?

Fifteen years ago, you probably would have snickered reading that. Heck, 10 years ago you would have believed anyone who suggested it was crazy.

But now? In 2014? It's not so far-fetched a question.

As the only undefeated team in the AFC through the first three weeks of the season, the Bengals are looking down on the rest of the conference. They have good reason to stick out their chests and beat them if they wanted to. But they don't.

To hear Bengals coaches and players tell it, all they have done so far is accomplish exactly what they set out to do when the season began: win the first three games. Next on the to-do list is to extend that string of victories with a Week 5 victory against the Patriots in New England in 14 days. The Bengals have their bye next Sunday, which gives them time to rest, reflect on the way the year has begun and look forward to what's on the horizon.


Are the Bengals (3-0) legitimate Super Bowl contenders?


Discuss (Total votes: 105,945)

What's on the horizon after next week are 13 more regular-season games to prove they are for real. And then, if they're lucky, the Bengals will have multiple weeks this postseason to prove they do belong in the Super Bowl conversation. In each of the past three postseasons, the Bengals' Super Bowl dreams were squashed in the first week of the playoffs.

If we are to truly answer the question in the headline in the affirmative, we first must see the Bengals do what has eluded them for a generation: win a playoff game. For that reason, it's far too early to legitimately ask this question. Still, after three weeks in which they completely dominated their opponents and have built up momentum, it makes sense to wonder if this is finally the Bengals' year.

It makes sense for Bengals fans, with their heavily guarded but still excited early optimism, to not only dream about 2014 being synonymous with 1981 and 1988, but also dream about this year standing apart from those monumental campaigns. Those are, of course, the only two seasons the Bengals have competed for the Lombardi Trophy to this point.

With championship aspirations floating around their fan base, the Bengals are just trying to remain grounded, remain humbled ... and remain perfect.

"We're hunting excellence," linebacker Vincent Rey said. "Right now, we just have to keep the pedal to the metal. When January comes, we'll see where we're at."
CLEVELAND -- No one expected the running back position to be one of the deepest on the Baltimore Ravens after the team parted ways with Ray Rice. But you could make that argument right now.

Three games into the season, the Ravens have watched three running backs not only lead the team in rushing but gain at least 70 yards in a game. The latest surprise came in Sunday's 23-21 win over the Cleveland Browns, where rookie fourth-round pick Lorenzo Taliaferro ran for 91 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries.

[+] EnlargeLorenzo Taliaferro
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesRookie Lorenzo Taliaferro got his first action of the season and didn't disappoint, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
The Ravens' situation at running back will become more complicated if Bernard Pierce can return next week after sitting out Sunday with a thigh injury. But this is really a good problem to have from the Ravens' standpoint.

Sure, trying to figure out the Ravens' featured back each week is a nightmare for fantasy owners. As far as the Ravens' needs, this has been the best-case scenario because all three running backs have been so productive.

The Ravens now have confidence that Pierce, Taliaferro or Justin Forsett can carry the load when called upon. They've seen it against the Bengals, Steelers and Browns.

In all likelihood, Pierce remains the Ravens' starter when he returns. But that doesn't mean he finishes the game for the Ravens.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh previously said he will go with the hotter back. And the hottest back on the field Sunday was Taliaferro. It makes you wonder why he didn't get a touch in the first two games.

"I think the results speak for themselves with Lorenzo," Harbaugh said. "He was running downhill, physical and was hard to tackle. That is an element that is a big plus for an offense."

The odds of the Ravens starting Taliaferro next week are not strong. The Ravens' history is not to put too much pressure on rookie running backs, although it's tempting to go with Taliaferro based on his decisiveness and ability to finish off runs.

A major reason why the Ravens will probably keep Pierce as the starter is he's bigger than Forsett and has more experience than Taliaferro. The downside is Pierce's injury-filled track record.

Harbaugh said he hopes Pierce's thigh injury is a short-term one.

"We thought we'd get him into the game, but it didn't work out," Harbaugh said. "We should have a good chance of getting him back next week."

McKnight had no idea he'd be the star

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Kansas City Chiefs' 34-15 win over the Miami Dolphins:

McKnight in the dark: Running back Joe McKnight, who wound up leading the Chiefs in receptions with six, receiving yards with 64 and touchdowns with two, said he had no idea he would be featured in the game plan. His involvement became necessary when the Chiefs deactivated the injured Jamaal Charles.

Smith having fun: Cornerback Sean Smith enjoyed his return to Miami. He had a strong game against his former team. “A real good time,’’ said Smith, who got into a spirited discussion with a group of Dolphins fans in the end zone toward the end of the game. “I felt like it was a home game to me.’’

Solid on third down: The Chiefs had their second straight big game on third down, offensively. They converted 9-of-16 third-down plays mostly because they were able to avoid a lot of long-distance situations. “Against a defense like that, you put yourself in third and eight, nine, 10, and it’s a long day,’’ quarterback Alex Smith said.
CINCINNATI -- And now, the Cincinnati Bengals breathe.

After a month of training camp and the preseason and three weeks of the regular season, the Bengals get to collect their thoughts these next 14 days as they go through their bye week.

More important than that, these next two weeks will give them a chance to heal aching bones and joints, and to rest the muscle strains and pulls that have caused them to be shorthanded through the start of the season. As much as the Bengals might normally hate having an off week that falls just four weeks into the start of a season, they are currently thanking the schedule makers for this unexpected, unintended early rest period.

As a result of the bye, the Bengals expect to be dramatically closer to full strength by Oct. 5, the day they are next in action.

Coach Marvin Lewis said after Sunday's 33-7 victory against the Tennessee Titans that linebacker Sean Porter (hamstring), receiver Marvin Jones (foot) and running back Rex Burkhead (knee) should be healthy enough to return after the bye. He also sounded optimistic about linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who spent all week on concussion protocol after suffering his second head injury in two games last Sunday.

Offensive guard Kevin Zeitler, who is reportedly expected to miss the next two games, also progressed from a calf injury this week, Lewis said. Depending upon how the next two weeks go for Zeitler, perhaps his return could come quicker than originally anticipated. That doesn't mean Zeitler will play at New England on Oct. 5, but it means he may not be out as long as once believed.

"I didn't like [the placement of the bye] to begin with," Lewis said, "but where we are injury-wise, it'll give us an extra week to get everybody back. We didn't lose anyone [Sunday] with anything serious, so we'll be as close to a full-strength, 53-man roster as we've been."

Defensive end Margus Hunt and linebacker Emmanuel Lamur were the only two players who left the game with injuries. Both occurred late in the fourth quarter of the blowout. Hunt had what appeared to be a shoulder injury after he dove for a sack attempt along the Titans sideline. Lamur left after being hit in the head.
CINCINNATI -- When the ball left Mohamed Sanu's right hand, two words immediately popped into his head.

"Oh, s---."

After trying to sell the play of the Cincinnati Bengals' 33-7 win Sunday over the Tennessee Titans by pretending he was about to run the ball to his right, Sanu threw back across the field to a seemingly wide open Andy Dalton. The quarterback had just pitched Sanu the ball and was curling out wide for a screen pass on the left side of the field.

What Sanu didn't see when he prepared to release the ball was the 6-foot-1, 200-pound cornerback cheating up and lining Dalton in his sights. It was only after the ball left his hand that Sanu realized Titans corner Blidi Wreh-Wilson had the perfect opportunity to wreck his quarterback.

The Titans knew what was coming. They practiced defending the trick play all week. Like many of the other teams that will face the Bengals the rest of the year, they understood how complex Cincinnati's offense is under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. They knew they had to do everything they could to prevent a potential gadget play such as this one from burning them. So when Wreh-Wilson dropped out of coverage and started sprinting toward the line of scrimmage, it seemed someone had finally solved Jackson's scheme.

Sanu wanted to look away.

"I was thinking he was going to knock Andy out," Sanu said. "Then Andy just went up in front of him and made the play."

Wreh-Wilson slowed his sprint, pulled up and bizarrely avoided contact with Dalton. Surprised, the quarterback-turned-pass-catcher adjusted his body to avoid a collision, caught the pass and took off toward the corner of the end zone. With a dive into the pylon, he scored an 18-yard touchdown that put the Bengals up 10-0 early. The play completely pushed the momentum in their favor. From there, offensively and defensively, there was no looking back.

The rout was beginning.

"He's so creative in getting his playmakers involved," Sanu said of Jackson, who called a non-traditional play for the third straight game.

In the season opener, Jackson had his two offensive tackles flanked off the line and in the slot. The rare formation didn't yield much in the form of yards on what was a short Giovani Bernard run, but it gave defenses something to think about. Last week, Jackson had Sanu roll out and attempt a bomb to fellow receiver Brandon Tate, who caught the well-thrown pass 50 yards downfield despite drawing double coverage along the sideline by the end of the route. Then there was this week's play.

There's no telling what all exists inside Jackson's playbook, but there certainly is a lot more. When defenses play the Bengals the rest of the year, they won't only have to defend against the standard run and pass, they'll also have to pay attention to who is running the ball, who is passing it and where it's being passed to.

"It's tough when you have gadget plays and the defense starts second-guessing," running back Jeremy Hill said. "They start thinking. Defenses pride themselves on running to the football and not thinking and playing fast. When you've got gadget plays going on, it makes them sit back on their heels and run back."

They do something else for Bengals players, too -- give them reasons to curse joyously.

"Once Andy actually caught the pass, I was like, 'Oh, s---!'" Sanu said. "But this time, in a more exciting way."

Gaffes lead to Browns' difficult loss

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Browns had 305 yards of offense the first three quarters of Sunday's loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

In the fourth quarter they had 70 -- and 70 came on one pass from Brian Hoyer to rookie Taylor Gabriel. The other 13 plays in the fourth quarter netted zero yards. The final quarter for the Browns was a textbook example of how not to win a game when it matters most, as the Browns stumbled over and over. They missed a field goal and had another blocked, were 0-for-4 on third downs and went three-and-out on their last two drives.

Even the one positive play the Browns had was fraught with what could have been, because Gabriel was so wide open on the play he could have easily scored. The Browns had that pass in their back pocket, Hoyer said, for the coverage Baltimore used. Gabriel called it "a perfect play."

"I saw he was wide open," Hoyer said, "just threw it and let him run underneath it."

Except Gabriel stutter-stepped as the ball was in the air, which forced him to lunge for the ball, which took him to the ground. He was able to get up and scamper to the nine, but had he caught the ball in stride he would have scored easily.

"I'm a little upset,” Gabriel said of not scoring. "But at the same time it just felt good getting my hands on the ball."

It was emblematic of the Browns' fourth quarter, which was filled with mistakes. Billy Cundiff doinked a 50-yard field goal off the left upright, then had one blocked from 36, leaving six points off the scoreboard.

Of the 50-yarder, Cundiff said: "The timing didn’t feel like we were on.”

Of the second, he said: "I thought I hit a really good ball. Then it’s the double-thump. As a kicker and punter, that’s definitely what you don’t want to hear."

Asa Jackson blocked the field goal from the outside left of the defense, racing past Billy Winn. Either Jackson was too fast or Winn was too slow to get out of his stance to impede Jackson. Browns coach Mike Pettine said some of the snaps on the kicks might have been low.

"All I can tell you is that it was blocked, and if we do everything correctly it shouldn’t have been," said holder Spencer Lanning. "At the end of the day it’s just not good enough."

The Browns helped the Ravens with other miscues. A missed handoff and then a penalty on Hoyer for throwing a (touchdown) pass when he was past the line pushed the second field goal to the 36. A brutal pass interference penalty on rookie Justin Gilbert gave the Ravens the ball at the Browns' 5. There, the Browns were called for 12 men on the field for the second time in the game. Pettine lamented those miscues, saying he and the coaching staff cost the players the game.

"It’s one of the things I’m talking about," Pettine said. "We need to be better with our procedures."

Especially since two plays after the second 12-man penalty, the defense had to call timeout to avoid a third.

There was more. Travis Benjamin did not field a late punt, which rolled to the Browns' 9 and effectively flipped field position toward the Ravens. Baltimore started its game-winning drive at midfield.

"I got up under the ball correctly, and at the last minute a gust of wind blew it and it went past my hand," Benjamin said. "I didn’t want to go back and reach for the ball, so I just let it pass by."

The Browns also had two chances to put the game away late, but two drives took just 55 seconds off the clock with consecutive three-and-outs. On the second, Hoyer threw behind Andrew Hawkins on third-and-7 from the 10.

"I have got to put it in front of him," Hoyer said.

"If we get that, they don’t have any timeouts and the game is over," Joe Thomas said.

If, if, if.

Players lamented the inability of the team to come up with a needed play when it mattered most the way they did against New Orleans. But they also lamented the mistakes they made that led to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco being 12-1 against the Browns.

"We have no one to blame but ourselves," Hoyer said, "and that’s what hurts the most."
CLEVELAND -- After a thrilling, last-second 23-21 win over the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Ravens remain far from being in the conversation of the NFL's top teams. It's just going to be difficult to find a team calmer under the most stressful situations.

The Ravens came to FirstEnergy Stadium with the Ray Rice scandal swirling around them. They scratched their starting running back (Bernard Pierce) before the start of the game. And they watched one of their best offensive weapons (tight end Dennis Pitta) get carted off in the middle of it.

So, how do the Ravens react when adversity is just as big of an opponent as the Browns? By not overreacting.

Down by a point with 88 seconds left in the game, quarterback Joe Flacco nonchalantly broke the huddle and saw the Browns line up with one safety deep. Flacco communicated to wide receiver Steve Smith that he wanted a slant-and-go, which is significant because the quarterback rarely says much in these situations.

Smith did a stutter step to get one step on Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, and Flacco dropped in a pass to his primary target just before safety Donte Whitner converged. The 32-yard play put the Ravens in range for the winning field goal, which kept the Ravens (2-1) within one game of the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals (3-0).

"When you’re in the moment, it’s tough not to be calm," Flacco said. "You’re just reacting, you’re playing, you’re getting the call, I’m giving it to everybody. There’s no real time to think about any negative things that might creep into your mind and cause you to not play very well. Everything happens so quick out there, you’re just kind of playing. That’s just my experience with it. It’s tough not to be calm and just play."

Flacco has plenty of experience. This marked his 20th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, including his fifth in the past 15 games.

It didn't look like Flacco was going to notch another comeback judging by the way the fourth quarter was unfolding. The Ravens couldn't convert on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 at the Browns' 21-yard line. They failed to get in the end zone despite three chances from the Browns' 3.

Instead of getting frustrated, the Ravens were confident on the sideline. So confident that coach John Harbaugh didn't flinch about punting the ball away on fourth-and-16 with 2:35 left in the game. He knew the ball would be back in Flacco's hands soon enough.

"It was a pretty easy decision with two timeouts," Harbaugh said. "I felt like we could get the ball back at worst with 1:40. We got it back in front of the two-minute warning, which is big."

Taking over at midfield with two minutes left, the Ravens acted like it was another drill in training camp and not a pivotal early-season division game. They didn't go no huddle. They didn't show much urgency going to the line.

Flacco believed the Ravens had plenty of time, and he didn't even second-guess how offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was orchestrating the two-minute drill. It worked out when the Ravens' 35-year-old wide receiver beat the Browns' $75 million cornerback.

"Honestly, it wasn’t that emotional," Smith said of a game that featured six lead changes. "One of the cool things with Joe is everybody calls him Joe Cool. As the game goes on, good or bad, Joe stays the same. He comes in and gives a play. He may say a few words prior or after, or if we make some adjustments like we did on the last play. That’s it."

Smith added, "That makes it so much easier. For a long time, when I grew up, I’ve always worked well through chaos. As I’ve gotten older, I prefer calm. It’s been refreshing to come in here and the quarterback in the huddle is calm. That makes it so much easier to concentrate and do your job.”

Three games into the season, the Ravens repeatedly drop passes and struggle too much in the red zone on offense. Their defense has too many lapses in coverage and miss countless tackles.

Still, as the distractions mount, the Ravens' determination increases as well.

"I think every single NFL team could go down a list of all the adversity they’ve been through," Flacco said. "It’s one of those things that as competitors that you like to talk about. It sounds good and all that, for having a good team, fighting through adversity. But I think all 32 teams say the same thing. I don’t want to act like we have it more than anybody else."

But it would be tough to find a team that has handled adversity better than the Ravens have this season.
CLEVELAND -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns' 23-21 loss to Baltimore:

Coach's angst: Mike Pettine put himself in the crosshairs by saying the last-second loss to Baltimore was on him. He said the players played well enough to win but the coaches didn't do a good job of putting them in the best positions. He said there was a "long list" of miscues by the staff.

When it matters: Against New Orleans, the Browns converted a fourth down and a winning drive. Against Baltimore, they failed twice with their hands on the ball. "We got to do it when it counts," quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "That's what it comes down to."

Gaffes galore: The Browns missed a field goal and had another blocked, three times had 12 men on the field on defense, did not catch a vital punt and did not get a point in the fourth quarter despite having the ball at the Ravens' 30- and 9-yard lines. Players lamented the mistakes that they said led to the Browns beating themselves.
Observed and heard in the locker room after the Baltimore Ravens' 23-21 victory over the Cleveland Browns:

Give him the ball: Wide receiver Steve Smith was asked whether he knew he was going to get the pass just before he made the clutch 32-yard catch that put the Ravens in range for the winning field goal in the final minute of the fourth quarter. "When I line up, I think there is no better option than myself," Smith said. "That's how I practice. That's how I play."

Key adjustment: Asa Jackson provided a major momentum swing when he came off the edge and blocked Billy Cundiff's 36-yard field goal attempt in the middle of the fourth quarter. He gave a nod to special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, who told Jackson during the middle of the week to switch pushing off from his right foot to his left foot. It gave him a better angle to the ball. "It ended up working out," Jackson said. "I saw the ball go. I just ran and jumped, and luckily it looked like Billy kicked it low and I was able to get a piece of it."

Half speed: Cornerback Lardarius Webb still looked like his lower-back injury was bothering him in his first game of the season. Even though he didn't start and he played limited snaps, Webb looked like he could barely move. "You can never really push something because he hasn't played much," coach John Harbaugh said. "He is coming off injury in the lower back, and he's going to have to play full speed and get his wheels back. I saw the same thing. He's going to have to get his wheels back. Hopefully, we can play him back."
CINCINNATI -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 33-7 win over the Tennessee Titans:

Dalton's TD catch his first: When reporters were allowed in the Bengals' locker room after Sunday's win, they flocked to receiver Mohamed Sanu's locker. The third-year wideout, who tossed an 18-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Andy Dalton early in the game, occupies the locker next to Dalton's. As Sanu offered his insights on the play, I chatted with Dalton, who told me it was the first touchdown catch he's had at any stage of his football-playing career. He added that he wasn't sure what happened with cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who had a chance to blow out the catch or intercept it for an easy pick-six.

Iloka's half-pick lobby: There is no such thing as a half-interception in football, but safety George Iloka wouldn't mind creating one. He joked with me after the game that he's going to lobby someone for crediting him with half an interception after contributing to Robert Geathers' second-quarter pick. On the play, Titans quarterback Jake Locker was trying to complete a pass to Delanie Walker when Iloka delivered a hard hit on Walker as soon as he touched the ball and turned around. The hit was so hard, the ball violently bounced several yards into the air, where Geathers grabbed it.

Shutout bid denied: The Bengals came within six minutes of their first shutout in seven seasons and their first home shutout in 33 years. The shutout bid was denied when Shonn Greene scored on a drive aided by Bengals penalties. Defensive end Wallace Gilberry said he and his teammates wanted the shutout. "We tried to pull it off, but it is what it is," he said. "At the same time, those guys are being paid, too. That's not a bad team we just played. They're going to beat a lot of people this year."

Staying humble: With the Week 5 game at New England on the horizon after next week's bye, coach Marvin Lewis isn't worried about keeping his team humble after the 3-0 start. Here's what linebacker Vincent Rey said when I asked him about that: "We're hunting excellence. We really want to be perfect in everything we want to do."

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 23-21 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium.

What it means: Browns running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery worked for the Ravens prior to coming to Cleveland. Montgomery said during training camp that the Ravens always looked on the Browns as a team that would play Baltimore tough, then make mistakes at key points of the game to give the Ravens a victory. The Browns did that again with a new coach and new quarterback, bungling the last three or four minutes en route to a last-play 23-21 loss. Not getting a key first down, throwing poor passes and failing to catch well-thrown ones, wasting timeouts, having 12 men on the field, giving up a big catch on the Ravens' game-winning drive -- the Browns wasted a good effort in a winnable game due to late mistakes. They are an improved team, but until they win in crunch time, they won't win overall.

Stock watch: The Browns have to shore up their run defense. Baltimore was without Bernard Pierce and turned to rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, a fourth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina. Yet the Ravens still ran the ball well against the Browns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and totaling 160 yards for the day. Baltimore had run well in its previous two games, so it wasn't a shock. What was a concern was the Browns' inability to stop the run even though they knew it was coming. No doubt this will be an area of focus for the coaching staff during the bye week.

Manziel package: Johnny Manziel was involved in a trick play that could have gained 39 yards had Terrance West not been penalized for an illegal shift. Manziel's trick play involved hiding on the sideline and catching a pass from Brian Hoyer after Manziel had run the read-option the play before. He scampered up the sideline, but the play was negated by the penalty on West. The reason the Browns ran Manziel for those three plays against New Orleans? To set up the trick play for Baltimore.

Game ball: With the game in the balance, the Browns' offense had two drives that used up less than a minute and went nowhere. But prior to that, Brian Hoyer had the team in position for a win. Hoyer completed 16 of his first 17, and the one incompletion came because Jordan Cameron fell after getting tangled up with a Ravens defender. Hoyer finished 19-of-25 for 290 yards and a 127.1 passer rating. He did not come through in the final two drives, but to that point, he had overcome numerous Browns mistakes to put them in position to win.

What’s next: The Browns have an early bye week before returning for a trip to Tennessee to play the Titans on Oct. 5 in Nashville.

Rapid Reaction: Baltimore Ravens

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21

CLEVELAND -- A few thoughts on the Baltimore Ravens' 23-21 win against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium:

What it means: As the Ray Rice aftermath continues to swirl around the team, the Ravens were able to overcome their road problems and pull out a comeback win. Justin Tucker's 32-yard field goal as time expired won the game for the Ravens. This marked the Ravens' first AFC North road victory since they won at Pittsburgh in November 2012. The Ravens (2-1) have now won for the 12th time in 13 meetings against Cleveland, which allowed them to stay within one game of the division-leading Cincinnati Bengals (3-0).

Comeback Flacco: Joe Flacco delivered his 20th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. The key play was his connection with Steve Smith on a 33-yard pass to the Browns' 13-yard line with 44 seconds left in the game. Smith beat Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden on the outside. The Ravens' winning drive went 37 yards on six plays. Flacco finished 19-of-31 for 217 yards.

Stock watch: Falling -- strong safety Matt Elam. The first-round pick had the worst game of his short career, getting beaten deep and missing tackles. Elam allowed passes of 43 and 70 yards. It was a recurring problem for the entire secondary, from Asa Jackson to Chykie Brown to Darian Stewart.

Pitta injured: The Ravens lost one of their best weapons in the passing game in the second quarter, when tight end Dennis Pitta was carted off the field after going down without being hit. It looks like an injury to his right hip, the same one he had surgery on last year. Pitta is among Flacco's favorite targets in the red zone and on third downs.

Game ball: Rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro. In a game when Bernard Pierce was scratched with a thigh injury, Taliaferro made sure no one missed the starting running back, delivering 91 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries. He showed good vision in hitting the holes and finished off runs. It's amazing that Taliaferro didn't have one carry in the first two games of the season.

What's next: It's Steve Smith week. The Ravens wide receiver gets his much-anticipated reunion with the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.