The Baltimore Ravens are going to lose consecutive games for the first time this season, according to most of the ESPN prognosticators.

Of the 13 experts, 10 picked the Ravens to lose at the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The point spread for this game is even. The Ravens are looking for their third season sweep of the Steelers in the 19-year history of the rivalry (they did so in 2006 and 2011).

Here are the official ESPN predictions (with their prediction record for the Ravens in parentheses):

Eric Allen (6-2): Steelers
Mike Golic (6-2): Ravens
Merril Hoge (5-3): Steelers
Ron Jaworski (5-3): Steelers
KC Joyner (7-1): Steelers
Chris Mortensen (5-3): Steelers
Adam Schefter (6-2): Steelers
Mark Schlereth (4-4): Steelers
Seth Wickersham (5-3): Steelers
Tom Jackson (6-2): Ravens
Keyshawn Johnson (5-3): Steelers
Mike Ditka (4-4): Steelers
Cris Carter (6-2): Ravens
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The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers renew one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries on Sunday night at Heinz Field. Both teams are 5-3 and a half-game out of first place in the AFC North. The Ravens beat the Steelers, 26-6, when the teams met in early September and they will try to sweep their bitter rival for the first time since 2011.

ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 8:30 p.m. ET game.

Brown: Jamison, how will the Ravens compensate for the loss of Jimmy Smith at cornerback and how bad is the timing for the Ravens to face Ben Roethlisberger when they are so thin at cornerback?

Hensley: To characterize losing Smith as “bad timing” is an understatement. It’s atrocious. Smith, who is sidelined with a foot injury, is not only the Ravens’ best cornerback but he’s also among the top five cornerbacks in the NFL. The Ravens have no one who can replace his combination of size, speed, aggressiveness and intelligence. Even the most optimistic supporter of the Ravens couldn’t think Dominique Franks, who was out of football for the first five weeks, can fill the void left by Smith.

The only way the Ravens can lessen the blow is with their pass rush. When Roethlisberger threw 522 yards and six touchdowns, he was hit twice by the Colts. The Ravens’ top three pass-rushers -- Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee -- have combined for 14.5 sacks and 23 quarterback hits. Over the last five meetings with Roethlisberger, the Ravens have sacked him 10 times. If they can put that pressure on Roethlisberger, it will give him less time to find the open receiver.

While a lot of the focus has been on Roethlisberger, how have his weapons improved in the passing game? With the Ravens being without their top cornerback, will it be tough for them to match up with the Steelers?

Brown: The Steelers and Roethlisberger have to be salivating over the prospect of attacking the Ravens’ secondary. No Smith and a defense that is thin at cornerback has to reckon with a receiving corps that has changed considerably since the Ravens soundly beat the Steelers in Baltimore. Justin Brown, who lost a fumble inside the Ravens’ 20-yard line early in the teams’ Sept. 11 game, isn’t even in the picture at wide receiver right now.

Rookie Martavis Bryant, who has been a revelation in his first two NFL games, and reliable veteran Lance Moore will play against the Ravens after not dressing the first time the two AFC North rivals played. Those two along with Markus Wheaton should make the Ravens pay if they focus too much attention to two-time Pro Bowler Antonio Brown. Brown, meanwhile, opens things up for the other receivers, including tight end Heath Miller, who is coming off his third career 100-yard receiving game.

Baltimore ran the ball effectively against the Steelers on Sept. 11 and it looks like Justin Forsett has really emerged for the Ravens. Has he been one of the NFL’s biggest surprises this season and how are the roles defined in the Ravens’ backfield?

Hensley: It would’ve been difficult for anyone to predict this type of production from Forsett. In training camp, he was the No. 4 running back behind Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro. Halfway through the Ravens’ season, Forsett is fourth in the NFL with 571 rushing yards. The Ravens needed Forsett to step up after Rice was cut and Pierce struggled to stay healthy. What stands out about Forsett is his vision to find the running lanes in the zone blocking scheme and determination to break tackles. The reason the Ravens signed Forsett was his familiarity with Gary Kubiak’s offense after playing in Houston two years ago. He has remained atop the depth chart by averaging 5.5 yards per carry, the third-best average in the league.

Forsett is the primary ball carrier and gets about 70 percent of the snaps. His work could be affected this week by a knee injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s practice. Pierce had been the Ravens’ back when they get in the red zone. But he was a healthy scratch last Sunday after averaging less than three yards per carry in three of five games. So, Taliaferro has become the top backup and scored two red zone touchdowns in Cincinnati.

The run game has been one of the most improved areas on offense, along with the Ravens’ line. Joe Flacco wasn't sacked in the first meeting, but the Steelers were able to get a lot of pressure Sunday on Andrew Luck. Should the Ravens expect a significantly better pass rush on Sunday night?

Brown: That depends on whether the Steelers can get a big lead early against the Ravens. The Steelers’ defense fed off the offense’s fast start Sunday and an early 21-3 lead forced the Colts to throw, throw and throw some more. Indianapolis had just 10 rushes in its 51-34 loss to Pittsburgh and two of those were scrambles by Luck. Making the Colts one-dimensional on offense allowed the Steelers to really go after Luck and they hit him a lot.

The Steelers probably won’t be as fortunate against the Ravens. They struggled to stop the run when the two rivals played earlier this season and teams with zone-blocking schemes have given the Steelers fits. Unless the Steelers jump out to a big lead early for the second consecutive game they will get a steady dose of Forsett and Taliaferro. That alone should temper the pressure they are able to put on Flacco.

Coach John Harbaugh made a comment earlier this week about how the Ravens are comfortable playing at Heinz Field. What did you make of that comment and can it be traced to the Ravens winning in Pittsburgh in 2010, 2011 and 2012?

Hensley: That’s exactly what Harbaugh meant by that comment. He was saying that the Ravens know what it takes to win in Pittsburgh. You can’t blame Harbaugh for taking a confident stance, especially considering the circumstances. It was just a week ago when the Ravens sat atop the AFC North after winning five of their previous six games. Now, after losing in dramatic fashion in Cincinnati, the Ravens could potentially drop to last place with a loss in Pittsburgh. By saying the Ravens are comfortable at Heinz, Harbaugh is telling his players that they can win in Pittsburgh because they’ve done it before.

The Ravens beat the Steelers earlier this season by keeping them out of the end zone. While the Ravens rank second in the league in fewest points allowed, the Steelers defense uncharacteristically ranks 16th in yards allowed and 21st in points given up. Do these numbers truly reflect how the defense is playing?

Brown: Unfortunately for the Steelers, they do. There were questions about the defense, and that was before the Steelers lost starting outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and cornerback Ike Taylor to significant injuries. Cornerback Cortez Allen, whom the Steelers signed to a five-year, $25 million contract right before the start of the regular season, has struggled so much that the fourth-year veteran has been demoted twice in the past two weeks.

The Steelers have also had issues stopping the run and an offense that can stay balanced is going to give them problems. The defense has shown signs of improvement and it has generated consistent pressure on the quarterback as well as takeaways during the Steelers’ two-game winning streak. If that continues against the Ravens the Steelers have a great chance of improving to 7-4 with games against the lowly Jets and the two-win Titans next up on the schedule.

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CINCINNATI -- Amid concerns that Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard's string of injuries are a matter of him taking on a more significant workload than before, we turned to ESPN Stats & Information for help comparing his second year to his rookie season.

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Bernard
A quick glance at Bernard's 2014 numbers show that perceptions are meeting reality. He has indeed touched the ball more so far this season than he did at this point last year.

But is that what's causing the injuries? Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson says no.

"I know because of his size and whatnot, people say that, but I don't believe that's the case," Jackson said. "The things where he was nicked up didn't come from taking too much. It just came from somebody tackling him and hitting him in the right spot."

Let's review the three injuries Bernard has suffered in the last three games:
  • Against the Panthers on Oct. 12, Bernard was said to have had a right shoulder injury after taking a hard hit early in the fourth quarter from Carolina linebacker and Cincinnati native Luke Kuechly. Bernard left briefly and ended up returning to finish the overtime game. Although the injury was termed a "shoulder" injury, trainers were seen working on an area near Bernard's shoulder that was closer to his collarbone. He also grabbed that same area as soon as he tried to get up from Kuechly's hit.
  • Against Indianapolis on Oct. 19, Bernard received bruised ribs when he was blindsided by Colts defensive back Vontae Davis on a screen that Indianapolis read before it developed. Two plays later, he was lit up again when he took a shot to his back on a different screen route. After both hits, Bernard bounced back and finished the game.
  • Against Baltimore last week, he didn't return when he suffered a hip injury in the fourth quarter. He hasn't practiced all week and has been listed on the injury report as having hip and clavicle injuries.

Back to Bernard's workload. What about it has increased?

Almost everything.

He has more carries, targets, routes, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and a higher rushing average than he did after seven games last season. He also has been on the field more. He also has, from a percentage standpoint, slightly more carries between the tackles this season compared to last year.

Does any of it explain Bernard's sudden propensity for injury? At this still fairly early stage of the season, no. Later in the year, though, if these statistical trends keep up and Bernard's production slips, a real case could be made that wear and tear have slowed him down.

For now, perhaps Jackson is right? Maybe Bernard has simply been a victim of good, hard tackles at inopportune times.
BEREA, Ohio -- Most every Football 101 Manual has the chapter: How to beat the Cover 2.

In its most simplistic definition, it's a defense that places two safeties deep in the middle of the field, with a middle linebacker buzzing in front of them and cornerbacks keeping plays in front as well.

The idea: Force teams to take the long route, be patient and play mistake-free.

The manual states that the way to drive a team out of Cover 2 is to run the ball, force the safety to move closer to the line and then throw over him.

[+] EnlargePaul Posluszny
Richard Dole/USA TODAY SportsThe Browns have struggled to run the ball the past two weeks, but it remains a priority for them, especially against Tampa Bay's Cover 2 scheme.
It’s some time-honored traditional thinking that sets up an interesting matchup for the Cleveland Browns Sunday when they play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at home.

Bucs coach Lovie Smith is a disciple of Tony Dungy, and Dungy was the master of the Cover 2. The Cover 2 was so identified with Dungy it eventually became known as the Tampa 2. Smith worked under Dungy for years with the Bucs, then took the Tampa 2 to Chicago, and now that he’s coach of the Bucs he has brought it back to Tampa Bay.

Which of course leads to the Browns' running game averaging 54 yards per game the past two weeks, when Oakland and Jacksonville stacked the line, often with an extra safety, to stop the run. Which of course leads to the theory that perhaps this might be a good opportunity for the Browns to get the run game going -- because they’re playing a defense that is set up to keep a safety deep as opposed to close to the line.

Browns Tight end Gary Barndige, who figures to play more if Jordan Cameron is out with a concussion, sort of bought into the theory.

"But any defense anybody plays you can get the running game (going)," he said. "Just as long as everybody is on the details. If everybody is not on the details, it’s hard to get the run going."

Spoken like a veteran who does not want to a) disparage the opposition or b) reveal too much.

Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan echoed Barnidge’s feelings about the details, pointing out the Browns had several runs against Oakland that could have been big gains had the details been heeded.

"I’d say we had about seven of those opportunities," Shanahan said, "but when we did have those opportunities one guy missed. It takes 11 guys to run the ball."

Defending the run and stopping the run is an interesting dynamic. Dan Marino always called it an attitude, and said it required commitment. The Browns have the commitment, but they didn’t necessarily have the production the past two weeks. Against Oakland, though, the Browns kept running, which forced the Raiders to honor play-action.

Because the Browns figure they always need to run, they don’t necessarily see any great advantage playing a Tampa 2 team.

"We’re not going into this game saying, ‘Oh they run the Tampa 2 let’s go run the ball, this is our chance,'" guard John Greco said. "We don’t care if they run goal-line every play, the mindset is what we need to do to run the ball efficiently and effectively."

The Browns also don’t want to assume anything. Tampa Bay has talent on defense. Shanahan called defensive tackle Gerald McCoy "an extreme problem," and lineman Michael Johnson and linebacker Lavonte David are both very good players.

That helps buttress another tenet of the Tampa 2 -- the pass rush is generated from the front four.

"That front’s very dependent on their personnel," coach Mike Pettine said. "And they personnel it very well."

Pettine said the Bucs will mix their defenses more than some Cover 2 teams, showing one coverage and switching to another. He also pointed out Tampa 2 teams are built for that style, so the personnel fits.

"They can sit in lighter spacing and play Cover 2 and keep the safeties deep and still be effective against the run," Pettine said. "Anytime that you can be a defense and play what we would consider 'lighter spacing' and defend the run, that’s advantage you."

Shanahan doesn’t like the numbers produced by the offense the past two games when running the ball, but he’s not alarmed either, because he said it's expected that someone eventually will stop an offense. He also harkened back to something he always said about quarterbacks: NFL defenses eventually take away what you do best, so it’s wise to be ready with something else.

"Eventually, someone’s going to take (the run game) away, and when they do, usually, it opens up a lot of other stuff," Shanahan said, adding: "We want people to feel like they have to commit to stop something, because when they do have to commit to stop something, it makes other stuff easier."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens have turned the ball over five times the past two weeks, but you probably shouldn't bring that up to offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

Kubiak
"You know it's interesting," Kubiak said. "It seems like sometimes, I told [head coach] John [Harbaugh] the other day, you talk about it so much and they don't go away. Sometimes you've got to maybe just not say anything."

In the past two games, the Ravens have watched quarterback Joe Flacco throw four interceptions and Jacoby Jones fumble a punt return. There are only two teams that have turned the ball over more: the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars (six turnovers each).

Overall, the Ravens have turned the ball over 12 times this season, which falls in the middle of the pack. Where the Ravens have excelled is the defense has not allowed teams to convert those mistakes into points. The Ravens have given up 23 points off turnovers, which is the eighth-fewest in the NFL.

When the Ravens win the turnover battle, they are 93-10 (.902) under Harbaugh.

"We've got too good of a football team. If we're protecting the ball, I think we're going to play really well," Kubiak said. "So, it's something that [quarterbacks coach] Rick [Dennison], Joe and I have to do a better job of because we've turned it over four times via the air the last two weeks. That's something we have to get fixed."

Flacco hasn't been intercepted by the Steelers since December 2012. It's a streak that has spanned 14 quarters and 112 pass attempts.
CINCINNATI -- Giovani Bernard might soon miss the first game of his career.

The second-year Cincinnati Bengals running back missed his second straight practice Thursday afternoon. Like Wednesday, he didn't make it on the practice fields while his teammates worked out.

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He hasn't been officially ruled out for Sunday's game against Jacksonville, but if Bernard doesn't practice Friday, expect to see him shelved. Very seldom will head coach Marvin Lewis' players play on Sundays without at least practicing on Fridays.

Don't try to convince Bernard's backfield mate that he's done for this weekend, though. Rookie running back Jeremy Hill said Thursday that he anticipated seeing Bernard on the field this weekend.

"Gio will be ready to go. He's a tough guy," Hill said. "I expect him to be out there. If he is, he is. If he's not, he's not. I'm preparing like I'm the No. 1 guy, like I do every week. If I happen to be that, then so be it. If not, I'll continue to do what I've been doing."

Hill would take over as the Bengals' primary running back. Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead likely would get carries alongside him.

"I feel good that if it happened that way that [Hill] would go in there and do the job," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said about Hill possibly having a larger role.

Hill has just 50 carries this season, an average of 7.1 per game. He's rushed for 195 yards and has three touchdowns. Bernard has 446 yards on 109 carries. He also has five rushing scores.

Bernard suffered a hip injury in the fourth quarter of last week's 27-24 win against the Ravens. He left the game after a 4-yard first-down run. He went down rather abruptly before getting rolled over by his tackler from his belly to his back.

In addition to the hip injury, he also has been out this week with an injured clavicle. He hurt a shoulder at the end of an awkward tackle two weeks ago in the overtime tie with the Panthers. Seven days later, he hurt his ribs following a hard shot from Colts cornerback Vontae Davis on a screen pass.

Jackson said he didn't think Bernard's injuries were the result of putting a larger workload on his smaller frame.

"I know because of his size and whatnot people say that, but I don't believe that's the case," Jackson said. "The things where he was nicked up didn't come from taking too much. It just came from somebody tackling him and hitting him in the right spot."

Here is a look at the Bengals' complete Thursday injury report:

OUT
LB Vontaze Burfict (knee)

DID NOT PRACTICE
RB Giovani Bernard (hip/clavicle)
LB Rey Maualuga (hamstring)
DT Geno Atkins (veteran's day off)
CB Darqueze Dennard (hamstring)
OG Kevin Zeitler (calf)

LIMITED PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
DT Domata Peko (toe -- did not practice Wednesday)
WR A.J. Green (toe)
CB Terence Newman (back)
OT Andre Smith (knee)

FULL PRACTICE PARTICIPATION
OL Mike Pollak (knee)
DE Carlos Dunlap (illness)
DT Brandon Thompson (knee)
LB Jayson DiManche (shoulder)
PITTSBURGH -- Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert and nose tackle Steve McLendon remain on track to play Sunday night against the visiting Baltimore Ravens.

Each practiced again on Thursday as Gilbert makes his way from a concussion that kept him out of the Steelers’ 51-34 victory over the Indianapolis Colts and McLendon returns from a shoulder injury that has sidelined him for the last two games.

Safety Shamarko Thomas also practiced fully for the second consecutive day, and he is expected to play Sunday after missing the last three games because of a hamstring injury. Safety Ross Ventrone (hamstring) did not practice and he won’t play against the Ravens.

Starting free safety Mike Mitchell (groin) and cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) were limited in drills. Strong safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Brett Keisel were each given practice off for the second consecutive day.

In a note not related to injuries, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been voted the FedEx Air Player of the Week after throwing for 522 yards and six touchdowns last Sunday against the Colts.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens' injury list doesn't look as bad as it did one day earlier as four starters returned to practice on Thursday.

 Running back Justin Forsett (ankle), guard Marshal Yanda (knee), defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (shin) and cornerback Lardarius Webb (rest day) all were back on the field in preparation for Sunday night's game at the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Tight end Owen Daniels (knee) did not practice Thursday after being limited Wednesday, but the Ravens typically give Daniels a day off during the week.

The only players who missed practice the past two days were: cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot), linebacker Terrell Suggs (neck) and wide receiver Michael Campanaro (thigh).

RAVENS INJURY REPORT

Did not practice: WR Michael Campanaro (thigh), TE Owen Daniels (knee), CB Jimmy Smith (foot), LB Terrell Suggs (neck).

Limited participation: RB Justin Forsett (ankle), G Marshal Yanda (knee).

Full participation: DE Chris Canty (wrist), DT Haloti Ngata (shin), CB Lardarius Webb (not injury related).
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- While Joe Flacco typically struggles in Cincinnati -- like he did last Sunday -- the Baltimore Ravens quarterback has frequently enjoyed success in Pittsburgh.

No quarterback has won more games than Flacco in the 13-year history of Heinz Field. His three wins there are tied for the most with Carson Palmer, and no one has won more times in Pittsburgh than Flacco since 2006.

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"It’s awesome to play in front of your home crowd and get all that excitement and really feel that," Flacco said. "But there are times where it’s almost just as good to go in there and play so good that you can silence people that really don’t want to be silenced and aren’t very good at holding their words. So, it is a lot of fun."

In winning in Pittsburgh, Flacco has done so with a flair for the dramatics. He has thrown two winning touchdowns in the final minute at Heinz.

In 2010, Flacco tossed a 18-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 32 seconds remaining for a 17-14 win. In 2011, he found Torrey Smith for a 26-yard touchdown with eight seconds left in a 23-20 victory.

Over the past four seasons, Flacco's passer rating in the fourth quarter in Pittsburgh is 102.1 with three touchdown passes and no interceptions.

"I think you gain a comfort level just by going to a place so many times," Flacco said, "and the fact that we have won up there definitely gives you confidence personally."
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BEREA, Ohio -- Mike Pettine is known as an honest assessor, which is why we know he’s honestly curious what Johnny Manziel can do for him on Sundays.

Seems innocent enough. But he’s not talking about the starter. That’s Brian Hoyer. He’s 4-3. He’s also a free agent in a couple of months.

So Pettine, even though he’s made clear he won’t force Manziel into the lineup unnecessarily, still keeps the door slightly cracked at a critical time.

Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer
AP Photo/David RichardJohnny Manziel, right, is in the first season of a four-year deal, while Brian Hoyer is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season.
“That’s a question that we need to have answered,” said Pettine about his anxiousness to get a full evaluation on Manziel, which only comes with significant snaps on Sundays.

Perhaps it’s not Pettine cracking the door as much as the Browns swinging it open in May with the drafting of a headline-generating first-rounder.

Pettine’s question also seems difficult to answer now. It could be four years or four weeks and neither would shock. The Browns will always play those who maximize chances to win, Pettine says, and that goes for every position.

What’s clear is no NFL team has a quarterback situation quite like the Browns, with a first-round rookie waiting behind a free-agent starter. Hoyer and Arizona’s Carson Palmer are the only upcoming free-agent quarterbacks who have started more than four games this year.

If the Browns want Hoyer around beyond this year, is there a way to keep both quarterbacks happy? Only two options seem feasible for that outcome: (A) transition tag Hoyer at around $16 million for one year, or (B) sign Hoyer to a two- or three-year bridge deal. That gives Hoyer more reps and Manziel more time to develop. But my guess is Hoyer wouldn’t be thrilled with either option. Hoyer’s agent is Joe Linta, who bet big with Joe Flacco by waiting until after the 2012 season to cut a deal. Flacco’s Super Bowl season helped him earn a reported $52 million guaranteed.

Hoyer and Linta could table talks until the offseason. Hoyer’s a confident guy. Why not bet on himself?

Hoyer’s free agency will force the Browns into a long-term quarterback decision in the next four months. But if you take free agency out of it, Pettine seems comfortable evaluating the quarterback position week-to-week instead of year-to-year.

I asked him Wednesday if an NFL team can let good quarterbacks sit for three or four years in today’s NFL culture with the patience of a Wendy’s drive-thru.

“To me, it’s look at your roster and who gives you the best chance to win,” Pettine said. “If you have a guy on your roster that’s doing that for you and somebody is sitting and waiting, I think the mistakes are made when teams get impatient. That they have to know or that guy has to play. I think it’s easy in the coaching world, because it’s who gives us the best chance to win today. We’ll worry about tomorrow down the road.”

For all the questions about Manziel, Hoyer’s outlook is simple: Win games and do so with command of the offense and he’ll remain the starter. As long as that door is cracked, this is a quarterback picture with many layers to it.
CINCINNATI -- As a former first-round pick, the wait to enter the Cincinnati Bengals' starting cornerback rotation has been long and, at times, frustrating for Dre Kirkpatrick.

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 He certainly didn't believe when he was drafted that by the middle of his third season that he still would be fighting to climb the defensive depth chart. By this point, he thought he would be fending off challengers who were competing to take playing time from him.

"Coach [Marvin Lewis] knows I'm ready. I work hard every day," Kirkpatrick said. "It's a mental thing when it comes to that. Sitting back, just preparing. Trying to be ready for the game. Coach knows I'm ready. I'm ready. I just have to continue to be patient. Hopefully when my time comes I go out there and do what I have to do."

But the fact is, he probably wasn't going to see much action the first few years of his career. Veterans Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Adam Jones played well the past two seasons, despite occasional injuries. Hamstring and knee problems briefly sidelined Newman and Jones last year, while Hall only played the first half of the season because of a torn Achilles.

Those injuries caused Kirkpatrick's playing time to increase last season, but this year he hasn't had much reason to play. The vets are all healthy and playing some of their best ball. At 36, Newman appears in a career renaissance. Jones' pesky play has prevented most receivers from burning him deep. Only Steve Smith has that honor, getting past on a go route in the season opener.

How can a benched Kirkpatrick keep his wits? By continuing to soak up information from his older peers and to execute when he does play.

"I just continue to learn from those guys," Kirkpatrick said. "It's always going to be frustrating when you want to play. I've never really had to just sit. But it's a respect thing, also. Those guys are very good at what they do. Hopefully, I can be here 10 years, 12 years and a younger guy may be saying that about me."

Kirkpatrick has appeared on defense in all but two games. He received his most action in the Week 3 blowout over the Titans when he was on the field for 12 plays. Last week against Baltimore, he relieved Newman for three plays, even helping on a third-quarter pass defense. In all, he has five tackles on defense.

Where Kirkpatrick has made his biggest impact is on special teams. As one of two first-round picks at gunner -- fellow cornerback Darqueze Dennard plays opposite Kirkpatrick -- he's been a key part of punter Kevin Huber's strong season. Kirkpatrick has four special teams tackles this season and routinely has been the first Bengal downfield at the end of Huber's punts. As a result of getting down so quickly, Kirkpatrick has both corralled returners almost immediately and downed several punts deep in opposing territory.

Across two games, Huber had consecutive punts downed at the opposing 4-, 1- and 2-yard lines. Against Tennessee alone, he had three stop inside the 10. Kirkpatrick downed one and Dennard had a tackle on another.

"Coming up in college, it's all about a role," Kirkpatrick said. "Here, you're learning that you can make game-changing plays with little adjustments. That's one of the things that [the veteran corners] are very good at, and one of the things I'm learning and Darqueze is going to learn.

"I'm in a room full of smart guys and you can learn a lot from them."

For now, that's all Kirkpatrick can do: keep learning and keep waiting.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens know the routine when they play in Pittsburgh, from Steelers fans throwing stuff at the team bus to the awkward dinners the night before the game.

"Folks [are] just looking at us like, 'Man, I hope you just bomb it tomorrow,'" wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "It’s a serious environment. That’s why you’re here, to play a team like Pittsburgh up there, a crowd that hates you, really a city that truly hates you."

In what has become one of the top rivalries in the NFL, Ravens players thrive on being hated in Pittsburgh, and the results back that up. Since 2010, the Ravens are 3-1 at Heinz Field (.750), and 14-18 (.435) everywhere else on the road.

The Ravens won three straight regular-season games at Heinz (2010, '11 and '12), and they nearly won their fourth in a row there last season. Joe Flacco's 1-yard touchdown throw to Dallas Clark tied the game at 16 with 1:58 remaining. But Shaun Suisham's 42-yard field goal -- which was set up by Michael Huff failing to contain Emmanuel Sanders on a 44-yard kickoff return -- won the game as time expired.

"I love it because they put so much energy into hating you," said linebacker Terrell Suggs, who is known to yell back at fans. "You obviously are doing something [right], so it’s kind of flattering. I take it as a sign of respect.”

There are 17 players on the Ravens' 53-man roster who have never been a part of this rivalry for a game in Pittsburgh. Smith's advice, especially to the younger players, is that you can't let the emotions surrounding this game affect you.

"At the end of the day when you get on the field, it’s football," Smith said. "It’s a great, disciplined, physical football team. And we know we have to play physical ball to go out there and beat them. It’s going to be tough. And they’re hot right now, too.”
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So begins the Jacksonville Jaguars' gauntlet.

One week after a two-touchdown defeat to their in-state rival Miami Dolphins, the Jaguars on Sunday begin a treacherous three-game stretch of their schedule against a trio of teams with winning records -- and that all look like prime postseason candidates.

Up first, the Cincinnati Bengals, an organization that found itself at a unique crossroads late in last Sunday's game against Baltimore. Down four with less than four minutes remaining in a division game, the Bengals needed quarterback Andy Dalton to take them on a miracle comeback drive. He did. If he hadn't, the Bengals likely would have lost and fallen to last in the AFC North.

Instead, they're back in first.

ESPN's Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Bengals reporter Coley Harvey are here to preview this matchup:

Coley Harvey: Mike, Jags QB Blake Bortles has four pick-sixes this year to go along with his 12 overall interceptions. How much of his growth hinges on how well he can take pressure? Many of his struggles have come against blitzes, and you have to think Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther wants to expose that.

Michael DiRocco: Bortles has struggled against the blitz. Though he is completing nearly 60 percent of his throws against five or more rushers, he has thrown five interceptions, has thrown no touchdown passes and has been sacked nine times. His Total QBR is a paltry 2.8 against five or more rushers. This isn't confined to just Bortles, though, because nearly every rookie QB will struggle against pressure. However, the Jaguars need to see improvement over the final eight games. His decision-making has to be better, and the one thing offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch wants to see is Bortles not continue to make the same mistakes. There are going to be interceptions because it's part of the learning process, and it's also because Bortles has a bit of gunslinger in him and likes to take chances. That's partly why he leads the NFL with 12 interceptions. Fisch would like to see that number drop to six over the season's second half. It's a rough process, but the only way Bortles can grow is to go through it. It would be a problem if he wasn't better in the second half of the season than he was in the first half.

Coley, A.J. Green says he expects to play against the Jaguars. More than quarterback Andy Dalton, is Green the key to the Bengals' offensive success, not only this week but going forward?

Harvey: To be honest, Mike, he isn't. Yes, Green is a Pro Bowler and he is a talented player and having him will bring added life to this offense, but we can't overlook the fact this unit has played well without him this season. Green has missed parts of four games this season because of a nagging big-toe injury, and in his place the Bengals have just rolled out a strong group of receivers, running backs and tight ends. Mohamed Sanu has been the most direct replacement for Green, catching 21 passes for 383 yards and a touchdown in Green's absence. Since Sanu has served as a runner on reverses, and passed balls in addition to catching them, he has racked up 460 yards of total offense in relief of Green. That's good enough for 31.3 percent of the Bengals' entire offensive production in the games Green has missed. Even if Green returns, expect Sanu to factor in similar ways this week and on down the line. Still, it can't be disputed that Green's potential addition this weekend will help any offensive success Cincinnati has.

Mike, Jacksonville's defense currently ranks as the best in the league in red zone territory. What happens when the Jags get pinned deep that allows them to prevent giving up touchdowns?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' defensive line, notably tackles Sen'Derrick Marks and Roy Miller, has played well all season, but especially in the red zone. Teams are averaging just 2.08 yards per rush against the Jaguars in the red zone. In addition, the Jaguars have allowed teams to convert just 27.3 percent of third-down plays in the red zone, which is fifth in the league. They've also intercepted two passes in the end zone. What's funny is the Jaguars have given up six touchdown passes of 20 or more yards, which shows the secondary has been more susceptible to getting beat deep than having trouble in the red zone. The pass rush has helped in the red zone, too. The Jaguars' 25 sacks are tied with Minnesota for second in the NFL behind Buffalo (28).

Which is the real Bengals' defense: the one that held opponents to 11 points per game in the first three games or the unit that gave up 35.7 points over the next three games?

Harvey: If I had a good answer for that one, Mike, head coach Marvin Lewis, Guenther and the rest of the defensive staff might try to find a job for me. Seriously, it's been one of the most perplexing issues of this season for the Bengals. They came out strong the first three weeks, stopping the run and just outmuscling each of the teams they played. Not only did it look like the Bengals were as good under Guenther as they were under the venerable Mike Zimmer, but they looked better. And then came the bye week. A Week 4, early-season interruption derailed the Bengals, and it appeared to hit the defense the hardest. In the first three games after the bye, they were outscored 107-54. Two of the teams, the Patriots and Colts, picked up more than 500 total yards. All three rushed for more than 100.

I'd say the real Bengals' defense is somewhere in the middle of the fast start and the atrocious post-bye follows. Now that players are starting to get healthy again, I'm thinking it might be closer to the unit we saw at the start of the season.

What has Denard Robinson's past two games meant to the balance of Jacksonville's offense, Mike?

DiRocco: The Jaguars' passing offense is dependent on play-action for it to be effective, and until the past two weeks, the play-action fake really meant nothing to opposing defenses. Through the first six games, the Jaguars averaged 69.5 yards per game rushing. In the past two, they've averaged 180.5 yards per game. Most of that has come from Robinson, who has run for 235 yards and one touchdown. He's doing a much better job of running tough: breaking tackles, running through arm tackles, moving the pile forward and falling ahead for an extra yard. It's no coincidence that the Jaguars' first victory came in a game in which Robinson rushed for 127 yards and a touchdown. Had Bortles not thrown two pick-sixes last week against Miami, the Jaguars probably would have won that game, too -- and Robinson had 108 yards rushing. If Robinson can continue to be effective running the ball, that will allow Fisch to take some pressure off Bortles.

Geno Atkins looked very good against Baltimore. Is he all the way back from the ACL tear, and what kind of impact does he have on the defense?

Harvey: I'd say Atkins is back from the season-ending ACL injury he suffered exactly one year ago Friday, Mike. As you mentioned, he played quite well against the Ravens. Guenther called it Atkins' best performance of the season, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed. Atkins played faster, with more explosion and a bit of his old fire in that game. He had two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble that came when he was one step into the backfield before the ball carrier had time to decide which way he was going to run. It's safe to say after six virtually unproductive games that he's finally all the way back.

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Buccaneers vs. Browns Preview

October, 30, 2014
Oct 30
8:00
AM ET
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The Cleveland Browns play the third game in a trio of games that are, generously stated, against struggling teams. The Browns lost to winless Jacksonville and beat winless Oakland. Now the 1-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers come to Cleveland.

The Bucs are like the Browns in that they are adjusting to a new coach. They are like the Browns used to be in that they are searching for a quarterback.

Cleveland is at home, where the temperature is expected to be a decidedly non-Tampa Bay like 40-some degrees.

Bucs reporter Pat Yasinskas and Browns reporter Pat McManamon join to discuss the game.

McManamon: Tampa Bay comes to Cleveland 1-6. Where exactly have the Bucs improved under Lovie Smith?

Yaskinskas: That’s a great question, and the honest answer is nowhere. Smith seemed like a great hire and has good pedigree with the Tampa 2 defense. The Bucs were active in free agency and they said that’s because they didn’t want to have to ask their fans to be patient. But none of the free-agent moves really have panned out and it’s taking a lot longer for Smith’s defensive and offensive schemes to take hold. I never thought I’d say this, but former coach Greg Schiano’s bunch from last year might be better than the current Bucs.

The Browns jumped into the national spotlight when they drafted Johnny Manziel. But Brian Hoyer has been able to hold him off for the starting quarterback job. How is Hoyer playing, and how firm is his grip on the job?

McManamon: As coach Mike Pettine said last week, good enough to win and be 4-3. Hoyer has hit a bit of a lull, with two off days in Jacksonville and at home against Oakland. But take the entire season together and he’s doing well. His rating is more than 90, he doesn’t throw interceptions, and he’s doing it without Josh Gordon and -- for the past two games -- without a running game. Hoyer’s only issue is that the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel. Because of that there will always be a vocal minority (or majority?) that will cry for Manziel at every error by Hoyer. He needs to win this game, but in the overall picture his play has been a bright spot for a team few thought would be 4-3 at this point of the season.

Is the Bucs' long-term quarterback on the roster, or will he be drafted in the offseason?

Yaskinskas: Josh McCown is 35, so he’s out as a long-term answer. But the jury still is out on second-year pro Mike Glennon. He has a big arm and some nice intangibles, but he hasn’t been met with a lot of success. I think Glennon could be fine if the Bucs improved his supporting cast. But, if this team keeps losing and gets an early draft pick, I think it’s going to be tough to not draft a guy that might be able to be a franchise quarterback.

The Browns haven’t been able to run the ball effectively the past few games. What’s gone wrong?

McManamon: The easy answer is to say the Browns lost their Pro Bowl center. Without Alex Mack the Browns aren’t even averaging 2 yards a carry the past two games. Clearly that’s a factor. But the other factor is that Jacksonville and Oakland dared the Browns to throw by loading the box with a safety to protect against the run. It’s no secret that Kyle Shanahan’s offense is built around the ability to run and play-action, so teams are trying to take the run away and negate play-action. Tampa is a Cover 2 team, though. It will be interesting to see if Smith goes against his bread-and-butter and plays eight in the box.

We live in a (Cleve)land where the coach got one season to prove himself last season with the Browns. Is it at all conceivable that would happen with Smith?

Yasinskas: That’s something I’ve started asking myself recently because it’s becoming a legitimate question. Smith signed a five-year contract and ownership still seems high on him. But let’s say the Bucs end up 1-15 or 2-14 and have some more embarrassing losses like they did against Atlanta and Baltimore. If the bottom really falls out of this thing, I think it’s possible that Smith could get only one year. He needs to get a few wins and show improvement down the stretch.

With Josh Gordon suspended, where do the Browns turn for a receiving threat if banged-up tight end Jordan Cameron isn’t ready to go?

McManamon: That’s a significant issue, Pat. If Cameron’s concussion keeps him on the sidelines the Browns will absolutely have to run the ball. That will help the passing game more than anything. To replace Gordon, the Browns have basically shared the wealth. Andrew Hawkins has played more than any receiver and has been a pleasant surprise. Miles Austin has come up with big catches and touchdowns. And undrafted rookie Taylor Gabriel ranks second in the league in yards per catch (19.8 yards). Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge would share time in place of Cameron. Both have good hands, but neither can get down the field the way Cameron can. One of Hoyer’s strengths is that he can read the field and make a decision quickly, which allows him to spread the ball around. I’d expect that approach to continue.

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