A.J. Green: 'Toe is 100 percent'

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
9:20
PM ET
HOUSTON -- What toe injury?

A.J. Green has looked completely healthy again the last two weeks, pushing off both feet to make some of toughest contested, jumping catches and tip-toe sideline landings of his career.

He has looked like a Pro Bowl receiver who's just reaching midseason form.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Green
Patric Schneider/AP PhotoA.J. Green torched the Texans for a career-high 12 receptions, good for 121 yards.
Actually, forget midseason form. On Sunday, he played his best game in a Cincinnati Bengals uniform.

So it really wasn't all that surprising after the 22-13 win over the Houston Texans that he said he felt as good as he has in the last two months.

"The toe is 100 percent," Green said, referencing the toe he originally tweaked during the season opener. "Last week was good, the couple games before that was all right, but now, I have no pain."

It's the last part of his quote that is the most telling: no pain.

Green had been bothered by his right big toe from the moment he landed on it awkwardly in the first quarter of the opener at Baltimore. Although he finished that game, he was unable to make it past six plays the following week. He played again a week after that, and then three weeks later the pain became so unbearable that during the stretching portion of a practice, he stopped, took his shoe off and slammed it down in frustration before getting carted off the field.

Whatever forced the discomfort that time caused Green to miss practices and games the following three weeks. When he returned against Jacksonville in a limited outing three games ago, he looked like a shell of his old self. It still seemed he was getting back into form and trying hard to get his conditioning up again.

In the last two games, he has looked like a completely different player.

"It's felt good just to get back in the groove of things," Green said.

Against the Texans, he caught a career-high 12 passes for 121 yards. He was one reception shy of Carl Pickens' franchise record set in 1998.

"For him to have a performance like he did, that's what we expect from him," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "He's so talented we feel like he matches up with almost anybody so it was big for him to get going."

Green said he didn't face as much press coverage in this game as he has in others this season, including last week's at New Orleans. He felt like he constantly had a cornerback on top of him, or a safety helping up top in that game. Against the Texans, though, cornerbacks routinely backed up and gave him a pre-snap cushion that led to numerous slants and short-yardage receptions he was able to exploit and turn into bigger gains.

In the last two weeks, Green has 18 catches for 248 yards and a touchdown. In the two games before that, his first back from the injury, he caught six passes for 67 yards.

"The fact of the matter is, he's a dominant football player and a great one," veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "We need him to be our J.J. Watt. We need him to dominate people and let them know about it. Not necessarily with talk, but let them know about it with confidence and with that swagger. 'If you want to cover me, then try.' We need him to be that way."
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HOUSTON -- Late November has arrived, and for teams that call cities north of the Mason-Dixon Line home, that means one thing:

"We've got to get our run going."

Credit that quote to Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green who uttered it after Sunday afternoon's 22-13 road win over the Houston Texans.

Like many of his teammates, Green's instant analysis of the victory was this: Cincinnati's offense was back in rhythm.

"The offensive line played great. The running backs played great. Everybody played great," Green added.

He played great, too, catching a career-high 12 passes for 121 yards.

But with the harsh realities of winter looming, Green wasn't thinking much about his performance. He instead was focused on the balance his offense exhibited; balance it will soon need. In two weeks, Mother Nature will force it. Wind, rain and snow could make passing difficult the rest of the year.

Of course, Houston doesn't qualify as one of the aforementioned northern cities, and neither will next week's Bengals locale -- Tampa, Florida. But with their past four games in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, it was a good time to start showing the offense extends beyond Green and quarterback Andy Dalton.

As part of their preparations for December, the Bengals got physical Sunday. No drive better showcased that than the one that led to their first touchdown.

"It was big for the game as far as momentum," rookie running back Jeremy Hill said.

Plain and simple, the first-quarter drive set the right tone.

The series started quite inconsequentially. After the Bengals gained 3 yards on the ground and threw an incomplete pass, it looked like they would open the game with a second straight punt.

But when Mohamed Sanu darted into the middle of the field and caught a 10-yard pass for a first down, the Bengals' most physical and balanced drive of the season began.

Ten plays later, it ended with Sanu muscling his way through a cornerback and into the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown reception.

In between, the Bengals got six runs into the middle of the field from Hill and Giovani Bernard, including back-to-back big gains. One play after Bernard gashed the Texans' interior, sprinting and spinning for 19 yards, Hill picked up 13.

Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said many of those yards were produced by overzealous defensive linemen who were getting out of position.

"They take a lot of chances," Whitworth said of the Texans' front. "A lot of the plays [J.J. Watt] makes are doing stuff you don't normally do in that situation; jumping around a block or those kind of things. So it's feast or famine. When the right team has the right play calling and you do that, it's going to break out."

Mix Hill and Bernard's combined 6 carries for 47 yards with Dalton's 5-for-6, 46-yard showing, and you had a perfectly balanced 94-yard drive.

"We had everything clicking. When you get drives like that, it kind of gives you confidence further into the game and gets a feel, especially for [offensive coordinator] Hue [Jackson] -- he gets a feel for what types of plays are working," Hill said.

As they move forward, the Bengals need more long, balanced drives to continue setting a much-needed physical tone.
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ATLANTA -- Everything you need to know about Josh Gordon’s return from suspension and the Cleveland Browns' plans for him, you can find in a screen pass.

Late in the first quarter, Gordon gained 22 yards on a well-contested screen play that had no business gaining even half of those yards. Brian Hoyer shoots the ball to the left, then Gordon begins to twitch, contort and smash his way through at least three Falcons defenders to set up an Isaiah Crowell touchdown in the first quarter.

It's why Cleveland fights for Gordon after all his troubles; the Browns believe in him, sure. Good kid making bad decisions? Very possibly. But they also know what he can do on that screen pass. He turns bleak options into fruitful ones. That’s why he was here in Atlanta, playing 41 of the Browns’ first 63 offensive snaps despite the team's best efforts during the week to quell expectations on Gordon after he missed 10 games.

Gordon wants to fight for Cleveland, like he fights for those yards on the screen, like Cleveland believes he’s worth fighting for.

“I knew the guys weren't going to quit on me," said Gordon, minutes after his eight-catch performance for 120 yards. "I definitely wasn't going to quit on them."

And the Browns didn’t quit throwing in the direction of Gordon, who was targeted 17 times, equaling 42.5 percent of Hoyer's passing attempts.

That number is a bit startling, even for an elite receiver, since Gordon and Hoyer obviously haven’t found their rhythm yet.

The day was not without its issues. Gordon felt he got pushed in the back by Falcons corner Desmond Trufant on Hoyer’s throw to the back of the end zone with 4:59 left that Trufant picked off. On Hoyer’s third interception of the day, he threw Gordon a go route when Gordon cut toward the sideline. A few more weeks together and they can clean those up.

The Browns’ identity is still running with Crowell and Terrance West -- see Crowell’s shifty second touchdown and you’ll understand -- so the Browns' decision to throw on five of seven downs midway through the fourth, when they were gaining nearly six yards per carry, was curious.

Hoyer is at his best when he’s not asked to throw 40 times. Twenty-five to 28 times is more like it.

That’s why getting this win, and letting the storyline of Gordon’s return dissipate, releases tension the offense might have put on itself to get Gordon the ball. Hoyer never said there was pressure, but you could sense he wanted to let Gordon naturally ease into the offense, which was already working for the team before he arrived, even if it was clear Cleveland needed a game-breaking receiver.

Gordon said it’s “a matter of time” before he regains the form that earned him 1,646 yards in 14 games last year. The athleticism certainly hasn’t left him. That was obvious Sunday.

Gordon’s biggest impact will be how he elevates this offense, regardless of where the ball goes, and how he forces defenses to play. He’ll get his numbers and targets.

“He opened a lot of stuff in the run game by going deep on some passes,” said Crowell, who finished with a team-leading 88 yards. “He really helped me a lot.”

The Browns must find ways to feed Gordon the ball while not compromising what got them this far, a calculated offense that will run the ball 50 times if you dare it to.

Gordon made a point after the game to highlight how far the organization has come. The Browns just avoided a double-digit-loss season for the first time since 2007. The door for general managers and head coaches is not revolving at the moment.

After Billy Cundiff's 37-yarder burst through the uprights, Gordon was seen beating his chest continuously. The Gordon experiment in Cleveland might take time to refine, but his pulse can be found on every play.

“It means the world to me to be back -- not just to be back but to be back with this team,” Gordon said. “I’m going to take advantage of every opportunity I get.”
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ATLANTA -- Forty-four seconds remained in the Georgia Dome on Sunday.

The Atlanta Falcons had just gone ahead by one, turning a brutally bad Brian Hoyer interception into the go-ahead field goal.

That pick was the third of the day for Hoyer, all poor decisions or throws, all leading to him lamenting the fact he had let his team down.

But with 44 seconds left, Hoyer had one last chance.

What was the Cleveland Browns quarterback thinking as he trotted on the field with three timeouts, down one?

“Nothing to lose, really,” he said. “Go out and play the best I can. I’ve already played probably the worst game of my career as it is. Go out and play fearless.”

The worst game of his career included three interceptions and no touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeBrian Hoyer
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBrian Hoyer turned a miserable day (three interceptions, 0 TDs) into a Browns victory with four completions in the final minute.
It included a bad first-half throw on the run to an open Jim Dray that was intercepted.

It included a bad decision on first-and-goal from the 6 as he tried to float a pass in the back of the end zone to Josh Gordon that was intercepted. And it included another bad interception on a misread to Gordon that set up Matt Bryant’s 53-yard field goal that put the Falcons ahead.

“The last one,” Hoyer said, “I thought I lost the game for us.”

Except it didn’t. Because Hoyer didn’t let it.

On the sideline, left tackle Joe Thomas told Hoyer the Browns would drive and win on a field goal. He wasn’t the only believer.

“We didn’t ever think he wouldn’t be able to do it,” Joe Haden said.

“Our faith never wavered,” tight end Gary Barnidge said. “We have complete trust in him. He made a few bad throws, but that happens. That happens to everybody.”

That’s all easy to say after a win of course, but sometimes the key to getting that win is having that belief -- which was buttressed by the fact the Browns had three timeouts.

“If it’s one timeout and 30-some seconds, then it gets a little iffy,” Donte Whitner said.

Atlanta went against what the Browns expected in coverage, and the Browns took advantage. The Falcons brought pressure all game, which opened up throwing lanes in the middle of the field. Instead of playing protect and forcing the Browns to take short throws, they continued to pressure on the final possession.

After a first-down incompletion, Hoyer threw in the face of the blitz to Miles Austin for 11 yards on an out route.

After a timeout, Hoyer stepped up and to the right to avoid pressure from Kroy Biermann and found Gordon for the throw that brought hope to life -- a 24-yard gain to the Atlanta 45. It was catch No. 8 on the day for Gordon in his first game back from a 10-game suspension.

“I know those guys weren’t going to quit on me,” Gordon said, “so I made sure I wasn’t the one who was going to quit on them.”

After the second timeout, Hoyer found Barnidge over the middle for a catch between Dwight Lowery and Kemal Ishmael for 15 yards. Barnidge has made many big catches this season -- against New Orleans especially -- and keeps coming through in clutch circumstances.

“I appreciate him having the trust to throw it,” Barnidge said.

With 16 seconds left, the Browns could have tried a 47-yard field goal, but chose to run one more play, even though they used their last timeout after Barnidge’s catch.

Austin lined up alongside Barnidge, who drove upfield and took coverage with him. Austin cut underneath and caught Hoyer’s throw for 11 yards to the 19. He quickly got to the ground, which allowed the Browns to line and spike the ball to stop clock with five seconds left.

“We have worked that situation,” coach Mike Pettine said.

Hoyer, though, said the team worked on it last week for the first time in a month. Timing sometimes can be everything.

Billy Cundiff’s game-winner from 37 yards went inside the left upright as time expired.

It was a game of missed opportunities, mistakes, ebb and flow and two field goals in the final 49 seconds. But it was a game that the Browns in the past would lose.

This group didn’t, in part thanks to its perseverance as a whole, and in big part thanks to its quarterback’s ability to grind through a tough game and come through in the end (4-of-6 on the game-winning drive with a spike).

His effort might not have been good enough against some teams, but it was against Atlanta.

Sometimes they happen that way.
ATLANTA -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cleveland Browns' 26-24 win against the Atlanta Falcons:

Gipson
Serious injury: Free safety Tashaun Gipson had been one of the defense's best players this season, but his season may have ended on a freak collision with Joe Haden in the fourth quarter. Gipson left the locker room on crutches, his right knee heavily wrapped. Replays of the completely unintentional collision with Haden showed Gipson's knee bending at an awkward angle. Based on the collision and the way Gipson looked when he left the locker room, his injury is a very serious one.

Tackle of the game: Joe Thomas may have had the quote of the season about the tackle of the game -- when guard Joel Bitonio tracked down Devin Hester and tackled him on a missed field goal return at the end of the half (with help from Spencer Lanning, who slowed up Hester). "That was the most amazing play I've ever seen on a football field," Thomas told a group of media after the game that included the Akron Beacon Journal and Elyria Chronicle. "Because it was like David and Goliath. Hall of Fame, greatest kick returner of all time vs. slow, fat, left guard rookie. And the guy makes the tackle. Unbelievable." The first person to scamper across the field and congratulate Bitonio: defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin.

Missed chances: Players study and set up plays for certain opportunities, and Donte Whitner had his in the first quarter. Whitner perfectly read a pass from Matt Ryan, broke on the ball and had a touchdown in front of him, but he didn't handle it. His explanation shows the detail that goes into team preparation, and how the Browns missed several opportunities to put the game away early. "I knew the route was coming," Whitner said. "Studied it all week. Whenever Hester goes in motion and [the] No. 3 [receiver] drives across, that route was coming. I've been waiting on that and I got my opportunity and didn't capitalize."
HOUSTON -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Cincinnati Bengals' 22-13 win against the Houston Texans:

Jersey goes to dad: After exorcising one of his latest demons -- finally winning a game near his hometown -- Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton concluded his postgame news conference with an interesting gesture. As he stepped from the lectern, he grabbed his neatly folded, grass-stained, game-worn jersey and autographed it with the score and the date before giving it to his father, Greg. A native of nearby Katy, Texas, Andy Dalton was 0-2 in Houston before Sunday. In the win, he was 24-for-35 for 233 yards and a touchdown and an interception.

Kirkpatrick
Packing it up: An exuberant Dre Kirkpatrick was one of the first Bengals dressed after the game. Inside NRG Stadium's rather spacious visitors locker room, the third-year cornerback walked toward his locker and shouted with joy as he tried to get his teammates to speed along the changing and packing process. "Let's pack this thing up and go home, boys!" The Bengals have now won two straight road games ahead of a third next week at Tampa Bay.

Cincy's own Watt: While the typically effective J.J. Watt was slowed across the final three quarters by backup offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse, the Bengals still respect the defensive end's dominating style of play. Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth respected it so much that he believes it's time the Bengals start seeing their own version of Watt in receiver A.J. Green. "The fact of the matter is, he's a dominant football player and a great one. We need him to be our J.J. Watt," Whitworth said of Green. "We need him to dominate people and let them know about it. Not necessarily with talk, but let them know about it with confidence and that swagger. 'If you want to cover me, then try.' We need him to be that way." Green caught 12 passes for 121 yards Sunday.

Rapid Reaction: Cleveland Browns

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
4:16
PM ET
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ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Cleveland Browns' 26-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome:

What it means: This one falls into the category of emotionally draining and incredible. The Browns seemed to lose the game seven different ways on Sunday, but Brian Hoyer completed passes to Josh Gordon, Gary Barnidge and Miles Austin to set up Billy Cundiff’s last-play game winner. As bad as this loss would have been to the Browns, the win has to be huge.

Stock watch: Hoyer, anyone? After a game with mistakes aplenty -- including some of his own that were really bad -- Hoyer remained calm when it mattered. With the crowd at its most deafening, Hoyer completed throw after throw to put the Browns in position for Cundiff's winning kick. Hoyer did not have a great game with three interceptions. But he won, and that matters most.

Makes sense: When the Browns went to their two rookie running backs, coach Mike Pettine attributed it in part to the fact that they were more explosive than Ben Tate, whom the team released last week. In the win over the Falcons, Isaiah Crowell showed what Pettine meant. On both of his TD runs, he showed burst, quickness and elusiveness.

Game saver? For reasons that may be difficult to explain, Pettine twice tried a 60-yard field goal to end the first half. Cundiff was short on the first try (the Falcons called a timeout), but that allowed Pettine to see that the Falcons had all-time great returner Devin Hester back to return a missed kick. Instead of switching to a Hail Mary or simple kneel-down, Pettine tried the field goal again. And Hester nearly brought it back for what could have been a crippling touchdown. But the Browns were saved when punter Spencer Lanning slowed Hester down enough for guard Joel Bitonio to make the tackle. It was a tremendous effort by Bitonio, a smart play by Lanning and not Pettine’s wisest decision.

Game ball: At one point in his football life, Cundiff thought his career was over. Sunday he stood calm and poised in giving the Browns a heart-stopping 26-24 victory over Atlanta. Cundiff’s winning kick was never in doubt, and he gets the game ball over several others who could have gotten it -- including Hoyer (for the winning drive) and Crowell (two touchdowns).

What’s next: The Browns will play the Bills next weekend, but whether the game is in Buffalo or another locale remains to be seen as the Buffalo community continues to dig out from the relentless snowstorm that hit last week.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

November, 23, 2014
Nov 23
4:06
PM ET
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HOUSTON -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 22-13 victory over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium:

What it means: Two years ago, the Bengals won seven of their last eight games to get into the playoffs. Last year, they went 4-1 in December to also reach the postseason. So with all that in mind, what did Sunday's win, one week after another victory in front of another hostile crowd, mean? It meant that maybe the Bengals aren't the inconsistent club they have been most of this season. Perhaps they're just a good late-season team? If you had told the Bengals before the season that they would go 2-0 in back-to-back weeks at New Orleans and Houston, they'd have taken it. As part of one of their more difficult parts of the schedule, it seemed the Bengals would be lucky to earn a split in these two games. But they now have a second straight win and are 7-3-1.

Stock watch: Linebacker Rey Maualuga's stock continues trending upward after six tackles and an interception Sunday. His presence has clearly had a positive impact on the Bengals' defense. After missing four games with a serious hamstring injury, Maualuga returned last Sunday at New Orleans. In each of the seven previous games, the Bengals had allowed opposing offenses to rush for 100 yards or more. In these past two games, the Bengals haven't allowed a team to gain more than 74 yards on the ground. Even if Maualuga isn't the one recording the tackles, he is moving teammates into the right running lanes and gaps that stop ball carriers quickly.

Newhouse hangs tough: Although he didn't do enough to earn a game ball, you have to credit Bengals right tackle Marshall Newhouse for hanging tough given the harrowing circumstances in which he entered the game. Newhouse was forced into action in the first quarter after starting right tackle Andre Smith left with a left arm injury -- he got tangled up with defensive end J.J. Watt while trying to block a pass that Watt swatted. Charged with blocking Watt, Newhouse held the right edge pocket just long enough that the all-world lineman was held in check late in the game.

Game ball: Although the Bengals had a relatively balanced game plan offensively -- running 43 times and passing 35 -- they spent a good portion of the afternoon going to receiver A.J. Green, who nearly set a franchise record in catches. Green caught 12 passes, one shy of the record 13 that Carl Pickens had in a game in 1998. Green's 12 catches also set a career high, passing his previous high of 11 that he set last Halloween at Miami. While Green's receptions were spread throughout the game, his best sequence came on the Bengals' second drive, when he caught three passes for 27 yards on four targets. His final catch of that series put the Bengals into goal-line territory ahead of their first score of the game.

What's next? Cincinnati's great November road swing ends next Sunday when the Bengals travel to Tampa Bay for the last of a three-game stretch away from Paul Brown Stadium. The Buccaneers lead the all-time series 7-3 and haven't lost in the past six meetings. The last time the Bengals beat the Buccaneers was in 1989, the last year Cincinnati went to the Super Bowl.
ATLANTA -- The Cleveland Browns worked all week to quell expectations for Josh Gordon, but Pro Bowl players tend to find their way onto the field.

Gordon
Gordon
Based on an unofficial snap count (stress: unofficial), Gordon played 25 of the Browns’ 36 offensive snaps in the first half Sunday against the Falcons, or 69.4 percent. During the week, Browns coach Mike Pettine stressed he didn't want to give Gordon too much, too soon, noting that getting into football shape takes time. Gordon missed the first 10 games of the season after failing a drug test.

Gordon isn't looking too rusty after one half of play, leading the team with 70 yards on four catches, taking a pair of screen passes for 22 and 19 yards. On the first series, Gordon played for three snaps, sat for two, then returned as a target on a deep passing attempt from Brian Hoyer.

Look for more of the same from Gordon in the second half -- a heavy workload in a crucial game that the Falcons led 14-13 at the half.
HOUSTON -- As they welcome running back Giovani Bernard back to the fold, the Cincinnati Bengals will be down two receivers on Sunday against the Houston Texans.

Dane Sanzenbacher and Greg Little were healthy scratches before the game at NRG Stadium, joining the likes of injured defenders Vontaze Burfict and Margus Hunt. On Friday, coach Marvin Lewis said Burfict was "progressing" from arthroscopic knee injury he had three weeks ago. After he went through some conditioning and rehab exercises on the side of Bengals practices earlier in the week, Burfict seemed to show signs of possibly returning next week at Tampa Bay.

Hunt hurt his right ankle at the end of the first quarter in New Orleans last week. He spent part of the week on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

This is the first time this season the Bengals will be without two receivers, but Little and Sanzenbacher have alternated inactive status in each of the last three weeks. Sanzenbacher didn't suit up for the Jacksonville and Cleveland games earlier this month, and Little wasn't part of last week's game against the Saints.

This means A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Tate and James Wright will get playing time at receiver. The Bengals also are hopeful to integrate tight ends Jermaine Gresham, Kevin Brock and Ryan Hewitt into the passing game. Bernard also could get into the slot or become flanked out at receiver at times, too, as he returns for the first time in three weeks. Bernard had been a key receiving asset for the Bengals before multiple injuries sidelined him. Through seven games, he has 22 catches for 179 yards.

Cincinnati's only lineup change due to the inactives concerns linebacker Vincent Rey, who will play in place of Burfict once again.

On the Houston side, keep an eye on running back Alfred Blue, who is expected to take over for Arian Foster (groin) who also was declared inactive for Sunday's game. Foster came out before warm-ups and ran sprints across the width of the field as he tried to work through the injury. It doesn't appear he got the results he had been hoping for.

Here is the full list of inactives from Houston:

Bengals inactives
WR Dane Sanzenbacher
RB Rex Burkhead
CB Chris Lewis-Harris
LB Vontaze Burfict
OT Tanner Hawkinson
WR Greg Little
DE Margus Hunt

Texans inactives
QB Tom Savage
WR DeVier Posey
RB Arian Foster
CB Kareem Jackson
S Josh Aubrey
LB Max Bullough
OT Jeff Adams
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens cornerback Asa Jackson practiced for the first time since injuring his toe in October, and coach John Harbaugh is hopeful that Jackson will be ready to play in the team's Dec. 7 game at Miami.

Jackson
Jackson had started four games before he severely sprained his toe in a loss at Indianapolis in Week 5. He was put on the short-term injured reserve list, and this week was the first time he was eligible to return to practice.

With Jackson practicing Friday, it starts a 21-day window when the Ravens must decide to activate him to the 53-man roster or shut him down for the season. Harbaugh said it was an encouraging sign.

"It's good to see him out there," Harbaugh said. "It's good to know he's now basically been activated to prepare."

Getting back Jackson would be a boost for a Ravens secondary that lost its best cornerback, Jimmy Smith, for the season. But Jackson is considered the Ravens' third-worst player on defense this season, according to Pro Football Focus. In five games, he allowed 22 catches and missed five tackles.

"I'm not sure how he looked [Friday]. We didn't have him in to many of the main drills today," Harbaugh said. "So I'll have to watch the tape and talk to the some of the guys that worked with him in more of the individual drills."
BEREA, Ohio -- It’s time flip the prism on the return of Josh Gordon on Sunday in Atlanta.

So far it’s been viewed from the on-field perspective, what Gordon can bring as a player. But Gordon has this opportunity in part because the Cleveland Browns stood by him.

Gordon
Gordon
There is validity in saying the Browns supported Gordon because of his immense talent. Had he been released when word of his year-long suspension first broke, someone would have signed him -- eventually.

The Browns easily could have gotten fed up and released Gordon, especially after his DUI arrest in the offseason that followed news of his failed drug test, which followed a 2013 season when he was suspended for the first two games. Hall of Famer Cris Carter was crying out that Gordon needed to be released.

The Browns never wavered, though. They challenged Gordon privately and publicly, but stood by him for months. He took part in training camp, played in preseason games and practiced with his teammates -- with the team well aware Gordon might lose a significant part, if not all, of the season while his case was being appealed.

They kept him around, tried to set up a program to help him.

At this point, Gordon owes not just something to himself and his team on his return, but also to his organization.

He conceded as much during his media gaggle Wednesday.

“There are a lot of people that I feel I owe that to: family members, friends, people that felt more embarrassed about it than the city of Cleveland,” he said. “As much as they are, the people close to me feel it harder than anybody. I feel as though I owe them, as well as the Browns.”

The way he’d like to repay the faith?

“By performing well,” Gordon said.

That means being himself. It was actually good to hear him say he wouldn’t put forth any extra effort or something inane like that. Because doing so implies he wasn’t doing his best in the past.

If Gordon goes out and is himself, he’ll be doing just fine (understatement alert).

And if he’s just fine, he’ll be remembering what the team did for him, and paying things forward.
BEREA, Ohio -- Quarterback Brian Hoyer is not making NFL starter's money -- at least not yet -- but cementing the Browns job for the entire 2014 season would earn him a hearty bump that would go nicely under his Christmas tree.

According to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan, the six-year pro has an escalator in his contract once he hits a snap threshold.

Here's more from Caplan:
Hoyer
Hoyer will earn an additional $2.05 million this season if he handles at least 70 percent of the offensive snaps, a league source told ESPN.

Hoyer has taken all but five of the offensive snaps (684 out of 689) through the team's first 10 games. Rookie QB Johnny Manziel handled the other snaps.

If Hoyer handles all of the offensive snaps on the road this week against the Atlanta Falcons and just a minimal amount during next Sunday's game against the host Buffalo Bills, he'll hit the 70 percent number.

In addition to his $1 million base salary, Hoyer earned a $250,000 roster bonus, which brings his total compensation to $1.25 million. Because he was on the opening day roster, Hoyer's base salary, as a vested veteran, became fully guaranteed.

This doesn't push Hoyer into starters-money category, but it gets him closer to a high-end backup clip. Neither amount will deter him from trying to get much more as a free agent in March, perhaps forcing the Browns to decide between a reliable starter or first-round pick Johnny Manziel.

Maybe the Browns will strike a comfortable bridge deal that compensates Hoyer but still keeps hope alive for Manziel as a long-term option. There's always the franchise tag, worth around $18 million for quarterbacks.

Until that decision, Hoyer gets a little extra cash to spend.
CINCINNATI -- A quick update on two of the Cincinnati Bengals' more enigmatic injuries.

 Coach Marvin Lewis said after Friday's practice that tight end Tyler Eifert and linebacker Vontaze Burfict are both "progressing" and making strides to return this season.

Burfict appears to have the best chance of playing soon after going through rehab and conditioning work off to the side of Bengals practices this week. If he practices next Wednesday, it seems likely he would return the following Sunday when Cincinnati visits Tampa Bay. If for whatever reason next week doesn't end up working, he should be on schedule to return seven days later when the Bengals host the Steelers.

Burfict underwent arthroscopic knee surgery at the end of last month. It forced him to miss the past three games, and he will be out a fourth Sunday when the Bengals travel to Houston.

As for Eifert, exactly when he will return to the practice fields is a guess. He's been around the team but hasn't worked out since dislocating his right elbow reaching for extra yards at the end of a catch in the season opener at Baltimore. Originally, Eifert was placed on the short-term injured reserve, designated to return nine weeks later. Now 11 weeks have passed, and he still hasn't practiced.

Lewis was asked again Friday if there was a chance Eifert would return this season, and the coach said yes. It was the second time in a week that he acknowledged that Eifert should be back in the fold.

At this rate, though, it could be the within the final three weeks of the regular season before he gets back into the playing rotation. He still has yet to go through the stage of conditioning Burfict was working through this week. And given the amount of time off Eifert has had, he could require more than one week to get back to in enough of playing shape to contribute.

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