CINCINNATI -- Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said he had to somewhere to be on Monday morning when approached by reporters. Several players said they would talk later in the week. Many of the other players made themselves scarce during the open locker room period.
It's Steelers week in Cincinnati.
If the team is more tense than usual, there's good reason for it. Though the players were full of confidence after two straight wins before the bye, there's now a new sense of urgency. Beat the Steelers, and the Bengals are back to .500 with a shot at the AFC North title. Lose, and they would fall further behind in the divisional race and maintain a streak of losing records that dates to Week 1 of the 2016 season.
The Bengals need to finish what they couldn't last season. About this time last season, the Bengals were 2-3 with an opportunity to get out of the losing column against the Cowboys. Instead, they lost 28-14 and never quite recovered, falling to 2-4 before ultimately finishing 6-9-1.
The Bengals have preached being "closers" all season, with defensive coordinator Paul Guenther even playing "Closing Time" prior to the team's win against the Bills to emphasize his point. Now they need to close out a game against a division rival that they have not beaten since the 2015 season.
The Steelers (4-2) are in first place in the division and the Bengals sit in third. The Bengals can't get to first place with a win, but they can gain some ground this week. With a three-game road stretch coming up against the Jaguars (3-3), Titans (3-3) and Broncos (3-2), the Bengals have a difficult back half of the schedule and need all the momentum they can get.
A win would also go a long way to proving the Bengals' recent turnaround is more than a fluke. They built up some nice momentum with two wins before the bye, but it will mean little if they can't clear the Pittsburgh hurdle this season. The Bengals are 8-20, including playoffs, against the Steelers in the Marvin Lewis era.
This is where the Bengals are going to have to expect more out of their offense. The Bengals defense (No. 2 in points allowed, No. 2 in yards allowed, No. 2 in passing yards allowed) has carried them so far, but the Steelers' defense is nearly as good statistically. The Steelers have the No. 1 ranked passing defense and rank No. 3 in yards allowed and No. 4 in average points allowed.
However, the Steelers have shown their run defense (No. 23 overall), can be exploited. In their two losses this season -- against the Jaguars and Bears-- those teams rushed for a combined 453 yards, courtesy of young running backs Jordan Howard and Leonard Fournette.
The Bengals need to do what they couldn't do in their last trip to Pittsburgh-- figure out how to run the ball effectively. In that last game, which came in Week 2 of the 2016 season, they rushed for only 46 yards in a loss. Since then, they've added rookie running back Joe Mixon, but the run game still hasn't gotten off the ground.
Getting Mixon going again might be one of the keys to figuring out how to get past Pittsburgh this season. Mixon finally scored the Bengals' first rushing touchdown of the season against the Bills, and they'll need to build off that. Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said last week that it's a start.
"I think right now they believe they can be good," Lazor said. "And I think that's a starting point. I think they believe in each other and maybe some of it has to do with what we're doing or calling but I think more of it is, if they believe they can make it work, then that helps me not make as many bad calls. I think on the sideline it feels to me that they believe. I didn't see anybody flinch."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- John Harbaugh said the Baltimore Ravens remain "in the hunt" even after falling back to .500 on the season.
But, following an upset loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, one has to ask: What exactly are the Ravens in the hunt for?
Baltimore (3-3) has a better shot at landing a high draft pick than reaching the postseason, according to ESPN Analytics. With 10 games remaining, the Ravens have a 35.4 percent chance of getting a top-10 draft pick and a 29.5 percent chance of earning a playoff berth.
"We're going to need to go more than .500 the rest of the way to accomplish what we want to accomplish," Harbaugh said. "We need to get about 10 wins. So, we need to find a way to put wins together."
Getting those 10 victories is going to be a challenge for the Ravens, who sit one game back of the first-place Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. Baltimore is currently projected to win eight games.
The Ravens are considered to be heavy favorites in four of their remaining games: home against Miami, Indianapolis and Cincinnati and at Cleveland. They are decided underdogs in four games: at Minnesota, Tennessee, Green Bay and Pittsburgh. The swing games are home against Houston and Detroit, which could determine whether the Ravens return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
"We have to look at ourselves hard and look at ourselves as the reason that we are 3-3 and just correct what we can and move forward," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It does not feel good. Obviously, losses are going to affect you in a certain way, but we have to keep our head down and keep going."
Baltimore has been sputtering since winning the Super Bowl in 2012. The Ravens have a record of 34-36 (.486) after hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans, and those middle-of-the-road performances have continued this year.
The Ravens' 2017 season began with resounding wins at Cincinnati and at home against Cleveland. Baltimore followed that up by getting routed in London by the Jaguars and at home by the rival Steelers.
It looked like the Ravens had turned their season around by winning at Oakland. But Baltimore came home and fell to a one-win Chicago team that was going with a rookie quarterback in his first road start.
For every confident step forward, there's been a deflating one backward.
"There’s nothing more disappointing in the world than mediocrity," linebacker Terrell Suggs said.
Mediocrity has been the theme of this season in the NFL. The Ravens are one of seven teams in the league at 3-3.
On the positive side, Baltimore is a half-game or one game back of five teams in the AFC. Then again, the Ravens are a half-game away from being among the 10 worst teams in the league.
"Spinning your wheels right now, being .500, is in the hunt. We are very much in it," Harbaugh said. "We need to find a way to win games. That is really what it boils down to."
The Ravens have lost three of their past four games and head to play at the Minnesota Vikings (4-2), who have won three times in the past four weeks.
At this point, the Ravens have a 7 percent chance of winning the AFC North and an 8.8 percent chance of getting a top-five pick. Their projected chances at making the Super Bowl are 0.6 percent.
"If you want to be a great team and a great defense, leaders have to make sure that everybody’s in the right mindset," Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley said after falling to the Bears. "Everybody has to hold themselves accountable. You need to figure out what you need to improve on. We’ve got to move on because it’s still a long season. One loss doesn’t end our season."
Ross spent most of the summer recovering from labrum surgery that limited him to short appearances in the final two preseason games. Shortly into the fourth preseason game against the Colts, he tweaked his knee. That same knee has bothered him all season, putting Ross on the injury report during the Bengals’ tumultuous start.
“I just think I was pushing it," Ross said. "That’s probably a lot on my end not communicating. I just wanted to get out there to try to prove myself. It’s a young mentality. Now I’m in a better state of mind and definitely treating it better as far as what I should be doing as opposed to what I think they want.”
Ross has played only five offensive snaps, all of which came in Week 2. That's fewer than any other first-round pick this year, with the exception of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who hasn't been needed with Alex Smith entrenched at the starting position.
There's a possibility Ross finally could get back on the field soon. He practiced on Monday after spending weeks doing work on the rehab field. But Bengals coach Marvin Lewis warned last week that Ross was going to need time after being out for so long.
“Whenever John Ross comes out there, looks like everybody else and I watch him practice, we’ll have an idea. We’ll see whether or not he deserves to dress," Lewis said during his bye week press conference.
"He’s not been out with the football team enough. He needs a lot of time and a lot of practice. That’s important. That’s probably as important as getting back healthy where he can begin to practice football again. He needs that. We have to get back to that point first.”
It would not be a surprise to see the Bengals take the cautious route with Ross after the choppy start to his NFL career. Ross said he was doing a lot during Monday's practice, but has not progressed to 11-on-11 drills yet. The Bengals did not release a Monday practice report, but Ross likely would have been listed as limited if they had.
“I’ve always kind of felt pretty good, but I think it’s smart to not rush back into things, especially being in the NFL," Ross said. "It’s a long season. In college you rush back, it’s a shorter season. I’ve always kind of been feeling pretty good, but definitely wanted to make sure I was in a better position to where I can get out there and do more than what my leg was letting me do.”
Ross implied that it would be all or nothing if he did suit up, meaning that it seems unlikely he would come in for just a play or two on Sunday.
"That’s one thing we all talked about. They don’t want to do that to anyone. They don’t want to have guys come in for these certain things or anything," Ross said. "It was more ‘learn everything and once you do, you’ll get more reps.’ And that’s obvious for any guy."
With Tyler Boyd nursing a knee injury, the Bengals could be down to five receivers against the Steelers on Sunday if Ross isn't able to go. That would mean that rookie Josh Malone likely would be active for the first time. Malone has been a healthy scratch all season in favor of Cody Core and Alex Erickson.
"If they give me the green light, I’m not going to say no, I’m just waiting on what they have to say," Ross said.
BALTIMORE -- Bobby Rainey summed it up the best after the Baltimore Ravens lost to the Chicago Bears in overtime Sunday despite recording a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in the same game for the first time in franchise history.
"It’s odd, but that’s the way it went," said Rainey, who returned a kickoff 96 yards in the 27-24 loss. "Usually you think you’re going to win the game when special teams comes up big. We got two scores in the end to tie the game up, but it didn’t go our way. We have to come in next week and deal with that."
Rainey is right. Entering Week 6, teams who had scored multiple touchdowns on special teams over the past 10 seasons were 18-3. That's an .857 winning percentage.
Losing under those circumstances is a reflection of how poorly Baltimore played in the other facets of the game. The only times the Ravens reached the end zone against Chicago were on Rainey's fortunate score (many thought he was down by contact before he got up and scored) and on Michael Campanaro's game-tying 77-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Baltimore is just the third team in the past 10 seasons to have multiple special-teams touchdowns in a game without scoring an offensive touchdown, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The others were the Minnesota Vikings in 2012 and the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014.
Rainey's return came in his first regular-season game of 2017 and bested his previous long kickoff return by 57 yards. His touchdown followed Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky's 27-yard touchdown pass and got Baltimore within 17-10 in the third quarter.
Campanaro's punt return -- the eighth longest in Ravens history -- helped tie the game at 24 with 1:37 left in regulation. In overtime, Baltimore got the ball at its own 40-yard line and only needed to get two first downs to move into range for a winning field goal by Justin Tucker. But the Ravens went three-and-out, punted and watched the Bears drive down the field for the winning field goal.
"It’s tough. I mean, we had all the momentum going into overtime, and then to get the ball back around midfield, we’re expecting to drive down, kick the field goal, score a touchdown and win it," Campanaro said. "We just have to execute better, and we have to make that play, and we will. We’re just going to get back to work, keep working hard, go back to practice and just keep improving."
BALTIMORE -- The difference between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers is one game in the AFC North standings. On a wild Sunday, what truly separated the two AFC North rivals was a pair of good hands.
The Ravens (3-3) fell to the one-win Chicago Bears at home because they continually dropped the ball. The Steelers (4-2) upset the last remaining unbeaten team in Kansas City because of a crazy grab by Antonio Brown on a twice-deflected throw.
It's only Week 6 and it's difficult to imagine the Ravens overtaking the Steelers, namely due to playmakers. Baltimore lost to Chicago -- which had lost 10 straight road games, came off a short week after playing on Monday night and went with a rookie quarterback making his first road start -- because no one stepped up on offense. Pittsburgh's biggest problem is having too many game-changers and keeping Brown and Le'Veon Bell involved.
With Jeremy Maclin inactive and Breshad Perriman hurt, Baltimore had no wide receiver take control of a game the Ravens were favored to win by seven points. The Ravens simply dropped the ball against the Bears (2-4). To be more accurate, the Ravens dropped, dropped, dropped, dropped and dropped the ball.
There were five critical drops, the most drops by a team in Week 6. Two of them led to game-changing interceptions and 14 points for the Bears.
This time, you can't put all the blame on quarterback Joe Flacco and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, the most popular fall guys. Flacco can't make Perriman hold on to the ball when it hits him in the hands. Mornhinweg can't help it when Chris Moore lets the pass ricochet off his shoulder.
"I don’t really want to get into what's disappointing and what's not disappointing," coach John Harbaugh said when asked about the failure of his young receivers to produce. "You want to see guys step up and play well. You want to see guys make plays. Offensively, we want to score points and we want first downs. That's what we're shooting for, and that's what we’re working for. We're certainly capable of it. We need to get it going."
Baltimore's day got off to a bad start when Maclin, who was questionable with a shoulder injury, was scratched from the game. Then Perriman, Maclin's replacement, was knocked out of the game in the second quarter when he suffered a concussion.
Without Maclin and Perriman, Baltimore was left with one proven receiver (Mike Wallace) and three question marks. Moore, Michael Campanaro and Chris Matthews had a combined eight catches in the first five games.
The deflection off Moore in the fourth quarter resulted in a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown. Campanaro dropped a third-down pass in the second quarter that would've extended a drive. And Matthews would've had a touchdown if he didn't trip over his own feet in the end zone.
"We've just got to focus in," Campanaro said. "That's just repetition; that's practice. I mean, we're catching passes every day in practice. It's just got to translate over to the games. Those are plays as receivers we can't have, we can't make."
As a result, this marked only the fourth home game in Harbaugh's 10 seasons as coach that Baltimore failed to score an offensive touchdown.
"You keep doing everything you can, no matter what happened in the past," said Flacco, who was 24-of-41 for 180 yards. "Everybody always says -- and it is a bit cliché -- about putting it behind it you and moving on to the next one, but it is what you have to do. It is easier said than done, but it is what we have to do, and I think we have the guys that can do it."
Jackson on Sunday repeated a promise he vowed last January, when he said the Cleveland Browns in 2017 would not have another season like they had in 2016. If they did, Jackson said, people would find him in the lake, i.e. Lake Erie.
A year ago the Browns were 1-15, a team worst, and did not get their first win until game 15.
This season they have started 0-6 after Sunday’s 33-17 blowout loss in Houston. They are a team regressing as opposed to progressing.
“We’ve got 10 more games,” Jackson said. “We’re going to find a way to win. I am not swimming in that lake. So you guys can believe that. We’re going to find a way. It’s just that simple.”
“This team is not gonna quit, and Hue Jackson is not quitting,” he said. “I told you guys that before. I understand the narrative that’s going to be said, everything that’s going to be written. I really don’t care. I care about the men in that room, those coaches and those players.
“And we’re going to find a way to win.”
Jackson’s phrasings have taken life in Cleveland. From “trust me” on the drafting of Cody Kessler, to “by hook or by crook we’re going to get this done” before the 2016 season, to “I will be swimming in the lake” if 2017 is as bad as 2016, to saying DeShone Kizer “has a huge future” in Cleveland after he had benched him against Houston.
As for the move with Kizer, Jackson wound up benching the quarterback he picked to start the season for a backup, Kevin Hogan, making his first start (who wound up throwing three interceptions with a rating of 38.1), while the guy the Browns could have drafted (Deshaun Watson) was setting records while leading his team to a win.
By all indications, Jackson will go back to Kizer for Sunday’s game against Tennessee. Jackson said he wanted Kizer to see the game from a different lens in hopes it might help him.
But the lingering question remains: When will the Browns get a win? The way they have played, there is no evident answer on the schedule. A winless season is on the table.
When problems arise, the old saying is that a person or persons have to hit rock bottom before they start to turn things around.
“I’m not going to let it get to rock bottom,” Jackson said. “Just like I told the team, it’s not fun. It doesn't feel good. It’s horrible. But this is the hand we’re playing with. The only guys -- I’m going to say it again every week -- the only guys that can fix it are the guys in the room.
“What we got to do is stick together, hold each other up, hold each other accountable. That’s what we’re gonna do.”
Jamar Taylor echoed the strong-spine attitude.
“We know where we’re at right now,” Taylor said. “But it’s like, are guys going to step up, are we going to battle, or are we going to put our heads down and just let this kind of continue to be the same thing? We’re going to really kind of see how everybody is as a person. We just want people that are going to battle with us.”
Which sounds all well and good, except there’s no ready avenue for the Browns to turn to in order to solve their issues.
The Browns are 1-21 the last two seasons, and rather than playing like a group of young players growing together, they play like a group that is simply young and overmatched -- at numerous positions.
While teams like the Bills, Jets and Bears are competing and winning while they build, the Browns are winless in 2017 and their litany of struggles and concerns could go on and on.
“We’ve got to find a way,” Jackson said. “I’ve got to find a solution for the men in that room and our coaches to find a way to win. And that’s all we’re chasing.
“That’s all we have to do. That’s what we have to do.”
PITTSBURGH -- An imposing performance in Kansas City made Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell the first offensive tandem with 700 yards apiece through six games since individual stats were first recorded in 1933, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
That's an insane stat, and a tangible reminder that those two are talented enough to push the Pittsburgh Steelers toward, into and possibly through the playoffs.
But coming out of Kansas City, the Steelers still need more help in the passing game to have a balanced attack, and Martavis Bryant's trade request complicates matters.
Early indications are the Steelers do not plan to trade Bryant, according to sources. He still has value to them and is on an affordable rookie contract for two more years. And Bryant himself has quelled concerns with a tweet to Steelers faithful on Sunday night.
But the unhappiness with his role in the offense had been bubbling under the surface for a few weeks. It's something the Steelers have to address by clearly defining his role.
Watching Bryant practice, he looks as explosive as he did two years ago, plus 10 pounds heavier. He is too valuable an asset to waste. But Bryant and Ben Roethlisberger have been just slightly off, and the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster has decreased Bryant's snaps slightly.
Even so, Sunday's game plan was a sound one: dominate the line of scrimmage with the running game, let Brown do his thing and spread the field with Bryant and Smith-Schuster, who had three targets apiece.
"Third-and-short opens up the playbook," Bell said.
Bryant's talent merits more targets, and on the game's first drive he got open deep, but Roethlisberger was sacked. The Steelers got Bryant going north-to-south with what Bell called "quick slants" and plays up the middle instead of go balls and screens.
Bryant might be most valuable when the Steelers are running the ball well because of his vertical presence.
"Martavis is such a deep ball guy in the threat of it," Roethlisberger said. "He had a big catch there coming across the field. Really, we've got weapons we can kind of utilize and I liked what everybody did tonight."
Roethlisberger added that he wants to see Vance McDonald, who made a key third-down catch over the middle, get more involved in the passing game. The lineup appears set -- Jesse James and McDonald splitting tight end work with Smith-Schuster as the inside-and-out, intermediate playmaker, Bryant the vertical option and Eli Rogers in relief.
A big theme with the Steelers' season has been whether they can keep all their playmakers happy. Obviously, the answer is no. But losses to the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars showed the Steelers aren't good enough to worry about such problems. They have to find creative ways to win each week.
The difference between a fringe playoff team and a real contender is having reliable playmakers outside of Bell and Brown. The Steelers still are counting on Bryant to help with that cause.
Brown's wild, game-clinching touchdown bounced off Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines' hands and head and into Browns' arms, who did the rest for a sideline-streaking, 51-yard score with 3 minutes, 24 seconds left. Brown's description of how he got the ball was as miraculous as the play itself.
"Called God and asked him," he said.
After weeks of anthem drama, Gatorade-cooler drama and does-the-QB-still-have-it drama, the Steelers put it all to sleep by defeating the Chiefs 19-13, and looking like themselves again behind Le'Veon Bell's staggering 179 yards and a late-game sack by James Harrison.
The Chiefs' 5-0 start didn't faze the Steelers, who liked this matchup to start the week. They felt their offensive line could win up front on Kansas City's 20th-ranked rushing defense and let Bell exhaust the defense. Roethlisberger had won five straight against Kansas City and getting a sixth would calm the storylines about his poor play.
"I guess this old cowboy's got a little bit left in him," Roethlisberger said when asked if he had a told-you-so response coming off his five-interception performance in Week 5 against Jacksonville.
But the Steelers didn't need vintage Big Ben -- at least not Sunday. They needed steady Roethlisberger, which they got. The Steelers had a stingy defense that allowed one first down in the first half. And they had Bell, who was right when he said last week that dedicating to the run is "a formula for winning."
That's how this team won last year, and that's mostly how it'll win this year.
Need evidence that Bell is all the way back? Five of Bell's first 19 carries went for 10 yards or more. The Steelers utilized pulling guards and two-tight end sets to spring Bell open on the perimeter, giving him the chance to work the outside or cut back inside.
“He was in the hole all night,” guard David DeCastro of Bell. “He was making those cuts and running like the Le’Veon we know.”
The Steelers' defensive players barely got any sleep this week thinking about their poor showing vs. Jacksonville, Tuitt said.
"We just wanted to show the world what we really are," he said.
Roethlisberger (17-of-25, 252 yards, one touchdown, one interception) made his share of impressive throws. Touch passes to Brown and Vance McDonald over the middle created crucial first downs. Roethlisberger's only interception came on a miscommunication with Brown, who ran a hitch instead of a slant for an easy first down.
But the uninspired Chiefs were all but asking the Steelers to put them away early in the second half. The Steelers couldn't quite do it, opting for a punt on the Chiefs' 35-yard line on fourth-and-2 with a $12 million running back with 124 yards at that point. Coach Mike Tomlin likely didn't want to give the Chiefs any momentum, but the game felt like Pittsburgh was up by 25, even though it never was.
The Steelers had two touchdown chances in the second quarter but messed around in the red zone, which has become an odd habit. An ugly defensive sequence on third-and-8 didn't help: Safety Mike Mitchell missed on a sack, then drew a penalty for going low on Alex Smith after the pass, gift-wrapping the Chiefs into the red zone.
That's when the Steelers punctuated a dominant defensive day. The Steelers' defense faced fourth-and-2 from their own 4-yard line, up 12-3 early in the fourth. The Chiefs decided to go for it, threatening the Steelers’ near-shutout of one of the NFL’s best offenses. Smith dropped back, rolled to his left and targeted Demetrius Harris over the middle. Safety Sean Davis made a clutch, body-contorting play to knock the ball out as Harris was landing. He nearly had an interception, but no matter: The stop punctuated a dominant day for the Steelers.
Now, at 4-2, the Steelers remain atop the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals coming to town Sunday.
Now what for a team that was supposed to use this season to set a foundation for future success but instead has dug itself a deep hole?
This Cleveland Browns season has disintegrated into a morass filled with mistakes and bad play -- with the team hitting a new low each week. Sunday's low was an embarrassing 33-17 loss to the Texans that was worse than the score indicates. The team that went 1-15 a year ago changed defensive coordinators, changed schemes, added draft picks and changed quarterbacks.
Sunday, that team fell to 0-6. The front office and coaching staff handpicked by owner Jimmy Haslam that took over a 3-13 team after the 2015 season has somehow turned it into something worse. Haslam’s regime, guided by executive vice president Sashi Brown and coach Hue Jackson, has now gone 1-21 over the past two seasons.
Haslam has vowed to maintain continuity and not fall into the pit of starting over, which can delay cohesion and success. But success seems farther away to this team than the International Space Station.
Haslam also has to sell something to his fan base. The front office, the coaching staff and the team on the field have provided nothing to sell.
Jackson promised the team would not go through another season in 2017 like it did in ’16.
He was right about one thing: It’s not the same. It’s worse.
Jackson chose to insert Kevin Hogan at quarterback, and he chose to ignore all the questions that were asked about Deshaun Watson doing so well for the Texans after Houston drafted him with a pick acquired from the Browns.
Watson had two touchdown passes and a 128.6 passer rating in the first half. A second-half interception dropped his rating to 103.4.
Hogan threw three interceptions in the first half, then added a safety in the second half when he threw the ball into the ground while being sacked in the end zone. He didn't top 100 yards passing until 7:50 was left in the game, and he didn't get the offense in the end zone until 1:03 was left and things had long since been decided.
Jackson also talked proudly all week about the defense, which entered the game ranked fifth in the league. That’s by yardage. The same defense also had given up a league-high 87 points in the first half, and added 24 to the total Sunday. (Though seven of those came on a pick-six.)
So … now what?
What does Jackson do with the quarterback position, which is as jumbled as it’s been at any point in the past 18 tortured years?( What does Haslam do with his vow of continuity, a vow that is vital but looks absurd when the team plays so ineptly and lacks players at the most important positions on the field?
What does the defense do after giving up 33 points? Where does the offense find playmakers? What do the Browns do to find some way to get a single, solitary stinking win?
This team has collapsed, and it has collapsed in on itself with a new system that was supposed to be innovative but instead has become insulting.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- When the Baltimore Ravens play host to the Chicago Bears on Sunday, the game will feature two teams headed in different directions. The Ravens (3-2) are tied for first in the AFC North, and the Bears (1-4) are last in the NFC North.
What these two teams do share is disappointment over their selections of wide receivers in the first round of the 2015 draft. The Ravens' Breshad Perriman and the Bears' Kevin White are among the biggest underachievers in that draft class, spending more time on the sideline with injuries than on the field making big plays.
Perriman's 525 yards receiving rank 12th among wide receivers drafted in 2015, and White's 193 yards are 17th. They've combined for three touchdown catches and five significant injuries.
While White is on injured reserve this year with a fractured scapula, Perriman has struggled to make an impact in his third season. Through five games, he has four catches for 26 yards and no touchdowns.
"Right now, there are not a ton of opportunities out there," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "You hope that when he gets in those situations, like he was on Sunday, he can make the play. I think that’s going to do wonders for our offense, and for him, moving forward -- just to make a couple plays like that and prove to himself that he can go do it out there. It also gives that whole wide receiver room a big boost of energy, to see that they’re all getting involved, and they’re all playing their role."
The 2015 draft was a rough one for wide receivers beyond Perriman (No. 26 overall pick) and White (No. 7). Of the six receivers selected in the first round, only two -- Amari Cooper and DeVante Parker -- have totaled over 1,000 career yards.
The Ravens are hoping Perriman can use last Sunday's win at Oakland to turn around his season. On a pivotal third-quarter possession -- following Marshawn Lynch's touchdown that closed the Raiders to within 24-17 -- Perriman caught a 13-yard pass to convert a third-and-3 and extend a drive that ended with a Justin Tucker field goal.
"We want to see more of that," coach John Harbaugh said. "When you see that a guy can do it, then you feel like he can do it consistently. That’s what he has to prove now. He’ll tell you, ‘Give me more chances,’ and I’ll say, ‘Earn more chances.’ He did that in this last game. That was good to see."
PITTSBURGH -- A renewed perspective is timely for Vance McDonald, who is still working toward his first catch with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Years ago, anger would have consumed the veteran tight end over a drop or two. The drives home from practices or games were the toughest, with a temptation to turn on some hard rock and scream in the car.
"You’re angry all the time; you’re thinking about it for the rest of the game throughout the night," said McDonald, acquired in August via a trade with the San Francisco 49ers. "My wife would be mad at me; parents might even be in town and I wouldn’t even talk to them because I was so mad about the game."
McDonald has had a few chances to make plays over the middle, including a Week 4 drop in Baltimore and a Week 1 pass that was broken up by Browns linebacker James Burgess but probably should have been caught.
McDonald is in a good place despite the start, knowing he's contributing to a winner and believing that the breakthrough will come. Coach Mike Tomlin has given McDonald a positive review for his overall contribution with hustle plays, run blocking and getting open. But drops still feel "terrible," McDonald says. He had experience with this in San Francisco with several drops.
Learning to move on from them takes practice.
"I was known as an explosive-type-of-anger person growing up, for sure," said McDonald, who signed a three-year, $19.65 million extension with San Francisco this past offseason. "That’s something I’ve dealt with. It helped me when it came to football, taking anger and being aggressive in terms of how you play the game, for sure. Emotionally, not so much."
Having a son has taught McDonald patience, which he's translated to the field. Every day McDonald drives home, 15-month-old Coman is waiting for him at the door.
That's the cue for play-wrestle time. And that "makes everything go away," McDonald said.
He also relies on encouragement from teammates and coaches after a bad play. Dwelling on a drop entices what he calls the "whirlwind."
"Whatever you can do to get out of that as quickly as you can do that, you're going to get yourself out of the gutter," McDonald said. "If you focus on the play before, you’re going to miss the opportunity to pull yourself out of it. If the next play they come to you, and you're still thinking about it and, boom, another one happens, it can spiral out of control."
McDonald knows it will feel great when he strings a few catches together. But he's also savoring the moment regardless because he's on a contender, which hasn't been the case for much of his high school, college and pro career.
"Production's fun. Don't get me wrong," he said. "When your team is winning, that's what makes the rest of the week great."
The bottom line seemed to be that Jackson feels Kizer would benefit from sitting and watching, that it might help clear a mind that has become cluttered. The move does not seem to be permanent, though Hogan could have something to say about that.
Here's the occasionally meandering explanation directly from Jackson via this week's media gatherings.
What was the determining factor in naming Kevin Hogan the starter this week?
HJ: I just think it was the best chance to give our offense a chance to stay in rhythm and play consistently over four quarters. See if Kevin can do it. Obviously, he has done that in games. We have moved the ball. We have done some good things there. I just want to see if I can see him do that for a whole game. See where it goes.
Is this situation week to week?
HJ: No, I am not going to say I am week-to-week mode. Let's see where we are. Kevin is this week. Next week is another game. We will go from there.
Do you expect Kizer to start again this season?
HJ: Oh, I sure would hope so. Again, I think people think that I am doing this because I am maybe disappointed in certain things. I knew that this potentially could happen. I think I said that, but also, I think what you guys continue to write on because I said, "I would ride with him through it" -- and I have -- but also, I have to ride this football team. It is not just about one guy. It is about the team. At the end of the day, I have to do what I think is best to give our team the best opportunity to win. That is what this is all about. Nothing more, nothing less.
HJ: As we know for young players at that position, the game is still fast for them. I think now he will see the game through a different lens. When you stand there watching, you see things. He on the sideline, like I said, was outstanding this past weekend giving pointers and things that he saw, and then you probably see more things now that you are looking from a different lens than when you are standing out there and people are coming after you. You start understanding more and more all of the lessons learned from training camp, through the preseason, through the regular season, through the games he played. Those things start to really sink in and make more sense to you. When you are playing and you are under that duress all the time, you don't get to really step back, exhale and say, "Whoa, here it is." I have seen young guys go through this. That is where he is. I think stepping back, taking a peek and looking at it a little bit differently but still staying in it and making sure that he's ready to play -- he's always one snap away -- will benefit him. I totally believe that because this guy is very competitive. There is no question he wants to be out there with his teammates, but he understands he needs to get better over the next several weeks to have a chance to do that.
HJ: Like anybody would. Obviously, when you are not the starting quarterback for the first time after winning the job, you are disappointed. At the same time, he understands. I don't sugarcoat things with our players. I tell them exactly what it is, what we need to do, what we need to get better at and where we stand. I will say it again, DeShone Kizer has a huge future here with the Cleveland Browns. He needs to continue to grow and continue to get better, and he will. There is no question in my mind that he will, but right now, I think this is what is best for our football team and that is the decision that I made.
Is the 0-5 record a factor in this decision?
HJ: It is not so much about being 0-5. It is how we are playing on offense. I know everybody keeps thinking it is the record. I have a vision for our offensive football team, and I know how this offense works. That is what I have to get it to. I don't care how we go about that. We just have to do it. If I see an area where I think we can improve and do that a little bit better to complement what we are doing on defense and special teams, then that is what my job is and that is what we are going to do.
What makes you confident that Kizer has a bright future ahead of him in the NFL?
HJ: This is where it starts for me: the talent. The young man is very talented, very young. In a situation here to where things haven't been great and trying to take the whole world on his shoulders, I understand where he is and what he has been dealing with. At the same time, I know how talented he is and I think we all do. We see that, but what we don't see is playing the game at a high level. I think some of us want him to be a la the top quarterback, echelon quarterback, in this league right now. That doesn't happen in five games. That happens over time. When you go through that, sometimes as the leader of the offense and him, I have to calm those things down with him so that he can get back and get his rhythm back to playing like he did when it was in preseason and training camp. We are an 0-5 football team, and he is the leader of that, so all that weighs in too for him, I am sure. It is my job when I look at something and see that it is not working is to make sure that I am able to help and assist. I don't think that this is the best version of DeShone that you guys have seen. I think he has work to do, but I think we all have work to do. It is not just him. Everybody has to do their part in order for the quarterback to win in the National Football League, but he also has some growth over the next several weeks that he needs to take care of. I feel good about him. I am never going to run from that, because I think the guy has talent and ability. Now, can he make the next jump? We are going to see that in time. He has to be able to do that, so my feelings haven't changed, and they are not going to change.
PITTSBURGH -- When JuJu Smith-Schuster says life is "lit all the time," he can prove it in wattage.
A wall switch turns his bedroom into a Las Vegas club. Reds and blues and greens beam from the base of a vibrating mattress.
“I can move it up while I’m watching TV, playing video games, having a great time and just chilling,” Smith-Schuster said. “JuJu’s always lit. Chef Ju's always lit.”
These aren’t two different personalities as much as a collaborative experience, which is on display on a lazy Tuesday, a Pittsburgh Steelers off day.
The NFL’s youngest player is far from off.
Over the course of 75 minutes in a two-bedroom apartment on Pittsburgh’s South Side, Smith-Schuster bounces from couch to kitchen to hallway like a Jack Russell terrier.
"Chef Ju" is measured and focused as he cooks stir-fry for lunch. He wears full culinary garb purchased at a local boutique and studiously follows online cooking videos for proper measurements and garlic-slicing techniques.
But JuJu (real name John) always seems to emerge for a mood adjustment: elaborate dancing mid-stir, a sudden Kool-Aid craving and binge "Call of Duty" sessions from a bean bag next to a multicolored Gushers blanket and a stuffed Minion he named “It’s Lit.”
The Steelers rookie receiver is 20 going on 12 going on 30, depending on the moment, or who you ask.
“Hyper,” Steelers running back James Conner said.
“Dances all the time,” tight end Jesse James said.
“Might push things a little too far at times,” quarterback Josh Dobbs said with a smile.
All three echo the same qualifier, though: mature football player.
A glimpse into Smith-Schuster’s life reveals how he marries youthful exuberance with a work ethic that vaulted him into the Steelers’ starting slot receiver spot before his 21st birthday, which isn’t until Nov. 22.
Cooking with 'Chef Ju'
The multitasking is exhausting and requires at least two technological devices at a time.
Smith-Schuster is explaining his cooking session to ESPN, while he’s live-streaming the same session on his Instagram account. Every Tuesday, he cooks a new dish for an audience of up to 10,000.
Travis Scott tracks usually bang in the background -- “He’s always keeping it lit,” JuJu says -- but today he doesn’t need music to dance.
“Whipping in the kitchen. Whipping in the kitchen. Yeah!” Smith-Schuster says as he sways from left to right while stirring broccoli, snow peas and carrots.
Dancing comes in waves of about eight seconds, until he bolts to the living room to tend to his "Call of Duty" gaming session. A headset can connect him with up to 400 players at a time. Being without an electronic device for longer than a few minutes feels “weird,” he says.
A pre-meal dilemma arrives.
“I try to play fast because I’m hungry," Smith-Schuster says. "I want to eat, but also, I want to do the video game."
The best option: Do both. Smith-Schuster plays, pauses, then heads back to the kitchen. Meanwhile, a disco ball that he bought at Spencer’s sets the living room vibe.
No microwaves allowed. Smith-Schuster buys all the fresh ingredients Tuesday morning and cooks from scratch, cutting chicken with precision and marinating with care. The secret ingredient is a can of ginger purchased at Giant Eagle for $3.99.
Smith-Schuster asks the camera if anyone has good chicken-slicing advice. His manager, who’s holding his phone, eventually notices another suggestion from a fan watching the stream: “Wife me.”
Smith-Schuster always admired the Samoan-style cooking of his mother, Sammy, who he says kept her then-teenage son on dish duty, “hand-wash only.”
Once he left USC as a 20-year-old junior (he started elementary school a year early), Smith-Schuster realized cooking is not only a good skill for a single young adult, but a new way to bond with mom. He usually FaceTimes her from the store for tips.
In the corner of the hallway, a dry-erase board bears a message: “I love you son. See you soon.”
Cleaning with JuJu
Smith-Schuster, who legally added the last part of his name in honor of his stepfather, says up to 25 family members lived in his childhood home (he can name everyone too). This setup left him without his own room. Operating in small spaces required cleanliness.
His apartment whiteboard has clear cleaning instructions, red marker for the sections in all caps:
-TAKE OUT TRASH
-Clean living room
-Go to school for food
-Rest of laundry
-Put up mirror
The tidy tendencies appear after an impromptu Nerf gun shooting session. The pellets fly while Smith-Schuster wears a Steelers helmet and tells the camera that those who pay the bills “can do whatever you want.”
Minutes later, he’s on the ground picking up pellets.
“My locker room is like that, bed is like that -- keep it clean,” Smith-Schuster said.
Cleaning calls to mind a Smith-Schuster locker-room prank. A few weeks back, Smith-Schuster crept up on a gang of Steelers, two of whom -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and Dobbs -- don’t have hair because of alopecia.
“Who’s cleaner?” asked Smith-Schuster as he filmed their heads with his phone camera.
“You’re so childish,” Shazier said in the moment.
A few weeks later, Shazier said, “I thought it was funny,”
Dobbs said the moment played out like the meme of Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man.
“He does extra things sometimes. That’s just him,” Dobbs said. “He’s a funny guy, and he studies his butt off.”
Game over, let's eat
Smith-Schuster drops the camouflage controller and announces "Chef Ju" is headed back to the kitchen.
The sugar high is about to take flight.
He pours a gallon of water into a decanter, then slowly pulls out a container of Kool-Aid Tropical Punch and embraces it like a childhood friend.
It sort of was. He didn’t like water, so Kool-Aid was a compromise.
“This is the best thing going,” Smith-Schuster says.
While mixing, he opens the pantry to showcase 13 boxes of Gushers (he doesn’t eat them every day, he swears), then proudly tastes the finished product.
“Boy, that’s some good chicken now,” Smith-Schuster said. “That looks so good, huh?”
He takes his plate and drink to the living room, because it’s time to game while he eats. Gaming a few hours a day is a nice release from the grind of football, Smith-Schuster says.
On the couch is where he can savor the moment as a rookie receiver on a contender, eating good food while overlooking the Pittsburgh skyline. He’s a few blocks from the Steelers facility, to which he rides a bike (he’s working on his driver's license, with driving help from left tackle Alejandro Villanueva).
Smith-Schuster has been known to deliver big open-field hits, but the JuJu experience off the field couldn’t be less threatening.
Or less lit.
“I’m always happy, having fun, just having a great time,” Smith-Schuster says.
Ravens history says it will be a troublesome one for the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft.
The Ravens have lost only once to a rookie quarterback at home in their 22-year history, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That was a 23-year-old Jake Plummer for the Arizona Cardinals in 1997.
Since then, the Ravens have beaten the past 13 rookie quarterbacks who've played in Baltimore, from Peyton Manning to DeShone Kizer. These meetings have usually resulted in plenty of sacks and few passing yards for first-year passers.
The Ravens put their 14-1 mark against rookie quarterbacks at home on the line against Trubisky, who is just six days removed from his debut. Baltimore's defenders plan to make the experience as confusing as possible.
"We’re definitely going to do what we have to do, try to keep them guessing, show different things," Pro Bowl linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "But it’s the NFL -- he’s here for a reason. He showed signs of that on Monday [in a loss to Minnesota]. Once he gets out of the pocket, he can hurt you running the ball and throwing it off the run. We respect all of our opponents, but we’re definitely going to try to take advantage of his first road start and him being in our house."
Under coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens are 9-0 against rookie quarterbacks at M&T Bank Stadium. Since 2008, Baltimore has held them to an average of 203 yards passing, allowing three total touchdown passes and making 13 interceptions.
There was the game in 2011 when the Ravens picked off Andy Dalton three times. There was the mismatch in 2013 when they limited Geno Smith to 127 yards passing. And there was the time in 2014 when they sacked Blake Bortles eight times.
Baltimore's most recent home game against a rookie quarterback was in Week 2, against Cleveland's Kizer. In a 24-10 victory, the Ravens forced Kizer into four turnovers (three interceptions and one fumble).
Linebacker Terrell Suggs said it's not as big of an advantage playing rookie quarterbacks these days.
"These guys have kind of been in NFL packages since they were in high school," the Ravens veteran said. "Some definitely catch the game faster than others, but if he is starting under center for them, they think he is the best man for the job. So he can definitely play at this level, and that is how we are addressing it."
The Ravens were very complimentary of Trubisky after watching him in Chicago's loss Monday night. He completed 12 of 25 passes for 128 yards, throwing for one touchdown and one interception.
Harbaugh called Trubisky "a dangerous quarterback" because he makes plays with his feet and arm. Safety Tony Jefferson is impressed by how accurately the North Carolina product threw on the run and is surprised by his athleticism.
But Sunday's game in Baltimore represents a different challenge for Trubisky, whose most recent road game was a loss at Duke last November. Harbaugh pointed out a couple of factors why it's a problem for opposing quarterbacks to have success at M&T Bank Stadium.
"Our crowd knows football," Harbaugh said. "We have a very football-savvy fan base, and when they get in that stadium, they do what they can to affect the game, which is very valuable for us. The other thing is our defense ... our defense putting pressure on quarterbacks in ways that make them think and trying to do that under the dome of the sound, which makes it harder to communicate."