Please forgive me for this temporary diversion. We interrupt our regularly-scheduled program now that I've had my hands on the Madden 09 video game for a couple days now, which is enough time to provide a scouting report.
For all of my fellow gamers out there, here are my early impressions of the AFC North teams:
I've found the Browns to be far and away the toughest AFC North team in this game.
(Don't worry Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals fans. It's just a video game and things eventually will be settled on the field.)
Defensive tackle Shaun Rogers is an absolute monster. He holds his ground at the point of attack, and it's hard to consistently get rushing yards up the middle. I had a friend at my house yesterday who uses Cleveland and although I came out victorious, we had some hard-fought battles. Basically I beat him by using big receivers to post and run by his little corners. If you want to know my Madden team this year, I'm not telling. But I will give you a clue: I have one team in the AFC and one in the NFC. So if you want some, come get some!
Offensively the Browns are as versatile as you would expect. Quarterback Derek Anderson has a 95 throwing power (fair enough) and a 90 throwing accuracy (what???), therefore he is an elite signal caller in this game. If you keep receiver Braylon Edwards on one side of the field and tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. on the other, it makes it very difficult to pick and choose where you want to roll coverage. Running back Jamal Lewis runs through a lot of tackles and also has an extra burst that he didn't have in last year's game. Overall, they're a solid team to use in Madden, probably for the first time in the game's history.
For some reason, I've never had much success using Pittsburgh's offense in Madden. I think part of it was the smallish receivers, which I don't like, and another part of it was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whom I've never figured out how to use properly (any suggestions?). I do like Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth in double tight-end sets. Their height gives them the ability to body up almost any defender and keeps the chains moving. But my inability to get the ball to Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes consistently makes it tough.
If you're good at using the safety, this is the defense for you. Troy Polamalu is crazy fast, and even if you bite on play-action passes, he is fast enough to make up for the mistake. A lot of people have trouble running 3-4 defenses in Madden but Pittsburgh makes it easy. Its front seven is stout and tough to run on. Age on the defensive line isn't an issue in the game, of course. The Steelers' passing defense is not superb, but I wouldn't consider it weakness.
The Ravens are a team that only a few people can use. But if you're one of those people, they can be one of the toughest teams to beat in this game. The offense is shabby. The quarterbacks, whomever you choose, will drive you crazy when they miss throws most signal callers on other teams will make. That rules them out for me right there. But tight end Todd Heap is a reliable weapon for those that like to utilize the tight end. Running back Willis McGahee doesn't seem as solid as he was in last year's game, which hurts Baltimore. Derrick Mason will make catches, also, but it's not enough to convince me to play with them all the time.
The defense remains the best in the game. Their personnel is perfect for a game like Madden. They're big, physical and fast. And similar to real life, it's extremely difficult to do anything with this team, no matter which offense you use. Those special few who know how to play with the Ravens are those that love playing defense and can win games with field position and field goals. Not many people are like that. It's a video game and everyone wants to score points. But if you're a gamer that enjoys winning 10-7, the Ravens are for you.
The Bengals have been prolific in Madden on offense the past few years. But this year's offense is down a notch, which isn't a good sign. Tailback Rudi Johnson's ratings have dipped a bit this year and for me that's big. My strategy with the Bengals was to spread defenses with three wide receivers and let their offensive line and tight end Reggie Kelly open huge holes for Johnson to wear out opponents. When defenses started to focus on the running game, it was time for Carson Palmer to pick defenses apart with a stellar cast of receivers. But the offense line isn't as good as it used to be, both in the game or in real life, so my game plan from a year ago no longer works.
The defense always was a problem, but it was a tradeoff for having such a prolific offense. But now the offense is not as dominant and the defense could be worse in the game this year. There is not much awareness on this unit, which means play-action passes work often. So if you don't blitz and get a pass rush, you have no chance to stop anyone. In the past I was able to scheme and hide this porous unit just enough to win games, especially if my offense gave me the lead. But it's much tougher to do it now. Use the Bengals at your own peril.
How much will Madden 09 translate to real NFL football in the AFC North?
That remains to be seen.
Reading the coverage: Jacoby Jones has to stop playing street ball
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Questions? Comments? Complaints? Critiques? I want them all, so feel free to drop a note in the mailbag.
I'll be with the Jags again Wednesday, then en route to Terre Haute, Ind., for the conclusion of the Colts' camp Thursday and Friday.
Let's take a morning lap around the division.
- John McClain says the expectations for tight end Owen Daniels are on the rise.
- Houston special teams coach tells Jacoby Jones that, "he's got to quit playing street ball." Dale Robertson looks at the maddening return man/receiver.
- The Texans practice against the Saints in Louisiana Wednesday.
- Mike Hart's measurables aren't great, but his production has been, according to Mike Chappell.
- The Colts couldn't wait two months for defensive back Michael Coe to heal, and waived him.
- Linebacker Clint Sessions talks about returning from a calf injury, courtesy of Colts.com.
- The Jaguars have tried but failed to get a true No. 1 receiver on their roster and are content with spreading things around, writes Vito Stellino.
- Derrick Harvey's holdout pulls into a tie for the franchise with Byron Leftwich with a 19th day today, the Times-Union reports. There are no signs of an end to the stalemate.
- Cole Pepper handicaps the Jaguars receivers' chances of sticking on the roster.
- A lot of people who write about teams in this division, have done voluminous work. But I think Jim Wyatt has cranked out more copy than anybody through camp. Today he looks at detente in the Titans' locker room after a music war.
- Vince Young passed out copies of Madden 09Â hours after its release, on what teammate Paul Williams dubbed a "national holiday for males between the ages of 15-30."
An open letter to Troy Smith
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
|Â||Jim Rogash/Getty Images|
|Â||Troy Smith will get the start at quarterback for Baltimore on Saturday against Minnesota.|
Dear Troy Smith,
It's James Walker in Cleveland, your hometown. I'm not the letter-writing type but this is a special occasion. I want to make sure you understand the importance of this weekend's events and let this message sink in the next couple days.
But what you don't know, Troy, is this is biggest game to date in your football career.
I know it's just the preseason. I understand that you played in regular-season games before with Baltimore. I also know that you played in big games at Ohio State. But hear me out on this.
Saturday is about claiming a starting job in the NFL long term. This isn't a fill-in situation. You're no longer a Band-Aid. This is a golden opportunity that you've never had in your professional career.
This is an exhibition game for everybody except Troy Smith. Trust me on this one, OK?
The Ravens' coaching staff desperately wants someone to step up in this three-way quarterback race. The unknown is only intriguing in small doses. Eventually it becomes cumbersome and creates fear, and the Ravens are nearing that point as the regular season approaches on Sept. 7.
But you can erase three weeks of doubt and so-so practices with one lights-out performance this weekend against the Vikings' starting defense. Look what one preseason game has done for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay.
Like Rodgers, let the coaches know that Troy Smith wants this job. Show the players that you can lead them. Don't turn the ball over and score some points for goodness sakes.
But there is a huge void waiting for Troy Smith to become Baltimore's quarterback of the present. You entered this competition as the favorite, and now it's time to start playing that way.
Not many people get an opportunity to become a starting quarterback in the NFL. So it's up to you, Troy, to seize this moment.
It starts Saturday night.
Morning take: Banged-up Browns
Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
Here are the most interesting story lines in the AFC North:
- According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Browns rookie tight end Martin Rucker has a torn meniscus in his knee and will be sidelined for six weeks.
Morning take: For a team that does minimal contact, I'm always baffled by the amount of injuries the Browns suffer in training camp annually. Rucker joins a long list of ailing players that include receiver Braylon Edwards (foot), receiver Kevin Kasper (hamstring) and linebackers Antwan Peek (ankle) and Beau Bell (knee).
- Edward Lee of the Baltimore Suns writesÂ Lorenzo Neal signed with the RavensÂ to give the team anÂ upgradeÂ at fullback.
Morning take: We got the sense in training camp that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was not happy with some of the pieces he's working with in Baltimore. Neal's familiarity with Cameron in San Diego landed him with the Ravens. But can the pair bring some of their old, super-charged magic to an otherwise anemic unit?
- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he would like to have his center battle between Justin Hartwig and Sean Mahan settled "yesterday." But it's the third week of training camp and it's still up for grabs.
Morning take: Hartwig, a free-agent signing from the Carolina Panthers, will start Thursday against the Buffalo Bills. He will perform well enough take the job by the end of the week.
Black and Blue all over: This is Lions territory
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
ROMULUS, Mich. -- We're on the ground here in Michigan and will head over to the Detroit Lions' morning practice here in a little bit.
Thanks to those of you have sent Lions-related questions and comments to the mailbag. Feel free to continue. We'll get to them this week.
Let's take a quick look around the division before setting out for the Lions' facility:
- "There are only two impact players on the Lions and both are wide receivers," writes Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press, referring to Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson. Nevertheless, it's not still not clear whether the Lions plan to re-sign Williams, who is entering the final year of his contract.
- The Lions had free agent center LeCharles Bentley in for a visit but didn't sign him.
- First-round draft pick Gosder Cherilus, the likely starter at right tackle, has been getting some practice work at left tackle in the event he has to do spot duty there.
- Don't get too excited, but Devin Hester threw the ball out of a variety of formations during Chicago Bears practice Tuesday.
- Minnesota Vikings placekicker Ryan Longwell didn't participate in the preseason opener and is just starting to kick in earnest during practice, part of a plan to maintain his leg strength during the season.
- Responding to suggestions that his training camp hasn't been as tough as previous seasons, Vikings coach Brad Childress invited reporters to participate in a 9-on-7 drill. "And then you could comment afterwards on if you think it's soft or not." (Darn. Just sold my cleats on eBay).
- A Milwaukee television station is hoping to carry at least seven New York Jets games this season so that Wisconsinites can watch former Packers quarterback Brett Favre.