Here are seven notes and observations from an awful Week 11 in the AFC North:
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If I’m the Pittsburgh Steelers, the first free agent I’m calling this week is quarterback Jeff Garcia. With the status of Ben Roethlisberger (head) up in the air this week and backup Charlie Batch out for the rest of the regular season, the Steelers need a veteran replacement. Although chances are slim that someone can come in and start right away against the Baltimore Ravens, if anyone has a chance, it’s Garcia. It will be interesting to see how Pittsburgh handles this if Roethlisberger isn't healthy enough to return. Would the Steelers really go with Dennis Dixon in a crucial game?
If Pittsburgh isn’t convinced that drastic changes need to be made ASAP on special teams, I’m not sure they ever will be this season. Pittsburgh has allowed four kickoff returns for touchdowns and two in the past two weeks. These are huge blows in a game. Kansas City Chiefs tailback Jamaal Charles took the opening kickoff to the house in their overtime win over Pittsburgh Sunday, and that play gave Kansas City all the confidence it needed to hang in there and eventually pull off the upset. The Steelers have a wealth of talent, and it's time to take some of those backups and replace them with better players.
We are getting a lot of e-mails in our AFC North inbox from Cleveland Browns fans regarding the frantic finish in a loss to the Detroit Lions. But the referees got this one right. Cleveland defensive back Hank Poteat clearly committed pass interference on the Hail Mary. Yes, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford hurt his shoulder with no timeouts, but above all else a game cannot end on a penalty. Another huge mistake was Browns head coach Eric Mangini calling a timeout for an explanation, which allowed Stafford to return and throw the game-winning touchdown. Who knows if an ice cold Daunte Culpepper could have come in and successfully executed that play in the clutch?
Here is a question for the Cincinnati Bengals: Why is Andre Caldwell returning kickoffs? It's been clear all season that Caldwell is not very good in that role. He dances too much and doesn't hit the hole or run a straight line. Caldwell burned the Bengals again on a kick return with a late fumble that set up the Oakland Raiders' game-winning field goal Sunday. Rookie tailback Bernard Scott was coming into his own in that role following a big touchdown return against the Steelers, and Scott or someone else should have been the player returning the final kick. Caldwell is a solid receiver but it's time to give that kickoff return experiment a rest.
The Bengals also could not rush the passer against Oakland. Journeyman quarterback Bruce Gradkowski threw 31 times and Cincinnati had zero sacks. The Bengals also continued their season-long trend of not defending the tight ends. Oakland tight end Zach Miller led the Raiders with five catches for 65 yards. When you can't pressure the quarterback and constantly leave the middle of the field open that usually results in a loss.
The replay of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s final interception in a loss the Indianapolis Colts looks like he just decided to throw into triple coverage. But Flacco said he was fooled and never saw Indianapolis linebacker Gary Brackett drop on the backside. Brackett made a heady play by briefly engaging with an offensive lineman and then dropping into the spot where Ravens tailback Ray Rice was heading. According to Brackett, Baltimore ran the play earlier and he recognized the route. Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron also said afterwards that he was fooled by Bracket's decision not to rush the quarterback.
Let me finish by saying this was the worst weekend of football that I can recall in nearly two seasons covering the division. Three AFC North teams lost to awful opponents in sloppy fashion, and the one possible upset in the division was foiled by poor play in the red zone. I know it's just one Sunday, but group performances like this lead me to believe the AFC North is not as good as I once thought heading down the stretch of the regular season.
The Steelers should take a long look at free agent quarterback Jeff Garcia.