Here are seven notes and observations from Week 5 in the AFC North:
The biggest concern I have about Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer is not his health, it's his decision-making. Palmer suddenly and surprisingly doesn't see the field as well as he used to, and that's a huge issue that is difficult to correct. At times, Palmer is reading defenses like an inexperienced quarterback; his three interceptions in Sunday's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is further proof. Palmer has thrown six picks in five games and probably had an additional four or five that were easily dropped this season. Palmer is on pace to throw 19 interceptions this year, and his career high is 20 for a season.
Palmer naturally is going to take a beating for his trio of picks, but the Bengals' coaching staff put Palmer in a bad spot late in the game. Leading by seven with less than three minutes remaining, the Bengals (2-3) faced a third-and-13 at their 38-yard line and Tampa Bay had no timeouts. Cincinnati should have run the ball, punted and pinned Tampa deep in its own territory with two minutes left. Instead, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was overly aggressive and called a pass that turned out to be an interception near midfield. It quickly led to Tampa's tying touchdown and the Bucs later won on a field goal. This was a time the Bengals needed to be conservative.
Peyton Hillis' thigh injury could be a lingering issue for the Cleveland Browns and fantasy football owners. Hillis has deep bruise in his right quad muscle, something that has plagued him before. I recently talked with ESPN's Stephania Bell, an expert on sports injuries. She told me this type of injury can be tough, because calcification can build underneath the bruise and cause lingering discomfort. Hillis recently had the hot hand but didn't look himself in Sunday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons, gaining just 28 yards on 10 carries. He has been Cleveland (1-4) best offensive player through five games.
Cleveland Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas had a rare off game against Atlanta. Falcons defensive end John Abraham beat Thomas twice for sacks, including the one that injured Seneca Wallace's ankle and knocked him out of the game. Thomas has raised the standard so high that Browns fans have become accustomed to the blindside being protected every week. But Sunday's game provided a rare view of how Cleveland's offense struggles when Thomas isn't at the top of his game.
Keep an eye on the topic of pass protection this week with the Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1). Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger moves around in the pocket more and holds the ball longer than his backups, Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon. That has led to plenty of big plays but also a lot of sacks. The Steelers' offensive line must hold blocks a little longer now that Roethlisberger is back. Cleveland sacked Roethlisberger eight times in the teams' most recent meeting last December.
It's not a coincidence that the Baltimore Ravens' offense is hitting its stride at the same time as the offensive line. Baltimore (4-1) has won most of the battles in the trenches the past two weeks against the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh. The Ravens allowed only one sack in each of those two games. They didn't run well against Pittsburgh (who does?), but quarterback Joe Flacco was given time to put together a winning performance. On Sunday, the Ravens had no problem pounding the Broncos into submission, rushing for 233 yards, four touchdowns and averaging 5.0 yards per attempt.
Lastly, kickers rarely get any love in the Seven-step drop. But Baltimore's Billy Cundiff deserves kudos for his four touchbacks against Denver. Field position is such a big part of Baltimore's game, and Cundiff's kickoffs were booming Sunday. It's hard driving 80 yards against the Ravens' defense. So if Cundiff can keep this up, he could be a nice weapon for an already-stacked team.