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Week Eight picks

The inability of referee Scott Green to properly apply the supposedly clear rule regarding going to the ground when making a catch not only cost the Vikings a win.  It also prevented me from extending to two my streak of victories over Rosenthal.

Yes, he beat me by one game in Week Seven, and the difference was the outcome of the Vikings-Packers game.

For the week, Rosenthal got 10 right and four wrong.  I was 9-5.

For the year, Rosenthal is 69-35.  I’m 65-39.

And though it pains me to type this (in part because I’ll never hear the end of it from him), Rosenthal currently has a better showing than all of the ESPN “experts,” including the Accuscore projections and the fan-based picks. 

Maybe he should apply for a job there.  They probably need someone with a sturdy shine box.


Broncos vs. 49ers in London

Florio’s take:  When the league picked this game to be the 2010 English export, it didn’t look like a bad choice.  The 49ers were viewed as the favorite to win the NFC West, and the Broncos were regarded as a middle-of-the-road team with the potential to improve.  Seven weeks into the season, the 49ers have only one win and the Broncos have two.  The decision to thrust quarterback Troy Smith into the starting lineup smacks of the desperation coach Mike Singletary surely is feeling, and even though Denver lost to one Bay Area team by 45 in Week Seven, Week Eight likely will bring a seventh loss for the Niners.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 30, 49ers 21.

Rosenthal’s take: The NFL should send teams to London earlier in the season, before they show how bad they really are.  The depleted Broncos defense gets worse every week, and the 49ers defense just made Matt Moore look like, well, Matt Moore from 2009.  This is a crossroads/gut check/insert cliché game for both coaches.  I trust Josh McDaniels and Kyle Orton far more than Mike Singletary and Troy Smith.

Rosenthal’s pick: Broncos 31, 49ers 21.

Jaguars at Cowboys

Florio’s take:  Four prior games between these two teams have been decided by seven points or less.  Continuation of that trend would help Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio, even if the Jags lose.  One more 20-plus-point blowout (the Jaguars already have suffered four) could get Del Rio fired.  The return of David Garrard and the departure of Tony Romo could help, but probably not enough.  But at least the Jags will possibly lose by less than 20.

Florio’s pick:  Cowboys 27, Jaguars 17.

Rosenthal’s take:  Jon Kitna versus the Jaguars secondary.  The immobile quarterback versus the force that provides no resistance.  If I was a betting man, I’d stay far away from this one because both teams are about as trustworthy as Florio’s hairpiece.  At least the Jaguars seem like they care. 

Rosenthal’s pick: Jaguars 20, Cowboys 16.

Dolphins at Bengals

Florio’s take:  From 1978 through 2000, the Dolphins won nine straight games over the Bengals.  Cincinnati has won the last two, but they haven’t played since Bill Parcells put his thumbprint on the Dolphins.  More importantly, the game won’t be played in Miami, where the Fins are 0-3.  Though the Bengals found some punch on offense against the Falcons, the Dolphins are more talented, more desperate, and (after believing they got screwed against the Steelers) more feisty.

Florio’s pick:  Dolphins 24, Bengals 16.

Rosenthal’s take: Chad Henne has quietly improved all season, and he should do well against a Bengals secondary without Adam Jones and possibly Johnathan Joseph.  Carson Palmer is also playing better, but it seems to take a 21-point deficit to warm him up.  The Bengals defense is providing too many chances for failed comeback attempts.

Rosenthal’s pick: Dolphins 24, Bengals 21.

Bills at Chiefs

Florio’s take:  Some (I’m looking at you, Rosenthal) think that Bills coach Chan Gailey has something up his sleeve for his most recent former team.  Pointing to an unlikely strong showing by Buffalo’s offense against a complacent Ravens defense, Rosey thinks the Bills can give the Chiefs a run for their money.  Let’s see if Rosey puts his money where his mouth is.  Arrowhead Stadium has been a-rockin'; Gailey and his team would be wise to not go a-knockin’.

Florio’s pick:  Chiefs 31, Bills 14.

Rosenthal’s take:  I’m not sure people have really wrapped their mind around the fact that Ryan Fitzpatrick’s Bills racked up 514 yards on the Ravens.  514! The Harvard product is a joy to watch, with decisive, difficult throws often into tight windows.  He’s a great runner and seems to like contact.  And he has a red beard.  The Bills will keep losing most weeks because their defense is an embarrassment, but at least they’ll be fun to watch.

Rosenthal’s pick: Chiefs 34, Bills 31.

Redskins at Lions

Florio’s take:  For the third straight year, these two franchises meet in Detroit.  In 2008, the Redskins kept the Lions winless by only eight points.  In 2009, the Lions ended a 19-game losing streak with a win over the ‘Skins.  Assuming Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford, back after suffering a shoulder injury in Week One, won’t throw four passes to DeAngelo Hall, the rested, ready, and confident (perhaps delusional) Lions should be able to get it done.  Last week’s meltdown by the Chicago offense concealed the fact that the Washington offense isn’t dramatically better, and the Lions look to be in line for their second win of the year.

Florio’s pick:  Lions 20, Redskins 13.

Rosenthal’s take: Signs the Lions have come a long way:  (1) they are still talking playoffs after a 1-5 start and it doesn’t seem completely insane; (2) they’ve outscored their opponents this year (thanks Rams!); (3) they are favored against a 4-3 Redskins team and I’d still give the points.

Rosenthal’s pick: Lions 24, Redskins 17.

Panthers at Rams

Florio’s take:  Like the other team that will contend for the NFC West crown, the Rams are tough at home and soft on the road.  This week, a win at home would pull the Rams to 4-4, and it would end a four-game losing streak against Carolina, a slide that began in St. Louis nearly seven years ago with a double-overtime loss to the eventual NFC Super Bowl representatives.  This time around, the Rams simply have the better team — which given the state of the Panthers isn’t really saying much.

Florio’s pick:  Rams 24, Panthers 13.

Rosenthal’s take: The Rams are winless on the road, so it’s good the league loaded them up with home games before a three-game road trip after Thanksgiving.  The Panthers finally found a passing game, which could make them a dangerous spoiler the rest of the way.  Every game for the Rams is dangerous because they aren’t that talented, but they’ve responded very well to losses this year.

Rosenthal’s pick: Rams 22, Panthers 20.

Packers at Jets

Florio’s take:  The Jets remain the hottest team in the NFL, with a swarming defense and a sufficiently competent offense.  Receiver Santonio Holmes had two extra weeks to hone his timing with quarterback Mark Sanchez, which should result in an even more souped-up passing attack.  The Packers aren’t remotely close to being Super Bowl ready, and without again getting a couple of gift calls on touchdown plays they can’t expect to win this one.

Florio’s pick:  Jets 27, Packers 20.

Rosenthal’s take: The Packers lost another linebacker for the season, while the Jets are fully healthy after their bye.  Revis Island is ready to re-open with tougher immigration laws and there’s a sense New York hasn’t played their best despite being 5-1.  All logic points to the Jets. (I’m sure Florio is taking his beloved Jets.)  All the more reason to take the Packers, who are ready to go on a run.

Rosenthal’s pick: Packers 26, Jets 21.

Titans at Chargers

Florio’s take:  Vince Young likely will return for a Tennessee offense that did fairly well without him.  But the two Tennessee losses have come against teams that run a 3-4 defense, the preferred attack of the Chargers.  And the Charger

s have much more talent than their 2-5 record suggests.  Assuming that the late surge in Week Seven against the Patriots woke up the four-time defending AFC West champions, the Chargers will stay alive for at least another week.

Florio’s pick:  Chargers 23, Titans 20.

Rosenthal’s take: The Titans have a knack for frustrating opponents and forcing them into mistakes.  The Chargers have a knack for frustrating their fans and making unforced errors.  The Titans lead the league in takeaways and have scored the most points off turnovers.  The Chargers have the most giveaways in the AFC.  Add it up, and Norv Turner’s head should explode sometime in the third quarter.

Rosenthal’s pick: Titans 26, Chargers 21.

Vikings at Patriots

Florio’s take:  Vikings coach Brad Childress has been talking lately.  A lot.  His words regarding the officiating in Sunday night’s loss to the Packers got him a $35,000 fine.  His barbs directed at the Patriots and Bill Belichick could get Chilly a butt-whipping on par with the 31-7 defeat his team absorbed from Belichick and company four years ago.  Brett Favre, who won’t play only if he can’t move, will be jumping on his “broke foot” when things go well, and he’ll be walking like John Wayne with hemorrhoids when things go poorly.  Count on plenty of Rooster Cogburn on Preparation H sightings.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 35, Vikings 13. 

Rosenthal’s take:  After the Patriots released Lawyer Milloy then lost to the Bills 31-0 to open the 2003 season, ESPN’s Tom Jackson said the “Patriots hate their coach.”   Three weeks after New England traded Randy Moss to Minnesota, it’s the Vikings that seem to hate their coach.  The rest of the country hates Brett Favre, who seems to know it and wear it on his face during every depressing press conference.  This is the week Moss begins to realize how good he had it in Foxborough.  

Rosenthal’s pick: Patriots 24, Vikings 14.

Buccaneers at Cardinals

Florio’s take:  Bucs coach Raheem Morris thinks he has is the best team in the NFC.  Less than two years ago, the Cardinals actually were the best team in the NFC.  Though the Cardinals have looked horrible at times, the managed to take down at home a Saints team that thumped the Bucs in their own stadium.  And that’s good enough for me.

Florio’s pick:  Cardinals 24, Buccaneers 20.

Rosenthal’s take: The “best team in the NFC” isn’t favored in Arizona, where the Cardinals are 2-0 this season.  If the Bucs are to live up to Raheem Morris’ hype, this is a game they win going away.  Arizona’s passing game is a mess, while the running game isn’t much better.  It’s a miracle they are 3-3. Still, these teams are more similar than different.  And they’ll have the same record after this one.

Rosenthal’s pick: Cardinals 19, Bucs 14.

Seahawks at Raiders

Florio’s take:  Here’s the toughest call of the week.  Tony Dungy thinks the Seahawks are the best team in the NFC.  Raiders cornerback Chris Johnson thinks his team is the most talented in the entire NFL.  The Seahawks had been unable to win on the road before taking down the Bears two weeks ago.  Before a far=less-than-full stadium against a Raiders team buoyed by a 59-point uprising against the Broncos on Sunday, the Raiders likely will finish an unlikely ascension to .500 at the halfway point of the season.

Florio’s pick:  Raiders 27, Seahawks 17.

Rosenthal’s take: Every time the Raiders win a game, they say they turned the corner.  Even though they haven’t won back-to-back games since 2008, I’m just crazy enough to believe them this time.  The Seahawks whole offensive gameplan seems to be “don’t throw interceptions” but they need a little more than that on the road.

Rosenthal’s pick: Raiders 23, Seahawks 16.

Steelers at Saints

Florio’s take:  At one point in September, it looked like this game would feature a clash of the best two teams in the league.  It remains half right, with the Steelers among the best of the bunch and the Saints sliding toward irrelevance.  Though the defending champs’ backs are being pushed against the wall, that 13-point loss to the Browns means the days of dominance have ended, at least for now.  A one-dimensional offense is no match for a multi-faceted Steelers defense, and this one could turn into a rout, which would mean the ratings will only double those from Game Four of the World Series.

Florio’s pick:  Steelers 34, Saints 21.

Rosenthal’s take:  A lot of tough games to pick this week. I’ve debated this one for days, but the tiebreaker goes to the Steelers.  Even though Pittsburgh’s pass defense has looked shakier the last two weeks, New Orleans has struggled against far worse groups.  At some point, it’s worth recognizing the 2009 Saints passing attack just may not come back.

Rosenthal’s pick: Steelers 27, Saints 24.

Texans at Colts

Florio’s take:  The Texans obsessed over their Week One visit from the Colts, and it paid off.  Since then, the Texans have been roughly average.  They get another crack at the Colts on Monday night, at a time when plenty of Indy players are missing.  But as long as Peyton Manning remains healthy, the Colts will be tough to beat, especially at home.  Manning realizes the importance of not being swept by the Texans — and not falling to 0-3 in the division.

Florio’s pick:  Colts 33, Texans 27. 

Rosenthal’s take: Dallas Clark and Austin Collie will be missed, but I’m not really that worried about the Colts offense in this game. They have great depth and the Jeff George Colts could score 30 points on this awful Texans defense.  The bigger question is whether the Colts defense can snap out of their funk.  At home, in a huge division game, I’ll take my chances they make enough plays.

Rosenthal’s pick: Colts 38, Texans 31.

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Texans-Broncos practice gets chippy

Peyton AP

The Texans and Broncos already may be getting sick of each other.

Wednesday’s joint practices between the two teams, occurring in advance of their Saturday night preseason game, included some heated moments.

Via Arnie Stapleton of the Associated Press, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and Broncos right tackle Chris Clark exchanged words during one-on-one drills, after Watt dominated Clark and Clark took a swipe at Watt, knocking his helmet off.

Don’t get mad when you get beat,” Watt said to Clark.

Meanwhile, Texans safety D.J. Swearinger celebrated a little too loudly and proudly after intercepting Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning during 11-on-11 drills.

“I picked off Peyton today and I guess that got them a little chippy,” Swearinger said. “The offense did great, ran the ball down their throat, so, hey, I would get mad, too.  That’s all it is:  Players making plays and people getting mad.”

Coach Bill O’Brien downplayed the notion that lines were crossed.

“It was competition,” O’Brien told reporters.  “I don’t really even know what you’re talking about.  I really don’t.  It was just a lot of good competition and I felt like it helped our team a lot, and I’m not speaking for the Broncos, but I know that competition helps everybody, so it was good.”

The good news is that no actual fights occurred.  For the Broncos, the better news was that the offense heard and heeded quarterback Peyton Manning’s complaints from Tuesday regarding its performance at practice.

“I’m sure a lot of our guys noticed that he wasn’t happy on the field,” offensive coordinator Adam Gase told reporters. “I spoke my mind in the meetings. I’m not really going to do it out here for everybody to watch, but I said my piece. We made sure that we came out here and had a better day.”

Thursday won’t be as good, because the teams won’t practice in pads.  Which means that the chances of intense competition or chippy moments or fisticuffs or a full-blown brouhaha will be reduced.

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Jets place third-round pick Dexter McDougle on injured reserve

New York Jets Rookie Minicamp Getty Images

The New York Jets didn’t just lose one rookie to injured reserve on Wednesday.

After placing fourth-round receiver Shaq Evans on injured reserve, the team also placed third-round cornerback Dexter McDougle on injured reserve with a knee injury.

McDougle injured his knee in practice for the Jets last week. The rookie out of the University of Maryland tore his ACL and had surgery on Wednesday to repair his ligament. The move to injured reserve had been expected after McDougle suffered the injury on Aug. 10.

McDougle had one tackle and pass defense in his only preseason action against the Indianapolis Colts.

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Bell didn’t make trip to Philly with Steelers

Bell AP

Early Wednesday afternoon, Steelers running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount had a brush with the law that resulted in an allegation of marijuana possession for both of them, and a DUI charge for Bell.

Later in the day, the Steelers left for a preseason game in Philadelphia.  According to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bell didn’t make the trip.

A second-round pick in 2013, Bell is expected to be the starting tailback this year.  Other players will get opportunities to carry the ball in Bell’s absence.

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Marrone thinks training-camp fights hurt game’s “integrity”

Marone AP

Plenty of teams have had fights during training camp.  The Bills had one on Wednesday, which included some fairly strong language from one of the participants.

According to Tim Graham of the Buffalo News, veteran center Eric Wood and rookie defensive lineman Bryan Johnson had an altercation during a goal-line drill.  Tight end Scott Chandler intervened, taking Johnson to the ground.

I’ll f-cking kill you!” Wood yelled at Johnson.

Defensive end Jerry Hughes was amused.

“Twenty-one days in pads and counting!” Hughes yelled. “I love it! That’s what happens, baby!”

Coach Doug Marrone wasn’t.

“It’s not part of the game,” Marrone told reporters after practice. “Therefore, I don’t want to speak about it. It hurts the integrity of our game the more we talk about it. That’s how I feel about fighting.”

It may hurt the integrity of the game, but it’s definitely part of the fabric of the game.  Still, at some point a fight during practice becomes a case of workplace violence, which is prohibited by the NFL’s personal-conduct policy.  At some point between harmless pushing and shoving and Albert Haynesworth shredding the forehead of Andre Gurode resides a line that players shouldn’t cross.  It’s unclear precisely where that line resides.

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Report: 49ers move practice after footing problems on Levi’s Stadium turf

Denver Broncos v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh reportedly stopped Wednesday’s practice at Levi’s Stadium and moved the workout to the club’s practice field after the club had footing problems on the stadium’s playing surface.

According to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, Harbaugh gathered his team after Stevie Johnson fell running a pass route during the workout, which featured “huge divots” and “uneven turf.” Also, CSNBayArea.com observed that Niners G.M. Trent Baalke was “clearly agitated” about field conditions at the new stadium, which hosted its first-ever NFL game just three days ago. Rookie wideout Bruce Ellington also appeared to slip and fall on the field, according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.

The Levi’s Stadium practice was open to fans, who were reportedly given free admission to the 49ers Museum after the team moved the workout.

The Niners’ next home preseason game is Sunday vs. San Diego. It’s the club’s third preseason contest, which customarily is the final dress rehearsal for the regular season opener. The question now is whether the field will be in better shape after Wednesday’s events.

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Five Questions: Oakland Raiders

Jacksonville Jaguars v Oakland Raiders Getty Images

You may recall we voted the Raiders 32nd in our preseason power rankings.

You may also recall the bottom five teams in our ratings were AFC clubs.

On paper, this doesn’t look like a banner year for the American Football Conference. Which, in turn, doesn’t hurt Oakland’s chances to perhaps exceed expectations, as we noted in our preseason Raiders analysis. And the Raiders have started decently enough in Dennis Allen’s first two seasons as head coach, posting 3-4 marks through seven games each time. However, they struggled down the stretch in both seasons, going 1-8 in Games 8 through 16 in 2012 and 2013.

With the club’s stadium lease expiring after the season, and with Allen and G.M. Reggie McKenzie under pressure to win after a couple of tough years, Raiders owner Mark Davis could have some major strategic decisions to make in the coming months. Here’s a look at five questions facing Oakland in 2014:

1. Who will start more regular season games at quarterback — Matt Schaub or Derek Carr?

Schaub has been the starter throughout the summer, and he’s on track to start in Week One. However, he lacks mobility, and the Raiders’ pass protection is very much an area to watch.

If the Raiders can’t protect Schaub, and if the 11th-year quarterback again struggles to take care of the ball, Oakland could turn to Carr, a second-round pick from Fresno State. Carr played well in extended action in the Raiders’ Aug. 15 preseason game vs. Detroit before suffering a concussion and injured ribs.

The Raiders’ bye is in Week Five, which could be a nice time to change quarterbacks if the Raiders have reason to do so. However, the Raiders get a fairly favorable draw in September, meaning the club may want to keep continuity. And why wouldn’t they if Schaub plays back to his best Houston form?

2. If the Raiders’ passing game sputters, can the ground game pick up the slack?

As a team, the Raiders rushed for 2,000 yards in 2013, 13th-best in the NFL. The club gained 4.6 yards per attempt, sixth-highest in the league, though TD runs of 93, 80 and 63 yards helped drive up the average.

There’s reason to believe Oakland can again have a productive rushing attack. The Raiders have three capable ball carriers (Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, Marcel Reece). The offensive line is deeper than a season ago, too.

Still, the success of Oakland’s running game could very well be tied to its passing game. If the Raiders can’t give Schaub the time he needs to find open receivers, teams will be inclined to bring extra pressure and play tighter coverage. In this scenario, the Raiders could see defenses stacking the line and daring Oakland to do something about it. Then, it will be on the Raiders’ passing game to get defenses to back off, thus opening a little more room for that ground game.

3. Will the Raiders’ front seven have to carry the defense?

Let’s say this for the Raiders: they are going to be fun to watch when they force teams into obvious passing situations. Defensive ends Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley and defensive tackle Antonio Smith all know how to generate pressure, and young strong-side linebacker Khalil Mack has upside as a rusher, too.

The Raiders should also be solid against the run. Oakland surrendered just 3.9 yards per attempt a season, and its front seven is stronger this season.

However, the Raiders’ pass defense could be an area of concern. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford shredded Oakland’s secondary in the second preseason game, completing 9-of-10 passes for 88 yards and two scores. While the Raiders did well to add ex-Niners cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers in the offseason, they could very much use a real contribution from 2013 first-round pick D.J. Hayden, who remains on the PUP list because of a foot injury.

4. Can the Raiders get off to a good start?

A 2-2 record in September is a reasonable goal for Oakland. The Week Three matchup at New England will be very, very tough, but matchups at the Jets (Week One) and against the Texans (Week Two) and Dolphins (Week Four) are games in which Oakland should be competitive. In fact, if Oakland plays well, 3-1 isn’t an impossible dream in the least.

With the schedule turning much tougher later in the year, the Raiders must seize the moment in September.

5. Will the uncertainty about the Raiders’ future in Oakland continue throughout the season, or will there be clarity?

The Raiders’ stadium situation will be a storyline until it is resolved, whether the club is contending or struggling. The longer this drags on, the more it threatens to be the issue that defines the season, especially if the team falls out of contention. Davis’ willingness to meet with San Antonio this summer speaks to the franchise’s need for a viable long-term home.

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Pot precedent creates dilemma for Steelers

Bell Getty Images

The Steelers haven’t had a player face marijuana possession charges since 2008.  They now have two.  The way they handled that six-year-old incident could create an awkward situation for the 2014 Steelers.

The last time it happened, the Steelers deactivated receiver Santonio Holmes with pay for the next regular-season game.  Technically, any discipline imposed by the team infringes on the league’s exclusive jurisdiction under the substance-abuse policy.  And while a suspension of up to four games without pay is available for conduct detrimental to the team, the labor deal doesn’t contemplate a paid suspension.

So what will the Steelers do about running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, who were simultaneously charged with marijuana possession after being stopped by a police officer in the Pittsburgh suburb of Ross Township?  If the Steelers deactivate both for Week One against the Browns, the Steelers will have a harder time holding serve against a division rival.  If they do nothing, they’ll contradict the precedent created by the Holmes situation.

Don’t be shocked if the Steelers let this one play out, since neither Bell (who also was charged with DUI) nor Blount will face discipline from the NFL until the legal case is resolved in a way that reflects responsibility of some sort for the charges they face.  With a third person in the car who possibly will contend that the 20 grams of marijuana were hers and not theirs, it’s possible that Blount eventually will escape liability.  (With police contending that all three already have admitted to possession of marijuana, that one could be hard to pull off.)  While the DUI would remain an issue for Bell, a first offense usually results in a two-game fine; marijuana possession routinely triggers a one-game suspension.

Meanwhile, the police officers in and around Pittsburgh have a reputation for not being overly aggressive when it comes to Steelers players — unless those players were overly aggressive when dealing with the cops.  It’ll be interesting to see any video or audio generated by the traffic stop for evidence of cooperation or lack thereof by Bell and Blount.

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Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount both arrested

bellblount AP

The Steelers’ top two running backs were arrested together today.

Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, Pittsburgh’s first- and second-string running backs, were in a car together and stopped by Ross Township Police this afternoon. Detective Brian Kohlhepp of the Ross Police Department tells PFT that a motorcycle officer smelled marijuana smoke coming from the car and pulled it over. Police found a baggy containing about 20 grams of marijuana in the car.

Both Bell and Blount are expected to be charged with possession of marijuana. Bell is also expected to be charged with driving under the influence. An unidentified female in the car is also expected to be charged with possession of marijuana. According to police, all three people in the car admitted that the marijuana belonged to all of them.

The Steelers took Bell in the second round of last year’s draft, and he won the starting job as a rookie. He carried 244 times for 860 yards and eight touchdowns last year.

Blount signed with the Steelers this offseason after spending last year in New England, where he had 772 yards and seven touchdowns on 153 carries.

Bell and Blount could both now be subject to league discipline, but likely not until the case is resolved.

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RGIII calls out the “doubters”

Griffin AP

As Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III prepares for his third NFL season, some think he won’t be the player he was in 2012.  Others think he can’t keep himself healthy, especially after a couple of unnecessarily reckless and risky plays on Monday night against Cleveland.  Some think both.

Griffin has taken to Twitter to call out any and all of the so-called doubters.

“They doubted in High School,” Griffin said.  “They doubted a turnaround at Baylor.  They doubted a Heisman was possible.  Keep doubting.  It’s nothing New.”

Many of the “they” who are doubting Griffin now didn’t know who he was in high school.  Or at Baylor.  Or in the early stages of his chase for a Heisman.  Regardless, it’s fair for “they” to think that Griffin won’t be able to find the right balance between effectiveness and safety, and that if he plays at the highest possible level he won’t be able to keep himself healthy.

While Griffin has proved the doubters wrong before, it doesn’t mean he’ll prove them wrong now.  But if the doubters motivate him to find that delicate balance between playing well and playing safely, then it’s good that he’s concerned about the “they.”

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Andre Johnson doesn’t like the increase in penalties

Johnson AP

The renewed emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding penalties benefits NFL offenses.  That doesn’t mean all NFL offensive players appreciate the move.

Specifically, Texans receiver Andre Johnson doesn’t like the increased throwing of flags in the 2014 preseason.

“Watching the game last week against Atlanta, it kind of makes the game longer.” Johnson said Wednesday, via 610 Sports Radio in Houston.  “It actually makes you hate it a little bit because every time you look around there’s a flag on the ground.”

Johnson believes that the officials won’t call illegal contact and defensive holding as tightly once the regular season begins.  The NFL has said that the emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding will continue.  We’ll begin to find out whether the NFL means what it says when the Packers travel to Seattle to start the 2014 regular season in only 15 days.

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Five Questions: St. Louis Rams

San Francisco 49ers v St. Louis Rams Getty Images

In a loaded NFC West, the St. Louis Rams have been quietly going about their business. The Rams have watched their division rivals deal with season-ending injuries (Darnell Dockett, Kendall Hunter), contract disputes (Marshawn Lynch, Alex Boone) and off-field issues (Aldon Smith, Daryl Washington).

Outside of the loss of reserve running back Isaiah Pead, the Rams have been steadily preparing for the start of the season without many bumps in the road.

St. Louis has won seven games in each of the last two seasons under head coach Jeff Fisher. Here are five questions that will determine if the Rams will improve that total this year.

1. Can Sam Bradford finally put it all together?

Sam Bradford is entering his fifth NFL season and last under his rookie contract with the Rams. He’s healthy once again after a knee injury last season. The Rams receiving corps appears to be the most talented group of Bradford’s tenure and the offensive line no longer appears to be a significant liability.

It’s now time to see if Bradford can live up to the lofty expectations of a former No. 1 overall draft pick and guide the Rams to the postseason for the first time since 2004.

Bradford had completed 61 percent of his passes last season with a 14-4 touchdown to interception ratio in seven games before going down with a torn ACL. It was a promising sign that Bradford may still have it in him.

2. Just how good can the Rams front seven be?

Robert Quinn and Chris Long combined for 27.5 sacks last season for St. Louis. Michael Brockers added 5.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position and the team went out and added Aaron Donald with second of two first-round draft picks. With William Hayes, Eugene Sims and Kendall Langford still as rotational players, the Rams defensive line could be one of the league’s most formidable units.

Add in James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree at linebacker and the front seven for St. Louis looks like the strength of the team. Is it enough to vault the Rams defense into the conversation of the league’s best? That will rely on the answer to our next question.

3. Will secondary play be St. Louis’ Achilles heel?

As strong as the front seven is for the Rams, the secondary has its question marks. With Cortland Finnegan gone, the Rams are relying on Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson to take hold of the starting jobs at cornerback. At safety, Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald were shaky at times last year too.

Rookies Lamarcus Joyner at cornerback and Mo Alexander at safety could help stabilize the back-end of the defense. The dominant pass rush should give the secondary a hand as well by putting repeated pressure on opposing quarterbacks. However, the Rams defense will likely only reach its ceiling if the play from the secondary can be adequate.

4. Do the Rams finally have a competent receiving corps?

The Rams have thrown draft pick, after draft pick, after draft pick at the receiver position in hopes of improving a group that has been perpetually lacking in St. Louis. Five receivers have been selected in the first four rounds in the last three years: Tavon Austin (1st round, 2013), Stedman Bailey (3rd round, 2013) Austin Pettis (3rd round, 2011), Brian Quick (2nd round, 2012) and Chris Givens (4th round, 2012). They also signed former Tennessee first round pick Kenny Britt this offseason.

Finally, the group may be good enough to give Sam Bradford the weapons he needs offensively. Austin caught 40 passes as a rookie to lead the Rams receivers. Britt looks to restart his career after a disappointing season where he fell out of favor in Tennessee. Quick, Givens, Pettis and Bailey give St. Louis capable depth.

A strong year from the receiving corps could help get the Rams over the hump.

5. Can Michael Sam make the roster and can he contribute if he does?

As detailed earlier, the Rams defensive line is loaded with star talent and quality depth. It makes it a difficult task for Michael Sam, a seventh-round pick out of Missouri attempting to become the first openly gay player to make an active NFL roster, to earn his way onto the squad.

Sam has held his own and picked up a sack last week against the Green Bay Packers. The battle for the final roster spot along the defensive line appears to be between Sam, Sammy Brown, Matt Conrath and Ethan Westbrooks. If he doesn’t make the final 53-man roster, the Rams could put Sam on their practice squad to develop.

If he does make the roster, Sam will likely be a deep reserve option only at the outset unless he can find his way onto the field in a special teams role.

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Bengals reach a new deal with Vontaze Burfict

Vontaze Burfict, Paul Guenther AP

With Andy Dalton taken care of, the Bengals are moving on to other business.

The next in line is weakside linebacker, who has agreed to a multi-year extension with the team, according to Adam Caplan of ESPN. Adam Schefter says it’s a four-year, $20 million deal, with $7.6 million this year.

He was entering the final year of his contract, but would have been a restricted free agent next year.

While many were scared off of Burfict before the draft because of off-field concerns, the Bengals rolled the dice and found a consistent performer after signing him as an undrafted rookie in 2012.

Now he’s been rewarded, and they continue to lock up the core of a good, young team.

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Steven Jackson could practice soon, on track for Week One

Steven Jackson AP

The Falcons haven’t had running back Steven Jackson on the practice field in almost a month because of a hamstring injury suffered early in camp, but one of the remaining Hard Knocks episodes may feature the veteran’s return to practice.

Coach Mike Smith said Wednesday that Jackson has stepped up his rehab work with the team’s trainers and could be ready to take the next step and practice with his teammates soon. Smith even left open the possibility that Jackson could play in the team’s final preseason game.

“We are encouraged by what he has done over on that side with athletic performance,” Jackson said, via the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “It’s going to depend on the individual in terms of how he feels and once the doctor gives him the clear to go, then he will go.”

The Falcons generally haven’t played starters in the final preseason game and Smith said Jackson was on track to play in the regular season opener, so it might prove to be more risk than reward to get Jackson snaps in the preseason.

 

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Cardinals keep bolstering defensive line, add Ryan McBean

Ryan+McBean+uLTgKd5ZAn6m Getty Images

The Cardinals aren’t done trying to bolster their defensive line.

In addition to bringing in veteran defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga, the Cardinals have also agreed to terms with veteran defensive lineman Ryan McBean, a league source tells PFT.

The 30-year-old McBean hasn’t seen the field in a regular-season game since 2011, when he played all 16 games for the Broncos. In 2012 he signed with the Ravens in the offseason but didn’t play for them in the regular season.

The Cardinals have been trying to beef up their defensive line since losing Darnell Dockett to a torn ACL. Sopoaga and McBean may provide some veteran depth, but neither player will come close to making up for the loss of Dockett.

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Cardinals find some defensive line depth with Isaac Sopoaga

San Diego Chargers v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

If at first you don’t succeed, try to find a defensive tackle who played on the other end of Pennsylvania.

According to Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic, the Cardinals are signing veteran lineman Isaac Sopoaga after working him out this afternoon.

Sopoaga had a long run with the 49ers, and was an early free agent pickup by the Eagles last year. But he didn’t make it through the season, making an appearance with the Patriots as well.

The 32-year-old is more of a nose tackle, and not a comparable player to Darnell Dockett, who was lost to a torn ACL.

The Cardinals tried to bring longtime Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel in before he signed to return to the Steelers.

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