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PFT’s Week Ten picks

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Getty Images

The lead is back to five.

Last week, we disagreed on one game:  Eagles at Saints.  I took the home team, MDS took the road team.  And I ended up 10-4 for the week to MDS’s 9-5.

This week, we disagree on twice as many games as last week.  Which sounds better than two.

For the year, I’m 83-49, and MDS is 78-54.  Yep, that’s a five-game lead.  Which definitely sounds better than two.

Colts at Jaguars

MDS’s take: The 5-3 Colts have an easy enough schedule the rest of the way that if they just win the games they should win, they’ll finish the season with a winning record. One of the games they should win is this one, and I think they will.

MDS’s pick: Colts 20, Jaguars 17.

Florio’s take:  The last time the Colts visited Jacksonville, a win by the home team ensured that Andrew Luck would head to Indy.  The Colts return as a playoff contender, intent on avenging a September home loss to the Jaguars.

Florio’s pick:  Colts 27, Jaguar 20.

Raiders at Ravens

MDS’s take: For a 6-2 team, the Ravens have a lot of question marks, especially on their aged and injured defense. But the Raiders have even more problems on defense, and I like Baltimore to win a high-scoring game.

MDS’s pick: Ravens 35, Raiders 31.

Florio’s take:  The Raiders aren’t as bad as you’d think, and the Ravens aren’t as good.  Look for Baltimore’s decimated run defense to thrive against Oakland’s decimated running game, and for the Ravens to do enough to fend off the Steelers as a pair of games against Pittsburgh loom on the schedule.

Florio’s pick:  Ravens 31, Raiders 14.

Broncos at Panthers

MDS’s take: Broncos coach John Fox will win back at his old stomping grounds in Carolina, where Peyton Manning will pick apart the Panthers’ defense while Von Miller will make Cam Newton’s life miserable.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 28, Panthers 14.

Florio’s take:  John Fox returns to Charlotte with a quarterback far better than any he ever had when he coached the Panthers.  Against a team with plenty of guys Fox knows very well.  The Carolina winning streak ends at one.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 30, Panthers 20.

Giants at Bengals

MDS’s take: I could pick this game with confidence if I knew which Giants team was going to show up. Will it be the team that showed up for 60 minutes and pounded the 49ers, or the team that sleepwalked through long stretches of close wins against the Redskins and Cowboys, and a close loss to the Steelers? Given the way the Giants have played the last three weeks I’m tempted to go with the upset, but the Bengals’ defense has been so bad this season that Eli Manning simply has to have a good game.

MDS’s pick: Giants 29, Bengals 25.

Florio’s take:  The Bengals are in a free fall, and the Giants are caught in the early stages of their annual midseason swoon.  I’ve got more faith in the Giants getting it done, especially since Eli Manning will surely have the benefit of some insights from his big brother, who won four days ago in Cincinnati.

Florio’s pick:  Giants 31, Bengals 20.

Titans at Dolphins

MDS’s take: The Dolphins missed a golden opportunity to establish themselves as the AFC wild-card frontrunners on Sunday against the Colts, but I still like the way this team is playing, especially on defense. The Titans got a tongue-lashing from their owner after another bad loss on Sunday against the Bears, but that won’t be enough to shake them out of their doldrums.

MDS’s pick: Dolphins 35, Titans 17.

Florio’s takeJake Locker returns, his left shoulder coincidentally healing at the time Matt Hasselbeck lost his hot hand.  Locker will learn what everyone else has learned this year.  The Miami defense is pretty good.

Florio’s pick:  Dolphins 17, Titans 13.

Lions at Vikings

MDS’s take: When these teams met in Week Four in Detroit, the Vikings were bolstered by two kick return touchdowns and won 20-13. But the Lions have shored up their special teams problems, Vikings kickoff returner Percy Harvin is hurt, and the Lions should earn their first NFC North victory of the season in the rematch in Minnesota.

MDS’s pick: Lions 23, Vikings 10.

Florio’s take:  With a brutal post-bye schedule, this game could determine whether the Vikings will finish 6-10 or 5-11.  I’ll pick the Vikings now, primarily because it’s the last time I’ll pick them all season.

Florio’s pick:  Vikings 23, Lions 20.

Bills at Patriots

MDS’s take: In another rematch of a Week Four meeting, the Bills’ defense is in big trouble.  It probably won’t get quite as ugly for Buffalo as it did in the Patriots’ 52-28 win in September, but the Patriots will put plenty of points on the board.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 38, Bills 20.

Florio’s take:  The Pats scored 45 points against the Rams in 60 minutes, and 45 against the Bills in 25.  New England needs to keep its foot on the gas in order to get ready for some tough challenges that are waiting in the postseason.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 38, Bills 21.

Falcons at Saints

MDS’s take: The Saints have won three out of four, and a win here would signal that New Orleans really has turned its season around. Unfortunately, there are just too many holes on the Saints’ defense for New Orleans to stop a Falcons team that can attack with Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. This Falcons team just has too many weapons.

MDS’s pick: Falcons 27, Saints 21.

Florio’s take:  Halfway to an unblemished regular season, the Falcons simply don’t have the feel of a 16-0 team.  With four games against the Saints and Bucs over the balance of the year, the Falcons most likely won’t be.  It starts now, with the Saints staking their claim for a wild-card berth by hanging loss No. 1 on Atlanta.

Florio’s pick:  Saints 28, Falcons 27.

Chargers at Buccaneers

MDS’s take: With running back Doug Martin and a solid front seven on defense, the Bucs are becoming exactly the kind of team Greg Schiano wanted to build: A team that wins by running and stopping the run. Tampa Bay will do it again against a Chargers team that has yet to beat a good opponent all season.

MDS’s pick: Buccaneers 16, Chargers 14.

Florio’s take:  By playing last Thursday, the Chargers had some extra time to figure out how to stop the Muscle Hamster.  It won’t be enough.

Florio’s pick:  Buccaneers 27, Chargers 21.

Jets at Seahawks

MDS’s take: Seattle is a tough team to play for anyone, but I see Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and his receiving corps having a particularly tough game against a good Seahawks secondary. Rex Ryan will have a good game plan to contain Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, but the Seahawks’ defense will lead the way to a low-scoring win.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 12, Jets 7.

Florio’s take:  The Pete Carroll-Mark Sanchez reunion provides a great story line.  But the bottom line is that it’s foolish to pick against the Seahawks at home.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 21, Jets 13.

Cowboys at Eagles

MDS’s take: Until Monday night, I was still a believer in the Eagles’ ability to turn their season around. But Philly’s offensive line looked terrible, the defense looked like it has taken a step backward with the departure of coordinator Juan Castillo, and the Eagles look like they’re ready to pack it in for the season. The Cowboys may still make a run at the playoffs, but the Eagles are done.

MDS’s pick: Cowboys 24, Eagles 14.

Florio’s take:  It’s a early playoff game between two teams that are destined to miss the playoffs.  In the past two weeks, the Cowboys gave the Falcons a much better game in Atlanta than the Eagles gave the Falcons at home.

Florio’s pick:  Cowboys 24, Eagles 21.

Rams at 49ers

MDS’s take: The 49ers’ defense has had a few letdowns, but when they’re on their game it’s just about impossible to score on them. And they’ll be on their game against a mediocre Rams offense.

MDS’s pick: 49ers 20, Rams 3.

Florio’s take:  Lost in the success of the Falcons and the Bears, the resurgence of the Packers, and the collapse of the Eagles, the Niners are ready to remind everyone that they may be the best team in the conference.

Florio’s pick:  49ers 27, Rams 9.

Texans at Bears

MDS’s take: In the best game of the week, the Bears’ opportunistic defense will try to force turnovers against a Texans offense whose quarterback, Matt Schaub, has only four turnovers all season. I like the Bears to get the best of it.

MDS’s pick: Bears 17, Texans 10.

Florio’s take:  The Texans haven’t been stepping up in high-profile games, which doesn’t bode well for the playoffs.

Florio’s pick:  Bears 19, Texans 13.

Chiefs at Steelers

MDS’s take: The Steelers are on a three-game winning streak and the Chiefs are in a tailspin. The Monday night game will be over by halftime, and millions of Americans will go to bed early.

MDS’s pick: Steelers 34, Chiefs 9.

Florio’s take:  Todd Haley gets a crack at the Chiefs.  But the Chiefs also get a crack at Todd Haley.  If this one were being played in Kansas City, I’d take the upset.  But it’s hard to imagine a one-win team toppling the Steelers in their own building.

Florio’s pick:  Steelers 24, Chiefs 16.

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Da’Quan Bowers is no lock to make the Bucs’ roster

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Da’Quan Bowers was viewed as one of the most talented players in the 2011 NFL draft, but he dropped all the way to the middle of the second round because of concerns about whether he could stay healthy. Three years later, those same concerns could cost him a spot on the Buccaneers’ roster.

Bucs coach Lovie Smith said that Bowers, who is currently sitting out practice because of a groin strain, is risking having other players take his roster spot.

“I think every day you don’t practice you’re hurting your chances [of making the team],” Smith said, via the Tampa Times. “We’ve seen enough to like Da’Quan a lot. But all the reps that he’s not getting, someone else is getting them. The best way to beat your competition sometimes is just to stay on the field. You can’t get Wally Pipped. Da’Quan is trying to get back. Again, I think he has a future in the league, whether it be as a defensive end outside or more of a third down rush guy inside.”

Bowers has missed nine games in his three NFL seasons and hasn’t been the kind of explosive pass rusher he was expected to be heading into the draft, with just 5.5 sacks in his career. Bowers still has some work to do to convince Smith he belongs on the Bucs, and Bowers can’t do that work if he’s stuck on the sidelines.

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Smith, Gordon, Irsay remain on deck for discipline

Smith AP

The NFL has developed a habit, wisely from a P.R. standpoint, of dropping bad news on Friday afternoons.  The move necessarily takes the steam out of a story, since by Monday the weekday radio and TV shows will be focused on the actual sporting events of the intervening weekend.

And while the Internet remains available for content and comment at any day and time, folks tend to spend more time reading and reacting during the normal workweek, when they’re on the company’s time.  By the time they’re on their own time, they’re making time for other stuff.

Coupled with the NFL’s habit of resolving disciplinary matters that could result in suspension before the start of the regular season, the next three Fridays likely will feature final decisions regarding 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, Browns receiver Josh Gordon, and Colts owner Jim Irsay.

Smith faces a multi-game suspension under the personal-conduct policy and/or the substance abuse policy.  Because the latter would entail a more complex and time-consuming appeals process, look for the league to impose discipline under the personal-conduct policy.  Smith, who met with Commissioner Roger Goodell two weeks ago in Baltimore, awaits an initial decision.  If/when a suspension is imposed under the conduct policy, Smith will have three days to file an appeal, which almost certainly would be resolved before the 49ers face the Cowboys in Week One.

For Gordon, the two-day appeal hearing under the substance-abuse policy ended 17 days ago.  Barring a negotiated resolution, hearing officer Harold Henderson will impose a ruling, presumably sooner than later.  Under the strict terms of the substance-abuse policy, the options are no suspension at all and a full year.

As to Irsay, the league presumably has been waiting for a potential plea deal on the pending charges of operating a vehicle while under the influence of prescription medication.  League insiders reportedly expect Irsay to receive a six-to-eight-game suspension.  The biggest unanswered question regarding Irsay remains whether he will be subjected to the same player standard of 10-times-per-month urinalysis and, eventually, a potential one-year banishment from the sport.

While plenty of unknowns linger as to all three men, past precedent suggests that each will have a decision rendered before Sunday, September 7 — and that the news will likely emerge on one of the next three Fridays.

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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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