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No passing fancy in AFC North

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By Scott Brown
Monday, Sept. 6, 2010

Ozzie Newsome presided over a busy offseason. The acquisitions made by the Ravens' general manager looked to be aimed at a team that slipped to the middle of the pack in pass defense in 2009.

The Bengals assured they will at least be entertaining when they signed wide receiver Terrell Owens. They also took tight end Jermaine Gresham with their first pick in the NFL Draft, a bid to help Carson Palmer return to the ranks of elite NFL quarterbacks.

Additions made by the Steelers' rivals in the AFC North seemingly put their secondary under siege. But the Steelers, who went from No. 1 in pass defense in 2008 to No. 16 a season ago, are not looking at it that way.

"You want to play against the best. That's what this level is about, so it's a good challenge for the defense," safety Ryan Clark said. "We want to get better. We want to be better than we were last year, so what better than to have a guy like (new Ravens wide receiver) Anquan Boldin, a guy like T.O. in your division?"

Boldin, acquired in a trade with the Cardinals, gives the Ravens a No. 1 receiver. He should help Joe Flacco, who appears to be on the cusp of becoming a top-tier quarterback.

Owens will start opposite Chad Ochocinco in Cincinnati.

"There's not a defensive coordinator that hasn't been burned by either one of those guys," former Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said. "People have a certain degree of fear of those two players."

The biggest concern with the Bengals pairing is that two look-at-me players will produce as much drama as they do highlights. It will be up to Palmer to keep both happy while incorporating Gresham into the passing game.

"I think Palmer can handle anything," said Ron Jaworski, a color analyst with Gruden for ESPN's Monday Night Football. "He's a rock-solid quarterback, a rock-solid citizen and an excellent leader of the football team."

Flacco will lead an offense that considerably upgraded its passing game, at least on paper. Beyond Boldin, the Ravens also signed Donte Stallworth, who returns after a yearlong suspension, to provide a deep threat. And they drafted a pair of tight ends -- Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta -- to ease the burden on the aging Todd Heap.

"Of course it puts more pressure on us when they add talent like that," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. "But it's nothing any more than we've dealt with in the past. First and foremost, it's always about stopping the run. We don't call pass defenses the whole time. We're always doing stuff to stop the run."

The Steelers won't stray from their philosophy of shutting down the run and unleashing defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's exotic blitzes in passing situations.

And the Steelers, who reacquired cornerback Bryant McFadden in April, can counter those acquisitions if they can keep Polamalu on the field. The five-time Pro Bowler played in parts of only five games last season because of a pair of knee injuries, but he appears healthy.

"I'm all over the Steelers this year as my sleeper in the AFC because everybody's written them off. Everybody talks about personnel, how great the Ravens are going to be," said Trent Dilfer, an ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback. "I'm looking at the common denominator and saying, 'You know what• The Pittsburgh Steelers are ballplayers.' They have the right mentality: Do your job. Get it done."

Additional Information:

Going deep

The Steelers figure to be challenged after their AFC North rivals took steps to upgrade their passing attacks during the offseason:


• Signed WR Terrell Owens

• Selected TE Jermaine Gresham in draft's first round


• Traded for WR Anquan Boldin

• Signed WR Donte Stallworth

• Drafted TEs Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta


• Signed QB Jake Delhomme

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