SAN DIEGO -- After six weeks of standing on the sidelines as a spectator, San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews is nearing a return to the field.

Mathews suffered an MCL knee sprain in a Sept. 14 contest against Seattle. San Diego’s running game has not been as consistent with the team’s every-down back out. The Chargers are averaging a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry.

Mathews
Mathews buoyed San Diego’s rushing game last season, finishing with a career-high 1,255 yards in 2013. Mathews worked on agility drills with San Diego’s training staff last week and ran wind sprints during pre-game workouts Thursday at Denver, both indications he’s getting close to being healthy enough to play.

“I’m just taking it day by day,” Mathews said. “I’m just waiting for them to give me the go ahead so I can let it loose. I’m working out as much as I can, trying to keep my body in shape and getting strong again.”

While working diligently to get back on the field, Mathews also will host a fundraiser close to his heart Tuesday at the Rancho Bernardo Inn. The golf charity event raises money for homeless mothers and their children through his foundation, the Trish and Ryan Mathews Door of Hope Chest.

Mathews said the event sold out the first time they held it last year, and he hopes to keep growing the charity.

Mathews has first-hand experience with the issue of homelessness. Raised by a single parent, he had to live out of a car as an infant with his mother, Tricia, while living in Riverside, California.

“It’s basically helping homeless mothers get back on their feet,” Mathews said. “That was a big part of my life growing up. So being able to help those homeless mothers, like I helped my mom, is great.

“It’s real important. She’s the main symbol for the organization. She’s worked hard all of her life to get to where she’s at. And she helped to create a lot of beneficial things for me.”

Mathews said that his mother works with the Salvation Army to help homeless mothers and other families in need, especially with the holiday season approaching.

“I know with the holidays coming up, this is a big time for her,” Mathews said. “So she’ll probably be down at my house for a long time.

“It’s humbling, being able to give back. There’s a lot of people that are in need. And I’m going to do my part, whether it’s going to an event like this and shaking some hands, taking a picture or signing an autograph or whatnot. It’s something.”
CINCINNATI -- Three storylines to watch Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium:

Daniels
Ravens without Daniels: Baltimore announced Friday it would be without another one of its key offensive weapons at tight end. The news had to have been embraced with wide-open arms by the Bengals. That's because now with Owen Daniels, the Ravens' top reserve tight end behind the already-injured Dennis Pitta, out for Sunday's game, Baltimore is forced into moving around a few pass-catching pieces and moving around other reserves to fulfill its offensive needs. Specifically, Crockett Gilmore -- who has been targeted just three times this season -- will take Daniels' spot in the rotation. Although he was lauded earlier this week by Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Gilmore still isn't expected to give the Ravens the quality minutes, receptions and blocks that the other two might have. Whereas the Ravens were able to run plays in two-tight-end and H-back sets during the teams' first meeting in September, they may have difficulty executing those plays without the likes of Pitta and Daniels. Both tight ends were among Baltimore's leading receivers in the Week 1 tilt.

With tight ends causing drama for the Bengals the last three weeks in particular (they have allowed five tight ends to catch 24 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns), this could be a good reprieve for the defense. Watch to see how often the Bengals blitz without Pitta or Daniels playing, and look to see how well they cover Gilmore.

Flacco
Getting to Flacco: Pressure has been a problem for the Bengals' defense in recent weeks, especially when it comes to their defensive line. Tackle Geno Atkins finally factored statistically into a sack, credited this week for assisting Carlos Dunlap with a sack on Indianapolis' Andrew Luck last week. It will be incumbent on the Bengals this week to shake off the problems they have had in getting to quarterbacks, particularly with the Ravens featuring a newly healthy offensive line. For the first time in six weeks, both offensive tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele are expected to play alongside one another. Their addition in the rotation should give Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco blind-side protection he hasn't had much this season.

In the season opener, the Bengals had great pressure on Flacco, sacking him three times. Only one defense this season has made him look as bad as the Bengals did: the Colts.

Offense needs fun: Bengals players on both sides of the ball this week have remarked about how devoid of fun their locker room has been the last three weeks. As defensive end Wallace Gilberry said, it's caused tension with respect to urgency and the need to be successful and win. The best way to not play tense and tight is to simply have fun. That's precisely what the Bengals did during practice Thursday and Friday when, for the first time since Marvin Lewis has been head coach, they played music. It seemed to make players looser. We'll see Sunday if it has any impact. More than any group, the offense needs to take the "fun" message to heart Sunday. If that means getting back to trick plays that work or using players in other inventive and creative ways, then so be it. During last week's 27-0 shutout loss, the once-entertaining offense clearly wasn't having any fun.
LONDON -- The Detroit Lions face the Atlanta Falcons at Wembley Stadium Sunday as part of the NFL’s International Series. How do the Lions come away with a win and a 6-2 first-half record? Here are four keys.

Johnson
1. Calvin Johnson: The star wide receiver practiced for the first time this week and said Thursday he could take his decision of whether or not to play all the way to Sunday. Unlike the past two weeks, though, this game might mean a bit more to him. As a huge international soccer fan, playing this game in Wembley Stadium would truly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Johnson. And doing it while facing his hometown team, the Atlanta Falcons? That might be too good for him to pass up. If he bases it solely on his health, however, he truly becomes a coin-flip decision. Detroit could use him back in the lineup because the offense has been somewhat stagnant due to his and other injuries to skill-position players.

2. Who plays tight end? The Lions have been down three tight ends for most of the week, and the two who have practiced -- Kellen Davis and Jordan Thompson -- have been with the Lions’ 53-man roster for all of a week. Davis has never even played for Detroit before. If Brandon Pettigrew, Eric Ebron and Joseph Fauria all don’t play, that’s a big spot for a free agent off the street and a practice squad player. Depending on Johnson’s status, this could severely limit Matthew Stafford’s options.

3. Get to Matt Ryan: The veteran Atlanta quarterback has been good at avoiding pressure and sacks this season, even as his offensive line has crumbled around him due to injuries and ineffectiveness. But Ryan hasn’t faced this type of defensive front this season, and while Drew Brees had time on some plays last week, he was pressured enough to force bad decisions, including 10 incompletions and a turnover during the Lions’ rally late in the fourth quarter. If Detroit can do similar things to Ryan, this could be a big game for the Lions’ defensive line.

4. Defend Roddy White and Julio Jones: It’s unlikely the Lions will be able to take away both players, as they have combined for four 100-yard games this season (Jones with three, White with one). White and Jones represent one of the toughest receiving tandems the Lions have faced all season, and covering both while pressuring Ryan will be the key for defensive success. It would not be a surprising strategy to see the Lions not blitz much and have the front four try to create pass pressure and stop the run game, leaving seven players to drop into coverage. This might be a game where Detroit would want to allow more on the run in order to shut down the pass.
IRVING, Texas -- Orlando Scandrick was disappointed when New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz was lost for the season because of a knee injury and could not play last week against the Dallas Cowboys.

Scandrick
Scandrick wants to compete against the best. On ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” this week, Scandrick will get the chance to compete against a longtime NFC East foe, DeSean Jackson, who is in his first season with the Washington Redskins.

In 10 career games against the Cowboys, Jackson has 35 catches for 663 yards but just one touchdown.

After missing the first two games of the season due to a suspension, Scandrick has solidified the Cowboys’ secondary. He has an interception and four pass breakups, playing equally as well in the slot as outside.

“O can really cover now,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “He’s good at man to man. He’s a good zone player. He’s just to me really emerging. He’s a terrific tackler, great instincts and he’s good inside. You just see him growing and growing as a player.”

Scandrick came to the Cowboys with a chip on his shoulder as a fifth-round pick in 2008. He outlasted 2008 first-rounder Mike Jenkins and beat out 2012 first-rounder Morris Claiborne. The edginess Scandrick had when he showed up has not dissipated.

“He is a physical player,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He is aware. He is instinctive. He seems to be around the ball a lot. I just think he's gotten better and better. He has a lot of confidence defending inside and outside. He's got a lot of athletic ability. He is long. He's quick. Again, his instincts for the game are probably his best trait.”
TEMPE, Ariz. – Whenever the Acho brothers were split up on opposing pickup basketball teams as kids in Texas, there was bound to be at least one errant pass from Sam to Emmanuel each game.

Fortunately for Sam, an Arizona Cardinals starting outside linebacker, he didn’t have to think twice about passing to Emmanuel often. Besides the occasional pickup game, the two never played on opposing teams growing up – even through college at the University of Texas.

Emmanuel Acho
Sam Acho
The fact that they’ve played on the same team since youth soccer -- when Sam was 8 and Emmanuel was 6 -- makes Sunday, when Sam’s Cardinals hosts Emmanuel’s Eagles, so unique.

“I’ll be more excited than anything,” Sam Acho said. “I’m so proud of him. I’m so proud of what he’s been able to accomplish if you look at the journey he’s been on.”

The two are still close, and make sure they text before every game. It’s usually something short and simple like: “Hey man, I’m praying for you. Ball out today. Do your thing. Love you, bro,” Sam said. They won’t need to text Sunday morning. Sam said the pregame message will given when the two get together Saturday night.

While they talk four or five times a week, the brothers Acho had different roads to the NFL. Sam was drafted in the fourth round in 2011 and made an immediate impact in his first two seasons before a broken fibula ended his 2013 season after three games. After suffering a quad injury at the NFL combine in 2012, Emmanuel was drafted in the sixth round by the Cleveland Browns. A knee injury suffered that preseason landed him on injured reserve for his rookie season. He was traded to the Eagles the following April, then was released that September and signed to the New York Giants practice squad about a week later.

In October 2013, Emmanuel Acho was signed off the Giants practice squad by the Eagles, who waived him in December but re-signed him to the practice squad the next day. He was released this August, re-signed to the practice squad a day later and then promoted to the active roster after Week 1. He’s since started one of five games for Philadelphia, totaling 17 tackles.

Sam has 18 tackles this season.

It’s a safe bet that Emmanuel is well aware that he has one fewer tackle than his older brother in one fewer game.

“He’s definitely the more competitive one,” Sam said. “I was the guy who said, ‘Hey, I just want to play. I want to have fun.”

Whether it was driveway basketball or the Madden video game, Emmanuel’s competitive streak was always on display. Sam said if his younger brother was losing at Madden – which wasn’t often – he’d turn it off midgame. Or if Sam ran up a big lead in the driveway, Emmanuel would put the ball down and storm off.

“So, I would start letting him get closer,” Sam said. “If I was up too much, I’d start sandbagging a little bit, but yeah, he’s definitely more competitive.”

That’s not to say Sam isn’t. When he talked to his mother, Christie, this week, she mentioned, “We're coming up to play the Cardinals this weekend.”

Sam noticed right away.

“I was like, ‘We? Who is we?’” Sam said with a laugh.

As he found out, his parents alternate daily between using “we” to identify with the Cardinals and the Eagles.

On Sunday, however, they Sonny and Christie Acho won’t need to decide one way or the other. Sam said his mother will be wearing a custom-tailored Acho jersey – Cardinals in the front, Eagles in the back.

“People will think they’re kind of confused,” Sam said.

But his parents will know exactly who they’re cheering for.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- However many well-wishers Mike Zimmer has encountered during a trying stretch as the Minnesota Vikings' first-year head coach, none moved him to share the message publicly the way Alex Loehlein did.

Loehlein, an 8-year-old boy who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy -- a fatal and incurable degenerative muscle disease -- visited the Vikings' facility on a recent Saturday to take in the team's practice, meet players and get his Vikings helmet autographed.

He sent a thank-you note to Zimmer after his visit, which the coach read to reporters before the start of his news conference on Friday. It read:
Dear Mr. Zimmer,

Thank you for letting me watch your practice last Saturday. It was fun. The players were nice to me and signed my Viking helmet. My grandpa says to expect good luck for you because you have used up all your bad luck already.

Alex

After a start in which Zimmer has lost his top offensive player, his starting quarterback, the tight end and right guard the team just signed to contract extensions -- and saw the Vikings give up a touchdown with a second left on the clock in a game he coached with kidney stones -- it's tough to argue with that logic.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was 13 yards away from Jerricho Cotchery when the Carolina Panthers receiver caught a swing pass at his own 48-yard line in the third quarter of Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.

In 1.4 seconds, Clinton-Dix had closed the gap.

The story would be better if the Green Bay Packers rookie made the tackle, but then safeties coach Darren Perry might not have anything to hold over the first-round pick.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsRookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has become one of the Packers' surest tacklers.
In what was his first NFL start, Clinton-Dix led the Packers with eight tackles (including seven solo stops). That he missed Cotchery on what turned out to be a 9-yard catch-and-run actually sat well with Perry for one reason: Clinton-Dix was aggressive in his pursuit.

"Coach sees us out there giving effort, 100 percent effort, whether we miss the tackle or we make it, he can live with that," Clinton-Dix said Friday. "Once he sees us coming up short or kind of hesitating on making the tackle, then he really has a problem."

In just seven NFL games, the 21st overall pick went from the guy who was caught flat-footed on his open-field missed tackle that led to Seattle Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette's 33-yard touchdown in season opener to perhaps the most aggressive pursuer in the Packers' secondary.

Since the opener, Clinton-Dix has been charged with only one missed tackle, according to Pro Football Focus, although it should be noted that it did not give him a missed tackle against the Panthers.

But the Packers coaches gave him one.

"He's a guy that once he sees stuff, he comes down hill and goes and gets it," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "He doesn't hesitate. He shoots his gun so to speak. You saw him on Sunday, he had to cover space and made one really nice tackle, and then he missed one. But he's going after it aggressively. I think people, over a period of time, receivers know that when you've got a big safety coming downhill on them, it affects that middle of the field."

For the first six games, Clinton-Dix split time at free safety with second-year pro Micah Hyde, who started every one of them. But in the last three of those, Clinton-Dix actually played more snaps than Hyde, which made it only a matter of time before he took over as the starter and played every snap like he did against the Panthers.

"He's really come into his own and is starting to show that he can cover the field as well as fit within the run game and not only fit, but make big plays in space, which we haven't seen for some time since we lost Nick [Collins] and some of those veteran safeties and corners," Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. "It's good to have a guy like that who you know you're going to be able to count on for years."

The Packers may have to count on him even more on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. Veteran starting strong safety Morgan Burnett has not practiced all week because of a calf injury and was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report.

Plus, Clinton-Dix might have his toughest matchup of the season if he's asked to cover Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.

But he will have capable help. If Burnett can't play, either Hyde or Sean Richardson would start at the other safety spot. The Packers like Hyde's coverage ability, which is why he moves to the nickel spot when the Packers employ five defensive backs, and Richardson is an up-and-comer who has contributed in spots -- like his tackle for no gain on Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart on third-and-1 in the first quarter of Sunday's game.

It's an embarrassment of riches at safety, a position where last year the Packers could barely find one productive starter, and they have Clinton-Dix to thank for that.

"This is the way it's supposed to be," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
If the Cleveland Browns ever call to the bullpen at quarterback, the season will get weird in a hurry. But that's not a reality this week. As written here, Brian Hoyer struggling against Oakland and Tampa Bay would qualify as a three-week stretch of bad play against inferior opposition, which might -- might -- be enough to nudge coach Mike Pettine to change. But Browns coaches don't foresee that. Johnny Manziel said Friday that he's the backup and "that's that." He knows nothing he says right now helps him or helps the situation, so he's not about to call for himself to play, even if he believes he could do better.

West
Crowell
Tate
Tate
The position that gets the most run in this offense is running back, and the competition remains as open as a soft spot in the zone. Kyle Shanahan said it Thursday, and running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery punctuated it Friday.

"Someone has to take charge," Montgomery told ESPN. "At some point you have to say, 'The job is mine.'"

The workload suggests Ben Tate is the primary option, with 63 carries in the three weeks since returning from injury. He's reliable. He doesn't fumble. He was strong in back-to-back games against Tennessee and Pittsburgh, recording 202 yards and two touchdowns on 47 carries.

But Tate did little to set up the passing game in Jacksonville, where the Browns lived in second-and-9 and third-and-8. Tate finished with 36 yards on 16 carries, signaling a drop-off in each of the last three weeks.

Undrafted rookie Isaiah Crowell leads all rushers with four touchdowns but he's still trying to wash the stain of three fumbles against Pittsburgh. Third-round rookie Terrance West watched his workload dwindle since his 168 combined yards in Weeks 1 and 2. In Jacksonville, West got back-to-back carries on second-and-2 and couldn't convert.

Still, the Browns are high on the potential of both rookies. If they weren't, Tate would have closed the door on the competition two weeks ago. All three want to be the workhorse, Montgomery says, but he doesn't know who will get there first.

"I think they've all got their own qualities," Montgomery said. "It can happen at any time. I've always said, you've got to get a hot hand. You’ve got to break a run for 7 or 8 yards and you’ve got to come back and get another one for 7 or 8. You’ve got to separate yourself from the other guys.

"Ben is the veteran of that group, but at some point you want to decide on one guy and let him ride. You’re looking for it."

My take: Coaches are publicly trying to motivate Crowell/West, who are still adjusting to life as professionals. The coaches didnt seem keen on West's comments earlier in the week that running backs need a rhythm to feel out a defense, and they are pouncing on it. Crowell and West offer big-play ability. Tate offers dependability. Why can't they have both? Not sure one guy needs to shoulder the entire burden. Two-back systems thrive in the NFL, so by November there might be one player left out.
IRVING, Texas – Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray deflects questions about the amount of work he has received this season like defenders.

He doesn’t much care that he is 31 carries away from the most he has had in a season and that Monday’s game against the Washington Redskins is just the eighth game of the season. He says his body feels good.

Part of it has to do with what he did in the offseason. Starting in March, before the official beginning of the Cowboys’ offseason program, Murray became Jason Witten’s workout partner. For the next two months they were together at Valley Ranch for hours, running, lifting and sweating.

Murray
Witten
“It helped a lot, obviously with the stamina aspect just building a good armor for your body so you can take some hits and take the pounding of a long season,” Murray said. “He's done it for a long time and he's someone who has had a lot of success in this league and he knows what to do to take care of your body in season and out of season, so it helped extremely a lot and I have to thank him and we're still working together.”

Witten has missed one game in his career. Witten has played in 178 straight games, the longest active streak for a position player.

“I just asked him one day,” Witten said. “Don’t remember exactly how it went down, but we’re going to work out together.”

In every way, Witten is the conscience of the Cowboys. He is their leader. Murray called him “the big dog.”

“I couldn’t say no,” Murray said.

No player has caught more passes as a Cowboy than Witten. He has played in nine Pro Bowls. Not only does he not miss games, he does not miss practices, either.

Murray has missed 11 games in his first three seasons with ankle, foot and knee injuries. He missed a day of practice last week because he was ill. He sprained an ankle in the second quarter of last week’s victory against the New York Giants but finished the game with 128 yards on 28 carries.

Witten turned 32 in May, in the middle of the offseason. Murray is 26.

“I knew it was good for me to be with a young guy that can push you,” Witten said. “Obviously he’s physically talented. I kind of known that was the way our team was going and what we were trying to mold ourselves into. Even since he’s been a rookie, he’s always kind of latched on to certain people and asked questions, eager to learn. The thing I like about him since an early age was you could always see that he wanted to be really, really good. He had a great offseason. There were many days where I was really sore and we’d come in and say, ‘Are you sore?’ And he’d tell me, ‘Nah, not really. What about you?’ ‘Nah, I feel all right.’ He’s everything you want in a teammate from that standpoint. It was good to work out with him that way because I kept telling him, November and December this will pay off for us, the work that we put in. You can see it in the way he’s playing.”

Witten is not taking credit for Murray’s season by any stretch, but Murray believes the workouts have made a difference.

Said Murray, “Whenever you talk to a guy like that that's had the success like that and played so long in this league and done some of the things he’s done, you definitely try to take as much information as you possibly can from him.”
IRVING, Texas -- DeMarco Murray insists that he does not care about setting records and hitting milestones.

But his Dallas Cowboys teammates definitely care about Murray making history.

Bryant
Bryant
Murray
"I'm pretty sure it's not [his goal], because he never talks about it," receiver Dez Bryant said. "Never talks about it at all. But the other guys around him, we all notice it and think about it. That's why we practice hard, so we can give him that opportunity to reach that. That's a big deal."

Murray has already broken Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown's record for 100-yard games to start a season with seven. He's halfway to Barry Sanders' record of 14 consecutive 100-yard games.

Emmitt Smith's franchise record for rushing yards in a season (1,773 yards) is well within the sights of Murray, who has gained 913 yards through seven games. He's on pace for 2,087 yards, so he could challenge Eric Dickerson's NFL record of 2,105 yards.

Only seven backs in NFL history have broken the 2,000-yard barrier.

"I think he can do it," Bryant said of Murray. "I honestly think he can do it."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Shortly after Vikings center John Sullivan walked to the sideline Sunday in Buffalo, after taking a knee to the head from Brandon Spikes on a play in which Sullivan tried to cut-block the Bills linebacker, the dizziness and double vision that initially made Sullivan think he'd suffered his fifth concussion started to go away.

Sullivan
Sullivan sat on the Minnesota Vikings' bench with athletic trainer Eric Sugarman, and Sullivan said he felt good enough to go back in the game on the Vikings' drive as they moved toward the Bills' 20. Sugarman resisted, saying he wanted to conduct one more round of testing in the locker room.

"I got into a little bit of an argument with Sugs, because after a few seconds, I was feeling fine sitting on the bench," Sullivan said. "On the way in, I suffered another spell of dizziness. It was not a catastrophic hit by any means. It was just, in order to go back in the game, I was going to have to lie to our doctors and to the neurologist, and I wasn't going to do that."

An important truth about concussions, and the messiness of managing them in real time, can be found in Sullivan's comments Friday: For all the advances the league has made in testing -- and for how stringent the treatment protocol has become -- there's still no black-and-white test to diagnose a concussion. That means there's still some element of the treatment process that relies on a player's cooperation. If Sullivan indeed passed his baseline test in the locker room and had been dishonest about lingering symptoms, he might have been able to go back in the game. It's especially in cases like these, where the effects of a concussion might not be as immediately apparent, that a player's honesty is integral to the process.

"It's tough, because you don't want to tell a guy how to live their life, but we have a responsibility to be honest about what we're going through with those hits," Sullivan said. "It's difficult to do any studies if guys aren't being truthful about what they're going through. You feel like you have a duty to yourself, and your family, to tell the truth. At the same time, even if you are suffering symptoms, you feel like you're letting your teammates down, because you're not out there. I felt horrible that I wasn't able to play the rest of the game, but I had to be honest."

Sullivan said he passed the ImPACT test Tuesday and was able to exercise without symptoms. He lifted weights and did on-field work Wednesday, and participated in noncontact drills Thursday. As he talked to reporters Friday afternoon, he said he felt "totally normal."

The next concussion could be right around the corner, as it could be for any player, and Sullivan admitted it's possible he's had more. But, he added, "I feel like my future isn't in doubt.

"It's not so much about the number, specifically. If you were to have five concussions where your symptoms subsided in a matter of days, and you don't even miss a game, is that as serious as one concussion that keeps you out for six months?" Sullivan said. "The other thing is, you can talk about the number, but if I had lied my way back onto the field, I'd still be at four. What point is there in getting caught up in the specific number? It just means I was honest five times."
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The loss of tight end Owen Daniels couldn't have come at a more inopportune time.

Daniels
 The Baltimore Ravens are playing for first place in the AFC North and are going against a Cincinnati Bengals defense that has been repeatedly beaten by tight ends.

Over the past three weeks, the Bengals have allowed tight ends to average 121 yards receiving and score four touchdowns. In the season opener, Daniels and Dennis Pitta combined for 14 catches for 117 yards against the Bengals.

So, with Daniels out at least one game, who steps up in his absence? Crockett Gillmore will become the third Ravens rookie to start a game on offense this season, but he doesn't come across as a player who wants to become the next Jimmy Graham.

"I'm going to do what I can in the pass game, but I know why I'm here, and I'm going to continue to block," Gillmore said earlier this week.

The Ravens seem to have more confidence in him in the passing game than Gillmore himself. After not getting a pass thrown his way for the first five games, Gillmore has caught all three passes thrown in his direction the past two weeks.

"He gets better every day as a receiver," coach John Harbaugh said. "He’s not the fastest guy in the world -- not to be confused with a speed merchant -- but he has good hands. He has very good body control. The big tight ends are really valuable in this league because they have catch radius and they can get away from a defender. It’s hard to cover them one-on-one. That’d be a big asset for us if he could keep growing that way.”

Still, no one should be surprised if fullback Kyle Juszczyk is the Ravens player who fills Daniels' void in the passing game.

He hasn't made the impact as many expected (eight catches for 95 yards and one touchdown), but he is a more polished receiver than Gillmore and he can stretch defenses down the seam. A fourth-round pick in 2013, Juszczyk led the Ravens with 10 catches for 90 yards in the preseason.

The other option for the Ravens is to use more three-wide receiver sets. But teams haven't fared well when trying to spread out the Bengals' defense. Cincinnati has held quarterbacks to the fifth-worst passer rating (73.7) when offenses line up three or more wide receivers.

Tight ends such as Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener have had a great deal of success going against the Bengals' linebackers. The Ravens can only hope Juszczyk and Gillmore will continue that trend.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Brandon Marshall brushed off any potential distraction caused by last week’s locker room flap on the heels of Chicago’s 27-14 loss to the Miami Dolphins, and plans to use the frustration from the defeat and residual drama as “fuel” for Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots.

Asked Friday how he’s moved on from last week’s disappointment, Marshall said, “Do what I’ve been doing my whole career. Just get up every single day, put one leg in my pants, then the next one, and go to work. That’s all I do.”

Marshall
Marshall sees the latest situation as an opportunity for the team to take a major step toward developing. The Bears have lost three of their last four games, and are coming off a loss to Miami that caused Marshall to make several pointed remarks regarding the performance of the offense.

Before the team opened the locker room for reporters, Marshall could be overheard addressing the team. A source inside the locker room said some of the receiver’s remarks were directed at quarterback Jay Cutler, who on Thursday denied that was the case.

“We’ve got a really talented group, close-knit group,” Marshall said after practice Friday. “We’re in a tough spot right now, but you can really grow when there’s tension and when you’re in an uncomfortable position, and I think we are. But this team is built to persevere in situations like this. We go on the road in San Francisco, against the Jets, and we play well. We play well enough. That’s what we have to do this week is take it one game a time and fight our way back into this thing.”

Marshall took issue with how reporters characterized what they heard outside the doors of the club’s locker room as the receiver addressed the team.

“Man, you guys [in the media] are the most powerful people in the world,” Marshall said. “You guys influence the masses. When you use words like ‘rant’ and ‘tirade,’ that’s sexy. It sells papers. It boosts readings. But that’s B.S., and you guys know that.”

Did Marshall leave his frustrations from Sunday’s loss in the locker room?

“No,” he said. “It’s fuel. You’ve got to take that frustration and use it as fuel. I’m going to be frustrated until we run a few [wins together] in a row. So you just have to take it and use it as fuel. That’s the good thing about playing in professional sports. You can let the negative stuff tear you down or you can take it and build off of it, and use it as fuel. And I’ll be determined to get the job done.”
INDIANAPOLIS – Hakeem Nicks will have an increased in the Indianapolis Colts’ offense against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday with fellow receiver Reggie Wayne not playing because of an elbow injury.

“I look forward to every opportunity,” Nicks said. “Each week I prepare accordingly, prepare like I’m going to play, just like I’m going to play this week. Just have to go out there and play within the offense and everything will be good.”

Nicks
The increased snaps could help Nicks get going because he has gotten off to a slow start since signing with the Colts in the offseason.

Nicks, the Colts’ No. 3 receiver, is tied for sixth on the team in receptions with 17 for 141 yards and two touchdowns. He was targeted only once and didn’t have a reception against the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend.

“I knew the situation coming into it,” Nicks said. “I knew I had to have plenty of patience. We’re winning and that’s the most important thing. As long as we keep getting these [wins] everybody is happy.”

The lack of catches isn’t entirely Nicks’ fault. He’s part of an offense where quarterback Andrew Luck has excelled at spreading the ball around. Luck had back-to-back games earlier this season where he completed passes to nine different players.

"He's made an impact with the offense,” offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. “I think the ball is being spread around, and his opportunities are going to come. The more they adjust to take away certain receivers, tight ends or whoever it may be, it's just a matter of time before a pro like Hakeem has an opportunity to capitalize on the right matchup."
TAMPA, Fla. -- After a full week of practice, Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown said he’s pleased with the progress of his injured right thumb.

 McCown has been out since suffering the injury in a Week 3 loss to Atlanta. He began practicing on Monday.

“It’s just been a day-to-day thing, and every day it feels a little bit better,’’ McCown said after Friday's practice. “It was good to get a little more work in this week and get a better feel for it.’’

All indications are that Mike Glennon will start Sunday’s game against Minnesota. But the big question is if McCown will be activated as the backup. McCown said that decision is up to coach Lovie Smith. But McCown said he’d be ready at any time.

“If I were to play at any time, I’d feel confident in playing,’’ McCown said. “Whether that’s this Sunday or a couple of Sundays from now -- any time you go on the field, you better feel confident in playing.’’

McCown, who still was wearing a wrap on his right hand, said he’s had to temper his enthusiasm about getting back on the field to avoid any setbacks.

“It’s hard not to want to push the gas on it and really throw yourself all into it,’’ McCown said. “It’s different than a leg injury or something like that. You can do everything else. You can take your drops. You can do everything but the main thing for a quarterback and that’s to throw. Being able to throw a little bit more this week has been helpful.’’

In other injury news, the Bucs are relatively healthy. Linebacker Brandon Magee (knee) has been ruled out for Sunday. Smith said all the team’s other injured players should be available.

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