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Michael Bennett wears a kicker’s shoulder pads because they make him focus on his technique

In his eight seasons in the NFL, Michael Bennett has climbed from an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Pro Bowl level performer with the Seattle Seahawks. And every step of the way, the colorful defensive end has done things his way.

Rising: Browns — The Browns might be the most improved team in the NFL, but are also one of the youngest. They could finally get out the basement in the AFC North and, while not quite ready to compete for a playoff spot, they’re not far away.

Circle this game on the schedule: Ravens at Steelers, Week 14, Dec. 10 — The Sunday night game at Heinz Field could be for the division, though the final matchup between the two division contenders comes with three weeks remaining in the season.

On the familiarity with the Steelers after playing them twice per season with the Browns: “Definitely. I have my guys, man. Marcus Gilbert and Pouncey, and then AB. These are some really, really cool dudes. I’ve met Ben (Roethlisberger) a couple times, probably like the Pro Bowls or whatever, just seeing him around. Just a good group of dudes, man, and I just felt like this was gonna be something special.”

On if his release came as a surprise: “Yeah, I was definitely surprised. I was super ready. I was prepared to go into the season. I was training for it, and I was just ready to go. It definitely came out of the blue to me.”

On what caused his release: “I think it was my contract. I think they wanted me to take — actually, I don’t think, they wanted me to take a pay cut. And I wasn’t trying to take a pay cut.”

Donald still has two years left on his rookie contract, one that will pay him a combined base salary of less than $9 million. But the Rams at the very least seem open to making him the game’s highest paid defensive player and are privately confident that something will be figured out.
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Seahawks’ offensive line still looked terrible in Week 1 against the Packers

The Seahawks offense had a hard time getting anything going on Sunday in its season debut against the Packers. Much of the blame rests squarely upon the offensive line.

Seattle knew this was a need heading into the season after Russell Wilson’s performance suffered because he was constantly under pressure. Wilson was sacked 41 times and took 111 hits during the regular season, and he was sacked six times in two postseason games.

To address the line, the team brought in former first-round pick Luke Joeckel, who washed out with the Jaguars. Head coach Pete Carroll said in March that he expected Joeckel to play left tackle, but Joeckel landed at the top of the depth chart for the left guard position.

Last year, he set an NFL record with 51 of his punts landing inside the 20. And of his 98 punts, only one went into the end zone for a touchback.

Good luck, Jets. It’s going to be a long season.

The signs were there last season when the Bengals stumbled around, reverting to their old undisciplined ways, struggled badly without the suspended Vontaze Burfict early, and fell apart at midseason on their way to a 6-9-1 record. A.J. Green missed most of the second half of the year. Andy Dalton regressed. Their run of five straight playoff berths ended.

They brought back Marvin Lewis for his 15th season. They made their usual tweaks in the draft and free agency. Burfict got suspended again. None of it provided any faith that they could rejoin the Steelers and — maybe — the Ravens in AFC North contention.
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Aaron Rodgers proves once again that no one is better at free plays

Aaron Rodgers is one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. But one of his greatest skills is identifying free play opportunities and taking advantage of them.

In the third quarter of the Packers’ season opener against the Seahawks, Seattle was in the middle of a defensive substitution when Rodgers saw his chance, and he took it. While linebacker Terence Garvin is still trotting off the field, Rodgers calls for the snap and launches a 32-yard pass to Jordy Nelson in the end zone.

Coach Mike Tomlin said he tried to be “thoughtful” about Bell’s workload, considering his absence.

When asked about any apparent Bell rust, coach Mike Tomlin cited the team’s 13 penalties for 144 yards.

“That put us behind the chains and minimized the running game,” Tomlin said. “Write that.”

Bell is known to get stronger as games progress, and he showed a glimpse of that with a 15-yard gain on the Steelers’ final drive that helped seal the game. That’s why Bell wouldn’t mind more touches in Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings.

“I wanted to help the team win, so I want to feel involved at all times,” Bell said.

“I think ownership and sometimes fans specifically think whoever is the next guy has never missed a draft pick and maybe never will,” said Mark Dominik, who was Tampa Bay’s general manager from 2009-13. “When you bring a person (to interview), there’s going to automatically be this, ‘Well, he missed on a second-rounder,’ or, ‘This draft class didn’t pan out.’
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Newton spent more time on Tuesday talking about his brother’s performance than himself.

Ryan is only signed through 2018, and there have been discussions about an extension. Ryan is averaging $20.75 million per year on his current deal. When he signed it, he didn’t become the league’s highest-paid player. But when the Falcons do extend last year’s league MVP, he probably will.

Ryan has been consistently good over his career, but he took his game to a new level last season as he led the NFL’s top-scoring offense to a Super Bowl. The Falcons are currently backed up against the cap, with Spotrac projecting them $6 million over before factoring in any increase for next season. Extending Ryan could free up some space short-term and would be a win for Ryan and the team.

The elder Newton, 28, has the physical size and the “it” factor teams look for. But this is a critical time for him, as he comes off statistically the worst season of his career and surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff.

Coach Ron Rivera said on Sunday that his quarterback was “ready” for the opener. He said on Tuesday that Newton wouldn’t be limited on any kinds of throws.

“Now hearing him talk on the phone and hearing his responses to certain things … I’m telling him, like, you’re giving people hope,” Newton said. “Like a team that probably has been known for their band, you know, people are going to the football games now to watch football … not just to listen to the band play.”
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