The AFC North is beginning to shake down a bit as of this week, and the long-term projections are going to depend a good deal on who can field the closest semblance of a healthy team down the stretch, or so it seems. But first, where do we stand?
Baltimore Ravens: 5-2
Cincinnati Bengals: 3-4
Cleveland Browns: 1-6
Pittsburgh Steelers: 3-3
Pittsburgh moved into the No. 2 spot in the AFC North this week, and astonishingly, even with a 3-3 record, are tied for fifth place in the AFC. Ahead of the Steelers are the 6-1 Texans, the 5-2 Ravens, the 4-3 Patriots, and, I suppose, the 3-3 Broncos, since they have a tie-breaker. There is a four-way tie for fifth place, with Miami, Indianapolis, and San Diego, and an astonishing seven teams are below .500.
The injury bug has continued to bite the AFC North in the grass. Part of the injury issues for one of the hard-hit teams, the Ravens, are a league investigation into the non-reporting of Ed Reed as injured. Head coach John Harbaugh is "confident" the league will find nothing to fine, as he claims Reed fully participated in practices and games despite his complaint of a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Meanwhile, the Bengals are perilously thin at a few positions. One of their wide receivers, Armon Binns, was inactive for Sunday's game with an ankle injury, and his replacement, rookie Marvin Jones, sprained his MCL on the first kick return. Center Jeff Faine, an early-season signing to replace injured vet Kyle Cook, went down early the second half and was replaced by undersized rookie Trevor Robinson. Two of their corners, Jason Allen and 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick were sidelined. Allen has a thigh injury, and Kirkpatrick has been fighting a knee injury since the preseason.
The Browns keep getting bad news as well. After losing Chris Gocong, Scott Fujita is out with what may be a career-ending neck injury. Stud first-round pick running back Trent Richardson suffered a rib injury a few weeks ago and has been ineffective since then. Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin has a calf injury which he re-aggravated against the Colts, and which will probably keep him out for some time. And former Pitt Panther and starting LG Jason Pinkston was rushed to the hospital last Thursday with blood clots in his lung, and the team announced on Monday they will put him on Injured Reserve.
The Bengals and Ravens get their bye this week, and they badly need it. The Browns don't get a bye until Week 10.
As for Pittsburgh, it is probably easier to list the Steelers who aren't injured than those who are. But Steeler Nation rejoiced in the return of OLB LaMarr Woodley to the field on Sunday, and rejoiced even more when he intercepted Andy Dalton, leading to the Steelers' offense tying the game just before halftime. With right tackle Marcus Gilbert on the sidelines, the offensive line managed to get through an entire game without an injury. And although the running back corps was whittled down to Nos. three through five, none of them had to leave the field. The seemingly catastrophic Emmanuel Sanders injury has been discussed at length. I expect Mike Tomlin will also cooperate with the league when they investigate his miraculous recovery. Thank heavens the Steelers have such an amazing medical staff.
In non-injury news, seventy-five percent of the AFC North lost their games in Week 7. The Ravens traveled to Houston to take on the Texans, and it was not a good experience. Quarterback Joe Flacco was held to under 150 yards passing for the first time in the 2012 season, and ended up with a QB rating of 45.4. To put this number into perspective, consider this—Steelers WR Antonio Brown's flea-flicker pass to Baron Batch gave him a rating for Sunday's game of 39.6, despite the pass not being completed. Although they are dominant at home, the Ravens have not been nearly as impressive on the road this season, and managed one touchdown in their last two road games.
Cleveland's Brandon Weeden continues to play very well, making it look like the Browns got a bargain. And, miracle of miracles, receiver Greg Little managed to catch all six catchable passes thrown his way on Sunday, in what is probably a career high. (He was targeted seven times.) One of them was for a touchdown, which he bobbled in the endzone and then secured as he slid out of bounds. If the refs had been feeling cranky they might have taken it away from him, but they didn't. However, the Browns still are not making it all the way to competence, and in this game gave up 148 yards on the ground, including two touchdown runs to—wait for it—QB Andrew Luck.
The Bengals started out strong, answering the Steelers' opening field goal with a touchdown, and piling another one on in the hopes of making a statement. But in the end the statement was made by the Steelers, who took the gift interception by LaMarr Woodley, converted it to eight points to tie the game at halftime, and held the Bengals to a single field goal in the second half. Although the Steelers had seemingly done their utmost during the first two quarters to aid Cincinnati's attempts to raise their own self-esteem, Mike Tomlin wasn't in a giving mood. A noticeably more competent team took the field in the third quarter, and played all the way to the end of the game. (Well, more competent, other than the continuing spate of special teams penalties which called back several excellent Antonio Brown returns.) Steeler Nation is also rejoicing in the miraculous resurgence of the running game, which appeared to be DOA after the loss of both Mendenhall and Redman in the Titans game.
The Steelers and Bengals both needed to win the game. The Steelers were the ones who did so, and as a result have a 1-0 division record. The Bengals, conversely, have a 1-3 division record.
It remains to be seen whether Pittsburgh looks more like the first quarter club or the second half one during their upcoming games, but at the end of the season Steeler fans may well look back and bless the NFL scheduling quirk which delayed their first division match until Week 7.
On to the stats:
Passer Comparison: (Charts begin at 50.0, so the differences show up more clearly):
God is in his heaven and all is right with the world as Ben Roethlisberger pulls away from the pack, firmly in his rightful place at the top of the AFC North. Or almost. Because as it happens, when you don't filter for number of attempts, the best quarterback in the entire league for Week 7, according to Pro Football Focus, was Antonio Brown, with a 177.33 QB rating. (PFF has their own metric which takes into account drops by the receiver and so on, and doesn't top out at 158.3.) The next closest QB was Drew Brees, at 118.59. The word on the street is Brown was missing the receiver pretty much every time they ran the play in practice. Maybe Batch missed it because he didn't expect it to be easy to catch.
But back to the starting quarterbacks. The charts above are averages for the season thus far. Here is Trending, giving the PFF QB rating week by week.
Brandon Weeden is leveling out, as one would expect. After a rough start, Andy Dalton was playing at an exceedingly high level. It remains to be seen whether he is reverting to the mean since Week 4 or merely in a small slump. And if this is a slump, he's still playing very well. He put up the highest single-game rating for the season among AFC North QBs, 132.69, (NFL rating) and his lowest, 56.4 this past Sunday, is still better than Joe Flacco's 45.4 in Houston.
In the PFF system the Week 3 game for Dalton is only No. 3, as it was surpassed by Joe Flacco (109.75) in Week 1 and Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2 (109.04.) And as you can see, according to PFF Dalton's worst game was not last Sunday but the season opener against Baltimore. In the meantime, Joe Flacco continues to be the most erratic QB in the division.
I'm not looking forward to the day when Ravens OC Cam Cameron figures out it's a much better bet to run Ray Rice a bazillion times than try to prove Joe Flacco is an elite QB. I'm definitely hoping he doesn't figure it out before the Steelers play them.
In the PFF rankings, Roethlisberger and Dalton are holding steady at No. 11 and No. 18, respectively. (This is out of 34 rated QBs.) Brandon Weeden dropped one spot, to No. 32, and Joe Flacco plummeted from No. 16 to No. 28. (These rankings are for their season average.)
And despite giving up a pick in each of the last two games, Ben Roethlisberger is still winning the Interception Watch:
Joe Flacco: 6
Andy Dalton: 10
Brandon Weeden: 10
Ben Roethlisberger: 3
Interestingly, the only week during the season so far in which at least one AFC North QB has not had an interception-free game is Week 4, when the Steelers were on their bye. (The other QBs gave up one each in Week 4.)
Let's continue on to the guys who make their quarterbacks look good, or not—the receivers:
Here are the remaining receivers in the AFC North (including TEs and RBs when thrown to) who have not dropped what PFF deems to be a catchable pass. (I'm limiting the list to those with more than ten targets [in the season] for WRs, six targets for TEs, and 4 targets for RBs:)
- Heath Miller, PIT: 31 of 40 (still No. 1 of all TEs in the league)
- Armon Binns, CIN: 29 of 45 targets (he did not play in Week 7)
- Chris Ogbonnaya, CLE: 19 of 21
- Jacoby Jones, BAL: 13 of 22
- Isaac Redman, PIT: 10 of 10 (did not play in Week 7)
- Cedric Peerman, CIN: 8 of 8
That's it. (There is also a handful of receivers who didn't make the target minimum who still have a perfect record.) Here's what Trending looks like:
Last week I began comparing the drop rate of the three principal WRs (judged by number of targets) and the No. 1 TE, so here it is for this week. As usual, a receiver with no drops shows only as a space on the chart. Armon Binns still has considerably more targets than the next closest receiver, but this will likely change if he doesn't play next week:
In both of the above charts this is the season average.
I mentioned last week the PFF Wide Receiver ranking for receivers with a minimum of about 40 targets featured Torrey Smith and Mike Wallace as the No. 1 and 2 in the league. This week the highest ranked AFC North receiver is Mike Wallace, at No. 6. A.J. Green is No. 10, Smith is No. 18, Antonio Brown is No. 25, and Anquan Boldin is No. 31. (This is out of 41 ranked receivers.) These rankings are for a cumulative season average.
Now, a look at Rushing:
And now for the really exciting chart, Trending:
Look at that, will you! For at least one brief, shining moment, the Steelers had an effective running game. And do note the photo above. IMHO the ref should have been flagged for Blatantly Offensive Run Interference and 10 yards (at least) should have been tacked onto the end of the run.
As with most everything else, Cincinnati is the most consistent. Trent Richardson's injuries are really hurting the Browns, occasionally dropping them to 2012 Steeler-type depths. This is almost certainly because Richardson is the No. 1 RB on my fantasy team. I swear, agents and players should start paying me not to pick them up...
NFL Ranking (average of ranking for average yards per game given up and average points per game given up:)
Baltimore Ravens No. 22 (No. 26, 400 yds/game, No. 17, 23 pts./game) Last week No. 19
Cincinnati Bengals No. 22 (No. 18, 357.1 yds/game, No. 25, 26.7 pts./game) Last week No. 18
Cleveland Browns No. 25 (No. 27, 410.6 yds/game, No. 23, 25.7 pts./game) Last week No. 26
Pittsburgh Steelers No. 7 (No. 2, 277.3 yds/game [49ers are No. 1] No. 12, 22 pts/game) Last week No. 12
I know we all feel as if the defense isn't a real Steelers-style D (although the second half of Sunday's game was a good start,) and it isn't, but the truth is, there aren't a lot of powerhouse defenses in the league this year. I presume this is because of a combination of the rules favoring the offense and the penalties for old-fashioned defensive play, but for all I know it could be because of the impending Mayan apocalypse.
If you look at total points given up, the Steelers are at No. 10 (although as more teams have their bye weeks the Steelers will drop a bit, unless they start shutting down offenses during the rest of the season.) The teams above them are mostly NFC teams. The closest AFC North team in this stat is the Ravens, at No. 21. If you were to add the Steelers' current average of 22 points per game to their total (on the assumption they had played all seven weeks) they would still beat out every other AFC North team in this stat. Baltimore's record and Pittsburgh's record aren't really as far apart as they seem.
Passes Defensed and Sacks:
Baltimore is still leading in Passes Defensed, Cincinnati in Sacks. (The Ravens are tied for sixth in the league, the Bengals are second in the league in these respective stats.)
Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh offense gave up two balls and the defense only took away one, sending the Steelers back to zero. The Browns continue to dig out of the -4 hole they began the season with, and the Bengals have been losing ground, although they gained one off the Steelers on Sunday.) Baltimore also lost ground on Sunday, with 2 turnovers and only one takeaway. The Browns are actually tied for third in the league in interceptions, with 10, but Brandon Weeden was picked off early and often in the first few games of the season. If they continue at the same pace and Weeden continues to throw a lot less picks, they may well win the TA/TO battle in the AFC this season.
Special Teams are next:
Sorry it's so small. The maximum on both charts is 250 yards. Honestly, if the Pittsburgh special teams would quit having big gains on kick and punt returns called back by stupid penalties, this part of the game would look a lot more respectable. As I understand it, most of these penalties are for stupid holds and such which aren't even near the actual play. Perhaps if the coaching staff threatened to tattoo a Hello Kitty character on the forehead of the next person to get a deserved special teams penalty, maybe they would stop. It's probably illegal, though, which is a great pity.
In Mike Tomlin's presser today he addressed this, stating that some of the "egregious offenders" would be on the bench, once they had enough options for who is actually available to play. But as they don't have enough bodies to staff Special Teams at the moment if they bench some guys, they are not yet able to "make a statement in that regard," as Tomlin said. This is why I think the Hello Kitty tattoos might be just the trick. Maybe even temporary ones, only lasting, say, a year or two...
The AFC North kickers continue to be stellar, including Shaun Suisham, who nailed three kicks right down the middle, all from over 40 yards. Apparently the 54-yard miss didn't mess with his head. Thank goodness for imperturbable Canadians.
And finally, the Scoring Differential:
And now Trending—Baltimore really took a hit in Week 7, while the Steelers are trending up:
That will do it for this week. As Mike Tomlin would say, the arrow is pointing up for the Steelers at the moment. The Ravens and Bengals have a week to recover and regroup, and the Browns are showing signs of life. All in all, the division is still up for grabs, except perhaps for the Browns, who would have to win out just to get to 10-6. Not likely, but in this crazy season it seems as if anything is possible.