Battle of the AFC North Running Games: A Midseason Retrospective II

Mitch Stringer-US PRESSWIRE

Although they may think so, the offense isn't just about the quarterback and receivers. Here we compare those critical components of the ground game, the backs and the line, and see just how wrong I was in July...

In Retrospective I we looked at a lot of statistics for the individual players, and compared those to the current statistics. But for the ground game it isn't nearly so easy to tease out the individual components. Sure, you can look at past results, but because of the intimate relationship between the playcalling, the offensive line, and the success achieved by the backs, it probably makes less sense to do so.

Furthermore, a couple of factors made it particularly difficult to predict. Neither the Steelers nor the Bengals have a true No. 1 running back in the sense the Browns and Ravens do. In the case of Pittsburgh this is because of the injury to Rashard Mendenhall, who has at this point played in one game. In the case of Cincinnati it is because the determination was made to have more of a "running back by committee" approach, although I suspect if BenJarvus Green-Ellis had shown himself to be enormously superior to the other backs they might not have made the same decision.

The situation got more complicated as the season progressed. Trent Richardson, Cleveland's stud pick in the 2012 draft, was injured early in the season, an injury which limited both his effectiveness and his carries. Injuries to Isaac Redman and then to Jonathan Dwyer forced the Steelers to play whichever back was healthy for several games, and the revolving door style of offensive line didn't help, either. But some things never change.

Here's what I had to say about the assumed No. 1 RBs, back in July:

I haven’t looked at the numbers yet, because I don’t like facts to get in the way of my lovingly crafted opinions, but I’m guessing they are going to show Ray Rice as the créme de la créme of the AFC North running backs. He does it all. He runs with power, speed, and shiftiness, shedding tackles as he goes, as the Steelers know to their cost. He is durable, and other than missing the final three games of his rookie season (2008) with a calf injury, has never missed a game. He is a true three-down back, being a reliable receiver out of the backfield or lined up in the slot.

The Bengals have exited the Cedric Benson era and picked up former Patriot BenJarvus Green-Ellis, aka The Law Firm. Green-Ellis never puts the ball on the ground. Never. He also gets a surprising number of yards, considering his career thus far has been with the New England Patriots. Whether he will still be able to do so without the threat of Tom Brady behind him remains to be seen.

The Browns are the proud new owners of a fully loaded, 2012 top five model running back in Trent Richardson. The Browns pulled the trigger on Richardson at pick No. 3 in the first round. Richardson is obviously unproven in the NFL, but by all reports is a three-down back who will give Ray Rice a run for his money.

Isaac Redman, a UDFA who has been a fan favorite since Mike Tomlin nicknamed him "Redzone Redman" in his first training camp, will be the starter [for the Steelers.] Undoubtedly his stellar performance in the Wild Card game vs. the Denver Broncos was part of the reason there was no apparent attempt to sign anyone to replace Mendenhall.

I also mentioned the "quaint, old-timey" position of the fullback, and noted Pittsburgh had designated a player to be the fullback—David Johnson. As we all know, David Johnson sustained a season-ending injury in the pre-season and is on IR for the year. But Will Johnson, a free-agent pickup last seen working on an assembly line, was in Latrobe at training camp, and he has carried the torch for the Steelers.

Before we get to any actual numbers let's take a look at the offensive lines. In the previous post(s) I divided them into OTs and OGs, but here is a summary, giving the players I assumed would be the starting offensive line for each team:

Baltimore Ravens: LT—Bryant McKinnie; LG—Bobbie Williams; C—Matt Birk, RG—Marshal Yanda; RT—Michael Oher

Cincinnati Bengals: LT—Andrew Whitworth; LG—Travelle Wharton; C—Kyle Cook; RG—Kevin Zeitler; RT—Andre Smith, Jr.

Cleveland Browns: LT—Joe Thomas; LG—Jason Pinkston; C—Alex Mack; RG—Shawn Lauvao; RT—Mitchell Schwartz

Pittsburgh Steelers: LT—Mike Adams; LG—Willie Colon; C—Maurkice Pouncey; RG—David DeCastro; RT—Marcus Gilbert

So what do the lines look like at the moment? Here they are (changes in italics):

Baltimore Ravens: LT—Michael Oher; LG—Bobbie Williams; C—Matt Birk, RG—Marshal Yanda; RT—Kelechi Osemele

Cincinnati Bengals: LT—Andrew Whitworth; LG—Clint Boling; C—Jeff Faine; RG—Kevin Zeitler; RT—Andre Smith, Jr.

Cleveland Browns: LT—Joe Thomas; LG—John Greco; C—Alex Mack; RG—Shawn Lauvao; RT—Mitchell Schwartz

Pittsburgh Steelers: LT—Max Starks; LG—Willie Colon; C—Maurkice Pouncey; RG—Ramon Foster; RT—Mike Adams

Ravens: Bryant McKinnie is now the back-up LT, and rookie tackle Kelechi Osemele replaced Oher when he was moved to LT.

Bengals: Travelle Wharton was IR'd in late August after suffering a season-ending knee injury. He was replaced by second-year guard Clint Boling. Center Kyle Cook was injured in a pre-season game, and free agent veteran Jeff Faine (last with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) was signed to replace him.

Browns: Second-year LG Jason Pinkston developed a blood clot in his lung in mid-October and was placed on IR. Veteran John Greco, who was traded to Cleveland in 2011, replaced him.

Steelers: Mike Adams did not show enough to the coaches during training camp to win the LT job, which was instead given to newly re-signed tackle Max Starks. In the meantime, RT Marcus Gilbert was a menace, falling on LG David DeCastro, C Maurkice Pouncey, LT Max Starks, and finally himself in a saga worthy of a made-for-TV thriller. The injury to DeCastro was significant—he is currently on designated IR, and may return at some point in the season, but he is still a long way off. He was replaced by perennial backup-until-he-becomes-the-starter-due-to-injuries-or-incompetence Ramon Foster. The injuries to Starks and Pouncey were minor, fortunately, although Pouncey was out for a game or two. After Gilbert took himself out, Mike Adams stepped in at RT. So it has only been in the past several weeks that the same line combination has played together.

Before we look at the rushing statistics, let's look at a comparison of the offensive line ratings. The first set is Football Outsiders's rankings for 2011 and 2012. The second set is Pro Football Focus' rankings, also for 2011 for 2012. All of these are rankings, so lower is better:

Fo_o_line_11_medium

Fo_o_line_12_medium

According to Football Outsiders, Baltimore, always good at run blocking, has improved this season (they are No. 2.) Cincinnati has improved considerably, Cleveland has stayed the same and Pittsburgh has substantially regressed. As for pass blocking, the Ravens and Bengals have regressed (the Bengals big-time,) the Browns have improved a great deal, and the Steelers are slightly worse than last season. I don't know what the trends would look like (although I expect Pittsburgh looks a good bit better now, especially in run blocking, than they did earlier in the season. FO only lets you look at it as a cumulative stat, though.

Pff_o_line_11_medium

Pff_oline_12_medium

As you can see, PFF takes a somewhat different view, although the differences between the two sites aren't as large as usual. Probably the biggest difference is in how they view the Bengals and the Steelers—rather than thinking they have regressed in pass protection, they feel the Steelers and the Bengals have improved this season, and they seem to feel exactly opposite of FO about the Bengals' run blocking.

If we use some sort of gut-level averaging, it seems the 2012 Ravens are the best at run blocking, with the Browns and the Steelers pretty much equally unimpressive and the Bengals good or bad according to taste. Baltimore sucks at pass protection, Cleveland is good no matter which site you consult, the Bengals are again terrific or horrible according to taste, and the Steelers are either better than average or worse than average.

Which isn't terribly helpful. I needed some sort of tie-breaker, so I went to Advanced NFL Stats. Since they have a number of different ways you can look at the stats, it wasn't particularly straightforward, but pretty much however you looked at it, the Ravens and the Bengals were in the top 10 (and generally in the top five) in run blocking, and Cleveland and Pittsburgh are in the bottom half of the league, more or less, depending on what you sort for. As far as pass blocking, the whole AFC North is in the bottom half of the league in their opinion. So I'm going to go with this order:

Run Blocking, best to worst:

BAL, CIN, CLE, PIT

Pass Blocking, best to worst:

CLE, CIN, PIT, BAL

This isn't very scientific, but it's a ranking.

So finally we get to look at the running backs. Bearing in mind the order in which the teams are ranked, you might think that would also be the order of the running game, and at first you would have been right, sort of. Here's the Trending chart for the first nine weeks of the season:

Rush_trend_9_medium

As you can see, the Ravens began well, and gradually got worse, although they had a spike in Week 5. Cleveland has been all over the chart, primarily depending on the health of Trent Richardson. Pittsburgh was awful until Week 7, other than Rashard Mendenhall's one game in Week 5. (Even then they tied Cincinnati for the least yards that week.) Since the O-line has played together for several weeks the running game is suddenly at the top of the AFC North. What does this tell us about the mysterious synergy between running backs and offensive lines? Here's the bottom line:

Rushing_medium

Conveniently, the Run Blocking Best to Worst is in alphabetical order, so the chart is in this order. Judging strictly by results, one would switch CIN and CLE. So now we start to ponder the question at the beginning of the article. Who is the best back in the AFC North? Without a doubt, Ray Rice. So does he make his line look good, does his line make him look good, or is it some combination of the two? I vote for option No. 3, but leaning a bit in the direction of Ray Rice.

It is no coincidence in my mind the teams with the two best backs (at least the two best ones who are actually playing) have also gained the most yards and have the most touchdowns, even though not all the touchdowns were made by the primary back. (Both Richardson and Rice also have a number of passing yards to their credit.) Ray Rice has 622 rushing yards, six rushing TDs, and 251 receiving yards. Trent Richardson has 575 rushing yards, five rushing TDs, 240 receiving yards, and another receiving TD.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis has 487 rushing yards, three TDs, and 53 receiving yards. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman have basically split the carries, with Dwyer having a few more yards than Redman. Redman has two TDs, Dwyer none. If the Pittsburgh running game keeps up at its present pace we may see a very different look at the end of the season. As we consider the above information, though, it makes us ponder Pittsburgh LT Max Starks' comment—he feels it is easier for the line to block for one primary back than for a committee of backs, at least for any given game. They all get into a rhythm, and have a better idea how it will all work.

We haven't solved the chicken-and-egg question of the line vs. the back, at least not to my satisfaction, but it will be very interesting seeing how the rest of the season unfolds. So what was my prediction?

First the backs:

The Steelers are the dark horse in this race, as far as I can see. Although as a Steelers homer I firmly believe Isaac Redman is going to surprise a lot of people, only time will tell whether the Wild Card game was an anomaly or the first of many stellar performances. Based upon past performance, I have to stab myself through the heart as I rank the Steelers last. Here is the final tally:

1. Ravens

2. Browns

2. Bengals

4. Steelers

Now the O-line. After a lengthy explanation I won't repeat here, since so much of it turned out to be moot after injuries forced personnel changes, here is how I ranked the O-lines coming into the season:

1. Bengals

2. Steelers

3. Ravens

4. Browns

It is interesting just how much the injuries have affected the line play thus far. It's pretty hard to even predict what will happen down the road because of the injury factor, so I won't even try. But all of you should feel free to give it a go!

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