AFC North Round-Up: Notes On The Bengals, Browns, Ravens and Steelers

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 16 : Santonio Holmes #10 of the New York Jets can't hold onto the ball after being hit by Ryan Clark #25 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in front Ike Taylor #24 on September 16, 2012 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Week 2 is now in the books, so let’s take a look at how the denizens of the AFC North fared. Let’s go straight for the numbers:

Team Record:

Baltimore Ravens: 1-1

Cincinnati Bengals: 1-1

Cleveland Browns: 0-2

Pittsburgh Steelers: 1-1

Now let’s look more closely at how these teams achieved these records.

QB play

Although it may be lamented by many, the AFC North is no longer a ground-and-pound division. Most games are going to depend on the QB play, although this is naturally assisted by an effective running game. So here are the QBs by the numbers thus far. Here's a graphic comparing their average passer rating and average completion percentage for the first two weeks:

Qb_stats_week_2_medium

In other news: Joe Flacco was the AFC Week 1 Player of the Week.

All of the AFC North QBs have thrown at least one interception. Flacco and Roethlisberger each have one; Andy Dalton has thrown two, and Brandon Weeden threw four in an epic Week One game, garnering him a spectacular passer rating of 5.1. He improved a good deal in Week Two.

Wide Receivers:

It doesn’t just take a QB to make a play—he has to have receivers who actually hold onto the ball. Brandon Weeden’s woeful Week One QB rating wasn’t only due to bad throws on his part—his receivers let him down big time. Here are the numbers each week for numbers of receivers targeted and how many of them dropped the ball. (At this point I can’t correct for how well or poorly the ball was thrown, or how well the pass was defended. As the season progresses some of those numbers should become available for at least the most targeted receivers.)

Wrs__w2_medium

Running Game:

Despite my proviso about the AFC North not being a ground-and-pound division anymore, obviously an effective running game is necessary for any team to keep the opposing defense honest. Here is how the run game stacked up in Weeks 1 and 2. And I apologize to CIN for being green in chart 2:

Rusihing_wk_2_medium
Rushing2__wk_2_medium

Defense:

As we all know, defense wins championships. At least if you have sufficient offense to keep the opposition off the field on a regular basis. So what is the Week Two ranking of the defenses? (This is based on the NFL League Rankings, which they base on the average total yards per game given up.)

Ravens: 27th

Bengals: 30th

Browns: 29th

Steelers: 7th

Don’t shoot the messenger. I fully expect the more detailed breakdowns of Football Outsiders and other such sites to yield rather different results in the coming weeks. To give perhaps a more balanced picture, here are a couple of other stats for each team (Cumulative for Week 2):

Defense_stats_wk_2_medium

Finally, Special Teams. As the 2009 Steelers discovered, poor Special Teams play can make the difference between making the playoffs and cleaning out your lockers shortly after the start of the new year. So let’s look briefly at how the Special Teams are doing. Here are some relevant numbers:

Special_teams_wk_2_medium

What it all means:

Let’s start with the only team not tied for first place. Cleveland lost in Week One to the Eagles, in large part thanks to the incompetence of rookie QB Brandon Weeden. The Eagles tried to lose as well, but Michael Vick finally pulled his head to the surface long enough to connect with one of his own receivers, instead of one of the defenders, and they won by one point.

In Week Two the Cleveland offense decided to play to win, thus assisting the defense greatly. Eight (!) different receivers were targeted by Weeden and actually managed to hold onto the ball, and Trent Richardson started to demonstrate why he was a top-five draft pick. (In the process he managed to put up 20 points for my fantasy team, for which I am extremely grateful.) Unfortunately for the Browns, the Bengals were just that little bit better, and won by a TD. The deciding TD was a special teams punt return on Cleveland’s first punt.

My random and worthless prediction: the Week Three game at home vs. the Bills will come down to whether C. J. Spiller or Trent Richardson runs more effectively. The teams are quite well matched, to all appearances, and if Cleveland’s passing game continues to improve they should have an excellent chance to beat the visitors. It will most likely be a close-fought game, and may again come down to a special teams gaffe, so I trust the Browns’ coaching staff will be concentrating this week on the return coverage.

Now for the three teams tied for first in the division. (One could also look at it as the three teams tied for next-to-last.) Let’s start with the Ravens, since they also managed to lose a low-scoring game to Michael Vick.

Week One was a triumph of offensive awesomeness on the part of Joe Flacco, who torched the hapless Bengals for a 44-13 victory. Flacco put up the best QB rating posted by an AFC North QB so far this season, (although only just—Andy Dalton almost matched it on Sunday.) But in Week Two, despite the continuing generosity of Michael Vick, who gave up two more interceptions for six(!) so far this season, the Ravens weren’t quite able to pull out the win, and Flacco’s QB rating was a much less impressive 66.8. One thing the first two games have made evident is the Eagles’ defense is a force to be reckoned with.

My random and worthless prediction for next week: This is a grudge match for the Ravens, and it is in Baltimore. On the other hand, the Patriot’s defense is considerably better than last season, and their offense appears to be clicking on all cylinders. Despite what appears to be a rather fluky win by the Cardinals in Week 2, I think it is entirely possible the Patriots will hand the Ravens a home loss.

So what of the hapless Bengals? The Week One game was closer than the 13-44 final score would indicate, at least until well into the third quarter. After that the Bengals only managed three more points, and an Ed Reed pick-6 near the end of the third quarter put the lid on any hopes the Bengals might have had for a comeback.

They had a lot more hap on Sunday, pulling out a win against a much improved Browns offense. A punt return for a touchdown was the winning seven points, as otherwise the Browns matched the Bengals score for score.

My random and worthless prediction: The Bengals are at Washington, and will have their hands full with RGIII, who has not played like a rookie so far. I predict a solid win for the Skins next Sunday.

And finally, what of the Steelers? Despite Peyton Manning being the Peyton Manning of old in their match in Week One, and despite the almost surgical precision with which he carved up an increasingly tiring defense later in the game, the Steelers’ offense played well, and if the depleted offensive line had been able to hold off the pass rush for one more play, the Steelers might well have pulled out a win.

In Week Two they showed what they are capable of, and while there is certainly room for improvement, they dominated the game from about the end of the first quarter on out. No Harrison, no Polamalu, no problem. And thanks to the 49ers ending the Packers' 13-year streak of winning their home opener, and thanks to Pittsburgh West defeating the Pats at home, ending their 10-year streak of winning their home opener, the Steelers are now the league leaders in consecutive wins in their home opener, with 10.

My random and worthless prediction for next week: the Raiders are not an opponent to be taken lightly, despite their embarrassing loss to Miami. (Or perhaps they are not an opponent to be taken lightly because of their embarrassing loss to Miami.) It’s never easy for an Eastern team to travel to the West Coast, and because of the 4:25 start time the Steelers’ body clocks are going to be on evening time already. Nonetheless, I see the Steelers eking out a tough win. I think it will be important for the running game to pick up a bit of steam if they are to do this. It will also help a good deal if Troy is ready to go on Sunday. He always seems to play well against his college roommate, and a pick-6 or two of Palmer would help to set the tone.

My also random, worthless, and probably homeristic prediction for the division standings after Week 3:

PIT: 2-1

BAL: 1-2

CIN: 1-2

CLE: 1-2

That’s all for now, folks. Have a great week and let’s get ready for some more Steelers football!

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