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AFC North Roundup, Week 9: Contenders and Pretenders

As all four teams play their half-way mark match, the AFC North pack appears to separate.

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Later this week I will do a Half-Term Review, and we'll take a second look at what I wrote about each position unit prior to the season and see how well they have fulfilled their promise. Or not. Injuries are always a wild card in any season, and the AFC North has suffered injuries a-plenty. But it's a war, not a battle, and the war can still be won by teams with sufficient quality back-ups to jump into the breach and take over for the injured starters.

But more on that and other such subjects in due time. For now let's dive right in and look at the record:

Baltimore Ravens: 6-2 (Division Record, 3-0)

Cincinnati Bengals: 3-5 (Division Record 1-3)

Cleveland Browns: 2-7 (Division Record 1-3)

Pittsburgh Steelers: 5-3 (Division Record 1-0)

The standings have shifted quite decisively between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in the past few weeks, and barring a miraculous run by the Bengals or an epic meltdown by the Steelers this seems unlikely to alter. Both Pittsburgh and Baltimore have perfect division records, but that will certainly change in Week 11, one way or the other, as the Ravens face the Steelers at Heinz Field.

In the meantime, both Pittsburgh and Baltimore play teams with losing records this weekend (or Monday, in the case of the Steelers.) Both play said teams at home. If the Ravens lose to Oakland and/or the Steelers lose to Kansas City it will at the very least provide plentiful fodder for the naysayers in their fanbases. If both teams win, they will get remarkably little credit, because "they were supposed to beat them." But the real litmus test, at least in terms of the division, obviously will come with the first Steelers/Ravens head-to-head match.

Peter King published a list of coaches in big trouble yesterday, and Cleveland's head coach Pat Shurmer, not surprisingly, headed it. Whether it is right or wrong to blame Cleveland's woes on Shurmer remains to be seen. The succession of unsuccessful coaches there in the past few years might indicate it can't all be attributed to the head coach. But new owner Jimmy Haslett can't be blamed for wanting to bring in his own staff, given the lack of significant progress shown thus far. The Browns are the last AFC North team to be on their bye week, and perhaps a newly invigorated team will jump out of the box and start dominating people. Hopefully not, from my homeristic standpoint, as Pittsburgh plays them twice during the last seven games of the season.

Cincinnati's Marv Lewis was not one of the coaches King mentioned as being on the hot seat, presumably because of last year's contract extension. It's difficult to see why he wouldn't be worried, though, as once again the Bengals were hot out of the gate, only to falter after the quarter-pole.

In other Peter King-AFC North related news, King posted his Mid-Season All-Pro Team. For what I'm guessing is the first time in a while, not a single Steelers or Browns player made his team, on either side of the ball. Only one Baltimore player made it, OG Marshal Yanda. Naturally Cincinnati DT Geno Atkins was on the team, and deservedly so in my opinion.

Jamison Hensley, also of ESPN, published his All AFC-North Midseason Team. Here it is:

QB: Ben Roethlisberger, PIT

O-line: LT: Joe Thomas, CLE; LG: Clint Boling, CIN; C: Alex Mack, CLE; RG: Marshal Yanda, BAL; RT: Mike Adams, PIT

RB/FB: Ray Rice, BAL; Vonta Leach, BAL

WR: A.J. Green, CIN; Mike Wallace, PIT

TE: Heath Miller, PIT

DT: Haloti Ngata, BAL; Geno Atkins, CIN

DE: Michael Johnson, CIN; Brett Keisel, PIT

OLB: LaMarr Woodley, PIT; Vontaze Burfict, CIN

ILB: Lawrence Timmons, PIT

CB: Joe Haden, CLE; Sheldon Brown, CLE

SS: T.J. Ward, CLE

FS: Ryan Clark, PIT

K: Justin Tucker, BAL

P: Kevin Huber, CIN

PR-KR: Joshua Cribbs, CLE

Hensley commented it was "an unexpected twist" to see the division-leading Ravens with the fewest players on the team. But in my opinion it should have been four players rather than five—Justin Tucker has missed a kick, and not only has Phil Dawson not had a miss at any distance, including making several in a row from over 50 yards, but has scored an impressive percentage of the points the Browns have scored this season.

After nine games, the Browns have scored 169 total points. Of those, Brandon Weeden has connected with one of his receivers (including RB Trent Richardson) for 9 TDs, or 54 points. Phil Dawson was nine of nine for the extra points. Trent Richardson has rushed for five TDs, or 30 points, and Montario Hardesty also has a rushing TD, for six points. Phil Dawson was six of six for those extra points. There have been two interception returns for a TD by the Cleveland defense, and Dawson was two of two on the extra points. And Dawson has made a perfect 100% of his FG attempts, 17 for 17, including three in a row from 50 yards or more in the Week 4 game. This is a total of 51 points in FGs—in other words, three less points than Brandon Weeden has thrown for. If you add the 16 extra points, Dawson has scored 67 of the 169 points, or about 40%. He has scored more points than either of the other offensive units, despite having to gain his points by ones and threes rather than sixes. Pro Football Focus isn't enamored of him because of his kickoffs, but frankly, given his value to the Browns and the fact that every other kicker in the AFC North has missed a kick, I would have given Dawson the nod. But Hensley didn't ask me...

And in one final bit of news, I read something else unexpected last week—this item from the Baltimore Sun. In my Week 6 AFC North Roundup, I reported the injury to Ray Lewis, and commented:

...he may be the "heart and soul" of the Ravens' defense, but you can bet your booties he'll be on the sidelines for every single game, screaming at guys, and the television cameras will lovingly play over the scene each and every time.

The Baltimore Sun item linked above states "Ray Lewis not expected back in Ravens' building in near future." To my surprise, I read Lewis has had his surgery and is rehabbing in Florida. This is in stark contrast to Steelers' superstar Troy Polamalu, who is an oft-photographed and commented-upon presence on the sidelines at every game. While his style is nothing like Lewis', Polamalu is watching every snap and relaying the information he gathers to the defense. Although his on-field presence is greatly missed, I believe he is bringing great value to the team from the sidelines. Former RT and current LG Willie Colon spent the past two seasons on IR—and on the Pittsburgh sidelines. He was at team meetings, acted as an extra coach during training camp and during the season, and thus, in my opinion, was probably in much better mental shape to make the transition to guard during the 2012 season. Colon signed a big contract extension just before he was injured in 2010, and had job security. He could have disappeared for the season both years, but chose to stay and support his team.

I am not the person to judge whether Lewis should be doing the same. He is on designated IR, and hopes to return later this season. It is possible his return will happen faster if he rehabs elsewhere. But somehow it doesn't feel right to me.

After this rather lengthy preamble, it's time to get to the stats.

Passer Comparison:


After a Week 6 anomaly in which the AFC North quarterbacks looked relatively similar, Ben Roethlisberger continues to pull away from the field. Whether you look at the NFL figures or Pro Football Focus, his season average is far higher than any of the other division QBs. (Note the chart begins at 55.)

Here is Trending:


As you can see, other than a single game in Week 6 Roethlisberger has either been given the best or second best QB rating in the PFF Signature Stats this season. While Ravens QB Joe Flacco has bested Roethlisberger several times according to PFF (twice, according to the NFL rating system) Flacco is far more inconsistent than Roethlisberger.

The Pro Football Focus rankings for Week 9:

Ben Roethlisberger, PIT: No. 10 (last week No. 9)

Andy Dalton, CIN: No. 24 (last week No. 19)

Joe Flacco, BAL: No. 28 (last week No. 27)

Brandon Weeden, CLE: No. 33 (last week No. 32)

Here's the Interception Watch:

Ben Roethlisberger, PIT: 4

Joe Flacco, BAL: 6

Andy Dalton, CIN: 11

Brandon Weeden, CLE: 12

On to the Receivers:


Are there any receivers left in the AFC North who haven't dropped a catchable ball, according to PFF? Let's see. (The list is limited to WRs with more than 16 targets, TEs with more than 10 targets, and RBs with more than six targets.)

Armon Binns, CIN: 18 of 29 (active but not targeted in Week 9)

Jacoby Jones, BAL: 13 of 24 (one target, not deemed catchable, in Week 9)

Cedric Peerman, CIN: 8 of 8 (active but not targeted in Week 9)

Isaac Redman, PIT: 12 of 12 (2 of 2 in Week 9)

The photo heading the article is Jones and BAL QB Joe Flacco celebrating a touchdown pass against the Browns. As the only active WR with a significant number of targets and no drops this week, I thought he should get the header.

Here's the Trending chart for incompletions:


Despite what seems like an increasing number of drops for Pittsburgh receivers the Steelers are holding steady with the lowest percentage of dropped passes in the AFC North. Cleveland continues to dominate this category.

Now, a comparison of the three principal wide receivers (by number of targets) and the principal tight end:



And new this week, a chart with a rather convoluted name. What it really boils down to is the accuracy of the quarterback as judged by the number of catchable balls compared to the number of throws:


I rather expected Ben Roethlisberger to be the most accurate QB, and he is, but I guess I didn't expect Joe Flacco to be the least accurate. Nor did I suspect Brandon Weeden would outshine both Flacco and Dalton. So there you have it.

In the PFF rankings for Wide Receiver in their Signature Stats, there are the usual AFC North suspects, although they are slipping a bit. Out of 43 ranked receivers (the cut-off is 48 targets or more,) No. 1 is Randall Cobb of Green Bay and No. 43 is Justin Blackmon of the Jaguars. The first AFC North wide receiver on the list is Mike Wallace, at No. 10 (last week No. 8). A.J. Green is next as usual, at No. 12 (last week No. 11.) Torrey Smith of the Ravens (No. 23, last week, No. 21.) Antonio Brown of the Steelers (No. 26, last week No. 25,) and Anquan Boldin (No. 29, last week No. 33) are still on the list, but for the first time Greg Little of Cleveland joins them at No. 37. A significant moment for the Browns, who have not had a receiver on the list since I began tracking this stat.

Now let's take a look at Rushing. I'm amazed I could wait this long, as the past few weeks have been pretty exciting for Pittsburgh:



I'm guessing this is going to be a pretty emotional moment for old-school Pittsburgh fans as the implications sink in. The Steelers have edged out the Browns for Average Yards/Attempt and are second only to Baltimore in Average Yards/Game. And for the past three weeks the Steelers have topped the AFC North in Yards/Attempt, although admittedly they were only competing with the Browns in Week 8. Pittsburgh is the only team who has only gotten a single game from their "franchise running back." (Admittedly Cincinnati doesn't have a designated No. 1 RB, but that is almost certainly what BenJarvus Green-Ellis was brought in to be.)

And now for another Kleenex moment for old-school Steelers fans—we look at the Defense.

NFL Ranking: (In which I average the NFL rankings for Average Yards/ Game Allowed and Average Points/Game Allowed):

Baltimore Ravens: No.24 (No. 26, 396.2 yds., No. 15, 22 pts.) (Last week No. 23)

Cincinnati Bengals: No. 23 (No. 20, 357.4 yds., No. 25, 27.2 pts.) (Last week No. 23)

Cleveland Browns: No. 22(No. 23, 380.1 yds, No. 21, 23.4 pts.) (Last week No. 23)

Pittsburgh Steelers, No. 5 (No. 1, 262.6 yds., No. 9, 20.5 pts) (Last week No. 6)

Pittsburgh has ranked fairly high in a number of defensive categories this season—much higher than many people felt they should. The rest of the AFC North has shocked the league. Last season all four teams were in the top ten in the league in defense, and to see them in the bottom half of the NFL is really surprising.

Football Outsiders doesn't like the Steelers' defense nearly as much as the NFL rankings would indicate. Pittsburgh is still ranked above any of the other AFC North teams, however. To illustrate how subjective these rankings are when you start adjusting the raw stats by various modifiers, Pro Football Focus has Cleveland's defense as the best in the AFC North, by a good bit; Football Outsiders ranks them as the worst, also by a good bit. Pick your poison, I suppose.

Here are some more defensive stats:



These stats are what Mike Tomlin might call the Splash Play rankings. The Steelers' 2012 defense is not a splash play machine by any stretch of the imagination, at least at this point in the season. In the end, though, the most significant number each week is going to be the difference between the points the offense earned (with or without help from the defense) minus the points the defense gave up (also with or without help from the offense.) If that continues to be a positive number, the other numbers are relatively moot.

On to Special Teams:


The vastly improved number for the Steelers in Yards Gained is surprising, given both Pro Bowl returner Antonio Brown and No. 2 returner Chris Rainey went down during the game. Emmanuel Sanders answered the bell with a couple of impressive returns, and for once the Steelers have more yards gained than given up.


The chart maximum had to be moved up to 250 yards this week to accomodate the Pittsburgh numbers : )

Place Kickers:


All of the kickers except Dawson of Cleveland have a single miss. Suisham has the edge percentage-wise on everyone except Dawson, as he has the most attempts.

Scoring Differential



The final chart gives perhaps as good an illustration as any of the state of the AFC North this week. That will do it for this week's edition of the AFC North Roundup.