AFC North Spin cycle: Week Three

Mike Wilkening
Pro Football Weekly
AFC North Spin cycle: Ravens, Steelers separating from pack

In this week's AFC North Spin cycle, we explore the Ravens' soaring passing game and the Steelers' struggling pass rush.


What we learned: The offense can pick up the defense against top competition. The Ravens outgained New England 503-396, and Baltimore gained a robust 7.7 yards per play. The Ravens needed their offense to be this good to win, and it was. The Patriots' defense isn't one of the NFL's best, but it's better than it was a season ago. So is the Ravens' offense, and that's a good sign for Baltimore. QB Joe Flacco, save for one early interception, was wonderful, completing 28-of-39 passes for 382 yards with three TDs. The offensive line stepped up, too; Flacco wasn't sacked once, and the Ravens gained 4.7 yards per carry. Finally, WR Torrey Smith, playing less than 24 hours after the passing of his brother, absolutely inspired with six catches, 127 yards and two TDs. 

What’s in store next: The Ravens have to quickly regroup and host Cleveland on Thursday night. The Browns are the AFC's only winless team, and the Ravens are heavy favorites, but Cleveland has played Baltimore tough at M&T Bank Stadium recently. The Browns have been fairly competitive this season and are more talented than a season ago. Can they give Baltimore a game? So much depends on how the subject of our next topic plays.

What the heck? The Ravens are allowing 401.3 yards per game. Yes, that's correct. The pass defense is a major concern, with teams not afraid of testing any Ravens cornerback other than Lardarius Webb, who's playing very, very well. The pass rush is also an ongoing issue with Terrell Suggs (Achilles) sidelined. The Browns have some talent on offense, but it's young. Last season, and in other recent seasons, the Ravens' defense surely would have had a decisive edge against an inexperienced attack like this. Perhaps Baltimore still does, but it hasn't played like it in the first three games. This is a good matchup for the Ravens' defense, but can it capitalize?


What we learned: The Bengals' form continues to improve. Their 38-31 win at Washington on Sunday was their best effort of the season, considering the numbers and circumstances. Their defensive line came up big, leading a pass rush that brought down Redskins QB Robert Griffin III six times. DE Michael Johnson notched three sacks, with DT Geno Atkins and DE Carlos Dunlap also providing pressure, including one sack apiece. Overall, Cincinnati allowed a respectable 5.1 yards per play. (One negative: the run defense struggled, allowing 213 yards on the ground.) The offense also deserves kudos; the Redskins have had their problems vs. the pass, and the Bengals exploited this weakness. QB Andy Dalton, in another sharp performance, threw for 328 yards and three TDs. What's more, WR Mohamed Sanu hit A.J. Green for a 73-yard TD pass on the game's first play, with Sanu showing impressive arm strength and accuracy. Green, for his part, was spectacular, catching nine passes for 183 yards and a TD (on 11 targets). 

What’s in store next: The Bengals travel to Jacksonville for their second road game of the season. The teams last met in Week Five of the 2011 season, with Cincinnati overcoming a fourth-quarter deficit to win. The Jaguars earned their first victory of 2012 on Sunday at Indianapolis, prevailing 22-17 on an 80-yard TD pass from Blaine Gabbert to Cecil Shorts in the final minute. 

What the heck? Dalton cost his club seven points with an errant swing pass that Redskins LB Robert Jackson intercepted in the endzone. Dalton, it should be noted, was hit on the play, which didn't help matters. Nevertheless, that's a play that the Bengals shouldn't be looking to run deep in their territory again. Even if BenJarvus Green-Ellis had caught the ball, he would have gained little ground. Also, the Bengals' defense surely will have to tighten up vs. the run with Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew (177 rushing yards in Week Three) up next. 


What we learned: The Browns will pay the price if they start slowly. They surrendered two early TDs to Buffalo and could never quite fight all the way back in a 24-14 loss on Sunday. The Browns were outgained 107-4 on the first two drives of the game; while the Bills reached the endzone twice, the Browns produced two three-and-outs. Said head coach Pat Shurmur on Monday: "(Until) we become more explosive in all areas of our game, that’s a tough way to start a game. Was our team ready to play? Absolutely. Did we execute efficiently? Absolutely not." The Browns could get little going on the ground, with Trent Richardson gaining just 27 yards on 12 carries. The passing game had its moments but wasn't spectacular. If the offense is hit-and-miss, the defense must raise its game, and though Cleveland did get more stops after the Bills' C.J. Spiller left with a shoulder injury, Buffalo was able to coast on fumes and eventually secure the game late. 

What’s in store next: The Browns have the unenviable task of playing the Ravens in Baltimore, and on a short week, to boot. Cleveland isn't without a puncher's chance; the Ravens' defense has disappointed early this season, and Baltimore comes off an emotional win over New England. Can Cleveland hang around and be a thorn in the side of Baltimore? How the Browns start the game will be a big key. 

What the heck? QB Brandon Weeden has played better the past two games. Though he threw a pair of interceptions Sunday, both came with the Browns trailing late. Generally speaking, he has been more prudent with the ball the past two weeks. He has taken a step forward. Now, if only he had a clear-cut No. 1 receiver. Mohamed Massaquoi played well in Week Two but left with a hamstring injury on Sunday. Greg Little has disappointed thus far. The Browns have needed a go-to-guy for some time, and the song remains the same in 2012. 


What we learned: The Steelers could not hold a pair of 10-point second-half leads against 0-2 Oakland, and they ended up on the wrong side of a 34-31 road loss on Sunday. The Raiders' offense ran and threw with success vs. Pittsburgh. RB Darren McFadden had a 64-yard TD run. QB Carson Palmer threw three TD passes. Overall, Oakland converted 7-of-12 third downs. The Steelers' offense had great success passing, but they struggled to run, and they lost a pair of fumbles. In the end, they couldn't shut the door on Oakland. Said head coach Mike Tomlin: "That was a poor performance by us; when you play like that you (lose) football games. Not enough stops on defense, we turned the ball over on offense, we gave up a big return or two which provided field position and a shot in the arm in the kicking game and allowed them to respond to some scores."

What’s in store next: The Steelers have their bye in Week Four, which gives ROLB James Harrison (knee), SS Troy Polamalu (calf) and RB Rashard Mendenhall (knee) more time to heal. The Steelers missed all of them on Sunday. The Steelers' pass rush needs Harrison, while Polamalu's playmaking ability could have been useful on the back end of the defense. And Mendenhall could give this ailing running game a lift. 

What the heck? The Steelers have a mere five sacks in three games. Harrison has missed all of those games, and there's plenty of time for the pass rush to perk up. However, if the Steelers aren't rattling opposing quarterbacks, there are plays to be made against their secondary. This isn't the first time the Steelers have had some trouble vs. the pass, and it won't be the last if the rush doesn't start to get there a little more.