While everyone naturally and rightfully assumed that competition for the AFC North would be a two-team race between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers (which, by the way, has replaced Pats-Colts as the NFL's best rivalry), the Cincinnati Bengals have stepped up and decided to make things ... well, at least a little bit interesting. This week, the 1-1 Steelers travel to meet the 1-1 Bengals, and this isn't the lead-pipe lock it used to be. Specifically, there seem to be more questions about Pittsburgh's offensive line than there were last year, when that line was perceived as the obstacle the team overcame to win the franchise's sixth Super Bowl. And the Bengals come with a serious challenge in the person of defensive end Antwan Odom(notes), who leads the NFL with 7.0 sacks after putting up five quarterback takedowns against Green Bay's porous line last week.
Pittsburgh's line is tied at fifth in the league with six sacks allowed, but that stat doesn't tell the whole story - for every sack Ben Roethlisberger(notes) takes, there are five plays where he's extending a play beyond its logical conclusion and trying to complete a pass with defenders hanging all over him. This has become more true this season, because the Steelers' running game has completely disappeared - they're averaging 70.5 rushing yards per game, fifth-worst in the NFL. Opponents can tee off on Big Ben, because they're not penalized by productive runs up the middle. The Steelers' line currently rank dead last in Adjusted Line Yards, and they're 29th in Yards per Carry up the middle (2.24 YPC, more than 1.5 YPC below the league average).
This week, left tackle Max Starks(notes) is on the hook. Not only will he be going up against Odom, but the Steelers are at their worst when running to the left outside. The Steelers signed him to a four-year, $26.3 million deal in June after franchising him following the 2008 season, and Starks needs to earn the paycheck today. If he doesn't, the Bengals could jump over the NFL champs in an upset special. It isn't as odd as it once seemed...
We'll be back to evaluate Starks' performance tonight.