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Green Zone League Articles

Reviewing the Puzzle AFC North
By Garth Pearce
Special to gzl-football.com

BALTIMORE RAVENS

The injuries that ravaged this talented team in 2014 have yet to rear their ugly head this season, but cannot be discounted at such an early stage. Week 5's game was a big indication of how well this unit can perform when healthy, having the Flacco-to-Hester hook-up hitting for 3 scores. AP hasn't been his expected force on the ground but you can't let up on run defense or you'll get monstered. When these big names are all on the field together they are a hard unit to defend against, which means you have to outgun them if you have any chance of winning. This is a possibility as the secondary is still a young unit that are known for giving up catches. They've managed more turnovers this season then to the same point last year, but the youth of Dee Milliner and Eric Victorino is showing, with Victorino actually giving better numbers on the DEF-CTHA ratio then the highly picked Milliner who looks more like the weak point this year than his under-speed towering colleague. But you can't put all the blame on the secondary, with the team giving up the 6th most yards per game in the league, coming from 13th in pass defense and the worst at defending the run. Is their 3-4 defense showing the holes in run stopping as they have quite the talented front 7, especially on the line and in the middle. So now we have to consider if the developing youngster in the secondary are holding up their end whilst the more experienced campaigners up the front are letting the team down? This looks like one piece of the puzzle has been worked on whilst another is slipping off the board, because this defense is spending an average of 27.5 minutes on the field per game, at least 3 more than last year. Sitting at 3-3 and 2nd in the division isn't a game breaker as 1 win or divisional wins separate the whole division, so it's still a level playing field and things will need to get more consistent somewhere for Baltimore fans to be happy with this season. If the defense can pick its game up and stop the yardage it might be happier times for the Ravens.


CINCINNATI BENGALS

Bengals offense in 2014 was a lack lustre affair that couldn't net more than 15.8 points a game on average, whilst the turnovers were horrendous and the whole system was just failing to do its job. Move forward a year and the situation hasn't seen a lot of improvement, with points up only 0.6 per game to date, even though their yardage is up from last season by over 70 yards per game (mainly on the back of the passing). Unfortunately while Ryan Tannenhill now has the full-time QB gig his ability to throw safe passes is worse than Klein last year, looking at a 1:2 TD-to-INT ratio at times. He is getting to the end zone more, plus the miss matched running game is scoring better (even with #1 back Giovani Bernard missing a lot of playing time), even if they aren't producing many yards. So with both the starting QB (Klein) and HB (Lacy) from 2014 out of the team the scoreboard has looked prettier in 4 out of 7 games with more than 20 points scored, but when you win from a 9-7 score line and another game sees you shut out, you're not getting any favours from your opponents who are otherwise scoring 30 plus themselves.
A lot of reliance is put on the back of Tannenhill and he's just not getting it done with his current set of players, which leads us to look at the small piece of the puzzle that was the wide receivers corps. The names from last year aren't a factor in this revamped setup, with players traded in or drafted to make for a different group. On paper they have some interesting talent here, lead by the tall timber of Jeff Fuller and Stephen Williams (6'4" and 6'5" respectively), plus rookie DeAndre Hopkins. Again there's not a lot of speed in this group, but there is some serious height to play with. I doubt many of these guys are getting separation, so Tannenhill will be throwing to a contest a lot of the time, which leads to picks with his current accuracy and game smarts. There may be a future combination here, but it'll need a bit of work to find its rhythm.


CLEVELAND BROWNS

MLB D'Qwell Jackson is still leading this defense even though he's slowing considerably, however his understudy is already waiting in the form of Jon Bostic. Jackson still seems to be meeting the requirements of his job even with 76 speed, but with an expiring contract I'd say he won't be back next year and Bostic will start the new era.
RE Gutierrez Rivera is still there but has only collected 1 sack in six games to date, along with 10 tackles. I still think they can get more out of this position from a differently skilled player and the fact that he's only gotten behind the line once this year is more in line with what you'd expect from his abilities. A few talented options have popped up around the league and in drafts over the years so it's not unlikely that a good replacement can be found without breaking the bank, but as was indicated last year there are more pressing needs in Cleveland than a RE.
With Hillis gone rookie Jonathan Franklin has been charged with the running game for the Browns and so far has proven himself competent of the burden. 2nd in total yards and equal fifth for rushing scores he's the Boston Mallett of the team for this season. He's already beaten Peyton's total TDs from last year and hasn't given up the ball at all, plus he's only 16 yards shy of Hillis' total yardage from last year, so whilst Boston Mallet may be down on numbers, Franklin is leading the way to give the Browns a chance.
His accuracy is up 3 points on last year and his awareness has improved by 6, yet what is coming out on the field is well short on the performance Boston Mallett led with in 2014 to the playoffs. Peyton Hillis is no longer there in support, but with his injury history Mallett was used to playing without him anyway, the receivers are getting better and the rest of the offensive unit is still intact, so one can only think that the changes in game plans from last year is not suiting Mallett's style...that or he had a really lucky year but got struck down by the Madden curse by being nominated for league MVP. He's injured now and struggling to get over a shoulder strain but it'll be interesting to see if he can regain his 2014 form and carry the team to lead this balanced division.


PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Age caught up with this Steelers' secondary and the culling took place. Chris Gamble, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu have all departed whilst former Tampa veteran duo of CB Aqib Talib and SS Tanard Jackson are their replacements. Again speed is lacking here alongside Brandon Flowers and the age factor is still in force, leaving a 2-3 year window for this unit to perform before age takes its toll. Whilst the smarts are there the overall lack of speed may prove costly as the number of speedsters on offense grows and some passing games may be able to just blow them out with the long game. Some youth and speed wouldn't go astray here as they'd be supported by the experienced names already mentioned, plus it would lead into a dynasty of pass defense rather than constant patch work.
The young offensive line is getting better with Austin Laurie, Bull Victorino and Ismael Bryan not letting a sack through do far. They have all made improvements from last year, however for those who haven't thought about it, offensive linemen need progression spent in 3 primary skills over nearly every other position's two, and the lack of sure spending from the get go on these guys may hamper their long term viability to be top rated blockers. With Big Ben at the end of his career they won't have the luxury of protecting such a talented QB who can avoid sacks on his own, so they'll need to get motoring on those blocking and awareness skills to give the next guy his best chance at success.
Injuries haven't played a major part in the Steelers performance this season, although the absence of Rashard Mendehall this week may highlight my point from last article: the running game looks ineffective without him as the backups are nowhere near his level. Along with the closing window for top level performance (Mendenhall is on track for regression next year, Roethlisbergr is already down that path) the engine room for the Steelers can't afford to take any more hits when the window is so small for success. They would benefit from a decent understudy to Mendenhall so his absences aren't as costly, plus a youngster could develop in his shadow as he ages and the transition wouldn't be as abrupt.
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