With all this talk of wide open offenses in the NFL this year, there is a division where a more traditional game favors the defensive side of the football. The AFC North. Going into yesterday’s games, this division’s four teams ranked 1, 2, 3, & 4 in total defense. Surprisingly it was the Cincinnati Bengals who has led for most of the year before being overtaken by the Ravens. Baltimore luckily had a chance to pad their stats on Monday Night playing an inept Jacksonville team in a 12-7 upset loss.
Each team has the old mantra of running tough, milking the clock, and supplement that with timely passing. Yet the main ingredient is defense, defense, defense. For it was the swarming defense of the Cincinnati Bengals that knocked the offensive minded Buffalo Bills from the ranks of the unbeaten earlier this year 23-20. This was one week after coming out on the short end of a 13-8 alley fight with the 49ers.
These are your Cincinnati Bengals. One year removed from a season that saw Pri-Madonnas Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco fail as Batman and Robin. Watched their franchise quarterback in Carson Palmer threaten to retire over returning to the team. No problem, Bengals draft TCU’s Andy Dalton and fed Cedric Benson the football. Such thinking has been rewarded with 458 yards and 2 TDs despite the fact he sat out yesterday’s 34-12 beat down of Seattle. Dalton has endured a rookie season baptism by fire where he’s finished the first half of the season with 1,479 yards, 9 TDs and 7 interceptions. He is this year’s Mark Sanchez where he’s not being asked to do to much, rely on his running game and his defense. After a 5-2 start, it’s safe to say that Marvin Lewis and his Bengals have an old tried and true winning NFL formula working for them.
As for the defense, Geno Atkins leads the way with 3 sacks with Jonathon Fanene following with 3. Safety Reggie Nelson leads the way with 45 tackles with Ray Maualuga cleaning up with a hard hitting 38. Were you looking for extremely high numbers?? Sorry you don’t understand the formula. Run the football and minimize how much your defense has to play. Been a staple for over 93 years in the NFL. Lets take a look at the standings as well.
Returning to the leader board after 4 straight wins are the defending AFC Champion Steelers who has seen it’s defense surrender more yards than in year’s past. In 2010 the Steelers were tremendous holding opponents to 62.5 yards per game rushing. This year they have had some struggles yet have bounced back to a respectable 8th allowing 99.1 and this week they get James Harrison back from injury. With a rubber match head knocker this week against division rival Baltimore, all hands need to be on deck. However it was the Ravens that bludgeoned the Steelers with 170 yards rushing in week one. In Harrison’s absence, LaMarr Woodley has picked up the slack and leads the team with 9 sacks. Two of which came in last week’s 25-17 win over decade long nemesis Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Yet there are points for concern. Do you realize the win over New England represents their only win over a winning team this season?? Also for all the hard hitting the Steelers have been known for they have only forced 3 turnovers and 2 of those are interceptions. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/pit/2011.htm Right now their leading tacklers are safeties Ryan Clark (50) and Troy Palamalu (48) which shows teams are moving the Steelers off the line of scrimmage. Truth be told they have an easy schedule that may be masking the real Steelers. Right now Pittsburgh is #2 overall in defense yet if you take out the win over New England, their wins come over the Colts (30th in offense), Seattle (31st), Tennessee (25th), Jacksonville (32nd or last), and Arizona (20th).
Just think it’s these anemic offenses that have passed for 10 TDs and only 2 interceptions?? This team is still deficient at defending the pass as they were in last February’s Super Bowl. Right now they are winning on the arm of Ben Roethlisberger. His 365 yards and 2TDs were the difference in the Steelers win on Sunday. Rashard Mendenhall has been solid (421 yds /3 TDs) however it’s come down to one frantic 3rd down scramble & throw after another to sustain drives. Can this formula keep?? If they can win this week at home against Baltimore they can sustain that they are in fact still the team to beat in the AFC North. A loss here and indeed the Ravens will have swept their nemesis and dropped them to 1-3 against teams with winning records. Which will really raise serious doubts on their ability to make it back to the AFC Championship Game.
Ready to try and sweep the Steelers are the up and down Baltimore Ravens. How is it the Ravens lost to the 2-6 Jaguars just two weeks ago 12-7 and to the Titans earlier in the season 26-13?? This team needs to quit overlooking it’s lessor opposition. Joe Flacco is coming under all kinds of heat for not showing much improvement over these last few seasons. He checks the football down too much and isn’t running the total offense when it comes to taking to the air. Yet the NFL’s #1 defense has led them to a 3-1 record against team’s with winning records. Ray Lewis (who else) leads the way with 55 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and 1 interception. As a unit they have 17 sacks, 7 interceptions and 6 fumble recoveries. Again it is up to this unit to carry this team as far as it can go.
The Ravens offense is too reliant on Ray Rice. He’s been super productive out of the backfield with 489 yards rushing, 5 TDs and 33 receptions for 373 yards and 2 more touchdowns. However his playing style takes too many hits and he may wear down by season’s end with this his 3rd season with such a heavy workload. It’s imperative that Flacco make better use of his receivers aside from Anquan Boldin (34 rec. 539 yds 2TDs) and TE Ed Dickson. Flacco is too predictable when you show him zone he won’t throw to the second level and just dumps it to Rice. He will be the reason this team doesn’t make it to the Super Bowl. In his 4th season he should have shown the growth to master more of the offense and learn the nuances of the quarterback position. Will he throw to the second level against the Steelers this week??
Rounding out this defensive group are the “No Name” Cleveland Browns who are in the midst of shaping the same gameplan around a young QB in Colt McCoy while pounding the opposition with Peyton Hillis. Yet this season Hillis (211 yards / 2TDs) has been nicked with an assortment of injuries and has shared time with Montario Hardesty (244 yards). The Browns have been playing close to the vest games all year thanks to a defense filled with No Names that have roped teams into defensive struggles. Last Sunday they were out in San Francisco in another slugfest where they lost a close one 20-10. The 49ers jumped to an early17-3 lead and were nearly shut out from that point on. Again this defense was let down by an offense that couldn’t get out of it’s own way being held to 66 yards rushing. In their defense they were down to a second string running back with both Hillis and Hardesty out with injuries.
So how are the Browns just 3-4?? They have been able to best the weak teams in defensive struggles and can’t get over the hump when they require more offense. Their 5th ranked defense has been led by D’Qwell Jackson, a fifth year linebacker out of Maryland, who is having the best season of any MLB /ILB. He’s corralled 64 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 2 fumble recoveries and looks like a young Ray Lewis. In fact this team has 17 sacks while forcing 8 turnovers. Four linemen have multiple sacks so far this season, their first under defensive co-ordinator Dick Jauron. Their a hodge podge group of veteran free agents and a few unheard of stars like Jackson. If they can get through the next three games relatively healthy, five of their final 6 games are against defensive brethren in cold weather. Their defense can only carry them so far. Otherwise they stand a chance to make some serious noise in the division if they can get some offensive help. Will they get it??
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