Around the AFC North: The Method Behind the Madness

If you take a look at all of the divisions in the NFL, one thing jumps out to you. There’s one division where all of the teams have a winning record. That division is the AFC North. Each of the teams are 6-4 or better. Here are how the teams sit at this point”

Cleveland Browns 6-3

Cincinnati Bengals 5-3-1

Pittsburgh Steelers  6-4

Baltimore Ravens 6-4

There are various things that have factored into how the division has played out so far. The Ravens have an offense that has benefited from the steadying hand of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. The Bengals will now rely on rookie running back Jeremy Hill to step up in place of the injured Giovanni Bernard. Antonio Brown has become the best wide receiver in the NFL statistically and that has helped revitalize the Steelers offense. Meanwhile in Cleveland, the Browns are benefiting from the leadership provided by a key veteran addition during the off season. This week, Around the AFC North takes a look at how they got there.


Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens and Gary Kubiak was a perfect match. Kubiak is a coach that has established himself as one of the better play callers in the NFL. He has helped numerous players achieve their best seasons in their career. That goes for running backs (Arian Foster, Terrell Davis), wide receiver (Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey), tight ends (Owen Wilson, Shannon Sharpe) and quarterbacks (Matt Schaub, John Elway, Steve Young).

The Ravens rushing attack was dead last in the NFL in average yards per carry last year, only averaging 3.1 yards per rushing attempt. They only averaged 83 rushing yards per game and only scored seven touchdowns. The rushing attack has done much better in Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme. Justin Forsett has become a feature back. The Ravens are now averaging 4.4 yards rushing per carry. They have already scored 11 rushing touchdowns and there are six games left in the season for them. As for the average yards rushing per game, that has been increased by 41 yards per game. That’s almost a 50% increase.

Another problem for the Ravens was the amount of times that Joe Flacco was sacked in 2013. Flacco was sacked 48 times last season. The Ravens have only given up 14 sacks in ten games this year. The main reason is that Kubiak is working with Flacco to shorten his mental clock in the pocket. The plays are designed to get the ball out of his hands quicker and into the hands of his playmakers. All of this adds up to the Ravens offense being tied with the Dallas Cowboys and Steelers for eighth in the NFL at 26.1 points per game. They are enjoying a week off this week because they have a bye. Their next game will be a prime time matchup with the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football.


Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have hit a road bump when it comes to their offense. Things have gotten worse on paper for their offense because starting running back Giovanni Bernard is out due to an injury. Jeremy Hill was their second round pick in the draft. He was expected to come in and contribute early as shown by the team releasing BenJarvis Green-Ellis. one of the most popular guys in the locker room.

They will rely on Hill to be their bell cow while Bernard works his way back. Hill is a big back that runs hard but still has some shiftiness with him. He has earned the respect of his teammates this season. “Running the ball is about having an attitude,” said center Russell Bodine. “Jeremy carried the ball really well. He ran with good low pads, ran some guys over, and made some guys miss.”

The Bengals players have noticed Hill’s work ethic and appreciate his ability to step in will Bernard is out.  “He’s a consistent player,” said fullback Ryan Hewitt. “He shows up every day and comes to work. Obviously we can’t wait to get Gio back, but it’s awesome to have depth like that.” The hard work that Hill puts in is because he strives for perfection on the field. It motivates him. “I’m a great self-motivator and there’s probably no bigger critic of my play than myself. I expect the world out of me and sometimes it’s to my disadvantage but I continue to keep pushing.” said Hill.

Hill is tied with Bernard for the team lead in touchdowns. They both have scored five touchdowns so far this season. Hill is averaging 4.7 yards per carry which is tops on the team. The Bengals are likely to pound the ball with Hill when they face the explosive Saints offense in New Orleans on Sunday.


Cleveland Browns

Donte Whitner has brought a winning attitude to the Browns this season. Whitner competed in the tough NFC West rivals with the San Francisco 49ers. In those days, the NFC West was considered to be the most physical division. That same blue collar, physical mentality now exists in Cleveland. I spoke to the Brown’s defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil before the season started. He raved about the leadership qualities that Whitner brought to the table right from the first minicamp.

New head coach Mike Pettine kept it simple when he spoke about the veteran additions at a recent press conference. “We have talked about what Whitner brings, keeping the rest of the room grounded and driving. We have to know why we got here and we continue to do it.” Pettine knew exactly what he was doing when he and general manager signed the two veteran players early in the free agency period.

Whitner has filled in well for T.J. Ward, a safety that signed with the Denver Broncos. He brings more of a leadership aspect after having served that same role with the 49ers. It is not coincidence that the young safeties that played opposite of Whitner had standout years. Dashon Goldson enjoyed his finest season as a pro when he teamed up with Whitner in San Francisco before signing a big money deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Eric Reid found instant success during his rookie season thanks to the tutelage of Whitner as well. This year, Tashaun Gipson is the beneficiary. He leads the NFL in interceptions with six to his credit.

The leader in Whitner comes out whenever he talks about his team. “Work hard. Show up early. Leave late…[Being in first place] makes you want to work that much harder.” Whitner continued; “We understand there’s some teams right now in the National Football League that are thinking about off season plans, shipping cars back and closing up apartments. We aren’t thinking about that. We’re thinking about winning football games.” The Browns will be tested when they face the resurgent rushing attack of the Houston Texans this week.


Pittsburgh Steelers

Few wide receivers are producing the way that Antonio Brown is this season. Brown is leading the NFL in receptions (79) and yards (1,070). His eight touchdowns put him in fourth place among all receivers. Not to mention, he also is an explosive punt returner. At 5-11, 186 pounds, it’s hard to believe that he is one of the most productive players in the NFL. He has the ability to play in the slot or win on the outside.

The thing that makes Brown so dangerous is his ability to gain yards after the catch. The Steelers do a great job of highlighting this when they make sure to get him the ball in open space. They will get him the ball on screens, run clear-outs and get him the ball on under routes and even give him the ball on a reverse. Brown even has a touchdown pass to his credit this season. He is one of those players that will force opposing defensive coordinators to stay up late trying to figure out ways to stop him.

He has proven himself to be a number one receiver that will command a double team. This is another way that he can impact a game. It doesn’t reflect itself in the box score but his ability to dictate coverage helps other players on the team. Martavis Bryant for one has benefited from being able to face single coverage because of the respect that opposing defenses have for Brown. The running game also benefits because they will rarely face eight in the box thanks to the focus on limiting big plays from #84. This week the Steelers face the Tennessee Titans. They have no match for Brown so expect to see him continue to add to his already impressive totals.

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