Third of an eight-part series
In PFW's midseason team reports, we focus on each team's biggest surprise and biggest disappointment, a fantasy football MVP, an assistant coach on the rise, and a fearless prediction for the second half of the season.
Biggest surprise: Injuries forced CB Chris Carr into the starting lineup, and he generally has fared well for a pass defense that exceeded expectations early in the season. Carr has made more starts this season than in any other in his six-year NFL career.
Biggest disappointment: WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh had the game-winning touchdown catch against Pittsburgh in Week Four but was largely a nonfactor in the first half of the season with Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason the starting wideouts and TE Todd Heap still an important part of the offense.
Fantasy MVP: Those who drafted Boldin expecting him to make an instant impact in the Ravens' offense have been pleased with the results. Boldin is on pace for double-digit touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards receiving. His dominant Week Three performance vs. Cleveland (8-142-3) was one of the better games we've seen by a wideout this season. The Ravens were looking for a No. 1 receiver when they acquired Boldin from Arizona, and he has fit the bill.
Assistant coach on the rise: Jim Zorn, the former Redskins' head coach and currently the Ravens' QB coach, could eventually get a look as an offensive coordinator if Joe Flacco continues to improve. After a slow start, Flacco has played much better, and the offense has impressed recently. Zorn is one of two former NFL head coaches on the staff, with ex-Dolphins head coach Cam Cameron serving as the offensive coordinator.
Fearless prediction: The Ravens' ability to be a strong contender in the AFC will come down to their pass offense, pass rush and pass defense. A three-game stretch at the beginning of December (vs. Pittsburgh, at Houston, vs. New Orleans) will be telling.
Biggest surprise: PK Mike Nugent has been consistent on field goals and has shown good leg strength on kickoffs. Better technique has played a role in Nugent's improvement. He has solidified a position that could have been a concern after the departure of the accurate Shayne Graham.
Biggest disappointment: The defense has taken a major step backward from a season ago. The most glaring problems are rushing the passer and stopping the run. Injuries in the secondary have hurt the pass defense recently, too.
Fantasy MVP: WR Terrell Owens may have been an afterthought in some drafts. The Bengals didn't have a strong passing offense last season, and it was unclear how many passes Owens would have coming his way with Chad Ochocinco opposite him at receiver. As it turned out, Owens has produced like a No. 1 receiver. He's on pace for 110 catches, which would be a career high — a remarkable feat for a 36-year-old wide receiver.
Assistant coach on the rise: While the Bengals' defense has not played as well as it did a season ago, Mike Zimmer is still very well-regarded, with an impressive track record of success as a defensive coordinator. Well-liked by players, Zimmer has made the Cincinnati defense better in his three-year tenure.
Fearless prediction: Head coach Marvin Lewis' contract expires at the end of the season, and his future in Cincinnati figures to be a source of considerable speculation down the stretch if the Bengals continue to fade from contention. Lewis is in his eighth season in Cincinnati. He's led the Bengals to two division titles but no playoff wins.
Biggest surprise: The Browns hoped rookie QB Colt McCoy would spend a season on the bench behind starter Jake Delhomme and backup Seneca Wallace, but ankle injuries to Delhomme and Wallace forced Cleveland to put him in the lineup. The experience has been a positive one for McCoy and the Browns; the rookie has received valuable game action — and he has flashed some intriguing skills.
Biggest disappointment: Second-year WRs Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie have not made much of an impact. Leading up to Week Nine, team president Mike Holmgren lamented the lack of opportunities for the wide receivers as a whole in the offense and defended the WR corps. This could make for a tricky evaluation of Massaquoi and Robiskie as the Browns analyze their offense in the offseason.
Fantasy MVP: RB Peyton Hillis likely went undrafted in many leagues, but he's not available on many waiver wires now. Hillis leads the Browns in rushing yards and touchdowns and is one of their top targets in the passing game, too. You made an astute claim if you picked him up early in the season.
Assistant coach on the rise: Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's masterful game plan in the Browns' surprising win vs. the Saints in Week Seven garnered widespread attention. Ryan is aggressive and creative, and he's well-liked by his players. The success his brother, Rex, has had as Jets head coach doesn't hurt his reputation, either.
Fearless prediction: The Browns will pull off another surprising win or two — teams certainly aren't relishing seeing them on the schedule after seeing what Cleveland did to New Orleans and New England — but they will lose at least one winnable game. This is a team without much of a margin for error.
Biggest surprise: C Maurkice Pouncey has been exceptional, handling the vast responsibilities of the position with aplomb and immediately becoming one of the better players at his position in the NFL. Pouncey is the complete package — smart, strong and athletic.
Biggest disappointment: The Steelers' pass defense has been surprisingly permissive; opponents threw for at least 228 net passing yards in six of the team's first seven games. The Ravens and Saints were able to attack the Steelers' secondary with success for some key plays in victories over Pittsburgh. The pass defense isn't a major liability — it's not as if the Steelers are giving up many points — and teams are throwing quite a bit because of Pittsburgh's tough run defense, but how the Steelers fare against good passing games going forward is an issue to watch.
Fantasy MVP: RB Rashard Mendenhall has emerged as an elite fantasy back. He's received more work than a season ago, and he's on pace to score double-digit touchdowns. Mendenhall has very good speed and enough power to run between the tackles. He's been an all-around threat this season.
Assistant coach on the rise: OL coach Sean Kugler has done a fine job in his first season in Pittsburgh. The Steelers' line has endured several injuries, most notably the loss of ORT Willie Colon before the season and now a potentially serious neck injury to OLT Max Starks suffered in Week Nine, but it has held up well, all things considered.
Fearless prediction: QB Ben Roethlisberger begins to hit his best stride later in the season, and the Steelers, whose defense is again one of the NFL's elite, enters January as one of the AFC favorites.
You can read more midseason team analyses in the current print edition of PFW (cover date: Nov. 14, 2010) — including categories such as team MVP, player to watch and keys to the second half — on sale now at retail outlets. You can also purchase a print or electronic (PDF) copy of the issue at PFWstore.com.