AFC North Spin cycle: Week One

Posted Sept. 11, 2012 @ 4:22 p.m.
Posted By Mike Wilkening

After one week, the defending-champion Ravens are a game up on the entire AFC North pack — and the manner in which they won could have season-long ramifications. In the first edition of the AFC North Spin cycle, we take a look at what it all means. 

BENGALS

What we learned: There are some real concerns about the pass defense coming out of Monday night's 44-13 loss at Baltimore. Ravens QB Joe Flacco had one of the best games of his career at the Bengals' expense, completing 21-of-29 passes for 299 yards and a pair of TDs. The Bengals were hurt by both the Ravens' wideouts and TE Dennis Pitta in a defensive debut to forget. Another defensive negative: Nemesis Ray Rice received only 10 carries, but he racked up 68 yards. On offense, the biggest red flags came in the second half. Cincinnati mustered but three points, and QB Andy Dalton was sacked three times. On the positive side of the ledger, the Bengals were able to establish the run with surprising success early on, as RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis racked up 91 yards on 18 carries. Overall, the offense was in a nice rhythm in the first half and in the early stages of the second half. However, the Bengals fell apart late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, surrendering 24 points in a 6:14 span as matters got out of control. Dalton made a pair of mistakes, throwing a pick and losing a fumble. Before that, he had played fairly well. Finally, WR Andrew Hawkins performed well on a big stage, catching 8-86-0 (nine targets). 

What’s in store next: The Bengals draw the Browns in their home opener on Sunday. The Browns play hard, and they were very game in a 17-16 Week One loss vs. Philadelphia, but they are short-handed on defense, and their offense really struggled in the opener. Cincinnati has a good chance of getting back to .500 if it plays its game, but these teams did play a pair of fairly close games a season ago. 

What the heck? Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis might have wanted to challenge what looked to be a lengthy catch by WR A.J. Green in the first quarter. At first glance, it appeared Green had secured the catch. The Bengals eventually kept the drive going and scored their first points of the game on a Mike Nugent field goal. On the other hand, the Bengals and Lewis merit credit for going for it on 4th-and-1 from the Baltimore 6 late in the second quarter; Green-Ellis punched in a six-yard score and Baltimore's lead was cut to 17-10. In a game where the Ravens' offense was rolling, this was a reasonable fourth-down gamble. 

BROWNS

What we learned: Let's start with the positives, and there were some, even in the midst of a gut-wrenching 17-16 loss to Philadelphia Sunday. The defense looks to be a real strength once again, even with personnel losses mounting. The Browns intercepted Eagles QB Michael Vick four times, with rookie LBs Craig Robertson and L.J. Fort among the interceptors. MLB D'Qwell Jackson, who had a strong game, scored Cleveland's lone touchdown on an interception. CB Joe Haden had the final pick, and he sparkled in what would be his final game before a four-game NFL suspension. This was an impressive performance by the defense under the circumstances. Now, the bad news: the offense was awful. QB Brandon Weeden was intercepted four times and completed but 12-of-35 passes for 118 yards. RB Trent Richardson, in his first game after knee surgery, rushed for 39 yards on 19 carries. The Browns had three drives start no worse than the Cleveland 49 off of Eagles turnovers, with two starting in Philly territory. They managed nine points off those drives, all field goals. 

What’s in store next: The Browns will try to turn the tables on the Bengals, who swept the season series in 2011. Cleveland couldn't hold fourth-quarter leads in both meetings. Head coach Pat Shurmur remains behind Weeden, so it's on the rookie from Oklahoma State to improve. The Browns desperately need more from the offense to compete, especially with the defense losing the excellent Haden. 

What the heck? Jackson's fourth-quarter interception TD gave Cleveland a 15-10 lead with 13:59 left in the game. Shurmur elected to kick the extra point, giving the Browns a six-point lead and leaving them open to losing the lead on a TD and extra point ... which is what happened. "We talked about going for two, but there was a full quarter," Shurmur said afterward. "We wanted to get the points, absolutely." At first and second glance, the Browns didn't stand much to lose going for two points at the time. 

RAVENS

What we learned: The promise shown by the Ravens' offense in the preseason wasn't a mirage. QB Joe Flacco was spectacular in the 44-13 Week One win vs. Cincinnati on Monday night, completing 21-of-29 passes for 299 yards with two TDs. Flacco spread the ball around, with WRs Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin hurting the Bengals early and TE Dennis Pitta becoming a big factor as the game progressed. Clearly, Flacco is at home in a no-huddle, pass-first scheme like the one used Monday. RB Ray Rice shined in limited work, with 93 yards and two TDs in 13 touches. The offensive line, which had two first-time starters (OLG Ramon Harewood, ORT Kelechi Osemele) and a new left tackle (OLT Michael Oher), fared pretty well. The defense started shakily but finished strongly. The Bengals ran and passed with success in the first half, but in the final 30 minutes, the Ravens ramped up the pressure. On balance, it was a pretty good effort, what with Cincinnati gaining just 4.7 yards per play, but there were a couple bumps in the road, especially against the run.  

What’s in store next: The Ravens' road opener is a doozy: the Eagles in Philadelphia. Sure, the Eagles weren't sharp and had to slug their way to a one-point win at Cleveland on Sunday, but they are loaded with talent, and they outgained the Browns 456-210. The Eagles' pass rush will test a revamped Ravens O-line that allowed three sacks in Week One. Moreover, the Eagles' offense could be quite the challenge for the Ravens' defense, considering how well Cincinnati moved the ball at times. 

What the heck? For as well as Flacco played, he got away with a couple of poor throws. The Ravens' passing game is the toast of the league on Tuesday, but an interception-filled performance or two will have the pundits crying for a return to Baltimore's ground-and-pound days. 

STEELERS

What we learned: No matter the quarterback, the Broncos have had the Steelers' number this calendar year. Second-half woes were the difference in Pittsburgh's 31-19 loss at Denver Sunday night. The Steelers gave up 24 points in the final 20:29 of play. The defense, which was missing FS Ryan Clark and ROLB James Harrison, again struggled vs. WR Demaryius Thomas, who scored a 71-yard TD on a quick-hitting pass in the third quarter. Later, Broncos QB Peyton Manning, making his Denver regular-season debut, would engineer clock-eating 10- and 12-play drives ending in a touchdown and field goal, respectively. For the Steelers' offense, Sunday night was shades of other recent performances — flashes of big-play ability, too much pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger, not enough consistency, not enough points. The O-line lost ORT Marcus Gilbert and ORG Ramon Foster to injury, but both figure to play in Week Two, head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. 

What’s in store next: The Steelers open their home slate Sunday vs. the Jets, who clobbered the Bills in Week One. These teams played twice in 2010, with Pittsburgh capturing the AFC title game but New York winning at Heinz Field in December. Both games were decided by less a touchdown, and the Jets moved the ball relatively well. 

What the heck? The Broncos sealed the game when Broncos CB Tracy Porter picked off Roethlisberger and scored a 43-yard TD with 1:58 left. The Steelers' pass protection held up well, but Roethlisberger threw late toward Steelers WR Emmanuel Sanders, who was tightly covered. Porter did the rest.