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AFC North Spin cycle: Week Two

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Posted Sept. 17, 2012 @ 7:27 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

There's a three-way tie atop the AFC North after two games, with the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals at 1-1. The Browns, meanwhile, are looking up at everyone else at 0-2. However are all 1-1 records created equal? And do the Browns have some hope? We take a closer look at all four North clubs with two weeks in the books: 


What we learned: The defense is a concern after two games. It's disconcerting seeing the Ravens ranked 27th in yards allowed per game (404.0 yards!) and 19th in yards per play (5.61), even if we're talking about a very small sample size. Visiting Baltimore surrendered 486 yards to a powerful Philadelphia attack in Sunday's 24-23 loss. The Eagles have the offensive talent to give any team fits, but these are the Ravens. Eagles QB Michael Vick threw for 371 yards vs. the Ravens, with TE Brent Celek (157 yards) and WR DeSean Jackson (114) his primary targets. One positive for the defense: it did hold up well vs. the run after some issues in Week One. The offense was a little on the inconsistent side. The Ravens had some big plays (five of 20-plus yards) but were only 4-of-14 on third downs. QB Joe Flacco wasn't as sharp as in Week One, completing just 22-of-42 passes for 232 yards with a TD and a pick. RB Ray Rice played like the blue-chip player he is, racking up 152 yards on 26 touches. On special teams, PK Justin Tucker continues to impress, hitting FG attempts of 56, 51 and 48 yards.

What’s in store next: The Ravens finally will play the Patriots at home; the last four meetings, two of which came in the postseason, were in New England. By now, you know the story — the Ravens had every chance to win the 2011 AFC championship game at Foxborough but couldn't quite close the deal. Winning Sunday night in front of a national TV audience doesn't even the score in any real fashion, but it would give Baltimore a 2-1 record and a head-to-head tiebreaker — which could be valuable, as these are both AFC powers. The Patriots, though, are smarting a little after a surprising loss to Arizona, and they lost valuable TE Aaron Hernandez to an ankle injury. Even with Hernandez potentially out of the mix, the Pats — especially off a loss — pose a big challenge for the Ravens.

What the heck? On the Ravens' final drive, Flacco missed an open Dennis Pitta on 3rd-and-1, throwing too high. The Ravens couldn't convert on fourth down, and a somewhat promising late-game drive ended on their 46-yard line. Flacco was ultrasharp in Week One at home, but he wasn't as crisp six days later on the road. Perhaps that was to be expected.


What we learned: The Bengals' passing game can exploit a vulnerable defense. QB Andy Dalton fared well in Sunday's 34-27 win vs. Cleveland, completing 24-of-31 passes for 318 yards with three TDs and one interceptions. All things considered, this was a fine performance, given that Dalton was sacked six times. The Bengals' pass protection looms a concern, considering the pressure Dalton has faced the first two games. Dalton did well to spread the ball to a variety of targets, with Andrew Hawkins and Brandon Tate joining go-to guy A.J. Green in catching TD passes from Dalton. The return game got a lift from Adam Jones, who returned an 81-yard punt for a score to give Cincinnati and early lead. The defense, however, turned in an awful performance. The Bengals had no answers for RB Trent Richardson, and they were picked apart by rookie QB Brandon Weeden — who looked overmatched the previous week. Simply put, this has been one of the NFL's worst defenses through two weeks.

What’s in store next: The Bengals have the unenviable task of dealing with a Redskins offense that's gaining 416 yards per game. Cincinnati has struggled vs. the run and pass early this season and will need to step up its game to earn its first road win of the season. The Redskins, though, have their own issues on defense, with injuries becoming a major concern.

What the heck? With a 14-point third-quarter lead, the Bengals had a chance to put away Cleveland with a solid drive, but Dalton was picked off by Browns MLB D'Qwell Jackson, who advanced the ball to near midfield. Cleveland would score on the ensuing drive and proceeded to hang around the rest of the game. Dalton played well overall, but that wasn't a good throw, and the Browns took advantage of the good field position.


What we learned: It was premature to write off QB Brandon Weeden after an awful NFL debut. Weeden was much better in Week Two, completing 26-of-37 passes for 322 yards with a pair of TDs in a 34-27 loss at Cincinnati. There was nothing fluky about this performance — Weeden threw with accuracy and confidence, and he stood in vs. the rush. Another positive: the play of RB Trent Richardson (145 total yards, two TDs). His vision and power stood out. This was also a solid game by the Browns' WR corps, with Mohamed Massaquoi (90 receiving yards) especially meriting mention. The defense mustered a strong pass rush, notching six sacks, the most in a game for Cleveland since the Browns' pressure masterpiece vs. Pittsburgh in '09. MLB D'Qwell Jackson is simply playing out of his mind; he had three sacks and another interception. Could this be a Pro Bowl season for him? While these were positives, the Browns surrendered too many big plays on defense (seven of 18 yards or more, two of which were touchdowns). The absences of CBs Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown didn't help matters. And the special-teams coverage units surrendered an 81-yard punt-return score to the Bengals' Adam Jones.

What’s in store next: The Browns return home to play the Bills, who were sharp in victory vs. Kansas City on Sunday. The Bills have the playmakers on offense and defense to give the Browns fits. This is a big game for Weeden — can he sustain his progress? The Browns' stop unit also must step up its play, too. The good news for Cleveland? The Bills' defense hasn't been overwhelming thus far, allowing about six yards per play. 

What the heck? Both teams scored three TDs on offense Sunday, but the Bengals got a fourth score on special teams. The Browns can't afford to give away a lot of ground — or worse yet, points — on special teams. Cleveland needs to tighten up in the return game.


What we learned: The Steelers have really got something going on third downs. They were 8-of-15 in Sunday's 27-10 win vs. the Jets and are a crisp 55.9 percent in these situations through two games — a full 17 percent better than the league average. Through two games, the Steelers have held the ball nearly 60 percent of the time. Considering their defense, this is a trend that could very much work in their favor if it continues. QB Ben Roethlisberger played a sharp game, completing 24-of-31 passes for 275 yards with two TDs and no picks. When Roethlisberger is avoiding mistakes and passing with accuracy while making big plays, as he did when he hit Mike Wallace for a 37-yard TD pass Sunday, it's fun to watch. Also fun to watch: the Steelers' defense, which rebounded nicely after a shaky second half vs. Denver. The Steelers allowed just 219 yards on 51 plays and didn't give up a point in the final 39:35 of regulation.

What’s in store next: The Steelers figure to be wary of facing the Raiders in Oakland on Sunday. Yes, the Raiders are struggling, but they upset the Steelers in 2006 and '09, and enough players from those Pittsburgh teams remain to warn against taking Oakland lightly. Raiders QB Carson Palmer had his moments against Pittsburgh in his time in Cincinnati and can test the Steelers' secondary if given time to throw. The Raiders desperately need the game and should benefit from a return home after a cross-country trip to Miami on just six days rest ended in a 22-point loss.

What the heck? On their first drive, the Jets drove 90 yards in eight plays to take a 7-3 lead. The Steelers' defense, of course, settled down thereafter, but buckling down early would serve Pittsburgh well against underdog Oakland on Sunday. if the Steelers can get an early lead, they can perhaps force the Raiders into throw-first mode. The less Raiders RB Darren McFadden has the ball in his hands, the better for Pittsburgh.

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