The Steelers were Sunday's only winners in the AFC North, and they might have been big winners, considering how everyone else fared. Let's take an in-depth look at how the AFC North stands entering Week Eight.
What we learned: The Ravens’ shaky recent form was no fluke. They were overmatched in a 43-13 loss at Houston on Sunday. The Texans outgained the Ravens 420-176 and seized control of matters before halftime. The Ravens’ defense again struggled against the pass and run, so it was up to the offense to match strides with Houston. That didn’t happen. QB Joe Flacco, in one of his most underwhelming games as a starter, considering the stakes, completed just 21-of-43 passes for 147 yards. To be fair, Flacco was sacked four times, and both of his interceptions were tipped at the line. However, this was another road start in which Flacco didn’t stand out. Of course, if the Ravens’ defense would have provided a little more resistance, the offense would have had more of a margin for error. Instead, Baltimore (5-2) got pushed around in the running game and worked over in the passing game. The one pleasant surprise for the Ravens was OLB Terrell Suggs, who played in 44-of-80 snaps in his return from an Achilles injury and recorded one of Baltimore’s two sacks.
What’s in store next: The Ravens’ Week Eight bye gives them a chance to rest and regroup. The defense looms as the biggest concern. Its issues have been persistent and are tougher to fix with injuries mounting. FS Ed Reed (shoulder, rib) and DT Haloti Ngata (knee) will get a much-needed week off, which helps, but the Ravens are going to have to play better across the board on defense to have a chance of contending at the AFC’s highest levels, as well as holding on in the AFC North.
What the heck? The Ravens were out of balance on offense, with Flacco dropping back to pass 47 times and RB Ray Rice getting a mere nine carries. The running game was in rhythm on the Ravens’ first drive, with Rice gaining 27 yards on his first three attempts. However, after a 17-yard run with 12:10 left in the first quarter, Rice didn’t see the ball again until the final play of the quarter — a nine-play span encompassing three drives, including one that ended with Flacco being sacked for a safety. Simply put, Rice, who had a mere 14 touches on Sunday, must be a bigger part of the offense. He’s too good to be a decoy.
What we learned: The Bengals are in danger of quickly falling out of the AFC North race if they don’t make immediate improvements on both sides of the ball. The Steelers wore down Cincinnati over four quarters in a 24-17 win on Sunday night, outgaining the Bengals 431-185. The Bengals’ offense, after an impressive 15-play, 80-yard drive on its first series, got little going thereafter. QB Andy Dalton struggled, completing just 14-of-28 passes for 105 yards. WR A.J. Green was surprisingly held in check, with one catch (a second-quarter TD) in six targets. When Green is a nonfactor, the Bengals’ passing game — and offense — is in trouble. The Bengals simply don’t have a consistent outside threat opposite of Green right now. In all, it was a humbling evening for the Bengals’ offense, which didn’t have a play of longer than 17 yards. The reviews aren’t really any more positive for the Bengals’ defense, which allowed the Steelers to convert 10-of-16 third downs and establish rhythm in the running and passing games. The Steelers left some yards and points on the field, too. The loss drops the Bengals to 3-4, with three of those defeats against AFC North foes.
What’s in store next: The Bengals get a much-needed bye in Week Eight. Then come back-to-back home games against the Brothers Manning (Broncos in Week Nine, Giants in Week 10). Considering the Bengals’ problems beating their divisional opponents, they are going to need to take care of business in their other games to have a chance at making a return to the postseason.
What the heck? Head coach Marvin Lewis’ decision to challenge whether WR Mike Wallace was down after a two-yard gain late in the third quarter was a curious one, to say the least. Replays clearly showed that Wallace’s knee had hit the ground before losing control of the ball, and the challenge seemed to come out of left field. The decision cost Lewis both a challenge and a timeout in what was then a tie ballgame.
What we learned: The Browns had a real opportunity to win their second game in a row, but they were incapable of capitalizing in a 17-13 loss at Indianapolis on Sunday. The game’s pivotal sequence came after Cleveland took over at midfield on a Sheldon Brown sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery. The Browns gained nine yards on first down, leaving them 2nd-and-1 at the Indianapolis 41. On the next two plays, the Browns attempted deep passes that fell incomplete, with a third-down miss — a potential TD that Josh Gordon couldn’t bring in — especially painful. Instead of going for it, the Browns punted. They would get the ball back and put together another fairly promising possession, but the Colts held on a fourth-down try at their 39 with less than two minutes left, and Indianapolis ground out the win. The defeat is the 11th consecutive on the road for Cleveland (1-6), and it’s an especially tough one to take, considering how well the Browns had played the previous week against the Bengals. Moreover, the loss is a less-than-ideal way to start Jimmy Haslam’s tenure as the club’s majority owner.
What’s in store next: While the Colts are improved from a season ago, they are probably still not of the caliber of the Browns’ Week Eight opponent, San Diego. The Chargers (3-3) have the makings of a potent offense, and they will have had the bye week to regroup after blowing a 24-point lead to Denver in Week Six. Also, the Chargers are tough vs. the run, which may be no small hurdle for the Browns to overcome, considering how their ground game sputtered on Sunday (55 yards on 17 carries). RB Trent Richardson tried to play through injured ribs but gained just eight yards on eight carries. Montario Hardesty relieved Richardson for the second half but didn’t fare much better.
What the heck? Shurmur defended punting on 4th-and-1 from the Colts’ 41 with 6:38 left, and with that much time left on the clock, it’s a somewhat understandable move. However, such a conservative call doesn’t mesh with deep throws on second and third down with just that one yard to gain. Were the Browns playing with a full deck on offense with Richardson sidelined? No, but a running play — or a higher-percentage pass — would have made sense on either second or third down. If Gordon catches the third-down pass, we’re not discussing this, of course. But he didn’t. Moreoever, it’s not the first time we’ve seen some curious play-calling from the Browns in a key situation.
What we learned: With their season quite possibly on the line, the Steelers (3-3) pulled themselves together and notched a much-needed 24-17 comeback win at Cincinnati on Sunday night. The Steelers were their own worst enemies early in the game, with dropped passes and turnovers helping to put them in a 14-6 hole late in the second quarter. Then, LOLB LaMarr Woodley intercepted QB Andy Dalton, setting up the Steelers on Cincinnati’s 29 with a little more than a minute left in the first half. The Steelers would capitalize, with QB Ben Roethlisberger hitting TE Heath Miller twice — on a nine-yard TD pass and a two-point conversion — to tie the game. Suddenly, a game that looked like it could slip out of Pittsburgh’s control looked well within the Steelers’ reach. And in the second half, the Steelers played perhaps as well as they have all season, shutting down the Bengals’ offense and outgaining Cincinnati 231-70. Roethlisberger (278 yards, one TD, one pick) played well, and the running game, led by RB Jonathan Dwyer, was very productive. Dwyer, filling in for Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman, racked up 122 of Pittsburgh’s 167 yards on the ground. Miller, meanwhile, had a simply outstanding all-around game as a receiver and blocker. His statistical line (6-53-1) doesn’t tell the whole story. The numbers, however, do well to describe how the Steelers’ defense took a big step forward in Week Seven. Pittsburgh allowed a mere 185 yards — only 105 after Cincinnati’s first drive.
What’s in store next: The Steelers host the Redskins (3-4), who have a strong offense led by star rookie QB Robert Griffin III. The Redskins’ four defeats have all been by a TD or less, and their last two losses were to the defending Super Bowl-champion Giants and unbeaten Falcons. While Griffin faces the challenge of having to deal with Dick LeBeau’s zone-blitz scheme for the first time, he has skillfully handled just about everything that has come his way thus far. This is one of the week’s more interesting matchups: the talented kid QB vs. the proud, stout but aging defense.
What the heck? Drops were a major problem for the Steelers. WR Mike Wallace couldn’t haul in multiple catchable passes, including a potential TD. (He did, however, make a tough catch for a first down late in the game.) Also, RB Baron Batch had a probable TD sail through his hands on a trick-play pass from WR Antonio Brown. One other area of concern for Pittsburgh: the special-teams coverage was not good, with penalties a big problem and Bengals KR Brandon Tate gaining 109 yards on three returns.