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AFC North Roundup: Concerns for Ravens, More

This week's AFC North Roundup looks at reasons for concern for the Baltimore Ravens, a pass-rusher emerging for the Cincinnati Bengals and the latest contract restructures for the Pittsburgh Steelers

Baltimore Ravens beat writers from The Baltimore Sun are starting to express concerns about the team this year, specifically the quality of the depth and the lack of offensive playmakers. The Sun’s Jeff Zrebiec tweeted during Baltimore’s third preseason game that, “Usually you see a Ravens young WR or two really flash in preseason. This group has done little to nothing in preseason,” a sentiment he echoed in that night’s column, writing, “It still isn't clear whether the Ravens have enough on the outside beyond Steve Smith to succeed.” 

His colleague, Jon Meoli, agreed, and added, “The starting units on offense have been fine, but there’s not a lot on this team outside of its stars that anyone can feel good about after these last two games.” And it’s true—beyond Smith at receiver and Justin Forsett at running back, the Ravens don’t have many high-impact offensive playmakers. And injuries are mounting, which isn’t good news either, as The Sun’s Childs Walker noted: “Ravens have to be worried about depth. Injuries are mounting, and the second- and third-string defenses have been shredded throughout the preseason.”

A lack of depth hurt the Ravens in 2014, particularly in the secondary, where eventually safeties were handling cornerback duties and vice versa. But now, the crisis of depth—and of injuries—is striking multiple positions. 

The Ravens have managed to be perennial playoff contenders even without playmakers to assist quarterback Joe Flacco, having a shaky offensive line and dealing with personnel changes both planned and unplanned. But the Ravens have a tough schedule ahead and are already trying to patch holes. If the Ravens do have a breaking point, we may witness it this season.

Cincinnati Bengals: A Pass-Rusher Emerges

The Cincinnati Bengals have been focusing on improving their pass-rush this year, after totaling a disappointing 20 sacks in 2014. A 100 percent healthy Geno Atkins should help, as should the return of defensive end Michael Johnson. But Chris Carter—once a 3-4 linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers—has emerged as a pass-rushing threat in the Bengals’ 4-3 base defense.

ESPN’s Coley Harvey has noted that Carter’s work as a hybrid defender, sometimes working as a 4-3

outside linebacker, sometimes as a 4-3 defensive end, has turned him into a productive player this summer despite not having the prototypical size of an edge rusher. Though undersized, Carter is using his speed to his advantage, saying to Harvey, “With me having the disadvantage of size, I've got to be the fire-starter. That's just my mentality when I go into a pass rush. I'm just trying to come off fast and if you try and hit me, I'm going to try and hit you first.”

Carter has 2.5 preseason sacks and has been working with multiple units on defense while the likes of Johnson and Margus Hunt heal from their knee and back injuries, respectively. The Bengals have tailored his position to his strengths and it’s paying off. It also helps that Carter is back in a 4-3 system, which he played in and had his most success in at Fresno State. As Carter himself said, “This is the defense I'm used to. So I almost feel like I'm back at home again.”

Head coach Marvin Lewis said that Carter is “trying to really earn an opportunity to stay and carve out his own niche. He's done a good job.” Thursday’s preseason finale against the Indianapolis Colts will likely present an opportunity for Carter to have significant playing time. It should be enough to land him on the Bengals’ 53-man roster and into their pass-rushing defensive rotation.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Steelers Restructure Three Contracts

A common practice for the Pittsburgh Steelers is to restructure higher-value contracts in order to free up immediate salary cap space. And they did so again this week, restructuring the contracts of wide receiver Antonio Brown, tight end Heath Miller and kicker Shaun Suisham, freeing up nearly $6 million in cash according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

No new years were added to any of the players’ contract. Instead, it was a reworking of bonuses being reworked into salaries. Most notably, Brown’s base salary for 2015 has risen from $6 million to $8 million because a chunk of his future salary was converted into an immediate signing bonus. This gives Brown the pay raise he’s been after while not actually giving him a new, higher-paying deal.

These moves have likely been made to create additional cap space in order to sign left tackle Kelvin Beachum to a long-term deal before the start of the 2015 season. It also prevents Brown from being frustrated with his financial situation while emerging as one of the NFL’s best receivers. The Steelers have been trying to lock Beachum down to a contract this summer while at the same time keeping Brown happy. The restructures should manage to kill these two birds with one stone. 

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