AFC North: Ravens Shakeups and More

In this week's AFC North Roundup, the Baltimore Ravens make roster moves to help their struggling defense, the latest on Ben Roethlisberger's return for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals kicker Mike Nugent wins a weekly award

The Baltimore Ravens’ 1-4 start to the 2015 NFL season is the worst in franchise history and though the team’s offense deserves its share of the blame for it, the defense in particular has been a glaring weakness thus far this year. The Ravens defense currently ranks 25th in yards allowed this year, at 1,893, and is allowing an average of 27.4 points per game to their opponents. As ESPN’s Jamison Hensley points out, the Ravens defense during the John Harbaugh era had allowed 30 or more points to their opponents only 14 times; this year, they’ve done it twice, including in Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns, who put up 33 points in their overtime win.

Even worse is that the Ravens have blown five fourth-quarter leads in their last three losses and have spent way too much time on the field, owing to the fact that they are allowing opponents to convert third downs 49.37 percent of the time; only the Jacksonville Jaguars are allowing more conversions. Needless to say, the Ravens need to improve their defense, and quickly, if they are going to turn their fortunes around in any tangible way.

This week, the Ravens made strides towards improvement and even if the defense doesn’t get better, it’s going to look different, at least. On Tuesday, the Ravens announced the release of cornerback Rashaan Melvin and linebacker Jason Babin and the promotion of cornerbacks Asa Jackson and Charles James from the practice squad. Baltimore also made official the signing of cornerback Shareece Wright, who replaces Will Davis who was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL. In addition, they also brought wide receiver Daniel Brown, running back Akeem Hunt and tight end Konrad Reuland onto their practice squad.

The passing defense has been the Ravens’ biggest weakness this year, with the team giving up a 25th-ranked 278.2 passing yards per game to their opponents. Hence, so much attention being paid to improving the cornerback position while also parting ways with the outside linebacker Babin. Though the Ravens are thin at the position, with Terrell Suggs on injured reserve and Elvis Dumervil nursing a groin injury, the numerous penalties that Babin has drawn while totaling zero tackles has made him persona non grata in Baltimore. Rookie Za'Darius Smith will take up any of Babin’s would-be snaps moving forward (and Dumervil’s, if the injury lingers).

This is uncharted territory for the Ravens, who have built a franchise reputation on fielding aggressive, intimidating defenses. Even after the 2012 Super Bowl victory, when the Ravens embarked upon rebuilding a veteran-riddled defense, that side of the ball didn’t struggle this much in the season that followed. It’s clear that the Ravens are willing to do whatever it takes, whenever they must, to improve the defense in hopes to start stringing together wins and save their season.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger’s Return Nears

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Monday that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wants to play in Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals, who are coached by Roethlisberger’s former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Schefter said the Steelers “have not ruled out” the possibility that Roethlisberger can play but also characterized it as a “long shot,” to happen. Roethlisberger suffered an MCL sprain and bone bruise in his team’s 12-6 Week 3 win over the St. Louis Rams; Michael Vick has been serving as the team’s starting quarterback in their last two games, with one loss and one win.

It doesn’t look likely that Roethlisberger will be cleared to play in time for Sunday, but he is back on the practice field. According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Roethlisberger took the field for seven-on-seven drills on Wednesday, participating in 12 to 15 plays. He is extremely limited at this time, with Roethlisberger having to pass other tests, such as lateral movement examinations, before he can take part in more work, including full-contact drills, with his teammates. 

According to Roethlisberger, his return depends on, “Just being smart, knowing when I'm able to protect myself, I'll be back out there. I can walk around just fine and step and throw. It's being able to avoid a pass rush, being able to make subtle movements in the pocket and out of the pocket.” At this point, Roethlisberger is day-to-day, but he is off crutches and is able to jog. The rest of his season will likely also be spent in a knee brace to help prevent future injury.

In two starts, Vick has completed 32 of his 52 pass attempts, for 327 yards, two scores and one interception. Things could get better for Vick this week against the Cardinals with the return of receiver Martavis Bryant. Though Bryant came off of his four-game suspension last week, he wasn’t placed on the team’s 53-man active roster until Tuesday. Bryant is a large target and a deep threat who could be on the receiving end of Vick’s big-armed passes. In 2014, Bryant caught 26 of 48 passes thrown his way, for 549 yards and eight touchdowns and averaged 21.1 yards per reception. But Bryant’s success with Vick under center will hinge on how quickly the two can get on the same page with a short week of preparation.

Cincinnati Bengals: Bengals K Mike Nugent Named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week

For the second time this season, the Cincinnati Bengals had one of their own named AFC Player of the Week. This time, the honors belong to kicker Mike Nugent, who was named the conference’s top special-teamer for Week 5. He earned them for the two field goals he made in the Bengals’ 27-24 overtime defeat of the Seattle Seahawks. Nugent kicked a game tying field goal at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime and then kicked a 42-yard field goal to win the game for Cincinnati, preserving the Bengals’ undefeated record. Nugent also sent five of his kickoffs into the end zone, with four touchbacks.

Nugent, though, has not been immune to the troubles plaguing so many kickers around the league. He is currently seven-of-five in field goal attempts, having missed one from the 30-39-yard range and another from the 40-49-yard range. He’s also missed one 33-yard extra point attempt. But Nugent came through in the clutch for the Bengals on Sunday, which was enough to earn him AFC honors for the week. 

Bengals receiver A.J. Green was the other Cincinnati player given an AFC Player of the Week award this year. He earned in at the end of September after catching 10 passes on 13 targets for 227 yards and two touchdowns in the Bengals’ Week 3, 28-24 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

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