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AFC North Roundup: New Role for Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, Ravens' Injury Mysteries, Steelers' Top Athlete

In this week's AFC North Roundup, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton settles into a new role, the Baltimore Ravens try to solve the mystery of their myriad injuries and ESPN names the Steelers' top athlete.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton could be sidelined for as many as six weeks after suffering a fractured thumb on his throwing hand early in his team’s Week 14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This puts the Bengals in a difficult position. If they can win two of their final three games, they have a first-round bye in the playoffs, giving Dalton more time to heal. But for that to happen, Dalton’s backup, A.J. McCarron must play at a high level.

And so Dalton is settling into a coaching role for the next three games, assisting McCarron on and off the field to be as prepared as possible for Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers as well as the two which follows. It’s an unusual situation for Dalton, who, as the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Dehner Jr. and Jim Owczarski notes, has not missed a single game nor start as a professional and who only missed two games during his four-year collegiate career at TCU.

“It’s weird, different,” said Dalton of his situation, though he did note that he’s grateful that the prognosis is more a week-to-week thing than a guaranteed six-week absence. But Dalton still knows that getting three wins to close out the year buys him some time, saying “I would love to win these next three and get a bye and as much time as we can get where I can heal up.”

In Dalton’s last four seasons, the Bengals have reached the playoffs each time. However, Cincinnati has never managed to win a single postseason game, with Dalton often earning much of the blame for it. His injury could mean another lost opportunity for redemption unless McCarron can step up in the interim. This is why Dalton won’t just be an observer on Sunday but an active participant in the quarterback’s—and the team’s—preparations and in-game adjustments. He needs to set up his team to win much as he would if he was on the field.

Baltimore Ravens: Ravens to Examine Offseason Training

Over the past two years, the Baltimore Ravens have had 38 players on injured reserve or the physically unable to perform lists, and it’s led to numerous problems ranging from a lack of secondary depth to the loss of not just top offensive players like Joe Flacco, Justin Forsett and Steve Smith this year, but also pass-rusher Terrell Suggs and two starting offensive linemen. These injuries have been a big reason why the team has just four wins this season.

As such, head coach John Harbaugh said this week that he wants to look into the Ravens’ rash of injuries, what may have caused them and what could prevent them in the future. Harbaugh said, “We’re going to have to do a study. We do this every year, and I want to do it even more in depth this year in terms of what we do, how we do it, and all of those things. I’m looking for the reason, and I want to find out.”

Ryan Mink of the team’s website notes, though, that training routines were often not to blame for the majority of the team’s injury issues this year. Typically, writes Mink, poor training habits lead to muscle or ligament injuries, yet only five of the team’s 19 players on injured reserve have had such ailments. 

Still, not only do the Ravens want to evaluate what more can be done to prevent injuries, they also need to examine their offseason program to adapt it to the myriad players who will be coming back from their various ailments. Harbaugh will be spending significant time on the matter during the offseason, saying “If there’s something out there that we need to add, we’re going to do it. And we will evolve, revamp what we do in training camp. There are some things that we can do that we’re all learning about that we will plug in.” Harbaugh wants to know if the rash of injuries are simply bad luck or something that can be studied and fixed.

Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Bryant Named Steelers’ Best Athlete

ESPN chose the top athlete on each NFL team this week and Jeremy Fowler’s choice for the Pittsburgh Steelers may come as a surprise. No, it’s not receiver Antonio Brown. It’s not ageless running back DeAngelo Williams. It’s not even quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Instead, it’s second-year wideout Martavis Bryant.

Fowler writes, “he ran a sub-4.4 40 at the combine. And when you put that together with his 6-foot-4 frame, you get a rare package. But what makes him the Steelers' best athlete is his quick-burst ability.” The Steelers, according to Fowler, “track short-burst speed through GPS monitors,” with Bryant routinely having the fastest time.

Bryant has caught only 38 passes this year, but his 672 receiving yards and 270 yards after the catch certainly belie his impressive speed. His 17.7 yards per reception aren’t just because he’s catching deep passes, and even when he is, it’s because he’s so fast that he blows past any would-be defender and is often wide open.

This speed has caught even Bryant’s coaches off guard. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said, “A lot of times, you get big receivers like him and they are more built to speed—long speed, so to speak. This is a guy after a couple of steps, he's at full speed. His full speed is as fast as anyone.” And that speed will be necessary on Sunday when the Steelers host the Denver Broncos and their tough secondary. Getting separation will be required; luckily, Bryant is better than most at doing so.

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