AFC North: Steelers Center Fined, More

In this week's AFC North Roundup, Pittsburgh Steelers center Cody Wallace gets fined by the league, the Baltimore Ravens prepare to be potential playoff spoilers and the Cincinnati Bengals are trying to get A.J. McCarron ready for a big game against the Denver Broncos.

Pittsburgh Steelers center Cody Wallace incurred a $23,152 fine for his head-first late hit on Denver Broncos defender David Bruton in the team’s Week 15 34-27 win. He will not, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, be suspended for the hit. 

Wallace, who has served as the team’s starting center since Maurkice Pouncey suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1, has had an up-and-down season. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s given up four sacks, seven quarterback hits and 29 hurries and leads the team in penalties, with 14 total (12 accepted, two declined.)

Wallace acknowledged that he “was in the wrong,” for the hit, which Wallace put on Bruton in retaliation for a late hit on teammate Antonio Brown by the Broncos’ Malik Jackson. Bruton called the hit “dirty,” adding, “Everyone is making a big deal out of Odell Beckham Jr. deal, but it's nothing on [Wallace].” Bruton believed Wallace was trying to take him out.

Considering the nature of the hit, compared to the one which led the New York Giants’ Beckham to a one-game suspension, it is interesting that Wallace was merely fined for his actions and not benched by the league, as well. Doubtlessly, all eyes will be on Wallace on Sunday as he faces off agains the Steelers’ most hated rivals, the Baltimore Ravens.

Baltimore Ravens: Ravens Can Play Role of Postseason Spoiler

The Baltimore Ravens have a tough close to their 2015 season, taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16 and the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17. The Bengals are already playoff-bound, having clinched at least a berth in Week 15 and can take the AFC North crown this week. The Steelers, meanwhile, are the AFC”s sixth seed but haven’t made the spot completely their own yet.

This is where the Ravens come in. Though they have just four wins and have been ravaged by injuries—most notably those suffered by quarterback Joe Flacco, receiver Steve Smith and linebacker Terrell Suggs—they do have the opportunity to keep the Steelers out of the postseason picture on Sunday.

The Ravens have already beaten the Steelers once, in Week 4, and receiver Kamar Aiken is looking forward to completing the sweep, saying (via the team’s official website), “It means something just to beat Pittsburgh, period. If we can sweep them for the year, that’s big for us because of the rivalry in itself. That’ll be an extra bonus if we can knock them out, too.”

And the Ravens aren’t concerned that the Steelers have nine wins to their four. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said, “We don’t think those guys are any better than us. At the end of the day, they have a better record than us. The season has gone more like they planned rather than how we planned our season. I feel like that’s the only difference standing between us is our record.”

Pittsburgh can still clinch a playoff berth in Week 17 if they lose to Baltimore on Sunday, but it makes things far more difficult with so many other teams in the AFC’s Wild Card hunt. Sunday’s game, therefore, is the closest the Ravens will get to the playoffs this year and, even with so many key players out with injuries, they will be treating this meeting as their own personal Super Bowl.

Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. McCarron Must Trust in His Teammates

Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said on Monday that the main difference in the mindset of the team’s offense with A.J. McCarron at quarterback in place of the injured Andy Dalton is that while the offense trusted in Dalton’s leadership, McCarron now needs to trust in the offense around him. Jackson said, “Where Andy Dalton was the leader —he was kind of the Pied Piper and the [offense] followed him—well, AJ hasn't earned that role.” 

Jackson continued, “They have to, as a unit, kind of help lead him by doing their jobs as well as they've ever done it to take that pressure off him. Because he's not ready to do all of that.” Dalton echoed his coordinator’s words, saying “He's a talented guy who has talent around him, so just trust the guys around you,” was his advice to McCarron.

McCarron looked sharp and had success with the deep ball in the team’s defeat of the San Francisco 49ers. But things could be far different in Week 16, when the Bengals travel to Denver to take on the Broncos and their top-three defense. The key for McCarron will be to stay calm in the face of pressure and to trust that receivers like A.J. Green and Marvin Jones can make plays for him. He cannot overthink his job.

Dalton added a very important piece of advice for McCarron: “Just play your game. Trust what you see. He's preparing his butt off. He's up here all the time, making sure he knows everything. But at the end of the day, just go out and play.” The Bengals can clinch a first round bye in the playoffs with a defeat of Denver, which buys more time for Dalton’s fractured thumb to heal. That’s a lot of pressure, and it’s pressure that Jackson and Dalton are trying to take off of the young quarterback’s shoulders.

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