AFC North Report: Bunching at the Top

<p>With another meltdown by the Bengals and a Monday night surprise by the Ravens, the AFC North has quickly developed into a two-tier division. Cincinnati is in a class all by themselves and they are doing their best to make the other North teams look like playoff contenders. Baltimore, on the other hand, did everything they could against the Broncos to cloud the divisional crown picture. He we are going into Week 5 of a still young NFL season looking at a 3 horse race for first place.</p>

Cleveland - The Browns lost to the Steelers last season by 3 points in overtime. Cleveland finished to 7-9 and the Steelers rolled to 13-3. What can we tell about these teams from a head-to-head match up? Simple, throw out the score and break the game down in terms of how each unit fared.

The Steelers may have won, but that is a final score issue. The Browns still sit in first place and they can point at two wins, maybe even three. Of course, the Browns could just as easily have been 1-3 as 4-0. So, their first place perch is as good as reason as any to rank them first in the division in terms of team quality.

The defense is coming along, making progress over each and every game so far. RB Jamel White is turning into a weekly highlight film, overshadowing the bust that is William Green. Seemingly lost on even Browns fans are the struggles of the offensive line. The quick throws of both starting quarterbacks have taken the spotlight off a patchwork OL. The Steelers defensive line manhandled the Browns front. The Browns had no response to the disruptive play of NT Casey Hampton. This is a bigger problem for the Browns than most realize and Cleveland cannot take that next step without addressing this issue.

  • SteelCity Summary - The game came down to the kickers and the Browns didn't win. The Steelers defense dominated the Browns offense better than the Browns defense dominated the Steelers offense. Right now, therein lies the difference.

p.s. Just as easily 1-3 as 4-0. Browns fans seem surprisingly smug about a team that also lost to the Steelers last season by 3 points in overtime.

Baltimore Ravens - I am sure this will elicit a few grumbles from Steeler country, but the Steelers snuck by the Browns and the Ravens did nothing less than smack the previously undefeated Broncos. Baltimore and Pittsburgh both sit at 1-2. The Ravens have lost to the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Steelers have lost to the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders. How much worse than the Steelers do the Ravens seem now?

Apples and apples, both team now run the 3-4 defensive scheme. Do the Steelers have anyone as dominating as ILB Ray Lewis? No, they don't. Which defense is better? At this point, the Ravens inexperienced crew sports the better statistics. Defensively, edge to Baltimore.

What about the offense? The Steelers may have the better passing game. This was a no-brainer last before Monday night, with even the anemic Steeler offense looking better than the Ravens. Not so anymore. The Broncos have a very good defense. Granted, Denver unraveled, but we only have so much to go on just 3 games into the season. I'd take Baltimore's running game over the Steelers right now.

Do you want to talk about special teams? Billick and company finally got their young guns on track. The Ravens were flying around the field making plays. They still made a few mistakes, but they definitely out-hustled a listless Broncos team. That's what you want from an inexperienced team.

  • SteelCity Summary - You pencil in victories. Get out the eraser, the Ravens are a threat to beat you. That's goes for you as well, Cleveland.

p.s. Glad to see Gary Baxter back and healthy. He would have made a nice replacement for Steeler S Lee Flowers right about now.

Pittsburgh Steelers - The Steelers won. That's about the sum of last Sunday. There's nothing to get too high about. We will leave the over-exuberance for such a win to Browns fans and their post-Titans victory glow. There are still many problems in Steeler country that leave January play still in question.

On a good note, the defense played better, a whole lot better. The Steelers red-zone defense has been stout in all three games and kept improving against a score-happy Cleveland team. The Steelers manhandled the Browns in the trenches, demonstrating a clear dominance over the Browns offense. The Browns simply don't have the personnel to address this and if Kendrell Bell returns for the November 3rd rematch, the Steelers will likely shutout the Browns.

The offense is suffering from an identity crisis. The Steelers cannot run the ball, no matter how improved the Browns front seven is. The Steelers could not run on the Patriots, who have recently demonstrated the true form of their run defense. In comes insurance salesman Tommy Maddox and the spread formation. Depleted secondary or not, the Steelers moved the ball in the two-minute offense like no other time during the Cowher era. Add to that 83 straight drops without a sack and what do you get? The Rams have relocated to Western Pennsylvania. Might RB Verron Haynes be the next Marshall Faulk?

  • SteelCity Summary - Dare to be different, Bill. If the defense has more talent on the defensive line than at linebacker, do you stick with the 3-4?

p.s. Well, the special teams actually won the game against the Browns. Granted, it was winning ugly, but that's better than losing ugly. Ask the Browns…

Cincinnati Bengals - The Browns are the worst team in the NFL right now. Anything can happen this Sunday and perhaps the Colts should watch the film of the Broncos or Saints loss. There are only three teams yet to win a game in the league, Cincinnati, Minnesota, and St. Louis. The Rams lost Warner to an injury and are reportedly close to signing another quarterback to serve in a pinch. Why can't the Bengals do that?

Sticking with the quarterback issue, the center of the Bengals decade of futility, Akili Smith is still the same. He holds on to the ball too long as if afraid to make a mistake. In other words, he's gun shy. That is to say, he is worthless. But what glory would befall Cincinnati if that was the only problem the Bengals faced.

The Bengals simply are rotten to the core. The front office is disastrous. The players know it. The fans know it. And I imagine college players even realize this. The draft has been the scourge of the Bengals and even promising picks such as DE Justin Smith now seem to drown in the ineptitude. Drafting OT Levi Jones was monumental mistake number 1 last April. The Bengals had secondary problems going into the off-season and the very same problems going into camp. Tell me, Bengal fans, wouldn't rather see Philip Buchanon in the secondary, or at least returning punts? Call it 20-20 hindsight if you want, but drafting a quality corner has always made more sense.

  • SteelCity Summary - I watched the Broncos meltdown for one quarter against the Ravens. Any good team can fall apart for a spell. The Bengals, unfortunately, are turning a bad quarter into a bad decade.

p.s. - Start watching college games, Bengal fans. Maybe if one of you screams loudly enough, the Cincinnati will actually have a decent draft.

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