Over the next two weeks we will be evaluating the AFC North teams at the season’s quarter mark, something we will attempt to do every four games as long as it makes sense. Most of us had an idea of how our teams would perform to this point in the season, so let’s see how they stacked up to our predictions. The Steelers and Ravens are first because, well, they are the only AFC North teams with four games under their belt.
Baltimore Ravens: 3-1
Author’s Prediction: 4-0
A 4-0 prediction from a Ravens fan, you say? Yes, I expected them to split the season with the Bengals, so a win in their home opener seemed plausible. I also picked the Ravens to lose six of their last 12 games. If that part turns out to be accurate, it won’t bode well for their division chances.
The first four games of the Ravens season gave us a glimpse of positives as well as concerns heading into the second half of the first half of the season (games 5-8).
The Ravens offense is playing well with a balanced attack. It is difficult to find any major weakness as a unit or position other than depth due to injuries. I hate the “next man up” mantra, but this has held true for a group that lost their top two running backs, top tight end, and starting left tackle. The offensive line has been the key thus far, spring-boarding running backs Justin Forcett (1st in yards per attempt and 10th in rushing yards) and Lorenzo Taliaferro, and giving quarterback Joe Flacco time to hit his instant “go-to” receiver Steve Smith (on pace over 1700 yards on 100 receptions and 12 touchdowns). If there is a question mark or concern besides offensive line depth, it’s at the individual player level, and mainly revolves around the wide receivers not named Steve Smith (who has rebounded nicely after key drops in week 1). Torrey Smith has eight total receptions in a contract year… EIGHT… on 22 targets. Jacoby Jones seems to be lost after becoming an overpaid kick/punt returner for his stellar work in the 2012 playoffs. He has been targeted 10 times with 3 catches and at least as many drive-stalling drops. Speaking of drops, he has let a few punts drop into dangerous territory that he could have easily handled.
Early Surprises: Justin Forcett, Lorenzo Taliaferro, offensive line
Disappointments: Jacoby Jones, Torrey Smith, Bernard Pierce,
The Ravens defense has come out of the gates with a bend-but-don’t-break style, yielding yards (13th) but not points (2nd). It is also a unit that will struggle against the pass if they don’t pressure the quarterback (just 4 sacks on the year). Rookie C.J. Mosely looks to be the next solid Ravens linebacker, and the elderly trio of Elvis Dumervil (3.5 sacks), Haloti Ngata (who’s stats look more like a cornerback with 1 interception and 4 passes defended), and Terrell Suggs (3 tackles for a loss, 0.5 sacks) have started off the season much better than they finished the last. The Ravens front seven overall appear to have more speed than in recent past, and are giving up just 82 yards rushing per game against predominately strong running teams. The defensive backs on the other hand, have missed assignments and communicated poorly at times, but somehow have only given up three TDs through the air. Their success might have something to do with the opponent’s poor play in the red zone, so that trend will be something to watch over the next four games.
Early Surprises: C.J. Mosely, Asa Jackson
Disappointments: Matt Elam, Lardarious Webb (injured or not), Chykie Brown (although his poor play isn’t a surprise, it was expected)
Second half of first half outlook:
The offense should continue an upward trend as it gets more comfortable with the complex assignments of a Gary Kubiak offense. Steve Smith could average another 100 yards a game next quarter considering the opponents and the fact that they might be playing catch-up at times. If his production falls, Torrey Smith and Marlon Brown need to pick up some of that slack. On defense, the cornerbacks and safeties will have to solidify as a unit quickly over the next four games, three of which are against solid passing teams The Ravens DBs will need an assist from the pass rush, which will need to average more than a sack a game.
Next 4 @Indianapolis, Buccaneers, Falcons, and @ Bengals
Next 4 Author Prediction: 2-2
Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2)
Author Prediction (3-1)
The 2014 version of the Pittsburgh Steelers can be described as ”Ya never know whatcha gonna get”. Of the 16 quarters they have played this year, they looked like Super Bowl contenders in at least six, and looked to be lining up for the number one draft pick in at least six others. Which team will show up next? I guess you will just have to tune in.
Ben Roethlisberger seems to be healthy and is playing extremely well, especially when he is when standing upright (sacked 11 times, 3rd in the NFL). Ben’s are not eye-popping, but very solid, which is exactly where they should be. The Steelers play better with a balanced attack, and statistically that’s what they are doing. Antonio Brown has been a monster and is Big Ben’s favorite target (4th in receiving, 1st in TDs after four weeks). Heath Miller never gets old. The running back tandem of LeGarrette Blount and Le’Veon Bell (3rd in rushing) seem to be clicking like Steelers teams of old (1st in yards per attempt). Unfortunately they just aren’t consistent from game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter. The biggest issue is the offense stopping itself as promising drives come to a screeching halt because of sacks and penalties. The Steelers offensive unit is leading the league in both penalties and penalty yards. The return of Left Guard Ramon Foster should strengthen their pass protection.
Early surprises: LeVeon Bell, Heath Miller (when will his production drop-off?)
Disappointments: Justin Brown, Lance Moore
The defense gets criticized for giving up too many penalties as well, but actually they are 11th and 13th in penalties and penalty yards, respectively. Analyzing the severity of penalty yards compared to other teams would involve research beyond my current salary. On the positive side, the Steelers also have veterans showing the young kids how it’s done. Troy Polomalu and Lawrence Timmons lead the team in tackles and are the defensive leaders. In the defensive backfield, Cortez Allen has good stats against the run and pass, but he is also targeted more than most and tends to give up big plays. The biggest issue has been decision making from the GM and others, leaving major holes and lack of depth. It will be interesting to see what moves are made to bolster the defense behind (or in front of) the likes of Arthur Moats, James Harrison, and Brett Keisel.
Early surprises: Steve McLendon, Lawrence Timmons
Disappointments: Jason Worilds, roster management
Second half of first half outlook:
The Steelers offense could be one of the top three in the league at the season’s half-way point if they protect the quarterback and play disciplined football. They have the talent to move the ball and will be going up against weak defenses. On the defensive side of the ball, they will be going up against the top two offenses of the season’s first quarter, and a balanced Browns team on the road. With their injuries and ever-thinning front seven, expect a few high scoring affairs.
Next 4 @ Jacksonville, @ Cleveland, vs Houston, vs Indianapolis
Next 4 Author Prediction 2-2