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Everyone Keeps Pace…Except Pittsburgh

Ben Bench
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Another week of AFC North football is in the books, and the long-term picture of how the division will pan out come December is becoming more and more clear. In last week’s installment, I compared it to a horse race. A horse race in which there were two clear leaders of the pack, one dark horse approaching on the rear, and another who started out of the gate hot before throwing their jockey and taking themselves out of the race. The results of Week 4 seemingly confirmed that narrative to a tee, and while we’re only a quarter of the way through the season, there doesn’t appear to be anything imminent to change that going forward.

With the current status quo remaining unchanged, it’s time to take yet another look around the happenings in the AFC North.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

The Browns traveled to Minnesota this week for an interesting tilt with the Vikings, and the game progressed in a fashion very similar to what we saw from the Ravens in Denver defensively. On the Vikings’ opening drive, Kirk Cousins and company drove right down the field before capping the drive with a 12-yard Justin Jefferson touchdown. However, the Cleveland defense absorbed the early blow, and from that point on proceeded to handily impose their will on Minnesota for the remaining 3+ quarters of a 14-7 victory. The Vikings gained 75 yards on that opening possession, and only managed to finish with 255 total when the final whistle was blown. Right now there isn’t a unit in football playing better than Myles Garrett and that bunch, and they aren’t showing any signs of slowing down either.

Unlike the Ravens however, the Browns offense struggled mightily on this day. On their first drive of the game they were met with a 4th-and-4 on the Minnesota six-yard line. Baker Mayfield took the snap and was almost instantly under pressure before ultimately being taken down by veteran Everson Griffen for a sack. On their next drive they were met with a similar scenario on 4th-and-goal and also didn’t convert, but were bailed out by an objectively ticky-tack holding call in the secondary. It would then take the offense an additional three plays from the one-yard line to finally hit paydirt.

Baker Mayfield completed less than 50% of his passes on the day for a pedestrian 155 yards, finishing with a QBR of 15.6. So far through four game as a whole, Baker appears to have accepted his role as a game manager (which is far from an insult) who lets his elite rushing attack do the bulk of the work. He doesn’t have to do much with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt carrying the load, and the defense playing lights out, but he certainly has to do more than what we saw on Sunday. The Browns were on the road in a hostile environment though, and every quarterback has an off day here and there, so you shouldn’t pull too much from this one outing.

Overall, nothing new came from this performance that we didn’t already know about the Browns. They can run it down your throat, play shut down defense, and even on days when their quarterback isn’t playing his best can still pull out tough victories. This weekend presents a unique challenge as Cleveland hops on a plane to meet with Justin Herbert and the ascending Chargers. Ravens fans will be smart to keep a close eye on this one, with Los Angeles coming to town the following week.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Well, it’s officially time to mash the panic button “dahhn’er” in the Steel City after a 27-17 loss to the Packers (I promise, that impression of a Pittsburgh accent is much better in person). The Steelers opened the game against the Packers by driving all the way down the field and putting seven on the board via a Ben Roethlisberger-to-Diontae Johnson touchdown. From there, it was one of the ugliest displays of offense we’ve seen from a Pittsburgh team in recent memory.

Their remaining drives went as follows: punt, fumble, field goal, punt, turnover on downs, punt, turnover on downs, before finally scoring another touchdown to make the final score more respectable. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was caught on the sidelines saying something that looked suspiciously like “it’s a Ben problem” during the midst of this frustrating effort. Now, it’s likely that what he actually said was “it’s a big problem”, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone out there who wouldn’t agree with the former.

The Steelers defense did manage to keep this game close through the first two quarters, but a questionable penalty call at the end of the half even seemed to remove the wind from that group’s sails. Green Bay lined up for a chip shot field goal to make the game 17-10 heading into the locker room, but the kick was blocked and scooped up by Minkah Fitzpatrick for a score the other way. This was a play that would’ve undoubtedly given Pittsburgh all the momentum heading into the locker room. However, the referees called offsides on the play and it was brought back (objectively it did appear as if the Steelers defenders just got a well-timed jump on the snap).

The Packers were then able to line up and re-kick, and on their first two drives of the second half they marched down and scored a combined 10 points to put the game out of reach (sandwiched around one of the aforementioned Steelers punts). It was surprising to see a Mike Tomlin-led team allow circumstances out of their control to deflate them for the second half, but when combined with the lack of help they received from their offense it’s at least understandable.

Things aren’t going to get any easier for Pittsburgh going forward, as their next three opponents are Denver, Seattle, and Cleveland. Some tough conversations may need to be had in that front office over the coming weeks, including whether or not to see what they have in backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins.

It’s sad to see an AFC mainstay in such a state of disrepair, but somehow I think we’ll get over it…

CINCINNATI BENGALS

It feels like the theme of the AFC North this week was “games starting out the total opposite of how they finish.” The Bengals came into Thursday night’s home game against the Jaguars looking like one of the surprises in football, before a 14-0 halftime deficit had us once again screaming “same old Bengals!” Going into the halftime locker room, they were one punt and an opposition score away from being in firm blowout territory.

So, how did Joe Burrow and company respond? Oh, only by scoring on every single one of their second half possessions to come away with a 24-21 victory. Now, say what you’d like about the Jaguars and how the Bengals shouldn’t have been in that position to begin with, but Burrow showed guts in this performance. He was sharp all throughout the second half, and showed off his clutch gene on the last drive in the form of 10 plays and 73 yards to put his team in position for the game-winning field goal.

Tight end C.J. Uzomah also had himself a breakout game in the form of five catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns. With so many talented players in the wide receiver room it’s not likely that we’re seeing the next big thing emerge at the tight end position, but yet another reliable weapon for Burrow to throw to certainly doesn’t hurt their chances.

We’ve also talked a lot about the Bengals defense over the first quarter of the season, and how well they’re jelling as a unit. The first half was undeniably shaky, but they finally found their groove and managed to hold off Trevor Lawrence and the Jags offense for almost the entire second half. Most importantly, in a tie game late they stiffened up and got the ball back for their offense to win at the end of regulation. It won’t be perfect every week, but as long as they can continue to do just enough to keep their explosive offense in games, they’ll be just fine.

We still can’t officially place Cincinnati in the conversation with Baltimore and Cleveland given the opponents they’ve had on their schedule, but a home matchup against Green Bay this week is the perfect opportunity for the Bengals to secure a legitimate signature win. If they can stifle Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur a mere one week after they had their way with the Steelers, it might be time to start worrying about that dark horse on the rear.

WRAP UP

Of all the weeks we’ve gone through so far in the 2021 NFL season, this was undoubtedly the one with the least amount of drama and things to pull from as it pertains to the AFC North. It’s likely that will change this weekend with some genuinely exciting matchups taking place across the board, and as Ravens fans it’s always nice to see how other teams’ fortunes unfold before the purple birds take center stage on Monday night.

Will the Ravens be playing for sole possession of first place at the Bank with the lights on bright against Indianapolis?

We’ll see, but in the meantime, hopefully you all have a much better week than the Steelers!

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