Friday, August 24, 2012

Water Cooler Briefings: AFC North

Today we wrap up our look at preseason storylines around the league with the AFC North, which includes two teams that saw action last night…




The big story for the Ravens in this offseason has been the loss of 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs (left).  Suggs, who plays linebacker, injured his Achilles tendon and is not expected to return until November.  The gaping hole Suggs leaves in the Ravens defense can’t be overstated; in 2011 he had 50 tackles, fourteen sacks and two interceptions.  Besides winning Defensive Player of the Year honors, he was named to his fifth Pro Bowl at the end of last season.  Where he has been missed most this preseason is in the pass rush.  Opposing quarterbacks Matt Ryan (Atlanta) and Matthew Stafford (Detroit) have had plenty of time to throw against the Ravens, collectively completing 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns.


Of course, part of the blame for poor defense goes to the Ravens’ secondary, which got a hit last night when backup safety Emanuel Cook broke his leg, knocking him out for the season. Wide receivers have been having rare stats against Baltimore this preseason:  Atlanta’s Julio Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in a single quarter and Detroit’s Calvin Johnson had a similar outing in less than two quarters of playing time. Last night, Justin Blackmon didn’t have quite those numbers, but still managed to impress by catching four passes for 72 yards. Still, second-year QB Blaine Gabbert had tougher sledding against the Ravens secondary last night:  although he managed to throw for over 100 yards, he wasn’t able to find the end zone.


NEXT GAME:  @ St. Louis Rams, Thursday 7:00 PM ET




Cincinnati was the feel-good story of the AFC North last year with the impressive body of work put together by rookies Andy Dalton (right) at quarterback and A.J. Green (below) at wide receiver.  The question this year is whether Dalton and Green will continue their pass-catch synergy and take the Bengals even further than their 9-7 record and wild card playoff spot last season.  The preseason started out well—through the first two games, the first team had a total of five drives. On those drives, they scored a touchdown and two field goals and were 7 of 10 on first downs.  Dalton and Green were connecting like last year, once on a 50-yard play against Atlanta.
Last night’s game against the Packers was a different story, as the pair only managed to connect once—for three yards—and Dalton wasn’t able to get a touchdown to his credit. Let’s hope that was just a fluke, because the running game has suffered this preseason with the loss of Cedric Benson to the Packers, and two of the running backs on the roster sidelined with injuries (BenJarvus Green-Ellis with a bad toe and Bernard Scott with a hand injury).  In fact, with 36 yards, Dalton led the team in rushing in last night’s loss to the Green Bay Packers.


NEXT GAME:  @ Indianapolis Colts, Thursday 7:00 PM ET




The big story for the Browns this summer was last month’s sale of the team to Jimmy Haslam III in a deal worth over $1 billion.  Haslam (left) is the head of the truck stop chain Pilot Flying J, but he’s also been a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2008, so he’s not new to football.  Before ordering new office furniture for Haslam, though, the Browns made a big splash in the draft, selecting Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden and Alabama running back Trent Richardson in the first round of draft. Weeden has already been named the starting quarterback and, though he still has a lot to learn, he’s been looking confident. He’ll have a good test against the intimidating pass rush of the Eagles tonight.


New blood brings new hope, but there are dark clouds inside the silver lining. On August 9th, Richardson underwent what the team called “routine” arthroscopic knee surgery. Richardson, who came in third in the Heisman vote behind Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck last year, had injured that knee in the BCS national championship game, and had already had a similar procedure done in February. They have limited Richardson’s activity in training camp to give the knee time to heal, and they expect to have him on the field for Game 1 of the regular season. Without testing it in the preseason, here’s hoping that Richardson is ready enough for pro-level play to keep that knee healthy.


NEXT GAME:  vs. Philadelphia Eagles, tonight, 7:30 PM ET




The Steelers’ offseason has been marred by the conspicuous absences of two key member of its offense:  wide receiver Mike Wallace (right) and running back Rashard Mendenhall.  Pro Bowler Mike Wallace has not appeared at training camp due to a contract dispute with the team. Back in July, the team broke off contract negotiations with Wallace, saying that they wouldn’t proceed until the receiver signed the one-year, $2.7 million tender offer they had made; they also withdrew the previous offers they had extended to him to that point. Wallace is a free agent and, therefore, isn’t obligated to reach an agreement with the team by a certain time, and won’t be fined for not participating in camp.  Fortunately, it was reported this week that Wallace plans to report in time to prepare for the final preseason game. Wallace has been a big part of the Steelers offense:  in each of the last two seasons, he has caught at least sixty passes and averaged over 1,200 receiving yards.


In the last game of the 2011 season, running back Rashard Mendenhall tore his right ACL and has been out of commission since.  He’s returned to training camp, but the word is that he won’t be ready for the first game of the season, and his absence could continue into late September.  Mendenhall took over for an injured Willie Parker in 2009 and hasn’t looked back:  that season he rushed for a total of 1,108 yards; in 2010 he ran for and incredible 1,273 yards; last year he fell just short of 1,000 yards, ending up with 928.  Backup Isaac Redman is also dealing with a nagging hip injury, though he’s expected to be on the field for the season opener. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the team’s third back, Jonathan Dwyer has had a solid preseason, running for 83 yards on ten carries so far. The Steelers are primarily a throwing team, but the idea is that having a tough runner who’s healthy and reliable will keep the pressure of QB Ben Roethlisberger and the offensive line, which needs to improve from last year; the other Pittsburgh story of the offseason is how they have invested to make their O-line stronger.


NEXT GAME:   @ Buffalo Bills, Saturday, 7:00 PM ET


I hope you’ve enjoyed our review of the league’s preseason storylines.  Keep following the preseason news to see which teams will have happy endings when the regular season starts!

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