Each week during the season, our AFC North writers get together for a roundtable discussion on the top players, top storylines and most interesting characters across the division. Here we go with Week 2.
It is a quarterback league, so let’s talk about quarterbacks. Surely, you had Mitch Trubisky and Jacoby Brissett winning their debuts with the Steelers and Browns, and Lamar Jackson looking like Patrick Mahomes with his downfield throws for the Ravens. And of course, you figured Joe Burrow would throw four awful interceptions. What impressed AND concerned you the most with the QB you cover?
Jeff Zrebiec (Ravens): One of the things that has always impressed me about Jackson is his ability to ignore all the outside chatter and just focus on the task at hand. There was talk all week about Jackson’s contract deadline and the Ravens’ last-ditch efforts to extend him. Jackson then woke up Sunday to various reports about how much money he turned down, which put even more attention on a player who is already one of the most scrutinized in the NFL. Jackson didn’t play great Sunday, but he didn’t look like he was distracted or pressing. He just looked rusty, which was understandable since he hadn’t played in a game since early December of last year. As far as concerns, Jackson didn’t seem all that eager to run. He had only four carries, not counting the two late kneel-downs. Plenty has been said about Jackson bulking up in the offseason, so there’s a curiosity about whether he is as quick and elusive as he’s always been. Sunday didn’t answer those questions. The Ravens didn’t need Jackson to use his legs to beat the Jets, but if they are going to get their run game going and be a more dangerous offense, the quarterback will need to be more aggressive as a runner.
Mark Kaboly (Steelers): You can pretty much pick something out of a hat to be concerned with on how Trubisky played. The deep throws, when he decided to make them, were bad. His accuracy was off, and the offensive coordinator decided not to move the pocket even though that’s what Trubisky does best. It just wasn’t a pretty offensive performance, but you also have to consider that there were some restraints put on him after getting up so early on the road. His job then turned into not losing the game. He should get better, so there’s nothing really to be overly concerned with now. What was impressive with Trubisky is that he made a handful of big-time plays when he had to, and he didn’t make many mistakes to put the defense in a bad position. His awareness, scramble and throw to Pat Freiermuth in overtime is something that seasoned quarterbacks do. Not one that hasn’t started a game in two years.
Kaboly: Steelers want Mitch Trubisky simply not to lose, but how long will that be enough?
Jay Morrison (Bengals): I wouldn’t even label it a concern, but the biggest issue with Burrow wasn’t the volume of mistakes so much as the decision to force a throw on the second play of the game rather than check down to one of three open receivers. Decision-making has always been one of his greatest traits. I think it’s fair to chalk it up to his appendectomy-delayed camp, lack of preseason action and an elite safety making him pay. We’ve all seen what Burrow is capable of late in games. I wasn’t sure after going down 14 in the first half if he would have that kind of rally in him against a good Steelers D. And damn it if he didn’t do it again. Take the injured long snapper — and the blocked extra point and missed 29-yard field goal in overtime — out of the equation and the Burrow conversations this week would sound a lot different.
Zac Jackson (Browns): Brissett avoided sacks and big mistakes. It wasn’t pretty — and he probably won’t make a lot of highlight reels — but the Browns trust him to command the huddle, grasp the game plan and mostly get the ball in the proper general direction. The offense flirted with the end of the play clock too much and Brissett missed some open guys, but the Browns feel they can work with and through his limitations. Having Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt helps that.
Week 1 is in the books, so there are overreactions galore. Excluding the QBs, which reaction is legitimate and which isn’t with the team you cover?
Zrebiec: There is angst about the Ravens’ running game after they rushed for 63 yards on 21 carries and also didn’t run the ball well throughout the preseason, but I lean on that being a legitimate concern. I don’t think the Ravens are going to average three yards per carry for the whole year, but I’m just not seeing the elements of a top-five-type running game. The offensive line is not moving people off the ball consistently enough, and their current running backs lack a little juice. The return of J.K. Dobbins should help, but it might be a while before he finds his pre-injury form. One overreaction is that the Ravens need to get aggressive in trying to add a big-named corner either in free agency (like a Chris Harris Jr. or Joe Haden) or trade, following the season-ending knee injury to Kyle Fuller. It’s a shame for Fuller, a Baltimore native who was getting an opportunity to play at home after close to a decade in the league. However, the Ravens are hopeful that Marcus Peters will return very soon. They have three young corners on their roster that they like in Brandon Stephens, Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion Williams. They also have three corners on the practice squad, including a second-year player in Ar’Darius Washington who has potential. Edge rush and offensive tackle depth, at least to me, should still be far bigger priorities than spending a chunk of the little cap space that they have on a cornerback.
Kaboly: Najee Harris is slow, hurt and out of shape and Jaylen Warren should start Sunday against the Patriots. Now, come on. That is the overreaction of the century there. Sure, Harris managed only 23 yards on 10 carries, with the majority of them coming on two touches. That was more of a result of an offensive line not opening holes and Trubisky not wanting to stretch the field with deep throws. Harris is fine and by far the best option they have. He needs to be fed the ball more and in a more traditional sense. The legitimate overreaction is the Steelers’ refusal to use the middle of the field. Many blamed that on Ben Roethlisberger the past couple of seasons, but there it was again on Sunday, with only a handful of between-the-hash throws despite having one of the better tight ends in the league. It has happened too long for it to be a coincidence. Matt Canada doesn’t like to use the middle of the field for some reason, which is weird considering there are easy yards to be had there.
Morrison: The legitimate one is that the Bengals struggled in the red zone again, including an inability to score after being first-and-goal from an inch out. It was a point of emphasis all offseason, and going two of five in the opener doesn’t indicate progress or instill confidence. The overreaction that needs to be quelled is the hand wringing over the seven sacks allowed. It’s an eye-popping number on the heels of giving up seven in the Super Bowl — and losing primarily because of it — and nine in the divisional round win. But nuance is important. The Bengals ran 94 plays, and Burrow dropped back 60 times. Any offensive line is going to struggle to hold up with that kind of workload. Plus, one of the sacks was Burrow essentially killing a play by sliding down at the line of scrimmage. When you look at total pressure percentage, the Bengals came in at 29.2, which ranked 10th in the league last weekend for a line with four new starters and zero preseason reps together.
Why the Bengals emerge encouraged with O-line despite Joe Burrow enduring 7 sacks
Jackson: Cade York to Canton is not an overreaction. He’s not Justin Tucker, but he doesn’t need to be. He has a terrific leg — and the Browns haven’t had a reliable kicker in a decade. I don’t know that there’s a true overreaction to the Browns in Week 1. They really needed to win that game for multiple reasons, and because they did, they can get back to work and focus on improvement with minimal outside noise.
Rookie kicker Cade York gives Cleveland the lead from 58 yards out!
— NFL (@NFL) September 11, 2022
After watching Week 1, which player from your team you cover is going to have a bigger role than you anticipated at this time last week?
Zrebiec: Stephens, a third-round pick last year out of SMU, started 11 games as a rookie safety after DeShon Elliott sustained a season-ending injury, but the team moved him to cornerback this summer following the signing of Marcus Williams and the drafting of Kyle Hamilton. Stephens missed a chunk of training camp with a soft-tissue injury and seemed to be pretty low on the cornerback depth chart. However, he was on the field a lot against the Jets even before Fuller tore his ACL late in the fourth quarter. With Fuller now out for the season and Peters still working his way back, Stephens figures to occupy a significant role.
Kaboly: I am going to put you to sleep with this one: nickel cornerback Arthur Maulet. Pretty much everybody else on the roster played a role that was expected dating back to OTAs. Maulet played 60 of 100 snaps on defense and was a difference-maker. His sack/forced fumble late in overtime forced the Bengals to punt rather the try yet another long game-winning field-goal attempt. Before the season, Maulet seemed to be an ancillary piece to the defense. At best, he was going to be a run-down nickel. But with Damontae Kazee out for half the season with a broken arm, Maulet stepped up and took the position over and was quite successful.
Morrison: This isn’t based on what I saw last weekend, but rather what — or whom — I didn’t see. First-round pick Dax Hill played six snaps against the Steelers. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that will be his lowest total of the year. The coaches have been raving about Hill since the day he arrived and he more than passes the eye test in the preseason. He’s going to play a big role this year even if the defense stays injury-free and no starting jobs suddenly open. Sunday’s workload was specific to the Steelers. We’re going to see a lot of Hill against better quarterbacks and more open offenses.
Jackson: Donovan Peoples-Jones looked like Brissett’s go-to wide receiver in big moments, and I certainly didn’t see that coming. It’s just one game, and the Browns have enough known commodities that true surprises are few, but Peoples-Jones has a big frame and is willing to go over the middle. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue to get a lot of opportunities.
Let’s look more globally with this one. What do you consider a more significant occurrence in Week 1: the Steelers beating the Bengals, the Browns taking the Baker Bowl on the road, or the Ravens losing two starters for the year?
Zrebiec: Regardless of how it came, that’s a big victory for the Steelers, and it serves as a reminder that it would be foolish to dismiss Mike Tomlin’s team from the AFC North conversation. There’s plenty of talk about what the Steelers might not have, particularly at quarterback, but they do have a couple of elite defensive players capable of making game-deciding plays. We saw that Sunday. The Steelers will ultimately need to run the ball better and have Trubisky do more than just avoid making mistakes and taking sacks, but this is still a talented and well-coached Pittsburgh team. As long as they get T.J. Watt back relatively soon, the Steelers will stay in the mix.
Kaboly: Globally sounds like a Tomlinism … wait, it is. I want to say the Steelers beating the Bengals was the most significant occurrence out of Week 1, and I’d be right. They went to Buffalo for the 2021 opener and beat the Bills so there is at least history there. However, I am going to think long-term here and go with the Ravens losing a starting tackle (Ja’Wuan James) and a starting cornerback (Fuller). We all know injuries ravaged the Ravens a year ago, especially in their secondary. They had four cornerbacks on injured reserve at the end of the year, and Peters wasn’t recovered enough to play in Week 1. Plus, with Ronnie Stanley out, having two starting-caliber tackles absent isn’t ideal for a team that wants to run the ball.
Morrison: Phew. I thought we were pivoting to the Premier League or something. Not sure what’s global about this question, but my job is to answer it. So I’ll say the Steelers beating the Bengals. A division win will always be more significant, and it’s clear the Steelers made a statement that they’re going to be players in the race for the North title. Imagine what a massive gut punch it would have been had Minkah Fitzpatrick not blocked the extra point with two seconds remaining. The Steelers would have blown a 14-point lead against a divisional rival, and Zac Taylor would have joined Bill Belichick as the only coach to ever beat Tomlin four consecutive times. Nice win for Cleveland. Brutal injuries for Baltimore. But the Pittsburgh victory dwarfs both of those.
Jackson: The Steelers beating the Bengals. Every division game matters, and that’s a huge win for a Steelers team that’s been dismissed (again) outside its building. The Browns should have beaten the Panthers, the Ravens should have beaten the Jets and there’s a long, long way to go for everybody.
Not a good docket of interesting games in the AFC North this week except for the Dolphins at the Ravens. The Steelers host the Patriots in a game that sounds a lot better on paper than what it will be on the field. The Bengals travel to quarterback-needy Dallas, and the Browns host the Jets. Who you have winning and why?
Zrebiec: I touted what a formidable Week 1 opponent the Jets would be for the Ravens, and I’m not going to make that same mistake this week. The Browns’ defensive front will be the difference in a Cleveland win. I would have picked the Bengals to beat Dallas with Dak Prescott playing. Without him, I think Cincinnati wins that game easily. Burrow loves the big stage and Jerry’s World is a perfect place for him to rebound. The Patriots can’t possibly play as badly as they did last week, can they? Probably not, but I think the Steelers control that game with their defense. I don’t like the Miami matchup for the Ravens. The blitz-happy Dolphins defense seemed to get in the Ravens’ heads last season. It’s also not good timing to be down one or two of your better cornerbacks with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle coming into town. I’ll take the Dolphins in a close one.
Ravens can show what they learned after getting blitzed out of Miami last season
Kaboly: The Steelers are home underdogs to a bad Patriots team a week after winning at Cincinnati. That doesn’t make sense … or does it? Bill Belichick typically out-coaches Tomlin, and the Steelers, if they follow the path set last year, will struggle at home against an average team after winning on the road against a good team. It’s hard for me to pick against the Patriots, even though the Steelers are more talented. I will go with the Bengals in a rout, the Browns convincingly and the mini-upset special of the Dolphins beating the Ravens at home.
Morrison: The Bengals because Burrow > Cooper Rush. The Patriots because Belichick hasn’t started 0-2 since his second season in New England. The Ravens because the Dolphins, even with last week’s win, have lost eight of their last 11 September games. And the Browns because they painted Brownie the Elf at midfield (and the Jets are wretched).
Jackson: AFC North sweep. Book it. Browns win an ugly one, Steelers win an uglier one, Tucker bails the Ravens out late and the Bengals win by 10 against the Rush-led Cowboys.
(Photo of Joe Burrow and Cam Heyward: Sam Greene / USA Today)