Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Here are seven observations from Week 4 in the AFC North:
The skill players get all the publicity, but you have to give the offensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers a lot of credit for Sunday’s performance in a 38-28 victory over the San Diego Chargers. This is the first time in a long time that Pittsburgh’s offensive line manhandled the front seven of another unit. The Chargers are not very good defensively, but you also had the sense Pittsburgh could do whatever it wanted offensively. According to ESPN’s Next Level research, Mendenhall gained 105 of his 165 yards when San Diego stacked the box with at least one extra defender.
The Steelers are having a lot of problems defensively when teams go up-tempo in the fourth quarter, and it’s definitely something to monitor the rest of the season. Opponents are finding some major holes in Pittsburgh’s defense passing the football late in games. The Chargers caught fire with back-to-back scoring drives that took less than two minutes apiece and nearly led the team from behind. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers (254 yards, three touchdowns) torched the middle of the defense with tight end Antonio Gates, who recorded nine catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Eight of Gates’ catches came in the second half.
The Baltimore Ravens’ pass-to-run ratio was a bit out of whack in Sunday’s loss to the New England Patriots. It’s clear the game plan was to beat New England through the air, which nearly worked as Baltimore had a shot to win the game on its final drive. But to pass the football 47 times and run it 17 times was too uneven, especially when the Ravens were running the football well against the Patriots. Baltimore tailback Ray Rice had it going with 103 yards rushing, but he only had 11 carries. His average of 9.4 yards per rush means the Ravens should have fed him more.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco showed a lot of poise not to get rattled despite taking some hard shots from New England’s defense. Flacco, who threw for 264 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, was sacked twice and hit 10 times. But he still kept his eyes downfield and never looked skittish in the pocket down to the final play. Many young quarterbacks, such as Kyle Boller, have taken hard shots as a young quarterback and it impacted their confidence and development. That doesn’t appear to be the case for Flacco.
One thing that’s surprised me so far about the Cincinnati Bengals is that the deep ball has yet to return to the offense this season. Starting quarterback Carson Palmer’s longest completion this year is for 44 yards. He also is averaging 6.2 yards per attempt, which is at least a yard less than his pace in 2007 (7.2) and 2006 (7.8) when he wasn’t hurt and played a full season. The Bengals are 3-1 after beating the Cleveland Browns and are doing well running the ball and passing in the short and intermediate range. But Cincinnati also has long-ball potential that hasn’t been tapped into.
The Bengals needed a fast start, because the next five games are going to be brutal. Cincinnati faces the Baltimore Ravens (3-1) twice, the Houston Texans (2-2), Chicago Bears (3-1) and Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2) during that span. The Bengals also have a bye Nov. 1 before facing Baltimore and Pittsburgh in back-to-back weeks. So it was a good move for the Bengals to win three of their first four games.
The move to quarterback Derek Anderson turned out to be a good one, as Cleveland had its best yardage output of the season with 395 yards. Anderson threw for 269 yards, one touchdown and one interception. But perhaps his biggest contribution to the offense was his threat of going vertical helping the running game. The Bengals were forced to stay honest and that allowed Browns tailback Jerome Harrison to rush for 121 yards. This kind of balance will make Cleveland (0-4) a lot more competitive moving forward.