Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Here are seven notes and observations from Week 6 in the AFC North:
I’m not sure if many are paying attention, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are quietly morphing into a big-play offense. In Sunday’s 27-14 win over the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh had 10 offensive plays of 20 yards or more. Steelers receiver Hines Ward (eight catches, 159 yards) had the longest play with a 52-yard touchdown reception. As Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians put it, the points didn’t reflect their season-best 543-yard performance. If not for lack of ball security, the Steelers may have scored 40 points for the first time this season. They are averaging 31 points per game the past three weeks.
A major reason Pittsburgh (4-2) stays in playoff contention is due to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s dominance against the division. On Sunday, Roethlisberger improved to 23-5 as a starter against the AFC North, which includes a 10-0 career mark against the Browns. It also marked the 12th time Roethlisberger recorded a 100-plus passer rating against a division foe, further proof that he gets up for these rivalry games.
Here is an interesting question: What is the identity of Cleveland’s offense? Six games into the season, there’s no clear answer. In Week 4, the Browns went vertical with quarterback Derek Anderson during an overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. In Week 5, Cleveland pounded the ball with Jamal Lewis to beat the Buffalo Bills. In Week 6, the Browns ran the Wildcat offense with Joshua Cribbs more than they had all season. A lack of identity has been a major problem in Cleveland since it rejoined the league in 1999, and it’s showing up again through the first six games of 2009.
Here is another interesting note: Former Browns receiver Braylon Edwards is 0-6 this season. He lost four games in Cleveland and now the New York Jets are 0-2 with Edwards following their blockbuster deal to land the former first-round pick. Edwards has played decent. He has eight catches for 104 yards and a touchdown in two games in New York. But the Jets were in first place before Edwards arrived. So if things completely implode, the New York media might begin searching for a scapegoat.
The loss of defensive end Antwan Odom could impact every level of Cincinnati’s defense. Not only was he having the best year of any Bengals defensive lineman, but Odom had eight of the team’s 16 sacks. His ability to win one-on-one matchups and rush the passer helped the Bengals drop more players in coverage to defend the pass. Now, Cincinnati might have to blitz more to get pressure at the expense of giving up big plays. Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub looked comfortable Sunday ripping the Bengals' secondary for 392 yards and four touchdowns in a 28-17 victory.
Expect a motivated Cedric Benson this week. Cincinnati’s starting tailback is off to a great start and plays the team that gave up on him in the Chicago Bears. This is a full-circle moment for Benson. The Bears took him in the first round in 2005, but Benson never lived up to expectations in three seasons. No team was interested until the Bengals called during the 2008 season, and Benson re-established his career.
The Baltimore Ravens (3-3) enter the bye week in an odd spot. They’ve lost three straight, which impacts confidence. But it’s clear the Ravens are still a good team that can play with the NFL’s elite following a trio of close losses to first-place teams in the Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots and Cincinnati. Perhaps the biggest concern is Baltimore hasn’t been able to fix its leaky pass defense, which hasn’t been a one- or two-week problem. The Ravens were struggling against the pass even when they were 3-0, and it will be interesting to see if the bye provides enough time to fix those issues.