AFC North taking old-school approach

May, 2, 2012
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Green-Ellis/Richardson/RiceUS PresswireCincinnati signed BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cleveland drafted Trent Richardson and Baltimore tagged Ray Rice as three of the division teams focused on the run in the offseason.
The NFL is a passing league now, but the most of the AFC North apparently hasn't received that memo.

The Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns all ranked 19th or worse in passing last season. What have they done to improve that? Nothing really.

No division team signed a big-name receiver in free agency. No one drafted a wide receiver in the first couple rounds of the draft. It's like the AFC North collectively rolled up their sleeves and went to work on their running games this offseason.

Every big move in this division has been another step toward old-school football, where you pound the ball instead of pass it:

  • The prize of the Bengals' free-agency period was running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and the team's second first-round pick Kevin Zeitler was the best run-blocking guard of the draft.

  • The Browns used the third overall pick on Alabama's Trent Richardson, the highest a running back has gone in the draft since Reggie Bush in 2006.

  • The Ravens put a $7.7 million franchise tag on running back Ray Rice, which is one season removed from Baltimore making Vonta Leach the highest-paid fullback in the league.

  • Even the Pittsburgh Steelers have hinted at becoming a more balanced offense under new coordinator Todd Haley.
[+] EnlargeMike Wallace
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireThe Steelers with Mike Wallace and Ben Roethlisberger are the lone exception in the division.
Teams have to run the ball to be successful in the AFC North, especially when the weather turns ugly late in the season. This is the only division in football that doesn't have a dome stadium or a warm-weather city like Miami or San Diego in it. Last season, the three AFC North teams that went to the playoffs combined for a 33-9 record (.785) when running the ball at least 20 times, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

The problem is, recent NFL history says you win Super Bowls by throwing the ball, not handing it off. The last three Super Bowl champions -- the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and New York Giants -- all ranked in the top five in passing. While the Steelers finished 10th in passing, the others in the division -- the Ravens (19th), Bengals (20th) and Browns (24th) -- are severely lagging behind.

Baltimore and Cincinnati believe they have their franchise quarterbacks. Joe Flacco guided the Ravens to the playoffs for four straight seasons, and Andy Dalton made the Pro Bowl last season as a rookie. The Browns just invested the 22nd overall pick in Oklahoma State Brandon Weeden.

For the offenses to take that next step, they need wide receivers. The Bengals didn't re-sign two of their top three receivers (Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell). The Ravens only had two wide receivers catch more than four passes. And the Browns led the NFL in dropped passes.

Still, the AFC North teams ignored the position this offseason. There were no visits from Vincent Jackson, Robert Meachem, Pierre Garcon, Brandon Lloyd, Reggie Wayne and Mario Manningham in free agency. The draft featured Baylor's Kendall Wright, Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill and LSU's Rueben Randle getting taken elsewhere. Only one receiver signed with a division team -- the Bengals' Mohamed Sanu -- in the first two days of the draft.

How will the passing improve in this division when no one added a major weapon at wide receiver?

“The receivers, what will make them look good, is if they catch the ball better than they caught it last year,” Browns president Mike Holmgren said. “We dropped way too many balls and that wasn’t the quarterbacks’ fault. I don’t care if we bring back Otto Graham, the receivers have to catch the ball. They will be better, for a lot of reasons."

Holmgren added, “That’s why no one is in a panic about how the draft went as far as how our receivers went. We will not drop the ball like we dropped it last year. We will have a running game to go with our passing game. Those things by themselves it will be better.”

This isn't to say the division is totally bare at wide receiver. Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace and Cincinnati's A.J. Green are Pro Bowl players. Baltimore's Torrey Smith showed flashes of greatness. And Cleveland's Greg Little had his moments.

Still, the Ravens don't have a proven No. 3 wide receiver. The Bengals don't know who will step up to be the No. 2 one. And the Browns are wondering who will be the primary target.

The Steelers are the class of the division in terms of passing offense. They have a strong-armed quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger along with two playmakers at wide receiver in Wallace and Antonio Brown. But Pittsburgh could be facing decisions at the wide receiver position, too. Wallace is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next offseason and Brown will become one in 2014.

But this offseason was all about the Ravens, Bengals and Browns playing catch-up. Instead, the teams let the opportunities slip through their fingers.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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