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Saturday, October 29, 2011
AFC North mailbag

By Jamison Hensley

If you have a question about the AFC North, send it to my mailbag. It's Saturday morning, so let's open up some mail ...

Ashley from Grayson, Ky., writes: Obviously, the Bengals schedule is more difficult in the second half of the season. Do you feel defenses will "figure" Andy Dalton out or will he continue to be a legitimate starting quarterback in the NFL?

Jamison Hensley responds: Dalton's true test in the second half of the season will be the four games going against the defenses from Baltimore and Pittsburgh. At this point, you have to be impressed with his poise, leadership and ability to step up late in games. He's not making the highlight reel like fellow rookie Cam Newton, but he's winning more games.

I'm not sure if you will see defenses will start to "figure" him out. But I know the defenses will be tougher and challenge him more. We'll learn more about Dalton in how he performs against relentless pressure from Terrell Suggs and LaMarr Woodley. At the time when he starts hitting the rookie wall, Dalton will have to make sure he's not taking hits from two of the most aggressive defenses in the NFL.

It's difficult to think a rookie quarterback will excel against the likes of the Ravens and Steelers. This isn't a knock on Dalton as much as respect for those defenses. He still looks like a potential franchise quarterback even though his AFC North initiation will provide tough times.


Jonnyplesko from Pittsburgh writes: The Patriots have completely owned the Steelers in recent memory. I have been one to blame Dick Lebeau, under much scrutiny, might I add. In my opinion, he has allowed New England receivers way too much of a cushion, which translates to easy yards for them. At the same time, this completely negates Pittsburgh's biggest defensive weapon, which is the pass rush. We all know that if you can get to Brady and rattle him, he will make mistakes. Do you think that Lebeau allowing his cornerbacks to play at the line of scrimmage more often, will lead to the Steelers finally getting some pressure on the New England quarterback this weekend?

Jamison Hensley responds: I couldn't agree more with this assessment. Steelers defensive coordinator LeBeau knows he can't use that same strategy. Maybe that's why Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark talked this week about being physical with Wes Welker. In fact, the Steelers need to do that with all of New England's wide receivers. The Patriots' starting wide receivers -- Welker and Deion Branch -- are both 5 foot 9. The Steelers have to take advantage of that.

The cornerbacks have to line up in the receivers' faces and throw off the timing of the routes. If not, Tom Brady will pick you apart. Of course, how the officials call this game will affect how aggressive Pittsburgh can play. The Steelers didn't sack Brady once in last year's game, and they can't repeat this if they want to end the Patriots' dominance.


Justin from Bradford, Ohio, writes: Watching the Browns this year it seems that Colt McCoy is getting hit a lot in the backfield without a chance to make a throw. Do you believe this is the reason that he has such a low yards per completion because he just wants to get the ball out as fast as possible. Also is there any answer for the right side of the line because they seem solid once Eric Steinbach returns on the left side and at center?

Jamison Hensley responds: The blame for the Browns' struggles on offense can't all be placed on McCoy. In fact, the Browns could stand to upgrade at every position on offense except left tackle and center. But McCoy is accountable for the Browns' inability to stretch the field (or should I say his lack of ideal arm strength is responsible).

You could also point the finger at how Cleveland is using McCoy. He has taken 38 hits this season, sixth-most in the NFL. The Browns need to get him out of the pocket more, and McCoy has shown a knack for throwing on the run. His 267 yards passing outside the pocket ranks third in the NFL. To truly evaluate McCoy, you need to give him proper protection. But NFL teams don't have time to wait for the perfect conditions to get the proper read on quarterbacks. It wasn't a good sign when team president Mike Holmgren didn't endorse McCoy beyond this season.


Jason from Baltimore writes: What's your slant on Cam Cameron's play calling? He's had some horrible games over the past few years and didn't John Harbaugh say that he was going to take a more hands on approach with the offense this season?

Jamison Hensley responds: The biggest problem I have with the play-calling is when the Ravens get too pass-happy and forget about Ray Rice. It feels forced at times. Not to sound like Terrell Suggs here, but it's a bad game plan when Rice isn't getting at least 20 touches a game. Head coach Harbaugh has been more hands-on with the offense and he attends a lot of the meetings. But I'm not sure how much input he has with the offense during the course of a game.

I think the criticism of offensive coordinator Cameron is warranted at times, but he also doesn't get enough credit, too. The Ravens have been more aggressive this season, especially late in games. Baltimore is ranked No. 8 in the NFL in scoring, averaging 25.8 points per game (and yes, I know defensive touchdowns inflate these numbers). It just seems like when the Ravens offense struggles, it really struggles. It was like that in the last couple playoff losses, and it was that way Monday night in Jacksonville. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said at the end of last season that he liked the scenario of having "Cam under fire" this year. Well, the flames certainly got higher after this past game.