Friday, January 27, 2012
All-AFC North team: Offense
By Jamison Hensley
Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Rice and Joe Thomas earned spots on the All-AFC North team.
It's time to wrap up my All-AFC North team by unveiling the offense. As always, the selections were based on performance this season, and not past reputation.
Of course, tell me who I left off, who should have been on and any other opinions in the comments section below.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers. He carried the Steelers' offense and he did it through pain. Roethlisberger sprained his foot (which required a metal plate in his shoe), broke his right thumb and then suffered a high-ankle sprain. He was still able to lead the division with 4,077 yards passing, 21 touchdowns and a 63.2 completion rate. Roethlisberger threw five touchdowns against Tennessee, out-dueled Tom Brady and beat Cleveland in the first meeting on one leg. Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton were distant seconds.
Running back: Ray Rice, Ravens. He has really been a one-man show on the Baltimore offense for most of the season. Over the past two seasons (including playoffs), the Ravens are 21-2 (.913) when Rice gets at least 20 touches. They are 5-8 (.385) when he doesn't. Rice also produced an NFL-best 2,068 total yards and set a team record with 15 touchdowns. No one else in the NFL cracked 2,000 yards. Rice led the AFC North in rushing (1,364 yards) and receptions (76). That's a double threat.
Fullback: Vonta Leach, Ravens. One year after blocking for the NFL rushing champion, Leach paved the way for the league's No. 2 rusher in Rice this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ravens averaged 91.4 yards rushing and 4.5 yards per carry on runs during the regular season when Leach was the lead blocker. Baltimore also scored 14 touchdowns running behind Leach.
Wide receiver: Mike Wallace, Steelers. He finished first among division wide receivers with 72 catches and 1,193 yards receiving. Wallace continued to stretch the field with seven receptions of at least 40 yards, including touchdowns of 81 and 95 yards. His 95-yard touchdown was the longest pass play in Steelers history. He also caught one pass of 40 yards or more in six straight games this season.
Rookie wideout A.J. Green quickly established himself as one of the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL.
Wide receiver: A.J. Green, Bengals. The fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft made an immediate impact as a deep threat. His 11 receptions in 2011 of 35 or more yards tied Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and the N.Y. Giants’ Victor Cruz for most in the NFL. It was the most by an NFL rookie since 1998, when Minnesota’s Randy Moss had 14. Green had six catches of 35-plus yards over the last seven regular-season games. His 51-yard catch over Joe Haden set up the game-winning field goal in Cincinnati's 23-20 win in Week 12.
Tightend: Jermaine Gresham, Bengals. This was perhaps the closest call on offense. Gresham edged out Pittsburgh's Heath Miller and Baltimore's Ed Dickson because he led AFC North tight ends in receptions (56) and touchdown catches (six). In the comeback win over the Bills, Gresham pulled the Bengals to within 17-13 in the third quarter with a one-handed 17-yard touchdown grab and then had a 25-yard reception in the fourth quarter, which was the longest play in the game-tying drive.
Lefttackle: Joe Thomas, Browns. Thomas wasn't at his best this season but he was still better than every left tackle in this division (yes, even Cincinnati's Andrew Whitworth). He allowed a career-low 3.5 sacks, according to Pro Football Weekly, but he was flagged a career-worst six times for false starts. When Thomas was on top of his game, no one could beat him.
Leftguard: Ben Grubbs, Ravens. No offensive lineman made more of an impact with his presence this season. In 10 games with Grubbs in the lineup, the Ravens averaged 141.7 yards rushing. In six games without him (toe injury), Baltimore ran for 96.5 yards per game. That's a difference of 45.2 yards rushing.
Center: Maurkice Pouncey, Steelers. He has been named to the Pro Bowl and the Pro Football Writers Association's All-Pro team, but Houston's Chris Myers was the top center in the AFC this season. Some would argue Cleveland's Alex Mack or Baltimore's Matt Birk (who actually did have a better year than many think) were stronger throughout the season than Pouncey. Still, when Pouncey was healthy this season, there was no better center in the AFC North than him.
Rightguard: Marshal Yanda, Ravens. He was the top offensive lineman in the AFC North this season and quite possibly the best right guard in football. If you need proof of that, Yanda gave up two sacks and committed one penalty. He really made his mark by playing through injuries only months removed from landing his big payday.
Righttackle: Andre Smith, Bengals. The most improved player in the division, Smith is quietly starting to distance himself from the label of being a first-round bust. This isn't to say he didn't have some poor games and a high number of penalties (eight). Overall, it was a bad year for right tackles in the division. Smith stood out because he stayed on the field for 14 games, doubling last year's total, and developed into an above-average starter.