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Thursday, June 21, 2012
New starters stepped up on third down

By Jamison Hensley

When it comes to targeting players on third downs, you would assume quarterbacks would look for the seasoned veterans. Dependability and experience are usually the best traits for coming through in the clutch.

That wasn't the case in the AFC North last season. The leaders in third-down receptions for each team in the division were all first-year starters.

Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown had the third-most catches in the NFL with 28, and he didn't take over as a starter until the middle of November. His 15.6 yards per catch on third down was the best among those who ranked in the AFC's top 10.

Ravens tight end Ed Dickson was eighth in the AFC with 21 third-down receptions. Dickson, who replaced Todd Heap last season, had four more third-down catches than any other AFC tight end (New England's Rob Gronkowski had 17).

Two rookie wide receivers, the Browns' Greg Little and the Bengals' A.J. Green, topped their teams in third-down receptions. Little was tied for 14th in the AFC with 17, and Green was tied for 24th with 15.

Another standout in this area was Ravens running back Ray Rice, who had 17 third-down catches. The impressive number with Rice is his 15.7 yards per catch on third downs. The other three running backs who ranked in the top 20 in third-down receptions (Houston's Arian Foster, San Diego's Mike Tolbert and New York Jets' LaDainian Tomlinson) all averaged below 10 yards per catch.