AFC North: Anqaun Boldin
November, 27, 2013
By Coley Harvey | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiThe Cincinnati Bengals are counting on Andy Dalton to return to the form that helped lead the team to a 4-1 record in October.CINCINNATI -- Earlier this week, Cincinnati Bengals players like cornerback Chris Crocker were adamant in pointing out the urgency they need to play with throughout the month of December.
"It's all about winning in December," Crocker said. "Let's win out and see where the chips lay. Why can't we win out? I don't see why we can't."
If you ask some Bengals fans and most NFL analysts, they'll give you one big reason why they don't believe Cincinnati will be able to go 5-0 to close out the regular season: No. 14.
That's right. To some, the primary obstacle in the way of end-of-season perfection for the Bengals is Andy Dalton, the player who has quarterbacked the franchise into the playoffs each of the past two seasons, and who constantly is trying to prove himself to those who consider him just another member of a mostly failed 2011 quarterback draft class.
For that reason, as the Bengals gear up for a stretch run that could give them a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs, an important question has to be asked.
Can December Andy mimic October Andy?
As we've written countless times in the past month, October Andy was indeed a dandy. Through the first four games of that month, Dalton threw for 1,243 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also completed 67.9 percent of his passes, won four games, had a passer rating higher than 116.0 and a QBR above 83.0. He was, quite simply, brilliant. His play was so sharp back then that on the final day of the month, hours before the Bengals were set to take on the Dolphins in a road Thursday night game, he was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month.
And, yes, even though, comparatively speaking, he didn't look as good overall against the Dolphins and ended up taking the game-winning sack for a safety in overtime, Dalton still had a rather special performance in the 22-20 loss. Aside from not completing a touchdown pass and getting intercepted three times, he threw for 338 yards, marking the fourth straight game he had gone over the 300-yard passing mark.
Overall, October Andy was Good Andy.
But now here comes December with all of its postseason potency. If Cincinnati hopes to set itself up for the type of playoff seeding Crocker believes it deserves, then it will have to play its best ball across the next five weeks. That's especially the case for Dalton and a Bengals offense that has looked rather anemic in the past three games.
One look at Dalton's previous December stats and it doesn't appear the third-year star should have any problem showcasing even a sliver of the success that made him and his team so good about two months ago.
After a rocky December as a rookie in 2011, Dalton was among the difference-makers last season when the desperate Bengals were in need of a strong final month just to secure a playoff berth. One year after going 2-2 in the month, Dalton went 4-1 during December 2012. The lone loss came after the Dallas Cowboys made a field goal in the final seconds to win 20-19.
While the level of desperation may be different this December, the Bengals are looking for Dalton to thrive under similar pressure-packed moments during this one. This time around, the pressure on Dalton mainly stems from the fact that so many are fed up with his play from the past three games. In them, he's thrown eight interceptions and been sacked 10 times. Across the latter two of those games, he's completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and hasn't posted a QBR higher than 18.0.
Weather factored heavily in Dalton's inability to move the ball in those two games. Windy conditions at Baltimore and windy and rainy conditions against the Browns sent some of his passes sailing and forced others into the hands of defensive backs.
Although weather shouldn't be a concern this weekend in San Diego (the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a delightful high of 71 degrees Sunday), it could be the rest of the season. Farmer's Almanac projects cold, damp conditions for all of December in the Ohio Valley. It should be noted that after Sunday's game, the Bengals are home three of the next four weeks. Their only remaining road game is at Pittsburgh.
Throughout his career, Dalton has performed better in warmer games. In games with temperatures 50 degrees or higher, he has a 20-14 record, an 85.1 passer rating and a 52.5 QBR. In games with temperatures at 49 and lower, he has a 5-5 record, a 75.4 passer rating and a 32.9 QBR. Dalton's last three sub-49-degree wins came last December, though; a sign that perhaps he's turning a corner in cold-weather contests.
Whatever the conditions and whomever their opponents are, when it comes to the next five weeks, the Bengals can only hope that Dalton turns into the same man who torched through this October.
October, 10, 2010
AP Photo/Gail BurtonRay Rice rushed for a season-best 133 yards and two TDs as Baltimore cruised past Denver.
BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens' offense was inconsistent in the first four games. But as it turns out, all it needed to do was add Rice.
Baltimore running back Ray Rice had been injured and ignored so far this season. While fantasy football owners have been disappointed, the Ravens (4-1) shrugged it off because they were winning and knew eventually they would turn back to their Pro Bowl back.
Sunday was that type of game, as Rice rushed for a season-high 133 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-17 victory over the Denver Broncos. It was the first 100-yard game of the season for Rice, who was heavily involved in the game plan and had his number called 27 times after getting just 23 carries in the previous two games.
Rice, a three-year veteran, finally had a chance to put the Ravens on his back and it produced the easiest victory of the season for Baltimore. It's no coincidence Baltimore put up a season-best 415 yards on offense with Rice as the lynchpin.
"That's trust," Rice said. "I couldn't say that [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron] would do that my rookie year."
Baltimore added former Pro Bowl receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to the passing game in the offseason, but the Ravens aren't at their best offensively unless Rice is healthy and productive. With a quick burst, several nice cuts and tough runs, Rice proved he's back to 100 percent after suffering a knee bruise in Week 3. Although Rice nearly broke a couple big runs, his longest rush was for 18 yards as he grinded out carries against the Broncos, who held Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl tailback Chris Johnson to 53 yards in Week 4.
When Rice gets going, everyone else's job becomes easier. Last week, for example, quarterback Joe Flacco had to throw a late touchdown to Houshmandzadeh to pull out a dramatic win over Pittsburgh Steelers. This week, with Rice as the focus, Flacco only needed to throw 25 passes.
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireRay Rice rushed 27 times and averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
Baltimore rushed for four touchdowns and improved to 10-0 all time when it runs for at least three scores. The Ravens rushed for 233 yards as Rice, Willis McGahee and Flacco each scored.
"It's important. We need to be able to run the ball," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's nice to know we can run the ball. That's a defense that's pretty much set up to stop the run in a lot of ways, and we did a good job of running on them anyway."
Rice credited his offensive line, which played its best game of the season. In addition to paving the way for Rice, Baltimore’s offensive line allowed just one sack, on the opening drive.
"I've never seen a group work harder," Rice said of his blockers up front. "The stats haven't shown the last few weeks, but today [it did]. If I was to give a game ball, I'd have to give it to them."
Baltimore, a preseason favorite by many to win the Super Bowl, is off to a great start, but this team could still play better. The Ravens had several blown plays in pass coverage. Denver quarterback Kyle Orton threw for 314 yards and touchdowns of 42 and 44 yards to receiver Brandon Lloyd. That will give the coaching staff something to criticize this week despite the relatively easy win.
But the talent is there for Baltimore to have a big year.
"We feel like we've got a pretty special team here, and we just got to continue to work hard to get better each week," Flacco said. "We can't stay the team we are ... We're showing a lot of promise and getting better week to week, and that's the mark of a championship team."
July, 9, 2010
US Presswire/AP PhotoOffensive coordinators Cam Cameron and Bruce Arians run offenses facing very different challenges heading into the 2010 season.Offensive coordinators Bruce Arians, Cam Cameron, Bob Bratkowski and Brian Daboll have something in common: They're lightning rods for fans throughout the AFC North.
They are among the most talked about assistants in the division, and in many ways it's a very tough spot to be in. When things go right, the players executed. But when things go wrong, it's the offensive coordinators who get blamed for poor play calling. All four face different challenges in 2010.
Here's a look at the coordinators for each team:
Offensive coordinator: Bruce Arians
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Offensive ranking in '09: No. 7
Biggest challenge: The start of the season will be trying for the Steelers as star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger serves his conditional six-game suspension. With good behavior Roethlisberger could return after four games, which is the expected outcome. But Pittsburgh has had the luxury of Roethlisberger making magic out of broken plays and will need to be more structured and conventional to win during the first month of the season. Expect Arians to earn his money trying to scheme without his best offensive player.
Biggest strength: Even with the trade of Santonio Holmes, the Steelers still have a good group of veteran skill players. Hines Ward is coming off another 1,000-yard season, Heath Miller is the top tight end in the division, and tailback Rashard Mendenhall is a budding talent. Also look out for second-year receiver Mike Wallace. The NFL game didn't seem too big for him as a rookie, and Wallace seems primed to break out in his first year as a starter.
Biggest weakness: For Pittsburgh, it's scoring touchdowns. Despite a 4,000-yard quarterback, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers, the Steelers averaged 23 points per game last season. That's not a bad number, but you would expect more points with the amount of yards Arians' unit produced last year. The offensive line struggled mightily in the red zone, and Willie Colon's season-ending Achilles injury doesn't help. Mendenhall also needs to get better at getting the tough yards, especially with Roethlisberger not in the fold early.
Forecast: I don't have particularly high hopes for Pittsburgh's offense with Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon under center. Teams will stack the box against Mendenhall until Pittsburgh proves it can pass. The offensive line also has questions. But once Roethlisberger comes back, this unit is talented enough to get hot in the second half of the season. But will it be too late?
Offensive coordinator: Bob Bratkowski
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBob Bratkowski will have a number of new weapons to work with in the passing game this season.
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Offensive ranking in '09: No. 24
Biggest challenge: The biggest hurdle facing Bratkowski and the Bengals' offense is creating balance. It was very one-dimensional last year, particularly late in the season. Outside of Pro Bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco, there were no legitimate threats in the passing game. As a result, Cincinnati overhauled its offense via the draft and free agency by adding receivers Antonio Bryant, Jordan Shipley and tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Biggest strength: Despite the flashy additions in the passing game, the running game remains the most proven commodity for Cincinnati. Cedric Benson is coming off a career year and his first 1,000-yard season, and Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard are decent backup options. The Bengals' offensive line also is very good at controlling and moving the line of scrimmage. But the unit wasn't as solid in pass protection for quarterback Carson Palmer.
Biggest weakness: Right now the biggest question for Cincinnati's offense is at fullback. The Bengals have finally moved forward without Jeremi Johnson, who was constantly battling weight problems. Now the unproven Fui Vakapuna looks like the early favorite to win the job. Look for Cincinnati to run a lot of multiple-receiver and tight end sets this year. So the fullback position may not be as important.
Forecast: The Bengals will rely on a lot of new parts, including Bryant, Gresham and Shipley. But if a majority of these options pan out, Cincinnati could be a dangerous unit. Benson's off-field issues may be something to watch in case a suspension is looming. But other than that, expect Bratkowski and the Bengals to be much better than last year's No. 24 ranking.
Offensive coordinator: Cam Cameron
Team: Baltimore Ravens
Offensive ranking in '09: No. 13
Biggest challenge: Managing egos will be a unique challenge for Cameron. With the exception of quarterback Joe Flacco, every starting skill player for Baltimore has been to the Pro Bowl. That's a lot of talent and a lot of players who want the ball. Anquan Boldin, Ray Rice, Derrick Mason, Le'Ron McClain, Todd Heap and Willis McGahee all feel they can help the team win. But there will be weeks when Cameron must tell Boldin he's a decoy and games when Rice will get only 10 carries. How will they react? Winning solves a lot of problems. But if this team experiences a significant losing streak, look out.
Biggest strength: Versatility is something that Baltimore's offense has lacked in the past. But that's no longer the case. The Ravens should be able to win games on the ground and through the air this year, which was the goal this offseason for general manager Ozzie Newsome. Boldin's acquisition was huge for the passing game, and Rice still hasn't reached his ceiling as an NFL running back. Cameron believes Baltimore has the potential to be a top-five scoring offense, and on paper there's no reason to doubt that.
Biggest weakness: There aren't many weaknesses on this unit. But if I had to nitpick, Baltimore's depth on the offensive line isn't the greatest. Injuries happen all the time in the trenches. An injury at offensive tackle to Michael Oher or Jared Gaither, for example, would result in a significant drop-off in talent.
Forecast: There is a lot of preseason hype surrounding the Ravens, and the offense shares those extremely high expectations. This unit has talent, depth and a developing third-year quarterback in Flacco, who, if healthy, should put up career-best numbers this season. As long as Cameron can get everyone to play nice and share the football, this offense should be one of the NFL's most effective units.
Offensive coordinator: Brian Daboll
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireBrian Daboll has a new group of quarterbacks to work with in 2010.
Team: Cleveland Browns
Offensive ranking in '09: No. 32
Biggest challenge: The Browns do not have a lot of talent to work with offensively. During Cleveland's four-game winning streak to end last season, Daboll had to get by with a lot of running and Wildcat formations with Josh Cribbs. Much of Cleveland's success will hinge on veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had more than twice as many interceptions (18) last year than touchdowns (eight). If Daboll can get a bounce-back season out of Delhomme, that will be a good starting point for Cleveland's offense to improve.
Biggest strength: The left side of the offensive line is one of the NFL's best. Joe Thomas is considered by many to be the best left tackle in football, and Eric Steinbach has been a quality guard for years. Cleveland also hit in last year's draft with first-round pick Alex Mack, who appears to be one of the league's up-and-coming centers. This trio provides some stability to an otherwise unstable offense.
Biggest weakness: Cleveland's offense has several holes but the biggest is at wide receiver. Mohamed Massaquoi had a decent rookie year, but he's likely not ready to be a No. 1 receiver. Brian Robiskie had a good offseason but remains unproven, and Chansi Stuckey isn't a game-breaker. The Browns this week also added veteran Bobby Engram, who turned 37 this year. A case can be made that this is the worst group of receivers in the league.
Forecast: The Browns were ranked last in '09, so there's nowhere to go but up. There are a lot of question marks, and I don't see enough upgrades across the board to be optimistic about this unit. Whether Delhomme at this stage of his career is an upgrade over Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson also remains to be seen.
April, 22, 2010
AP Photo/Tony DejakMike Holmgren and Cleveland tried to trade up for the No. 1 pick, but got a solid choice in Joe Haden.BEREA, Ohio --The first draft of the Mike Holmgren era in Cleveland started off extremely busy.
Thursday began with the Browns president trying diligently to trade with the St. Louis Rams for the No. 1 overall pick to take quarterback Sam Bradford. That didn't happen.
Cleveland then hoped former Tennessee safety Eric Berry would fall to No. 7. That didn't happen, either.
In the end, the Browns feel they selected the best available player in Florida cornerback Joe Haden. On a day when Holmgren tried to make a huge splash by trading with St. Louis, Cleveland made a solid -- albeit not very sexy -- pick.
Rest assured there will be some skeptics wondering if Haden fills a big enough need with such a high pick, which comes with a huge financial commitment. Last year's No. 7 overall pick -- Oakland Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey -- signed a contract in the range of $38 million. Haden likely will command about a $40 million package.
Yet at this point there's no guarantee Haden will be a starter, and that could be a point of contention as a top-seven pick for a rebuilding team.
Cleveland just acquired veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. He will be the No. 1 corner, while Haden competes with a pretty good player in Eric Wright for the No. 2 cornerback job.
"You can never have enough good corners," Browns coach Eric Mangini said.
Cleveland was in an odd spot to begin with.
There were five sure-fire players, but after that the draft board became dicey. According to most projections, there was not a huge difference between the No. 7 pick and the No. 13 or No. 14 pick in this year's draft. That is why the Browns explored moving up and down the draft board in the past few weeks.
Browns general manager Tom Heckert said the team didn't get or field any offers to move down Thursday. Former Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen was available at No. 7. But no team got hot on Clausen and was willing to move up, which was probably Cleveland's best chance to acquire more picks. Instead, Clausen was this year's free-falling prospect.
AP Photo/Michael ConroyJoe Haden will likely compete with Eric Wright to be the Browns' No. 2 cornerback.
As the roster is currently built, having Wright or Haden coming off the bench next season seems like an unnecessary surplus when Cleveland has so many other needs across the board.
For example, Mangini refused to name the team's two starting safeties Thursday night because, frankly, the team doesn't have two starting-caliber safeties. The Browns also could use help at running back, defensive line and receiver.
Mangini also said there are no thoughts of moving Brown to safety, which would make some sense if Cleveland wanted all three players on the field at the same time. With the way the draft board played out, former Texas safety Earl Thomas appeared to be a more logical fit in terms of need. The Browns admitted Thomas was in the conversation.
"Yes, Earl is a really good player," Heckert said. "We all liked him."
But the Browns were more happy with Haden. So was the former Florida star, who was ecstatic to come to Cleveland.
"I am just trying to soak it all up," Haden said. "It's crazy. Just a dream come true. I feel like this is a blessing."
The Browns got a unique recruiting partner for Haden. Former Florida teammate and quarterback Tim Tebow, who shockingly went in the first round to the Denver Broncos on Thursday, spoke extremely highly of Haden during his visit to Cleveland. That carried a lot of weight with the Browns' front office.
Haden is a much safer pick than his former quarterback. But Cleveland needs Haden to develop into a shutdown corner quickly to stop the likes of Anquan Boldin, Hines Ward and Chad Ochocinco within the AFC North division. All three receivers gained more than 1,000 yards last season.
Haden believes he's ready.
"There's always pressure when you're out there on an island," Haden said. "It's just you versus him. At corner, you have to have a one-track mind and a short memory...When I'm out there, I know that I have to have a lot of film study and a lot of just knowing what‘s going on, and I have to be really comfortable."
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