- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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In one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory, one thing is clear in the AFC North: Pass defense is the division's Achilles' heel.
An 0-4 Week 10 highlighted the AFC North's secondary woes. Whether it was Tom Brady picking apart the Pittsburgh Steelers, Roddy White running circles around the Baltimore Ravens, or Santonio Holmes zipping by the Cleveland Browns in overtime, it was an ugly week for defensive backs in the division.
Can anything be done about the AFC North's flimsy pass defense? We teamed with Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson to diagnose the problem and offer some solutions.
Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3)
Total defense: No. 9
Pass defense: No. 26
Scouts Inc.'s diagnosis: "All their cornerbacks are mid-round picks, and that's what they do. They bring in mid-round corners and spend first-round picks on other positions and groom them for a year or two. Pittsburgh's cornerbacks play a lot of 'off coverage,' and a team like New England can exploit that. The Patriots took what they gave them with short and intermediate passes, and it's a really bad fit for the Steelers. They've been successful giving you a lot of the smaller stuff. But what worries me is the pass rush has fallen off a little bit." --Williamson
AFC North blog's solution: Pittsburgh has by far the NFL's best run defense at 63.2 yards per game. At the beginning of the season, opponents were banging their heads against the wall trying to establish the run in the first half, and that played right into Pittsburgh's hands. Now teams have adjusted and determined it's better to throw for 5-7 yards on first and second down instead of trying to get it on the ground. This is where the Steelers have to adjust. More press coverage would help. Although that's not Pittsburgh's identity, mixing in cornerbacks playing closer to the line of scrimmage could reduce the short and intermediate passes against its defense. Also, taking a look at young cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and/or Crezdon Butler may not be a bad idea in sub packages, where William Gay has really struggled.
Baltimore Ravens (6-3)
Total defense: No. 10
Pass defense: No. 13
Scouts Inc.'s diagnosis: "They have very average corners, and I think they only have one pass-rusher. They need a LaMarr Woodley-James Harrison pairing. The Ravens have Terrell Suggs, but they don't have the other guy. They drafted Sergio Kindle and he got hurt, obviously. Baltimore has one pass-rusher who is very good, but you can take Suggs away by chipping him or keeping your better players on him. So, to me, they need either one better corner or a better pass-rusher. But with the combination Baltimore has now, it's going to be a liability." --Williamson
AFC North blog's solution: Don't be fooled by Baltimore's No. 13 ranking. The Ravens were No. 1 against the pass through the first several games, which is an indication of how much they are struggling. As Williamson mentioned, the Ravens are in a tough spot. Baltimore says it has four or five starting-caliber cornerbacks, but none is playing like a No. 1 corner. I don't like the musical chairs Baltimore is playing with Lardarius Webb, Fabian Washington, Josh Wilson and Chris Carr. The Ravens need to pick who they believe are their two best players and go with them. Being shuffled in and out of the lineup has seemingly thrown everyone off rhythm and perhaps made each cornerback unsure of his role in the defense. Suggs had his first multi-sack game of the season against the Atlanta Falcons, and that could go a long way to helping the pass rush. Getting safety Ed Reed 100 percent healthy as well will be a major boost. There is hope for this pass defense despite a midseason slump.
Cleveland Browns (3-6)
Total defense: No. 24
Pass defense: No. 23
Scouts Inc.'s diagnosis: "I think the Browns are a well-coached defense. They are physical in the front seven and obviously want to stop the run first. But the Joe Hadens of the world, and Eric Wright and T.J. Ward are working to get better. So I tend to think inexperience is the issue as opposed to these guys just can't get it done. In the case with Baltimore and the Steelers, and lately with the Browns, if you're going to game plan against these defenses, you're going to throw." --Williamson
AFC North blog's solution: Indeed, the blitz-heavy Browns are being tested through the air and giving up too many big pass plays. That is a major reason they are 3-6. Wright has been the biggest culprit and admitted as much to the media this week. But Cleveland plays hard on defense. The Browns' secondary simply needs experience and to avoid mistakes at the worst possible times, such as overtime last week against the New York Jets. Haden, Cleveland's first-round pick, is starting to improve, and it's time to insert him into the starting lineup permanently. With Sheldon Brown (shoulder) injured, Haden could start Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Cincinnati Bengals (2-7)
Total defense: No. 15
Pass defense: No. 12
Scouts Inc.'s diagnosis: "I think they're weak at safety, but they're very strong at corner. I also thought Adam Jones looked great when he played. It looked like he was coming back to form [before a season-ending neck injury]. But injuries have taken a toll, and the pass rush is worse than people even realize. I think that deserves a lot of blame. They don't have anybody exceeding expectations as a pass-rusher. I know Carlos Dunlap got a lot more snaps this past week, and it may be time to see what he has. For Michael Johnson and a lot of those young guys, it may be time to put those guys in." --Williamson
AFC North blog's solution: I have the least amount of worries about the Bengals' pass defense. It still has the highest rating in the division despite the worst pass rush. Health has been an issue, too. If cornerback Johnathan Joseph and veteran safety Chris Crocker can remain in the lineup the rest of the season, that's two starters who will provide stability. The pass rush looks pretty hopeless, and I don't see much potential to improve. With the exception of Dunlap, who is very raw, there isn't a natural pass-rusher on the Bengals' defense. That should be a major priority in next year's draft. Cincinnati showed signs of playing good pass defense last week against the Indianapolis Colts, and it needs to build off that. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning had some trouble against this secondary, and that's a good sign.
4hEric D. Williams