AFC North in midst of identity change
September, 26, 2012
By Jamison Hensley | ESPN.com
Getty ImagesThe defenses in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, led by Ray Lewis (left) and Troy Polamalu, respectively, haven't gotten off to their usual start this season.The Pittsburgh Steelers got 384 yards and four touchdowns from Ben Roethlisberger and lost at Oakland. The Baltimore Ravens needed 382 yards from Joe Flacco and every single one of their 31 points to beat New England.
Is this the AFC North or the Arena Football League?
Defense no longer reigns supreme in this division. Two of the NFL's best defenses for over the past decade, the Steelers and the Ravens, are performing as well as replacement referees this season. These defenses statistically are having their worst seasons in recent memory. They're uncharacteristically giving up yards, points and game-winning drives.
If we've learned anything in the first three weeks of the 2012 season, it's the AFC North is going through an identity change. Ray Lewis and James Harrison are no longer running the division. This is the time for Roethlisberger and Flacco.
This hasn't been a gradual shift. The Ravens' defense has gone from being No. 3 at the end of last season to No. 27 right now. Baltimore, which has never given up more than 369 yards per game over a 16-game season, is currently allowing 401.3 yards. The Steelers' defense has gone from being the stingiest defense in the league last season to 18th in points allowed. Pittsburgh is on pace to give up 400 points in a season for the first time in 24 years.
It's a football culture shock to see one of these defenses struggling. It's mind-boggling that both can't get to the quarterback and can't keep offenses out of the end zone in the same year. Since 2000, the Steelers and Ravens are the top two defenses in the NFL in yards and points allowed.
But the gold standard of defense in this league is being tarnished the first few weeks of the season, and it goes beyond the statistics. It was 10 days ago when the Ravens watched Eagles quarterback Michael Vick go 80 yards to score the winning touchdown in the final two minutes. It was just last Sunday when the Steelers couldn't hold a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in Oakland and couldn't stop the Raiders from driving 49 yards on the final drive to set up the winning field goal as time expired. The lack of confidence has gotten so bad that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged he went for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter because his defense couldn't stop the Raiders.
Offenses no longer fear Pittsburgh and Baltimore. At the same time, these veteran defenses aren't overly worried about their early-season troubles.
"I think at the end of the year is when you pay attention to stats," Lewis said recently. "When people talk about our defense, whatever they want to say at the beginning of the year, we always say find us at the end of the year because you know where we're going to be."
It doesn't take Dick LeBeau to provide an explanation for the dramatic falls. These defenses are playing without three NFL defensive players of the year. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who was voted the best defensive player last season, is out indefinitely with an Achilles injury. Harrison (knee) and safety Troy Polamalu (calf) have combined to miss five games and are looking to return against the Eagles after this week's bye.
The loss of Suggs has been significant in terms of the pass rush. On Sunday night, Tom Brady had enough time to call Gisele before throwing to Brandon Lloyd on a sideline route. Although the Ravens did sack Brady in a critical fourth-quarter stop Sunday, they're not getting any consistent pressure and giving too much time to quarterbacks to pick apart the secondary. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ravens' defense held quarterbacks to a 36.7 QBR last season, which was first in the NFL. This year, quarterbacks have produced a 71.9 QBR, which ranks 23rd in the league.
The same impact is being felt without Harrison and Polamalu, two of the best playmakers in the league. The Steelers have sacked the quarterback five times this season. Only six teams have done this fewer. Pittsburgh also has forced three turnovers, which is tied for 24th in the NFL.
"I think what you lose, you lose chemistry sometimes when guys go out," Steelers safety Ryan Clark told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We have to work together and fit together properly, that more than anything. It's not that guys aren't talented enough, we're not fitting the defense like Coach LeBeau wants us to do."
What if their problems aren't simply injuries? What if the Ravens aren't as good after making three changes to their starting front seven? What if Baltimore isn't clicking with Dean Pees, their third defensive coordinator in three years? What if the Steelers have become too predictable under the 75-year-old LeBeau? What if players like Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Larry Foote are getting too old?
"We can't point fingers at anybody," Clark said. "We have to use our thumbs and point them at ourselves and be better."
This style of play isn't what the AFC North was founded upon. Teams used to rely on defense and hand the ball off to Jerome Bettis and Jamal Lewis. Now, the ball is in the hands of Roethlisberger and Flacco.
The division is just changing with the landscape of the NFL. Look at the past three Super Bowl champions and where they ranked in passing offense: Saints (fourth in 2009), Packers (fifth in 2010) and Giants (fifth in 2011). Perhaps it's a good sign that the Ravens are third in passing and the Steelers are sixth.
This is little consolation to two defenses who pride themselves on being the bullies of the division and the entire NFL.
"We've got to work on every aspect of our game," Ravens cornerback Cary Williams said. "We're far from perfect. We know what is expected from us. We just need to come together as a unit and get the job done."