Tuesday, December 27, 2011
AFC North Stock Watch
By Jamison Hensley
Ball security has been an issue of late for Bengals running back Cedric Benson.
1. Cedric Benson's ball security: The Bengals running back had been one of the most reliable players in the NFL this season when it came to holding onto the ball. That was until Benson lost his first two fumbles of the season Saturday. And both came at a costly time -- in the fourth quarter. Fumbling has been a disturbing trend lately for Benson, who has put the ball on the ground five times in the past two weeks. Benson hadn't fumbled in his first 12 games this season, which totaled 222 carries.
2. Browns' football intelligence: The low point of coach Pat Shumur's rookie season came Saturday in Baltimore, where the Browns looked more like a Pop Warner team than an NFL one with mental gaffes at the end of the first half and at the end of the game. Veteran backup QB Seneca Wallace cost Cleveland three points when he decided to run the ball in the red zone with 11 seconds left in the first half and no timeouts. Then, rookie first-round pick Phil Taylor jumped offside on fourth down with two minutes left when it was obvious the Ravens were looking to draw the Bengals offside.
3. Ravens coverage teams: Special teams is supposed to be the expertise of coach John Harbaugh, but the Ravens have been struggling in that area all season. The latest lapse came when the Ravens allowed the Browns' Josh Cribbs to return a punt 84 yards for a touchdown. It jumpstarted Cleveland's second-half rally and underscored Baltimore's problems in covering kicks. This marked the third time this season the Ravens have given up a return for a touchdown (two on punts and one on a kickoff). The Ravens hadn't allowed multiple touchdowns off punt returns since 2002.
1. Ravens' dominance in the AFC North: A week after finishing perfect at home for the first time in franchise history, the Ravens are looking to go undefeated in the division for the first time in their existence. Baltimore, which is 5-0 in the division, is looking for the second AFC North title in team history when it wraps up the regular season at Cincinnati. Since realignment in 2002, only three teams have finished undefeated in AFC North play: the 2002 Steelers, 2008 Steelers and 2009 Bengals.
2. Steelers' pass defense: Pittsburgh roughed up Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens, who was held to 91 yards passing on nine completions. While crushing Clemens won't impress many, the Steelers have been shutting down quarterbacks for the past two months. The NFL's top-ranked pass defense has given up two touchdown passes in the past six games. The Steelers haven't allowed a quarterback to record a passer rating over 87 since Tom Brady on Oct. 30. The amazing part is pass-rushers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley haven't played a full game together since Sept. 25 at Indianapolis.
3. Bengals' pass rush: Few defenses have pressured quarterbacks like Cincinnati recently. Over the past three games, the Bengals have recorded 13 sacks and 29 quarterback hits. The problem for offenses is that you can't shut down the pass rush by shutting down one player. During this three-game span, 11 players have recorded at least a half sack. The only player with more than 1.5 sacks is defensive end Jonathan Fanene (three sacks). The Bengals rank third in the NFL in sacks with 44.