Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC North

Four Downs: AFC North
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Mike Kurtz

Baltimore Ravens

Biggest Hole: Defensive Line

The Ravens are champions once again, but this year's ring was primarily won by the surprise source of most of Baltimore's regular season success: the offense. The Ravens improved a bit on defense in the postseason, but during the regular season they had fallen precipitously to 21st in Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings after ranking first in 2011.

The Ravens declined against the pass, going from first to 13th. But the real decline came against the run, where the Ravens fell from seventh in DVOA (giving up 3.5 yards per carry) to 26th (4.0 yards per carry against a fairly easy schedule of opposing running backs). The biggest problem came up the middle. If you look at Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards numbers, which cut runs at specific distances to gauge the run-stopping ability of the front seven, the Ravens finished 23rd, 29th, and 29th in runs listed as left tackle, middle/guard, and right tackle, respectively.

Haloti Ngata was selected for his fourth Pro Bowl, but lingering shoulder and knee injuries dampened his performance much of the season. Ngata’s MCL was re-injured in the Super Bowl, but head coach John Harbaugh says he should be back to his old pre-2012 self in 2013. The problem is figuring out who to put next to him.

Starting nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu was perhaps the team's greatest liability on run defense. His average tackle on a run came after a gain of 3.1 yards. Compare that to inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, whose average run tackle came after 3.4 yards, and remember that Ellerbe lines up five yards behind Kemoeatu. Defensive end Arthur Jones punched in a similarly poor performance.

Terrence Cody, a 2010 second-round pick, looks like the nose tackle option going forward, despite losing the job to Kemoeatu in the preseason. If the brain trust isn't confident in Cody, they should hope that Jonathan Hankins or Jonathan Jenkins falls to them in the first round.

For a team ridiculed for its age, the Ravens actually have four defensive ends with three or fewer years of experience. The problem is that they're all projects: two fifth-round picks, a seventh-rounder and an undrafted free agent. There is youth, but a paucity of talent. It might make sense for Baltimore to reach out to Richard Seymour, providing a versatile veteran and giving the Ravens' front office time to assess which, if any, of their young line talent is shaping up.

Cleveland Browns

Biggest hole: Secondary

The Browns are a team with more wants than haves. Principally, the team needs a franchise quarterback after the outgoing administration saddled the new ownership with Brandon Weeden. But this is an exceptionally weak draft class for quarterbacks, so the Browns should concentrate on their second-weakest link: their secondary.

Joe Haden is the closest thing to a star in this unit. His stats from Football Outsiders game charting haven't quite matched his reputation the last couple of years, but he rebounded in 2012 with 6.9 yards allowed per play (43rd among 89 ranked corners) and a 59 percent Success Rate (22nd). T.J. Ward also had a fine year. He is adept at run defense, sporting a top-10 Stop Rate against the run among safeties, and had excellent pass coverage numbers in our charting (5.0 yards per pass, 65 percent success rate), although that comes with a small sample size of just 20 targets.

The other two spots here are wide open. Sheldon Brown is a free agent and likely won't be back after allowing a 51 percent Success Rate (57th). Second-year corner Buster Skrine played both inside and outside with a 45 percent Success Rate (77th). Free Safety Usama Young is thoroughly unremarkable.

There are a couple of directions the Browns could go with these positions. The free-agent market features a number of imperfect cornerbacks who make good buy-low candidates; Brent Grimes, for example, was fabulous for Atlanta in 2011 but is coming off ACL surgery, while Sean Smith has never quite lived up to his potential but might look very good with Haden taking the opponent's top receiver. The Browns are also in position to pick up promising Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner – maybe even trading down to net some value picks -- which would potentially give them a fearsome pair of man corners after a couple years of maturation.

Cincinnati Bengals

Biggest Hole: Running Back/Offensive Line Depth

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Cincinnati has spent the past few years attempting to establish an identity as a hard-running football team, initially on the supposedly broad shoulders of Cedric Benson. The results of the Benson experiment were largely catastrophic, but the Cincinnati offensive line didn't give him much to work with. In the past two years, however, Marvin Lewis has assembled a talented set of starters. It started with Andrew Whitworth and Kyle Cook. Andre Smith took a while, but he finally turned into something, and the Bengals added guard Kevin Zeitler in last year's draft.

Travelle Wharton was supposed to waltz into town as the last of this fantastic five, but ended up playing the role of the invisible man when a knee injury sidelined him for the entire year. His replacement, Clint Boling, was one of the worst guards in football. When Wharton went down, Boling took up the reins and led the Bengals straight into the ground. He ranked in the top-five for blown blocks leading to sacks, and the Bengals were awful running to the left: 31st in Adjusted Line Yards on runs around left end and 24th on runs behind left tackle. (It also doesn't help that Whitworth's run blocking doesn't live up to the Pro Bowl reputation he's earned with his pass blocking.) This talented group of starters has very little behind it, so if Wharton can't return from his injury or one of the other linemen goes down next year, The Bengals could once again have an offense that only goes as far as A.J. Green can take them. The Bengals should look at a known quantity like the Jets' Brandon Moore while they fish for depth in the draft.

Whitworth and Boling's run-blocking issues don't give BenJarvus Green-Ellis a pass, however. Cincinnati's run blocking down the middle and to the right was above-average to excellent, and the team enjoyed great success on short-yardage runs. Yet the Law Firm ranked 29th in FO metrics for both total value and value per play. Bernard Scott probably won't be back after an injury-riddled 2012, and while Cedric Peerman had a nice little performance on 36 carries, he won't be averaging seven yards per carry again. There should be some good backs available in the second and third rounds of this year's draft. The Bengals have a lot of pieces to build a top offense, and the last few pieces shouldn't be too hard to obtain.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Biggest Hole: Linebacker

It is rare to see the Steelers fall out of Football Outsiders' top 10 for defensive efficiency. In fact, it had not happened since 2003, when Pittsburgh held the league's 15th-best defense. In the years between, the team posted five top-five defensive seasons, and any yinzer can tell you this consistent excellence was sustained by Dick LeBeau's exceptional linebacking corps. James Harrison, Larry Foote, LaMarr Woodley, and Lawrence Timmons are still a fearsome foursome, but there are major cracks showing through.

Foote is 32 and declining, and he's coming off an atrocious year by Pittsburgh linebacker standards. His biggest struggles were in coverage, as Foote allowed 7.1 yards per pass in coverage according to the Football Outsiders game charting project. The 34-year-old Harrison is also clearly on the downside of his great career. Harrison has indicated he is willing to restructure his contract to stay in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers are strapped for cash and might not be able to squeeze the cap hit small enough to make the numbers work. Like Foote, Harrison struggled in coverage. He appeared more tentative, perhaps in response to concerns about fines. Poor performances by Pittsburgh's veterans was indicative of a unit-wide problem defending the pass; on pass coverage against running backs, generally the linebackers’ responsibility, Pittsburgh ranked 20th in DVOA. Against tight ends, the Steelers finished 31st in DVOA.

The looming question is how ready 2012 third-round draft pick Sean Spence will be next year after suffering a horrific, season-ending knee injury in the preseason. If all goes well, the team can ease Spence into Foote's role, but in the end that leaves the team with Cincinnati washout Brandon Johnson, long-time project Stevenson Sylvester, and undrafted free agents Adrian Robinson and Marshall McFadden backing up an increasingly injury-prone list of starters. The clock is ticking, and the Steelers will look to restock their cupboard of backers in the draft. Some early mocks have Jarvis Jones falling to the 17th spot, but the Steelers would be more than happy with Sam Montgomery or Manti Te'o.

(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)


8 comments, Last at 15 Feb 2013, 1:14pm

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

This is more of a general comment, but I've noticed that all of the years
that the QB draft class is supposed to be weak, you still wind up with at least 1
QB taken in the top5, because a team(s) along with many of the bobbleheads convince themselves that a Pro Day workout trumps all that film...

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Yup. You have to go all the way back to 2000 before there is a draft where the first QB taken was outside the top 3 pick (Chad Pennington at #18) and 1996 for no first round QB at all (Tony Banks at #42 overall). In 1988, no QB was taken in the first two rounds and the first QB taken was Tom Tupa (#68 overall), a QB better known for his punting.

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Hooray for four downs. I would say the Ravens have bigger need at ILB than DL, but they could definitely use another big body up front. With Ellerbe probably leaving in FA, Jameel McClain possibly not returning (spinal injury), and Lewis retiring, they might not have anyone but practice squad player Bynes and special teams player Ayanbadejo to man the middle. That's bad.

With Ngata, A. Jones, McPhee, and Cody, at least the Ravens have some proven players on the DL, even though their performance was uneven this year. Tyson and Hall are also OK as depth players on the DL, they might not be that talented but I don't think they embarrassed themselves on the field.

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

You forgot Jason Worilds as a backup LB on the Steelers. I'm not sure that changes the analysis much, as Worilds has been iffy when getting PT.

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

Running back also a hole for Steelers as is cornerback and sooner than later safety. Might be a long season,troubling especially since Ben is in his prime!

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

But given the beating he's taken over the years, I think that he'll start
declining sooner rather than later. Even though his age would indicate otherwise.

7 Re: Four Downs: AFC North

No way will Balitimore go for any big time free agents. They will have a hard tome affording their big time free agents : ( Flacco, Ellerbee, Williams, Kruger, McKinnie, etc)