Trending in the AFC North

| February 7, 2012

When a division sends three teams to the postseason, you’d think the future would be bright. Yet, when you break down the teams of the AFC North and try to figure out what will become of them in 2012, you’re left with more questions than answers.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the greatest question mark. Out with the old and in with the new to some degree. They’ve said goodbye to their offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, and figure to part ways with some of the core members of a roster that won two Super Bowls. The change for the Baltimore Ravens may not be quite as pronounced, but you still can’t help but look at Joe Flacco and wonder if he can get the job done consistently. Those perennial powerhouses face challenges in the shape of an invigorated Cincinnati Bengals team, and a Cleveland Browns outfit determined to be competitive. We’ve seen the Bengals trade good years for bad ones, so can they build on their 2011? Will the Browns finally get what they want from the QB spot?

An intriguing division with plenty of ups and downs and changes in store, here are some of the notable player performance trends we spotted this season.

 

Baltimore Ravens

Most Improved

Cory Redding: From -4.0 (in 2010) to +14.2 (in 2011)

To be completely honest, we’ve never thought that much of Redding. In Detroit, he struggled in the run game. In Seattle, he struggled to make an impact. And, in his first year as a Raven, he just struggled. He had his moments, but as a Raven it seemed that the weight of playing a lot of snaps (especially in pass rushing situations) wore him down. A year later, with his snap count cut, and his pass rushing opportunities more limited, Redding put forth an excellent year. It wasn’t even the five sacks, nine hits and 11 hurries that most impressed us, but rather his work in the run game. From another point of view, Haloti Ngata played 322 more snaps, and yet Redding had three more defensive stops.

Biggest Drop Off

Joe Flacco: From +6.5 to -2.8

The scary (yet intriguing) thing about the rating Flacco ended up with is that the playoffs saved him. Without it, he would have finished with a -11.1 grade. So, while we respect the postseason work of Flacco, we’re concerned with his consistency. He had moments of brilliance (against Pittsburgh in Week 9) but there were some of the worst quarterback displays of the year (who could forget his efforts in games against the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Seattle Seahawks). We know the 18th pick of the 2008 draft can get the job done, so why does it happen so infrequently?

More Snaps Needed

Pernell McPhee: +19.4 from 389 snaps

A few candidates here with a late season cameo from Jimmy Smith and some excellent pass rushing from Paul Kruger. In the end, it’s hard to look past the rookie from Mississippi State, though. Picked in fifth round of the 2011 draft, McPhee has already gone a long way to repaying that investment.

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Cincinnati Bengals

Most Improved

Andre Smith: From -18.0 to +0.2

While Smith may never live up to his draft status, he took a giant leap forward this year with his play on the field. The Bengals lowest-rated offensive player in 2010, Smith earned his grade on just 288 snaps–largely the result of giving up a steady supply of pressure. Looking like a different player (in performance terms), Smith only gave up three sacks, though you’d want to see his number of penalties (eight) reduced.

Biggest Drop Off

Jerome Simpson: From +2.1 to -11.9

Simpson finally looked like delivering on his potential with a strong finish to 2010, but 2011 was filled with problems off the field, and plenty of inconsistent moments. His acrobatic touchdown in Week 16 may have got a lot of people forgetting his nine dropped passes that characterized a season where he was very much hit-or-miss. He simply blew a golden opportunity in his contract year.

More Snaps Needed

Carlos Dunlap: +31.3 on 423snaps

We very nearly gave Andrew Hawkins the nod because Dunlap played a fair amount of snaps. But given the Bengals insisted in using him as a backup and situational rusher, he has to be the one player who sees more action for Cincinnati next year. Despite playing just 423 snaps he finished 5th overall in our 4-3 defensive end rankings. Imagine what he could be capable of as a starter.

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Cleveland Browns

Most Improved

Ahtyba Rubin: From -19.4 to +8.9

We’re not sure what happened, but the impressive Rubin we saw in 2009 was no more in 2010. He made tackles, but all too often struggled at the heart of Rob Ryan’s 3-4 scheme. Fast forward a year and we saw more from Rubin than even his 2009 breakout year showcased. Playing a ridiculously high number of snaps for a man of his size (945), Rubin excelled in the move to Dick Jauron’s simplified 4-3 defense. He had his best return in terms of pressuring quarterbacks (28 combined sacks, hits, and pressures), and making more defensive stops in the run game than any other DT. Can he keep up his high level of play and high snap count, or will he begin to wear down?

Biggest Drop Off

Chris Gocong: From +18.4 to -5.7

Gocong had some very good moments (his heroic goal-line stand against the Steelers being one), but generally struggled as he dealt with another defensive alignment shift. Whereas things seemed to work for him in the 3-4, they didn’t while playing outside in a 4-3 where he struggled to get off blocks and found himself more exposed in coverage. Switching schemes is harder for some than others, so it’s too soon to give up on the former Eagle who has proven he can play in this league.

More Snaps Needed

Evan Moore: +0.6 (+4.8 receiving) on 340 snaps

Different year, same story. Everyone seems to know that Moore is a weapon in the passing game, but the Browns just never commit to seeing what the guy can do with a serious run with the starters. He may not be the best blocker in the world, but you think that stopped the Chargers from getting the most out of Antonio Gates or is stopping either Jimmy Graham or Aaron Hernandez from making an impact? It’s not, and it’s almost criminal that Moore has had just 94 balls thrown at him in the last three years. With the depth chart ahead in its current state, it shouldn’t be that way.

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Pittsburgh Steelers

Most Improved

Jerricho Cotchery: From -3.3 to +5.6

Cotchery has long been a favorite of the PFF staff as he is one of those players who makes plays without getting press. That changed last year when injuries seemed to derail him, turning the sure-handed Jet into a soon-to-be-cut receiver that dropped far too many balls. It was something of a surprise when the Steelers were the team to pick up the veteran, but you need only look at how he squeezed Hines Ward out of the lineup to know the impact he was able to make.

Biggest Drop Off

Lawrence Timmons: From +33.2 to -4.2

So good was his 2010, that we thought Lawrence Timmons was among the best linebackers in the league. A year later and some injuries to other players forced him out of position. The results were less than splendid as Timmons struggled to cope filling in for James Harrison and then seemed to be playing catch up for the rest of the year. A down year, or was 2010 as good as it got? Timmons is going to need to make more plays to justify the big contract the Steelers threw his way.

More Snaps Needed

Steve McLendon: +7.8 from 220 snaps

The 2009 undrafted free agent didn’t make much of an impression in his first two years in the league, but if his performances this year are anything to go by, the Steelers may have found themselves another unheralded, but potentially highly productive player. With Casey Hampton possibly finished in Pittsburgh, McLendons’ time may come, much as it did in Week 7 against Arizona. He started and played 35 snaps, showing a good burst off the ball and an ability to make plays. A different type of player to Hampton, could his possible ascension change the dynamics of the Steelers line?

 

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