AFC North Preview: Steelers, Ravens rivalry; Bengals and Browns on the road
After a wild Week Three in the NFL, the AFC North looks to heat things up starting with one of the most bitter rivalries in the league between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens Sunday night at Heinz Field. Meanwhile, both the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals will be on the road; the Browns looking to add another “W” behind their name against Jon Gruden’s Raiders while the Bengals hope to tame “Matty-Ice” and the Atlanta Falcons.
New faces, same rivalry for Steelers and Ravens
It’s a new season and although both teams have added new players to their roster, they’ve also seen some of the key players in rivalry games of the past move to other teams. In the previous two games that Baltimore visited Heinz Field, the Ravens watched Antonio Brown grab the famous “Immaculate Extension” as a Christmas gift, securing a division title, and Chris Boswell nail a late field goal to cap off a wild 39-38 win for Pittsburgh last December. Steelers fans love having the Ravens ‘in the house’, making the game that much more raucous than the players – who aren’t averse to turning up the intensity level – which makes this week’s matchup one that has a lot of people talking.
In the past, this rivalry has often turned into a shooting gallery between Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco. While the Steelers are currently the seventh-highest scoring team through three weeks of the 2018 NFL regular season, the Ravens are fifth. And as the two teams go head-to-head, the players on both teams understand that whatever team is driving down the field or going for defensive stops, things are going to turn into a rough-and-tumble grudge match on the turf.
“We enjoy playing a physical game against these guys,” said Flacco this week. “We have to make sure they feel like that because it’s more than just winning and losing a game. It’s beating a division opponent up a little bit so they still have to feel the effects the next week.”
“We’re always locked in,” Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt said. “I just think it’s going to be awesome to be back at Heinz Field, a night game, and have a true prime time, playoff-type feel to a game.” Watt brought up last year’s meeting with the Ravens, saying, “There was so much emotion going into that game with Ryan (Shazier being injured the week before)… it was just super loud, I remember. That’s when the ‘Renegade’ comes on and you get the chills and everything.”
Veteran defensive lineman Cameron Heyward had possibly the biggest statement about the rivalry this week. After saying the game was a good test for his team, Heyward summarized the emotion with this: “Either show up or shut up.”
Date: Sunday, Sept. 30
Kickoff: 7:20 p.m. (EDT)
Location: Heinz Field (Pittsburgh)
Radio: Steelers Nation Radio • WDVE 102.5 FM • WBGG 970 AM (Pittsburgh Market)
Browns defense may be bigger concern for Raiders than Mayfield
The last time the Oakland Raiders won a game in 2018 was during the preseason. They’ve been close, losing by a point to the Denver Broncos in Week Two, but in the NFL being close means next to nothing. Although the Browns are riding the high of a Baker Mayfield fairy-tale win last week, it’s their defense that likely concerns the Raiders after watching terrible offensive line play lead to inconsistency from quarterback Derek Carr and his receivers. Myles Garrett has four sacks on the season, ten tackles, two forced fumbles, and one pass defense as he has shown dominance for Cleveland’s defense. He’s expected to be rejoined by linebacker Christian Kirksey (shoulder/ankle) and defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah (ankle) against Oakland. Rookie cornerback Denzel Ward has moved into the top 10 in coverage per Pro Football Focus, producing three takeaways due to quick closing speed and good ball skills.
While Marshawn Lynch feels the Raiders could be the most explosive offense in the league, the defense has been unable to prevent big plays. Cleveland’s Carlos Hyde found the end zone twice in Week 3, rushing for 98 yards. The Raiders’ run defense ranks 28th in the league in DVOA. Their passing defense is suspect too, and that means Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway could have big games with Mayfield looking to keep Oakland from settling into any kind of rhythm on defense. Last week, the Raiders allowed four big completions (74-, 52-, 36, and 34-yards respectively) that deflated them.
“What’s going to be most important is that we rally behind each other more than anything,” Lynch told a Bay-area reporter this week. “From the outside looking in, it may look terrible, but we know what we have in this locker room. If we get behind each other, I think we’ll be able to turn this (thing) around.”
“We have to play well early. We have got to take them out of their comfort zone,” coach Hue Jackson said in his weekly press conference in regards to the Raiders. “Trust me, we have a lot of things that we have to worry about when it comes to us first and foremost, but we understand the challenge that presents itself with the Raiders.”
Date: Sunday, Sept. 30
Kickoff: 4:05 p.m. (EDT)
Location: Oakland Coliseum (Oakland)
Radio: ESPN 850 • 92.3 The Fan • 98.5 WNCX (Cleveland Market)
Dalton or Ryan: Who leads their team to a victory?
Andy Dalton and Matt Ryan have similar issues on their hands this season. Both have received comparisons to each other lately by different members of the media. And, both are looking for a win this weekend. “I’ve watched him throughout the years…” Dalton told local media this week about seeing similarities between himself and Ryan and looking at game tape. “He’s good, he makes quick decisions and is able to get the ball out of his hands and get it to his guys.” But, which of them will lead their teams to a victory?
The Bengals and Falcons both have offenses that can get hot and both teams’ defenses rank among the worst in the league in some key areas. That may point to an offensive shoot-out with Ryan and Dalton looking to hit their best receivers in what looks to be a fairly even matchup this week. Injuries aside, this is likely to also be a close game.
The biggest question marks for Cincinnati seem to be whether they can generate a rushing offense without Joe Mixon, protection and up-front blocking without center Billy Price and find A.J. Green in the open field after he was limited in practice all week. And then… they’re on the road against a team that looks more capable of scoring from the red zone than they do.
For the Falcons, there are questions about how Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Calvin Ridley will match up with Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard, and William Jackson III. The winners of these individual battles could very well determine the outcome of Sunday’s game. And, if the Bengals can generate enough pressure on Ryan, especially on third down (where Cincinnati has been the worst in the league in 2018), they may have the solution to coming out of this tight game with the win.
The final injury report for these two teams will be important to watch before kickoff as any changes could swing the favor to one side or the other.
Date: Sunday, Sept. 30
Kickoff: 1:00 p.m. (EDT)
Location: Mercedez-Benz Stadium (Atlanta)
Radio: ESPN 1530 • 102.7 WEBN (Cincinnati Market)
Division Standings Through Week 3