AFC North: Previewing the division's Week 6 games | Steel City Underground

Steel City Underground

SCU AFC North Report

The state of the AFC North is shaping up to be closer than anticipated entering October and Week 6 of the 2018 NFL regular season. While the Cincinnati Bengals will host the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cleveland Browns will host the Los Angeles Chargers and the Baltimore Ravens will be on the road to face the Tennessee Titans. The headline game will be a rivalry grudge match between the Steelers and Bengals, but the Browns and Ravens are looking to build off of things that have been working in their organizations and earn wins this weekend.

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Squeak-by Browns are looking to put back-to-back wins together

There wasn't anything beautiful about Week Five's win over the Ravens by the Browns except... they won. The Browns have caused an emotional rollercoaster for their fans, winning by a breath here and a prayer there. After Greg Joseph's wounded duck of a kick to beat Baltimore, Cleveland is hoping to do something they haven't accomplished since Weeks 9 and 10 of the 2014 season: win two games in a row. Granted, Brian Hoyer is just a name in the Browns Quarterback Graveyard now, but any win for Cleveland feels like Christmas morning these days and beating the Chargers at home would be a huge boost to really changing the culture in Berea... as opposed to talking about it.

The Browns defense has logged 15 takeaways through five weeks of play and lead the league. You read that right. Lead. The. League. Sure, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield gets everyone pumped up because he's the kind of player that exudes enthusiasm (and he's been pretty good at taking care of the ball), but the fact that Cleveland has a defense that can't be ignored has been fascinating to watch.

"I tell them all the time, you know that takeaways are these three things: attitude first, population second and technique third." - defensive coordinator Gregg Williams

The Chargers opened their 2018 season with two losses in their first three contests before handing defeats to the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders. Their offense, ranked eighth in the league in points per game (27.4) and seventh in yards per game (405.2) are due, in large part, to quarterback Philip Rivers putting up great numbers for a 15-season veteran. Rivers enters the game having completed 122-of-174 passes for 1,495 yards, thirteen touchdowns to two interceptions. He's been targeting Keenan Allen heavily (32 receptions, 372 yards, and a touchdown), but the Chargers are likely to lean heavily on Melvin Gordon in the ground game (334 yards and three touchdowns) to keep Cleveland's defense on the field and Mayfield on the sidelines.

In the all-time series between these two teams, the Chargers lead the Browns 16-9-1, including a win during the 2017 NFL season, but since the Browns returned in 1999, they've won the last two consecutive games with the Chargers at home. And Cleveland is hoping that will give them the mojo they need to put together back-to-back wins.

Game Info
Date: Sunday, Oct. 14
Kickoff: 1:00 p.m. (EDT)*
Location: FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland)
TV: CBS
Radio: ESPN 850 • 92.3 The Fan • 98.5 WNCX (Cleveland Market)

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Ravens seek balanced offense to beat Titans

The matchup between Baltimore and Tennessee (both with 3-2 records) looks to be an exciting one with possible implications should either team make it into playoff contention. With Dean Pees moving to the defensive coordinator position with the Titans, there are questions about whether he has Baltimore's number. Similarly, does Mary Mornhinweg have the inside track on how to break the Titans defense's back? Less than a year has passed since these two teams last faced each other and despite a close record in the all-time series (11-11; 9-10 regular season versus 2-1 postseason), Harbaugh has only led his team to one win in three in his era as the head coach for Baltimore.

The biggest question for the Ravens could very well be whether veteran quarterback Joe Flacco can continue to maintain the pace in a pass-happy offense he's been required to operate this season. Flacco is on pace to throw over 725 passes this season, but his track record does not support his being able to continue to be called upon to throw 45-plus passes per game. His record, when forced into a shootout and being required to orchestrate that many passing plays, is 8-22 per ESPN.

Under Harbaugh, the tradition had been to win by using the rushing game. That they've departed from that has some questioning how far the Ravens can push Flacco and the Baltimore receivers. Against the Browns, Flacco was forced to toss 56 balls, but his receivers only caught 20 of those passes. In fact, Baltimore leads the league in dropped passes (15) through five weeks of play. The biggest culprit (if that's the correct word) has been receiver Michael Crabtree who can lay claim to a league-worst seven drops.

The fact that opponents have forced the Ravens to go to the pass has been, in large part, due to the fact that Baltimore just has not developed a successful scheme in the run game. They're averaging 3.4 yards per carry (third worst in the league) with Alex Collins and Javorius Allen sharing duties, but the run blocking has been suspect from the offensive line. Neither Collins or Allen have proven they have an ability to stack up yards after first contact with a defender.

"The optimum pass attempts and run attempts are really whatever the hell gets you the win." - Joe Flacco

Game Info
Date: Sunday, Oct. 14
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. (EDT)*
Location: Nissan Stadium (Nashville)
TV: CBS
Radio: 98 Rock | WBAL 1090 AM (Baltimore Market)

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Steelers, Bengals expect a physical divisional battle

Everyone is talking. It's Steelers-Bengals week. Even though the Ravens were typically the toughest rivalry in the division, the past few years have shown that the animosity between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh may be a tad hotter. With the Bengals entering the battle 4-1, the Steelers are in a situation where they can't afford to get off to a slow start if they hope to truly push for a dominant spot in the AFC North. The Bengals have been creative in how they've climbed to the top of the division: a comeback victory, a narrow escape in a shootout, a big lead they never relinquished, and a last-minute touchdown to start the season off right. The Steelers haven't played pretty and they've battled back-and-forth with the teams they've faced ahead of this meeting on Sunday.

What no one wants to talk about is the loss of Ryan Shazier when these two teams played in December 2017. Shazier's injury was a blow to a defense that is still trying to find a real identity despite major improvement last week in their win over the Atlanta Falcons. That improvement was due, in part, to T.J. Watt's three sacks and greater upfront pressure.

What can't happen for either team is for them to let the game get out of hand. Leading up to the game, there has been plenty of chatter about a supposed feud between JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vontaze Burfict, "malcontent" in the Steelers locker room (per Cincy Jungle), an alleged revenge plot by Bud Dupree and Vince Williams (following Shazier's injury) before they realized it was not a Bengals player that hurt their teammate, Tyler Boyd stating that every game he's played against the Steelers has involved "aggressive hits" or something "dirty", and the years of head-to-head warfare that has been waged between these two teams on the gridiron.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was mocked online for saying, "It's one of those games that can get chippy at times. You hope it doesn't. You hope it's just a hard-fought football game...we'll do our best to put all that in the past behind us and play like it's a normal football game." If this game turns into a brawl, neither team earns much respect even if they come away with a "W", even if there are fans who'd rather see a gladiator-type arena than a football game.

Related Steelers - Bengals Articles

Game Info
Date: Sunday, Oct. 14
Kickoff: 1:00 p.m. (EDT)*
Location: Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati)
TV: CBS
Radio: Steelers Nation Radio • WDVE 102.5 FM • WBGG 970 AM (Pittsburgh Market); 700WLW • ESPN 1530 • 102.7 WEBN (Cincinnati Market)

Note: Week 6 games are subject to *flex scheduling from the NFL





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