Is AFC North Balance of Power About to Shift Away From Ravens?
The "Good Morning Football" crew debated whether the winner of Sunday's AFC North game in Pittsburgh between the Steelers and Cleveland Browns will seize control of the division away from the two-time defending AFC North champion Ravens.
Pittsburgh (4-0) enters the contest a half-game ahead of the Ravens (4-1) and Cleveland (4-1).
The GMFB crew varied in their opinions.
Kyle Brandt believes the power is already shifting to the Steelers.
"I think when this is all over, they will be standing on top of this thing," Brandt said. "I think Pittsburgh is slowly gaining confidence, slowly putting their best ball together. Huge showdown with Baltimore [in Week 8], but I think Pittsburgh will be standing on top at the end."
As for the Browns, Brandt and Peter Schrager pointed out that they've looked like an entirely different team than the one that was dismantled by the Ravens in Week 1.
"Every week we're going to put the Browns on the crucible and say, 'Is this the week the Browns are for real?'" Schrager said. "Just don't wake up in December and the Browns are 11-3 and we're like, 'Are the Browns for real?' Let's appreciate what the Browns are doing. … Absolutely, if they take care of business in Pittsburgh, they're in this conversation."
In the conversation? Sure. Except for Cleveland's 38-6 loss to the Ravens, the Browns clearly have looked significantly better than the team that went 6-10 last year. But as far as the Steelers or Browns leapfrogging the Ravens as the team to beat in the division? Not so fast, said Nate Burleson.
"Until we end the season and we're talking about the AFC North champions, I'm not going to sit here in Week 5 and say there's going to be a shift in power and I'm going to crown the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Cleveland Browns," Burleson said. "This division will go down to the wire. So I feel like regardless of what happens in this game, I'm still looking at the Ravens as the team to beat in the AFC North."
Kay Adams added that the Ravens and Steelers haven't faced each other yet this season, and "you have to give [the Ravens] the opportunity to lose it before actually taking power away from them."
These types of debates make for interesting television segments (not to mention good bulletin board material for the Ravens), but it's silly to suggest an AFC North game not involving Baltimore will determine who seizes power in the division.
Not to take anything away from a talented Steelers squad, but their four wins have come against teams with a combined record of 2-13-1 and their average margin of victory is 7.8 points, so Burleson's point about not crowning them yet is well taken.
Meanwhile, the Ravens have the largest point differential in the NFL (plus-73, which includes the 14-point loss to the Kansas City Chiefs) and their average margin of victory in their four wins is 21.7 points.
The scary part for the other teams in the division is that the Ravens offense hasn't hit on all cylinders yet.
Should Ravens Trade for Another Tight End Before Deadline?
The play of the Ravens' three tight ends (Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst) last season was one of the reasons the offense was so productive, but trading Hurst in the offseason has created a void.
Baltimore Beatdown’s Spencer Schultz said the Ravens should consider trading for another tight end before the Nov. 3 trade deadline.
"In 2019, the Ravens trio of tight ends allowed the Ravens to present defenses with a bevy of different looks from heavy personnel (12, 22, 13), which forced defenses to match with base defense against the best rushing attack in NFL history," Schultz wrote. "This allowed the Ravens to use Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews to push vertical against linebackers on play action passes from tight alignments, or spread the field with two vertical threat tight ends, using empty backfields. Going empty against base defense also allowed Lamar Jackson to have more space to work with, while defenses had less speed on the field to corral the electric athlete playing quarterback."
One tight end who could be on the block, in Schultz's opinion, will be on the field Sunday when the Ravens travel to Philadelphia to play the Eagles: Zach Ertz.
"Dallas Goedert appears to be the future in Philly," Schultz wrote. "Eric DeCosta and [Eagles General Manager] Howie Roseman have a strong relationship, and Ertz has no guaranteed money after 2020."
A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Ertz has not been nearly as productive this season. The 30-year-old veteran has 20 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown through five games.
Other tight ends cited by Schultz as trade candidates include the New York Giants' Evan Engram and the Minnesota Vikings' Kyle Rudolph.
In August, it was reported that the Ravens pursued veteran free-agent tight end Jordan Reed, who went on to sign with the San Francisco 49ers.
Jackson's Decrease in Running Success Is Biggest Surprise for Ravens
After Jackson set an NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback last season, perhaps it's not surprising that he isn't on pace to break his own mark. However, the significant drop-off in Jackson's running success is surprising, wrote Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz, via ESPN.
Jackson, who ran for 1,206 yards on 176 carries (6.9 yards per carry) in 15 games last year, is on pace for 762 yards on 131 carries (5.8 YPC). Moreover, Jackson's running success rate has dropped on every down this season.
"In 2019, Football Outsiders calculated Jackson to have 273 rushing DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement). That was the second-most valuable quarterback rushing season in our data, going back to 1985, surpassed only by Randall Cunningham's 1990 season," Schatz wrote. "This year, on the other hand, Jackson has negative DYAR. He currently ranks 29th among quarterbacks in rushing value.
"Will this drop in Jackson's rushing efficiency continue? In part, it depends on the status of his knee, obviously. In addition, it's hard to have a performance as good as Jackson had last year while rushing as often as he did. The most likely scenario for the rest of 2020 is a performance that falls somewhere between Jackson's slow rushing start and last year's huge numbers."
There are several factors to consider when analyzing Jackson's running numbers this season. After missing a day of practice last week with a sore knee (as well as another day because of a stomach bug), Jackson carried the ball just twice for three yards Sunday in the Ravens' win over the Bengals. Plus, defenses have been playing the Ravens differently this season and are giving Jackson less room to run.
Yesterday, Jackson said he is fine with running less.
"We have guys that run the ball very good for us and we're winning, so it really doesn't matter. We're 4-1," Jackson said. "It's a plus for us right now. As the season goes on, we're going to see if we need to and Coach will adjust. But right now we're perfectly fine without me running so much."
Eagles WR Greg Ward Was 2-0 Against Jackson As a College QB
The Ravens are 7.5-point favorites over the Eagles, but the last time Jackson and Philadelphia wide receiver Greg Ward played against each other, it wasn't that close — and Jackson was on the short end.
In 2016, Ward was the quarterback for the Houston Cougars, who upset Jackson's Louisville Cardinals, 36-10, in a nationally televised game. It was 31-0 at halftime.
"I have a lot of memories from that game," said Ward, via The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Every time I see him, I talk to him about it. We talked about it last summer when we scrimmaged them. I was messing with him about the game."
Ward's Cougars also beat Jackson's Cardinals in 2015, 34-31.
Ward signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent and converted to wide receiver. He spent the season on the practice squad and was released before the start of the 2018 season. After playing for the San Antonio Commanders of the Alliance of American Football in 2019, Ward was re-signed by the Eagles and appeared in seven games. This season, Ward has played in all five games and has a team-leading 22 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
Ward acknowledged that he may have been given a chance to make it as a quarterback in the NFL if he had followed Jackson into the league rather than preceded him. Regardless, Ward said he isn't surprised by the reigning league MVP's success.
"He was a baller," Ward said. "He always had that underdog mentality. He's gone out there and proven himself."