AFC North is running counter to expectations

Quarterbacks don't stick, and defense is ineffective

NFL Week 5 in review

October 08, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

When the season started, the Ravens' Chris Redman was the weakest link in the chain of AFC North starting quarterbacks. Five weeks later, Redman is the only quarterback in the division who has started every game for his team.

That's the best place to start when trying to account for how the AFC North has been turned upside down in the first month of the season.

Kordell Stewart quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers to the AFC championship game last year, but lost his job to Tommy Maddox in Week 5. The Cincinnati Bengals gave newcomer Gus Frerotte three starts and Akili Smith one before turning to last year's starter, Jon Kitna, this week.

In Cleveland, Tim Couch, the first pick in the 1999 draft, missed the Browns' first two games because of injury. In Sunday night's upset loss to Baltimore, Couch got booed vigorously by the Cleveland crowd, then was cheered as he lay on the field with a concussion that knocked him out of the game. Kelly Holcomb, who threw for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the final 10 minutes, is suddenly the fan favorite.

Collectively, those developments add up to some serious quarterbacking turmoil.

No one expected the Ravens (2-2) to be competitive, let alone in first place, at this juncture. But then no one anticipated Pittsburgh (1-3) would misplace its running game and its ferocity on defense. Or that the Browns (2-3) would continue an alarming trend of losing games on the final play.

With the hapless Bengals (0-5), it was more a question of how, not if, they would implode.

As it stands, the AFC North has the worst cumulative record (5-13) of the NFL's eight divisions. It's the only division without a winning team. Perhaps more intriguing, it's the only division where an 8-8 record might actually earn a playoff spot and division title.

Last quarterback standing wins?

Actually, there's more to the collapse of the division than struggling quarterbacks. Defense is at the root of the malaise that afflicts the Steelers and Browns, with running game complications.

The Browns not only have a budding quarterback controversy, but a debate at running back as well. Although William Green, the 16th pick in last April's draft, has failed miserably so far to give the Browns a semblance of a running game, coach Butch Davis has continued to give him carries at the expense of veteran Jamel White.

White is averaging 5.0 yards a carry on 52 attempts to Green's 2.2 on 44 attempts. The reborn Browns have yet to give Couch a threat in the backfield.

More than that, the Browns' run defense continues to rank among the worst in the league. A year ago, only two teams played worse rush defense than Cleveland. This season, the Browns are 30th of 32 teams in stopping the run. More telling, they have surrendered 100-yard rushing games to three backs, including a season-high 187 yards to the Ravens' Jamal Lewis.

The Browns have also found maddening ways to lose games. They are 9-12 under Davis, and eight of the 21 games were decided on the final play. The Browns have won just two of those eight.

The Steelers have been unable to stop opponents so far, giving up 30 or more points in three of four games. They've allowed a pair of 100-yard rushing games - to White and New Orleans' Deuce McAllister - and a 400-yard passing game to Oakland's Rich Gannon.

Pittsburgh led the league last season in rush defense, total defense and rush offense. But this year the Steelers are 14th, 20th and 22nd in those categories.

The Bengals are off to their fifth 0-5 start since 1991, and already rumors are afloat about the job security of coach Dick LeBeau, 10-24 in his brief tenure.

Against that backdrop, the Ravens' 2-2 record looks even better. They have the best turnover ratio (plus-three) in the division, and have given up the fewest sacks (six) and fewest points (79) of the four teams. They also place highest in the division in run offense (18th) and run defense (10th).

Around the league

The Philadelphia Eagles' bye week arrives just in the nick of time for quarterback Donovan McNabb. He has been sacked 19 times, second most in the league behind Houston's David Carr, and has run the ball another 33 times. ... In their past three games, the New England Patriots have thrown 139 passes and run the ball only 60 times.

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