Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker
Here are seven notes and observations from Week 5 in the AFC North:
Quick! Can you name the NFL’s leading rusher? If you guessed Cincinnati Bengals tailback Cedric Benson, you are correct. Similar to the Bengals being one of the NFL’s biggest surprises, so is Benson (487) racking up more yards than elite rushers Adrian Peterson (481) and Chris Johnson (468) through five games. Benson is carrying over momentum from last season. He finished the 2008 season with back-to-back 100-yard games. Benson already has two 100-yard games this season, including Sunday’s 120 rushing yards in a 17-14 win over the Baltimore Ravens.
Don’t read too much into this statement, but there is at least one aspect of the Bengals (4-1) that I saw last year in the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bengals don’t blink. They are a fearless group that believes someone in their huddle will always make the big play, no matter the situation. That is not something that can be taught or coached. It’s just there or it’s not year to year, and through five straight nail-biting games the Bengals have developed that trait.
There are two ways to stop the pass: Punish the quarterback and/or shut down the receivers. Baltimore isn’t doing either with any consistency and that’s a huge problem. The Ravens’ struggles against the pass are twofold this year, and that’s why it’s been so difficult to correct. It’s hard to blitz effectively when the cornerbacks struggle in man coverage. It’s also hard to cover receivers when the quarterback sometimes has four and five seconds or more to wait for an opening. So what do you do if you’re Baltimore first-year defensive coordinator Greg Mattison?
It’s startling to think two weeks ago the Ravens (3-2) were considered perhaps the best team in football, and now they’re staring at the prospect of losing three in a row. That’s how quickly things can change in the NFL. Baltimore will be underdogs on the road next week against the undefeated Minnesota Vikings (5-0). The Ravens have the type of talent to match up with the Vikings and give them problems. But if Baltimore falters, going into the bye at .500 considering the team was recently 3-0 would certainly be a disappointment.
The Cleveland Browns will have to accept Derek Anderson’s hot and cold streaks as the starting quarterback. But one thing that’s been consistent with Anderson under center is the running game, to which Anderson deserves credit. The threat of Anderson’s big arm has kept defenses honest and without stacking the line of scrimmage nearly as much. As a result the Browns average 158.5 rushing yards per game in Anderson’s two starts and 71.3 yards in Brady Quinn’s three starts when Cleveland struggled to throw the football deep.
Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison is starting to gain steam. The reigning NFL Defensive MVP recorded one sack in Week 3, two in Week 4, and was dominant with three sacks in Sunday’s 28-20 victory over the Detroit Lions. Despite a slow start, Harrison is now on pace for 19 sacks, which will eclipse last year’s total of 16.
In breaking down tailback Rashard Mendenhall’s impact the past two weeks for Pittsburgh (3-2), look no further than his ability to move the chains. In Mendenhall’s two starts, 12 of his 42 carries (29 percent) resulted in first downs. That is a large percentage for a primary rusher, who also averages 5.6 yards per carry this season. Based on these numbers, it will be very hard to take Mendenhall out of the lineup even when Willie Parker (turf toe) returns. It will be interesting to see what the coaches decide when that time comes.