Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther noticed the statistical dropoff in a conference usually known for stout defenses. In 2013, all four AFC North teams ranked in the top 13 in total defense. Last season, three defenses ranked 18th or worse in that category.
"The main reason is the offenses got better," Guenther said.
That includes the Pittsburgh Steelers, who Guenther says are playing at a high level because of Ben Roethlisberger's comfort level in a quick-passing game, a strong supporting cast and a solid running game.
As part of his career year, leading the Steelers to the league’s second-highest yards total with 6,577, Roethlisberger took 2.06 sacks per game, his lowest clip since 2005. Roethlisberger finished with 4,952 yards, 32 scores, nine interceptions and a 103.3 passer rating.
Not bad for a quarterback with 419 sacks in 11 seasons, 132 more sacks than Peyton Manning in his 17-year career.
"I’ve got a lot of respect for him," said Guenther of Roethlisberger. "He’s taken a lot of shots and keeps getting up ... He was getting hit a lot in the past while trying to throw some stuff downfield. The ball’s coming out a little faster, particularly on third downs. That’s probably part of it. He’s not running as much and he has enough pocket presence where he keeps a play alive."
Consistency across the board helps the Steelers’ offense, Guenther said. A talented offensive line has two years of cohesion, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown have staying power and second-year receiver Martinis Bryant is a "deep threat for sure," Guenther said.
"You’re talking about tight ends and wide receivers and running backs and an improved offensive line, that’s a pretty good combination," Guenther said. "They’ve gotten better up front and run the ball effectively, which helps them. The ability for them to run the ball, mix it up and keep teams honest probably got him more looks."
Bryant got Guenther’s attention with a 94-touchdown down the sideline in Week 14. Guenther calls him a "fast, long-striding guy."
"When you watch the kid you don’t say he’s really fast, but he’s a long-strider so he’s a speed-builder," Guenther said.