A Guide To The AFC North For Packers Fans
The next activity for the Green Bay Packers is the start of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), which happens on May 22 and lasts three weeks. The team’s mandatory minicamp will follow, starting June 15th. That gives us ample time now to ruminate on Green Bay’s schedule for 2017.
This year the Packers draw the four teams that make up the AFC North division. The Packers last played these teams as part of their regular schedule in 2013. Packers fans will get the chance to see two of the league’s best receivers in Antonio Brown and A.J. Green, three above-average quarterbacks, and the top pick of the 2017 draft, Cleveland’s Myles Garrett.
Though the Packers enjoy a 19-15 record in the teams’ regular season matchups, the Steelers have bested Green Bay in four of the last five outings. In their last meeting in 2013, the Steelers handed the Packers a rare late December home loss, by a 38-31 score.
Last year, Pittsburgh had another typically good season, finishing at 11-5. Following two playoff wins, they fell in the AFC Championship game to New England, the eventual Super Bowl winner, by a 36-17 score.
While Pittsburgh’s passing yardage last year was the fifth highest, and just three yards more than the Packers, their rushing offense was ranked at 14th. The Steelers were also near the middle of the league in both pass and rush defense.
Players to watch: Pittsburgh’s fortunes for the past decade or more have depended on the arm of 35-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will be entering his 14th season. The other marquee player for Pittsburgh is Antonio Brown, the best receiver in the league not named Julio Jones.
Entering his eighth season, Brown just signed a four-year extension – his $17 million salary average makes him the league’s highest paid receiver. Though his receiving yardage fell considerably from his 2015 total of over 1,800 yards, he was named first-team All-Pro for the third consecutive year. A final star player to watch is Le’Veon Bell, a bruising running back in his prime. In February, after Bell had rushed for over 1,200 yards and caught 75 passes for over 600 yards, the Steelers placed the franchise tag on him.
The Packers play the Steelers on November 26, in a nationally televised Sunday evening game at Heinz Field.
Though the Ravens finished at 8-8 last year, they are annually considered to be a rough and tough opponent. In 2013, the Packers prevailed in a hard-fought 19-17 win.
Baltimore, long known for its defense, finished fifth best against the run, ninth best against the pass, and seventh-best overall in 2016. The Ravens gave up 322 yards per game, compared to the Packers’ 364 yards. On offense, Joe Flacco has become an institution at Baltimore. In his nine seasons in the league, he’s started every game for the Ravens. Last year was easily his best in terms of yardage, though his quarterback rating of 83.5 was mediocre. Flacco throws a lot of interceptions, so look for Green Bay defensive backs to cause some turnovers. Flacco has both a Super Bowl ring and a Super Bowl MVP trophy.
Player to watch: Baltimore apparently had similar needs to the Packers, as they selected Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey at pick 16 in the draft, and went with two outside linebackers in rounds two and three. It should be interesting to compare Humphrey, the second cornerback chosen in this year’s draft, with new Green Bay cornerback Kevin King, chosen 17 picks later.
Green Bay plays the Ravens at home on November 19.
The Bengals finished 2016 with a disappointing record of 6-9-1.
When the two teams last played, the Bengals dealt the favored Packers a defeat in Cincinnati. In that game, a dubious record was set when the Bengals first led by 14 points, then trailed by 16, and came back to win by four, 34-30. Andy Dalton handily outplayed Aaron Rodgers in the game, finishing 20-of-28 for 230 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Rodgers, meanwhile was 26-of-43 for 244 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
In 2016, the Bengals were 13th in overall offense and 17th in defense.
The team rises and falls according to the ginger-haired Dalton’s passing performances. Though the QB stayed healthy all year, and threw for 4,206 yards, his quarterback rating was less than great at 91.8. His lack of maneuverability caused him to be sacked 41 times, so whether the Packers’ defense can harass him will be key to the game. Though it seems like he’s been in the league longer than just six years, and despite being named to the Pro Bowl in 2011, 2014, and last year, Dalton is still trying to crack into the ranks of the league’s top QBs. Maybe 2017 will be his year.
Players to watch: The top 100 players of 2016 in the NFL, as chosen by the players, featured four Bengals in the top-50 (Aaron Rodgers was the only such Packers’ player). Receiver A.J. Green , a rangy 6’4” wideout, might not be as widely known in Green Bay as several other receivers, but in 2016 he was named to the Pro Bowl for the sixth consecutive year. Quarterback Andy Dalton (35) performed well against the Packers in 2013. In addition to Green, Dalton can throw to his 6’6” tight end, Tyler Eifert (44), who was named to the Pro Bowl in 2015. The honor was a mixed blessing, as Eifert injured his ankle in that game, which caused him to miss the first seven games of the 2016 season. The other top-rated Bengals star is Geno Atkins (2), a five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle.
The Packers face off against the Bengals at Lambeau Field in week 3.
With their one-win season in 2016, the Browns have nowhere to go but up. They ranked 30th in overall offense and 31st in defense. The Browns have simply been unable to find a decent quarterback – Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown, and Cody Kessler were equally ineffective in 2016. So what QB did the Browns choose in the draft? Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer – considered the least-ready of the top QB prospects to step in and start year one – in the second round. The Browns also acquired Brock Osweiler, a failure in Houston, in March.
With their three first-round draft picks in April, they added: defensive end Myles Garrett (first overall), safety Jabrill Peppers (25th), and, via a trade with the Packers, tight end David Njoku (29th).
Player to Watch: By the time the Packers play the Browns on December 10 at Cleveland, we’ll know whether ferocious rookie pass rusher Garrett has already become an NFL standout. In three years at Texas A&M, the 272-pound edge rusher accumulated 31 sacks, 47 tackles for loss, and seven forced fumbles. He’ll likely give the Packers’ offensive line and blocking backs all they can handle.
Tomorrow, I’ll scope out the NFC South teams that the Packers will meet this season.