The Cincinnati Bengals are riding high after taking care of business last Thursday night against the Baltimore Ravens to get to 2-0 and claim sole possession of the AFC North. Through two weeks, the Bengals look every bit the part of a contender for the division crown, and as such, you’d think they’d have a read on what’s going on around it.
Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick certainly seems to, having just penned a well written article for the Players’ Tribune about the seven best players the AFC North has to offer. At least one player from each of the four teams makes an appearance, and two of them are on the Baltimore Ravens.
The first of which is a new face to the division - wide receiver Michael Crabtree checking in at number 7:
He’s got good speed — it doesn’t scare me, but his speed’s tight. The thing about Crabtree is that he can go up and get the ball. This league is built on the go ball. Everybody wants to take shots down the field, and you need guys who can go get it because it opens up everything underneath when you can stretch the defense. Crabtree can stretch it. He’s got a big body, big hands, and even though he’s only 6’1″, he’s got a big catch radius. He’s got 34.5-inch arms — and if you don’t know what that means, well … Calvin Johnson is 6’5″, and his arms aren’t even that long. So basically, Crabtree is 6’1″, but with a wingspan of a guy who’s 6’5″ or bigger. Which makes him really deceptive in his ability to go get jump balls. This also allows him to catch the ball with his hands out in front of him and use his wide body to keep you from getting your hands in there to poke the ball out. It’s like he’s boxing you out. And he knows how to get open. I remember the game a couple of years ago against the Ravens, when he was still in Oakland. We had played on Thursday night that week, and I was home Sunday sitting on my couch watching Crabtree, thinking, Man, this guy is always open.
In reference to the 2016 matchup between Oakland and Baltimore, Kirkpatrick says he definitely understands why the Ravens front office chose to go after him when he became available:
After some serious woes at the position that seemed especially pronounced last year, it’s good to see a Ravens player at the position get some love. Crabtree is seemingly settling in nicely as the go to chain mover for the next Raven on Kirkpatrick’s list.
Quarterback Joe Flacco checks in at number 4:
I don’t have any highlights for Joe Flacco. Yeah, he’s got a big arm. He can throw the ball down the field. But you never see him make that throw where you’re like, Man, how did he fit that one in there? That’s just not his game. He doesn’t take a lot of chances. He doesn’t force throws into tight coverage. He’s very conservative. He’s just so good at executing every throw on the field and taking exactly what the defense gives him. As a corner, with Flacco back there, you have to control the receivers at the line of scrimmage — get your hands on them early, jam them, throw off the timing of the route. Everything in this game is timing, and just throwing a receiver off his route with one good punch in the chest might be enough to keep a conservative guy like Flacco from throwing it that way because, if it’s not there, he’s not gonna force it. Another thing you have to do against Flacco is throw a lot of disguises at him. You have to give him the illusion that you’re giving him one thing, but then take it away at the last second — maybe play up on the line like it’s gonna be man-press, then right before the snap, bail out and drop into a zone. Or show him one defensive formation pre-snap, then audible to something else to try and confuse him. You have to bait Flacco, then try and take advantage. Then it just comes down to who can make a play.
Flacco has experienced a bit of a fall from grace since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, but it’s clear that certain players still have respect for what he can do. Kirkpatrick seems to be one of them, noting that despite his shift from an aggressive mindset to a more tight one, Flacco still has the tools to get it done.
In terms of the rest of the list, it fully reads out as follows:
6. CB Joe Haden
5. DE Myles Garrett
3. QB Ben Roethlisberger
2. WR A.J. Green
- WR Antonio Brown
It’s definitely an interesting list, and an even better read when you notice Kirkpatrick doesn’t allow any bias to come into play. Two of the top three players are Steelers, and the only Bengal he lists is A.J. Green at two who could easily be argued for number one.
It’s certainly worth a look to get an insight on some of the strengths and weaknesses of players around the division from as primary a source as you can get. We’ll see just how correct (or otherwise) Kirkpatrick is moving forward as the AFC North continues to take shape.