This week Aound the AFC North: Breakout Players will take a look at which players will have a coming out season in 2014. Each team in the division has numerous candidates but we will only select one. The division offers an interesting mix of teams that are rebuilding, restocking and maintaining. When it comes down to it, each team has a player that they need to have a breakout season in order to compete for the divisional crown or even a wildcard birth. Let’s take a look at exactly who will have a breakout season.
The Ravens took a step back offensively last year. Their running game was not up to standards last season. The rushing attack was strong in 2012 (123.5 yds) but it fell to 83.0 yards per game in 2013. That’s a whopping 40.5 yards less per game. This year the offense will be taken over by former Houston Texans head coach, Gary Kubiak. His rushing scheme utilizes backs that are able to make one cut and go. Bernard Pierce has the exact type of down hill running style that fits this offense.
Ray Rice would normally get the bulk of the carries but his status is uncertain as the Ravens wait to see what the NFL will do as a result of his off field issues. Pierce is the insurance policy for them. They did draft Lorenzo Taliaferro in the fourth round out of Coastal Carolina and new acquisition Justin Forsett stood out in OTAs and mini camp. Never the less, the smart money would be on Pierce to get the bulk of the carries if Rice is suspended.
Pierce struggled last year, averaging only 2.9 yards per carry. That’s a full two yards less than his 4.9 average per carry during his rookie year. There will surely be an improvement for Pierce this year. He is similar in height and running style to Arian Foster. Both of these players are able to explode up field with one cut. Their ability to accelerate is what makes them a perfect fit for the zone blocking scheme that gets lineman on the move and up to the second level of the defense. Arian Foster had some pretty good years under Kubiak. Don’t be surprised to see Bernard Pierce breakthrough with close to a 1,000 yard rushing season, especially if Ray Rice is suspended for a longer period of time.
A.J. Green is clearly the best receiver that Andy Dalton has at his disposal. There is no mistaking that. However, Marvin Jones is a player that will have a crucial role in the Bengals offense. Their new offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson has already challenged the receiving core to step it up a notch. Jones showed last year that he can be a legitimate threat by scoring ten touchdowns.
A lot of the opposing defense’s attention will be directed at Green, but Jones has to make teams pay whenever they allow him to face single coverage. The playoff game against the San Diego Chargers last year is an example of how Jones can take advantage of coverage rolling towards Green. He had eight receptions for 130 yards. One of them was a very nice adjustment on a nine route for 49 yards against Richard Marshall.
Jones is a tall, acrobatic receiver that is hard to stop on back shoulder throws. He was severely underrated when he came out of the University of California a few years ago. His understanding of the position is very thorough. He gets the spacing that is required to run route combos and he understands how to create separation with his 6-3 frame. This is something that is especially shown when he is making a reception on the boundary. His timing is remarkable and the body control he exhibits to get both feet down in bounds is second to none. Jones came close to 1,000 yards receiving last year. Rest assured that he will be a 1,000 yard receiver in 2014.
The Browns let safety T.J. Ward walk and signed veteran safety Donte Whitner. It should be noted that Dashon Goldson and Eric Reid both enjoyed a good degree of success playing along side Whitner. Now it is Tashaun Gipson’s turn. Whitner is an in the box safety that will allow defensive coordinators to give their free safety the opportunity to play centerfield and make plays on the ball.
Gipson is certainly capable of that. He is coming off of a solid season in which he managed to get five interceptions. The second year starter is known as a ball hawk and will be a key part of the Brown’s secondary which includes newcomers: Justin Gilbert and Whitner. The Browns defense will use a lot of man coverage so it will be very important for Gipson to be able to match up against some very good receiving tight ends.
His five interceptions were the most by any Browns player since 2010. Gipson also chipped in with 95 tackles and 11 pass break ups last season. As a player, he is underrated in many circles outside of Cleveland. The Browns organization really cashed in when they signed him to an undrafted rookie free agent deal coming out of Wyoming in 2012. Gipson will be sure to gain more respect around the league as he is able to continue to free lance in single high coverage.
The Steelers are known for having ferocious linebackers. There are too many of them to name. One that stood out over the years was Joey Porter. He is now a part of the Steelers coaching staff. One of the players he has already had an effect on is second year outside linebacker Jarvis Jones who coincidentally wears #95, the same number as another once menacing outside linebacker in Greg Lloyd.
Jones only had one sack last year but he has made immense progress since his rookie season. With the help of Porter, he is better understanding of what is required of him in the defense. Jones said last year his head was spinning as he tried to take in the new defense and adjust to new coaching. Now he is comfortable in his surroundings and is expecting to play a key role in a resurgence of the Steelers pass rush.
One of the things that rookies always struggle to adjust to is the more physical nature of the pro game. Jones had the same problem and said he really made a better effort to get his body ready for the daily demands of playing in the NFL, especially as a pass rusher. The physical progression along with the mental progression is there for Jones. Knowing what to expect will allow him to play that much faster because he won’t have to second guess what he has to do. He realizes he has a great opportunity in front of him and will fully take advantage of having coaches such as Porter and the aggressive defensive coordinator, Dick Lebeau.
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