Big Ben and the Heisman winners: Sizing up QBs in the NFL’s best division


When it comes to the best division in football, few can compete with the arms race in the AFC North.

When the NFL season began, it became the first division ever to start three Heisman Trophy winners to open a season.

Nearly halfway through 2020, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow along with two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger have their teams reaching for the record books once again.

Roethlisberger has rebounded from last year’s season-ending elbow injury and has guided the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) to their best start since 1978.

Jackson has helped the Baltimore Ravens to a 5-1 mark for the third time in franchise history, matching the starts of their two Super Bowl championship teams (2000 and 2012).

Mayfield has lifted the Cleveland Browns to a 5-2 record, which hasn’t happened since Bill Belichick was the coach there in 1994.

Burrow has produced only one victory for the Cincinnati Bengals (1-5-1), but this year’s No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft is on pace to become the league’s most prolific rookie passer.

Overall, the AFC North has the second-best win percentage by a division’s top three teams (16-3, .842) through Week 7 since the 1970 merger, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. The only division that was better was the 1975 AFC Central, which featured the Steelers, Bengals and Oilers all winning 10 games.

Here’s a look at how these quarterbacks will shape the AFC North going forward:

What has your quarterback done thus far? What kind of first half has he had?

Jamison Hensley (Ravens): Jackson’s playmaking ability has carried an offense that isn’t as strong along the offensive line and hasn’t received much from the wide receivers. He’s just in a difficult situation because he isn’t playing at last season’s off-the-charts, MVP level. Jackson remains a special dual threat, ranking 10th in QBR (76.1) and first in rushing average (6.9). But he’s regressed as a passer and hasn’t been crisp in throwing the ball. Jackson is 26th in completion rate (63%) and 27th in passing yards (1,135). If Jackson can become a more consistent passer, Baltimore will be extremely dangerous.

Ben Baby (Bengals): The top overall pick in the 2020 draft has established himself as a top candidate to be the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. Burrow is on pace to shatter Andrew Luck’s record for most passing yards as a rookie (4,374 in 2012) and is coming off his first 400-yard performance in the NFL. But more important, Burrow is steadily showing improvement in how he sees the field and has naturally stepped into a key leadership role.

Brooke Pryor (Steelers): It’s hard to overstate the kind of start Roethlisberger, 38, has had this season. The Steelers are undefeated, and his return is a big reason for that. Before Sunday, the veteran had thrown only one interception. He threw three more against the Titans, but only one was the product of a poor decision. His surgically repaired elbow is holding up, and he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. He’s also showing a willingness to work on his deficiencies, taking extra time to practice his footwork, build relationships with his younger receivers and throw at stacked trash cans to improve the placement of his deep ball.

Jake Trotter (Browns): Mayfield’s first half has been up and down, especially against AFC North competition, with a pair of sterling performances against the Bengals and rough outings against the Ravens and Steelers. Altogether, though, he has improved from his dismal 2019 season and currently ranks inside the top 10 in the league in QBR. Mayfield will need to show more against somebody other than the Bengals if he is to prove he’s still in fact Cleveland’s quarterback of the future.

What is one cause for concern or troubling trend you have observed about your QB and why?

Hensley: The lack of a deep passing game. Defenses are going to drop safeties and load up the box to stop the Ravens’ running game until Jackson makes teams fear his ability to throw over the top of them. On passes of 15 yards in the air or longer, Jackson’s 14 completions ranks 26th in the NFL and his 36.8 completion percentage is 27th. Baltimore has the potential to stretch the field. Jackson frequently hit speedy wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown on long throws in training camp. It just hasn’t happened as often in the regular season, and this has to become among the Ravens’ top priorities on offense going forward.

Baby: Burrow’s biggest issue has been his knack for holding on to the ball for a little too long. His tendency to let a play drag out as he looks for a receiver downfield has played a role in a number of his sacks and is something he’s readily admitted. At LSU, Burrow was known for his ability to extend plays, and that was one of the reasons the Bengals loved him during the pre-draft process. However, he’s still finding the balance between risk and reward in the NFL.

Pryor: Roethlisberger’s passes are being tipped at the line of scrimmage more often this season, including one against the Titans that led to an interception. That’s a product of the run-pass option (RPO) offense, Roethlisberger said Wednesday. And while that’s not ideal, the quarterback said he isn’t concerned. “The ball is going to have to come out quick because it’s a run kind of play,” Roethlisberger said. “You have to get the ball out quick. Sometimes the blocking is not there. Sometimes when you’re throwing a lot of the underneath stuff and quick routes, the ball has to come out of your hands quick, and it’s going to, obviously, be a lower pass.

“Coach [Mike] Tomlin says all the time, ‘If you’re not going to get home, get your hands up.’ I think that’s what we are seeing a lot from defenders when they think they’re not going to get home or they think the ball is going to come out quick, they’re just getting their hands up. That’s creating some tipped balls, but we’re not too alarmed with it yet.”

Trotter: Mayfield has really struggled against the better blitzing defenses. On Oct. 18 against the Steelers, for example, he went just 2-of-6 passing against the blitz for 11 yards and an interception; he also took three sacks, a career high for him against the blitz. Mayfield was much better against the Bengals on Sunday, going 6-of-8 passing for 94 yards and a touchdown, with the one pick, against the blitz. Cincinnati’s blitz, however, is rather toothless. Future defensive opponents with more prolific pass rushes are sure to study the Pittsburgh film.

What is the most telling stat of your quarterback’s performance thus far?

Hensley: Completion rate. Jackson is 4-0 when he connects on more than 55% of his throws. It’s been a barometer for success throughout his three-year career. He’s 22-1 as a starter when completing more than 55% of his passes, and he’s 3-3 when he fails to do so. This shows that Baltimore wins as much with Jackson’s efficient play as his electric moves.

Baby: Burrow leads the league in passing attempts and completions, which indicates what the Bengals are putting on his plate as a rookie with no preseason or OTAs. Burrow has responded by throwing for 2,023 yards, which ranks third in the NFL behind only Matt Ryan and Deshaun Watson. Burrow’s completion percentage is 5.1% over the expected rate, according to NFL Next Gen Stats data, so he’s been effective despite all the attempts.

Pryor: Roethlisberger’s air yards are way down from previous seasons. He’s averaging 6.68 air yards for the season, the lowest through the Steelers’ first six games of a season since the stat was first tracked in 2006. That doesn’t mean that Roethlisberger can’t throw the deep ball with his repaired elbow, it just means the Steelers are running a different kind of offense than in previous seasons. Roethlisberger is getting the ball out of his hands fast, throwing quick, slant passes and letting his playmakers do the work.

Trotter: Against the Bengals, Mayfield is 5-1 in his career with a scintillating combined QBR of 87. But against everybody else? He’s just 12-18 with a QBR of only 51. Beating up on the Bengals won’t be enough for Mayfield if he’s to become a top-half-of-the-league quarterback. So far in his career, Mayfield is just 5-12 against opponents above .500, with a QBR of just 46. That isn’t good enough.

This season will be considered a success for your QB if …

Hensley: Wins a playoff game. Jackson could finish out the regular season with a 15-1 record and he will ultimately get judged by how he fares when it matters the most. The lack of a postseason victory is really the only disappointment in Jackson’s short run as Baltimore’s starting quarterback. He’s led the Ravens to two home playoff games and lost by a combined score of 51-29. While Jackson shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame for the playoff flops, his five turnovers have fed the narrative that he can’t win in January.

Baby: Burrow finishes the season healthy. Because of Burrow’s playing style and the offensive line’s shakiness, the rookie is prone to a lot of contact. While some of that is acceptable because of his playmaking ability, the weekly progress Burrow makes will immediately cease if he’s out for any period of time. If he can stay on the field the rest of the season, he will gain valuable reps as he builds toward a 2021 in which expectations will be much higher.

Pryor: The season is already a success for Roethlisberger. Returning to the field after significant elbow surgery was hardly a given, but Roethlisberger has done that and then some. The season will continue to be a success if he finishes it the way he started — throwing 13 touchdowns to four interceptions with a 68.2 completion percentage. With Roethlisberger back and playing so well, the Steelers don’t just hope to make the playoffs for the first time since 2017, they hope to make a deep run in them.

Trotter: The Browns finally snap the NFL’s longest active playoff and make the postseason for the first time since 2002. Mayfield’s individual performances in between are sure to be dissected. But if Cleveland makes the playoffs, especially out of the rugged AFC North, that will be a clear sign Mayfield has taken a step forward as well, while giving him, the new front office and first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski a foundation to build off of moving forward.

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