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Offseason Lowdown

OC History: AFC North

by Chet Gresham
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:09 pm ET

For this set of articles I’ll be looking at NFL teams, their offensive coordinators and how their coordinating has or might impact their team’s offense and in turn our fantasy expectations. I’ll be using the offensive coordinator info compiled by Mr. Jeff Brubach, which tries to look at the last three seasons of a coordinator’s offensive output.


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Pittsburgh Steelers




This will be Todd Haley’s third year as offensive coordinator for the Steelers. In the past he’s been able to get quite a bit out of his offenses. With the Cardinals in 2007-08 he helped them to a top-5 passing offense and then in 2010 with Kansas City they had the #1 rushing offense. Unfortunately for the Steelers, they haven’t quite meshed into a top offense under Haley. But there was some room for optimism in the second half of last season as Ben Roethlisberger put up top-5 fantasy numbers and finished with 28 touchdown passes, his second most ever. Of course it was the first time he finished with 16 games played since 2008.


Over the last two seasons Haley has passed 58% and 60% of the time. That 60% ranked 8th overall last year and helped Antonio Brown to 110 receptions, 1,499 yards and 8 touchdowns. If Roethlisberger and Haley can keep that second half going into this season there is a chance they could put together some big numbers in this offense.


Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown of course stand to benefit from the pass happy attack, but there is room for more in this offense. Last season the #2 and #3 receivers had decent numbers with Emmanuel Sanders putting up a 67/740/6 line and Jerricho Cotchery going 46/602/10.  And now both of those players are on other teams this season. That opens the door for Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore and 2,841 top 3 wide receiver yards and 24 touchdowns is nothing to sneeze at.


Tight end Heath Miller started the season trying to get back up to speed after an injury and Cotchery ended up stealing his touchdowns and he finished with just one all season. But the year before he had eight touchdowns. It seems like we’ll see the touchdowns of Lance Moore and Miller taking away from each other. But if this offense really steps up and Roethlisberger can push into the 30+ touchdown range, there will be enough touchdowns to go around.


The rushing game hasn’t been very good with Haley at the helm. In 2012, injuries and mediocre talent kept the production down, but last season Le’Veon Bell stepped up as the bell cow back and had decent overall production, but averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. This year Bell will get a full season after missing the first three games last year. He does have Dri Archer and LeGarrette Blount as completion for passing targets and early down/goal line work now, so there could be a bit more spreading of the wealth this year. After giving Thomas Jones 245 carries at 3.7 yards per carry and Jamaal Charles 230 at 6.4 yards per carry in 2010, anything is conceivable.


The Steelers defense isn’t their strength anymore so the offense will need to step up like they did in the second half last year and it’s very possible they can produce 2-3 usable fantasy receivers and a top-10 fantasy quarterback.


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Baltimore Ravens




The new offensive coordinator for the Ravens is Gary Kubiak.  In the 11 seasons that Kubiak was the Broncos offensive coordinator they were only out of the top-5 in total yards twice and that was due to a great running game and Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme. He then took that offense to Houston where it languished his first two season, but slowly came around, but in the passing game, which put the Texans 3rd and 4th in total yards in 2008-09, but then he found his running back in Arian Foster in 2010 and he got his running game back. It really took Foster’s injury last season to sink that offense. Overall Kubiak's offenses have ranked 8th or better in total yards in 15 of his 19 seasons. I’m guessing not too many coaches can say that.


So Kubiak will throw the ball when push comes to shove, but he would much rather run it and the Ravens have had success doing so in the past.  Last season that success diminished a bunch as Ray Rice an averaged a horrid 3.1 yards per carry (his previous worst was 4.0) and Bernard Pierce an even worse 2.9 yards per carry. So calling Kubiak in for some help sounds like a great decision.


Joe Flacco had his worst season ever last year as he threw for 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. Much of this can be attributed to the complete lack of a running game and Kubiak should be able to help in that department. But when the running game is working for Kubiak’s teams, the quarterback can be good, but not fantasy great. Only once has a Kubiak-led offense been in the top-5 in pass attempts and only cracked the top-10 five times. But he has helped his quarterbacks have good efficiency in yards per pass attempt. That should set Joe Flacco up for some big gainers with Torrey Smith at the very least.


Joe Flacco has never been a top-10 fantasy quarterback and has usually finished in the middle of the pack and without a high volume passing attack it will be difficult for him to buck that trend.  He should get back on the right side of the touchdown to interception ratio and his efficiency will most likely improve, but don’t expect him to put up big numbers if Kubiak’s offense is running the way they hope.


But there is still good news for Ravens pass-catchers. Kubiak has helped Andre Johnson and his tight ends to some nice numbers in his time with Houston. I don’t have to tell you how good Johnson has been in his career, but he owes a lot of it to the number of targets he saw in that offense (and because he’s a beast). He had 160+ targets in five of his last eight seasons while Torrey Smith had his career high last year with 136. Smith should have more upside under Kubiak than he has in the past.


Over the last four seasons the Texans ranked 2nd, 2nd, 7th and 8th in passing targets to their tight ends, this sets up well for Dennis Pitta, especially with Owen Daniels looking like he may have lost more than a step at age 32. I’d be afraid to draft any receiver other than Smith or Pitta in this offense, but you can feel pretty safe about going after them.


Cincinnati Bengals








The Bengals also have a new offensive coordinator after Jay Gruden went on to coach the Redskins after working with former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson. Gruden wasn’t exactly pass happy as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator, but Jackson has been run heavy as a coach and was the running backs coach last season for the Bengals.


Jackson must have had a hand in drafting Jeremy Hill in the second round and they already had Giovani Bernard coming off a strong rookie debut. Running is in this team’s future.


As far as the touches go, we should head back to 2010 when Hue Jackson was coaching the Raiders. In 2010 Darren McFadden had 219 rushing attempts and 61 passing targets, Michael Bush saw 156 attempts and 24 targets while Marcel Reece had 30 attempts and 42 targets, while the Raiders led the league in running back receptions. The Bengals running backs should have around 500 to 550 rushing attempts + targets this season, which would put them in the top 5 to 10 for the league. The questions we need to answer are, will BenJarvus Green-Ellis take more than a few attempts away from Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard? Just how good is Hill? And will Bernard lose early down work to Hill?


What we do know is that Hue Jackson likes to throw the ball to his running backs and Gio Bernard is a good pass blocker and has good hands. Add to that his experience and ability, and 300 looks are not out of the realm of possibility. If I were a wagering man I’d put it around 275, with 200 carries and 75 targets. That would leave plenty of early down, between the tackles work for Hill, somewhere around 150-200 carries.


But if the Bengals do use their running backs as much as Jackson would like, that does mean a few less attempts for Andy Dalton. Last season he had easily his most attempts ever with 586 which ranked him 8th for all quarterbacks while his total yards ranked 7th, touchdowns 3rd and interceptions 5th. Those are all big numbers that should level out a little bit if the defense and running game do their jobs. We could see those numbers drop, especially the attempts, but he still has good to great weapons and his efficiency should get better with more passes to the running backs and thinner pass coverage if the run game is working.


A.J. Green had his best season as a pro and was the fourth best fantasy receiver last year. With all of those extra passes by Dalton last season, Green saw his career high in targets with 180, which was just four off of the league leader Pierre Garcon, but he still only had one more reception than his previous high the year before. Dalton’s completion percentage ranked 15th in the league last season while Green’s drop rate was fairly normal with 11 in 112 catchable passes according to Pro Football Focus. So out of the 180 targets Green saw, only 62% were catchable while players like Demaryius Thomas and Jordy Nelson were 73% and 76% respectively.  I believe the Bengals want to make things easier for Dalton to succeed by strengthening the run game with Hue Jackson at the helm this season.


Cleveland Browns





Kyle Shanahan is of course very close to the Mike Shanahan coaching tree after working for Gary Kubiak in Houston and again for his father in Washington. The run game is strong with this one and he showed it in Washington when Alfred Morris went off for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns his rookie season. That was also Robert Griffin’s rookie year and the team ran a whopping 54% of the time. That’s a bit more than even Shanahan would like to run probably, but with the rookie quarterback, who also could run, it just worked out that way. Last season they ran the ball only 43% of the time, but they also only won three games compared to 10 the year before. So a good run game is essential to Shanahan’s offense and the team invested in running backs through free agency and the draft this year.


Ben Tate will get the first shot at being the main man in Cleveland and being the main man for a Shanahan has proven well in the past. Of course he does have some competition with rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell.  But that trio has talent and should allow the Browns to run the ball. The committee approach usually isn’t a Shanahan tenet, so whoever starts is the guy to own.


The passing and receiving situation in Cleveland is muddled to say the least. As I write we are waiting to hear about Josh Gordon’s suspension and who will be quarterbacking the Browns this season. I think we can assume Josh Gordon will miss at least the first eight weeks of the season, so the Browns will play most of the season with a ragtag bunch of wide receivers, but will still have their star tight end Jordan Cameron for either Brian Hoyer or rookie Johnny Manziel to throw to.


When you look at how strong Washington’s offense was with Robert Griffin and Alf Morris, both rookies, it’s easy to put Shanahan in the Johnny Manziel corner. A more mobile quarterback, who is a threat to run, makes Shanahan’s zone blocking attack even more potent for whoever comes out on top at running back. But of course it also sets that quarterback up for injuries. If they were in a win now situation, I could see Manziel being the easy pick to start, but they aren’t and new head coach Mike Pettine seems willing to at least start with Hoyer while giving Manziel time to get to know the offense better. Hoyer is much more of a pocket passer and was decent when he had Josh Gordon to target deep down field, but now he has Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson as his possible starting receivers. Add that to no dual threat to run out of the quarterback and the Browns will probably have trouble moving the ball.


So at this point we can feel good about Jordan Cameron getting work. The Shanahan tree has spit out some pretty good tight ends in its day and Cameron has the ability to be one of the best, coupled with being the best receiver on his team at the moment and we should see tons of targets funneled his way. After Cameron we can count on the starting running back to get plenty of work. At this point Tate has that distinction, but his injury history and the good backups behind him make his place in the go-to column a little sketchier. And lastly, Mr. Johnny Football holds a lot of potential fantasy value. We saw what Shanahan did for Griffin in fantasy and that’s also Manziel’s upside at this point. Of course that upside is dependent on him winning the job and on the organization letting him run.