The 7 Best Players in the AFC North. Period.
The first time I went up against John Ross in practice, I tried to mess with him a little bit. I kind of lazied up to the line all relaxed, acting like I was tired. I knew about the 4.22 he had run at the combine — everybody knew. But I wanted to show him that speed doesn’t scare me. So I was gonna bait him into thinking I was out of breath or something, then, right at the snap, I’d be like bang! and get right up on him. You know, show the rook what’s up.
He didn’t even give me that chance.
He took off, man — went from zero to 100, just like that. Straight left me. I could see the dirt kicking up behind his feet.
I didn’t even chase him. He was gone. I just went over to Pacman after the play and was like, “Yo, that guy right there? He’s the fastest guy I’ve ever seen in my life.”
John Ross might be the only guy in the division with speed that frightens me. If this was The 7 Fastest Guys in the AFC North, he’d be No. 1, no doubt. But it’s not, so he didn’t make the cut for this list. You’ll be hearing a lot about him soon, though.
Here are seven other guys in the AFC North whose speed doesn’t scare me like John Ross’s, but who deserve their due as the best in the division.
(7) Michael Crabtree, WR, Baltimore Ravens
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.
He was doing stuff like this to guys all game:
He had a monster game that day. Scored three touchdowns. He was all over the field.
The Ravens just signed him this off-season, so he’s a new guy in the division. And man … if I was the Ravens, and I saw him blow up like that against me?
I would’a signed him, too.
(6) Joe Haden, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
I know a lot of people are gonna look at this one and be like, What? But hey, it’s my list. So Imma do what I want. And as a cornerback, I have a lot of respect for Joe Haden’s game.
He’s not the biggest guy. He’s not overly physical. He doesn’t have great speed. He’s not really a press guy, or a shutdown corner. He’s none of these things.
But he’s smart.
He reads the quarterback. He understands route combinations. He knows his own strengths and weaknesses, so when he’s forced to press he knows he doesn’t have the speed to stay with a faster receiver on a deep ball, so he plays with great outside leverage and forces the receiver inside toward his help. So even though he’s not a true press, shutdown corner, he can still take a receiver out of a play and eliminate one side of the field. He just does it a little differently than most guys.
What he doesn’t have in speed he makes up for in quickness. I’ve always thought he was really quick. But the way he approaches the game is probably his biggest strength. He understands what the receiver and the offense is trying to do, and he does whatever he has to do to take it away.
He doesn’t have the physical tools other guys might have, but he’s just as effective.
You gotta respect that.
(5) Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns
No disrespect to my guys on the Bengals D-line — Geno, Carlos, all you guys … you know how we do. But I wanted to show the young guy some love here. He’s going crazy right now. He’s gonna be a problem.
I just think he’s a finisher. He’s on that Von Miller, Khalil Mack kind of trajectory. He’s so physical and quick off the edge, and he doesn’t just use the swim. I’ve seen him throw a couple of spin moves, and he’s got a little power to his rush, too. He has that whole package that you want in a pass rusher.
As a cornerback, I can appreciate a good pass rusher. When you got guys up front — guys like we got in Cincinnati — who can put pressure the quarterback and close that window he has to throw the ball by even a fraction of a second, that helps us DBs out in coverage because we know that if the ball’s coming, it’s gonna be coming quick, because those guys up front are getting after it.
I know the DBs in Cleveland are loving Myles Garrett right now, and he’s only in his second year. He has a long time left to develop his game. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with.
(4) Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
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.
(3) Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
He might be the GOAT, in my eyes.
He’s one of my favorite guys in the game. But he’s nothing like Flacco. Ben is always taking chances. He’s never seen a throw he didn’t think he could make, or a window that was too tight. But he’s so accurate that he can take those chances and still be right most of the time.
And I talked about that window you have as a cornerback — it’s like a clock in your head that tells you how much time you have before the quarterback either throws the ball, gets sacked or takes off running. And Ben … man, there’s more time on the clock when Ben’s back there than anyone else in the game. Even when you got guys like we do up front getting after it, or guys like Myles Garrett, Ben always seems to find a way to extend the play and give his receivers an extra second to get open. He just knows how to move in the pocket. He has that sixth sense of being able to feel the pass rush while keeping his eyes downfield.
He’s not that fast, but he can take off if he needs to. But he’s tough to bring down in the pocket, big as he is. And when you have a quarterback like that who can extend the play and you give him the kind of weapons he’s got — especially Antonio Brown, who’s probably the best route runner in the game and knows how to get open better than anyone — it’s dangerous, man. It’s happened a lot, but this one time against the Browns comes to mind:
Don’t blame my man Joe Haden for that one. When you’re out there one-on-one with Antonio Brown, and you gotta stick with him for like six seconds because Ben is back there avoiding pass rushers and keeping the play alive, ain’t much you can do.
You always have to be on your A game against Ben and the Steelers, and as a corner, you have to know that the play is never over till it’s over. And even then … Ben still might make a play.
(2) A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
I didn’t really plan on picking any Bengals here, but I gotta take it to the home team.
I think A.J. Green is underrated. I play against this man every day in practice, and I’m telling you, he’s faster than you think. He’s stronger than you think. His hands are better than you think. As an all-around complete receiver, he’s top two or three in the league, no doubt.
But the sneakiest thing about A.J. is probably his athleticism.
He can go up and get it. Just last week in practice, the offense lined up in trips and A.J. was the X on the back side. He ran a skinny post, Andy laid it up there for him, and A.J. went up and got it, man. He had to really get up for it. He damn near jumped over the cornerback. The vertical was on full display. You could hear guys on the sideline, just like, “Whooooooa!”
That catch blew me away.
It was a little bit like this one:
I wish I had video of it, man, because that catch blew me away.
So, yeah. A.J. is a freak.
End of story.
(1) Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
No, I didn’t forget about Le’Veon Bell. It’s just that he’s not playing right now, and who knows when he will be. I understand why he’s not out there. He wants his money, man. And this is a business. I just hope he hasn’t played his last game in the AFC North. I hope they can figure it all out, because Le’Veon is the best running back in the game right now. And as a competitor, I love going up against the best.
Which is why I love playing against Antonio Brown.
He causes problems for us, man. I don’t view his speed as a threat, but he’s quick, he’s very deceiving and he’s top of the line when it comes to feet in the NFL.
But his greatest strength is his route running.
He’s very loose at the line, and he varies his speed in his routes so well. He’ll run a couple of routes at like 80% speed, and then just when you feel like you got a feel for his pacing, he’ll come off the ball again at 80% and then just turn on the jets and beat you on a go ball.
He really benefits from the chemistry he has with Ben, too. Like I said, Ben doesn’t mind taking chances. And when he’s got a guy like AB who runs tight routes and who he’s always on the same page with … man, sometimes he’s throwing the ball before AB even breaks off his route. Like AB gets his head around, and the ball’s already there.
That’s another thing: Ben is so good at that back-shoulder throw, and AB is such a big threat on the go ball that you have to respect that, and it makes it really difficult for a corner to defend that back shoulder when you’re worried about him taking the top off.
That’s why AB is almost impossible to stop one-on-one. When it’s just you and him, it’s all about playing leverage — go Joe Haden on him and stay outside and push him towards your help. And you have to communicate with your safeties so you know exactly where your help is going to be, because AB is gonna find the open spot. And Ben’s gonna do his thing and duck like three guys in the backfield and spin around or something and throw up a dime. And you’re gonna be the guy dreading film study the next day.
Pretty much every aspect of AB’s game is frightening.
Except his speed.
Only John Ross can scare me like that.