Thursday, August 29, 2013

NFL Divisional Previews - AFC North

The AFC North is a division in transition. Long dominated by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, it feels like the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns might be ready to say something about that. The Steelers didn't even make the playoffs last season, losing a do or die game at home to Cincinnati. They jettisoned some of their older defensive players and made some changes on the offensive line, and are hopeful they will get back to being Super Bowl contenders this season. The Bengals have made the playoffs two years in a row, but can't get past the Houston Texans. Marvin Lewis is the second longest tenured coach in football, and hasn't won a single playoff game. At some point you would have to think that will no longer be acceptable. The Cleveland Browns once again have a new coach, this time its Rob Chudzinski's turn to try to turn around the Browns. They are hopeful that he can work some magic with Brandon Weeden, and help an offense with a lot of young talent, turn into a dominating group. The Ravens won their second Super Bowl title, as Joe Flacco became an amazing quarterback at the right time. Then, they let basically their entire defense leave via free agency, as well as some important offensive pieces. John Harbaugh is a very good coach but this year will be his greatest test yet. 

1. Pittsburgh Steelers  

2012 Record: 8-8, 3rd place AFC North
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (7th season Pittsburgh, 68-36 career)
Key Additions: DE/OLB Jarvis Jones, RB Le'Veon Bell, RB LaRod Stephens-Howlings, QB Landry Jones, QB Bruce Gradkowski, RB Felix Jones, TE Matt Spaeth, OT Guy Whimper, CB William Gay
Key Losses: RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Mike Wallace, OT Max Starks, G Willie Colon, NT Casey Hampton, DE/OLB James Harrison, S Will Allen

2013 Outlook: Last season the Steelers were 6-3 and looked primed to once again be in the playoffs. Then Ben Roehtlisberger got hurt, as he often does playing behind a bad offensive line, and the Steelers went just 2-5 the rest of the way, missing the playoffs. Whether the Steelers win the division or miss the playoffs entirely this year, will rest on the health of Roethlisberger. The options behind him are slightly better than last year, but it would still be a significant drop-off. Usually in training camp you are watching a battle at the quarterback position, but this year for the Steelers the battle is at running back. Rashard Mendenhall is gone, leaving Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, LaRod Stephens-Howlings and rookie Le'Veon Bell to compete for the job. Bell got injured during the preseason and his status is uncertain, so right now it appears Redman will be the opening day starter. The Steelers will likely employ a mix of running backs, and it will be intriguing to see how that plays out throughout the year. There will also be change at wide receiver, as number one receiver Mike Wallace left for Miami. Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders are now the guys, and if last year is any indication Brown looks primed to breakout this season. Sanders is a bigger question mark, but the Steelers need him to step up, as the options behind him aren't good. Old reliable Health Miller is still recovering from surgery and it is not yet known when he will be back. Because of that, the Steelers did what they often do, picked up a player that had left and didn't do very well. This time it was former tight end, Matt Spaeth. Uncertainty on the offensive line is a constant Steelers storyline and this season is no different. Right tackle Mike Adams was not good last season but is back in the starting lineup with the Steelers counting on experience having made him better. They should have second year man David DeCastro as the starting right guard this year, after losing him for most of last year with a preseason injury. Marcus Gilbert is starting at left tackle, replacing the departed Max Starks. Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks in the league at making plays on the run. Steelers fans probably wonder how good he could be if he ever had any time to throw the ball. The defense is called old and done just about every year it seems, but year after year they rank near the top of the NFL. One area they have struggled is getting to the quarterback, most notably Ziggy Hood. The other defensive end Brett Keisel is 34 and on the decline so this is an area of the team the Steelers will have to start addressing through the draft soon. An area that seems set is linebacker, especially with the drafting of stud Jarvis Jones out of Georgia. LaMarr Woodley was disappointing last season, but maybe the presence of Jones will help him out. LB Larry Foote re-upped for 3 more years this past off-season which was slightly surprising because he also struggled in 2012. Cortez Allen and Ike Taylor give the Steelers very good bookends, while the safeties that people have come to know for Pittsburgh are still there, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Polamalu has turned into an injury plagued player, so it would be surprising if he gets through the 2013 season unscathed. The Steelers played to kicker Shaun Suisham's strengths and barely had him attempt anything over 50 yards. So while his numbers look good, he can't be counted on from long distance. Drew Butler ranked towards the bottom of the league in punting last year, so he will have to bounce back or won't be on the team much longer. The return tandem of Sanders on punts and Brown on kickoffs has big play potential. I can't remember the last time the Steelers missed the playoffs two straight years, and I don't expect that trend to start now. I think the defense will remain a strong unit, and I think Roethlisberger is due to finally be healthy an entire season. With the upheaval the Ravens are facing, the time is right for Pittsburgh to reclaim the AFC North.

Prediction: 10-6

2. Cincinnati Bengals   

2012 Record: 10-6, 2nd place AFC North
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (11th season Cincinnati, 79-84-1 career)
Key Additions: TE Tyler Eifert, RB Giovanni Bernard, QB Josh Johnson, QB John Skelton, OLB James Harrison
Key Losses: FB Brian Leonard, OLB Manny Lawson, CB Nate Clements, K Josh Brown

2013 Outlook: The Bengals surprised many, including me by making the playoffs a second straight season. They surprised nobody when they were immediately bounced from the playoffs by the Texans, and that loss made it 23 years since the Benglas won a playoff game. You have got to think if this season passes by without a playoff win that changes have to be made at the top. One player that caught some heat for the playoff failure was QB Andy Dalton. In both of his playoff starts Dalton has played miserably. Dalton seems to be proving himself as an adequate quarterback, but one that isn't all that special. In fact, he probably looks better than he is because of the beast he has at wide receiver, A.J. Green. Green has battled injuries this preseason but should be ready for the opener. One player who won't be ready is Andrew Hawkins. Hawkins is likely to miss at least half the season with an injured ankle. That means Mohamed Sanu, who had just 16 catches last season, will have to step up and take over the number two spot. It also means that Dalton will rely even more on his tight end Jermaine Gresham. It wasn't clear if the Bengals don't like what they have in Gresham, or they just wanted to take a really good player when they drafted TE Tyler Eifert out of Notre Dame. Either way, the Bengals have a potent one-two punch at tight end now. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is battling injuries, while the Bengals were more than happy to bring back right tackle Andre Smith who was a free agent. The rest of the line is solid and not an area of too much concern for the Bengals going into the season. The Bengals defense is one of the more exciting, and up and coming units in football. That group is led by defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who led the team with 12 sacks. Joining him on that dangerous defensive line is defensive end Michael Johnson, who was second on the Bengals in sacks. The Bengals are also pretty stacked at linebacker with Ray Maualaga, Vontaze Burfict and James Harrison. Burfict slipped in the draft in 2012 due to character concerns but so far he has behaved and has been the menace on the field the Bengals were hoping for. Harrison is getting older, but he's a prideful guy and I have a feeling he will show he has something left in the tank this season. Leon Hall and Terrence Newman are currently listed as the starting corners, but Dre Kirkpatrick and Pacman Jones will see time on the field as well. The safety position is questionable as Taylor Mays hasn't been able to do what it takes to take over a spot there, leaving George Iloka and and Reggie Nelson as the likely starters. Mike Nugent is back at kicker after missing the end of last season with injury. Kevin Huber is one of the top punters in football. The Bengals have a lot of talent but a rough slate of games to start the season will be their undoing in my opinion. I could see them starting the season 1-4 and that will be too much to overcome. I predict a mediocre 8-8 season and that we finally see a change at head coach.

Prediction: 8-8

3. Cleveland Browns    

2012 Record: 5-11, last place AFC North
Head Coach: Rob Chudzinksi (1st year Cleveland, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: DE/OLB Barkevious Mingo, QB Brian Hoyer, QB Jason Campbell, RB Dion Lewis, WR Davone Bess, WR David Nelson, TE Kellen Davis, OT Rashad Butler, DT Desmond Bryant, DE/OLB Paul Kruger, DE/OLB Quentin Groves, K Shayne Graham
Key Losses: QB Colt McCoy, WR Mohamed Massaquoi, TE Ben Watson, DE Frostee Rucker, DE/OLB Emmanuel Acho, OLB Chris Gocong, CB Sheldon Brown, S Usama Young, K Phil Dawson, P Reggie Hodges, KR Josh Cribbs

2013 Outlook: 2012 was another lost season for the Browns, but there is reason for optimism in 2013. The offense is surrounded with young talent at wide receiver and running back. Their second year quarterback, Brandon Weeden, isn't young but this preseason he has looked pretty good under new coach Rob Chudzinski's offense. The hope is that he, and RB Trent Richardson and wide receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little can develop together. Richardson struggled through injuries in 2012 but showed flashes of brilliance. Gordon was a very nice surprise in his rookie year, catching 50 passes. He, like the rest of the Browns offense last season, had trouble with making his solid play consistent. Little has been a disappointment and drops the ball way too much. If he can't get his hands right he won't be in the league much longer. Another player that needs to step up in 2013 is TE Jordan Cameron. Cameron could open up the offense exponentially if he can become a greater threat as a receiver. The Browns offensive line is strong, led by left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack. The defense had their struggles as well in 2012, ranking towards the bottom of the league against the run and pass. The Browns are switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense. How quickly they adjust as a defense will go a long way towards whether or not the Browns can become competitive in 2013. Two of their off-season signings will have to live up to the money were paid, DT Desmond Bryant and linebacker Paul Kruger. Prized draft pick LB Barkevious Mingo bruised his lung but the Browns are remaining optimistic that he won't have to miss a significant portion of the season. Some good news for Cleveland is that their best defensive player, CB Joe Haden will be available to them the entire season after missing the start of last year due to a suspension. The rest of the secondary is up in the air with the departures of CB Sheldon Brown and S Usama Young. S Tashaun Gipson will replace Young, and Gipson only started one game last season. The Browns lost their best player this off-season when K Phil Dawson signed with the 49ers. You might think I am joking but Dawson truly was their best player. He has been replaced by another veteran, Shayne Graham. Spencer Lanning is expected to be the punter come opening day. The return game is also different as Josh Cribbs is gone. Another reason for optimism for Cleveland is that their schedule does not look very tough. If they could win some of the games they should, they could be right in the thick of things for a .500 season. I think the Browns are building towards something, and while it likely won't fully bloom this season, brighter days are ahead for Cleveland.

Prediction: 7-9

4. Baltimore Ravens    

2012 Record: 10-6, 1st place AFC North, AFC and Super Bowl champions)
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (6th season Baltimore, 63-30 career)
Key Additions: S Matt Elam, DE/DT Chris Canty, DE/DT Marcus Spears, DE/OLB Elvis Dumervil,  LB Daryl Smith, S Michael Huff
Key Losses: WR Anquan Boldin, C Matt Birk, G Bobbie Williams, DE/OLB Paul Kruger, ILB Ray Lewis, ILB Dannell Ellerbe, ILB Brandon Ayandandejo, CB Cary Williams, S Ed Reed, S Bernard Pollard

2013 Outlook: The Ravens 10-6 record in 2012 was John Harbaugh's worst record since becoming Ravens coach. However, it turned out to be his best season as the Ravens ran the gauntlet from the Wild Card to become Super Bowl champions. Mediocre QB Joe Flacco got on the biggest hot streak of his life as he threw 11 TDs and 0 INTs in four playoff games. One player that helped Flacco achieve those heights was WR Anquan Boldin. Some of the catches that Boldin made in the playoffs were absurd, but Boldin is gone now, traded to the 49ers. That leaves Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones as Flacco's top receivers. Smith can be brilliant as a deep threat but hasn't shown that he can be a consistent number one guy. Can he make the tough catches that Boldin made look so easy? Jones was outstanding in the postseason, including his huge catch against the Broncos in the playoffs. However, on that play he was wide open due to the Broncos misplaying the ball terribly. He had just 30 catches last year in the regular season and it is asking quite a bit of him to become their number two guy. Their best receiver might have been TE Dennis Pitta but he was lost for the year in training camp. That leaves the underwhelming Ed Dickson as their starting tight end. This season will be a great measure for just how good Flacco is, as his receiving options are one of the most underwhelming groups in the league. One area he still will have tons of help from is running back, led by Ray Rice. Rice is the key to the Ravens offense this year. If he goes down with an injury at any time, we might be back to the Ravens offenses of the early 2000's. He is such a versatile threat both running and catching the ball out of the backfield. Offensive line wasn't immune to the sweeping changes the Ravens felt this off-season. Center Matt Birk retired, and he will be replaced by second year man Gino Gradkowski. Bryant McKinnie and Michal Oher will man the tackle positions. McKinnie seemed done this time a year ago, but by the end of 2012 he was the Ravens best lineman. Defense has long been the hallmark of the Ravens but last year the defense struggled. Part of that was due to injury and age, and the Ravens obviously felt they needed to move in another direction as player after player was allowed to move on. Long defined by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, now the Ravens are led by a new cast of characters. They acquired Chris Canty to join the defensive line along with the dominating Haloti Ngata. Terrell Suggs is back to full strength after missing time last year, and he is now joined by former Bronco Elvis Dumervil. Dumervil fell into the Ravens laps after a fax mishap ended his time in Denver. All eyes will be on LB Daryl Smith who is taking over for Lewis. Smith has impressed in the preseason, but as always any preseason result is taken with a grain of salt. He is a veteran though, so he should fill in nicely. Along with Reed, S Bernard Pollard is gone so now former Raider Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo are the starting safeties. At corner the Ravens are happy to welcome back Lardarius Webb and he will start alongside Corey Graham. Special teams remained stable for Baltimore and is major strength area for the team. Both kicker Justin Tucker and punter Sam Koch are two of the best in the league. The aforementioned Jones was awesome as returner last season, highlighted by his kickoff return in the Super Bowl. Maybe I am underestimating Harbaugh but I think this season will be a disaster for Baltimore. The offense doesn't have enough weapons and with that much pressure on him, I think Flacco will struggle badly this season. The defense is trying to rotate in a bunch of new players, and it will take them time to gel as a unit. The schedule is also challenging early so the Ravens won't have time for a learning curve. Add in that the recent history of Super Bowl winners following up their seasons with not winning a playoff game and I think a last place finish is in the cards for the defending champs.

Prediction: 6-10

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