Wednesday, August 20, 2014

2014 NFL Divisonal Previews - AFC North

The Pittsburgh Steelers have missed the playoffs two years in a row but didn't change their principle of letting older, veteran players go, especially on defense. The Cincinnati Bengals latest trend is being a superb regular season team that falls flat on its face in the playoffs. The Ravens suffered a post Super Bowl swoon and saw firsthand how foolhardy it was to expect average Joe Flacco to carry an offense void of much talent. The Cleveland Browns have a new coach, which I could probably have just copy and pasted from a few other yearly previews I have done. However, Johnny Manziel will bring more attention to the Browns, even if he doesn't contribute any wins.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

2013 Record: 8-8, 2nd place AFC North
Head Coach: Mike Tomlin (8th season Pittsburgh, 76-44 career, 1 Super Bowl championship)
Key Additions: ILB Ryan Shazier, RB LaGarrette Blount, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR Lance Moore, S Michael Mitchell
Key Losses: RB Jonathan Dwyer, WR Emmanuel Sanders, WR Jerricho Cotchery, OT Levi Brown, DE/DT Ziggy Hood, DE/OLB LeMarr Woodley, ILB Larry Foote, S Ryan Clark

2014 Outlook: The Steelers started last season 0-4, before rallying to win 8 of their final 12 games, narrowly missing the playoffs. It was the second straight season the Steelers were home in January, not something Steelers fans are too used to seeing. They can't blame Ben Roethlisberger for those issues as his play continues to be stellar. He is hoping that he has a full season of a healthy LaVeon Bell to take some of the pressure off of him. When Bell was injured, the Steelers running game was anemic and almost non-existent. Once Bell started playing, not only did the team's play improve but so did Roethlisberger's. The Steelers also signed LaGarrette Blount who seemed to have a career resurrection towards the end of the season last year in New England. Antonio Brown returns as Roethlisberger's number one receiver but the rest of his receiving corps is filled with new faces. Both Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery are gone, replaced by Markus Wheaton and Lance Moore. Roethlisberger was able to find chemistry quickly with Brown and Sanders, and the Steelers hope the same thing can happen with Wheaton. Moore always played well on the fast track of the Superdome, so it remains to be seen how he will do well playing outdoors on a regular basis. The Steelers also signed Darrius Heyward-Bey but he's buried pretty far on the depth chart right now, and possibly might not make the team. Heath Miller returns at tight end and is always one of Roethlisberger's favorite, most dependable targets. Offensive line has been a major problem area for Pittsburgh for most of Roethlisberger's career but showed improvement last year. Ramon Foster and David DeCastro are both very good guards, and the Steelers get back center Maurkice Pouncey this season. The only major question mark on the line is right tackle Marcus Gilbert. The Steelers defense has been dealing with being called old for years, so this past off-season they started to draft some younger players for that side of the ball. If Cam Thomas struggles then rookie Stephon Tuitt from Notre Dame could start playing sooner rather than later. Cameron Heyward and Stephen McLendon both had good seasons in 2013 and the Steelers have high hopes for their front three. They also have high hopes at linebacker after drafting Ryan Shazier out of Ohio State. He'll play next to Jarvis Jones who was a disappointment in his rookie season. LB Jason Worilds led the Steelers in sacks last year while Lawrence Timmons is coming off a disappointing year. Mike Mitchell was brought over from Carolina to replace Ryan Clark and will start at safety with Troy Polamalu. For the first time in forever Polamalu was able to play an entire season, but at 33 years old his durability remains a question mark. Ike Taylor suffered through a poor season and hopes to rebound and will start alongside William Gay. Shaun Suisham had a good year in 2013 but also was never asked to make anything beyond 50 yards, which sounds about right from his Redskin days. Brad Wing is slotted to punt. Brown will return punts and Wheaton kicks, so the Steelers will have some speed at their disposal on special teams. The Steelers are too good of a franchise to miss the playoffs for a third straight season. I think the additions on defense will help and I think a full season from Bell will improve the offense immensely. I expect Roethlisberger to take a little bit of time to mesh with his new receivers but if Bell can carry the offense during that time Pittsburgh should be alright.

Prediction: 11-5

2. Cincinnati Bengals

2013 Record: 11-5, 1st place AFC North
Head Coach: Marvin Lewis (12th season Cincinnati, 90-90-1)
Key Additions: QB Jason Campbell, S Danieal Manning
Key Losses: QB Josh Johnson, WR Andrew Hawkins, DE Michael Johnson, OLB James Harrison

2014 Outlook: A quick encapsulation of the Bengals 2013 season is another playoff berth and another embarrassing playoff loss. Despite being heavy favorites at home against the average Chargers, Andy Dalton once again played awful in the playoffs and Marvin Lewis remains without a playoff victory. Despite his playoff failings the Bengals have hitched their wagon to the Red Rocket, signing him to a long-term contract this past offseason. We will see how Dalton fares with a new offensive coordinator, since Jay Gruden took the Redskins job. The new offensive coordinator is Hue Jackson and one of his first moves seems to be putting Giovanni Bernard as the starting running back over BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Bengals seemed hesitant to give Bernard the ball last year, maybe nervous about his size and durability. However, he is far more talented than Green-Ellis and they need to use him to his maximum potential, including as a receiver out of the backfield. A.J. Green remains one of the best wide receivers in football, and Marvin Jones flashed moments of greatness last season, including a 4 touchdown day against the New York Jets. Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert figure to split time at tight end. The Bengals offensive line remains largely unchanged from last season except at center, with new starter Trevor Robinson. Andrew Whitworth will return to starting at left tackle and Andre Smith continues to impress at right tackle. The Bengals defense returns most of their personnel from their strong 2013 unit but will be without longtime coordinator Mike Zimmer. Paul Guenther is the new defensive coordinator and will have plenty of talent to work with. The Bengals lost NT Geno Atkins for most of the season after he tore his ACL on Halloween, and are very excited for him to return to the field this year. Ends Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap each registered 7 1/2 sacks in 2013. Vontaze Burfict has quickly become one of the premiere linebackers in football and will have Ray Mauluga lining up next to him. Mauluga has mostly been living off his name from college and has overall been disappointing as a pro. The Bengals are strong at safety with George Iloka and Reggie Nelson but are highly questionable at cornerback with aging Terence Newman and Leon Hall who is returning from injury. Mike Nugent is an alright kicker but likely keeps his roster spot because of his ability to hit the long kicks. Kevin Huber is a pretty strong punter. Brandon Tate is a quality kick returner and Adam "Pacman" Jones has the capability of turning loose on punt returns. I expect with mostly the same roster returning for the Bengals to once again have a double digit win season. There will be some adjustments with the new coordinators on offense and defense but both promotions came from in-house so that will help mitigate there being major adjustments for the players. I still cannot under good faith bet on Dalton or Marvin Lewis leading them a playoff win in January though.

Prediction: 10-6

3. Baltimore Ravens

2013 Record: 8-8, 3rd place AFC North
Head Coach: John Harbaugh (7th season Baltimore, 71-38 career, 1 Super Bowl championship)
Key Additions: ILB C.J. Mosley, FS Terrence Brooks, WR Steve Smith, TE Owen Daniels, C Jeremy Zuttah
Key Losses: FB Vonta Leach, TE Ed Dickson, OT Michael Oher, CB Jeremy Graham, S James Ihedigbo

2014 Outlook: The Ravens ended up not being immune to the Super Bowl malaise that has seemed to hit champions the year after for the past decade. They missed the playoffs for the first time in the John Harbaugh/Joe Flacco era. Flacco didn't look anything like the quarterback we saw in the playoffs a year ago, but he did look vastly overpaid. It was obvious how much he missed Anquan Boldin and it also didn't help that Ray Rice appeared to become extinct last season. Rice then made headlines in the off-season for an altercation he had with his then fiancee, now wife. He will be suspended the first two games of the season, moving Bernard Pierce into the starting role for those games. Problem is, Pierce was even worse than Rice last season, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. Torrey Smith is a decent receiver but not really a #1 guy like he has to be in this Ravens offense. Steve Smith was signed this past off-season and while he talks a good game, he is getting older and isn't the physical specimen that Boldin is. TE Dennis Pitta is healthy this season after missing 12 games last year, another absence that really hurt Flacco's play, The Ravens have also brought Owen Daniels on board, who should serve as a nice backup for Pitta. The Ravens offensive line imploded last season so changes had to be made. Jeremy Zuttah is the new starting center, and Rick Wagner replaces Michael Oher at right tackle. One positive for the Ravens on the offensive line is left tackle Eugene Monroe. It might have seeemd that the Ravens defense fell off last season but in reality they remained pretty effective. The Ravens still have the massive Haloti Ngata clogging things up front while they are hoping DE Chris Canty can give them far more production than he did in 2013. The Ravens are also strong at linebacker and have enough depth at the position that Elvis Dumervil is currently listed behind Courtney Upshaw on the depth chart. Rookie C.J. Mosley out of Alabama is slotted to start at left inside linebacker and Daryl Smith proved to be an effective replacement for Ray Lewis last season at right inside linebacker. Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith give the Ravens a nice cornerback combo but safety is a question mark with Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks manning those positions. Kicker Justin Tucker is arguably the best kicker in football and made a very memorable game winning field goal at Detroit last season. Sam Koch started to show some decline last year so he might be on the hot seat if his struggles carry into this season. Jacoby Jones is set to return punts and kicks and is as dangerous as ever. This off-season was one filled with arrests and headlines for all the wrong reasons for the Ravens. I expect them to not be much better than last season but I do think Gary Kubiak will make a difference as offensive coordinator. I believe that the Ravens will slip into the postseason but aren't any sort of threat to become Super Bowl champions this year.

Prediction: 9-7

4. Cleveland Browns

2013 Record: 4-12, last place AFC North
Head Coach: Mike Pettine (1st season Cleveland, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: CB Justin Gilbert, QB Johnny Manziel, RG Joel Bitonio, RB Ben Tate, WR Andrew Hawkins, WR Miles Austin, WR Nate Burleson, LB Karlos Dansby, S Donte Whitner
Key Losses: QB Brandon Weeden, QB Jason Campbell, WR Davone Bess, ILB D'Qwell Jackson, S T.J. Ward

2014 Outlook: The Browns had finally declared the Brandon Weeden experiment a disaster and turned the reigns over to little known hometown boy Brian Hoyer. He helped lead the Browns to 3 straight wins but in true Browns fashion he was injured in that third win and out for the season. The Browns would win just one more game the rest of the season and that meant the end of the line for first year coach Rob Chudzinkski. After a long search of almost no one wanting the job, Mike Pettine is the latest coach tasked with trying to turn the Browns into a consistent, winning franchise. His first major decision was to choose a starting quarterback between Hoyer and first round draft pick Johnny Manziel. Neither was all that impressive in the first two preseasons games, making Pettine's choice that much harder, but in the end Pettine made the choice I expected by going with Hoyer as his starter. The Browns were a dreadful rushing team last year, and became even worse when they traded away Trent Richardson. They ended up starting fossil Willis McGahee. They addressed the running back spot by signing Texans backup Ben Tate. Tate has looked pretty good when he has the few opportunities he could get backing up Arian Foster. One bright spot for Cleveland last season was the emergence of Josh Gordon as one of the best receivers in the NFL. However, Gordon had has issues with substance abuse and is potentially facing a year long suspension. Rumor has it that it could be cut to 8 games but either way his absence will be huge. The Browns added Miles Austin in the off-season, but Austin hasn't be a good player in a few years. The Browns also added Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson, but neither are players that will have teams shaking in their boots. Whoever is the quarterback between Hoyer and Manziel will likely turn to TE Jordan Cameron the majority of the time. Cameron disappeared some down the stretch but flashed a ton of potential early in the season. The Browns have some strong pieces on the offensive line, including left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack. They also drafted Joel Bitonio out of Nevada to start at right guard. If the pieces all fit together the Browns should have a very good offensive line for years to come. The Browns defense was a strong part of last year's squad, especially the pass defense. The rush defense did struggle the majority of the time, and they will need their front three of Ahytba Rubin, Phil Taylor, and Desmond Bryant to pick up their games. The linebacking corps will be bolstered by the signing of Karlos Dansby and the Browns hope the continued improvement of last year's top draft pick Barkevious Mingo. They also paid Paul Krueger a lot of money last season but didn't receive much of a return on their investment in year one. The Browns corners Joe Haden and draft pick Justin Gilbert could turn into one of the best tandems in the NFL. The Browns also added Donte Whitner from San Francisco, making life hard for opposing quarterbacks that want to try to go over the middle. Billy Cundiff didn't make Browns fans forget their best player Phil Dawson and punter Spencer Lanning was one of the worst in the league, which isn't good when you have an offense that doesn't score often. The schedule starts rough for Cleveland but then opens up a bit as the year goes on. I think the AFC North will be the best division in football this year, which means despite me projecting the Browns for a three win improvement this season, I still expect them to end up as cellar dwellers in the division.

Prediction: 7-9

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