Reid Fischer's World of Rants

Looking at the sports world through orange colored glasses

AFC North Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on August 28, 2009

Once again, teams listed in predicted order of finish:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers have certainly been the standard for NFL franchises over a large part of their history.  They have won two of the past four Super Bowls (a league high six total) and seem built for big time success again this year.  Pittsburgh returns largely intact from last season’s championship club, which is fitting for a franchise that seems to symbolize stability in the NFL.  The Steelers also remember 2006, when they missed the playoffs they year after winning the Super Bowl.  They vow to not let that happen again.

The Steelers’ offense returns virtually identical to last year, and that’s bad news for NFL defenses.  The Steelers attack can really be defined by their game winning drive in the Super Bowl last year against Arizona.  Ben Roethlisberger showed everything you would want in a quarterback.  He showed ability to make plays with his feet out of the pocket and avoid critical sacks.  He showed he is willing and able to take a pounding, which not only allows him to be durable and not miss time due to injury, but also allows him to extend plays many quarterbacks won’t.  Even when he scrambles out of the pocket, Roethlisberger is willing to wait that split second longer for a receiver to get open even if it means taking an extra hit at the end of the play.  Roethlisberger has won Super Bowls in his first four years in the league, and the scary part is he can still get even better with experience.  He also has good targets to throw to in veteran Hines Ward and the speedy Santonio Holmes, along with his favorite red zone target, tight end Heath Miller.  Shaun McDonald was also signed from Detroit to provide depth.  The running game might also be even better than last year with the return of Rashard Mendenhall.  The first round pick of ’08 was shelved for the season in week four last year with a broken shoulder.  Mendenhall will join the very capable Willie Parker and should improve a running game that believe it or not ranked just 23rd in the NFL last season.  The fact the Steelers won it all with that stat is incredible, and they should benefit from a better running game this year.  The Steelers offensive line isn’t regarded as a top unit in the league and certainly isn’t flashy, but the entire line returns intact and continuity is never a bad thing.  Besides, they obviously got the job done well enough for the team to win the Super Bowl.

The defense did sustain two losses in linebacker Larry Foote (now with Detroit) and cornerback Bryant McFadden (gone to Arizona).  The Steelers do however still boast a sure top five defensive player in linebacker James Harrison, who turned the Super Bowl in Pittsburgh’s favor with a 100-yard interception return TD.  The defensive front seven also boasts other good talent in nose tackle Casey Hampton, defensive end Aaron Smith and linebacker James Farrior.  The Steelers also added more depth in the draft, selecting defensive end Ziggy Hood from Missouri in the first round.  His 6-3, 300 frame should fit right in with the Steelers’s smashmouth philosophy.  The secondary is also still very solid, anchored by Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.  Cornerbacks William Gay and Deshea Townsend will need to step up to offset the loss of McFadden.

It is also surprising to realize that the Steelers really played musical chairs at punter last season (not that they needed one too often), but Daniel Sepulveda is back to take that job again after undergoing ACL surgery last season.  Kicker Jeff Reed is among the best in the business and has learned how to handle to tricky kicking conditions at Heinz Field, especially in the open end of the stadium.  The Steelers do hope that third round draft choice Mike Wallace of Ole Miss can emerge as a capable kick returner, but Mewelde Moore can handle those duties as well.

I say the Steelers are as close to a lock as you can get to returning to the playoffs.  They have shown over the years they can stand up to tough competition, they can win on the road, and they know how to win.   Factor in that they are still motivated, and the Steelers should repeat as division champs.

2. Baltimore Ravens – The Ravens bounced back last year to make the AFC title game, even though the had a rookie coach and a rookie quarterback.  The fact that both of those positions had changed tells you that things weren’t so good the year before.  The Ravens have a solid veteran presence in other areas, which helped them overcome a 2-3 start.  At one point Baltimore had won seven out of eight games, and they won playoff road games at Miami and Tennessee.  However, the Ravens were 0-3 against the Steelers, including the AFC title game loss.  Baltimore knows that in order to take the next step, they need to learn how to beat Pittsburgh.

The Ravens have always been known as a defensive team, and that’s still the identity and strength, but the offense also proved they could score points last year.  Quarterback Joe Flacco shocked almost everyone in his rookie season, Flacco showed good ability to read defenses, has a strong arm, and an ability to make plays with his feet.  He is the only signal caller to win two road playoff games as a rookie, and also posted a solid 90.2 quarterback rating, which is among the best ever for a rookie.  With another year of experience, Flacco could be even better this season.  He is also pleased to have veteran receiver Derrick Mason back for another season.  Mason retired during the offseason, but it wasn’t long before he changed his mind and said he got the itch to play one more season.  He’ll be paired with the talented Mark Clayton, who along with tight end Todd Heap gives the Ravens an underrated group of receivers for Flacco to find.  The running game should also be a strength of the team, for Willis McGahee is showing a renewed attitude after a disappointing season last year in which he rushed for under 700 yards.  Ray Rice showed lots of flash as a rookie last season, and could prove to be a good compliment to McGahee.  The odd man out could be Le’Ron McClain, who was actually Baltimore’s leading rusher last year, but he has been getting more work at fullback and could be limited to goal line duty.    The offensive line did a great job last season, and the Ravens feel they have fortified it with the addition of first round pick Michael Oher of Ole Miss, and the signing of center Matt Birk from Minnesota.

The Ravens’ defense has consistently been a top three unit for virtually the entire decade, and there isn’t much reason to think it won’t be terrific again.  Linebacker Ray Lewis could be a future Hall of Famer, and his enthusiasm and intensity trickles down to the entire defense.  Terrell Suggs is a terrific pass rusher, and the Ravens also have good push on the edge with Trevor Pryce and Haloti Ngata.  The front seven will feel the loss of Bart Scott to the Jets, but they hope that some of that void can be filled by second round pick Paul Kruger of Utah.  The secondary is still very good with ballhawking safety Ed Reed leading the way.  The Ravens also have veteran corners in Samari Rolle and Fabian Washington, and they hope new addition Dominique Foxworth will add depth as well. The Ravens defense should be stingy again, but age could be a concern for this veteran group.

The Ravens lost veteran kicker Matt Stover to free agency, so they will go with an unknown in Steve Hauschka.  Punter Sam Koch is solid, the Ravens hope the return game will be solidified with the addition of the speedy Chris Carr from Tennessee.

Baltimore certainly has the talent to return to the playoffs.  The defense will keep them in every game and the veteran leadership is always a plus.  They do will face stiff competition in the AFC, and age and injuries could catch up with them.  The key coud well be the play of Flacco in his second season at quarterback.

3. Cincinnati Bengals – It has been 19 years since Cincinnati has won a playoff game.  The Bengals have long been a symbol for league futility, except for their division title in 2005.  Even then, they stubbed their toe in a home playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers.  Since then, the Bengals have not come close to achieving their potential, especially with all the talent they have had on offense.  Fans are getting restless, games may not sell out this year, and last year’s 0-8 start only made things worse.  The good news for Bengal nation is they did win their final three games last year, and hope may be coming.

For starters, Carson Palmer is back under center.  Palmer missed most of last season with an elbow injury.  Palmer managed to avoid offseason surgery, and the Bengals hope he will be back to his old self.  Palmer is quite possibly the most accurate deep passer in the league, and he is outstanding in the pocket.  There is no question in my mind that Palmer is a no brainer top 5 QB when healthy, and his presence should spark something in the Bengals’ offense.  The Bengals did lose start wideout T.J. Houshmanzadeh to Seattle, but they still have Chad Ochocinco (I really want to type “Johnson” but the dude actually changed his name legally).  I believe that Ochocinco has a renewed attitude this year and something to prove.  He wants to prove he is not a me guy and that he can really help the team win.  The Bengals also replaced Houshmanzadeh by raiding the Jets for Laveranues Coles.  Coles is still very capable, and paired with third wideout Chris Henry, the passing game has the potential to be very dangerous as it was in ’05.  The Bengals also found a very pleasant surprise in their running game last year in Cedric Benson.  The former top five pick from the Bears has found new life in the Queen City, and could be in line for another good year if defenses are concerned with stopping the passing attack.  The Bengals do have issues along the offensive line, losing Stacy Andrews and Levi Jones in free agency, and as of yet have not signed their first round draft pick, tackle Andre Smith from Alabama.  The selection of Smith with the sixth overall pick was a curious one indeed being that he missed most of the scouting combine and showed very questionable attitude during the pre-draft period.  Oh, and he was woefully out of shape too.  Now he is embroiled in a lengthy holdout.  It is imperative that the Bengals get good play from the line so they can keep Palmer healthy.  Right now, that is a question mark.

The Bengals did make an effort to beef up their defense in the offseason.  They signed defensive tackle Tank Johnson away from Dallas, and while he has had character issues in the past, the Bengals hope he will benefit from the fresh start.  They are desperate after getting just 11 sacks from their down linemen last season.  The Bengals also addressed linebacker in the draft for the second straight year, tabbing USC linebacker Ray Maualuga in the second round.  I thought Maualuga was clear first round talent, so the Bengals appear to have gotten great value there.  Paired with last year’s first round pick Keith Rivers, The Bengals’ linebackers appear to be on the way up.  The Cincinnati secondary also benefited from the Cowboys’ overhaul, as safety Roy Williams also signed with the Bengals.  Cincinnati does have decent corners in Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph, so Williams’ presence should help .  Overall, the Bengal D should be at least somewhat improved this season.

Kicker Shayne Graham is one of the best in the league.  The Bengals think so much of him they used their franchise tag on him.  Fifth round draft pick Kevin Huber is projected to be the starting punter, so that area could end up being an adventure for the Bengals.  Unknowns Andre Caldwell and Antonio Chatman will handle the return duties.

Cincinnati is trying to rebuild.  They seem to have added some good pieces and with Palmer healthy there should be some improvement.  This is not a playoff team yet, but they might be moving back in the right direction.

4. Cleveland Browns – The Browns fell back to Earth last year after a surprise run in 2007 that almost had them in the playoffs.  Last year the team took several steps back thanks to a quarterback controversy that still lingers and a six game losing streak to close the season in which they didn’t score a single offensive touchdown and got shut out in their final two contests.  Not surprisingly, this cost Romeo Crennel his job as head coach.  He was replaced ironically by fellow former Patriots assistant Eric Mangini.

The Browns still do not know who will be under center week one against the Vikings.  Last year Derek Anderson had the job at the start of the season only to lose it to Brady Quinn in November.  Neither one performed well, and now the competition is still open through the preseason.  It had seemed to be Quinn’s job for good when he got it last year, being that he was Cleveland’s first round pick in 2007, but he performed so poorly that it opened the door back up for Anderson.  Neither player has done enough to gain an edge yet in preseason, so this could be shaping up to be another year of musical chairs at the position for the Browns, and that is never a good thing.  The Browns do have a very talented wideout in Braylon Edwards, but he can’t do it all by himself.  Second round picks Brian Robiskie of Ohio State and Mohamed Massoquoi of Georgia will be counted on heavily to contribute, as will journeyman wideout David Patton and tight end Steve Heiden.  The running game could also be a question mark, even though Jamal Lewis still has the talent to be an outstanding tailback.  Lewis still rushed for over 1,000 last year, but he didn’t have a single 100-yard game.  It wouldn’t come as a surprise if Jerome Harrison got more carries as the year went on.  The offensive line is a mixed bag, for left tackle Joe Thomas has made two Pro Bowls, and Eric Steinbach is solid alongside him at guard, but the line will be anchored by rookie center Alex Mack of California.  Mack was the team’s first round draft pick, and will need to learn under fire quickly.

The defense will definitely have a new look.  Mangini brought along a staggering six players from his old defense with the Jets to Cleveland (Eric Barton, David Bowens, Kenyon Coleman, Abram Elam, C.J. Mosley and Hank Poteat).  For those keeping score at home, that’s that’s two defensive ends, two linebackers, one cornerback and one safety.  None of those players is exactly a household name among football fanatics, and it’s not like the Jets defense was that great at stopping people last year. Mangini obviously sees something he likes to bring them all over, or perhaps he just doesn’t want to deal with the unfamilar.   The new additions will join defensive tackle Shaun Rodgers, who was Cleveland’s big ticket free agent signing before last season.  The linebackers took a big hit with the retirement of Willie McGinest and the departure of Andra Davis to Denver in free agency.  Needless to say, the entire Browns defense still looks like a need area.

The special teams might be the one strength of the team.  Kicker Phil Dawson and punter Dave Zastudil are both very reliable, and Josh Cribbs might well be the most excting kick returner in the NFL.  Cribbs is so dangerous that he’ll be counted on to set the offense up in good enough field position that they won’t have to do much to score.

A rebuilding year is definitely in the cards for the Browns.  There are just too many need areas to expect a good year.  At some point they need to get the quarterback situation figured out, and that is the first step.  This team is very young.  If they can show improvement throughout the year, they might be able to at least have something to look forward to in 2010.

Coming next: the NFC North

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