Wednesday, August 20, 2014

AFC North Preview

-Rob Wedge
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If the past is prologue, recent history of AFC in general suggests that the winner of the AFC North will represent the conference in the Super Bowl XLIV in Glendale, AZ. Here’s the history:  since the NFL went to a four-division format in 2001. The Pittsburgh Steelers have won six AFC North Division titles, appeared in five AFC championship games, won 3 of them, and capitalized with two Super Bowls. The Baltimore Ravens have won four AFC North Division Championships, appeared in three AFC Championship games, and won Super Bowl XLVII. The Cincinnati Bengals have won three division titles, but have not won a playoff game and the Cleveland Browns made one playoff appearance as a Wild-Card in 2002. 

So what can we expect from a division which returns three head coaches, but adds a new offensive coordinator in Baltimore, new coordinators on both sides of the ball in Cincinnati, and (yet another) staff overhaul (and quarterback change) in Cleveland ( America’s Factory of Sadness)? Stability on a coaching staff and at the quarterback position are the two most important factors to a successful football team, which could mean the Pittsburgh Steelers and their six Super Bowl rings could be poised to rebound from consecutive 8-8 seasons with a vengeance. 

1st Place – Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
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Back-to-back 8-8 seasons have Terrible Towel wavers nervous. So do the departures of Emmanuel Sanders and Jericho Cotchery (combined 113 receptions, 1342 yards, and 16 TDs). They were hit even harder defensively losing Larry Foote, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, and Ryan Clark. However, the Steelers still have a two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback under center. The newest additions to the Steelers receiving core, wily veteran Lance Moore and the polished Markus Wheaton, will look to provide the same level of output as Sanders and Cotchery. Add those weapons to fantasy stud Antonio Brown (a former sixth round pick and two-time Pro-Bowler who caught 110 passes for 1499 yards), Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, and potential rookie sensation/speed demon Dri Archer... The Steelers could have a pretty prolific offense on their hands this upcoming season. 

Barring injuries (always a big if at the confluence of the Alleghany, Monongohela, and Ohio Rivers), the Steelers offense should be the third best team in the AFC – after Denver and New England. If the first quarter battle(all starters) between Buffalo and Pittsburgh this Saturday night is an indicator, it could be a long season for defenses facing this revamped Steelers attack.

Warren Sapp has been calling Pittsburgh’s defense “old and slow” for years. This offseason, Kevin Colbert and the front office set out to remedy that situation. Insert Ryan Shazier and his 4.4 speed at the “mack” position in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense along side of Lawrence Timmons at the “buck”,  the Steelers may have two of the best sideline to sideline defenders who can drop into pass coverage in the league. Jason Worilds was a revelation at Left Outside Linebacker during the second half of last year making LaMarr Woodley and his huge contract expendable. Jarvis Jones should be improved in his second year, and the addition of Peezy (Joey Porter) to the coaching staff should make all of these guys better. Up front, Cameron Heyward is on the verge of becoming a dominant player while Steve McClendon, Cam Thomas, and Stephon Tuitt should be solid as rotational players. The team may also bring back Brett Keisel for one last ride along that defensive front. In the secondary, Mike Mitchell is a  speedy new addition who should help cover for Troy Polamalu’s gambles. The only weakness may be at the cornerback position where Ike Taylor continues to get older and the Steelers continue to wait for Cortez Allen to show his potential that he flashed at the end of the 2012 season. 

The special teams should be good again. Dri Archer, LeGarrette Blount, and Antonio Brown should be explosive in the return game again. Shaun Suisham has shown his strength over the last four years and just signed a new four year contract. The only question mark is at punter, but that should be addressed before the team suits up for its first contest with the Cleveland Browns on September 7.
With a soft opening schedule – Cleveland at home, at Baltimore (without Ray Rice) on Thursday night, at Carolina (without quality wide receivers), Tampa Bay at home, at Jacksonville, at Cleveland again, and Houston (without a quarterback) at home on a Monday night, the Steelers could be 6-1 and brimming with confidence before the tougher part of their schedule kicks in. Since 2003 your AFC Super Bowl quarterbacks in order have been Brady, Brady, Roethlisberger, Manning, Brady, Roethlisberger, Manning, Roethlisberger, Brady, Flacco, Manning. It’s time for #7 to lead the Steelers to ring #7 and to get his contract at the level of Flacco and Dalton – especially since he is clearly the best quarterback in the division. 

2nd Place – Cincinnati Bengals (9-7) (Wild Card)
Marvin Lewis is the longest tenured coach in the AFC North and the second-longest tenured head coach with the same team in the NFL (after Bill Belichick). Since joining the Bengals to start the 2004 season, he has led the Bengals to five playoff appearances, no small feat in a division with perennial contenders like the Steelers and Ravens. However, he still does not have a playoff win, and he enters the 2014 season without offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Hue Jackson should step into Gruden’s role seamlessly and possibly improve the offense while Paul Guenther is less well-known on the defensive side of the ball. 

Offensively, the Bengals should be solid once again. Andy Dalton has proven himself to be a solid game manager in his three years in the league and the team has rewarded him for leading the team to playoff appearances in his first three years with an incentive-laden six-year $115 million dollar contract. His line protects him upfront and AJ Green is an unstoppable force on the outside. The one-two punch in the backfield of Benjarvus Green-Ellis and speedy Gio Bernard should provide balance to the office and tight ends Jermaine Grisham and Tyler Eifert should continue to contribute to the passing game. However, the injury to Marvin Jones may slow the Bengal offense a bit in the early season as the Bengals can expect all kinds of bracket coverages for AJ Green until a solid number two receiver appears. 

Defensively, the Bengals are stacked at all three levels. Geno Atkins, when healthy is the best defensive tackle in football, combining incomparable power and speed with terrific instincts to make quarterbacks and running backs lives a living hell. The linebacking corps is led by Vontaze Burfict, a former undrafted free agent who has surpassed expectations in his two years in the NFL and should continue to improve. The Bengals possess the best secondary in the AFC North and possibly the AFC. They have nine defensive backs who are solid NFL players. Leon Hall, when healthy, can lock down one side of the field, and rookie Darqueze Dennard should provide help on the other side. Reggie Nelson and Taylor Mays can lay big hits across the middle, and Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick provide great nickel and dime help when teams go to three and four-wide receiver packages. 

Assuming he has recovered from his December broken jaw, Kevin Huber is solid in the punting game and Mike Nugent just keeps kicking field goals. In the return game, Gio Bernard and Brandon Tate should continue to set the Bengal offense up with excellent field position. 
Roger Goodell and the NFL’s schedule makers haven’t done the Bengals any favors. They open at Baltimore and face what should be improved Atlanta and Tennessee squads at home, get an early bye and then travel to New England and Indianapolis on October 5 and October 19. They also close with Denver and at Pittsburgh. The Bengals may be a better team on the field in 2014, but a tougher schedule could give them problems that will make repeating as AFC North Champions impossible. 

3rd Place Baltimore Ravens (8-8)
Since joining the Ravens in 2008, John Harbaugh has never had a losing season and has been to the playoffs five times. He has a Super Bowl ring and has appeared in three AFC Championship games. He has a Super Bowl winning quarterback at his disposal. Ozzie Newsome is one of the best GMs in football, and a rabid fan base that supports the team. So, why the dour prediction? While the Bengals wear stripes, the Ravens should have changed to striped uniforms in the offseason, with five players getting arrested, the most celebrate of which being Ray Rice who will miss the first two games because of his domestic violence suspension. This is a team in turmoil which is battling injuries, inflated expectations, and a tough schedule.

On the offensive side of the ball, Jim Caldwell has been replaced with Gary Kubiak and his two tight end zone blocking running scheme. Last year, Ravens backs averaged less than three yards per carry and they will be without their top back for the first two games. The aging Steve Smith joins a receiving corps with great speed and bad hands. Hopefully, his passion and energy will improve that position group. The problem for the Ravens’ offense rests in the hands and decision-making of Joe Flacco, though. Simply, he holds the ball too long and makes too many mistakes to be an upper echelon quarterback. Last year he threw 19 touchdowns, but 22 interceptions. While he did not lose any fumbles last year, he has fumbled 14 times in his five year career – often at big moments. He had one great ride to a Super Bowl XLVII victory, but the body of work does not merit the contract and should make fans of purple and black nervous.

On defense, the Ravens defense allowed 4.6 yards per rushing play when DE Arthur Jones was not on the field. Arthur Jones is now an Indianapolis Colt.  Terrell Suggs is still a top-tier player and Haloti Ngata can dominate games, but their run defense and pass rush must improve in 2014. The Ravens drafted Timmy Jernigan and CJ Mosely to improve their front seven and those two should help, but the back end should remain a target for opposing passers. LarDarius Webb is coming off his second ACL injury, Jimmy Smith was one of the five arrestees, and Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks are unproven at the safety positions. 

The special teams might be the best offensive weapon for the team from Charm City. Justin Tucker was automatic in 2013 making 38 out of 41 field goals in 2013, including a 61-yarder to win a Monday night game in which the offense failed to score a touchdown. Sam Koch is a solid punter and Jacoby Jones continues to impress in the return game – if Mike Tomlin stays out of his way.
2014 will be another 8-8 year for the Ravens. Their offense will struggle and the schedule is tough. The Ravens should fatten up on the three weaker teams from the AFC South, but struggle with divisional contests against the Bengals and Ravens while their star running back serves his (light) two-game suspension. Road dates at New Orleans, Miami, and Indy outside of the division could prove tough. San Diego was an improved team in 2013 and should continue to improve. If the Ravens are on the wrong end of an upset or two, as there always are in the NFL, they could be in line for back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

4th Place – Cleveland Browns (6-10)
Out with Rob Chudzinski, Norv Turner, and Ray Horton, and in with Mike Pettine, Kyle Shanahan, and Jim O’Neil. Owner Jimmy Haslam, when not defrauding the federal government, has shown himself to be an impatient head coach as he moves to this third new coaching staff in the last three years. The Browns have experienced significant front office turnover in that same period. Simply, this is an organization that is the model of what not-to-do in the NFL. 

There is talent in Cleveland. When not suspended, Josh Gordon is the best wide receiver in football. Unfortunately, he will miss the 2014 season because of a drug suspension. Ben Tate was solid in Houston as a back and Jordan Cameron is a first-tier tight end. On the offensive line, Joe Thomas and Alex Mack are two of the best at their respective positions in the NFL. But, winning in the NFL requires stability at the quarterback position. Brian Hoyer has been an understudy to Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, and is 3-1 as a starter. However, he has only started four NFL games in five previous NFL seasons with four different teams. He has been given the nod over Johnny Manziel, but looking at the Browns schedule, it appears Manziel could have the job by week 5.  Miles Austin and Nate Burleson projected as the starting wide receivers and Kyle Shanahan calling the offense. Things are not looking up for the Browns offense. 

Defensively, the Browns lost D’Qwell Jackson and TJ Ward and replaced them with the aging Karlos Dansby and the oft-suspended and controversial Dante (w)Hitner. In the secondary, Joe Haden is a dominant force at one corner and Justin Gilbert projects well at the next level. The Browns’ defensive problems are along the front seven in their base 3-4. Billy Winn, Ahtyba Rubin, and Desmond Bryant are uninspirational front 3. Barkevious Mingo disappointed as a rookie and the Browns overpaid for Paul Kruger in his first run at the other outside linebacker position. Craig Robertson is also un-inspiring in the middle, and Karlos Dansby is entering his eleventh season. 

On special teams, Billy Cundiff is a journeyman in the kicking game and Spencer Lanning is a mediocre punter. There are no threats in the return game with Travis Benjamin leading that motley crew. 

Simply, Cleveland is called the “Factory of Sadness” for a reason. If Johnny Manziel gets a chance to play, that may put some fannies in those cold seats in the “Mistake by the Lake,” but sadly for Browns fans, they can expect one more losing season – their twelfth in fourteen seasons since returning to the NFL in 1999. 

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