Monday, August 19, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The AFC North

The Ravens and Steelers get more headlines, but Andy Dalton's Bengals just might be the AFC North's best team.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The AFC North has won three of the last eight Super Bowls, more than any division in football, but the two franchises that have headlined the division over the last decade are in transition.

Defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore is in the process of handing the reigns completely over to quarterback Joe Flacco. After one of the greatest playoff performances in recent memory, Flacco was rewarded with the (then) richest contract in NFL history. Now, it will be on Flacco to carry the Ravens into a new era, with longtime leader and future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis retired, and safety Ed Reed playing in Houston.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are also struggling to find an identity. After transitioning from a run-first approach to a passing offense with star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers appeared in three Super Bowls from 2005 to 2010, winning two. But, with receiver Mike Wallace departed for Miami, tight end Heath Miller recovering from a knee injury and a defense that isn't getting any younger, can the Steelers return to championship form any time soon?

The X-factor in this division could be Cincinnati, who has quietly assembled one of the best collections of young talent in the league. Cleveland? Well, they're still Cleveland.

Storyline(s) to Watch:

Health Key for Pittsburgh

This is a statement you could make about pretty much every NFL team, but when you're dealing with a team as old as Pittsburgh, and a quarterback that takes as many hits as Roethlisberger, it's especially true. Pittsburgh is no longer one of the elite teams in the league talent-wise, but with a healthy Roethlisberger, the Steelers began 2012 6-3 and seemed poised for a playoff run.

With Roethlisberger out/playing injured, the Steelers finished 3-5, and one of those wins was a meaningless victory over Cleveland on the season's final day. The Steelers also lost tight end Heath Miller, the team's MVP, to a late season knee injury that will linger into 2013. The loss of Wallace will hurt, especially with veteran Plaxico Burress out for the year, and the health of Troy Polamalu will largely determine whether or not the Steelers can again be one of the league's best defenses.

If everything breaks right, the Steelers are a Super Bowl contender in a conference with Baltimore rebuilding, New England facing questions at the skill positions and Denver losing Elvis Dumervil and potentially playing without Von Miller for a few games. But, if things go about as expected, Pittsburgh will again be middle of the pack.


Did The Ravens Get Better or Worse?

On one hand, they lost Anquan Boldin, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, and Dennis Pitta, either to trade, free agency, retirement, or injury.

On the other, they added Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb return from injury, and Joe Flacco may have finally turned a corner towards becoming an elite NFL quarterback.

The losses of Boldin and Pitta may be the most difficult to overcome. The dirty little secret about the Ravens last year was that their defense wasn't really that good - they were just 19th in the league in DVOA according to Football Outsiders. Their offense ranked 13th in the regular season but spiked in the playoffs, including a 480-yard performance against Denver and a spectacular 11-0 Touchdown-to-Interception ratio for Flacco.

But without Boldin and Pitta to attract attention on the inside, Torrey Smith's work downfield might become a lot more difficult. They'll have to expand the use of Ray Rice in the passing game after 2012 saw him producing his lowest receiving totals since his rookie season.

But to come full circle, the defense might actually be better than it was last year. If Suggs, Webb, and Haloti Ngata stay healthy all season, along with the addition of Elvis Dumervil and the maturation of Courtney Upshaw, the Ravens could return to an elite defense. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were big names, but they had reached a point where their reputation far exceeded their performance. Daryl Smith and Michael Huff won't be upgrades, but they won't be much worse. Even with all the transition, Baltimore is still the class of the division.


Another Rebuilding Job in Cleveland

It seems like the Browns have been in constant rebuild mode since they were reestablished in 1999. Like all of the past rebuilding efforts, this should inspire little confidence from Browns fans, as Cleveland hired former Panthers coordinator Rob Chudzinski to lead this downtrodden franchise.

Now, Chuddy did a nice job with Cam Newton, and he did preside over the Browns' offense during this Cleveland franchises "greatest" season (A 10-6 campaign in 2002 where the Browns lost in the wild card to Pittsburgh), but the Browns were rumored to be the leader for offensive innovator Chip Kelly. Not locking down the former Oregon coach was a disappointment, but not nearly as frustrating as Cleveland's roster.

There is some talent, with left tackle Joe Thomas serving as one of the league's best blind side protectors and corner Joe Haden developing into a stellar defensive back, but there are no players that other teams have to game plan against. Add in the fact that Brandon Weeden is looking more and more like the most "Browns" pick ever (A nearly 28-year old crappy rookie who came out the same year as three future star quarterbacks), and you can see why it's so hard to cheer for sports in Cleveland.


Player(s) to Watch:

Mohamed Sanu, Andrew Hawkins

The Bengals have made the playoffs for two straight seasons, mostly on the strength of a great pass rush, a strong running game, adequate quarterback play, and the brilliance of A.J. Green. In two seasons Green has combined for 2400 yards and 18 touchdowns, both of those numbers competitive with top receivers in the league not named Calvin Johnson.

However, come playoff time, it seems like most teams are content to always shade a safety to Green's side of the field and challenge Andy Dalton to create plays in the passing game to his other receivers. In 2011, that resulted in just five catches for 47 yards for Green, in 2012 it resulted in five catches for 80 yards, but it took 11 targets to get there. The rest of the team combined for nine receptions for 47 yards.

It's up to Sanu and Hawkins to step up in big moments. Sanu was targeted just 25 times last season but still scored 4 touchdowns, but playing as a #2 receiver on the outside opposite Green will still be a new role. Hawkins was reasonably effective playing out of the slot last year, hauling in 51 receptions for over 500 yards.

It's extremely unlikely that either of them will by dynamic enough that teams won't double-team Green in pivotal moments. But they do have the potential to hurt teams that leave them single-covered. Cincinnati's postseason passing game might depend on it.


Jeremy's Picks

Ravens: 12-4
Bengals: 10-6
Steelers: 9-7
Browns: 3-13

Joe's Picks

Bengals: 11-5
Ravens: 10-6
Steelers: 8-8
Browns: 2-14

No comments :