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So Cole and I are naturally closer followers of the AFC North due to both of us being rabid fans of the Baltimore Ravens.  Trying to put aside that bias, this division is, as usual, highlighted by both Baltimore and Pittsburgh, with Cleveland and Cincinnati being also-rans.  The AFC North also has a forgiving out-of-division schedule, playing the AFC South and NFC West.  Here are our predictions for the AFC North (no, I do not apologize for its length):

Can Colt McCoy lead the Browns out of misery?

Cleveland Browns

Andy: There is a lot to like about the Cleveland Browns this year, just not enough to think they will emerge as a truly competitive team (yet).  Pat Shurmur is in at Head Coach in what I think is an improvement (and gives Holmgren more control).  Joe Thomas is the anchor of their O-line and Alex Mack is a very good center, but I’m hesitant on the rest of the line.  Tony Pashos is a patch at RT and I think Jason Pinkston at LG won’t last more than a year.  I’m actually bigger on Montario Hardesty at RB than I am Peyton Hillis, who I think will come back down to Earth this season (also, high on my list of injuries to look out for).  WR is still very thin, but I think rookie Greg Little is going to pan out into a good starting receiver, but they still need others beside him, and I do not like Massaquoi or Robiskie.  I love Colt McCoy, and despite a lack of arm strength has a great knowledge of the game and showed impressive decision-making skills when thrown into the fire last year.  He should be a good QB for the West-Coast offense.

The defense has moved to a 4-3, a move I think is beneficial for the Browns.  They selected DT “LandPhil” Taylor and DE Jabaal Sheard in rounds 1 and 2 (respectively), with both looking to start on the line.  D’Qwell Jackson is a good MLB, and the OLBs of Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong are ok, but leave a lot to be desired.  Joe Haden is a future star at CB, but behind him there is not very much.  Sheldon Brown is an NFL veteran who doesn’t have much left in the tank, Buster Skrine is a rookie who may or may not pan out into a nickelback, and dimeback Dmitri Patterson has been wondering around the NFL since 2005.  TJ Ward is a good starter at SS, but Usama Young should not be a starter at FS.

Overall, I think this team has a lot more hope than previous seasons, and could put up a fight in many games.  I just don’t think they’re good enough yet to compete with Baltimore or Pittsburgh, and considering they face Baltimore and Pittsburgh 4 times in the last 5 weeks of the season, any good beginning might be crushed by that miserable end of season schedule.

Cole: Beware the Browns. They’re improving remarkably year to year and Holmgren finally has this organization moving in the right direction. Their offensive line is their strength with Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. There’s a reason Peyton Hillis showed up last year and that was because this is a physical team that can push the line. Colt McCoy is a promising young quarterback, but the Browns are banking on Greg Little to provide a spark in the passing game. The rest of the group is mediocre and the Josh Cribbs project is not providing explosive play (I think the Bears could tell them that converting a kick returner to WR does not make elite receivers). The only problem is that this unit is trapped in a division of physical defense – Baltimore and Pittsburgh – and they’re not quite strong enough up front to run on them. They need to develop a passing threat in order to beat those kinds of bullies if they want to advance.

On defense they’ve flopped back to the 4-3 and drafted heavily in that area. Two rookies anchor their line. “Land” Phil Taylor will anchor the front and Jabaal Sheard will be asked to develop into a pass rush threat. They still need improvement at the other two spots, but really there’s no proven talent on this line. At linebacker they will use Scott Fjuita, D’Qwell Jackson, and Chris Gocong to slow down the power rushing attacks they’ll face. Their secondary lacks any real presence but has some promising young players in Joe Haden and T.J. Ward. The defense is going to take a while, with only the linebacker group being reliable. Expect bigger teams to torch this defense up front and deep where the weaknesses are.

The typical Steelers fan (from Andy's perspective)

Pittsburgh Steelers

Andy: For the Steelers, consistency is the key.  It’s a proven strategy, but this team also has several question marks that could cause them to have a Super Bowl hangover and miss the playoffs, just like they have after their other 2 post-super bowl seasons this millennium.  On offense, Big Ben Roethlisberger is what makes this team tick.  No matter how much I hate him, this man is a determined winner on the field, and is willing to sacrifice life and limb to make a drive, especially in the fourth quarter.  Hines Ward is still the leader of the WR corps, but his role is becoming more secondary.  Mike Wallace and his blazing speed is now the star, and the cast behind these two (Cotchery, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders) are great options each.  5-WR sets are not out of the question for the Steelers.  Heath Miller is a solid TE and a good red zone option, and Rashard Mendenhall is coming off of a 1,200 yard, 13 TD season, and should be a very solid go-to RB.  The offensive line is the offense’s Achilles heel, however.  Releasing OTs Max Starks and Flozell Adams makes them younger at OT, but not necessarily better, and injury has been a problem for a team now with less depth on the O-line.

On defense, they bring back all 11 starters from last season.  Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel start on the line, and each is very good, but Keisel is the youngest at 32, and injury is a risk for all of them, especially Aaron Smith.  Ziggy Hood played well last season replacing Smith and the Steelers drafted Cameron Heyward as well, but the defense could have issues in 2011 if the defensive line is relying too much on these two players.  The anchor of this Steelers defense is their outstanding LB corps, which is probably the best in the league.  James Harrison is one of the best rushers in the league, and Lamarr Woodley can do it all from LOLB.  Lawrence Timmons is an outstanding MLB, and James Farrior is as reliable as ever.  At CB, there are questions.  Ike Taylor is reliable, but behind him it becomes more questionable.  Bryant McFadden and William Gay have shown themselves to be vulnerable.  Keenan Lewis has been a backup his 3 years in Pittsburgh, and rookie Curtis Brown has yet to distinguish himself.  Ryan Clark is a good, not great FS, but fits into their system well.  Finally, Troy Polamalu is obviously one of the greatest safeties of the last decade.  He makes the defense better, but if he is not on this field, the defense also seems to lose a step.

I would say this team has a chance to not make the playoffs, but the only way that happens is if some key injuries occur.  There’s a decent chance of that considering the age of some of their key players and previous health problems, but this team does find ways to win (to my discontent).  On top of this, their schedule this year is not particularly challenging, and so long as key pieces remain in place, this team will stroll on into the playoffs again, breaking their Super Bowl hangover curse.

Cole: The Steelers continue to maintain a strong core, year to year, while being the envy of the NFL for their model of consistency. This year they again enter the season with an inconsistent line being the largest concern. Multiple injuries in preseason have had them scrambling a little. While nothing is set in stone, only Maurkice Pouncey stands as elite in this day. Still the unit has been together for so long that it is a very good group at what they do – pound the rock and scramble to protect Big Ben. At wide receiver, expect Hines Ward to only last a year or two longer. His replacements are already on the roster in Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders. They’ll pick up a possession guy (probably a big guy for Ben) before they do, but Ward doesn’t bring much more than a tight end does at this point. He’s a reliable chain mover. Speaking of tight ends, Heath Miller is quietly an excellent one – efficient blocker and reliable catcher. Rashard Mendenhall also returns and this needs to be his breakout season or the Steelers will look elsewhere for a running back. Mendenhall disappears frequently and often in important games.

What can one say about this defense. It is elite. The perfect combination of age and youth. They pay high dollar for elite linebackers and skimp at corner because it’s not required in Dick LeBeau’s schemes. Also consider that while their front 3 hasn’t changed, they are already at both defensive end positions with 2nd year end Ziggy Hood and rookie Cameron Heyward. Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and Brett Keisel will start, but expect a healthy rotation as they prepare for the transition. The linebacker corp is excellent and features incredible depth. LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, Jason Worlids, and Larry Foote would likely all be starters at any other team. Throw Troy Polomalu on top and you see why this unit is constantly at the top. Their weakness is their secondary, which is why teams like the Patriots, Colts, and Packers can attack them and win consistently, but in a division based on the ground and featuring limited quarterback play, this is a perfect scheme. Expect the Steelers to be right there at the end of the year again.

Joe Flacco must prove this year he can beat the Steelers and perform well in the playoffs.

Baltimore Ravens

Andy: I will try not to be a homer, but there are high expectations for the Ravens once again.  After three consecutive playoff appearances with wins, the fan base is clamoring for at least another AFC Championship appearance.  QB Joe Flacco remains a mystery as to whether he can lead this team to the Promised Land.  He starts games slowly and makes some careless mistakes, but also has a cannon and is one of, if not the best deep ball thrower in the NFL and has become a leader of this team.  If he does not improve, especially in the playoffs, there will be questions as to how high his ceiling is.  Ray Rice is a monster out of the backfield.  At WR, Anquan Boldin remains a great over-the-middle WR whose one of the toughest in the league, and I loved the acquisition of Lee Evans, a proven deep threat who has shown some chemistry with Flacco in the preseason.  At TE, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta are vying to take over for the cut (now Cardinal) Todd Heap.  Dickson has more potential, but Pitta has been a more reliable target in the preseason.  The questions on offense are with the O-line.  The depth behind the starters is miserable.  If new LT Bryant McKinnie does not work out or there are injuries to other starters, this line will go downhill very fast.

On defense, the Ravens hope to improve from last year’s 27 measly sacks.  New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano will be bringing more pressure, looking more like a Rex-Ryan defense than in previous seasons.  Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata anchors this line, and new starter Terrence Cody hopes to mirror his play at Alabama (if he is able to do so, I am not sure).  The OLB position is very strong with Jarrett Johnson and Terrell Suggs, but the MLB position next to the aging Ray Lewis is still a question mark.  Finally, the Ravens have serious depth at CB, with rookie Jimmy Smith, Dominique Foxworth, Chris Carr, Lardarius Webb, and upstart Cary Williams, although none of them is a premier CB.  The young Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith look to be the starters, both with huge upside, but I expect some growing pains early in the season.  Ed Reed is Ed Reed (no further explanation needed), and Bernard Pollard should be an improvement over Dawan Landry, bringing some much-needed aggressiveness.

Overall, I think the Ravens are playoff-bound again, if only because their talent level exceeds that of so many other teams.  If the offensive and defensive schemes are put together better than in previous years, and if Joe Flacco can be more consistent (especially in the playoffs), then this team is a serious Super Bowl contender.  Otherwise, there will be another playoff disappointment for the Ravens.

And yes, this post was so long because I am a Ravens fan.  Deal with it.

Cole: I tend to be a bit more conservative of a homer. And as much as touting the Steelers abilities hurt a couple minutes ago, highlighting the flaws in this Ravens team will hurt more. Don’t get me wrong, this is an excellent team, but it has not developed enough to warrant the Super Bowl talk being assigned to them. They had three goals this off season. They had two objectives to improve on offense. Bring in speed to their passing game and improve their offensive line play. They drafted Torrey Smith out of Maryland who is a burner, but has struggled in camp and will likely see more reverses than catches this year (a la Donte Stallworth last season), and Lee Evans who has looked well above average in his preseason work. Evans and quarterback Joe Flacco have developed excellent chemistry, but it’s Flacco’s chemistry with star reciever Anquan Boldin that needs to improve. With Derrick Mason and Todd Heap gone, Flacco must take command of this offense and begin to function like an elite quarterback. That starts pre-snap, where he has to begin to recognize defenses and it ends with Flacco delivering strikes down field. He has a phenomenal deep ball, but has been coached to refrain throwing the pass unless its, say, 80% there. The other objective of this off season offensively was to improve the offensive line. It’s hard to say they’ve done that. The first time this unit will play together will be opening day vs, you guessed it, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bryant McKinnie was picked up off the scrap heap with promises that he would give them his all, but it’s questionable how much he has left, and Matt Birk has been plagued with leg problems these last few years, prompting the late signing of Andre Gurode. The good news is that Ben Grubbs, Marshall Yanda, and Michael Oher are excellent where they are now (LG, RG, RT). Add in Vontae Leach and you see a very potent power running game that can carry this team to at least 7 or 8 wins. The last 3 or 4 will hinge on Flacco.

Defensively this unit is younger and faster all around. It still hinges on the the Miami products – Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Lewis’ ability to hunt down ball carriers and cover in pass defense has long since departed from its former Hall of Fame level. Now he organizes the defense like Peyton Manning, using his experience and knowledge to put his team in the best position to succeed. Reed is a terror on the back end when left free to roam. The quarterback that was best at manipulating him is out of the division – Carson Palmer – and he’ll feast on two young signal callers. Terrell Suggs may have had one of the greatest playoff performances of all time last season with multiple sacks and pressures, he was a force of nature for two weeks. The youth movement starts in the secondary, where Cary Williams may start opposite Jimmy Smith rookie out of Colorado. This is because Dominique Foxworth doesn’t appear fully healthy and Lardarius Webb has struggled as a starting corner. On the defensive line Haloti Ngata continues to gather praise for his abilities and play, but now he’ll go along side Terrance “Mount” Cody who will try to anchor the line in place of Kelly Gregg. The Ravens also picked up two promising 3-4 end prospects. 2nd year player Arthur Jones has made excellent strides in year two, so much that there was talk of him replacing incumbent Corey Redding. Redding’s veteran leadership and generally liked personality will keep him as starter there, but expect a healthy rotation. Pernell McPhee, rookie, was equally impressive in preseason. He dominated backup lines and applied constant pressure. The unit is balanced in age and experience, but has brought in a wealth of youth. If the younger players can mature faster than expected, this team can be elite, but their opening game will be brutal for the inexperienced.

Behold the curse of Cincinnati: Owner Mike Brown.

Cincinnati Bengals

Andy: Saving the worst for last.  The Bengals are in a ‘rebuilding’ year, although it seems like they are always rebuilding.  The front office is so bad that Carson Palmer simply refuses to play for them, and I cannot blame him.  In his place will be Andy Dalton, the rookie out of TCU.  I never believed he could be an immediate starter in the NFL, and will take many, many lumps, especially against the likes of Baltimore and Pittsburgh.  The WR corps is not all that bad, with AJ Green being a potential stud and Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell being good 2nd WRs.  Jordan Shipley could be the next Wes Welker, and TE Jermaine Gresham has lots of room to improve.  Cedric Benson will likely be similar to last year, with an unimpressive 3.5 YPC.  The O-line is okay, but could still have questions along the inside, and RT Andre Smith needs to improve, fast.  The defensive line needs to improve drastically after finishing 19th in the run game and the Bengals having a miserable 27 sacks last season, but I don’t see that happening.  MLB Rey Maualuga is an emerging great, but the two OLB flanking him are unimpressive in replacing Keith Rivers. Rivers is out for 6 weeks due to injury and has begun to look like a constant injury concern.  The Bengals lost their best CB in Jonathan Joseph, and signed Nate Clements, who is okay, but nowhere near the same level as Joseph was.  The CBs behind Clements and Leon Hall are unimpressive, and I am not a fan of their secondary.  With an unproven rookie QB who looks like the game is moving too fast for him right now and questions on defense, I think it is very likely that this team finishes last not only in the AFC North, but in the NFL.  Cheer up Bengals fans; you may win the Andrew Luck sweepstakes!

Cole: I still maintain that Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, is the worst owner in the NFL, but Mike Brown is running neck and neck with him. His handling of the last decade should speak volumes to that. His cheap attitude towards fielding a team has lead to many years of poor performances with very few bright spots in which they reached the playoffs and were promptly removed from the event. He has not turned over most of the scouting for the organization and has thus led to many forgettable drafts, including the recent draft of likely bust Andre Smith out of Alabama. Marvin Lewis has endured many years of torture in Cincinnati fighting a losing mentality. All three of the star players in the last 5 years – Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco, and T.J. Houshmandzedeh – have found themselves fed up with the nature of the organization. Housh was cut, Ochocinco finally traded, and Palmer has been forced to retire. I for one am hoping he shows up to force the Bengals to pay him or cut him. His refusal to trade Chad for 2 first round picks several years ago, or trade Palmer for picks while he could get them shows why this organization will continue to fail. Mike Brown’s stubbornness undermines everything the players and coaches do on the field.

All that out of the way, the Bengals look to have the building blocks of a solid team in place. Andy Dalton is a prime west coast candidate and A.J. Green looks like an NFL receiver. Jerome Simpson could be good, but has struggled with his hands. Jordan Shipley is an excellent slot receiver already and Jermaine Gresham looked very promising his rookie year. The offensive line is a work in progress and has seen few picks to bolster it. Andrew Whitworth is solid, but he’s about the only consistently reliable player. This team will pound the ball, like the rest of the AFC North, with Cedric Benson, who could have the wheels fall come off if they’re not careful. He wants the ball and has no viable backup behind him, so the season will hinge on his health.

Defensively, they have some players and prospects, but have taken steps back this off season. Domata Peko returns as the top lineman of their 4-3. His presence has been a staple for the team both against run and pass. Michael Johnson, Robert Geathers, and Carlos Dunlap will all play as defensive ends, but none has particularly separated themselves as an elite pass rusher in the NFL. The promising duo of Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga has been derailed this season with River’s injury. Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard were brought in to play the outside positions and should be serviceable if unexciting. Corner Leon Hall returns, but his long time counterpart Jonathan Joseph got out while he could and headed to Houston. The Bengals then picked up Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings to fill the gap. Neither is particularly impressive, except to say Clements got a big pay day once. This young unit that looked prime for stardom has faded into mediocrity the last couple years, and as the young pieces move on to greener pastures this defense will continue to remain average. As I said at the beginning, it all comes back to ownership and creating a team that players want to play for.

Predictions:

Cleveland- Andy – 7-9 / Cole – 7-9

Pittsburgh- Andy – 11-5 / Cole – 12-4

Baltimore- Andy – 11-5 / Cole – 12-4

Cincinnati- Andy – 2-14 / Cole – 3-13

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