Not only did the AFC North give us last year’s Superbowl champs, it also features two other teams (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh) with playoff aspirations. Not to be left out, Cleveland has steadily upgraded their roster over the past couple of seasons, but may be more than a step behind the daunting competition in front of them. However things play out in 2013, this division should be one of the most competitive in the league.
1 – Baltimore Ravens
After a rather unexpected trip through the playoffs, culminating in Baltimore bringing home their 2nd Lombardi trophy, the 2013 offseason has been rather more eventful than the team and its fans would care for. The retirement of Ray Lewis was all but guaranteed, but his loss still leaves a considerable gap of leadership. There are a handful of very serious questions that need to be answered, one way or another, before we know whether or not these Baltimore Ravens can ascend to the top of the league once again.
Despite the losses, the roster is still plenty stacked with talent. At the heart of their offense, Ray Rice is still one of the best all-purpose threats in the NFL. New offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has already shown the sort of diversity and adaptation in playcalling former OC Cam Cameron lacked at times, and this should mean more opportunities for Rice and backup HB Bernard Pierce to exploit opposing defenses. Caldwell’s playcalling also seemed to unleash more of Joe Flacco’s deep ball capabilities, and it payed off more often than not. Expect the Superbowl MVP to benefit the most from this change. On the whole, the Ravens’ offense has all the tools to succeed, including the emerging Torrey Smith, whose YPC average was good for 3rd best in the league amongst WRs with at least 45 catches.
With the losses of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, there has been an overload of sentiment that the defense will be a shadow of itself. Many fans don’t seem to recall that the defense in 2012 was average at best. Fewer fans seem to realize that, with recent additions, there is a very real possibility that next year’s unit will be superior. The additions of DE Chris Canty and safety Michael Huff were relatively under-the-radar moves that are definite upgrades. Elvis Dumervil will make for a solid 2nd pash-rush specialist alongside Terrell Suggs. Ozzie Newsome also utilized the draft to re-stock the defense, and Matt Elam and Arthur Brown have the natural ability to step in early and contribute.
Causes For Concern:
The recent news of TE Dennis Pitta being lost for the year due to a dislocated hip is troubling for many reasons. After trading Anquan Boldin to the 49ers, it was widely assumed that Pitta would be the “Next Man Up” and help soften the loss. His clutch hands (only 3 passes dropped in 2012) and red zone ability will be sorely missed. If Ed Dickson can’t step up and produce similar to his 2011 campaign, the offense will be missing a key dimension in the passing game.
While the offensive line played admirably, particularly during the postseason, concerns are justifiable. The retirement of Matt Birk leaves the center position up for grabs, and early reports have Colts castoff A.Q. Shipley projected to start, and that would be a definite downgrade based on last year’s film. Bryant McKinnie is a wildcard at LT; whichever version shows up is a guessing game, and recent reports of him showing up overweight do not bode well.
Ray Lewis was on his last leg, far from the player he once was, but his instincts and leadership will be missed. Ed Reed was a very similar player in the secondary, instinctual and quick to help his fellow DBs correct their mistakes and remember their assignments. There is a gaping void of experience on the defense, one that needs to be filled by current elder statesmen Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. Depth at certain positions may also become problematic, but this is a general concern across the NFL and Baltimore is really in no better or worse a position as most other teams when it comes to filling their roster.
It definitely doesn’t feel inevitable, but the odds of the Ravens missing at least a wild-card berth are slim. From Joe Flacco and his shiny new contract down to the impressive list of newcomers on defense, the 2013 Baltimore Ravens look primed to continue their streak of playoff appearances to six straight seasons.
2 – Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals under HC Marvin Lewis have been perpetually up and down, going from a playoff team one year to no-shows the next with alarming frequency. However, the with drafting of QB Andy Dalton, WR A.J. Green and a steadily improving defense, these same flaky Bengals made their presence felt with a postseason berth last year. They appear geared to do the same once again, with a couple of solid additions and very little in the way of subtractions. But can they avoid the apparent curse of one step forward, two steps back? I think so; there is too much proven talent here to believe otherwise.
It all starts with the most obvious talents: A.J. Green is perhaps the most dangerous wideout in the AFC, rare natural athleticism combined with determination to improve. On the other side of the ball, Geno Atkins has finally become recognized as a premiere talent at the defensive tackle position, with an incredible combination of size, speed and lateral agility. These two players represent the absolute top at their respective positions, and there is an impressive overall roster besides.
While Andy Dalton has had his ups and downs, he has been mostly efficient as the starting QB. He must show improvement this year, however, or the quiet whispers about his long-term viability will start to become more audible. Another year under his belt, along with talented weapons such as Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham, limits the excuses for Dalton going into his 3rd season. The offensive line has some excellent foundational pieces, including bookends Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, and last year’s first round pick Kevin Zeitler, who has already established himself as an unquestionable starter at RG.
Much of the talk regarding the Bengals defense as one of the league’s best is an overestimation; the potential is there, and this is the year when it should come together. The addition of James Harrison will help establish a more physical presence, but his double-digit sack years may be behind him. Much will weight on the likes of newly resigned Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict, Ray Maualuga and newcomer Margus Hunt progressing as a whole if the defense is going to be considered upper echelon. The strongest part of the Bengals defense, to my eyes, is at the CB position, where the elite skills of Leon Hall, coupled with the heady experience of Terrence Newman, create one of the league’s best duos. Pacman Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick provide excellent depth at the position as well. Reggie Nelson is a solid safety, who has a knack for turnovers.
Causes For Concern:
While the offense should click on all cylinders, there are questions. The progression of Andy Dalton is paramount to the Bengals taking the next step towards title contention, and whether or not he can make the leap depends in some part on forces beyond his control. Benjarvis Green-Ellis is a solid contributor out of the backfield, but lacks the dynamics that force opposing defense to plan accordingly. Cincinnati hopes Giovanni Bernard (North Carolina) can add more explosiveness to the position in what is shaping up to be a backfield committee. A.J. Green is not flying under anybody’s radar, and if Sanu, Gresham and rookie TE Tyler Eifert cannot provide relief by making opponents pay for doubling Green…well, there were many times last year when the one-dimensional nature of the Bengals’ offense lead to their demise.
There are no real wholes on defense, but the underachieving Ray Maualuga needs to become more of a central force. In general, the front seven need to step up around their strongest force (Geno Atkins) and take better advantage of the chaos he causes.
I have Cincinnati penciled in as the 1st wildcard in 2013. I do believe they have eclipsed Pittsburgh in terms of overall talent, and their youth should also help them get over that hump. The first month of the season will say a lot about how good these Bengals are prepared to be: early games against Chicago, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and New England will challenge them early and often. If they emerge from this stretch with 3 victories, I’ll feel much better about predicting the playoffs for a team that has yet to find consistency despite their ever-growing talent base.
3) – Pittsburgh Steelers
It is starting to feel like tables are turning in Pittsburgh, but I’ll be the first to admit that, in terms of persevering in the face of adversity, few teams have done it as gracefully and regularly as the Steelers. A healthy Big Ben, playing for 16 games, gives them their best chance at overcoming the strength of the AFC North, but even that may not be enough. Mike Wallace, despite frequently underachieving or causing turmoil behind the scenes, was a loss that leaves the passing game one weapon short. James Harrison’s absence should be less felt in terms of overall numbers, but his domineering presence and tone-setting toughness will be missed as well. Overall, the Steelers roster is reaching a critical point where the age is showing and the youth needs to step up, and fast, to keep them in contention.
As erratic as he seemed at times last year, Ben Roethlisberger is still an elite QB in the league and keeping him upright and on the field is priority #1 in Pittsburgh this year. There are questions surrounding Heath Miller, one of Ben’s favorite targets, but the likes of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown should produce steadily as the offense enters year two under the direction of OC Todd Haley. Also, don’t sleep on Plaxico Burress, whose redzone capabilities should see him haul in at least a handful of TDs.
One of the weakest links in Pittsburgh’s steel chain last year was the offensive line, whose pass blocking was mostly sound but showed little ability to get upfield and attack the 2nd level. Maurkice Pouncey is a great piece in the middle, but the four guys around him have to consistently step their game up and improve their run blocking in particular.
Despite all the hype surrounding the defense of division rival Cincinnati, the Steelers actually ranked better in most defensive categories in 2012. The linebackers, so often the heart of the defense, remain a mostly solid group including Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Recent quotes from HC Mike Tomlin have underachiever Jason Worilds penciled in at ROLB, but rookie Jarvis Jones could blow past him in offseason work with his impressive set of skills…so long as concerns surrounding his neck don’t prove to limit his time on the field. The back four is solid, but prone to giving up big chunks of yards. Troy Polamalu is still a physically threatening force, but age and numerous injuries have already begun to lessen his effectiveness. Ryan Clark is a stable force opposite him, and the starting CB duo of Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen are certainly capable, if prone to occasional lapses.
Causes For Concern:
There is no clear-cut starter at the HB position, and it seems like the stable of journeyman cannot consistently provide the balance the offense requires. If rookie addition Le’Veon Bell works his way to the starting position, he has the body frame to hold up to the inevitable punishment he’ll receive running behind a retooled offensive line. Otherwise, the likes of Jonathan Dwyer and Issac Redman will probably continue to provide inconsistent play at the position. As for that retooled o-line, it’s hard to say if Marcus Gilbert or Mike Adams, whichever sides of the line they start on, will make for capable bookends. The improved health of David DeCastro is a necessity in helping this group come together.
The defense is aging, and it’s no secret. A lack of turnovers (a staple of the better years of Pittsburgh’s defense) has to be rectified, but with age comes the loss of speed and this makes INTs, at least, harder to come by. The loss of Casey Hampton (still possible he returns, but this is assuming he’s gone for good) is a major gap in the center of their 3/4, and to this point Ziggy Hood has not lived up to his promise at DE. Brett Kiesel is more beard than gamebreaker, but at this point he’s the best option on a shaky defensive line. If injuries take their toll again this season, do not expect the offense to suddenly become a powerhouse capable of masking defensive inefficiencies.
While I’ll never write the Steelers off without lingering doubt, I am not convinced they have the ability to overcome the two obviously more talented teams ahead of them. Cincinnati may stumble, and Baltimore may struggle, but Pittsburgh has more to overcome than either of them. I do fully expect the competition for the division crown to be heated, at first…but at some point, a team that isn’t Pittsburgh (or Cleveland, for that matter) is going to pull away and leave questions regarding the overall direction of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises demanding answers.
4) Cleveland Browns
Each season in Cleveland seems to bring a host of new faces on the field and off, and 2013 will be no different. With ownership changing mid-season in 2012, it was inevitable that pieces would be shuffled. Out are head coach Pat Shurmur and GM Tom Heckart, replaced by former Cleveland employee Rob Chudzinski and former NFL Network analyst (and Cleveland employee, pre-reboot) Michael Lombardi, respectively. Chud brings an intense offensive pedigree from his time with the University of Miami, and the quick turn-around he helped bring together as OC of the Carolina Panthers during Cam Newton’s rookie season. There have been a handful of moves so far, but it will take longer than one offseason for the new regime to fortify the roster with talent of their own choosing. In the meantime, struggles will abound for the limited talent already present.
Offensively, the easy projection is to see Trent Richardson take the lion’s share of touches, and in the process produce the lion’s share of Cleveland’s offense. In a handful of games last year, Richardson showed a rare combination of strength and agility, and definitely has the frame and toughness to be one of the league’s few featured backs.The offensive line should help contribute to what looks to be a breakout season for the 2nd year RB. Joe Thomas continues to reign atop the elite LTs in the league, and 2012 2nd round pick Mitchell Schwartz, while taking his share of rookie bumps and bruises, looked solid at the opposite tackle. Center Alex Mack is a definite strength, and on the whole Cleveland sports one of the better offensive lines in the NFL.
Sporting one of the league’s premiere cornerbacks in Joe Haden is one of the lone superstars on a somewhat underrated defense, one that allowed less than 20 points per game last year. A host of newcomers, including highly touted rookie Barkevious Mingo and ex-Raven Paul Kruger, should help push an average pass rush to another level. At least, that’s the idea. D’qwell Jackson is still a top linebacker, one whose nose for the football helps key the strongest side of the Browns’ roster.
Causes for Concern:
There is no telling what the Browns have in Brandon Weeden; his up-and-down rookie season was highlighted by a 2-TD effort in a win over the rival Bengals…on his 29th birthday. If Weeden takes unexpected steps forward, he’s still going to be hurting for targets. Josh Morgan was an undeniably smart pull in last year’s supplemental draft, but beyond him things get a bit dicey. Cleveland gave up a 5th round pick to get Davone Bess, a possession receiver who was well liked in Miami but never showed the ability to break away and make larger contributions beyond the odd chain-moving snag. The tight end position is a mystery, and the defensive line is no different. However solid Cleveland’s back seven are, there will still be too much of an emphasis on exploiting the line of scrimmage and center field of their defense, something they do not seem prepared to counter. The amount of time Cleveland’s offense spent on the field in 2012 (just over 28 minutes a game on average) has to change, otherwise the defense will once again wear down and let close games get away from them.
Not going to happen. Not in 2013. As regular bottom-feeders, this prediction will probably feel unfortunately natural to Browns fans, but there’s no getting around the severe lack of skill position talent, a questionable QB situation and a defense that isn’t quite elite, even if it appears to be heading in that direction. There is hope for improvement over last year’s 5-11, if the Brandon Weedens and Trent Richardsons continue the upward climb, but a postseason berth would be borderline miraculous.