2013 NFC Season Preview: AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals

Overview

The Cincinnati Bengals seem to be everyone’s darling pick this year. There’s a lot to like about this team as it comes off of a 10-6. The main problem with the Bengals is that they reside in a very tough AFC North division. The belief is that this season lies on the right arm of QB Andy Dalton.

The Bengals added QB Josh Johnson and former intra-division headache, LB James Harrison. The losses aren’t alarming – FB Brian Leonard, DT Pat Sims, LB Manny Lawson, CB Nate Clements, CB Jason Allen, and S Chris Cocker. There are some contributors there but nothing a deep Bengals’ defense can’t overcome. The biggest loss may have actually come via a recent injury to LB Emmanuel Lamur who would have been the “money” player in the nickel package. He was very strong in coverage and fit the role well. Now the Bengals may have to rely on Vincent Ray or undrafted rookie Jayson DiManche to fill that coverage void. Rumors are that S Taylor Mays could slide into the “money” role in nickel as well.

Cincy had another strong draft, adding spark plugs on offense in TE Tyler Eifert (the clear best TE in the draft) and RB Giovani Bernard (the first RB taken). DE Margus Hunt may be 27 years old but he’s a brute and he’s raw. With Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer coaching him up, don’t be surprised if Hunt becomes dominant late in the season.

This is too good of a team to not have won a playoff game under Marvin Lewis. And Lewis is too good of a coach. In an organization that is run completely differently from all the others, Lewis is the lynchpin in the entire operation. This makes me think he breaks that playoff streak finally and gets his first win as a head coach.

Strengths

The Bengals’ defense is led by All-Pro DT Geno Atkins and the defensive line.Atkins an absolute force in the middle and incredibly disruptive. DT Domata Peko is probably one of the better defensive tackles you don’t hear a lot about and the Bengals are loaded at defensive end with Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Margus Hunt, and Robert Geathers. There’s some serious strength and athleticism all throughout the line. The Bengals have built from the inside out as the offensive line is a strength as well, especially on the right side with Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith.

There’s a lot to like about this receiving corps that should receive more recognition. Everyone knows that AJ Green is one of the best in the league, but Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones are fine receivers in their own right. Andrew Hawkins was put on the IR with a designation for return and provides with a Harvin-lite type option out of the slot and backfield. His versatility is something the Bengals could use. Opposing the wide receivers in practice, the Bengals have a very solid and deep unit at cornerback. Leon Hall will matchup against opposing teams’ best receiver most of the time, while Terrance Newman looks like the early starter accros from him. Adam Jones, Brandon Ghee, and Dre Kirkpatrick add phenomenal depth at the position. Teams shouldn’t be able to spread the Bengals out to create matchup issues.

Weaknesses

The only real concern for Cincinnati is at the safety position. Reggie Nelson is a solid starter but opposite him the Bengals are looking at starting George Iloka or Taylor Mays. This is certainly not ideal. The Bengals also could use some more speed at linebacker. The starting group of Vontaze Burfict, Rey Mauluga, and James Harrison could be susceptible to matchup problems versus running backs or “move” tight ends. Don’t be surprised if the Bengals spend more time in nickel packages than anything else this season.

Name To Know

Tyler Eifert and Jayson DiManche – Eifert is the big name tight end out of Notre Dame. He was the best all-around tight end in the draft and provides solid blocking ability to go with his size and tremendous receiving skills. He can line up in-line, in the slot, or outside to give the Bengals options to create matchup problems for defenses. DiManche is probably the fastest and most reactive linebacker in coverage on the Bengals with Lamur out. Once he finds his “NFL legs” then he’ll begin to see more snaps in nickel. He should be a contributor on defense that won’t be heavily publicized but will be extremely important to the scheme and abilities of that defense.

Prediction

The Bengals are incredibly deep at multiple positions. This division will be interesting to study in how much the QB influences a team’s overall ability. Dalton isn’t as good as Roethlisberger or Flacco but he may end up with more wins because of more help around him.

The Cincinnati defense should be mostly dominant again this season. They have some great talent in the areas where it counts the most and have a fantastic coordinator in Mike Zimmer leading the way. The offense will see fluctuation from week to week depending on matchups. The Bengals will need to find their running game and Dalton will need to be intelligent with his decisions. Having AJ Green to throw to really helps.

The Bengals’ schedule begins EXTREMELY tough: at Chicago, vs. Pittsburgh, vs. Green Bay, at (a much improved) Cleveland, and home vs. New England. The Bengals could come out 3-2 out of those games and be great and have a real possibility to come out 4-1. If they do, they and Denver will emerge as the AFC favorites early on. The Bengals will get a relative break after those games and have a fairly easy schedule the rest of the way. 12-4 seems like a sweet spot for a very good team that lines up a decently favorable schedule after week five.

 

 

Baltimore Ravens

Overview

Defending Super Bowl Champions. While that still seems strange to me, I can’t discount the Ravens’ accomplishment last season. I was down on them. I thought the defense was broken without CB Ladarius Webb and with S Ed Reed and LB Ray Lewis playing as shells of their former selves. I also believed that QB Joe Flacco was an average quarterback that relied too heavily on his receivers to bring down jump balls.

Alas, Flacco continued to throw deep and receivers Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones continued to haul them in on the outside while TE Dennis Pitta, and the epitome of a football player, WR Anquan Boldin, worked the middle of the field. After the switch from offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to Jim Caldwell, Joe Flacco’s pocket presence increased exponentially and he got hot. A couple of plays that went the Ravens’ way (Hey Diddle Diddle Ray Rice Up The Middle and Rahim Moore’s phantom bat down) and the Ravens found themselves in the Super Bowl. The Ravens continued their surprise run and finished off what I thought was the best team in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers, in the Superdome and took home the Lombardi Trophy.

Since then, as General Manager Ozzie Newsome put it, they weren’t overspending to “keep the band together.” Instead, Newsome spent less to assemble what can be considered an even better defense. LBs Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, and Brendon Ayanbadejo all were replaced by LBs Elvis Dumervil, Daryl Smith, and rookie Arthur Brown. Ray Lewis retired but was a shell of his former abilities and was really a liability at times down the stretch last year. Ed Reed left for Houston but was also not his hall of fame self last year. Probably more importantly, S Bernard Pollard left. The Ravens will try to replace them with some combination of Michael Huff, James Ihedigbo, and rookie Matt Elam. DE Chris Canty was a free agent addition will be the starter. FB Vonta Leach left and then came back at a cheaper price tag. The loss of C Matt Birk and WR Anquan Boldin could pose some issues for the Ravens as those are tough guys to replace. It was expected that TE Dennis Pitta would take over more of Boldin’s role in the scheme while fellow TE Ed Dickson would see more targets, but an injury to Pitta now leaves the Ravens searching for playmakers on offense.

Strengths

The Ravens’ front seven on defense looks to be a reloaded unit. The pass rushing duo of Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil should cause issues for offense lines all year long. Inside there’s Daryl Smith and Josh Bynes with Arthur Brown looking like the coverage linebacker in nickel packages. Courtney Upshaw provides good depth for a very good group. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce are two fantastic running backs. Pierce is listed as a back up but is good enough to be a starter.

Weaknesses

Outside of Torrey Smith, with the injury to Dennis Pitta, the Ravens are in need of someone to step up as a receiving threat on offense. The Ravens could use Ray Rice in more of a slot type receiving role at times but that’s merely a band-aid on a much bigger problem. Flacco needs someone to throw the ball to other than Torrey Smith. Jacoby Jones provides a deep threat but lacks a bit in route running and getting separation. Safety is a position where the Ravens may need to make some adjustments. Rookie Matt Elam may end up starting as Michael Huff looked slow and a bit lost in the preseason.

Name To Know

Arthur Brown, Jr. – Brown was one of my favorite linebackers in the entire draft last April. He flies all over the field, smooth in coverage, and plays much bigger than his size in the hole. This kid is going to be a well known player by season’s end and should end up winning the starting job over Josh Bynes sometime this season.

Prediction

Many people look at the Ravens as the team that showed up during the playoffs and point to the change to offensive coordinator as the catapult to their success. It’s naïve to think that momentum simply continues into 2013. Joe Flacco’s awareness in the pocket increased greatly in the playoffs and was really the difference in his ability to deliver the ball to Smith, Boldin, and Pitta. The reality is, the offense relied very heavily on the jump ball and that’s a tough way to make a consistent living. Smith, Boldin, and Pitta all seemed to come down with every 50/50 ball in the playoffs. It shouldn’t reasonably be expected that percentage keeps up and that Flacco sees a regression from that level of play. Flacco will be an above average QB who lives or dies by how well his big receivers win when the ball is in the air. The defense should be improved over last year’s with CB Ladarius Webb coming back from a major injury, but safety play is where Ravens could find trouble. In a tough division, coming off a Super Bowl with everyone gunning for the Ravens, they’ll get every one’s best effort. This could make for a long season by the Ravens’ standards. A step back from 10-6 last year to 9-7 seems reasonable. With Cleveland being very much improved this year, the Ravens might even slip to 8-8 and not make the playoffs.

 

 

Cleveland Browns

Overview

The Cleveland Browns cleaned house after a 5-11 season last year, and that can be misleading. There was some good young talent left by the previous regime. Lack of consistent QB play from rookie Brandon Weeden played largely into that. He seemed to get more comfortable as the season progressed and this season the Browns’ success will depend largely on his progression.

New General Manager Mike Lombardi made a major roster overhaul. Somehow he induced the 49ers to give him a 6th round pick for Colt McCoy, and then ushered out WR Mohamed Massaquoi, TE Ben Watson, DE Frostee Rucker, LB Emmanuel Acho, LB Chris Gocong, CB Sheldon Brown, S Usama Young, K Phil Dawson, P Reggie Hodges, and kick return specialist Josh Cribbs. To create a more stable situation at QB, Lombardi brought in veterans Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer as insurance to Weeden. The big player additions were LB Paul Kruger, DT Desmond Bryant, and a trade for slot WR Davone Bess. TE Kellen Davis should see significant playing time and CB Chris Owens will likely see time as the 4th CB. That’s a lot of good turnover for the Browns and some great work by Mike Lombardi.

Perhaps – no, undoubtedly – the biggest addition to this team was the acquisition of Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton. Horton was the architect of the Arizona Cardinals defense last season that proved to be a fast, physical, intelligent, and very prepared unit. Horton’s scheme is complicated and intricate but the Browns’ players seem to have adapted well in the preseason. New Head Coach Rob Chudzinski brought Norv Turner in as his Offensive Coordinator and this is very good news for Brandon Weeden. Norv proved that just because a guy is a brilliant coordinator, it doesn’t mean he’ll be a great head coach. Norv is a fantastic coordinator and the Browns will benefit tremendously from his presence.

Strengths

The Browns boast one of the better front seven players on defense. Up front, Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, and Desmond Bryant will be extremely tough to move off the ball. The linebacking corps is phenomenal and deep: Paul Kruger, Craig Robertson, D’Qwell Jackson, Jabaal Sheard, and pass rushing rookie Barkevious Mingo. That is a great unit that offers a ton of versatility – something Ray Horton will have a ton of fun with in schemes. Cleveland also boasts a very good and young offensive line. It’s anchored by the left side of LT Joe Thomas, G John Greco, and C Alex Mack, but G Shawn Lauvao and RT Mitchell Schwartz are good players as well.

Weaknesses

Cleveland does have a couple weaknesses in their receivers and in their secondary. The lack of depth of major playmakers at WR will show early on as their best WR, Josh Gordon is suspended for two games. Greg Little and Davone Bess are both solid players but neither are number one wide receivers. The secondary is led by one of the best cornerbacks in the league in Joe Haden, but lacks real playmakers beyond that. Buster Skrine will start opposite Haden, with rookie Leon McFadden and Chris Owens coming off the bench. At safety, TJ Ward is a solud player but Tashaun Gipson and Josh Aubrey will need to show some real improvement for the Browns to feel comfortable on the back end.

Name To Know

Craig Robertson – This guy looked really impressive in the preseason. If you have a chance, go back and watch his play where he ran stride for stride with explosive rookie WR Tavon Austin in the Browns week one preseason game against the Rams. Robertson was a college free agent who progressed well over last season and appears to have continued that meteoric rise over the offseason. This guy is special and a name everyone in the NFL will know by season’s end.

Prediction

Don’t sleep on the Brownies. This is a much improved and very talented team with some of the best coaches and coordinators leading it. Brandon Weeden looked great in the preseason but will learn to work on his eye manipulation or he’s a walking telegraph. If Weeden puts together a good season, this is a dangerous team. If the Browns can find a way to win opening weekend without Josh Gordon when Miami comes to visit, that’s a big positive. They go to Baltimore week two and because of the Thursday night game, the Ravens will have a few extra days to prepare for a Browns team that will still be without its biggest deep threat in Gordon. Starting 1-1 is a win for the Browns. After that, the Browns face a mediocre schedule outside of their divisional games. Trent Richardson is likely to tote the rock a ton this year and it seems like people are forgetting that Richardson was expected to be a similar runner to Adrian Peterson when he was drafted. This will be a balanced offense and a very good defense that won’t have to rely on Weeden to win every game for them. I think the Browns upset some people and finish 9-7 with a real chance to win 10 games. In the AFC, 9-7 should be good enough to slip into the playoffs with 10 wins pretty much guaranteeing it.

 

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

Overview

There have been a lot of contradictory takes on the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason. Many think that 8-8 was a fluke of a bad year and that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will kick the injury bug this season. Others see a lack of a run game and a heavy reliance on Big Ben’s arm to a receiving corps that is a bit unheralded. An aging defense that has some injury question marks doesn’t help.

But it’s the Steelers, right? They are tough and will make it on grit and perseverance and good coaching from Mike Tomlin. The problem is that the Steelers lost a lot of significant contributors in WR Mike Wallace, RB Rashard Mendenhall (not so significant contributor), OT Max Starks, G Wille Colon, DT Casey Hampton, LB James Harrison, CB Keenan Lewis, and S Will Allen. That’s six starters, including the entire left side of the offensive line, and two backups, including the safety that filled in extensively when Troy Polmalu was injured. How were those guys replaced? By adding OT Guy Whimper and CB William Gay and relying heavily on drafting. LB Jarvis Jones was taken in the 1st round, and then that was followed by RB Le’Veon Bell, WR Markus Wheaton, and S Shamarko Thomas. That’s a solid draft and has some serious potential.

Strengths

Starting quarterback is obviously the heart of this offense. Without Big Ben, this offense could possibly be one of the worst in the league. With him, there’s no telling how good they could be. Rookie WR Markus Wheaton looked great in the preseason and could provide some competition for playing time with Emmanuel Sanders and across from Antonio Brown.

Weaknesses

The linebackers are solid but aging. The Steelers will need Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones to step up and play well. Outside of Brett Keisel, there are concerns with the defensive line. Ziggy Hood was a liability last season and DT Steve McLendon isn’t special. Cameron Heyward hasn’t lived up to his 1st round draft position but should get some opportunities to prove his worth. Without Troy Polamalu, this defense has a different identity. He needs to stay healthy for this entire unit to hold together. The left side of the offensive line is something Roethlisberger will have to keep an eye on. LT Mike Adams was average at best last season and G Ramon Foster was pretty average himself. Ben will have his play extension abilities tested again this season.

Name To Know

Shamarko Thomas – Thomas is a rookie safety out of Syracuse who attacks the ball with ferocity. He fits the Steelers’ prototype of players who hit very well. He’s physical and can wreak havoc when he’s on a good streak. On bad streaks, he can be overly aggressive and get lost in coverage. He will make his mark on special teams but he could see extensive playing time if one of the starting safeties goes down.

Prediction

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a tremendously hard team to pinpoint this year. So much depends on the health of Ben Roethlisberger and yet that’s a 50/50 proposition as well. A weak left side of the offensive line and Ben’s tolerance for hits hint to another year full of injuries. But when Ben is healthy, he’s one of the few teams that can carry an offense on his own. A stable of big but slow running backs doesn’t really add any explosive element to the offense outside of the receivers. The Steelers will have trouble creating matchup issues on offense. On defense, there are questions up front as well as some concerns about age and the ability to stay healthy. Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau, and Todd Haley are all very good coaches but there’s a lot to overcome here. When is the last time that the Steelers finished last in the division? Unfortunately, there’s a real possibility of it this season. If Ben stays healthy, Pittsburgh could end up 9-7. Without him, all bets are off and this team could be drafting in the top 10, or even top 5 next May. It should fall somewhere in the middle. 7-9 seems about right for a team that finished 8-8 last year and didn’t improve in a lot of areas. With a tough schedule, the Steelers could end up 6-10.

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