Who will win the AFC North? Will the Browns surprise in 2012? Will one of last years 3 AFC North playoff teams regress? Find out how your team did in this 2012-2013 AFC North Season Preview.
Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4
Outside of Tom Brady, the Steelers have the only other quarterback in the AFC with Hall of Fame credentials at this time with Ben Roethlisberger. It also helps that the Steelers addressed their offensive line this offseason. Drafting Mike Adams at left tackle and David DeCastro at right guard really solidifies the Steelers’ offensive line. Moving right tackle Willie Colon to left guard was a smart front-office move.
Steelers new offensive coordinator Todd Haley had 3 wide receivers record 1,000 receiving yards when the Arizona Cardinals faced the Steelers in Super Bowl 43. Back then Haley had Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston all on the same team. Haley will have similar firepower with Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders in Pittsburgh. Having veteran receiver Jerricho Cotchery and rookie wide receiver Toney Clemons as potential options at slot receiver may help the Steelers if Wallace goes on a holdout.
A vast majority of the Steelers’ receivers are speedy vertical options. Without route runner Hines Ward, tight end Heath Miller will have to step up as the playmaker who separates himself on short and medium routes.
Building a stable pass-first offense is far more important than having the running game in place. However, it’s foolish to discount the importance of your backfield running the football. The Steelers will be without Rashard Mendenhall for the start of the season. The Steelers have enough stability in the run blocking department to open some lanes for other rushers.
On defense the pass rushing tandem of James Harrison and Lamaar Woodley is still one of the best in the league. Ike Taylor returns as the Steelers’ primary field cornerback with safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark aiding Taylor in the secondary. With head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau back to operate this defense, the Steelers will remain dominant.
Inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote will help the Steelers operate their 3-4 defense. Stevenson Sylvester and rookie Sean Spence make ideal backup 3-4 middle linebackers.
The Steelers’ 3-4 defensive line consists of right end Brett Keisel, nose tackle Casey Hampton, and left end Ziggy Hood. Cameron Heyward and Alameda Ta’amu can step in and contribute if either Keisel or Hampton suffers a season ending injury.
Outside of the New England Patriots, the Steelers are the one team that looks like a Super Bowl contender in the AFC right now. The Steelers’ defense is better than the Patriots for the 2012 season, and this is coming from a Patriots fan that carries a Pats jersey dating back to the Drew Bledsoe days.
Cleveland Browns 10-6
I love what the Browns did on offense during the 2012 NFL Draft. The Browns selected Alabama running back Trent Richardson, Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, and California right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. All 3 players will provide an immediate impact for the Browns. The Browns did individual workouts on all 3 players and multiple workouts leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft.
Schwartz will complement All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas at offensive tackle. The Browns’ interior offensive line will get even better with Pro Bowl center Alex Mack and left guard Jason Pinkston entering his second season after an outstanding rookie campaign. Shawn Lauvao started all 16 games at right guard for the Browns last season. Rookie Ryan Miller and veteran John Greco are ideal backup guards.
Wide receiver Greg Little has made outstanding progress this off-season by practicing with Weeden. Weeden believes he sees a little Justin Blackmon in Little.
Mohammed Massaquoi has really underperformed during his time in Cleveland since being drafted by the Browns with a 2009 second-round pick. Vertical threat rookie Travis Benjamin and 2012 supplemental draft pick Josh Gordon will compete with Massaquoi for the starting receiving job across from Little.
The Browns’ two tight end set features Ben Watson and Evan Moore. Both can be effective if they stay healthy. The Browns’ offense will be better. It’s a matter of whether the defense can hang in there.
The Browns still lack that pass rusher that can generate double digit sacks while commanding respect from opposing left tackles. The Browns defensive ends are more focused on run stuffing than pass rushing. The loss of defensive tackle Phil Taylor will hurt the Browns’ defensive line.
Scott Fujita was injured last year at right outside linebacker. This year, Fujita has been suspended for the first 4 games of the 2012 season. Middle linebacker D Qwell Jackson has suffered injuries in the past too. Rookie linebacker James Michael Johnson seems like the ideal backup for Jackson.
The Browns secondary will remain one of the league’s best when it comes to pass defense. The Browns ranked 2nd out of 32 NFL pass defenses last season because of their cornerback depth. At cornerback, the Browns have Joe Haden, Sheldon Brown, Buster Skryne, and Dimitri Patterson. The Browns can use a nickel defense and move one of these corners to free safety. Having TJ Ward at strong safety also helps.
Andy Dalton will be in for a sophomore slump in 2012 despite the fact that the Bengals return both their starters and backups at offensive tackle. The interior offensive line is led by center Kyle Cook. The Bengals decided to have an extreme makeover when it came to obtaining guards this off-season. The Bengals added left guard Travelle Wharton in free agency and drafted right guard Kevin Zeitler in the first round.
The Bengals’ new running back is former Patriots rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Outside of wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham, nobody has asserted themselves as a reliable secondary target in Cincinnati.
There is no question that Dalton had an impressive rookie campaign. I just don’t view him as a long-term franchise quarterback. Considering that Dalton was a second-round pick, he won’t have as much leverage as a first-round draft pick.
The Bengals’ best player on defense is cornerback Leon Hall. Hall will miss the 2012 season due to an injury after missing the second half of the 2011 season due to the same injury. Guys like Nate Clements, Terence Newman, Jason Allen, and Pacman Jones will struggle to fill Hall’s shoes. Just ask Cowboys or 49ers fans how these corners fared with their previous teams. Rookie cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick will have his growing pains as well before he takes his game to the next level in 2013.
The Bengals may be back in 2013, but 2012 will be a season of regression due to the lack of superstars on defense. The Bengals might have the defensive coaches in head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The problem is the Bengals do not have the players that can make a coaches job easy. The Bengals will not regress as badly as the final team on our list.
Baltimore Ravens 2-14
In 2010, I predicted that the Ravens would win Super Bowl 45. In 2011, I said the Ravens would get home field advantage and lose to the Patriots in the AFC Title. This happened at Gillette Stadium in New England. Now I’m saying that the Ravens will finish with the league’s worst record in 2012.
There are many reasons why I’m inclined to believe this. The Ravens seem to build a factory of defensive coordinators that go on to become NFL head coaches elsewhere every two years. Rex Ryan made John Harbaugh’s job easy in year 1 before taking a head coaching gig with the New York Jets. Chuck Pagano was still gaining experience as a defensive backs coach under Harbaugh. Pagano eventually got promoted to defensive coordinator in 2011, then after the Ravens won the division and got to the AFC Championship, he took the Indianapolis Colts‘ head coaching gig.
Dean Pees, the Ravens linebacker coach in 2011, got promoted to defensive coordinator. With the Patriots, Pees was placed in a really good situation at linebacker coach after Rob Ryan left the Patriots to be the Oakland Raiders‘ defensive coordinator.
Back then, the Patriots had Romeo Crennel, Willie McGinnest, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Larry Izzo. After Crennel took his first head coaching gig with the Browns, Pees kept his linebacker coach role working under Eric Mangini the following season. Then Mangini took the Jets head coaching gig, which led to the promotion of Pees at defensive coordinator.
The bottom line is Pees was a solid linebacker coach, but he never amounted to anything at defensive coordinator with the Patriots. Pees will not amount to anything in 2012 with the Ravens, either plus offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has overstayed his welcome with the Ravens.
It’s not just the fact that the Ravens have terrible coordinators replacing ones like Ryan and Pagano. There are so many more holes to the 2012 Ravens team on both sides of the ball.
On offense quarterback Joe Flacco enters a contract year. How will Flacco respond in the final year of his rookie contract?
The loss of 2007 first-round pick Ben Grubbs at left guard is much bigger than the Ravens realize. Grubbs opened up running lanes for Rice and commanded double teams in pass blocking situations. This really eased the jobs of offensive tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher on passing plays. Interior offensive lineman like Matt Birk who turns 36 later this month and the overpaid right guard Marshall Yanda will struggle without Grubbs at left guard.
It’s not just the offensive line, it’s the playmakers too. Boldin had 5 seasons of 1,000 receiving yards with the Cardinals. He’s had two seasons of under 900 receiving yards plus a combined total of 10 receiving touchdowns over two years with the Ravens
Torrey Smith has the speed that Mike Wallace has, but he lacks the route running that Wallace displays. The Ravens have a two tight end set of Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. The Ravens need to use this tandem more often.
That’s just the offensive woes. On defense, the Ravens lost their defensive coordinator, both of last year’s starting pass rushers with Terrell Suggs to injury along with Jarrett Johnson who left to play for the San Diego Chargers, 3-4 left end Cory Redding, and both of their backup safeties are gone as well. One more thing to consider is that Ray Lewis and Ed Reed may hit that turning point of regression this season.
The Ravens have lost too many core components that symbolize their defensive identity. Unless 3-4 right end Haloti Ngata wins Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, I seriously doubt the Ravens will remain AFC contenders.
AFC North Bottom Line: Aside from the Steelers reclaiming bragging rights, there will be lots of surprises. The Browns have an offense that can tally 10 wins, the Bengals should regress, and the Ravens will surprise everyone with their regression after making it to the AFC Championship.