NFL Early Outlook: AFC NORTH

The AFC North is usually one of the more competitive divisions in football. Teams have to bring their top-notch offense to overpower the strong defenses the AFC North ordinarily presents.  As of recently though, the AFC North just has not been its typical self. The competitiveness that drives this division has lacked in some form and the teams that are most accustomed to seeing victory have been uncharacteristically mediocre. Can the Steelers rise back to the top of this division? Will Ray Rice be able to put aside his off-season woes? Are the Bengals the real deal now after winning the division last season? And do the Browns finally have the right mix to make a move from worst to first?

For those who aren’t fans of the black and yellow, finishing 8-8 really isn’t that bad. For those who are, finishing 8-8 is unacceptable. The Pittsburgh Steelers organization would consider last year a down year, but one thing about Pittsburgh is they don’t stay down for long. The Steelers have to look at this season as a season to improve and rise back to prominence. They still have the best quarterback in the division in Ben Roethlisberger and they have finally rid their roster of lackluster and lazy running backs making way for up and comers like Le’Veon Bell (who was a work horse at Michigan State and would have been for Pittsburgh last year had he not missed the beginning of the season due to injury) and LeGarrette Blount (from NE in free agency). Acquiring safety Mike Mitchell coming off a career year with the Carolina is also going to be a nice pair with veteran Troy Polamalu, and Ryan Shazier, LB from Ohio State will have to show why he was first round worthy. The young guys on defense have to be ready to step up . This defensive overhaul has been in play since 2013 and this is the year we see how the changes are working. There needs to be more emphasis on running the ball offensively as well. The Steelers  have to control their own destiny and cannot rely on the other divisional teams to fall. They went 0-4 to start last season and lost the chance at a playoff spot on what some would argue a bad referee call. Run the ball, protect the QB (as the o-line gave up 43 sacks last season according to Fox Sports), and staying defensively sound will keep the Steelers right in the thick of the things.

For the first time in the Harbaugh- Flacco era, the Ravens didn’t make the playoffs. To make matters worse, only days after the Super Bowl,  their star running back was in the news for domestic violence. Many off-season issues plagued  a team barely getting over the departure of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. Still, the Ravens are trying to maintain a defensive identity. Although LaDarius Webb, Jimmy Smith and Terrell Suggs continue to have a defensive presence, with the league transitioning to a passing league, most people still aren’t convinced their secondary is solid enough. Webb is coming off his second ACL surgery and has not been a full participant in training camp due to back spasms, and Smith is yet another Raven battling legal issues reports Matt Jergensen at Baltimore Sports and Life  . Most people thought the defense would suffer the most after Lewis and Reed left, but it seems the offense is what dwindled. Joe Flacco threw 22 picks and completed just 59 percent of his passes last season. Considering that payday he received after his Super Bowl victory, those numbers just don’t seem to cut it.  Ravens do have a new offensive coordinator (Gary Kubiak) and a new system to work in, and they also picked up Steve Smith. As good as Smith is, he won’t do for Flacco whatBoldin (who was sent to the49ers last season) was able to do. It already feels like that Super Bowl win was ages ago, but here is hope for this season. The offensive line needs to improve, and one of the young safeties has to play up to potential. Torrey Smith will also need to continue to emerge, but more importantly Ray Rice has to play big. He can ill afford another dismal season.  Carrying the ball 214 times for just 660 yards and four touchdowns is not going to help the Ravens when offense is their biggest need. 

It’s almost easy to forget that the Browns were 4-12 last season after all the buzz they have received this off-season. They should be fun to watch this year just because of Johnny Manziel, but it appears that Brian Hoyer will get the starting nod (as he should). Hoyer may only have had two starts before going out with an ACL tear, but he knows the team. And being that there are next to no one at wide out since Josh Gordon is suspended, it would be better for Hoyer to handle that pressure than Manziel. Scary thing is, with Hoyer’s size, he may not be durable. It is a strong possibility that Manziel will play more than just a few games this season and outside Jordan Cameron at tight end, there is truly an offensive shortage in Cleveland. It would be sad to see his young season sabotaged over personel deficiencies. Defense more than anything will be the reason this team moves up in the division, if they can move up, but defense can’t so it alone. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton will have first round pick Justin Gilbert to work with as well as Joe Hayden, a top corner back with tons of speed. Although the Browns have winnable games on their schedule, they don’t have enough to win the division just yet.

The Bengals are the current division champions and considering Andy Dalton receiving an $115 million dollar contract extension, fans are thinking –better yet expecting–  the Bengals to repeat again. A lot of critics aren’t sold on Dalton yet. In fact, most would call him an average quarterback that has been lucky enough to have play callers around him that know how to play to his strengths and limitations. He doesn’t’ have a strong arm to throw the ball downfield, and even after making the post season for the third year, he still hasn’t won a playoff game. Cincinnati also lost both coordinators, Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden. Both men went on to accept head coaching jobs and their absence will be felt. However, the Bengals are still the most complete team in the AFC Nort. Offensively, expect Giovanni Bernard to get more touches this season. A.J. Green has also put himself on the map as a premier wide out in this league as well coming into the season being ranked a top five receiver according to NFL.com  Their defense is still pretty much in tact, with the addition of Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State). Dennard is good enough to get a starting spot by mid-season and considering he was named  one of the best corners in the draft, Cincinnati would be smart to use him as soon as possible and watch him flourish by the halfway point. The Bengals have to prove this season they can get over the post season hump and they will need a solid performance from Andy Dalton above all others to make it happen.

EARLY PREDICTION

1. Cincinnati Bengals

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

3. Baltimore Ravens

4. Cleveland Browns

 

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