The Baltimore Ravens are defending their Super Bowl XLVII crown.
Unfortunately, all the changes that took place in the offseason have widened the window of opportunity for the rest of the AFC North. Everyone got better. Yes, even the Cleveland Browns. The Cincinnati Bengals are also coming off a postseason appearance and you can never count out the Pittsburgh Steelers.
From top to bottom the AFC North is the conference’s toughest division and among the best in pro football. So, let’s break it down in the second of eight divisional installments previewing the 2013 NFL season.
The Ravens are solid offensively. The injury to Dennis Pitta takes away a weapon, but there is optimism as well. In an article by Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, Pitta isn’t being ruled out entirely:
The Ravens haven’t completely ruled out the possibility, however slim, that starting tight end Dennis Pitta might potentially be able to return late in the season from a dislocated and fractured right hip.
The reason why the Ravens now have some optimism about Pitta’s outlook is that the injury is regarded as a relatively clean break with magnetic resonance exams revealing no cartilage or ligament damage.
Additionally, it’s not like Baltimore has an inexperienced replacement. Ed Dickson enters his fourth season and has caught 75 passes for 753 yards over the past two years. Elsewhere, Joe Flacco will still spread the field to Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss. Factor in Ray Rice on the ground behind a strong offensive line and the Ravens aren’t going to slow down offensively.
No Ray Lewis or Ed Reed, but things aren’t as bad as they appear. The front seven is set with Terrell Suggs, Courtney Upshaw and Haloti Ngata leading the way.
The key acquisitions of Elvis Dumervil and Daryl Smith added talent and experience. Dumveril is great for pass rushing depth behind Suggs and Upshaw, while Smith is a complete linebacker on the interior. Each guy has past durability concerns, however, their play making contributions will add an excellent complement to the aforementioned studs.
The secondary isn’t as big an issue as expected. Lardarius Webb has No. 1 lock-down corner capabilities, but he must remain healthy. Getting Michael Huff was a solid move and he’ll act as a sound complement to Webb. It’s simply up to guys like Jimmy Smith, James Ihedigbo and Corey Graham to step up.
In a nutshell:
The Ravens must stick with the identity of offensive balance and physical play. The offense will score. The new faces to the defense are the ones who must impact things instantly for the team to make another Super Bowl run.
Watch out for the Bengals’ offense this season. The Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green connection is only getting better and plenty of talent exists elsewhere.
Reliable target Jermaine Gresham is still at tight end, along with big play rookie Tyler Eifert. On the other hand, wideout Andrew Hawkins’ availability remains in question as Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com writes:
While he’s still looking at a trip to the injured reserve-recall that would take him out of first half of the season, Hawkins is encouraged because the ankle looks like it’s ahead of schedule.
The offensive line isn’t old and the rushing attack remains physical. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and rookie Giovani Bernard create a strong duo that will also complement each other well. As a result, expect plenty of balance with explosiveness, because Cincinnati possesses the arsenal to adjust to any game tempo.
Dominating the line of scrimmage and applying quarterback pressure were not problems for the Bengals in 2012.
That said, creating turnovers and assisting the offense regarding field position was. Managing just 14 interceptions despite racking up 51 sacks, Cincy also allowed a 61.8 completion percentage. That lack of coverage is also why the Bengals failed to advance in the postseason, not to mention get upset by the Browns, Dolphins and Cowboys during the regular season.
The front seven will continue suffocating the trenches. Vontaze Burfict had an great rookie campaign and the Bengals also added long-time nemesis James Harrison to the linebacking fold. Include defensive line monsters in Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins and the secondary should have plenty turnover opportunities. The question will be whether or not they actually take advantage.
In a nutshell:
The Bengals can’t lose focus of the offense’s capabilities and must keep attacking. The defense just needs to force more turnovers and this team is a Super Bowl contender.
A new head coach and a new offensive coordinator give legitimate hope to the Cleveland faithful.
Head coach Rob Chudzinski was the Browns’ offensive coordinator when Derek Anderson almost led Cleveland to the postseason in 2007. Combine that with learning from Norv Turner in San Diego and quarterback Brandon Weeden should develop nicely. Now bring in Turner as the offensive coordinator and his vertical passing game suits Weeden perfectly.
While at Oklahoma State, Weeden dished the rock around quite well and with consistency. Mix in the ground work of Trent Richardson and Cleveland presents great balance to control the game tempo. All that remains is for the team’s receivers to increase dependability and getting six points inside the red zone instead of settling for field goals.
Cleveland’s defense was better than given credit for in 2012. It went rather unnoticed, though, considering the Browns’ 5-11 record and not receiving much field position help from the offense.
Nevertheless, the Browns have patched up some rough spots with the drafting of Barkevious Mingo and Leon McFadden. Mingo and the acquisition of Paul Kruger has created a sound pass-rushing tandem to complement Jabaal Sheard. McFadden on the other hand, is a quick corner with immediate No. 2 talent as Joe Haden’s sidekick.
Expect McFadden to gradually receive playing time as well, because Cleveland needs instinctive athletes as it allowed a 63 completion percentage in 2012. After allowing 27 passing scores, McFadden will help anywhere in the secondary. Ultimately, the goal is to provide better coverage which will create more time for the front seven to get pressure.
In a nutshell:
The Browns must limit offensive turnovers and remain run-balanced with Richardson. Ray Horton’s defense must blitz often and get opponents to third down.
Last season the Steelers managed just 3.7 yards per rush and scored a measly eight times on the ground.
Even though Ben Roethlisberger remains a reliable signal-caller, every quarterback needs a dependable ground attack to feed. Opting for Michigan State Brahma Bull Le’Veon Bell was a great get to complement Isaac Redman in the backfield. When Bell is finally back healthy, the Steelers should have a pair of excellent runners. Next on the agenda is to improve the run-blocking for balance.
The good news is that Pittsburgh has a really young offensive line. Only two players are 27 or older (Ramon Foster, Guy Whimper). Obviously the downside of youth also means inexperience. If anything, though, a strong rookie back paired with the young line should pave the way for a bright future.
And as long as Big Ben maintains consistency the passing game will survive despite the loss of Mike Wallace to Miami.
Pittsburgh isn’t young defensively, but there are young athletes with plenty of potential.
For one, getting pass-rusher Jarvis Jones and safety Shamarko Thomas in the draft was huge. Jones will immediately impact the defense as a complement to LaMarr Woodley and company. Thomas has plenty of versatility and brings the talent to hit the ground running as Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are on the back end of their careers.
After amassing just 37 sacks a season ago, 2012 appeared to be a rebuilding year for Pittsburgh’s defense. Still, the Steel City must quickly get back on track defensively with the rest of the AFC North improving around it.
Expect the same old coach Dick LeBeau defense, but more sacks and turnovers have to occur to avoid a second-straight playoff absence.
In a nutshell:
Roethlisberger remains the key offensively, but establishing a stronger ground game is required. On the flip side, LeBeau’s defense must win the field position battle with more turnovers.
It’s currently a two-team race for first between the Ravens and Bengals.
They split their games in 2012, but Cincinnati made some drastic offseason improvements and Baltimore’s new defensive faces have to step up big. Fortunately for each, their offenses are better overall than those of Pittsburgh or Cleveland. The Browns and Steelers remain a couple of steps back and need their offensive lines to make great strides.
This also remains a strong division defensively.
Despite the impressive offensive playmakers, they can get overlooked by those on defense. Not to mention any defense here is capable of shutting down offenses from everywhere else in football. And it’s certainly the toughest overall division in the AFC.
1. Cincinnati Bengals
2. Baltimore Ravens
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Cleveland Browns
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