#122: Examining the Unstable AFC North
What follows is an article I wrote for BleacherReport.com
I have something riding on the quality and readability of my work there, so any comments, for good or for ill, would be appreciated.
Feel free to comment also on other articles I wrote there that I did not address here at "Steeltown Sports".
Since the NFL's most recent realignment in 2002, the AFC North did not have a repeat champion until the Pittsburgh Steelers accomplished the feat in 2007 and 2008.
The division is so erratic that whichever team the experts prophesy will claim the crown, often, ends up underachieving.
Superbowl XL champion Pittsburgh was expected to follow up its fifth championship with a division title in 2006, but it missed the playoffs altogether.
In 2007, the Baltimore Ravens were lauded as the next juggernaut and were projected to repeat their 2006 performance. They won only five games.
The Cleveland Browns just missed out on winning the division in '07 due to a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Steelers, and they were the choice of many to supplant Pittsburgh in '08. Instead, injury and ineptitude culminated in a four-win campaign.
Much of the talk before this season's training camp indicates another two-horse race between the Steelers and the Ravens in 2009.
The NFL has averaged roughly six new teams to the 16-team playoff field every season since the realignment. The '08 season saw a one-win team from the previous year become a division champion (the Miami Dolphins).
Is it truly a stretch to envision either of Ohio's professional football teams in the AFC North's top spot at the beginning of January?
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the champions.
While they will vie for their third consecutive division championship without the services of starting inside linebacker Larry Foote (who was signed by Detroit) and cornerback Bryant McFadden (Arizona), it appears that third-year pros Lawrence Timmons and William Gay are more than capable of taking their respective places.
Star linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu will return, and the defense should be its usual, dominant self under coordinator Dick LeBeau. Even the defensive line is not so old that it cannot still wreak havoc. First-round draft choice Evander "Ziggy" Hood will learn much from Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel this season, and he will be ready for regular duty in 2010.
As it has been the last few years, Pittsburgh's success will hinge on the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The questions surrounding his offensive line are as numerous as the sacks it has collectively allowed.
Two offensive linemen were taken in the 2009 draft, and only one, second-round pick Kraig Urbik, is widely considered a challenger for the right guard position. A.Q. Shipley, center out of Penn State, is a long shot to challenge Justin Hartwig this season.
The Steelers also re-signed tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon, as well as guard Chris Kemoeatu and backup lineman Trai Essex. It seems the team's front office is satisfied with a Superbowl title, and less concerned with allowing the fourth-most sacks in the league (49) and boasting the fourth-worst rushing attack in terms of yards per carry (3.7).
As long as Roethlisberger is upright, the Steelers will always have a shot to win a game, a division, or a title, but even a large quarterback can only take so many hits.
The Baltimore Ravens are hungry.
Last season, they fell just short of winning the division title (the tip of a football) and advancing to the Superbowl (Troy Polamalu's interception ultimately denied them).
Quarterback Joe Flacco does not figure to experience a "sophomore slump", just as another popular AFC North QB a few seasons ago, and second-year coach John Harbaugh knows anything is possible.
At first glance, it seems like the Ravens are pretty much intact. Pulling back a layer, however, reveals that this team looks poised to take a step back.
Baltimore eventually re-signed linebacker Ray Lewis, but one of these seasons will be the one he falls from the tier of the elite. And, as Lewis had expressed great interest in going to another team this off-season, there may also be a small, but noticeable loss of respect for a player who has long been the "heart" of the defense.
The franchise-tagging of outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was a good move, but the loss of inside linebacker Bart Scott and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan (to the Jets) may disrupt the chaotic harmony of the Ravens' defensive front seven.
Running back Le'Ron McClain could constitute Baltimore's "Weapon X" in 2009, but Flacco will have to maintain his 6.9 yards per pass average to keep the opposing defenses from keying on McClain, and he'll have to exceed it to keep the the team a championship contender. The health of Todd Heap will factor into Flacco's success.
Draft-wise, there is no player that screams "instant impact", but offensive lineman Michael Oher and defensive end Paul Kruger will help keep their respective units from falling too far when age catches up to Baltimore's present starters.
The Cincinnati Bengals are optimistic.
They spent most of last season without an experienced quarterback. Carson Palmer was injured most of the season, playing in only three games and throwing only four touchdowns. His replacement, Ryan Fitzpatrick (now in Buffalo) played in 13 games and threw only eight touchdowns against nine interceptions.
The Bengals' scoring output in 2008 was the lowest in all of pro football, and it was barely half of what they amassed in 2007 (204 versus 380).
Defensively, Cincinnati allowed the most points in the division (364), but that number was better than any team in the NFC West. In terms of total yards allowed, they were in the league's top half.
Palmer has told the press that he likes his team's chances, but that will rest squarely on him. The off-season claimed prolific wide receiver T.J Houshmanzadeh (Seattle). The acquisition of Laveranues Coles, while a decent receiver, does not provide a replacement. Chad "Johnson" Ochocinco is is not only volatile on the field, but also in his own locker room.
The most significant keys to Cincy's success depend on the defense continuing to build on last season and Carson Palmer improving his fourth quarter efficiency from 2007. That season, Palmer's QB rating in the fourth quarter was roughly 65. A tired defense and an inefficient quarterback spells certain doom in close contests.
The Bengals did have eleven draft picks, but the first few were not at the so-called "skill" positions. It will also be interesting to see how strong safety Roy Williams and defensive tackle Tank Johnson contribute to the evolution of the Bengal 'D'.
There are still too many issues in the Queen City to believe that it will be able to challenge Pittsburgh if the defending champs stay healthy.
The Cleveland Browns are adrift.
By season's end, injuries had riddled them so much at the quarterback position that Bruce Gradkowski started the final game, playing in an offense he had just started to learn on an emergency basis.
Perhaps the number of quarterback injuries and an ineffective rushing attack (3.9 yards per rush average) prompted the powers-that-be to make sure they drafted a prominent offensive lineman (Alex Mack), but they traded down to get him.
Cleveland's front office brought in Eric Mangini to replace Romeo Crennel. It is unclear where Mangini's priorities lie. The Browns have several needs to be filled, and instead of focusing on making one or two positions deep and dominant, he appears to be trying to affix band-aids to all of them at once.
The Browns need a reliable backup for tailback Jamal Lewis, but they drafted a running back in the final round (with the 195th pick), and signed untested free agent Noah Herron.
The Browns need to make sure that whichever quarterback is healthy at the moment has someone to catch his passes. They lost tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. to Tampa Bay and possibly wide receiver Donte Stallworth to a charge of vehicular manslaughter while DUI.
The solution, for now, has been to sign second- or third-tier WRs in David Patten and Mike Furrey (and so-so tight end Robert Royal), draft promising wideout Brian Robiskie, and gamble on receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. Braylon Edwards, coming off a miserable season in 2008, and Joshua Cribbs are the only receivers who have any real rapport with quarterbacks Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn.
It is unlikely that Mangini's new offense (which he will no doubt have) will be effective at first.
While Cleveland's pass defense was in the middle of the heap, its run-stopping unit was near the bottom. This is where Mangini may have done the best job. Signing former Jet Eric Barton, and linebackers David Bowens and Bo Ruud may help plug up the middle.
Between the two teams from the Buckeye State, the Cleveland Browns have the better shot at surprising the division. They have enough question marks that, if they mostly answer "yes", could produce a winner.