AFC North Preview

1. Baltimore Ravens     OTC Projected Record: 13-3

Calling Card: Offense (you heard me)
Weakness: Pass Defense
Franchise Player: Ray Lewis (for now)

The new addition.

This is not the team you think they are. They are not the defense-first, Trent Dilfer Ravens that won a Super Bowl with almost no offense. They are a finely tuned offense, full of talented guys at skill positions and bruisers of offensive lineman capable of plowing a hole for Ray Rice and Willis McGahee, or holding the pocket firm for Joe Flacco to find Derrick Mason or Anquan Boldin. And yet there are questions about the defense. Questions never before asked of the Ravens, but questions that are very valid with a missing Ed Reed and not enough calvary to make sure that the opposing offense doesn’t blister them through the skies. All that being said, the Ravens are a force to be reckoned with in the AFC.

Offense

I love this offense this year. Joe Flacco has a big new toy to play with in Anquan Boldin, but the best part about it is that he does not even depend on the new toy to be successful. Even without Anquan Boldin, the Ravens have more than enough offense to bludgeon most opponents, but the addition of Boldin adds a dimension to the offense they did not have last year. It used to be Rice up the middle, Mason out route, Rice/McGahee up the middle, first down. It seemed to repeat over and over, but it still worked because they have a good line. Now they can throw it to Boldin in the flat or send him across the middle and let him do work after the catch. They can stretch the field and let Kelley Washington and Mark Clayton worry about vertical routes since they aren’t the best route runners. This offense is a force to be reckoned with. Oh, and they have the best receiving duo in the division, as hard as that is to believe.

Defense

The Ravens will be without the Dirty Bird for a while.

When was the last time we openly questioned the Ravens defense? Well this blog did early last year, but we never would have guessed it going into the year. They did end up finishing 3rd in total yardage and points, both of which are outstanding results, but that was during a nearly-career year from Ray Lewis, and a nearly full year out of Ed Reed. I still think the pass defense is somewhat suspect, especially without Reed, but this weakness is certainly no apocalypse scenario. They will be just fine, just maybe a little more susceptible than they used to be.

Special Teams

Kicker seems to be a problem in Baltimore again, but they always seem to pop out good returners out of nothing, so hopefully for the Ravens’ faithful, their kicker turns out the same way.

Overview

Coach John Harbaugh has his team poised to make a legitimate AFC title run, but they are going to need some improved kicking and special teams if they want to do it. They finally have the skill position guys, they just need to put it together.

2. Cincinnati Bengals     OTC Projected Record: 11-5

Dear Twitter, we will make you explode at least once.

Calling Card: Running Game
Weakness: Subtlety
Franchise Player: Chad Ochocinco

The Bengals had a very quiet offseason this year, sitting pat and not adding any new loudmouths to their already controversial roster. Just kidding. Welcome to Cincinnati, T.O. I am very ambivalent about the Bengals this year. On the one hand, I think this expanded receiving corps is a good thing for the team and will take some pressure off Cedric Benson and Carson Palmer in longer-yardage situations. However, on the other hand, I fear that appearing T.O. will intrude to the point of turning this run-first attack into a pass-happy one, a change that would be awful for the Bengals. Which way will it go? Only time will tell.

Offense

This needs to be a run-first team and anything else is a bad sign. One way, the loudmouth wide outs have hijacked the offense, and the other way Cedric Benson is phased out for being ineffective. Carson Palmer is an excellent QB, but putting the ball in his hands to win every game when they have such a strong running game to lean on is an extremely inefficient way to go about business. I think this offense will be very good, but it has tons of room for error. Cincinnati had better buckle up, because it could be a bumpy road if the offense gets away from the running game. Jermaine Gresham is a potential breakout rookie almost lost in the quote-clutter provided by T.O. and Ocho, but his play should do the talking. There is not a ton to talk about right now as far as the offense is concerned, but if things go wrong at all, this offense will be a huge topic of discussion.

Once a bust, The Benson Burner is the key to the Bengals success.

Defense

Not the most exciting thing in the world, but undeniably effective against teams without the word “JETS” on their helmets. I see no reason they should regress, though seeing if they can repeat their phenomenal performance from last year. Again, there is not a ton to talk about here, just expect solid defense from this unit. Hopefully Keith Rivers can stay healthy this year to give the defense a little extra pop, but once again nothing too out-there to say about the Bengals Defense.

Special Teams

Never a great unit, and now without Shayne Graham, the kicking duties are up in the air. Things should be passable, but nothing too above average.

Overview

Ultimately, the T.O. addition adds far more distraction than it does Ws. He has added a touch of instability to the offense with both positive and negative influences. I think they will be good, and a playoff team, but they are not better than the Ravens.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers     OTC Projected Record: 6-10

Psst, hey Ben, that look is not helping your case that you aren't a rapist. Sincerely, Brad Childress.

Calling Card: Passing Game
Weakness: Offensive Line
Franchise Player: Hines Ward (formerly Ben Roethlisberger)

Big Ben is suspended, but let’s just pretend for a second that he is not. The Steelers have issues. Their top wide receiver (Santonio Holmes) is gone, their offensive line is seriously wounded and lacking in depth, their defense had more issues than a night on Jersey Shore, and they are just a key injury to Aaron Smith or Troy Polamalu from returning to those defensive issues. At least they have their starting quarterback. Oh, wait. They don’t really have that either for at least the first 4 weeks, and potentially longer. Oh, and the Steelers haven’t been a physical offensive team since Jerome Bettis. Steelers faithful may be crying til the Three Rivers overflow this year.

Offense

This is going to have to be all about Rashard Mendenhall until Big Ben returns. The bad news? The defenses know this too. I wish Dennis Dixon would win the starting job, but it looks like it will be Charlie Batch, which is not the worst thing, but is not necessarily a guy you want to lean on to win big games. When Big Ben does get back, those offensive line issues will persist and Mike Wallace is the hot young option, which is anything but a sure thing. There is just enough talent on this team to win some games, but they are headed into a downward spiral.

I realize I have said very few good things about this team, but everything is bad news for the Steelers. Bad news is not the same as bad, however, and they still have plenty of talented guys, they just happen to be guys I am less than enthusiastic about.

Oh, and Hines takes over “Franchise Player” status from Ben Rape-thlisberger. Just because.

Defense

The defense was a surprisingly bad element of the Steelers last year. Without Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu, the once feared Steelers defense got shredded week after week, eventually going ona  streak in which they gave up 27 points to both the Chiefs and Raiders (ouch). I do not think the Steelers will have the same injury suffering as last year, but any team that is so dependent on a few guys can be game planned for effectively. The D needs some work to return to dominance, but I do think it will improve somewhat. It will not be elite, but it will no longer be an embarrassment.

Special Teams

Solid, but seems to lack an explosive guy in the return game. By no means a necessity, just one hole in the third phase.

Overview

Things are not looking good for Mike Tomlin and Pittsburgh, but 6-10 is admittedly closer to a worst-case scenario than the norm. However, I think the worst-case is a likely case for Pittsburgh and its injury-prone squad.

4. Cleveland Browns     OTC Projected Record: 3-13

So where are the brownies I was promised? Wait, WHAT?!?! I HAVE TO BUILD THIS INTO A WINNER???

Calling Card: Awesome Orange Helmets (but more seriously, Running Game)
Weakness: Football
Franchise Player: Ummmm, Josh Cribbs?

Mike Holmgren gets standing ovations in Cleveland. That is how much Cleveland loves its Browns. However, the team has not been giving them much to love lately, turning in dismal season after dismal season (not including Derek Anderson’s miracle season). There are many places to start with the Browns, but all of them are bad, except Mike Holmgren, so in the interest of fairness, his name were the first two words of this section. Moving onto the realities on the field…

Offense

There is more to talk about here than you would think. They have a new, veteran, quarterback in Jake Delhomme, who is admittedly throwing to a mediocre corps, but there is hope out wide for the Browns. Mohammed Massaquoi, the youngster out of Georgia, showed some promise toward the end of last year, and will almost certainly be the main option for Jake Delhomme. However, the key to this team’s success is on the ground. They have Jerome Harrison to start the season, but once healthy, Monterio Hardesty can pick up considerable slack. He is a powerful back, and that is exactly what the Browns like in a back, so it only makes sense that he could be an impact guy toward the end of the year. Definitely a unit with potential, but not at all a good unit.

I felt obliged to include Colt McCoy here, even though there is no way he starts a game this year. Seneca Wallace is the backup.

Defense

“Bad” is the word I would use to describe the defense. Creative, right? I think a video might be the best way to describe the defense, but let me at least give the defense their due before showing it. I guess we can start with rookie Joe Haden, who can certainly step in and help an otherwise dismal unit. Other than Haden, I am not even sure exactly where to start. D’Qwell Jackson put up the best statistical season, but really, when no one is making tackles, someone has to right? Browns fans might be better off just finding a different game while the Browns are on defense. For their health.

Now for that video…

Special Teams

MTV Cribbs: The only entertaining programming on BrownsTV

Woo hoo!!! Here comes the Browns wild card, Josh Cribbs. Too bad he plays so few plays per game. They do run a wildcat-type formation for him, but with how significantly more productive he is than any other member of the Browns, they probably should have just started him at Wildcat QB toward the end of last year after Brady Quinn’s injury.

I said this about the Bears when it was about them, and I will say it about the Browns now. When you get the most excited about your special teams being on the field, your team has issues. At least the Bears had vestiges of a defense the last two years. Sorry, Cleveland. Maybe Grady Sizemore can return kicks? I know he isn’t worn out from the Indians’ season, he barely played.

Overview

I think you get the picture. Best of luck Mr. Holmgren. You need it.

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