AFC North: Why Pittsburgh Steelers Are Still the Class of the Division

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AFC North: Why Pittsburgh Steelers Are Still the Class of the Division
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Most teams coming off a 12-4 season that saw them lose a tight playoff game in overtime would be very happy with the season they had.

Well, the Pittsburgh Steelers are not like most teams.

The majority of Steeler Nation is disappointed with the way 2011 turned out, getting swept by the Ravens for the first time since 2006 and suffering an embarrassing loss in overtime to Tim Tebow and the Broncos.

Yet the 2012 season steadily approaches and the Pittsburgh faithful should have nothing to fear. The Steelers will show once again this season that they are the class of the AFC North.

I should start off by saying that the AFC North is shaping up to be perhaps the toughest division in the NFL. Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Cincinnati all made it to the playoffs in 2011 and each team seems poised to make a similar push this season.

Defense is the name of the game in the AFC North as remarkably all four teams, yes even Cleveland, had D's ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in yards per game. The Steelers were ranked first overall in this category, first in scoring defense, and first in passing yards allowed per game.

While the team had to cut James Farrior, the linebacking core will still be dominant as ever with a combination of Larry Foote, Stevenson Sylvester, and possibly third-round pick Sean Spence seeing time at middle linebacker. 

James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will continue to compete for the team sack lead and Lawrence Timmons should continue to improve in the middle of the defense.

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On the line the Steelers continue to get younger with the addition of heralded fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu to be the eventual replacement for Casey Hampton. I expect Steve McClendon to also fill in nicely for Hampton, who could be out for the beginning of the 2012 season.

Brett Keisel should continue his play as one of the most underrated defensive players in the NFL and Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward should continue to develop as talented end players.

In the secondary the Steelers can count on safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark to be solid up the middle and a healthy Polamalu is key to the Steelers success on defense.

The cornerbacks are going to be the big wild card for the defense this season as William Gay and Bryant McFadden are gone from last year's team. However Dick LeBeau has very high hopes for his young corners and they should bring a new dimension to the defense.

Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown, and Cortez Allen will all fight for the starting job opposite of Ike Taylor and I think Steeler fans are going to be pleasantly surprised with the play of our young corners this season.

There are going to be a lot of changes on the offensive side of the ball, starting with new coordinator Todd Haley and his renewed emphasis on the run.

While having Ike Redman start the season as the No. 1 running back, I think he will show that he is capable of carrying the running game with his bruising running style. This should also open the door for a player a lot of Steeler fans love and believe could have a breakout year.

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Former seventh-round pick Baron Batch was having an impressive training camp last year before he tore his ACL in August and missed the entire season. I expect him to come back with a vengeance and he could see some significant playing time during the season.

With a greater emphasis on the running game, the play-action pass should be big for Ben Roethlisberger. With a pair of Pro Bowl receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown to throw to, I expect a healthy Big Ben to have a big year efficiency-wise.

The key is Roethlisberger being healthy, something that hasn't happened in a few years and is a direct result of him being sacked 122 times in the past three seasons.

That is why GM Kevin Colbert went out and got the best guard in the draft with the first-round pick in Stanford's David DeCastro and a first-round talent in Ohio State tackle Mike Adams with the Steelers' second-rounder.

Throw in All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey and emerging tackle Marcus Gilbert and you have one of the better young lineman cores in the NFL. They may struggle right out of the gate due to inexperience, but they should be a big improvement over recent years especially as they get more acclimated to the system.

With a much improved offensive line and Todd Haley's emphasis on running the ball, Ben Roethlisberger should be able to stay healthy and show why he is still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

The Baltimore Ravens suffered a terrible setback when Terrell Suggs injured his ACL playing basketball this season. Couple that with the aging of stars Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and I think the Ravens defense will take a small step backwards this year.

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Their offense should be potent with Ray Rice, Anquan Boldin, and an improving Torrey Smith, but the Steelers have shown the ability to get to Joe Flacco in the past and I don't think anything changes this year.

Last year the Ravens had an excellent season that saw them sweep the Steelers and come one dropped pass away from a Super Bowl. While they are still as dangerous as ever, I don't see the same events happening this season.

The Bengals surprised everyone with their 9-7 season and trip to the playoffs behind rookie sensations Andy Dalton and AJ Green. Their defense is turning into one capable of being mentioned in the same class as Pittsburgh's and Baltimore's and they added talents like Dre Kirkpatrick, Devon Still, and Terrence Newman.

With all that being said, the Steelers still swept Cincinnati last season without too much difficulty. It will be a much harder task to repeat this year, but the Bengals are still not quite ready to take over as division leaders.

Coming off a disappointing 2011 season the Steelers are going to come out firing with their usual lockdown defense and a new potent offense ready to run the ball and control the clock. Pittsburgh fans should get excited to watch their Steelers show the NFL why they are still the class of the AFC North. 

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