Pittsburgh Steelers: 8 Reasons the Steelers Will Win the AFC North
Most years, a 12-4 finish by the Pittsburgh Steelers would be good enough to win the AFC North.
That was not the case last season as the Steelers finished second in the division after being swept by the Baltimore Ravens.
Pittsburgh will once again have an opportunity to win the division, but it will be a tougher task than usual as the Steelers will not only have to worry about the Ravens, but also the Cincinnati Bengals.
The division may be decided over the final six weeks as the Steelers play five of their final six divisional games during this time, including back-to-back games against the Bengals and Cleveland Browns to close out the season.
If the Steelers falter down the stretch, not only could they lose a chance at the division title, but they could lose out on a playoff spot.
However, the Steelers are an experienced team with three AFC North crowns since head coach Mike Tomlin took over in 2007 and they will look to add another division title this year.
Here’s why the Steelers will win the AFC North in 2012.
David Richard-US PRESSWIRE
The AFC North will be one of the most competitive divisions in the league, but that competition will not come from the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns finished 4-12 last season and have combined for 18 wins over the past four years. As things stand now, they do not appear to be primed for a giant leap forward this season.
Cleveland is expected to start two rookies at key positions, and it will be a learning curve for both players as they get acclimated to the NFL.
The third overall selection, Trent Richardson, will start at running back while 28-year-old Brandon Weeden is expected to start at quarterback.
Richardson is a very talented player and should be able to step in and play well from day one. He will be the main focus of the Browns' offense.
Weeden has plenty of upside as well.
He is smart and will not have a problem grasping the Browns’ offensive scheme. Combine this with his strong arm and Weeden has a chance to develop into a solid quarterback.
However, Weeden played in the Big 12, a conference in which they do not play defense. That is a stark contrast to the AFC North where three of the best defenses in the league reside.
It will be a year of growing pains for Weeden and the Browns, and it is possible that they could be swept by their AFC North opponents and will be a complete non-factor in the division race.
David Kohl-US PRESSWIRE
The Bengals have something good going on with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
This duo helped lead the Bengals to a 9-7 record and a playoff appearance.
Despite the improvement, the Bengals could not get past the Steelers and Ravens, going winless against the two AFC North heavyweights last season.
Things could change this year if this team continues to grow and develop, but it will still be a difficult task.
Cincinnati does not have a proven second option at receiver and will depend on a number of young, inexperienced players to take on this role.
Beyond this, the Bengals need the young players who performed well last season to continue to improve.
The most important player will be Dalton. He must avoid a sophomore slump if Cincinnati is destined to contend for the division crown.
However, the Steelers and the rest of the NFL are now familiar with Dalton.
While he is a very composed quarterback, Dalton's physical limitations could hold him back from taking that next step in developing into a great quarterback.
There is a good core in place in Cincinnati, but the team is still young and needs time to develop together before it is an annual contender for the division.
Jason Bridge-US PRESSWIRE
Baltimore swept Pittsburgh last season, including an opening week 35-7 dismantling of the Steelers.
They will have Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed all back, which will make them one of the toughest teams in the AFC.
However, the offensive line is in transition with the loss of guard Ben Grubbs and this area could be a major weakness. If any team knows how a poor offensive line can hinder an offense, it is the Steelers.
But the biggest concern for the Ravens is the loss of Terrell Suggs.
Lewis may be the heart and soul of the Ravens’ defense, but Suggs is the biggest threat.
As reported by ESPN's Adam Shefter, Suggs will likely miss the 2012 season with an Achilles injury. While no one likes to see a player injured, the absence of Suggs will benefit the Steelers.
No player in recent years has dominated the Steelers like Suggs has.
As reported by Dom from NicePickCowher.com, Suggs has 13.5 sacks and two interceptions against the Steelers. In two playoff games against the Steelers, he has five sacks and a forced fumble which was returned for a touchdown.
Quite simply, Suggs has abused the Steelers' tackles over the years.
Baltimore will still have a great defense and a good team, but with weaknesses on the offensive line and the loss of Suggs, the Ravens will be vulnerable.
Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE
Pittsburgh had a very good defense last season, but not a great one.
The major reason for this was due to the lack of turnovers and the lack of pressure on the quarterback.
After leading the league with 48 sacks in 2010, the Steelers only produced 35 sacks last season.
The absence of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley due to injuries was the major contributor to the decline in sacks.
Despite missing a combined 11 games, the duo had nine sacks each, but no one else on the roster was able to replace that production.
Lawrence Timmons was ineffective as a pass-rusher when moved to the outside, thus weakening two positions. He is best fit for the inside and needs to remain there this season.
Jason Worlids finally had an opportunity to contribute, but was not much of a threat as a pass-rusher either. He needs another training camp before he will hopefully show that he can be a starter.
But the return of Harrison and Woodley will be huge.
Harrison had nine sacks in 11 games, and if he can match that type of production at age 34, it will be a very impressive season.
Woodley looked like the best defensive player in football last October when he put up 7.5 sacks in four games.
The Steelers will expect the same from Woodley this season.
If these two players can produce, the Steelers will once again be one of the most dangerous defenses in the league and this will help them to a division title.
Expect More Turnovers
Jason Bridge-US PRESSWIRE
Pittsburgh’s defense only forced 15 turnovers last season (11 interceptions and four fumble recoveries).
That number will no doubt improve as the Steelers get both starting outside linebackers back and add athleticism to the cornerback position.
The biggest reason for the lack of turnovers was the lack of pressure put on the quarterback. If the Steelers are not getting to the quarterback, plays are not going to happen on defense.
The defense needs to force quarterbacks into making mistakes given the lack of playmakers besides Troy Polamalu in the secondary.
By forcing bad or errant throws, the interception numbers should increase, especially considering both Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen should get more time in the defensive backfield.
An increase in turnovers will mean the Steelers are playing defense at a championship level.
Last year, the Steelers finished 12-4 despite being in the bottom of the league in takeaways. By ranking in the middle of the NFL this year, it will make them a bigger threat as a contender.
Improved Offensive Line
Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
The days of having a poor offensive line appear to finally be over.
Pittsburgh should have an offensive line to start the year full of high draft picks. In other words, there is a lot of talent that will start.
Max Starks should start at left tackle if his knee proves to be healthy. That will be a significant upgrade over Jonathan Scott.
Scott was the biggest weakness on the offensive line last season and Starks came in and saved the day. At one point during the season, Starks could have been considered the team MVP given how much better they were playing with him.
The move of Willie Colon to guard was an outstanding move.
Colon has the size and strength to be a powerful presence in the middle and will be a major upgrade over Doug Legursky.
The right side of the line should be even better with first-round draft choice David DeCastro to start at right guard and Marcus Gilbert at right tackle.
New Offensive Coordinator
Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
The addition of Todd Haley to the coaching staff may have been the best move the Steelers made this offseason.
As I wrote in May, Haley has already identified the offense’s strengths and this will help maximize the production of the offense.
Under the previous coordinator Bruce Arians, it could be argued that the Steelers offense was more about producing stats than it was points.
Haley is here to fix that.
The team will use a fullback in the effort to improve the effectiveness of the ground game which will help in short-yardage situations.
They will also implement more no-huddle, which will play right into Ben Roethlisberger’s strengths.
All of these efforts will be put in to improve point production.
Pittsburgh already has an elite defense. Now it needs an elite offense to go with it.
If the offense can score one more touchdown per game, it would put it as a top five-offense in the league.
Not only would that be enough to put the Steelers ahead in the AFC North, but they would truly be an elite team in the NFL and a Super Bowl favorite.
Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
Beyond anything else, the Steelers have Roethlisberger at quarterback.
There is no question that he is the best quarterback in the AFC North, with two Super Bowl titles and a third appearance.
Roethlisberger is the toughest and strongest quarterback in the division. More importantly, he is the most successful.
No matter the rest of the weaknesses on the Steelers’ roster, Roethlisberger alone will keep them competitive and a favorite in the AFC North.