"Six-burgh" Still The Team to Beat in the AFC North

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Eight yards out, the Pittsburgh Steelers are down by three to the NFC champion Arizona Cardinals. It’s prime time, not only in the US, but all over the world. 43 seconds left, Ben Roethlisberger takes the snap.

With seemingly all the time in the world, four seconds later he fires a laser to the back edge of the end zone. In traffic, Santonio Holmes reaches up, and stiff as a board, falls out of bounds and drags his toes.

“After review, the receiver had control of the football, both feet were in bounds, touchdown.”

Wow.

“Sixburgh” put their stamp in the history books by winning Super Bowl XLIII in convincing fashion. That wasn’t the only story last year in the AFC North, though, as many other interesting stories came out.

Joe Flacco, the quarterback shuffle in Cleveland, and the bumbling Cincinnati Bengals, all were interesting happenings to follow throughout the year.

Here’s a look at the offseason moves that each team has made so far.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

For the rest of the NFL, you could hear a pin drop through all the noise (if you can call it that at all) that the Steelers made in free agency.

Aside from letting Larry Foote, Bryant McFadden, and Nate Washington walk, the biggest splash they made in free agency was acquiring Shaun McDonald, who was cast off from the record setting Detroit Lions. 

The move just added more wood to the fire, being that the Steelers already have Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed, and rookie Mike Wallace out of Mississippi manning the receiving corp.

The Steelers addressed the trenches with their first two picks in the draft, picking up beefy defensive lineman Evander Hood 32nd overall, and versatile offensive lineman Kraig Urbik in the second round. 

Hood, playing behind solid veterans, has time to develop and learn from the vets above him, while Urbik adds quality young depth to a line that needs it.

With the loss of McFadden to the Arizona Cardinals, the Steelers spent two picks in a row on corners in Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett, in the third and fifth rounds respectively.

The most intriguing pick of the draft came later than any draftnik expected. Former Rimington Award winner A.Q. Shipley could turn in to the steal of the draft after being drafted 226th overall. 

Shipley was criticized for his short stature and short arms, but brings a tenacity and love of the game that is unmatched in this years offensive line class. Expect him to contribute strong depth for years to come.

 

Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

What's that old cliche? "Defense, defense, defense?" Oh, well the Ravens are the poster boys of strong defenses. The names Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, and, well, the name "Baltimore Ravens Defense" strike fear in to a lot of teams. Joe Flacco, with the help of his defense, led the Ravens to a strong playoff run.

The Ravens brought in recently released quarterback John Beck to make up for the loss of Kyle Boller, along with journeymen cornerbacks Dominique Foxworth and Chris Carr, center Matt Birk, and former Eagle tight end L.J. Smith through free agency, but cleaned house otherwise. 

Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard, and Marques Douglas all packed their bags and followed Rex Ryan to the Big Apple, while the Ravens felt Corey Ivy, Samari Rolle, Chris McAllister, Lorenzo Neal, and Dawan Landry were expendable.

Feel-good story Michael Oher was the Ravens first pick at 23rd overall, and added quarterback-finding-missile Paul Kruger in the second. 

One of the cornerback holes may have been filled in the third with the addition of Lardarius Webb, a ballhawk from Nicchols state who had 7 interceptions in his two year collegiate career.

One thing that may scare some Ravens fans is the lack of secondary help, overlooked in both the draft and free agency. 

Having Ed Reed is always a plus, but when you let go of five key contributors in the secondary (McAllister, Rolle, Leonhard, Ivy, and Landry), you leave a wide open hole in a pass happy AFC North.

 

Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)

Boy, that 1 is still hard to look at.  How, as a professional athlete, do you not know that there are ties in the NFL?  Marvin Lewis had to chuckle when he heard Donovan McNabb's press conference after the game. I know I did.

The Bengals had a year worthy of... Forgetting.  The injury to Carson Palmer, having to play the Ravens and Steelers twice, and ranking 19th in the league in defense and dead last in offense made it hard to watch, especially when you have weapons named Chad and T.J. at your disposal.

Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is gone to Buffalo, T.J. Houshmandzeadeh is in Seattle, and Glenn Holt is in Minnesota.  These three holes were filled in free agency, with J.T. O'Sullivan coming from San Fransisco to back up Carson Palmer, and Laverneus Coles jetting (haha... ah well I thought it was funny) from New York to Cincinnati.

They also scooped up Roy Williams and Tank Johnson from the Cowboys to help on the defensive side.

The Bengals had a stellar, stellar draft.  With the acquisition of Andre Smith to replace Stacy Andrews, the line seems a little more solidified. They stacked the defensive side of the ball with their next two picks, landing USC middle linebacker and Rey Maualuga and pass rushing machine Michael Johnson. 

The rest of the draft filled in strong depth, and even replaced T.J. Houshmandzedah's position of hardest name to pronounce and spell in running back Fui Vakapuna in the 7th.

 

Cleveland Browns (4-12)

The Browns, with little firepower left on offense after the trade of Kellen Winslow Jr. and the possible jailing of Donte' Stallworth, why would you shop superstar Braylon Edwards?  It's a general question I have to ask before delving in to the Browns...

As stated before, the biggest thing that happened this offseason for the Browns was the trade of Kellen Winslow Jr. to the Buccaneers.  A close second would be the addition of Eric Mangini as head coach.

In free agency, the Browns took the Rex Ryan approach and brought in ex-Jets Eric Barton, David Bowens, Hank Poteat, and C.J. Mosely, all on the defensive side of the ball. 

Veteran acquisition of Robert Royal from the Bills at least fills the tight end position for now, and castoffs David Patten and Mike Furrey could provide well to whoever wins the quarterback carousel.

The Browns were very effective in the draft. They traded back in the blockbuster trade the Jets made, which landed the Jets Mark Sanchez. The Browns received defensive end Kenyon Coleman, cornerback Abram Elam, quarterback Brett Ratliff, the Jets first round pick and the 52nd pick in the draft. 

With their picks, they landed a stud center in Alex Mack out of Cal, and spent two of their second round picks on wide receivers.  Brian Robiskie is a physical specimen who could immediately bring results day one, yet so could Mohamed Massaquoi. 

They are listed at 6'3" and 6'2" respectively, and against the shorter corners in the AFC North, they could be very effective.

The rest of their drafted focused on defense.  Kaluka Maiava slid to the fourth round as the "fourth" USC linebacker, and the Browns got a steal when Coye Francies out of San Jose State fell to them in the sixth round.

Although he has limited Division I experience, he's a fierce tackler with the mentality of a ballhawk.

 

What to look for in 2009

1) The defending Super Bowl Champs

Seven-peat? It will be tough with the strong conference, but it's the hard nosed, impressive Steelers who've only helped themselves through the draft. Expect another division title

 

2) Joe Flacco? 

The sophomore year for a successful rookie can be tough, especially when you've been criticized saying that your defense carried the team.  Although the 2nd ranked defense did do well, Flacco has few receiving threats but a strong run game to back him up.

 

3) Carson Palmer's return

With Chad Ocho Cinco and new toys in his receiving arsenal, can Carson turn his team around?

 

4) Braylon Edwards still in Brown-town?

The Browns are still seemingly shopping receiver Braylon Edwards around after their two picks.  They must believe in Joshua Cribbs, Robert Royal, and two rookies.  Yeah, I got a chill down my spine too Browns fans.

 

5) The turn around of the Browns

With such high expectations last year, they failed.  Now they've brought in new weapons for the offense, strong free agent pick ups, and a new head coach. 

Can they finally live up to the expectations? Who plays quarterback? They still have to play the Steelers and Ravens twice a year, but in the offseason, all you can be is optimistic.

The Ravens, Bengals, and Browns have a tough hill to climb to dismantle the defending Super Bowl champs, but it'll be worth a watch.  Stay tuned to the AFC North.

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