AFC North Preview: Pittsburgh Poised To Repeat with Makings of a Dynasty

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AFC North Preview: Pittsburgh Poised To Repeat with Makings of a Dynasty
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Last season the AFC North was a tale of two teams.


The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens dominated the division from the very outset, while the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns spiraled into an unescapable abyss.


The 2009-2010 season will warrant its fair share of questions, most of which will resonate in Baltimore and Cincinnati, but for Pittsburgh and Cleveland, their ultimate destiny seems already to have been preordained.


Despite last season’s parody amongst the top and bottom two teams, the AFC North can lay a justifiable claim as the best division in the conference, and one could make an argument that it is one of the better divisions in the NFL, if only behind the NFC East.


There is an unparalleled amount of talent in the division, highlighted by three Pro Bowl quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger, Derek Anderson, and the 2007 Pro Bowl MVP Carson Palmer.


Add in Big Ben’s counterpart in last year’s AFC Championship game, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, and you are presented with one of the most accomplished quartets of quarterbacks that any division has showcased in quite some time.


The AFC North also boasts the only pair of Super Bowl MVP wide receivers in NFL history, with Santonio Holmes (XLIII) and Hines Ward (XL) corralling passes from two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback, and 2004 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Ben Roethlisberger.


Speaking of Super Bowl MVPs…


Ten-time Pro Bowler Ray Lewis (XXXV) has been the face of the Baltimore franchise since its inception in 1996.


Lewis is a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year (2000, 2003), and is one of two current Ravens to have won the award. Ed Reed (2004) is the other Raven to have earned that honor, and he led the NFL with nine interceptions last season.


Speaking of NFL Defensive Players of the Year, James Harrison became the fifth Steeler to win the prestigious award last season after setting the Steelers' single season sack record with 16.


Just as Lewis is shadowed from afar by Reed, Harrison is stalked by do-everything safety Troy Polamalu, who not only was tied for second in the NFL with seven interceptions, but sealed the AFC Championship game against the Ravens by returning a Joe Flacco interception for a touchdown in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.


The bitter rivalry that has monopolized this division for years has been highlighted by these two teams who are mirror images of each other in nearly every sense of the word.


Crippling defense, a capitalizing-on-the-moment offense and a desire to ram the ball up the gut of the opposing defense are staples of both the Raven and Steeler organizations.


Jamal Lewis, the 2003 Pro Football Writers Association NFL MVP, remains a question mark for the Cleveland Browns following his offseason ankle surgery.


Lewis, who rushed for 2,066 yards in that 2003 campaign, has enjoyed marginal success against the division’s top two teams since coming to Cleveland from Baltimore two seasons ago.


While he may be lightyears removed from that record-setting campaign in ’03—lightyears in running back years, at least—he may be the most important piece of the Cleveland offensive puzzle.


A quarterback controversy is on the horizon with Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, but a healthy Lewis could stabilize the offense and help shoulder the load from Pro Bowler Braylon Edwards and whoever emerges as the Browns starting QB.


The architect of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens defense, Marvin Lewis, will be entering his seventh season at the helm of the AFC North’s most baffling enigma, the Cincinnati Bengals.


With Pro Bowler Carson Palmer rounding into football shape after three-fourths of the 2008 season, this team has all the tools to return to respectability almost immediately.


Laveraneus Coles, and his 631 career catches (41st most in NFL history), should prove to be an adequate replacement for the departed T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and will join Chad Ochocinco and a revitalized Chris Henry to form one of the most promising wide receiver corps in the Conference.


Both Cleveland and Cincinnati have strong ties to the Baltimore Ravens, but they also share another characteristic they hope to shed this season.


All three teams were looking up at the Pittsburgh Steelers in the standings at the end of the season. None of the three managed to defeat the Steelers, and a similar fate could, and should, be awaiting them this year.



The Defending Champion Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, 6-0)Super Bowl Champions: The Facts


The Steelers are coming off one of the greatest defensive statistical seasons in NFL history.


Coming within 54 rushing yards of finishing No. 1 across the board in every category, the Steelers owned the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense in total yards (3795, 237.2 ypg), passing yards (2511, 156.9 pypg), and points (223, 13.9 ppg).


Their rushing defense was second in the NFL yielding 1,284 total yards at an 80.3 yards per game clip; Minnesota was No. 1 in the league with 1,230 yards surrendered for a 76.9 yards per game average.


The second coming of the Steel Curtain held its first 14 opponents to under 300 total yards of offense, tying the NFL record, and only Tennessee managed to surpass the 300-yard mark in the regular season when they put up 322 yards on the Steelers defense.


Pittsburgh is returning 20 of 22 starters from their Super Bowl winning team, and the two starters that have departed both came from the defensive side of the ball.


Larry Foote, who departed for his hometown Detroit Lions, and Bryant McFadden, who signed a two-year deal with Arizona, the team Pittsburgh beat in the Super Bowl, will be missed, but will not leave an irreplaceable void.


Lawrence Timmons, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2007, has shown enough development to ease Steeler Nation’s collective worries.


Timmons’ athletic ability, and raw physical talent, may make him a bit of an improvement over the aging Foote, and as he continues to mature he is sure to be the next in a long line of great Pittsburgh linebackers.


With the Steelers tradition of pumping out Pro Bowl linebackers, you can rest assured that he is in good hands.


The departure of Bryant McFadden has left the door open for third year defensive back William Gay.


Gay, who filled in superbly for McFadden when he went down with injury, was an unsung hero for the Steelers last season.


With the Ravens driving down the field, and the division title perhaps up for grabs in the 15th week of the season, Gay intercepted a Joe Flacco pass at the Steelers 11-yard line with 17 seconds remaining.


The win clinched the AFC North Division title for Pittsburgh, and was the culmination of all the hard work that Gay put in while filling in for McFadden for six weeks.


The Steelers have brought in Keiwan Ratliff and Keenan Lewis to provide depth should Gay falter, and Deshea Townsend has been a solid performer throughout his career, but the organization has shown great confidence in Gay, and the starters job should be his to lose.


Last season’s big question was the offensive line.


The Steelers have their franchise quarterback in Roethlisberger, who may have catapulted himself into any discussion that includes Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, a pair of Super Bowl MVP wide receivers, one of the best young tight ends in the game, and a solid running game with Willie Parker—when he’s healthy of course. But the offensive line was a cause for concern all season.


Despite the futility of the men up front, the Steelers went on to win Super Bowl XLIII, having the league’s 22nd ranked offense in total yards (311.9 ypg), an abnormally horrendous rushing attack that ranked 23rd in the league accumulating only 105.6 yards per game, an underrated passing game that ranked 17th (206.3 per game), and the 20th ranked offense in terms of points per game at 21.7.


Inexperience played a factor in the offensive line’s inability to keep Roethlisberger off the ground—Big Ben was sacked 46 times, but after a confidence-building season that resulted in the game’s richest prize, the line should develop that all important cohesiveness that is so crucial for a unit whose success depends on their ability to work as one.


Pittsburgh, as mentioned above, seems to have a preordained destiny this season.


Their schedule is significantly easier than last seasons, and they return nearly every starter that set foot on the field for the Super Bowl.


The two replacements that will be plugged into Dick Lebeau’s complex zone-blitzing schemes are more than adequate, and this defense should be able to put up legendary numbers again, against a weaker offensive schedule.



Interesting Point(s) To Note


The most important returning player to the Steelers may not be any of the 20 starters they return on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.


Daniel Sepulveda, the team’s punter, missed all of last season after an ACL injury sidelined him in training camp.


Pittsburgh’s poor punting continually gave opposing offenses short fields, and kept the defenses back against the wall.


The Steelers ranked 31st in punting average, only three-10ths of a yard better than the 32nd ranked Bengals.


Also, the Steelers offense, while not that awe-inspiring statistically, may have been one of the league’s best when considering the defenses it faced.


Keeping in mind that the Steelers were the No. 1 overall ranked defense in yards and points, and obviously could not play themselves, the Steelers went up against nine of the top 12 defenses in the NFL in yards allowed per game, as well as the second through eighth ranked scoring defenses.


The Steelers offensive prowess should show this season, as a weaker schedule has them poised to put up gaudy numbers on both sides of the ball.



The Team with the Most To ProveBaltimore Ravens (11-5, 4-2)


Not much was expected from Baltimore last season.


Fans have come to expect a brutal, hard-hitting, and smothering defense, but with a first-year coach and rookie quarterback, it seemed as though the Raven faithful had conceded a year of rebuilding.


After a 5-11 season saw the dismissal of Brian Billick, John Harbaugh took over and rejuvenated a franchise that was eons removed from their Super Bowl win in 2001.


Led by Big Le’Ron McClain, Baltimore bullied its way to the NFL’s fourth ranked rushing attack, accumulating 2,376 yards at a 148.5 yards per game clip.


Their three-headed attack of McClain, Ray Rice, and Willis McGahee may be the best running-back triumvirate in the NFL.


Minimizing the opportunity for error was critical to the success of rookie QB Joe Flacco.


A conservative passing attack, that ranked 28th in the league (175.5 yards per game), allotted for maximum utilization of Flacco’s skill.


The rookie amassed 2,971 yards, 14 TDs, and an 80.3 QB rating while leading the Ravens to the AFC Championship game.


Baltimore’s offense, which averaged 24.1 points per game (11th in the NFL), was only able to muster 43 total points in three meetings with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a 14.3 points per game average, and looked helpless against the tormenting Steel Curtain defense.


The only time Flacco showed his inexperience was in the face of the Black & Gold.


The Ravens defense was every bit as good as it has ever been in ranking second to Pittsburgh in nearly every category.


Baltimore’s defense was second in the league in total yards allowed with 261.1 per game, total passing yards allowed 179.7 per game, and was third in rushing defense, allowing only 81.4 yards per game and 15.3 points per game (244 on the season).


Ed Reed made a strong case for consideration as the Defensive Player of the Year with nine interceptions, and Ray Lewis looked just as nimble and ferocious as he did when he was named Super Bowl XXXV MVP.


Baltimore will have a lot to prove in their second year under the Harbaugh administration, but they are able to look back on a very successful initial campaign that saw their only defeats come at the hands of playoff teams.


All eyes in the AFC North will be on the development of Joe Flacco.


People will want to know whether he is a one-year wonder that excelled with the help of a great defense, or if he is the franchise quarterback that Baltimore has so desperately sought since their inception in 1996.



Position Battles To Watch


The departure of Bart Scott has left a hole in the Ravens defense.


His ability to take on opposing fullbacks, or pulling linemen, gave Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs the ability to fly around the field and make plays.


The position is likely to come down to Tavares Gooden and Jameel McClain.


Whoever is the most physical of the two will find himself opposite Lewis at inside linebacker.


Don’t forget…


Baltimore will be looking for just its second full-time kicker in franchise history.


After Matt Stover began to show his age (41) last season, the door was opened for Steve Hauschka and Graham Gano to take over as Stover’s replacement.


While it is hard to imagine a battle for kicker being crucial to a team’s success, Baltimore is a team that has traditionally moved the ball well, but falters when it comes to putting it in the end zone.


Stover was an integral part of the Ravens success since 1996. His accuracy and numbers should have him bound for Canton, and he will leave big shoes to fill.


For an offense that historically doesn’t put up to many 30-point games, and relies heavily on their defense, field goals could mean the difference between a playoff berth and an early trip to the golf course.



The Division’s Enigma—Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1, 1-5)


After floundering in the AFC for what seemed like a millennium, Marvin Lewis had returned the Cincinnati Bengals to respectability through hard work, a renewed sense of purpose, and an offense that was turning into one of the NFL’s best.


Then, a major speed bump: the season-ending injury to Carson Palmer that limited him to four games, derailed the Bengal express that had finished sixth in 2005, eighth in ’06, and 10th in ’07 in total offense.


The Bengals finished the 2008 season dead last in total offense and points.


Their pass attack, once one of the most feared in the NFL, dropped off to 30th in the league averaging 150.4 yards per game (2,406 yards on the season), and their rushing attack managed only 1,520 total yards, or 95 per game, which was good for 29th.


While last season could be seen as an aberration due to Palmer’s absence, it shouldn’t take away from the huge strides that Cincinnati took on defense.


After quietly building through the draft, first round picks David Pollack (2005), Johnathan Joseph (’06), Leon Hall (’07), and Keith Rivers (’08) helped the Cincinnati defense scratch and claw their way to a 12th overall ranking.


The laughing stock that was once the Bengals defense limited opponents to 325.5 yards per game last season (12th), 120.1 rushing yards per game (21st), 205.4 passing yards per game (15th), and 22.8 points per game (19th).


The offseason additions of Roy Williams, the big-hitting ex-Cowboy Safety, and second-round draft pick Rey Maualuga, the uber-talented linebacker out of USC, should add the kind of ferocious physicality that has been the trademark of both Baltimore and Pittsburgh for the majority of each franchise’s existence.


Maualuga will find himself battling Brandon Johnson for a shot to start at outside linebacker in the upcoming season.


The ex-Trojan is a middle linebacker by nature, but there is virtually no chance of him usurping defensive leader Dhani Jones at the position.


A linebacking crop of Jones, Rivers, and Maualuga/Johnson will give the Bengals a formidable three up the middle, and add another dimension of difficulty to a definitively improving Bengal group.


The defense has typically been the cause of concern for Bengal fans, but it appears as though the brainchild of the 2000 Baltimore Raven defense is finally leaving his impression on a unit that finished 27th or worse in the NFL in four of five seasons before last year.


On the offensive side is where things get interesting for Cincinnati.


Carson Palmer, when healthy, is one of the top five-seven quarterbacks in the NFL; the Bengals passing attack was ranked sixth in 2005, seventh in ’06, and eighth in '07.


Outside of Indianapolis, there may not be a better pure pocket passer who is able to dissect a defense like Palmer.


With Laveraneus Coles joining Chad Ochocinco, the Bengals are able to field a pair of Pro Bowl wide receivers for Palmer.


Chris Henry, who has apparently gotten his life and legal troubles situated off the field, will be looking to return to his 2006 form which saw him accumulate 605 yards and nine touchdowns.


A mentally stable Henry provides the Bengals with a solid third option at wide receiver, and creates several matchup problems for opposing teams.


Ultimately, however, the Bengals live and die with Palmer.


As long as they can protect him and keep him vertical, this team has a chance to challenge for a wild card out of the AFC North.



Position To Watch


Cincinnati surrendered 51 sacks last season.


Carson Palmer broke his nose, sprained an ankle, and suffered season-ending ligament damage to his elbow, due largely in part to a horrendous offensive line that was unable to protect him long enough to make plays.


The offensive line will come under heavy scrutiny this season should the same problem remain persistent.


The Bengals selected Andre Smith with the No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft, and are hoping to start him at right tackle…a position he has never played.


Guard Andrew Whitworth, a second round draft pick in 2006, has been moved to left tackle, the position he prefers and played at LSU, and Cincinnati is hoping this will sure up the tackle positions for next several years.


The Bengals are overhauling their offensive line in an attempt to establish themselves in the trenches.


Cincinnati released Willie Anderson before the start of last season, and they have released Levi Jones before the start of the 2009 season.


The Bengals' best weapon is under center.


Protecting Carson Palmer is vital to this team’s success as he alone makes them capable of a wild card run.



Drama Abroad


The Bengals have been prone to drawing a lot of bad press in recent years with their legal troubles, and the flamboyant celebrations of Ochocinco.


This season, however, the intra-team turmoil to watch for may be between the team’s two biggest stars.


Carson Palmer has called out Chad Ochocinco publicly for not showing up to the team's voluntary workouts this spring.


Ochocinco is said to be working out with a trainer in Los Angeles, and won’t arrive until the team’s mandatory camps begin.


Palmer heaped praise on receivers Andre Caldwell, Jerome Simpson, and Laveraneus Coles for all their hard work and dedication to improvements on the field and in the weight room.


Is anyone other than me having flashbacks of Terrell Owens and Tony Romo?



The Basement Dweller—Cleveland Browns (4-12, 1-5)


Back in the beginning of this preview I said that Pittsburgh and Cleveland had preordained destinies.


Knowing the future is not always a good thing.


For the Steelers, they are looking at very sunny days ahead, for Cleveland, the darkness that is the AFC North basement should begin to become comfortable for them as they have all the makings of a team about to embark on a long stretch of frustrating Sundays.


The Browns are in total disarray, especially at the quarterback position.


Two years ago Derek Anderson shocked the NFL universe by putting up one of the best statistical seasons in Browns history.


His performance netted him a trip to the Pro Bowl, and had the Browns in playoff discussions for the entire season.


After missing out on the playoffs due to a tiebreaker, Tennessee managed to squeak in, the future was looking very bright for Cleveland.


The QB controversy that surrounded the team was the polar opposite of what is surrounding the team heading into the 2009 season.


Cleveland had sacrificed a future first round pick to acquire Brady Quinn, the Notre Dame golden boy, in the first round of the 2007 draft after he fell to No. 22; that year, the Browns had hotly debated between taking Quinn or tackle Joe Thomas.


After picking up Thomas with the No. 3 pick, Cleveland managed to undermine any “what-if” argument that could have arose had Quinn been drafted somewhere else; Quinn became only the third QB chosen in the first round in Cleveland history, joining Mike Phipps (1970) and Tim Couch (1999).


If landing Quinn was a surprise, what happened with Derek Anderson that year could only be described as a god-send; Anderson passed for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns.


But oh how the times have changed.


Quinn has been heralded as the savior ever since he was drafted by the Browns, and fans, as well as coaches, were constantly scrutinizing Anderson’s every move in an attempt to justify his benching in favor of the hometown prince, Brady Quinn.


Cleveland is slowly building an offensive line to protect whoever their signal caller may be, the addition of Cal center Alex Mack should compliment Pro-Bowler Joe Thomas nicely, and the Browns have just the men to mentor their new dawgs up front; Cleveland has seven linemen with at least seven years of NFL experience.


The Cleveland offense, which was 31st in the league and the only team other than Cincinnati to not accumulate 4,000 yards of total offense, was bogged down by a passing attack that ranked 31st (148.8 yards per game), a 26th ranked rushing attack (100.3 yards per game), and was tied with St. Louis as the second worst points producing offensive in the NFL at 14.5 points per game.


The loss of tight end Kellen Winslow will hurt, but Cleveland has very talented skill position players on offense.


Braylon Edwards is one of the best up-and-coming receivers in the game today, and Jamal Lewis is a proven commodity in the backfield.


Brian Robiskie, the Browns second round pick out of The Ohio State University, should complement David Patten and give Cleveland a couple versatile options at the wide-out position.


But no matter how many talented options they have, the Browns need to decide on a signal caller first, and the career of Eric Mangini in Cleveland could hinge on which QB he chooses.


Cleveland’s defense is headlined by the NFL’s leading tackler last season, D’Qwell Jackson, and a solid defensive back in Eric Wright.


The Browns defense ranked 26th last year in total yards allowed (356.5 per game), 28th in rushing (151.9 yards per game), 14th in the pass (204.6 per game), and was tied for 16th with Chicago allowing 21.9 points per game.


It is hard to find words to describe the Browns defense, but one that fits the bill is that they are okay.


Yes…just okay.


They only allowed three teams to post 30 or more points in a game, and played well enough to give the Browns plenty of chances to win.


They don’t have too many “wow” factors, but improved play from the offense will improve the defense’s statistical numbers.


In the end…it all comes back to the quarterback, and you can expect that some rough roads are ahead for the Cleveland Browns.



The QB Battle: More Than Just Anderson and Quinn?


While the primary focus will be on Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn, newly acquired Brett Ratliff may see some snaps with the first-team offense in camp.


While his odds are as slim as that of Cleveland holding a parade in Tim Couch’s honor, nothing is set in stone.


For now, the talk that will dominate Browns football until their season opener with Minnesota will be focused around who wins the starting job.


Should Brady Quinn win the starting job, he will become the eighth different opening day starter for the Browns in this, their 11th season as an expansion team.



He runs, He Catches, He Returns…and He Defends?


Josh Cribbs, one of the most dangerous return men in the league today, has been rumored to see time at cornerback in the Browns defense.


Cribbs, who sometimes operates out of the Wildcat formation on offense, will also see time at receiver on top of his usual kickoff and punt return duties.


Currently disgruntled with management over the lack of contract talks, Cribbs is perhaps the most important unfinished business decision on the Browns roster.


He wants to stay, but he also wants to get paid.


With as many options as Cribbs brings to the table, it is hard to imagine that Cleveland would allow any type of dissention to arise.



AFC North Prediction


Last season the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens had the two best defenses in the NFL.


The Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals had the two worst offenses…not the area to be weak in when playing the perennial powerhouses atop the division.


This year, Cincinnati should improve with a healthy Carson Palmer and the addition of Laveraneus Coles.


Cleveland may be mathematically eliminated by the eighth week if their QB carousel is not solved.


As for Baltimore…they need to prove that they were not a one-year wonder, and with all the veterans that have shown up early for the voluntary minicamp, they seem eager to tackle the task at hand.


And the defending World Champions?


Pittsburgh played one of the toughest schedules in NFL history last year, and posted one of the best statistical defensive seasons ever recorded.


The comparisons to the defenses of the 1970s were endless.


This year, a less difficult schedule, topped off with more cohesiveness on the offensive line, the emergence of Santonio Holmes, and Ben Roethlisberger elevating his game yet again has the Steelers poised for a repeat of not only the division crown, but maybe the odds on favorite to hoist the Lombardi Trophy again at the end of the season.


Until someone steps up and shows the desire to knock them off the perch, expect the Steelers to repeat as division champions.

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