AFC North 2009: Steelers Defense Still Dominates

Patrick SmithContributor IMay 27, 2009

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 01:  The Pittsburgh Steelers defense huddles up in the third quarter against the Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

In 1973, Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. Nobody remembers who placed.

The AFC North isn't quite that lopsided, but it's not far off.

The defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers will bring back 20 of 22 starters. Of course, that also means they didn't get a lot better over the winter. But, like Secretariat, how much better did they need to get?

Like everyone else in the league, the Steelers are one or two injuries away from calamity. Behind Ben Roethlisberger, for example, is Charlie Batch.

Pittsburgh's backfield is only as good as it needs to be. Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore combined for 1,379 yardsa terrific number for one running back, but not for two. Look for a recovered Rashard Mendenhall to help carry the load this year. Hines Ward went for a little better than 1,000 yards. Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller were fine targets.

But really, who are we kidding? The Steelers won in 2008 with defense. Look for more of the same in 2009.

The Baltimore Ravens surprised even themselves last season when they went 11-5 and all the way to the AFC Championship game. A rookie head coach, a rookie quarterback, and Baltimore's trademark violent defense won nine of the team's last 11 regular season games. But somehow, they're still fighting for elite status in the AFC.

Very often, the Ravens' most potent offensive threat is free safety Ed Reed. The Ravens will get nose tackle Kelly Gregg back in 2009. But microfracture knee surgery isn't easy for a lineman to come back from. Baltimore also lost surprise defensive contributor Jim Leonhard, who followed defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to the Jets.

Joe Flacco will throw to the extraordinarily tough Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton, who's due for a big year. For the first time in his NFL career, Todd Heap didn't much fit into his team's scheme. But then, for the first time since Heap's been in Baltimore, the offense seemed capable of more than two-yard passes to the tight end.

The Ravens will be good. Maybe better than last year, even. But until they can beat the Steelerswho handled them three times last yearthey'll remain second-best in the North.

The most entertaining news to come out of the Bengals' headquarters in years is that their training camp will be featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks" series this year. In the latest installment of the reality series that is the Bengals, Chad Ochocinco (I can't believe I just typed that) missed the team's optional preseason workouts and Carson Palmer complained about him publicly. So, y'know, the Bengals are off to another terrific start.

Surrendering 51 sacks, last year's Bengals had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Just ask Palmer, who had his nose broken, his ankle sprained, and his elbow torn up, courtesy of the O-line. Head coach Marvin Lewis shuffled the line in the offseason, shoring up at the tackle positions. He appears ready to move guard Andrew Whitworth to tackle and to use sixth-overall pick Andre Smith at the other tackle.

If Cincinnati can keep Palmer's head attached to his body, they might get a little better. But that'll still only be good for third place.

The Cleveland Browns manage to make people care whether Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn will start the season under center. Good for them, because very little else is interesting about the Browns. By the way, Coach Eric Mangini gives the early nod to Quinn.

If you're headed to Browns training camp this year, take a tip: you could make a fortune selling programs. After the Romeo Crennel/Phil Savage firing, the Browns have gone on a mini-signing spree, bringing in a slate of free agents hoping to impress in training camp. They've shed management nightmare and underachieving TE Kellen Winslow.

Except for guys like Braylon Edwards, Donte Stallworth, and Jamal Lewis, the Browns are starting from scratch.


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