2008 NFL Season Preview: AFC North
I am a little late with this week's preview because this is actually last week's preview. Before we dive in, I want to again address some concerns people are having. Perhaps debunking a few myths will help.
1.) Talented young players will get better after having a year in the system.
This is a myth only in as much as it is universally applied. If every young player got better every year, every team would be good. That just simply is not the case, nor will it ever be the case.
That means all you Raider fans can settle down about the young talent on your team, and the same for you angry Redskin fans who believe your young secondary and inexperienced quarterback are ready for the big time.
2.) A new coach is better than a "bad" coach.
This is the "grass is always greener" theory. We can apply this one to the AFC North, since that is what we're here for today. Brian Billick became a scapegoat for the Ravens' 5-11 season, but remember, he went 13-3 the season prior AND won them a Super Bowl.
If a team doesn't get better, a new coach won't help THAT much. New Baltimore coach John Harbough has serious work in front of him. He's stuck with a roster that has only gotten older and slower where it was talented (defense), and younger and inexperienced where it had been solid (offense).
That does not translate into success for a team. The coach can help, but the team has to have better players to win more games.
Listen, you're excited about your team. Your GM just drafted that hot SEC running back several spots later than his talent warrants, and you're pumped. Don't set your expectations too high.
Additionally, new coaches almost always take some time to get it right. Norv Turner inherited the uber-talented Chargers, and they didn't play anywhere near their potential until mid-season practically.
If you say your young player will get better, and I say he won't, then we're both right because neither of us really knows for sure, and that is the beauty of sports.
That being said, let's jump in.
Bengals (2007 Record: 7-9)
Offense: Unfortunately for the Bengals, one of the biggest headlines in the offseason has a by-line in Cincy. Chad Johnson’s contract situation remains unresolved, even though Johnson has reported to training camp.
The ankle has slowed him in camp, but assuming he is opposite T.J. Whosyamama, this offense should be explosive.
Carson Palmer put up big touchdown and yardage totals last season, but he threw some killer interceptions, due in large part to subpar offensive-line play and having no consistency in the running game. Rudi Johnson returns, along with Kenny Watson, making the ground game solid, if healthy.
Success in the running game should mask some of the pass-blocking deficiencies along the interior. That should make it easier for Palmer to get to Johnson and Houshmandzadeh on the outside
Defense: The Bengals have had a playoff offense ever since Carson Palmer has been under center. The biggest question facing the Bengals has been the play of their defense.
The supposed guru Marvin Lewis and his defense allowed an atrocious 304 passing yards per game last season. Second-year Michigan product Leon Hall showed flashes of Ty Law last season, but he still has plenty of growing to do.
With Hall and third-year corner Johnathan Joseph, the outside has outstanding talent, but little experience. If the corners can grow up in a hurry, the passing defense should be much improved.
The Bengals literally pulled linebackers off the street last season, in an effort to fill the holes, but this year, they should field a much-improved group. Landon Johnson and Dhani Jones were certainly serviceable last season, but Johnson has moved on and their talented rookie Keith Rivers hasn't been on the field much without a contract
Getting Rivers into camp and situated with the defense will be crucial to the success of this defense.
Along the defensive front, there remains nothing to write home about. Adding Antwan Odom could really help a lackluster pass-rush, after that, Peko, Thornton, and Geathers form an average-at-best group.
Overall: The Patriots showed last year that the NFL is still about scoring points. The Bengals can score points as well as anyone in the league, keeping them in games every week. Defensively, the Bengals must get better and probably will improve to a degree. A 9-7 record with a near miss on a postseason berth appears to be the path.
Browns (2007 Record: 10-6)
Offense: The surprise offense of 2007 will be back and better than ever in 2008. Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. form one of the best WR/TE combo’s in the NFL.
Adding speedy Donté Stallworth should only open up the field for Edwards and Winslow, giving QB Derek Anderson options everywhere.
Teams have had a full offseason to study this offense, particularly Anderson. Defensive coordinators get paid to make adjustments on guys like him, but they practiced on Tony Romo last season, and it didn’t appear to work too well. The Browns have too many offensive weapons for his play to decline significantly.
I kept hearing that Jamal Lewis had found the fountain of youth last season while he rushed for 1,300+ yards and nine scores. Lewis is actually only 28 going on 29 in August. A fresh start in Cleveland has certainly rejuvenated Lewis, but upgrades have turned a subpar offensive line into one of the better groups in the AFC.
With defenses pinning their ears back to get to Anderson, linebackers chasing Kellen Winslow down the seams, and Edwards/Stallworth running deep on corners and safeties, Lewis’ job will be to pound the ball early to set the tone, then salt the game away against a tired defense.
It worked last season to the tune of 10 wins. With an even better offense this season, expect more of the same.
Defense: Cleveland was among the most active offseason movers, acquiring the aforementioned Stallworth and trading for DTs Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers.
Corey Williams is ideal for the DE position in the 3-4 defense, and he has the potential to be an eight-to-10-sack player at that position. Rogers, on the other hand, remains an unknown. If he commits himself and plays hard every down, he can be a force at the nose against the run and pass.
ILB’s Andra Davis and D’Qwell Jackson could both be 100-tackle players with Williams and Rogers eating up blockers in the middle.
The Browns' defensive backfield will be filled with “could be’s” in 2008. Second-year corners Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald have tremendous potential and talent, but neither has started for a full season.
Veteran safeties might mask the inexperience on the outside, but Brodney Pool and Sean Jones have a combined three full seasons of experience at safety.
All you need to know about the Browns' passing defense can be seen in the film of the 51-45 victory over the Bengals last season, where they gave up 401 yards and six touchdowns to Carson Palmer and that offense.
To be fair, things did get better in Cleveland after the Cincy game. The Browns gave up just two 300-yards-passing games and kept their opponents under 200-yards passing in the final three weeks of the season.
Overall: Romeo Crennel’s bread and butters is defense. The 2008 offseason reflected that and fans in the Dog Pound hope it pays dividends. The Browns should score enough points to win every week, but with a young defense, there will be hiccups along the way.
The schedule is tough and many of the big games will be on the road for the Browns. Another 10-6 record could be on the way, this time earning the Browns a Wild Card berth, likely as the fifth seed.
Ravens (2007 Record 5-11)
Offense: Optimism abounds with offensive specialist Cam Cameron on board in Baltimore, giving the Ravens the kind of mind on offense they already have on defense in Rex Ryan. BUT who is going to run that offense?
In five seasons with the Ravens, former first-round pick Kyle Boller has a 56.9 percent completion percentage and a passer rating of 71.9. Troy Smith quarterbacked the Ravens all the way to the Dolphin’s first and only win of the season. Oh, and Joe Flacco has never taken a snap in the NFL.
Cam Cameron may be one of the best offensive minds in football, but he’s no magician.
Derrick Mason was the lone bright spot for the Ravens' passing attack last year, catching 103 passes, but at 34-years old, there might not be much left in the tank. It doesn’t help that no one beyond him creates much of any threat to a defense.
Willis McGahee should get the bulk of the work for this offense in 2008. Coming off a 1,207-yard season in 15 games, the former Miami Hurricane standout will have to shoulder the load while the quarterbacks figure out their lives.
It won’t help losing Hall of Fame tackle Johnathan Ogden on the left side, or starting two second-year players Marshall Yanda and Benn Grubbs on the right side.
Suffice to say, if Cam Cameron can get this offense to score points, he deserves another head-coaching job as soon as possible.
Defense: The backbone of this Baltimore team has been its defense. It won them a Super Bowl and almost allowed them to steal a game from the Patriots last season.
However, corners Chris McAllister and Samari Rolle are both on the wrong side of 30, and Rolle in particular appears to be slowing considerably. Beyond those two, pickings are slim at corner.
Luckily, the Ravens still have Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, and Bart Scott. If you can find three linebackers and a safety that creates more havoc in both the running and passing game, let me know. Ed Reed is the best safety in football, while Scott and Suggs represent an elite rush tandem. Plus, Ray Lewis, even at 33, is still Ray Lewis.
While this defense hasn’t gotten any better, it certainly shouldn’t get much worse. That will mean, once again, that the defense must carry the Ravens if they expect to win.
Overall: The schedule is absolutely brutal for the Ravens, with trips to Indy, the Giants, and Dallas, as well as visits from Jacksonville, Philadelphia, Washington, and Tennessee. That does not even take into account the six games against Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Cincy.
Sorry Baltimore fans, things may be more to your liking on the sidelines and in the press box with the coaching staff, but the team on the field is worse in 2008. Even if Cameron can work miracles, this will still be a 4-12 team.
Steelers (2007 Record: 10-6)
Offense: Big Ben’s bounce-back season turned the Steeler’s identity from a smash-mouth running team into somewhat of a finesse, pass-first offense. The guy was unbelievable, with 32 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions, and a passing rating of 104.1.
The quarterback was not the problem last season for Pittsburgh and does not appear to be an imminent concern this season either. The offensive line averages just under two years of starting experience per player, with starters Darnell Stapleton and Chris Kemoeatu having exactly zero full seasons as starters.
That does not bode well for a team that often struggled to protect Ben Roethlisberger on passing downs last seasons, even with Pro Bowler Alan Faneca at guard. With Faneca playing for the Jets, don't expect it to improve.
A healthy Willie Parker and an explosive Rashard Mendenhall give the Steelers one of the best one-two punches in the backfields in football. Hopefully they can relieve some of the pressure on the young offensive line.
Developing offensive linemen tend to learn pass-blocking techniques slowly, so expect to see a little more Steelers smash-mouth from this offense as their line comes together.
Defense: Perhaps the biggest surprise for the Steelers in 2007 was the relatively poor play Pittsburgh's defense when it counted.
While a 9.2 point per game average hardly looks underwhelming, the fact of the matter is that the Steelers gave up 20 or more points in each of their last four games and were absolutely obliterated by the Jags' running game.
Words like “soft” and “finesse” are not part of the vocabulary in Steelertown, but they were being whispered about this team late last year after the Patriots gave them an old-fashioned butt-kicking at Heinz Field.
The basic issue is the secondary.
Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend are physical corners that can jam receivers and support the run. Troy Polamalu plays safety like a linebacker, but no one will accuse him of being Ed Reed as a ball-hawking safety.
The Steelers' defense relies on their outstanding pass-rush to force quarterbacks into bad decisions. Blitz the linebackers, jam receivers, and stunt the defensive line to throw off the timing and rhythm, and Peyton Manning is having nightmares already.
However, the Patriots showed that if you take your time, pass on running downs, run on passing downs, and any other down you can, this defense is made to get after the quarterback, not stop the run or protect deep. Teams that can do both will continue to give the Steelers problems, even with an outstanding draft class and talented players.
Overall: Young head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t make too many rookie mistakes last season, as he lead the Steelers to the playoffs. However, the division has gotten better, and the AFC remains extremely competitive. Another 10-6 season and division crown look like excellent possibilities.
I have the Steelers as the division winner and the Browns as the Wild Card, with the same record, but by virtue of the Steelers' superior projected record against like opponents. With a split of the head-to-head games, and the same record against the division, common-game Win/Loss differential would be the tiebreaker.
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