NFL Preseason 2011: 10 Big Storylines in the AFC North

James ToljCorrespondent IIAugust 23, 2011

NFL Preseason 2011: 10 Big Storylines in the AFC North

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    So what can we tell from the NFL preseason so far?

    Okay, let's not get ahead of ourselves; preseason is, well, preseason.

    Although ever year fans get excited about their teams winning meaningless games, that doesn't mean that watching them is completely useless. Actually, the games can be a solid barometer of how different pieces of the team will play during the regular season.

    If over four preseason games a team can't move the ball at all, especially on the snaps when starters are in, expect a slow start to the season.

    And likewise, if a team is giving up 100 points a game, good luck stopping anything.

    Here are some storylines out of the AFC North that will carry into the regular season.

Colt McCoy Looks Great

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    The Cleveland Brown's second-year quarterback, Colt McCoy, has been a pleasant surprise. Not that McCoy looked horrible last season, but this preseason, he looks like one of the league's top quarterbacks.

    In Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers, McCoy completed nine of 10 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. In Week 2, McCoy only threw for 96 yards, but he completed two red-zone touchdowns and another from 21 yards out.

    McCoy won't turn into Tom Brady this season, and he doesn't have Favre-like arm strength, but McCoy does look like he will be able to utilize the weapons he has around him to have great season.

The Steelers' Defense: From Bad to Really Good

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    The Terrible Towels weren't waving high after the Pittsburgh Steelers defense got picked apart by Rex Grossman and the Washington Redskins in Week 1. Was the poor performance just a bad day for the Steelers, or did it expose larger issues?

    I'll go with the former.

    Even after the Week 1 loss, the Steelers only gave up 16 points, with the majority coming on Redskins field goals.

    In Week 2, the Pittsburgh defense truly came back to form, shutting down one of the most potent offenses in all of football with solid coverage and quick-hitting blitzes. Neither of the two big-name quarterbacks for the Philadelphia Eagles could figure the Steelers' D out, and Philly's only scoring drives came in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter by third-string quarterback Mike Kafka.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers will be ranked a top defense once again for the upcoming season.

The Cincinnati Bengals' Quarterback Quandry

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    With the early retirement of former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, most expected the Bengals' quarterbacks to struggle, but not this much.

    After getting walloped by the Detroit Lions 31-3, the Bengals got hammered again in their next game against the New York Jets, 27-7.

    I know, relax, it's preseason with a rookie quarterback at the helm, and he had a shortened offseason. Plus, when watching Dalton's two interceptions versus the Jets, only one was his fault (a pass that was covered underneath and over the top that he let sail, but the other bounced right out of receiver A.J. Green's hands).

    I would imagine Dalton will start Week 1 in the regular season. The fact is, Bruce Gradkowski hasn't looked much better, and although that could be considered throwing Dalton into the lion's den, the experience will pay off in the long run.

Who's the Baltimore Ravens' Best Tight End?

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    The Baltimore Ravens' tight ends have some pretty big shoes to fill with the departure of Todd Heap.

    The question is, who's going to step up in the starting role?

    After sitting out with a hamstring injury in the Ravens' first preseason game, Ed Dickson returned in Week 2, but he didn't do much to impress with just one reception for four yards.

    Dennis Pitta played well in Dickson's absence in the Week 1 loss to the Jacksonville. Pitta caught four receptions for 47 yards, which included a catch for 27 yards and a great snag to start the game against extremely tight coverage. In Week 1, Pitta showed he's deserving of a role in the Ravens' offense.

    But Pitta's game wasn't very good in Week 2, either. In the 31-13 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, he—like Dickson—managed to pull in just one catch for four yards.

    Expect both tight ends to be used frequently to try to make up for the loss of Heap.

"Big" Ben Roethlisberger

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    Even with the Pittsburgh Steelers' struggles on the offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger has looked solid. The big man behind center has some experience shrugging off tacklers in order to extend plays, but this preseason, Roethlisberger has looked as good as ever.

    He will have a group of young wide receivers, including one of the league's most dangerous deep threats in Mike Wallace, as well as the QB's safety value in Hines Ward (epitomized in the Steelers' Week 2 win when Ward broke a off a route to help Roethlisberger, which ended in a touchdown).

    After a year where he was forced to miss games, the only way Roethlisberger will miss any this year is if he is carted off the field. If he had won the final game last season, he would have had a much better offseason, but expect Roethlisberger to do everything in his power to lead the Steelers back to the big game again.

Ravens Receiver Lee Evans

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    Late in the offseason, the Baltimore Ravens managed to snag Lee Evans away from the Buffalo Bills with minimal effort—a fourth-round draft pick to be exact.

    And while the trade might not have made a lot of noise around the league, this was the steal of the decade.

    In his first game with the team, Evans did what was expected of him. He made a big play and stretched the field for the Ravens. He caught three passes in Week 2 versus the Chiefs for a total of 68 yards, his longest reception being a 43-yarder.

    Once Evans and quarterback Joe Flacco get accustomed to each other, Flacco won't even remember that he lost Derrick Mason this offseason (or Todd Heap and who's your momma—I mean, T.J. Houshmanzadeh).

The Bengals' Defense Is Better Than Most People Think

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    The worst possible situation for a team's defense is having an offense that has a hard time moving the ball. When a defense is constantly on the field, at some point, they are going to break.

    The Cincinnati Bengals' defense made its fair share of mistakes in Week 1, but in Week 2, at least the starters looked a little better.

    If the offense doesn't get on track this season though, the defense will probably produce some ugly numbers—but just remember, it's not all their fault.

What Does Ricky Williams Mean for Ray Rice?

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    This has more to do with fantasy football implications than anything else, because having two solid running backs isn't a concern for any team.

    The Baltimore Ravens' signing of Ricky Williams was probably just like the signing of Ronnie Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles: Both backs were simply meant to add depth and experience behind the featured backs (LeSean McCoy for the Eagles, Ray Rice for the Ravens).

    There is a question of just how much Ricky Williams will get the ball, though.

    Will he receive the same amount of carries Willis McGahee had last season? At 34 years old, Williams probably won't be getting a ton of touches, but he will still play a substantial role in the running attack.

    With fullback Vonta Leach leading the way, both Rice and Williams will have productive seasons as John Harbaugh tries to pound away at opposing defenses with the run game.

The Browns' Defense Is Still a Work in Progress

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    After losing defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to the Dallas Cowboys, the Cleveland Browns' defensive unit is still a work in progress. While the Browns have some talent in the first unit, there is a pretty big drop-off in the second one.

    The team returns up-and-coming star Joe Haden at cornerback, a healthy D'Qwell Jackson and they have an interesting new product in their defensive tackle, first-round draft pick Phillip Taylor.

    Taylor has been working hard during games, but it might take him some time to completely learn how to play the defensive tackle position in the NFL.

    The new defensive coordinator, Dick Jauron, will look to turn the defense into a powerhouse, but it just might not be possible this season. With a shortened offseason, Jauron had little time to transform the team from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3.

    The Browns gave up 17 points in their first preseason game and 30 in their second showing, but they should improve throughout the season as the defense becomes more familiar with Jauron's new system.

Who's the Favorite to Take the AFC North?

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    As a Cleveland Browns fan, this is hard to admit, but I have to go with the defending AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers as the AFC North favorite. While the Baltimore Ravens will challenge for the top spot and the Browns will be competitive, I give the Steelers the edge.

    The Steelers have a quarterback who still has the taste of defeat lingering on his tongue, so there is no better motivation. They are very deep at running back, and the Steelers have a solid corps of wide receivers, including the addition of Jerricho Cotchery.

    The defense will be tops in the league once again, led by their outstanding Pro Bowl safety, Troy Polamalu

    If key players and positions can remain healthy, especially at offensive line and Polamalu, the Steelers have to be considered a safe pick for favorites not only in the AFC North, but the AFC as a whole.