What a weekend. Lots of preseason football, a hurricane for many of us and most importantly, my 30-round dynasty league initial fantasy football draft.
OK, maybe just most importantly for me. For a lot of you out there the hurricane took precedence, and my thoughts and prayers go out to anyone who was affected by Irene. It can be just amazing to see the sheer power of Mother Nature.
I weathered the storm on Nantucket Island, where we got spared the worst. The wind was fierce, but compared to what some others got, we got off easy.
So now that the storm has passed, let’s get back to talking some football. Today’s topic is the AFC North, a division that has given us some of the most hard-hitting and competitive football in the league for the last few years.
As has become the norm, this year it will once again come down to a race between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. The Cleveland Browns will be improved, but aren’t quite there yet to seriously challenge the two bullies at the top of the division. And as for the Bengals, well they're back where we’re used to seeing them—counting their wins on one hand.
The Steelers will bring a top-five defense and a solid offense to the table. The Ravens will bring a solid defense and a top-five offense. And because the new rules in the NFL say that offense wins, not defense anymore, the Ravens will be the ones to take the division.
It’ll be close for sure; both teams are going to put up double-digit win totals, but in the end the Ravens offense is set up to join the elite point-scoring units in the league, and that will be the difference between the two.
Most importantly, it’s going to be a competitive division that’ll give us some great football games to watch this fall.
In case you missed it last week, here’s my AFC South preview.
Better or Worse in 2011: The Same
The Baltimore Ravens have been one of the best football teams in the NFL for a decade now because of their dominant 3-4 defense. The Ravens were ahead of the curve in the early 2000s in how to build a disruptive defensive roster. They valued depth on the defensive line over one or two dominant guys, they stacked their team with tough, quick, pass-rushing linebackers and they made sure they had solid corners and aggressive, playmaking safeties. Essentially, they (along with other teams like the Patriots, Steelers and Chargers) laid the blueprint for how to play defense in the last decade.
The problem was, as ahead of the curve as they were on defense, they were equally behind it offensively. They relied on a power running game to eat clock and hope that the defense could win the game for them. They won a Super Bowl this way almost a decade ago, but that may end up going down in history as the last time a team won a Lombardi Trophy with such an old-school offense.
They clearly identified this weakness and have been attempting to modernize the offense. This is the year that I see those changes paying off for them, but it all depends on if Joe Flacco has what it takes to get to the next level of elite quarterbacks.
Important Acquisitions: Lee Evans, Bryant McKinne, Ricky Williams, Vonta Leach
Toughest Player Losses: Jared Gaither, LeRon McClain, Todd Heap, Willis McGahee, Derrick Mason, Donte Stallworth
Key Player: Lee Evans
The “If” Factor: Low—if nothing else we know that the core of Rice, Boldin and Flacco will show up.
2010 Offensive Ranking: 20th Passing, 14th Rushing
This offense is built just like a modern-day NFL offense should be. The most important aspect is how you allocate your available salary cap dollars, and Baltimore has it right.
The first thing you do is get yourself a franchise quarterback and pay him whatever it takes to keep him. Next you make sure you have three top-level offensive linemen. One has to be your left tackle, one has to be your center and the third can be any of the other three spots. Pay them appropriately, especially the left tackle and the center. Next, make sure you have two playmakers; position doesn’t really matter. Then, fill out the rest of your roster with low-cost late-round draft choices and veterans trying to hang on.
Bang, I just figured it out. Your welcome, NFL GMs. Now I know it’s not always as easy as it sounds to put these pieces together, but if you're patient and stick to the plan it’s been proven that you can build this roster.
It’s been proven because the Ravens have done it. They have the two linemen in Michael Oher and Matt Birk, and they have the two playmakers in Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin. The depth at running back and wide receiver could use some work, but newcomer Lee Evans will help that.
The most important piece of the puzzle is Joe Flacco. Flacco has proven he’s a reliable NFL starter, but one of these years he needs to take it a step forward and lead this team to a championship.
2011 could be that year.
Important Acquisitions: Bernard Pollard, Jimmy Smith (R)
Toughest Player Losses: Fabian Washington, Dawan Landry, Kelly Gregg
Key Player: Tom Zbikowski
The “If” Factor: Actually pretty high—there are new faces here and the old guard is getting, well, old.
2010 Defensive Ranking: 21st Passing, Fifth Rushing
The Baltimore defense has been one of the best in the league for as long as some younger NFL fans can remember. They featured a fast, aggressive, turnover-creating machine of a defensive unit that led the team to some impressive win totals in the 2000s.
That was then, this is now—and now this defense is getting old. Their top playmakers, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, are on the back end of their careers. They have impact players in Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs, but those guys alone won’t be enough to carry this unit back to dominance.
With the lack of a top-flight pass rush and the amount of turnovers they’ve had in the defensive backfield, we might need to start thinking of Baltimore as an offense-first team, which isn’t a bad thing in 2011.
Better or Worse in 2011: Worse—hard to believe but it’s true.
Hey, remember when the Bengals were good? It wasn’t that long ago; it was only 2009 when they went 10-6 and made the playoffs. Wasn’t that great to see? Especially after all those years of futility for the Cincinnati faithful?
But that seems like a lifetime ago now. Instead of building on that success, the Bengals showed their true stripes and fell back into their reliable role of AFC North punching bag. Their franchise quarterback turned out to be a big fat quitter, they’ve seen their two best receivers lose their speed and go off to other teams, and their defense has major deficiencies in the pass-rush department.
The Bengals are going to be a team with a mediocre-at-best defense and a rookie quarterback in a tough division. Ouch.
Important Acquisitions: Andy Dalton (R), A.J Green (R), Max Jean-Giles
Toughest Player Losses: Carson Palmer (yes, he counts), Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens
Key Player: Andy Dalton
The “If” Factor: Low
2010 Offensive Ranking: 13th Passing, 27th Rushing
There’s nothing scarier for a fanbase than the thought of their team being led by a rookie quarterback. And that’s what this team is going to be facing in 2011.
No discussion of how the Bengals got here would be complete without talking about the Carson Palmer debacle. Don’t forget that Palmer’s brief time as an elite NFL quarterback was precisely when the Bengals were winning this division and playing in the playoffs. So how did we get to the point where he’d rather walk away from his career than come back and play in Cincinnati?
Well, I don’t think anyone outside of the team and its organization will ever truly know the answer to that question. But whatever it was, it clearly shows that there is something seriously wrong with the Bengals and the way they treat their players. If playing in Cincinnati is so bad that someone is willing to quit and walk away from millions of dollars rather than play there, you have to start asking some tough questions.
For this year, this offense is going to struggle because it’s going to rely on two rookies at key positions. Andy Dalton is a work in progress, and fellow first-year player A.J. Green is going to be the No. 1 option at receiver. Green has shown serious talent, but a rookie receiver with a rookie quarterback is bound to have an up-and-down season at best.
This offense will be best suited to rely on the running game and a true workhouse power back in Cedric Benson. That strategy will allow them to control the clock and keep the score low, but won’t put up enough points to lead this team to more than a few wins.
Important Acquisitions: Manny Lawson, Nate Clements, Thomas Howard
Toughest Player Losses: Jonathan Joseph, Tank Johnson
Key Player: Domata Peko
The “If” Factor: Three Ifs
2010 Defensive Ranking: 14th Passing, 19th Rushing
The only reason I think this team will stay out of the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes is because their defense is a good, young and ever-improving unit.
They have a really good young middle linebacker in Rey Maualuga, and the signing of outside pass-rushing specialist Manny Lawson should help them force some bad throws by opposing offenses.
Their defensive backfield takes a step back with the loss of Jonathan Joseph, an All-Pro caliber cover guy, but that loss will be softened at least a bit with the addition of Nate Clements. Clements is certainly on the backside of his career, but he can still be a solid NFL corner.
This unit isn’t going to light anyone up, but they should be just good enough to keep this team in a game from time to time.
Better or Worse in 2011: Better
This would be one of my favorite sleeper picks if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re in such a stacked division. They have a second-year quarterback coming off a solid rookie campaign, a good running back and an improving defense. That sounds like the makings of a nine- or 10-win team if you ask me—and that could win a few of the divisions out there.
But not this one. In this division, they’re going to have a hard time getting to seven or eight wins. They’re on the right track, but the climb to the top of this division is a long one, and they won’t get there until Baltimore and Pittsburgh take a few steps back.
Important Acquisitions: Brandon Jackson, Greg Little (R)
Toughest Player Losses: Lawrence Vickers
Key Player: Josh Cribbs
The “If” Factor: Pretty high—if the receivers step up this offense could put up some points.
2010 Offensive Ranking: 29th Passing, 20th Rushing
The 2011 Browns offense is going to be sneaky good.
Much like the Baltimore Ravens, this is an offensive roster that is being built from the ground up with a modern game in mind. They invested in one of the best left tackles in the game, Joe Thomas. They have a top-level center in Alex Mack, found a sleeper at the running back position in Peyton Hillis, and are in the processes of building depth in the receiver department.
All good moves, and all moves that are the foundation of a really good offense. But much like it took time for the Ravens to get all the pieces in place, this Browns unit is still very much a work in progress.
Colt McCoy has all the makings of a legit NFL starter. He has a good enough arm, inspires his teammates and most of all, makes the right decisions with the ball. Last year he completed 60 percent of his passes and only threw nine interceptions in eight games. That number will be better in his second season, as will his play overall.
2011 will be a year that the Browns show some of the promise this unit has, but will also be a year that constantly reminds us that they aren’t quite there yet.
Important Acquisitions: Dimitri Patterson
Toughest Player Losses: Sabby Piscitelli, Abram Elam
Key Player: D’Qwell Jackson
The “If” Factor: Low—this defense needs too many upgrades to be good.
2010 Defensive Ranking: 18th Passing, 27th Rushing
Alright, so we’ve spent a lot of time in this column talking about the blueprint for how to build an offense that will put up points in 2011. Unfortunately, the blueprint for how to build a dominant defense is not quite as specific.
You could go with a 3-4 like New England, Pittsburgh and Baltimore run, or you could go with an aggressive style 4-3 like the New York Giants run. And that’s pretty much it, until someone comes up with something better (hint: 4-2-5) you have one of those two choices. The Browns have been stuck in between systems for a few years now and it shows.
Currently they’re lining up in a 4-3, but they don’t have the right parts on the roster to be successful with it. The first thing that you need is a defensive line that can get pressure all by themselves; then you need enough quality defensive backs to take advantage of the poor throws the defensive line creates.
The Browns are trying to build this type of defensive unit, but they’re at the very beginning of the process. The defensive line features two rookies, Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard, both of which are promising but have a lot to prove. The secondary has some talent, especially corner Joe Haden, but are also still too young to shut anyone down.
The Browns defense is heading in the right direction, but they have a long way to go to get there.
2010: 12-4, AFC North champion
Better or Worse in 2011: Worse, but only by a little.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have dominated the AFC North for a while now, and have consistently been one of the best teams in the league for almost two decades.
The identity of this team has always been one of a tough, hard-hitting defense paired with a strong, downhill-running offense. While the defense hasn’t changed, only reloaded, the offense has kept up with the NFL trends and is now a pass-first, multiple-receiver offense.
The key to this team is still the defense, and they are one of the only teams in the league with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations that boasts a defense as good or better than their offense.
That defense will once again be dominant and the offense will put up points. In most of the other divisions this team would be the best, but Baltimore is a beast waiting to happen and will be too much for the Steelers to overcome this year.
They’ll still get double-digit wins and get into the postseason tournament though, and with this team’s playoff experience, I for one wouldn’t bet against them come January.
Important Acquisitions: Jerricho Cotchery
Toughest Player Losses: None
Key Player: Mike Wallace
The “If” Factor: Higher than you’d think—this offense could sputter if Big Ben doesn’t get good play from his receivers.
2010 Offensive Ranking: 14th Passing, 11th Rushing
This Steelers offense is one of my favorites. I love it so much because as a team they’ve been able to upgrade their offensive philosophy while at the same time not taking a step backwards.
When you think of Pittsburgh football you used to think of downhill running, pulling guards and fullbacks leading the way through the holes. But that’s not what you see on the field on Sundays anymore. Now you see a big, mobile quarterback sitting in the shotgun surveying a field filled with four- and five-receiver sets.
It’s those wide receivers who are the one concern on this offense. Roethlisberger is consistently good, they have good running backs and you know a Pittsburgh offensive line is going to be tough and physical. That only leaves the receiving corps as a possible liability.
Hines Ward is always good, but when will time and age catch up with him? I love the pickup of the ex-Jet Jerricho Cotchery, but he’s coming off injury so you never know what you’re going to get there. Antonio Brown has looked good in preseason play, but let’s not get over-excited about that.
The one guy here who could turn the corner and be a legitimate stud is Mike Wallace. Wallace has the size and speed to be a perennial Pro Bowler, but I need to see it in more than one season to believe it.
Overall you have to like what you see in the Pittsburgh offense. They run a forward-thinking scheme and have a top-10 quarterback. They’ll put up plenty of points in 2011.
Important Acquisitions: None
Toughest Player Losses: None
Key Player: LaMarr Woodley
The “If” Factor: Low low low—this defense being dominant is as consistent as you get in pro football
2010 Defensive Ranking: 12th Passing, First Rushing
The Pittsburgh defense will be one of the best in the league in 2011. Surprised? No—well me neither.
This defense has been ahead of the curve in the NFL for decades, and have been able to restock their talent better than anyone else. While some of the defenses who dominated the last decade are getting older, this defense has been able to replace their impact players and keep on rolling.
What’s so amazing is that they’ve done it almost exclusively through the draft and through their player development process. They hit draft-day home runs with players like Troy Polamalu, Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons.
The Steelers will be as aggressive as ever, put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and stuff the run. This defense is as good as it gets in the NFL.