NFL

NCB 2015 AFC North Preview

Moving on to the division that contains cities and teams along America’s “Rust Belt”. Today we’ll talk about the 2015 prospects of the AFC North.

This is a division that has been trading power between the Ravens, Steelers, and the Bengals in recent years. Then there’s the Browns……(Manziel Mania!)

As far as true expectations or a clear cut heavyweight emerging among this group (Well if Andy Dalton’s your QB, you know where you stand), we probably won’t see that till well into the season. Nonetheless, this is a rough idea of what exactly to expect.

1) Baltimore Ravens- 2014 Record: (10-6)

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2014 Quick Recap: Do we consider the Ravens as part of the NFL’s recent gold standard? A playoff berth almost every year since their inception in 1996. 2 Super Bowl titles. Constantly wrestling power with the Steelers, a franchise with an even richer history……I guess, ABSOLUTELY.

Two seasons removed from a surprise Super Bowl victory over the 49ers, the Ravens returned to relevancy and more in 2014. New additions like RB Justin Forsett (1,236 yards, 8 TD’s), Rookie LB and RAY LEWIS HEIR, CJ Mosley (133 tackles), and Steve Smith Sr (79 rec, 1,065 yards, 6 TD’s) helped bring a newfound and necessary talent infusion to an already well built Baltimore group. Especially Smith Sr……..

ICE UP SON!

The Ravens weren’t particularly great in either total offense (12th) or defense (8th), but they did well what they have done recently, in modeling their play after their ELITE QB (Come at me trolls and commenters), Joe Flacco (3,986 yards, 27 TD’s, 12 INT’s). That means they were more than prepared to peak in the playoffs.

After a rousing 30-17 win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the Wild Card Round in which the Ravens beat up an already battered Steelers team, the Ravens ultimately fell just short to the Patriots 28-24 in the divisional round (maybe the best game of the playoffs, 4 quarters wise).

Strengths: What’s not to love about the Ravens?

Despite losing deep threat Torrey Smith, the Ravens have plenty of young receiving talent like Breshad Perriman and Kamar Aiken to more than fill the void. Of course Smith Sr. is also still available to embarrass opposing defenses.

The offensive line is one of the most stable in the league (2nd least sacks allowed, 4th in rushing yards), led by the bull All-Pro RG Marshall Yanda……

(Yeah, that’s scary)

The defense also has returned to true form led by the all but certain future Defensive Player of the Year, CJ Mosley, who anchors one of the NFL’s best front sevens (4th least rushing yards allowed). Of course along with Mosley there is also the dynamic pass rushing duo of perennial All-Pro/Pro Bowler, the enigmatic OLB Terrell Suggs (61 tackles, 12 sacks), and OLB Elvis Dumervil (37 tackles, 17 sacks).

Where the team was devastated injury-wise last year was on the back end, and it showed (23rd in passing defense). Stalwart CB Jimmy Smith returns from injury to help boost his compatriot Lardarius Webb and Co, so the secondary shouldn’t be as big of an issue. (Shouldn’t. But we shall see)

Weaknesses: Where the Ravens have no real depth is at one position, tight end. With Dennis Pitta injured yet again, Baltimore has a host of no names at an important building block for their offense.

When Pitta was injured last, Owen Daniels was more than ready to step in and capably fill the void. Daniels is gone to Denver now and the Ravens will be counting on Crockett Gilmore there (Yeah, I know. WHO?). Needless to say tight end is a huge question.

As mentioned earlier, while Smith and Webb are a very capable corner duo, safety is also a question mark for Baltimore. Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis are sort of the exact opposite of stability and were a a huge part of the Ravens struggles against the pass last year.

There is also the whole Marc Trestman factor in coordinating and “stabilizing” an offense after leading the Chicago dumpster fire last year (Once again, Godspeed Baltimore). But hey maybe that’s not too much of an issue, as some guys are just coordinators not head coaches.

A grueling schedule may also be a problem but something tells me the Ravens will handle it quite well.

2015 Predicted record: 11-5, 1st in AFC North

2) Pittsburgh Steelers- 2014 record: (11-5)

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2014 Quick Recap: The Steelers are one of those franchises known for their defense and physically dominating opponents at the line of scrimmage. (You know basically all the meathead great or not so great things about football).

Well in 2014, with the advent of an aging “Steel Curtain” (ugh), the Steelers were a pure offensive passing team. (GASP). A team that was 2nd in passing and 7th in scoring with definitive best (fat guy) QB Ben Roethlisberger (4,952 yards, 32 TD’s, 9 INT’s) at the helm, the Steelers didn’t exactly shut many opponents down per say.

A team with the 18th best scoring and total defense needed the magic of Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown (129 rec, 1,698 yards, 13 TD’s) and RB Le’Veon Bell (1,361 yards, 8 TD’s). Otherwise known as the best offensive trio in football. Supporting players like Martavis Bryant (26 rec, 549 yards, 8 TD’s) also contributed.

Nonetheless these defensive woes and also offensive line issues that I’ll detail in a second, came to a head. The Steelers season ended when the Ravens pushed around a Bell-less Steelers squad in a 30-17 Wild Card round loss to end the 2014 season.

Strengths:

First, be mesmerized……

That man is one electric and almost un-defendable dynamo. Antonio Brown is the heart and soul of the Steelers. In my mind he is the best receiver in the league and for good reason. Teams attempt all sorts of coverage on Brown and yet nothing seems to work because Pittsburgh can get the ball into Brown’s hands in any fashion. Screens, simple stick hitch, posts, bracket, and fade concepts envelop Brown’s entire route tree, the most complete route tree in the NFL.

There is no more dangerous offensive player with the ball in his hands in the open field in the NFL than Antonio Brown. I’ll say it again. If you are an opposing defense, DO NOT LET HIM TOUCH THE BALL IF YOU LIKE TO WIN.

Of course someone has to get the ball to Brown, and other than a select few, there aren’t many better than Ben Roethlisberger. In throwing for almost 5,000 yards and limiting his turnovers, Roethlisberger enjoyed a career year of efficiency and effectiveness last season. The two time 33 year old Super Bowl champion seems to be aging like a fine wine and that is an excellent sign for Steelers fans.

Then there’s Le’Veon Bell, who despite really only doing it for one season, made himself stand out as perhaps the best all-purpose back in the NFL. In rushing for almost 1,400 yards and catching 80 passes, Bell distinguished himself as the security blanket Roethlisberger looked to more often than not. Bell will look to build off his strong 2014 with even more consistency (while also serving a short suspension to start the season), and judging off of the attention his cast receives, he should have no issues.

Weaknesses: Once again, the Steelers were ONCE KNOWN for defense (they’ve modernized a little bit). Troy Polamalu was a shell of himself last season and is now retired (Legend) so there’s that. Pittsburgh’s defense is basically now a gathering of unproven or semi proven young guys looking to establish themselves.

OLB Ryan Shazier could be a bright spot after being injured last year and ILB Lawrence Timmons is one of the best in the league as the defense’s cornerstone, but other than that, there isn’t much here to be wholeheartedly excited about, at least at the moment.

Well there is also OLB Jarvis Jones and “real good father” OLB James Harrison (http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/11575313/mike-tomlin-james-harrison-discussed-domestic-abuse-arrest-pittsburgh-steelers-signed-linebacker) (I enjoy participation trophies!) but that is also a wait and see.

Then there’s the offensive line, which after enjoying one of it’s healthiest years last year, which coincidentally led to that offensive success, has already been hit with injury. All-Pro Center Maurkice Pouncey broke his ankle in the very first preseason game (This guy’s ligaments are made of twigs), and just like that Pittsburgh is without it’s wall foundation.

The Steelers have routinely been up there other than last year in terms of sacks allowed so losing Pouncey before the season begins cannot be a good omen. Some of the sacks allowed are because Roethlisberger is always trying to make a play holding on to the ball, but offensive line injuries have also factored in as well.

In fact offensive line injuries along with Bell being out, were part of the main reason the Ravens basically tore Roethlisberger up to end the Steelers season last year. This is a situation to monitor closely, but for now Roethlisberger is healthy so they should score plenty of points to win plenty of games.

2015 Predicted Record: 10-6, 2nd in AFC North.

3) Cincinnati Bengals-2014 record: (10-5-1)

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2o14 Quick Recap: Ah, the Bengals. The NFL’s best bad-good team. The pinnacle of playoff failure and second fiddle (or in some cases, third fiddle). An individual season recap doesn’t do the Bengals justice. What happened in 2014 is basically their entire franchise history since forever.

Let’s go narrow it down to two factors and see:

  • Marvin Lewis is still head coach, the longest tenured head coach in the NFL other than Bill Belichick (I’m sorry Bengals fans….Who Dey?). Lewis is a man who is 0-6 in playoff games coaching this fine team, having never advanced past the Wild Card round, including another embarrassing no show 26-10 loss to the Colts last year.  NE-VER.
  • The quarterback is still RED RIFLE (this almost seems like a joke to make fun of Bengals fans at this point, right?), Andy Dalton. I’d talk more about Andy Dalton other than the poor mechanics, weak arm, and “cracking under pressure in big games thing” but this video should do it’s justice…..

To be fair, he doesn’t always do THAT against teams like the Redskins, in fact he lives off making bottom feeding teams cannon fodder.

Basically Dalton is the guy who will win you 9-10 games but only if you have a really talented supporting cast of receivers, an offensive line, and a fast athletic defense, which is what the Bengals have.

You won’t go any farther than that though as yes Dalton was largely listless against Indy in the playoffs last year (As he has always been). It must really hurt simultaneously while true great QB’s like Andrew Luck just find a way to come through against a good defense like Cincinnati’s.

Strengths: The Bengals may arguably have one of if not the most talented roster in the NFL.

At receiver, you have maybe the 2nd or 3rd most complete guy in the league in AJ Green (69 rec, 1,041 yards, 6 TD’s). Green is like Antonio Brown but blessed with more physical size and natural ability.

AJ Green can make your “shutdown” corner look like any guy off of the street on any given play. Injuries have been a concern with Green in recent years, but there’s no reason to think a player of his caliber can be so easily glossed over.

Mohamed Sanu (56 rec, 790 yards, 5 TD’s) is a solid #2 who will occasionally throw a touchdown pass or reverse off of a trick play designed by the brilliant Hue Jackson, while Marvin Jones is an excellent #3 option and safety valve.

At RB, the Bengals are also deeper than most in having Jeremy Hill who ran for 1,124 yards and 9 TD’s last year despite only starting 8 games. Needless to say, he should expect an increase in workload. Then as a perfect change of pace, Giovanni Bernard is your classic scat-back who while has fallen out of favor with the #1 role, still fills in capably when the Bengals need extra space.

On the front, the Bengals have arguably the best offensive line in the league and that is mostly because of such a stable tackle duo in LT Andrew Whitworth and RT Andre Smith. Whitworth is a technique mastermind who is rarely beaten when he has everything in step while Smith is your classic mauler. Tight end Tyler Eifert, who after missing most of last season to injury, also returns as a great target up the middle for the “Rifle”.

All of this comprises an offense that of course largely underachieved last year as the Bengals were just 15th in offense and scoring, but as mentioned earlier, there’s a reason for that.

On defense, other than former All-Pros DT Geno Atkins and ILB Vontaze Burfict , who both missed most of last season due to injury, there aren’t many big names, but they fit this 4-3 scheme and work very well together.

Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Leon Hall are a fantastic corner trio capable of easily locking down opposing passers. Hall in particular still excels occasionally at the shutdown role despite some nagging injuries earlier in his career. The pass rush in turn led by defensive ends Carlos Dunlap (66 tackles, 8 sacks) and the returning from Tampa Bay, Michael Johnson, will really get after people.

And that isn’t even mentioning a stellar special teams unit where Adam Jones (PAC-MAN!) also gets return work, and the Bengals routinely boast one of the leagues’ best kick and punt coverage units.

Weaknesses: I highlighted it at the top and I’m just gonna have to mention it again. Marvin Lewis seems to just lose his marbles in gathering his team’s focus when the time comes in the big moments. The man is certainly an excellent motivator and talent developer, but an air of stagnancy has set in Cincinnati, with maybe eventual change needed.

That goes without saying when we talk about Andy Dalton too. Until Dalton can translate at least some kind of game management in the playoffs instead of his typical erratic self, the Bengals may ultimately just fall short every time in the end. Other than that, I’ll top off the Bengals with this:

Who Dey gonna beat them Bengals?

Almost every true contender.

2015 Predicted record: 9-7, 3rd in AFC North.

4. Cleveland Browns-2014 record: (7-9) 

Dec 14, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) warms up before the game between the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

2014 Quick Recap: Ah yes, the Browns! The portrait of all the futility and sadness of the Cleveland sports landscape!

Doesn’t it speak volumes when the guy in the above picture (We don’t need to mention his name as for fear of talking about him more) is essentially the current face of your franchise?

And not on purpose, no.

It’s only because he’s in the news so much for things he DOESN’T do on the field and the public basically glosses over every other on field success the Browns have, because there aren’t many.

Yes as is the theme when we get down to some of the worst teams in the NFL, there’s a lot more to recap than just one season. Take a look at say the last 15 Browns seasons records:

  • 2000: 3-13
  • 2001: 7-9
  • 2002: 9-7  (THE ONLY PLAYOFF BERTH IN RECENT MEMORY)
  • 2003: 5-11
  • 2004: 4-12
  • 2005: 6-10
  • 2006: 4-12
  • 2007: 10-6 (1o win season and no playoffs, that’s SOOO Browns)
  • 2008: 4-12
  • 2009: 5-11
  • 2010: 5-11
  • 2011: 4-12
  • 2012: 5-11
  • 2013: 4-12
  • 2014: 7-9

I mean seriously, just look at that one more time. That is the picture of mediocrity. Even with a slight uptick in wins since 2007 in 2014, there’s literally nothing to write home about about last season for the Browns. The same exact incompetence and ineptitude happened last year that has happened for most of the team’s recent existence.

The Browns are the NFL’s least successful franchise in the Super Bowl era for good reason.

Strengths/Weaknesses: I guess of the few strengths, you can mention LT Joe Thomas, arguably a future first ballot Hall of Famer, who will never play for a successful team. And maybe even S Tashaun Gipson and CB Joe Haden who comprise a somewhat excellent back end for the Browns.

However successful teams are built in the trenches and then on, not reverse, so you get the point.

Weaknesses? There’s too many to count.

Cleveland probably has the worst receiving core in the league with TE Jordan Cameron leaving for Miami and WR Josh Gordon just in general not being able to stay off the dope (Free Josh Gordon?)

Your quarterback is either Josh McCown, who is a career backup that has now made an extra $10 million plus dollars thanks to the witchcraft of a half season of Marc Trestman, or Johnny Manziel (Fine, we can talk about him) who basically is an erratic college QB not fit to play with the big boys. (That’s all we’ll say).

So you’re screwed at quarterback.  I mean….does anything else matter? The front seven too is actually pretty decent led by a bunch of no names even without recent bust 1st round Phil Taylor but still…….

It just seems like the Browns always find a way to screw good things up. They won’t be one of the worst teams in the NFL but they certainly won’t be anywhere near the top. It should be the franchise motto or something. Cincinnati has “Who Dey”.

Cleveland has “Oh No, What’s Next?

2015 Predicted Record: 5-11, Last in AFC North

-Robert Zeglinski

Robert Zeglinski is an aspiring sportswriter who absolutely loves all the nitty gritty that comes with pro sports. He is currently attending Aurora University in Illinois. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigZags82 or reach him through email (robertpoduski@gmail.com) for questions or feedback. 

Sources: (concordmonitor.com, Baltimore Sun, NFL.com, theballmorewine.com, ESPN, USA Today, kallisphere)

 

 

 

 

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