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2013 AFC North Division Preview

Andrew McKagan |
September 2, 2013 | 12:54 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

With a Super Bowl ring and a fat contract under his belt, can Joe Flacco lead Baltimore to another championship? (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)
With a Super Bowl ring and a fat contract under his belt, can Joe Flacco lead Baltimore to another championship? (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)
Baltimore Ravens

Major free agency additions: Michael Huff, Daryl Smith, Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, Marcus Spears

Notable rookies: Matt Elam, Arthur Brown

Major losses: Anquan Boldin, Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Cary Williams, Bernard Pollard, Matt Birk

Thoughts and musings:

*Despite the loss of multiple cornerstone players, the free agent acquisitions as well as the drafting of players like Matt Elam and Arthur Brown will do more than fill the voids left by Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Paul Kruger. The Elvis Dumervil/Terrell Suggs combo might even be the best pass-rushing duo the Ravens have had in recent years.

*The loss of Anquan Boldin is a concern for the Ravens’ offense, as is Dennis Pitta’s injury. Torrey Smith will have to step up in a big way, which could potentially be problematic; Smith has been generally inconsistent throughout his pro career thus far, and will need to work on route running in order to truly become more than a situational threat for Baltimore.

*Don’t forget about the return of Lardarius Webb, who was a top 5 cornerback before suffering a knee injury last year. The Ravens like to move him around and play him in the slot in their nickel package, so if he returns to full health watch for him to be making plays all over the field. Potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

*The Ravens’ offensive line might have been the best in the league by the end of last year when Bryant McKinnie was moved to left tackle, Michael Oher flipped to right tackle, and Kelechi Osemele inside to left guard. This combined with the aforementioned loss of weapons in the passing game may very well translate to a heavier emphasis on the run for the Ravens this year.  Watch for them to lean heavily on Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.

*I don’t expect Joe Flacco to solidify himself with the elite quarterbacks this year. Even though he played great in the playoffs, he lost his top two receiving options this offseason, and we shouldn’t ignore his inconsistent performance throughout last year’s regular season, either.

Players to watch:

Bernard Pierce: A talented running back who will likely see much greater workload this year. Ray Rice also has a lot of carries to his name, and should he go down, Pierce will surely receive the first crack at starting.

Jimmy Smith: A physically gifted corner who hasn’t quite put it together as a pro yet. This year he will be counted on to see more playing time in Cary Williams’ absence, so he’d better step up.

Michael Huff: Younger and more physically talented than Reed at this point. He should see plenty of opportunity to make plays playing deep centerfield in Baltimore’s secondary.

Haloti Ngata: With Terrell Suggs presumably healthier and another year removed from an Achilles injury, Suggs and Dumervil figure to get a lot of attention. And after a relatively poor year by Ngata because of a meniscus injury, watch for Ngata to take advantage of one-on-ones and have a strong bounce back year.

Kelechi Osemele: He ended last year as possibly the best guard in football. Let’s see if he can solidify himself in this upper-echelon this year.

Game to watch: Week 3 vs. the Houston Texans

Houston is as balanced of a team as the Ravens will face. This will be thorough test for a Ravens team being rebuilt on the fly.

One sentence encapsulation: The Ravens will get back to their ground-and-pound, defensive roots and will be more consistent because of it. 

Rookie Giovanni Bernard has come into his own this preseason. (Thomson200/Wikimedia Commons)
Rookie Giovanni Bernard has come into his own this preseason. (Thomson200/Wikimedia Commons)
Cincinnati Bengals

Major free agency additions: James Harrison

Notable rookies: Tyler Eifert, Giovanni Bernard

Major losses: Manny Lawson, Pat Sims

Thoughts and musings:

*The Bengals were one of the best teams at generating pressure with their front four last year, and I expect much of the same this year.  Plus, after getting a glimpse of the attitude and physicality that new addition James Harrison brings to the Bengals, it seems as though he will add a whole new playmaking dimension to the Bengals defense.

*Rookie tight end Tyler Eifert seems like he is already a better receiving threat than fellow tight end and incumbent starter Jermaine Gresham. Eifert should improve an already solid passing attack.

*Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is finally healthy, and Cincy’s secondary should be even better than it was last year.

Players to watch

Geno Atkins: He was the second-best defensive lineman in the league last year. I can’t wait to see what he does for an encore performance in only his fourth pro year.

Tyler Eifert: He might already be the second-best receiving option on the Bengals. Expect many touchdowns out of this rookie while AJ Green draws the double coverages.

Game to watch: Weeks 10 and 17 against the Baltimore Ravens

These games against the defending Super Bowl champion will be opportunities for the Bengals to show who owns the division. Even though this division will be a tight race, the Ravens are still the best team right now until they are dethroned. Hopefully for the Bengals, they will be the team to take the crown. 

One sentence encapsulation: The Bengals are knocking on the door to becoming an elite team in the NFL; they are the most talented team on paper in their division, and if they play to the level they are capable of, there is no doubt that a deep playoff run is in their future. 

Brandon Weeden is finally assured of the starting job in Cleveland. (Greg Mitchell/Flickr)
Brandon Weeden is finally assured of the starting job in Cleveland. (Greg Mitchell/Flickr)

Cleveland Browns

Major free agency additions: Paul Kruger, Desmond Bryant, Quentin Groves

Notable rookies: Barkevious Mingo

Major losses: Ben Watson, Frostee Rucker

Thoughts and musings:

*This front seven will be one of the most talented in the NFL. Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor, and Desmond Bryant will be clogging up the middle. Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo, and Quentin Groves, will be coming from all over the place in Ray Horton’s blitz-happy scheme. The Browns’ pass rush should be fresh and nasty.

*Speaking of Horton, he could be just as important to the Browns as any free agent signing. Cleveland’s defense in general should be one of the best in the league.

*A healthy Trent Richardson should make the running attack consistent and productive.

*A lot of the Browns’ success hinges on Brandon Weeden. But the good news is that the Browns have surprisingly few major holes around their roster, and Weeden won’t have to be a 4,000 yard passer for Cleveland to consistently win games. Weeden does have to take care of the ball though, and make the plays that are there.

*The secondary slightly worries me, especially whoever will start at the free safety position as well as the cornerback spot opposite Joe Haden.

Players to watch

Barkevious Mingo: Watch for Ray Horton to use Mingo much like he used Daryl Washington in Arizona last year; he’ll move the athletic Mingo around, blitzing him from all over the place and setting him up for easy sack opportunities.

Jordan Cameron: An athletic tight end and former Trojan. He has been Weeden’s #1 threat in the preseason, and the Browns will need him badly. Especially when Josh Gordon is suspended for the first 2 games of the season.

Game to watch: Week 7 at the Green Bay Packers

The deep Packers wide receiving corps will be a test for what appears to be a thin Browns secondary. If Cleveland can get physical with Green Bay and find ways to play good pass defense, they can hang with anybody.

One sentence encapsulation: The Browns are talented, so don’t be surprised when they are in playoff contention throughout the second half of the season

Can Troy Polamalu and the Steelers win again depsite their old age? (Jodi Only/Creative Commons)
Can Troy Polamalu and the Steelers win again depsite their old age? (Jodi Only/Creative Commons)
Pittsburgh Steelers

Major free agency additions: William Gay, Bruce Gradkowski

Notable rookies: Le’Veon Bell, Jarvis Jones

Major losses: Mike Wallace, James Harrison, Keenan Lewis, Rashard Mendenhall, Willie Colon, Casey Hampton

Thoughts and musings:

*Mike Wallace has elite talent, but I would take both Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders over him because they are more complete players. Oh, and they’re a hell of a lot cheaper, too. 

*The statistics that the Steelers offense will produce probably won’t look good; they don’t have an elite passing attack and there are questions at running back, tight end, and offensive line, but I trust that Big Ben will find ways to move the ball and score points at the right times.

*For some reason, defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau wants his 3-4 defensive linemen to rush the passer and spend more time playing single gap technique, as opposed to past years where his linemen played more two-gap technique. First of all, I’m not sure that the Steelers have the right personnel up front to be an elite interior-rushing team (the only player who may have the right body type for this is Cam Heyward), and second, I’m not sure why Lebeau is choosing to overhaul his defensive philosophy now after decades of success playing his original style.

*Troy Polamalu looks healthy this preseason, which is a great sign for the Steelers. Even though he is a year older and maybe a step slower, his instincts and tenacity still make him a dangerous defensive playmaker.

*Big Ben always seems to miss a couple games every year. That’s why I put Gradkowski in the “major additions” category; I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see him start a game or two. And I like him better than Charlie Batch or Byron Leftwich. 

Players to watch

Lamarr Woodley: He has put up back-to-back double-digit sack seasons before. And now that James Harrison is gone, the success of the Steelers defense will rely heavily on Woodley playing like his old self and more.

Cam Heyward: Like I mentioned before, a new adjustment to the Steelers defensive philosophy will be conducive to Heyward’s success. Let’s see if he can capitalize on this after doing essentially nothing in his first two years in the NFL

Antonio Brown: He’s talented, and he will now get plenty of opportunity with Mike Wallace gone.  

Mike Adams: He’ll be counted on to protect Big Ben’s blindside after playing right tackle his rookie year.

Game to watch: Week 9 at New England Patriots

The Patriots will be the caliber of team that the Steelers will have to face should they make the playoffs. This game will be a good litmus test to see whether or not the Steelers themselves are that kind of team.

One sentence encapsulation: Although the Steelers aren’t exceptionally talented or deep on paper, I expect this group of veterans to contend for the playoffs in a weak AFC; getting out of the AFC North will be tough though.


Reach Staff Writer Andrew McKagan via e-mail.



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