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Monday, July 16, 2012

2012 NFL Preview: AFC North

Ray Rice and company became the new team to beat in the AFC North last season, but are they there to stay?  Pittsburgh couldn't stop the run for the first time since VCR's were fashionable.  Speed-bump or sign of things to come?  The Bengals have people in Cincinnati experiencing a foreign concept--hope.  While the Browns still hold the keys to the basement.  It will be another fun year in the trenches of the AFC North.

Baltimore Ravens

2012 NFL Preview: AFC North Baltimore Ravens
2011 Review: There was a lot to like from the Ravens last year. When the year ended they were near the very top of elite contenders in my final power rankings.  Highlights include an 8-0 home record, 3-0 vs tough teams, 6-0 in the division, and excellent stats all around on defense. 

The problem with Baltimore (and it continues to be) is Joe Flacco. With a solid offensive line and a top-flight running game, there should be no excuses for mediocre stats.  Yards per game and red zone efficiency were both below average in 2011.

2012 Offseason: Taking Upshaw in the draft was a good move to keep young blood in at the linebacker position. Rookies always benefit when they come into a stacked situation. Something had to be done since Suggs tore his archilles in the offseason.

It also never hurts to replensish the offensive line which they did with Osemele. With the McKinnie issues and Grubbs absence, attention is needed here. In free agency, they brought in Bobbie Williams, but he's 36 and recovering from injuries. 

Jacoby Jones was brought in to keep the down-field threat alive and he or Torrey Smith will have to prove they can be legitimate options on a consistent basis.

Looking ahead: In order for this team to finally reach a Superbowl, it's still going to land at the feet of Flacco. This isn't stunning insight, but I really don't see this as a complex situation. All the pieces are there, it just comes down to execution. I think the passing game could reach new heights if he relied on Dickson and Pitta more since both proved their worth last year--especially in the 2nd half of the season.

I'm just not sure if it's going to happen. I never liked Flacco's pocket prescence or how he responds in big situations. He made strides in the regular season, now it's time to do it in the playoffs.

My other major concern is the age of the likes of Lewis and Reed. I'm surprised these guys are still starting given the list of injuries over the last number of seasons.

Vegas opened Baltimore at a season win total of 10 and so far the under is getting the action. I tend to agree with this. The O-line has questions, Flacco is what he is, and the defense will likely take a small step back.

Pittsburgh Steelers

2012 NFL Preview: AFC North Pittsburgh Steelers
2011 Review: Pittsburgh took care of business in 2011, except when it came to the big games. They were 1-3 in the tough games, and 11-0 against everyone else. Two of those losses came against Baltimore, so motivation will be high to regain the top divisional spot.

The main areas that caused them problems were rushing defense (surprisingly), red zone/third down defense, O-line (not surprisingly), turnover ratio, and yard-to-points ratio. 

Overall it was an uncharacteristic year, despite the 12 wins (thanks to a padded schedule).

2012 Offseason: Ward, Farrior, Smith, and Gay are goners mostly due to salary cap issues. 

Despite their issues on the O-line, it's an area that could improve this year thanks to all the youth (Pouncey, Gilbert, Adams, DeCastro, etc) in development.  Outside of the draft, there wasn't a whole lot of noteworthy additions.  Todd Haley is the biggest move. 

Looking ahead:
Keep an eye on their secondary camp battles and how Haley adapts the offense in preseason. Can Mendenhall stay healthy after he returns?  Redman doesn't inspire confidence.  Is the defense too old (again)? Hampton is big loss early in the year.

Their season win total opened at 10 and there hasn't been much movement.  It's always dangerous to bet against a well-run franchise like this due to their overall organizational character and continuity. Having said that, their schedule/win total masked a lot of problems in 2011.  I see red flags and there could be some trouble on the horizon. 

Cincinnati Bengals

2012 NFL Preview: AFC North Cincinnati Bengals
2011 Review: Like a lot of average teams in the NFL, Cincinnati beat up on the bad/mediocre teams (9-2) and lost their tough games (0-5).  Despite Dalton and Green's solid play in 2011, the overall passing game was still below par.  Their defense didn't come through in the big moments even though they ranked good in pass/rush yards against.  Thank a suspect red zone/third down defense for that.

However, when all is said and done they deserve credit for exceeding everybody's expectations.

2012 Offseason: The Bengals had a ton of money to spend, but they didn't land (or really go after) any top dogs. Maybe they deserve credit for not over-spending, but it's a double edged-sword.  Benson is out and Green-Ellis was nabbed from New England. He's far from a proven commodity.

Someone needs to step up and take advantage of the attention paid to AJ Green. Perhaps 2nd round pick Sanu can be the guy. They also have hopes for Tate. 

It might be surprising to hear, but the Bengals defensive line ranks right up there with Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the division. They added Anderson and Harvey in free agency, and Devon Still and Brandon Thompson with high picks in the draft. They'll need a repeat performance to have a chance in 2012. 

In fact, this team might have more impact rookies than most teams in the league this year.

Newman (who I'm not a fan of) and rookie Kirkpatrick were added to the secondary. 

Looking ahead: Will Dalton continue his development? That's far from a sure thing, but adding a 1st round guard in Zeitler should help. 

Continuity on defense and improvements in offensive personnel has people cautiously optimistic, but there's always a "but" with the Bengals.

Marvin Lewis has never won a playoff game or had consecutive winning seasons. Overall this has been a bad organization so those facts shouldn't be a surprise. With a young nucleus that made positive steps, we'll see if they can finally win a big game in 2012. 

Vegas opened this team with a season win total of 7.5, but we've seen a move to 8 as money has come in on the over. I think this it's a justified line move. Cincy deserve the benefit of the doubt--at least for one year.

Cleveland Browns

2011 Review: What do we want to say about the 2011 Browns?  That they were 4-1 against the cellar-dwellers and 0-11 vs the rest of the schedule? How about 0-6 in the division and 1-7 on the road?  The only bright spots were the pass/red zone defense. Otherwise this team was a complete mess.

2012 Offseason: So what do the Browns expect this year?  Juqua Parker was brought in, but his production fades down the stretch each season. Frostee Rucker was a decent addition. They lost out on Robert Griffen III and let three offensive linemen leave in free agency.

In a pass-happy league it helps to have one of the best secondaries of the league, but not nearly enough to carry a team. There's no game-changer on the line and stopping the run was a problem on the second level. Not having Taylor until the mid-point of the season also hurts.

At QB we have Weeden and McCoy. Good luck! On the ground they got Trent Richardson. Nice pick, but worth the price?  Schwartz was taken in round 2 to start at right tackle. Sprinkle in Little and Childress and we have one huge question mark on this side of the ball. How will "Chilly" handle not calling the plays? 

Looking ahead: Holmgren has not been the franchise savior people expected when he signed on. Tom Heckert had a nice resume, but his moves haven't paid off either. 

It's hard to be optimistic here. I don't see the glue that's going to hold it all together on offense and the defense is too unbalanced.  When a team doesn't have an answer at QB I ask myself how good the coaching is, what is the state of their O-line, and what can the defense achieve independently?  The answer?  Ho-hum, meh, and half glass empty.

Their season win total is 5.5, but not many people see them achieving 6+ wins. Money has come in on the under and you won't find an argument from me. Preseason and their strength of schedule should tell the rest of the story.
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