The AFC North is chockfull of good storylines this year, from Big Ben’s suspension to two rising offensive stars in Baltimore to the new receiving duo of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens in Cincinnati.
Oh, and Mike Holmgren is now in charge of a Browns team that is sure to be improved.
Here’s how I see things shaking out in the AFC North in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season.
What to Like: Ray Rice is knocking on the door of superstardom and as long as Cam Cameron doesn’t get cute and start limiting his running back’s chances, then I think Rice could produce MVP-type numbers this year. He can do it all: run between the tackles, run outside, be a big-time factor in the passing game – everything. Staying on the offensive side of the ball, Joe Flacco is in store for big things heading into his third season. He made great strides in his development last year and the front office finally went out and got him a No. 1 target in Anquan Boldin. While Boldin can’t stretch the field like he did earlier in this career, he’s a consistent playmaker and will be a great weapon on third downs. On the other side, veteran Derrick Mason continues to be a consistent, steady presence for Flacco. Defensively, Ray Lewis once again anchors a defense that allowed only 300.5 yards per game last season. That was good for third in the NFL and if Terrell Suggs can get back to being the dominant player he was not too long ago, then the Ravens’ D shouldn’t take a step back.
What Not to Like: Suggs has to step up or there will be serious concerns about the pass rush. Trevor Pryce was okay in that department last year, but not great. The team added Corey Redding in the offseason, but he has proven to be a pretty average player over the years. The bigger problem for this team is in the secondary, where Ed Reed isn’t healthy and the secondary was dealt a huge blow when Domonique Foxworth went down for the season with a knee injury in camp. Fabian Washington didn’t play particularly well last season and if the Ravens can’t drum up a pass rush, Chris Carr will likely struggle playing on an island. He’s more suited to play as a nickel, so there are serious concerns about the makeup of this defensive backfield heading into the season.
Keep Your Eye On: Tom Zbikowski
If you notice, the only name I didn’t mention from the list of problems the Ravens will potentially have in their secondary is Tom Zbikowski. That’s because he’s the most underrated player on the Ravens’ defense and arguably the toughest outside of Lewis. With Reed out, the youngster from Notre Dame will be counted on once again this year to make a major contribution.
The Final Word: The lack of a pass rush and the secondary outside of Zbikowski is worrisome, but this is practically the same team that went into Foxboro last year and gave the Patriots the beating of a lifetime on their home turf. Plus, the offense is improved with the acquisition of Boldin and I think Flacco is in store for a huge season. He’s starting to see the entire field and now has two full years of starting experience under his belt. He also has a running back in Rice that he can lean on in case he starts to struggle in the passing game. This is the team to beat in the North this year and I wouldn’t be completely shocked if the Ravens showed up in Dallas come February.
What to Like: While Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, Carson Palmer and Cedric Benson receive all of the attention, but it’s the Bengals’ offensive line that drives this team’s success on that side of the ball. Right guard Bobbie Williams is a stud, as is left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Collectively, the Bengals must cut down on the penalties but this is one of the better offensive lines in the AFC. The running game behind Benson will once again be the focal point of the offense, but adding T.O. and rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham was huge for the passing game. Defensively, the starting cornerback tandem of Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph may very well be the best in the league. The front seven also has loads of potential, namely at linebacker thanks to Keith Rivers and Rey Maualuga.
What Not to Like: While the defense has steadily improved since 2008, there are still plenty of questions at every level. The safety tandem of Chris Crocker and Roy Williams is more than serviceable, but the duo is a liability in deep coverage (or in Williams’ case, coverage in general). Aside from Antwan Odom (who has been hampered by injuries the last two years), this team is going to have some issues getting to the quarterback too. Robert Geathers is coming off a bad year and ’09 second round pick Michael Johnson didn’t show anything when he had opportunities. Hopefully the addition of Carlos Dunlap (2010 second round pick) will help, but pass rush will be an area of concern for the Bengals throughout the season. The defensive tackle position is a potential weakness too, where Tank Johnson is a poor run defender and Domata Peko missed some time last year due to injuries. (He also wasn’t as stout as he usually is against the run.)
Keep Your Eye On: Jermaine Gresham
The rookie tight end was reportedly having some trouble picking up the Bengals’ offense earlier this offseason, but he seems to be catching on now. The Oklahoma product is a very good athlete and could make an impact in the Bengals’ passing game right away.
The Final Word: I don’t fall into the mindset that Ochocinco and T.O. are going to destroy this team from the inside out and I don’t think they’re going to be the key to this team making the playoffs either. The key is getting more production out of Palmer. We have yet to see the return of the player that posted a 101.1 QB rating in 2005 (whether that be because of his knee, lack of weapons around him or what have you). He was certainly steady last year while posting 21 touchdowns and 3,094 yards, but he’s going to determine whether or not this team becomes more lethal in the passing game. Defensively, I love the corners and linebackers, but the lack of a pass-rush scares me, as do Crocker and Williams in deep coverage. This is a very good football team and they’ll be in contention all season, but they’re not going to sneak up on anybody this year like they did in ’09.
What to Like: As usual, the Steelers’ defense is once again loaded and should finish among the top 5 in the league. Even as good as Troy Polamalu (when healthy) is, the key to Pittsburgh’s defense is that all 11 guys know their assignments and rely on each other as a collective unit. Dick LeBeau is also a mastermind at creating havoc and disguising where his defense sends pressure. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison form the best pass-rushing duo in the game and the entire front seven is chockfull of guys that can play the run. Offensively, if his O-line can open up some holes, Rashard Mendenhall is more than capable of carrying this unit until Ben Roethlisberger comes back from suspension. Hines Ward is as consistent as they come at receiver, as is Heath Miller from his tight end position. Watch for Mike Wallace to have a big impact in the deep game now that Santonio Holmes is in New York.
What Not to Like: Besides the fact that they won’t have their starting quarterback for the first 3-6 weeks, the Steelers still have major issues on their offensive line. Picking up Flozell Adams to replace the injured Willie Colon was big for the run game, but speed rushers were able to beat him on a routine basis last year when he was pass protecting. On a whole, this was an incredibly average unit last year in pass protection and well below average in run blocking. If they can’t run the ball (especially in the games that Big Ben is out), this team is in trouble. Defensively, the main issue is the health of Polamalu, who chose not to have surgery on the knee that limited him last year. For as good as the Steelers’ defense is, he’s still the straw that stirs the drink.
Keep Your Eye On: Maurkice Pouncey
One thing I didn’t mention when I was shredding the Steelers’ offensive line up above was the addition of Pouncey. The rookie has major talent and could develop into the best center in the game in due time. He’s only a rookie so he’ll make his fair share of mistakes, but Pittsburgh’s future at center is already here.
The Final Word: As of this writing, we still don’t know if Big Ben will be suspended for six, four or three games. If I were to make a guess, I would say that Roger Goodell will reduce the suspension to four games, which means the Steelers will hope for a split over those first four weeks. If Byron Leftwich and/or Dennis Dixon can produce two wins, then the Steelers would be in good shape for Roethlisberger’s return. That said, I still have major concerns about this team’s running game (because of the O-line, not Mendenhall), as well as its ability to stay healthy at key positions. For as good as the defense usually is, Pittsburgh needs Polamalu to play in order for the unit to be elite. I also question whether or not the corners are good enough to get this team back into the postseason. The Steelers take on seven playoff teams from a year ago, and that doesn’t include facing a strong Atlanta squad without Big Ben in the opener. Even though the same pieces are there from the Super Bowl squad two years ago, I just don’t see this team beating out Baltimore or even Cincinnati in the division without getting more balanced on offense. Plus, let’s keep in mind that Roethlisberger will probably need to shake the rust off once he returns. It’s not a guarantee that he’s going to be back to playing at a top level right away.
What to Like: Joe Thomas is one of the top pass protectors in the game and is accompanied by steady veteran Eric Steinbach and rising star Alex Mack on a solid offensive line. In the backfield, the tandem of Jerome Harrison and rookie Montario Hardesty (when he’s healthy again) will be fun to watch and will likely anchor the Browns’ offense this season. Josh Cribbs will once again make a few highlight reel plays in the return game, as well as provide a spark out of the Wildcat formation. Defensively, Matt Roth was incredibly productive as a pass-rusher last year and has really found himself in Cleveland after a couple of lackluster years in Miami. The defensive line will also be a strength thanks to Shaun Rogers and surprising former seventh rounder Ahyta Rubin, who has developed into a solid run-stuffer. The secondary is bolstered by underrated free safety Abram Elam, but the cornerbacks should be very good as well. Sheldon Brown was acquired from the Eagles in the offseason and Eric Wright’s stock continues to rise. Throw in rookies T.J. Ward and Joe Haden and the Browns have the makings of a very good defensive backfield.
What Not to Like: I didn’t like the Jake Delhomme signing this offseason and chances are, I won’t like it in the regular season either. When teams can generate pressure on him, he folds like a top-heavy Jenga tower and he routinely makes poor decisions in the passing game. He also has a set of talented, but inexperienced receivers in Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie to throw to. Unless Delhomme finds more consistency and both Massaquoi and Robiskie make major strides in their development, then Cleveland will be home to the league’s worst passing attack in 2010.
Keep Your Eye On: Montario Hardesty
Harrison will start in Week 1 because Hardesty hasn’t gotten enough reps in preseason (due to an injury), but the rookie out of Tennessee is being viewed as the Browns’ future at running back. The problem is that he has a history of knee injuries, so he’ll need to stay healthy if he’s going to have an impact as a rookie. But if he does, this physical back is likely to impress.
The Final Word: Best-case scenario for the Browns is Delhomme doesn’t turn the ball over, the young receivers blossom into playmakers and this team wins by running the ball and playing good defense. The D has plenty of playmakers and could be a solid overall unit, but if they’re left on the field too long then they’re going to wear down (like any defense would). I fear that the passing game is going to be so bad that teams will take away the run and force Delhomme to beat them vertically. If he could be relegated to a game manager, he’d probably be fine. But given the experience at receiver, opponents will likely force him to make plays and if that happens, it’s going to be another long year in Cleveland.