brian hoyer

NFL Season Preview: AFC North

Posted by Jack Tumen

We continue our divisional round-up with the AFC North; a group known for its hard-hitting rivalries and unpredictability.

Let’s start with the team that won the Super Bowl only 2 seasons ago (doesn’t it feel a lot longer than that?) It was a strange season for the Baltimore Ravens in 2013. They had to deal with the pressure and attention that comes with being the reigning champions. Safe to say, they didn’t handle it so well.

Although Joe Flacco set a career mark in passing yards, he was shaky at best, throwing 19 TDs to 22 INTs with a paper-thin receiving corps. Ray Rice stunk it up with his worst season since his rookie year and the leadership void that Ray Lewis left was more than apparent. They also shamefully gave away Anquan Boldin to the 9ers for virtually nothing, which is still one of the worst front-office decisions I’ve ever seen from ANY franchise, EVER. Shame on you, Ozzie Newsome.

Larry French/Getty Images

Larry French/Getty Images

Now, officially not the reigning champions anymore, the Ravens actually have much to be excited about going into this season. The biggest factor for me has to be the full-fledged return of Dennis Pitta. After dislocating his hip early on, Pitta managed to return for a few games late last year but to no avail. Now fully healthy, his presence will do wonders for Joe Flacco’s psyche. The addition of Steve Smith was also a great move by a team in need of receiving options not named Torrey Smith. He still plays a feisty game and possesses veteran leadership and swagger this team was lacking a year ago.

This is a defense with a plethora of mean linebackers. Daryl Smith admirably succeeded Ray Lewis, racking up a respectable 123 tackles (18th in the league) and 5 sacks. Then you’ve got Elvis Dumervil, two ‘Bama ‘backers in Courtney Upshaw and CJ Mosley and of course, the one and only, Terrell Suggs.

Other Notables: Journeyman safety, James Ihedigbo, was allowed to walk after a 101-tackle season…another bad roster move for a secondary in need of depth; Safety, Matt Elam, looks to make strides in his second year; Rookie WR, Michael Campanaro, could contribute in the slot; TE Owen Daniels is shadily on the roster.

After an 0-4 start, it was too little too late for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013. It was another step in the youth movement that’s been going on for the black and yellow; but youth movements take time and this roster still has ways to go.

Big Ben had another solid year, finishing in the top 10 in passing with a 2:1 TD-INT ratio. He’s not getting any younger but his play has been as consistent as anyone’s throughout his career. His main man was Antonio Brown, who finished 2nd in both yards and receptions among NFL wide receivers, while placing 4th in targets; safe to say, Pittsburgh liked getting him the ball. Emmanuel Sanders was no slouch either, but the Steelers failed to retain the young wideout in free agency; he’s got plenty more upside in Denver’s offense anyway.

Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

With Sanders’ departure (and that of veteran, Jerricho Cotchery,) there’s room for young(er) guys to move up, i.e., Markus Wheaton, who struggled with a hand injury his rookie season but will have every opportunity to replicate Sanders’ production from 2013 (67/740/6.) Also on the radar is Clemson rookie, Martavis Bryant; a size/speed freak who played second fiddle to Sammy Watkins in college. Don’t forget the presence of veteran, Lance Moore, who’s seen his share of success with the Saints.

There’s no shortage of stud linebackers in this division; Pittsburgh has three themselves, with veteran, Lawrence Timmons, second year animal, Jarvis Jones and the 15th pick in this year’s draft, Ryan Shazier. With Lamarr Woodley now in Oakland, reps will be plentiful for these three. Jason Worilds is no slouch either.

This secondary is experiencing some turnover as well. Time is not on Troy Polamalu’s side. Ike Taylor was forced to take a pay-cut to stay with the team. Cortez Allen is the best corner on this roster now with Shamarko Thomas waiting in the shadows as Polamalu’s successor.

Le’Veon Bell had himself a nice rookie season, accumulating the 12th-most touches among running backs (244) and gaining a respectable 860 yds and 8 TDs. A top-heavy unit, he’ll be taking the reins as the lead-dog in the Steelers’ backfield with LeGarrette Blount serving as the no. 2.

Other Notables: DE Cameron Hayward will be one of the leaders of this defense; Rookie RB/WR, Dri Archer, gives Pittsburgh a speedy new toy on offense; Rookie DL, Stephon Tuitt, looks to fill the void left by Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood; CB Brice McCain is a sleeper addition to this secondary; TE Heath Miller will quietly be the man once again.

The Cincinnati Bengals have made the playoffs in three straight seasons; once as the division champ and twice as a wild card. The reason for that was the addition of quarterback-of-the-future, Andy Dalton, whose play has kept the Bengals at a certain par since he was drafted.

However, in each of those playoff appearances, the Bengals failed to advance. In fact, the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in 23 years, the longest active streak in the NFL. I wasn’t even alive the last time it happened in 1890 – excuse me, 1990. I may be a Jets fan, but at least I’ve seen my team make it to two AFC Championship games in my time.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Ironically, the reason the Bengals haven’t been able to advance this decade has been because of – you guessed it – Andy Dalton. In his 3 playoff appearances, he’s averaged just under 56% completion while throwing 1 touchdown compared to 6 interceptions. The Bengals have generally been an above-average regular season team with a top-10 defense in each of Dalton’s 3 seasons; but when the lights go on in January it’s been the quarterback play that’s limited them.

The curious case of the Cincinnati Bengals continues in 2014 with a roster that’s as promising as ever. Defense continues to be the strength of this team with Geno Atkins, Leon Hall and reigning NFL tackle-leader, Vontaze Burfict as the keystones. First-round rookie, Darqueze Dennard, will vie for playing time in a crowded secondary with veterans Adam Jones, Terence Newman and the oft-injured Dre Kirkpatrick. The addition of veteran safety, Danieal Manning, flew under the radar this offseason as he’ll sure up the back end behind Reggie Nelson and offers return ability on special teams.

On offense, the focus will be entirely on this young group of running backs. With Hue Jackson implementing a run-oriented style as the new offensive coordinator, second-year back, Giovani Bernard, is in line for a monster season. They’ve mentioned using him not only in the running game, but also splitting him out wide to catch passes as a receiver. The other guy, LSU rookie, Jeremy Hill, has been hyped as Cinci’s no. 2 back and looks destined for goal-line and short yardage duties. He’s a hell of an athlete, but he’ll be pushing ol’ BenJarvus Green-Ellis down the depth chart.

Oh yeah, they also have AJ Green.

Other Notables: Second-year TE, Tyler Eifert, will compete for snaps in the passing game with Jermaine Gresham; WR Marvin Jones looks to capitalize on starting across from AJ Green; LB Rey Maualuga needs to bounce back this season; S Geroge Iloka is in line to start once again but depth behind him will warrant an elevation in play; the loss of Michael Johnson will mean more production from DE, Carlos Dunlap; Cinci was one of 3 teams to go 8-0 at home in 2013.

Oh, the Cleveland Browns. Never a dull moment with this franchise…since May.

Let me just get this out of the way by saying that Brian Hoyer is the Browns’ starter and Johnny Manziel is the backup. Johnny Manziel is an unproven rookie in a league of men who are professionals at chasing and tackling and they will not fall for his whirligig improvisations. Brian Hoyer spent multiple seasons under the tutelage of Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. in New England and knows things about the National Football League that Jonathan Paul Manziel absolutely does not. Manziel is a spoiled child who had life handed to him on a silver platter and he is about to learn that starting quarterback jobs in the NFL are not handed out like halloween candy.

Now that that’s off my chest, let’s look at the rest of this roster. The Browns are an interesting crew in 2014. Mike Pettine steps in as the new head coach, and in my opinion, is their best hire since Bill Belichick. He brings a hard-nose, defensive style contrary to the offensive minded prowess of previous one-and-done, Rob Chudzinski. They’ve brought in many young, new faces as they attempt to build a winner. Truth be told, this is easily the best roster they’ve had since that ’07 team with Derek Anderson, Jamal Lewis, Joe Jurevivius, Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow that went 10-6 but still missed the playoffs.

John Kuntz/ The Plain Dealer

John Kuntz/ The Plain Dealer

The strength of this team lies in its defense. Players like Joe Haden, Donte Whitner, Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard and Karlos Dansby will have the highest impacts right off-the-bat. Cleveland traded up in the draft to grab CB, Justin Gilbert, who could grow into a fine piece opposite Haden. LB Barkevious Mingo looks to benefit from Pettine’s presence as he tries to best his 5-sack rookie season.

If Josh Gordon wasn’t facing a year-long suspension I might have said the strength of this team could be the offense. Replacing his league-leading 1,646 receiving yards is an impossible task, though, leaving this wideout group as a blatant weakness on offense. Miles Austin is the no. 1 option followed by Nate Burleson. They also signed slot man and former Bengal, Andrew Hawkins; a 5’7″ jitterbug who could actually be a nice piece to the puzzle. However, it’s telling that none of these guys were on the Browns last year.

The battle at the running back position is easily the most interesting component of the Browns this offseason. They brought in Ben Tate, who will finally have his chance to prove he’s worthy of being a starting back in this league – but not so fast; Cleveland took RB, Terrance West from Towson in the 3rd round of this year’s draft and the coaching staff has been very high on him, Pettine in particular. It’s a battle to watch throughout the preseason.

Other Notables: WR, Charles Johnson, has reportedly shown well at training camp and could be in line for an expanded role should Gordon sit the year out; Rookie RB, Isaiah Crowell, has the tools to stick as the 3rd running back; TE Jordan Cameron will look to capitalize on his breakout season as well as the lack of receiving depth on the roster; Rookie, Connor Shaw, is actually my favorite QB on the roster and is the closest thing to Russell Wilson that there is in the NFL.

Final Standings:

  1. Baltimore: 11-5

  2. Cincinnati: 9-7

  3. Pittsburgh: 7-9

  4. Cleveland: 6-10

The AFC North plays the AFC and NFC South divisions in 2014, which hold some strong teams like the Panthers, Saints and Colts but is pretty below-average elsewhere. I recently wrote an article with three bold predictions for the 2014 season – one of those being that the Baltimore Ravens would go 11-5; I stand by that. They are the most well-coached team in this division and do a little bit of everything well; Cincinnati’s defense and run game will remain the best in the division, but the roof is caving in on Andy Dalton, meaning his ceiling is just about reached; Pittsburgh will be Pittsburgh but this team needs more time to gel and is lacking depth in a few too many places; Cleveland has potential but Mike Pettine needs a year to develop team chemistry and see what he’s got as the Browns continue to build toward the future with two more first-round picks in 2015.

Up next: AFC South