This week, SI.com is rolling out previews for all eight NFL divisions. Today, we tackle the AFC North and NFC North, following up earlier breakdowns of the AFC East, NFC East, AFC South and NFC South. The AFC and NFC West conclude things Friday.
The NFC East and the AFC East may have the glamour reps and the big markets, but no division in the NFL last season featured three winning teams except the rough-and-tumble AFC North. The Bengals, Ravens and Steelers all finished above .500, and the hottest club of all at the close of 2009 were those last-place Cleveland Browns, who took a hope-inspiring four-game winning streak into the offseason.
It was no fluke. Things have been that competitive within the division for a while now. The AFC North was one of only two divisions in the just-passed NFL decade to feature a pair of Super Bowl winners (along with the NFC South), and no other team in the conference has boasted either a pair of playoff teams or at least two 10-win teams in four of the past five seasons. With the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens all winning at least one North crown in the past four years, there's not another division in the AFC that can match its record of balance.
And indications are we're in for more of the same in 2010, with both Baltimore and Cincinnati making significant upgrades to their passing games, Cleveland showing signs of life in its new Mike Holmgren era, and Pittsburgh going six consecutive years without posting a losing record. We might not get a repeat of last season, when the division's top three teams were separated by just one lousy game, but the AFC North again figures to be a 17-week battle royal.
What the Ravens do best: Get the ball in the hands of Ray Rice.
From their Jamal Lewis days on, the Ravens have always had the good sense to know when they've got a horse worth riding, and that role has been filled spectacularly the past two seasons by running back Ray Rice, who was one of only two NFL players last year to total 2,000 yards from scrimmage (joining Tennessee rusher Chris Johnson). Baltimore still hasn't found anything Rice doesn't do well. He led the Ravens in rushing (1,339 yards) and catches (78 for 702 yards, pacing all NFL running backs in those categories) last season, finished second in touchdowns with eight, and throws a mean block in blitz pick-up.
Throwing to Rice out of the backfield in a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker is almost unfair, and his blend of speed, power and vision makes him one of the preeminent weapons in the NFL. He'll move the chains all day long for Baltimore, and with one of the league's best offensive lines and two-time Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain blocking for him, he's going to hit that magic 2,000 yards from scrimmage mark more than once in his career.
What the Ravens need to improve: Dropping the opposing quarterback.
As hard as it is to believe for a team that's famous for its fearsome defense, Baltimore finished last in the AFC North in sacks with just 32 last year. Veteran defensive lineman Trevor Pryce led the Ravens with just 6½ sacks, and especially disappointing were the paltry 4½ sacks turned in by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, whose 12 sacks combined in the 2008 regular season and playoffs helped him earn the largest contract ever given a linebacker.
Suggs missed three games with injuries last season and wasn't thought to be in peak condition at all times. Baltimore needs a big bounce-back year from him in the sack department, and even all the more so because of the fractured skull suffered before camp by second-round outside linebacker Sergio Kindle, who was drafted to juice up the pass rush. The Ravens aren't counting on Kindle as a rookie after his fall down some stairs, and anything they get from him this year will be seen as gravy.
Which Raven needs to step up: Cornerback Fabian Washington.
Given its depth issues and injury concerns in the secondary, Baltimore can't afford to have Washington, its top remaining cornerback, struggle all year with the aftereffects of his ACL tear last November. The early results have been promising, as Washington returned to the lineup in time for the Ravens' second preseason game and seems to be moving around pretty well on his repaired left leg. That's vital because with cornerback Domonique Foxworth lost for the season after tearing his ACL early in camp, and second-year cornerback Lardarius Webb still working his way back from his own late-season ACL injury, Washington has to be one of the leaders in the defensive backfield.
The Ravens traded this week for fourth-year Seattle cornerback Josh Wilson, an ex-University of Maryland standout who went in 2007's second round, and he'll help take up some of the slack for Foxworth. But with safety Ed Reed still trying to return from offseason hip surgery and being a candidate to start the season on PUP, Baltimore's secondary is the obvious trouble spot on an otherwise talented defensive depth chart.
Predicted record: 12-4.
Baltimore is my pick to win the AFC and face Green Bay in Dallas, sorry, Arlington, in the Super Bowl, so there's no doubt in my mind John Harbaugh's club is headed for even bigger things this season. The Ravens have won an NFL-high three road playoff games in the past two postseasons, and they've become a tough-minded team that is capable of playing its game and winning anywhere, against any level of competition (OK, so the Colts do kind of have their number). The franchise won its only NFL title 10 years ago this season, and the anniversary celebration might just blend into another big party come February.
What the Bengals do best: Defend the pass.
No other team in the division can match Cincinnati's starting tandem at cornerback, and the pairing of former first-round picks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph gives the Bengals a great foundation on which to build off last year's sixth-ranked pass defense (203.1 yards per game). Having two elite cover men is a pretty good advantage to have in a division that's not exactly known for its top-tier receivers (Hines Ward and Anquan Boldin being more of the exception than the rule).
Hall and Joseph combined for 12 of Cincinnati's 19 interceptions last season (six each), and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer consistently shows his confidence in them when he asks them to handle man coverage and dials up one of his many blitz packages. Entering their fourth (Hall) and fifth (Joseph) NFL seasons, the Bengals' starting cornerbacks are still young, but with a wealth of experience already under their belts. They should continue to be the strength of the Cincinnati defense for years to come.
What the Bengals need to improve: Their vertical passing game.
There's nothing tricky about identifying Cincinnati's glaring weakness. If you saw the Bengals' 24-14 first-round loss to the Jets in the playoffs, you saw a Cincy passing game that couldn't threaten New York downfield whatsoever. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer was just 18 of 36 for 146 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, and Cincinnati's longest completion was for 19 yards.
At least the Bengals got aggressive in their attempts to fix the problem this offseason -- even overly aggressive in the case of the failed Antonio Bryant signing. They drafted pass-catching Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham in the first round, play-making Texas receiver Jordan Shipley in the third round, and then added the likes of Bryant (since released), Terrell Owens and Matt Jones (soon to be gone?) in free agency.
Now it's on Palmer's shoulders to get Chad Ochocinco and Co. the ball and make defenses respect the Bengals as more than a run-first, throw-later offense. Scoring more and being explosive on offense is mandatory if Cincinnati hopes to succeed with its tougher, first-place schedule in 2010.
Which Bengal needs to step up: Whoever wins the team's kicker competition.
In a strictly self-inflicted wound, seven-year Bengal Shayne Graham effectively cut himself when he missed those two very makeable field goal attempts in the 10-point homefield playoff loss to the Jets. Enter Mike Nugent and Dave Rayner, who have been locked neck and neck in a training camp battle to succeed Graham.
Nugent, the ex-Jets draft pick and Ohio State standout, has battled a groin problem this preseason and hasn't had as many field goal opportunities as Rayner. But he's done well on kickoffs and last week against Buffalo made a 54-yard field goal that helped his cause. The battle is expected to go right down to Cincinnati's preseason finale at Indianapolis on Thursday night, although it's possible the Bengals could still opt for someone off the waiver wire, like the loser of the Kris Brown-Neil Rackers competition in Houston.
Predicted record: 9-7.
There will be no slipping up on opponents this year in Cincinnati. The Bengals were the surprise story in 2009, but because of it, now they have the dreaded first-place schedule to deal with. Not to mention a heightened bar of expectation. Cincy's defense needs to be stout once again, because the Bengals face a host of great quarterbacks in Tom Brady, Joe Flacco (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. That's a tough path back to the playoffs.
What the Steelers do best: Field the NFL's best outside linebacker tandem.
Despite their non-playoff season, the 2009 Steelers were No. 3 against the run and fifth-ranked in overall defense. And that was without All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu for most of the year. All that defense starts with Pittsburgh's two outside linebackers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. One of them, we just can't decide which, is the best in the business at his position.
Opponents start their offensive game plans trying to avoid Harrison and Woodley as much as possible, but that's difficult because in the Steelers' 3-4, the outside linebackers usually find the ball. Especially when it's in the quarterbacks hands. Woodley had a team-best 13½ sacks last season, and Harrison was second with 10. They've been the league's leading sack duo among linebackers for two years running, with Harrison totaling 26 in that span and Woodley 25. They're the best, and it's not even close for second.
What the Steelers need to improve: Kickoff coverage.
A season is never decided by something as peripheral as kickoff coverage, right? Wrong. In 2009, the Steelers gave up a league-worst four kickoff return touchdowns -- all in a span of five games -- and two of those lapses led directly to losses against Cincinnati and Kansas City. It doesn't take a math major to realize the 9-7 Steelers would have made the playoffs if they had prevented just one of those touchdown returns.
There were 18 kickoff return touchdowns last year in the NFL's regular season, and Pittsburgh allowed more than 22 percent of them. No other team gave up more than two. Not surprisingly, the Steelers this offseason hired a new special teams coach in Al Everest, replacing Bob Ligashesky, and Everest has focused like a laser this preseason on tightening up the coverage lanes. The Steelers will probably have to wait until their fifth game to really know if their Achilles heel has improved. That's when Cleveland's Josh Cribbs brings his return skills to Heinz Field.
Which Steeler(s) needs to step up: Reserve quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon.
With Roethlisberger suspended for at least the first month of the season, September is kind of about survival in Pittsburgh. The Steelers can't make their season in Weeks 1-4, but they can certainly break it with an 0-4 or 1-3 start. And that's why Leftwich or Dixon will be pivotal. Whoever is given the temporary starting quarterback job by head coach Mike Tomlin, finding a way to at least break even at 2-2 will be the challenge.
Neither quarterback has inspired a lot of confidence this preseason, but the Steelers are a .500 team in the games that Roethlisberger has missed since he assumed the No. 1 job in early 2004, and that's all they need out of Leftwich or Dixon to keep the 2010 season viable into mid-October.
Predicted record: 8-8.
The Steelers can easily rebound this season if Troy Polamalu returns strong to the defensive lineup and the special-team units don't betray them. But who knows how the team will react without Roethlisberger early, and a three-game midseason road trip to Miami, New Orleans and Cincinnati looks daunting from afar. My sense is nothing will come easily for Pittsburgh this season, and third place in the tough AFC North will again be their fate.
What the Browns do best: Offensive line.
It probably takes all of one finger to count the positions on the Cleveland depth chart that inspire true envy around the league: That would be offensive line. After years of floundering around in free agency and in the draft, wasting dollars and picks, the Browns have built a pretty good wall up front on offense, which is led by All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas. Entering his fourth NFL season, Thomas is close to becoming the standard by which offensive left tackles are measured these days.
But the Browns also have a talented young center in Alex Mack and a valuable veteran left guard in Eric Steinbach, putting them light years ahead of some of the lines Cleveland has run out there since returning to the league in 1999. While the Browns quarterbacking was truly horrendous last season, the team's rushing game really kicked into high gear in the season's final month, running for 900 yards during the course of Cleveland's season-ending four-game winning streak. Running back Jerome Harrison's heroics notwithstanding, the Browns offensive line paved the way for that eye-popping production.
What the Browns need to improve: The league's worst passing game.
Anybody who says the NFL is a passing league these days clearly did not watch the Browns play last season. In one remarkable 10-game stretch of 2009, Cleveland scored seven points or fewer seven times, somehow winning one of those. The futility in the Browns passing game was staggering at times. But enough about Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. They're gone, having headed west to Denver and Arizona, respectively, and Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace have been brought in to raise the bar toward middle-of-the-pack quarterbacking.
Delhomme has looked sharp this preseason, but it's hard to forget he did throw 18 interceptions in his 11 games in Carolina last season, and that's one more than Quinn and Anderson combined for all year. Mere competency will go a long way in Cleveland, and if Delhomme can afford to rely upon the Browns strong running game and not put his defense into a hole, progress will inevitably be made through the air.
Which Brown needs to step up: Wide receiver Brian Robiskie.
After a rookie season in which he was expected to make some decent impact but wound up all but invisible (seven catches for 106 yards) and struggling to stay active for games, Cleveland's first 2009 second-rounder is back on the radar screen and vying for a much larger role this time around. He has six catches for 62 yards and a touchdown this preseason, and is coming off a strong showing in offseason workouts that was lauded often and loudly by Browns coaches.
Robiskie is said to have had the lights go on in terms of executing NFL routes and finding ways to get open, and he's playing a much more physical receiving role this summer than he did as a rookie. The Browns certainly need him to get on the field and to contribute opposite starter and fellow second-year receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who enters 2010 as Cleveland's top pass-catcher. For Robiskie, the time for underachievement is over.
Predicted record: 6-10.
Compared to the chaos that reigned in Cleveland last season during year one of the Eric Mangini era, Mike Holmgren, the Browns new football czar, has brought a sense of professionalism and purpose to the organization. But there's still a sizable talent gap between the Browns and the rest of the division, and that's not all getting whittled down this year. Progress would be six or seven wins for Cleveland, with maybe half of those victories coming within the AFC North.