2011 Division Preview: AFC North
In the eight-division NFL alignment, no one matches the AFC North's record of featuring two heavyweight teams that have remained dominant for the division's entire existence. In the nine seasons since the AFC North started play in 2002, it has been the big bruisers from Pittsburgh and Baltimore staying far ahead of the struggling Ohio contingent (otherwise known as the Bengals and Browns).
The results tell just how wide the competitive gap has grown: The Steelers (six) and Ravens (five) have accounted for 11 of the division's 14 playoff berths and seven of the nine division titles from 2002 on. During that span, Pittsburgh (11-4) and Baltimore (4-5) are a combined 15-9 in the playoffs, with the Steelers making three different Super Bowl trips and winning two rings. The combined ledger for the Bengals and Browns in the AFC North? Three playoff trips, two division titles (both for Cincinnati) and an 0-3 postseason record.
And there's little reason to think the division's storyline won't follow the same familiar script this year. The defending AFC champion Steelers remain loaded, the Ravens are the only team in the NFL to win a playoff game in each of the past three seasons and the Browns and Bengals are starting over with a new head coach (Cleveland's Pat Shurmur) and new starting quarterback (Cincinnati rookie Andy Dalton), respectively. It's possible the Browns could take another healthy step toward respectability, but anything other than a 1-2 division finish by Pittsburgh and Baltimore, in some order, would register as one of the stunners of the year in the NFL.
Baltimore's defense only ranked 10th-best in the league in terms of yards allowed, but that's missing the point. What the Ravens defense has always done is stiffen up when it matters most. Baltimore allowed just 16.9 points per game last season -- third-lowest in the NFL -- and 10 times in 18 games (including playoffs) the Ravens held an opponent to 15 points or fewer. That kind of performance will keep you in most every game, and give you a chance to keep knocking on the door of the Super Bowl, which Baltimore has done in all three seasons of the John Harbaugh coaching era.
Despite the success of 2010, when Baltimore won 12 games in the regular season and another in the playoffs, the Ravens' pass rush wasn't much of a threat. They recorded a Baltimore franchise-low 27 sacks last season, which tied for 27th in the league, and cost this proud defense a little of its swagger. But the mojo might be on the way back this year, because new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has replaced the departed Greg Mattison, and Pagano favors a more aggressive, blitzing style that Ravens defenders say they love. Look for Baltimore to have more than outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (11 sacks in 2010) in double figures this year, with players like Sergio Kindle, Haloti Ngata and Jarrett Johnson all standing to take part in the increased rush to the quarterback.
The newly acquired Evans, who came over from Buffalo via trade after Week 1 of the preseason, should give the Ravens the speedy, stretch-the-field receiver they've been searching for throughout the Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era. Evans made some immediate impact in his two preseason games, and his veteran presence lessens the pressure that would have been placed on rookie receiver Torrey Smith, a second-round burner out of Maryland who could probably use a year to get acclimated to the NFL's level of play and the demands of his position. Baltimore's offense needs to be able to make a defense defend every part of the field, and that's where Evans' vertical threat comes into play.
For a team that has gone 32-16 in the past three regular seasons and tacked on a total of four road playoff games over that span, the Ravens don't seem to get a ton of respect for their accomplishments. But we know why. Baltimore can't beat Pittsburgh when it really counts, losing to the Steelers in the playoffs twice in the past three Januarys. This is the year I think the Ravens finally get over their Pittsburgh problem, win the division, and see what a home playoff game feels like. I'm not sure that'll be enough to guarantee them a Super Bowl trip, but beating the Steelers might just feel like the mountain top in Baltimore.
Pittsburgh led the NFL in sacks last season with 48, and we know what havoc they can wreak when an opponent has matchup problems with all-world outside linebackers James Harrison (team-best 10½ sacks in 2010) and LaMarr Woodley (10 sacks). The duo have combined for 71½ sacks in the past three seasons, and they're the engine that drives a Pittsburgh defense that is still dominant despite starting to show signs of age here and there. The only real trouble the Steelers defense had last year came against elite quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, who are adept at spreading the field and finding receivers before the Pittsburgh pass rush can take its toll.
Pittsburgh had little choice but to prioritize the re-signing of veteran cornerback Ike Taylor in free agency, because he's the team's best cover man and the eight-year veteran plays a valuable role in Dick LeBeau's defense, regularly drawing an opponent's No. 1 receiver. But getting Taylor back doesn't really fix what was the Steelers' defensive weakness last season, a 12th-ranked pass defense that got exposed by the Packers in the Super Bowl.
The Steelers hope that 2009 third-round pick Keenan Lewis is ready to take a second-year step up the depth chart and replace the mediocre Bryant McFadden at the corner opposite Taylor, but we'll see if a Week 3 preseason knee injury impacts his candidacy. Safety Troy Polamalu still makes huge plays that help win games, but even the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year didn't look like himself in the postseason, when his health issues seemed to render him a step slow.
Maybe it'd be more accurate if I tabbed Pouncey as the player the Steelers need to keep upright, as in healthy and in the lineup. The first-round center from the University of Florida was superb as a rookie last season, making the Pro Bowl and adding stability to a Steelers offensive line that struggled mightily with injuries all year. But then Pouncey went down with an ankle injury against the Jets in the AFC title game, and had to sit out the Super Bowl.
Pouncey hurt the same ankle in a win over the Falcons Saturday night, and the Steelers simply can't afford him missing significant time this season. Backup center Doug Legursky is serviceable, but he's no Pouncey, and the Steelers power running game and pass protection would suffer without the offensive line's best player and natural leader.
The Steelers are well aware they haven't made the playoffs the next season after their two most recent Super Bowl trips (in 2006 and 2009), and in another statistic that could apply to them this year, seven of the past 10 Super Bowl losers haven't made a return trip to the postseason. But with a defense that returns intact, and plenty of playmakers surrounding quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on offense, the Steelers will once again slug it out with Baltimore for division supremacy.
All you really need to know about the relative strength of Cleveland's roster is this: 12th-year kicker Phil Dawson was named the team's franchise player this offseason, and you couldn't really quibble about the move. The Browns have their challenges to overcome on both offense and defense, but Cleveland's special teams units have been a silver lining in a dark cloud for quite some time now. Return man/receiver Josh Cribbs is as exciting as it gets when he's got the ball in his hands, and not even the league's new kickoff rules can totally neutralize his threat. When it comes to kick coverage, Cleveland's may be the NFL gold standard.
Cleveland simply isn't going to consistently challenge either Pittsburgh's or Baltimore's defense with a cast of characters at receiver led by the likes of Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie. We've seen what that looks like, and it won't get it done. The shortage of big-play threats might be eased some if second-round pick Greg Little develops faster than a typical rookie receiver, or if second-year veteran Carlton Mitchell emerges as a reliable target. But the Browns need to give young quarterback Colt McCoy some legitimate downfield weapons, even if the new West Coast offense is designed to attack underneath and horizontally more than vertically.
When you play in the same division as the Steelers and Ravens, you can't be a pushover on run defense, and that's why Cleveland made sizable Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor its first-round pick. The Browns were a ghastly 27th against the run last season, giving up more than 129 yards per game. Taylor is an athletic, every-down talent who must use his 6-3, 334-pound frame to plug the running lanes. He needs to give Cleveland a stalwart to build around as it makes the transition from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 formation.
The Browns have showed some promise this preseason, and in McCoy it looks like they've found a young quarterback whose whole is greater than the sum of his parts. Cleveland will take a step forward in Pat Shurmur's first year as head coach, and it doesn't hurt that the mild, mild NFC West is on a schedule that falls into the less-than-challenging category. But the Browns have too many issues to overcome to climb into contention in the division this season, and the lockout hurt them as much as anyone, given all the transitions underway this year in Cleveland.
To be sure, the Bengals weren't anything special on defense last season, ranking 15th overall with 332 yards allowed per game. But defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's guys will fight you, and they gave Cincinnati a chance to win most games. The Bengals lost 12 games in 2010, and eight came by eight points or fewer. In one mind-numbing and hope-sapping streak, Cincinnati lost six consecutive one-score games, turning a promising 2-1 start into a 2-7 slide.
Zimmer couldn't stand that the Bengals lost cornerback Johnathan Joseph in free agency (to Houston), but there is still some talent on defense with second-year end Carlos Dunlap (9½ sacks), middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and cornerback Leon Hall. Those are players to build around at each level of the defense, but this is not the same group that finished as a top-10 unit in 2009 and helped spark Cincinnati to a surprising AFC North title.
With quarterback Carson Palmer, receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, and coordinator Bob Bratkowski all gone, at least the Bengals have the chance to remake themselves on offense. Drafting Georgia receiver A.J. Green in the first round and TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round were two major steps, but so too was hiring Jay (brother of Jon) Gruden as the new coordinator. If those three get some time to grow together, good things could result.
The Bengals aren't likely to ask Dalton to carry too much of the burden too soon, but he does have Cedric Benson to hand off to and a pair of developing targets to throw to in tight end Jermaine Gresham and receiver Jordan Shipley, a pair of 2010 rookies who both caught 52 passes and showed potential.
It's obvious Cincinnati needs bigger contributions on a lot of fronts in 2011, but after two years on the strong side, Maualuga is assuming a larger role, replacing the departed Dhani Jones at middle linebacker. The former second-round pick from USC didn't raise the level of his game last season after a nice rookie year, but Zimmer is counting on him to be the backbone of this defense. With a rookie quarterback expected to play a lot, Cincinnati's defense will likely face plenty of short fields and be asked to persevere through some tough situations. Maualuga has to lead that particular effort by setting a resilient tone and producing in the clutch.
The Bengals don't often do things in conventional NFL fashion, even when they launch a rebuilding program. The Carson Palmer era ended messily, and so did the days of the Batman and Robin receiving duo, whose act lasted probably one year too long as is in Cincinnati. It's difficult to see anything really good coming out of the chaos that has prevailed this offseason in Bengal-dom, and it doesn't help that the lockout robbed Gruden, Dalton and Green of some much-needed preparation. I'm having a hard time finding a team in the AFC with more challenges headed its way in 2011 than the Bengals.