AFC North: Training Camp challenges
Challenge No. 1: Replace Adalius Thomas.
It'll be impossible to find a player with Thomas' versatility, so the Ravens know they'll have some drop in production from a squad that led in NFL scoring defense at 12.6 points per game last season. They'll try to get more out of fifth-year veteran Jarrett Johnson, who had 22 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2006. He could step into Thomas' starting spot at outside linebacker. Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan also may try to incorporate more creative schemes into his pressure package. But simply put, the Ravens have their work cut out for them.
Challenge No. 2: Tweak the running game to fit Willis McGahee's strengths.
The pre-draft trade for McGahee immediately improved the Ravens' mediocre rushing attack. Though McGahee's predecessor, Jamal Lewis, gained over 1,000 yards last season, the Ravens running game lacked big-play potential. Inserting McGahee into the lineup gives coach Brian Billick a dynamic cut-back runner who can work effectively between the tackles and also get to the corner. He'll enable the Ravens to move from the two-back offense used in previous years to a one-back offense that'll feature more variety in the receiver sets. Billick and his staff will spend the preseason putting the finishing touches on what should be a more diverse rushing attack built upon the strengths and versatility of McGahee.
Challenge No. 3: Increase Demetrius Williams' role in the passing game.
Averaging over 18 yards per catch, Williams gave the Ravens' the deep threat they lacked the past few years and helped open up the field for fellow receivers Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason. But with Mason's speed and skills declining, Williams needs to step up his game even more. He has an outside shot of cracking the starting lineup with a strong performance in training camp.
Challenge No. 1: Settle the quarterback debate.
Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and rookie Brady Quinn are engaged in a heated competition that will be decided during training camp. While it appears to be a three horse race on paper, the battle will come down to the veterans. Last season's starter, Frye, completed over 63% of his passes, but had 17 interceptions during his 11-game stint as starter. Anderson displayed surprising potential in his four appearances at the end of last season. Though his overall numbers were not overly impressive, his ability to rally his team from a huge deficit versus Kansas City and his effectiveness versus Baltimore's highly respected defense won him some fans within the organization. After being penciled into the No.1 spot at the end of mini-camps, Anderson can officially claim the job with a strong performance during the preseason. It will be interesting to see if he can continue to build on the momentum created during the offseason.
Challenge No. 2: Be prepared to enter the season without Joe Thomas
After selecting Thomas with the third overall pick, the Browns appeared to solidify the left side of their line. But with speculation swirling of a lengthy holdout by Thomas, the Browns have to prepare for life without Thomas. Fortunately, they resisted the temptation to trade Kevin Shaffer prior to the draft, so pencil him in as the starting left tackle. Although he struggled a season ago, he has been a solid player throughout his career and should play better with Eric Steinbach beside him. Shaffer was one of their marquee signings in the previous offseason and the coaching staff indicated that they would not give his position away without a training camp battle. The competition between Shaffer and Thomas is one of several taking place along the line. With Kelly Butler vying for Ryan Tucker's spot at right tackle, the preseason will give the Browns plenty of opportunities to use different combinations and improve their overall depth. With more versatility and depth, the offensive line should be stronger when Thomas eventually steps into the starting lineup.
Challenge No. 3: Improve their pass rush
The Browns finished near the bottom of the league in pass defense last season. Though their coverage was spotty, the root of their problems was their inconsistent pass rush. Kamerion Wimbley led the team with 11 sacks as a rookie, but received little help from anyone else in the front seven. Without addressing their personnel weaknesses through the draft or free agency, the Browns will have to creatively come up with ways to pressure the passer. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, has some athletic players who have the versatility to be incorporated into an exotic zone blitz, but the Browns have been reluctant to blitz due to the questionable cover skills of their corner. Given the multiple looks that the 3-4 can disguise, the Browns will open up the playbook to create a consistent pass rush. If their young corners, Eric Wright and Leigh Bodden, can hold up during the preseason, the Browns will head into the season with enough confidence to feature the blitz as their primary way to pressure the passer.
Challenge No. 1: Find a replacement for suspended Chris Henry.
Led by a talented receiving corps featuring Henry, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the Bengals have had some success spreading out and exploiting overmatched corners on the way to becoming one of the league's most explosive offenses. Henry's emergence as a big play threat has been an integral part of their success. With 15 touchdowns in the past two seasons, he has established himself as a big play threat and prevented teams from sitting in cover two to take away Johnson and Houshmandzadeh out of the game. As he serves his eight-game suspension, the Bengals must find a receiver to fill that void. Tab Perry has shown big-time ability as a returner and appears to be the most logical candidate, but he lacks the game experience at receiver to be completely trusted to step into that role. Antonio Chatman and Reggie McNeal will also get their chances, but they also lack the playing time and experience to be counted on. Training camp and preseason games will go a long way towards determining which of these candidates gets the nod as the Bengals' third receiver.
Challenge No. 2: Get better play out of the secondary
After leading the league in interceptions in 2005, the Bengals finished last in passing defense last season. The secondary's inconsistency in coverage and frequent mental lapses led to the Bengals giving up 24 passing touchdowns. Although they finished with 19 interceptions, they did not create enough turnovers to make up for their blown assignments. Surprisingly, some of the mental lapses came from veterans Deltha O'Neal and Tory James. After stellar years in 2005, both were beaten repeatedly on double moves and gadget plays. While the Bengals let James walk during free agency, O'Neal returns but is not guaranteed a starting spot. With the emergence of Jonathan Joseph and the addition of first round pick Leon Hall, the Bengals appear to be willing to gamble on their young talent in starting roles. If Joseph can recover quickly from his offseason foot injury, he and Hall could form a dynamic duo with tons of big play potential.
Challenge No. 3: Prepare for Odell Thurman's return.
The troubled linebacker is set to return to the team following a year-long suspension. Though he has experienced numerous scrapes with the law, Thurman is the difference maker the Bengals lacked in the middle last season. A high motor guy with great instincts and intangibles, he was their biggest playmaker as a rookie and finished with five interceptions. His return will undoubtedly help the Bengals regain the swagger and confidence they displayed in 2005. But his on-field talent was never in question, his character and decision-making will determine how long he will stay when he makes it back. Given the odds, the team has to plan as if it will be without his services and then make on-the-fly adjustments if he proves he can be trusted.
Challenge No. 1: Handle the Alan Faneca situation.
Faneca has repeatedly voiced his displeasure with his contract situation. Heading into the final year of his current deal, he is seeking a lucrative contract extension that would mirror the recent free agent signings of Steinbach, Derrick Dockery and Leonard Davis. Though Faneca has been a six-time Pro Bowler, the Steelers have balked at paying him market value for his services. In response to the Steelers' reluctance, Faneca has demanded a trade, ripped Steelers' management for their lack of loyalty and skipped most of the offseason workouts in protest. On the heels of his original unhappiness with the handling of the head coach hiring, Faneca has been an overall disruption for new head coach Mike Tomlin. As the captain of the team, he has several loyal supporters in the locker room who are carefully observing the situation, which puts Tomlin in a bit of a bind. So far he has handled the situation well by continuing to be balanced and fair with Faneca. He has praised his talent and ability, but has demanded that he continue to be professional. Knowing that he has no control over the contract situation, Tomlin has done an excellent job of trying to defuse the situation. Watching this drama play out over training camp will help establish Tomlin's reputation in the Steelers' locker room.
Challenge No. 2: Rebuild Ben Roethlisberger's confidence
After having a stellar run during his first two years as the Steelers quarterback, Roethlisberger regressed last season. Obviously, hampered by the effects of the motorcycle accident and the emergency appendectomy, Roethlisberger never displayed the rhythm, poise and accuracy he possessed during his first two seasons. His struggles in the pocket resulted in 59.7 completion percentage and negative touchdown to interception ratio (18/23) for the first time in his career.
Though it would be easy to pin his inconsistent performance on the injuries, Roethlisberger's deficiencies also involved the way that he was used last season. After spending the first two seasons working off the Steelers' strong running game and play action, the Steelers may have placed too much responsibility on Roethlisberger's shoulders by featuring more drop-back passing. His pass attempts nearly doubled and his overall passer rating dropped nearly 20 points.
New offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, has the task of rebuilding Roethlisberger's confidence and performance. Though he is surely to demand better decision making from Roethlisberger, it will be more interesting to see how the offense is catered to his ability.
Challenge No. 3: Blend elements of the "Tampa Two" into their traditional 3-4 defense
The Steelers have been one of the few teams to extensively use the 3-4 as their base defense. Given the success of the scheme under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Steelers have decided to keep it as their base defense under new head coach Mike Tomlin. Though Tomlin has long favored the Tampa Two concept, he and LeBeau are attempting to blend in both concepts with the Steelers new defense. LeBeau's 3-4 has always incorporated a heavy amount of Cover Two into his zone blitz concepts and Tomlin's knowledge of the Tampa Two coverage should enhance the Cover Two the Steelers use in their base defense. The full effects of the Tampa Two scheme should show up when the Steelers use their sub-package on third down or passing situations. The Steelers have always used a four man line when using their nickel and dime personnel, but being able to use Tampa Two concepts will improve their pass rush and coverage in third down situations. They have been tight lipped about how they will sprinkle the Tampa Two into their package, but we will quickly find out when the preseason begins.