This week we finish off the NFL’s junior circuit, and we might as well start up north.
The Cincinnati Bengals will continue to progress only as much as Andy Dalton is able to move beyond grade B status as a quarterback. The team remains loaded with receivers, with an all-purpose back in Giovanni Bernard. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will look to speed up the offensive pace even more, so Dalton will be challenged to make decisions even quicker.
Even though the team boasts new coordinators for offense and defense, both were on the staff last year and just moved up when their predecessors departed for head coaching jobs.
The defense has a few issues, and losing Michael Johnson hurts a lot. Even with multiple injuries to every level of the defense last year, they still finished third overall. Of all divisions in the game, the AFC North is arguably the most traditional, designing game plans around the run while playing tough defense.
There’s no reason not to pick Cincy to repeat as division champs; though, like every other year, there will be nothing easy about it. Given a bad break or two, they could very well end up third.
The Baltimore Ravens have a defining characteristic as being a team that never stays down for long. On offense, they must get more production in the running game because Joe Flacco does not have skills to take over a game. Ray Rice and his colleagues in the backfield must have the holes to run through, meaning the offensive line play must improve greatly for them to have any real chance this year to improve on 8-8. Gary Kubiak brings his “one-cut” rushing style to the east coast as the new offensive coordinator.
Flacco can be very good when the defense gives him short fields to play on, and having receivers Torrey Smith and Dennis Pitta stay healthy this season would help. But defense must remain the focus of the team because, regardless of free agent receiver Steve Smith’s skills (after 14 seasons?), Baltimore is not likely capable of surviving multiple Sunday shootouts.
The defense should be fine once again — strong against the run and a pass rush that will be there late when it’s needed. They really need to win early though because the schedule is front-loaded with divisional games and losses there will make this another long and disappointing season. Projected finish is second place in the division.
Meanwhile with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Big Ben still needs more receiving options. For what they picked up, well…we’ll see if they are reliable. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has thus far survived storms of criticism, but unless points and yards make a major improvement, he might not last the season.
The defense welcomes a wave of youngsters up front and thankfully they will have Jason Worilds in the middle, but contract issues loom. Last year the team slipped badly early, especially on defense, and the team defense still finished 13th overall, which is what tradition gets you.
It’s really hard to see how a much younger unit melds effectively right away, especially against the rush. Much will be expected out of second- and third-year players who so far have been less than inspiring. Age in the secondary is starting to show itself so they also must get a pass rush going.
The Steelers identity now is Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu, and while Pittsburgh is not a two-man team, these two set the standard and have a way of making those around them much better. Still, finishing third in a tough division is no consolation.
As for the Cleveland Browns: Did you ever watch people build sandcastles on the beach? Whether it’s a kid or some adult attempting a serious sculpture, the result is always the same. The thing can never be very tall, nor last very long.
For 15 years, they’ve been building football’s version of sandcastles in Cleveland. Now it’s someone else’s turn and with a new coaching staff comes changes to the offense, a new defensive philosophy, a shift in personnel, altered free agency and drafting strategies, etc., etc. From a distance it’s very wistful. What’s truly sad is there are people who pay good money to go out and watch them do it.
Of course everyone is focusing on Johnny Manziel, who does not inspire one as any sort of pro quarterback because his best plays never seem to come from the pocket. He will have to produce consistently from there if he’s to be of any benefit to an NFL team.
No matter how well you move and improvise, the pros do not tolerate that sort of activity for long. Even if he does, with Josh Gordon’s season-long suspension for drug use, there’s no real threat to throw it to and not much chance anyone will get open.
Last year the Browns flat out could not run the ball anywhere on anyone at anytime, so we must suppose there’s no place to go but up given the signing of free agent Ben Tate. They also traded up to get an intriguing running back in the third round.
Defense has the talent and the team’s best chance for any sustained success will likely be with that unit. It’s just hard to win more than half the time with half a team.