2014 AFC North Preview
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. After failing to win their third straight AFC North title in 2013, the Ravens goal is to get back to the top and earn that all important home field playoff game. To get there, we recap what’s been going on across the division this offseason, and see who has placed themselves in the best position to earn the division title in 2014.
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Cincinnati Bengals – 11-5 (3-3)
Pittsburgh Steelers – 8-8 (4-2)
Baltimore Ravens – 8-8 (3-3)
Cleveland Browns – 4-12 (2-4)
2013 Rankings – Passing: 258.5 ypg (8th), Rushing: 109.7 ypg (18th), Passing Def.: 209 ypg (5th), Rushing Def.: 96.5 ypg (5th).
Say hello to the 115 million dollar quarterback, Andy Dalton. He’s the most recent quarterback to receive a large, long term deal (six years). Dalton will need to learn a new offense as former OC, Jay Gruden leaves town to become the head coach of the Washington Redskins. Enter Hue Jackson, promoted from running backs coach to the top dog on offense. Jackson’s resume has taken him to a number of destinations as an offensive specialist in one way or another. Ravens fans will remember him as Joe Flacco’s QB coach form 08’-09’. He helped Flacco win a few playoff games early in his career, something Andy Dalton is still in search of, despite making it to January football in each of his three years in the NFL.
Breakout player – Giovanni Bernard
Bernard came off the bench in relief of BenJarvus Green-Ellis last year, but that should change as he enters his sophomore season. The first half of 2013, he averaged nine carries per game and over 12 carries per game in the second half as they increased his work load slowly. Despite going over 100 yards from scrimmage just twice last year, the Bengals have high hopes for the former Tar Heel that drew comparisons to Barry Sanders for his running style and ability to turn a seemingly broken down play into a big gain. Hue Jackson has a history of installing an efficient running game as well where ever he goes, going along with a balanced attack of pass vs. run.
Notable additions – QB Jason Campbell, S Danieal Manning, DE Sam Montgomery
Notable draft picks – CB Darqueze Dennard (1), QB A.J. McCarron (5)
Notable departures – LB James Harrison, DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins
Notable games – Week 5 @ New England (SNF), Week 10 vs. Cleveland (TNF), Week 16 vs. Denver (MNF)
If Denver is anywhere near as successful as they were last year, Ravens fans have to love seeing this match up, this late in the season for Cincy when a Bengals loss could be a huge benefit to the Ravens.
Overall – There is a lot to like about the Bengals this upcoming season. Just one year after winning 11 games, I think they did enough this offseason to repeat that type of performance. However their schedule is daunting, including a three game stretch against 2013 playoff teams, @ NE, vs. CAR, and @ IND. On offense, A.J. Green is likely the best wide out not named Calvin Johnson. Gio Bernard is poised to break out. They have a decent offensive line, bookended by a couple star tackles in Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith. One of the better defensive units is led by Vontaze Burfict, coming off a season where he was the most efficient tackler, while also racking up 171 tackles. Up front is dominated by Geno Atkins and Domata Peko. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is poised for a breakout season on defense, along with rookie Darqueze Dennard who was one of the top rated corners coming out of college.
2013 Rankings – Passing: 251.1 ypg (12th), Rushing: 86.4 ypg (28th), Passing Def: 222.1 ypg (9th), Rushing Def.: 115.6 ypg (21st)
The Steelers are used to finding themselves in the playoffs for most of the last decade. But after Tim Tebow’s Denver Broncos beat them in January of 2011 it’s been a two season absence from the postseason for Pittsburgh with a pair of 8-8 seasons on the books. Ravens fans certainly don’t seem to mind. Pittsburgh certainly isn’t working on trying to get any younger as they re-signed S Troy Polamalu and TE Heath Miller to three year extensions. Extension talks surrounding QB Ben Roethlisberger were swirling a few months ago. But the Steelers and Big Ben have agreed to put those talks off until after the season. Roethlisberger is under contract through 2015. He is due his highest salary, and largest cap hit of the eight year deal, $12.1M in base salary and $18.895M against the cap. After back to back .500 seasons, can they get back to their historic winning ways?
Breakout player – Markus Wheaton
Wheaton caught just six balls as a rookie in 2013. But Pittsburgh has cut ties with receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jericho Cotchery, opening the door for the sophomore to earn playing time opposite Antonio Brown. Challenging Wheaton for the WR2 spot will be former Saints receiver, Lance Moore. But it’s tough to tell if Moore’s past successes are a product of Sean Payton’s high octane passing game in New Orleans. Darius Heyward-Bey was also signed to a one year deal. Looks like as of now, the starting job is Wheaton’s to lose. The 5’11” speedster draws comparisons to Percy Harvin.
Notable additions – RBLeGarrette Blount, WR Darius Heyward-Bey, WR Lance Moore, FS Mike Mitchell
Notable draft picks – LB Ryan Shazier (1), DE Stephon Tuitt (2), RB Dri Archer (3)
Notable departures – DT Ziggy Hood, RB Felix Jones, RB, Johnathan Dwyer, WR Emmanuel Sanders, WR Jericho Cotchery, LB – LaMarr Woodley
Notable games – Week 2 @ Baltimore (TNF), Week 9 vs. Baltimore (SNF)
It’s kind of a weak schedule for Pittsburgh. Not much to it. However, following their week 12 bye, they go vs. NO, @ ATL, @ CIN, vs. KC, vs. CIN. If the Falcons bounce back this year, this is a tough way to finish. They are lucky to have two possibly must win games at home, and either of these games could be a flex option to primetime.
Overall – Of the four teams in the North Division, I feel the Steelers did the least to improve themselves this offseason. I understand that head coach Mike Tomlin has earned himself a bit of leeway pertaining his “hot seat” since he has been to two Super Bowls in his tenure. But you have to wonder if the antics are starting to wear on a veteran filled team. Taking away leisure activities like pool tables from the clubhouse for poor play, etc. Veterans eventually stop responding positively to those forms of “punishment”. Tomlin has to feel his seat getting warmer and we’ll see how he coaches this year under fire. OC Todd Haley has said they would like to use more no-huddle this year, putting a lot more onus on Roethlisberger to carry the team. He’s not getting any younger at 32, and we know about how badly he’s been beaten up and bruised through his career. Age has to catch up with this entire team at some point. I like some of the draft picks, but that’s a conversation likely for next season.
Prediction – 6-10
2013 Rankings – Passing: 224.4 ypg (18th), Rushing: 83.0 ypg (30th), Passing Def.: 230.1 ypg (12th), Rushing Def. 105.4 ypg (11th)
The big story of the Baltimore Ravens offseason is the overhaul of the offense. A rushing offense of historically awful proportions prompted major changes. OC Gary Kubiak takes over as the play caller and installs his version of the west coast system. A scheme predicated on zone blocking/running, play action, and moving the pocket with bootlegs to get defenses moving out of position which also can hinder opposing pass rushers. The Ravens and their fans are hoping that the Super Bowl “hangover” was just that. One isolated incident. After five straight playoff appearances, last year’s 8-8 record was the first missed playoff berth in the Harbaugh/Flacco era. It’s tough to win year in and year out. In fact, the Ravens were the only team to make the playoffs each year from 2008-2012. Each year, some playoff team regressed. It was just their time. Can they get back to their winning ways?
Breakout player – C.J. Mosley
Call me crazy (“you’re crazy”) for predicting a rookie to be a breakout player. Especially the way John Harbaugh treats rookies when it comes to playing time. So why then? Two reasons. First, most players I expect to have good years are already proven veterans, so they don’t really fit the definition of “breakout”. Maybe after last year, Flacco, Rice, Pitta could all have “bounce back” seasons, but not “breakout”. Second, all reports point to Mosley looking really, really good in camp. Now I know we can only tell so much from camp. But gut feeling that if he is running with the first team, the starting job is his to lose. It’ll be interesting to see how he does this preseason when he gets a chance to really crack someone. I think that Arthur Brown and Daryl Smith are also similar in skill set as great coverage guys. Mosley would be a great complement as a run stopper alongside one of those men.
Notable additions – WR Steve Smith, RB Justin Forsett, TE Owen Daniels, FS Darian Stewart, FS Will Hill (six game suspension), C – Jeremy Zuttah
Notable draft picks – LB C.J. Mosley (1), DT Timmy Jernigan (2), QB Keith Wenning (6), WR Michael Campanaro (7)
Notable departures – FB Vonte Leach, LB Jameel McClain, OT Michael Oher, TE Ed Dickson, CB Corey Graham, DT Arthur Jones
Notable games – Week 2 vs. Pittsburgh (TNF), Week 9 @ Pittsburgh (SNF), Week 12 @ New Orleans (MNF)
Interesting set of games for the Ravens if you’re into reunions. They host Steve Smith’s former team, Carolina in week 4. They’ll travel to see Art Jones in Indy for week 5. Michael Oher returns to Baltimore as a member of the Titans in week 10. They will also travel to Tampa in week 6 and New Orleans for week 12, both of which are the sites where the Ravens won their Super Bowls (XXXV, XLVII). The final three games vs. JAX, @ HOU, vs. CLE are favorable if they live up to 2013 standards. Those three teams were a combined 10-38 last year.
Overall – If the Ravens don’t improve on their 8-8 season, it can’t be pinned on a lack of trying. They had a terrible offense and revamped it from the top down. New staff, new system, and acquired players that fit the system as well. They aren’t content with 8-8 which has to make the fan base feel confident heading into 2014. Ray Rice is going to miss two tough divisional games to start the season. How much will those games set them back, if any? Still some question marks at positions like slot corner and free safety. We still need to see how Joe Flacco operates in this new system. Will it be up tempo? Will they improve in the red zone? So many questions come along with such a large overhaul. I’m willing to say that Ravens made the necessary moves to improve, but I can’t go crazy here.
Prediction – 10-6
2013 Rankings – Passing: 252.9 ypg (11th), Rushing: 86.4 ypg (27th), Passing Def.: 221.1 ypg (8th), Rushing Def.: 111.3 ypg (18th)
The city of Cleveland is the sporting mecca of the U.S. this summer as two of its biggest stars, LeBron James and Johnny Manziel, call their teams home there. However, one is established as a bonafide superstar and one of the greatest to play his sport, the other hasn’t taken a snap in so much as a preseason game…yet. This is a Browns team that has been in turmoil for quite some time. One of the highest coaching turnover rates in the league, a front office that faced legal issues, a quarterbacking carousel that goes round and round, their motto is “We’re not Detroit!” The fans there have waited for something good to hang their hat on. Wide receiver, Josh Gordon, could have been that guy but will likely be suspended for the entire season stemming from multiple marijuana violations. Can someone else be that guy that returns the Cleveland Browns to glory? Ok, glory is pushing it. How about relevance?
Breakout player – Ben Tate
Finally able to come out from the shadow of Arian Foster, Ben Tate is ready to become the feature back. Tate is hard runner that hits like a wrecking ball. He’s a beast to bring down. Being able to grind out tough yards on the ground could be key in some games. Especially games in Cleveland where the weather is miserable late in the year. Tate running the ball well will take the pressure of whoever the QB is. If it’s Manziel, you want your rookie to face the least amount of pressure possible.
Notable additions – WR Miles Austin, WR Nate Burleson, RB Ben Tate, S Donte Whitner, LB Karlos Dansby
Notable draft picks – CB Justin Gilbert (1), QB Johnny Manziel (1), G Joel Bitonio (2), RB Terrance West (3)
Notable departures – WR Greg Little, S T.J. Ward, LB D’Qwell Jackson, QB Brandon Weeden, QB Jason Campbell
Notable games – Week 7 @ Jacksonville, Week 10 @ Cincinnati (TNF)
Is any Browns game “notable”? Well there is a potential Johnny Manziel vs. Blake Bortles matchup in the Jacksonville game. The “Battle for Ohio” with Cincy is the only primetime game on the slate for the Browns. I’m sure the crew of ESPN is lobbying to show the other 15 games in their entirety if Manziel is named the starter.
Overall – It finally looks like the Browns are doing things the right way. They are keeping their best players in CB Joe Haden and C Alex Mack around. Everyone they lost they replaced with seemingly better players. But will the loss of Josh Gordon be too much to overcome? The key for the Browns should be to turn Johnny Manziel loose. “Johnny Football” has the kind of success he’s had in his college career because of confidence, swagger. The Browns need to not get in the way of that, but they seem to be already. They wish he wouldn’t party in Vegas, they wish he would be a robot who reads his playbook 23 hours a day in a silent dungeon where he can’t be seen for pictures. They want him to go about life as if he is going to be the backup QB. They aren’t fooling anyone. Last time I checked, Brian Hoyer isn’t the leading jersey seller in the NFL. Cleveland is on the right track. Don’t get in your own way and…”Cleveland” this opportunity with Manziel up. Because Manziel seems to have “it”, whatever “it” is. If you try to take “it” away, “Johnny Football” becomes Jonathan Manziel, first round bust.
Prediction – 7-9
2014 AFC North Prediction
Cincinnati Bengals – 11-5
Baltimore Ravens – 10-6 (WC)
Cleveland Browns – 7-9
Pittsburgh Steelers – 6-10