AFC North: A Division In Flux
Originally posted to isportstimes.com on August 8, 2013
Since the NFL realigned divisions back in 2002, the AFC North has been one of the toughest divisions to compete in, producing eight Wild Card teams and three Super Bowl winners in eleven years. But in 2013, the AFC North is a division in flux. Despite producing the Super Bowl champion Ravens last year, there are important questions facing each team as they embark on the 2013 campaign, making the division the most open it’s been in a over a decade.
For the Ravens, a look at the offensive side of the ball reveals some issues. Losing Anquan Boldin to San Francisco in free agency was a blow, but, as noted in this piece, losing both Boldin and Dennis Pita (dislocated hip, likely out for the season) will be extremely difficult to overcome. (Side note: Click on that link if only to see the picture of writer Greg A. Bedard. What a fantastic photo. It’s like a cross between John Boehner before the Oompa Loompas got to him and Greg Brady, but in a good way). Torrey Smith is a nice player, but he will be tasked with consistently beating double and triple teams, something he didn’t have to do very often last season. The offensive line was excellent last postseason, but good luck trying to get a full season at left tackle from Bryant McKinnie. It will be on quarterback Joe Flacco to elevate those around him, rather than the other way around.
The question marks for the Bengals are also on offense, and specifically around the man under center. Despite making the playoffs in his first two years, Andy Dalton has yet to show he can consistently get the job done against the upper echelon of NFL teams. Everything the Bengals do on offense is predicated on A.J. Green’s ability to consistently beat double and triple teams. But even though Green is arguably the second best receiver in the league (behind Calvin Johnson), good NFL defenses can scheme to stop one guy, and the rest of the offensive skill players on the roster are underwhelming at best. It will be on Dalton to make significant strides in accuracy, particularly when throwing deep to targets outside the hash marks. The Bengals will also need more contribution from wideout Mohamed Sanu and tight ends Jermaine Gresham and rookie first rounder Tyler Eifert if they are to reach or exceed the ten wins they produced last season.
The big issues for the Steelers are on defense. The traditional hallmarks of the recent Steelers defenses, the ability to pressure the quarterback and have safety Troy Polamalu disrupt anything and everything opposing offenses try, are no longer present. At 32, Troy Polamalu can still be a playmaker, but constant injuries seem to have put him in the Bob Sanders stage of his career. The Steelers will need an immediate impact from rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, along with LaMarr Woodley bouncing back from ineffectiveness and verbal barbs from teammates, to restore a potent pass rush. Beyond that, losing nose tackle Casey Hampton, not James Harrison, is the biggest loss this unit suffered. When a team plays a 3-4 scheme like Pittsburgh does, it’s imperative to have a nose tackle that can occupy blockers and free up linebackers to make tackles. It will now be on recently re-signed Steve McLendon to fill that roll in Pittsburgh.
When it comes to the Browns, one look at this picture says everything about the questions facing the team, and the pressure is on Brandon Weeden to buck the trend. More than any other position, an elite quarterback can paper over other holes on a roster and elevate those around him. Have a porous offensive line? A quarterback with a quick release can negate the pass rush. Lack a viable rushing attack? A quarterback who can push the ball down the field can open up running lanes. Although Weeden deserves a long look this season to see of he’s the answer, there is still a lot of skepticism on whether or not he can be even a competent starter, let alone the kind of quality quarterback that can consistently make those around him better.
As for a favorite, just look at the quarterbacks. Although Roethlisberger may be better on a per game basis, the improvement Flacco showed during the playoffs combined with his durability, he’s yet to miss a start in his career while Roethlisberger hasn’t played a full season since 2008, make Baltimore the early favorite. But the Ravens’ perch at the top of the division is tenuous at best, and whichever team can best answer their questions this season will no doubt come out on top.