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2013 NFL Previews: AFC North

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Baltimore Ravens

Last season, the Ravens were the latest team to accomplish what has now become a somewhat regular feat in the NFL, making a dramatic run to a Super Bowl victory despite having a mediocre regular season. It’s still crazy to look back at the things that the Ravens did last year to win it all. While the perception of the Ravens over the last decade has been that they are a smash mouth defensive team, Baltimore won in spite of their defense last season. Ray Lewis’ swan song got the headlines, but by season’s end he was hurting the Ravens more than he was helping them.

What their Super Bowl victory came down to, aside from Jimmy Smith holding Michael Crabtree on the biggest play of the game, was Joe Flacco having the best stretch of his career under Jim Caldwell. The Ravens made a shocking decision to fire offensive coordinator Cam Cameron after Week 15, which turned out to be crucial in propelling the Ravens to a Super Bowl.

But don’t expect a repeat, though. Baltimore’s already below average defense lost several key players (not including Lewis) including Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Cary Williams and the offense also one of the key players on their title team: Anquan Boldin. Now the Ravens will be relying on Jacoby Jones to hold up on the outside as their number two receiver even though he’s been primarily a slot receiver throughout his career. Torrey Smith is nice, but he’s not a superstar #1 receiver that demands double teams. With Dennis Pitta sidelined for most of the season with a fractured hip, defenses are going to key in on Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, and Flacco’s first season as the face of the franchise may not go so well.

Best-case scenario: 9-7, Rice and Pierce dominate the run game and scheme covers up for a lack of defensive talent

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, The offense lacks verticality and the defense suffers through a down year

Prediction: 7-9, Not totally unlike the Giants of recent years, Baltimore will follow up an average season that finished with a bang with an average season that finishes with a whimper

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have put together a talented roster with playmakers on both sides of the ball and superstars to give them the foundation of a potential playoff threat. But despite the brilliance of A.J. Green and the best defensive line in football, this team can’t reach the next level without their quarterback taking a step up. The Bengals had a great shot take out the Texans in the first round of the playoffs last year as their defense put them in a position to move on, but the offense simply couldn’t move the ball, due in large part to Andy Dalton’s inability to throw his man open or get the ball down the field with accuracy.

This is a big year for Dalton. If he hadn’t had Green alongside him to make him look better, he would have looked like a disaster over the past couple of seasons. Dalton is an OK quarterback with an average skillset, but that’s simply not enough in today’s NFL where a QB with an average skillset is probably a below average quarterack relative to his peers. Dalton can manage games well, but even then he isn’t immune to poor reads and mistakes, and he simply hasn’t show any ability to raise the production of his teammates.

Knowing this, Cincinnati went out and got themselves a couple more young offensive weapons in the first two rounds of the draft. In the first round the Bengals picked up Tyler Eifert, a big tight end that can work well with Jermaine Gresham in two tight end sets, and Giovani Bernard, a dynamic and shifty back that can make plays out of the backfield and provides a stark contrast to starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis. With Andre Hawkins playing somewhat of a Randall Cobb-role in the slot and Mohamed Sanu complementing Green, the Bengals actually have some talent on the offensive side of the ball.

If the Bengals can get more out of their offense this season, they’ll be primed for a big year. They have an underrated secondary that should get a boost out of second year corner Dre Kirkpatrick, who missed most of his rookie season due to injuries, a solid linebacking core with the emerging Vontaze Burfict and free agent additions James Harrison and Aaron Maybin leading the way, and they have one of the scariest front sevens in the league. With Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers on the ends and Geno Atkins and Domata Peko at the tackles, there is no better combination of passrushing and run plugging defensive linemen in football. Were it not for J.J. Watt having one of the best defensive seasons in NFL history, more folks would have picked up on Atkins having one of the best defensive seasons in NFL history, at least for a nose tackle. On top of getting 13 sacks, Atkins also ranked fifth in the league according to Football Outsiders against the run, stopping 86% of the rush attempts that came his way.

The Bengals have done a really good job building a complete roster, with the exception of securing a franchise quarterback. Unfortunately for them, having that franchise quarterback is the number one requirement to be a Super Bowl contender, and it doesn’t seem like Dalton is the guy that will lead them to the promise land.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Dalton takes advantage of his weapons and the defense remains strong

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Dalton turns out not to be the answer and the secondary gets picked apart

Prediction: 9-7, I think Dalton can get this team back to the playoffs, but the ceiling of this team is just about that unless he takes a big step forward.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns have seemingly identified and acquired talent some of the most important positions in the game over the past few years, but as their subtle acquisitions pile up, their search for a quarterback continues to go on without an answer. Joe Thomas is one of the best left tackles in the league, Joe Haden is one of the best coverage corners in football, D’Qwell Jackson provides the defense with a very good captain in the middle of the field at linebacker and Trent Richardson appears to have the makings of a franchise running back, a throwback runner that can handle the rock and take the pounding that comes with the role as an every down back.

But in the passing game, the Browns remain well behind the times. Brandon Weeden was a great quarterback during his time at Oklahoma State, but he thrived in a system that spread the field and got the ball out of the backfield as quickly as possible, which played perfectly into Weeden’s hands as someone who can fire the ball accurately and quickly when asked to make quick reads. While he needed to get drafted by a team that could start him right away because of the years he lost to baseball, the Browns were a poor fit in every other way last season, leading to an awful rookie season for Weeden. Cleveland was far from progressive offensively, and forcing Weeden to play a tranditional, throwback style that took him out of his element.

Luckily for Weeden, the Browns went out and hired Rob Chudzinski as their head coach and Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator, and both guys have histories designing and running spread offenses. Weeden has looked a lot better in the pocket during the pre-season and the addition of some quick, air-raid style passing principles could go a long ways in making Weeden more comfortable and improving the overall quality of the offense. Next on the list for the Browns would be to add a dynamic receiver that can make big plays. Right now Cleveland lacks a true number one wideout and instead has a cast of solid #2 options. If Weeden and the defense can take a step forward this season and Mike Lombardi can use his second off-season to add some playmakers and depth upfront, the Browns may have something to look forward to next season. But for now, the jury is still out on Weeden.

Best-case scenario: 8-8, Weeden gets better acquainted with the pro game and the defense finds a passrush

Worst-case scenario: 4-12, The Browns start more than one quarterback by week 10

Prediction: 7-9, Weeden shows modest improvement but the lack of playmakers remains evident

Pittsburgh Steelers

For the first time since I can remember, the blue collar Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t assert their will in the run game. In fact, it wasn’t even a slow decline for the Steelers, who went from having the sixth best rushing offense according to Football Outsiders in 2012 to having the second worst rushing offense in football last season. Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall were the primary backs for the Steelers, and all of them produced horribly, but of course, it wasn’t all their fault. Injuries played a big part in Pittsburgh’s inability to run the ball, keeping the backs and the team’s best offensive linemen off the field.

The Steelers, who will be testing out a new outside zone blocking scheme this season, will be getting right guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey back this season at 100% after DeCastro missed most of his rookie season with a broken kneecap and Pouncey played through several nagging issues. Unfortunaley, the injury bug has already gotten to rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, who suffered a lisfranc injury that will cost him the first couple of weeks of the season. Even with a healthy offensive line and an improved system, Redman and a hampered Bell is not going to remind anyone of the days when the Bus would run over everybody in his path.

Pittsburgh will also be looking to see how their receiver heirachy plays out now that Mike Wallace is with the Dolphins. The Steelers decided to spend their money on an extension for Antonio Brown last season rather than saving up to re-sign Wallace, so he left for a more lucrative offer. Brown is certainly one of the league’s more explosive outside threats, but big seasons from Emmanuel Sanders and Markus Wheaton are going to be required if this Pittsburgh offense is going to be able to overcome the loss of Wallace, Heath Miller injury (he’ll miss at least a few weeks as he recovers from his torn ACL) and a running game that is still a question mark.

It appears as if this could be a second straight down season for the Steelers as they attempt to somewhat rebuild their roster for the final years of Ben Roethlisberger’s career, but they could surprise and turn up as a playoff team because Dick LeBeau is still alive and kicking at age 75, and his defensive schemes and playcalling make Pittsburgh one of the best defensive teams in the league even when they lack the raw talent. The Steelers lost Casey Hampton and James Harrison this off-season, but the Steelers have Steve McClendon and Jason Worildis waiting in the wings to replace them, and a solid unit still intact for LeBeau to coach up beyond the sum of their parts.

Best-case scenario: 10-6, Bell and Redman exceed expectations and Big Ben stays healthy

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Roethlisberger struggles with is annual injury and the defense pays for a lack of talent

Prediction: 7-9, One more down year in preparation for phase two of their retooling job

Mark Travis is a 22-year old sportswriter that is currently majoring in Sports Media at Oklahoma State University. He started his own website, But The Game Is On, in 2008 as an outlet for his praise of Michael Crabtree and has since been credentialed by major organizations like the NBA, NFL, MLB, Nike and Team USA Basketball. He also covered the past two NBA Finals for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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