2009 NFL Preview: AFC North

AFC NorthLets take a look at this years 2009 AFC North Previews and Predicitons.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Offseason: Tired clichés tell us that if it isn’t broke you don’t fix it, so it was no surprise that the influx of players in Pittsburgh was pretty much limited to the draft where they added the versatile Evander Hood to their front three, and a likely starter at guard in Kraig Urbik with their first two selections. Pittsburgh won’t have been thrilled to see nickel corner Bryant McFadden walk for Arizona or Nate Washington for Tennessee, but despite not being ideal the Steelers won’t be that broken up.

Offense: We all know the Steelers aren’t Super Bowl champions off the back of an explosive offense. They were good for 20th in points per game, struggled to find a healthy running back and had one of the worst lines in football allowing a miserable 49 sacks in 2008. Outside of Urbik, Pittsburgh didn’t make the total o-line overhaul I expected meaning they’ll bank on the poor play of 2008 being down to injury and not a fundamental lack of talent. Their receiving core is okay, but a lot of 2009 will hinge on which Santonio Holmes turns up: the Super Bowl/postseason hero, or the player that posted 8 sub-40 yard efforts in the 2008 regular season. Health is the big question mark hanging over their running back troupe, whilst Ben Roethlisberger remains one of the best leaders and clutch quarterbacks in the league – even if the statistics don’t show it, his two rings do.

Defense: Suffocating the run, locking down the pass and a lethal blitz saw the Steelers conceded the fewest points and yards per game in 2008 whilst ranking first and second against the pass and run respectively, and the good news for Steelernation is that there is no sign of this slowing down in 2009. Pittsburgh philosophy advocates limiting the role of defensive rookies in their first year to allow them to mature, and word out of Steelers camp is that 2007 first round selection Lawrence Timmons is looking dominant at inside linebacker in lieu of the now departed Larry Foote. Couple him with James Harrison, Casey Hampton, James Farrior, Troy Polamalu (the list goes on), and you can see why the Steelers are perennial Super Bowl contenders.

Key Games: Opening against Tennessee, travelling to Chicago, the Ravens twice and hosting Minnesota are all tough challenges.

Predicted Record: 13-3

Baltimore Ravens

Offseason: Derrick Mason’s non-retirement doesn’t inspire confidence in Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams’ ability to clear the box for the run, because in all honesty, I don’t even fear those guys. A veteran free agent or possible Boldin trade may make things interesting, but an already conservative offense also lost Lorenzo Neal from the blocking game which can’t be underestimated. Bart Scott: product of the system or integral cog? Time will tell.

Offense: Le’Ron McClain returns to fullback and it looks like the majority of the workload, and hence the offense, will rest on the shoulders of second year running back Ray Rice. Rice can catch out of the backfield as well as grind between the tackles and will have the broken Willis McGahee for support and McClain at the goal line, but thanks to that diminished receiving core and a second year QB who overachieved as a rookie, this Ravens’ offense isn’t scaring many.

Defense: That offense doesn’t have to put up 30 points if they only concede 7, but despite being an outstanding unit you can start to see the fraying edges of the Baltimore D. Age is against a lot of these players – especially in the secondary – not to mention the loss of mastermind Rex Ryan and Bart Scott’s 80+ tackles, so a repeat of their 2008 form is unlikely. Still a great D… but I expect 2009 to be the year it begins to unravel.

Key Games: Visiting the NFC North, at the Chargers, at New England, welcoming the Colts and that double against Pittsburgh give Baltimore a tough schedule to contend with.

Predicted Record: 9-7

Cincinnati Bengals

Offseason: Laveranues Coles will do a poor impression of TJ Houshmandzadeh, whilst Roy Williams and rookie Rey Maualuga will sure up their run defense. Tackle Andre Smith could be the steal of the draft if he applies himself, but history has shown us that if you need to focus and behave Cincinnati is the worst place to do it. Defensive end Michael Johnson is a physically gifted athlete, but like Smith, lacks motivation coming out of college.

Offense: Saying you like Chad Ochocinco is enough to get you lynched in some parts, but this guy is so talented that with Carson Palmer back there is no way he repeats the miserable 540 yard effort of 2008. Liking Cedric Benson is also a taboo, but he didn’t look too bad over the backend of last year. Chris Henry: potential breakout year. Carson Palmer’s return. When you start to break it down, Cincinnati are going to surprise a few people this year.

Defense: Quick quiz: who gave up fewest passing yards per game in 2008, the Bengals, Jets or Falcons? Better rush defence in 2008, Bengals or Bills? Thankfully for this critique, the answer for both is Cincinnati (sure would have been hard to make my point if they weren’t) so the framework for success is there. 17 sacks however held them back in 2008, but if they solve that problem this could be a much underrated entity.

Key Games: Underrated best describes Cincinnati, and they pose a potential banana skin for the Bears, Chargers and Packers.

Predicted Record: 7-9

Cleveland Browns

Offseason: Eric Mangini wasn’t the vibrant new coach Browns’ fans wanted, but hey, at least he isn’t Josh McDaniels. Cleveland signed quantity over quality but lost quality over quantity this offseason, as Kellen Winslow and Sean Jones departed only to be replaced by Robert Royal and Abram Elam… yeah. The draft was a bit of a mess as well, as Browns’ management decided adding to a decent line with Alex Mack a higher priority than say, improving their cataclysmic pass rush, paper thin linebacker core, broken running back or anywhere else for that matter. I do like Brian Robiskie as a legitimate threat opposite Edwards though.

Offense: Despite the naysayers I don’t think this offense is as terrible as people make out. Quinn vs. Anderson is unnecessary drama as I like Quinn all day long, Braylon Edwards should bounce back in his contract year and that o-line led by Joe Thomas is one of the better lines in the league. There’s money to be made on betting rookie James Davis to be the starting back come the end of the season.

Defense: Utterly uninspiring is the best way to describe Cleveland. Shaun Rogers will be gone next year, mark my words, and nothing else in that front seven is much to get excited over. Sean Jones leaves a previously young and talented secondary, and I expect them to get beaten up all year thanks to an embarrassing pass rush that managed a pitiful 17 sacks last year. Come week 17 Browns’ fans might well be wondering what could of been if Brian Orakpo had been brought to Ohio.

Key Games: I think they go winless within the division so their best hope of victory is visiting Detroit and Kansas, or hosting the Jaguars and Raiders.

Predicted Record: 2-14

Tags: AFC North, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, football, NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers,