Wednesday, August 22, 2007

False Starts: The AFC North

We’re keeping the 2007 NFL preview rolling on today, after a moving-induced day off. There’s nothing like moving furniture (that isn’t even yours!) into a new place (that isn’t even yours!) to really clear one’s head. Next on the docket is the AFC North, the second-toughest division in the league. (We’ll get to the toughest one sometime next week.) So wash up those Dirty Brown Towels, and for the love of God don’t skimp on the bleach. . . .

Again, a tip of the hat to the Football Outsiders and their top-notch annual.


The kid-tested, mother-approved order of finish for the 2007 AFC North:

4. Cleveland Browns

I’m doing my best to limit myself to one Dirty Brown Towel joke in this column; I hope you all appreciate my restraint. In any case, for the first time in many moons, the Browns are actually kind of interesting. Over the past couple of seasons, they’ve started to assemble one of the more promising cores of young offensive talent in the NFL. You could call them the league’s answer to the Devil Rays: they give an observer plenty of upside to dream on, but we’re still going to have to wait and see if they go anywhere in the end.

The Browns had a monster first round in the 2007 draft, and how their two picks pan out will define the future of the organization for the foreseeable future. They used their top pick on man-mountain Joe Thomas out of Wisconsin, who is one of the best left-tackle prospects we’ve seen in quite some time. My opinion of Thomas is surprisingly neutral; on one hand, he’s a Badger and automatically earns undying scorn. On the other, he skipped the draft to go fishing and has the sweetest aunt since Jemima. In the end, it’s a push.

Of course, the bigger move came later in the first round, when the Browns traded away next year’s first round pick to move up and select Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn. Quinn was long considered a top-5, and maybe even number-1, pick; a few lackluster games against tough defenses saw caused his stock to plummet. He held out for a while but is now in camp, and looked quite good in his first game action. I’d be surprised to see him start their opener, but with the likes of Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson holding down the position we will likely see a goodly amount of Quinn before the season is up.

He’ll have guys to throw to, when he does crack the lineup. Kellen Winslow might be somewhat of a loudmouth, but he’s shut up as of late and (more importantly) gotten healthy. Last year was his third season, but his first healthy one, and he played quite well (especially when you consider the drek that was getting him the ball). I like his chances to be an elite NFL tight-end as soon as a real QB arrives, especially now that his old college offensive coordinator (Rob Chudzinski) has been hired to run the Cleveland offense.

Receiver Braylon Edwards showed progress last year, but still needs to learn how to get open on a consistent basis. A real running game would probably help that process, but that’s one area Cleveland really lacks. They brought in Jamal Lewis over the offseason, but he doesn’t have any rubber left on his tires, let alone any tread. Finding a real back to compliment their passing weapons is going to be important for the Browns heading forward. Things are headed in a good direction in Cleveland, but the towel will remain quite brown this year. (Sorry, I can’t help myself.)

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

. . .and now we enter the part with the Really Good Teams. The Steelers had a bizarre season last year, led by Ben Roethlisberger and his string of ill health. By the time he had recovered from the combination of horrific motorcycle accident and emergency appendectomy, Roethlisberger was left with no time to prepare for the season. He never played well for anything resembling an extended stretch, but the Steelers are hoping with a quiet offseason he can come out firing in 2007. He’ll have to, because the division is brutal and there are plenty of changes afoot on his own team.

The major change comes at head coach, where The Chin retired and former Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin takes over. The interesting part of the switch to me is that Tomlin kept the majority of Bill Cowher’s staff in place, including defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. This is notable because while LeBeau has long run the Steelers defense as a 3-4 scheme, Tomlin has his own hefty defensive reputation with a 4-3 cover-2 system. A better reporter could probably tell you which style Pittsburgh is using, but I cannot find anything at all on the subject. If you know anything, drop a comment because I’d like to know. I’ve always been bothered by coaches who insist on arriving and implementing “their system” instead of tailoring their game plan around the personnel in place; if Tomlin is working closely with LeBeau instead of blowing up the 3-4, I’d be mighty impressed.

Regardless of the scheme, the defense is going to be really good. Joey Porter was let go, but the Steelers are hoping to be able to fill his spot at linebacker from within. Some of the saved money from Porter’s departure went to locking up safety Troy Polamalu to a long-term deal. He’s one of the very best safeties in the game and keeping him around is a great move.

The offense is likely to see even more of an overhaul then the defense. Cowher and his smash-mouth game are gone, and so is Jerome Bettis. Willie Parker is firmly established as the lead halfback, and he’s as close to an anti-Bettis as you can get. He’s blazingly fast and operates best in the open field, as opposed to the old-school between-the-tackles Steelers of lore. They’ll likely be passing more, too. Hines Ward remains a top-notch receiver, and word out of Steelers camp is that speedster Santonio Holmes has likely won the other starting wideout spot. Heath Miller is a very good tight end as well. Oh, and Gopher product Matt Spaeth is likely the #2 tight end, so ski-u-mah and so forth. Unfortunately, the large amount of upheaval and lingering doubts of Roethlisberger are enough to bump the Steelers down to the third spot.

2. Baltimore Ravens

Defense, defense, defense. It’s almost boring to talk about at this point, isn’t it? The Ravens have the best defense in football and control the game with it. Ed Reed is awesome. So is Chris McCallister. Ray Lewis isn’t nearly as awesome any more, but the excellent schemes put together by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan keep Lewis playing to his strengths while covering for his lost speed and slipping ability to shed oncoming guards.

The notable defensive change, as I noted in the AFC East preview, will be at outside linebacker, where Adalius Thomas bolted via free agency to the Patriots. The Ravens are hoping that fourth-year LB Jarret Johnson will be able to take over Thomas’s spot. The continued development of last year’s first rounder, nose tackle Haloti Ngata, combined with the freaky-good pass rushing of Terrell Suggs will likely do enough to offset Thomas’s lost sack total, so the team will look to Johnson to competently defend the run and drop into pass coverage.

Over on offense, the Ravens finally ditched the Remains of Jamal Lewis and obtained Willis McGahee from the Bills. This will free up the offense a bit, simply because McGahee will actually be able to run outside the tackles from time to time. He’s not an upper-echelon back, but with Lewis the Baltimore running game consisted mostly of the sledgehammer/battering ram approach. Lewis wasn’t particularly good at that, but he was horrendous trying to get outside, so a younger set of legs will help.

The gains in the running game are likely to be offset by a return to earth by the air attack. While it wasn’t stellar last year, the passing game led by Steve McNair was a revelation compared to the Kyle Boller show the Ravens had been running previously. Having a quarterback who actually knew how to, say, get rid of the ball before taking a sack was a boon. But McNair is a year older and on the downside of his career, as is his old Titans teammate and favored target Derrick Mason. Add that to the fact that teams will be looking to control McNair (likely by trying to force him out of the pocket, as he’s nearly immobile at this point) and the passing game won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. That’s enough to drop them back to the #2 spot, although it’s likely sufficient to grab one of the two wild-card spots.

1. Cincinnati Bengals

In a division defined by its defenses, the Bengals are the glorious exception. Of course, this pick is conditional on coach Marvin Lewis managing to keep most of his players out of prison.

The Bengals were horrific on defense last year. Pretty much every time they matched up with a decent offensive team, they got hammered: 38 points allowed to the Patriots, 29 to the Falcons, 49 to the Chargers, 34 to the Colts. They did hold the Saints to 16, so they have that going for them. Luckily for them, the Bengals have a notable schedule edge over the Ravens. The AFC North is matched up with the weak NFC West, but Baltimore also gets non-divisional games against the Colts and Patriots. The Bengals? The Chiefs and Titans. That two-game schedule difference is going to be enough to put Cincy over the hump and back into the playoffs.

The Bengals should also see at least some defensive improvement. They somehow managed to grab Michigan corner Leon Hall with the 18th pick in this year’s draft, and he should contribute in a weak secondary immediately. Second-year linebacker is likely going to play a bigger role as well, since promising young LB Odell Thurman will remain suspended for all of 2007 because of repeated law-and-liquor issues.

As long as the defense can keep the opposition under 30, the Bengals should like their chances. Carson Palmer showed notable improvement in the later stages of last year, after he looked a little rusty early on while working through the effects of his nasty knee injury. Now a full season removed from the knee surgery, Palmer is ready to solidify his status as one of the absolute best QBs in the game. He’s got the weapons to do the job, too. Receivers Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmandzadeh combine to form one of the top pass-catching duos in the league, and running back Rudi Johnson still has another productive year or two in him. It’ll all be enough to help the city of Cincinnati forget the horrors of Eric Milton and start thinking of playoff runs instead.

Next up: the AFC South

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