AFC North NFL Preview

In preparation for the upcoming 2013 NFL season, Just A Guy has put together a team-by-team analysis with a run down of every division along with the staff’s picks for how they believe the division will play out. In this article we highlight the AFC North, which includes the Browns, Steelers, Bengals and Ravens. 

Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns have been largely a joke of the league since their return in the late 90’s. They teased fans in 2007 with a 10-6 year, just missing the postseason, only to fall right back to horrid play the very next year. This season, new head coach Rod Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner look to finally turn things around. On offense, they’ll have Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, not exactly an ideal QB battle. But they will have running back Trent Richardson, who showed in his rookie season he was capable of being a workhorse. On the outside, second year wideout Josh Gordon looks to maintain momentum after a stellar rookie season in which he was a supplemental draft pick. 850 yards and some TD’s on 50 catches; not bad for a kid who missed his final season of college ball. He’ll have to remain out of trouble though, and that looks questionable already as he’s suspended for the first two games due to drug violations. Someone else to watch is young tight end Jordan Cameron. He is of the new breed hybrid physicality, and Chudzinski is known for getting the most out of his tight ends. He was the tight ends coach and offensive coordinator at Miami and Cleveland when Kellen Winslow had his best seasons as a football player. He held the same titles in San Diego when Antonio Gates was in his prime. Lastly, he was with the Panthers, where Greg Olson has been a solid contributor. Throw in his buddy Norv Turner, and you might have something.

As bad as the Browns have been over the years, their defense of recent is actually underrated. They don’t win games because of their offense most of the time. This offseason, the Browns added postseason sensation Paul Kruger from the champion Baltimore Ravens to their linebacking crew, along with Barkevious Mingo out of LSU with their first round pick in the draft. With them joining shutdown corner Joe Haden and a solid secondary, this unit could be improved even more if they stay healthy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be enough to compete with the defending champion Ravens, who even though they lost much, are still in better shape; and the rising Cincinnati Bengals, who have back to back postseason appearances now. The Browns will battle it out with an aging Steeler team for the bottom half of the division, assuming the Ravens remain solid.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Transition.  One word to describe the Pittsburgh Steelers this year. After an 8-8 season in 2012, the team decided to go a different way with their team.  Gone are the familiar faces of Mike Wallace, James Harrison, Rashard Mendenhall, Casey Hampton, Max Starks, among a few others.  Big Ben is still there but he will now be dependent on Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to step up and be big time WR’s.  The long ball threat is gone now without Wallace, which will hurt the passing game’s ability to stretch the field.  The Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell to help their ground game, which was one of the worst in 2012.  Defensively, the Steelers are solid. Overall the secondary is stable with CB’s Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen as the new starter as well as the dangerous Ryan Clark lurking.  Troy Polamalu is still the leader on D and will need to stay healthy.  LaMarr Woodley has to step up his game after a rough 2012 season and he now is paired with one of the best defensive rookies in Jarvis Jones.  With all of that said the D-line is the weak point.  Massive Casey Hampton no longer will clog up the middle and Brett Keisel is aging.  Defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau still is calling the plays so they always have that as an advantage.  2013 should be a solid season for the Steelers.  If they can get the offense together, they can be a playoff team.  I’m thinking wild card spot with the potential to be in the running for top spot in the tough AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals

This is the year for the Bengals. The Steelers are quasi-rebuilding, with an aging defense and a brand new run game. The Ravens, fresh off their Super Bowl win, saw veteran leadership depart as well as their best receiver. The Browns, are the Browns. In step the Bengals, two playoff appearances in the past two seasons. Still looking for a win, the Bengals need to make the next step. The offense is run by the duo of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. Green accounted for over 1300 yards last year to go with 11 TD’s, and a jump to the 1500 mark would help the offense greatly. Tight end Jermaine Gresham had a nice season with 5 TD’s and over 700 yards, but the Bengals decided they needed a two tight end spread so they spent a first round pick on Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert. Those receivers and running back (THE LAW FIRM!) BenJarvus Green-Ellis need to make a statement this year. A 17th and 18th ranked passing and rushing offense respectively will not help them advance in the playoffs.

Defense has been a hidden gem for Cincinnati, linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga both had over 120 tackles each, while defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson both had double digit sacks. Reggie Nelson, Chris Crocker and Leon Hall all had a nice season in the secondary, picking off seven passes between the three of them. Simply put, this is a stout defense and as long as they can replicate last season’s production the Bengals will be in contention, but the offense needs to take a leap forward.

Baltimore Ravens

The 2012 Baltimore Ravens were the Super Bowl champions. The 2013 Baltimore Ravens are not the same team, and if it wasn’t for the loss of Anquan Boldin to the 49ers they might be even better. Ray Lewis, who was the heart, soul, and captain of the defense, is now sitting cozy in retirement and Ed Reed left for the Texans in free agency. No one on this team will replace the emotional intensity that Lewis brought but the addition of Elvis Dumervil will help maintain that strong production they get from their linebackers. Ed Reed is a great safety when he’s 100% and that will not be the case at the start of the season. The Ravens were smart in not overpaying for a nearly 35 year old injured safety, who’s best days are behind him. With coach John Harbaugh at the helm I don’t see the defense falling off without their on-the-field leaders.

The Ravens offense is powered by their strong running game led by halfback Ray Rice and what might be the best offensive line in the entire league. They are one of the few teams that maintains a full time fullback in Vonta Leach, who’s a three time pro bowler. The Dennis Pitta injury is unfortunate as he had a career year in 2012. The slack will be picked up by a solid group of tight ends including: Dallas Clark, and Ed Dickson. They even cut Visanthe Shiancoe, because of their depth. Quarterback Joe Flacco will have a couple other quality targets in the wide receiver crops as well. The addition of Brandon Stokley (from the Broncos) will make defenses stay honest with burner Torrey Smith and return man Jacoby Jones. The Ravens could be a surprisingly good team this year.

SteveRyanChrisFrank
Bengals (10-6)Bengals (11-5)Steelers (10-6)Bengals (10-6)
Ravens (8-8)Ravens (9-7)Bengals (9-7)Ravens (9-7)
Steelers (5-11)Steelers (8-8)Ravens (9-7)Steelers (9-7)
Browns (3-13)Browns (4-12)Browns (6-10)Browns (5-11)
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