AFC North preview (cont.)
What the Steelers do best: Field the NFL's best outside linebacker tandem.
Despite their non-playoff season, the 2009 Steelers were No. 3 against the run and fifth-ranked in overall defense. And that was without All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu for most of the year. All that defense starts with Pittsburgh's two outside linebackers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. One of them, we just can't decide which, is the best in the business at his position.
Opponents start their offensive game plans trying to avoid Harrison and Woodley as much as possible, but that's difficult because in the Steelers' 3-4, the outside linebackers usually find the ball. Especially when it's in the quarterbacks hands. Woodley had a team-best 13½ sacks last season, and Harrison was second with 10. They've been the league's leading sack duo among linebackers for two years running, with Harrison totaling 26 in that span and Woodley 25. They're the best, and it's not even close for second.
What the Steelers need to improve: Kickoff coverage.
A season is never decided by something as peripheral as kickoff coverage, right? Wrong. In 2009, the Steelers gave up a league-worst four kickoff return touchdowns -- all in a span of five games -- and two of those lapses led directly to losses against Cincinnati and Kansas City. It doesn't take a math major to realize the 9-7 Steelers would have made the playoffs if they had prevented just one of those touchdown returns.
There were 18 kickoff return touchdowns last year in the NFL's regular season, and Pittsburgh allowed more than 22 percent of them. No other team gave up more than two. Not surprisingly, the Steelers this offseason hired a new special teams coach in Al Everest, replacing Bob Ligashesky, and Everest has focused like a laser this preseason on tightening up the coverage lanes. The Steelers will probably have to wait until their fifth game to really know if their Achilles heel has improved. That's when Cleveland's Josh Cribbs brings his return skills to Heinz Field.
Which Steeler(s) needs to step up: Reserve quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon.
With Roethlisberger suspended for at least the first month of the season, September is kind of about survival in Pittsburgh. The Steelers can't make their season in Weeks 1-4, but they can certainly break it with an 0-4 or 1-3 start. And that's why Leftwich or Dixon will be pivotal. Whoever is given the temporary starting quarterback job by head coach Mike Tomlin, finding a way to at least break even at 2-2 will be the challenge.
Neither quarterback has inspired a lot of confidence this preseason, but the Steelers are a .500 team in the games that Roethlisberger has missed since he assumed the No. 1 job in early 2004, and that's all they need out of Leftwich or Dixon to keep the 2010 season viable into mid-October.
Predicted record: 8-8.
The Steelers can easily rebound this season if Troy Polamalu returns strong to the defensive lineup and the special-team units don't betray them. But who knows how the team will react without Roethlisberger early, and a three-game midseason road trip to Miami, New Orleans and Cincinnati looks daunting from afar. My sense is nothing will come easily for Pittsburgh this season, and third place in the tough AFC North will again be their fate.
What the Browns do best: Offensive line.
It probably takes all of one finger to count the positions on the Cleveland depth chart that inspire true envy around the league: That would be offensive line. After years of floundering around in free agency and in the draft, wasting dollars and picks, the Browns have built a pretty good wall up front on offense, which is led by All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas. Entering his fourth NFL season, Thomas is close to becoming the standard by which offensive left tackles are measured these days.
But the Browns also have a talented young center in Alex Mack and a valuable veteran left guard in Eric Steinbach, putting them light years ahead of some of the lines Cleveland has run out there since returning to the league in 1999. While the Browns quarterbacking was truly horrendous last season, the team's rushing game really kicked into high gear in the season's final month, running for 900 yards during the course of Cleveland's season-ending four-game winning streak. Running back Jerome Harrison's heroics notwithstanding, the Browns offensive line paved the way for that eye-popping production.
What the Browns need to improve: The league's worst passing game.
Anybody who says the NFL is a passing league these days clearly did not watch the Browns play last season. In one remarkable 10-game stretch of 2009, Cleveland scored seven points or fewer seven times, somehow winning one of those. The futility in the Browns passing game was staggering at times. But enough about Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. They're gone, having headed west to Denver and Arizona, respectively, and Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace have been brought in to raise the bar toward middle-of-the-pack quarterbacking.
Delhomme has looked sharp this preseason, but it's hard to forget he did throw 18 interceptions in his 11 games in Carolina last season, and that's one more than Quinn and Anderson combined for all year. Mere competency will go a long way in Cleveland, and if Delhomme can afford to rely upon the Browns strong running game and not put his defense into a hole, progress will inevitably be made through the air.
Which Brown needs to step up: Wide receiver Brian Robiskie.
After a rookie season in which he was expected to make some decent impact but wound up all but invisible (seven catches for 106 yards) and struggling to stay active for games, Cleveland's first 2009 second-rounder is back on the radar screen and vying for a much larger role this time around. He has six catches for 62 yards and a touchdown this preseason, and is coming off a strong showing in offseason workouts that was lauded often and loudly by Browns coaches.
Robiskie is said to have had the lights go on in terms of executing NFL routes and finding ways to get open, and he's playing a much more physical receiving role this summer than he did as a rookie. The Browns certainly need him to get on the field and to contribute opposite starter and fellow second-year receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, who enters 2010 as Cleveland's top pass-catcher. For Robiskie, the time for underachievement is over.
Predicted record: 6-10.
Compared to the chaos that reigned in Cleveland last season during year one of the Eric Mangini era, Mike Holmgren, the Browns new football czar, has brought a sense of professionalism and purpose to the organization. But there's still a sizable talent gap between the Browns and the rest of the division, and that's not all getting whittled down this year. Progress would be six or seven wins for Cleveland, with maybe half of those victories coming within the AFC North.