2010 Division Preview: AFC North
Hard to believe, but Ravens defense ranked last in division in QB sacks last season
Bengals got aggressive in offseason to fix their pedestrian passing game
How Steelers play without Ben Roethlisberger will set tone for season
This week, SI.com is rolling out previews for all eight NFL divisions. Today, we tackle the AFC North and NFC North, following up earlier breakdowns of the AFC East, NFC East, AFC South and NFC South. The AFC and NFC West conclude things Friday.
The NFC East and the AFC East may have the glamour reps and the big markets, but no division in the NFL last season featured three winning teams except the rough-and-tumble AFC North. The Bengals, Ravens and Steelers all finished above .500, and the hottest club of all at the close of 2009 were those last-place Cleveland Browns, who took a hope-inspiring four-game winning streak into the offseason.
It was no fluke. Things have been that competitive within the division for a while now. The AFC North was one of only two divisions in the just-passed NFL decade to feature a pair of Super Bowl winners (along with the NFC South), and no other team in the conference has boasted either a pair of playoff teams or at least two 10-win teams in four of the past five seasons. With the Bengals, Steelers and Ravens all winning at least one North crown in the past four years, there's not another division in the AFC that can match its record of balance.
And indications are we're in for more of the same in 2010, with both Baltimore and Cincinnati making significant upgrades to their passing games, Cleveland showing signs of life in its new Mike Holmgren era, and Pittsburgh going six consecutive years without posting a losing record. We might not get a repeat of last season, when the division's top three teams were separated by just one lousy game, but the AFC North again figures to be a 17-week battle royal.
What the Ravens do best: Get the ball in the hands of Ray Rice.
From their Jamal Lewis days on, the Ravens have always had the good sense to know when they've got a horse worth riding, and that role has been filled spectacularly the past two seasons by running back Ray Rice, who was one of only two NFL players last year to total 2,000 yards from scrimmage (joining Tennessee rusher Chris Johnson). Baltimore still hasn't found anything Rice doesn't do well. He led the Ravens in rushing (1,339 yards) and catches (78 for 702 yards, pacing all NFL running backs in those categories) last season, finished second in touchdowns with eight, and throws a mean block in blitz pick-up.
Throwing to Rice out of the backfield in a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker is almost unfair, and his blend of speed, power and vision makes him one of the preeminent weapons in the NFL. He'll move the chains all day long for Baltimore, and with one of the league's best offensive lines and two-time Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain blocking for him, he's going to hit that magic 2,000 yards from scrimmage mark more than once in his career.
What the Ravens need to improve: Dropping the opposing quarterback.
As hard as it is to believe for a team that's famous for its fearsome defense, Baltimore finished last in the AFC North in sacks with just 32 last year. Veteran defensive lineman Trevor Pryce led the Ravens with just 6½ sacks, and especially disappointing were the paltry 4½ sacks turned in by outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, whose 12 sacks combined in the 2008 regular season and playoffs helped him earn the largest contract ever given a linebacker.
Suggs missed three games with injuries last season and wasn't thought to be in peak condition at all times. Baltimore needs a big bounce-back year from him in the sack department, and even all the more so because of the fractured skull suffered before camp by second-round outside linebacker Sergio Kindle, who was drafted to juice up the pass rush. The Ravens aren't counting on Kindle as a rookie after his fall down some stairs, and anything they get from him this year will be seen as gravy.
Which Raven needs to step up: Cornerback Fabian Washington.
Given its depth issues and injury concerns in the secondary, Baltimore can't afford to have Washington, its top remaining cornerback, struggle all year with the aftereffects of his ACL tear last November. The early results have been promising, as Washington returned to the lineup in time for the Ravens' second preseason game and seems to be moving around pretty well on his repaired left leg. That's vital because with cornerback Domonique Foxworth lost for the season after tearing his ACL early in camp, and second-year cornerback Lardarius Webb still working his way back from his own late-season ACL injury, Washington has to be one of the leaders in the defensive backfield.
The Ravens traded this week for fourth-year Seattle cornerback Josh Wilson, an ex-University of Maryland standout who went in 2007's second round, and he'll help take up some of the slack for Foxworth. But with safety Ed Reed still trying to return from offseason hip surgery and being a candidate to start the season on PUP, Baltimore's secondary is the obvious trouble spot on an otherwise talented defensive depth chart.
Predicted record: 12-4.
Baltimore is my pick to win the AFC and face Green Bay in Dallas, sorry, Arlington, in the Super Bowl, so there's no doubt in my mind John Harbaugh's club is headed for even bigger things this season. The Ravens have won an NFL-high three road playoff games in the past two postseasons, and they've become a tough-minded team that is capable of playing its game and winning anywhere, against any level of competition (OK, so the Colts do kind of have their number). The franchise won its only NFL title 10 years ago this season, and the anniversary celebration might just blend into another big party come February.
What the Bengals do best: Defend the pass.
No other team in the division can match Cincinnati's starting tandem at cornerback, and the pairing of former first-round picks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph gives the Bengals a great foundation on which to build off last year's sixth-ranked pass defense (203.1 yards per game). Having two elite cover men is a pretty good advantage to have in a division that's not exactly known for its top-tier receivers (Hines Ward and Anquan Boldin being more of the exception than the rule).
Hall and Joseph combined for 12 of Cincinnati's 19 interceptions last season (six each), and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer consistently shows his confidence in them when he asks them to handle man coverage and dials up one of his many blitz packages. Entering their fourth (Hall) and fifth (Joseph) NFL seasons, the Bengals' starting cornerbacks are still young, but with a wealth of experience already under their belts. They should continue to be the strength of the Cincinnati defense for years to come.
What the Bengals need to improve: Their vertical passing game.
There's nothing tricky about identifying Cincinnati's glaring weakness. If you saw the Bengals' 24-14 first-round loss to the Jets in the playoffs, you saw a Cincy passing game that couldn't threaten New York downfield whatsoever. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer was just 18 of 36 for 146 yards, with a touchdown and an interception, and Cincinnati's longest completion was for 19 yards.
At least the Bengals got aggressive in their attempts to fix the problem this offseason -- even overly aggressive in the case of the failed Antonio Bryant signing. They drafted pass-catching Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham in the first round, play-making Texas receiver Jordan Shipley in the third round, and then added the likes of Bryant (since released), Terrell Owens and Matt Jones (soon to be gone?) in free agency.
Now it's on Palmer's shoulders to get Chad Ochocinco and Co. the ball and make defenses respect the Bengals as more than a run-first, throw-later offense. Scoring more and being explosive on offense is mandatory if Cincinnati hopes to succeed with its tougher, first-place schedule in 2010.
Which Bengal needs to step up: Whoever wins the team's kicker competition.
In a strictly self-inflicted wound, seven-year Bengal Shayne Graham effectively cut himself when he missed those two very makeable field goal attempts in the 10-point homefield playoff loss to the Jets. Enter Mike Nugent and Dave Rayner, who have been locked neck and neck in a training camp battle to succeed Graham.
Nugent, the ex-Jets draft pick and Ohio State standout, has battled a groin problem this preseason and hasn't had as many field goal opportunities as Rayner. But he's done well on kickoffs and last week against Buffalo made a 54-yard field goal that helped his cause. The battle is expected to go right down to Cincinnati's preseason finale at Indianapolis on Thursday night, although it's possible the Bengals could still opt for someone off the waiver wire, like the loser of the Kris Brown-Neil Rackers competition in Houston.
Predicted record: 9-7.
There will be no slipping up on opponents this year in Cincinnati. The Bengals were the surprise story in 2009, but because of it, now they have the dreaded first-place schedule to deal with. Not to mention a heightened bar of expectation. Cincy's defense needs to be stout once again, because the Bengals face a host of great quarterbacks in Tom Brady, Joe Flacco (twice), Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. That's a tough path back to the playoffs.