AFC questions (cont.)
BALTIMORE RAVENS -- Is there a need to revamp the offense?
The Ravens have relied on their running game since the turn of the century, but the passing attack must improve for the team to have a better chance of reaching the Super Bowl. Joe Flacco is the first franchise-type QB Baltimore has had under GM Ozzie Newsome, but his stable of receivers isn't deep or talented. Too often Flacco looks for talented veteran Derrick Mason at the expense of younger receivers. Mason was the only wideout to finish with more than 34 catches, and his seven touchdowns matched all the other wideouts combined. Could a trade for Denver's Marshall be a possibility?
*And another thing: The player to watch is safety Ed Reed. He's one of the game's alltime great ballhawks, but said after the playoffs his return was 50-50. Tom Zbikowski filled in capably, but is he the longterm answer should Reed retire?
CINCINNATI BENGALS -- Anyone know a good tight end and wideout?
The Bengals made great strides on defense and with their running game, but the passing game suffered last season because it lacked weapons. QB Carson Palmer lost his top two tight ends to injury in training camp and never had a consistent complement to wideout Chad Ochocinco. In fact, the Bengals ranked 26th in the league with only 36 completions of at least 20 yards. The Bengals have to find a capable and consistent deep threat, otherwise their chances of repeating as division champions are remote.
*And another thing: As well as the defense played in its second year under coordinator Mike Zimmer, the Bengals have to find help at safety. Strong safety Roy Williams and free safety Chris Crocker turn 30 this year, and neither is a ballhawk. If they can find a playmaker on the back end to go with talented corners Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph, turnovers and defensive touchdowns could come in bunches.
CLEVELAND BROWNS -- It's February, do you know who your quarterback is?
The Browns played musical QBs with Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson last season, and now there's a report they have inquired about the availability of Eagles signal-caller Donovan McNabb. It has been said that if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one. Coach Eric Mangini needs to find one and stick with him. Anderson reportedly will be released before his $2 million roster bonus comes due next month, but the talk of McNabb, if true, says little for the club's confidence in Quinn. The Browns closed the season with their first four-game winning streak since rejoining the league in 1999, and they must improve a passing game that had a league-low 25 completions of 20 yards or more to maintain that momentum.
*And another thing: The Browns have 11 draft picks and a new GM, Tom Heckert, who comes from an Eagles organization that favors drafting for quality instead of need. It's unclear whether that will be the case in Cleveland, but if Heckert does decide to go for need he should look at wide receiver, defensive back, running back and linebacker.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS -- Is it time to start retooling the defense?
The Steelers defense, which ranked No. 1 in nearly every statistical category in 2008, blew five fourth-quarter leads last season. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh went from Super Bowl champion to out of the playoffs. The Steelers undoubtedly missed All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who was sidelined 11 games with a knee injury. But the late-game collapses might also be attributed to age; seven of the regular starters were 30 or older last season. Another factor was the secondary. The cornerbacks did not intercept a pass until the season finale. That's unacceptable considering opponents attempted 548 passes against the Steelers, tying for ninth-most in the league. Ike Taylor is solid, but William Gay was a liability. Look for 2009 third-round pick Keenan Lewis to challenge for a starting job.
*And another thing: Can the Steelers get back to their smash-mouth identity? Owner Dan Rooney suggested after last season that Pittsburgh had strayed too far from its roots -- also known as the running game. That won't happen this year. There are building blocks for a power-running game in guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackle Willie Colon, but the other starters are replaceable. One problem: Pittsburgh has a lot of money invested in the line and isn't likely to spend more at that position.
HOUSTON TEXANS -- What will it take to reach the playoffs for the first time?
Other than make key field goals when the opportunities present themselves, the Texans must upgrade their ground game. They ranked 30th in rushing yards and 31st in yards per carry. The passing game is lethal with Matt Schaub throwing to wideout Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels. If the offense can complement that with a ground game strong enough to control the clock and keep the ball out of the hands of opposing quarterbacks, the playoffs should definitely be within reach because six of Houston's seven losses were by eight points or less. Run the ball more effectively and that's one or two fewer possessions each game for the opposing offense. All of this changes, however, if the team chooses not to franchise Dunta Robinson. At that point cornerback would become the most pressing issue.
*And another thing: Houston needs help in the secondary, but no one should overlook the kicking game. Kris Brown is the Texan's longest-tenured player and their alltime leading scorer, but he also missed makeable field goals down the stretch. Can the staff and front office be confident in Brown if he's in the same situation next year?
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS -- Will the Colts re-sign middle linebacker Gary Brackett?
The short answer is yes. Brackett is a respected leader who made the climb from undrafted rookie to team captain. Don't be shocked if Brackett gets some help at the linebacker position. Tennessee free agent Keith Bulluck would be a perfect fit in the Colts' system, and the Titans have made no attempts to re-sign him at this point.
*And another thing: Indy rarely is a big spender in free agency, preferring to build through the draft and reward its own. QB Peyton Manning almost certainly will receive a new deal before the end of the season (his contract expires after 2010), and safety Antoine Bethea, another quiet leader on the defense, could be in line for a multiyear deal. He'll be a restricted free agent this offseason, per an uncapped year.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS -- Are the Jaguars ready to grow up?
They had better be, because owner Wayne Weaver has only so much patience. He did an extensive overhaul at the end of the season and announced he believes in coach Jack Del Rio, who last season played 16 first-year players -- including offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton -- and 33 new players overall. Once wideout Torry Holt and offensive tackle Tra Thomas are released, as expected, the team will have only 11 players on the roster with more than five years experience.
*And another thing: In a division that features Pro Bowl passers Manning and Schaub, the Jaguars are going to have a tough time breaking their two-year playoff drought if they don't upgrade their pass rush. Jacksonville ranked last in the league with 14 sacks in 2009. It was sackless in half its games. Most of the problem is on the edge, where ends Quentin Groves and Derrick Harvey combined for only two sacks in 23 starts.
TENNESSEE TITANS -- Is the franchise ready to trust Vince Young again?
Without question. The Titans started 0-6 last season with Kerry Collins at QB, but Young came on and led them to eight wins in their final 10 games. He showed greater maturity as a player and person, and won back the trust of teammates. He is never going to be a great stats guy, but his career shows that he always puts up big numbers in the one area that counts: wins. He is 26-13 as an NFL starter.
*And another thing: Last offseason the Titans allowed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to leave as a free agent and never completely replaced him. Now linebacker Keith Bulluck, a respected team leader, is up for free agency. Bulluck is recovering from knee surgery -- the first major injury of his 10-year career -- and the team has yet to approach him about an extension. Might it be their second major free-agent loss in as many years?
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