AFC North preview (cont.)
What the Browns do best: Play special teams.
All you really need to know about the relative strength of Cleveland's roster is this: 12th-year kicker Phil Dawson was named the team's franchise player this offseason, and you couldn't really quibble about the move. The Browns have their challenges to overcome on both offense and defense, but Cleveland's special teams units have been a silver lining in a dark cloud for quite some time now. Return man/receiver Josh Cribbs is as exciting as it gets when he's got the ball in his hands, and not even the league's new kickoff rules can totally neutralize his threat. When it comes to kick coverage, Cleveland's may be the NFL gold standard.
What the Browns need to improve: Their play-making at receiver.
Cleveland simply isn't going to consistently challenge either Pittsburgh's or Baltimore's defense with a cast of characters at receiver led by the likes of Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie. We've seen what that looks like, and it won't get it done. The shortage of big-play threats might be eased some if second-round pick Greg Little develops faster than a typical rookie receiver, or if second-year veteran Carlton Mitchell emerges as a reliable target. But the Browns need to give young quarterback Colt McCoy some legitimate downfield weapons, even if the new West Coast offense is designed to attack underneath and horizontally more than vertically.
Which Brown needs to step up: Defensive tackle Phil Taylor.
When you play in the same division as the Steelers and Ravens, you can't be a pushover on run defense, and that's why Cleveland made sizable Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor its first-round pick. The Browns were a ghastly 27th against the run last season, giving up more than 129 yards per game. Taylor is an athletic, every-down talent who must use his 6-3, 334-pound frame to plug the running lanes. He needs to give Cleveland a stalwart to build around as it makes the transition from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 formation.
Predicted record: 8-8.
The Browns have showed some promise this preseason, and in McCoy it looks like they've found a young quarterback whose whole is greater than the sum of his parts. Cleveland will take a step forward in Pat Shurmur's first year as head coach, and it doesn't hurt that the mild, mild NFC West is on a schedule that falls into the less-than-challenging category. But the Browns have too many issues to overcome to climb into contention in the division this season, and the lockout hurt them as much as anyone, given all the transitions underway this year in Cleveland.
What the Bengals do best: Hang around in games.
To be sure, the Bengals weren't anything special on defense last season, ranking 15th overall with 332 yards allowed per game. But defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's guys will fight you, and they gave Cincinnati a chance to win most games. The Bengals lost 12 games in 2010, and eight came by eight points or fewer. In one mind-numbing and hope-sapping streak, Cincinnati lost six consecutive one-score games, turning a promising 2-1 start into a 2-7 slide.
Zimmer couldn't stand that the Bengals lost cornerback Johnathan Joseph in free agency (to Houston), but there is still some talent on defense with second-year end Carlos Dunlap (9½ sacks), middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and cornerback Leon Hall. Those are players to build around at each level of the defense, but this is not the same group that finished as a top-10 unit in 2009 and helped spark Cincinnati to a surprising AFC North title.
What the Bengals need to improve: Their offensive identity.
With quarterback Carson Palmer, receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, and coordinator Bob Bratkowski all gone, at least the Bengals have the chance to remake themselves on offense. Drafting Georgia receiver A.J. Green in the first round and TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round were two major steps, but so too was hiring Jay (brother of Jon) Gruden as the new coordinator. If those three get some time to grow together, good things could result.
The Bengals aren't likely to ask Dalton to carry too much of the burden too soon, but he does have Cedric Benson to hand off to and a pair of developing targets to throw to in tight end Jermaine Gresham and receiver Jordan Shipley, a pair of 2010 rookies who both caught 52 passes and showed potential.
Which Bengal needs to step up: Linebacker Rey Maualuga
It's obvious Cincinnati needs bigger contributions on a lot of fronts in 2011, but after two years on the strong side, Maualuga is assuming a larger role, replacing the departed Dhani Jones at middle linebacker. The former second-round pick from USC didn't raise the level of his game last season after a nice rookie year, but Zimmer is counting on him to be the backbone of this defense. With a rookie quarterback expected to play a lot, Cincinnati's defense will likely face plenty of short fields and be asked to persevere through some tough situations. Maualuga has to lead that particular effort by setting a resilient tone and producing in the clutch.
Predicted record: 3-13
The Bengals don't often do things in conventional NFL fashion, even when they launch a rebuilding program. The Carson Palmer era ended messily, and so did the days of the Batman and Robin receiving duo, whose act lasted probably one year too long as is in Cincinnati. It's difficult to see anything really good coming out of the chaos that has prevailed this offseason in Bengal-dom, and it doesn't help that the lockout robbed Gruden, Dalton and Green of some much-needed preparation. I'm having a hard time finding a team in the AFC with more challenges headed its way in 2011 than the Bengals.