2011 Division Preview: AFC North
This finally looks like the year the Ravens end their playoff Steeler slump
Pittsburgh is aging, but has enough playmakers to again compete in the division
The Browns are improving, but don't quite have enough talent to contend
SI.com is previewing all eight divisions throughout the week in anticipation of the 2011 season kicking off. (Send comments to email@example.com)
In the eight-division NFL alignment, no one matches the AFC North's record of featuring two heavyweight teams that have remained dominant for the division's entire existence. In the nine seasons since the AFC North started play in 2002, it has been the big bruisers from Pittsburgh and Baltimore staying far ahead of the struggling Ohio contingent (otherwise known as the Bengals and Browns).
The results tell just how wide the competitive gap has grown: The Steelers (six) and Ravens (five) have accounted for 11 of the division's 14 playoff berths and seven of the nine division titles from 2002 on. During that span, Pittsburgh (11-4) and Baltimore (4-5) are a combined 15-9 in the playoffs, with the Steelers making three different Super Bowl trips and winning two rings. The combined ledger for the Bengals and Browns in the AFC North? Three playoff trips, two division titles (both for Cincinnati) and an 0-3 postseason record.
And there's little reason to think the division's storyline won't follow the same familiar script this year. The defending AFC champion Steelers remain loaded, the Ravens are the only team in the NFL to win a playoff game in each of the past three seasons and the Browns and Bengals are starting over with a new head coach (Cleveland's Pat Shurmur) and new starting quarterback (Cincinnati rookie Andy Dalton), respectively. It's possible the Browns could take another healthy step toward respectability, but anything other than a 1-2 division finish by Pittsburgh and Baltimore, in some order, would register as one of the stunners of the year in the NFL.
What the Ravens do best: Limit the damage on the scoreboard.
Baltimore's defense only ranked 10th-best in the league in terms of yards allowed, but that's missing the point. What the Ravens defense has always done is stiffen up when it matters most. Baltimore allowed just 16.9 points per game last season -- third-lowest in the NFL -- and 10 times in 18 games (including playoffs) the Ravens held an opponent to 15 points or fewer. That kind of performance will keep you in most every game, and give you a chance to keep knocking on the door of the Super Bowl, which Baltimore has done in all three seasons of the John Harbaugh coaching era.
What the Ravens need to improve: Bringing the heat.
Despite the success of 2010, when Baltimore won 12 games in the regular season and another in the playoffs, the Ravens' pass rush wasn't much of a threat. They recorded a Baltimore franchise-low 27 sacks last season, which tied for 27th in the league, and cost this proud defense a little of its swagger. But the mojo might be on the way back this year, because new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has replaced the departed Greg Mattison, and Pagano favors a more aggressive, blitzing style that Ravens defenders say they love. Look for Baltimore to have more than outside linebacker Terrell Suggs (11 sacks in 2010) in double figures this year, with players like Sergio Kindle, Haloti Ngata and Jarrett Johnson all standing to take part in the increased rush to the quarterback.
Which Raven needs to step up: Receiver Lee Evans.
The newly acquired Evans, who came over from Buffalo via trade after Week 1 of the preseason, should give the Ravens the speedy, stretch-the-field receiver they've been searching for throughout the Harbaugh-Joe Flacco era. Evans made some immediate impact in his two preseason games, and his veteran presence lessens the pressure that would have been placed on rookie receiver Torrey Smith, a second-round burner out of Maryland who could probably use a year to get acclimated to the NFL's level of play and the demands of his position. Baltimore's offense needs to be able to make a defense defend every part of the field, and that's where Evans' vertical threat comes into play.
Predicted record: 11-5.
For a team that has gone 32-16 in the past three regular seasons and tacked on a total of four road playoff games over that span, the Ravens don't seem to get a ton of respect for their accomplishments. But we know why. Baltimore can't beat Pittsburgh when it really counts, losing to the Steelers in the playoffs twice in the past three Januarys. This is the year I think the Ravens finally get over their Pittsburgh problem, win the division, and see what a home playoff game feels like. I'm not sure that'll be enough to guarantee them a Super Bowl trip, but beating the Steelers might just feel like the mountain top in Baltimore.
What the Steelers do best: Crank out the sacks.
Pittsburgh led the NFL in sacks last season with 48, and we know what havoc they can wreak when an opponent has matchup problems with all-world outside linebackers James Harrison (team-best 10½ sacks in 2010) and LaMarr Woodley (10 sacks). The duo have combined for 71½ sacks in the past three seasons, and they're the engine that drives a Pittsburgh defense that is still dominant despite starting to show signs of age here and there. The only real trouble the Steelers defense had last year came against elite quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, who are adept at spreading the field and finding receivers before the Pittsburgh pass rush can take its toll.
What the Steelers need to improve: Their coverage issues in the secondary.
Pittsburgh had little choice but to prioritize the re-signing of veteran cornerback Ike Taylor in free agency, because he's the team's best cover man and the eight-year veteran plays a valuable role in Dick LeBeau's defense, regularly drawing an opponent's No. 1 receiver. But getting Taylor back doesn't really fix what was the Steelers' defensive weakness last season, a 12th-ranked pass defense that got exposed by the Packers in the Super Bowl.
The Steelers hope that 2009 third-round pick Keenan Lewis is ready to take a second-year step up the depth chart and replace the mediocre Bryant McFadden at the corner opposite Taylor, but we'll see if a Week 3 preseason knee injury impacts his candidacy. Safety Troy Polamalu still makes huge plays that help win games, but even the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year didn't look like himself in the postseason, when his health issues seemed to render him a step slow.
Which Steeler needs to step up: Center Maurkice Pouncey.
Maybe it'd be more accurate if I tabbed Pouncey as the player the Steelers need to keep upright, as in healthy and in the lineup. The first-round center from the University of Florida was superb as a rookie last season, making the Pro Bowl and adding stability to a Steelers offensive line that struggled mightily with injuries all year. But then Pouncey went down with an ankle injury against the Jets in the AFC title game, and had to sit out the Super Bowl.
Pouncey hurt the same ankle in a win over the Falcons Saturday night, and the Steelers simply can't afford him missing significant time this season. Backup center Doug Legursky is serviceable, but he's no Pouncey, and the Steelers power running game and pass protection would suffer without the offensive line's best player and natural leader.
Predicted record: 10-6.
The Steelers are well aware they haven't made the playoffs the next season after their two most recent Super Bowl trips (in 2006 and 2009), and in another statistic that could apply to them this year, seven of the past 10 Super Bowl losers haven't made a return trip to the postseason. But with a defense that returns intact, and plenty of playmakers surrounding quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on offense, the Steelers will once again slug it out with Baltimore for division supremacy.