NFL Preview: The AFC North

By Fraser Lockerbie

Points come few and far between in the defensively-minded AFC North; will the Ravens repeat as divisional champs? Can the Steelers come back from injury? And can the young guns of the Bengals and Browns take their team to the top?

It’s been over six months since anything even remotely resembling football has been on television (unless, of course, you live in Canada, where their bastardized rendition of the Great American Game starts in July, has three downs, 10 extra yards and literal acres of end zone). It’s August and we’re all tired of the 162-game baseball slog; it’s time to start talking football again, and this week we’re talking AFC North. Read the AFC East Preview.

Baltimore Ravens (12-4)

No team in the league plays a more traditional game of football than the Ravens; strong defense and secondary supported by an all-pro running back, a capable though decidedly average quarterback and a conservative pass attack that, if nothing else, keeps defenses honest. And what can we say, it works; the Ravens haven’t missed the postseason in five years and show no signs of missing out in 2012.

That said, there are a few things worth noting. Coming into his fifth season, Joe Flacco simply hasn’t evolved into the above-average quarterback he was advertised to be. That’s at least in part the result of a conservative pass game (Baltimore has the highest run-to-pass ratio of any team in the past four years) but probably has something to do with a league-worst conversion rate inside the five (8 for 21, 4 TDs, 5 sacks and interception) and 20 fumbles in two years, good for second-worst in the league. Furthermore, that defensive line that’s been so good for so long is also aging rapidly: Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs (shelved with an Achilles tear) have 38 years of experience between them, so expect them to lose at least a few steps.

2012 Expectations: It’s fairly safe to assume the Ravens’ offense has hit a wall; in each of the past three seasons the team has averaged exactly 227 passing yards per game to go along with 21, 25 and 21 touchdowns, respectively. It’s what we might call a plateau, and with no new weapons at their disposal, we can expect much of the same in 2012. Which, in the defensively minded AFC North, is fine. 13-3, 1st in the AFC North.

Cincinnati Bengals (9-7)

To say the Bengals had a good year in 2011 is a bit of an understatement: they hit on two key draft picks at two key positions; picked up two more, dumping Carson Palmer on the Oakland Raiders; finished 9-7 and found what might be the best young offensive tandem in the league. QB Andy Dalton and WR A. J. Green look like the real deal, but the Bengals aren’t quite out of the woods.

Three things stand out coming into 2012. Number one is the historical numbers, which sit at about 50/50 on whether a rookie QB who throws for 300+ pass attempts improves or regresses in year two, and Dalton set the bar high at 22 TDs and 212 yards per game. The second issue is RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who signed on for three years and $9M. He looked unreal last year playing in a Pats offense that has led the way in red zone–rushing TDs (56 in the last three seasons) but averaged only 3.7 yards per carry and probably makes this offense a little more one-dimensional than his inflated numbers would indicate. Finally, the Bengals play in a division that projects giving up just under 17 points per game and in turn have a schedule that averages out at just over 20; that is what you call a tough draw.

2012 Expectations: Even with a tough schedule, the Bengals figure to be in the mix for the postseason; between the Steelers’ apparent attraction to injury and the Ravens’ stalled offense scheme, the Bengals just might have the best attack in the North and could ride it to a Wild Card. 9-7, 2nd in the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Sports have been unkind to the people of Cleveland for a long time; LeBron left, the Indians are permanently stuck in a state of mediocrity and the Browns are 4-12…

Here’s a fun fact: Brandon Weeden is 48 days older than Aaron Rodgers. He’s the oldest first-round pick in the history of the draft, three years older than the guy he’s replacing (Colt McCoy, who’s entering his third pro season) and was selected in the MLB draft alongside superstars such as Prince Fielder, Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke and Curtis Granderson. All that to say, Brandon Weeden is old and probably not cut out to be a pro football player.

Trent Richardson is. He’s your prototypical short yardage, goal-line back with good hands who’s big enough to break a tackle. Considering how heavily the Browns will rely on the rookie to move the offense, he’ll probably be able to stretch out his run a little more as well.

2012 Expectations: The Browns actually play pretty well on the other side of the ball; they held opposing offenses to 19.2 points a game last season, but they struggle to even get to that point on offense. Trent Richardson will help, but, barring any miracles, this looks like another lost season. 4-12, 4th in the AFC North. 

Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)

Word around the Steelers’ camp is that Ben Roethlisberger is already dealing with a rotator cuff injury and Rashard Mendenhall is gonna be on the shelf for about six weeks with a torn ACL. Sound familiar?

The Steelers are picking up right where they left off: injured, and that makes for some tough football right out of the gate. Fact of the matter is Big Ben is more patient in the pocket than any other QB in the league and as such is more prone to punishment. He’ll play through the pain but obviously the Steelers are a more effective offense when he’s 100 percent. The upside for the Steelers is that their talented youth tend to live and excel in the shadows: RB Isaac Redman might be able to fill Mendenhall’s role nicely (if we forget that he’s an absolutely terrible receiver) and WR Antonio Brown has the advantage of running under protected routes as opposing defenses zero in on Mike Wallace. In fact, Brown caught 56 passes for 916 under-the-radar yards last year in only 11 games, so he could be an X-factor in this offense. On the other side of the ball, it’s the same old story: Pittsburgh has one of the best defenses in the league, plain and simple.

2012 Expectations: We could actually see this being a reality check season in Pittsburgh: with Roethlisberger and Mendenhall shaky at best, this team might lose a lot of close games they normally would have won. Pittsburgh plays a possession game, piling series upon series of short drives and letting their defense take care of the rest. But we wonder whether the weapons are there this year to keep those kinds of drives alive? Maybe not. 8-8, 3rd in the AFC North.


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