Saturday, May 26, 2012

NFL - Sneak Previews

 AFC North Division (sneak preview)

The Baltimore Ravens won the AFC North last year and advanced all the way to the Conference title game before losing at New England, 23-20 as kicker Billy Cundiff missed a usually routine field goal in the closing seconds.
The Pittsburgh Steelers had injury problems last season, most notably quarterback Ben Roehtlisberger, and limped into the AFC Playoffs as a wild card where they lost to Denver in overtime.
The Cincinnati Bengals finished a surprising 9-7 and made the playoffs last year with a pair of rookies leading the way. QB Andy Dalton took over as veteran signal caller Carson Palmer was sent packing to Oakland.  Wide receiver A.J. Green had a big season as well and along with a resurgent defense, the Bengals enjoyed success.
The Cleveland Browns continued to rebuild as Colt McCoy and company suffered through a 4-12 season and another fourth place finish.

Looking ahead to 2012, not a whole lot appears to be different as the teams look forward to training camps in a couple of months.

Here's a breakdown (in capsule form) of the AFC North teams.


2011 Record: 12-4-0 (1st Place)

Head Coach: John Harbaugh

Key Additions: WR-KR Jacoby Jones; QB Curtis Painter

Key Losses: G Ben Strubbs; LB Jarret Johnson; DE Cory Redding; S Tom Zbikowski

Offense: QB Joe Flacco had a good year (3,610 yards passing with 20 TD) as did RB Ray Rice (1,364 yards rushing and 12 TD) and along with wide receiver Anquan Boldin and deep threat Torrey Smith, should to continue to improve on a 15th ranked unit from last season.

Defense: This is the team strength, but they do have some age issues creeping up on them as All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis enters his 17th season and Terrell Suggs, last season's NFL Defensive Player of the Year,  may not be available following an off season Achilles injury.
Rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw (Alabama) may be tested early with Suggs being out. The secondary is solid as corner Ladarius Webb (five interceptions) and safety Bernard Pollard lead the way.

Outlook: Baltimore knows they have a good team but they always seem to fall short of the goal of the Super Bowl. Last season was especially disappointing with the AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots.
Flacco must remain consistent at quarterback and show he can take the team to the next level. In four seasons, he has led the Ravens to two conference title games, but the Ravens have to take the next step and get to the Super Bowl.
 Look for another playoff appearance for the Ravens, but probably not the Super Bowl.


2011 Record: 9-7-0 (3rd Place)

Head Coach: Marvin Lewis

Key Additions: RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis; CB Terrance Newman; G Travelle Wharton

Key Losses: RB Cedric Benson; LB Keith Rivers; G Nate Livings; WR Jerome Simpson

Offense: Quarterback Andy Dalton and wideout A.J. Green caught the league by surprise last year, so they need to be ready for an encore performance in 2012 if the Bengals are going to make the playoffs once again.
The line will be the key in pass protection for Dalton and opening the holes for new running back Green-Ellis, who comes over from New England as the Bengals didn't re-sign RB Cedric Benson this past off-season.

Defense: This unit got back to playing the type of football as they did in 2009, when the Bengals won the AFC North.
 Defensive Tackle Geno Atkins led the way with 7 1/2 sacks last season and the linebacking corps are solid with Rey Maualuga and Manny Lawson leading way.

Outlook: Unlike 2009, when they were undefeated in division play, the Bengals could not beat the Steelers and Ravens last year and unless they prove otherwise in 2012, they will not win the division.
If Dalton can repeat his rookie success, the Bengals will contend in the division, but if he struggles at all, then a wild card will be their best shot at returning to the post-season.


2011 Record: 4-12-0 (4th Place)

Head Coach:  Pat Shurmur

Key Additions: DE Juqua Parker; DE Frostee Rucker

Key Losses: RB Peyton Hillis; G Eric Steinbach; S Mike Adams; OL Artis Hicks

Offense:  The Browns are revamping the offense in 2012. Running back Trent Richardson was taken with the third pick in the NFL Draft and quarterback Brandon Weeden was chosen with the 22nd pick. the Browns also added offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz to help up front.
Weeden will compete with QB Colt McCoy for the starting spot and Richardson and Schwartz will be starting from day one.
Greg Little, Mohamed Massaquoi and rookie Travis Benjamin will be primary targets at wide receiver along with tight end Benjamin Watson and all-purpose player Josh Cribbs.

Defense: Cleveland had an improved defense last year, ranking fifth in the NFL by allowing just 307 points. They also had the league's second best pass defense in 2011. However, they must do a better job at stopping the run, where they finished 30th overall last season.
Defensive End Jabaal Sheard led the team with 8 1/2 sacks and Frostee Rucker comes over from Cincinnati to help on the defensive front.

Outlook: The Browns fell off last year, losing the final six games of the season after a decent start.
They didn't win a single division game and if they want to be considered serious contenders in the AFC North, they have to find a way to win against the division rivals.
The Browns will be relying on newcomers which likely means growing pains. However, they can be encouraged seeing what the Cincinnati Bengals did last year with rookie starters.
Look for some improvement from Cleveland, but not enough to turn the tide in this rugged division.


2011 Record: 12-4-0 (2nd Place)

Head Coach: Mike Tomlin

Key Additions: TE Leonard Pope

Key Losses: CB William Gay; LB James Farrior; WR Hines Ward; DE Aaron Smith; G Chris Kemoeatu

Offense: The offense revolves around QB Ben Roethlisberger and his health was an issue last season.
Big Ben threw for over 4,000 yards a year ago, but was sacked 40 times as well.
The offensive line has to do a better job of protecting him and opening holes for running backs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman. The Steelers drafted two offensive linemen (guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams) to shore up the O-line.
Mendenhall is coming off a serious knee injury and the Steelers may give rookie draft pick Chris Rainey a good look in training camp.
The wide receiving corps is solid with a pair of 1,000 yard receivers in Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace. Throw in Tight End Heath Miller, who is a clutch third down target for Roethlisberger, and the team looks set in that area.

 Defense: The Steelers led the NFL in fewest points allowed in 2011 as well as leading the league in yards allowed.
However, they let Tim Tebow and company ring up 29 points in an overtime playoff loss to Denver.
There have been changes made up front, where Aaron Smith and nose tackle Chris Hoke are gone. Also shown the door was linebacker James Farrior.
The Steelers are loaded at linebacker with James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Larry Foote. This is definitely the heart of the defense.
The secondary should be solid once again with Troy Polamalu leading the way with reckless abandon.

Outlook: This team is solid enough to handle one of the league's toughest schedules as well as facing Baltimore and Cincinnati twice.
Roehtlisberger is the key to the offense and Harrison and Polamalu lead the way on the defensive side of the ball.
The Steelers lost twice to the Ravens last year and this year won't face them until late November, when the two teams face off twice in a three-week period.
Those two games in the short stretch will likely decide the division winner.
Pittsburgh knows what it takes to win and has been to the Super Bowl twice in the last four years with a Super Bowl win following the 2008 season.
Look for another strong season and a possible Super Bowl appearance as well.

 Predicted order of finish for 2012- 1. Pittsburgh (12-4) 2. Baltimore (11-5) 3. Cincinnati (8-8) 4. Cleveland (5-11)

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