2015 Lessons Through Week 3: AFC North

Every NFL season takes on its own unique shape. With so many moving parts between player movement, player maturation & coaching changes, the landscape doesn’t change every year..it changes every week. By the time we sprinkle injuries in this cauldron it’s nearly impossible to forecast. This is what makes NFL football great.

Bell and Williams will power the Steelers in 2015.

Bell and Williams will power the Steelers in 2015.

Take the Pittsburgh Steelers for instance. Coming into the season they had to figure how to get through the first few games while LeVeon Bell served a 2 game suspension. With a defense being rebuilt they would have to lean on one of the NFL’s best offenses for success in 2015. Insurance policies were signed in former Carolina RB DeAngelo Williams and former Falcon / Eagle QB in Michael Vick. Williams paid off handsomely with 206 yards rushing and 3 TDs, which is good enough for 6th in the league going into week 4. Now they have a 1-2 punch that is second to none with Bell’s return.

Yet Bell’s first game back against the Rams in week 3 saw Ben Roethlisberger go down with a knee sprain. Vick is the next man up and has to produce in the 4 weeks Big Ben is expected to be gone. Vick can’t just hold the fort down in Ben’s absence. The Steelers, with all their offensive weaponry, rank 5th offensively and 14th defensively. If this insurance policy doesn’t pay off and the Steelers find themselves punting more and come back to the pack, they will  expose their defense. Tomlin’s defense needs to grow up in a hurry. Michael Vick your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Time to play Manziel.

Time to play Manziel.

In Cleveland its as if Head Coach Mike Pettine is trying hard to look for work next year. The upside to Josh McCown is he is a journeyman quarterback that will minimize mistakes. The downside is he is not a playmaker that can win you games. Just as he did with his game ending interception to Charles Woodson in their 27-20 loss to Oakland last week.

However a closer look at the numbers and Johnny Manziel has a 99.7 passer rating to MCown’s 83.2. Did you know through 3 games of this season Manziel has 3 touchdown passes of 50 yards where the rest of the NFL has 6?? That is called playmaking and is the difference between the Browns being 1-2 v. 0-3. To bookend Manziel’s week 2 heroics you have the Woodson interception and before that, the fumble at the goal line when McCown got himself knocked out against the Jets. Come on son…

It’s time to play Manziel and see what you have. If the Browns can’t turn it around they could be looking for a new Head Coach and quarterback next season. Like it or not Mike Pettine, your job’s future lies in the success of this 2015 campaign. Especially in a down year for the division, better to tie it to a playmaker like Manziel than a losing game manager like McCown.

bengals tComing in with the NFL’s 2nd best offense and 12th ranked defense is the 3-0 Cincinnati Bengals. The conversation for the Bengals is the same as the last few years. They beat the teams they should beat and come up empty against the best the AFC has to offer. The combined record of the Raiders, Chargers, and Ravens was 3-6 before Thursday Night’s game. We’ll talk about this team in 3 weeks when they host Seattle then go on the road to Buffalo. They come through that 2-0 we have something to talk about.

The Baltimore Ravens won last night to earn their first win of the season. However it isn’t a season saving victory as many of the t.v. pundits would have you believe. The Pittsburgh Steelers lost that game last night due to terrible kicking with Josh Scobee and even worse play calling late in the 4th quarter. Justin Forsett broke out with 150 yards rushing but the Steelers have given up 373 yards on the ground in the last 3 weeks. This team has middle of the road rankings offensively and defensively and new playmakers have to emerge on the defensive side of the ball.

Thanks goodness they get to play against Cleveland next week, especially if Pettine stays the course to get fired starting McCown. After that they go on the road to San Francisco and Arizona. The 49ers aren’t as strong as they once were for certain.  However neither were the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos as the Ravens started 0-2 on the road traveling west. These next few weeks will definitely tell the tale.

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2013 AFC North Predictions

Admittedly we are a tad late on our NFL divisional predictions. On the eve of the biggest AFC North game for the Cincinnati Bengals for quite sometime, we have to go on record for how we think the AFC North will go. If you have followed our previews up to this time, Taylor Blitz was the first of the national pundits that had the Cincinnati Bengals going to the AFC Championship Game in a few months. https://taylorblitztimes.com/2013/04/16/2013-cincinnati-bengals-team-preview-slowly-building-a-winner/ That article was produced on April 16th, so we are talking before the unfortunate events with the Patriots and Aaron Hernandez. Before the suspension of Von Miller out in Denver. Right now the Cincinnati Bengals have a tremendous amount going for them, including returning the NFL’s 6th ranked defense.

The Cincinnati Bengals should be the best of the AFC North in 2013.

The Cincinnati Bengals should be the best of the AFC North in 2013.

2013 AFC North Predictions

1. Cincinnati Bengals 11-5 ##

2. Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7

3. Baltimore Ravens 7-9

4. Cleveland Browns 6-10

The only team to make it to the playoffs from this division this year are the Bengals. What we do know is Cleveland has improved on offense, if we’re talking about the preseason. They struggled against a rebuilding Ravens team that gave up an NFL record 7 touchdown passes to Peyton Manning in week 1. The Browns actually had scouts at the Texas A&M / Alabama game to scout Johnny Manziel who threw 5 touchdowns and scored 42 against the number one team in the nation.  Current QB Brandon Weeden has 14 more games to prove he is the future or his job is gone next off-season.

The Steelers are in the middle of a rebuilding year and need to indoctrinate several young players in the Pittsburgh mold.  Understand this record was before they lost signal callers Maurkice Pouncey, Center, and inside linebacker Larry Foote to season ending injuries. They may fall further than 9-7 but the rest of the division might be too weak to take advantage.

Which brings us to tonight. Former NFL commissioner Bert Bell coined the phrase “On any given Sunday” back in the 1950’s. Meaning that at any time a lessor team can take down one of the NFL heavies.  It’s amazing how that has been through the years. Yet one of the items we say around here is every champion has building blocks to their championship mettle. One mission for the Cincinnati Bengals tonight is to prove to the Steelers, NFL fans, teams and most importantly to themselves that they are the team that rules the AFC North. Nevermind their loss in week 1 it starts tonight.  That psychological building block to this team’s psyche begins in a few hours.  Their mission, should they choose to accept it….

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2013 Pittsburgh Steelers Preview – A New Generation

Of the new stadiums, Heinz Field is more intimidating than Three Rivers Stadium. Fans are closer to the field without the huge walls. makes for great theater.

Of the new stadiums, Heinz Field is more intimidating than Three Rivers Stadium. Fans are closer to the field without the huge walls. makes for great theater.

Was it just our CEO or did the NFL playoffs just seem strange last year without the Pittsburgh Steelers involved?? Since the hiring of Bill Cowher in 1992, the Steelers have only missed the playoffs 6 times. The 3-4 defense he installed is still there and regime change was seamless when Mike Tomlin succeeded him. They may be the best team in football when it comes to drafting specific talents to fit their schemes, especially on defense. When was the last time this team blew it with a defensive player taken in the draft??

Over the next few seasons this team will have to replace the most successful group of defenders since the original Steel Curtain. Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and James Farrior have already moved on. The day will soon come to replace Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, and Casey Hampton as well. Sounds daunting until you realize Greg Lloyd, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Kevin Greene, Carnell Lake, and Rod Woodson once played here and were adequately replaced.

The most remarkable aspect of all these transitions is the fact the defense hasn’t had a drop off in production during all this time. In a season where defensive leader Farrior was let go, Palamalu missed 9 games, and Harrison 3, this team still finished #1 in defense overall. Only allowing 275.8 yards per game. So when you see 1st round selection LB Jarvis Jones, or 4th round pick S Shamarko Thomas, you get the feeling these guys will stick and define a new era in Pittsburgh Steeler defensive football.

Is there another Super Bowl trip in Big Ben's future??

Is there another Super Bowl trip in Big Ben’s future??

Quarterback: One thing that was reported this summer was the comment that Ben Roethlisberger wants to finish with more championships than Terry Bradshaw. It looks like that will be the only way he’ll get the respect from a historical standpoint that his play alone hasn’t fostered. Has there been a more under celebrated 3 time Super Bowl starter?? Last year while learning a new offense he finished with 3,265 yards while completing 63.3% (284 of 449) of his passes. He also finished with 26TDs thrown to only 8 interceptions for a career low 1.8% interception rate. What would he have done with a better rushing attack??

Will Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley adjust his offense to take better advantage of Roethlisberger in the vertical game as well?? In some instances, the Steeler passing game was too controlled.  With such a big mobile quarterback, the Steelers should run more waggles and half roll-outs to take advantage of his size. The more they can pass from run formations the better off this passing offense will be. So they definitely need a return effort from their running game. Roethlisberger is entering his 10th year and can take the hits throwing vertically. He’s a team leader and once Haley starts trusting him more to go downfield this offense can push the envelope. Last year the Steelers played it too close to the vest on offense. They need this to return to championship form. Especially with a Super Bowl quarterback in his prime at the helm.

A physical back with quick feet. Bell should be a hit in Pittsburgh.

A physical back with quick feet. Bell should be a hit in Pittsburgh.

Offensive Backfield: Management made a statement in not re-signing Rashard Mendenhall and drafting Le’Veon Bell in the 2nd round. He will be given every opportunity to start and his style of play suits what the Steelers want to do. Isaac Redman (410 yards / 3.7 yd avg) and Jonathan Dwyer (623 yards / 4.0 avg) are still in house but are thought of more as reserve talent more than starters.

Another player brought in that could provide dividends on 3rd downs is the signing of LaRod Stephens -Howling, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals. He can also contribute on special teams. However Bell, out of Michigan State, fits the physical profile of a Steeler running back. He has patient but quick feet. A lot like Emmitt Smith, he can make moves in space but it’s his timing that sets up his blocks. His inclusion with Stephens-Howling gives this position an upgrade to playoff quality.

This is the season Antonio Brown comes of age.

This is the season Antonio Brown comes of age.

Receivers: Why did the Steelers bring back Plaxico Burress?? Teams aren’t going to be fooled by an old, tall, bad route runner near the goal line. Everyone knows he’s in there for a post corner or fade route only. In the middle of the field he’s not effective and telegraphs an offenses true intentions when they are down close. What they need is a bookend to Antonio Brown who should have his best season in 2013.

The other reason will be the return to more two tight end alignments with the signing of Matt Spaeth.   Pro Bowl Tight End Heath Miller (71 rec. /816 yds / 8 TDs) will combine to be one of the league’s best TE tandems. Miller can be moved away from the line and allow for multiple receiver looks without opponents platooning nickel packages. More room for Brown and himself to operate underneath. This group is average going into camp and if Brown breaks out like we think, they can be a playoff caliber group.

Offensive Line: Curiously this team didn’t draft any linemen yet signed 6 to bring in to camp. Only Mike Golic Jr. was an offensive tackle with the rest being Guards or Centers. They have to commit to the run after allowing 37 sacks last year and had Steeler quarterbacks hit an additional 67 times. We say quarterbacks because they got Ben knocked out of 3 games. Either run the ball more effectively or protect the passer better, the Steelers look to go with the first option. They do look to get younger with the release of G Willie Colon.

This feast or famine approach could come back to haunt them if they fall behind in games or if they don’t get the push to improve in the running game. Last year the Steelers were 26th in rushing with 1,537 yards with a 3.7 yard average. That is not Steelers football! Only 9 teams had more than the 16 negative rushing plays to the strong side in 2012. A detriment to a power rushing team and you can only fool opposing teams passing on 3rd and short so much. Steeler football is sic ’em not slick ’em. They have to get back to pounding on the line of scrimmage and drafted the back to help. Until we see this take fold this group is below average. They should have drafted a blue chip prospect here last April.

Defensive Line: This is an unsung group when it comes to a defensive line in the NFL. The reason the Steelers finished #1 in defense starts with Casey Hampton eating double teams. You cannot move him off the point of attack and behind him linebackers are scraping, gaming, and blitzing. The number one rule to a 3 man line is the Nose Guard has to be able to eat double teams, triple teams and no one has done it better in the last 20 years. Fellow line-mate ends Brett Keisel (46 tackles / 4.5 sacks) and Ziggy Hood (42 tackles /3 sacks) are passing knowledge to third year player Cameron Heyward, Keisel’s heir apparent. They have signed several linemen to come to camp but these four guys are the main reason this line and defense is Super Bowl quality.

Steeler coaches will teach him a little more body lean coming off the corner.

Steeler coaches will teach him a little more body lean coming off the corner.

Linebackers: The heart and soul of the Steelers as an organization are the linebackers. Enter Jarvis Jones. His inclusion provides a two fold plus for Dick Lebeau’s charges. He should be NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year for the freedom he’ll have playiing next to Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons. Foote led the team with 113 tackles while gathering 4 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. However Timmons had 106 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles along with 2 defensive touchdowns. These numbers could be higher but this group plays downhill on the offenses side of the ball forcing teams to punt. No one is better stocked at Inside Linebacker.

There is far too much for teams to focus on once we talk about LaMarr Woodley than to turn their attention to Jones. In the early portion of the season, watch for teams to slide the line or back to chip on Woodley. The Chancellor thinks Jones will burst out of the blocks and have a strong September. At 6’2 245 lbs, he’ll play taller than James Harrison and can redirect passes with those long arms. Another plus that Harrison couldn’t do. Don’t think we’re downplaying the loss of Harrison, but with five to six inches of reach he can knock down passes when he doesn’t get to the quarterback. Lets ask a question: When hasn’t the Steelers linebacking corps been Super Bowl quality?? This should be the AFC’s best group and Woodley repeats 2012, he will be replaced in 2014.

Get ready for another hitter to clobber folks in Heinz Field.

Get ready for another hitter to clobber folks in Heinz Field.

Secondary: The final phase of introducing the next generation of Steeler defenders will come with the development of Shamarko Thomas. At 5’9 217 lbs, running a 4.3 40?? Two things are going to happen.One he is going to be decking receivers left and right or he’ll swoop in for interceptions by the bushel. The only reason he slipped to the 4th round is the belief by many teams the position has been minimized by teams favoring the short passing game. This guy was an All Big East performer and should fit right in with a rough defense. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are back and will be great mentors for him. Everywhere you look on this defense, there is a blue chip player that doesn’t have to produce right away. In future years this will benefit the Steelers greatly.

One issue is the advanced age of Polamalu and Clark at 31 and 34 respectively, they have already missed a combined 13 games in the last 3 seasons. Now that Thomas is on the scene they can get him some valuable playing time if either are lost for a significant amount of time this season. At cornerback, this team has been able to get away with marginal talent. Thanks to the overall front seven’s ability to stop the run, blitz and force quick passes from their opponents, these guys just need to tackle. They rarely have to cover for long or once receivers go inside, the active linebackers clog most of those lanes. However one interception between Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis combined is terrible. They did defense 36 combined passes but now it’s time to take a look at getting younger. They signed DeMarcus Van Dyke and will give a look to 5th round selection Terry Hawthorne out of Illinois. They did bring back William Gay but if you see him, one of these two didn’t develop fully. Because of the cornerbacks, this group is just average. They need to start the transition on the corners as they have everywhere else on this defense.

Crazy Steeler fan's alternate helmet.

Crazy Steeler fan’s alternate helmet.

Overall: The Steelers offensive line has to perform to return this team to the playoffs. Their biggest nemesis in the division this year is the Cincinnati Bengals and their heavy pass rush. Now throw in James Harrison’s assisting with Steeler personnel strengths and weaknesses in their camp and there is more to worry about. Last year the Bengals were 2nd in the NFL in sacks with 52 to begin with. The Ravens improved their rush with the signing of Elvis Dumervil and the Browns brought in hard working Paul Kruger to get after the passer. This team needs to run the ball and maintain leads.

This will be the last season for Polamalu and Ryan Clark as the season will take it’s toll on these two. Expect the team to find out what they have in Shamarko Thomas as the lumps mount up on the aging safety duo. Last year alone they missed 8 games combined and they’re not getting any younger. Jarvis Jones should battle for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as teams gear themselves to stop Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley. Two of the new generation Steelers are in place on defense and Bell provides spark on offense. It won’t come to fruition until a little more help arrives in 2014. This year’s Steeler team will go 9-7 in a transition year.

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2012 AFC Picks & Prognostications

The NFL season is underway and we are late with our version of what we believe will happen in the AFC this season. Many new faces in new places that have teams excited. Most notably was the debut of Peyton Manning in last night’s opening win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. So the Broncos are going to streak to the Super Bowl…right?? Not so fast. A lot of excitement left the arena in Cleveland as the rookie starting tandem of QB Branden Weeden and RB Trent Richardson completely underwhelmed in a 17-16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Had they provided just an ounce of offense they would have prevailed.

With fellow rookie QBs Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannenhill starting in Indianapolis and Miami respectively, they also took their lumps in week 1. Yet these teams knew they were going to have a long season and hope to see some growth as the season progresses.

Not so with many of the conference’s heavyweight teams in Baltimore, New England, Pittsburgh, and Houston. Can Joe Flacco perform better in a contract year for him?? Can the Ravens defense stay blood thirsty without Terrell Suggs?? How will the Steelers fare as their defense replaces some familiar faces?? Will the Patriots improve defensively this year with so much youth on that side of the ball?? Are the Texans the new team to beat coming out of the AFC South?? We’ll try to answer a few of these

2012 AFC Playoff Predictions

1. New England Patriots 13-3 ## AFC East Champs  Homefield Advantage

2. Houston Texans 12-4 AFC South Champs

3. Kansas City Chiefs 11-5 AFC West Champs

4. Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6 AFC North Champs

5. Baltimore Ravens 10-6 Wild Card

6. Denver Broncos 9-7 Wild Card

AFC CHAMPION: New England Patriots

Now based upon last night many will have the Broncos headed for the Super Bowl. Take a look at their schedule as a whole and you’ll see more than a few bumps in the road. Are the Broncos a more complete team than the Atlanta Falcons who murdered the Chiefs in Kansas City40-24?? That is where Denver is headed next week. The Georgia Dome will be loud as Falcons fans anticipate a Super Bowl season for their team. How about the defending AFC South champion Texans or going to defending AFC Champion New England Patriots?? Oh you didn’t know those were three of the next four Bronco opponents?? Sure they beat the #1 defense in the Steelers but that is without former Defensive Player of the Year in James Harrison and starting FS Ryan Clark.  That’s like winning Miss America without Miss California, Miss Florida, Miss Texas, Miss Ohio, and Miss Georgia not being available. Peyton did perform well in his debut however it was just one game and it has to be kept in perspective. The Broncos still have a lot of questions at receiver and their defense as a whole. They conclude with 3 of their final 5 against Tampa, the desperate to make the playoffs Ravens, and the Browns. You saw what that Browns defense did to Michael Vick and on any given Sunday…

There is something the Texans are missing and we won’t find out til later this season. This isn’t the same team that was on the field for them a few seasons ago. They are solid on defense but may have given up too much in letting LB DeMeco Ryans, DE/LB Mario Williams, and CB Duante Robinson out of town. They’ll be solid from a tactical standpoint but will they have playmakers on defense to turn a close game like they couldn’t against the Ravens in last year’s playoff?? Someone has to emerge..

In the AFC North these teams will beat each other up as the best defenses ravage the rest of the conference. The Steelers will emerge because of Ben Roethlisberger winning games with those fast receivers. They will transform into more of an offensive team as their defense ages and eventually will show wear. LB Larry Foote becoming the leader in the middle is well deserved and he played tremendous against Denver early on. They still have the best offensive / defensive personnel in the division and again will narrowly beat out the Ravens in the AFC North.

Out west Kansas City will emerge and play as they did in 2010 when they were one of the strongest teams in the league. They lost to the Falcons in week 1 but they are much better than they were in 2011. They are set at every skill position and RB Jamaal Charles looked good coming back from knee surgery. Matt Cassel is looking to have a rebound year and the Chiefs are solid on the offensive and defensive lines. A lot like Tampa in the NFC, this team took a step back although they have a good roster and should bounce back nicely in 2012.

As for the Chargers, they are the AFC West version of the Houston Texans. A lot of good football players but lack the playmakers to change games. Add to that WR Vincent Jackson is now down in Tampa and someone new has to emerge. Phillip Rivers is a good quarterback but he can’t go it alone. The Chargers will frustrate their fans as they lose close ball games all year. Until a few playmakers emerge they will watch the playoffs alongside the Oakland Raiders.

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NFL Week 2 AFC North: Season of Change Seems Like the Same Old Thing, or Is It??

When we were putting our annual previews together this summer we stated this division was about to see some change. This was clearly the last year the Ravens and Steelers would be head and shoulders above the Bengals and Browns. Its been well chronicled about the age of the Steelers defense and we have to see which was more indicative of where they will play as a unit. Was it the 170 yards they gave up on the ground to the Baltimore Ravens in week 1 or the 31 yards last week to the Seahawks?? Speaking of the Ravens… What was that egg you guys laid in Adelphia Coliseum last week in losing to the Titans?? Are you serious?? Finally get that big early season win over the Steelers to put them in the rear view and then stub your toe the next week and catch you in the standings. You’re running out of time to get Ray Lewis another ring before he retires.

As for Marvin Lewis and his Cincinnati Bengals, who knew that he’d be only a few plays away from a 2-0 start after losing Chad Ochocinco and recovering from the Carson Palmer odyssey. With rookie QB Andy Dalton playing well these first couple of weeks and Bruce Gradkowski as insurance if there is a drop, time to unload Palmer. An in-season trade to help fortify the defense and get your team to totally rally around the quarterbacks that want to be there. Would go a long way in solidifying your locker room. Keep feeding the football to Cedric Benson. His 180 yards rushing in these first two games has been the difference between going 1-1 as opposed to 0-2 and resting your defense. Face it you stole one from the Browns who should have had that game. You get a win however you can though…

AFC NORTH W L T PCT HOME ROAD DIV CONF PF PA DIFF STRK
Cincinnati 1 1 0 .500 0-0-0 1-1-0 1-0-0 1-1-0 49 41 +8 Lost 1
Baltimore 1 1 0 .500 1-0-0 0-1-0 1-0-0 1-1-0 48 33 +15 Lost 1
Cleveland 1 1 0 .500 0-1-0 1-0-0 0-1-0 1-1-0 44 46 -2 Won 1
Pittsburgh 1 1 0 .500 1-0-0 0-1-0 0-1-0 0-1-0 31 35 -4 Won 1

As for the Browns, hopefully it’s the ties that bind that will bring the coaching carousel to a close. Coach Pat Shurmur is the nephew of the late Fritz Shurmur, who was the defensive co-ordinator for present Brown GM Mike Holmgren when he coached in Green Bay. The Shurmur/ Holmgren relationship was forged during the late 80s when Mike was the offensive co-ordinator for the World Champion 49ers and the hardest defense in their division year in and year out was the Los Angeles Rams defense under Fritz. That’s the coaching pedigree. Right now he doesn’t have to draw up any exotic blitzes, just has to have his defense not give up over 100 yards a game rushing on defense. They already have the perfect antidote in having Peyton Hillis pound at rival defenses to keep opposing teams off the field. He needs a little more help from Colt McCoy, who is completing only 56.3% of his passes. He has to show some growth in this season or Hillis could break down late in the season from overuse. They need him down the stretch where 3 of their last 4 are on the road. They absolutely need a receiver to emerge, to have Hillis as the leading receiver shows the ball is getting dumped off too much. Hillis isn’t Marshall Faulk running intricate routes. Come on Massaquoi and Josh Cribbs…

When it comes to the Steelers,. this team loves to run, but their defense is going to similar to every NFL team and see a defensive slip this year. That lack of conditioning and age will have the Steelers giving up points this year and placing the game in Roethlisberger’s hands. Face it he keeps plays alive and makes things happen and with his size never gets knocked out of the game. With Emanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown able to get deep, it should open up the intermediate routes for Hines Ward, Heath Miller, and Mike Wallace. So here we would suspect you’d ask why aren’t we saying Pittsburgh should run. We don’t because we know they’ll run yet the defense may put them in a few jams where they will have to come from behind or score late. Something they have not had to put up with in the Roethlisberger. The Steelers will be a passing and bubble screen team much like they were in 2003, its a transitional year. They get a break and take on the Manningless Colts this week so the stats won’t look bad on this defense.

Well after last year’s playoff loss to the Steelers we called Joe Flacco a beta quarterback and not an alpha. We took a lot of flack for that yet it’s reared it’s head in just two weeks of this season. Lets face it, it was the 170 yards rushing on the Steelers defense as the  reason they won that game. Where Flacco has to become a more polished quarterback and more of a field general was in a game like last week. They’re losing to a team they should really be ahead of. It’s those games that you see the best quarterbacks put their team on their back if they have to and pass them to victory. Dating back to last year’s Monday Night loss in Atlanta to Matt Ryan and the Falcons we have had our eye on this. He has the chance to change our CEO’s mind in two weeks when he takes on the New York Jets then two weeks later the Houston Texans as well. He will at least be home for these games and has to come through. He’s the AFC’s version of Tony Romo, just without the big mistakes. It’s time for some absolute field generalship from him. He needs to channel his inner Unitas.

2011 AFC North Previews & Predictions

The winds of change will blow across the AFC North this year starting at the midway point. The Pittsburgh Steelers are due to succumb to age and fatigue. Much like the Los Angeles Lakers in basketball, they’re forays into the NFL playoffs have equalled nearly a complete additional season of wear. Since 2004 the Steelers have participated in 13 post season games. Coming back with 7 projected defensive starters over 30, this should become an issue as it has shown with Troy Palamlu’s late season injuries. With a physical team, it doesn’t bode well for back to back seasons. Even when this team won the Super Bowl after the ’05 and ’08 seasons, they missed the playoffs the following year.

Standing at the gates of this slight dip in production stands the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens have to prove to themselves they can beat the Steelers at full strength. They have the first game of the season circled and must come through to build confidence. Many Raven fans have expressed disappointment for losing TE Todd Heap to free agency Yet this team needs more of a vertical presence.  Enter WR Lee Evans. If he can come in and free up the underneath routes for Boldin, Flacco can fully develop. He relied on the short throw to the tight end too much. If this happens…

2011 AFC NORTH PREDICTIONS

Baltimore Ravens 11-5 *

Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6

Cleveland Browns 7-9

Cincinnati Bengals 4-12

The Cincinnati Bengals have been on a strange odyssey over the last half decade. They have made the playoffs twice in the last 6 years, yet we had witnessed promise that should move them to the next level, and we’ve been disappointed. At time of this article, Carson Palmer is still in a self imposed exile, and Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco never  became the receiving threat as promised. All three are gone from the 2011 squad that is searching for an identity and leadership under coach Marvin Lewis. They signed scrappy quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who looked really good against the Colts in the 3rd preseason game. Will he be able to channel that moxie into firing up his teammates?? Will they have the players to take advantage of it this year?? There is work to do in the Queen City.

Applause for the Cleveland Browns. They are returning to the 4-3 defense after a forgettable stretch in a 3-4.  They just don’t have the athletes to run that type of defense and this is a step in the right direction. Peyton Hillis should get the ball as a featured back this year and could wind up with a 350 carry season.  With the team slowly bringing Colt McCoy along at quarterback, they’re going to have to win some close to the vest affairs. Especially when they face the Steelers and Ravens. All four of these game happen between weeks 13 -17. So they have time to build some confidence and get ready for these cold weather games. Right now, new coach Pat Shurmur is out to find out who is ready to take the next step and lead the Browns back to prominence.  Shouldn’t be a factor until next year at the earliest.

Back to Pittsburgh. The Steelers have developed some young talent at receiver and running back and could have one of the their best offenses in many years. Antonio Brown looks like a legitimate deep threat and kick returner. He gives the Steelers an explosive element not seen since the heyday of Antwan Randle El. Roethlisberger is still in his prime and will have to bail out the Steelers late in many games this year. The one player who should be at his best should be James Harrison, he shows no signs of slowing down and is the enforcer on that defense. He is the one player Pittsburgh can’t afford to lose on defense. Do you realize he is coming up on the all time record for most fumbles forced for a career even though he’s been a starter for only 6 seasons. He’s a wrecking machine and a former defensive player of the year.  For the Steelers to retain their AFC North mantle, it’s he and Woodley who have to make all the plays. The problem is they can only mask a deficient secondary so long. See Super Bowl XLV game footage…yet we digress. The Steelers, just like the Ravens will ultimately be undone by their secondaries. However when it comes to the AFC North, the Ravens win it….barely.

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