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AFC North preview

More from the sharp mind of Ian Steven, @deevo82.

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AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers


The AFC North is where things begin to become salacious from a betting standpoint as the bookies are split over who tops this traditionally competitive division.

The Steelers are the favourites for the division with Big Ben Roethlisberger once more the face of the franchise. He is not conventional in his play and can throw some ugly looking passes but he has bags of grit and is definitely a playmaker. Roethlisberger will win a couple of games single-handedly if he is fit and he crucially plays well once the weather turns inclement.

There has been a strong tradition of running backs in Western Pennsylvania with names like Franco Harris, Barry Foster and Jerome Bettis tripping off the tongue. Since The Bus retired however, the Heinz Field franchise have struggled to find elite talent at the position and this year will try the tandem of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount as the offense looks to cudgel their opponents into submission.

At wide receiver, Antonio Brown is quickly becoming one of the top ten players at his position and will definitely be the go to guy for Big Ben. Rookie speedster Dri Archer will be a man to watch both on special teams but also on gadget plays as well as Todd Haley looks to get the diminutive receiver in space to maximise his effectiveness.

The offensive line had traditionally been an area of weakness for the Steeltown franchise. David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey should provide a lot of interior punch but some questions at tackle could force Roethlisberger into more of his playmaking repertoire than he would like.

The defense was shredded by the Eagles in pre-season and they are not the elite force they used to be in years gone by. They could still be a top-ten D but rookie Ryan Shazier will come under a lot of pressure as opponents try to confuse the rookie who is starting at middle linebacker. The usual script with Pittsburgh is that if Troy Polamalu succumbs to injury, the defense falls apart so Dick LeBeau will have to cross his fingers that his blue chip veteran remains off the treatment table.

Cincinnati Bengals

I prophesised that the Bengals were primed to win the division last year and miraculously I was proved correct. There was a lot of unrest in the offseason with Cincy fans as QB Andy Dalton looked out of his depth in the Bengals playoff loss to San Diego with the quarterback throwing two interceptions and also losing a fumble. Dalton does play well in the regular season however – throwing for over 4,293 yards with a 33-20 TD-Int ratio in 2013.

Critics could argue that most QBs could throw for so many yards when AJ Green is the man catching the ball. If it were not for Megatron, Green would be the elite receiver in this league as he has everything, size, speed, hands and toughness. The problem for the Ohio franchise is that Green faces a lot of double coverage with a safety high or zones rotating his way but they don’t really have the talent in other areas of the field to expoit it. Tyler Eifert could be a player to watch for people looking for fantasy drafts as the second-year tight end has the athleticism to get behind linebackers in the seam and could be due for a breakout year.

Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth are good bookends on an above average offensive line but the big grunts won’t be blocking for Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis who has just been released. Giovani Bernard should pick up most of the load in new offensive co-ordinator Hue Jackson’s offense at runningback.

The best bit of recent news for the Ohio faithful was the signing to an extension of Vontaze Burfict who could well be the best 4-3 strong side linebacker in the game. Burfict was not drafted due to character concerns but Mike Brown’s gamble has borne fruit.

The Bengals were the third stingiest in the NFL last season ranked with yards conceded per game and will rely heavily on their star tackle Geno Atkins to recover fully from last season’s torn ACL to anchor the defensive line.

Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick are joined by rookie Darqueze Dennard in the secondary, supplementing the impressive spread of talent on the rest of the roster that make the Bengals the most complete team in the AFC North.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens were once famed for having the meanest defense in the NFL but times have changed and legends have migrated as the Hall of Fame elect duo of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed long gone from Maryland.

Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs are both perennial Pro Bow talents but are advancing in age. Alabama linebacker CJ Mosely was drafted by Ozzie Newsome to replace the legendary Lewis but Baltimore’s defence definitely looks porous and could give up a lot of yards in the air.

On offense, big-armed quarterback Jim Flacco is still under centre. The Delaware graduate threw for just under 4,000 yards in 2014 but his Int-TDs ratio was terrible and needs attention if the Ravens want to make the playoffs. The direction of a franchise revolves around how well a QB performs in the NFL and Flacco’s playoff form to take the Bengals to the title in February, 2013 will be forgotten of he keeps handing the ball to the opposition on a platter.

Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice courted controversy in the off-season for assaulting his wife in an elevator (or lift if you are from the UK)and received an NFL ban for the first two games of the season – which was a punishment that Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted he had got wrong after protests about the leniency. Bernard Pierce is more than capable of handling the load with Rice out and could snatch the starting sport as Rice was hardly electrifying last season.

Veteran Steve Smith absconded from the Carolina Panthers to join the Ravens in an odd move as Newsome likes to build via the draft and Smith has some questionable character traits that you would not want to influence young players. Owen Daniels was the other big name free agent signing and he should have a good tight end partnership with Dennis Pitta if he can remain healthy.

A weak secondary and an uninspiring offensive line who only have Marshall Yanda as an example of a top tier lineman will ultimately be the undoing of the Ravens in 2014 in an unforgiving division.

Cleveland Browns

Where do you start with the Browns? The most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL in recent years, it looked like the long suffering Dawg Pound had finally found their first franchise quarterback since Bernie Kosar in Brian Hoyer but the hapless signal caller tore his ACL against the Bills and was out for the season. As Hoyer fell then so did the Browns. A seven game losing skid to end the season saw Coach Rob Chudzinski and general manager Michael Lombardi fired with Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer brought in in an effort to right the ship.

The lure of Johnny Football was too much for the Browns front office and Farmer traded up to 22nd with the Eagles to pull the trigger on Manziel. A polarising figure, the Texas A&M QB has already been fined for a middle-finger salute in a pre-season game and has not wowed observes with his displays on the field. Hoyer remains the starter but it is just a matter of time before Manziel takes the field and either saves the franchise of plunges them back into another cycle of despair.

Just as Hoyer was providing hope, Josh Gordon was assailing the Cleveland faithful with out-and-out excellence, amassing 1,646 receiving yards in only 14 games and looking like the next big thing at receiver. Unfortunately, the bone-headed player was arrested for driving whilst impaired in North Carolina and has been suspended for the entire 2014 season for violating the NFL’s substance policy. Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins and Nate Burleson will attempt to share the load with Gordon missing but it is the impressive tight end Jordan Cameron who will be the prime focus of Hoyer/Manziel and a good fantasy draft pick up.

Ben Tate should be able to carve out the yards at running back behind a good line that features Joe Thomas and Alex Mack in Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking run offense that Tate will be familiar with from his time in Houston.

The Browns actually had a top ten defense last season and added to their talent levels by bringing in Justin Gilbert in the draft at cornerback to partner Joe Haden in a solid unit. They will be a tough team to play against and will keep a lot of scores close by running the rock and using play action to move the ball down the field in small chunks – just don’t expect the spectacular plays that Josh Gordon delivered last season.

Verdict

If Cleveland get their act together and actually provide some stability at the quarterback position then the Browns might not finish last in the AFC North. The Steelers and Ravens have enough questions that one injury could derail either team’s season. The Bengals don’t really have a weak spot on their roster and should be consistent enough to win this division for the second year running. 4 pts at 3.2 with Boyle Sports.

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