Monday, July 29, 2013

FOURTH & FOREVER: AFC NORTH PREVIEW

Johnny J

Last year's Super Bowl champs found a sense of urgency in the playoffs. Losing four of the last five games heading into January, Ray Lewis chose to inform his team that this was going to be his last season in the NFL. So how does everybody want to go out? As a champion of all champions. The Ravens rode the back of Lewis and he brought the Lombardi Trophy to the AFC North. I can just imagine how the other teams in the AFC division feels:
"Out of all teams, why them?" 
It shouldn't be a great feeling for the other teams in the NFL to see someone else hold the trophy, especially out of the AFC North. Teams such as the Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Cincinnati Bengals are not real threats. Do the Browns have what it takes to make the playoffs behind second year quarterback, 29 year-old Brandon Weeden? This use to be the Steelers' division. Haven't heard from them since Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow" song came out three years ago. They look old and slow. Maybe they know something I don't know. The Bengals look like a promising team this season after making the playoffs in back to back seasons. I could have sworn head coach, Marvin Lewis was always in the hot seat. It's hard to let go of a coach when his team gets good at the right moments. On another note, the Ravens will have the toughest road back to the playoffs after the solid championship team became depleted this offseason. Throw that on top of tight end Dennis Pitta being out for the season.

The Cleveland Browns started last years season 0-5. It was safe to say they weren't going to make the playoffs one month into the season. They finished 5-11 overall, winning only once on the road. As we all know, you have to win in those tough environmental places to even be considered a playoff team. Can they turn it around in one season? The answer is no. They remind me of a team who uses their best player until they run them in the ground. No, I'm not talking about running back Darren McFadden, but running back Trent Richardson. The Browns ran the ball 40 percent of the time, but in order to win I think they need to increase that to 60 percent. This should be a running team and not a throwing team. Weeden is a betting man. He likes to try and force the pigskin into his over-covered receivers. "I bet you I can squeeze the ball inside three people around my receiver." That sounds like something he would say. The result is a QB with a 3.18 INT thrown percentage on passing plays, which ranked 27th in the league. Instead of  huddling around Weeden, they should look for Richardson and ask him what he wants them to do. Being ranked 24th in rushes per game is just not going to cut it. Feed the man, until the defense stops him. Then bring in play-action or throw check-down passes. Do not let Weeden let it fly past 20 yards.

Steelers where you at? This defensive team needs to have an offensive balance. The Steelers let wide receiver Mike Wallace walk in free agency as well as running back Rashard Mendenhall. Can you name an offensive player on this team besides "Womanizer"/"I'm always hurt" QB Ben Roethlisberger? I never have seen this quarterback as a super bowl champ, but he is (two-time champion to be exact--Ed). This slow, hard to bring down, injury prone, I hired body guards to protect me from being a "Womanizer," quarterback is getting slower every year. Last year, the Steelers missed the playoffs ("Playoffs? Playoffs! I'm talking about playoffs!) with a disappointing 8-8 record. Big Ben missed three games; It's reasonable, but when you lose the games you play on top of the ones you don't play, then it becomes a problem. They have Antonio Brown as the number one receiver on the depth chart and Emmanuel Sanders as the second option. Nothing like over the top, big play WR Mike Wallace on board, or even old reliable Hines Ward. This offense is going to miss that big haymaker, knock-out punch. They drafted running back Le'Veon Bell out of Michigan State. He is a decent pick, but since I'm a Wisconsin Badger fan, he is no Montee Ball. Tight end Heath Miller is an "ok" tight end. He is a great check down, third down source to haul it in, but this is a athletic, tightend game now. He is slow. I could probably power walk faster than his burst of full-speed. I still like the defense minus linebacker James Harrison. Time to rely on senior citizen Lamar Woodley. Good secondary though in Troy Polamalu, Ike Clark, and Ryan Clark. Maybe they'll win nine games this season.

The Bengals have given Marvin Lewis so many chances; they should just sign the man to a long-term contract and put to rest all of the hot seat rumors. I wouldn't want him to coach the Packers, but he is decent. He just always finds a way to lose close games. Its almost like the opponents coach always finds a way to out-coach him. But I like this team in this division. They are young and talented, and I mean talented. They have a reliable quarterback in Andy Dalton, who seems to be learning the pro level of football each year. I think they call that "developing". I will have to check on that a little later to get the right terminology. Anyway, the Bengals put some good weapons around him. To go along with stand-out, top-tier receiver A.J. Green, they still have pro bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham and they drafted Tyler Eifert in the first round, just in case Gresham might eventually move on after producing two pro bowl years in 2011 and 2012.(Yes drafting a tightend like Gresham in the first round is insurance, partner). The Bengals also drafted running back Giovani Benard to back up Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis. That is a nice 1-2 punch at running back. Someone who rarely puts the ball on the ground and someone who has fresh legs. A nice 2 piece combo. In this 4-3 defense, the Bengals have a good front four, in Carlos Dunlap, Domato Peko, Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson. That is what you call a pass rush, run-stuffing force. Between all of them, they had 212 tackles, 45 tackles for loss and 32 sacks. Now you add James Harrison to that group; this will be a top five defense to go with a top 10 offense.

The Ravens are in the rebuilding stage on both sides of the ball. They lost eight starters from their Super Bowl team. Instead of paying some of the people who deserve the money, they decided to pay fourth-tier quarterback Joe Flacco $120.6 million. The guy who is usually 10-24 in completion to passing attempts ratio. But he got lucky and won the Super Bowl MVP. Go figure! So with Ed Reed going to the Houston Texans and "I didn't spray Deer-Antler on my injured arm last year," linebacker Ray Lewis retired, the defense definitely looks a lot different now. They also still have Ray Rice, who is also locked up long-term for the Ravens. So rebuilding shouldn't be so hard now on the offensive side, but wait, they lost Pitta to a season-ending injury and they signed Visanthe Shiancoe hoping he fills the void. They traded Anquan Boldin which make this offense kind of one-sided. They have great receiver in Torrey Smith and a so so- receiver in Jacoby Jones. If this was a dance contest, Jones would be the top guy, but it's not and he is not a good route runner. The reason why these receivers wont work is because they both do the same thing. They're both deep-threat, down-the-field receivers. You need a deep-threat receiver, an over the middle receiver, and one who gets off the block and can also be a great route runner. Jones is a punt return specialist. He doesn't run great routes. The defense can play two deep shells on them to stop the downfield completions. That's if Flacco has the accuracy that day to even give his receivers a shot. The defense is still decent with Elvis Dumervil and Chris Canty. They can get after the quarterback with Haloti Ngata, Ladarius Webb and Terell Suggs. I hope he is staying away from all basketball activities; We don't want another ACL injury. Oh they also drafted hard-hitting safety Matt Elam out of Florida. The defense is still good, but who is going to emerge as the voice of the defense now that Ray Ray called it quits? Of course, how can I forget...the coordinator.

With the Steelers, Bengals, and Ravens having a top 10 defense; This division winner is going to have to bring an offense for lunch. Unless these defenses are scoring defensive touchdowns, the offense needs to do more than take pictures for the media. The Browns are still rebuilding so I expect them to be around five wins again this year. This is going to be a three-headed race, in which I believe the Bengals will win this division. They have young talents on offense, who should put up some points with a nasty defense that will be top five. The Steelers will come in second. If Roethlisberger stays healthy and this offense can move the ball down the field they can claim second. Antonio Brown has a lot to prove with him being the top dawg now. Neither the Steelers or Ravens have an offense, but the Ravens are in worse shape than the Steelers because they are one-dimensional. Ray Ray gets the ball and then Flacco just lobs it up to Jones or Smith since they both are deep threat receivers. They will find out the hard way when they can't score touchdowns. A solid third place for them. Wow, I picked the Bengals. Boy have times changed from top to bottom in the AFC North. The Steelers and Ravens behind the Bengals in 2013. Like rapper Drake says, "Started from the bottom, now we here."

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