Can the Ravens get Past Pitt (AFC North Preview)

The AFC North has been known for the great defence in the division including the two top teams. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have a reputation for have very stingy defences that shut down every offence they face. The Steelers have the best tradition as they harken back to the time of the Steel Curtain defence. The Ravens have created a reputation with their two veterans that are bound to enter the Hall of Fame in the future. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have made a defence to be feared. Both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens have battled for the top spot for years as the two teams from Ohio struggle to keep up. Cleveland and Cincinnati have been attempting to keep up since Cleveland returned to the NFL. Things may be changing however as the Ravens and Steelers are getting older while the Bengals and the Browns are looking to rebuild. The battle is still between the Steelers and Ravens and the Steelers have been getting the best of it going to the Super Bowl last year but coming up just short. The Ravens will be looking to finally get past the Steelers and win the division while Cleveland and Cincinnati look to finally make a change by surprising the division.

Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens have been built on the principles of the old school as they are a run first defensive team. This was true last year as well with Ray Rice leading the offence and their defence leading them to a strong season. The Ravens have been the #2 team for years as they continue to struggle against the Pittsburgh Steelers for supremacy. Last year was no different as the Ravens ended the season with a 12-4 record but it was still not enough to get past the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens rode their defence too as they were not ranked the best defence in the league but had one of the best points allowed per game in the league. Ray Lewis led the defence that had a bend but don’t break philosophy. Their star cornerback showed his age as Ed Reed missed most of the season with injury. Their offence was good enough to put up some wins. Joe Flacco and Ray Rice led the team but it stayed with the run first philosophy keeping the ball on the ground. The Ravens had a successful season but not good enough to win the division. They then moved on to the Divisional playoffs against their longtime foe the Pittsburgh Steelers. They battled closely with the Steelers again but could not get past them as the Ravens lost 31-24. This year they will finally look to get by the Steelers and will have a chance in their opening game as they face off at home against Pittsburgh.

This year the Ravens have made a few changes that could make a big impact or fizzle out into being nothing. Their biggest move was on offence as the Ravens signed Lee Evans from the Buffalo Bills to fill holes and compliment last year’s addition of Anquan Boldin. With the departure of Derrick Mason, Donte Stallworth, and Todd Heap, Evans will need to make a big impact to keep a semblance of the passing game. Their running game will improve slightly as Ray Rice will have a great blocker in another offseason addition of Vonta Leach. On defence the Ravens have not gone through many changes as they have not made any big signings. Luckily for the Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Ed Reed are back to lead a strong defence. Along with the veterans the continued improvement of Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, and Tommy Zbikowski gives the youth needed to continue their strong play. The ravens have not made major changes but with a 2010 record of 12-4 it is hard to argue that they needed much. The team will not change much as they will continue to be a run first, defensive team. Without much change it is obvious the one obstacle they will face. That is their rival the Pittsburgh Steelers who will be right along with them the entire season. If they can get past the Steelers this team has a strong possibility of going deep into January.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals had a bad season last year as they finished last in the AFC North and only managing 4 wins. The hopes were high for their offence as they signed Terrell Owens in the offseason to compliment Chad Ochocinco and give Carson Palmer more weapons. The biggest problem was that their offence did not seem to know what it wanted to be. With the weapons they had it seemed like the Bengals would not commit to being a running or a passing offence even with weapons on both sides including RB Cedric Benson. The defence was the one bright spot in the Bengals season as they continued to fight throughout every game. They were not one of the better defences in the league but they gave the Bengals a chance to win most games. The Bengals had some heartbreaking losses as they lost a stretch of six games that could have been one with one score. The defence was led by some good young talent including Rey Maualuga, LB and Leon Hall, CB as well as their second round pick Carlos Dunlap, DE. The young players made mistakes but show some improvement that can be built on. The Bengals had some major concerns last year but their defence gave them something to build on in 2011. Many things will need to improve if the Bengals hope to make a run this year especially in such a strong division that includes the defending AFC champions.

In 2011 the Bengals will look to improve but it will be a tough go as they have had some major changes to their offence. First it was the offseason battle between the Bengals Owner, Mike Brown, and their starting QB, Carson Palmer. Palmer told the Bengals that he wanted to be traded or he would retire and Mike Brown refused to allow this as he would not trade Palmer forcing Palmer to go into semi-retirement. Palmer has not reported to camp and does not look like he will be back with the Bengals this year. Along with this was the decision by Chad Ochocinco to test the free agent market and Terrell Owens doing the same. Ochocinco moved on to the New England Patriots and Owens underwent knee surgery and has not signed with a team. The Bengals addressed these needs in their draft taking wide receiver A.J. Green and QB Andy Dalton in the first two rounds. Without the other veterans in the lineup Andy Dalton will be forced to start, although may have help in veteran Bruce Gradkowski, and A.J. Green will be his best WR. This may force the offence to lean on Cedric Benson until the rookies can get back into it and with the Ravens and Steelers in the league being one-dimensional will not bode well. On defence the Bengals have not changed much as their biggest ad was cornerback Nate Clements. The defence will hope that the three young members, Maualuga, Hall, and Dunlap, will improve even more to provide a key player at every level. The Bengals are hoping to do better than last year but with all of the controversy and the changes it doesn’t look like the Bengals will be able to put out a good enough offence to compete in the AFC North.

Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns have had a rocky road back to the NFL as the team was one of legend winning 4 NFL Championships throughout the 50s and 60s. They continued strong play in the new era NFL but could not win a Super Bowl. Then in 1995 the Browns’ owner Art Modell signed a deal to move the team to Baltimore, The now Baltimore Ravens. This took away one of the most legendary teams in the NFL and kept them out until 1999 when the Browns were part of a 1998 expansion decision that brought the Browns to Cleveland. With the expansion tag the Browns were forced to draft a brand new team and this has been their downfall. The Browns have never been able to gain traction as they try to create an identity over and over again with new coaches and new QBs that did not work out. Last year seemed to be a turning point for the Browns as they no longer seemed like an easy win but in fact were a team that could hang around. They still did not impress finishing in third place with a 5-11 record but still beating their state rivals the Cincinnati. The Browns have been a laughing-stock of the league for a long time but in 2010 the Browns showed that they are making improvements since they entered in 1999. In 2011 the Browns will continue the rebuild and try to improve on their 2010 season as they continue to add key pieces to their team.

This year the Browns did not make a big amount of moves in the offseason but the biggest change in 2011 is the move by President Mike Holmgren in signing new head coach Pat Shurmur. The new coach will be coming from the St. Louis Rams where he acted as the Offensive Coordinator for the Rams and helped Sam Bradford adjust to the NFL. The Browns hope that Shurmur can do the same for their young QB as Colt McCoy goes into his second season. The first season was a rough one as McCoy was punished behind a bad line and this year the Browns have added some key parts to the front five. The biggest challenge on offence will be that McCoy will not have many people to throw to as their major target from last year, Chansi Stuckey, has moved on. The Browns will try to make up for this with their star RB and Madden 12 cover boy Peyton Hillis. On defence the Browns strength will be their linebacking corps led by veteran Scott Fujita and D’Qwell Jackson. The rest of their defence will not be anything special but is good enough to give the offence a chance to win some games. The Browns will not be able to compete with the Ravens and Steelers this year but they will improve as Colt McCoy looks to be a more improved QB in the West Coach offence brought in by Pat Shurmur.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers were able to continue their dominance over their divisional rivals the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers biggest issue last year was the suspension of their starting QB, Ben Roethlisberger, after his off the field issues. The first four games saw Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon, and Byron Leftwich all split starting duties due to injuries throughout the first four games. They surprised everyone as they did not need Pittsburgh who went 3-1 during the four game suspension. Luckily the Steelers had a week 5 bye allowing Roethlisberger to get in an extra week of practice before returning in week 6 against the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers rode the return of their starting QB, their running game, and their stingy defence, even after the NFL began cramping down on the head shots in which James Harrison was portrayed as a victim being fined $100,000 over the year. They used this as a rallying point and refused to change their style of defence that had been so successful for years. The Steelers won the tight race for the AFC North and moved on to the Divisional playoffs. They beat their rival Baltimore Ravens and the New York Jets to move on to Super Bowl XLV. They made a big comeback in this game but in the end were beaten by turnovers and walked away with their first Super Bowl Loss in their last three appearances. This year the Steelers will try to get back to the Super Bowl and will do it the way they always have, running the ball and stopping the other team.

This year the Steelers did not make a splash in the free agent market but they did add another weapon for the Steelers pass game as they signed Jerricho Cotchery, WR from the New York Jets. The offence will remain constant as they will pass to set up the run as Roethlisberger will not be the superstar of the team. Roethlisberger is very good at managing this offence as he will make the big play when they need it and has the ability to take over the offence if they are in need of moving down the field fast. Their workhorse will be Rashad Mendenhall once again as they will stick to the run to wear down the opposition. The 2011 defence is not necessarily the Steel Curtain but they are the best defence in football. With little changes they will be returning all of their key players including James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, and a host of other all-star potentials. The one issue that the Steelers defence have was exposed by the Packers in Super Bowl XLV as they have not done enough to build their pass defence. Luckily for the Steelers this is not a big concern for their division who all generally build on the run but it may be a challenge for them in the playoffs. The Steelers are also facing history as they have not made the playoffs after their last two Super Bowl appearances. This year they may break the tradition as they seem strong enough to get past the Ravens again. Making it back to the Super Bowl may be a different story as more teams move to the passing game that will tear up the Steelers secondary.

 

Prediction:

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)

2. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)

3. Cleveland Browns (7-9)

4. Cincinnati Bengals (3-13)

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