by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2014, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games that continue Thursday, August 14. Next up for our previews will be the AFC North, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2013 straight-up, pointspread, and "over/under" records included...

It has started to dawn upon Baltimore Ravens (2013 SUR 8-8; PSR 7-8-1; O/U 8-8) backers that 2012 was maybe the culmination of a great five-season run for HC John Harbaugh...not the beginning of an extended dynasty. The Ravens' slip to 8-8 last fall suggested more than a Super Bowl hangover, as many key pieces from the title run had either departed or were noticeably on the decline. Whether or not that might include QB Joe Flacco, entering his 7th season this fall, remains to be seen. Flacco’s 2013 numbers dropped precipitously (a career-worst 22 picks) after signing the big offseason contract worth $120 million, which also contributed to some salary juggling required elsewhere on the roster by GM Ozzie Newsome...all factors in a disappointing 8-8 finish.

Flacco’s struggles were not the only issues with the offense. The running game simply didn’t work last season, either, with an NFL-worst 3.1 ypg and a mere 83 ypg (which ranked a poor 30th). Moreover, the “O” surrendered a hefty 48 sacks and conceded a total of 91 quarterback hits, much too high of a number.

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Downgrades were not limited to the offense; in Baltimore, the defenses are held to a much higher standard than last year’s 12trh overall ranking. While still formidable, the “D” had definitely lost some of its swagger from the playoff years, especially with the Ray Lewis and Ed Reed influences having departed after the Super Bowl year.

A quick Ravens recovery back to playoff status this fall, however, would not be a complete surprise. Early reports suggest a possible offensive renaissance under new o.c. Gary Kubiak, in recent years the HC at Houston but a longtime play-caller who had previously coordinated Mike Shanahan’s offenses while in Denver. Many AFC North onlookers expect a much sharper-edge from this season’s strike force after the attack floundered a year ago under former o.c. Jim Caldwell, whose offseason hire by the Lions to be their head coach caused more than a few quizzical looks around the league.

Caldwell’s main contributions to the offense, upon his replacement of Cam Cameron as o.c. late in the 2012 Super Bowl season, were merely to get out of the way of Flacco, who famously clashed with Cameron regarding the latter’s resistance to Flacco audibilizing at the line of scrimmage. When the friction between o.c. and QB became intolerable, Harbaugh hit the eject button on Cameron just when the 2012 playoff berth seemed to be slipping away from the Ravens. Caldwell simply allowed Flacco the freedom to run the offense thereafter, with the reward being the eventual Super Bowl win. But when Caldwell became more involved with design and implementation of the offense last season, the attack suffered. The switch to Kubiak has already proven palpable to AFC observers, who believe Flacco will benefit from sharper play-calling as well as the flexibility to change plays if needed.

Of course, issues remain, specifically regarding RB Ray Rice, who showed signs of real wear-and-tear last season when gaining only 3.1 ypc. And that was before his now infamous off-field troubles in the offseason that have prompted an early 2-game suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell. If and when Rice returns, he should find a bit more room to rumble thanks to Kubiak’s heavy reliance on zone blocking, which has been a plus for his running games with both the Texans and Broncos. Adjustments began in the offseason, when adding C Jeremy Zutah from Tampa Bay to replace Gino Gradkowski, who struggled in his first year as the starter. Left tackle Eugene Monroe, acquired in midseason from the Jags a year ago, figures to be the new anchor in the forward wall.

Meanwhile, Bernard Pierce, who has become more involved with ball-toting duties, was likely to share carries with Rice anyway, and will probably be the featured back at the outset, although Coastal Carolina rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro has been a revelation in training camp and whose one-cut running style appears an ideal fit for Kubiak’s new zone-blocking scheme that helped carve out a whopping 237 rush yards in the preseason opener vs. the 49ers. Rice could eventually rediscover some of his pre-2013 form as well, although the extent of his eventual contributions are a bit hard to gauge in August.

Flacco’s downfield passing game also seemed to suffer last season when Baltimore never really compensated for key target Anquan Boldin’s offseason departure to San Francisco, and was further hampered by TE Dennis Pitta’s injuries. Help, however, seems to have arrived with ex-Panther WR Steve Smith and ex-Texans TE Owen Daniels, both added in the offseason. If either has any gas left in their tanks, and alongside a now-healthy Pitta (who, along with Daniels, should benefit from Kubiak, a proponent of TEs), Flacco figures to benefit, as would WR Torrey Smith, who might not draw as much attention from opposing defenses after emerging as the preferred target last season with 74 receptions.

As mentioned, defense is expected to be good in Baltimore, whose fans have been treated to top-notch stop units for most of the millennium. And most expect the Ravens to be representative again on the stop end, though d.c. Dean Pees is dealing with advancing age in his platoon, with five major contributors in the team’s front seven now 30 years of age or older. Pees also lost a couple of key cogs in free agency, as DE Arthur Jones moved to the Colts and S James Ihedigbo left for the Lions. Nickel back Corey Graham also departed to the Bills, perhaps hampering depth and flexibility in the secondary.

Still, playmakers abound, and OLBs Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs remain plenty disruptive on the edges, while ILB Daryl Smith tackled almost everyone in reach last season. The nucleus of the defensive backfield, CBs Ladarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, stood tall in 2013, and there are indications that the top two draft picks, Alabama ILB C.J. Mosley & Florida State DT Timmy Jerningan, are going to be able to make positive contributions off the bat, and perhaps offset some of the creeping age concerns for the platoon.

By past Ravens standards, the “D” might have much to prove, but in context with the rest of the league, the Baltimore stop unit hardly appears to past its sell-by date.

The Ravens get a chance to make a statement within the North in their first three games, all vs. division foes, beginning opening day at M&T Bank Stadium vs. the Bengals. It would not shock us to see Baltimore reassume command that it relinquished in the division last season.

We suppose the old “glass is half-full or half-empty” argument would apply to the Cincinnati Bengals (2013 SUR 11-6; PSR 10-6-1; O/U 10-7). The optimists might cite Cincy’s three straight playoff berths for the first time in franchise history, all since ex-TCU star Andy Dalton took over at QB, and believe that all is well at Paul Brown Stadium. Pessimists, however, might have a different take after the Bengals have gone one-and-done in the postseason the past three seasons, games in which Dalton has not been able to produce more than 13 points. He was especially sloppy in last January’s numbing 27-10 home wild card round loss to the Chargers, with his 334 yards worth of passes ringing very hollow thanks to a nightmarish second half when he was guilty of three key giveaways (two picks and a fumble).

Last season, the Bengals had been 8-0 at home and brought the NFL's No. 3 defense -- their highest-ever playoff ranking -- into the game vs. the Bolts. Yet, with everything seemingly in their favor, they unraveled in the second half, getting outscored 20-0. Thus, Cincy now has the sixth-longest streak of playoff futility in NFL history, stretching all the way back to the 1990 season, and losing a playoff opener in three straight seasons matches a rather-dubious league record.

Still, making the playoffs, only to lose once there, is a problem many teams in the league would love to have. And the Bengals’ new-found prowess has removed much of the heat that used to annually burn beneath the seat of HC Marvin Lewis, who, though still winless in five playoff games with Cincy, enters his 12th season in charge without worrying much about his many former critics. Yet Lewis, the ultimate coaching survivor, will have to move forward minus both of his recent coordinators, after d.c. Mike Zimmer (to the Vikings) and o.c. Jay Gruden (to the Redskins) both took head coaching jobs after last season.

Lewis is very safe for now, as apparently is QB Dalton, inked to a six-year contract extension in early August. New deal or not, it is fair to ask if Dalton really is capable of taking the Bengals to the promised land, or at least getting into the winners circle in the playoffs. While there has been a steady rise in his TD passes, yards, and attempts over the past three seasons, there has also been a rise in his interceptions, to an alarming 23 a year ago. Just in case, Lewis and new o.c. Hue Jackson (on staff last season) have a couple of interesting alternatives, adding well-traveled Jason Campbell, a serviceable backup capable of stepping into the breach and as a reminder to Dalton to stay on his toes, while Alabama rookie A.J. McCarron has added a longer-term option to the mix...if, that is, he can get beyond recurring shoulder problems that have limited him in training camp.

(No complaints from us, however, if the TV cameras want to show McCarron’s now-wife Katherine Webb, even if McCarron is riding the bench or on the inactive list this fall.)

Beyond McCarron’s balky shoulder, there are also some new concerns regarding the health of Campbell, who exited the preseason opener at Kansas City with arm issues, which has forced Lewis to do some scrambling with his QBs, lest he give Dalton more snaps than needed in preseason. Former Arizona Wildcat and Jacksonville Jag Matt Scott figures to get plenty of work in upcoming preseason action. The recent spate of injuries at the position has made keeping Dalton healthy an even higher priority throughout the preseason.

Cincy has, however, built a capable strike force around Dalton. The Bengals finished a respectable 10th in total offense and sixth in points (27 ppg) a year ago. In ex-Georgia Bulldog A.J. Green (98 catches and 11 TDs in 2013), Cincy has one of the league’s top wide receivers, and fellow wideout Marvin Jones (51 receptions and 10 TDs last season) is a solid second option for Dalton. (Jones is currently nursing a broken foot but is expected to be ready for the reg.-season opener vs. the Ravens.) Tight end Jermaine Gresham is a two-time Pro Bowler, though he and Tyler Eifert will prove more useful from the position if they could provide a bit more of a downfield threat.

Offensive coordinator Jackson has other weapons at his disposal, too, and expects second-year ex-UNC Tar Heel RB Gio Bernard to get more touches this fall after a promising debut campaign in 2013 when he flashed plenty of big-play potential and scored 11 TDs. Vet workhorse Benjarvus Green-Ellis and LSU second-round draftee Jeremy Hill provide more RB options for the offense. And despite the loss of LT Anthony Collins to the Bucs in free agency, the Bengal OL remains one of the best in the NFL, with RT Andre Smith a featured link. Andrew Whitworth, deployed as a guard last year, will switch back to a tackle position and Collins’ old spot on the left side this fall.

Defense has driven most of Cincy’s recent success, as the stop unit has finished no worse than seventh in total defense the past three seasons, including a year ago when ranked a miserly third (just 305 ypg) in the league. Paul Guenther, on staff as a defensive assistant since 2005, is expected to make a smooth transition into the coordinator role vacated by now-Vikings HC Zimmer.

Last year’s success was especially noteworthy because three of the platoon’s best players--DT Geno Atkins, CB Leon Hall, and LB Rey Malauga--missed a combined total of 21 games due to injuries. The Bengals also lost a key component, DE Michael Johnson, in free agency to the Bucs, and age is starting to become a concern in the secondary.

To partly address the latter, at least, Cincy went for Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard with its first-round pick in the May draft at Radio City Music Hall, suggesting the defensive backfield could become even more aggressive this fall. Early reports from Bengal camp suggest Dennard is the real deal, even prompting the normally-reserved Lewis to call the MSU Spartan rookie “the best rookie CB I’ve ever seen” prior to the preseason opener vs. the Chiefs. Depth, however, remains an issue at the corner with the aforementioned Leon Hall off of his second torn Achilles tendon in three years. It is also about time for 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick to win a starting job.

To address physical concerns of Malauga, Vincent Rey will move from an OLB to a MLB designation. But the LB corps should remain dynamic with WLB Vontaze Burfict, who scared away potential employers after a combustible college career at Arizona State but now appearing to fulfill his vast potential in the pros after leading the entire NFL with 171 tackles last season. The status of DT Atkins, who tore his ACL last October 31, also remains a concern, though third-year DT Brandon Thompson has proven an able replacement, and depth appears solid across the DL.

With a capable offense to match the solid defense, the Bengals are going to like their chances to get back to the playoffs for a fourth straight year. But making a longer-term commitment to Dalton before he has won a playoff game is bound to come under further scrutiny if the Bengals either miss the postseason or fail again to clear their first playoff hurdle this fall.

While it is apparently sacrilege for anyone in the national media to suggest that the Pittsburgh Steelers (2013 SUR 8-8, PSR 9-7, O/U 8-8) are past their sell-by date, and that HC Mike Tomlin might be coaching himself into some trouble, we’ll go ahead and mention both. With consecutive 8-8 seasons, the Steelers have not won a playoff game since 2010 and have missed the postseason each of the past two seasons, a worrying trendline for those in the Steel City used to championships over the past four decades.

Perhaps Tomlin did one of his better jobs last season when steering Pittsburgh to the brink of an unlikely wild card berth after being given up for dead when breaking 0-4 from the gate. The Steelers found some momentum in the second half of the season, and if not for some questionable calls that allowed the Chargers to beat the Chiefs in OT in Week 17, Pittsburgh would have nudged the Bolts for the final AFC wild card berth. Still, it is worth noting that Tomlin has not made the playoffs since his former o.c. Bruce Arians left the fold. And more than a few believe Tomlin relied an awful lot on his coordinators (Arians and legendary d.c. Dick LeBeau, who remains on staff) during his most successful years in Pittsburgh.

Going forward, there are plenty of reasons for concern in the Steel City. Keeping QB Ben Roethlisberger in one piece for 16 games, as Pittsburgh was able to do last season, might be a neat trick two years in a row. And even with Big Ben on the field the whole way in 2013, the best Pittsburgh could do was reach .500. Moreover, there are still reports of friction in the relationship between Roethlisberger and third-year o.c. Todd Haley, although sources say they worked out many of their differences as last season progressed and the team rallied.

Suggesting some urgency, the Steelers jumped into the deep end of the FA pool in the offseason after swimming mostly in the shallow end in recent years. Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert signed WRs Lance Moore (ex-Saints) and Darius Heyward-Bey (formerly Raiders and Colts) as extra targets for Big Ben and also inked RB LeGarrette Blount, most recently of the Patriots, for added offensive pop. Safety Mike Mitchell (ex-Panthers) and LB Arthur Moats (ex-Bills) were also added to patch up a defense that was considered leaky by Steelers/LeBeau standards, ranking 13th overall last season after a succession of top ten rankings this millennium.

Interestingly, when the Steelers were winning games down the stretch last December, Roethlisberger was not throwing nearly as often, in fact passing for less than 200 yards in each of the three wins to close the campaign. After attempting an average of 38 tosses in the first 13 games, Big Ben passed only 28 times per game in the last three outings. An infantry that correspondingly made signs of improvement late in 2013 must continue that trend into the fall after proving mostly ineffective for all but the final few games of last year’s campaign. The return of former All-Pro C Maurkice Pouncey, who tore both an ACL and MCL in the opener vs. the Titans and was lost for the remainder of the season, should prove a plus for an OL that has restructured with a younger core in recent years.

Yet while still effectively able to "slide” from side-to-side to buy more time and stay upright in the pocket, Roethlisberger is not as nimble as he was a few years ago, and limiting his sacks and hits will be critical this fall. Which is why we expect the Steelers to return as much as possible to their former run-oriented roots and lessen the chances of a Roethlisberger injury that would likely put Bruce Gradkowski into the lineup at QB. Blount’s addition, along with maturity of second-year RB Le’Veon Bell (860 YR as a rookie in 2013), suggests a more-physical emphasis, and likely reduced number of pass attempts for Big Ben, as was the case down the stretch last season.

When Roethlisberger does throw, he will be looking toward Antonio Brown, who became a solid go-to outlet last season with a whopping 110 catches, though one of the new receivers will have to fill the role of Emmanuel Sanders, a reliable second option with 67 catches who moved to Denver in the offseason. A potentially intriguing new piece for the offense is Kent State rookie WR-RB Dri Archer, a 3rd-round draft pick who can also be expected to contribute right away on special teams. The offense could also use a stronger leg from PK Shane Suisham, who made no field goals from 50 yards or beyond last season though he did convert on 93.8% of all of his attempts.

On the defensive side, age and injuries proved a factor in the Steelers’ first non-top ten ranking in total “D” since 1999. And the surrender of 338 ypg was the worst effort since the 1989 season. Stalwarts LB Larry Foote and bearded DE Brent Keisel missed parts or nearly all of the season, and neither was retained, nor was longtime S Ryan Clark.

Similar to keeping Big Ben healthy on the offensive side last year, Pittsburgh was able to keep SS Troy Polamalu in the lineup for all sixteen games, too, in Troy’s case for just the third time in eight years. But Polamalu’s reckless style has taken its physical tool, and his effectiveness waned in 2013. His days of being an impact player appear to be in the rear-view mirror.

LeBeau’s notorious zone blitzes still have the capacity to disrupt, and 2nd-year ex-Georgia LB Jarvis Jones has flashed the potential to become the platoon’s next impact playmaker. But Jones also needs to display more consistency, as do sorts such as CB Cortez Allen and DT Steve McLendon, for the defense to return to its status quo.

The Steelers have swept clean most of the remaining contributors from their last Super Bowl winner six years ago, and the rebuild has hit some bumps. Still, Pittsburgh is unlikely to break 0-4 like a year ago and likely contends if Big Ben stays healthy. But another disappointment and playoff miss in the Steel City is likely to get a few people wondering about the direction of the program under Tomlin, heretofore a sacred cow...but perhaps not for much longer.

And then there were the Cleveland Browns (2013 SUR 4-012, PSR 6-10, O/U 9-7), whose decision to draft Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel with their second draft pick, late in the first round, has apparently caused the fantastically shallow football media to treat the Browns as some sort of a celebrity team rather than critically examine the entire operation under erratic owner Jimmy Haslam.

To this point, the well-connected Haslam has proven a complete embarrassment as an owner, involved in off-field controversies that makes one wonder about the NFL’s vetting process for club stakeholders. And we haven’t even gotten around to the destruction to the football operation under the watch of Haslam, now working on his third different coach and third different GM in three seasons. The late ‘70s/early ‘8-0s version of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had nothing on ‘ol Jimmy, which makes us wonder what the national sports media is doing, letting this fellow off of the hook. Apparently, unless guilty of some politically-correct indiscretions such as Washington’s Dan Snyder, the spooked national football media is not anxious to incur a possible blowback from the league’s apologists and sycophants by putting any owner under a microscope. We recall few if any national stories critical of Haslam.

Throwing last year’s new hires, HC Rob Chudzinski and GM Michael Lombardi, under the bus after a 4-12 record was the latest bit of unduly harsh employee treatment by Haslam, especially after the Brownies would be decimated by injuries, including at QB, where Cleveland started Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell, and Brian Hoyer at different times during the campaign. Hoyer, who displayed the most promise after early-season wins over the Vikings and Bengals prior to going down with a knee injury vs. the Bills, was the only one of that trio to be retained.

This year’s Cleveland merry-go-round features new HC Mike Pettine, recently d.c. with the Jets and Bills, and new GM Ray Farmer, promoted from assistant GM to replace Lombardi after a previous stint as the Chiefs’ Director of Pro Personnel. Haslam, however, has hardly created an atmosphere of trust or confidence within the organization. We see no evidence to suggest that either Pettine or Farmer are improvements over their predecessors, either. They’re just the latest to give it a shot in Cleveland under an erratic owner.

We rarely recall a 4-12 team getting as much exposure as the Browns, almost solely because of Manziel, who has failed to convince many insiders if he is either the second coming of Doug Flutie, or the reincarnation of Roger Staubach. With his privileged background and celebrity, Manziel has little personal similarity to Naval Academy grad Staubach, although Johnny Football’s unique skill set seems to us make him more comparable on the field to a Fran Tarkenton. Whether Manziel can command similar respect in the pro clubhouse to Tarkenton, Staubach, or even Flutie remains to be seen.

Most expect Manziel to be taking snaps sooner rather than later this season for the Browns, though there is a good chance Hoyer might get the starting call at QB for the regular-season opener vs. the Steelers. We might not have to wait long for a decision, as Pettine has announced that he will likely name the opening-game starter prior to preseason game number three against the Rams on August 23. Adding a bit more intrigue to the mix was the recent signing of ex-Bears and Redskins QB Rex Grossman, expected only to be a deep fall-back option but also familiar with the offense of new o.c. Kyle Shanahan, under whom Grossman worked in Washington.

No matter who is at QB, we expect some issues with an “O” that ranked a lowly 27th in scoring (19.2 ppg) last season. Either Hoyer failing to stay healthy, or Manziel experiencing inevitable growing pains, could impede the attack. The status of homerun WR Josh Gordon (87 catches and a league-best 1646 receiving yards last season) also figures to be determined soon; Gordon is looking at a suspension of possible extended length after failing his second drug test in the offseason, as well as a recent DUI arrest. Sources say the Browns are expecting that the suspension could be for the duration of the 2014 season. Stay tuned.

We do know that the offensive style under Shanahan will be different than it was a year ago under Norv Turner, whose attack was built around a vertical passing game with man-blocking principles. At least expect rushing stats to improve, as the Shanahan scheme is predicated upon extensive zone-blocking techniques and West Coast passing principles.

Drafting Manziel was not the only potential offensive upgrade addressed in the offseason by new GM Farmer, who also sought help in free agency when signing RB Ben Tate (ex-Texans) and a collection of WRs led by Miles Austin (ex-Cowboys) and Nate Burleson (most recently Lions). Tate and potential surprise contributor Terrance West, a third-round pick out of Towson, have been staging a spirited battle for carries in training camp and suggest a real upgrade for an infantry that gained only 86 ypg (ranking 27th) a year ago and whose leading rusher, well-traveled Willis McGahee, netted only 377 YR. But it’s Josh Gordon’s expected absence that could put a major crimp in the offense.

Gordon or not, there are some other headliners in attack, namely re-signed TE Jordan Cameron (80 catches LY) and All-Pro LT Joe Thomas, considered perhaps the league’s best. But so many other questions abound with the strike force that we are hesitant to suggest any significant upgrades on the horizon.

There’s also a new defensive coordinator, Jim O’Neil, after Ray Horton was not retained despite doing a near-magic act with last year’s stop unit that would rank 9th in total defense. Horton did not stay unemployed for long, reunited with former boss Ken Whisenhunt in Tennessee. O’Neil, Pettine’s LB coach in Buffalo, is retaining Horton’s 3-4 base defense, although there is a possibility that Pettine will be very involved in defensive play-calling, especially at the outset of the season.

O’Neil and Pettine inherited some nice building blocks, augmented by key FA addition LB Karlos Dansby (via Arizona) and Oklahoma State rookie CB Justin Gilbert, taken before Manziel in the first round. Another rookie, 3rd-round LB Christian Kirksey from Iowa, is expected to contribute immediately, and add speed, as well as range to drop back in coverage, to the LB corps. Edge rushers OLBs Paul Kruger (last year’s FA addition from the Ravens) and 2013 first-round pick Barkevious Mingo can also cause havoc, while first-round pick Gilbert could team with former All-Pro Joe Haden in a pair of big, physical corners, and expected good fits for the aggressive Pettine scheme. The DL, led by NT Phil Taylor, is robust. If the Browns stay camped under .500 this fall, it will likely not be due to defensive shortcomings.

Perhaps Cleveland surprises everyone this season, and Johnny Football ends up turning the NFL on its ear. Or maybe not. What we do know is that once again, there is a lot of “new” with the Brownies...decision-makers, coaching system , and a starting QB from the beginning of last season. That’s a lot of “new” for one season, and worryingly follows a similar house-cleaning from a year ago, which does not reflect well upon owner Haslam. If stability equates to success in the NFL, and it often does, the Browns are once again likely doomed to the AFC North cellar. A better prognosis likely has to wait at least until 2015.


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