With Ben Roethlisberger returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers, they could be in play for another Super Bowl run.
X-Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4
When you think of the history of the National Football League, you can’t go that long without recognizing the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have been an NFL franchise since 1933, and since 1972, Pittsburgh has only had seven losing seasons which is remarkable. Some other outstanding traits that are displayed by the Steelers organization is that they preach patience and consistency with their head coaches as they’ve only employed three head coaches since 1969, which is a far cry from the majority of the other franchises around the NFL where there is constant turn over at the head coaching position. Mike Tomlin set to begin his 10th year as the Steelers head coach, and like his two predecessors in Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, he has led Pittsburgh to at least one Super Bowl Championship. The last two years have seen Tomlin get the Steelers to the playoffs, but he has a team in 2016 that is more than capable of adding a seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions to the display case in Western Pennsylvania.
As long as the Steelers can keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger healthy, they have a legitimate shot of winning it all. Roethlisberger has been the Steelers starting quarterback since 2004, and all he has done is win while displaying a toughness that the folks in Western Pennsylvania can relate to. At the age of 34, Roethlisberger isn’t showing any signs of slowing down while he still can throw one of the best deep balls in the National Football League. Last year with Roethlisberger at the helm, the Steelers had the third ranked offense in the NFL, and you can expect more of the same in 2016.
Very rapidly Antonio Brown has become one of the better wide receivers in football. In the last three years Brown has gained nearly 5,000 yards of receiving yards and he has become Roethlisberger’s most dependable target in the process. The Steelers will miss the contributions of wide receiver Martavis Bryant who will have to sit out the entire 2016 National Football League season after a failed drug test, and tight end Heat Miler who retired after spending his entire 11-year career in Pittsburgh. But the Steelers are hopeful that wide receivers Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton and Darius Heyward-Bay can step up to make contributions in the passing game to offset the losses of Bryant and Miller.
The Steelers are also hopeful to have a healthy pair of running backs in Le’Veon Bell and De’Angelo Williams. Last year injuries limited Bell to just six games and he’ll miss the first three games of 2016 after being suspended by the National Football League due to the fact that he missed a drug test. But the Steelers need the combo of Williams and Bell in the backfield as each are solid at picking up the blitz for Roethlisberger, while also having the knack to be receivers in the passing game.
The Steelers should once again have one of the better offensive lines in the business as long as center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro can remain healthy as this unit has a high level of physicality attached to them.
As the Steelers defense is set to begin its second year under defensive coordinator Keith Butler, you can expect the term “Blitzburgh” to once again be used to describe this unit. Last year the Steelers amassed 48 sacks which was third in the National Football League, and with the likes of inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and veteran outside linebacker James Harrison back on the scene, Pittsburgh is ready to show that they are still the bullies of the AFC North.
As a rookie in 2015, outside linebacker Bud Dupree totaled 4 sacks, but if he is able to become the pass rusher that the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him, their defense could become very stingy. Rookie inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich was the Steelers seventh-round pick this year and after being an All-American last year at Temple, his strong work ethic and determination will be a welcomed sight to Pittsburgh’s blue-collar work ethic.
On the Steelers defensive line, defensive end Cam Heyward is turning into a star and fellow defensive end Stephon Tuitt is no slouch either as ability to rush the passer and stop the run opens up Pittsburgh’s linebackers to make more plays.
The Steelers have a chance to make a statement in Week 2 when they host the Cincinnati Bengals as there is no love lost between these two AFC North rivals; especially after last season’s wild card game which was won by Pittsburgh. Overall four of the Steelers first five games in 2016 are against teams that finished last season with winning records. But the Steelers chances to win the AFC North will come down to their final three games of the season as they’ll face the Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, and Cleveland Browns in consecutive weeks.
Y-Cincinnati Bengals 11-5
The last five National Football League seasons have seen the Cincinnati Bengals reach the playoffs. But each time the Bengals have been unable to win a playoff game. Last year’s playoff loss for the Bengals stung more than the others as they had the Pittsburgh Steelers on the ropes until they came apart at the seams. A fumble by Bengals Jeremy Hill late in the contest gave the Steelers life. And when Pittsburgh got the ball back, Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones made sure that they did their part in helping the Steelers win. The Bengals began last season with a record of 8-0 as they finished the regular season with a record of 12-4 for their best mark since 1988 which marked their last trip to the Super Bowl. However as good as the Bengals were in 2015, what does head coach Marvin Lewis have up his sleeve to motivate this team to not only make the postseason for a sixth consecutive year, but to also win their first playoff game since January 1991?
In each of the last five years Andy Dalton has been the Bengals starting quarterback and he has a career record of 50-26-1. But Dalton’s career playoff record of 0-4 record, along with the fact that he typically comes up short when the Bengals need him the most have made him a lightning rod for controversy in the Queen City.
Last December, Dalton suffered a fractured thumb which put him on the shelf for the rest of the season as he is looking to get back on track here in 2016. But Dalton will miss the guidance of his former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson who is now the head coach of the Cleveland Browns as former quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese will be calling the plays in Cincinnati.
Behind a strong offensive line that features left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals have a solid running game with their tandem of running backs in Hill and Giovanni Bernard. And if Bernard and Hill can combined to get 400 carries this season, it should symbolize another trip to the postseason for the Bengals.
In the past I have talked about the need for Dalton to not play “hero ball” in order to help the Bengals win games. And although that wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the better wide receivers in the National Football League, Dalton shouldn’t try to force feed him the football, while another receiver such as tight end Tyler Eifert needs to step up and become a consistent option for Cincinnati in the passing game.
After the Bengals finished 2015 11th in total defense, there’s nothing that can stop them from being a top-five unit this season except themselves as they have a wealth of talent. The Bengals can rush the passer with defensive end Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, while the interior of Cincinnati’s defensive line is stout with defensive tackles Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, and Pat Sims. There’s plenty of talent in the Bengals linebacking unit with Burfict, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and outside linebacker Vincent Rey, while picking up a veteran middle linebacker in Karlos Dansby could help the Bengals finally get over the hump and win a playoff game. In the secondary, the Bengals can cover with the likes of veteran cornerbacks Adam Jones and Kirkpatrick, but it just a matter of this unit staying focused under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
The schedule makers were not kind to the Bengals as they’ll begin the upcoming season with consecutive road games against the New York Jets and Steelers, while they will have their home opener against the Denver Broncos who are the defending Super Bowl Champions. And if the Bengals get off to a slow start, they will be fighting an uphill battle in the AFC North against the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens to win the division.
Y-Baltimore Ravens 10-6
You have to go back to the 2005 National Football League season to find the last time that the Baltimore Ravens missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Injuries derailed the Ravens chances in 2015 as they went 5-11. And for Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh, they’ve been hard at work this off-season to get Baltimore back on track in the AFC North.
Last year marked the first time in the National Football League career of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco that he missed time due to an injury. In Week 11, Flacco suffered a torn ACL which put him on the shelf for the remainder of the season. As the Ravens starting quarterback, Flacco has a career record of 75-47 while also sporting a 10-5 mark in the postseason which includes leading Baltimore to a Super Bowl Title. Flacco has been rehabbing from his knee injury, and the Ravens are going to need him to be fully healthy when they take the field in September.
Aside from Flacco, the Ravens must get more continuity from their rushing attack that was ranked 26th in the National Football League last season. Baltimore’s leading rusher in 2015 was veteran running back Justin Forsett with just 641 which isn’t going to get it done in the NFL; even though that the league is now very pass happy.
Injuries also hurt the Ravens offensive line last year as they were unable to provide protection for Flacco or open up holes in the running game. The Ravens would use the sixth overall pick of the 2016 National Football League Draft on offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley who has the potential to be an anchor on the offensive line for the coming years. The Ravens also have veterans on the line in the form of center Jeremy Zuttah and guard Marshal Yanda that will need to find cohesion early in order to provide blocking the skills players in Baltimore’s offense.
Last year was supposed to be wide receiver Steve Smith Sr.’s final hurrah in the National Football League. But after Smith suffered an Achilles injury which abruptly ended his campaign, he is back for one more go at it in 2016. Smith has been one of the better pass catchers of this era as he has the potential this season to become just the sixth player in National Football League history to record 15,000 receiving yards.
The Ravens were eighth in total defense in 2015, but the unit’s issues began in Week 1 when outside linebacker Terrell Suggs suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon which robbed Baltimore of their defensive leader. Suggs is back for the upcoming season, and the Ravens have picked up former San Diego Chargers free safety Eric Weddle, but will there be enough play makers on this side of the football to get Baltimore back to the post season?
In recent years punter Sam Koch and place kicker Justin Tucker have been vital to the Ravens success. Last year Koch had a net average of 42.9 as his kicks can change field position, while Tucker is one of the better field goal kickers from within 50 yards. And special teams will be a huge factor for the Ravens; especially when the temperature begins to drop in the months of November and December.
If the Ravens want to be a playoff team in 2016, they must take care of business in the first half of the season as only one of their first seven opponents made the playoffs last year. The Ravens last two games of the season will be on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals as Baltimore will have its work cut to make the playoffs in January.
Cleveland Browns 5-11
It’s the same old song for the Cleveland Browns as they are beginning another National Football League season with a term attached to the them which is “starting over”. Since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they have had three different owners, eight general managers, nine head coaches, and they are working on their 25th different starting quarterback. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam didn’t help himself in his most recent front office hires as he hired a new team president in Paul DePodesta and general manager Sashi Brown. Neither man has a football background as DePodesta has worked in the front offices of Major League Baseball franchises, while Brown has a law background.
At least the Browns hired a football guy as their next head coach in former Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson. In one season with the Raiders, Jackson posted a record of 8-8 as he was charged with changing the culture there. And that is exactly what Jackson is attempting to do with the Browns as they’ve only had two winning seasons since 1999.
As the Browns are coming off of a 3-13 season, the only way for them to go is up. The Browns resisted selecting a quarterback early on during the 2016 National Football League Draft and instead of drafting a quarterback early on in the proceedings, they instead decided to try their hand at a reclamation project.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III was the second overall pick of the 2012 National Football League Draft by the Washington Redskins and he took the league by storm. In 2012, Griffin became the NFL’s Rookie of the Year as he helped the Redskins win the NFC East. But a knee injury towards the end of the 2012 season, along with missing the entire training camp for the following campaign put Griffin behind the eight ball. And when Jay Gruden became the Redskins head coach last year, he never warmed up to Griffin being his starting quarterback which made him expendable. The Redskins would part ways with Griffin this off-season and he is looking to re-kindle some of the magic from 2012 now with the Browns.
Jackson has been known to develop quarterbacks and the main thing that Griffin needs to work on is his pocket awareness, but he will be a welcome sight in Cleveland after the Browns parted with another quarterback from the State of Texas this off-season in Johnny Manziel.
Last year the Browns were 25th in total offense in the National Football League and they are in need of more consistency. The Browns still have nine-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle in Joe Thomas anchoring their offensive line, but he is becoming disgruntled with the team’s inability to win. Longtime Browns center Alex Mack left this off-season to join the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland is hopeful the center Cameron Erving who was a first-round choice of the team in 2015 is ready to fill the void.
With Jackson running the show in Cleveland, the team is in the process of a roster overhaul which means that there is a competition at nearly every position and somebody has to step up and become a play maker on offense.
The same can be said on defense where the Browns need to be more aggressive under first-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton. The Browns must find a way to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks with their front seven as their 29 sacks in 2015 were 28th in the National Football League.
Jackson is attempting to change the culture for the Browns and he will spend 2016 simply weeding out the guys that don’t fit his system. But hopefully Jackson gets the chance to establish himself with the Browns as they don’t have patience with their head coaches.
Y-Clinched Wild Card
As we’re in the stretch run in the National Football League’s regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers appeared to be lurking as a sleeping giants. The Steelers currently have a record of 9-6, and although they’ve played second fiddle to the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC North this year, Pittsburgh still has what it takes to be a very tough out if they’re able to qualify for the postseason. But the Steelers have really hurt themselves this year due to the fact that they were swept by the Baltimore Ravens. And even though that the Steelers could be a dangerous team in the postseason, they have to get in first.
After winning the AFC Championship in 2010, the Steelers were becoming an older team which is something that needed to be addressed. The Steelers would make the postseason once again in 2011, but they were eliminated in the AFC Wild Card Game at the hands of the Denver Broncos which paved the way for a roster overhaul.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin saw the need to not only get younger, but to also change the style of play in Pittsburgh. Tomlin would part with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in favor of former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Todd Haley. And whereas in the past the Steelers would rely mainly on their running attack, they are a team that can now air out the football.
With Haley calling the plays, the Steelers offense has morphed and they now have the fifth ranked passing offense in the National Football League this season. At the age of 33, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still the leader of the Steelers offense as he can air it out with the best of them. Roethlisberger is the Steelers all-time leader in passing yardage (42,641) and in 2014, he led the NFL in passing yardage with 4,952. Roethlisberger’s success in recent years has been in large part to his connection with wide receiver Antonio Brown. Brown is in his sixth season with the Steelers, but he has really come on since 2013 as he has accounted for more than 4,500 receiving since then. Brown led the NFL in receiving yards last year with 1,698 and he’s in the running to do it again this year as he currently has 1,647 receiving yards. And with just one game left in the regular season, there is still a possibility that Brown could set an NFL record for most receiving yards in a single-season which was set by Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson in 2012 with 1,964 receiving yards. Brown, along with wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton have given the Steelers arguably their best trio of wide receivers in the franchise’s history as their speed and pass-catching ability puts a ton of pressure on opposing secondaries to cover them.
Early in the season it appeared that the Steelers offense was going to be in trouble when running back Le’Veon Bell was lost for the year due to a knee injury. Last season Bell accounted for more than 2,000 all-purpose yards which included 83 receptions coming out of the backfield which would be hard to replace. But the Steelers indeed hit the jackpot with running back DeAngelo Williams.
Williams is in his tenth year in the National Football League, but his first with the Steelers. Williams spent his first nine years in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers where he became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. But even at the age of 32, Williams is not a worn down running back due to the fact that he’s only had one season in which he carried the football more than 250 times. Williams still has explosiveness as a running back as he is flirting with gaining 1,000 yards on the ground this season and his veteran presence is vital for the Steelers as he can be a player that is trusted on passing situations when it comes to picking up the blitz.
The Steelers offensive has struggled at times this season which included watching Roethlisberger injure his knee in a Week 3 victory over the St. Louis Rams. Roethlisberger would miss four games, but as the season has gone on, the offensive line in front of him which is without four-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey who is out for the season due to a broken fibula, has come together to give Big Ben the solid passing pocket that he needs to throw the deep pass down the field to Brown, Bryant, and Wheaton.
2015 was the first time in 12 years that the Steelers would begin a season without Dick LeBeau as their defensive coordinator. The Steelers wanted to move on from LeBeau and they replaced him with Keith Butler. Butler has been the Steelers linebackers coach since 2003, but he has finally gotten his shot at calling plays. The Steelers are ranked 23nd this year in total defense, as they’ve been an up an down unit and we’ll have to wait and see if they’ll be able to put it altogether in January.
Defensive end Cam Heyward is in his fifth season with the Steelers and he’s having his best statistical season to date as he leads the team in sacks with 7. The Steelers organization has been predicated by the play of their linebackers and after once being the weak link, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons has now become the leader of the unit as he leads the club in tackles this season with 110.
After losing to the Bengals at home in Week 8, the Steelers were 4-4 and they were searching for answers. But since then the Steelers are 5-2 and it hasn’t hurt them that Roethlisberger returned to the team as he is indeed a catalyst. But just as good as Roethlisberger is when he is locked in, he can be equally as bad as his two interceptions against the Ravens yesterday really hurt the Steelers. Prior to yesterday’s game, the Steelers offense had been on a roll as they had scored 112 points in their three previous games. And when the Steelers offense is rolling on all cylinders, they will be a tough match-up for any team if they are able to reach the postseason.
The Steelers need to finish off the Cleveland Browns this Sunday in order to keep themselves in the running for the playoffs as they will also need a loss by the New York Jets and possibly the Broncos to make it. And for the Steelers, they can still be very dangerous as a wild card team due to the fact that they won it all as a wild card in 2005 with Roethlisberger at quarterback; but they will need a sense of urgency against the Browns.
Last January saw the Steelers eliminated at home in the AFC Wild Card Game by the Ravens and they’re are looking to avoid the same fate. Tomlin’s team came into the playoffs last year hot, but they were unable to replace the presence of Bell who was lost late in the season to a leg injury. This time around the Steelers have Williams who has picked up the slack while their overall offense will keep them in any game. The Steelers offense has been able to mask some deficiencies of the team’s defense and even with that, this a team that could still be bound for Santa Clara, California for Super Bowl 50 in February if they are able to get into to the postseason.
Tomlin and the Steelers aren’t strangers to the postseason, and they are also familiar with raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy which acknowledges the Super Bowl Champion as no other organization has done it more times (six) in the National Football League. But if the Steelers want to do it once more, they have plenty of work ahead of them.
X-Baltimore Ravens 11-5
After failing to make the National Football League Playoffs in 2013, the Baltimore Ravens were able to bounce back and make the postseason in 2014. And in the playoffs, the Ravens were oh so close to defeating the eventual Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. Now as the Ravens are preparing to embark on the 2015 NFL season, they are ready to put the tough loss to the Patriots last January behind them.
Joe Flacco is set to begin his eighth season as the Ravens starting quarterback. Flacco is the most prolific quarterback in Ravens franchise history and he has a career record of 72-40. But 2015 will mark Flacco’s fourth different offensive coordinator since 2012. Marc Trestman spent the past two years as the head coach of the Chicago Bears and he is now the Ravens offensive coordinator as it will be important for Trestman and Flacco to develop some early chemistry for the sake of the Ravens offense.
Running back Justin Forsett has been a journeyman for his entire NFL career, but he was able to find a home with the Ravens last season as he rushed for 1,266 yards along with 8 rushing touchdowns. And in 2015, Forsett is out to show that he isn’t merely a flash in the pan as far as the ability for him to be a featured running back.
Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., is set to begin his 15th National Football League season and the same hunger that fueled him in 2001 when he first broke into the league with the Carolina Panthers is still in place for the future Pro Football Hall of Famer. Smith is now in his second season with the Ravens and he is out to prove that he can still get it done at a very high rate. The Ravens are high on their first round pick in wide receiver Breshad Perriman who is a big, physical wide player that is expected to do big things this fall in Baltimore. Perriman enters the NFL as the son of a former player as his father Brett was in the league for ten years; most notably with the Detroit Lions. Along with Perriman, the Ravens are hopeful that their second round pick Maxx Williams can come in and be an immediate contributor. The Ravens have a long history of quality tight end play and it doesn’t hurt themthat the team’s general manager Ozzie Newsome is a Hall of Fame tight end himself as Williams can get advice from him while looking to keep that tradition going. And like Perriman, Williams is also the son of a former NFL player as his father Brian played for the New York Giants.
The Ravens offensive line does not receive a ton of credit, but the law firm of offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Jah Reid along with guards Marshal Yanda and John Urschel with center Jeremy Zuttah have been together for a few seasons as it always important for an offensive line to have cohesion as the fate of the offense begins with them.
Defense has always been the hallmark of the Ravens organization and you can once again expect some strong play on that side of the football this season in Baltimore. The Ravens were eighth in the National Football League last season in total defense, but they will have to find a way to replace five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata who was traded this off-season to the Detroit Lions. Under defensive coordinator Dean Pees, the Ravens continue to have one of the strongest linebacking units in pro football with the likes of outside linebackers Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Courtney Upshaw, along with inside backers Arthur Brown and Daryl Smith.
The Ravens secondary has the potential to be one of the best secondaries in the National Football League this season. Strong safety Will Hill has potential, but the Ravens will miss the presence of strong safety Matt Elam who suffered a biceps injury at the beginning of training camp. But even without Elam’s presence in the Ravens secondary, cornerbacks Lardarius Webb and Kyle Arrington possess underrated coverage skills.
For Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, he has a team that can contend for the Super Bowl Title. And like every other team in the National Football League, the Ravens must avoid the injury bug as they’re already a man down with Elam. Five of the Ravens first seven games this season will be on the road as they’ll tango with the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, and Arizona Cardinals, but come January they should be their typical battle tested selves.
Y-Cincinnati Bengals 10-6
The Cincinnati Bengals have proven that they can win in the regular season, but for this organization to gain some respect, they are going to have to find a way to win in January when all eyes are on them. The Bengals have made the postseason in five of the last six years and they have been eliminated in the first round each time with each defeat being more painful than the previous one.
The brunt of the last four playoff losses has been thrust onto Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Dalton has the Bengals starting quarterback for the last four seasons and he has a regular season record of 40-23-1. But when Dalton signed a six-year, $115 million contract extension last summer, he opened himself up to a ton of criticism being that he wasn’t able to get it done in January when all eyes were on him. At 6’2″, 215 lbs., Dalton has good size for a National Football League quarterback along with speed and a strong throwing arm. Dalton has 99 career touchdown passes to 66 interceptions and he has a career completion percentage of 61.6, but he unfortunately he has built a reputation as far as not making the best football decisions when the chips are down which is tough to digest being that he has a ton of talent around him on offense.
Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green had made the Pro Bowl in each of his four NFL seasons and he is a matchup nightmare for cornerbacks due to his freakish athleticism while Cincinnati is stacked at the running back position with Jeremy Hill, Rex Burkhead, and Giovani Bernard. The Bengals used their second round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft this past spring on offensive tackle Jake Fisher and in the process they put veteran offensive tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith on notice about their demand for contract extensions.
After longtime defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left last year to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, the Bengals took a steps backwards last season as they finished 22nd in the National Football League in total defense. Paul Guenther is entering his second season as the Bengals defensive coordinator and Cincinnati has to put more emphasis on getting to the quarterback this season as they only has 20 quarterback sacks in 2014. But led by defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals have the personnel to get it done.
The Bengals have been able to hold their own in the AFC North against both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens in recent years. But for Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, it comes down to whether or not that his team can finally win a playoff game. Three of the Bengals first four games this season are against teams that didn’t make the playoffs in 2014 and a fast start could be just what the doctor ordered for them.
Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7
Last year the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to win their first AFC North Title since 2010, but their trip to the postseason was short lived due to a injury that was sustained by running back Le’Veon Bell in the final game of the regular season. And as the Steelers are set to embark on another National Football League season, they are a team that will be in transition.
In 2015, the Steelers defense won’t resemble the unit that the folks in Western Pennsylvania have been accustomed to. Longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has left the Steelers and he is now the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans. Cornerback Ike Taylor along with strong safety Troy Polamalu have decided to retire and their leadership will be difficult for the Steelers to replace. And now the Steelers will have a new face leading their defense.
Keith Butler has spent the last 12 years as a linebackers coach for the Cleveland Browns, but know it will be his turn to run the Steelers famed 3-4 defense. The Steelers used their first round pick on outside linebacker Bud Dupree as they are searching to beef up their pass rush. The Steelers were 26th in the National Football League in sacks last season with 33 which is something that is very uncommon for them given their long and storied defensive history. The Steelers are hopeful that Dupree will have a short learning curve and they also need outside linebacker Jarvis Jones to step up and be the impact player that they expected him to be when they made him a first-round pick in 2012. The Steelers will be inexperienced at the cornerback position, but they’ll rely on strong safety William Gay and free safety Mike Mitchell to provide some veteran leadership in the secondary.
But when all else fails, the Steelers still have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In 11 seasons as the Steelers starting quarterback, Roethlisberger has a career record of 106-52 and he only needs a pair of victories to surpass Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw for the most wins by a starting quarterback in franchise history. Bell is still important to the Steelers offense, but they will be without his services for the first three games of the season as he has been suspended by the NFL stemming from an arrest last year which will hurt the offense as he is a strong runner and receiver out of the backfield. “Big Ben” still has wide receiver Antonio Brown who is one of the most explosive players in the NFL and Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant could be ready to be a breakout performer in 2015.
The Steelers have a veteran offensive line that is led by center Maurkice Pouncey. And if this unit is able to remain healthy, they could be the best offensive line in the National Football League.
The suspension of Bell along with the departure of LeBeau, Polamalu, and Taylor could be too much for the Steelers to overcome as they look to win the AFC North for consecutive seasons.
Cleveland Browns 3-13
Last year saw the Cleveland Browns show signs of life, but at the end of the day they still recorded their seventh consecutive losing season. The one thing going for the Browns as they are set to embark on the 2015 National Football League season is that they have decided to retain their general manager and head coach which hasn’t been the case there. Ray Farmer is entering his second season as Browns general manager and Mike Pettine as well as the head coach in Cleveland which is shocking with the recent revolving door there.
And as far as revolving doors go with the Browns, they have used 22 different starting quarterbacks since they re-entered the National Football League in 1999. The Browns used a first round pick on quarterback Johnny Manziel in 2014 and even though that the organization is hopeful that “Johnny Football” can be the franchise quarterback in Cleveland, he still has a ton of growing up to do. Manziel entered a rehabilitation facility this off-season in the effort to kick his addiction to alcohol and he must also gain the trust of his teammates as some still view him as immature. The Browns allowed quarterback Brian Hoyer to leave as a free agent, but if Manziel isn’t ready to be the full-time starter, Cleveland will look to Josh McCown to be their quarterback. The McCown name has to be familiar to the folks in Cleveland as Josh’s brother Luke was a quarterback with the Browns in 2004.
With a young quarterback in Manziel who will be trying to get his footing, the Browns will need to find a way to run the football as they were 23rd in the NFL last season in rushing which will be tough being that their leader rusher was running back Terrance West with just 673 yards in 2014.
With center Alex Mack and offensive tackle Joe Thomas, the Browns still possess on the best offensive lines in the National Football League, but their stellar play is unable to mask the problems that Cleveland continuously has had at the offensive skill positions.
Defensively the Browns will be on the field a ton this season being that their offense lacks explosiveness and they’ll only get worn down as the season goes along.
The Browns have new uniforms this season, but at the end of the day, it’s the same old team which means another losing campaign in Cleveland.
Y-Clinched Wild Card
X-Pittsburgh Steelers 10-6
In their 81 years of existence as a National Football League franchise the Pittsburgh Steelers bread and butter has been their toughness and they appear to be on the verge of getting back to that in 2014. For the first since 2000, the Steelers missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons which is something that doesn’t sit well in Western Pennsylvania.
Last year the Steelers were tied for 27th in the NFL in rushing. But this season you can expect the Steelers to get back to their blue-collar reputation which means that they will get off of the bus running the football. This season the Steelers might have the two most physical running backs in pro football in Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. Both Bell and Blount will remind Steeler fans of Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis as far as their size and running styles. For Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin he his hopeful that his offensive line along with Blount and Bell will wear down opposing defenses through the first three quarters while being able to take over in the closing stanza.
This side of Terry Bradshaw, Ben Roethlisberger is the most decorated quarterback in Steelers franchise history. Roethlisberger is entering his 11th season with the Steelers and he should benefit from Pittsburgh’s run-heavy approach this season. Roethlisberger has a career completion percentage of 63.3 percent and he will be doing a ton of play action passing this season as long as the Steelers are able to run the football effectively.
Defensively the Steelers are younger at the linebacker position, but they are expecting big things out of second year outside linebacker Jarvis Jones as he could be the next dominant edge rusher in the Steel City. Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu is set to begin his 12th season in Pittsburgh and he was named as a captain for the first time. At the age of 33, the six-time Pro Bowler Polamalu still has a ton of range and he’ll be a leader for the black and gold.
Tomlin and his crew will get things started at home this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns and a fast start to the season could be just what the doctor ordered as far as Pittsburgh returning to the postseason in 2014.
Y-Cincinnati Bengals 10-6
The Cincinnati Bengals have made the National Football League Playoffs in four of the last five seasons, but they have still be unable to win a postseason game since 1990. The Bengals probably have the most talented team in the AFC North, but talent alone will not get the job done in the National Football League. Cincinnati has been able to put it together in the regular season, but there are oh so many times that they will be able to get past the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North.
In three seasons as the starting quarterback in Cincinnati, Andy Dalton has never missed a start, but quarterbacks are unfortunately going to be judged by their success or lack thereof in the month of January. The Bengals signed Dalton to a six-year, $115 million extension this off-season which raised some eyebrows around the NFL. Dalton has the talent and the ability; now it is just a matter of him being able to take his game to the next level.
Last year the Bengals had the 18th best rushing game in the NFL. As a rookie in 2013, running Giovani Bernard gained nearly 700 yards. But after running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was released last week by the Bengals it will be Bernard who will be the feature back in 2014.
Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the best in the game at catching passes as he has the ability to lead the league in receptions and receiving yards this season. But Dalton cannot simply just focus on Green in the passing game as the Bengals have two good tight ends in Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham.
Under head coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals always have one of the better defensive units in the National Football League and you can expect more of the same in 2014. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Robert Geathers each have the potential to reach double figures in sacks while defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko will plug up the middle. Linebackers Vincent Rey and Vontaze Burfict have a ton of instincts and they can also cover ground which is vital in Lewis’ scheme. Cincinnati has a good blend of veteran experience and youth in the secondary, but you can expect cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick to have a big impact this season.
The Bengals will get things going this Sunday on the road against the Ravens and a victory on the road will be huge for another playoff push.
Baltimore Ravens 9-7
After winning the Super Bowl in 2012, the Baltimore Ravens took a step backwards last season as they had their first non-winning season since 2007. One of the reasons why the Ravens struggled in 2013 was due to the fact that they were 30th in the NFL in rushing. The Ravens did not have the best offensive line last season which has carried over to 2014. It doesn’t help Baltimore’s situation either that starting running back Ray Rice will miss the first two games of the regular season due to a suspension by the league for domestic violence which means that the onus will fall on running back Bernard Pierce.
For Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco he must improve this year as a passer. Flacco threw just 19 touchdowns last year to 22 interceptions and he has not had a completion percentage for a season over 60 percent since 2010. This season Flacco will have veteran wide receiver Steve Smith to throw to who has been extremely dependable throughout his NFL career.
The Ravens will run the 3-4 defense and they’ll have one of the bigger defensive lines in football that features nose tackle Haloti Ngata, along with defensive ends Chris Canty and rookie Timmy Jernigan who will free up the linebackers behind them to make plays.
In the first three games of the season the Ravens will play each of their foes in the AFC North which will give us an idea of how things will go this year in Baltimore.
Cleveland Browns 4-12
The last six National Football League seasons have resulted in double-digit losing seasons for the Cleveland Browns and once again they are starting another new chapter in 2014. Mike Pettine is entering his first season as Browns head coach. Pettine will become the Browns eighth different head coach since 1999 which is a good indication as to why they’ve only had two winning campaigns over that stretch. Pettine must find a way to make the Browns more competitive as they have been the whipping boys in the AFC North. Of the Browns twelve losses last season, seven of them were by double figures.
The Browns used a first round pick at the NFL Draft this past spring on quarterback Johnny Manziel. Manziel is a captivating individual, but he has not done enough on or off of the field to earn the trust of his coaches and teammates to be a starter which means that it will be Brian Hoyer’s job to lose. Regardless of who will the Browns starting quarterback this season they will not have the luxury to throw the football to wide receiver Josh Gordon who will be suspended for the entire 2014 NFL season after he failed a failed drug test. Prior to the NFL Draft, the Browns knew that their was a possibility that Gordon would not be available for this season, but they failed to address it by adding another receiver which will hurt the passing game severely.
When things go wrong for the Browns this season, the fans in Cleveland shouldn’t get too upset because they will be witnessing the same old Cleveland Browns.
Y-Clinched Wild Card