X-Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5
In 2016, the Pittsburgh Steelers reached the AFC Championship Game for the 16th time. The Steelers 16 appearances since 1970 in the conference championship game are tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the most in the National Football League during that stretch as they are a part of the elite organizations in the league. But making the AFC Championship Game is not good enough for the Steelers as their six Super Bowl Titles are the most of any NFL franchise. And after the Steelers came up short against the New England Patriots this past January, will they have enough in their arsenal to get to Minneapolis for Super Bowl 52 this February?
2017 is setting up to be a make or break season for the Steelers since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger flirted with retiring during the off-season. Roethlisberger has 13 years under his belt along with dealing with his fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. Roethlisberger has only been able make all 16 starts in the regular season two times, and along the way he has dealt with a litany of injuries which has included concussions, a broken nose, as well as multiple injuries to his hands and knees. And at the age of 35, while also seeing the wear and tear of those who have played the game before him, Roethlisberger took some time to examine things this off-season as it would not surprise me to see him hang it up after this season which puts the onus on him to really leave it all out there this year.
Since Todd Haley has been the Steelers offensive coordinator in 2012, Pittsburgh has been one of the most explosive teams in the National Football League which included Roethlisberger leading the league passing in 2014 with 4,952 yards. Many of those pass plays have seen Roethlisberger hook up with wide receiver Antonio Brown who has rapidly become one of the better pass catchers in the NFL.
When Roethlisberger led the National Football League in passing in 2014, Brown did the same in regards to receiving yards. The last three years have seen Brown rack up nearly 5,000 receiving yards as he is a fantasy football owner’s dream, while also making life very difficult for defensive backs around the league.
Aside from Brown, the Steelers have a wide receiver corp that could be dangerous if everyone is one the same page. In 2015, wide receiver Martavis Bryant was beginning to show flashes of being a consistent play makers for the Steelers as he averaged 15.3 yards per reception. However a failed drug test by Bryant saw him suspended by the National Football League for the entire 2016 season. Bryant has yet to be fully reinstated by the NFL, but he has been allowed to practice. And if the league decides to fully reinstate Bryant, he will be ready to have a big impact for Pittsburgh as his 6’4″ will be huge in the red zone, as well as his deceptive speed for his size. Rookie wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster was a second-round pick this year for the Steelers, and after slipping to the 62nd overall selection, he should come into the season with a chip on his shoulder, while also potentially becoming a good slot receiver.
But for all the star power that the Steelers have on offense, the engine is running back Le’Veon Bell. In 12 games with the Steelers last season, Bell gained 1,268 yards, and when he left the AFC Championship Game with an injury, the tenor of Pittsburgh’s offense drastically changed. Bell is one of the most dynamic play makers at the running back position in the National Football League as he is the total package being that he is a runner, receiver, and most importantly a blocking back. Bell missed the entire training camp as the result of a contract dispute, but he will be ready to go in Week One for the Steelers.
Another key for the Steelers will the ability for them to maintain a healthy offensive line. Pittsburgh has a veteran unit up front which includes center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro, and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva who is rapidly developing into a solid player to protect the blindside of Roethlisberger.
Defensively the Steelers were 12th in the National Football League last year in total defense, but for defensive coordinator Keith Butler, his unit is lacking those game changing play makers. Over the years the Steelers defense has been home to Hall of Famers such as defensive tackle Joe Greene along with defensive back Rod Woodson who could put a team on their back, while there have been edge rushers like Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene who could wreak havoc. However since the Steelers don’t have those kind of players which is evident by the fact that no Pittsburgh defender had more than five sacks in 2016, the Steelers still have some work ahead of them in order to become a complete team.
Pittsburgh has a very easy schedule to begin the season as six of their first seven opponents were non-playoff teams last year. However in recent years the Steelers have had issues in regards to playing down to their opponents which has cost them. But I do expect the Steelers to play with a sense of urgency this year as this could be it for Roethlisberger. However until Pittsburgh is able to develop a pass rush, they will not have enough to get past the Patriots in the AFC.
Y-Cincinnati Bengals 10-6
The 2016 National Football League season ended with the Cincinnati Bengals extending their streak of being unable to win a playoff game since January 1991, however for the first time since 2010, there wasn’t a playoff berth in the Queen City. Injuries and inconsistency did the Bengals in last year as they were only able to muster a record of 6-9-1. But as five of Cincinnati’s nine losses were by five points or less, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis could have something to build off of heading into a new season.
In spite of the losing season by the Bengals, quarterback Andy Dalton is coming off of one of his better seasons. Dalton passed for 4,206 years while completing nearly 65% of his passes and only throwing 8 interceptions. Dalton has been a lightning for criticism in Cincinnati due to the fact that he is 0-4 in the playoffs, but he is rapidly becoming one of the better quarterbacks in the franchise’s history. However for the man who has been dubbed as “The Red Rifle” who is a three-time Pro Bowler, maybe this will the year in which that Dalton will be able to get the monkey off of his back and win a playoff game.
Last year Dalton didn’t have the services of a healthy A.J. Green at wide receiver as he is indeed a difference maker. At 6’4″, Green can out leap most defensive backs in the National Football League, while he possesses the speed of someone who is smaller than him. Green missed six games last year due to a torn hamstring and you can only hope that he will have the same explosiveness after sustaining the injury.
But whereas there is the potential of Green having lost a step, the Bengals used a first-round pick on wide receiver John Ross who’s middle name should be fast. Ross is entering the National Football League fresh off of setting a record at the Scouting Combine by running a 4.22 in the 40-yard dash. Ken Zampese is in his second year as the Bengals offensive coordinator and I see him attempting to find creative ways to get Ross the football which includes him being used on reverses and wide receiver screens.
The Bengals offense has the potential to be explosive as along with a good passing game, Cincinnati should be able to effectively run the football with a trio of running backs in Giovanni Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and rookie Joe Mixon. Last year Bernard suffered a torn ACL which limited him only 91 carries. And the fact that Bernard was not available took away from the effectiveness of Hill who is better as a tandem back. This time around Mixon could fill a void for the Bengals as Bernard is attempting to work his way back from a knee injury. Collegiately for the Oklahoma Sooners, Mixon was solid coming out of the backfield as a receiver, while he was also a solid change of pace back due to his breakaway speed.
Another player who is looking to bounce back for the Bengals is tight end Tyler Eifert. A back injury limited Eifert to only eight games last year, while he has yet to see the field for all 16 regular season games during his four-year career in the National Football League. At 6’6″, Eifert is mismatch for defenses, and the Bengals must find a way to have him, Mixon, and Green on the field together as much as possible.
Defensively the Bengals tend to be solid under Lewis, but last year was not a vintage year for them. Cincinnati was 17th in the National Football League in total defense, while they only managed to record 33 sacks. The Bengals must get back to gang tackling and putting pressure on the quarterback as a group. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson each are coming off of down years and if they are unable to find a way to put more pressure on quarterbacks, Cincinnati will have issues on defense.
Discipline has been an issue with the Bengals for the longest time, but if Lewis can find a way to keep his teams focused, a trip to the postseason for the sixth time in the last seven years is a very strong possibility.
Baltimore Ravens 7-9
The Baltimore Ravens will enter the new National Football League season in very unfamiliar place as this marks the first time since 2005 that they are coming off of consecutive years in which they failed to make the playoffs. The Ravens were an up and down team last year as they were either hold or cold. And in an unfamiliar mode for the Ravens, they came apart coming down the stretch as after heading into Week 16 with a record of 8-6 and a legitimate chance to win the AFC North, Baltimore collapsed in their final two games. And to make matters worse, those defeats came at the hands of their divisional rivals in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. John Harbaugh is set to begin his tenth season as the head coach of the Ravens, and as he is a master motivator, what will he be able to pull out of his hat in order to get Baltimore back to the postseason this year?
The face of the Ravens franchise right now is quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco has been the Ravens starting quarterback since he came into the National Football League in 2008. And although that there are some people who still want to question Flacco’s ability to lead and get it done, he has a record of 83-55 as a starting quarterback, while he also has a Super Bowl Championship to his credit. However Flacco’s detractors may get the opportunity to see what life without him is like as a back injury has put him on the shelf during training camp while also putting his availability to start the regular season in doubt. And with the Ravens not having a quality backup quarterback behind Flacco, the Ravens could be in a bind.
The past few years have seen the Ravens struggle to run the football as they were 28th in the National Football League last season in rushing with the team’s leading ball carrier being Terrance West with just 774 yards. After wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was released by the Kansas City Chiefs following an injury filled 2016 season, he found a new home with the Ravens. When healthy, Maclin can be a solid second receiver in the offense, but any potential success for him hinges on Flacco being healthy. Aside from Maclin, the Ravens have another veteran wide receiver in Mike Wallace who at the age of 31 is still faster that most of the players at his position which gives Baltimore a threat in the vertical passing game.
The defensive side of the football is where the Ravens built their reputation which also led to the franchise’s two Super Bowl Titles. But in recent years the Ravens have not been as solid on that side of the football. The Ravens were 17th in the National Football League in total defense, while they were only able to tally 31 sacks. And for Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, he has aging players on his unit such as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, while some of the team’s early draft picks have yet to materialize.
Three of Baltimore’s first four games are within the AFC North as they must find a way to stay afloat if Flacco will miss some regular season games. But even with a healthy Flacco, the Ravens are going to have their work cut out in order to be a playoff team this season.
Cleveland Browns 2-14
To give you an idea as to how inept that the Cleveland Browns are, they have won a combined 15 games over the last four years which included winning one game last season. Since the Browns re-entered the National Football League in 1999, they have only had two winning seasons with just one playoff appearance. Hue Jackson is entering his second season as the head coach of the Browns, and although that he was only able to win one game in his first year in Cleveland, there is some optimism for his team. Of the Browns 15 losses, they held a lead going into the fourth quarter in five games, while they also lost five games by six points or less. The Browns started more rookies or second-year players than any other team in the NFL last year which could be a plus heading into a new season. But will the young Browns be able to use that experience and turn it into a plus in 2017?
For the Browns to improve and become competitive in the AFC North, they are going to need some consistency at the quarterback position. Last year the Browns used five different quarterbacks with none of them passing for more than 1,380 yards. The Browns once again have a “battle” at quarterback position with former Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweilier, Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan, and rookie DeShone Kizer all having a chance to be under center. None of these players have shown that they can be that guy in the National Football League, and if Jackson is unable to attach his wagon to one signal caller, it is going to be another long season in Cleveland.
The Browns are lacking play makers on the offensive side of the football with the lone bright spot being left tackle Joe Thomas. Thomas is set to begin his 11th season in the National Football League, and in spite of the woes of the Browns, he has remained committed to the team. Thomas has made the Pro Bowl in each of his seasons in the NFL, and in spite of the losing, he will soon get the call for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But aside from Thomas, the Browns offensive line must improve as they allowed 66 sacks last season which is a recipe for disaster regardless of who the starting quarterback is.
With the Browns only being able to win one game last year, they were able to obtain the first overall pick in this past spring’s National Football League Draft. There was much debate as to what direction that Browns wanted to go with the selection with the idea of trading the pick being the possibility. However the Browns would decide on selecting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett.
In three seasons at Texas A&M, Garrett was a two-time All-American, while he was also able to amass 31 career sacks. As a team last year, the Browns were only able to tally 26 sacks, and although that Garrett was the first overall pick, he is going to have to prove himself versus the top left tackles in the National Football League.
In all the Browns had three first-round picks in this year’s National Football League with the 25th overall selection being used on Michigan safety Jabril Peppers. Peppers was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season as he is built like a safety, but he has the mindset of a linebacker. And for Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, he will definitely find creative ways to use Peppers this season.
Jackson still has a tall task in front of him in regards to turning around the Browns. The Browns are not respected by their counterparts in the AFC North as they are still everyone’s “homecoming game”. In the last three years the Browns have only won four games in the AFC North as the culture of losing reigns supreme in Cleveland. And until Jackson or anyone else is able to change that, the Browns will continue to get beat up on.