2009 AFC North Preview – BlackSportsOnline
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2009 AFC North Preview

The AFC North begins and ends with the Steelers. Everyone else is trying to catch up to the defending world champs. The Baltimore Ravens are the closest thing to a challenge that the Steelers may face, but they lost all three of the games that pitted them against each other. The Bengals are looking to rebound from injuries to the majority of their core players. The Browns are once again looking to rebuild. Here is how I see the division shaping up in order of victories.


Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
The 2008 Super Bowl champions look to go back-to-back and win their seventh ring. The 2009 Steelers return 20 of 22 starters that led them to a Super Bowl championship. They again drafted well, and they had no real devastating off-season losses. I see no reason why the Steelers won’t repeat as the AFC North champions, and play a big role in seeing who will represent the AFC in the Super bowl.
While the Steelers are very solid on offense, they do have some holes. Most notably the running back position. Injury concerns are well warranted on this unit as a whole. Starting running back Fast Willie missed time last year, and has a history of getting banged up during the season. The back-up, second year player Rashard Mendenhall., missed the majority of the season after taking a shot from Ray Lewis. If these two can stay healthy expect the Steelers to improve on their ground game which was ranked 23rd in the league last year. Big Ben Roethlisberger has a tendency to hold the ball too long and winds up getting sacked or throwing an interception. With that said the guy simply makes plays. Helping fuel the passing game will be wide receiver Santonio Holmes who had a break out 2008 season. The leader of the unit, wide receiver Hines Ward is coming off a strong season as well and will look to improve on his legacy.
In the Steelers Super Bowl season, they were led by their dominating defense and there is simply no reason to expect any less this season. This unit was ranked first when it came to against the pass, total yards allowed, and fewest points allowed. Nose tackle Casey Hampton may be one of the most valuable players in football. Behind him at linebacker, James Farrior is as solid as it gets, while Lawrence Timmons looks like a star ready to breakout with additional playing time after the release of Larry Foote. Not to mention the return of the reigning defensive player of the year, James Harrison. Pittsburgh also has the added luxury of having two athletic, hard-hitting safeties who are both evenly proficient of making impact tackles and creating turnovers.
Predicted Record: 12-4

Upgrade Special: Evander “Ziggy” Hood, DE – The rookie from Missouri is the choice here. At 6’3″, 300 pounds, Hood has the ideal size for a 3-4 end who needs to be skilled at stuffing the run and taking on linemen in passing situations. He won’t be expected to do that much in the system because the Steelers rarely rely on rookies to play a prominent role. Also nothing much has changed from the champs in terms on who they added in the off-season.

Biggest Strength: The defense- This unit has everything they need to become one of the most feared unit’s in the history of the NFL. The holes in this defense are so insignificant that it is hard for opposing offenses to find an area to attack.
Exploitable Weakness: The Offense – For as good as Ben is, he is at time that bad as well. He has a tendency to try and force the action too many times instead of letting the game come to him. The running game is very questionable, and the offensive line is not as strong as it has been in the past. After Santonio, the receiving corps is not on par with the rest on the teams in the NFL either.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Santonio Holmes, WR – Everyone knows who he is, but this, his fourth season, should be the year that Holmes becomes one of fantasy football’s elite receivers. A changing of the guard may have taken place in the Super Bowl when it was Holmes, not Ward who made the game-winning TD catch.


Browns Ravens Football

Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
The Baltimore Ravens enter this year just as they do every year, with a chance to contend They have a chance to win every game they play, due to there athletes on defense. However, the defense is getting older and the entirely a threat to put a ton points on the board. Everyone knows that the Ravens are basically a one shot team on offense. They simply lack the ability to throw the ball down field. Still, look for the Ravens to put a significant scare in a lot teams that they face.
On offense, the Ravens are led by second year QB Joe Flacco. He looks to remain solid for them under center and should continue to build on the success he showed a year ago. Willis McGahee had an injury filled 2008 campaign, and know faces a battle for the starting tailback position with second year pro Ray Rice. Fullback LeRon McClain also provides depth as he can be used in spot duty as a tailback as well. The running game remains a strength for this team, and it has to be. The passing game for the Ravens is marginal at best. In the off-season, the Ravens added oft-injured tight end L.J. Smith from the Philadelphia Eagles and should help space the field and provide a breather for starting tight end Todd Heap. Heap has seen his production drop off in recent years, and that has something to do with the instability at the quarterback position rather than his skill set. Derrick Mason returns after retiring earlier in the off-season. Mason remains a productive threat as the Ravens No.1 wideout after posting back to back 1,000-yard seasons. Baltimore is counting on a breakout year from their former first round draft pick Mark Clayton. To date he has not lived up to the first round pick the Ravens used on him. The Ravens offensive line looks to punish opposing defenses with their size and strength. The Ravens upgraded at the center position by picking up veteran Matt Birk from the Vikings. The Ravens did lose mainstay Jonathan Ogden in the off season, but used their first round selection in the draft on stalwart Michael Oher. The Ravens selected him for his blocking prowess and hopes he will be a mainstay on their line for years to come.
The Ravens defense again looks ready to have an immediate impact on the upcoming season. Led by stars Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, and Terrell Suggs, the Ravens defense simply attacks opposing offenses, they also win by simple intimidation. Even with the loss of linebacker Bart Scott and coordinator Rex Ryan, the Ravens will again come at teams from every angle and pressure them into mistakes. The defensive line is anchored by Trevor Pryce and emerging star Haloti Ngata.


Predicted Record:9-7

Upgrade Special: Ray Rice, RB – The former Scarlet Knight has looked the part of a star in the making early on in the preseason. Everyday he is increasing the pressure on the incumbent starter Willis McGahee.
Biggest Strength: The All Pro Defense – This unit will single handedly win about 3 games by themselves this season, and the Ravens will more than likely need even more. This unit has carried the team before and will look to do the same again this season. Keep your eye on safety Ed Reed who is the best at his position in the NFL.
Exploitable Weakness: Quarterback – It’s not the Flacco is bad or anything like that. Its just the fact that he alone can’t win games for the Ravens….yet. If opposing teams shut down the Ravens ground game, the Ravens don’t really have any answers for that problem. They have a team full of possession receivers and the best one is on the wrong side of 30.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Joe Flacco, QB – With defenses keying in on the running game, Flacco will have windows to throw down the field. Flacco’s big arm should be able to stretch the field and catch teams off guard.Bengals Camp Football
Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)
This is a team full of question marks. Will Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco rebound from their injury riddled 2008 season? Will the rookies be able to step up and play a significant role?
Though the Bengals offense will be rebound some in 2009 with the return of Palmer, they lost a key weapon in their arsenal, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, to free agency. To help replace his production, the Bengals brought in possession receiver Laveranues Coles to help keep the pressure off of wide receiver Chad Johnson. Chris Henry is having a solid camp and seems to regain the trust of his quarterback after his early troubles. The mid-season signing of running back Cedric Benson helped add another dimension to their terrible offense last year and looks to build on that success. Benson seems solid, but someone else will need to come forward and help.

Veteran linebacker Dhani Jones leads the defense. The unit as a whole looks to be much improved this season. They are stacked with youth and athletic ability. Look for linebacker Keith Rivers to build on what was a promising rookie year before he was lost to injury. The Bengals also may had the steal of the draft when they took highly ranked Rey Maualuga after he was passed over. Look for him to have an immediate impact. Tackles Tank Johnson and the athletic 300-pounder Domata Peko will hold down the defensive line.

Predicated Record: 7-9

Upgrade Special: Andre Smith, OL- Smith was a dominant run-blocker for Alabama and projects to a better-than-average pass protector in the NFL. The Bengals will be able to achieve the balance that they need if Smith can anchor his side of the line.
Biggest Strength: Carson Palmer QB– It seems like so long ago that Palmer was an elite player in the league. Injuries had a great deal to do with this as Palmer has missed plenty of time recently. When healthy, Palmer has the arm and ability to do be classified as an elite player in the NFL.
Exploitable Weakness: Past History- I mean, these are the Bengals. For every good thing that this team seems to do, it always seems to shoot itself or get arrested. There are also questions about the health of its core players. As of this writing, Palmer is already having some leg and ankle problems and the tight end position has been hit the hardest by injury through training camp.

Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Cedric Benson RB- Benson ended up the season with 747 yards on 214 carries. If Benson can continue his production with the ball, the Bengals offense should be able become balanced.


Cleveland Browns (4-12)

Wow, as a die-hard fan of this team, this analysis is tough to write. There is not a lot to look forward to in this season for the Cleveland Browns. They have a new coaching staff, and this move could finally give the franchise a sense of stability that has been missing since the days of Marty ball (yeah I know how long ago that was). So begins the era of the Cleveland Jets. New coach Eric Manginini brought over a number of his former players from the Jets in order to ease the transition from the old regime to his.
Offensively they stink, and that’s putting it nicely. Jamal Lewis is the star here. Even though he is 30 years old, he is the man that opposing defenses will have to key on. He is coming off of back-to- back 1,000-yard seasons even though teams were stacking the box to defend him. The quarterback situation is a mess. Fans in Cleveland are screaming for Brady Quinn to take over, I on the other hand, am on the fence on this one. I know what I will get from Derek Anderson and I can live with that. With Quinn there is this unknown factor and questions that I have about him, namely his arm strength. With the new coaching staff, they actually have the luxury of not being overly committed to either QB because they didn’t bring either of them in. Whoever Mangenius decides to start at quarterback will not have much to throw to. The Browns bring back Braylon “Hands of Stone” Edwards, and two-second round rookie draft picks. Look for return specialist Josh Cribbs to have a bigger role in the passing game and maybe some wild cat formations.
The defense will look to be more aggressive this year, which is a good sign. It all begins and ends with big Shaun Rodgers in the middle of the teams 3-4 alignment. As he goes, so does the rest of the defense. The linebacking core looks on paper to be better off, but honestly just by getting rid of Andra Davis made that possible. The secondary is still young, but they are battle tested. Look for Brandon McDonald to have a bounce back season this year after getting abused by almost every team last year.

Predicted Record: 4-12

Upgrade Special: Eric Barton, MLB- Barton takes over the starting linebacker spot from Andra Davis. Barton was a tackling machine with the Jets and he looks to add leadership to the unit.
Biggest Strength: Offensive line. The Browns are stacked here on the line. That should bode well for the running game and it should also give whomever the starting quarterback time to get the ball down field. The standout from this unti is left tackle Joe Thomas
Exploitable Weakness: The defense. There are to be some growing pains for new defensive coordinator Rex Ryan’s unit. The Browns are very susceptible to the run. The defensive line after Shaun is not very good, and someone will need to step up and contribute.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Josh Cribbs WR-Return specialist- Cribbs is a threat to score everytime he touches the ball on special teams. He is also expected to compete for the third receiver spot on offense this season as well.


What say you?