(Before I begin, a few things to note. You'll read some information in these previews that was blatantly stolen from the Pro Football Prospectus book, an extremely enjoyable publication released by the brains behind Football Outsiders. I want to give my props to Aaron Schatz and all his experts for their hard work. While I don't yet comprehend everything in the book, there are some great points both about teams and individual players. It's all helped me increase my understanding of football, and the Prospectus will be an annual purchase for me as long as it's in publication.)
We begin our look at the 2007 NFL season with the AFC North. Last year, the division yielded a bit of a surprise, as their two playoff teams from 2005 - Pittsburgh and Cincinnati - both floundered to 8-8 seasons and missed the postseason. One team has a new coach, and another has a new franchise quarterback. With NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's new crackdown on bad behavior, a third team in the division can only hope to stay out of further trouble. The other just hopes to keep rolling along with the same winning formula.
1. Baltimore Ravens
Last year: 13-3 (5-1 vs. AFC North)
Playoffs: Lost to Indianapolis in AFC Divisional Playoff
The Ravens have shown the ability to win without any great contributions from their offense. Last year, they were 9th among 12 NFL playoff teams in points scored. Their offensive output was less than that of the 8-8 Bengals and Rams. However, for the umpteenth time, the Ravens led the NFL in scoring defense, allowing a scant 201 points in 16 games. While the defense basically kept Indianapolis out of the end zone in their playoff loss, the offense managed just six points and never put much of a threat together to score more than that.
1. Jamal Lewis averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last year. Can Willis McGahee be durable while also giving the Ravens a better home-run threat? According to the Pro Football Prospectus, Lewis was much better when getting carries in succession than McGahee has shown himself to be. It's an interesting topic. Is McGahee a better fit for this offense than Lewis was? On the surface, it appears so. But a deeper examination of things brings up some doubts.
2. How much will Baltimore miss Adalius Thomas? The star DE signed with New England, but out of 11 key players in the front seven, Thomas is the only departure. Guys like Bart Scott, that Ray Lewis guy, Terrell Suggs, Trevor Pryce, and Kelly Gregg, among others, are more than capable of making Ravens fans forget about Thomas.
3. Will McNair hold up? He's not a spring chicken anymore. Frankly, I didn't think he was that impressive a year ago, and if the running game falls off at all, he'll have to do something most 34-year-olds don't do: get better.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Last year: 8-8 (3-3 vs. AFC North)
Not much went right last year. The starting QB bashed his head on the cement while riding his motorcycle, then had an appendectomy during the preseason. The team started 2-6, got hot too late, and missed the playoffs after winning the Super Bowl. Their campaign showed how little margin for error NFL teams have these days. To win a title, practically everything has to go right.
1. Is Ben Roethlisberger completely recovered and ready? He had more interceptions than touchdowns, and he didn't really look comfortable for much of the season. With Bruce Arians now calling the shots on offense, it looks obvious that the Steelers will be trying to open things up. Roethlisberger throws a pretty deep ball, and he should welcome the changes being made. His key targets all return.
2. Can the offensive line adequately protect him? The Steelers allowed an NFL-high 46 sacks last year. Now, they move on without center Jeff Hartings, who retired. Veteran guard Alan Faneca created a stir this offseason when his contract whining was met with no reaction from management. He's since announced that he won't play in Pittsburgh past this season. The starters look solid up front, but they need to play better football. With Arians looking to throw more this year, they can't afford to be as bad in pass-protection as they were a year ago. Having Roethlisberger a year removed from his injury troubles may help. While Big Ben will never remind anyone of Steve Young, he's shown the ability to be elusive and avoid hits, two things he didn't do much of last year.
3. What impact will Mike Tomlin's hire have on the defense? For now, it appears the answer is "None". The Steelers appear set on continuing their 3-4 defensive alignment with coordinator Dick LeBeau. Tomlin's background is in the 4-3 and the Tampa Two, so it's possible that Pittsburgh will employ some of that. However, their personnel and depth on the defensive line appear geared towards the 3-4. The smart money would have to be on that continuing to be their primary focus for now.
3. Cincinnati Bengals
Last year: 8-8 (4-2 vs. AFC North)
An uneven season followed the Bengals' AFC North title of 2005. Cincinnati started 3-0, then went 1-5, 4-0, and 0-3 the rest of the way. There. I looked at their 2006 results, and have told you all you need to know about last year's Bengals. While the offense looks strong again, there are enough questions on defense to make the Bengals a safe bet for another 8-8ish season.
1. Can Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh do it alone? They might have to. Chris Henry is out the first eight games with one of those personal conduct suspensions. Without Henry, the Bengals are incredibly thin at wideout. Well, they're incredibly thin behind one of the best one-two combinations at that position in the NFL. Johnson and Houshmandzadeh combined for 177 catches, over 2,400 yards, and 16 touchdowns last year. Methinks Carson Palmer will find a way to survive without Henry. Look out for Palmer. Remember, this is his second year since his major knee surgery. While recovery times are much better, the further away he gets from that injury, the better he'll be.
2. How about some defense, yo? The run defense got better in the second half of the season, but the secondary never really stepped up. Tory James and Deltha O'Neal, both good in 2005, were less than that a year ago. Even if they improve, can Marvin Lewis count on an aging front line to produce like they did down the stretch?
3. Will the Bengals behave themselves? Cincinnati had nine players arrested over the last year or so. Two prominent players, Henry and LB Odell Thurman, are serving suspensions for their poor off-field conduct, with Thurman's being for the entire 2007 season. Are these long and costly suspensions finally the impetus for Cincinnati's players taking the initiative and acting like grown men? Only time will tell.
4. Cleveland Browns
Last year: 4-12 (0-6 vs. AFC North)
After years of NFL Draft failures, the Browns may have finally struck gold. Not only were they able to snag a franchise-caliber LT in Joe Thomas, but GM Phil Savage elected to deal back into the first round to end the free-fall of Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn at 22nd overall. After a rather lengthy holdout, Quinn got to camp soon enough to impress in his preseason appearances. However, he will not be the Browns' opening day starter. That honor, inexplicably, goes to Charlie Frye.
1. When does Quinn take over? One has to assume it won't be long. I hate putting too much stock in what you see in preseason games, but a few things stuck out about Quinn from the get-go when he played. He clearly has a keen understanding of the offense. He was comfortable in the pocket, even against exotic blitzes that he didn't see while facing the Stanford defense. He was decisive with the football, and he wasn't afraid to take a checkdown. It's hard to get a full grasp on what he can do, since he was facing a lot of guys who weren't good enough to make NFL rosters. But he was far-and-away the best-looking Cleveland quarterback in the preseason games I saw. Frye won't get that long to impress before the Browns are forced to make the move.
2. Can Braylon Edwards be more consistent this year? I think he will, especially if and when Quinn takes over the offense. Edwards looked great at times and lost at others last year. He flashed his hands and athleticism, but also struggled to get open against quality defenses. Pro Football Prospectus had a great line while pointing out that only Randy Moss had a higher percentage of passes defensed against him than Edwards did: "We're not even sure Moss was even trying to catch those balls".
(Edwards, according to PFP, had 17 percent of the passes thrown to him defensed, showing in a statistic the struggles he had getting open. Brady Quinn isn't going to fix that problem, except that he might be less inclined to force the ball to Edwards when he's well-covered.)
3. Can Cleveland make some headway in a tough division? There is no "easy division" in the NFL right now, except maybe the NFC North. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh figure to be improved, and Baltimore isn't going to drop off the face of the earth as long as they have that defense in place. With a rookie quarterback (eventually), a rookie LT, and young receivers, the presence of veteran RB Jamal Lewis won't be enough to keep Cleveland from another likely double-digit loss season.