2015 Division Series Preview: AFC North
This is part two of our eight-part division preview series. I will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team’s 2015 record and final standing within the division. The AFC East preview can be found here. Tune in each Sunday for a new part of the series!
Baltimore Ravens (10-6 in 2014, 3rd in AFC North)
Can new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman find success in Baltimore?
Unfortunately for Trestman and the Chicago Bears, Jay Cutler's cowboy mentality, no improvement on the defensive side of the ball, and too many tough losses ended Trestman's tenure as head coach. After being fired, Trestman immediately became a sought-after commodity in the free-agent coaching market, given his aptitude on the offensive side of the ball.
Coincidentally, former Ravens' OC Gary Kubiak initially turned down head coaching offers, but after John Fox's surprising firing by the Broncos, Kubiak could not resist his dream job, leaving Baltimore for Denver. Trestman then became the Ravens' number-one target, and in Ozzie Newsome style, the Ravens swooped in and got their man.
The backstory is nice and well, but what exactly is it that Trestman brings to Baltimore?
Despite Trestman's reputation as a sterling offensive coordinator, he doesn't plan on changing much of the offense Kubiak installed, according to Ryan Mink. There appears to be a plan of consistency, including using the same language, blocking schemes and West Coast style, and a year after the Ravens set franchise records in scoring and yards per game, it should make for a strong rapport among Trestman and his players.
In Chicago, Trestman heavily utilized the underneath routes for his receivers and a heavy trust in run and pass responsibilities for running back Matt Forte. Flacco's more conservative nature should mix much better with Trestman, and while Justin Forsett may not be as physical as Forte, his vision between the tackles and underrated ability as a receiver won't skip a beat either.
The Bears were highlighted for their sizable receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, not to exclude tight end Martellus Bennett. Expect a bigger role for 3rd-year receiver Marlon Brown, a 6'5 monster (his responsibilities were set to expand regardless of Trestman's arrival). Steve Smith and rookies Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams will also be key cogs in the Ravens' new offense, as Smith's shallow toughness will mesh well with Perriman's 4.2 40-yard speed.
Trestman is making the right move by not fixing what isn't broken, and it's likely the Ravens build upon a newly-found reputation as an offensive threat.
Will the Ravens' secondary continue to struggle, or become a respectable unit yet again?
After losing star cornerback Jimmy Smith halfway through last season, the Ravens attempted to mimic his production with a compilation of spare parts, though their efforts were for naught.
Lardarius Webb was slow to return to form, but he looked like the defender who earned a six-year, $50M extension in 2012. Webb's performance has always been based on health, and as 2014 progressed, his health became less of an issue, resulting in a spike in his performance.
Will Hill's resurgence at safety was one of the few highlights for the Ravens' backend in 2014, even garnering PFF's ranking as the 14th best safety in the NFL a year ago, despite considerably fewer snaps. Free-agents Kendrick Lewis, Cassius Vaughn and Kyle Arrington add experience and depth compared to last year's team, and even more, last year's injury situation allowed for second-year corner Rashaan Melvin to show his worth.
Safety Matt Elam enters his third season in Baltimore, and his career highlights thus far include a myriad of missed tackles, getting beat over the top, and utter confusion. Elam can either become yet another feared all-around Ravens-type safety, or be delegated to the bench in favor of veterans such as Lewis or Hill.
Young defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan and Brandon Williams will also inherit starting roles up front, which should create an even more threatening pass rush, also benefiting their teammates downfield.
More likely than not, the Ravens will see improvement in the secondary, though the range of said improvement is still unknown. A star-powered 3-4 front will take center stage, but this Ravens defense will not be a slouch downfield.
Prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC North
The Ravens weren't gifted with the easiest of schedules, including visits to Denver, San Francisco, Arizona and Miami, but this Ravens team is one of the most talented of groups in today's NFL. Pittsburgh will likely contend at the top of the division once again, and it should be as close a race as any, but the Ravens own one of the most complete rosters top to bottom. It's their division to lose.
Cincinnati Bengals (10-5-1 in 2014, 2nd in AFC North)
How far can the Bengals go with Andy Dalton as quarterback?
Like the Ravens, the Bengals own one of more complete rosters in the NFL, but unlike the Ravens and Joe Flacco, playoff success has been hard to come by. Dalton's career numbers equate to 1 TD and 6 INTs in the postseason, including an average of 218.3 YPG and a lowly 55.7 completion percentage.
Luckily for Dalton, he'll have new weapons to play with in 2015, as Jeremy Hill is set to take over as the feature back while Giovani Bernard is poised to create big plays as the 3rd down and spell back for the Bengals. Dalton has no short of weapons, as A.J. Green is one of the top five receivers in the league, and Tyler Eifert, taking over for the inconsistent Jermaine Gresham, possesses many traits that make him a serious threat in the middle of the field.
Dalton has a career regular season record of 40-23-1, with a respectable completion percentage of 60.1%, but for the Bengals, the time for simply managing through the 16-game schedule is gone. In order for Dalton to justify his six-year, $115M contract, he'll need to become the reason, not the excuse, for the Bengals' advancing in the postseason. He is the proud owner of a very strong right arm, though his decision making is as dumbfounding as Forrest Gump's love for Jenny.
Hill is poised to become one of the NFL's more explosive backs, while Green, Eifert, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones provide for a strong providing cast. It rests on Dalton to determine the remainder of the puzzle, and if he is to make the leap from regular season manager to postseason hero, this is the year to make his claim. Smarter play in crunch time will determine such, and he has the support to do so.
Has Dre Kirkpatrick figured it out at cornerback?
Kirkpatrick, the former 17th-overall pick in the 2012 draft, has been an up-and-down performer in his three years in Cincinnati. However, Kirkpatrick flashed moments of brilliance, as expected from a top-twenty pick.
Most recently, Kirkpatrick was the epitome of a shutdown corner in the Bengals' 37-28 upset of the Broncos, earning his highest PFF rating of the season of 3.5. Kirkpatrick frustrated Demaryius Thomas for most of the night, allowing only one catch for nine yards, including two interceptions and one for a touchdown.
< strong>Leon Hall and Adam Jones make for a very savvy one-two punch, but Kirkpatrick is the X-factor in the Bengals secondary. If his play continues to elevate, the declining of physical skills from Hall and Jones can be shadowed by Kirkpatrick's rise.
Prediction: 7-9, 3rd in AFC North
The Bengals, though steep in talent, were dealt a frustrating schedule. Road games include trips to Buffalo, San Francisco, Arizona and Denver, all of which pose the heavy likelihood of losses. Add in splits with rest of the AFC North, and the Bengals appear to be on the outside looking in to the postseason. Dalton's reputation poses the biggest threat to Cincy's success, as his improvement as a more consistent quarterback will determine the 2015 outlook of the Bengals.
Cleveland Browns (7-9 in 2014, 4th in AFC North)
The better question is, does it really matter?
McCown was more than likely blessed with the overwhelming catch radiuses of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in 2013, when McCown threw for 1,829 yards and 13 TDs and one INT in eight games, including five starts. McCown did well enough to earn himself a two-year, $10M contract in Tampa Bay, though that experiment ended after one season, as McCown was released in February.
McCown is officially penciled in as the starting quarterback for the Browns, but that doesn't appear to be the current solution. With a receiving corps of Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline and Andrew Hawkins, Cleveland lacks explosiveness, game-changing talent and that "it" factor needed on the outside, and it doesn't help to have McCown, who is now 36 years-old, likely to start Week 1.
If and when McCown is benched, Johnny Manziel will be given his second chance, and that turns into an entirely different issue. Manziel spent the entire offseason in the negative spotlight, most notably a stint in a rehabilitation center, losing time to work on his skills manipulating an NFL pocket, avoiding a pass rush, and being more proficient downfield.
Manziel is as athletic a quarterback as any in the NFL, but his lack of understanding how to play the position was always a risk, and his off-the-field issues have stunted his growth.
Don't expect much from the Browns at the most important position in football, and for the city of Cleveland, more memes and sad tweets will be the end-game in another disappointing offensive season.
How dominant can the Browns' defense be?
As much an eyesore as the Cleveland offense is likely to become, the Browns' defense is set to be anything but.
Building off a season being ranked in the top ten in scoring (21.1 PPG), turnovers (29), yards per play (5.2) and pass yards per game (224.5), the Browns only got stronger in all facets of the defense.
Rookie defensive tackle Danny Shelton is the human equivalent of the Berlin Wall, weighing in at 6'2, 240 pounds, and his athleticism and natural tendency to get the quarterback should have an Aaron Donald-like effect for the Browns' defense.
Veteran cornerback Tramon Williams adds yet another able body to an already stout secondary that features Joe Haden, Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner. The Cleveland defense is a unit with a mountain of potential, and that doesn't include the expected improvements of youngsters Barkevious Mingo and Justin Gilbert.
Though the offense is likely to drown, the Browns' defense will keep the team in a lot of games, especially with another year of defensive-minded head coach Mike Pettine leading the charge.
Prediction: 3-13, 4th in AFC North
Look at the Browns' schedule, and with the likelihood of the league's most ineptitude offense, it's hard to pick Cleveland winning more than three or four games. Quarterback is an unproven position, and despite a stable of solid young running backs and an above-average group of receivers, the uncertainty at quarterback is too much to overcome. The 2015 season is poised to be yet another year in a line of expected failures for the more-deserving city of Cleveland.
Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5 in 2014, 1st in AFC North)
Will Le'Veon Bell's three-game suspension be enough to derail the Steelers' offense?
No. Probably not.
Bell, in any sensible football mind, is one of the top two or three backs in the league, as his patience and toughness between the tackles is the rarest of traits among NFL running backs. However, the Steelers' front office did well in adding much-needed depth at running back in preparation of Bell's eventual marijuana-induced suspension.
As Bell awaits a hearing date for his appeal of an impending three-game suspension, which may very well be shortened, Pittsburgh did well to add veteran rusher DeAngelo Williams to the backfield, who is a career 4.2 YPC runner with 46 rushing touchdowns.
Williams needed a change of scenery away from Carolina, and though he has over 1,400 carries under his belt, a chance to be featured as the solo back for however long he may play in Bell's stead, the Steelers shouldn't expect a massive dip in production. Add in second-year back Dri Archer, a speedy scat back, and the Steelers have the unique ability to beat defenses with both grit and flash out of the backfield.
As good as Bell is, his expected absence won't pose too much of a detriment in their 2015 plans.
What does the departure of longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau mean for Pittsburgh?
In steps Keith Butler, former Pittsburgh linebackers coach of the Steelers, who was promoted to defensive coordinator in the wake of LeBeau's departure. Butler, who had been the main man behind the rises of LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote, had been rumored to be the "defensive coordinator in waiting" for quite some time.
With the Steelers since 2003, Butler understands the attitude and personality Pittsburgh has built in recent years, and as someone whose been with the organization for 12 years, Butler is unlikely to stray from the terror that's been built on the defensive side of the ball.
Young talent including Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree and recently-paid Cameron Heyward are no strangers to their new leader, making for the continued blossoming of said talent to continue without any unforeseen obstacles.
The Steelers are facing a unique issue in terms of defensive production, coming off a year of being ranked 23rd in turnovers, 26th in pass defense and 31st in yards per play, but the continuity of having Butler leading the defense should make the transition away from LeBeau easier to swallow.
Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in AFC North
The Steelers look to remain the champions of the AFC North, but the road to victory is easier said than done. Road games in New England, St. Louis, San Diego, Seattle and Kansas City all pose serious threats for the Steelers' all-around offense. Despite defensive star power, Pittsburgh will be seeking a lot of production from many unknowns. 2015 has a chance to prove the Steelers belong among the AFC's elite, or fall into the realm of mediocrity.