Tuesday, March 22, 2011

AFC North 2011 preview

Finally, finally, I can round up this series of 2011 previews. I've almost come to resent it by this point (but not as much as I resent the prick at work who pulled the sicky last night). We've reached the AFC North, at last. Starting with: Baltimore Ravens: Once again the Ravens had a solid year. Once again their defense led the way. And once again it was their offense that choked at the most inappropriate moment. Crappy play calling, communication errors in pass protection; it wouldn't be so bad for Ravens fans if it wasn't the same tired old problems every year. But it is. So it just makes the Ravens offense all the more laughable. Free agency won't help. Jared Gaither, the highly competent offensive tackle, will hit unrestricted free agency. So does WR T. J. Houshmandzadeh. And FB Le'Ron McClain. And WR Dante Stallworth. And QB Marc Bulger. Ok, so we can write off the whole Stallworth & Bulger thing, but those other three will be missed. Looking at the defense though, it gets even worse. Chris Carr. Dawan Landry. Fabian Washington. All up for unrestricted free agency. On top of that Naruki Nakamura and Tom Zbikowski are up for restricted free agency and proved themselves as handy little players this past season. The net result could be a severe depletion of the Ravens secondary. Literally, we're talking about down to four or five players, of which only three are starters and the other two are captain nobodies. The Ravens are potentially about to turn into a soccer ball; seriously deficient in corners. Other than that (he says) the Ravens are ok and will have their options open in this years draft. They pick at 26th overall, and other than corner their only real nagging need would be linebacker. Part of that depends on what they choose to do with Sergio Kindle, who missed the whole season with a serious head injury and now has a court date lined up for some infraction which currently escapes my memory and is not sufficiently important to motivate me to look it up on Wikipedia. It could be argued as well that the Ravens could use a true deep threat receiver, with sufficient speed and height to give Joe Flacco a proper downfield target. As for the 2011 outlook? The Ravens should be fine. Providing of course they can sort out that whole problem of not having a secondary. And the lack of a deep threat receiver. And the shortage of linebackers. And if they can teach Ray Rice how to pass block. Or better yet, they can just fix their play-calling (run more and/or stop asking Ray Rice to pass block). Maybe 2012 will be their year? Cincinnati Bengals: Ah the Bengals, desperately trying to convince the word that they can be just as dysfunctional and poorly run as the Raiders or Redskins. A 4-12 season in 2010 wasn't quite what they had in mind, especially after winning the AFC North the season before. The loud thud that could be heard in Ohio at the end of this season was either; a) The sound of a Bengals fan jumping out of a high rise window, b) The sound of Chad Ochocinco being thrown under a bus by his Head Coach, c) The sound of every bodies jaws dropping when Ochocinco made his now semi-famous "they won't give you a new contract because your black" speech to Terrell Owens, d) The sound of both Terrell Owens's and Chad Ochocinco's stock plummeting, or e) The sound of Carson Palmer slamming the door shut on his way out, Either way I think I've sufficiently belaboured the point now about the Bengals downfall. Just be thankful I didn't associate thumping noises with any mention of Tank Johnson. So lets have a look at the Bengals unrestricted free agents and... oh dear!! Not looking good! Say bye, bye to star RB Cedric Benson. And LB Dhani Jones, LB Brandon Johnson, star CB Jonathan Joseph, FB Brian Leonard, OG Evan Mathis, Safeties Chinedum Ndukwe and Gibril Wilson, and of course, WR Terrell Owens. Possibly (re: almost definitely) add Chad Ochocino to that list. Oh yeah, and of course Carson Palmer. You remember him, the teams only real veteran QB. All of those departures certainly open the doors of possibility when it comes to the draft. Picking at number 4 overall, the Bengals have to make a choice. Do they go QB? RB? WR? LB? SS? FS? (shut up, I know they're almost the same thing). The choice will be interesting, and ultimately necessary for the Bengals. Because short of a miracle in the draft and free agency, the Bengals will hit the start of the 2011 season without a true starting QB, with two back up RB (and three back up FB's), a five man wide receiver outfit (maybe a chance finally for Andre Caldwell? Here's hoping), a depleted linebacker corps and no decent starting safeties. That for me is not a recipe for success, especially not when facing the Steelers. Twice. On the other hand, it could go spectacularly right. Stay with me on this one. The Bengals switch their offense to a "ground and pound" style, something which their O-line has proven to be very, very good at. On defense they start to reap the rewards of their investment in the D-line. They don't score much, but it doesn't matter because their well rested defense is more than up to the task of keeping other teams scores down. You're right, it'll never happen. Onwards and upwards. Cleveland Browns: The fact that the Browns finished 5-11 shouldn't come as a surprise. The sacking of Head Coach Eric Mangini should however. I thought Mangini was just starting to get in the swing of things. In his interviews he sounded like he'd mellowed out a little and was just starting to find his feet as the top dog. He had a great young QB in the works and the team was on the up. But then the Dark Lord of the West Coast Offense (Mike Holmgren) swung his axe and it was all over. Now the Browns will be led into the breach for 2011 by Pat Shurmer, formerly the offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams in his first outing as a Head Coach. I rather get the sense that the Sword of Damacles is hanging over his head, and Holmgren is just waiting for the right moment to cut him down and assume the throne. Still, at least the Browns have the chance to refresh the team with some slick moves in free agency. Like Franchising their kicker for example. Wait, what? They franchise tagged Phil Dawson? Just...... why? Not LB/DE Matt Roth then? Or safety Sabby Piscitelli (I wouldn't either, but Phil Dawson?). Safety Abram Elam is up for the chop as well, along with RB Mike Bell, CB Eric Wright and WR Chansi Stuckey, plus others. In the draft the Browns pick at number 6 overall. Needs range from a deep threat wide receiver, to a decent tight end, to D-line, to Linebacker, to cornerback and safety. So yeah, not an envious task by any means. It's anyones guess where they'll go, but Nick Fairely might be near the top of their board. In 2011, don't expect much from the Browns. No really, don't. If they go 0-16 I'll just shrug my shoulders and say "at least they scored a few touchdowns". The Browns were undergoing a rebuilding phase, but now that they've dumped the Head Coach that was leading the rebuild and have lost their D-coordinator (Rob Ryan) to the Cowboys (they're now guided defensively by Dick Jauron), I'd say that the team is headed for a 2011 meltdown. It's not going to be pretty. Not at all. Pittsburgh Steelers: So close, but so far. Sort of. It almost seems like tradition now for the Steelers to be in the Super Bowl. I wouldn't be shocked if in the next couple of years the NFL becomes like an episode of Gladiators, where each season a new team comes to challenge the Gladiators for their crown. And let us not forget, they played the first four games minus their starting QB, who then spent the rest of the season getting the crapped kicked out of him. Of course James Harrison made up for it, clocking up fines like they were touchdowns for illegal hits left, right and center. 2011 then will need to start with solidity on the offensive line. Ah. OT Willie Colon. Gone (He was shit anyway. Get it? Colon? Shit? Chortle, chortle). OG Trai Essex, gone. OT Jonathan Scott, gone. That's three down from among the offensive line already, before the wicked mistress of injury works her inevitable charms. Joining the above into unrestricted free agency, which to be fair isn't necessarily a guarantee you'll leave (unless you happen to be good), are; DE Nick Eason, LB Keyaron Fox, CB's Ike Taylor and William Gay, and RB Mewelde Moore (among others). That's five players right there that I wouldn't mind having on my team. In particular, Moore is badly under rated as a running back, as is Ike Taylor as a corner. I could see someone like Rex Ryan over at the Jets swooping on Taylor to fill his roster hole at corner now that Cromartie is on the way out. And to be fair, Taylor could do it and do it a lot cheaper than Cromartie. Overall the Steelers head into the draft in pretty darn good shape. They pick 31st overall being the Super Bowl runners up, and their needs are pretty slim. Cornerback, especially if they can't get either Taylor or Gay to return. Maybe a rangey free safety would go down well. A speedy receiver to replace Santonio Holmes would be handy. But knowing the Steelers they'll do something boring, safe, and ultimately of very sound judgement like taking an offensive linemen who has inexplicably slipped down to them. In 2011 then, plenty to be hopeful for. The O-line is going to be even more suspect than before and the secondary will be a little shaky, but I'd expect a wild card slot at the very minimum. That's the thing about the Steelers, they're built for the long haul. Damn them.

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