The Ravens find themselves in a situation similar to other recent seasons: poised to make another run for the playoffs and contend for a Super Bowl. But this season’s blueprint will look a little different. In recent years, the Ravens' defense has employed arguably the best player at his position at all levels of the defense, but that may not be true this season. With the loss of Terrell Suggs to injury, and the aging (but still imposing) Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata may be the only player to maintain the title of best in the league at his position (defensive tackle). The loss of Suggs, coupled with the void left by Jarret Johnson in free agency, leave the Ravens extremely vulnerable at the pass rushing positions. Second-round pick Courtney Upshaw was brought in to strengthen that unit, but now he is that unit.
On offense, the Ravens still have the ability to play smash-mouth football, but more and more, this offense will begin to run through the arm of Joe Flacco rather than the legs of Ray Rice. The frontline starters on offense present no real concerns, but it is the depth of this team that shows question marks. Behind Flacco, Tyrod Taylor and Curtis Painter offer little hope to shoulder the load in case of injury, and similarly, the running back position is totally unproven behind Rice. Rookies Bernard Pierce and undrafted free-agent Bobby Rainey show promise, but obviously have zero NFL experience.
With the exception of their Week 4 matchup with the Browns, the Ravens will be tested in each of their first seven games that include matchups against the Bengals, Eagles, Patriots, Chiefs, Cowboys and Texans. Between those six teams, there could easily be four division winners when it is all said and done. This will be a great litmus test for the Ravens as they approach the midway point of the season.
John Harbaugh enters his fifth season with the Ravens and is the only head coach in post-merger NFL history to win at least one playoff game in each of his first four seasons. With Chuck Pagano leaving to assume the head coaching duties for the Indianapolis Colts, the Ravens once again are replacing a defensive coordinator. That is nothing new. This time around that responsibility will go to Dean Pees, the team’s linebacker coach in 2011. Jim Caldwell is also new to the staff as he will become Flacco’s fourth quarterback coach in four seasons after serving as the Colts’ head coach for three seasons.
Heading into the 2011 NFL season, the Bengals didn’t have much to look forward to. They had a disgruntled starting quarterback in Carson Palmer and had just parted ways with Chad Johnson, the longtime face of the franchise. Now, the Bengals have everything to look forward to. They paired the first two picks of the 2011 NFL Draft to build the future of the offense with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, and the Bengals became just the second team in NFL history to make the playoffs with rookies leading the team in both receiving and passing. That alone gives fans enough to be excited about, but there’s more.
The Bengals improved in almost every defensive category and selected what could have been the best cornerback in the 2012 NFL Draft in Dre Kirkpatrick. Additionally, they drafted a pair of talented defensive tackles, Devon Still in the second round and Brandon Thompson in the third. For my money, this team is quickly becoming one of the more interesting young teams in the league, and while it will be tough to supplant Baltimore and Pittsburgh as the class of the division, they are definitely poised to make a run at it.
The Bengals have a favorable first-half schedule and could arguably start the season 5-2 heading into their bye week. And they better, because it only gets more difficult as the season rolls on. A playoff spot, and perhaps the division, could be on the line as they travel to Pittsburgh in Week 16 and before hosting the Ravens to close out the regular season.
Marvin Lewis enters his 10th season with the Bengals with some stability at both coordinator positions. Many, myself included, thought Mike Zimmer would have been offered a head-coaching position this offseason, but he will return to lead a defense that returns just one Pro Bowler, but finished in the top 10 in every major statistical category. On offense, Jay Gruden will lead Dalton and Green into their sophomore seasons, and it will be interesting to see how the three of them respond now that there is a certain level of expectation from this group.
Prediction: 9-7, second in the AFC North.
The Steelers are coming off their second consecutive 12-4 season, but have a couple of question marks entering the 2012 season. In what seemed like a mass exodus, the Steelers lost at least five notable players from 2011, including the retired Hines Ward. But he leaves behind what may be the most underrated receiving corps in the league with Mike Wallace now back with the team after a holdout. Both Wallace and Antonio Brown were Pro Bowlers in 2011 (Brown made it as a kick returner) and were the focal points of the 10th-best passing offense in the NFL. With Rashard Mendenhall still recovering from a Week 17 ACL injury and the implementation of Todd Haley’s pass happy-system, these two receivers have another opportunity to put up big numbers in 2012. The Steelers used their first two picks in the draft to address concerns along the offensive line, but second-round pick Mike Adams has been less than appealing throughout the preseason and No. 1 pick David DeCastro is out at least half the season after having knee surgery.
On defense, the team will need to overcome yet another ACL injury, this one to Casey Hampton, the center of a physically imposing defensive front seven. With that said, the biggest vulnerability on the defensive side of the ball is in the secondary. The Steelers were the league’s best at defending the pass last season, but will return neither Bryant McFadden (currently a free agent) nor William Gay (now with Arizona), and will instead rely on Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis. Lewis has only started one game throughout the course of his three-year career in Pittsburgh.
Lewis and company will get tested early as the face the Peyton Manning-led passing attack of the Denver Broncos in Week 1. They will go on to face the rest of the AFC West, but get relief in the fact that they will only have to travel to the West Coast once, to face the Oakland Raiders in Week 3. The Steelers will also play the NFC East with their toughest non-divisional road games at New York (Giants) and Dallas.
The coaching staff remains virtually unchanged minus the aforementioned addition of Haley as the offensive coordinator. Ben Roethlisberger had previously benefitted from the consistency of longtime coordinator Bruce Arians, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the more in-your-face style of Haley.
The Cleveland Browns posted a 4-12 record last season and scored more than 17 points only twice. Because of that, the Browns are retooling their dismal offense with a brand new quarterback and running back. Rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson will be tasked with turning around an offense that finished 29th in the NFL in total yards and even worse, 30th, in total points in 2011. Given Weeden’s age, they can’t afford to wait. At 28 years old, Weeden will likely only be a two-contract player. Richardson shows just as much promise as a young Adrian Peterson, but with a recent knee scope, his impact early in his rookie season will be questionable. Even as the Browns enter a retooling season, it isn’t to suggest they lack talent at certain positions.
While offensive tackle Joe Thomas is the only returning Pro Bowler, Joe Haden has the skills to become a lockdown corner in this league and Phil Taylor could develop into dominant inside presence for a team that gave up 100-plus yards rushing in all but two games last season. The wide receiver position is one that is desperate for talent, and I was a little surprised that they didn’t address that in April’s draft or the free-agency period.
All things considered, the Browns have a reasonable schedule with their toughest non-divisional road match-up coming in Week 5 at the Giants. They have the benefit of hosting the Eagles and the Chiefs, two teams I predict to win their respective divisions.
Pat Shurmur enters his second season as head coach and will have a quarterback to groom much in the way he did with Sam Bradford in St. Louis. Bradford’s best year, his rookie season, came under the tutelage of Shurmur, and Weeden’s schematic history isn’t all that different than Bradford’s in college. Even still, I’m not sure the Browns are any closer to making the playoffs, a feat reached only once since their return to the league in 1999.