A look around the AFC North Division now that most regular starters are done for the preseason and final roster cuts are a little less than a week away…
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ONGOING STORYLINE: The Ravens continue in Super Bowl or bust mode, with the lead preseason priority simply being to stay healthy. There’s a continued battle for carries as Ray Rice’s backup since Ricky Williams retired, and the Ravens saved a bunch of cap money and answered one question by cutting kicker Billy Cundiff on Sunday. Besides Terrell Suggs not being ready for the start of the season, the Ravens seem in good shape and it will be a surprise if they aren’t right in the mix in the AFC North and the AFC as a whole going forward.
PRESEASON SUCCESS STORY: Joe Flacco has been really good, and so has second-year receiver Torrey Smith. The Ravens offense is still going to revolve around the newly-signed Ray Rice, but Flacco made a leap last year and was a Lee Evans drop away from pushing the Ravens to the Super Bowl. Flacco has completed 72 percent of his preseason passes, and Smith has a team-high 11 catches. If Smith can emerge as a consistent deep threat, the Ravens can be very dangerous.
LINGERING CONCERN: Age on defense, especially with Suggs recovering from a torn Achilles. The Ravens know they can count on Ray Lewis and Ed Reed as long as they’re healthy, but there are unproven players at other positions, and Suggs has been one of the game’s top pass rushers. New kicker Justin Tucker is going to have lots of pressure on him, and the schedule is extremely difficult.
GOING FORWARD, THE RAVENS ARE: In prime position to defend their division title. It won’t be easy, but Rice will keep the offense moving and the defense, despite having some holes to fill, should still be among the league’s best. The schedule starts with the Bengals, at the Eagles and the Patriots, so the Ravens have to keep Flacco sharp and upright.
ONGOING STORYLINE: The Bengals have more questions than answers in the secondary with top corner Leon Hall recovering from a torn Achilles, first-rounder Dre Kirkpatrick missing the first month of camp with a knee issue and veteran corner Nate Clements potentially moving to safety by necessity. Top pass-rusher Carlos Dunlap is trying to battle back from a knee injury in time for the opener, and his absence would put even more pressure on the secondary in the season opener vs. Flacco and the Ravens.
PRESEASON SUCCESS STORY: Undrafted linebacker Vontaze Burfict is going to make the team, and he’ll immediately be a part of a special teams core than can help the Bengals win close games. The much-hyped receiver battle hasn’t been much of a battle at all, with Armon Binns looking ready to prove himself in real games and athletic rookie fifth-rounder Marvin Jones providing a boost as well.
LINGERING CONCERN: The offensive line lost Travelle Wharton in the preseason opener, and Andy Dalton has been hit and (mostly) miss in completing just 17-of-40 preseason passes. But when the lights go on, Dalton will have A.J. Green and should have Jermaine Gresham back from injury. The secondary has experience but has to be healthy and mesh. Maybe Clements can be a good answer at safety, or maybe the Bengals will have to patchwork it all year.
GOING FORWARD, THE BENGALS ARE: Still a young and flawed team that has a chance to be very good. Dalton is going to have to be better, and staying healthy is always a concern, but the Bengals should have a solid front seven defensively and big-play ability on offense. Gresham and Binns can help Dalton make defenses pay for devoting too much attention to Green. With Geno Atkins, Dunlap and Rey Maualuga, the defense has its young anchors, and coordinator Mike Zimmer will look to maximize what he has in the secondary.
ONGOING STORYLINE: From a talent standpoint, the Browns are still miles behind their divisional rivals. There’s a chance they can close that gap if Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden play to their draft position, but as typical Browns luck would have it Richardson has missed the preseason after having arthroscopic knee surgery. Weeden’s preseason has been a mixed bag, and he’s done some positive things, but the Browns offense has plenty to prove once the real games begin. And the defense still has to show it can stop the run and rush the passer.
PRESEASON SUCCESS STORY: A bunch of young players not named Richardson and Weeden have shown promise. That includes Josh Gordon, John Hughes, Jordan Cameron, Eric Haag, James-Michael Johnson and a few others. The offense could make a leap if Weeden is given time to throw, and the defense could be stronger later in the year if Phil Taylor can return and the young players grow up quickly.
LINGERING CONCERN: That the defense will start the year without some of its big guns due to injury and suspension, and that the offense is going to need time to click and that the Browns will dig themselves another early-season hole and won’t be able to recover. The pending ownership change potentially becoming official in the middle of the season looms as another distraction for a team that’s going to have little margin for error.
GOING FORWARD, THE BROWNS ARE: Probably stuck at the bottom of the division. Until we see differently, how can anyone predict differently? Weeden is going to see every blitz known to man and probably a few new ones. Joe Haden has had an outstanding camp but might have to serve a four-game suspension. Richardson could make the quarterback’s job easier and keep the defense off the field, but he has to be healthy.
ONGOING STORYLINE: The Steelers had major offensive line problems last year and addressed them by using their first two draft picks on David DeCastro and Mike Adams. But DeCastro suffered what’s potentially a major knee injury in Saturday night’s preseason game at Buffalo, and Adams hasn’t done enough to prove he’s ready to start. The Steelers are breaking in a new offensive coordinator and have injury and age concerns, but if the offensive line struggles again so, too, will the offense as a whole.
PRESEASON SUCCESS STORY: The Steelers need Mike Wallace, who’s missed all of camp because he’s unhappy with his contract situation. But Antonio Brown has used the preseason to show he can do many of the things Wallace can do — and with 11 catches and 3 touchdowns in the preseason, he’s earned Ben Roethlisberger’s trust. Brown can fly, and when Wallace comes back the Steelers will be even more dangerous.
LINGERING CONCERN: The offensive line used nine different starters last year and 25 different combinations — and that’s just not a winning combination. With Rashard Mendenhall still recovering from ACL surgery, the other runners are unproven. The defense is old but still talented and will have to prove it can still be on its A-game late in the season.
GOING FORWARD, THE STEELERS ARE: Still the Steelers. Roethlisberger is going to be good, the defense is going to be good and Heinz Field is going to be a very tough place to win. With lingering offensive line questions and Wallace still not in the mix, the Steelers have issues to overcome.