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AFC North breakdown

September 3, 2012

Three AFC North teams—the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals—made the playoffs last season. They’re all battling some injuries but made the upgrades necessary to maintain their position as contenders. This division also gets style points—there’s no doubt it is the most physical, most defense-minded group of teams in the league. Every team here is built to beat up the others during the most brutal part of the schedule.

The big questions

Is the Ravens’ offense in position to give the defense a needed lift? The rushing attack, led by workhorse back Ray Rice, has been there, but 2012 would be a good time to let Joe Flacco show off with more volume in the passing game. Second-year wide receiver Torrey Smith has the speed to be a No. 1, and third-year tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta also are skilled young pass catchers. The Ravens remain sturdy on the other side of the ball, but with age (33-year-old Ed Reed, 37-year-old Ray Lewis) and injuries (Terrell Suggs’ Achilles’ tear) starting to take effect, the defense could use a break.

What should we expect from the Steelers’ new-look offense? With young receivers as talented as Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, new offensive coordinator Todd Haley will continue taking advantage of Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to buy time with his feet and strike downfield with his arm. He’s focused on creating better balance through the power, ball-control running game—an old Pittsburgh staple. That might be a challenge without a healthy Rashard Mendenhall (ACL) and the loss of rookie guard David DeCastro (knee) for much, if not all, of the season.

Will the Bengals avoid a playoff letdown? Because it has been the team’s recent history to fall back to the pack after a surprise postseason appearance, it’s easy to think Cincinnati’s 2011 season was a fluke result of a favorable schedule. But that’s silly. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green should improve in Year 2, and the real crux of the team was Mike Zimmer’s defense, which was able to hang with the Ravens’ and Steelers’ units last season. Marvin Lewis’ team is good enough to stick in the playoff picture for several years.

Will the Browns’ draft help the offense get to respectability? In addition to using its April first-round picks on running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden, Cleveland used a supplemental second-round pick on wide receiver Josh Gordon. There’s little doubt Richardson will be productive grinding out all-purpose yards behind a strong young line, but while Weeden’s arm strength and accuracy won’t be an issue, his green receiving corps might. If Gordon and 2011 second-rounder Greg Little step up, the offense could be primed for a breakout.

How good are the speed receivers in this division? Although the ground-and-pound approach still has its place in this bruising division, teams are facing some of the league’s top run defenses. The past few seasons, the Steelers (Wallace), Ravens (Smith) and Bengals (Green) have each added a field stretcher to help open up things.


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