AFC North Roundup: Offseason Takeaways


Dec 7, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) after the game at Paul Brown Stadium. Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 42-21. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 NFL season is almost here, so let’s take a minute to reflect on the offseason. I was lucky enough to be able to talk with the editors of the AFC North’s other three FanSided blogs, Kim Myers of Still Curtain, Brett Foote of Ebony Bird and Thomas Moore of Dawg Pound Daily and ask the three a few questions regarding their teams’ offseason. I’m also going to answer the questions myself to put the Bengals’ offseason in perspective.

How do you feel about your team after everything you’ve seen so far in 2015?

Aug 14, 2015; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant (10) catches a touchdown pass past Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back Davon House (31) during the first6 quarter of a preseason NFL football game at EverBank Field. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Myers: I feel anxious, quite honestly. Knowing that Martavis Bryant will be out the first four games, Le’Veon Bell out the first two games and we’re already on our third kicker without even kicking off the regular season. After watching the defense get carved up by Buffalo last weekend that’s an even more anxious feeling going into the regular season. While they were missing a lot of starters from that game and it is only preseason, the defense needs a lot of work still.

Connor Howe: I feel a bit anxious but very excited. Being able to see Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones return to the field after a season away from the field will be intriguing. And with Dre Kirkpatrick finally earning his role as a starter, I’m ecstatic to see him for more than just a few snaps per game. The Bengals need to prove they’re a more consistent team; they looked great against the Giants and the Bears at home but were horrendous in Tampa. The defense looks like it needs work, especially with Michael Johnson still recovering from injury–and the Bengals’ schedule looks tough–but overall, I think Cincinnati looks good enough to earn another playoff berth if the team doesn’t get decimated by injuries like last season.

Brett Foote: I had a good bit of confidence in the Ravens following free agency and the draft, despite the number of high profile players they lost during the free agency period. I feel like they did a nice job addressing their issues from last season, particularly in the secondary, and the Ravens obviously had a productive draft that should pay dividends in years to come.

Their play over the last two weeks of the preseason is obviously a concern, and injuries are the main catalyst for that. The offensive line is struggling without all five starters in place, which has had a huge impact on the running game.  It looks like all five will be ready for week 1, so we just have to hope that they can get (and stay) healthy.

Thomas Moore: About as well as one can for a team that has posted double-digit losses 10 times in the past 12 seasons.

In Mike Pettine, the Browns have their best head coach since Marty Schottenheimer was looking for “the gleam” in the 1980s. Pettine is no nonsense and puts the players that give the Browns the best chance to win on the field each week – regardless of their draft status.

The team is also building solidly through the draft (just don’t look too closely at the first round in 2014) and free agency, bringing in several players who are contributing while also not worrying about “winning” in free agency with the kind of contracts that make headlines during the off-season but don’t translate into wins during the season.

Who’s the biggest X-Factor on your team?

KM: Ben Roethlisberger is the biggest x-factor, hands down. Without him, the Steelers are a 2-win team, maybe. He’s been so on point throughout training camp and preseason that he’s the only confidence that a Steelers fan can have heading into the regular season.

Oct 26, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap (96) against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. Bengals defeated the Ravens 27-24. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

CH: Andy Dalton is the obvious answer here, but I’m going to say Carlos Dunlap. He was the best player on Cincinnati’s defensive line in 2014 but only had eight sacks to show for it. Dunlap was pretty good at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but he needs to start converting those pressures into sacks. If Dunlap can succeed, I believe the defense can improve to the level it was at under Mike Zimmer–not as a top five defense, but as a balanced defense that doesn’t show many weaknesses.

BF: To me, it’s the offensive line.  This is a unit that returns all five starters from last season, when it was ranked as the second best O-line in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.  The Ravens missed the playoffs in 2013 as a result of poor line play, which led to an unacceptable sack rate for Joe Flacco and a sub 4.0 ypc average for the ground game.

Last year, a few roster moves and the tutelage of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak turned things around dramatically.  The Ravens went from having one of the worst offensives in the league to being a top-10 unit, and I give most of the credit to the improvements in both pass protection and run blocking.

TM: It has to be Josh McCown, right? Even with Brian Hoyer regressing last season, the Browns were 7-4 and looking at the playoffs after steam rolling the Bengals on national TV. If they can just get average quarterback play out of McCown this season, with their offensive line and defense, the Browns can easily surprise people.

However, this if Cleveland, so that is a very big if.

What’s your biggest concern about your team going into the season?

KM: Aside from hoping that we don’t lose another kicker to the turf monster this season I’d say the defense is the biggest concern. The secondary is suspect and the linebacking corps is already relying way too much on a 37-year-old James Harrison. As long as Stephon Tuitt can play Week 1 I’m confident in the defensive line but everyone behind them is an uncertainty.

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I have three major concerns, which are as follows:

1. The defense shows no signs of improvement–Cincinnati couldn’t rush the passer in 2014; it was the worst team in the NFL. With Vontaze Burfict still recovering from injury and two aging corners in the secondary, the defensive line play needs to improve in 2015, both in rushing the passer and stopping the run. Geno Atkins can’t be the only guy Cincinnati relies on.

2. The team has to deal with a 2014-esque plague of injuries–This is the least concerning of the three, but after last season, I really hope Cincinnati can stay healthy in 2015.

3. The Bengals collapse in prime time games–The Bengals were undefeated at home in 2013 but lost two games at home in 2014, both to division rivals and both of which were in prime time. Andy Dalton needs to prove his worth in Cincinnati or he will have to choose between restructuring his contract or moving to a new city in 2016.

BF: Injuries are a huge problem right now.  The Ravens came oh-so-close to defeating the Patriots in the divisional playoff round last year despite an incredible number of injuries in their secondary, and this offseason they are facing a similar problem (albeit among several positions).

Saturday night provided a clear picture of this team’s depth.  They have a very strong first team defense and offense, but the talent level drops off sharply after that.  The Ravens went up 13-0 and dominated the Redskins’ first team units, then let them go 31-0 to close out the game once the starters departed.

TM: After the quarterback play? Injuries. We all saw what happened when Alex Mack went down with an injury last year – the Browns went from averaging 4.4 yards per carry and 146 rushing yards per game, to 3.2 yards per carry and 90 yards per game. It took a while, but that drop in production ultimately caught up with the team.

The Browns are slowly getting better in terms of depth, but if they lose a frontline player or two again this year, it can just as easily derail the season once again.

Which position group on your team are you most excited to see take the field?

KM: I was excited to see Martavis Bryant pick up where he left off last season. I’m hoping he can pick it right back up when he returns from suspension in Week 5. The offense with Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown creates a lot of excitement. I’m interested in seeing DeAngelo Williams add to the Steelers backfield as well.

CH: Cincinnati has a loaded roster, with an exciting group of running backs, a dynamic group of receivers and a rugged offensive line. I’m going to take the road less travelled, however, and choose Cincinnati’s safety tandem. Reggie Nelson and George Iloka were, in my opinion, the best safety duo in the NFL last season, outside the obvious tandem of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in Seattle. Iloka is one of the NFL’s best coverage safeties and Nelson is strong against both the pass and the run. They’re both versatile enough to play at either free or strong safety, and they are both quick players who can take opposing players out of the game with just a single hit. I’m looking forward to seeing Iloka develop even more, as well as Paul Guenther’s usage of other players at safety, such as Josh Shaw, Shawn Williams and possibly even Leon Hall.

Despite all of this, I’m overjoyed to see Jeremy Hill take the full-time starting role for the entire 2015 season. With Hill in the backfield, the Bengals will be able to use Gio Bernard in the return game and the receiving game, making Bernard even more lethal than he already was. And Hill just has that it-factor that makes watching him such a joy. This should be a fun year for Bengals fans.

Oct 26, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (97) against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals won 27-24. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

BF: The defensive line has always been a strength of this team, and this year they have a chance to be better than even last year.  People are focusing on the departure of Haloti Ngata, but this is a unit that has more depth than ever.  Timmy Jernigan will be a star if he can stay healthy, and Brandon Williams appears set to become one of the best 3-4 nose tackles in the NFL.

Rookie 3rd rounder Carl Davis has exceeded expectations as well through the preseason.  These guys are all very young and should form a strong core for years to come.  Few teams had any success running the ball against the Ravens last year, and I don’t see how they’re going to do any better against this new look front.

TM: The defensive secondary. The Browns have three returning Pro Bowlers in Joe Haden, Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner, and replaced the human penalty flag that is Buster Skrine with Tramon Williams. They also have solid depth with K’Waun Williams, Pierre Desir and Ibraheim Campbell (and Justin Gilbert if he ever decides to become a pro), making the secondary one of the league’s best.

Of course, if the Browns can’t stop opposing offenses from running the ball it may not matter how good the secondary is.

Which rookie are you most excited to see take the field this season?

KM: I’m most excited for the first-round pick, Bud Dupree. He’s enormous. I watched him out at camp and so far in the preseason he has great speed and strength in open space but is still learning how to come off of his blocks. I’m excited to watch him learn under James Harrison and Joey Porter.

CH: Cincinnati has been known to sit its rookies, but Bengals fans have to be excited about P.J. Dawson. He’s showed some glimpses in the preseason and is PFF’s top ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in the preseason up to this point. He may not play a ton, but if Marvin Lewis is smart enough to put him on the field, he could shine.

BF: With Breshad Perriman missing the bulk of offseason activities with a knee bruise, it has really hurt his chances at making an impact any time soon.  Sixth round wide receiver Darren Waller has exceeded expectations in his absence, and has the size and speed of a true #1 receiver.  If he continues to improve each week as he has so far, Waller has a chance to be the surprise of the draft.

Aug 20, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive tackle Danny Shelton (71) at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

TM: Defensive lineman Danny Shelton.

For the first time since … Michael Dean Perry? Clay Matthews? … the Browns have a front seven player on defense that opposing offenses have to worry about, one who is going to give plenty of centers and guards sleepless nights the week before they have to play the Browns.

Which AFC North team, other than your own, are you most scared by?

KM: I think the Steelers and Ravens rivalry always presents the biggest games and most of the time determines the winner of the AFC North. I’m hoping the Steelers can avenge their Wild Card loss from last year.

CH: To me, the Steelers are the scariest team; Cincinnati couldn’t beat Pittsburgh in either of the two games last season, and Pittsburgh looks like it could be just as good of a team in 2015. Even though Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant will miss games early in 2015, the Bengals won’t face the team until Week 8.

Cleveland is also a team that seems to take a game from the Bengals every season. The primetime loss in New England, the two losses against Pittsburgh and the shutout in Indianapolis all broke me down, but the toughest loss to cope with had to be the dumpster fire of a match between Cincinnati and Cleveland on primetime television. Losing games like this gives Bengals haters more and more ammo; Cincinnati needs to take care of Cleveland–which by the way, shouldn’t be easy considering the Browns seem to get better and better each season.

BF: The Steelers have a dangerous offense that seems poised to be even better this season, but their defense is a huge question mark.  If they can pull things together on that side of the ball, they will once again threaten to win the division.  The Bengals, however, have been an Achilles heel for the Ravens for a while now.  With a true workhorse at running back and a strong offensive line, they could run the regular season table on the Ravens once again.

TM: All of them?

Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns are 27-69 against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati, and have never won more than three games in a single season against those teams.

Picking just one is liking picking between breaking your arm, your leg or your foot. No good options and they all hurt.

And finally, predict your team’s record:

KM: I would like to shoot for 10-6 to hopefully be good enough to win the division again. The Steelers have a brutal road schedule with trips to New England, Seattle and San Diego involved and they don’t have the best track record for winning games on the West Coast. I’d say 10-6 would be an achievement with no more major injuries and another AFC North division title and home playoff game.

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  • CH:

    The Bengals’ 2014 string of injuries scares me out of blabbing about how Cincinnati will win 11 games this season; the Bengals have a difficult schedule and will need to improve on defense in order to make the playoffs. However, the AFC seems a lot weaker to me than it was last season, mostly because

    Tom Brady

    is out for four games–and because him and

    Peyton Manning

    are another year closer to retirement. I’m going to go on a limb and call the Bengals a 10-6 team.

    Cincinnati tends to win most winnable games outside of its matchups with the Browns, so if it can repeat its success against weak teams in 2015, I could see 11-13 wins. I really believe this; there are a lot of winnable games on the schedule with the NFC West and AFC West looking like weaker divisions than they were in 2014. Then again, I could be totally wrong. Here’s to hoping I’m right!

    BF: My predictions have been up on the site for a few days now, and I officially foresee a 9-7 season.  Of course, this is 100% accurate since I correctly guessed that they would go 10-6 last year (though I predicted a loss in the Wild Card round).  The Ravens, along with the rest of the AFC North, have a brutally difficult schedule this year that makes it hard to believe they will do any better.

    Last year, the Ravens had the benefit of a fairly easy December to close things out, which propelled them into a playoff spot among a super competitive AFC conference.  This year, they have a rough finish, closing things by visiting the Dolphins, after which they host the Seahawks, Chiefs, and Steelers before closing out the season at the Bengals.

    This team has the talent to make another playoff run, but getting there certainly won’t be as easy as last year (and that wasn’t easy, either).

    TM: The Browns, just like every team in the division, is facing a potentially harder schedule this fall, meaning the team may improve, but the record may not reflect it.

    If McCown can just be respectable at quarterback, the defense plays up to its potential, and no major injuries hit, we could see a repeat of last year’s 7-9 record, which some will see as a lack of progress, but anyone who pays attention will know better.

    Thanks again to Kim, Brett and Thomas for your time! And for you Bengals fans, be sure to check out Still Curtain, Ebony Bird and Dawg Pound Daily to see what’s going on around the AFC North.